Authors: Jodi Meadows
For my mom, who encouraged me to follow my dreams and never freaked out when I called and asked how to treat concussions, broken limbs, or second-degree burns
330th Year of Songs, week 3
What is a soul, but a consciousness born and born again?
With the rise of new technology, we know souls can be measured as a series of vibrations, which Soul Tellers map out on machines. Each sequence is unique. Each sequence is the same as it was in its previous incarnation, no matter how different the body may be. I have been reborn a hundred times, and I remember every generation.
Souls are sentience, an essence born into a new body when the old one dies.
There have always been a million souls, but now we’re a million minus one. Five years ago, the temple flashed dark on the night Ciana died. This evening, when Li gave birth to our daughter, we expected Ciana’s reincarnation. Instead, truths on which we’d built society were irrevocably made uncertain.
Soul Tellers took the newborn’s hand and pressed it on the soul-scanner, and the vibration sequence searched for a match in the database.
There was no match, which means this soul has never been born before. So where did it come from? What happened to Ciana’s soul? Has it been replaced? Might others be replaced?
Is this new soul even real?
— Menehem’s personal diary
I WASN’T REBORN.
I was five when I first realized how different that made me. It was the spring equinox in the Year of Souls: Soul Night, when others traded stories about things they’d done three lifetimes ago. Ten lives. Twenty. Battles against dragons, developing the first laser pistol, and Cris’s four-life quest to grow a perfect blue rose, only for everyone to declare it was purple.
No one bothered talking with me, so I’d never said a word — not ever — but I knew how to listen. They’d all lived before, had memories to share, had lives to look forward to. They danced around the trees and fire, drank until they fell over laughing, and when the time came to sing gratitude for immortality, a few glanced at me and the clearing was so eerie quiet you could hear the waterfall crashing on rocks a league south.
Li took me home, and the next day I collected all the words I knew and made a sentence. Everyone else remembered a hundred lifetimes before this one. I had to know why I couldn’t.
“Who am I?” My first spoken words.
“No one,” she said. “Nosoul.”
I was leaving.
It was my eighteenth birthday, only a few weeks after the turning of the year. Li said, “Safe journey, Ana,” but her expression was stony, and I doubted she meant it with any sincerity.
The Year of Drought had been the worst of my life, filled with accumulated anger and resentment. The Year of Hunger hadn’t started much better, but now it was my birthday and I had a backpack filled with food and supplies, and a mission to find out who I was, why I existed. The chance to escape my mother’s hostile glares was a happy benefit.
I glanced over my shoulder at Purple Rose Cottage, Li standing tall and slender in the doorway, and snow spiraling between us. “Good-bye, Li.” My farewell misted in the frigid air, lingering when I straightened and hitched my backpack. It was time to leave this isolated cottage and meet… everyone. Save the rare visitor, I knew no one but my snake-hearted mother. The rest of the population lived in the city of Heart.
The garden path twisted down the hill, between frost-covered tomato vines and squash. I shivered deeper into my wool coat as I began the march away from the woman who used to starve me for days as punishment for doing chores incorrectly. I wouldn’t complain if this was the last time I ever saw her.
My boots crunched gravel and slivers of ice, which had fallen from trees as morning peeked between mountains. I kept my fists in my pockets, safe in tattered mittens, and clenched my jaw against the cold. Li’s glare stalked me all the way down the hill, sharp as the icicles hanging from the roof. Didn’t matter. I was free now.
At the foot of the hill, I turned toward Heart. I’d find my answers in the city.
“Ana!” From the front step, Li waved a small metal object. “You forgot a compass.”
I heaved a sigh and trudged back up. She wouldn’t bring it to me, and it was no surprise she’d waited until I got all the way down before reminding me. The day I’d gotten my first menstruation, I’d run from the washroom shouting about my insides bleeding out. She’d laughed and laughed until she realized I actually
thought I was dying. That made her guffaw.
“Thank you.” The compass filled my palm, and then my front pocket.
“Heart is four days north. Six in this weather. Try not to get lost, because I won’t go looking for you.” She slammed the door on me, cutting off the flow of warm air from the heater.
Hidden from her sight, I stuck my tongue out at her, then touched the rose carved into the oak door. This was the only home I’d ever known. After I was born, Menehem, Li’s lover, left beyond the borders of Range. He’d been too humiliated about his nosoul daughter to stay, and Li blamed me for… everything. The only reason she’d taken care of me — sort of — was because the Council had made her.
