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“What Anger Breaks and Builds” © 2022 by Alex Pernau

 

The storm raged, and all night Suuana stalked the corners of her candle-bright cottage. With bare feet, she stamped shaking into the earth; each time she lifted a foot she pulled the grains of soil with her, loosening them. She sent all her anger to the storm winds, all her shouting, seething fury. On every ninth turn, she opened the door of the cottage and howled into the night as it howled back at her. She pushed, whipping the storm to greater heights as, in better times, she had whipped cream to peaks. Without the storm, she would never save Yiltaia. She needed the storm to be violent. She needed it to rip the earth open.

In the morning, when the storm had fled from its own ravages, Suuana felt empty and sore. Niilu crept from the loft, soft brown hair tangled, eyes hazy with sleeplessness. The child had kept her promise not to come down in the night, but the pounding of the storm on the roof and Suuana’s feet on the floor had been too much for rest. She was thirteen—old enough not to fear the storm, but too young for her body to support the storm’s rage.

Suuana tried to fill her emptiness with care. She let Niilu curl sleepily in the rocking chair, brought her brown bread with a wedge of the last goat’s cheese Yiltaia had made, along with a mug of peppermint tisane. When she finished that, she then opened the door and looked out once more.

The thin morning light showed the storm’s violence. She went to let the three goats out of their shelter. The madrona trees past the goat pen drooped wearily; broken branches and peeled red bark littered the ground. The cottage’s cedar-shingled roof was unharmed, but that seemed pure luck. The goats bleated at her, damnably indifferent to the night’s storm.

When Suuana came back inside, she asked, “Are you ready?”

Niilu had finished eating and was nursing the dregs of her tea. “I gave the storm my anger, too,” Niilu said, voice carrying her frustration at not being allowed to help feed the storm. Niilu had as much reason for anger as Suuana.

Suuana’s anger was for all the townsfolk, but Niilu’s was mostly for the parents who had thrown her into the mud the year before when she stopped complying with the idea that her body made her a boy.

“As long as you lay still while you gave it.”

She took up a comb and gestured for Niilu to turn in the rocking chair. Niilu’s hair in her hands, Suuana was grateful the storm had not used Niilu’s body as a conduit—lying still, Niilu had only given her anger symbolically.

Niilu swallowed her tea. “I am ready.”

The storm had left a chill in the air. Niilu dressed warmly. As a last touch, Suuana wrapped one of her own bright red scarves around Niilu’s neck, tucking in the ends as Niilu’s mother had refused to do.

“Feeding a storm with your anger is not winning,” Suuana said. “Winning is using your anger to live the life you want to live.” She tried to smile gently, but the storm had not eaten all her own anger. She sensed the smile came out sharper than intended. “Find us a fallen tree,” Suuana added, though Niilu knew what she was looking for already, how important it was. Yiltaia had been taken from them, and a fallen tree would open the way to bring her back. If the way remained closed, she would die.

Niilu darted away into the forest.

Suuana waited. She fed the goats. She fed herself the last of the brown bread, another hunk of cheese, and the too-strong peppermint tisane from the bottom of the pot. She had wanted to help with the search, but walking the forest was difficult for her. The hinges of her body ached when she traveled over rough ground. She was young for such pain, but she’d grown familiar with the limits of her body.

Suuana waited. The day waxed, reached full, began to wane. Just after the flare of sunset, Niilu returned. She looked across the goat pen at Suuana and deflated, shaking her head. She had not found them a fallen tree.

Suuana made them both dinner, asked what part of the forest Niilu had traversed, reminded her that there was much more forest to be traveled tomorrow. Niilu was quiet, anxious. “You’ll try again in the morning,” Suuana reminded her. “And if you don’t find us a tree, it will be because no tree fell.” If no tree fell, it would be because Suuana hadn’t given the storm enough strength; it would be her fault. She would try again with the next storm, but that might be too late. She didn’t know if Yiltaia would survive that long.

In the morning Niilu tried again, a little more sleep under her belt this time. But still, when darkness fell, she returned to the cottage wiping tears from her cheeks.

On the third day after the storm, Suuana spent the morning weaving. You couldn’t be angry while you were weaving or it would snarl the threads. You had to put peace into your weaving; you had to put hopes. Suuana fed in all her hopes that Niilu would find what they needed and all her hopes of bringing Yiltaia home.

