art by Jonathan Westbrook
This Place From Which All Roads Go
by Jennifer Mason-Black
They come to study us. Not to help. They watch my father struggle his way through his chores and make notes in their notebooks, too busy charting our future to join our present. In any case, I've no reason to believe their help would be of use. Their essence smells different--arid, dusty--and it blisters the leaves it touches.
"It has no life, Mari," my grandmother says. At least she used to, before the day she took to her bed, lay there in her mended sheets, her face crumpling in on itself like an apple gone soft with decay, the threat of losing the land not aging her, merely bringing her years to rest heavy upon her shoulders.
The student with us then tried to hide from my grandmother's coming death, as if it might find her as well. She'd rush down the hall past the open door, clutching her notebook to her chest, casting her words toward the kitchen like a lifeline to pull her past danger. Once, just once, she paused at the door. It was my turn to sit by the bed, and I held my grandmother's hand and sang to her, songs she'd sung to me long ago. She no longer spoke, but I knew she heard me because her essence shone through the pale folds of her skin, lit her like the memory of a lantern flame.
"Her talent… it's stronger," the student said. Wonder creased her words, as if my dying grandmother were unlike any other dying woman, what lit her somehow different because it shone in this tiny room, from a woman who'd spent her talent keeping a few acres open, a few children fed.
"Of course," I said. "Have you no sense? What else is left when the body burns away?"
The student darkened to a miserable shade of red. Another might have found compassion in their heart for her, but I had no time for her foolishness. The students, their gaping mouths, their notebooks and questions and airs, I had no time for any of them.
My grandmother died, and that left the four of us--my mother, my father, my younger brother, me. Earth, fire, water, air, we've done our best to hold this place. My brother though, his essence grew differently, traversing channels not easily controlled. In the night I'd wake to see fairy light above his bed, his eyes shining with its glow. Or I'd find a trail of roses forced into bloom in deep winter, their petals dying instantly beneath the frost, his cheeks dotted with frozen tears. He simply was, and we could expect no help from him. Instead, we tended him as a family does. It's not what they'd do in the city, but theirs is not the life we lead.
My parents, though, are no longer young. They rise every morning and do what they must, their bodies as weathered as the shingles on the barn, their skin showing the burn marks of lifetimes of essence traveling from heart to hand. Stooped and furrowed, they sit at the table for dinner too tired to do more than thank me with their smiles for being there.
For the choice to stay is one few children have made. Opportunity gathers in the essencework taught in cities, not what grows through us like bittersweet through a copse of trees, wrapped thorn tight into our flesh. Quaint, the idea of remaining, of working land when one could be creating, changing, shaping the world instead.
I see it in the eyes of the students, though the line between quaint and exotic wavers for them. Some revere my father for things as slight as knowing the name of the wren that nests in the bush by the pasture gate, never thinking to listen and learn it for themselves. They buy my mother's patchwork dresses, the long-legged women wearing them with a tangle of necklaces they've collected from other primitives like us. They talk of my parents as coming from heartier stock then they, as if the ability to labor belonged to us and the ability to think to them.
And me? They don't know what to make of me.
Adelia is the latest student. She stays in my grandmother's old room, keeps it tidy, the curtains pulled back. The sun leaves splotches on her pale skin if she forgets to shield her face, and her fair hair grows colorless as straw in the light.
"Why did you choose to stay?" she asks me.
She does this, follows me as I work, her questions bobbing in the space between us. Today, I hold my hands to the dirt, my essence reaching deep below, searching for the channels of growth within. I used to love the feel of this, of being absorbed into the smell and the substance of the rich black soil, the boundless life it held. I don't know whether the soil has aged or me, but now it feels only of work and exhausts me.
"Why wouldn't I?" I say, unwilling to give her the rest. Because if the land dies, so do we. Because you're wrong to believe the only essence of importance is the kind made in classrooms and on stages, not the kind that happens day in and day out, with no one watching, no one cheering. Because this place knows me, and I, it.
"Mari, you have such strength. If you were to come to university, even now, and learn to hone your talent… you could have so much more."
My eyes sting as the sweat rolls into them. What I need to reach hides deeper than I expected, and my sinews twinge in protest as I stretch myself further in. Then... it resonates within me, a cello string vibrating in time with my heart. I bind it to me, begin to pull back, feeling the strain as the earth resists, then gives, slowly, regretfully.
