Heart Rot Chapter 3
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Comalpo rose early the next morning to red sunsrise peeking through the slits in the window-screens and hitting him on the nose. All his siblings were still deeply asleep; to his right, Tliichpil had the blanket pulled up high enough that nothing of him could be seen but his hair, which stuck up like an unkempt hedgehog. Carefully, Comalpo stood up and brushed his own back down, then tied on his aprons and shrugged on his tunic. He unlatched his hammock and crept over to the hearth.

He slipped on another piece of fuel to replenish the coals. Poking a hand into the water jug, he found that needed to be refilled as well, so he hauled it onto one hip and slipped out over the rear threshold. Usually it was Lotlixya who woke up the household in the mornings, but she had been very clear anyone was allowed to help her if they wanted.

They hadn’t brought her any fowl yesterday. This would make up for it.

One of the moons - Yeri, the larger - was still hanging fat and yellow above the treetops to the west as he went up to the dam. It seemed that scarcely anybody else had woken yet either - he passed one woman coming back with her own filled water jug, who met his eyes quickly and then looked away again, speeding up her pace.

The lake surface was dusted with pollen, and he swept open a clear space upon the surface before dipping the jug in. A water strider darted away as it filled with several gloops, each increasing in tone. Several paces up the bank, a snake slithered out of the overhanging brush and dipped its own head neatly to the water; Comalpo froze, jug still underwater, watching its tongue flicker in and out.

They didn’t like to come near the trails, he reminded himself. Too much smell of human. He should be safe; it was really only lone hunters that they would attack.

It raised its head and delicately tasted at the air, then turned and vanished again among the dappled shadows. Comalpo let out his breath and drew up the filled jug, drops trickling down his leg as he brought it back.

“Oh!” chirped Lotlixya when he stepped back across the threshold, rising from her crouch by the hearth. Her hammock had been re-rolled as well, and there were strands of red-brown dough stuck over her hands. “Thank you! I wondered where you’d got to with that.” She picked the dough off absently before reaching out to take the jug from him.

“No, no, I’ve got it.” He crouched to put it back down, then straightened, stretching out his wrists. “Can I help you with anything?”

“Yeah, go wake up your lazy siblings.”

Tliichpil was the closest, so he received the dubious honour of being shaken awake first. “Mrrp,” he hummed like a cat, pushing at Comalpo’s hands before shoving down the edge of his blanket and elbowing himself up to sitting.

Comalpo winced involuntarily. The whole right half of Tliichpil’s face was bruised blue and maroon, both his eyes shadowed and swollen. More bruises mottled his arms and chest.

Tliichpil caught the look and frowned pathetically. “Does it really look that bad?”

“Honestly? Yes. Does it hurt much?”

He crinkled his nose. “Some. Thought it would be a little worse, though, actually.”

Comalpo woke and helped his youngest sister and brother Catlitla and Talzalhi into their small sleeveless tunics, and then tied second-youngest sister Nochci’s sash for her in the back. By the time he had finished plaiting Nochci’s hair up for her, Lotlixya had called that the food was ready, and they all piled over to snatch up cakes off the hearth, passing around the jar of honey.

“Can you make special Lotli stew for the evening meal?” Catlitla asked her, mouth half-full of cake.

She sucked a dribble of honey off her forefinger. “Probably,” she said. “I know I have bindweed and redshade - Mala, you’re right over there, what other good stew ingredients do we have?”

He twisted around to investigate her storage baskets, picking off the lids and propping them against the wall. “Well, you’ve got a lot of beans.”

“Don’t we have anything in the way of cured meat?”

Comalpo lifted off every lid again in turn. “No,” he answered. “Not seeing any here.”

“Ah, I probably used the last two days ago. I think I was assuming that - well, never mind that now. Go down and see if Inttlicato’s got something we could trade him for, will you? Please?”

“I’ll go with you,” said Tliichpil, starting to rise.

“No you won’t.” Lotlixya’s voice was stern. “You stay here with me.”

“Sister -“ He made an exasperated sound. “Look, I’m sorry.

“Doesn’t matter. You stay with me.”

Comalpo got up and put his bowl away back into its niche, catching eyes with Tliichpil as he did so. What does she think I’m going to do, his said, find another cliff in our village to fall off?

Ah, well, you know it’s easier not to argue. He wiggled his fingers at them in goodbye and stepped back out into the street. Now there was more activity - he almost got tripped by two young children chasing each other around the stoop-poles and trees, jumping sideways over a gutter to avoid catastrophe.

All the screens and blinds on Inttlicato’s house, when he reached it, had been folded away or rolled up, letting the air and busy sounds pass through. Inttlicato himself was seated pride of place in the middle, sewing a grass mat. Snick, snick, snick went his needle through the weave. Comalpo had to clear his throat to get his attention.

Inttlicato’s face went carefully bland when he looked up. “Comalpo,” he said coolly.

His fingers rested on the cob wall. “We have run out of stored meat. Could I impose upon you for one pot’s worth, just for the little ones today?” he added. Lotlixya had told him to do this too - invoke his younger siblings, because Inttlicato, being a father himself, had a soft spot for the younger children. He ought to have brought Catlitla along with him, he thought. No-one could reject her little face.