In the afternoon, Niilu burst through the cottage door, a hunter’s grin on her face. “I found a tree!” she shouted, bright child’s joy at success.

“Where?” Suuana asked, anticipation lifting her bones from her chair.

“On the ridge above the north beach. I’m sorry it’s a long walk.”

Suuana brushed aside Niilu’s concern. She put on her boots, her coat, the belt that Yiltaia had made for her. She picked up her walking stick and her bag, already packed with offerings.

“Show me,” she said, and Niilu sprang out the door, ready.

The great firs and cedars had weathered the storm as they always did, bending and swaying together with the wind. New-broken branches littered the forest floor, but they were small. The walk was not taxing at first, level ground and a soft mat of pine needles easing the way. But after an hour it began to grow more difficult. They had to cross gouges in the earth left by the retreat of ancient ice. Niilu led her around the worst of these, but Suuana’s knees and hips and ankles began to burn, and her walking stick grew more necessary.

They paused for a rest. Sitting on a damp log, Suuana pressed the heels of her hands into her knees. The woods smelled wet, mossy and alive. Birds called. They went on.

“What species of tree is it?” Suuana asked.

“Spruce.”

The salt mud fragrance of the ocean began to greet them. That smell was why Suuana loved living in this rainy, grey, and green land. It always made her feel as though there was extra breath in her. The land rose, and gnarled deciduous trees joined the firs and hemlocks.

Finally, Niilu darted ahead, flinging words behind her. “It’s right up here!”

Suuana swallowed sea air and climbed the last stretch to the tree.

It lay on the peak of the ridge overlooking the ocean. The tide was out, and the flat muddy beach stretched, grey as the sky.

The massive spruce had been ripped from the earth at the roots. It had fallen away from the ocean, exposing its tangled feet to the cold salt wind. Suuana leaned hard on her walking stick and stared. She had done this.

Oh, a storm could take a tree all on its own; trees fell every winter. That was part of the life of a forest: a fallen tree provided homes for animals, food for other plants. This one would do the same. But the storm would not have been strong enough to fell so mighty a tree without Suuana’s help. She had fed it her voice and the tread of her bare feet and her will. She had fed it her anger because a tree uprooted by a storm was a doorway. This was her way beneath the earth. This was how she would rescue Yiltaia.

They had met in the rainy, blooming spring. Yiltaia had fetched Suuana to a neighbor’s birthing and helped her bring the baby alive into the world. Yiltaia and her husband had only lived in the town a few weeks—not long enough for her to absorb the town’s wary, grudging tolerance of Suuana. Or perhaps she never would have treated Suuana like that. After that first meeting, Yiltaia had visited, met Niilu, treated Niilu as if she were any other girl child, kept visiting. Against all odds, she had kept acting as if Suuana and Niilu were ordinary. Even when Suuana admitted she truly was a witch as the townsfolk claimed, Yiltaia hadn’t seen her differently.

They had fallen in love in the summer. In the sun-dappled shade, it had been so easy to take each other’s hands. Suuana had let Yiltaia press her into the trunk of a tree and kiss her breathless. She had let Yiltaia milk the goats, make cheese for her, teach Niilu the basics of embroidery. She had let herself say, though she knew it was dangerous, “I want you here.” And Yiltaia had wanted that too.

Yiltaia had told Suuana how her husband had decided they would leave their old home without consulting her. How he had not let her say goodbye to her old friends or bring all the beautiful quilts her grandmother had made her. How it had been years since he seemed to remember she was fully human, could be wounded, could decide when she had had too much.

Yiltaia had left her husband late in the autumn. The townsfolk had always thought Suuana was a witch, but she was their midwife, and they needed her. They did not need Yiltaia, and by choosing Suuana over her husband, she had made a pariah of herself, witch by association. The townsfolk could not stomach the presence of two of their kind in one town. They had needed little pushing from Yiltaia’s husband to punish her.

The punishment had been ancient, brutal, murderous. On a cold November day, they had marched Yiltaia into the forest and buried her alive.

Suuana had not been there to stop them. She had been away in the forest, teaching Niilu to identify honey mushrooms. It was not only her anger, Suuana knew, she had fed to the storm. It had swallowed her guilt, too, and spat it back into her body still stinging.

“Is it good enough?” Niilu asked. “The tree.”

Suuana ran her hands over the roots, washed partly clean by the rain but not wholly free of mud. She ran her thumb along the seam where a root had grown around a stone. She looked into the snarl and nodded.

