Revy heard it, something rustling in the tomato patch. Warily she glanced over, but nothing seemed to be moving. The rest of the garden drooped sullenly in the heat. She set down her watering can and moved as silently as she could across the rows of beans and cabbages and not-yet-identifiable shoots. The rustling came again, and then a barely audible whistle—
She darted out a hand just in time to grab a fistful of stalk before it disappeared. “Got you!” she snapped as the tomato plant shivered in her grasp, then went still. Four others around it had already vanished. For a moment Revy wanted to kick the bare dirt where they’d been, and then the fury passed and she was tired. These days she was always tired.
“Everything all right?” her cousin Hanla called from the back door, laundry basket in his arms. He had the look on his face that always presaged an argument.
“Fine,” Revy said, trying for a smile. “It’s just a case of the blinks.” She plunged the tomato plant’s roots into the watering can to let them soak.
“The blinks.” Hanla set the basket down on the dry grass. “Revy, giving things stupid names doesn’t—”
“It’s fine, all right?” Apparently they were going to argue no matter what. “They’ll be back. They’re just thirsty. Once this one tells them there’s water here now—”
“They’re tomatoes, Revy. You shouldn’t have to, to negotiate with them!”
“All gardening is negotiation.” Revy pushed her hair off her sweaty forehead and retied her bandanna. She was too hot and too exhausted to try to defend something she wasn’t sure she believed anymore. Of course having to coax runaway tomato plants to return to her garden was strange, but at least they generally produced ordinary tomatoes when they could be persuaded to stay. That made them far more normal, not to mention useful, than some of the things her patch of dirt had grown. “And unless I’m mistaken, you’ve got your own chores to do.”
Hanla glared at the basket, then back at her, his face hard. “Not for much longer, I don’t.”
Revy’s breath caught. So you’ve finally done it fought in her throat with how could you do this to us and what took you so long and what would Gran say, and somehow all that came out was “When?”
“Ten days, probably. The agent said they’d bring my papers with the next flour ration, and I can go back on the truck with them.” She could tell he’d had this conversation in his head already. “Revy, it just makes sense. The government’s not going to bring us food forever. They’re not going to, to stay ashamed forever. They’re not—”
“They’re going to keep this up until enough people leave that the rest of us can’t stay.” Revy too had rehearsed the exchange that she’d known for awhile they were eventually going to have. “Of course they don’t want to support us any longer than they have to. The sooner the government get us all moved out to the coast or up to the Kir, the sooner they can forget what they did.”
“Nobody’s going to forget. Don’t be stupid. But they are going to move on. We all have to.”
“We don’t have to!” Her eyes burned, but she refused to weep. Hanla would just stop listening if she did, and she needed him to listen. “If we hold on here, if we keep reminding them—”
“You think they can’t force us out? Revy, look what they’ve done to this place already, with their magic, with their war.” A gesture encompassed the house, the garden with its broken trellises and empty cages, the fields the family had stopped planting because of the bizarre things that had grown there, the decrepit barn that had been left to sag and weather because the rations that came in on the truck each month were just enough for people but not for animals. “You think it can’t get worse? Better to get out while they’re still offering us something. It’s a good deal, Revy, reconstruction work, a place to live—”
“We have a place to live.”
“This isn’t living. This is—” Hanla waved his hands inarticulately. “I don’t know what this is anymore. I just know I’m done with it.” He turned and stalked back into the house, leaving the laundry basket lying on the grass.
The argument had gone better in her head, all the times she’d imagined it. It had ended with tears, and hugs, and promises to work things out, and sometimes plans for how to do that—usually vague in details, since Revy had never been able to imagine how anything might actually work out. The only plan she’d had since Gran had died was to hold on and wait for their little part of the world to get better.
And it was getting better, she thought fiercely at the closed door. Closer to normal. It was. Most of what she planted in the garden grew now, even if carrots still sometimes came up clover or kudzu, even if cabbages cried in the night and tomatoes disappeared. The ruined fields were still mostly barren, but Revy had seen weeds growing there, leggy and yellowish but no uglier than weeds usually were, so maybe the damage was starting to fade, maybe the spilled magic was draining away. Next spring she meant to plow the southwest field, or part of it, as much as she could with a hand plow, and put in potatoes; they pollinated themselves, she was fairly sure, which was an important point now that the bees were gone. Potatoes would make the household less reliant on the ration shipment, and maybe they could start to be a working farm again.
