In Silence, I’ll Sing

 In Short Fiction, Stories

In blessed silence, we walk into the grand hall where the Atmos Sorcerer waits. The sunrise hides behind the snowstorm beating against the windows, but it is still morning so we must sing.

The Sorcerer slouches in his oak throne, his skin as grey as the snow clouds. His lips pulsate as he suppresses rising coughs. To his right stands Mother Claren, chest out, shoulders squared, hands behind her back. The red lace covering her uniform sets her ablaze against the deep green walls.

We split into lines of three and take our places before the Atmos Sorcerer, one row in front of the other. Our warmth swims in the tight gaps between us. Shoulders graze shoulders. I should not relish the sensation, I should not. This ceremony is not for us. It’s for the Sorcerer, who controls the weather for Nabette and the surrounding farmlands.

Yet as we open our mouths and sing “Blue Skies, We Drink You,” oh how I soar. Raw magic flows along the swirling heights of the first verse. By the chorus, it shapes itself into something more defined. We draw the magic out of us and push it towards the Sorcerer.

The challenging part is over. Now I can discern the voices of my fellow servers–the rumbling depths of the server in front, the fragile soprano of the server behind. The veils that stretch around our faces disguise us; skin colours and protruding features are all that show. Our words cannot define us as we are not allowed to speak. The morning and evening songs are the only times I can distinguish one server from another.

I’m not supposed to pay attention to them. I must sing. We must sing.

We guide the song through the final chorus. The magic has infused Mother Claren’s pasty skin with a touch of rose, but it has not seeped into the Atmos Sorcerer. His skin remains grey. His slump deepens.

And the pelting snow does not relent.

Silence takes hold once more. We won’t use our voices again until the evening song.

Line by line, we march away from the Sorcerer, keeping our veiled heads low.

For decades, the Sorcerer has blessed Nabette with pleasant temperatures, alternating between sunshine and rain as the crops require. Snow is rare; it tends to last a few days while the Sorcerer works through some discontentment. Yet as of today, snow has been falling for four months.

Our songs no longer help the Sorcerer. We’ve sung the same as we always have but everything around us has changed. What else can we do except our duty?

I peer around our line, searching the other servers’ faces for signs of worry, but our failure does not appear to trouble them. Behind their veils, I can make out the ghosts of their faces; their expressions free of emotion. How good they are. How admirable. They are worthy servers of the Atmos Institute, performing their duties without doubt.

Amid my distraction, my boot catches the hem of my robes, and I stumble and cry out: “Oh, ow, oh!”

The other servers stop. They drop their mouths open. Shocked in the wake of–of–

Of the noise I made.

I slap my hands against the lace shielding my mouth and shake my head over and over and over. I didn’t intend to make a sound, it was an accident. But it happened, oh Sorcerer, forgive me, it happened. If I was stronger, if I was more disciplined, I could have withheld it, as the other servers would have.

From the top of the grand hall, booted footsteps thunder. The servers stand up straighter and hold their breaths.

Mother Claren yanks me out of the line and glares, blue eyes burning. I admit to my misdeed with a bow of my head.

*

Three sounds: oh, ow, oh. For each one, Mother Claren presses a hot poker against the palm of my hand, burning me from the base of my thumb to the heel of my hand. I don’t cry out but my traitorous eyes water. I pray she does not notice.

Mother Claren leads me down the servers’ corridors running through the back of Clement Manor. I stay several steps behind her, eyeing the three wounds that shriek and ripple as my hand trembles.

“Such a stupid little girl.” Mother Claren doesn’t turn but she speaks loud enough to echo down the corridor. “Squealing over nothing when you should be silent. Disgraceful.”

I flush hotter than the burns on my hand. I haven’t been disciplined this badly since I was a child living in the Atmos Institute, learning how to serve a Sorcerer. Hardship makes a server strong, so I did everything I could to be strong.

I thought I had become a good server. Thought I’d never face punishment like this again.

Mother Claren pushes open the manor’s back door. Icy wind slams against me. “Quickly now.” She waves her hand to the death of winter. “You’re letting the heat out.”

I step outside. Sheets of falling snow soak my robes in seconds. The whipping wind beats the cold into my limbs, killing the sting of my burns.

We head to the front of Clement Manor and traipse across the main courtyard. The snow is so heavy, I can’t see far past my dripping veil. All is cold and grey.

We stop at a stone shed at the end of the courtyard. Mother Claren unbolts the door and opens it. No words are needed. I walk into the darkness, and the stench of straw swims up my nostrils.