When they had made this plan Suuana had been as tangled as the spruce’s roots, full up with her grief and guilt and anger, with no thoughts for anything else. But later, in the long days when they had waited for the first winter storm, she had thought beyond. “A doorway like this one is more than just an entrance to the beneath,” she had told Niilu. “Crossing this threshold will take and it will give. I must cross and find Yiltaia alone. But you could cross behind me.”

Niilu’s voice had begun to crack. “You mean … ?” she asked, too shy of hope to say it.

“I think that with the right offerings and with a strong enough will, you could ask the doorway to stop adulthood from taking your body the wrong way.”

“Yes,” Niilu hissed. Suuana had no doubts that Niilu’s will was strong enough.

Suuana unpacked her bag of offerings. Hers and Niilu’s were bundled separately. For herself, she had a jar of birch syrup, a carved wooden spoon that had belonged to Yiltaia’s grandmother, a bundle of dried lavender Yiltaia had given her, and a bottle of goat’s milk. She would not offer the belt Yiltaia had made her, but she hoped wearing it would help.

Niilu had a lock of her own hair, the first she’d trimmed after growing it long. She had the belt she’d decorated under Yiltaia’s tutelage, a bottle of sun-drenched spring water, and a bundle of dried fireweed.

Niilu gathered up her offerings and looked at Suuana. “You’re going first?”

Suuana nodded. She tucked the spoon and the lavender into her belt and put the syrup and the milk into the outer pockets of her bag where she could reach them easily. She had to leave her walking stick propped against the tree’s roots. It would do her no good beneath.

“Good luck,” Niilu said. Her arms were wrapped tight around her waist.

Suuana, seeing the fear, bent down to kiss Niilu’s forehead.

She turned away and put her hands to the roots of the spruce. They were cold and damp. Placing a foot carefully on a low root, Suuana pulled herself up and in.

She clambered through, smelling earth startled by its exposure to the air. The roots drew closer together, tighter, wrapping around Suuana like a cage. Her joints hurt, but they hadn’t stiffened, and they let her keep climbing toward the belly of the tree.

The tree swallowed Suuana whole. There was no visible opening until the darkness of the beneath was all around her, pressing its palms to her eyes. Suuana stopped moving, primal fear of being trapped gripping her. She could be lost here in the dark. She could lose herself, become tree or soil or fungus.

Suuana breathed. She still could. There was a way of letting your lungs remember, even when your mind told you the earth had stoppered up your body. Suuana had taught Yiltaia that way of breathing to help her survive those last months in her husband’s house. She believed that lesson could have kept Yiltaia alive through the long days of waiting for the storm.

She kept moving forward. She needed to make way for Niilu, and Yiltaia would be deep in.

The earth was loose here, very unlike the dense clay in the garden at home. Suuana could push through it, move her limbs, but when she opened her lips to speak aloud her goal, she felt soil spill into her mouth. Spluttering and spitting, she fumbled through the earth for her bottle of goat’s milk. She uncorked it close to her lips, rinsed her mouth, created a pocket of space in the dirt, and spat into it. She put intent into it, making even her saliva part of her offering. A deep breath in through her nose, and Suuana tried again.

“I am here for Yiltaia,” Suuana told the darkness, speaking through the screen of her fingers. “She was given to you against her will. Please, I would like to bring her back with me to the air.”

There was no room here to use her feet as she had done to put her will into the storm, and using her voice was difficult. Suuana pulled the bundle of lavender from her belt and brought it to her nose. Even here, surrounded by the smell of clay and silt and sand, the lavender was pungent. Rubbing it between her fingers to thicken its scent, Suuana turned in place, scattering crushed lavender through the soil in a circle around her hips.

Next, she uncorked the goat’s milk again and turned the same circle, letting it trickle out into the dirt.

The birch syrup, thicker than the milk, required a slower turn. Its smell was sweet. Suuana teased the last of it from the jar with the wooden spoon. Then she used the spoon like she might use a trowel to loosen the earth for planting, blending the lavender, water, and syrup with her own spit and hopes.

“Please,” Suuana whispered. “I want Yiltaia back. She was not given to you as an offering of love, she was given to you as a punishment. These are offerings of love.” Suuana let go of the spoon’s handle and it disappeared into the darkness.

