The coldest water falls from icicles. It drips down from the tail of the moon, through the wintry atmospheric haze, and dangles as a momentary crystal from the tip of my roof. I know spring is coming when the coldest water lands on my nose. The icicle could have cracked and fallen, a solid, stunning cylinder of piercing blackness, just the same. It’s grand, glistening, and ephemeral place in the world begins to dissipate when the tawdry sun stands high over our mountains, leaning in for a warm kiss to the earth. This cold water, briefly warmed, brushes my nose, and drips further into the ground, an aquifer, the moon’s womb, and finally is reborn as another icicle. Such is life here.
I live in Snowbane. It’s nestled in the mountains and sustained by the radiating, vast forests all around us. Their breath is what allows our close sisterband to live. Right now, the forests are white and still and in their limbs our women are stationed like rough-legged hawks, taking aim with keen vision, armed with bows and arrows. Their arms are the strongest I’ve ever seen. My schoolmates and I always run out to meet them after their seven day shifts in the clouds. I’ve heard that men have even bigger arms, but I can’t imagine that since I’ve never seen a man’s arm.
I try to step delicately into the previously left craters, careful not to change their shape, and manage to fit my feet completely within the footprints before me. The squishing sound of snow underfoot comforts and trains my mind into focus as I press on towards school. The school in the town is nameless and eternal. Its three buildings remain as stagnant foundations, sinking further into the earth and entombing the memories of those who have lived on this earth since the emergence of voice.
There aren’t any men or boys in Snowbane. They exist, but there aren’t many left and certainly there are none here. No one really knows what happened, but boys just stopped being born all that often. One immaculate birth happens every now and again, but we won’t hear about any new births until all the icicles fall and the riders return with news. Right now, there are three boys around my age and about six hundred girls, so I’m told. We don’t hear much about what goes on beyond our forest. I’m not sure where they live though, I suppose only the riders can be certain. The riders take women, not girls, out of the forest and they only return after they have their own daughters to bring home and raise. My secondmother, Pilikoa, she being my firstmother’s sister, left with a rider eight years ago and we don’t know anything about what’s happened to her since, but I suspect she was special.
When a rider returns, she’ll often bring new fabrics and tools and everyone will sit around at night for stories and news. When the women that went with them come back, they are always different. Either they are more happy, very weepy, or they just don’t come back. They aren’t supposed to tell anyone what happens, but the happy ones always tell little secrets about the warmth of big strong arms. I’ll be seventeen in a few days, the year of our six and third pristine crucible. I will be eligible to ride then, but there is a chance I won’t be selected. Everyone comes together to put in their names in a cauldron, if they want a chance to go. Only a few are chosen by the aged.
“Coral, come in now. Recess is over.”
“Coming Calymm!” I should put my thoughts away, it’s love day!
Our teacher, Calymm, asked that we write a tender message to our favorite place in the school buildings and to put it into a box at the front of class. It was hard to do for some girls. My classmates don’t like how old the school is. They think it’s grimy and that someone was probably murdered in the basement. Yunna even made a funny poem about it:
Murky, damp, and cold
Our stone bricks are covered in hanging moss,
to tell our noses the story of our parents, parents, parents,
lives. But, in image, remain untold.
From the gum they chewed,
to the boys they kissed,
their stains remain
in a classroom,
That was Yunna’s rhyme. I know that even though we aren’t supposed to know who writes things. I can tell because she’s the only one brave enough to make jokes like that. I’m a rule follower and people would never expect something like that from me. So, my piece was about the recorder’s room and how it’s important to remember the other’s because that’s how they live on. Built into our institution is their memorial, their tomb and shrine. It’s where they keep the stories of all the children who have ever gone to this school. Well, at least since they started writing things again. There’s one story about a time when nothing was written and all our ancestor’s lives from that time were lost because people forgot how to tell them. I think that’s sad, but at least those unknown memories do exist, unchanged. They stay mysterious and sought after, in a hard and silent past, never corroded by collective time and perspective. It’s like they’ve decided to hide themselves and, in that way, they are preserved. No rules can come from that time, no opinions, no progress from it. It’s just an empty space where our imaginations run free and their unmemories remain uncategorized and perfectly contained in their proper context. Some people are scared of that time, but not me. I search for clues in the earliest stories of what their lives must have been like, but I’m careful not to become too determined in my thoughts and opinions, I would hate to tarnish their spirit with my crude imagination. Calymm reads my statement out loud:
When doubt is no longer casting stones on your memory, you are free. When honesty and truth no longer contain what can be, you are free. When love and feeling surpass knowledge, you are free. The memory of our lives lived before impact us in ways we cannot know and in ways perhaps it is better to forget. Those that do remain set the foundation for an experience of what is forgotten. So, the recorder’s room is my most loved space because it’s where I can spend time with our entire family, not just those living today.
