by Marie Croke
They named me for the ground, for the metal and glows embedded within the lower recesses of the range: Dirt of CrystalSleep. They marked my forehead, in between my air holes, with a metallic-rich mixture that bestowed the blessing of the metal weaver faction. They had intentions for me the moment I hatched, before I’d even risen off the ground, sniffed my first redwood leaf or sung my first notes. Named for the mountain, blessed with strength, my tail fastened with many-pronged picks or double-plated maces, I was destined to be a metal weaver.
And maybe that would have sufficed, had I not fallen from a woven bridge during my yearling celebration and landed two long stories down in the slow-churning water where saplings and twinelings grew on interlocking puzzle-platforms.
A nearby adult, likely drawn by my bleat of surprise, lumbered into the water, her wrinkled skin heavily shadowed by the layers above. She plucked me up with her teeth and set me on a puzzle-platform where I became dwarfed by twinelings, their leafy branches whipped and whorled and braided all about me in beautiful dappled designs.
“And who might you be?”
I stood there, wet from air holes to soles, mud on my tail and scratches along my flank, but I straightened into a proud stance. “I am Dirt of CrystalSleep, and I’m to be a metal weaver.”
“I can see that.” Her eyes twinkled and she sang her words gently as she swayed. “You fell through here like a rock. No grace at all, metal weavers.”
My whole life up to that point had been surrounded by my own faction and never had I heard one word calling us anything but strong and powerful. “Who needs grace when you have strength?”
“Who indeed. Come, let’s get you back to your pod.” And she turned to indicate the path across the puzzle-platform rocking under my pads.
Yet, as she did, her tail came into view. Or rather, her tails. They moved independently of one another, one up, the other down, touching, bending, folding branches along the twinelings in the neighboring puzzle-platform, pausing now and then to use shears or combs to detangle trailings. Her tails moved fluidly; grace, I realized. This was grace.
“What are you doing?”
She paused, then looked to where I stared. “I’m shaping the trees, little one. If no one shapes the trees, then the city would not grow along paths, not form nests, would not envelope us, protect us, feed us.”
“We don’t need trees in the river.”
“No, we don’t. But the roots enjoy the water and this way we can move them later to where they need to go.” She paused and crooked her neck as she considered me.
Me, who stared and stared, watching as her tails swayed, picking and choosing branches and vines to wrap and weave. She danced, I thought, a dance of wood and grace.
“I wish I’d been born with two tails,” I whisper-sung.
Her tails froze. “No one is born with two.” She shifted. “We make them. It’s a painful process.” Her tails drew long toward her body, but there near the base they morphed into one with a dimpling of scar tissue where the cut ended.
Her name, I found out later, was Root of WillowWhip, and she thought she’d been dissuading me from my whisper-want, but all she did in that moment was take an impossible desire and make it possible.
Possible things though, I discovered quickly, did not mean possible for you. I proudly went home after my yearling celebration and asked my pod mother when I could go to the life weavers for my tail-cut. That’s what I called it, still young enough I made up words, because I didn’t know city weavers called their forced mutation a splice.
My pod mother, Tower of HotRocks, thought I jested. “You’re a metal weaver. Born to work the dirt and stone. If you break your muscle in two, you’ll only be half as effective.”
“But I want grace. I don’t want to be strong like a rock. I want to be like the trees.”
Tower of HotRocks measured me for my first pickaxe and didn’t say another word other than, “Please cinch that with your teeth.”
And she certainly refused to take me to a life weaver for the tail-cut, her believing me caught up in something new and different, with a desire that would surely fade in time.
After a while, I stopped asking and instead would sneak away after work, my tail and backside sore from beating metal out for the skilled forgers or tapping away at the mountain gorge. The City of ManyWeaves sprawled across tributaries, stretched up the range, and reached into the sky, each bend, each braid, each tree grown thick and strong through centuries built to withstand a weight of a thousand thousand sauropod steps. Willow whips, ginkgos, crescent blossoms, redwoods, all held together by thick woven fern ropes or plaited river weeds mixed with flattened wires to aid in strength of the upper stories.
Before, I’d see the metal stumps and plates bolstering the city and gaze proudly at my ancestors’ work. Now, all I could see was the beauty in the woven tapestry, in the pronged leaves and loose vines, in the curling branches and fused trunks. And, of course, the split trunks that reminded me of Root of WillowWhip’s tails.
Down among the puzzle-platforms where metal weavers never trod unless they’re fallen yearlings, Root of WillowWhip reigned. I’d perch on an upper path, my bulk hidden by the formed understory, my neck arched down so I might peek at the busy city weavers.
They passed branches back and forth between their tails, tightened ropes against curves to keep the trunks in shape. They did not use buckles or single cinch-lines as metal weavers did, but rather tiny shears and thin rakes and intricate knots that left me in wonder, watching the way their tails flipped and curled, creating the first stages of walls and ramps.
Root of WillowWhip would catch me watching and turn so I might see her work. She’d explain to city weaver yearlings a little louder than normal how to work a certain braid or grow a certain plant. She’d slow her tails down, giving me the chance to learn the motions, even though I could not repeat them accurately.
