“In the Garden of My Ancestors’ Statues” by Marissa Lingen
The corpses of my ancestors make beautiful art, a sculpture garden around me. The moonlight twinkles on the veins of quartz in their petrified flesh. I haul each one home under the stars after they are killed and find a way to arrange her with the others: sister, aunt, grandmother. Sometimes it takes months for me to find the right placement.
I cannot leave any of them where they froze.
Their murderers never seem to notice when their bodies go missing.
They trick and exploit us. They work stone with the chisel, but we work stone with our hands, for it is our kin, and we can shape it to glories they cannot, we can coax it to delicacies they cannot. It will dance and sing under our touch in ways that it would crack and break for theirs. They want our labor for their bridges, their roads, even their cathedrals, but they push us to work until dawn, for they know we will be caught out, turned to stone. They fear our strength. They fear what they will have to pay us.
Their own holy books say, is not the laborer worth his hire? And: thou shalt not muzzle the kine that trampleth the grain. But we are not oxen, we do not feed on grain. We want goats, their goats, their juicy, bloody, fresh-killed haunches of goat. If we cannot have goat, we will have coney, or hart, or even woolly, mumbly sheep.
If we are not paid for our labor we will fight for it.
They fear us taking their sheep, their goats, but they fear even more the fight in us.
And so I take my kin back, in the night, off to my glade, and I arrange each new one in the ring. They are my only company now.
I hunt for coney, for hart, but the forest has grown crowded, loud. The forest is full of encroaching humans, fouling my snares, scaring off my rightful prey.
Something must be done.
I need goat.
I would have no apologies, no regrets, about robbing their goat barns. But I am large and loud and have no skill as a sneak thief. I must build them a road, a bridge, a cathedral. Something they need. I must do the work that killed my ancestors.
I must find a way not to join them.
There is a rich man hiring on the next mountain. They know that my people are the best masons, for those rich enough to build in stone. This man is building a house for himself alone, no family to share with as yet. He wants it gloriously adorned. I am the last of my family, the last in our forest. I am the best choice he has for such carven glories.
When the servant answers the door and sees me lurking in the twilight, he yelps, but the hounds are silent. I interview with the rich man briefly, tersely. He tells me of vines and roses, the plants and curves of the garden in which I live my life. He wants me to reproduce them on his new roofline. I must work sundown to sunup, never shirking hours, to get it all done, that it must be finished by the new moon, and that only then will I be paid.
I nod. I grunt. I fulfill his expectations.
We agree that I will start the next day.
I shamble off into the woods.
Every night, he comes out into the darkness to peer at what I am doing, though he must examine it more closely in the light of the next day. Every night, he calls up to me words of harsh and cold comfort, clipped tones. I am nothing that might want praise for the beauty she creates. I am only its vessel. And in return, I give him no softness. In return, I watch for how the servant goes back and forth to the goat barn, how he works the mechanism, and I wait.
As the moon wanes, I move two of my distant cousins to the edges of the goats’ yard, but neither the rich man nor the servant notices.
They have all day to speak harshly of me, when I am off in my cave, but they do not save it for then. Even at night, when I am there, they call back and forth to each other, of how ugly I am, how stupid, how misshapen.
They do not include: how angry.
Perhaps if they had not taken my grandmother Ametrine. Perhaps if she had been around to teach me more–she was the softest of us, the sweetest, the most ready to bend and accommodate the human ways. She was our diplomat.
I barely remember her. They killed her first.
And so the softness I have found is clawed from the moss of the forest floor. The softness I have left is mine alone, cut from no pattern, for the ancestors left to me were all harder when they breathed than after they turned to stone.
My softness is in two things alone: one, that I give the rich man a chance to treat me fairly, though I know he will not; and two, that I have learned to protect myself. These are all that I have left.
The moon wanes quickly, only a sliver remaining, and I have so much work to do. I know that this is how they have gotten the others: when the work is not done, they press them on, to finish the nearly completed carvings into the rays of the sun, and then become stone themselves.