After that, still stinging from Menehem’s disappearance, she’d taken us to Purple Rose Cottage, which had been similarly abandoned and given a mocking name when no one thought Cris’s roses were blue. As soon as I was old enough, I spent hours coaxing the roses back to life so they’d bloom all summer. My hands still bore scars from their thorns, but I knew why they guarded themselves so fiercely.
Again I turned away, tromped down the hill. In Heart, I would beg the Council for time in the great library. There had to be a reason why, after five thousand years of the same souls being reincarnated, I’d been born.
Morning wore on, but the chill hardly eased. Snowdrifts lined the cobblestone road, and my boots flattened the film of white that developed over the day. Every so often, chipmunks and squirrels rustled iced twigs or darted up fir trees, but mostly there was silence. Even the bull elk nosing aside snow didn’t make a sound. I might have been the only person in Range.
I should have left before my quindec, my fifteenth birthday and — for normal people — the day of physical adulthood.
people left their parents to celebrate that birthday with friends, but I didn’t have those, and I’d thought I needed more time to learn the skills everyone else had known for thousands of years. Served me right for believing every time Li said how stupid I was.
She’d never have that chance again. When the cottage road ended, I checked my compass and took the fork that led north.
The mountain woods of southern Range were familiar and safe; bears and other large mammals never bothered me, but I didn’t bother them either. I’d spent my youth collecting shiny rocks and shells that had wormed to the surface after centuries. According to books, a thousand years ago, Rangedge Lake flooded this far north in rainy seasons, so now there were always treasures to hunt.
I didn’t break to eat, just nibbled on cellar-wrinkled apples while I walked, leaving a trail of cores for lucky critters to find. Stomach sated, I tugged my shirt collar over my nose, making breath crawl over my lips and cheeks. With my throat and chest full of warm air, I sang nonsense about freedom and nature. My footfalls kept cadence, and an eagle cried harmony.
I’d never had formal music training, but I’d stolen theory books from the cottage library and, a few times, recordings of the most celebrated musician in Range: Dossam. I’d memorized his — sometimes her — songs so I’d have them after Li discovered my theft; the beatings had been worth it.
Gradually, the cloud-diffused sunlight sank toward the horizon, silhouetting the snowy peaks on my right. Odd, because I was going north, so the sun should have set on my left.
Perhaps the road had snaked around a hill and I hadn’t noticed. The mountains were filled with tricky paths that looked promising until they stopped at a small lake or canyon. When plotting roads through the wilderness, engineers had been careful to avoid those things, but they still had to be mindful of steep hills and mountains. Curves, both sharp and shallow, were to be expected.
But when I left my backpack on the cobblestones and climbed a cottonwood to get a better view, I couldn’t find a place where the road turned back. As far as I could see through the twilight gloom, the road carved a path through firs and pines, straight past Rangedge Lake, which marked the southern boundary of Range.
Li had tricked me.
“I hate you!” I hurled the compass to the ground and squeezed my eyes tight, not even sure who I should be angry at. Li, who’d given me a bad compass, or myself, for trusting her to offer even that much kindness.
I’d wasted an entire day of walking, but at least I’d noticed before passing beyond Range. The last thing I needed was to run into a centaur — quite possible this far south — or sylph, which haunted the edges of Range. They didn’t usually come in, thanks to heat-detecting traps placed throughout the forest, but I’d often dreamt of them as a child, and I wasn’t always convinced the shadows and warmth were nightmares.
Whatever. Li would never know about her victory if I didn’t tell her.
Full dark settled as I climbed off the cottonwood; only thin moonlight penetrated the clouds. I fished through my backpack until my hand closed around the flashlight, gave the tube a few sharp twists, and set up camp by that white glow. There was a fast-running stream just off the road, and thick conifers sheltered a clearing barely big enough for my sleeping bag.
I swept snow out of my way and laid the bag on the ground. It was large enough to zip over my head and leave sprawling room. I didn’t have a tent, or need one; it’d take too long to warm up, since Li hadn’t given me a heater. Not that I’d expected such decency. Still, when I crawled inside, I quickly grew as toasty as if I’d been in the cottage.