I know Calymm can tell which is mine too, but I guess it’s only the message that’s important, not who delivers it. I can see some of the girls holding back their laughs while she reads it. I’m not very popular and most people think it’s weird how much time I spend in the recorder’s room. Ever since I told Calymm where Yunna and her friends went on the day they missed school, my feelings have mattered little to them. That was the day that they had decided to go to Velvet Falls, the last day of spring, but I decided I wouldn’t go with and when Calymm asked where everyone was, on the threat of not being able to read the records for the entire winter season, I told her. A tear runs along my nose, another lost to the aquifer.
“Dad, I know!”
“Well then don’t forget to grab your dried venison and take extra water with you. You have a lot of work to do today son, lest we forget the cost of unmemory.”
“I know, it’s important to curate the records, lest we blah blah blah.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing, I’m heading to the recorder’s office for the night. I’ll probably just sleep there so I can get to work right away.”
“Ok, don’t forget to give your mother a hug before you go for the weekend.”
This building is older than recorded history. No one actually knows when it was built, there’s always been something here is all we know. The recorder’s room has everything on everyone who lived that is remembered and it needs to be curated and rewritten, constantly. That’s my apprenticeship and it’s going to be my life. It’s not the worst job one could have, but it is probably the loneliest. No one even knows how much work I put into these manuscripts because we aren’t allowed to alter them or leave any trace of ourselves in them. Which I think is totally unfair. Those who lived these lives should want to tell people that Sten helped them be remembered. I mean, honestly, people might not realize the context I’m rewriting them in. Oh man, not again, there’s that strange sound.
“Hello?” There’s no answer. There’s a small window in the back of the room. More like a hole carved through the rock, but a window nonetheless. I can hear something back there again. A delicate scratching drawing out every few seconds and then resting. It always sounds like someone turning pages. I go and peer out the small window, but it’s stopped. Either way, this is my job, it’s lonely and while Rodin is behind this office making out with a new girl every day, I’m trapped inside, wasting away for the future’s memory.
Every year, the students of the graduating class have a solemn, but exciting voyage into adulthood called the meeting. Mine is coming up. It’s where we all get to first meet our chosen and decided future and eternal loves. All the boys and girls get to vote on their top five choices for a partner. Ultimately, the reader’s choose who gets paired with who, but I know Rodin is going to top every girl’s list. He’s much taller than everyone else and his arms are like a tree. I think he’s kind of a bully and not very smart, but I try to be his friend so I can look popular.
I do have a strategy for the meeting. I am only going to choose everyone’s third or lower choice and put them at the top of my list. Then, at least I’ll have a higher shot at a few of the good runners-up. The only problem is that my dad makes me work in here so much I can’t guarantee that any girls will choose me. The recorder’s job is not considered to be very good since everyone much prefers creating their history as opposed to rewriting those of others.
I used to think it was really boring, just seeing how everyone is pretty much the same no matter what time, but some of the stories are remarkable though. There’s this one boy, Silurian Abashdana of Burnt Mountain, who really boiled through the stillness of winter and covered himself in the silt of summer pyres. He always refused what anyone told him to do and he took all the time he wanted to consider their opinions. He’s the one who actually made this window here. He was very strong and punched through the solid rock to create it. This used to be a room for napping or something, but he could never sleep without the sound of his world. Maybe he heard the pages turn, too. His Burnt Mountain was torrid, and bleak with drought, but he did live, and he did build windows.
No one really cares what we do with our free time after school. Most of our housework and livelihood chores are done by the aged. This gives me time to read my favorite stories about a boy named Silurian. He grew up here, but I don’t know how long ago. He was from a long time ago when there were different descriptions of this place, almost the opposite of what it is now. It’s funny that he still mentions the recorder’s office, only I think it was a bedroom. I like feeling connected to him in that way, to everyone whose memory lives here. I wish I lived during his time, he seemed to be the smartest and most kind person. I wish I could have known him. He never thought of only himself.
