New year means realizing that it’s been most of a month since I posted a Free Fiction Friday–sorry guys! December was crazy-busy. Here, have my favorite story that ever made me cry like a baby as I wrote it. I’ll do better this year on getting Free Fiction Friday stories up.
Meyari McFarland returns to the world of Mouse and Snake in a story of a found family and the cycles of life.
Ben’s terraced garden, cut high into the mountainside where few dared to work, was his pride and joy, source of his family’s food. Twenty years of working it had taught him every nook and cranny, leaving few surprises until the cool spring day he found a beaten and abandoned toddler by the blackberry bushes.
Child of Spring is a tender cyberpunk story of family, the bonds forged by working the earth together and the inevitability of death even in the far future.
Child of Spring
By Meyari McFarland
Ben slowly climbed the ladder-like stairs up to his precious garden. He’d cut the winding beds out of the steep rocky hillside twenty years ago with an old pickaxe and shovel, painstakingly reinforcing them with bamboo and lathe that he replaced as needed to make sure they didn’t collapse.
South exposure, sheltered by a mass of overgrown grapevine on the west and exuberant blackberry brambles to the east, his vegetables grew well. The rock wall behind each bed reflected the sun’s warmth, granting him extra growing time. Not many could say that. It’d fed his family well since that first year.
‘Course he had to haul the dirt up every single spring to replace what had washed away. Wasn’t any good dirt this high up in the mountains, just sand and gravel and shale that wasn’t good for much besides building walls. He hitched his backpack full of still-damp river silt higher on his back, groaning as his back protested.
The work was worth it for the food he grew. Taters grew well in cast-off pine needles but his precious tomatoes, carrots and corn wanted dirt. Anything that’d feed his family was worth the effort, no matter what his fool son-in-law said. That boy wasn’t going to last much longer. His daughter was too practical for that lazy bum.
Ben wheezed as he counted thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two. Thirty-three steps. He stood for a long while, waiting for his old heart to stop pounding and the chilly morning air to fill his lungs right. His eyes traced the tiny shoots coming from his onions and garlic beds, the mound of pine needles over the growing potatoes.
A tiny footprint stood in the middle of his asparagus bed.
He froze, blinking at that footprint for the longest time before he realized that it was real. Ben eased the backpack off, careful not to make the plastic lining rustle. Other tiny footprints led towards the blackberry bramble. Not one sat on top of a sprouting plant. He followed their trail, walking along the edge of the retaining wall, only to freeze as he saw a toddler curled up in the warmest spot in his garden, her fluff of kinky black hair matted with blood.
The girl’s skin was darker than the earth she’d curled up on, black like the night sky. As he eased closer he saw that her skin was speckled with lights like stars, too. She looked like someone had wrapped the night sky over her body before deciding that pulling the stars down was an abomination.
Bruises marked her little arms and legs, muddying the stars of her skin like clouds across the sky. Her dress, made of an old piece of tarp roughly tied into shape, was torn, ragged on the edges. Ben frowned. Altered or not, the child didn’t deserve to be beaten until she ran away to the mountains.
“Hey there,” Ben said low and gentle, same as he crooned to the chickens and geese his daughter raised. “Hey there, baby.”
The girl started and gasped, head coming up as the darkness fled from her skin as if it was spilled ink draining off the side of the table. Her stars remained, more subdued against her mahogany, oak, ash, pale skin as white as the snow that had covered his garden not too long ago. At the same time her eyes went from black to brown, hazel, green into the palest of pale blues, like the faint color of the water burbling down the waterfall on the other side of the blackberry bramble.
“Well, then,” Ben said, crouching down so he wouldn’t loom over the girl. “Hello. I’m Ben.”
She shook her head ‘no’ only to gasp quietly and clutch her head. Tears trembled at the corners of her eyes. He could just barely hear her breathy whimpers. As pale as she was now the blood on her matted hair showed clearly. So did the bruises, stark lavender against her pale, sparkly skin.
“Ah, baby,” Ben sighed. “I’m an old man. Not gonna hurt you. Just worried about you.”
His gentle tone prompted a sniffle and a much more cautious headshake ‘no’. Ben chuckled. He stood up, knees and back creaking and popping so loud that the little girl stared at him with her mouth pursed in a little ‘o’. When he stretched, rocking side to side, and set off another wave of pops that echoed in this little corner of the garden, she giggled near silently.
“Am too worried,” Ben told her. “Gonna sit on the stairs for a bit, baby. Thanks for not walking on the shoots. They’re food for my family, come fall.”
Ben made his way back to the steep stairs, sitting on the top step with a cautious sigh. It was a bit loose this year. The wide shale slab had flaked away long the edges over the years since he’d placed it, rounding until it didn’t wedge securely into place. Probably would be a good idea to go find a new one, haul it back and chip the edges away until it fit perfectly. He ran his fingers along the crumbly edge of the stone. Maybe later, during the summer heat. Too much to do right now.
