Last week I made a submission to Reedsy Prompts, a weekly creative writing contest. It had been a good while since I had drafted, let alone completed, a work of fiction, so it was a delightful exercise, and I found seven days to be an ideal span of time to both formulate and revise a story to my satisfaction. I didn’t win anything aside from the great experience and the opportunity to read some excellent work by another author; but I genuinely love this little story that was birthed from a terrific prompt, “Write a story about a character who’s trying to fill an empty space, literally or metaphorically,” from Contest #108.
Maire said cancellation didn’t hurt. If that were true, Cara would have traded the last day full of a stiff back and migraine for an early quitting time. She floured the work surface and kneaded a lump in rhythm to her pounding temples. Only an hour or two: after that, there wouldn’t be enough of her left to suffer. It was just a matter of filling the space between now and then.
She rubbed an itch on her cheek with her shoulder and didn’t see how it left a powdery smudge on her sleeve. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth; she wondered where she had left her tea. It would be cold by now, but Conall had honeyed it perfectly when it was hot, and though Cara could no longer taste it properly, the needless charity warmed her.
He had let her in to the bakery that morning even though it was Sunday and he would sell none of the bread. He had told Cara to eat whatever she made, but she wasn’t hungry. Rather, she felt her hunger had been swallowed by another, deeper gulf steadily widening inside. Trying to fill it with food seemed disrespectful. Spending her final moments baking, however, felt like a proper observance.
Every ounce of the thrashings she had stored up and never delivered—not even when she let loose that torrent of rage over the Iudex in the square—she laid into the defenseless boules. She cried afterward. The loaves offered no threatening retort, and she was already condemned besides, but guilt accosted her for abusing something that could not cry out. Cara, at least, had that. Her cry had cost her everything, but it was hers. She had spent it.
On a cause that had never advanced before her and would gain no ground from her effort, for a consequence with no redemption.
Was it worth it?
Could anything be less worthwhile than silence?
Could any silence be filled?
Cara considered the chalky streaks on her apron as she dried her eyes. Oppression had begun her life and would end it, but not only hers. The men of the communia might never be auctioned, but Maire’s husband had treated her sons, not as cancelli, but as chattel equal to her. Never as worthy of their sire—not as the rightful heirs to the Iudex* that they were.
It didn’t matter when only one of them struck him down: it had been in defense of the other. Both were sentenced by the cancelli peers and allowed eight more years to live—long enough for Cara to taste happiness on Dryden’s lips. She had heard his sentence just as well as the rest of the communia, and she had chosen him anyway.
She had never acknowledged her hope that the new bloodline chosen by the cancelli would provide a Iudex willing to pardon her husband until after he was gone. All it had required of her, then, was another wake, held mutely, invisibly, within her. What was one more?
Maire welcomed desolation as an old friend. It made a certain sense for her to expend the last of herself on a doomed outcry. “You’ve called me bitter,” she had laughed at the peers. “You were right. Of course I am.”
No crime rivaled slaying a Iudex but for questioning one while he lived, and no regrets haunted Maire after her sons’ supplanter decreed her fate. Cara saw him wipe spittle from his eye as she ran after Maire’s escort from the square. She had pressed between indulgent guards to link arms with the older woman, feeling the firmness of her stride, and witnessed the biting clarity of a tearless visage. On another day, it would have looked like hope.
Cara sighed and turned to the shrouded mounds on the table, lifting the cloth to check their rise. She wasn’t bitter, but not even Conall could bother to tell the difference. He would only have been her second husband, so she tried not to hold it against him. It had been Maire’s idea, anyway. With her gone, there was less point than ever. It wasn’t that Cara didn’t like Conall. He was sturdy and dependable and generous and wheezed in the flour and the hayseed and didn’t complain. And he had taken both of them in, though only Maire was blood.