I tried to mimic the braids, bunching my tail and attempting to hold pieces with a thicker, less agile section of muscle, but the branches did not cooperate and the fern ropes slipped free from my grip, leaving me with piles of useless knots I couldn’t unravel and the belief in my heart that I could never be anything but what I’d been marked as.
“The life weavers say we have choice,” I said to Tower of HotRocks one morning as we crossed the upper paths in the range, her steps creaking the trees, my own tiny shivers in her wake.
“Is this another question about tails?”
“I’m merely curious. I asked Root of WillowWhip when she’d had her tail spliced and she said it is done in phases, that forty suns after hatching, a city weaver gets a pin through their tail at its base, so that at the blessed two-hundredth they can undergo their full cut. If it’s done so young, how did they have a choice? And us? We didn’t get that choice whether we wanted one or two tails.”
She twisted her neck to look back at me. “Every time you cut your tail, it halves your muscle, making you weaker and weaker. A metal weaver needs strength to wield our tools. A city weaver uses small, barely there things, if they use anything at all. You are strong, Dirt of CrystalSleep, as it should be.”
“No one crosses the faction lines? Not ever?”
Tower of HotRocks stared down at me, and I knew, even without her saying, that there were those who did. And I also knew, their actions were not approved.
“If you splice your tail now, you will be a worse metal weaver or a novice city weaver who will never gain the grace of the others who’ve been practicing their whole lives.”
With that, she turned and headed down the ramp to the gorge, her tail casing flashing sharply in the sunlight as she moved beyond the city canopy.
When faced with a choice like that I understood why the factions remained separate, why the pods held tightly to their own. Yet, I couldn’t shake that whisper-want that had started the day of my yearling celebration and had risen so that it didn’t feel like a whisper anymore, but rather a river’s coursing flow beating from my head all the way to the tip of my singular, strong tail. I shoved it down, down, squished it under my pod’s pressure, under affirmations of my work and burgeoning friendships among other metal weavers. To my surprise, I found it easy to ignore wants when the path has been woven before you, no matter how many twists exist in that path.
I stopped visiting Root of WillowWhip. Stopped watching the city weavers work with their lithe braids among the twinelings. Stopped looking around me as I walked from my nest to the range. Stopped listening to the song weavers in the morning.
Then I woke up one morning and realized I’d stopped caring at all. The whisper-want dead, shriveled into wrinkles and dust.
I moved through the motions of my daily life in the metal weaver faction. Moved without seeing or feeling. I might have kept on like that forever, a shell stomping through the intricate paths of the city.
Except, while trailing the yearlings to their celebration, one fell. Down, down, to splash in the slow-moving river near the puzzle-platforms.
I rushed after, a part of me crazed with the horror that my whisper-want might transfer to another, and found Root of WillowWhip plucking the yearling from the river and setting him on the bank where he thanked her in a chirp and ran off, not once even glancing at her two tails or the beautiful braid she worked behind her.
“Dirt of CrystalSleep, how good to see you again.”
“And you,” I sang softly as I stared and stared as I’d done years ago, that whisper-want a raging crash against the shell I’d become, telling me I had never beat it, never truly removed the desire. Had merely looked away until I’d fooled myself.
“You’re missing your faction’s yearling celebration.”
She spoke with that same gentleness as she had the first time we’d met. I glanced at her, then up the ramp where the yearling who had fallen had disappeared into the upper stories, no whisper-want ensnaring him like it had me.
I made a decision then, the same kind of decision I’d attempted to make when I’d been the yearling who had fallen. “I want you to place a pin through my tail.”
I lifted my tail with its metal casing and sharp prongs meant for gouging earth. Using leverage against the base of the tree and the powerful strength I’d accumulated over the years, I broke the longest metal prong, slipped my tail free of its tool, and proffered the metal stake.
Root of WillowWhip stared at me unblinkingly. “A life weaver should do this.”
“Yet, if you do this for me, then I’ll know you’ll accept me as part of your faction, no matter how clumsy I might be at first.”
She didn’t ask if I were sure. I think she knew. I think she’d always known. “I’ll walk you to the life weaver, Dirt of CrystalSleep.” Her tails left off braiding and her song altered slightly to one I’d heard her only use among her own.
My whisper-want dampened that day–not on account of the pain, though it was tremendous since I’d waited until adulthood to begin the splice–but with satisfaction.
It’s a rough go, my tails striving to move concurrently and the muscle straining to stay together. My actions are too rough, used to bashing and heavy hefting. I have broken many sapling branches, and yet…I have braided many, many more in my own dance of wood and grace.
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About the Author
Marie Croke is a fantasy and science-fiction writer living in Maryland with her family, all of whom like to scribble messages in her notebooks when she’s not looking. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and her stories can be found in over a dozen magazines, including Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Zooscape, Flash Fiction Online, Cast of Wonders, Diabolical Plots, and Fireside. She is an Acquisitions Editor for Dark Matter INK and her reviews can be found in Apex Magazine. You can find her online at mariecroke.com or chat with her @marie_croke on Twitter.