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Marival was finally dead.Author's Notes
Laisesu couldn't decide how she felt about that. On one hand, she was relieved, because the mood of the summer population of the village had been horrendously low and unspirited because of Marival's lingering ill health. On the other, she was saddened that they'd lost Marival - she was one of the few elders that Laisesu got on with well, and she would miss the old woman's intervention and nosy questions.
Mostly, Laisesu was afraid. Marival's death had stretched for months. They all heard the death-rattle in her chest the previous autumn, though her debilitating weakness didn't set in until late in the spring. After the bulk of the village left for their summer gather spots, her health worsened, and every morning they said 'this must surely be Marival's last day,' and it wasn't.
Laisesu spent almost no time with the woman - she had dyeing to do while the weather held and she could boil her vats of dye outdoors where the fumes wouldn't be so noxious. She avoided the house where Marival lay at every opportunity, only sneaking in when she had to because that was where the last pot of endless stew in the village was simmered.
Marival had been awake, one of those times, blinking about in exhausted confusion. Jrilii sat by her side, telling her stories about the unicorn twins and some nonsense regarding broken romance with a boy who had been her age-mate. Laisesu had hoped to escape with her bowl of stew, but Marival had waved her over with one shriveled hand.
"Laisesu," the old woman said. It took old people forever to say things. Laisesu stared at her hair, because it was too awful to look at the wrinkled face and think how Marival had looked when Laisesu was young. Even her hair looked old - like smoke in color and in thickness.
The dyer took her hand, because it was expected of her, and flinched at the dry touch and the skeletal grip of the fingers. She waited for the lecture - she needed to share her dye recipes more, she needed to be kinder to the children, she needed to be less flamboyant, she needed an apprentice. She knew what the elders said of her.
"You should listen to Jrilii's stories," was all that Marival said, and she turned back to listen to the young adult ramble on about the foals she was caring for. Laisesu was trapped there for an indeterminately awful time, the thin fingers holding hers with just enough strength that she couldn't politely slip out while her stew grew cool and her appetite vanished.
She could still feel that grip, after Marival had finally died, dozens of days later. It was like frostkill to her flesh.
Laisesu didn't want to die like that: old, frail, helpless. She would rather die of a snowy-kick and suffer miserable internal damage for days than go out old.
She flexed her fingers, wondering if she imagined the increasing ache in the joints. Certainly, it was harder to roll out of the furs in the morning, anymore, and she could feel the gathering wrinkles in the corners of her eyes. Was the thinness of her hair only because of the dye she continued to put in it? It was thick enough to attract the attention of the men she wanted, certainly, and none of them had complaints about her flexibility or energy.
"Do you need some help with water today?"
Amariin's voice jogged Laisesu out of her reverie. She wore his bead in the center of her necklace this month - he was a fine figure of a man, even if she despised his beloved daughter. He'd given her a cunningly carved comb with two silk-hares, a snowy, and two of her favorite dyeing herbs for the Festival of Combs that spring. Laisesu had given him two months in a row, which was out of character for her. Maybe she was getting old, and starting to pick up the habits of a settled old woman.
She shook her head, firmly. "Yes," she said. "Come on, I've got dyeing to do."
Although 'dyeing' and 'dying' are homonyms in English, they are not in Torn Tongue, so the irony of Laisesu's last line is only for readers to enjoy. (This is in contrast to the play on words explored in Pure, where 'purists' and 'pure' come from the same root, and are noticeably similar, so characters observe the multiple meanings within the story!)