Seed Vault (Part 1)
By Marika Bailey
I should tell you about the gods, yes? Good setting for it. Here in the desert, hunger and thirst sharpen the soul. Sharpens it enough to poke right through the side of your mind to let in the second sight.
They hitched rides like barnacles and weeds on the bellies of our soulships and crossed the dark. Slave ship, starship, no matter to them. Belong is belong, yes? They took root and grew fat in the good red earth. I am surrounded by our gods. To be honest they are a mamabloody nuisance.
Eh heh heh heh.
He laughs, Daddy Long Legs. Papa Negre. The old man who is a god walks behind me, his body made up of tumbleweeds and shadow. His laughter is the wind rattling through his snake bone ribs. He wears one face now, another next. They are all the people whose blood lies in the fields and whose bones rest in the earth.
You going de right way babygirl? He knows I am.
I’ve been ignoring him for a while now. I know the direction I’m going, if not the reason. I could take out my mipu to check, but that would be him getting his way and I’m not in the mood. To hell with him and the rest. Stones around my neck, calling and crying. They do not like the desert.
Then go back home, I mutter. They cling harder.
There are many gods and few. They mix and re-form and come apart like particles of oil in water. They have always been around. In the village most could only see them as rags of light and sound, out of the corner of your eyes. Some never see them at all. Like Manman. Like me. I had not seen them until the morning I woke up at Titi Jeanne’s side with smoke burning tracks of tears from my eyes.
Gods fill the edges of my sight with color and sound. I am wearing a halo of gods, a boiling cloud that blooms and stretches into a thin shimmering thread back to the east and the good red.
As much as it worries me, it does not bother Minn. Takes a lot to bother a six foot tall manicou. She plods on, solid and comforting. As we move forward her tracks are intersected by smooth lines in the sand from the circling ‘bots that I’ve programmed. They write their passage through the dirt, tireless scouts whistling back to me of the not-so-empty dunes. In the distance, as night fades to dawn. I hear the yip yee of desert sandbirds and the wayoooo of an owl. The not-sound of the wolf.
The heat rises with the stuttering chirp of djem flies. I nudge Minn towards a small outcropping of stone and pale brush. Dropping from the saddle, I lead her towards a shaded overhang. Getting her settled in and unburdened of our saddlebags and combed down doesn’t take much time, but I can already feel the day’s heat by the time I am ready to make my own bedroll in the shade.
The gods surrounding me begin to pop like soap bubbles, leaving me alone with Papa Bones and the Yellow Lady. Bones sits to my right, his rag and weed body seeming heavier than it should be. The lady, her hair strewn with coral and her dark skin wet, sits to my right. She has not spoken to me this entire way. She is simply here. Her eyes, when they do meet mine, are golden pools unbroken by pupils.
My dinner is roasted breadfruit and dried meat, both from stores rescued from the ruins of the town. It tastes like home but I finish it. Even though it sits uneasily in my stomach. Pain rising up from the smell of white thyme and scallion.
I begin to drift asleep as the sun climbs higher, white and burning. The horizon is wavy with heat. The last thing I hear as I fall asleep is Bones.
Where you going? he asks again.
When I try to answer, bones spill out of my mouth. They land on the ground and sprout roots spiralling down, down, down to the heart of the world.
I must dig graves. Homes for the bones. A resting place for the ancestors. It takes a long time to dig a grave for a people. It’s full-body work. Your arms swing the shovel. Your thighs pull. And all the long while, your mind, it thinks. It accuses. You, at first. You could have done more, yes? Is all your fault. Jump in the grave you are digging. Cover yourself in the earth and die.
Gods rise up from the red earth and wrap themselves in an umbilical cord around your neck.
I wake to Minn’s quiet snuffles. Dusk is settling in, and the darkness smudges the desert to make it pretty and almost welcoming.
We walk at night. It surprised me that even then, the desert is not still. It is an unending chorus of creatures, all trying to survive in their own ways. With tooth and claw, quickness and smarts. Or silence.
I’ve made good time since leaving Way Back. Or what was left of it. Titi Jeanne and the griyot were making progress digging out the ruins. But every time I walked past the Gathering House I could still see it smoking. And the marks of many feet outside the door.
Hour on the trail, the sky cracks in half. A sandstorm from the east, fire dancing on the horizon. Minn moans with worry, and I hurry us to an outcropping of rock out of the way of our path but necessary to keep us safe tonight. We reach the cave in the rock just before the scouring sand passes over where we were standing. I pull Minn deeper into the small dark space and set up camp.
