Dark of the Year


Matai looks at his infant granddaughter and knows that his life is about to change. He must find the child’s name. Before the dark of the year, when Shadows and burnt-mouthed darklings creep down from the mountains to steal the unnamed.

So he becomes a father again well past sixty, and feeds goatsmilk to his dark eyed granddaughter, who in her birth spelled her mother’s death. But he can’t be angry at her, just as he could not be angry at the dark-eyed boy who left his daughter behind to fight the war. There is very little anger left in him, and that he reserves for another day, when it will best serve.

For now he wonders at this child, who in his callused hands seems a creature of infinite delicacy, butterfly wings and farewells. He tells her stories about pixies and widdens, and trades his grapes for a woman to come from the village and tend the child while he works among the vines and hopes that her name will come to him.

The vineyard does not belong to Matai, but to a man who never sees it and lives among white paved roads and buildings of government. This man knows only that his wines are among the finest, that his grapes are among the best in the world, and that pleasing old Matai is a wise business. His family is known for wise business, that’s how they came to own the vineyard, while Matai’s family is known for the pursuit of beauty. Nothing in Matai’s life has prepared him for journeys or the pursuit of names.

When two weeks passed and still no name for the child came to him, the village woman came and pressed, “You need to name that girl, or else she’ll be lost when you need her. What will you call out when you can’t find her among the vines?” Unspoken, what will you do if she has no name when moondark comes?

He admits, now, that waiting will not bring his granddaughter’s name closer. He does not know how to summon her name up. That is a mystery left to women. So he brings her to the village, slung in rough cotton against his chest. He shields her soft cheek from the dust of the road with wine-stained fingers. At the old herbalist’s door, he stops and bows his head.

“Matai,” the old woman’s voice crackles like low fire. He enters her door, still shielding his granddaughter with his hand. By now he does not notice that he does it, but the herbalist does. She breaths in deeply through her nose, then snorts the air out again. She claps her hand down on a dark wooden counter. “Here,” she says. “Put the child here.”

Matai hesitates a moment. To lay her down upon the wooden counter, open to stranger eyes, seems wrong. But if she doesn’t have a name, and soon, she will be susceptible to the Shadows when moondark comes. Less than a fortnight distant, when the year turns on the longest night. The Shadows and their darklings will come creeping through towns and cities, calling for children to come. Most will be safe, their ears cottoned against those whispers by the knowledge of their own true names. But the orphans with no womb names, they’ll be gone of a morning. No sight nor sound of their passing. But someday, some other dark night, you might spy a lost child creeping through the village, a darkling servant now, whispering and beckoning. You know them by their black lips, burnt by the Shadow that stole the souls out of their mouths. That, and their angry eyes.

Matai shudders. His granddaughter will not become one of those black-lipped, soulless things. So he sets her down gently as the herbalist requests, and the chill absence of his arms sets her to murmuring distress.

The herbalist twitches aside the white cotton, which is dusty with the red dirt of the roads now. Liquid dark eyes gaze up at her, and the child stops murmuring. She’s still, no sign of breath or movement, as if she knows in this moment she is hunted. As the herbalist knows in this moment, when she traces, gently now, a sign above the girl’s brow.

“I do not know her name,” she says, and her voice is soft.

To read more, buy Black Gate #14


Art by Mark Evans

From Black Gate 14, copyright © 2010 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved. Sample published here with permission.