Some carried their cuts from the corpse of the Olme home with bare hands, choosing to follow tradition. The smell permeated the skin of their palms and became part of them; their sweat would always bear the sweet, rotting scent of it.
Others used gloves, or held out tins or bags to receive their piece, sliced with such expertise. For those people, there was no smell at all, even if they kept it in the house after the ceremony. It wasn’t the gift alone that created the scent. It was the connection, between human and beast. The flesh of the Olme had to be touched to make the smell.
1. First Finder: the unused eye
The butcher made the initial cut across the unopened lid and peeled back the slippery skin to reveal the eye. Then she slid the knife underneath it, pushed down and in at a shallow angle, and the cloudy blue orb came free with a loud, sucking sound that reverberated around the cavern.
The crowd watched as the butcher chose the saw from her low table of instruments and worked its teeth against the thick veins that joined the eye to the body; it took muscular energy to complete the task.
“Step forward,” she said. “Michael Rittle.”
Michael roused himself from his spot next to the far pillar. He found he didn’t want to look upon the bulk of the Olme. It was too reminiscent of the discovering of it, deeper down in the earth, during one of his frequent trips through the lower caves looking for the mosses and lichens that the medic would pay for. By the light of his own torch the Olme had heaved and groaned—how had it managed to squeeze itself so far through such a narrow passage? It had blocked the route entirely, pinned itself solid in rock, and yet it was still living when he came across it. He had not dared to approach it, and he could not bear to leave. So he witnessed its weakening in increments, in the struggles that grew fainter, sighs that faded, until his torch was worn down low and he had to head back home in the last wisps of its light or risk being left in darkness absolute.
By the time he had returned with the killing crew the Olme was dead.
“May you see with endless clarity,” the butcher said solemnly to the crowd, and held out the eye.
Michael took it. He had brought along a pair of gloves, the ones he wore to protect his fingers while down in the sharp-walled mineral caves that made their own light—as blue as the eye he now held—but at the last moment decided to follow the old ways. He’d bear the stink of it all his life, but, well, that seemed right to him. His grandfather had worn the scent, too; that had been the last time an Olme had been found. Now it was his turn. His skin, his gift. A trade.
The Olme’s eye, now Michael’s, was thought to serve no purpose. A remnant of a time when Olmes had lived above ground, perhaps? Or maybe never an eye at all but used for something else. Some other form of seeing.
Later that evening, Michael came home to find his house in unusual silence. His talkative pet bird, which had been an expensive purchase from one of the surface traders who would sometimes come to the trapdoor, lay dead at the bottom of the cage that hung from the ceiling. He reached for it, and it was so very light in his hands. Its bright colors were still vibrant; in fact, they seemed more vivid than ever before, to him. Red and yellow. When he put the eye of the Olme into the cage to take the bird’s place, it took on those colors and reflected light around the room for him at sharp, strange angles. He smelled the scent of it, rising up from inside him.
2. Retriever: longest toenail
Clare had used her tractor to pull the Olme to the upper caverns, and it was not a difficult job. It came free quickly from the rocks between which it had jammed its bulk, and the body was obedient in its response to the hooks she sank into it and the chains that demanded it follow.
Moving rocks in subterranean farming was usually difficult, heavy labor; she had been expecting much more of a struggle for this task. But the inexplicability of the Olme’s smooth passage did not bother her. It suited the elements of mystery and ritual that permeated her life, and had been long associated with pragmatic repetition. The things we do, over and over, that create our place; these were the words she had grown up with, spoken so often by her grandmother, and they filled her head as she transported the Olme to a storage cave.
The words, in truth, had never meant a lot to her. It was by example she had learned, and now she was alone, and aged, and one day soon would have to attempt to explain all this to the next generation. These were concerns that bothered her sometimes, but mainly she enjoyed being left in solitude, and that suited her.
But a crowd had gathered for the final stage of the retrieval, and that did not suit her at all. It was—she reflected during the ceremony—the first time she had ever been watched at work by others. The butcher seemed so at ease with their perusal of her cuts and slices; Clare did not think she could ever have done such a task, under scrutiny. She admired the precision of it.