When I take a chance to peek up at the sky through the narrow cavemouth, I see ‘Uracan dancing along the lightning, his locs streaming dark black against the towers of sand and flame that blast across the desert. Papa Long Legs sits by me and Minn, weaving a daisy chain from dead clematis flowers. He finishes and turns to me, offering it. Everywhere I look, I am surrounded by gods.
I place the flower chain over my wide-brim hat and laugh at what I must look like. Suit and hat of dark leather. Kerchief covering my mouth, and polarized glass goggles to block the stormglare. Dust covers me from hat to boot. Outside, the booming thunder cracks. Inside, a small trickle of dust falls into Minn’s face. She sneezes, displacing the crown of flowers on her head, and settles back in for a nap. The storm will go on for at least another eight hours.
The Woman In Yellow walks out of the storm and into the cave. She shakes sand and leaves from her hair, and in the waving folds of her dress I see schools of glittering fish.
You and your boyfren have a fight? Papa Bones asks her, his death’s head grin growing wide in the sunken grey-blue-black of his face.
The Woman ignores him with a flick of her frothing black hair and settles her skirts around her. Sitting cross legged by the fire I have built, she reaches her hands out to it. I wonder what she sees when she looks at it. I wonder for the millionth time if I’m imagining them. Or if I’m dead.
I had never been one to care about our gods. They seemed distant and unimportant in comparison to concrete things like maths, and getting out of my mother’s house. Gods had not seemed like the way that I was going to get to university in Prime City.
I’d liked the stories the griyot told about our gods as much as anyone else. Understood their importance in a distant way, like I understood crop rotation: a thing that others take care of which has nothing to do with me. I had never been what manman called ‘a godbotherer.’
But it seems they are content bothering me.
They are not what I expected.
More have formed in the sphere of light around the gel-fire I’ve built in between a circle of stones. They argue and jostle until one has the idea to ask Papa for a story. Bones always has a tale in him. He has the story of everyone who has ever crossed his ivory threshold.
“Here is a true-true story,” he begins in his sawdust voice.
Griyot words for the beginning of the most important stories. When they arrive in a new settlement, sand still fresh on the gems of their robes, the gods-chosen story weavers tell the tales of us, the People. Wreathed by the painted star sky of the gathering houses. They remind us of our history as much as the planted bones of our ancestors remind the earth of our promises.
So does our death god begin tonight’s story in the traditional way. A true-true story. His voice, the one he chooses, is of my own Manman.
That’s something they never tell you. Gods are assholes.
“In 3128 Standard, oh beloved children of the space where my heart would be if I were more than bones…the Deere-Minagawa conglomerate was paid 32 trillion credits to terraform this land, Tiere. Or as it was known then, Exoplanet M-329.”
I have heard this story a thousand times. Every child in every Settlement knows it by heart. But Papa has us in the palm of his skeletal hand.
“Monies were paid, my sweet babies, in what was called a public-private partnership. Where a few people paid a lot and many people paid only a little less, because they all wanted one thing. To get rid of an inconvenience: mouths and souls yawning wide with hunger. Send them away! Let them sort themselves out! If we cannot see them we won’t feel shame.”
The gods and I hoot and holler in response. Our part in the retelling.
Everyone has a part, doux doux.
Old Man Bones grins wide, teeth as white as the doorstep to the house his children will never leave. “It was not much, as planets go. But who wants to give the biggest piece of chicken to the hungriest mouth? The people lived on the sharp cutting edge of maybe enough if the budget passes and the board approves, oui? When they arrived, man familyé, shaking the stardust sleep from their eyes they were met by a home that had failed. There was no paradise for them. There was desert. There was fire unlike anything seen before, even in the blooms of stars. A fire pink as Grey Dogs’ birth. But it was theirs, and they decided to remain.”
We stomp our feet, the gods and I. Here we stay! Punctuating our words pounding against the ground.
“You think this is crazy, non?” Papa jumps up, reflections of the campfire writhing in his eyes.
“Non!” We cry.
What is louder, our roar or the storm outside?
“What is safety? The People cried. What is home, when home is the bottom of a jackboot, or the ratatatat of death raining down? What would they go back to? To live as a dispensable budget line? Fuck you, mijohj. Non. Here they would stay. It was theirs.”
“It is ours!”
Bones, he laughs. A sound like the first clods of dirt hitting a shroud. Having a good good time, he is. He is stalking the little cave in his shiny threadbare suit whose trouser legs don’t even cover his ashy ankles. His feet are bare and cracked. But we can’t look away, human or god. Spindly arms outstretched, legs spread wide, he spins his tale.
“What the people wanted became the subject of several years of, what shall we call it …? Masturbatory litigation.”
I see Huracan, who has come inside to sit by Yellow Lady, snicker. She rolls her eyes at him.