One time, the town forced him to choose a girl who he did not love and, instead of marrying her, but not wanting to hurt her feelings, he pretended to be another boy. For the two months before their planned ceremony, he was leaving messages and wild flowers all around the girls home, signing the other boy’s name. That girl fell in love with this other boy, who had secretly loved her all along too, and with the blessing of the town, they were allowed to marry. Silurian was then free to be with his own chosen beloved.
I do have one secret piece of knowledge that I haven’t shared. I found a picture of a face in one of his stories and I’m pretty sure it’s not a girl’s face because the nose and chin are different, bigger I guess, and the hair is really weird and short, like it froze on a wintry night and every strand that was below the head broke off. I dare not take it out of this storybook, but I can’t just leave it either. I have to visit it every day. It’s like I can see through his eyes by looking into them and by reading his stories.
Oh no, it’s Yunna. I have to put this away, I would hate for anyone to take it from me! I stash it under the cabinet and try to act like I was reading about Mariss – the woman who only came out at night.
“Coral, what are you doing in here again! Don’t you ever want to come to the hall with us and dance to the mimics song? What is it that you find so fascinating in here?” She opens the door, which is smaller in this particular room and building, the people who built it were definitely shorter than we are now, I imagine, or maybe they just thought bowing as you walked into a place was a form of respect.
“Hi Yunna, I don’t know, I just like the stories.” She grabs the storybook from my hand.
“Mariss? The woman of the night, how torrid. This is very unlike you, Coral! You know Mariss had many lovers, right? That’s why her story had to be simplified. She was never in her own bed at night!”
I watch the book as she flings it down. Dust crops up around it, landing gently on the cover. I can see one of the pages bent back in the fall. One of her memories that she can never have recalled, now tainted by Yunna’s violence. “No, she was an enchanted, Yunna. She preferred the night because she could be away from men, and women, and revel in the space of moon rays with the privacy of shadows. If you read…”
“Rider’s birth, Coral! Spare me the lessons in memory. I know it was you who told on us.” Yunna leans back on her heels, crosses her arms, and points her chin down, hiding her neck. I’m surprised by her sudden accusation, but resign to being honest.
“I’m sorry, Yunna. I had to, Calymm swore I couldn’t come in here all winter if I didn’t tell.” I look down, I’ve read in one of Mariss’s stories that her enemies got more aggressive when they made eye contact.
“I knew it. You’re such a singing canary, Coral. Don’t ask me to help you again.” With that, she hastily and unceremoniously bowed out of the room.
She did help me once. None of the other girls really cared for me much, I was always too quiet, but Yunna came up to me after school when I was about to head to the recorder’s room and she practically dragged me out to the lake. She even let me borrow her wolfsbane shawl so I would look cooler. It was passed down through her family for generations, from when there were men I heard. It was a gift of a great firstfather given to his bride’s firstmother. Now that I think of it, she probably just made that story up, too. Her mom would never let that out of her sight. Yunna doesn’t ever tell you the whole story.
The walk home is pretty long and I’ve decided to bring the picture with me, I can’t help it. It’s so beautiful. I want to look at it and think of what this person was like. It must be Silurian’s image. We are never allowed to draw, only write, and we can’t sign our signature to any work. “Story is to exist for the collective, never for our vanities.” That’s chiseled in the school’s stone entryway.
“Hi mom!” I walk in the door without a look and head to my room.
“Welcome home, Coral. Coral, wait, come in here please.” Oh man, I really wanted to put this picture away before going to eat.
“Hi, what is it? I really want to lie down for a few moments before dinner.” That’s when I noticed her. My secondmother, Pilikoa, sitting next to my firstmother. Her hair is so long and full, she’s wearing the darkest purple I’ve ever seen, darker than the summer’s Morning Glories. The shining jewels around her neck catch that glowing tone of stark respect in every glimmer. She looks different than I remember, older, harder.
“Yes my dear, Coral, come here!” I rush into her arms my mind whirling with questions, but no courage in my heart to ask them. We were so close when I was little, she was always taking me to the river to fish and the edge of the forest to hunt for flowers, but that was a long time ago. Firstmother and I have often wondered and talked about where she may be, if she were alive, and secretly why she had never come back. The rider’s and other women never told a thing.