She should have said that to Hanla, even though if she was being honest she knew it wouldn’t have helped. He wouldn’t believe things could improve. Revy didn’t believe it herself more than half of the time, but that was enough to keep her holding on. At least it had been.
The missing tomato plants reappeared in the hollows they’d vanished from, looking somehow sheepish in the way they bent toward the watering can. There were three more than there had been. Revy wondered whose garden the new plants had vanished from and what was likely to grow on them.
Ber was rolling out biscuits on the plank table in the kitchen when Revy came in. “How much sugar will you need to save for jam this year?” Ber asked. The kitchen was shady and looked as though it ought to be cool, but heat radiated from the bricks of the oven in the back wall. “I thought I might make a spice cake later, if there’s enough extra.”
Revy bit down on the first words that came to mind. She wanted to be cheerful, but it was so hard. “If we get more than six raspberries, I’ll be very surprised,” she said. “I’ve been hand-pollinating the bushes, but I don’t think it’s working very well.”
“Well, if they turn out like Lodiga’s blackberries, six is all we’ll need,” Ber pointed out. They shared a wry grin. Their neighbour Lodiga’s bushes had sprouted berries the size of apples, each lobe bigger than Revy’s thumbnail, and Lodiga had given them one when none of his family were willing to eat something so odd-looking. Revy and Ber had both eaten much worse on maneuvers, and the giant blackberries were actually delicious. Lodiga had promised them a few canes in the spring if they turned out to breed true, but she’d rather have a good crop of raspberries from her own bushes.
“Go ahead with the cake,” she said. “I’m sure Yiyi will love it.”
“Ah. Well.” Ber paused in her work, frowning. “You heard about Hanla?”
“I heard.” Something in her voice made Revy pause. “Ber, you aren’t thinking—”
“No. No.” Ber patted unnecessarily at the biscuits. “But I might ask him if he’ll take Yiyi. She’s old enough not to be much bother to him, and you’re allowed children at most reconstruction postings, I checked, and she—it—it might be better for her.” She smiled brightly, falsely. “At least the sugar wouldn’t be rationed there. She does love sweets.”
“Ber—” Revy tried to remember what she would have said to Hanla, what she’d have liked to have said if she’d thought of it in time. It was all blank again.
“Mama, there are horses!” Yiyetky burst into the kitchen, kerchief askew.
“There are not,” Ber said firmly. “Wipe your face.”
“I saw them from upstairs—” Yiyi began to protest.
“Hush.” Ber moved as though to brush a smudge off her daughter’s nose, then saw the flour on her own hands and thought better of it. “They’re illusions. Magical nonsense. Looking at them only encourages them.”
“Revy, could you use Yiyi’s help in the garden?” Ber asked. “I’ve got to finish the baking and it’s far too warm to have so many people in here.”
Yiyi gave Revy a pleading look.
“Actually,” Revy said, “what I need is someone to run down to Lodiga’s and see if he’s missing any tomato plants. I’ve got extra and I’d as soon not keep them.” It was a spurious errand and they both knew it, and probably Yiyi did too. There ought to be enough work at this time of year to keep everyone’s hands busy, but then, this wasn’t exactly a working farm these days. Food came from the truck ration, and Revy’s little garden provided enough to stave off monotony and illness, but mostly they just—held on.
“Ah. The blinks?” Ber asked. Revy nodded. There was sympathy in Ber’s gaze; she knew how much Revy had hoped these tomatoes would be different. They would probably be edible, even tasty, but they would be one more break with her old life, and that hurt. “All right, Yiyi, take a basket and fetch some kindling on your way back.”
“But Mama—” Revy nudged Yiyi’s bare ankle with the sole of her shoe; startled, Yiyi subsided. “Yes, Mama.”
“Good girl. Be back for supper.” Ber shuffled back to the oven, her wooden leg dragging, ending both conversations. Revy ushered Yiyi back out into the garden.
“I don’t want to go to Lodiga’s, Auntie Revy, he smells like cabbage and he never stops talking,” Yiyi burst out as soon as the door shut behind them.
“The path goes down by the Cricket,” Revy pointed out. “That’s where you saw the horses, isn’t it? The other side of the brook?” Yiyi stared at her. “Don’t look so surprised. That’s where they always turn up. You’re not the only one who pays attention.”
“Mama doesn’t,” Yiyi said flatly.