“And what would you give me in return?” Inttlicato asked.

“My brother has brought back much good stone recently. He can give you a knife blade, or arrowheads, if you desire.”

Inttlicato folded needle and cord inside the mat and got up, already heading within the house. While he fetched the quail, Comalpo leaned absently on the wall, looking around. A beehive-shaped stove with all its stoppers pulled out squatted behind his abandoned seat, his daughter stirring something steaming in a large pot seated on its top while another girl sawed dried stems on a counter beside her. At his voice, the other girl looked over her shoulder towards them, then nudged Inttlicato’s daughter gently and whispered something in her ear. The steam and smoke wreathed their heads in white veils.

He could make a reasonable assumption as to what they were saying, though. It was always the same thing, why it was usually Lotlixya went out to borrow or trade if they ran low on anything, why perhaps he and Tliichpil were afforded friendliness while their younger siblings true sympathy. Why Mizapinna had not yet offered to take Lotlixya into his home as his wife, even though they had loved each other for years and she was already two months with his child. Because if he were to accept her as his family now, while both Comalpo and Tliichpil lived, he would be taking them implicitly as his brothers as well, before he knew what their fates as twins would be.

Comalpo did not begrudge him his caution. You know, in other places they would have killed you both just to be sure, their mother had told them frequently, and only sometimes when she was angry and unappreciated-feeling. But thankfully, long before his and Tliichpil’s birth, the village had established in their laws that no-one was to be punished for a sin not yet committed, knowing how easily such a law could be unscrupulously used, for it was impossible for anyone to prove they would not sin - only that they had not so far.

He had tried to think it through, once, when they were younger - had sent up a child’s small prayer to Hualma, please, don’t let me turn out to be the evil one, and then immediately been swamped with shame. For how could he have been so selfish, wishing that doom would fall on Tliichpil instead? So he had amended the prayer, No, let me be the evil one. Then Tliichpil will be good, and it is the right thing to do, to wish good on others above oneself.

He did not feel in his heart particularly evil yet. Or particularly good. Mostly some of both, and a little bit worried and very confused, but Inttlicato was coming back with the quail and pressing it into his hand, and that was simpler. He thanked him again profusely, arranged the price for later, and left to their suspicious following glares.

I don’t believe it, Lotlixya professed, every time any of them asked her. Your mother let me hold you both as soon as you were born, and I still remember it. You were very small and very red and there was nothing evil about either of you, and there still isn’t. Stop thinking like that.

If only it were so easy, simply to command one’s thoughts.

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It actually would have been nice to have Tliichpil available today, though, he thought as he pushed back through the screen, body quietly aching. He hadn’t had to pick up his adze in a very long time, but now that the weather had dried he had ought to get ahead on trimming poles and splitting logs to dry. The poles he would need to rebuild their quail enclosure had to be shaped when they were green and left to cure. It would have been half the amount of work if she had just given him the brother who was folded up against the wall working a spindle for her.

To tease him, he groaned and stretched luxuriously. “Would have appreciated your help.”

Tliichpil rolled his eyes and tucked his spinning into Lotlixya’s closest textile basket. He stood up and rolled out an ankle.

Lotlixya stood too and did the same, then quickly peeked at the pot sitting next to the hearth. “Catli!” she called. “Talzi! Come in!”

Comalpo heard the noise of their scurrying feet quickly pulled up outside the rear door, a hissed “Lotli says we have to wash our hands!”, and the spilling of water from its hanging gourd before Catlitla and Talzalhi appeared, still dirt-speckled from where Lotlixya had them playing in her garden. Talzalhi left a small trail of murky-water droplets as he went over to Tliichpil.

“Up!” he chirped. “Up!”

Tliichpil brought his hand to his chin and pursed his lips, mock-considering. “Well,” he said, “I don’t know. That wasn’t a very polite way of asking…”

“Please!”

He laughed and reached down, hauling him up onto his hip. Talzalhi wrapped himself around Tliichpil’s middle like a marmoset, little fists pulling at the back of his tunic. Tliichpil reached around with one hand and ruffled his hair, then kissed him performatively on the forehead. “You’re my favourite little brother, you know that?”

“What about me?” Catlitla ran over and grabbed onto one of his legs. “I thought I was your favourite!”

“Yes, you’re my favourite littlest sister too.”

“Even more favourite than Nochci?”

“Definitely. She’s only my favourite middle sister.”

She giggled. “Tell us a story, Pila?” she begged, pulling at him.

“Yes!” added Talzalhi. “Story! Please!”

Tliichpil looked over her head to Lotlixya, who nodded. “Still be a little while,” she said. “You’ve time.”

He dropped down to a crouch against the wall, resettling Talzalhi on his lap. Catlitla curled herself down by his knee. “Listen,” he began, “and you shall hear a story. Once there lived, in a village very like this one, a -“

Lotlixya set down her spoon and arched her back catlike away from the hearth.

“Getting hot?” Comalpo asked her.

