Per the title above: This site is three years old on the dot today! Kind of can’t believe it. They grow up so fast.
In honor of the blogiversary, I’m posting a free story. It’s one that I’ve been working on for a while, that was inspired by a bunch of ideas from a bunch of different places. For those of us who prefer our fiction in audio format, I’m also including an mp3 of me reading the story. Whichever format you chose, I hope very much that you enjoy.
What the Thunder Said
by Sunny Moraine
My son comes to see me.
I’m leaning against the back door’s cracked frame when he slouches up the drive, pack on his back, everything about him worn and brown. Overhead and behind him, as if following him, stormclouds are looming up over the naked trees and the roof of the vacant house across the street. Single flash of lightning. Did his fingers just twitch? I shouldn’t need to question what I saw, but I question everything these days.
Somehow I’m not that surprised to see him.
He stops by the steps and lifts his head. His grin is uncertain where everything else about him is not. Thunder rolls and sends a breeze up against the side of the house. Shutters rattle. There’s a skitter of dead leaves around his feet, and I think it makes sense that he would come back now.
“You’ve been busy,” I say.
The coast is pretty much in a state of constant hurricane. Looks like they’re in for a respite. It had not occurred to me, when I saw it on the news, to wonder why.
“I’ve had help.”
My hands are working through a torn dishcloth. They’re dry, and so is the cloth, but they work over it anyway, rough fingers on rough terrycloth, like at some point there won’t be much meaningful difference left between the two.
“Mom,” he says, and it sounds like he might be heading for something like an apology, but of course he puts a hand on the railing and a foot on the bottom step and takes a hard turn away from that exit, back into traffic and weaving. “I missed you.”
We can’t change. Even if we wanted to. That’s the thing about us.
I sigh and sling the cloth over my shoulder. My gaze flicks past him to the back yard and the garden—dead. All dead. Killed by the sun and by too much rain and hardiness zones that keep rolling north until their very name feels like a bad joke. I don’t even know which one we’re in now. Eight? Nine?
“No, you didn’t,” I say. I step aside, one hand on the screen. “C’mon in.”
* * *
I make him tea. He doesn’t drink it. He sits at the breakfast table with the mug between his hands, stirring sugar, spinning the spoon around the rim until he makes a frothy whirlpool. It looks like the satellite images of the endless procession of hurricanes that plaster news feeds whenever I care to look at them.
I sit down across from him. I realize that the dishcloth is still slung over my shoulder. Outside, dark is falling very fast.
When he was born he brought a storm with him.
“Your brother’s been helping you.”
It’s not a question, but he nods. “Someone has to.” He dips a finger into his spinning tea, licks off sugar foam. “That old man a lot of them stick with now doesn’t do much with the weather. All ‘love’ and ‘salvation’. You know how it is.” He says the words with undisguised distaste. “At least Jehovah was interesting.”
I don’t ask about any of the others. I don’t want to know. I came here to get as far away from all of them as I could—as far as anyone can, as far as someone like me is able to. So now I live in a sprawl of vacant foreclosed houses abandoned by a dead market, streets like dead snakes, dead grass, dead gardens, dead-eyed windows.
Make me forget what I am.
And here he is to remind me.
“I wanted to see you, Mom.” He looks at me and I look back, feeling the ridges of my teeth against my lips. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I got old, but he looks the same. Except he doesn’t. He’s shaved off his beard, for one thing, but it’s more than that. He looks meaner. His mouth is tight, his eyes narrow—they’re a rich gray but hooded like that, they look black as crows.
The storms are meaner now, too. Tighter. Pointed. Storms with targets.
I didn’t want to see you.
I don’t say it. Mothers don’t say things like that.
“This is our time again, Mother.” He leans across the table, lips stretched into something that looks horribly like a smile, and I find myself fighting the urge to pull back from him. “They don’t spill blood in our names, but they need everything we do. My brother isn’t the only one who’s helping me.”
I know. I knew it. Why the fuck does he think I ran?
I push back from the table, push up to my feet. Wind slams against the house. My bones are aching with rain. “And what would you need me for?”
“Death and life go hand in hand.”
I glance back at him; of course he’s holding out a hand to me. My son has always been theatrical. He likes spectacle. He likes to create scenes. But he gets so snippy when we don’t stick to our roles.
“I’m not coming back,” I say. I lean over the sink, the few dirty dishes, the leavings of an old woman who lives alone. “There’s a guest room. You can stay the night.”
And of course he just laughs.
* * *
The face of the dawn is bloody.
