Prized Page 33

“You’re so fidgety,” Josephine said one night. “I’d say to smoke some rice flower, but you don’t do that, do you?”


Josephine sighed. “It’s the darkness getting to you. Everyone always smokes more as the days get shorter. It would make you feel better.”

Gaia was alarmed. “You’re not smoking while you nurse, are you?”

“No,” Josephine said. “But honestly? I’d be tempted to if I weren’t. Jezebel smokes all the time, whenever her headache starts, and she’s much more mellow when she does.” She laughed, waving a hand to indicate the living room. “This sure beats having Bill around. Are you still working on that code?”

“Yes,” Gaia said.

Josephine was changing Junie’s diaper, but when she finished, she came to look over Gaia’s shoulder. Gaia leaned back to let her see. In the new sling Gaia had made, Maya was awake, looking around placidly, but her little eyes focused on Gaia, and after a concentrated look, Maya gave her baby smile, all gums and pure joy. Gaia couldn’t help grinning back.

“It could just be nonsense, you know,” Josephine said. “Your grandmother was crazy.”

“I beg your pardon?” Gaia said.

Josephine sat in one of the armchairs by the table. “Nobody wants to tell you, but she was crazy by the end. She started wading in the marsh at night. Did you know that?”

“What are you talking about?”

Josephine nodded. “Ask Mx. Dinah or Norris. Or the Matrarc. They’ll tell you.”

“Why don’t you tell me? What else do you know?”

“I was just a kid, but I’m pretty sure that’s why the cuzines voted her out.”

“What?” Gaia had thought her grandmother died as the Matrarc.

Josephine raised a hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry. I thought you knew. She was a great Matrarc until near the end. Then she got crazy ideas. She tried to make the expools leave Sylum. I don’t know what all else because that’s about when the cuzines voted her out.”

“Then what happened?”

“Mlady Olivia moved in with her and took care of her, up here in her place on the bluff, and then she ran away that time and Norris found her. You know, dying.”

Gaia didn’t want to believe her. Josephine did not strike her as the most accurate source for information, but at least a little of what she said must be true.

“I didn’t know,” Gaia said. She rested a hand around Maya and looked again at the sketchbook.

“I just don’t want you to pull your brains out,” Josephine said. “That’s all I meant. It might not make any sense.” She switched Junie to her other shoulder. “What else is in her sketchbook?”

“Tons of drawings, of water towers and pipes, mostly.”

There was a thumping noise out on the porch, and both of them started.

“That must be Vlatir,” Josephine said, and went to get the door.

Gaia scrutinized the code again. If her grandmother had indeed been mad, she’d had a very precise, tidy madness. Gaia didn’t buy it. She remembered putting pencils between the lines of the last code she solved, and reached for a wooden spoon, trying it this way and that. With the spoon in a vertical position, she paused.

She peered more closely, fiddling the spoon along the edges of the letters. They didn’t quite line up, but then she thought she saw something.

Josephine’s laughter came from outside.

Gaia peered again at the symbols, wishing she had a pencil and some clean paper. She rose and went to the bookshelf where some supplies were stored and dug around until she found a quill, a bottle of ink, and some scraps of paper.

Josephine was laughing again, and Gaia looked up as she and Leon came in. He had his hands carefully clasped together before him. As he looked at Gaia, his eyes were warm, and a smile hovered at the edge of his mouth. He looked happy for once.

“I’ve brought something for Maya,” he said.

Gaia’s heart turned over. She pulled her sister out of her sling, propping her upward in the nook of her elbow so she could see, and Leon came nearer.

“Ready?” he gently asked the baby.

He slowly opened his hands. On his calloused palm was a long black bug, completely unremarkable until it glowed green for a steady instant. Gaia gasped, delighted, and then it went black again. The baby, unimpressed with the bug, was staring at Leon’s face with her intent concentration, and then she smiled again.

Leon laughed. “The meadow’s full of them.” He closed his hands again before the lightning bug could fly away. “Come see.”

“What are they doing out in November?” Gaia asked. She’d never seen lightning bugs this late.

“It makes no sense at all,” he said, “but you have to see them.”

Gaia left her things on the table, slipped the sling off over her head, and carried Maya out to the porch. Leon held the door for Josephine to follow, but Josephine, smiling, shook her head.

“I saw,” Josephine said. “They’re beautiful. Junie’s asleep, though. I’m going to sleep while I can, too. Maya ought to be able to go for a few hours, but call me if she needs to nurse.”

Gaia paused on the porch beside Leon and stared in wonder. It seemed all the stars that had been missing from the sky for the last two weeks had come down to delicately gleam in the meadow. Tiny moving lines of light blinked on and off, overlapping and skimming with no noise of their own, while crickets kept up a persistent chirping that filled the night air with vibrating sound. She’d never seen anything so lovely. She walked barefoot down the stone steps, drawn to the ineffable beauty. Even the night air smelled soft. Dry grass prickled between her toes as she stepped gingerly into the meadow, where soon the tiny lights were all around her.

