Authors: Heidi C. Vlach
Tags: #magic, #phoenix, #anthropomorphic, #transhumanism, #female friendship, #secondary world
by Heidi C. Vlach
© 2015 Heidi C. Vlach
This novel is a work of fiction, intended to
entertain and inspire but not intended as a depiction of fact. Any
resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is
Published by Heidi C. Vlach
Na biraunu na darau nu.
If you do right things, you don't have to
A Nepali proverb
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By dawn's feeble light and one smoldering
candle, Esha stared into the polished tin mirror, full of dread
like any other morning. The goat had stolen a little more of her
body through the night.
Esha was already well acquainted with her
goat traits, particularly the damned horns. Age was changing her
into a markhor goat and giving her an ever-larger profile, with two
straight spirals rooted in the top of her head. Behind those grew
the goat's ears. They were newer abominations than the horns, but
still no surprise, drooping off the sides of her head and brushing
itchy at the upper rounds of her human ears. And in patches all
over her scalp, crowding out the glossy, night-dark human hair that
Esha actually liked, were wiry patches of pelt. Another fraction of
Esha's hairline had fallen to the beast — right above her eyebrow,
five more goat hairs as pale as poison. Esha of the Fields didn't
have much longer.
But that fact was as plain as garden dirt.
Esha had never been promised a long life. Only the luckiest people
got to see their faces turn distinguished and their human hair go
silver. The heavens gave humans precious little time in their ideal
bodies and capable minds, before they slid back into more bestial
form. Esha had reached her forty-eighth year of life and she was
still mostly presentable — after physicians telling her she would
be a bleating beast by her thirty-fifth. To some degree, Esha was
There was good news in her reflection, once
she decided to look for it. Her eyes were still untouched by the
goat. She still had crow's feet tethering her eyes into her face,
and irises as dark as good soil, and the round pupils of a human.
Esha scrutinized the slopes of her weather-beaten face and the
narrow rise of her upper lip and found herself still there.
Esha arranged her headwraps with a newer set
of motions — starting the strips in circles around the bulging
bases of her goat horns, but then winding the fabric across the
stiff spades of the goat's ears and down behind her human ears. Her
bones were hurting lately and her fingernails thickened, but at
least she could show her face without shame. The heavens were to be
thanked for that. She rose to light a cooking fire, and get on with
her meagre human life.
Esha had time to dump millet into boiling
water, but not enough time to eat it. Tax collectors frowned on
tardiness and the last thing Esha needed was town guards wresting
her door off its hinges. She tucked her nameplate into her
underthings, the white-glinting metal plate with
Esha Of The
etched there as proof of the woman who carried it. Then
she hurried her layers on: charcoal-coloured pants, blue tunic, and
a gold-dyed sari wound around them both. Her plain clay sigil, mark
of a farmer, clipped the sari closed; her belt settled around her
waist with holstered tools weighing on her right side; and her
selfrope wound diagonal around her body, just in case the
mountain's gods wished her to climb today. Her carrot-yellow woolen
cowl came last, draped loose to obscure her horns' coiling shape.
Everyone knew they existed— but it was still vital to try.
She checked everything in the mirror, and
took one last glimpse of her human eyes to hold like a prayer to
her heart. Then she shuffled outside, and waited.
The tax collector was new to Yam Plateau: he
was a tall man with a fine, unblemished forehead. He stood speaking
to the next-house neighbour. Exchanging white documents. Taking her
sack of payment. Then he was striding up to Esha's door, his
polished plumwood caste sigil glinting prominent on his silk shirt
Esha pressed her hands together and bowed,
offering namaste first as low-castes should. The tax collector was
gracious enough to offer namaste in return: Esha couldn't remember
the last accountant who had respected her so. But she snatched that
thought immediately back when his eyes hesitated on her tall-tented
cowl, and his smile faltered.
It was a typical collection day, otherwise.
This collector was too slender-nosed to be Grewian but he spoke the
tongue fluently, so they needed no betel nut to translate with. The
tax collector could have provided the translation anyway: he had a
rustling overlaying his voice — rustling like dense perilla bushes
and some sparse-leafed tree, maybe a ginkgo. That meant he had
eaten a handsome breakfast. Perilla and tree-nuts would cost at
least forty-three rupees and that wasn't even including the cost of
Esha paid the tax collector her month's
property due — one hundred rupees, earned from weeks of
dust-covered work. She handed that sack over with a sour pang in
The tax collector went on to assess her
house, with his green-filigreed voice and his stack of wax-embossed
“Six armlengths by eight,” he muttered.
He checked the bamboo walls with a measuring
twine — as though Esha would bother enlarging her shack by a stolen
“Well caulked. Good.”
Esha always filled spaces between the bamboo
with a fresh lump of pine pitch, the moment she discovered them.
Not because the cold bothered her but because on windy nights, the
smallest draught whistled like a demon's scream: Esha couldn't
afford to lose sleep to that.