She is one I haven’t turned away from entirely, though she and I haven’t spoken in years. Every morning I get up to see her, rising into my father. We look at each other across impossible distance. I miss her. I suspect that she misses me. We were sisters, fellow wives of fallen lords. You live through a few wars and it makes you closer.
We never fought. She, too, is sitting this one out. In her way.
My coffee mug is warm in my hands. It’s still cool this early, out on the porch. I used to hate winter but now I miss him. There came a time, not very long ago, when I realized that this is what it feels like to be of the world. Not quite, not all the way—a fragment of the full picture. But this is a little bit of it, to watch your old friends and old enemies leave or disappear or fade away into nothing. Then one morning you wake up and you’re alone. And at least some of it was by choice.
And then, if you’re unlucky enough to have children, they come to visit you.
I hear him moving around upstairs. Wind shoves leaves and trash down the street, though for now the sky is mostly clear. The face of my father. Him, I don’t talk to anymore.
Last night, after we talked, my son left his tea cold on the table and went up to the guest room. I saw him once after, in the hall. I don’t know if he ate. He might have provisions in his pack, along with his tools. Provisions like you don’t buy in stores. The good stuff. Like we used to have on top of that damned mountain.
I ate it one more time, three years ago. I spent the night bent over the toilet. Too rich now for my stomach.
A step behind me, a creaking board. I didn’t hear him on the stairs. I suppose it’s possible that he didn’t use them. I feel a weight settle on my shoulder—his hand, big and solid. Part of me cringes away, but another part leans back against him. I feel rough denim through my shirt, the hard toes of boots. He kisses the top of my head and static crackles in my hair, little needlepoints in my scalp.
“I’m going out,” he says. “I’ll be back.”
“You’re not leaving?”
“Not yet.” He says it with the kind of flat decision that always canceled out any argument. And I don’t argue. I can’t work up the energy. He moves past me down the front steps, pack slung on his back, t-shirt just that much too tight. Showing off chiseled muscle. You know, I can’t even find it in me to disapprove anymore.
You know? Part of me missed him. The same part that leaned into his touch. The part of me that wanted that fucking ambrosia and kept eating it even as it started to make me gag. The part of me that thinks about that damned mountain, that damned palace, and wants to be back there. The part of me that thrilled to see my son ascendant, throwing his own father—my once-husband and once-lover—down from the heights.
You know. You don’t need me to tell you that nature is red in tooth and claw.
I watch him walk down the empty street toward the curving intersection. Before he vanishes from view, a car slides silently past—rare. Hardly anyone can afford to live all the way out here anymore. Sometimes I spend days without seeing another face. I know this face—she lives a couple of blocks over. She has a tattoo of a sun on her shoulder. She looks at me from the driver’s side window and gives me a single wave, which I don’t return. Then she’s gone.
I feel like I’m riding the crest of something and soon I’ll tumble over into the trough. And what’s down there, not even I know.
* * *
If you asked me what I did for a living, I wouldn’t be able to say. I have answers, of course, but I know what’s really behind that question, and I know I wouldn’t be able to produce anything satisfactory in response to it. What do I do for a living? I live. It’s about all I can do. Beings like me have ways of generating what we need to survive; I can keep things going at that level. If you want to call that life.
I live. I used to help other things live. I used to pour myself into them like the water, like spills of sunshine before Sun became old and cruel. I used to empty myself into them and build into the warm coals that set the fire of their life. I reached into the soil and drew greenery from my mother. I dragged treetops toward my father. I shoveled pollen in golden drifts and shoved sperm up dark, wet channels toward their destinies. I tugged bloody infants of all species screaming from between their mothers’ legs. I slipped into their bodies and pressed their bones out and up from the inside until they had no choice but to grow. My job was to push and to pull, which are the ultimate movements of all life anywhere.
What I did for a living was life. What I do for a living now is live. They aren’t the same thing. Not even close.
What happens between morning and afternoon is a dim blur—not because my mind is going but because I see no reason to pay much attention. But in the pummeling heat of the high sun I find myself kneeling in my garden, puffs of warm and chalky-smelling dust rising into my nose and throat and squeezing the inside of my chest. My hands are driving the dust upward. It’s like old times.
I don’t remember when I last had anything to do with this garden. For years I tried, wringing any bit of help I could from what skills I still have. But it didn’t do any good. The winters got wetter and warmer and the summers got so hot that everything green burned to brown death, and there wasn’t much in the way of seasons between the two. Nothing does well anymore without my help, and even with every advantage my little garden finally withered.
I don’t remember when I was last here, but I do remember the day I knew it was over. I remember that I beat at the ground with my fists. I remember cutting my hands on a shard of glass, like an offering of my own blood would even accomplish anything. I remember calling Earth by name.
