Opal, Saoirse Ní Chiaragáin
CW: blood, human remains
I get to know the world long after it has ended. The lunar cycle is the first thing I learn, waiting for Selene to bloom full-bodied in her bough, so that I can see the way. It isn't safe to go out in daylight, the way the people did before. Selene is what Ma called the moon. She read it in a poem, which is a pretty way of saying words. A way that people don't really talk, but is fun to try - why don't you try, baby?
Each year I burrow deeper into the stone, seeking the cool touch of shale, the rust-red dirt settling on my eyelashes and colouring my skin. Each year the sun grows hotter, closer.
So I wait until moonrise, at her most swollen and luminous point - those are other poem words - so that I can go about my wandering. I get to know the people and animals that used to be. Sun-bleached bones that I gather in my sack. Shelled-out dugouts with dusty artifacts of the old times, things I don't understand. There are pictures, better than anything I can draw, of the world above in full bright-shining sunlight. Faded now with age, but enough to set my heart thumping. Part of me wants to save the little people in the pictures, prone under that savage sun. Another part, which flutters with a perverse longing, wants to join them.
I haven't seen another person since Ma died. I was still just little when she went. Not small like the people in the pictures, but a little thing. Little and still learning and not full formed. Little like the grubs that still wriggle in husks of tree trunks, fat and white and fleshy. I let the juices burst between my teeth. Not often I get something fresh. I wrench some more from their hidey-holes to be dried in the warmer currents of the burrow later.
The grub whets my appetite, gives me the strength to round up some roaches. I keep them in an old glass mason jar - be gentle with it, baby! - an heirloom that can break easy, given to me by Ma. They hiss and crawl over each other, brown-black bodies reflecting the moonlight. Not a whole lot living underground. Got to make the most of the time top-side, let the cool air draw all the food out of their holes.
Some foods don't move though. Some are rare, and still sitting in their dugouts, drying up. Ma taught me how to find them, though there aren't many left now. Have to be careful when looking, lots of holes everywhere. Big, big 'uns, big enough for baby to fall down, if she's not careful. Ma said Coober Pedy was a twisty turny place underground. Not just home burrows, but burrows for finding opals. Shiny rocks that people liked a lot before the sun got close. Shiny rocks that look like the Milky Way, all small in your hand.
I can see the Milky Way all I like when I'm topside. Big and beautiful, the most colourful thing in my dark little world. No need for a small one, I have the real deal. I can't hold it in my hand, but I can hold it in my eyes, and that's what really matters. I try to sniff the air, catch the scent. One hole smells promising. It's small, and baby is big now, but I can just about angle my shoulders and wriggle down like a grub.
You get to know smells really good in the dark. Get to know the little currents of air that carry them to you. I run my hand against the shale wall of the mine, guiding myself while my eyes adjust. Selene's light doesn't reach down here, it's just me and the food and the opals now. Eventually I find it, sitting still with its tools about its waist. Its flesh has dried hard, brown and wrinkled and clinging to the bone. It's wearing one of the funny hats with lights that Ma said workers used to see down in the dark, but the light won't work now.
I take the tools, they'll be good for burrowing. The food's body breaks apart easy. He's an old one, been in the dirt for a while. Ma said foods like him are called mummies, and we laughed. Laughed because she was a mummy, like a Ma, but not like the foods. Not yet anyway.
I only take what's got the best eating. I wrap the legs in muslin, bundle arms and ribs up best I can. When I'm done I make a little cross on my forehead, chest and shoulders. Ma said this lets God know you're sorry. God lives behind the sun and Selene, and he's angry with us. That's why he keeps pushing the sun closer, to make it fight us.
Even in the chill of the mine, I can feel the temperature start to creep up a little. Not much time left. A good night's work, though. Still have some more nights either side of Selene's fullness for more wandering, but after that it gets harder. Darker. Selene only lets you see the way some of the time.
Even though the creeping heat scares me, I have to take my time getting back to the burrow. Lots of holes, got to dodge 'em. Running scared only gets you dead. Dead like Ma, only there'd be no one around to make use of me once I'm dead. Slow and steady, all the way home. That's how we stay alive.
Once back at the burrow, there's work to be done before bedtime. I pin the fat grubs to the drying rack, watching as they twist and turn about. I eat one, enjoying the cool juices running down my throat. A little treat for a good night's work. I place the jar of roaches, still hissing and climbing on top of one another, carefully on the shelf I've carved into the rockface. The mummy foods get placed beside the jar, bundled up carefully in muslin. I take a rib to gnaw for now.
Yawning, I tend to my collection. It's getting early, and I need to sleep soon. I still have growing to do. I take the sun-bleached bones from my sack and see what will work best. One is a head of something I don't recognize, small with sharp pointed teeth. Another is a long, thick measure of bone. Maybe a leg. Some I will carve, using my new mummy tools.
I started the collection when Ma died. For the first night, I didn't know what to do with her. I was so little and scared, not big and brave like now. Too little and scared to go out under Selene and find foods on my own. Little and scared and so hungry. I put my face next to hers, cuddled close like we were sleeping. She didn't smell like Ma any more. But she was still soft, and fresh. Different to the other mummies we'd eaten. I kissed her cheek, and then my teeth pushed through the kiss, pushing through like the hot hungry sun, wanting to gobble us all up.
Ma said that when I was really little, a real baby, she fed me from her body. Ma said lots of people and animals did this before. That it was a normal life thing. But even as I remembered those words, it didn't feel like a normal life thing. Not as I felt her juices running down my throat, all cold and red as the dirt. Her meat salted with my tears. Oh Ma, I'm sorry Ma. You never taught me the moves to say sorry to you.
It took a long time to finish her, but it was a time for growing. Getting big and strong, and brave enough to go topside alone. When I was done, I crossed myself and said sorry to God, but I was really saying sorry to Ma. I hoped that maybe she was behind the sun and Selene too, maybe she could sort things out, stop all the fighting up there. If anyone could do it, Ma could.
When we finish eating mummies, we push their bones into the red dirt. Ma said everything goes back to the ground when it's done. But I couldn't do that to her. I needed her with me still. I placed her skull on the rockface shelf, and put two shiny opals in the sockets. Every time I go out, I bring her gifts, building a collection. I want her to see how big I am, how good I am. That I'm using everything she taught me.
It's getting hot. I lie on the ground, and look up at Ma, at her Milky Way eyes. Her skull is full and white as Selene, crowned with bones from the before. People and animals, sharp and blunt teeth, things I will never know. The time she grew up in and did her best to teach me about. Maybe if she's behind the sky, she can look down and see it.
I close my eyes. Time for a bedtime story. I carry Ma's books with me each time I deepen the burrow, even though I can't read them. But I remember all the words in them, remember them in her voice. I press my hands against the red dirt and recite,
"Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Among the stars that have a different birth, —
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?"
Saoirse Ní Chiaragáin is an Irish writer living in Berlin, Germany. Her work has appeared in Novel Noctule, and will appear in the upcoming anthology 99 Tiny Terrors edited by Jennifer Brozek. Her co-written feature film, Consentuality, is currently in development with Screen Ireland. You can follow her at @MiseryVulture on Twitter.