She slams the door behind me. From outside, metal shunts against metal. I’m locked in.

“Hardship makes a server strong,” Mother Claren shouts against the wind.

Her footsteps trudge further and further away.

*

The slice of light beneath the shed door fades. I huddle in the corner and hug my knees but the cold has wrapped around my bones. I breathe ice in and out. Water drips from my nose without end, snaking through my veil’s lace patterns.

Maybe Mother Claren will come back soon. Maybe she’ll wait until the evening song has finished. She’ll unlock the shed and send me to my dorm, and I’ll fall into my bed’s embrace.

If she comes for me, I won’t disappoint her again. I’ll sing for the Sorcerer all day and all night. I’ll wake him from the slump that holds him and fill him with the energy he needs to lift this wretched snow.

Such arrogance. As though I alone could influence him. A server must rise above ego and deliver song and service for the Atmos Sorcerer. And yet here I sit, praying for Mother Claren to save me from my punishment as though I deserve special treatment.

Maybe I’m the one ruining the servers’ songs. Maybe my incompetence hinders the Sorcerer’s magic.

Are those footsteps outside? No, hooves clomping through the snow. Not a wild horse, surely. They live much deeper in the woods and their pace would not be as disciplined as this one’s.

The hooves stop. Heavy cloth swooshes, and something–someone–lands on the ground. “Alright, easy girl.” A woman’s voice.

The horse shoots out a breath. I do too, struggling to keep my breath from tumbling into a laugh. Someone is here; I don’t recognise her voice, but the sound of another human is sweeter than a blanket.

The woman’s footsteps creak through the snow. They come closer, closer. A shadow creeps under the door, a blissful sight amid my isolation.

The shadow leaves.

And the footsteps get softer.

Farther.

I leap up and with my good hand, I hammer the door countless times. Regret eats with each bang, but I can’t stop myself. Some animal instinct compels me to make myself known to this stranger.

I regain self-control. I stop hammering.

And the footsteps come closer.

“Hello?” The stranger’s shadow falls beneath the door once more.

I should ignore the stranger and pray she thinks the noise was her imagination. But I can’t take the cold any longer. If she abandons me, I couldn’t cope. I slam my hand against the door three times, wincing at each bang.

“Hold on, I’m coming in. If I can just–” Metal squeaks and clicks. The door swings open, letting in a blast of biting wind.

She stands in the doorway. Her presence is a lightning bolt that locks me to the spot. I lose myself in her eyes, a brown so deep they verge on black.

She steps into the shed and pulls down the hood of her woollen coat. Her black hair is  pinned to the back of her head, save for a few loose sprigs. She raises her gloved hand to me. I shouldn’t admire how her arm strains against her sleeve stitching. I shouldn’t.

“It’s alright,” she says. “I won’t hurt you.”

I press my lips together and look away. Her hand looms at the corner of my eye.

“Are you a server? Sorry, of course you are. So you can’t speak?”

I get the urge to touch the part of my veil covering my mouth. I drown that urge, clasping my hands beneath my stomach.

The woman lowers her arm. My stomach sinks the farther her hand moves out of reach.

I chance a glance at her. She brushes down her jacket and looks around the shed. Perhaps she’s examining the poor condition of my home for the night. Or perhaps she’s searching for a way to talk to someone who can’t respond.

She sighs. “Someone locked you in here.” Not a question; better to talk at a server instead of to them. “No coat, no blanket. They left you to freeze.”

My cheeks burn. She must know I’m being punished.

“We need to keep a better eye on things up here. Sergeant Vincent says we don’t have the resources, but if he saw this…”

Sergeant? Is this woman a police officer? Am I that bad a server, the police need to get involved?

The woman whips out a hand-sized copper shield with NABETTE POLICE engraved on it. “I’m Officer Rina. The mayor wrote to the Atmos Sorcerer, asking him about this long winter, but the Sorcerer never responded. The sergeant sent me up here to find out what’s happening. And help out if I can.” She looks me up and down. If only I died of hypothermia before she came. “Wait here, I’ll be right back.”

Rina leaves the shed, and my stomach tightens for fear that she won’t return, but she does, bringing a shale-grey horse. She unfastens a blanket from the horse’s back and wraps it around my shoulders. Its warmth ignites a wave of goosebumps across my skin.

She unstraps a flask from the saddle. “Have some water. You need it more than me.”

With my injured hand, I fumble at the flask’s lid, struggling to open it while keeping my wounds out of Rina’s sight. Each clumsy movement sends agony through my palm.

