FICTION: Moss Pavements by Rhiannon D’Averc

Stepping outside of her front door, Ally set her foot down onto the moss, feeling the spongy ground flex under her. It had been a long time since it surprised her, though every so often she still found the time to marvel at it.

Ben was out somewhere, probably gathering dry wood for the fire. It had gone out inside the hut, and the rolling of grey clouds above had plunged their small living area into gloom, near darkness.

Soon the rain would come, but there might still be time. She just wanted to feel the wind in her hair, that blowing energy that always signalled something strong. If she could gather a few herbs, she thought, a few wildflowers, there might be time before the storm.

Ben didn’t approve, but that was his business. Ally knew what had to be done.

She’d known it for a long time, back before all of this started, when they still lived in a two-bedroom apartment on a paved city street. Along the way was a supermarket, and once after they fought she’d been mad enough to walk there alone and start looking for sage, thyme, marjoram, feathers. The first three had been easy. The feathers turned out to be harder than she had imagined.

Back then Ben had argued with her a lot. Now they existed quietly. Up ahead she saw him, a stooped figure with a bundle of thick, dry branches. The winter was just starting to drift away, and the trees had left them a good bounty of firewood now that the winds were falling silent.

“Need a hand?” she asked, and he almost jumped right out of his skin.

He turned to give her an accusing look, clutching the firewood tighter. “Nearly killed me,” he grunted.

“Got cold inside,” she explained. Not that it was warm out here. He eyed her threadbare shawl, scrunched tight around her shoulders, and grunted again.

They set off back towards the hut together, feet crunching softly across tiny twigs and cones. They barely got in the door before the rain started, and then they were glad. It came down like shining thread, long sheets that seemed to have no interruption. They bounced from the waving green fronds of the pine trees, unbowed yet despite the weight of the winter.

Ben worked the fire up again, blowing on a spark until it took and they could warm their hands. Ally rubbed the thin, worn fingers of her hands together. In some places, in the right light, you could still see marks from before – a purple scar, almost like a shadow, where she’d burned her wrist on an oven once. That was too long ago to count. Now, there was only the fire.

She took the kettle and boiled the water, thankful as she did so that the barrel out the back of the hut would be filling up again. When Ben wasn’t looking, she slipped a couple of new spring flowers into the pot, letting them boil along with the water. That would be a fine start.

“Anything?” he asked, nodding to a black iron cauldron hung on the wall, once he was done stacking the rest of the new wood up next to the door.

“Not much,” she said, shrugging. “Rabbit, potato.”

The rabbit was already half gone, taken from one of his snares the day before, and the potato was a small and unpleasant one. Still, it wasn’t like she could walk to that supermarket anymore.

“Ally,” he said, once the cauldron was full and sitting above the fire, and she nodded her head. She came to sit on his lap, twining her arms around his neck, feeling the sharp bone of his knees along the side of her thigh.

“I’m doing it tonight,” she said, and felt him stiffen and tense up under her. She knew he hated it when she called upon the craft of her fingers, but it had to be done. It had to be done.

The rain had stopped knocking on the roof, though with the day the way it was, it wouldn’t be long. “Might go hunting,” Ben said, somewhat reluctantly.

“If you like,” Ally offered. She knew it was pointless to insist. Ben liked to be out of the way while she did her work.

After dinner he slouched out of the door, shoulders set like a man with a weight on his back. He took a penknife and a rope, twisted up into a snare. At least they might have more rabbit for the morning.

Each day, Ally was starting to feel less and less like she wanted the rest of it back. Pavements and supermarkets and cars – she liked the feel of the moss under her feet. Still, it wasn’t about her. Not all of it.

She poured the rest of the water from the kettle – not much; she liked to make sure most of it went to her and Ben, protecting them from what might come. A few small, stringy herbs, the eye of the rabbit, and two more flowers went in the pot. Then she took a knife and cut the bottom off a lock of hair, the one that came down from her temple. It was already up by her eyes; the rest down by her ribcage, uncut all these years. Soon there was going to have to be some kind of result.

She watched the fire boil her ingredients, knowing it was all just so much hogwash. Her forerunners would never have needed any of this. But these days it was all she could do to call forth any life from her fingers, even with Ben’s strength.

She sat by the fire, closed her eyes, and plunged her fingers into the bubbling water.

#

It was her yell that made him run. He was always listening out for that yell, just in case. When she yelled like that, his heart leapt into his mouth, hammering so fast he thought he might keel over before he even got to her. The thought of her in pain sent nervous sweat down his spine. It was his worst nightmare.

He found her cradling burned fingertips, red and swelling already, where she had dipped them into the boiling water.

“I don’t understand,” she said, miserably, while he tore up an old shirt to bandage her hands. They had no cold running water out here to soothe the burns, and they would be yellow and tender before long.

“Maybe it’s not meant to be,” Ben said, as he always did.

Ally shook her head. “They work. All the spells work. Just not this one.”

Ben sighed, and held her hands carefully in his larger and more worn fingers. “I know. But maybe this one is wrong.”

Ally shook her head again, stronger, her hair dancing along her shoulders rapidly. “You believe in me, don’t you?” she asked, her voice almost begging.

Ben looked at her. He’d come out here to the woods with her, hadn’t he, when everyone else turned their backs? He’d stuck by her, even though it was hard to retreat from life like that, hadn’t he? “Yes,” he said anyway, knowing she needed to hear it from him.

