Heart Rot: Chapter 4
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He can barely breathe around the smell of leafmould. It is as heavy in the crevices of his lungs as stone.

A collar of sharpened sticks pierces his chest, scraping past rib and sternum. The fungal taste is replaced with wet, bitter, gumming together his teeth. The bone of his jaw warps and groans under the strain of trying to pry them apart - if only he can speak this can be over, if only he can speak he can beg mercy and it can all be well, but there is too much leafmould and acrid air and blood-gum pressing in, crushing his chest. Desperately he flings his head back, trying to force more space - all at once it ruptures. He feels every rib shatter, every vertebra, and white pain-light tumbles through the cracks and cuts the world into pieces.

He came to with a gasp. It was still dark - that was the first thing his mind recognized, and that was a long panicked moment thinking it was still true, he was lying as bone-fragments buried in humus right then. But then there was wool instead of leafmould under his cheek, and gradually the familiar curve of his hammock, the smoke of the low-burned hearth, the slow and reliable breathing of the others along their row filtered back in.

Comalpo pushed his blanket back and sat up, swinging.

“Comalpo?” Tliichpil’s sleepy voice floated up from behind him. “Are you all right?” The creak of the hook and rustle of cloth told him that he too had risen; two soft footsteps, and he felt him standing behind him, close enough to touch if he only leaned back. “What’s wrong?”

He dragged a sweaty palm down over his face. “I -“ He shut his eyes, but that just brought the blackness back, so he opened them again. “I’m fine. Go back to sleep.”

“You don’t look fine,” he observed bluntly.

“And be quiet. You’ll wake the little ones.”

Tliichpil’s silence indicated he too was looking over Comalpo’s head at their younger siblings, none of whom had so much as twitched. “Doubtful.” He dropped businesslike to his hands and knees and slid underneath, appearing near Comalpo’s feet. “Shove over,” he said, and sat down beside him. The cloth tipped their shoulders together.

“Talk to me,” he whispered, after a moment of silence. “What is it?”

“I don’t know. Just a nightmare, I suppose.”

“Thought you didn’t get those anymore.”

“Yeah. So did I.” For a fraction of a heartbeat he was envious, that Tliichpil could talk about that from the outside. That had been his greatest shame, when he was younger and had no more to compete for that position: nights upon nights of waking up screaming and crying, his parents trying to talk him down and smaller Lotli and Tliichpil just watching with their eyes big as sun-disks. After a while, his mother had sent the two of them to sleep in the store-room, just to ensure that at least some of her children could sleep.

He wondered what they had thought of it, back then. He had never figured out a cause; it had just stopped happening after a while. Had they thought he was going to go mad, even that young? Had they thought it a signification that he was going to be the bad one, that there was something dark and frightening growing inside him even then?

“Maybe I scared you,” Tliichpil said.

“Mm.” He would have thought there would be more water, in that case; but dreams were tricky things, only very rarely making obvious correlations to events in one’s waking world. “Anyway, it’s all right. I don’t want to keep you awake. Go back to sleep.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure.” He was glad the dark concealed the brittleness of his smile. Tliichpil petted his shoulder and got up, climbing back into his own hammock. “Sleep better,” he whispered before Comalpo pulled his own legs back up and his blanket around again.


He hadn’t, really; every time he had come close to it he had imagined again a ring of spears and splintered wood driving through his ribcage, and had shuddered himself awake again. Comalpo poured out a small handful of water into his palm and scrubbed it over his face, trying to convince his eyes to focus. The darkness of the day wasn’t helping, the suns Atli and Teyo only bright spots behind an all-concealing blanket of grey clouds.

He had barely stepped back in across the threshold when there came a knock on the front doorjamb. Tliichpil - who still looked rough, bruises turning brown and scrapes darkening to scabs, though he seemed happy as always, laughing with Catli and Talzi over some childlike joke - pulled the screen back across.

It revealed a young man standing there with a spear hanging from his hand; Comalpo recognized him as Pilcui, although they had hardly ever spoken and he could not remember the last time they had even interacted.

