“Murk Girl, Bright Girl” by Bo Balder

Werka set out from home at dawn, with just the clothes on her back, barely enough food to last her the day and only the vaguest plan. She was going to venture into the soggy lands to find the Marsh people and petition for adoption. The human race had failed her.

First she’d have to change her appearance. She couldn’t look too human. She blotched her face with orrisroot, draped her hair with moss and lichen and blackened her teeth. Lastly, she tied a gnarly branch to dangle in front of her face, to mimic the droopy noses of the Marsh Green.

The Marsh Greens didn’t distinguish between men and women as far as she’d heard. It sounded like a perfect arrangement. Better to pretend at being a Marsh Green than staying a human being. She was done with that.

What she had feared, and asked her mother to protect her against, had happened. The worst thing wasn’t the rape. Everybody knew about the priest. The thing that had hurt so much was her mother shaking her head and telling her she must have done something to provoke him. Maybe adults didn’t want to see things they were powerless to change. And although she was about to become one of the adults herself, she was sick of pretending that things were fine the way they were.

Leaving the village meant she couldn’t return. She’d be stoned for a wild and godless woman if she ever showed her face again. Probably her parents would be in the crowd, throwing stones and shouting along with everybody else, just for fear of not fitting in. She didn’t want to be like that.

The morning mists had cleared when the willow-switch walkways of the village ran out. Werka looked back to where she’d come from, but the village and the orderly fields of humankind were nowhere in sight. Just the rotting end of the walkway and a sea of black sludge, dotted by clumps of rushes and the odd tree.

She stepped off the walkway. The sludge came up to her calves. A field of bright green grass beckoned, but when she trod on it, it turned out to be frogbit and she sank to her neck into a pond.

She climbed out. She resembled a Marsh Green even more, now that her clothes were slimy, black, and wet. Perhaps she ought to carry a live toad as a brooch.

Her water ran out, the apples and wedge of cheese her sister had stolen for her from their mother’s pantry vanished into her mouth. The sun painted flames against the tree stumps on the horizon when Werka found dry ground at last. She sat down on a tree trunk and prepared for a good cry, the one that had been coming on for weeks.

Gradually she began to notice someone else sitting cross-limbed on a flat stone, the one she’d mentally picked out to sleep on later, after her cry and no dinner. If she turned her head very slowly, she could see it from the corners of her eyes. Its limbs didn’t fold the way they should and its skin drooped like melted wax. She had no idea what it was looking at or if it had spotted her. Her disguise was a pitiful attempt compared to its essential strangeness.

“Excuse me,” she said.

The Marsh Green lifted one long, pointy, multi-jointed black finger to where its face might be.

Werka shut up and tried to pay attention to whatever it was that the Green was listening to. After a while, the pond around the island began to bestir itself, possibly returning to normal after her clumsy, cursing, splashing passage. Tiny bubbles appeared on the surface like raindrops and were popped by little orange fish. Miniature frogs jumped out of the reeds into the water. Birds bathed themselves with rustling wings in shallow dips on the edge of the pond. Birdsong trilled out from a stand of rotted willows.

Werka nodded. “Very peaceful.”

“Not now you’re flapping your mouth!” Its voice was wetter than human voices, with more burble and gurgle in the throat.

“I’m so glad you speak the human language,” Werka said.

“And on it flaps. How can I hear anything if you don’t go away?”

“But I want to ask you something. Or at least one of your elders.”

Its long face creased and quaked, in what she assumed to be laughter, but maybe that was an all too human a thought. “I suppose I must forego my pleasures this gray time. I am old and creaky in the seam, probably what you might call an elder. What is your question, human creature?”

“I don’t want to be a human woman anymore. Can I join the Marsh Greens? Become one of you?”

The elder fell off its stone, making the strangest sounds. Werka hoped they were laughter. It lay writhing on the wet ground, weakly flailing its limbs.

“Do you need help getting up, Elder?” Werka said.