“It’s amazing,” Gaia said.

“I thought you’d like it.”

She looked back, just able to make him out by the faint light from the cabin. He leaned a shoulder into one of the pillar beams of the porch and slid his hands in his pockets, lounging and relaxed. She wished she could see his eyes. She held up her hand in the darkness, wondering if one of the lightning bugs would land on her, but they came no nearer to her dark fingers. The whole thing made her laugh with pleasure.

“They’re like music,” she said.

“I know. Or flying.”

She zoomed Maya smoothly through the air in three big, slow swooshes, careful to support her little head. “Come out with us,” Gaia said.

“I’m good here,” he said.

“Why not?” she asked.

“You know why.”

She looked over. “I don’t,” she said. “Is it that you like me and don’t want to, or that you don’t like me?”

“None of the above.”

The light from behind him faintly outlined his shirt, revealing only that he wasn’t moving. She felt something strange and magnetic between them, something that defied labeling, yet it was tinged with sadness, too, or longing.

“You’re deliberately being enigmatic,” she said.

He laughed. “Not at all.”

“Then come out with us.”

“That sounds suspiciously like a girl command,” he said lightly. “You’re learning from Mx. Josephine.”

“No, I just want—” She broke herself off.


You near, she thought. She couldn’t say it. A twisting feeling happened inside her, making her hug Maya tight again.

“You enjoy the bugs, then,” he said. “I’m heading in.”

He straightened away from the post and let himself in the screen door, closing it softly. Gaia turned slowly in a complete circle to see all the lightning bugs glowing around her. They were still beautiful, still incredible, but without him to share them with, they’d lost their transcendent enchantment. She held Maya near to her neck and scanned the dark sky, not finding Orion or any stars through the cloud cover, while inside she just felt confused. Just plain uncertain and anxious and hungry. It was an awful combination. Shivering, she stepped carefully toward the cabin again.

She slipped in the screen door, blinking toward the lamplight in the living room, and as she stepped forward, he came into sight on the far side of the dining table. He was inspecting her grandmother’s code, fiddling with the spoon.

“There’s something here,” he said. “With the symbols. But they don’t line up.”

His manner was direct and openly curious. She hesitated, considering. Perhaps, as long as they restricted their exchanges to a practical level, they could last all the way through a normal conversation. At least there could be a chance of a friendship with him this way.

“I know,” she said, coming down the stairs with Maya over her shoulder. She would try, at least. “Look, here.” She pointed. “Right next to the spoon, it looks like half a letter’s missing, and then the next one below it, too. I think she sliced letters apart, and then squished the halves together.”

“Down the page?” he asked.

She nodded. “It must be, because going across doesn’t work at all. I was going to redraw them.”

“Why don’t you try? I’ll hold Maya.”

She passed over the baby, then opened the ink and dipped the quill. Carefully, she copied each character from the first column directly beside the next, only running left-to-right across the fresh sheet instead of from the top down.

She straightened slightly to see the message. She puzzled over the long string of letters until she could separate them into distinct words:

leave the miasma addicts and go

“Is miasma even a word?” Gaia said.

“It’s an atmosphere, a fog,” Leon said.

Gaia stared at him, her mind scrambling, and saw he was thinking fast, too.

“It’s not the water of the marsh that’s toxic,” she said. “It’s the fog. The evaporation. It’s in the air around us all the time.”

He nodded. “I’m not ruling out that the water might be toxic, too, but the miasma makes some sense. An odorless gas local to the marsh could certainly be addicting.”

“Especially if it’s based in the lily-poppies,” she added. She was already reaching for the quill again. “Like they’re essentially cooking in the sunlight. We’re always breathing. That means we’re constantly getting a low-grade fix. Could we all be addicted to the miasma without even knowing?”

“Think about us when we first came,” he said. “We had to adapt to the air, but once we did, we didn’t have any symptoms anymore. Everyone else has been used to the air here since they were born.”

“And think of Maya,” she said. “She had a terrible time out on the island. She was a baby on drugs.”

“The miasma could be even stronger out there,” he said.

“I think my grandmother was studying everything she could about the marsh because she was looking for a cure for the miasma addiction.”

“That’s likely. But the miasma addiction doesn’t explain the shortage of girls,” he argued. “All those X’s and Y’s on the map are probably births of girls and boys, by location. She was trying to find a pattern there, too.”

“They could be two unrelated things,” Gaia said. “Suppose the miasma addiction keeps people here. Something else could turn the girls into boys.” She reached again for the letter to her parents.

“What did you say?” he asked slowly. “About the girls?”

“I just mean the girl shortage could have a separate cause.”

She fingered the pen to copy out more of the letters, but Leon reached for the bottle of ink and moved it out of her reach.

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