“Yeah.” She stood, stretched, and shifted over to the wall. With a delighted squeak, Catlitla hopped up, ran over, and plunked herself down into her place, stretching out her little fingers towards the coals. She was right at that age where fire was amazingly interesting, and where Lotlixya and Tliichpil had to keep warning her away from playing with it too much. Privately, Comalpo thought it would probably be a more educational experience to let her burn herself once, and then she would remember.

Lotlixya twiddled with a fringe on the tapestry hanging behind her. It had been made by her own mother’s mother, and then passed down to her mother, and finally to her. Heavy with work, wool, and beads, it took pride of place on their northern wall, depicting the two moons even closer than they passed in their closest approach in the sky, for here they overlapped - Yeri, larger and yellower like okoi fruit, his face with the single bright scar, and Ina his sister, who kept the cycle of the months, only two-thirds the size and ashen grey. They all knew it would go with Lotlixya when she married. They also all faintly regretted that fact.

There was a sudden commotion outside, and then a hand banging against the doorjamb. “Lotlixya!” someone shouted accusatorily from outside.

“Coming!” she called back, hastily brushing flour off her apron and rushing over to the screen. It was opened to a woman with frizzed hair and a furious expression holding two children each by the upper arm - one a boy with dirt all over his face and his free hand clamped across his nose and mouth, not-quite-preventing blood trickling out between the fingers, and the other Nochci, lips curled back and hissing like an angry rat. Her hands were still fisted and her arm was turning red where she was struggling to get loose.

“You need to control your little band of troublemakers,” she snapped. “I found your sister fighting with my son.”

“Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry! I will talk to her, I promise,” Lotlixya said, hauling Nochci against her. “Nochci, say you are sorry.”

“No! I’m not sorry! He said -“

“Again, I’m so sorry,” Lotlixya offered as she pulled the screen back across. The woman shot them all one poisonous look before she vanished behind it. She immediately fell down to one knee so she could look Nochci in the eyes. “Nochci, I am very disappointed in you.”

“But he said -“

“It does not matter what he said. You do not hit people, for any reason.”

“But - but -“

No, Nochci. Are you listening to me?”

“But he said he pushed him!” she wailed, pointing over at them.

Comalpo and Tliichpil gaped. Lotlixya spun around to look at them. There was absolutely no way to keep gossip from spreading throughout their village, and besides, many people had seen him dragging a bruised and dripping brother back to their home yesterday, so the knowledge that Tliichpil had fallen into the cataract was by now universal.

She glared back at Nochci. “Really? He said that Comalpo pushed Tliichpil into the river?”

“Yes!” she screeched. “He said that he wanted him to die so that he would get more of our inheritance from you when he marries, because then it will only be divided among four of us instead of five, and because he’s jealous that Tliichpil can make better knives than he can, and, and -“

Wow. That was… convoluted. Lotlixya was still looking at them searchingly, as though to try and winnow out whether they had done anything to propagate this rumour. But Comalpo and Tliichpil were, well, Comalpo-and-Tliichpil. Nothing they ever did was assumed innocent. “Lotli, you can’t really believe that,” he said, spreading his hands. “That’s moronic.”

“I don’t!” she said. “Ugh, that little -“ Realizing that their younger siblings were still within earshot, she stopped, although a giggle slipped out of Nochci anyway. Lotlixya turned back to her. “Don’t you laugh - this still is not that funny.” She took hold of her shoulders gently. “Even if he should not have been saying such things, what you did was still inappropriate. You cannot right a wrong by doing another wrong.” Nochci’s face had grown serious again. “So while I do not fault you for wanting to defend your brothers’ honour - next time, choose a better way.” She tapped her on the breastbone to punctuate the statement. “You hear?”

“Yes, Lotli.”

“Good. Now go clean yourself up, it is almost time to eat.”

Nochci hurried out to the back door, and they could hear water spilling from the gourd. Lotlixya scooped stew into a bowl, muttering some very uncomplimentary things about rumour-mongers.

“It’s all right, sister, really,” Comalpo said, coming forward again to help.

Lotlixya sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I know, and I know I shouldn’t be the one complaining when it’s you two that get the brunt of it. It’s just the principle of the thing, you know?”

He nodded.

“Also, I can see so many things wrong with that plot,” Tliichpil piped up. Yes, Comalpo thought, not least of which the part where I would be heartbroken if you died, far more than any inheritance could soothe, for you are more valuable to me than anything else in the entire world.

After all, it wasn’t as though - Tliichpil hadn’t died, so they couldn’t demand any punishment for him. Not like when he had had only nine summers and had been accused of killing Eztlicencuil’s dog, which had gone missing and was then found one morning at the edge of its master’s fields with its stomach sliced open as if by a knife. Someone must have suggested him as the culprit, and he supposed that was all it had taken - Eztlicencuil’s youngest daughter had reported seeing him sneaking suspiciously around their farm, and she had been trusted on that. His father had been forced to pay the price the dog would have gained for its selling, because he hadn’t yet been old enough to be lashed. I know I didn’t, he had thought to himself while listening to himself be thoroughly lambasted after three unsuccessful denials, one snatch of warmth to curl his fingers around.

And it was the same here: he had to believe that the truth meant something, even if nobody else would ever know it.

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