“At last it asks. Perhaps there is hope yet for humankind. Politeness is always welcome, even if it is slower than one would like.”

Werka swallowed a sharp retort. Marsh Green elders didn’t seem that different from human elders. She hovered her hand over the diverse knobs and gnarly protrusions that stuck out form the heap of twigs that was the Marsh Elder.

She touched one gingerly. “This one?”

“It shows minute signs of improvement. Up we go.”

“Will you help me become one of you if I help you up?”

“It negotiates. Very well.”

Werka hesitated. But she figured this was the best she was going to get.

She grasped a few of its living twigs, waited until it gave her the go-ahead, and pulled.

The Marsh Green elder collapsed in an unidentifiable heap of knobs and waving rootlets, until she spotted the gleam of an eye and could direct her attention towards it.

“Life amuses me. I’ve never been helped up by a human one before. ”

Werka started to doubt it had understood her. “So now you have to keep your promise. Adopt me and teach me how to be a Marsh Green.”

“What are these Marsh Green you are referring to?”

“But – you. Your kind. What should I call you then?”

“We are the People, human creature. What else?”

Werka sighed. “Fine. You are the People. Teach me to become one of the People.”

It waved with a writhing branchlet. “Be silent, then. I am waiting for the Gray to start singing.”

Werka sat down. She wanted to ask its name but knew it would become angry if she made a sound. So she breathed as quietly as she could, trying to hear the night sing. The night burbled a little, it soughed, it plopped. Maybe to the People it was singing.

“Move farther away,” the Elder said.

“What?”

“You’re so noisy, with your beating and rustling and windy noises. It’s distracting.”

Werka gritted her teeth and moved to another tree trunk. She hadn’t planned her escape very well. She was cold and hungry. When would the night singing be over?

The haze that hung over the marsh by day cleared and the sky became intensely blue and cold above the band of orange at the horizon. The Lady Star came out, followed by the King’s Torch. She didn’t believe anymore the Lady and the King were looking down on her kindly, as the village priest always said. She was in this horrible, cold, hungry life all by herself.

She hugged herself for warmth and maybe sniffled a little in her clammy, mud-crusted sleeve.

The night grew colder and darker. The sliver of moonlight glinted ominously on the marsh waters. Corcodales might lurk and come out to devour her. Shrubs rustled.

Werka peaked at the Elder, although she was afraid the creaking of her neck vertebrae might rouse him. It. Her. What did she know?

The Elder moved. “Now the stars sing, but that only changes a little bit each night. The Gray song is always unique. I assume you are a day person? I’ll see you in the morning gray then.” It jumped off its rock and moved away with surprising speed and agility.

“Wait, wait! That’s not adopting me. I don’t know if I’m a day or night person, I don’t know what it means. And I’m cold and hungry.”

The elder twirled around its axis. “It’s all very well telling me this, but why don’t you start eating then? And warm yourself up?”

“I don’t have anything to eat.”

A rustling sigh. “I shall show you where to sleep. By the way, I won’t be offended if you decide not to stay. You are completely free to go away. Like right now.”

And it was gone. Or at least, Werka couldn’t find it anymore.

“Just let me know when you’re ready, human,” a bush said. “You may dig your burrow.”

The sickle moon didn’t give enough light for Werka to distinguish any tools that might be lying nearby, or the reason why she should dig. But she was too tired to argue, so she sank down on her knees and scrabbled into the soft ground. It would take hours to dig out anything resembling a burrow with just her fingertips.

“No, no, silly being. There is no point in using the appendages. Just ask the ground to part for you.”

Tears slid down Werka’s cheeks. “I don’t know how,” she said in a voice so meek and tiny she hardly recognized it as her own.

The creature crept closer, barely visible in the scant moonlight. Werka’s teeth chattered. “You are very young, are you not?” It put part of its cool body against Werka’s hand. “Feel the glow of your jik. Stoke it up until it feels really warm, then put it on the earth and ask it to split.”