Maybe, once I learned where I’d come from and whether I’d be reborn, I could live in the wilderness of Range forever. I didn’t need anyone else.
As the flashlight grew dim, I hummed the melody of my favorite sonata, sound muffled against my ears. The bag was stuffy, but it was better than waking up with a mouthful of snow. My eyelids grew heavy.
I snapped awake and stiffened, clutching at my flashlight, not ready to turn it on, not ready to dismiss the idea.
A deep groan came from across the stream. No twigs cracked under footfalls, however, and no branches rustled. All was quiet, except water tumbling from rocks. And the whispers.
The murmurs continued; someone else had decided to make their camp here, and somehow missed seeing my sleeping bag.
Fine. I’d leave. I wasn’t ready to deal with anyone so soon after Li. She’d always said people wouldn’t like me because of what I was, and I didn’t want to explain to anyone why I was on the very edge of Range. Leagues and leagues of human territory, most people holed up in Heart, and someone had to stop here of all places.
The intruders’ tones never changed as I slipped my arms into coat sleeves and pushed my belongings inside my backpack. Years of avoiding Li’s notice had been useful for something after all. Frigid air snaked in as I unzipped the bag and crawled out.
Someone moaned. Now I really wanted to leave.
I rolled the sleeping bag, stashed it away in my backpack, and crept toward the road by snow-reflected moonlight, just bright enough that I could make out trees and underbrush. No tracks from my visitors, though. I must have slept for a little while, because the sky was clear and black, with a dusting of stars like snow. Wind rattled tree limbs.
“Shh.” The whispers followed my retreat.
Heart speeding, I twisted my flashlight on and swung the beam toward the burble of water on rocks. Snow, dirt, and shadows. Nothing unusual, except disembodied voices.
As far as I knew, only one creature moved without touching the world. Sylph.
I fled down the road, snow crunching under my boots and icy air shivering into my lungs. Moans became shrieks and laughter. While the heat on the back of my neck might have been terror-fueled imagination, the sylph were gaining. I’d survive a graze of their burning touch, but anything more would kill me.
There were ways to capture them long enough to send them far into the wilderness, but I didn’t have the tools. There was no way to kill a shadow.
I ducked into the woods. Branches slapped my face and caught on my coat. I tore myself free every time, pushing deeper into the forest. Only hissing hinted how close the sylph were.
Freezing air stung my eyes, and the flashlight was already dimming; it had been Li’s spare because it was old. My chest burned with cold and fear, and a cramp jabbed at my side. Sylph keened like wind whistling in a storm, closer and closer. A tongue of invisible flame landed on my exposed cheek. I yelped and pushed harder, only for my bag to snag on a tangle of pines. No amount of yanking freed it.
Sylph melted snow as they formed a dark circle of cacophony and wind. Tendrils of blackness coiled toward me, and the burn on my cheek stung.
I slipped my arms from my backpack and darted between the shadow creatures, a rush of heat on my face like leaning into an oven. They shrieked and pursued, but I could move in tighter quarters now that I was unencumbered. Trees, brush, fallen logs. I dodged and jumped, fighting to keep my thoughts together, focused on getting past the next obstacle rather than the snow and cold, or the fiery death that chased me.
Perhaps I could lead them to one of the sylph traps. But I didn’t know where they were. I didn’t know where
My flashlight went dark. I thumped the butt and twisted the tube until weak light revealed bright snow and trees.
Sylph moaned and wept, closing in as I avoided a snow-covered fir. Heat billowed on the back of my neck. I hurtled over a log and skidded at the edge of a cliff overlooking the lake. Snow slipped under my boots as I threw myself to my knees to stop before falling over the rim. My flashlight wasn’t so lucky. It clattered from my mittened hands and plummeted into the lake with a splash. Three seconds. A long drop.
Wind gusted up from the water as I climbed to my feet. Sylph floated by the woods, seven or eight of them, creatures twice my height made of shadows and smoke. They glided forward, melting snow as they trapped me between them and a cliff over Rangedge Lake.
Their cries were of anger and hopelessness, ever-burning fire.
I glanced over my shoulder, the lake a stretch of darkness and nothing behind me. If there were rocks or chunks of ice, I couldn’t see them. Drowning would be a better end than burning in sylph fire for weeks or months.
“You won’t have me.” I spun and leaped off the cliff. Death would be fast and cold; I wouldn’t feel a thing.