“The partnership did not agree with the people’s choice. It is hard to put pictures of a ruined planet and desperate colonists in brochure material. By the time all of the paperwork was shuffled away, the colonists had been forgotten. And no one bothered to tell them what had been the outcome of the case. It was assumed that the stupid fools had died.”
“We live! We live!” Fists raised up, beating against the air.
Death dances among us, grinning and spinning.
The sandstorm calms enough that we can press on. The polarized goggles and bandana protect my face from the sand, but I can’t help flinching in the face of the fierce wind howling in the dark around me. Manman taught me how to survive in the sand, but only to scare me away from having to.
This is not the Tiere I know. This is what I have been protected from, this darkness. But it is also mine, and also beautiful. Minn walks on, carrying her small cargo. Her quiet implacability is like a warmth in my heart. She is a piece of home and I cling to her, resting behind the large crest of her head.
We walk through the night and mile by mile the storm begins to sleep, or we begin to outpace it. My god-riders settle and recede from my sight, even the stormking. He disappears with a laugh and a smile.
The stars come out one by one. It feels like the world is unfolding from underneath the sand winds. Above I hear the cry of the single wree-wrie bird in its lonely crossing, searching. The white dunes spread out towards all edges of the horizon, blooming with distant pink fire as if in answer to the stars above. The bones crying out, we are here. We are here.
If I lean forward into the dense fur on Minn’s back, if I cover my eyes in her darkness and my nose with her scent, if I feel lonely enough to die here in this graveyard of my ancestors, then there is no one to see me, not even my restless gods.
I don’t want to use up all of the stores I brought. Gotta hunt on the trail, as manman always said. I have my slingshot, nothing flashier than that where projectiles are concerned. But I do have my little friends.
Magnetic field on Tiere is fucked up. Plainest way to say it. Instead of one field, there are many, drifting in currents across the surface. It’s the wildlife that follows those, moving along with a wave that only they can feel.
I’ve kept three bots back from my dozen. These I’ve adapted with some half broken dispellers from smashed den boxes I grabbed before heading out. It’s not hard to connect them to the simple guts already in the ceramic constructs. When I’m done I set two of them out on a course my kipuu has plotted. A third is on an oblique course to meet them when they connect with their quarry.
A magnetic front is coming. Where it edges up against another field, a sandstorm erupts, blacker than ink on the horizon. In that field will be bari. About as high as your knee, sandy grey-brown fur, and snub noses, they follow a field that takes them through the half-blasted prairies where they live off of twisted seed grass tough enough to cut the calloused heel of any oldster.
Following along the edge of the flowing herd, two of the bots roll through the tall grass and eventually catch one sow. I’m back far enough from the herd that I need to set my specs to magnify. But I see the moment they get her alone, and send my signal as they do.
Whap. They release an electromagnetic pulse that dazzles the bari, and she falls to the ground. The third bot, rounding up on her flank, gives her a shock strong enough to stop her heart. Quick-clean.
Before I can stop myself I think, Manman would have been proud of that kill.
The sands recede to smoke.
She was dead. Along with most everyone I had ever known. And most everything I’d thought was simple and true.
Like, why does the sun rise? And why do I breathe?
Odd, odd questions, with no answers I could easily grasp.
Mind memory can paralyze you. But body memory can keep you moving. So it is with the hunt’s end. I clean the kill, spare some blood for the earth and the Blessed Ancestors. But I am in a daze.
I am packed and set up for the day’s rest, meat ready to cure in the sun, when my body can no longer resist the pull of my mind’s riptide.
The morning after my home burned, it rained. It rained as if it had been waiting, hot air one second and a curtain of water the next. We few left sat huddled in a lean-to by the back of one of the houses, ten survivors shivering in darkening ashes.
The smoke rose from the guttering flames and mixed with the leaves from the founding tree. From the ember I saw lights rise and curl through the night. Bright enough to touch my numbness.
Titi saw me and took my hand.
We walked silently towards the tree that was the oldest part of the village, to the ash and flickering embers at its feet. She squeezed my hand hard, then. Hard. Her face trembled, and I couldn’t look at her. Not at my Titi, as she cried.
Like seeing a mountain cry or a wave sob. That was what it was like. And she held me fast, sitting under the elder tree. Shoulder to shoulder, we cried and shook until it was dark and the stars reflected in the tracks of our tears.
I cried so much, I fell asleep. Woke up with my head in her broad and soft lap. She stroked my hair, Titi, like I was still a baby.
She must have felt me come awake, because she began, “Tiere is the home we have made. With each other, and with the land. A kontresang, our elders called it, douxdoux.