“I need two more to fill out the line for hunting,” Pilcui said.

“Oh! Sure,” said Tliichpil. “We’d be happy to come along.”

Comalpo pulled both their spears down from the rafters where they kept them so Catli and Talzi wouldn’t get curious and poke their eyes out or cut themselves on the heads and held Tliichpil’s out to him. The sharpness of the point sucked at his eyes like a lamprey sucks at a fish.

He forced his thought away and, snatching their game-bag from its hook, followed Pilcui and Tliichpil out into the street. They headed up again, back to the edge of the forest and the crossroads.

“Thanks for asking us to join,” Tliichpil said.

“Everyone else has things they consider more important to do,” Pilcui replied. Comalpo saw Tliichpil’s shoulders tense with the effort not to deflate.

Chiinpe met them at the trailhead, already armed with bow and quiver. She silently held out a small bag of ashes and shredded bay; Pilcui, Tliichpil, and Comalpo scooped up handfuls and scraped the mixture over their arms and faces to disrupt their scent, and they headed out, turning off the trail and into the forest.

One thing Comalpo always appreciated about hunting and trapping - there was very little speaking involved. Tliichpil pointed out one coati, and the drag-marks of a peccary trying to devour a branch too large for it, but both were rejected as too-small prey.

Eventually, though, Pilcui held up his hand and jerked them all to a stop. Peering around his shoulders, Comalpo saw what he had fixated upon - a ground-deer, and a large one at that, barely fifteen paces away. It was nibbling bark off the trunk of a small thorn-tree, and had not caught sight nor smell of them as yet.

With one gesture, Pilcui guided them to spread out. Comalpo slipped as quietly as he could through the undergrowth, setting his soles on bare dirt rather than leaves that would rustle and guiding his spear ahead of him. He glanced back to catch a glimpse of the others between the leaves as well, the blue, amber, and coppery flashes where their clothing and skin showed.

Balanced atop a large dolostone boulder on the deer’s other side, Chiinpe rose to her full height, pulled back her bow, and shot. He did not see it strike, but he did hear her curse, so evidently she had not hit a vital spot. But it had been enough; startled, the deer’s head lifted and its nostrils flared. It wheeled away from the tree, seeking for them, and took one bound forwards as the four of them stepped closer for the next strike. But there was nowhere it could go, for they made a full curve around her from Chiinpe on the left to Comalpo on the right. It pulled up, stomping and snorting, and Comalpo’s hands tightened on the shaft of his spear, but it veered and tried to flee the other way.

Chiinpe’s bowstring released again, and there was the thud of arrowhead in abdominal flesh. The deer leapt, kicked out, and sprung away into the undergrowth, which swallowed up its brown hide as easily as water does a fish.

She bent and picked up her broken-off shaft; the arrowhead would be left inside the deer, slowly cutting through organs and muscle as it fled, widening the wound. It would be too weak to run fairly soon - deer were far more fragile than humans were, and even a single injury could bring them down if one had a modicum of patience.

They followed the blood trail, tracking the splotches of red on bark, humus, and the wide dark leaves of the plants clustering where the canopy split to reveal the shining sky.

Eventually they pushed through a cluster of man-sized jade-vine flowers, scarlet on turquoise, and saw it, curled on the ground in the dark space behind, flanks heaving. And Tliichpil, black-eyed and with scrapes like wild tattoos covering both arms, straddled it, drew its head back, and pulled his knife across its throat. The blood poured out like a cataract over his hands.

The smell of it pressed its way through Comalpo’s lips, and his gorge rose. He shook his head to try and get the sense-memory of leafmould, fungus, and broken rib out of it. But he was still ashamedly glad that Pilcui and Tliichpil dressed it and that they hauled the carcass back, while he and Chiinpe only trailed behind - just near the crossroads there was a clearing that was always used for the butchering of game and livestock, so that the smell of blood and offal would not attract predators and scavengers into the village itself, and that all could wash before returning to their homes. Scaffolding and substrates had been erected over the years so that everyone would not have to find or construct their own to deal with each carcass - racks to hold sliced flesh, a rope and bar for hanging, and a log set on cross-bars for fleshing. They hung the carcass from its hind legs and began making the cuts. Chiinpe excused herself to run back to her home to deposit her bow and bring back her game-bag.