Rina grasps my wrist, gentle and controlled. I still myself and allow her to rotate my hand and see the ugly red streaks. There’s no hope she’ll believe the marks were accidental. They’re placed too cleanly, too deliberately.

“Who did this?” Rina asks, pitching her voice lower than before.

In this moment, I’m grateful I’ve sworn myself to silence.

“Was it the Sorcerer? Or the mother of the manor?”

The humiliation must have etched itself in my face for she softens her expression. “Listen to me.” She points at the wounds. “You did not deserve this. Whoever hurt you? They’re the ones who should be ashamed, not you.”

Her words are blasphemous but they move me–in fact, I tremble. All my life, I’ve put the needs of the Atmos Institute before my own. Whenever they told me I did wrong, I agreed. Whenever they punished me, I accepted it. Now this woman, who helps me without a hope for reward, tells me I deserve better?

I’m overcome with a strange sense of comfort I should not humour. To humour it would be an insult to the institute, Mother Claren, and the Sorcerer. Yet I bundle Rina’s words deep within me where no one can find them.

“Ignoring the mayor’s letters… mistreating the servers… the Sorcerer has some explaining to do.” Rina lets my injured hand down. She sucks in a breath. “This might be a big ask, but could you come with me to Nabette and give us your testimony?”

I shake my head so hard, my brain might dislodge itself.

“You don’t have to speak. You could write it down.” She shuts her eyes tight. “Sorry, servers can’t write. Or can they?”

The problem goes deeper than my inability to write. She’s asking me to betray the institute. I can’t do that. Yet I want to help Rina as she’s helped me. Her arrival has set my mind into free-fall.

“Please, this winter has gone on too long. Nothing can grow in this weather, and the city’s food stores are dwindling. Every day, people die of the cold–the homeless, the elderly. Last week, I found a young family frozen to death. I still get nightmares over…” She swallows. “We have no idea why the Sorcerer won’t stop this snow. I need to figure it out, and you could help me.”

Nabette is a dozen miles east yet it might as well be across an ocean. But to hear people are dying from the cold… it frightens me, especially after my day in this shed.

The Sorcerer must know of this suffering; he is the expert about the effects of bad weather. But that hasn’t motivated him to act. Neither have the servers songs. What displeasure has immobilised him?

No. It’s not displeasure. His pallor, his lethargy, and his ceaseless coughing point to a more obvious problem.

I shut my eyes. I’ve known the Sorcerer has been sick for some time, but I never let myself dwell on his condition. It is not my place to think.

But Rina stands here, forcing me to question everything. I can’t go as far as she’d like, but I can help her in some small way. If Rina sees how sick the Sorcerer is, she may be able to help him.

I hand her the flask, along with the blanket from my shoulders. I walk to the doorway and flick my head, beckoning her to follow. Rina hurries to me as I step into the snow. What I’m about to do is heretical but a server must support the Sorcerer’s work. And the Sorcerer works for the people of Nabette.

*

Through the rear door, I take Rina into Clement Manor, its warmth rushing into my shivering limbs. The back hall clock reads nine. The evening song is over. By now, the servers have sung the evening song–they must be back in their dorms. The Sorcerer should be in his room. The only unknown is Mother Claren, who works free of a schedule.

The safest way to the Sorcerer’s room is through the servers’ corridors, hidden from the manor’s heart. The lamps cast harsh shadows on the pine floors though Rina and I are the only ones around to see them.

We climb the stairs and reach the upper hall, passing a string of closed doors to our left. Each one leads to a dorm, where servers must be resting up for tomorrow’s work. The ninth door, with the rickety hinge, is mine. It looks the same as it always does. As though I could walk inside, sleep until morning, and return to my duties as normal.

A foolish notion. There’s no returning to normality for me. Normality is killing Nabette. I must see this through for the city, for Rina, even if it hurls my life into chaos.

Hardship makes a server strong.

We turn a corner. Rina and I slip through a doorway to the manor’s landing. The Sorcerer’s bedroom is right beside us. As Rina tilts her ear to the bedroom door, the Sorcerer’s coughs slam against it. She recoils and shoots me a glance. I keep my expression neutral.

She takes hold of the doorknob. My insides clench. I’ve never been in the Sorcerer’s room–no server has. Mother Claren is responsible for cleaning and dressing the Sorcerer. Yet I don’t stop Rina as she slowly twists the knob and inches the door open. I don’t look through the gap; I’ve done enough already. Instead, I stare at the twisting vines in the ceiling’s stucco.