“There are promises. Between we, moun sangre and she, Tiere. Promises. Contracts, need to be bound. When we promise each other to behave, we are bound by the law. Our promise with the earth, min sangre, is bound by the deusie.”
“Like Le Ren Azulee?” I asked, as Titi began to replait the unraveling ends of my braids. I felt soft and dreaming, tired. My eyes so wrung dry, they hurt.
“Oui, comm ele. The gods of our Exodus. Old Man Bones. The Sea Witch. Huracan. The Hundred Thousand.” With each name she called, I felt a warmth in my bones. I floated between her broad hands and the smell of smoke.
She pointed unshakingly to the lights we both saw. “Those threads are their tracks. They bind us and our souls to the earth, and she to us.”
“Why can I see them now?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
Rescue came out of a sand-storm darkness. A caravan of forty plus people. By then, we had uncovered and cleaned out a still-standing home, and were living almost like people again. If people sometimes sat down on the floor and cried and cried. Titi Jeanne had found an unspoiled cache of village supplies. We were still alone together, but our bellies were full and we were warm. Petite Aniah had even found some goats that had wandered loose and gotten lost in the canyon and led them back to the village, her chubby little face beaming.
It was only afternoon, but the sky had fallen dark with a sandstorm on the desert horizon. The babies were playing with a teacher-holo I’d rescued from a debris pile and cleaned up for them. It still worked fine, and Titi did not think that even the destruction of everything we’d once known was a good reason to stop lessons.
“A little boring and normal will be good for them, doux doux,” she said. And I did not want to argue with her about that.
Mma Singh and Titi were bent over their hand looms. The microcircuitry in both had been damaged, but they were hopeful that they could be repaired. Us five survivors of a settlement of hundreds. I stood outside their circle, my mipuu in one hand, staring out at the storm.
So I was the first to notice the perimeter bot alarm. It whirred back to me, lights whirring inside its round clay body and kicking up red dust in its path.
Titi saw it and jumped up, pulling the bebes into another room. Mma Singh went to the cupboard where her machete was stored. My knife was at my side always, now. We had not found any of the village’s guns in our excavations.
I turned our few lights off via my mipuu connection and waited in the shadow of the door, my eyes focused outside. The perimeter bots followed the motion, silent and dark.
There was a flash of lightning over the horizon, and a boom like a man’s laughter. The drums of Huracan. I thought at first it was a haze on my eyes after the lightning but no, growing larger was a light in the whirling sand-burned darkness.
In that light moved ribbons of color, like the godthreads around the meeting house. I moved without thinking.
Mma Singh grabbed my hand. In the dark I could just make out the reflection of the stormlight in her brown eyes. Children don’t go out into danger.
I pulled away from her and went, chest burning.
I held my knife close to me in the dark, tasting salt and sand in the air, and moved into the street. The light grew closer and closer. And with it came sound.
A sound like the booming of a mother’s belly, from the inside. A sound like the twanging of a heartstring. The light blossomed into the dark, and inside of it was a form. A person, skin dark and sand-blasted ashy, holding a staff into the sky. At the top of the staff, a light like a star in the vastness of the Deuxsie’s heaven.
We People have a word for the cracked earth. We call it desolation. It is not just unwelcoming land, it has been heartbroken. Not empty though. There was always the fire, booming in the distance. The wind, snarled and knotted with lighting-laced sandstorms. And quieter things: colonies of brown-white bush foxes. Desert brack-figs clustered around salt pools, home to flocks of red-eyed birds that live off of the sour fruit and spread the seeds as they follow the wind.
On seventh days we sang lullabies to the earth, Tiere the broken-hearted. In the desert, tracking ghosts, I find myself beginning to sing them too.
I sing a song the griyot taught me. They said it was a song my father had written long ago when he was barely more than a boy and saw stars shining in my mother’s hair as if she were Ren Azulee in the flesh. Before they married. Before they had me. Before he was lost to the sands, his bones anchoring some part of the desolation where no one has yet found him.
Griyot gifts are strange things. They are silk knots tangled through golden rings.
Bygodsgrace Jones. That was their name. The redwalker who came to the pyre that had been the town called Way Back. I have been on my own for nearly two weeks now. Traveling east, following the tracks picked up by my rolling scouts. I don’t know how long I will go until I find what I’m looking for but I can’t go back until I do.
About the Author
Marika Bailey is an Afro-Caribbean author and illustrator living in Brooklyn.
About the Narrator
Eden Royce is a Geechee writer from South Carolina. Her short fiction can be found in various print and online publications including: FIYAH Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and PodCastle. Her debut middle grade Southern Gothic novel Root Magic is out now from Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins. More at https://linktr.ee/edenroyce