“Step forward, Clare Askett,” said the butcher, so she did so, with reluctance. She had thought the community smaller than this. Before the ceremony she had inquired about the possibility of receiving her gift in private and had been told that was not an option. It didn’t help that it was her lot to receive such an unpleasant object. A toenail, no less. It had a laughable element to it. Would anyone snigger, or make a comment, as she approached?
They did not. And the toenail was, once sawed through and snapped from the bed of the largest toe on the last foot, a sleek, polished object in a warm shade of reddish-brown that was scored through with curved cream lines. Separated from the Olme, it became a sculpture; a statement divorced from reality.
It also became familiar.
“May you cherish movement,” said the butcher, and Clare held out her gloved hands to receive the toenail. It was hard, and very light. She wished, for a moment, that she had not opted for the gloves. But did she really want to be marked in such a way? Impregnated, forever, by this one event? Her grandmother had smelled so strongly of it, and had talked of dragging the Olme forth in a tone of wonder. All the secrets of their trade forgotten, her grand-daughter’s name gone from her mind, but the Olme remembered. A toenail, they gave me, she had said, over and over. It’s my favorite decoration. She had kept it by her bed, at the end. The smell from her skin had been so strong.
It had never occurred to Clare before, but she could not remember ever seeing that old toenail since her grandmother’s death. Where had it gone? Why was there never anything to show for service but some memories and a bad smell?
She kept the gloves on and tried to think of this as an unremarkable event. She did not want it to become the one thing she remembered, at the end.
The toenail came home with her. She tried her hardest to think of it as a curio, a knick-knack. She moved it from one decorative position to the next, and could not find a spot where it felt like a background object. It seemed, to Clare, that it needed to be matched. One of a pair. It was not, after all, unique.
She took to searching through old possessions, dank corners, and found many strange objects she could not fathom: instruments from older forms of farming, perhaps. There was no matching toenail anywhere. She started to scan the caves where she farmed, searching amongst the pigmentless plants and insects that she cultivated, but the further she walked, the less she knew her place. All things were newly inexplicable.
She kept walking, between her farming tasks. It became a habit. She did not find another toenail to make her own diminish in meaning.
3. Reader of Rites: tip of the tongue
Adam held out his exposed hands. Putting a barrier between his own tools and any surface was unthinkable. And he already smelled, so what did it matter? The pages of the books he read were made of the skin of the Olme anyway, and the act of curing and preparing the skin released the scent.
“May you learn the gift of sound, Adam Budding,” the butcher said, and passed him his cut.
The tip of a tongue had sounded like a small gift, but this—this was a heavy mess of flesh, soft, like a haunch of meat for roasting.
Adam had once read, in Farbington:
To read in the absolute dark, one needs to learn how to touch. People think they have this skill simply because they are born with hands, but they are wrong. They pick up, they handle, they grasp. They use the tools on the ends of their arms for utilitarian purposes.
You will learn to embrace the art that lives in the tiny folds of each finger and the curve of both palms. You will translate these sensations to speech. These books are filled with raised marks that contain such nuance. Embrace it. Speak it.
Adam had lived amongst such books since the age of four. At first Farbington had made him sleep in the library, with the stench vivid in the darkness, thick and curling in his nostrils. Eventually he had learned to stop crying and felt around for the door, which was open. It had always been open.
First lesson. It had taken him months to learn.
Was it a cruelty? Well, life was cruelty; the words had taught him that, and nowhere was that second lesson more evident than when holding the tongue of that rarest of creatures and celebrating its death. It had been in pain, confused. Bewildered as it headed up to unknown tunnels—this much Adam could read in the harsh, dry buds of the tongue.
He lived in a community that made the most of such deaths. He, personally, had been guiltily delighted to have the opportunity to take down the Book of the Ceremony and feel the tender bumps of explanation. Then he had spoken aloud of it to the butcher, outlining step after step. How he loved the butcher. She had a smile made for candlelight.
She was smiling at him now.