The Sorcerer unleashes another barrage of coughs. They sound more violent with no door to shield them. Mother Claren coos beneath the Sorcerer’s wheezes. “Take another sip of—” The Sorcerer interrupts her with coughs so brutal, they must tear holes in his lungs. Mother Claren responds with, “Shhh, shhh.”

Rina turns away from the bedroom and heads to the grand staircase connecting the landing to the entrance hall. I follow, not chancing a look back. We descend the steps and Rina sighs. “My father had a cough as awful as that. He could barely speak in the end.”

My stomach flips. The end?

“We’ll need a doctor to examine him, but the Sorcerer’s in a bad state. I don’t know if he’ll survive or not but either way, he’s in no shape to control Nabette’s weather. The mother of the manor should have sent for another Sorcerer months ago. Why hasn’t she?”

“It is not your place to question us.”

Mother Claren stands at the top of the staircase. Disdain seeps from her narrowed eyes. Far down the landing, the Sorcerer’s coughs pierce the silence.

My breath quickens. She’s caught us. This time, she won’t let me off with burns on my palm.

If Rina is afraid, she shows no sign of it. “You’re the mother of the manor?” She pulls out her badge. “I’m Officer Rina of the Nabette Police. I’m following up on the letters the mayor sent to the Sorcerer.”

Mother Claren snorts. “You’ve done more than that. You’ve manipulated one of our weaker servers–” I wince “–to help you spy on Nabette’s beloved Atmos Sorcerer. I’ve dealt with Sergeant Vincent for years, I doubt he’d condone such behaviour.”

Rina’s mouth twitches. Not even she is immune to Mother Claren’s shaming. “The mayor has written to your Sorcerer countless times, but he never got any word back. We sent another officer here a few days ago. He knocked but you didn’t answer.” She walks up the stairs, watching Mother Claren as she goes, and stops two steps below her. I stay where I am, not daring to intervene.

“So because we have not responded as timely as you’d like, you break into our manor?” Mother Claren smirks. “I believe there are laws against that.”

“I have a warrant.” Rina pulls out a scroll of paper and unrolls it before Mother Claren. “Granted by the mayor himself. It’s a good thing he did. How else would I have discovered the Sorcerer is on his deathbed?”

Mother Claren stiffens. Her hands close over the lace covering her trousers. After years of commanding silent servers, she mustn’t be used to dealing with people who talk back.

“People are dying in this winter, Mother. The Atmos Institute must replace the Sorcerer with someone who can actually do the job.”

“How dare you speak that way about your Sorcerer. How dare you spew falsehoods about his–“

The Sorcerer’s coughs shoot from down the hall.

Rina lets out a laugh. “Tell the institute to send us a replacement. Otherwise, the sergeant will write to them himself. You have a week.”

Mother Claren snatches the cuff of Rina’s coat and pulls her close. “You cannot speak to me that way. You cannot.”

I can’t see Rina’s expression from here, but I can imagine the shock on her face. She perches her toes on the only step she can reach and grabs at the air. With a push, Mother Claren could send Rina hurtling down the stairs.

“The Sorcerer has served this region for decades,” says Mother Claren. “I won’t let your people give up on him.”

My feet are locked to the step. I don’t dare move–my insolence could break what little calm Mother Claren holds.

Wait. If Mother Claren needs to calm, I can help her. The magic in a server’s song energises the Sorcerer in the morning and soothes him at night. When we servers sing, I’ve seen it affect the mother too.

I only ever sing with my fellow servers. Here, I am alone. My voice may not be enough but I must try to sing for Rina’s sake. She saved me, so I’ll do all I can to repay her kindness.

I sing “Black Skies, Unwind Us,” startled by my lone tremulous alto. Raw magic blooms within me. It’s not as strong as when I’m with the other servers, but it’s not weak either. As I push through the opening notes, the magic moulds itself into a messy form. When I sing with the servers, I wait until the magic structures itself before sending it the Sorcerer’s way. I don’t have time to wait now. After each line, I drive the magic up the stairs directly at Mother Claren, who glares at me as she clings to Rina’s coat. The first wave of magic hits and the tension in her arms loosens. By the third wave, her grip eases.

Rina finds her footing, releases herself from Mother Claren’s clutches, and runs down the stairs. I curve the half-formed magic around her and force its path to Mother Claren, who appears to be overcome with lethargy. She hunches her once-straight shoulders. Her limp arms dangle. Her blinks become slower. Heavier.

Midway through the chorus, Mother Claren collapses into a slump on the floor. I stop my song with a gasp. If I’d been unlucky, she could have toppled down the stairs.

