My mother smiles as my brother kills himself. She cheers as he jerks his birth knife sideways; she claps as he opens his throat.
Mother sings in the old tongue, swaying along with the rest of the village—their palms raised to the looming pistil of the Godflower—as the priests move in, wading through the deep snow, their white robes turning red beneath my brother’s spray.
Brother staggers, then collapses into a snowdrift. The priests haul him out by his ankles and drag him across the square. They toss his body into the grave I refused to help him dig, then take to burying him.
With the funeral finished, the others crowd my mother, and her face goes rapturous under their praise: Mother and her golden womb, Mother and her dutiful children, Mother and her ever-swollen belly, Mother and her many, many sacrifices.
No one so much as glances my way, and for once in my life, I manage to feel grateful. Why spoil Mother’s joy by pointing out the lone exception, the nameless girl whose suicide is two weeks overdue, the wretch for whom twenty sun-pocked winters is not near enough, the selfish creature who can barely sleep at night because her every waking thought is haunted by the possibility that the Godflower is just a fucking plant.
Brother’s sacrifice wasn’t notable—he was appreciated, but not loved, as is the lot of we children of the flower—so come daybreak, I’m not surprised that I’m the only one waiting for his body to bloom, squatting beside his grave as the snowfall gives him a second burial.
The snow shifts, as if some small creature is stirring underneath. Then a dome forms, and the snow around it is melting and dribbling away.
Brother’s flower lifts from beneath the snow and blooms like a small sunrise, glowing and warm already. It’s striking, and not unlike a sunflower, though its disk is packed with blue seeds and ringed by orange petals, all perched on a stalk that seems too thin to support its weight.
The flower matures quickly—it goes from the size of an acorn to that of my fist within twenty minutes, and by then all the surrounding snow has warmed away. In an hour or two, it’ll stand shoulder-high and the ground will be fertile for fifty feet in every direction.
“Hello, Brother,” I say.
The flower shudders in response.
I catch a whiff of rot. By tomorrow, the flower will have perfumed itself, will emanate some bright scent like mint or lime or cinnamon, something to mask the stink of the remains it’s feeding upon.
“Do you find the terms of your martyrdom agreeable?” I say.
The flower shudders again, then leans back to regard the sky.
“Are you very much pleased with yourself? I hope you are. Mother says you should be very pleased. Killing yourself at sixteen, with four long winters to burn—you’re so fucking selfless. That’s what everyone keeps telling me, over and over. As if I didn’t see the point the first time.”
The flower cocks sideways, dog-like, confused.
“Did mother tell you she’s giving your birth knife to the child she’s carrying? Isn’t that a lovely thought? How many days do you think it’ll be before you’re just another boy we’ve forgotten?”
Brother’s flower spins about stupidly, as if seeing the world for the first time. The heat it’s putting off is becoming oppressive, so I step back and plop down into a patch of thawing mud.
“I’m sorry,” I say, quieter now, the anger giving way to guilt, just as it always does, just as it’s supposed to. “But you shouldn’t have gone so early. I didn’t even know you well enough to miss you.”
I hear the priest before I see him kicking through the snow. He pauses at the edge of the flower’s range, where dirt meets ice. He’s got a pair of tillers over his right shoulder, and a bag of seeds dangles from the belt that cinches his robe. The priest is nearing forty at least, and I despise him for the silvery tint of his hair, doubly so for the wrinkles he’s been allowed to accrue.
The flowers will not feed on consecrated flesh; such is the convenience of priesthood.
I stand, smooth my skirts with muddy hands. “Strawberries.”
“Strawberries?” he says.
I look to the flower. “My brother loved strawberries.”
“Loves,” the priest says, gentle in his reproach. “He hasn’t gone anywhere, child; he’s a part of the Godflower now. He’ll never leave us.” Then, a moment later: “And I think strawberries will do quite nicely. Would you like to help?” He offers me a tiller.
I grab the tool with both hands but wait for him to begin; I want his tiller in the dirt before I lower mine.
The priest raises a bushy eyebrow. “You’re holding that tool like a weapon,” he says, and he’s right—in fact, I’m already wondering just how deep the tines would bite if I put the tool to his temple. Deep enough, I imagine. He jabs his tiller into the ground and gets to work.
“I’ve never used one,” I say, and mimic his grip, then his motions, while watching him out of the corner of my eye. I don’t think he’s here to kill me—only a corpse born of suicide will bloom; at least so say the priests—but I’m not about to take any chances.
The priest nods. “You’re doing just fine. Tell me, child: have you taken a name for yourself?”
“Of course not,” I say, feigning the indignity that is expected of me. “The Godflower does not name its petals.”