“Your mama—tries to be practical,” Revy said, making an effort to be diplomatic. Speaking well of each other in front of the children had always been one of Gran’s rules, and Revy tried to keep it, even when she disagreed vehemently with the other adults of the house. Sometimes Revy thought she understood Yiyi better than Ber did, then felt guilty for thinking so of a mother and daughter. But Yiyi was the one of the children who most reminded Revy of herself at that age, all sharp edges and soft wonderment intermixed in a way that made other people want to poke at her vulnerable spots and then resent her when they drew their hands back bleeding.
“She wants to send me away with Hanla,” Yiyi said. “You can’t tell me that’s fair.”
“Was I the last person to find out about this?” Revy asked, only half joking. She tried to keep her voice light, but imagining Yiyi, or her own childhood self, in a village of strangers made her feel as though the air had turned solid in her throat.
Yiyi shrugged, swinging her basket. “Hanla was making up his mind how to tell you. He knew you’d be mad. You’re mad, aren’t you? You look mad.”
“A little.” Revy considered. “A lot. But not at Hanla, mostly. Just at everything.”
“At the war,” Yiyi suggested.
Revy nodded, and they walked in silence for awhile, down toward the brook. Scrubby little trees edged the path, dogwood and sumac and crabapple, deceptively ordinary-looking, for the most part. She gave a wide berth to one bent crabapple whose fruits had little mouths, with little lips and teeth so lifelike they made her shudder, and Yiyi pointed out a spiderweb that seemed to be spun from bronze wire.
They’d been lucky, though, really, Revy thought. Just a few hours’ walk to the northeast, the spillover magic from the sweep of battles back and forth had lodged in the water instead of the ground. There was no rescuing the people there with trucked-in flour, not when every bucket down a well was as likely to pull up wine or blood or humming frogs as drinkable water. Everyone who lived there had been moved to the reconstruction camps, whole villages together, to the coast or the Kir Range, where magic had been used sparsely if at all and the destruction to be remediated was only the normal kind. Gran had had cousins in one of those villages, Revy was fairly sure; maybe Hanla would come across them, where he went.
The horses were gone by the time Revy and Yiyi reached the little footbridge over Cricket Brook. Not surprising, since illusions never lasted long. Revy wished she knew why it was always horses here. She’d seen other illusions other places around the farm, from time to time, but none as persistent as the horses. It always bothered her that the magic seemed so patternless, so random. Surely there ought to be an explanation for which vegetables came up normally and which ones twisted, a reason the chestnut tree by the barn had borne normal chestnuts for awhile and then suddenly sprouted apple blossoms, a reason the few changes that were steady seemed to be things no-one wanted, like the tomato blinks or the screaming carrots. If someone could just figure it out—
But of course the government wizards would have tried, so even if there was an answer, it was something harder and more expensive than shipping food in or moving people out, and it wasn’t something Revy, whose knowledge was farming with a scatter of artillery repair, was ever going to work out.
She left Yiyetkiy standing at the footbridge, watching hopefully for the horses to reappear, and made her way toward Lodiga’s. Yiyi was mad for horses. There weren’t any left on any of the farms in the county, since they couldn’t be fed and the government only sent rations for people. Revy missed the horses too.
And if the government wizards couldn’t fix it, then what was the point in staying, after all? Revy’s eyes stung abruptly, blurring the brook, the trees, the stones. She didn’t actually know Hanla was wrong. Maybe they should leave while they could, while the people in charge were still willing to offer some compensation for what their war had done to this part of the land. Suppose she stayed, then in a few more years had to give up and leave anyway, with no help, no prospects? What would her stubbornness have accomplished then?
A little ways downstream was the larger stone bridge and the road running south and north, where wagons and occasional trucks clattered between the county seat and the cities of the plain. She’d come that way last autumn in a government bus wheezing and clanking its way southward, shedding discharged soldiers like a goat leaving tufts of hair on every bush it passed. She’d seen the horses then too, running beside the water. Then, they’d been a marvel, not a symptom of disaster. Everything had been wonderful then. She was going home, they’d all survived the war, the farm was still standing, and it was all going to be okay.