The valley below hid behind low clouds, tops of the trees poking out in places. The other mountain peaks loomed like islands in a pale ocean that stretched to infinity. This high up the smell of pine mixed with rain not quite falling was gone, replaced by wind and earth and after a few moments the faint smell of the blood marking the girl’s head.
She crept over to crouch just outside of arm’s reach, skin how tanned as his, the sparkling stars dimmed to something that could almost be mistaken for droplets of water on her arms. He frowned at the way she rubbed at her hands, silently scrubbing as if to make the stars go away.
“Got an apple,” Ben said as he pulled it from his pocket. “Not fresh but it’s food. Want some?”
Her eyes went wide, hands stilling for a moment. She shook her head ‘no’, then nodded ever so slightly, then shook ‘no’ again while sucking on her bottom lip. Ben chuckled and carved a slice off the apple, slowly munching on the grainy sweetness. His bit had a little bruise but it was still good, not rotten. He cut a second one, set it down on the step as far as he could reach without leaning closer to her. It was close enough to her that she could grab it without getting in touching range.
Took Ben slowly eating another slice for the little girl to snatch up the apple slice. She ate it quick and messy, shoving it in her mouth and chewing loudly. Every bite made her wince a little as if her teeth hurt. As bruised as her head looked Ben could easily believe that she had loose teeth. He cut more slices, feeding her three quarters of the apple. She gnawed on the core, too, reducing it to little more than a scrap of white wrapped around the seeds with the stem bit dangling from it.
“Toss it in the heap,” Ben said when she paused. “It’ll make for nice healthy plants next year.”
She blinked and then carefully tucked the apple core into the compost heap, patting it into place with a firm little nod that made her sway and moan. Her skin shifted from brown like Ben’s to black as night and then back to a dusky olive that nearly matched the color of the compost, thick with new weeds and pine needles Ben had gathered a week ago.
“Good girl,” Ben said. “Got some work to do. You can stay and watch if you like.”
That earned him several rapid blinks and the pursed lips again, as if he’d said something completely incomprehensible. Ben groaned as he lifted the backpack full of silt, his knees popping like gunshots as he straightened up. The girl giggled and watched him, quiet and still, as he carefully transferred the precious silt into its new home in the bed where he’d plant squash, beans and corn later in the season.
Good rich soil should help the plants grow. He always had trouble with the corn, never got more than a handful of ears. The terraced beds weren’t wide enough for the corn to pollinate properly. Even with Ben carefully transferring pollen from stem to stem corn just didn’t thrive the way it should here. But he got enough and it served as living poles for the beans while the squash grew fast and fruitful underneath them. It worked well enough.
“That’s that,” Ben sighed once the last of the soil had been transferred and dug in. “Give it a couple of weeks and I’ll bring my starts up, plant ’em and see what I get this year.”
The little girl had curled up close to the compost heat, leaning into the heat it threw off. Her skin was almost normal colored now, plain old brown with those tiny not-droplets dappling her bruised arms. Ben nodded to her as he closed up the backpack, carefully settling it on his back.
“Gonna go home now,” Ben said. “Welcome to follow along. My daughter’s not a bad cook. That husband of hers isn’t the best, lazy bum that he is, but you’re welcome. It’s my house, not his. Haven’t had any kids around since my daughter grew up. It’s kind of lonely.”
She shivered, sucking on her bottom lip while scrubbing at her arms again. Ben nodded. No surprise the poor thing was worried about her alterations bringing trouble. People could be stupid. Not like the child had chosen it, not at her age.
“My daughter has gills,” Ben said. He chuckled at her wide eyes going white-blue again. “Wife had webbing between her fingers. She was a diver, used to swim right down under the ocean to catch us fish. Shark caught her about eight years ago. That’s life. Even the boy’s modded, jacked into the electronics the rich folk use.”
The girl pointed at Ben, one little finger circling as if to hesitantly, shyly, ask what Ben’s mods were.
“Don’t have any,” Ben sighed. “Never could do it. Didn’t have the money. Didn’t have the time. Too busy growing food and making things for my family. I’m just me. Old man with worn out joints and a garden to tend.”
He got a dozen rapid-fire blinks back as she sucked on her bottom lip. Ben chuckled, sighed at the long walk home and then shrugged. She stared up at him, skin sliding back to the black-night-with-stars that she’d had when he first saw her.
“Welcome to follow if you want,” Ben said. “Or not. Your choice, baby.”
Ben set off down the stairs, cautiously easing down them sideways, good left foot going first each time. He was a decade past taking them one after the other. He was on step nineteen when the little girl scrambled down the top step to follow him.
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