He laughs, the easy laughter of a man unburdened by suicidal expectation. “Well, that is what you’re supposed to say. But being nameless does make conversation a bit difficult at times, don’t you think? Particularly in a home like yours, with so many children.”
“It’s not my place to question the—”
The priest interrupts me with a sigh. He clasps both palms atop the handle of his tiller and leans down onto it. “I called myself Chesma,” he says.
My eyes alight at this heresy of his.
“I was a child once myself,” he says. “We had our languages, as I imagine you do. Snap your fingers thrice for sister three, knock on the headboard five times for brother five. But we had names, too. Some we shared, most we didn’t. I kept mine close, thinking somehow that would help, that my secret would save me.” He purses cracked lips. “If I never told a soul, would I still have erred?”
“Of course,” I say.
“Again, the right answer. But do you know why?”
I shrug, bored of his game. All the priests talk like this, dancing around their points as if nobody’s ever told them that their obfuscation makes them seem tiresome rather than wise.
“It’s because these skins we wear are transient,” the priest says. “Our lives here are but a blink of the Godflower’s eye, and to name a thing is to give it permanence, to anchor it in memory.”
“Mmm,” I say.
He nods, caught up in his pontification. “When the Godflower sang to me for the very first time, it used the name I’d given myself, though I’d never spoken it aloud. And hearing that name in its voice...it sounded so false. It just dropped away, like a leaf, like it’d never fit me in the first place.”
“Interesting,” I say, as I wonder how long he spent rehearsing this little speech. In any case, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he brought two tillers with him.
He pauses, laughs again. “I’m boring you, aren’t I?”
“Not at all,” I say, and the lie rings false.
“All of this is just to say that none are above redemption.” He cups my chin in a callused hand and tilts my face up to his. “But you should know that the Godflower’s patience is waning. I hope to see you buried soon.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“When you’re ready, of course,” he adds, a little later.
I linger at the edge of the flower fields, watching the other children glut themselves on pineapple and blueberry. Each child carries a birth knife at their hip, a constant reminder of what’s expected of them. But for now—for the youngest among them, at least—the knife is just a tool, a sharp blade with which to cut sticky fruit.
Three of the children have shed their clothes, and they stand nude before the warmth of a flower that’s nursing a grove of kiwi trees. The children sprint for the snow beyond the flower’s reach, belly-flopping into the drifts, vanishing entirely as if into smoke.
They emerge one at a time, laughing and shivering, and return to sunning themselves before the flower’s heat, the snow dropping from their skin and hair. It’s a game whose appeal I’ve never understood, where the winner is she who stays in the snow—and therefore suffers—longest.
I skirt the fields, though it’d be faster to cut through them, because I don’t like the way the flowers spin to watch me, all of them at once.
So I wander down the snow-choked street until I find a priest exiting our home, which isn’t unusual. I can already tell that Mother has birthed her child, given the wails sounding from inside.
“All’s well?” I call out, my fingers brushing the handle of my birth knife.
“A healthy child,” the priest says. “Another sister. The Godflower will be pleased.”
“Wonderful,” I say, as I brush past him. I shut the door behind me before he has a chance to continue the conversation.
Apart from the shrieks of the newest arrival, the house is quiet but creaky; still in that particular way that only occurs after a birth, when mother’s attention is moored to her latest born and the parade of child-hungry priests is still two months from dirtying our floors with their muddy feet.
How I hated mopping their footprints from the floorboards even as they kept coming, so numerous that Mother had me wedge the front door open with a stray shoe. How I hated Mother for thanking each of them in turn, as if them fucking her were some sort of charity.
How I hated her for not knowing which child had left that shoe behind.
Someone slips into bed with me.
I’m on my back, breathless, one hand digging beneath my pillow, grasping for my birth knife. Then I’m panicking as the blade thumps down into the long gap between wall and mattress.
“Easy,” Brother says, and I relax, mostly. He wriggles close until our shoulders are touching. As the pounding of my blood subsides, the soft noises of the bunkroom creep in: twenty-three children snoring, whispering, giggling.
“We need a signal,” I say.
“A signal? For what?”
“I could’ve killed you.”
Brother sighs. “How many times do we need have to have this conversation? Nobody’s coming for you.”
“I bet that’s easy to believe when you’ve got three winters left.”
Brother looks away.
Everyone knows he’s been courting suicide these last few weeks—we’ve all seen the way he’s been gorging himself, plumping his body for the Godflower’s consumption, and every child in this room has awoken to the sound of him dragging a whetstone across his birth knife—but he’s never come out and said it, so we pretend otherwise.
“We could do it together,” Brother says, “if you’re afraid. The priests say the knives are so sharp that you barely feel it.”
Heat floods my cheeks. “And how exactly would they know that, Brother?”
“Did you happen across a priest who’d just slit his throat? Were those comforting words the last he sputtered? Or do you simply believe them because they’re convenient?”
