“A Veil of Leaves” by M.K. Hutchins
My heart thrilled as the skyman streaked towards the ground, like a single raindrop on a sunny day. What a lucky omen, to have a skyman return on my wedding day.
Grandma smacked her gums. “Last time they came, they stole. Thieves. No good, no good.”
The other women shushed her and I spoke gentle. “Skypeople didn’t steal anything.”
“They built the lightfence between us and the ravencattle. Just as good as stealing.” Grandma had been a girl when that happened.
But the Skypeople gave us lights and hotplates, too – they weren’t evil. “Ravencattle must’ve been sick.”
Grandma opened her mouth, but the women told her to hush and paint her broadleaf. Most could barely follow their own advice, eyes flitting off into the distance where the skyman’s ship was landing. Each took a turn showing me what they’d painted in honey water, anyway. Sister painted a rock for a strong marriage. My cousin painted freshrain for strong broadleaf trees. My aunt painted something I didn’t understand, but she winked and giggled until Mother scolded her away.
Soon enough the skyman strode up. He looked like a normal man, except he wore clothes just as silver as the hotplates the skypeople gave us. Red dust clung to it.
He looked over us, face smooth as baby skin. He peered at the wreath on my head. “You’re in charge? I’d like a meal – the best you have.”
Something silver sat inside his mouth. When he talked, it looked like he was chewing a grub.
The woman nudged me forward and I swallowed my nervousness. A skyman, talking to me! “I’ll feed you at my home.”
The women jabbered as he passed, trailing their fingers over his silver clothes. Except Grandma. She crossed her wrinkled arms and muttered. Every day of my life, I’ve seen those feral ravencattle through the lightfence, and I’m glad it’s between us – even if Grandma said they used to be tame. The sleek beasts snort and stomp, then stretch their twisty necks and bare their long teeth, so good at shearing leaves and grubs.
The skyman ducked as we entered my hut. The women helped me build it for when my husband comes: straight lashed poles topped with a thick layer of thatch.
“What do you eat now, without the ravencattle?”
“I’ll show you.” I grinned. I’m the best cook for days all around. Papa says that’s why he could bargain for such a good husband for me. It will be lucky, to have a skyman smile on my wedding day.
I waved my hand over the silvery hotplate and it glowed red. I pulled a handful of grubs from a basket – we’d just killed these yesterday. I slit them in two and squeezed their guts into a mortar before tossing them onto the hotplate. They sizzled and jumped.
I added oniongrass to the guts and ground it, tossing it over the hotplate when the grubs were nearly done. I scooped it all into my best bowl, the one my brother made down by the river. Smiling wide enough to sprain my cheeks, I handed it to the skyman. It smelled like freshrain and celebration. “Here’s our best.”
He was lucky I had a wedding tonight, or there wouldn’t have been oniongrass.
The skyman’s skin greened. “Bugs? You eat bugs?”
“They’re grubs. Can’t you see how big they are?” I frowned. Maybe his long fall did something strange to his brain.
The metal thing in his mouth bobbed like a second tongue. “You were supposed to do something creative with the plants to replace the protein in your diet, not turn to bugs.” He sniffed at my food and recoiled. “I could lose my position on the committee over this. I’m supposed to bring back something succulent like tofu in all its variation, fried, simmered, marinated…” He sighed and shook his head. “You don’t even know what tofu is, do you?”
I shrugged. Why should I? It couldn’t be better than my grubs. Even the bitter widow who lives nearest the fence agreed I cooked the best bowl anywhere.
He tapped the metal thing in his mouth and started talking to himself, staring at his food. “Yes, I’m here. No, they’re eating bugs. Maybe if the presentation’s spectacular, everyone will still eat them. Here’s a picture.” He opened his mouth wide and tapped it again. He must have been talking to another skyman, because he paused like he was listening. “Poisonous?”
He whipped his head up. “These are poisonous?”
“Not the way I serve them.” I folded my arms. No man had ever insulted my food in my kitchen, and skyman or no, I wasn’t keen to start having that now. “They ate the broadleaf.”
Grandma had told me the story a hundred times. With the ravencattle fenced out, people were hungry. There were so many grubs without the ravencattle munching that some people ate them. They died. Some people ate the broadleaf, but they died, too. The ravencattle ate both, so we figured it out: broadleaf and grub make each other safe to eat. Getting the grubs to eat the leaves by coating them in honey-water? That killed the grubs, made them safe, and tenderized them.
Mine were the tastiest.
“I agree, this expedition’s a complete waste of time,” the skyman said, not looking at me. “We can’t feed this to the ship. The locals could have just developed an immunity. Since we’re still looking for new smoking, grilling, or rotisserie techniques, I’ll…no, I’m perfectly capable of being in charge…oh. Oh.”
The skyman tapped the silver thing in his mouth, then slumped into my hammock, digging the heels of his hands into his eye sockets.
“You want a cup of freshwater to go with?” I asked.
“No. I have to go.”
“You came for one meal?” I frowned. It seemed like a long way to come.