Pilcui skinned and appropriated the hide immediately, propped it onto the log, and started scraping. Comalpo and Tliichpil were left to divide the hard cartilage of the joints, slice muscles off their bones. When Chiinpe reappeared with her game-bag, she knelt and began to pack the portions she desired within it.

By rights, at least one of the antlers probably should have been Tliichpil’s - it had been his blade that had killed it in the end, after all, and Chiinpe did not have a critical need for two. But she picked up the entire skull and her share of the meat, bade goodbye to Pilcui, and headed back to her own house without even a word to Comalpo and Tliichpil. Calling after her would have made him look the fool, so Comalpo remained silent.

“I’ll take the other side of the ribcage, then,” said Pilcui, once the butchering was mostly completed, “and that’ll leave you with -“

“No,” said Tliichpil.

“What do you mean, no, it’s not like you need -“

“Actually, I do,” Tliichpil argued. “I shall have to heft knives and split needles, or we shall not be able to cut or sew, and for that I need long bones. If you’re just going to cut them for beads because you want to look fine, or grind them up and feed them to your quail, then you can use the rest.”

Pilcui’s answering look was fiery. It said: one of you is a monster and deserves nothing, I didn’t even want you on the hunt today, be grateful with what you have. Comalpo’s throat caught under the ray of hatred in that gaze.

But Tliichpil did not withdraw, staring steadily at him with his chin set in mocking obstinacy, and eventually Pilcui snapped “Fine,” and left without the ribcage.

“You’re being really quiet,” said Tliichpil when he had departed, coming over and helping Comalpo to gather their share into the game-bag..

“Like always?”

“More than like always.”

There wasn’t really an appropriate response to that, given that a defensive no I’m not would only prove Tliichpil’s point. Comalpo peeled a piece of silverskin from where it had stuck to the back of his hand, and hummed noncommittally instead.

“You really are shaken, aren’t you?”

He had never been able to lie well to Tliichpil. “Yeah,” he responded dully, “I guess.”

“Look,” said Tliichpil, turning away again and kneeling down to bind the bones up into their game-bag, “I truly am sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Comalpo said.

Tliichpil huffed a disbelieving laugh. “Sure it isn’t. The part where I almost got myself killed has nothing to do with you being anxious today. Nothing at all.”

“But you still didn’t do it on purpose.”

“But you still deserve an apology.”


By one month later, though, both cataract and fear had almost been forgotten. The paths were beginning to dry up, and the fields were blooming and pushing up strong shoots in the growing heat of the weather.

Comalpo always loved being able to travel to the plateau - to look out and see the whole forest pressing green up against its foot like a ruched knot-rug, see the mists rising up from the canopy beneath it. The plants up at that altitude grew small and scrubby, but rich, and there were many that could be used for medicine or for crafting that could be found nowhere else. For once, they were ahead of their chores, and now that the ground was almost fully dried out it would be an ideal time to go, to replace Lotlixya’s stores after the past wet season.

It took a whole day’s journey up, and a whole day’s journey back, so anyone making the trip would be required to make camp up there on the plateau. Seeking her permission, Comalpo had found Lotlixya crouching over a charcoal fire in the pit at the side of the house, stirring a fetid-smelling basin half-buried in the ground. Dyeing was not a good-smelling process, particularly with anil: it had to be done outdoors. “Absolutely,” Lotlixya had said, transferring another rock from the embers into her solution. Leaves had floated to the surface and back down again with a stir of her paddle. “Fetch me some heart-lichen while you’re up there, would you?”