Werka did feel sudden warmth coming from the crusty body part against her palm. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine having a jik, whatever that was.

The creature clucked encouragingly. “Yes, that’s good, I can feel you searching. There, did you see that? It’s only tiny, but if you pay attention to it, it will grow.”

Werka’s eyes opened in surprise. She had felt her jik. It was a bit like a flame near her heart, living and growing as she watched it.

“Say, ‘earth, please split to make a warm burrow for your humble child,’” the creature instructed.

Werka closed her eyes again and put her palm on the ground. “Earth, split for me,” she whispered.

The ground parted into a black, steaming cleft. The glint of the moon was just enough to show her how dark it was inside. She stretched out a tentative toe and encountered warm, loose earth much sooner than she expected. It was no deeper than her hips.

“You may now lie down in it.”

Werka clambered down. “But I’m so hungry. I can’t sleep if I’m that hungry.”

The creature rustled, like a tetchy aunt sighing. “Must I tell you everything? Do the same with your jik as before, only ask for food, you silly thing. Were you born right? You seem a tad dim-witted.”

Werka didn’t want to dignify that with an answer but concentrated on finding her jik again. It seemed larger than before. She asked for food, imagining steaming soup in a bowl and freshly baked bread. The earth produced a few muddy radishes, a live frog and a raw onion. Werka put the frog in her apron pocket, in case she changed her mind about eating it, and started munching on the earth’s other gifts.

The sickle moon disappeared, as well as the swishing, cheeping sounds of the night. Werka tried to blink, but the earth pressed on her eyelids. She swallowed her last stringy bite of onion and fell asleep.

* * *

When Werka woke, sunlight peeked in through a crack in the earth. It seemed her burrow had opened. She clambered out and found herself in a clearing surrounded by low willows and blooming alders, the trees of the marsh. The clearing was dotted by other cracks, but when she looked in they were empty. The People must have gotten up already. She didn’t want to be thought lazy or rude, so she tried to make herself presentable and find the Elder.

Her dress and shift were even more dirt-encrusted than last evening, and she didn’t want to know what her face and hair looked like. One shoe was missing, her nails black and broken.

Something moved in her apron pocket. The frog. Werka looked deeply into its eyes, but its wriggling only made her more hungry and less compassionate. She wrung its tiny neck and ate it raw. The first bite felt squirmy and springy and she had to force herself to chew down on it and swallow. She gagged but took the next bite anyway. She had to adapt to the marsh or she would die.

Now to find her hosts.

At first sight the edge of the clearing seemed empty of creatures. But if she stood really quietly and let her eyes go unfocused, she could detect movement that no tree or herb could have made.

If only she could recognize the Elder! Werka approached the nearest creature. It swayed in tune to its own burbling and plucked gnats from the air. The gnats disappeared into its anatomy in some way, although Werka couldn’t detect any kind of mouth.

“Good morning, Person of the People,” she said. She was quite proud of the phrasing. “Are you the Elder I met last night?”

Did she imagine it or did something like a large brown eye flick in her direction?

“That seems unlikely, human being, since it was then night and is now day. Don’t tell me humans straddle both halves of the sun’s journey!” It produced a snerking sound that Werka interpreted as laughter. “How did you come to sleep in the earth, like a true person, instead of floating above it as they say humans do?”

“We sleep in beds, above ground, that is true,” Werka said. “But I’m no longer a human being. I’ve been adopted by the People, and so I sleep in a burrow, as is proper.”

She held her breath. Would it accept her as well?

“It is possible my parent once removed mentioned something of the kind during the Gray,” it said. “Have you yet decided which half you belong to? It would be tedious if you remained a child for too long. I only just raised a clutch to personhood and what a job it was.”

Werka thought she understood. One was either a night or a day person, but during the Gray, presumably dawn or twilight, exchange was possible. “Is there any kind of advantage to be of the day or night?”

It was already moving away.

“Wait!” Werka said. “How should I call you? How can I find you among the others? What do I need to know to survive during the day? What things are forbidden?”