"Is that you, or the Commission on Rural Talent speaking?"
Sun is not the only thing capable of coloring her skin. It takes no essence to wound these fragile students.
"I've nothing to do with the CRT."
"Aside from providing them with what they need to take our land."
She is a bird, trapped in my fist, resignation chasing panic. "That's not why I'm here. I want to help. I don't want to destroy your farm."
"How would this farm exist were I not here?"
A rich scent hits the air. I straighten up and flex my fingers, touch the tender area along my forearm where my essence has surged out of channel. It's happened more and more recently. This spot has an eroded edge to it, purpled with blood blisters. It needs tending, but so do a thousand other things, most of them far more necessary.
"What if your parents moved as well? They could live in a care center, not have to worry about anything anymore. You have so many things you could do with your life. And it looks--"
"It looks as though the choice will be taken from us. The city has more thirst than we have power, Adelia. The reservoir will come." I turn my back on her and walk to the house to ice my swelling arm.
Most of the students have bothered me far more than Adelia has. The one before her, Lilith--by the end she barely even watched. Instead she'd sit at the table and write long screeds, her essence blue green as she etched the letters.
"It's a terrible waste," she insisted. "Rural talent should be preserved. Why, the way you are able to bring life out of this emptiness."
Emptiness. The tangle of briars that held nests in the spring and blackberries in the summer. The trees my grandmother had nurtured. The dens and marshes and streams, the wild creatures that bedded down in all of them. Emptiness. One can fill emptiness, a glass to hold the water for a million greedy mouths. The essence spun between the land and the living means so much less than the essence forced into stone and concrete.
Lilith wrote endlessly about our life, and yet took no part in it. She avoided the things that could have helped, never even adding a log to the fire when it burned low. My parents would never have complained, would have left her to work at the table, fed her every night until her allotted time ended. Me, I was not so patient.
"I admire the way you manage this farm," she said one day. I'd taken a break from binding stone for fence. My skin felt abraded, raw in the cool spring breeze, and I lay down in the grass with care, avoiding the rub of the blades. "You're a remarkable woman."
"I work," I said. "I see what must be done and I do it. There's no more to it than that."
"But there is. I could never do what you do."
"Lilith." The anger rose so quickly I could barely draw enough breath for voice. "You've chosen not to. It's a luxury I do not have."
She spoke before my words could sink in, deflecting them like skipping stones bouncing across a pond's surface. "I cannot do this work. My talent is more carefully shaped than yours. Your work requires brute force; mine is like a scalpel."
I could feel the grass retreat beneath me, my anger wilting it. "Essence is essence, whether you call it essence or not, no matter how you categorize it. Mine grows the crops and ripens the soils. Another woman's powers the lights of a theater at night. Another's is the show within that theater. You treat them as though they are all different."
"Only one calls forth something from nothing," she said, and pursing her lips into a cold hard space, she left.
Something from nothing. That line divides me from the students, the country from the city. City essence--taught, sculpted--creates. Rural essence augments. Rudimentary, my talent, full of simplistic charm. The students seek to learn history from us, and in exchange they document what they see for the CRT. The CRT turns their words into proof of our backward ways, which will allow them to take our land and force us into the city, for our own good.
When I was young, before my brother's essence cut through him like wayward roots through soil, I thought of nothing but leaving. My best friend did too; we plotted together about how we would learn to create things of such brilliance that we'd be known the world over. After chores we would hide in the hay fields together, burrowed under the tall grasses, our skins thrilled with our own essence, with the brush of each other's. We took turns tracing the channels that ran within us, rewarded with a flicker of sparks wherever one coursed close to the surface.
I hadn't known what I desired until the day I rolled closer to her, touched my lips to hers and felt the sear of heat, the pull of magnet to metal. She pushed back against my shoulder, stared at me. "Tanja," I said, but she spoke nothing, simply left, her feet racing along the path from my house to hers.
The following day, I returned alone and studied the grass, the green and brown woven together. There, reading our story written on the land, the sting worse than a thousand wasps loosed upon my skin, I told myself such things weren't for me.
She left. I didn't. I wrote her from time to time, when the loneliness grew. She wrote to me occasionally, all details, teachers, class discoveries. Eventually her letters dwindled, little more than "Mari, you should leave and come here."
But before I could, I woke one night to a house full of acorns, my brother crying in the midst, and the doors to the city closed for me.