THE BITTER TASTE OF CAULBERRIES by Joshua Ian


When Chilali, the songbird, first saw the man from the valley, she thought he was an animal, so covered in fur and stooped from exhaustion as he was. Chilali circled round the slow moving creature, her magenta wings spread, their blue tips caressing the sky, and sang a soft song of encouragement. This was unusual. No valley man had visited the mountain for a hundred years, and even then, he was invited.

She went to find her lord, Deeadre, spirt of Winter, and tell him of the valley man who came. Chilali found Deeadre on the peak of the mountain, lying in a wide white field which stretched just below the rockside into which the long hall was carved. She sang a song and he looked up at her magenta wings, with their blue tips, unfurled against the dark grey sky.

He stood, looking down at where he had lain. With a wave of his arms, the winds came to blow the drifts, and with a snap of his fingers cataracts of snow began to fall from the fat clouds and cover the spot.
Chilali landed on his shoulder and sang sweetly of the valley man coming.
“Is he a chieftain?” asked Deeadre.
“He does not look so old,” answered Chilali.
“A warrior?”
“He carries no spear.”
“Healer then?”
“His aura was quite clear.”
“But no valley man has visited my mountain for a hundred years, and even then he was invited.”
And Chilali said that if he survived, the valley man would be in their field within a day’s time. And together they went back to the long hall and sat at the window, looking out over the wide white field, and Yepachepi, the fairy helpmate whom Deeadre had crafted from the snow and ice brought him caulberry wine. And they waited.
And when the sun was brightest the next day, the man appeared at the edge of the wide white field and came towards them. Just below the window, he looked up, and Deeadre’s breath caught in his chest.
The eyes of the man burned like fire and his aura pulsed bright and clear. Deeadre knew that in summer the people of the valley glowed with health. Their beautiful nut brown skin was kissed bronze by the sun so that it shone like the seed of the pinecorn tree. But this one looked pale, his skin faded yellow, like the sallow fruit inside the seed.
Suddenly, the man collapsed. Deeadre threw out an arm and the winds which whipped through the field suddenly ceased. Chilali alighted from the window, spreading her magenta wings wide, their blue tips caressing the sky, and she flew down to the fallen man.
When the valley man awoke, he found himself in a cozy bedchamber. A fire burned in the hearth, and he was swathed in furs.
“What is your name?” Deeadre asked.
“Aquene.”
“No valley man has visited us in one hundred years, and even then, he was invited.”
“I know,” said Aquene.
“It is a treacherous journey that few can survive.” Deeadre held up a small waxed leather bag. “Is this how you managed?”
“The herbs,” said Aquene, nodding. “They helped.”
“But you are no healer. We would see if so.”
“No, but I know of the herbs. My sister, Amitola, was a true healer.”
“She must have had a very strong aura to pass on such skill to one who is not born a healer. Why did she not come with you?”
“She is dead.”
“Strong healers do not perish easily. How did she die?”
“You killed her.”
Deeadre’s face was like a mask of thunder.
“I know nothing of your sister. How could I have killed her?”
“She died during the Long Ice, just after this forever Winter came.”
“But the ice has relented,” said Deeadre quietly, touching his chest.
“Now. But not before it killed seasons of crops and people too. My sister gave all she had to keep others healthy, but eventually fell too ill to be saved herself. That is why I have come to ask that you let Spring return to our fields.”
“I do not hold back Spring. If she is too weak to make her presence known, it is not my fault.”
But this was not true. For Muna, the Spirit of Spring, was as powerful as she had ever been. Only the despair and rage which swirled in Deeadre’s heart was so great and so powerful that it beat back all the other seasons. When a Spirit is wounded so deeply in their soul, when their heart is broken, there is little that can stand against it. It is only when the Spirit finds love again that balance returns.
“Is it true,” Aquene asked, “that when Basata Onida left you, you froze him on the side of the mountain so he could not escape?”
“Is this what they say? I never knew the people of the valley paid so much attention to the workings of the gods.”
For the next days Aquene was tended by Yepachepi. She fed him river greens and mosses and a broth made from the bones of the cliff antelope that roam the mountain and fortified him with caulberry wine.
“The caulberries in the valley did not taste so sweet. They are too bitter there,” Aquene said.
“Yes,” said Yepachepi, “they are one of the few things that flourish here.”
“Because they are so sturdy?”
“Because they are so delicate. With warmth, they grow bitter. Crushing makes them sour, but after, if left alone in the cold, they become the sweetest thing ever tasted.”
One day Aquene threw open the shutters of his room and asked to walk the wide white field. And so he did, with Deeadre daily. And as Aquene regained his strength, they talked of all the things Deeadre had left unspoken for so long.
Of how his heart was broken. Of how once he had loved Basata Onida, the Spirit of the Vast Sea. Of how their love had been so strong that the oceans teemed with fish and sea greens and the people of the valley ate well. Only the top of the mountains, and the wide white field below the long hall were visited by Winter.