It stopped. “So many questions. You couldn’t have come earlier, as I was answering them for my clutch anyway? You may call me Bright Mother. If you call me, I will come. To survive, you must eat and drink and not come near corcodales. What is forbidden cannot be spoken of.”

It was gone.

Werka sat down, exhausted by the talk. She decided to wash her clothes, find food, and ask as many questions as she could think of. Providing she could find any People to answer them.

She planted a big forked branch on the location of her burrow. She didn’t know if one was supposed to burrow in the same spot every night, but she wanted to. A former human being needed some kind of constancy.

As she planted the branch, her jik flared up briefly. She’d almost forgotten about it. She had a jik now, a new kind of sense that only the People had. In spite of their odd and inhuman behavior, they’d been hospitable and kind in their peculiar way. Whatever happened, they’d already given her the jik sense.

She went for a drink of water to rinse the taste of raw frog from her mouth. Not a good breakfast staple, she should remember that for the future. Perhaps her jik could teach the earth what she liked to eat. Or she should find a place to make fire. Her tinder and firestone were safe in one of her pockets. Not the one the frog had sullied. As she drank, her wavering image in the water informed her of large amounts of dried mud that whitened her face, and that her hair had become light brown instead of black. The state of her clothes she could see for herself.

She might as well wash now. She pulled off her dress and shift, shivering in the early morning sunshine.

Her jik flared. Without conscious thought, she threw herself backwards, using the sopping wet wool of her dress as a shield. The corcodale’s beak snagged in the wool.

For a moment, Werka held on. Her dress!

She pulled. The dress ripped and she fled. There, a tree. She didn’t think corcodales could climb. The bark chafed her bare skin, but she climbed on until the branches became too thin. She turned around to see where the corcodale was. Her eyes showed her knobby shapes, hardly distinguishable from the surrounding brush and other marsh growth, but her jik showed her seven bright flaring minds. The corcodale writhed and opened its deep mouth in a silent scream. Blood ran from its eyes and from holes on its skull. It thrashed and fell over.

The bright jiks dimmed to glowing embers. They were all different in subtle ways that she didn’t have the words to describe. A difference in flavor maybe, in temperature, in speed. She saw no similarities as they existed between men and women in her own village.

She climbed down from the tree. Possibly she should have asked it not to scrape her skin. She wanted to join in the jik circle but was afraid to. What if they rebuffed her, or even worse, ignored her? She felt like a girl again instead of a strong independent sexless creature, a little girl clutching her doll, wanting to join the bigger children in their play.

It wasn’t a good feeling. She’d have to take action herself.

Her jik quested out to meet the others. She gasped. She felt seen, loved, embraced. Her jik became one with the others and it was good. The jiks gathered around her. A pale blue one separated itself from the group.

“Are you my Bright Mother?” Werka said.

“I am.”

“I can see your jik now. It’s very pretty.”

“The nature of jiks is to be beautiful. Our task is to keep them that way. Yours seems wounded. You must heal yourself, or you will tarnish the jik of your spawn.”

“Let’s hope I never get any,” Werka said.

Bright Mother put her twigs on Werka’s stomach. “Sense the newly quickened jik in here. Be gentle to yourself, so it will be gentle to itself as well.”

Werka forgot about her bruised limbs and cupped her hands over her belly. A scream built up in her throat. She couldn’t be pregnant, it wasn’t the right time, it wasn’t fair, she didn’t want to have that terrible man’s child.

But she couldn’t deny the tiny jik inside her. She curled up in a ball to cry. Hadn’t the rape been bad enough already? She couldn’t even care for herself, how would she care for a baby?

Several jiks gathered around her. She was glad she could see them, the mass of gnarled branches and indefinable body parts no longer threatened her. The jiks took hers into their circle and caressed her.

“Mourning for what is lost heals,” Bright Mother said. “Mourn.”

