The contagious sound of women’s laughter filled the warm, tidy burrow.
“Oh, Mari! That is not an illustration from the myth I just told you.”
Mari’s mother held the sheet of handmade paper in one hand and pressed the other hand against her mouth, unsuccessfully trying to hold back another bout of laughter.
“Mama, your job is to tell the stories. My job is to sketch them. That’s our game, right? Our favorite game.”
“Well, yes,” Leda said, still trying to fix her expression to a more sober one. “I do tell the stories, but you tend to sketch what you think you hear.”
“I don’t see the problem with that.” Mari moved to stand beside her mother and studied the newly finished sketch with her. “This is exactly what I saw as you were telling the story of Narcissus and Echo.”
“Mari, you made Narcissus look like a young man turning into a flower. Awkwardly. He has one hand that is a leaf and the other that is still a hand. The same with his—” Leda stifled a giggle. “Well, with several other parts of his anatomy. And he has a mustache and a silly look on his face—though I do admit it is an amazing talent you have that can bring a silly-looking half flower, half man, to life.” Leda pointed at the sketch and the ghostly nymph who Mari had somehow made to look bored and annoyed as she watched the transformation of Narcissus. “You made Echo look—” Leda hesitated, obviously searching for the right words.
“Fed up with Narcissus and his ego?” Mari offered.
Leda gave up all pretense of admonishment and laughed out loud. “Yes, that is exactly how you made Echo look, though that is not the story I told.”
“Well, Leda.” Mari used her mother’s given name as she waggled her brows at her. “I was listening to your story and as I was drawing I decided that something was definitely left out of the ending.”
“The ending? Really?” Leda bumped her daughter with her shoulder. “And stop calling me Leda.”
“But, Leda, that’s your name.”
“To the rest of the world. To you my name is Mother.”
“Mother? Really? It’s so—”
“Respectful and traditional?” This time Leda offered to finish her daughter’s thought.
“More like boring and old,” Mari said, eyes shining as she waited for her mother’s predictable response.
“Boring and old? Did you just call me boring and old?”
“What? Me? Call you boring and old? Never, Mama, never!” Mari giggled and held her hands up in surrender.
“That’s good. And I suppose Mama is fine. Better than Leda.”
Mari grinned. “Mama, we’ve been having this same discussion for eighteen winters.”
“Mari, sweet girl, I can happily say that even though you have known eighteen winters, you haven’t been able to talk for all of them. I did get a couple of winters respite before you started, and never stopped, speaking.”
“Mama! You said you encouraged me to start talking before I’d known much more than two winters,” Mari said in mock surprise as she reached for the sharpened charcoal twig with which she’d been sketching, and took the drawing from her mother.
“Yes, and I also never said I was perfect. I was just a young mother trying to do her best,” Leda said dramatically, releasing the sketch to her daughter.
“Really, really young. Right?” Mari said, sketching quickly while she cradled the drawing so that Leda couldn’t see it.
“That is absolutely right, Mari,” Leda said, trying to peek over Mari’s arm. “I had known one winter less than you when I met your wonderful father and—” Leda broke off, frowning at her daughter as Mari couldn’t contain her giggles.
“All fixed,” she said, holding up the sketch for Leda to inspect.
“Mari, his eyes are crossed,” Leda said.
“The rest of the story made me think he wasn’t too smart. So I made him look not very smart.”
“You sure did.” Leda’s gaze met her daughter’s, and both women dissolved into laughter again.
Leda wiped her eyes and gave her daughter a quick hug. “I take back everything I said about your illustration. I decree that it is perfect.”
“Thank you, Mother.” Mari’s eyes danced. She took a fresh sheet of paper and held her charcoal at ready. She loved the ancient stories her mother had shared with her for as long as she could remember, weaving wisdom and adventure, loss and love into them as deftly as the talented women of Clan Weaver wove baskets and clothing and tapestries to trade with Clan Fisher, Clan Miller, and Clan Wood. “One more story! How about just one more? You’re so good at the telling!”
“Flattery will not get you another story. It may get you a basketful of early blueberries, though.”
“Blueberries! Really, Mama? That would be wonderful. I love the color of ink I make with them. It’s a nice change from the black stain I get from walnuts.”