I take a few cautious steps up towards Mother Claren. Her chest rises and falls. Rina catches up with me and grabs my arm. “I’m sorry. We have to go.”

Even if I wanted to speak, I couldn’t, for my throat swells. Servers don’t just leave their Sorcerer. The institute decides where they go. But considering how many rules I’ve broken tonight, the only place the institute would send me is away.

Into the wilderness.

To starve.

I sigh, and my whole body sinks. Rina leads me down the stairs and out of Clement Manor.

*

With the blanket wrapped around me, I hug Rina’s waist as she rides her horse through the forest path. I press my cheek against the rough wool shielding her back. In better times, such intimacy would be terrifying, but now I am numb. Stripped of purpose. I shut my eyes; it’s easier to ignore my fate if I don’t watch it unfold.

Instead of thinking, I focus on the forest’s sounds: the rustling of leaves, the hoots of nocturnal birds, the snorts of wild horses deeper in the woods. Above it all is the steady pace of Rina’s horse. Clop-clop. Clop-clop.

Light creeps through the seams of my eyelids. I open them–it must be morning. Trees no longer envelop us. The sky is grey. The snow begins to fall–the Sorcerer must be awake.

“Here we are,” says Rina, her voice vibrating from her core to mine.

I peer over her shoulder. A formidable oak gate, three times our height and ten times our width, blocks our path. It’s set into a winding stone wall that runs from east to west; the morning mist eats its furthest reaches. A soldier wearing a steel helmet peers over the top of the wall, nods, and vanishes. He barks a command at someone unseen. No hesitation. No fear.

I retreat behind Rina and cling to her.

“It’s okay,” she says. “When we get to the station, I’ll do the talking. I’ll keep you safe. I swear it.”

My eyes sting. I shut them but tears still escape.

Nabette. I can’t even imagine it. I’ve devoted my life to performing duties for the institute and the Sorcerer, never mingling with others. I’ve sung and cleaned and cooked and stayed silent.

Beyond the wall, there’s the noise of the city. A constant hum of chatter, the odd laugh breaking free of the symphony. To survive, the people must speak.

No, it’s more than survival. They want to be heard. Their voices are an extension of who they are. When they talk, they share a part of themselves with those they care most about.

Beneath layers of grief, something new blooms.

I pry my lips open and shape my breath into a whispered word: “Odelle.” No magic accompanies it, thank the Sorcerer. Except, no. I no longer owe him my thanks.

Rina cocks her head.

I don’t repeat myself. That lone word has drained me.

“Was that your–” Rina cuts herself off. “Odelle. Pleased to meet you.”

The gate rises with a shriek. Chains whir and click, echoing far beyond my understanding.

Rina urges her horse onwards. Clop-clop. Clop-clop.

I hold on to Rina and let the sounds sing me to sleep.

 

Laura O’Brien lives in Dublin, Ireland with her two cats, Mulder and Scully. Her journalism has appeared in the Irish Independent and Silicon Republic. Find her on Twitter @laura_obrn.

 

Featured Image: Jared Rice

Creator Spotlight:
Laura O’Brien
Author of “In Silence, I’ll Sing.”

1) What inspired you to write this story?

I grew up going to Catholic schools, which gave me a hell of a lot to unpack as an adult. For one, the teachers valued kids who were seen and not heard. And two, shame and guilt were built into the culture. That environment made me feel uncomfortable about expressing myself, in case some lurking authority figure judged me for it. That fear has stuck with me as an adult. But if I want to speak up for myself and what I believe in, I have to push through the fear and do it without shame.

I took this attitude to the extreme in my story, where the Atmos Institute forbids servers from speaking because their voices have power. I wanted to explore how someone like the main character Odelle, who is repressed and obedient, could breakthrough that conditioning and realise the strength of her voice.

2) What do you hope readers take from this story?

It’s hard to speak out against power but it has to be done, especially in this fun political climate. It’s scary to have awkward conversations with your relatives, go out and protest, or contact your representatives. But it’s a fear worth facing.

3) To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?

I wrote five drafts of this story, not counting the detailed outline I wrote before the first draft (I’m a total planner). I sent it to seven other magazines before submitting it to Apparition Lit for its Resistance issue. At that point, I was ready to give up on the story and move on with my life. And maybe drown my sorrows with twelve hot chocolates.

4) Recommend something! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc.  Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.

I read it in June, but I still want to shout from the rooftops about THE POPPY WAR by R. F. Kuang. That book destroyed me. Such intricate world-building and memorable characters, I already want to reread it. If you want a book to devastate you, give THE POPPY WAR a go.

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