“You can step back,” she whispered. She had a soft spot for him; he was almost certain of it. If only he could touch her face, then he would have known for sure; could love leave a gentle pattern upon the skin that could be traced? This was not a lesson that Farbington, long dead, had taught him. It was his own theory, that he would pass to an apprentice of his own, when he was ready to accept his own cruelty and had found the will to inflict it.
He would put a small child in a library, and listen to them cry.
The gift of sound. To hear his own voice clearly, or listen to the voices of others?
Years later, he would find himself unexpectedly welcoming the butcher to the library. She inquired after the procedures needed to finish the long-term curing of the skin of the Olme for bookmaking purposes. He found the book in question and repeated passages to her. He was, in that moment, transported back to the time that the Olme first found its way to uniting them.
On an impulse, he reached out and touched her face. He tried to read it and could not tell if she loved him. She was, after all his dreams, unknowable.
Then she sighed.
4. Storage: The Tubing
A deep slice along the side facing the crowd, and then the boring tool was applied to the precise spot between the fifth and six leg, measured by an ancient angular device without a name. When the butcher pulled it free a thick, blue, rubbery tube came with it, speared upon its point, stretching from the incision.
“Step forward, Bill and Mary Clement,” said the butcher, and the couple waddled up in their thick matching coats and boots. Bill held a long pole, and Mary had her arms filled with a sturdy net that she found slippery to hold. Mary felt hot and uncomfortable under the gaze of the crowd; she glanced at Bill for reassurance. He, with his nervous expression, looked as if he was about to embark upon a trying adventure.
“May you bear the gift of forgiveness.”
The butcher transferred the tubing to the pole, and Bill began to cautiously loop it as it spilled forth. Once the pole was filled with coils Mary opened the net wide and received them. They slid down the pole with ease as Bill angled it with great care into position, and then the whole business began again. The process was repeated four times, until the net was bulging and Mary could barely hold it open. She braced her legs and thrust back her chest, turning her face to the side, as far from the tubing as possible.
Only a few loops into the fifth coil and the end of the tube popped free to reveal a pink, veined, star-shaped growth that flopped into the net and nestled there.
“Done,” said the butcher. Bill nodded, took the net from Mary, and slung it over his shoulder. Then the two of them maneuvered their way back through the crowd, who parted wide for them.
“Yes, but what’s it for?” Bill said that evening.
The star sat in their largest cooking bowl, in his lap. It had come free from the tubing once they got it to their closest cave and had rolled to Mary’s feet where it glowed so fetchingly that she had scooped it up in the folds of her dress, taking care not to touch it with bare skin, and carried it home. It appealed to her deeply, even though she felt it should have belonged to a different kind of woman. A glamorous one, perhaps.
“It must have served some purpose,” Mary said. “Bodies don’t have bits without purpose.”
“In this day and age we should have worked out the internals of the Olme, and why all this ceremonial stuff is claptrap,” he grumbled.
Brother and sister, side by side in their armchairs, faced the amethyst geode that formed the centerpiece of the room. Owning the largest number of caves in the upper tunnels kept them well off, but it was wealth inherited from the courage and strength of their ancestors who had dug out so much rock with their primitive tools and fought back others to stake their claims. The past was therefore romanticized and inaccessible from their own understanding, and quite useless to them. But now it had been foisted upon them, first by having to accept the bulk of the Olme in one of their caves, then by having to keep a length of tubing that had no obvious meaning. Would it be with them forever? It was an upsetting thought.
But the star itself was beautiful, Mary thought. It looked alive in the bowl, like a fascinating creature from another world, waving its arms at her. It didn’t look dead at all.
“Are we keeping that in here, then?” asked Bill.
“For a while,” she said. She took the bowl from him and put it on her own lap. She watched it rather than staring into the colors of the geode, which had gradually become less interesting to her over time.
In between the light duties of checking their caves for trespassing, Mary sat with her star and found a curious phenomenon: if she truly concentrated upon it, her breathing would fall to a slow, steady whooshing through her barely open mouth, and her vision would narrow, and a strange calm would spread through her. She had never known anything like it. She craved it. This clear state of being brought her knowledge. She began to understand that she had lived her life so far in a state of permanently suppressed irritation.