Leda smiled fondly at her daughter. “Only you could be more excited about painting with blueberries than eating them.”
“It can’t be only me, Mama. You like the dye you make from them, too.”
“I do, and I’m looking forward to dyeing a new cloak for you this spring, but I admit freely that I would rather eat a blueberry pie!”
“Blueberry pie! That sounds wonderful! So does another story—the Leda story. And, Mother, can we take a moment to discuss your name? Leda? Really? I’m assuming your mother did know that story,” Mari teased. “But as her name was Cassandra, I sometimes question her ability to name sensibly.”
“You know very well that Moon Women always name their daughters whatever is whispered to them on the wind by the Great Earth Mother. My mother, Cassandra, was named by her mother, Penelope. I heard your lovely name whispered by our Earth Mother the full moon night before you were born.”
“My name is boring.” Mari sighed. “Does that mean the Earth Mother thinks I’m boring?”
“No, that means the Earth Mother thinks we should make up a story to go with your name—a story all your own.”
“So you’ve been saying for all the winters I can remember, but I still don’t have my own story,” Mari said.
“When the time is right you will,” Leda said, touching her daughter’s smooth cheek, her smile turning sad. “Mari, sweet girl, I cannot tell another story tonight, though I wish I could. Sunset is not far off, and tonight the moon will be full and brilliant. The needs of the Clan will be great.”
Mari opened her mouth to plead with Leda to stay just a few moments more, to put her needs before those of the Clan, but before she could speak her small, selfish desire her mother’s body twitched spasmodically, shoulders trembling, head jerking painfully and uncontrollably. Though she had already turned from her daughter, as always trying to shield her from the change night brought with it, Mari knew too well what was happening.
All teasing fell away from her as Mari dropped the paper and charcoal and went to Leda. She took her mother’s hand, holding it in both of hers, hating how cold it had become—hating the pale silver-gray tinge that was beginning to spread across her skin. And wishing, always wishing, that she could soothe the pain that visited her mother with the setting of the sun every night of her life.
“I’m sorry, Mama. I lost track of time. I didn’t mean to keep you.” Mari kept her tone light, not wanting to send her beloved mother into danger and darkness burdened with more worry than she usually carried. “We’ll make up my story another time. And I have work I have to do while you’re gone. I still haven’t gotten the perspective perfect on that piece I’ve been trying to finish.”
“May I see it yet?” her mother asked.
“It’s not done, and you know I hate for you to see my drawings before they’re done.” Another tremor shivered across Leda’s skin and Mari’s hand automatically tightened around her mother’s, supporting her—understanding her—loving her. Mari forced herself to grin. “But I suppose I’ll make an exception tonight, especially since you’re my favorite model, and I like keeping my favorite model happy.”
“Well, I think it’s safe to say you like me more than Narcissus,” Leda joked while Mari went to the simple wooden table that sat in the corner of the main room of the little cavelike burrow she and her mother had shared for the eighteen winters of Mari’s life.
The table was framed by the sides of the burrow that held the thickest of the glowmoss, and sat beneath the biggest and brightest cluster of glowshrooms, which suspended from the ceiling like organic chandeliers. As Mari approached the table, the strained smile she had adopted for her mother relaxed, and when she turned to Leda, holding a sheet of thick paper made from meticulously hand processing plant pulp, Mari’s smile was genuine. “No matter how many times I look at my drawing table, the way we’ve grown the glowshrooms and placed the glowmoss will always remind me of your Earth Sprite stories.”
“You have always so loved the stories passed down from Moon Woman to Moon Woman to entertain and teach their daughters, though none of them are any more real than Narcissus and his unfortunate Echo.”
Mari’s smile didn’t falter. “When I draw it—it’s real to me.”
“So you have always said, but—” her mother began, and then broke off with a little gasp of delight as her gaze went to the unfinished sketch. “Oh, Mari! It’s lovely!” Leda took the sketch from her daughter and looked at it more closely. “Truly this is one of your very best.” With a wondering fingertip, she carefully touched the image of herself, sitting at her usual place beside their hearth fire. On her lap was a partially woven basket, but she wasn’t looking at the basket. She was smiling lovingly at the artist.