Only then Gran died, just three weeks later, as though she’d just been waiting for the last of the family to make it back. Then they took in the harvest and realized how much of the corn was strange: some ears black inside and rotten, others with kernels like glass that shattered when dropped, still others that looked sweet and sound but dissolved into smoke when they touched water. The government truck started bringing food around then, along with promises of good jobs rebuilding in other parts of the country, and Cousin Teoset and his children listened and left. The rations were enough for the family but not for the animals, and Revy and Hanla had slaughtered the goats and the cow at midwinter, all already scrawny from living on corn straw and carrot peels. The chickens lasted nearly until spring, then died just as the snowdrops were coming up, white flowers that chimed like crystal in the wind. They’d have been beautiful, Revy thought, if they weren’t such a sign of everything that was wrong.
Now it was late summer, and the buildings and the garden were all that was left of the farm, and she and Hanla and Ber and Ber’s two children were all that was left of the family. Everything had gone maddeningly strange, and nothing had gotten better, and maybe it was always going to end this way. It was too much for her, too much weight, pressing her flat like her feet pressed the dry brown grass flat underfoot. What could a farmer do to fix a whole broken world?
As she walked back up the path, though, Revy gathered long straight sticks. The peas needed to be restaked. The hot weather had done them good, and they were flopping over the tops of their sticks. She’d been meaning to take care of that for days now—
She laughed at herself when she realized what she was doing. Here she was thinking she’d given up, but still she was working, without thinking about it at all. Did habits count as hope?
Give me a sign, she thought; not quite a prayer, but not quite anything else either. One thing. One thing that’s normal, one thing that’s like it was. I want to stay, I truly do, but I’m just so tired. I’m tired of this strangeness, of never knowing what’s going to live or grow. Give me something I can hold on to.
The gate hung open, as it had for months. Revy walked through the yard, past the white-blossoming raspberry bushes she’d been pollinating with a brush, past the bare strip of ground where the zucchini had failed. Ber was singing to herself in the kitchen, her voice carrying through the open windows. Revy dropped her bundle of sticks beside the peas and fished in her pockets for twine and knife.
She noticed it then, as she lifted up the first of the vines for staking. Some of the pea flowers had dropped, and green pods swelled at the ends of the vines. In this heat they grew quickly; she was sure they hadn’t been there the last time she’d looked at the patch. Peas, normal peas, maybe that’s the sign. I want to stay— and then she saw how dark the shadows within the pods were and felt the vine shiver under her fingers. Not peas, then, but something else, something rotten and horrible. The knife fell from her other hand, useless, as everything was useless here. This was a sign, then—proof that Hanla was right.
Some perverse impulse, a desire to see just how bad it really was, made her pluck one of the pods and slide her fingernail down the seam. She opened the two halves and jerked back in horror, dropping the pod. It was full of something moving, dark and furred. Insects?
One crawled out of the pod, and then another, wriggling in the dirt. They were bees.
Revy hadn’t seen bees since coming back to the farm. No-one knew why the backwash of magic seemed to have banished them. Now they twitched on the ground in front of her, fat black and yellow bodies and delicate little translucent wings. Had bees’ wings always had that faint tinge of green to them, or was it only the sunlight through the vines? Revy couldn’t remember.
Hatched from pea pods. But still. Bees.
Cautiously, she plucked another pod and split it open. More bees, clinging asleep to the inside of the otherwise empty green shell. The ones on the ends were very, very small.
One of them seemed to shake itself awake, a tiny vibration against her fingertips, and its small wings lifted and it launched itself into the air, blundering toward the flowering raspberry patch. Another followed, and another. The air hummed with bee-flight.
It was the sound of summer, the sound she’d been missing.
Revy’s vision swam with tears. She’d cried earlier, at the river, but that was despair; this was hope, it was life returning. She couldn’t have Gran back, or the world from before the war; but now at least there were bees again—strange bees, but bees—and maybe there would be more summers.
A small hand tugged on her apron. “I saw the horses, Auntie Revy,” Yiyi said quietly.
“I thought you might.”
“They were eating the grass,” Yiyi added. “They’re not not real.”
Were there going to be horses again, then, as well as bees? Strange horses, that appeared and vanished; strange bees that grew from vines; blackberries the size of apples, sun-warmed and sweet; tomatoes that didn’t die in times of drought but went looking for water instead. The magic had changed the world, and some of the changes were maddening, but it might still be a place where people could live, and thrive.
One of the bees hummed past Yiyi’s head and out into the weedy abandoned field. Revy closed her eyes, feeling the warm sun on her skin, Yiyi’s hair brushing against her arm, the solid ground under her feet. In the kitchen, Ber sang one of Gran’s old songs.
“I want to stay,” said Yiyi.
“Me too,” Revy said. “Me too.”