“Garden plot one armlength square.“ He
measured that plot, too, and eyed each onion sprout, and lifted the
leaves of Esha's sesame plant to find nothing contraband
“Acceptable cord supporting the flags,” he
muttered, “Farming caste, divorcee and childless flags are all
present. These statuses have not changed?”
His quill scraping on bleached paper was his
only comment. In between Esha's more sociable flags was her
divorcee flag, her double-pennant of shame that had pulled itself
loose from where Esha had accidentally, deliberately tucked it into
the bamboo shingles.
“Some of these flags are fraying at the
corners,” the tax collector said. “You would be advised to replace
“Kind thanks,” Esha said. Paying an
indecency fine would be less expensive than replacing the flags
with new fabric and dye; she kept that observation to herself.
And that was all the tax collector had to
say. He scribbled and stamped his notations; he gave Esha a slip of
cotton paper stamped with an accountant's seal, to pardon her from
a tardiness reprimand. And then he hurried away toward other
farmers' houses, to take some field-fellow's money.
It was finished, as favourably as Esha could
have hoped for. She even had pardon now and didn't need to rush to
work: Janjuman Farm had plenty more hands where hers came from.
She took her cooked millet off the fire to
cool, and she checked her garden for aphids and earwigs. For a
decadent moment, she stood watching the sky, eating pinches of warm
millet mixed with cold lentils and pickle.
At this serene hour, with the sun barely
risen over Tselaya Mountain's foothills, specks of lungta glittered
pink and gold in the wind-rolled sky. Esha watched individual motes
twirling and tumbling — some drifting ethereal through bamboo roofs
and walls, others lodging in brick foundations or else the Tseleyan
earth. One lungta mote swooped past Esha's feet, to melt into her
few handspans of garden earth. If the lungta fell generous this
year, her soil would be magic-rich and her plants enriched, too.
Esha never turned down free breath-of-life, or the skills it
Standing there chewing in the morning calm,
thinking about vegetables and money, Esha was suddenly swallowed by
reality. Her khukuri was failing, the blade wrinkling a little more
each time she hacked bamboo sticks or pork bones. No one could live
without a good knife: her khukuri had to be replaced it if it
should fail. But an indecency fine was on the way, as well. But she
just paid away her worldly worth a few moments ago.
There was always the savings chest — but
Esha couldn't touch that, she could
touch that. Not
until she was more goat than woman.
She gulped her last bites of millet. She
needed to get to the fields.
Janjuman's clerk accepted the excuse seal
with a tepid frown; he had a stack of identical seals by his elbow.
Esha walked alone through the creaking gates of Janjuman Farms and
hurried, off-tempo on her limping leg, toward the other
Bent over their tilled rows, hands working
fervent, the fieldwomen were spread sparse: only a few hundred of
them were free from the tax reaper at this early hour. Esha walked
the rows — between neighbours' brightly coloured saris — until she
met the bent backside that belonged to Gita Of The Fields.
“Hail, sister. You saved me some yams?”
Gita grinned past her own knees and waved
Esha to her side. “The entire field. They're your endowment.”
“Yaah, strike me down now.” Gradually,
achingly, Esha folded herself over to touch fingertips to the dirt.
“I didn't see you at collection.”
“I paid a little extra last month, so my due
She paused. Their spades bit, scraping, into
“You made your due?” Gita asked.
“I did. Didn't even need to rob my savings
chest, praise for that.” She unearthed a shrivelled, dead husk that
was once a yam plant, and yanked it loose, and replaced it with a
seed. “Will you have enough, sister?”
“I will, but I won't have a fortune
“That's my trouble, too. Got flag fines
Gita sighed, her tall-wrapped head shaking
“And my khukuri won't last much longer ...
Maybe the gods will slip some coin into my purse.”
“I'll think of something,” Gita said.
“Please — you don't have to.”
“I do,” she bit out. “We're the only ones
who'll look after us.”
Esha dug down to another yam, swallowing
with a throat turned dry despite the millet's moistening lungta.
Gita was right. Gita was always right about these things.
Janjuman's cook put too much pork in the
evening meal. In the warming winds of spring, plants were more
valuable in the ground than in a low-caste's bowl. Wedged shoulder
to shoulder with her field sisters, Esha turned a rib bone in its
barely-spiced sauce and her stomach quavered: her changing innards
were beginning to hate slick fat and gelatinous flesh, while
craving fresh leaves that Esha couldn't afford.
“Thank the heavens for this meal,” one
sister said, unseen beyond many others, “but, yaah, look at the
Grumbling rose from other workers.
“It's clear what this means,” came a
sister's jesting voice. “Yaks are too expensive. They want more
“Nonsense,” said another. “Everything will
go to seed before we're any use!”
“Cheaper to just hitch us to the yokes
“And plug their ears against our
Laughter huffed all around. Every fieldwoman
Esha knew was managing enough grain and pickles for mere
subsistence, for living out their heaven-assigned portion of human
life. But it was easy to wish for the robust health that greener
meals would bring.
“The prank is on them,” came neighbour
Menku's voice. “My traits will make me a terrible plough beast.
Round-eared and skin-tailed, if you see what I mean!”