The Iron Child

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This story was contributed by authorhlumelo

Anele stood on the shore's edge, where the sand drank the foam of the receding waves and smooth rocks gleamed black in the twilight. The day's warmth had melted into the sea, and a cold wind bit through the rags of linen she had twisted into a makeshift shawl. Her hands were wet and warm, and the wind here wailed like a death song, so when it bit again, her fingers twitched. Two pearls of blood dripped onto the sand by her foot, red on gold. They darkened until two black irises stared up at her. A wave washed over them and softened the grit and blood caked around her ankles.

A full day of walking through the dunes means that at least some of that blood was hers, but not enough to matter. To call Anele human was to call the sharkeagle that circled high above the waves a bird. It was true but barely.

Her shadow stretched across the width of the shore, the elongated shape of a ten-year-old. Her thick braids were that of a child in the care of an aunt who exercised control with the tightness of her weaving, but it had been days since Anele has thought about anything as inconsequential as hair. The sunlight turned the frayed edges to gold wire, but the hair on top of her head was matted with substances that had dried and soured like old meat. On a good day, her face would be bright with the red-brown complexion common in the Spires.

On this, the most devastating day of her young life, her face was marred with guts and offal and worse.

Worse? What had happened today had happened once before, but to say the day's events outshone that bright, sharp memory...

There she was, a squirming mass of newborn limbs, birth fluids making her hair stick to her head like wet silk, an infant's scream gurgling through the liquid in her throat. She had a memory strong enough to remember her own birth, and the wisdom to know that it was normal, all things considered.

Normal until Older Sister called.

Being less than an hour old, her spirit had had no reference for the sensation of Older Sister's voice. In later years, Anele would come to describe it as swallowing shrapnel.

"Break," said Older Sister, and Anele's infant spirit obeyed.

Power had exploded into her tiny limbs and surged through her chest. When she coughed to expel the birth fluids in her lungs, her body had racked hard enough to make the midwife holding her stagger. Deep in panic, Anele had flung an arm out, desperate to grip to something that would pull her out of Older Sister's grasp. She flailed a fist and hit something hard. With her ear pressed to the woman's chest, she heard the midwife's collarbone break.

A rush of wind and then she was squirming on the floor, dropped, the distant cries from the midwife and her mother the dark chorus of her little world. But when her flesh touched the mud-packed floor... Oh, the world became ten times larger. A hundred times. Ten million. Suddenly she wasn't just aware of the clay against her wet skin, her spirit told her of the intense heat and pressure pushing up from kilometres deep in the earth. She was aware of the planet, and the stone titans who slept inside it, drifting in a womb of molten iron.

Then Older Sister released her hold and Anele's spirit stopped bleeding into the world. Some years after that, a village headman had shown her a strange block called a magnet. He had scattered iron fillings on a table top, and when he set the block in the centre, the filings were drawn in by some invisible attraction. That was how it felt when her spirit, scattered to the edge of the furthest continent, gathered itself into her body. She'd never really been impressed with the headman's magnet, not when she had experienced gravity on a planetary scale.

But she had not done that with her own strength alone. No infant, not even one born six months late, was that powerful. Ten rough, trembling hands had picked her up off the floor, and when the midwife cut her umbilical cord, she severed Anele from a corpse.

The waves washed over her feet again.

Dull-eyed, she watched the sharkeagle dive in a vicious arc, a shadow cutting towards an ocean that shone like a new mirror. It thrust its talons through the water and flared wings wide enough to roof a house. With a whoosh that left sea spray glittering in the sunset, it ascended again, a dolphin thrashing in its grasp.

Anele was barely -- barely -- aware of the satisfaction that pulsed from the sharkeagle's spirit. The dolphin's fear was a sharper flavour, but they both faded with time and distance. Such was the way of the world. Death was a stitch that all living things wove eventually, but some were greater than others, some more plentiful, others beyond simple metaphor.

The first time Older Sister had called, Anele's spirit had been torn to rags. The aftermath of that birthing room had not been her fault. It had not. She had been an infant in the hands of an old power. For ten years after, Older Sister had said very little to her, only whispering at the edge of dreams, or ghosting through thoughts Anele would never be comfortable calling her own. It was impossible to tell with ancient spirits like Older Sister's or the sharkeagle's, but as Anele had grown, that shrapnel voice had dulled and gone slinking away to the shadows.

Until today. This time, when Older Sister called again, she had cut Anele's spirit in half, and in the wild frenzy that followed she had...

She had...

Anele shut her eyes, and the tears that pearled there ran down her cheeks, cutting through the blood of an aunt, running over the bone flecks of a friend. The wound in her spirit was still weeping into her tendons and bones, thickening her marrow and knitting lightning into her nerves. She was young flesh holding old anger, and if a stranger were to look into the fire in her eyes, it would be a funeral pyre that stared back.

The howling wind flowed around her, suddenly too afraid to touch her skin.

Anele spiked her spirit into the earth with enough force to flash the sand into a wide circle of glass. The incoming wave burned away as even the ocean gave her a wide berth. Now rooted in the earth's mantle, she cast her awareness wide. Wider. Past the sharkeagle flying towards the cliffs. Past the bodies trapped in a glass floor where once there had been a village. Past mountains and valleys and the great river where the elephants drank and the elephant-eaters slithered and hunted.

Her awareness brushed against something old and sharp, and it cut playfully at her awareness in greeting. Twice had Older Sister sought her out, twice had tragedy come to Anele. Now, she left glass footprints along the shore when she walked towards that ball of shrapnel spirit.

The waves gathered themselves out of her way as Anele went seeking after Old Sister.

Queer Xhosa writer of African fantasy about alchemists, witches, and petty gods. Watty Winner (2019). Bride to one dying immortal or another. Read more of his stories here .

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