“The priests know things,” he says, like a child, and just like that, I’m ashamed. Ashamed of how pathetic I’ve made him sound; ashamed for sowing doubt when any day could be his last.
But mostly, I’m ashamed that his faith hasn’t rubbed off on me. That I exist in a land made livable by magic but am so broken that I don’t even feel it, not really, not the way everybody else does.
I so want to believe. I so want to let this life of mine go, knowing that a better one is around the corner. But what I can’t get past—what I know I’ll never get past, with a certainty that borders on the tenacity of Brother’s faith—is the priests’ insistence that I not make the most of this life first, just in case.
“Forget it,” I say, and rest my head on his shoulder.
“Maybe they don’t even know.”
“Your birthday. Mother’s count could be off by a week or two, even a couple months, or...”
I shake my head; it’s a lovely thought, but a laughable one, too. “Mother’s not the sort to forget a birthday. And I could feel it the morning I turned twenty. I don’t know how to describe it, not exactly, but something changed in the way the priests look at me. They know. I think everybody knows.”
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“I don’t know.” He rubs his forehead. “What would it even mean if it weren’t true?”
I scan the nearest bunks and find them occupied, so I pull the covers up over our heads. “It’d mean that the flowers aren’t really us. That we don’t reincarnate the way the priests promise.”
“So we wouldn’t become part of the Godflower?” he says, his breath warming my face. “We wouldn’t bloom, we’d just...die? No afterlife, no love, no meaning, no nothing? Why would anyone want to believe to that?”
“It doesn’t have anything to do with what people want to believe.”
“Then what of the sacrifices?”
“A means to an end,” I say. “The Godflower needs priests to grow, and more children means more priests, more mothers. But the Godflower chooses, what, one priest out of every twenty boys? One mother out of every fifty girls? Too many mouths to feed...unless you can find another way to utilize the children.”
“So it’s a conspiracy,” Brother says, and I know I’ve lost him.
“Maybe. Or it could just be that way back in the beginning, someone lied for their own benefit, and everything spiraled out of control from there. Our priests could have no idea they’re wrong—they could honestly believe that prodding us to suicide is in our best interest.
“And if the priests have been misled, how would they ever find out? They can’t, right? Because that’s how the whole thing’s been arranged—it’s all a matter of faith, and nothing will ever be proven, and somehow that’s a good thing, as if we’d be worse off for knowing. How do you not find that possibility terrifying?”
“Well, if I had to choose between conspiracy and magic, I’d prefer to believe in magic.”
I sigh and yank the covers back down, roll away to face the wall. “So would I, if it were a choice. But it isn’t.”
A priest asks me to fetch some water for the Godflower.
He is obnoxiously insistent that only the purest water will do, so I’ve got a walking stick balanced across my shoulders, an empty bucket dangling from a notch on each end.
I head out by way of a narrow footpath where the snow has been trampled into firmness, the sort of path that’s likely to fill in under even the slightest breath of wind. But the sun is high and the sky is clear, and today the razor-toothed peaks that ring our little village seem to hold a bit less menace than usual.
Here the earth is flat until it’s nearly vertical, so I can already see the lake and the ironwood trees that frame it, their lavender blossoms bright against the snow.
I keep to the very center of the trail, wary of stepping into the deep softness to either side. Eventually, I weave through a cluster of ironwoods and find that my path no longer exists. The going becomes tenuous and awkward, each step taken with the expectation that at any moment the snow’s going to give way and plunge me hip-deep into the cold. But it never happens, which seems a good omen.
I step onto the lake’s frozen surface, and the ice groans beneath my weight. I shuffle towards the center, where the priests maintain a hole from which to dredge clean water. I kneel beside it, set a bucket down, and dip the other beneath the ice.
There is a sound like that of breaking glass. Then icy water splashes the back of my neck. I turn, slowly, so slowly, to find a jagged hole in the ice where something’s broken through. Another crack, another splash. I see only white cloth, fluttering behind a dark tree trunk.
A crack spiders out from the hole and runs between my legs. I know I should lie down, should disperse my weight and crawl out, but the ice is alive beneath me, and it feels like any movement at all will cause collapse.
Crack. I’m falling, and it seems to take forever. The plunge should be gradual; feet knees hips and so on, but the water hits me all at once, a shock that’s got my lungs sucking water, pulling shards of ice deep into my chest.
I break the surface, thrashing. But when I reach for the ice, it crumbles beneath my fingers. So it goes again and again, until the ice stays firm and I can lever myself up enough to catch my breath.
From there, I hoist myself out inch by inch, praying to the Godflower that the ice holds. It does, and once I’m out, I drag myself across the glassy surface of the lake by my fingernails until I reach the shore.