#

It had not always been this way. Once, Ally’s spells had been easy: a few flowers from the meadow, a herb or two, and a little bit of the right kind of belief. She would dip her little finger into the mixture and bring out the promise of a promotion at work, an unexpected windfall, true love’s first kiss. They would visit her in her cramped second-floor flat and ask her to plunge her skin into that scalding water, astonished every time she came out without a mark.

That was then. They called her harmless, laughed at her tricks and called them false, and then called it the power of positive thinking when their wishes came true. That was fine by Ally. So long as they crossed her palm with silver and got what they wanted, everyone was happy.

The only time she ever burned herself back then was the first time she spelled something for herself. When she wished for Ben.

The herbs spoiled in the pot, and the flowers floated rotten to the bottom of the water. She ran the welt on her finger under the cold tap for twenty minutes. The next day, he asked her out anyway. She had never needed a spell for him.

Maybe that was why this spell wouldn’t work, either. Because it was against the flows of fate to ask for something that would benefit yourself.

#

The next night, Ben went out to hunt again, thinking she would be safe for a while. She didn’t like to hide things from him, not like this, but something had to be done.

Even if they’d chased her and pushed her out of town and ripped up her things, they were still people. They still deserved better than this.

Out in the forest, they were safer than most, but they still saw it all happen. They knew what it would mean, too. If they blamed Ally when the small things went wrong, she was in danger now that everything had changed. So they stayed in the trees, and waited, as moss grew along the pathway from their little hut to the outside world.

But there was an outside world. It was there, waiting, and they were all suffering. Ally couldn’t let that go on without at least trying.

Ally watched the herbs boil, and closed her eyes, and let her soul feel the way. She tore the bindings from her swollen and tender fingers, gasping with the pain, and let her tears fall into the pot along with the rest of it. Sucking down one last breath, she refused to hesitate. She plunged her arms into the water, up to her elbows, no longer afraid.

#

Ben wasn’t afraid of much, but he was afraid of this. Lights dancing along those walls, colours and hues intertwining in such a small space, and all of it crowding in front of you until you thought your eyes might die. Then the darkness, the final and complete blackness, that flowed through her and you and all of the rest of the world.

It was growing night, the wind whipping up again through the tree branches. He had no way of measuring, of course, but he felt like it must have been getting windier and windier every winter. The hope of spring was gone, too. It was only a respite now, a rest, no longer the promise of new life. Far as he knew, there’d been no new life since theirs shrivelled inside of her all those years ago. He’d put together a rock pile and carved a small stone, putting it out of the way of the hut where she didn’t have to see it.

The wind ran through his hair and beard, long and unkempt, though she did her best to keep it untangled when he let her. She’d have put some herbs together for it if he hadn’t protested. He was still afraid of the first time, the night when the lights had gone out too soon and she’d pulled her fingers from the water red and swelling. He was still afraid of the sound of her sobs. The way she’d gulped in not just pain but failure too. It had been a weight hanging over her till she could take the bandages off, and he never wanted that on her again.

He found nothing on his walk, then all of a sudden a rabbit, fat and wild. He’d never seen such a rabbit, not since before. It looked like it grazed in a sun-kissed meadow, not this wintered forest. Somehow he managed to catch it, and it sat docile in his hand, waiting for the snap. That was the oddest thing.

Ben took the rabbit in one hand and made for the hut. Maybe Ally was ready to cook, and he could show her their good fortune.

Something was glowing in the distance, and for a heart-stopping moment he thought of fire. Racing towards the hut he caught it again and again, flickering through the trees. Even this far out, you couldn’t tell the hut was there unless you knew.

Closer, he could see: there was no fire. This light was white, the glow of the moon.

Ally was standing outside of the hut. It was cold out; she shouldn’t have been there. There was a wind lifting up now, tearing through her hair and hanging it from the branches he had stacked up on the roof of the hut as camouflage.

The white light shone from the cauldron behind her, spilling out of the doors and windows, the same windows he knew he’d left covered over earlier. They had to hide, to be part of the forest. Standing out with the fire, or like this, was not an invitation for anything good.

He rushed forward and caught her as she fell, the light shining out of her eyes for a moment before they went dark.

#

“So?” he asked. They were sitting together on the bench, warming a mug of hot water over the fire, savouring the dry herbs and flowers he had crushed into it. His flowers, this time. No craft.

“I can feel it,” she said. She looked tired. Exhausted. “The life coming back.”

Ben nodded silently. He had felt it, too. A stirring in his bones. The promise of a new spring – a real spring this time. The rabbit lay limply across the floor by the firewood, fat and plump. Everything they had thought lost.

“Everywhere?” he asked, at length.

Ally took a sip from her mug, and nodded. “I feel it everywhere,” she replied. “Not just the woods. The towns too. The shore. Out in the fields. It’s coming back.”

Ben toyed with the handle of his mug. He didn’t want to ask, but the words needed to come. “And the cost?”

She sat quiet for a long while before answering. She took a deep breath once or twice to start an answer, then stopped. She moved her head almost like a shrug and gave up. “All,” she said.

He touched her hand and he could feel that it was cold. “All,” he muttered, feeling the word out on his tongue.

“Not you,” she said.

“No,” he replied, looking up and catching her earnest eyes. “Me, too.”

She laid an arm like ice around the back of his neck, and they sat there together, until the fire burned down to embers. Ben thought of the pile of stones behind the hut, hidden just out of her sight. All, he thought. A fair price to pay.

Rhiannon D’Averc

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Rhiannon D’Averc is a freelance writer and photographer living in the UK, currently working on bringing her first novel to publication. Her publication history for short stories includes Write Out Publishing, Litro Magazine and Devolution-Z Magazine.

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