And even then, the ice broke and flowed and fed the streams that tumbled down through the stony cliffs. And the villagers drank of the cool, clear water and it kept them healthy.
And because of their love Muna, the Spirit of Spring, reigned freely and danced for many months until she was exhausted, and she rested. And Helaku, the Spirit of Summer, came and scorched the sky and dried out the plants and brought them to harvest time. And then Huyana, the spirt of Autumn, softly eased in to fire the long straight leaves of the trees into gold and pluck the seeds, twirling them on the wind until they dropped, to sleep through the short months of a soft Winter.
And finally how Basata Onida grew weary of contentment and longed for the rush and roil of his ocean home. And how he made to leave, and cracked the Winter Spirit’s heart in two, like the split of ice in the glare of sun.
And how Basata broke free of the ice cage Deeadre made for him and returned to the Vast Sea. And despondent and enraged the coldness that filled Deeadre broke loose from his chest and spilled down his limbs and soon the mountain could not contain the onslaught of Winter and it fell, tumbling down and crushing the valley below where it had raged for years now. And though it did not reach all the way into the sea, it fought against the waves that rushed the shores and kept their fruitfulness at bay.
And too, Aquene talked of the time when they were grateful for the love of the Spirit of Winter and the Spirit of the Vast Sea. And how the valley was nourished with rains and steady crops and the sea abundant with life. And how the fields rolled with golden wheat and waving greens and how they were happy.
And Deeadre was moved by this picture of happiness. And he watched as Aquene talked and his heart felt a warmth that was long forgotten. And the passion with which Aquene spoke cut through the icy cold in Deeadre’s chest. And he knew, one day, as they walked along the wide white field, that again he had found love. And looking at those eyes that smiled out warmly from a face once frozen in grimness, Aquene knew that he too had found love. And he learned to love the wide white field and the bite of the frigid wind and yearned for the sweetness of caulberry wine.
Days turned into weeks, and maybe months. And the valley began to live again. And Chilali, spreading her great magenta wings, their blue tips kissing the clouds, soared down and saw that a thaw had set in upon the lands. And if it did not yet reach to the sea, it did not fight against the waves that brushed against the shore. And the trees whispered to the songbird as she rested in their branches that Muna of Spring was strong, ready for her return.
And Yepachepi and Chilali were glad but also full of consternation. What would become of them and the valley if the Spirit of Winter was made heart-sick again? Could any of them survive so long a drought of warmth? And though the passing of time is hard to keep on the mountain, there came a day when Aquene knew he had been too long gone.
“But why must you go back? Are you unhappy here?” cried Deeadre.
“I have never been happier in truth,” confessed Aquene. “But I have a promise to keep to my sister.”
“You have taught the Spirit of Winter to let the Spring back in. Is that not enough?”
“My sister left behind two children and I made a promise to care for them.”
“And their father?”
“He left many moons before her death in a trading contingent. None of them ever returned. Lost to the Long Ice.”
“You can bring them here.”
“To this isolation? I am happy here, true, but it is not a place for children. You must let me go. When the children have known their last young moons, I will return.”
“How can I know? The mouths of men lie.”
“As do the gods. But you will know I speak the truth.”
And then he kissed Deeadre gently on his lips.
And Deeadre did know that he spoke truth.
“Chilali will guide you home and watch over you.”
Aquene nodded. “And I will teach her a song to sing that belongs to only you and I.”
And Deeadre watched as Aquene made his way away from the mountain home. He watched as Chilali, her magenta wings spread wide, their blue tips kissing the sky, followed him over the edge of the wide white field where the trees, grey and barren for so long, had begun to green and bloom.
And Muna, the Spirit of Spring, returned. And each year she stays a little longer and the crops grow and the flowers blossom and the rivers run clear and strong.
And Deeadre sits at the window at the end of his long hall which overlooks the wide white field and sips his caulberry wine, waiting.
And Chilali, her magenta wings spread wide, their blue tips kissing the sky, circles overhead, singing a song of return, only known to two.
Joshua Ian is an up-and-coming writer, sometime poet, and failed filmmaker living in New York City. His story “Counter Strike” was recently included in the Queer Sci Fi Anthology entitled 'Impact' (Other Worlds Ink, 2018). His story “Gingerbread” will appear in the January 2019 issue of Coffin Bell Journal with another of his stories being included in the ‘Perfectly Poisoned Steampunk Anthology’ due out later in the year.
You can find on him on Twitter @joshuaianauthor
and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joshuaianauthor/

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff


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