“Of course,” he had answered her, and there was now a bladder crammed absolutely full of the stuff sitting at his side. They had made their camp in no time, and retrieved all the flora they needed, so now he could simply lean against a chunk of log and gaze out over the beauty of the forest.

Most of the top of the plateau was covered in scrub-bushes growing so thickly they could not be navigated mounted, so where the path widened out there was a clearing paved with grass and rock-lichens underneath a bent tree. Its branches had been rubbed smooth by years of ropes placed around them; their own two asses had been hitched to the lower, firmer ones, and were placidly grazing, the tearing of grass in loud harmony with the crackle of the fire.

Tliichpil poked absently with his knife at one of the wild squash they had picked, rolled in mud, and set in the embers of the fire to bake slowly. Apparently finding it done, he pulled it carefully out and rubbed off the muddy shell with the corner of his apron.

A rustle down by his hip distracted Comalpo. He looked and saw a branch swaying behind him and, pressed against the log he sat on, a small orange-and-viridescent frog, its toes splayed and throat pumping. “Hello, wise one,” he greeted it. The frog blinked at them with its wide eyes and sprang away again.

“Do you have any new stories?” he asked, for something to say.

“For you? Always.” Tliichpil stretched out his legs with a contented groan. He sliced open the squash he had retrieved neatly, the juice running down his wrist.

“Are you going to tell me one?”

“I was getting to that!” He took a bite and swallowed. “Mm. Listen,” he said, “and you shall hear a story. Once there was a poor woman who lived alone with her children, for since her first husband had died none had been willing to take her for many years. And her land was very poor, for it was dry and rocky and fed only by a stream that passed far from her homestead, and they were often hungry.” He pinched his amulet - a catfish carved in turquoise, for abundance - and twisted it on its cord. Pinch. Twist. Pinch. Twist. “One day, as she was walking in the forest gathering mushrooms, there appeared to her one of Olin’s wraiths, that had cloaked itself in a fair appearance. And the wraith made this offer to her: it would enrich the soil of the woman’s land for one year, and ensure that her stream was always fed and that the winds did not blow away the dust from her fields, but at the end of that year she had to give it in exchange all that she had grown above the ground. And if she did not do this then it had leave to take her and her children both to Tlazocpalli, fast as the wind.” Tlazocpalli - Olin’s realm, outside the dome of the sky, where there was no light and the walls were of rotting flesh and poisonous worms burrowed into the souls that he claimed.

“And she agreed. So the woman returned to her home, and she tilled her fields and saw that it was as the wraith had said, and her soil was dark and rich with humus. And she planted her crops and knocked the dirt back over them, and she watered them from the stream that did not run dry, and at the year’s end she had gathered in a great abundance. And at the end of the year the wraith reappeared and came up even to her property line, and it said, ‘What harvest have you to give to me in tribute?’

“And the woman brought out armfuls of vines and leaves and flower buds from her storehouse, and had her children bring out armfuls after her, and she said, ‘Here is all that I have grown above the ground in this year. Take it as your due.’

“- but she had planted all her fields with the greater bindweed, so the wraith received only the useless stems, and all the tubers she could keep for herself. And it was greatly angered, but she had kept to the letter of their offer, so it could do nothing. And it made her another offer, that it could do the same for her land for a second year, but at the end of this year she had to give it in exchange all that she had grown below the ground. And she agreed again, and tilled her fields and planted and watered her crops, and she had gathered even more this year than the last. And when the wraith reappeared it asked her again, ‘What harvest have you to give me in tribute?’

“And again the woman and her children went into their storehouse, and they brought out to it all that had grown below the ground - but this year she had planted silver oakfoot, and had gathered the leaves and the seeds and rendered unto the wraith only the bitter roots.

“It was again enraged, and yet could do nothing for her. So, thinking to spite and destroy her, it made her a third bargain: it wold do the same to her land for a final year, but at the end of this year she had to give it in exchange all that she had grown both above and below the ground. And it thought she would refuse, and it could take her soul to Tlazocpalli, and if she took it then she would still starve.