“Secondmother! Why, where have you been?”
“Shh, shh, now dear. There is no time for stories of what cannot be hoped for.”
“I just, where did these clothes come from, where have you been, all this time we’ve missed you, I love you.” I hold her and can feel the tears running alongside my nose again. Wasted water, wicking into the lashing hairs of her fur, gone from the moon’s womb.
“Hello? Hello!?” I’m pushing and kicking the door with all the mustering strength that any fourteen year old boy who is afraid for his social future can manage. I can’t believe the door is locked shut and on the night of the meeting! I don’t know what to do, I tried yelling through the small window, but no one is around to hear, they’ve all gathered in the town center by now, I know it’s too late. This is it, this is all I can do! A book flies across the room, forcefully and without grace, as a bird urged from the nest and by its mother’s push. The strong and swift kick of my foot marks the binder. The tears begin to fall onto my hands, legs, and finally the floor where they settle in dust and stand as droplets, remote domes, tenderly wobbling on the cold stone.
I sink to the floor, weeping for what I cannot change. I’ll have to wait until someone realizes I am missing, which may not happen for the rest of the evening given the commotion. I run my hands along the crooks and crannies of the stone, they are softened from millennia of existence. My lead stylus that landed on the floor when I kicked the book and is gently pushed by the smallest breeze coming in beneath the crack of the door. I pick it up and wipe my tears with the back of my hand.
Scuttling across the floor, I reach down for one of the blank pages that rained down from my rage. I know I shouldn’t record an image, but I feels compelled that my visage must remain as a beacon to his tragic loss, now that there is so little hope that I will have any children to carry my lineage on. Pairings are only made between children who grow up together in the same class.
I start with a light sketch, one soft line that curves on one end and come around with what will become a chin, up to the top of a head. Uncertain of what I’m doing, I put the pencil down and hide the paper under the cot, fearful that someone will burst in and save me any moment. I hear a page turn again and walk over to the window, peering out, but there is nothing but snow and a slight reflection of my own face in the glass.
I walk up to my room and tuck myself away under the fur blankets, allowing just enough candlelight to revel at the prize in my hands. I turn the paper all around, upside down, rightside up, taking in every angle, every dimension of this boy’s face. I question what happened to my secondmother and gaze at the picture, wondering whether this is what Silurian looked like or if he can see me now, peering through the ages at me with his gentle eyes. He doesn’t look as I imagined, but this only reassures me of the caution I must take with my own imagination. If you believe too much about something you know little about, the expectations will always let you down. Like with Pilikoa, she’s so different now. I carefully place the picture between two flat stones and put it under the bed.
I think she must have had an immaculate birth, why else would she be gone so long and return with so many treasures? I guess I’ll never be able to really know, but assumptions and rumors will spread through the village. I wonder if I’ll have an immaculate birth some day. I think having a girl would be just as nice. Someone knocks at the door.
“Coral? May I come in?” A soft voice echos like a howling wind through the nearly empty room.
“Yes, please do.” It’s my secondmother. Pages rustle and the candle flickers as she pushes the door softly behind her. Her shoes make a light swishing sound, brushing across the stone as she comes towards the bed and sits beside my outstretched legs. She places one hand in her pocket and the other on my foot.
“Hi dear, I’ve brought you something and I didn’t want your firstmother to worry when she saw it, since your ride may be coming up soon. Have you given any thought as to whether you’ll go?”
“Yes, I want to ride. Firstmother and I haven’t talked about it much since the prospect of not returning still burns the heart a little.” I notice that Pilikoa drops her eyes for an instant before returning to my gaze. The item in her hand looks like a small, circular stone, but it shimmers, unlike the slate we have all around us.
“I wanted to show you something special, Coral, but you can’t mention it to anyone otherwise I may be punished.”
My mind whirls at this secret pact we are entering. “I understand, I can keep a quiet voice.” She moves up closer next to me, the two of us are now sitting side by side, feet on the cold floor. She pulls the small item up closer to our faces and breaks it in half. No, not breaks, but opens rather. Inside is a small image, like the secret I have hiding beneath my bed now. It’s a small child.