She waited. There was nothing to see, nothing to hear. Only the smell of the earth, and the touch of the soil against her skin.

She waited, fearing.

She waited, but the fear fell away, and she was only angry. Angry at the townsfolk who had refused to let Yiltaia seek a better life. Angry at herself for failing to stop them. Angry at the beneath for its reluctance to give Yiltaia back.

But it was not the rage she had given the storm, not the anger that had snapped branches and ripped an ancient spruce from the ground. It was a different kind of anger, the kind that birthed determination. It was the kind of anger that changed things.

The earth convulsed. Suuana clutched the strap of her bag, dropped the empty syrup jar. She was squeezed head to foot, the pressure rolling down her body like a birth pain. The soil pressed harder against her, into her ears and nose and under her fingernails. She shut her eyes.

She was spat out. She landed hard, the ground smacking her body like a wave smacking driftwood into the shore. It was long moments before Suuana regained her breath, before she stopped feeling the phantom press of soil against her skin. She sat up and opened her eyes.

She was in the forest. Not where she had entered the tree, but she could see the edge of the ridge not far away, and the greyness of the ocean beyond.

Suuana felt tears well. It hadn’t worked. She’d been rejected. Forlorn, she looked around at the trees, eyes blurred.

A flash of red—what was that? Suuana blinked water from her eyes and looked again.

Fabric, a scarf, one of the ones Suuana made. Was that Niilu, spat out behind her? She rose to her knees and crawled toward the red thing.

It wasn’t Niilu.

“Yil—Yiltaia!” Suuana scrambled forward, landed next to Yiltaia on her already-aching knees.

Yiltaia’s eyes were closed; her mouth was closed. Her hands were caked with dirt as if she’d tried to claw her way out. Terrified, Suuana placed her hand below Yiltaia’s nose to check for breath.

None. But Suuana’s training took over. She tilted Yiltaia’s head back, then placed her hands on Yiltaia’s chest. Push, push—putting the weight of her shoulders into it. Breaths, fitting her mouth over Yiltaia’s in a way that was nothing like a kiss. Push again.

And then, Yiltaia breathed. She began to cough, and Suuana rolled her onto her side so she wouldn’t choke. Her body spasmed, and she coughed up mouthfuls of dirt, one after the other until there was so much you could have sown vegetables.

Finally, there was only air in her mouth. Suuana let her roll back, cradling her, feeling scraped raw. Yiltaia blinked up at her.

“You’re here,” she whispered, voice hoarse. “You came for me.”

“Of course I did. I’m sorry I had to wait so long for a storm.”

Someone came crashing through the brush and burst past a salmonberry bush. Niilu, almost as dirty as Yiltaia, but exuberant.

“You did it!” Niilu crowed, dropping to her knees by Yiltaia’s feet.

“Yes,” Suuana said. She could feel tears forming tracks through the dirt on her face. She repeated it. “Yes.”

“Niilu?” Yiltaia asked.

“I’m here,” Niilu said, putting one small hand on Yiltaia’s ankle. Suuana had loved Yiltaia’s kindness to Niilu, but in the depths of grief and anger, she’d thought only of her own loss, not of Niilu’s. Now she remembered it, and what else Niilu had hoped to gain from going beneath.

“Did you—?” Suuana asked Niilu.

A complicated uncertainty crossed Niilu’s face. “I think so? But I don’t know. We’ll have to see, as I … as I get older.” Her voice hitched.

“Oh, Niilu,” Suuana said. “You came through. It’ll be all right.”

Niilu nodded and bounced up; the motion made Suuana feel exhausted and ancient. “I’ll go get your walking stick,” Niilu said, and bounded off through the trees.

“She’s like a hare,” Suuana muttered.

Yiltaia tried to laugh but couldn’t. Then she asked, “What if they try again? Or worse?”

“The townsfolk? They won’t try. You’ve gone beneath and come back alive. They will never acknowledge you again, but they won’t try to hurt you.”

Yiltaia took a deep breath, her first without a hitch in the middle. “I’ll have you and Niilu. That’s enough.”

“And the goats,” Suuana said and laughed.



Devin Miller is a queer, genderqueer cyborg and lifelong denizen of Seattle, with a love of muddy beaches to show for it. Their fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Metaphorosis, their poetry in Mermaids Monthly and on select King County Metro bus terminals. You can find Devin and their cat on Twitter @devzmiller.
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