“But she agreed once more, and the year passed much the same, and it finally returned and demanded, ‘Now give to me your entire harvest, both the crowns and the roots.’

“But this year, she had pled and purchased from her neighbours not tubers nor seeds, but the eggs of quail, and had grown for them fodder on her land while keeping the animals in their enclosures. And so the wraith received only useless straw, and thus defied, it departed a final time for good.”

Comalpo snorted. “Stupid.”

“Very much.”

“I could have done better.”

“I have no doubt that you could.” And in fact, he had done much better on previous trading trips - at least well enough that their father had complimented him on a shrewd deal, and nobody had needed to sell their soul to get it.

They lapsed back into understanding silence. The moons rose, full and bright, both within a span of each other across the sky. Both together, the night was nearly as bright as a cloudy day. Tliichpil yawned widely, and Comalpo sympathized.

They had made their camp in a shallow cave rimmed with emerald moss; Tliichpil banked the fire while Comalpo rose and checked the hitchings of the asses, that they not pull free or tangle themselves up in the night. Satisfied, he shucked his knife, loosed his hair, and lay down, barely hearing Tliichpil step over him and rustle into his own blanket before sinking down into sleep like water.

Grass brushes up against his soles - he is riding an ass along a well-worn path, somewhere not near the village, for the forest is opener here. The heavy grass-heads knock together as he passes. His rough and thick-veined hands sit lightly on the reins, but there is sweat beginning to form on its neck - perhaps they ought to take a rest soon, for they are making good time.

He barely has time to register that something has moved in the grass before the ass rears up, screaming. He leans forward, seizes its mane with both fists, manages to stay in the saddle. When its hooves come down he espies the thick gleam of a serpent’s scaled back, but it bucks and dances again and this time his hold slips. He crashes into the ground on his side. A flailing hoof flashes past his face, and he flings up his arms to protect himself, but they come down again with a sharp and sickly-wet crunch and -

He jerked awake, clawing off the blanket. There wasn’t enough air - he threw it away entirely and staggered up. His stomach lurched, and he dove for the cave mouth, managing to get barely two steps outside before he fell to his knees and retched.

“Shhh, it’s all right, brother, you’re all right, just breathe -“

I can’t, he tried to say, but his throat closed up and he was sick again, wretchedly, until his head was spinning and he was bringing up nothing but bile. Gradually he became aware of Tliichpil’s hand rubbing his back between his shoulder blades; when it was over, he crumpled shuddering against his side.

“What’s wrong?” asked Tliichpil, worry showing blatantly through his voice. “What hurts?” He put his hand on the side of Comalpo’s neck, then against his forehead, feeling for fever.

Comalpo tried weakly to push him away. “’M not sick.”

“Then what’s the matter?”

“Dream. It was -“ But he couldn’t continue, the sensation of crushing bone swelling back up and choking him. He dropped his face down into his arms.

Tliichpil made a small, pitying hum, and pulled him closer until Comalpo’s head was resting on his shoulder. Long moments passed, counted by the pounding of his heartbeat in his throat and temples.

“I’m afraid,” he admitted. Afraid to shut his eyes, lest his mind splatter blood again across the inside of his vision. Afraid that this would never end, that whatever had been wrong with him as a child would just develop and develop until his whole mind was devoured by it.

Maybe his prayer was being answered. He knew the thought wasn’t substantiated, was only the kind of thoughts one had when awake late at night and afraid to face the morrow, but - maybe he was going to be evil, if his mind would serve him only death. Maybe this was just an early symptom of that deeper, fundamental poisoning.

But he didn’t… enjoy it. And if he was truly bad, he would find himself enjoying it, right? He wouldn’t be this disgusted at seeing, imagining other people be injured. Right?

Tliichpil lay down warm behind him and slung an arm over Comalpo’s chest. He could feel him breathing on the back of his neck. “It’s going to be okay,” he said. “It will get better. You’ll see.”

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