“Coral, this is ManPilikoa. He is the secret and this is the only thing I have to remember him by. I couldn’t bare to lose every trace of him as he needed me less and became the city’s son, so I stole this likeness.”
“What do you mean, stole? Did someone else create that, are their image makers where you come from?”
“Yes, but there are very few likenesses made and only of the boys. I asked the woman who creates these to make a tiny portrait for me to take. I am not allowed to remain after I stop bearing sons and ManPilikoa was my only birth in the entire time I was away. Therefore, they have allowed me to return but I am not supposed to reveal any of this so as to not scare the upcoming riders, do you understand?”
“Yes, what was it like out there?”
“I don’t want you to get into trouble, if you have too many details crowding in your mind, one my slip out and let itself be known. I can say that it is both a happy and sad place.”
“I understand, but it’s so difficult to know I’m going out into a world I know nothing about, when I know so much about the people who have lived in eternity, here. I have something I want to share with you too. Would you mind standing up for a moment?” With that, I reach under the mattress to reveal my own secret image. I tell her about the recorder’s room and how this must be a preserved image of Silurian.
“Oh, yes. I see. That actually is not who you think this Silurian may be, dear. It is very well-known in the city that a boy who once worked in the recorder’s room created many images of his own likeness. They thought they found them all and, they are preserved, but used as a way to shame his vanity and deter others from doing so. He created so many of these little images, that it seems as though he were obsessed with his own likeness. This is most certainly him.”
I’ve been drawing my reflection through the entirety of my confinement. I am careful to not let anyone know what I’ve done and I’ve hidden my faces through the stories I’ve been tasked with preserving. I feel excitement in who will see me, generations from now, despite my loss. My memory will be more whole, in blatant truth, unlike generations who don’t know what they’re fathers look like, and I’ll live on longer than anyone. I hear someone speaking outside and rush to hide the last image in Silurian’s memory tome. I slide the tome carefully under a loose stone so even if all the others are found, his story and my image will remain for some future thought to ponder.
“Hello! Please, someone help!” I realize the embarrassing stench of urine in this room now, I’ve not only lost the meeting, but now I’ll be humiliated. I’m so hungry I don’t even want to bathe first, but I have to. I’m beginning to feel the fear of being found out. My palms are sweating, ears ringing, and I can feel the tears welling, I hope it’s not a classmate.
It wasn’t until the second school day that I was found. My elder’s thought I had gone out with friends after the meeting and didn’t realize I was missing until late the next day. It’s common for the children of the new generation to declare their independence and take off to the river, spending the night outdoors and creating their own bonds in the sacred realm of forests.
“Who did this to you, Sten.”
“I don’t know.” I think I do know, but I can’t tell because I’ll be further outcast.
“I am so horribly sorry. Let’s go get you some clothes, I’ll send someone to clean up in here and try to be as discreet as possible, but you’re going to have to tell me who did this to you.”
I cringe at the idea of someone going in to clean up after my mess and at the possibility of being found out so quickly, before any time changed the reflection of my face, before any person can happen upon an image and wonder what handsome person this must have been and how daring they were, but I’m humiliated and so I go.
The realization came over me pretty quickly. My chances of being an immaculate must be higher if my own secondmother conceived. I also blush at my own imagination, given that the image was not Silurian, but some whimsical boy obsessed with his own beauty. Though, I can say that boy must have been brave if he drew the image despite our rules and tucked it away for me to find. I wonder if all the boys were overtly or secretly brave, just as we are now. I wonder what ManPilikoa must be like, what he must think. I wonder what happened to all the boys and men and how this secret remained hidden through all these years. I wonder if someone else maybe saw it before I did and nestled it safely between the pages of when Silurian hunted the reptile-bear and managed to bring it all the way home. Maybe its preservation was maintained as a precarious shrine by a careful thinker who knew our future. Their shared and timeless bravery taking on different forms and hidden away for the next reader of memory. I think I’d like to go read more in the recorder’s room tomorrow. I place the image back in the safe spot and walk over to my window, touching the cold glass with my fingertip and outlining the curve of my reflection’s face. I walk over to the bed and lie down imagining my own image and how I must look to the world and whether someone will see through time, all of me, not just my story.