Not that she listened. Of all of us, she might be the most bitter. Of all of us, she might have the most reason to be so.
But now I’m here again. What does that say about me?
My hands are buried so deep in the dry soil that I can feel granules of it working painfully up under my fingernails. I’m clawing my way down there, as if I’m digging for something precious that I buried here years ago and have now lost. My face is wet—sweat? Tears? Could they possibly work where my blood failed?
Could I possibly ask a dumber question?
“Bitch,” I’m muttering—doing so before I realize that I am. The world is fading in bit by bit and sound is not the first thing to return. “Oh, you bitch, fuck you, you bitch.”
There’s a bright crash, then—except it defies words, and crash is insufficient. It is a crash in the sense that it’s sudden and calamitous—somehow I know it even then, even before I understand it. But the sound is like the world breaking apart, like the sky himself is splitting open in an explosion of sound and light, and he is bleeding onto me. Fat, warm drops that smell of metal and ammonia. They hiss and burn on my skin. I tilt my head back and open my mouth and it tastes like spicy, watery piss.
I spit into the torn flesh of my mother. My hands are smeared brown with mud. My hair hangs in my face. Light explodes again, stabbing prongs into my eyes.
Storms happen. They happen a lot. But not like this.
With the next gunshot flash, the wooden fence between my yard and the empty lot next door is left broken and charred. I’m on my feet before I realize it, turning and staggering toward the house, palming burning rain out of my eyes. I want to shower. I want to get this stuff off me, not because it hurts but because it’s fucking disgusting, an abomination before my divinity, rain that brings death instead of life.
My feet are slipping in the mud and I almost fall just as I reach the back porch, hand reaching out and slapping against the chipped wet wood of the railing, and I remember that his hand was just there, just yesterday—I would swear I feel electricity prickling my fingertips. I smell ozone.
I hear more than rain and fury. Someone is in the house.
I already know that it’s him. It must be him, because this is him—my son was always too big for his body and he explodes out of himself in roaring light even when he doesn’t mean to. But there’s more. I already sense that too. There’s an awful kind of carelessness in the way the wind is flinging twigs and leaves high into the air, in the way the lightning is stabbing at the ground like an idle child with a stick.
I raised my son to rule. He makes a toy of the world. I don’t know—I may never know—how much these two things have to do with each other.
I get the back door open; the wind pulls it out of my hand and slams it against the side of the house. I push inside in a cascade of wet leaves and dirty water, dragging it shut after me. Inside the kitchen is relatively quiet, but the storm is battering the outside of the house. We had three tornadoes pass very close by this past summer, and even those storms didn’t feel like this.
There’s a rhythm to this. Something familiar.
A creak in the ceiling overhead. The sound of a voice. Was that a laugh? A moan?
I’m to the stairs in the front hall before I can tell my old feet to take me there, shoving my body up the steps like I’ve shoved babies from wombs. I’m trying to birth myself back into what I used to be. I’m trying to summon all the beautiful rage that was my birthright. It’s distant now, harder to get to, but I feel power swelling under my skin like blood as my feet hit the landing. I feel a wind at my back that has nothing to do with him. My legs are like the trunks of trees, rooted in my mother’s flesh, and yet I can run like water down a fucking mountain.
The door to the guest room is closed. Not my room, then. Good.
I won’t have to actually murder him.
There’s a high window at the end of the hall, and as I lay my hands flat against the closed door and throw all my weight against it, it explodes inward in a cascade of dully shimmering glass, rain, a thick branch thudding to the floor. I hardly notice. I know what I’m going to see, and I’m bracing myself against it.
I have a feeling that this kind of thing is awkward even if one’s son is normal.
My son… is naked, one leg tangled in the bedsheets, braced over a skinny form arching up beneath him. She has one leg slung over his hip, hands buried in the thick curls of his hair. Her own hair is brown and stringy, her face just a little too gaunt, and I realize that she’s familiar. I see the little black coils of the sun tattoo on her shoulder and I realize that I know her. I saw her.
She doesn’t see me even now. She’s gazing up at him in rapture. I’ve seen that look before, too many times. I tried to tell him, I tried to get him to understand that it wasn’t fair, what he was doing to the poor creatures, and after I pulled the fifth of his children from the screaming womb of his latest lover, I realized that he would never get it. That he didn’t care to.
My son can’t change. That’s the thing about him.
She may not see me, but my son does. He’s frozen and staring at me, his body cast in stark light and shadow as lightning dances around the house. He’s beautiful, is the thing. I look at him with a mother’s eye and I see what I’ve made, and he’s beautiful.