Bill was annoying.
He possessed a ferocious negativity. It was sharp, pointed, and always on hand to prick her. Doing this appeared to be his only enjoyment.
“What a waste of bloody time,” he said, without fail, whenever she stared at her star.
Mary started to wear different clothes to him. She wore Tuesday’s outfit on Monday and Friday’s outfit on Sunday. He frowned, and told her she looked ridiculous, at first. Then he lapsed into a wounded silence.
Their ancestors had been so brave; where had that courage gone? She could not find it, even when her ritual revealed to her that she irritated him in equal measure as he her, and she enjoyed doing that as much as he enjoyed doing it to her.
Then the contemplation of the star revealed to her that this relationship would not change because they had grown together into symbiotic beings of mutual irritation; it was much too late to ever work out how to pull apart, and if they did, they would remain two separated, unhappy halves of a whole until their deaths.
In the wake of this revelation, she said to him, aware she sounded unconvincing, “I could leave you. I could go upside,” and he laughed, and said, “Not likely,” but she heard the tremble in his voice and discovered how to love him again for believing that she might actually be capable of such an act.
So she plunged her uncovered hands into the bowl, and picked up the star. She felt no different to hold it, not at first; then she slowly became aware of the smell she now emitted. It had soaked into her skin. It could never be scrubbed away.
Bill stared at her as she stood up and carried the bowl away. She took it to the closest storage cave and laid it atop the long length of the tubing. Then she returned to Bill’s side.
“I’m done with it.”
“You smell of it,” he told her.
“I know,” she said.
When they next changed clothes, she dressed once more in matching materials, and after completing her tasks she took her seat in the armchair beside his and looked into the depths of the amethyst geode. The scent emanating from her was barely noticeable, sometimes.
5. Watcher: sliced buttock
“Some jobs are so unpleasant that they come with huge benefits,” said Kim’s mother. It’s the only way they can get anyone to do it. This is one such job. But here’s the thing—you do this thing, once, and then you’re free forever more. That’s what you want, isn’t it? To be free of us all?”
Ah, the edge of bitterness: it had just crept in on the final words. They had almost been having a conversation as equals. Kim fell back on her usual weapons, since the ceasefire was over. She rolled her eyes.
“Is that a yes or a no?”
“Right then. I’ll tell them it’s a yes, and you can tell them otherwise if you like.”
That was how Kim ended up sitting next to the hulking carcass of the Olme before the ceremony, for the allotted length of time as laid out in the old books.
It had not seemed like a long time in theory, yet was close to endless in practice.
She tried to think only of her daydreams, which always involved the sun. Standing in it, lying in it, bathing. Being kissed by it. She had spent so much time learning about it when she should have been choosing a trade, and she had run out of time to find an apprenticeship because nobody valued her knowledge of that radiant ball that hung above ground. Her mother had declared her interest a phase, then an infatuation, then an inappropriate obsession caused by faulty hormones. It did not matter—Kim knew she would always love the sun. To be in its presence would complete her life.
The lifeless body of the Olme made strange sounds beside her, in the storage cave. It shifted, squeaked and muttered in the dark. Kim could picture its organs shifting inside it, filling with gases that were then expelled as long, high whines.
Sun, I’m coming, she said in her head. Similar seismic shifts were happening inside her. Her own organs were moving; she felt sure of it. They were traveling in tiny increments, rubbing against each other, growing, shrinking, changing who she was.
Is this making me better or worse? she thought.
The Olme settled further into death.
When the butcher came to start the task of preparation for the ceremony, she looked hard at Kim and then gave her a kindly hug. “How was it?” she asked.
Kim shrugged. She hated the idea that there had to be words for every experience.
“You deserve a prize for your service, Kim.” The butcher whispered a word to her: a password, that would open the only door Kim had ever wanted to travel through.
“Thank you,” she said. The butcher nodded.
And the next time Kim saw her, the butcher was a tall, formal creature of ceremony, carving and sawing and rewarding. She called Kim forward, then looked down her nose as if they’d never met.