I crawl through trees that all look the same, my body a numb, foreign thing, until I tumble out of the snow and flop into a pile of mud. It’s warm, so warm that I rub it all over myself, and it burns, and I don’t care, because the pain’s better than feeling nothing.
A flower bends down over me, its green petals emerald-bright. The branches sway overhead, dropping blossoms that smell like roses.
By the time I’m strong enough to walk, my clothes are damp with sweat and my skin is red and angry, blistered where it pressed too close to the flower’s warmth.
I strike out for the hazy brightness of the flower fields, towards a depression in the snow that I hope is the path. But there’s a shape standing against the snow, a figure dressed in white. They’re dragging a sled behind them, piled high with dark firewood. My legs go all wobbly—it’s a priest.
And then it clicks: that cloth waving behind the irontree was a priest, waiting. A priest who tried to drown me. I take a long step back into the cover of the oasis.
I could stay here, yes—but then what? Hide each time someone comes looking for water? Pilfer from the flower fields until I’m caught and hanged as a heretic? I gaze around at the mountains, so tall and terrible that no trader has risked their passes in nearly a decade. Never has the world seemed so small.
So I call out, just a wordless yell that carries over the snow and reverberates around the valley. The priest waves, waits.
I’m shivering by the time I reach him, my sweaty clothes gone stiff in the cold. But my knife’s heavy against my hip, which is no small comfort.
“What...happened?” the priest says, just as forced as I expected.
I must be a wonder to look at, between the frostbite and the sunburn, the frozen skirts and the exposed skin. “The ice gave way when I was getting water,” I say. “I lost both the buckets.”
“But you made it out,” the priest says. “That’s what matters.” He upends his sled and the load of firewood topples into the snow. “Here, sit. The wood can wait.”
The sled’s simple—just a few thin boards tied together to form a platform, with a wedge tacked onto the front to help it ride over the snow. I sit in the center and try not to scream.
The priest shrugs his robe off and drapes it over my shoulders. It’s heavy, much heavier than I thought it’d be, and it smells like clove and old sweat. But it covers me entirely, so I slip my knife free beneath its smothering weight, just in case.
“Thank you, Father,” I say.
“Of course.” He’s got a harness on, and his first few steps are plodding as he pulls the sled into motion, but then he’s found an easy rhythm and I’m gliding over the snow.
“Did you hear anything?” the priest says between breaths. “When you went under.”
“Mmm,” he says, his voice dripping with disappointment. “You’d know it if you’d heard it.”
Maybe that was what he was after: to force me into a moment of need so that the Godflower could save the day. I wonder if he thinks it a pity that I saved myself instead.
But he wouldn’t see it that way, would he? He’d think the ice held because the Godflower willed it to hold. Oh, what I would give to see magic in the every day. Disbelieving is so lonely.
And no doubt the priest thinks his act a service; thinks himself more savior than slayer. Because what is a body worth if you’re certain it’s transient? Because if he’s right—and if there’s a better life waiting for me on the other side—then he’s faultless, no matter how cruel his methods.
“What does it mean?” I say. “That the Godflower didn’t sing to me. That it never has.”
He shrugs. “Perhaps your test is simply greater than most.”
“What do you mean?”
“What weight would your sacrifice carry if you truly knew it would be rewarded?”
“I’d still be dying,” I say. “Why isn’t that enough? Why can’t the Godflower just prove it’s what everyone claims it is?” I squeeze the handle of my knife, hard. “I just don’t see what the Godflower gets out of playing games with our lives.”
“We all carry doubts, child. But doubt does not a monster make.”
It seems to me that it’s certainty that turns men into monsters, though I bite my tongue.
“The moment is coming,” he continues, “when you’ll have to choose your path. And I hope that when you do, you consider the example you’re setting for the other children. This body of yours belongs to the Godflower—to all of us—and we’ll need your bloom to get through the winter, and the next, and so on.”
“I understand,” I say, my heart heavy, so very heavy. “A leap of faith.”
“A leap of faith,” the priest says, nodding.
In the end, it turns out that Brother was right—the knives really are sharp, so sharp that you can barely feel them bite, no matter how deeply they slip beneath the skin.
At least I think that’s the case, because the priest didn’t scream when I drove the knife into his back. But maybe he did feel it and I just happened to hit a lung. A miracle either way, I suppose.
In any case, I bury the priest shallow, so shallow that his head and hands and feet protrude from the snow and only a few inches of frozen dirt cover his chest. Then it’s my turn to wait.
When tomorrow comes, we will see once and for all if the Godflower is willing to feed upon holy flesh. We will see if a murdered body blooms the same as that of a martyr. We will see just how many of our sacrifices are necessary.
And I will face what comes with clear eyes. Not for me, but for the many children waiting to be born with a knife already at their throats.