He said he owed it to Maire and his cousin alike to look after Cara. It was thanks to Conall that Cara gleaned just enough, between field labor in summer and the bakery work in winter, to sustain herself, on her own, without remarrying. And then, he had never asked. At least Maire had not lived long enough to realize that disappointment.
Cara shaped and slashed the boules, knocked them with flour, slid them into the oven, and retrieved her tea from the oven lintel. Not cold at all, if she could still trust her fingertips. Her bare feet no longer detected the shift in temperature when they crossed over the long slant of light from the window at the other end of the room, which suggested at least some extremities were now unreliable. Her eyesight, too: the light wasn’t golden, but pale white, and the pine-paneled floor an ashen gray. Drifts of more flour than she remembered spilling littered it.
The scents of yeast and warm sugar and cinnamon filled the bakery. They did not reach her mind, and she missed them. It was a mercy, Cara supposed, that the drug stole sense of taste first—honey notwithstanding—because the reek of it alone had still staggered her after the first two sips. Two more had taken care of that, thankfully, and she had been able to imagine enjoying her cupful the rest of the morning.
Twenty or thirty minutes finished the boules and her tea. Conall came to check on her and make sure she had drained the draught. “Cara . . . .”
He almost left it at that. Then he asked, eyes askance—“Does it hurt?”
He wouldn’t look back to see her shrug, as though he had forgotten. Instead, he rubbed his thumb and forefinger across his chin and said, “Never thought it would be you, getting cancelled. Not you, Cara.” Then he did look up. He winced and turned away.
Cara watched him leave and ran her finger along the rim of her cup. She guessed that the quiet, distorted braying from outside the shop a moment later came from the cancelli recorders, and she knew how much was left of her hearing. If she had been the one to choose, she would have saved hearing for last, too. It would have been better yet if she could still hum to herself, but the price was the price. Just like Maire, she had known it her whole life. She had weighed and accepted it well before she strode into the marketplace and struck the deal that would end her.
The clocktower tolled seven. Cara sat watching steam rise from the boule she had cracked open, shedding flour and dust all over. She could just make out a hissing sigh when she leaned in and lifted a half loaf to her ear. It did have a voice, after all. A pitiful, charming, demure whine. Had she sounded like that?
Cara remembered Conall’s face when she had entered the square. She remembered the sensation of cotton filling up her chest, her neck, her ears, and the weight of her cheekbones when she screamed, and the prickling at the rims of her eyelids. She remembered how her breath didn’t belong to her but turned wild and raced around the cage of her lungs. She remembered the Iudex issuing the order, same as he had given two days before, but she could not recall the sound of a single word he had uttered. She remembered the grip of the guardsmen, the tension in the fabric of her skirt as one of them trod upon and tore it, and her body’s refusal to leave that place until the soul launched out of it had returned, full of vainglory from its onslaught.
She remembered the fullness of her misery, the ache of no Maire to run home to, and she was glad to be emptied.
“What happens when you come to the end of yourself, Maire?” The words had dropped out of Cara, seedless figs forsaken by their tree. Her only kin—and not even blood, at that—stood nearly disintegrated in front of her. Cara didn’t have to be told she was the only one who had ever dared watch this far.
Maire smiled. Her teeth crumbled to dust, and the dust smoked to nothing. “This is not my end,” she mouthed. Slowly. Painstakingly, each word provoking a tiny avalanche across her face. “I am only becoming more fully what I have always been.”
“You may be fulfilled—” Cara’s voice cracked. “But you have left me. Left me empty, alone. You are leaving me alone with them.”
Maire’s countenance broke—splintered. Her figure melted into a fountain of dust, then away altogether. Cara gasped when she felt a press of fingertips on her arm out of the nothing that remained. She heard Maire’s voice once more, quiet and strong.
“I am sorry, child. Neither of us belong here. I must go where I belong.”
“Then,” Cara said, “I’m coming with you.”
*Pronounced “Yoo-decks”; Latin for “judge.”