I know that the rich man, or more likely his servant, are altering my work in the sun’s cruel light, roughing up my carvings while I sleep in the safety of my garden cave, making sure that they will get the fruits of my labor without having to pay for them. But I have been working too, on a little extra project, built into the house that he has asked me to adorn. I have made my own adornment, beyond his requests. It is not my usual material but finest slate, light in weight, dark in color.
I have learned from my ancestors, both in their lives and in their deaths.
I work from the top of the roof to the bottom scrollwork where the humans walk, and they notice nothing odd about this. The last night, when the moon has left us, I am almost finished. Almost I think this might work. If the rich man had not sent his servant to make sure that my carvings were fouled by crude human tools, he could have paid me the goats I deserve, and I could have gone home to the forest and all of us been happy.
We all know that will not happen. It is no matter. I have observed enough of the mechanism to know how the goat barns latch, now. I could carve dozens of the latches myself, hundreds, dipping my fingers into the stone and coming out with locks the shapes of which they have seen before, the materials never, heavy and fast.
No one will ever hire me for that work.
It is no matter. The sky starts to brighten in the east, and the rich man and his servant awaken. They come out of the house to see where I am with my work. “You’re not done,” says the rich man. “You must keep working. You must finish.” He sees the glimmer of the sun coming for me and knows he will need no strength beyond that. He smiles.
“Indeed I will,” I say. “I will finish.”
The sun is rising. I press a button I have concealed in the heart of one of the flowers. If the rich man understood flowers, he would know that it never had a petal that shape, but I am the one who understands the forest, who knows that this addition is purely mine.
My fine slate canopy unfolds with a snap and settles on the shoulders of my ancestors.
The shade covers us all.
I turn to the human, smiling. “Did you expect something different at this hour, perhaps?”
I can see in his face that he barely expects me to speak at all.
“Did you expect the sun to take care of this for you?”
He is the one who cannot speak.
“You will pay me now.”
His lips move.
“You will pay me your goats.”
He has this chance, still. He has this moment. “But you are a troll,” he says.
And that is the end of him.
I crush his throat, in the safe shade of my slate canopy. My hand that has made such flowering beauty of his stone house makes the blood and bone spring from his neck. His servant runs out into the dawn sunlight. I am not fool enough to chase him. He will not be able to trap me in the sun; we have no bargain, the servant and I. Anyone who ventures into the heart of my shade, I will kill. I do not think they will. I will wait until nightfall and take my payment.
It is a long day, but I have learned patience in the garden of my ancestors’ statues.
When beautiful night comes, I venture out past the canopy that saved my life. I look up at the house I carved for the rich man. It is still beautiful. I touch each of my ancestors, holding the canopy on their shoulders. I thank them for their service and let them free of their burden. The canopy folds back up neatly. The servant may try to tell the other villagers of my trick, but I don’t think they will believe him. Perhaps they will.
I open the door to the goat barn. The goats mill around, eager to get past me to the meadows. The goats and I will learn each other, but for the moment I make them nervous. I smell of blood. Perhaps I always will. I grab the last and slowest of the goats and snap its neck. The slow goat and what is left of the rich man go over my shoulders, and I drag my ancestors back to my garden, back to where we all belong in the forest.
I have been paid enough for now, and I will use the latch knowledge again later, in another village, if I like. Or I will try again, to see if I can find another rich man who will not cheat a troll.
I do not think I will. But I like carving. Perhaps my houses will teach them a lesson, eventually. Perhaps they will stand as monuments to keeping a human’s word to a troll.
I don’t build another canopy, back in my garden, though it would extend my cave. It would allow me to spend time with my ancestors any time of the day or night, so I contemplate this, the life of the slate I have learned to coax out. But no. I cannot.
I love the moonlight on my ancestors too much. But in my heart it is always night there. I can’t bring my ancestors back, but I have brought them gifts, decorations. At their feet I lay a heart, a liver, a spleen of the ones who tormented them. I sit among them and admire the glint of their quartz seams and savor the feeling between my teeth of the firm sinews of the goats and humans I have won for myself.
This is an imperfect world, and it will have to be enough.
|Marissa Lingen lives in the Minneapolis suburbs with her family. She has a keen interest in tisanes, Moomins, and all things tree-related. She writes science fiction, fantasy, essays, and poetry.|