“Our chefs can only invent so much. Some of the most delicious foods were invented from necessity, and we’d hoped for something spectacular here. What did you think your colony’s for?”
Bile burned up my throat. I must have heard wrong. After all, the skypeople gave us lights and hotplates. “You’re saying you took away our ravencattle, then came back a hundred years later hoping for a treat?”
Grandma never lets us forget about the people who died when they fenced out the ravencattle. Her brothers, her niece, her mother.
He glared. “It doesn’t take a hundred years for us, not with how fast we move. You were the most promising planet, you know. We restricted fuel on the last two worlds, and they only reinvented stir-fry and kabobs. We’d hoped for something spectacular down here. I can’t believe we got bugs. Poisonous bugs.”
He marched out my door and across the dusty red ground. The women spilled in after he streaked back into the sky in his teardrop of silver. They asked me what he wanted. I held up the plate of grubs.
Grandma smacked her gums and shook her head at me. “Was your skyman everything you thought he’d be?”
“No.” I didn’t see any point in lying. I expected Grandma to lecture me, but she just hugged me tight, like she wasn’t sure she’d get another chance to.
The other women muttered about how crazy she was, but I didn’t pay them any heed. I hugged Grandma back, as if a single hug could apologize for all the times I’d rolled my eyes at her, too.
It was a good omen that the skyman left before my wedding. I watched the grubs munch the leaves the women painted. They only ate the honey-water part, leaving the patterns behind. Then the grubs shivered and curled into balls, ready to cook. I sewed the leaves together for my veil while the women made the feast for the wedding guests, then I personally fried up my groom’s dinner. That skyman was crazy for not trying grubs in oniongrass.
I fed it to my groom before both our families, both our villages. The skypeople lights from our houses flooded the red ground and the snaking roots of the broadleaf trees we stood between. He blushed and smiled, looking shyly down, then up at me. His eyes were the rich color of grub guts and he almost smelled as nice.
Our parents draped the veil with all its pretty wishes over both of us. Mother told us we had to make the wishes come true; his father said something about patience.
The lights flickered. I froze; that had never happened. Then they blackened, turning the world to shadows. Murmurs hissed through the crowd. One of the women ran inside her hut, then rushed back out, shouting that the lights wouldn’t come back and the hotplate didn’t work.
I clutched my groom’s hand. He shook, too. The hotplates always worked.
When I heard the stomping hooves, I looked towards the lightfence.
It wasn’t there.
The ravencattle charged faster than I could think, eyes wide and wild in the moonlight. They trampled a man to death, right there, right in front of me, squishing his guts out like a grub’s.
My groom grabbed my wrist and ran. Villagers panicked around us – some shrieking, some running – but his parents hadn’t lied in the wedding bartering when they said he was fast. He yanked me inside my hut and barred the door.
It was dark, dark like the inside of my eyelids, dark like the blood of the broadleaf tree. People shrieked and shouted. Other doors slammed shut. Not even my new, thick thatch could keep out the sobbing of my village and the crunch as the ravencattle chewed at our trees.
I held my groom and he held me through the dark night. When the sun rose, when light came, we cracked the door and peered outside.
The broadleaf trees looked like skeleton hands reaching from the ground, leaves gone. Our cages of grubs at their bases were smashed open, empty. A few ravencattle peered at us as they chewed. Their hooves squashed the faces of our dead. Ten bodies, twelve? I couldn’t tell.
We shuffled back inside the hut. I waved my hand over the hotplate. Nothing.
“We’ll starve.” My groom’s handsome eyes trembled.
What had the skyman said? I didn’t know what grilling was, but I did know smoke. Grandma talked about how her mother had cooked with fire every time we cremated one of our dead or burned out a rotted broadleaf tree.
I peered out the door. A ravencow snorted at us. I took my veil – maybe the last bit of broadleaf in the village – and tossed it to the side. The ravencow charged after it. I dashed out, snatched sticks from under the broadleaf trees, then ran back inside.
I grabbed a piece of flint and my silvery knife.
His eyes widened. “We don’t need a pyre yet.”
“Of course not, but I won’t have a hungry husband.”
I sparked the sticks and blew gently. While they burned, I rubbed down a yellowroot with the last wisp of oniongrass, then laid it on the coals to roast. Hopefully, it would cook.
I counted my baskets and jars. The other huts would have about the same. It couldn’t last.
I looked at my knife. I didn’t want to face wild ravencattle up close, so I lashed it to my broom, then slipped out the front of my hut, scrambled up the side, and perched in the thatch.
My groom scurried after. “What are you doing?”
“We’ll need more food soon.” I eyed a ravencow as it wandered towards us. “Everyone will.”
Maybe Grandma could teach us how to cook it.
About the Author
MK Hutchins has a background in archaeology, which she regularly draws on when writing fiction. Her YA fantasy novel Drift is both a Junior Library Guild Selection and a VOYA Top Shelf Honoree. Her short fiction appears in IGMS, Podcastle, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. A long-time Idahoan, she now lives in Utah with her husband and four children. She blogs about board games and books at www.mkhutchins.com.