Werka didn’t need any encouragement. Tears flowed from her eyes in a steady, hot stream. They leaked over her cheeks and into her ears. She was so cold, so naked. She needed her dress.

“Ask the air to warm you, child,” Bright Mother said. “Like this.”

Werka’s jik followed Bright Mother’s example and she grew warm.

“All creatures have jiks, but the earth we live on, the blanket of air that envelops us have jiks as well. They will treat kindly a kind and gentle jik. So take good care of yours.”

“What about the corcodale?” Werka asked, hiccupping with sobs. “Does it have one?”

“Certainly. Defend yourself if attacked by such as corcodales, but do not harm your own kind. A jik thus tarnished will likely not recover and wither away as earth and air withhold their blessing.”

“What if someone has hurt me, and I want to take revenge?”

The gathered jiks flinched away from her. Bright Mother didn’t need to voice her objection. Werka already understood. Her jik needed to stay clean and harmonious.

* * *

Werka had lately found herself attracted to dawns and dusks, when night and day people mingled. It wasn’t just that she loved the softness of the light, the colors at the horizon or the wind that blew the mists away. She wanted to talk to the Elder again. Bright Mother gave her helpful advice, taught her jik lore, but she’d felt more true kindness from the Elder the first night than from Mother.

One day she asked the Bright Mother about him again. “I’d like to speak to the Elder. You’re his spawn, can’t you arrange a meeting?”

“Will it never grow up? He’s a Murk Person and can never speak to a Bright Person. Stop asking after him or hanging around at gray times to catch him. It’s not seemly.”

Bright Mother scurried off, no doubt to purify her dangerously red jik.

What a blow. Werka had gloried in the society of the People, where everybody was equal and no one was made to slave for another. There were no men to leer after women, no women to bear children in pain and agony, and afterward, subservience. And now it turned out there was a demarcation line. One she’d crossed without much thought because she loved the sun.

She sidled up to a pair of People. They might be youngsters, since their bark seemed softer and spongier, not yet hardened with age. The two youngsters’ jiks looked tightly intertwined and happy.

Werka let long moments pass, trying to blend in with their calm joy. “So how does a person change from Bright to Murk?” she asked.

The friends’ jiks flew apart. Werka felt her own jik shrivel and dull in response to their shocked stares. The youngsters fled from her.

She had her answer. One didn’t change from Bright to Murk.

But she’d been human once. Even if she couldn’t change her brightness choice, she could stay awake at night and watch for the Elder to appear. It was almost Midsummer. Her belly swelled, and soon something would happen that didn’t bear thinking about. She needed the Elder’s advice.

Werka travelled away from her usual cleft, trying to find the small island where she’d first met the Elder. She remembered the island vividly, with its nice dry rock and stand of willows, but apparently there were many islands just like that.

For the first time, the memory of home didn’t seem so grim. In summer, life wasn’t bad. You could dwell outdoors, eat your fill on berries and greens, and anticipate the midsummer feasts, the dancing and singing and eating.

She hadn’t missed human food before, but from the moment she started remembering her former life, she couldn’t understand how she survived on raw frogs and uncooked greens. The craving gripped her belly so hard she had to stop and pant to relax it.

Bent over like that, she caught a glimpse of an island silhouette she’d never have seen standing up. It was the one on which she’d met the Elder.

She stepped onto the floating carpet of frogbit, asking the fragile leaves to carry her with a glow of her jik. The frogbit didn’t mind and helped her along to the next bit of solid land. The island seemed to be only a few hops away across treacherous rushes and deep pools that harbored corcodales. She wouldn’t be able to fend off one on her own, but on almost every island she sensed the quiet jiks of Bright dwellers like herself.

She caught a rippling glimpse of herself in a puddle that quaked from her passing. Pale mud striped her like a tiger, because she asked it to. Her hair was a mass of green, brown, and black strands, twined wildly together with bindweed and cling bur and white marsh stars. Her belly bulged, like a puffball about to burst. She looked away hastily.