Mari took her mother’s hand in hers again and smoothed her skin. “I’m glad you like it, but your hand is much more delicately boned than I drew it.”
Leda pressed the palm of her hand against her daughter’s cheek. “You’ll fix it. You always do. And it will be as exquisite as the rest of your drawings.” She kissed Mari gently on her forehead before adding, “I have made something for you, sweet girl.”
“Really? A present?”
Leda smiled. “A present indeed. Wait here and close your eyes.” She hurried into the back room of their burrow, which served as Leda’s bedchamber as well as a drying and storing room for her fragrant herbs. Then she hurried back to her daughter, standing before her with her hands behind her back.
“What is it? It’s small enough to hide behind your back! Is it a new quill?”
“Mari, I said no peeking!” Leda admonished.
Eyes screwed tightly shut, Mari grinned. “I’m not peeking! I’m just smart, like my mama,” she said smugly.
“And beautiful, like your father,” Leda said as she placed her daughter’s gift on her head.
“Oh, Mama! You made me a Maiden Moon Crown!” Mari took the intricately braided coronet from her head. Leda had woven ivy with willow to create a lovely circle, which she’d decorated with bright yellow flowers. “So this is what you’ve been doing with all of those dandelion blossoms! I thought you were making wine.”
Leda laughed. “I did make wine. I also made you a Maiden Moon crown.”
Mari’s delight dimmed. “I’d forgotten that tonight is the first full moon of spring. I’m sure the Clan’s celebration will be joyous.”
Leda shook her head sadly. “I wish it was so, but I’m afraid this spring moon won’t be as festive as usual. Not after so many Earth Walkers have been recently captured by the Companions. The Earth Mother feels unusually restless to me, as if uncomfortable changes are coming. Our women have been filled with more sorrow than usual, and our men—well, we know the anger the Night Fever brews within our men.”
“They won’t just be angry, they’ll be dangerous. Damn Scratchers!”
“Mari, don’t call your people that. It makes them sound like monsters.”
“They’re only half my people, Mother, and at night they are monsters. Or at least the men are. What would happen if you didn’t Wash them of the Night Fever every three days? Wait, I know what would happen. It’s why a Moon Woman’s burrow has to always be hidden, even from her own Clan.” Frustration and fear caused her words to be harsh, and as soon as she’d spoken them the sadness that filled her mother’s eyes made her regret such harshness.
“Mari, you must never forget that at night, even I have within me the capacity to be a monster.”
“Not you! I didn’t mean you. I’d never mean you!”
“But the moon is all that keeps me from becoming more Scratcher than Earth Walker. Sadly, our people cannot call down the moon as can I, so I must do it for them at least once every three nights. Tonight is a Third Night, as well as the spring full moon. Our Clan will gather, and I will Wash them so that their lives may be open to accept love and joy instead of mired in melancholy and anger. You know all of this, Mari. What troubles you?”
Mari shook her head. How was she supposed to tell her mother—her sweet, funny, brilliant mother—the only person in this terrible world who knew what Mari truly was and loved her still—that she had begun to ache for more of everything?
Mari could never tell her mother, just as Leda could never allow the truth about her daughter to be known.
“It’s nothing. Probably just something to do with the full moon. I can feel it, even here in the cave, even before it’s risen.”
Leda’s smile was proud. “You have my power and more. Mari, come with me tonight. Wear your Moon Crown. Join the Clan’s celebration. It is easiest to draw down the power of the moon when it is full, and tonight it will be as spectacularly full as the sun has been bright today.”
“Oh, Mama, not tonight. I’m tired of failing, and I definitely don’t want to do it in front of a crowd.”
Leda’s smile didn’t falter. “Trust your mother. You have my power and more. It’s that more that makes your training difficult.”
“Difficult?” Mari sighed again. “You mean hopeless.”
“Such melodrama! You are alive and healthy and sane. Day or night—rain or shine—moon or no moon, you show no sign of madness or pain. Trust that the rest will come with practice and patience.”
“Are you sure there isn’t an easier way?”
“Quite sure. It’s much like how you practiced until you attained the ability to make a flat drawing seem to live and breathe.”
“Drawing is so much easier!”
