‘Rustsong’, Sean R. Robinson

Illustrations © 2015 Cécile Matthey

 [ Rust, © 2015 Cécile Matthey ]

Null-wisdom says when your skin starts itching, you know your time is coming. When you feel like your bones aren’t the right shape, and the way the air touches you makes your teeth ache, its time to find something sharp and somewhere private.

I was sixteen with a belly full of wanting, and the rust fields to trap me where I was. It took two days to finally admit why I couldn’t sleep when the moons rose, or pushed the pavla around my plate with a spoon at meal time instead of eating whatever bit of nourishment might be in it. There wasn’t enough to go around, not even with only the two of us beneath the roof.

I couldn’t look out the windows to the little field we tilled, and the red-brown land beyond that. I couldn’t look because my sight always fell to the edge of the garden and the memory of the only time I’d seen my sister.

It wasn’t until the moons rose again that I slipped out of my bed, and down the dark corridor. I stepped into my mother’s kitchen and took her second-best knife from the block. It was pitted but carefully sharpened. My sibling—my sister—Inno had taken the best knife when her time came.

“I thought so,” a voice said in the dark.

My heart was beating too hard, my skin felt like it was about to split. My father—grizzled veteran of an old war—leaned against the doorframe. I could see the scales around his neck in the moonslight.

“I need to go,” I said. The words were part confession, part apology, part plea.

I did not want to go. I didn’t want to die.

“I know, child,” he said and opened the door.

My feet moved on their own, driven by the moons, the need that every null felt when the time came—to give yourself to the world and be changed. But I did not want to change. I slowed at the pavlo field, with their withered stalks and sparse bare hand-full of fruit.

Famine-wisdom said that a stand a shoulder-width wide would be enough to feed a person through the lean season. It was wisdom from before the rust came and choked the ground. But my family had done it anyway, working shoulder-to-shoulder in grim silence.

It was just father and I now, working the pavla, pushing back the rust and plucking whatever fruit the stalks bared. Letting my mother’s tract choke beneath the rust and my sibling’s—my sister’s—wither and die. We ate what we grew and went to our separate beds to keep the moon vigil and count the hours until sun break.

I dropped the knife, forcing my fingers open. I did not want to die in the pavlo fields. I did not want to give myself over to the land and let the rust take me as it had taken our neighbors, our friends, my mother, my sister.

Father followed me and as I gasped the thin air, he was quiet.

“I thought we were supposed to die alone,” I said.

“You’re not meant to die,” he said. “Never meant to die.”

“I want to be alone,” I said and when he did not move, I shut my eyes.

Would I be Inna, like my mother? I wondered. When I let my blood run and gave myself to the world? Or would I be Innus for the heartbeats of pain that my life would become? When the world drank down my blood and inscribed itself on my flesh.

“Would you rather have had a son or a daughter, father?” I asked.

“It is about what you would become,” he said.

I forced my eyes open and whether I wished it or not, they fell on where my sibling had given themself to the land in the middle of the night and been reborn Inno, with feathers down her arms and scales on her legs.

We didn’t speak of it, not how the dawn had come and for a breath she had been beautiful—red and pale and whole. Until Inno raised her wings to the sky and her new-born feathers shattered, until her flesh crumbled and she screamed.

“I want to be null forever,” I said. “I want to be neither son or daughter, only child.”

“I had the same fear,” he said and reached down to take my mother’s second-best knife from the ground. He pulled me to my feet. “I gave myself to the land the last day the sky rained. It’s the only choice we’re given.”

The scales on his face were lightburned and I had never been able to look at where gills had been along his neck. They were scars now, same as the webs between his fingers had been cut away.

There was no water now, no oceans, no seas for him to swim. My father had been the last of the waterborne. If there was water somewhere in the distant hills, I did not know where it was.

“Come,” he said and pulled me forward. I followed him, because there was no other choice. He had the knife and it was the last we had, and there was something in his voice that sounded as desperate as the need in my skin.

My father took us out past the pavlo stand, onto the road that had lead to a village, once, that was only rust now, and then out farther, to the plains that had might have once been something else, before my sibling and I had been born.

He was quiet, but took the distance with the lope of a man who could walk the broken rust-choked ground. I hated it. The reds and the browns and the thin air. There were no plants, no animals to break the silence, only the crush beneath our feet.