He’s also broken. He always has been.
“Get off her.” The words come briskly, and I’m already rushing forward. The wind howls against the house. She’s sitting up now, blinking confusedly at me as he rolls silently away from her, his face unreadable. She’s still too dazed to try to cover herself. She’s so young—I’ve seen this too many times.
In this moment, I’m more angry than I can bear. I’m angry enough to murder him with my bare hands. It’s not enough, all the destruction, all the storms, all the miles of coastline flooded and washed away. He has to fling his seed all over the world, plant his heroes—the ones who go mad and slaughter their entire families. The ones who march gallantly to war that kills millions. The ones who carry his same brokenness—the urge to remake the world in whatever fevered image their half human brains toss up.
My son can’t change. Neither can his sons. I can’t hate him for his own nature.
“It’s all right,” I say, climbing onto the bed with my hands outstretched. They’re still muddy, I see; all of me is muddy, rain-blotched, stinking. But she doesn’t pull away—do I even know her name? Does he?—and I lean forward and lay a hand on her coiled belly and let myself feel into her.
I might only have seconds.
I feel—wet heat, softness, aching with the need to receive and hold life, and I almost weep with it. I remember when I felt that way. I remember when every part of this was also a part of me. Back when I was the center of something that mattered. But I can do this, I can, and I don’t have the time or the strength for more self-pity.
And there is no seed in her anyway. All through her channels and pathways, the secret roads of her body, I encounter no traveler but her. I let out a gust of breath, sit back on the bed, muddy hands in my lap and the world blurring in front of my eyes.
Did I want another grandchild?
“Mom—” he starts, standing naked by the bed now, his arms folded over his chest and irritation starting to twist at his features—I see when I blink the tears away, and I wish I could unsee, because all at once I am so angry again.
“Get out,” I say. Quiet. He is my son. He is my son and if I swallowed him he would only explode through the top of my head. “Now.”
“Rhea?” murmurs the girl, as if she is only just now recognizing me—and there, she does know my name, even if I can’t remember hers—and I reach for her, curl my dirty hands around her shoulders and pull her against me, pulling the sheet up around her as she comes unprotesting and curled like a child. So small, so fragile, so unbearably mortal.
“Get out,” I repeat, and into my voice I release all the rage, all the things I would do to him if I were less old and less tired and a great deal more bloodthirsty.
And he goes.
“I wasn’t…” murmurs the girl, her head tucked under my chin, and I rock her gently, and she doesn’t say more. I might tell her to stay away from my son. I might tell her that our children bring only ruin and heartache. I might tell her that he’s not a good boy, that he’s gotten worse with age, that even a good fuck sometimes has consequences that are better avoided.
I might do these things. But for now I just hold her and I remember. Everything I came here to escape. Everything I will never be able to get away from. And the storm eases around us. After a while she sleeps.
I wish I could.
I wish I could remember what sleep was like.
* * *
I watch him walk away the next morning. He doesn’t look back as he heads down the curve of the empty road, past brown lawns and wasted houses. He is going, I know it—back to the coast, back to the work that he hasn’t yet figured out how to walk away from. Perhaps in time he will. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter. I turn away once he rounds the corner and I let my feet carry me around the house and toward the backyard. Bare feet, straws of dead grass sharp against them. In the dawn, all the colors are washed out of everything, but with the potential of color. The next generation of light, hiding shyly in the corners of the world.
The earth of my garden is still churned and torn. Something stabs into me—regret? Embarrassment? And I drop down to my knees and lay my hands against it, like I could heal it through force of will.
I don’t regret the choice I made. And yet I wonder.
“What’re you doing?” asks a sleepy voice behind me, and I turn and there she is, scratching at her tousled brown hair, one of my old nightgowns hanging off her tattooed shoulder. She yawns. She doesn’t seem any the worse for wear.
“I don’t know,” I say simply, because it’s true.
I follow her with my gaze as she drops into a crouch beside me, looking bemused. She’s skinny, but she’s lovely, and I think about the children that might have been born of the coupling between her and my son. Beautiful, surely. As if beautiful was ever reason enough.
She reaches out a hand and lays it against the churned soil. Something flickers across her face, and just then the sun breaks across the top of the house, spilling rosy light across her, infusing her with a glow. A young goddess, I think, in a torn nightgown, her face puffy with sleep, her hands in love with the earth.
Curling up between her fingers: a delicate green tendril. I look at it. I look at it. I look down at my own useless hands. I start to laugh.
“I don’t know,” I repeat. The rosy world slips away in a rain of tears. “Daughter. I don’t know.”