Her mother laughed softly. “Only for you.” Then Leda’s smile faded. “Mari, you know I must choose an apprentice soon. I cannot put off the women of the Clan much longer.”
“I’m not good enough yet, Mama.”
“And that is another reason you should join me tonight. Stand beside me before the Clan. Practice calling the power of the moon, and while you practice I will be showing our Clanswomen that they may rest easy. Though I have not named you as my official heir, I have begun your training.”
Mari’s lips tilted up. “Begun my training? Leda, you’ve been training me as long as I can remember.”
“You’ve always been a good student. And stop calling me Leda.”
“Good and slow aren’t the same thing, Mother.”
“I’m well aware of that. You’re not slow, Mari. You’re complex—your mind, your talents, your power—all complex. Someday you will make a fine Moon Woman.” Her gray eyes were wise as Leda studied her daughter. “Unless you have no desire to be Moon Woman.”
“I don’t want to disappoint you, Mama.”
“You couldn’t disappoint me, no matter what path you choose for your life.” Leda paused, grimacing as a new tremor of pain swept through her body, and the silver tinge that had begun to appear on her mother’s delicate hands spread up her arms.
“Okay, Mama! I’ll come with you,” Mari said quickly, and was rewarded by her mother’s brilliant smile.
“Oh, Mari! I’m so glad.” Pain temporarily forgotten, Leda rushed into her room and Mari could hear her clattering through the pots and baskets and precious glass jars that held her vast collection of herbs, tinctures, and poultices. “Here it is!” she called, and then reappeared with a familiar wooden bowl. “Let me touch up your face. We’ll need to dye your hair again soon, but not tonight.”
Mari stifled a sigh and tilted her face up so that her mother could reapply the muddy mixture that kept their secret.
Leda worked in silence, thickening her daughter’s brow, flattening her high cheekbones, and then, lastly, smearing the dirty, sticky claylike substance down her neck and arms. When she was finished she studied Mari carefully, and touched her cheek gently. “Test it at the window.”
Mari nodded somberly. Followed by Leda, she went to the far side of the cave’s main room and climbed the rock steps up to a niche carved meticulously through layers of rock and dirt. She slid aside a long rectangular-shaped stone. Warm air swirled from the opening, caressing Mari’s cheek like a second mother. Mari stared into the hole to the upper world and the eastern sky, which was already reflecting the pale, washed-out colors that night painted over brilliant day. She lifted her arm so that the wan light from above touched her. Then she met her mother’s gaze.
Leda’s eyes, just like Mari’s, were so gray they were almost silver. Mari focused on the beauty of their shared trait.
Under the full moon, like her mother, Mari’s eyes would glow silver.
Like her mother, Mari’s skin would glisten as she basked in the full moon night and let its cool, silver light fill her and calm her.
Thinking longingly of the moon and the power it held, Mari’s hand stretched farther up into the hole, as if reaching for moonlight. But instead of finding the delicate silvery beams, her fingertips caught the yellow light of the fading sun. Her hand trembled at the inrush of heat and Mari pulled it quickly back to her, spreading her fingers and staring at the delicate filigree pattern that even such a small amount of sunlight had the ability to call to the surface of her skin. Mari hugged her hand to her chest while the sunlight-colored pattern faded like a lost dream upon waking.
Unlike her mother. She was so unlike her mother.
“That’s okay, sweet girl. Let’s take your summer cloak. It’s light enough that you won’t be too hot, but—”
“But the sleeves will cover my arms and hands until the sun has fully set,” Mari finished for her. With slow steps, she climbed down from the window and went to the basket that held her cloaks.
“I wish you didn’t have to hide. I wish it could be different.” Her mother’s voice was soft and sad.
“I do, too, Mama,” Mari said.
“I’m so sorry, Mari. You know I—”
“It’s okay, Mama. Really. I’m used to it.” Mari schooled her expression into nonchalance as she turned to face her mother. “And I may grow out of it.”
“No, my sweet girl, you won’t. Your father’s blood runs as truly in your veins as does mine and I wouldn’t change that. No matter the cost, I wouldn’t ever change that.”
I would Mama. I would. But Mari only thought the words as she wrapped her cloak tightly around her and followed Leda from the safety of their burrow.
Copyright © 2016 by P. C. Cast