“I want to die here,” I said as we crested a ridge, farther out than I’d ever been before. Inno had always been the adventurer, not caring when her tract did not have pavlo, going hungry so she could spend half the day tasting the land with her feet.

“Not here,” he said and took my hand in his. “This isn’t your place.”

“The rust is here,” I said.

“You’d give yourself to it?” he said.

“What else is there?” My breath hitched, it was hard to speak. “I want to be alone.”

“You will be soon enough,” he said. “Just a little farther.”

And I followed him, because he had not cried when we let Inno’s tract of pavlo fall under the rust, and let me shed enough tears for the both of us. He had given me half his meal, to make up for what I’d lost.

But he took us up into hills stained brown, while the sun began to fall and the thin air got colder.

“The last rain came the day I gave myself to the land,” he said as he slowed. The rock gave way ahead of us. “The rains had grown more and more rare. The wind changed, grew hotter until the ground dried. I didn’t know what it meant to be waterborne without a sea to swim, or fireborne when there was nothing to burn.”

We walked on farther, down the cliffs. His feet found a path that I couldn’t see. All I could see was the red and brown, reaching out into the distance, bloody like the sunlight as it got colder and the light faded.

“Why didn’t you bring her here?” I said.

“We’re not anywhere yet, child.”

I watched him walk down into a valley I had never seen before. It seemed as if, as the steps past, he had grown. His back was straight, his dark hair fell down his back. I wondered if Inno’s would have done the same, or if she would have cut it short like our mother’s.

“There used to be a tanir grove here,” he said and knelt. I wanted to rip the blade from his belt and take it to my wrists.

“It hurts, father,” I said.

He pushed his hands into the ground, taking up a hand-full of rust and letting it cascade from between his fingers. “The old said that it wouldn’t last, and that the rains would come again. That the rust was like the skin of a null child being inscribed.”

His eyes were dark and he stood and started walking again.

“That the world would be reborn as a child is reborn to water, earth, air or fire. The old are gone, their meeting places swallowed by rust, the ground beneath their tent halls turned brittle and red.”

“I don’t want to leave you,” I said. “But I can’t. I can’t.”

“You can,” he said and I did, I followed him farther into the wastes. That is what a child does when they are about to die.

My father’s wisdom kept the family fed when the world died. It kept us together and it kept me walking until the sun set on the plain and I knew it would be my last sunset as I was. Whether my father allowed it or not, I would give my blood to the world. I would let it creep up my arms and change me.

Whether I became man or woman, airborne or earthborne, whether wings grew from my arms or gills, or scales sheathed my legs, it would be over.

“You’ll be alone,” I said as he followed some unmarked path in the darkness. The stars glittered overhead, calling as the ground called. It was hard to breath.

“Not for long,” he said.

“There are no others,” I said.

“I know.”

 [ Child, © 2015 Cécile Matthey ] The trail brought us to a cavern, but in the dark all I could do was feel the weight of something above us. I felt the air change, the darkness faded. There was a pool, and it glowed blue.


“I came here once, when I was a null,” he said. “My sibling and I. She was airborne, like your sister, but her feathers were the blue of this water, not red rust. Before. Before. We’re the last, child. The rust has taken everyone else.”

He knelt me beside the water and put his hands into the blue. “I couldn’t bring myself to come back here, child. Not when I knew your mother was dead and your sister gone. I couldn’t give this place to them, but I would give it to you.”

Father looked back at me. I do not know what he saw in the unfinished panes of my face, the motley color of my skin and eyes. He handed me my mother’s second-best knife and did not look back as he stepped into the pool. It was the last water in the world, hidden and his.

And mine, if I dared.

I watched him swim out, though there were no fins between his fingers, and his gills were scars. I watched him until I could stand it no longer. I could cut my blood and let it go into the water, let it change me. I could take it from him and become like him. Or I could go out into the rust and let it claim me.

I could be his child a little longer.

Wisdom says that when your time comes you give yourself over to the world to remake you. You are inscribed by air or water, fire or earth, you become and change. There was no wisdom for the rust, but my father’s wisdom, who gave himself to the water, the last water of the world.

There could be more days beside him in pavlo. More evenings staring at the rust crawling closer. More days to remember my sister and my mother.

I turned and climbed up the tunnel, out into the night, into the stars. I took the knife to my wrist, I wondered at the wisdom of rust, and what there was to learn.

© 2015 Sean R. Robinson

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