The island seemed empty of People, but she knew she couldn’t spot Murk dwellers, except sometimes a glimpse in the Gray. She found the stone the Elder had perched on. It was warm from the sun, but she sensed no jik as she passed her hand over it. Behind the stand of trees lay a swathe of green grass, the largest patch of solid ground she’d seen in the Marshes. It looked a fine place to create a cleft, but for now she lay down in a patch of unripe foxberries and half dreamed as mackerel clouds drifted across the summer sky.

A chilly feeling in her back woke her into the Gray. During the long summer afternoon, water had seeped into the ground that had been compressed by her weight. With a small flare of her jik, she asked the water to leave and sat up with some difficulty.

She froze. All around her glowed jiks, many more than she’d ever seen in one place before. Two different kind of jiks.

The People from the Bright and the Murk were mingling. Why?

Hoping her jik wouldn’t stand out among so many, she crept forwards through the bushes to observe the massing jiks. At first she only saw chaos, jiks swirling madly across the green, but then the pattern fell into place in her mind and turned into a dance.

The People were dancing. Of course, it was Midsummer’s eave. Which she was spending crouched, buck-naked, and dirty, hidden in a stand of bushes. Almost she stood up to join the dance, but something held her back. To dance at Midsummer was holy. Wouldn’t it be the same for the People? And however much she’d tried, she wasn’t really one of them.

The jiks of the Bright, many of whom she knew, danced in the outer circle. The other jiks, presumably the Murk dwelling ones, whirled on the inside, widdershins to the Brights’ circle.

Werka watched, mesmerized. When the sky had become as dark as it ever did in midsummer, the dance stopped. The Murks kneeled and brought out a body part Werka had never noticed before. It pulsed, swollen, radiating an indefinable energy. The pulsing intensified and a single round object was pushed out of the tube and deposited on the greensward.

Werka held her breath. The Murks were female? And yes, the Brights squatted over the heaps of glistening eggs, glowing slightly, and squirted a fluid from a body opening. One of the eggs must have quickened, because a tiny, tiny jik joined the multitude on the field. One by one, baby jiks caught life and flickered liked a carpet of fireflies covering the grass.

Werka couldn’t enjoy the beauty. She sank back, her hands over her belly. The Murks were female, the Brights male. The People of the marsh did have sexes. Even more strongly segregated than the men and women of her village. Her eyes burned. Not only had she joined the males, the ones that had done her harm, but the sexless harmony she’d imagined was a sham.

She couldn’t stay here. The People were liars. Pretending Murk and Bright were about personal preference, while all the time it was about the way their bodies were made. Like men pretending to revere and protect women, like the King protected the Lady. She stumbled up and began to walk.

The drier land was difficult going. The solid ground thudded against her heels and made her back ache. Her belly seemed heavy, and no position on the hard, gruff ground was comfortable. Why had she left the marsh? Life here seemed hard and bleak, the sunlight too sharp, the colors drained. The sky was too blue, the earth too orange.

She found a strip of bare earth, a hollow groove in the wilderness. Her feet had turned left on it before she remembered it was called a road. She’d reached human civilization again. After less than a hundred footsteps, she heard thunder clumping down the road at her back. Horses. Horses meant men, and men meant danger.

She looked down and saw she was naked. She’d forgotten to bring her old dress from its hidey hole in the willow. A naked, pregnant women didn’t have much defense against the troop of men galloping down. She had to hide.

She scrabbled up the roadside, hoping to reach the relative safety of the oaks standing atop of it. The shrubs and herbs tangled her feet and scratched her skin. Her breath sawed.

Her hands reached for the nearest oak’s bark. It felt dry and rough, unwelcoming. She fell against it, dizzy from the sudden exertion and fear. The riders catcalled and brandished swords, though being killed would be the least of her worries.

A scream built in her throat. She strangled it. A scream would make her even more into prey, if her nakedness and pregnancy had left any doubt. No screaming. She wasn’t a human woman anymore. She’d die with dignity.