“The gift of time.”
It was a long thick strip from the hind flank of the Olme. Kim opened the rucksack she had brought along for the occasion, and the butcher slid it inside. Then she left the ceremony behind, keeping her eyes cast down as she walked so as to avoid making eye contact with her mother, and started the journey upwards. She traveled through the caves and tunnels that she knew well at first, and on to those she had only visited before when determined to flout her mother’s rules, and finally to those that were lined with wires from which steady-burning bulbs dangled, making her eyes water.
Nailed to the wall of Cave One was a long ladder. She climbed it, hand over hand, legs working, muscles tiring with the unfamiliar movements. She did not dare to look down. It took all her courage to reach the trapdoor set in the rock at the top and knock against the wooden planks that separated her from the surface.
There was no reply.
She knocked again, then banged. In the fear of not being answered, she remembered why she had come this far, and she called out the password, over and over, until the trap door was lifted and a warm red light flooded her vision. It was not sunlight, surely? She had expected to be blinded by it—had been ready to be given eye protection by the surfacers. This light was gentle and dim.
“Where has the sun gone?” she asked. A hand was held out to her, and she took it. Pulled up to stand in an open world, lidless, exposed to an expanse of emptiness, she crouched down and grabbed handfuls of soft green flooring to anchor herself. “Has there been an accident? Is the sun still there?”
“Here,” said the man who had helped her up. He clapped a heavy hat on her head, just like one he was wearing himself, and the sensation of being closed and covered diminished Kim’s terror just enough so that she could take in a little of the world above. It was an indistinguishable mixture of sights and sounds, straight lines and swooping curves, jutting walls and tangling growths and nothing familiar. The man took her arm, and propelled her forward. “Come on.”
“Why is there no sun?” she asked again, as he led her away from the trapdoor. Everything was changing color again, from soft red to darker violet, mixed with a creeping greyness.
“There’s a sun!” said the man. He sounded amused. “It’s just setting. End of the day. But the councilor will want to see you, even if we’re after hours. It’s not far.”
He took her to a tall building of chiseled, even stone walls. The roof was slanted to a sharp point. Inside, false bright lamplight blazed. Kim, fighting the pain in her eyes, managed to make out a large hall, without furnishings; very long spears had been arranged in crossed designs around the walls. A woman stood before her, at the foot of a staircase. She, too, wore a thick hat. Her bearing made her importance obvious. She was like the butcher during the act of cutting up the Olme: businesslike, and prepared to run the show.
“You’re from Downtown,” said the woman.
The name meant nothing to her.
“Underground. And you know the password. Nobody has used it in a generation. Longer. Does it mean...”
Kim waited. She gave no words away.
“Does it mean you carry part of an Olme?”
“You know about Olmes?” she asked, surprised out of her silence.
“Let me see what you’ve brought.”
Kim took off her backpack and held it open for the woman to see.
“A slice from its hind.”
“It doesn’t smell.”
“Olme doesn’t. Unless you touch it.”
The woman reached out, then curled her fingers into a fist and dropped her hand to her side. “It can’t possibly be real,” she said. Her voice carried excitement and fear in equal measure.
But tests at the local laboratory proved otherwise.
Kim adjusted quickly to a life in which she was the center of attention, and everything she said was greeted with amazement. At first she told the truth about the Olme, as she understood it, to many rich and influential people who held parties for her in grand houses. She described the butcher, the gifts, and the craftspeople who received them. With every retelling she found the crowd who surrounded her filled with wonder and agitation. The Olme grew bigger and more monstrous with each reimagining. Was it in the way she used her voice? She felt a distance springing up between the way it had been and the way she talked of it. She began to hate the sound of her own voice, which had a strange, flat timbre in the high-roofed houses.
The sun might have been enough compensation for that, but it would not speak to her in any form but anger. Whenever she tried to look at it, she was blinded. She stood in its brightness and raised her arms to it, and after only a short length of time found that her skin burned and blistered. She wanted to love it, but it did not love her.
It was, she discovered, very hard to go on caring about a thing that did not care for her.
