The trees grow brown, the air grows dry, and the evenings grow dark and star-pierced. There is a coolness to the wind that was not there before. The sounds of the world turn dry with the air that carries them, the softness of grass and flowers giving way to the crackle and crunch of leaves. The great iron bells of the temple on the mountain carry echoingly across the valley, their sound fuzzed and rough-vague with distance. The month of Woodsetting has come.
The halls and cells are carved out of the maize in their traditional shapes, and the black curtains are hung across the entrances to each cell, and the wide wide roof-cloth is stretched over the whole field, and the wood is gathered and apportioned, and the work begins.
There is one cell in the maize for each person in the town, a wide square space with a single curtained exit. The curtain remains shut throughout the month, so that no one else may see the work in progress. Each person builds their own mystery-house, small and dark and labyrinthine, where no eyes but their own may see.
The work takes place each day for an hour at dawn and an hour at dusk, in the liminal times, so that neither day nor night may watch the making. At the end of the hour, everyone comes out and gathers for a drink, the better to forget. Even the children take a sip; the habit of forgetting must be taught young, or it may never be learned at all.
Sometimes not everyone comes out. There is no headcount.
The bells of the mountain are continuous, but they shift over time. There are no discernible patterns to the shifting – or, if there are patterns, then no one has been foolish enough to try to discern them – but there is often a sort of cusp in the sound at the ends of the work-hours. Only a fool would depend on these, though; far better to trust to the sound of voices breaking the reverie.
Still, on this particular evening, Patina hears the bells shift in time to anticipate the end-call. She turns away from – she conscientiously does not think of what – and slips around her curtain, letting the vorme nu tolmohi take effect.
Meanwhile, somewhere very far away, the sea rolls across the sand, leaving wide dark silhouettes of itself behind. If one listens closely, the rush of the foam and spray begins to sound like a thousand whispers, and one can almost make out the words.
A woman sits in the surf, letting the waves wash across her, and wishes that she were not alone.
Nothing happens, and eventually she stands up and goes home.
Patina joins her friends in the maize hall, chatting about unimportant things, the carrot harvest and the new paper-shop and the size of eggs. Every time they pass under a white-curtained trellis arch, they shift topics abruptly. When they finally reach the edge of the maize, all conversation stops, giving way to a single well-worn chant.
We stand beneath the darkened sky
We stand beneath the night
We stand together, you and I
Before the firelight.
By the time the chant is done, everyone has a mug in their hand, and they all drink in unison. There is a great collective shout, and they disperse.
The ritual language, the rihirbau, is intentionally strange. Fluency in it is avoided; it is meant to be used but not understood. One does not so much read the language as decipher it. Likewise, when writing it is preferred to use the most indirect and convoluted grammatical structure possible, and the grammar is flexible enough to enable this. Patina is consulting a manual (itself intentionally opaque) on elidable terminators, trying to temporarily understand – but not actually learn – the subtleties of when they may not be elided, trying to construct a sentence that seems at first to mean one thing but in fact means entirely another.
"What?" She shuts the book, turns her working notes face down, and turns around, but no one is there. She faces forward again, sitting still, trying to hear without listening.
Her hands are resting on the desk, sweating slightly. She closes her eyes and stands up. She turns around to face the empty room, not daring to look.
There should not be silence. There should be the rustling of wind and the chatter of birds and – oh shadow – the echoing of bells. Patina's cheeks are wet; she always hoped she would be Taken, but she thought it would be in the maize, that she would go in and never come out, or that it would be in a mystery-house, following the twists until she was lost enough for the world itself to have forgotten the way.
She walks forward, trembling. Minutes pass, and she presses on, long past where the far wall of the room should have been, before she finally allows herself to open her eyes.
She is standing at the edge of the sea, the beach rising before her and the waves behind, as though she had walked out of the water, though her clothes are dry. The air is sharp and stinging, and the sky is cold and bright.
She makes her way up and over the dunes, to find what she will find.
Patina's disappearance is briefly noted, and her duties reassigned. Her unfinished mystery-house is left untouched and unobserved, to wait for the end of the month with the others. (The mystery-house of a Taken person is especially auspicious, because there is now no one in the town at all who knows its secrets.)
The end of the month approaches, and the traditional feast is set. Mixed foods – applesauce-and-bean-paste, oat-and-rye porridge, potatoes-and-yams, and other things improvised in secret – are laid out in identical unmarked bowls. There are twenty cooks contributing, each supplying two dishes, and forty-one dishes all together, which is considered a very good sign.
The bowls are placed around the edge of a large rotating circular table, and whenever someone takes a bit of food, they swap the positions of two bowls. People mill about, eating as the mood strikes them, and avoiding watching the table whenever they're not serving themselves. The atmosphere is jovial and relaxed, yet anticipatory.
Occasionally someone's eyes drift towards the maize, where certain preparations are being made, and the people they're talking to politely distract them in the opposite direction.
Gradually, night falls.
The crowd finds themselves congregating at the edge of the maize. The entrances that were used during the month have been blocked off, and new openings are cut, allowing access to the long-concealed mystery-houses while completely transforming the layout of the hallways. People trickle into the newly cut labyrinth, wandering deep in hopes of getting lost, eventually settling on someone's mystery-house. If anyone recognizes their own, they keep this to themselves and choose another.
Eventually, everyone has disappeared into the depths of the mystery-houses, which are the true labyrinth, the one whose paths are not marked in clear halls and wide spaces. The Deepnight has begun.
What one might dream in the Deepnight, when one is hidden from the world and the world is hidden from one, is not to be told.
Patina wanders the streets of a strange city, a horrifyingly ordered thing full of maps and clocks and lights, and wishes that she had lost her name. She wanders into a used-book store, dim and half-sunken in the ground, but the proprietor – a thin, angular man with red hair and tan sleeves – is too eager to help her find things, and the books are organized. When she complains, the man laughs at her, and she flees.
The next place she tries seems a little better, a pawnshop with no obvious order to its shelves. She's wary, though; this city seems far too perverse to trust. She addresses herself to the woman at the counter.
"Excuse me, but do you know if you have a double-sided clawhammer?" she says, inventing a mildly unusual artifact on the spot.
"I'm not sure. You're free to look."
Patina breaks out in a grin, her first really genuine smile since finding the city. "Thank you, thank you so much." The woman is looking at her strangely, but she doesn't care. She disappears into the stacks, hugging herself and shuddering with relief.
Morning comes, and the roof-cloth is gone. Gradually the mystery-houses emit people, naked and nameless and blinking up at the sky. Some might resemble those who went in; others might be strangers who look the same; still others might be unfamiliar even in face. To dwell on such things is not done.
On this morning, First Morning, everyone is a stranger.
Gradually a town begins to form. People take names, and find jobs that need doing, and make friends. Homes are chosen, and neighborhoods coalesce. A calendar is selected, and the days named. Words and idioms are invented, so as to confuse the common-tongue; only the ritual language remains the same.
It is the month of Starfrost, and the world is new.
(Posted for day 6 of the PICO Jam. 1539 words vs. 1500 words minimum.)