If only she was in the marsh. Her jik could ask the tree to shelter her, the sand of the hollow road to rise up and trip the horses.

Her jik flickered, like a candlewick only half-caught on fire.

Werka stilled. She could still sense her jik, even outside the marsh.

That changed everything. She cupped her jik in mental hands and blew on it. It caught on and glowed, strong and sure. She asked the tree she was standing against to shelter her. It enveloped her in its bark, strong, cool, and kind.

The riders slowed. “Where did she go?” “Witch!”

Werka relaxed.

The saddlebag on the roan squirmed. It wasn’t a saddlebag. It was a girl, with her skirts up and blood running down her thighs. Werka let out a roar.

The tree split open and tumbled her out, unable to contain such anger.

“Here I am!” she shouted. “Come get the witch!”

The front horse shied and reared. The next horse ran into it and shed its rider. Men shouted and milled around, trying to keep from crashing into each other

“Formation! Formation!” the leader yelled. “Spear the witch!”

She faced the confused troop, raising her hands, and called on her jik. She curled her fingers and screamed as loud as she could.

The leader fell from his horse as if stunned. The horses neighed; two of them tossed their riders and galloped off with flattened ears.

“The light! She called the lightning!”

She had done no such thing. Had she?

The men dragged their leader onto a horse and fled with the remaining horses, their faces white and shocked. Werka’s mouth fell open. That was incredible. Scary, even. And not something they’d forget easily.

The girl had managed to get off the horse and was running away from Werka as fast as she could.

Werka breathed out. She should temper her response for next time. She’d managed to scare off the girl she wanted to rescue.

But she’d need clothes, walking around naked was too risky and noticeable.

An oak branch whipped out and snatched up the last fleeing rider’s cloak from his saddle bag. When the riders had disappeared from sight, she picked it up. The cloak was much-mended and stained, but it would keep her warm and covered.

The future looked different now. She wasn’t man or woman anymore, in spite of her swollen belly. She wasn’t Bright or Murk dweller either. She was Werka, her own person.

She didn’t need to knock on doors in some unfamiliar village. She was going to build her own home. It would offer shelter to her and her child, safety and warmth. And why not here? Close enough to the marsh to visit the People, far away from human eyes?

There, that level spot would make her first room.

She paced out the outlines of her courtyard. With each step she asked the earth with her bare feet to rise up and grow walls. She encouraged a sapling to grow and spread its thick-leafed branches over the corner where she wanted her house to be.

The day was ending when she stepped back from her work. All around her the earth groaned and pushed out the beginnings of walls. The sapling had grown to twice its height already. The walls and the tree would continue to grow while she slept in her new cleft. Maybe she’d grow a bed, later. Maybe.

What else did she need? She smiled. Of course.

She pricked her finger in the rough earth and asked water to rise. As she bent over and drank water from her new well, she felt content. She was a mix of human and Marsh People. Maybe she’d even start a new race. Anything was possible.

Someone coughed.

Werka jumped up.

It was only the girl. Younger than Werka, with a black eye and a torn dress.

“I saw what you did to those men. Can I stay with you?”

Werka didn’t need to ask what had happened to the girl. She gestured to the half-grown house and the sapling spreading over it. “Come on in. It isn’t a house yet, but it’s going to be.”

The girl bowed and made to kiss the hem of Werka’s cloak. “My lady.”

“I’m not a lady. Just Werka will do.”

The girl whistled. A grubby boy popped up from behind a bush. “That’s my little brother. Can he stay too?”

Werka nodded. In her mind, she added a few more rooms to her modest, tree-shaded house. “Any more?”

The girl giggled. “No, my lady.”

And so it started.

Bo Balder lives and works close to Amsterdam. Bo is the first Dutch author to have been published in F&SF and Clarkesworld. Her fiction has also appeared in Escape Pod, Nature, and other places. Her sf novel The Wan was published by Pink Narcissus Press. For more about her work, you can visit her website or find Bo on Facebook.

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