At about that time, Kim realized she missed her mother.
She thought about returning to the dark sometimes, but mainly she thought about the slice of Olme that had been taken from her and experimented upon at the laboratory. Had it been taken, or had she given it? She wasn’t sure. The feeling that she should have kept it bothered her. She felt duplicitous. False, in some way that she couldn’t pin down.
So she didn’t try to explain it. She kept going to the parties, even after the people seemed to calm down and find her of less interest. Often she stood on her own, beside the crossed spears that decorated every room. She would drink the free drinks, eat the free food, and watch the people mingle in their strange heavy hats that they never took off. Then she would go back to the pointed house that had been provided for her and sleep all day so that she did not have to spend time with the sun.
At one such party, a woman came to speak to her. The woman had sloping shoulders and a curved back. She looked as if she had spent a lifetime doing manual work; she immediately reminded Kim of home.
“Do you remember me?” she said.
Kim shook her head.
“I greeted you. When you first arrived. I was the councilor.”
“No,” said Kim. That had been a confident person, just like the butcher. She realized that time must have done its work on the butcher too, and everyone she had known. Nothing would be the same down there. “Really? How long ago was that?”
The woman said a number that didn’t mean anything to her. “I gave it up a while back. I’m retired now. It was a hard job, making all those decisions for the benefit of everyone. Can I ask you something? Are you glad you came here?”
“Yes and no.”
“I wish I’d seen your Olme. Imagine. A living Olme.”
“I didn’t see a living one.”
“No. Well. Do you know what I think about the most, when I look back over my time in the job? I think about you offering me that part of the Olme. I wish I’d picked it up.”
“You want to smell terrible for the rest of your life?”
“I want to have proof that it happened,” said the woman. “Chances are, that was the very last one of its kind. There have been no eruptions for such a long time.”
“Drolmeflies,” she said, as if that should mean something to Kim. “You know, the next stage. You don’t know this? The Olme are the larvae. Then they pupate, hatch, dig upwards. Take to the skies. The last eruption was hundreds of years ago. Over four hundred people were killed before we could bring it down, stop it from feeding. The fact that such an event hasn’t happened in so long made us think they were extinct.”
“Then... what lays an Olme?”
The woman considered the question. She said, “Something else. Something we haven’t seen. It must be terrible, whatever it is. Or was. But the signs are good, aren’t they? Maybe that was the very last one. We’ve lived in fear for so long, but now we can start to believe that the need to hunt the Olmes are over. All your people could return to the surface. Do you think more of you will come up?”
Kim looked around the room. How many people knew why they wore those hats? How many could have picked up a spear and thrown it, straight and true, at a flying monster? The crowd were mingling, laughing. They had their own old jokes to tell, and even if they didn’t understand the punchlines any more, they would laugh.
Would the butcher come up to the surface if she knew, or her mother? Would the masters and the apprentices give up what they loved, even if it did not love them? There were still some questions that couldn’t be answered. She shrugged, and rolled her eyes.
Eventually the woman left her alone, and she abandoned the party and went for a walk in the night air. How fresh it was, and cold. She loved the icy touch of the wind; after removing her hat, she put her fingers to her hair and shook out the loose band that held it back from her face. The sensation was as close to freedom as she had ever felt.
Her feet took her back to the trapdoor. It was sealed up tight, and the same guard sat beside it. When he saw her, he jumped to her feet. “Your hat!” he said. “Quick, put it back on.” He plucked it from her fingers and clapped it back upon her head.
“It’s not polite,” he said. “To be seen without one. It’s just one of the rules. What are you up to?”
“I want to go home,” she said, although she hadn’t known it until the words had left her mouth.
“Why does that seem so surprising?”
“Isn’t it all hard work down there? It’s up to you, though. Here you go. It’s a free choice—be up here, or down there. Different things suit different people, right? It’s all for the greater good.”
Kim didn’t reply. She started down the ladder, and with each rung she descended she considered what she would say to the people who remained, who had tasks to fulfill, who had decided whether to be rewarded with gifts that bore a scent so strong that it could mark them forever.