I wake up early and walk briskly to the recorder’s room, it’s the day of the rider’s ceremony and I want to return the picture to it’s owner before I leave. I know with my ears that spring is harking her newest song, water is in motion all around me. I’m excited to tuck the image back into a spot of my choosing. Maybe in the story of the Mistress. How placement and timing can add to what we envision as true of the past is so alluring, transitory, and elusive. I have to hurry and run towards the room. As I approach, I notice the door is open, someone must be in here already. Oh no, how am I going to hide the image if someone’s here?
“Knock, knock.” I breathe the words quietly so as not to disturb a reader, but no one answers. Only as I step in all the way do I see Yunna out of the corner of my eye, standing behind the door. She closes it shut on both of us. I crane my neck to see her, thankful she didn’t come after I had arrived and while I had the image out.
“I knew you would come here, even on the most important day of your life.” She doesn’t look like she’s been reading, there are no books out, but that’s not surprising. She’s more like Silurian in her bravery, external and active.
“Hi Yunna, I know, I can’t help myself. I thought I would just get a few stories in before the long journey, if I’m chosen, of course.” I secretly know that the rider’s will take no chances. I will be leaving Yunna behind, since immaculate conception is in my blood and she’s only sixteen, she’s not the proper age.
“Of course and given how important the recorder’s room is to you, I thought it would be a nice gesture to find out what your favorite story is so I might gain more of an interest in the memories and share them with everyone while you’re gone. Which is your favorite, will you read one to me?”
“I would love to Yunna, that’s really kind, one second, I’ll look for a quick one so we can both get along.” I choose the story of Silurian and, while my back is turned, quietly slip the image into the middle of the book. Even if I can’t choose exactly where the picture goes and in what context the image is perceived, it must remain in here for those secret brave people. That’s when I hear the echoing slam of the small, wooden door. I drop the book and run over to it, but it’s too late. The door is shut and Yunna has somehow managed to lock it on me. This can’t be happening.
Everyone who wanted someone was paired that day. I am left alone. Like an outcast, I didn’t spend the forest night with everyone and can’t know what brave and secret rituals were carried out. My teacher found me by chance when she walked past and saw that the door was wedged shut with a chair, everyone had already returned, crawling from the earth’s muddy waters and reborn in the moon’s secret light.
I have accepted my place in the recorder’s room and I hope that some illness will befall one of the paired men so that I might have a chance at his place. Until then, I continue to copy our memories in immaculate legibility. This is the only way I can ensure my survival. I want the world to know who I am. I hide my visage throughout the town, quietly giggling each time I think I’m found out, but not a great number of people read in the recorder’s room and that’s where most of them are tucked away. I’ve kept the first reflection in Silurian’s tome under the stone. No one will realize his story is missing until long after I return to the fine, silted paths beneath our feet. In this, I find purpose and solace.
The time I spent trapped in the recorder’s room was the saddest of my life. I kept imagining ManPilikoa and how I would have maybe met him and told him stories of how much we loved his mother and how I might bring him a male cousin. I started to sketch his image from the memory of secondmother’s picture, but the first one I made was ruined in tears.
I didn’t want to believe what happened to me and I only found out the day after the rider’s left of the extent to which Yunna had lied. She first went to the rider’s and told them that I did not wish to come. When my first and secondmother came over to ask where I was, she told them that I took off towards Velvet Falls and seemed very scared to travel, relaying that I was “seeking the solace of silence” as I left. She cleverly mimicked something I have said in the past.
The most shocking realization was that she was taken with the riders. In my stead, there were too few women of age and therefore they made an exception upon her offering. She stated that she would turn seventeen during the journey and with that she was whisked away to live my future. It will be at least another season until the rider’s return that I can hold Yunna accountable, if she returns at all. I secretly hope that she returns with a girl child and is forced to make amends. I am the one in control of her story now, but I’m not vindictive. I want to tell the future generations of her cunning and bravery, despite my feelings, we are a sisterband and new growth requires a loving space.
My secondmother finally told her stories after the rider’s left and now we all have a better understanding what may happen in our own lives. She may have lost ManPilikoa, but she brought us the power to better choose what our stories will be. She has earned a revered place in our small village and decided to join me in the recorder’s room. Together we recreate images of her son and tuck them away into the stories. Who knows if our kind will live on or change in some way, yet unseen, but the memory will remain.