(Updated version here 🙂 )
Inck Alice Dawngale made her way through the dim snowy wood. She wasn’t sure where to go. The south was barren, she would find no resources, no food there. She had survived on nothing but snow melted in hand for eight weeks, rationing the only food she had to her young child. For the most part, the child stayed on her back, wearing Inck’s only shirt in addition to her own clothes to stay warm.
Inck had followed the base of the cliff west for two weeks, then east for six. She knew she didn’t have enough energy to double back again. She didn’t have enough energy to continue much longer either. Her bare shoulders were developing frostbite, her fingers spared only because she kept them crossed and under her arms. The trees stopped most of the wind, but she found little solace in this.
As she had followed the cliff, the ridge had become higher and higher, and then suddenly it spiked. She was sidling a nearly vertical mountain at this point. On her back, the child Alice woke up. She slept a lot, lacking energy to stay awake.
Inck said, “My Alice, my Alice, what shall we do? I’ve walked to the edge of my vision, and again I see but the same. We will not make it farther than the naught I see now if we continue straight.”
“Ah, and we can’t go that way right?” She pointed to the forest, “And we can’t go back! So we have to go… there.”
She pointed up the mountain.
Inck stared at the summit. She could not tell for sure, but she doubted anyone lived at the top. She took her hands out of her armpits and stared at them. The Plainkind kept their clawlike fingernails long enough to be effective. In the past month and a half they had continued to grow unbitten, unused.
She looked at the sky, she had a lot of time left, but she knew it still wouldn’t be enough.
Inck dug her fingers into the stone, satisfied that it was soft enough. She began to pull herself up, limb by limb, cubit by cubit. Alice watched as they climbed with amazement.
Higher, higher, higher. Inck made it halfway up before her sleep reserves gave out. Her arms began to shake, her legs tremor, but still she climbed, not looking back, her eyes ahead.
Alice could feel the shaking, “Are you okay mum?”
“Yes. Just… Tell me about home.” She used the distraction.
“Home? The Plainkind desert? It’s warmer there. My dad is there. My friend, umm, Marisa. She’s there too.” Alice’s voice was wistful, but still held much joy.
“And,” Inck huffed, “What happened?”
“To get us here? Oh, well, we got lost in the sandstorm… We got stuck below the cliff. You tried to climb it, right? Yeah. It didn’t, well it, yeah. It didn’t, wasn’t soft enough. So we tried to go around, both ways. It’s cold down here. Snow is cool! But… Only for a while.”
Inck nodded as Alice continued.
“And now we’re hungry all the time. And now we’re climbing a mountain. And I haven’t seen, we haven’t seen anyone, anyone in so long…”
Alice got sad and so she stopped.
“It has been very… long.” Inck agreed.
Time passed as silence fell between them. The sun began to set, and soon night was upon them. Inck could see well in the dark, but it was cloudy, and her nightvision was still inferior to her dayvision. She climbed primarily by feel.
Some time in the night, she reached the top. In the dark she could see that it plateaued.
Alice said nothing, she must have been asleep. Inck could see the edge of the summit in the far reaches of her vision. She wasn’t sure if she should rest or continue. She decided to continue. However, upon her first step, her exhaustion and starvation caught up with her. She sneered at her own condition as she fell forward, catching herself with her arms as not to wake Alice.
There was only a thin veil of snow here. Inck lay awake for the minutes required to melt it with her heat, and then she allowed herself to drift away.
She awoke before morning, trembling from the cold. Usually this was the time she made real sleeping quarters, but the resources on the flat summit were limited, and so was her time. Instead, Inck stood and began to walk.
Her only goal was crossing the mountain to the other side. She would be able to see all that lay before her to the north, to see where her home was. She focused only forward.
When she reached the other edge, the sun had risen. She looked out over the lands in amazement. The warm rays woke Alice up, and she too gazed, excited.
Inck nodded, “There is our home, the desert. In front of us appears to be the world beyond the eastern walls. And look, another group of settlements lies yet further east.”
“All we have to do is get down!” Alice was excited.
Inck knew immediately that she would likely never again have the energy to make the climb. Her energy reserves were at their limit. One frightening solution rang out in her mind. She stared down at the plummet. She could survive the landing. The injuries would undoubtedly be her undoing, but she would have the strength to protect her daughter from the fall.
As a mother, this idea was quickly pushed down to a secondary plan. Inck dug into the ground for a couple of stones. She was familiar with rocks and found two, a softer and harder stone. She copied something in Plainkind Script and then began her descent. On her back, Alice excitedly twisted around, looking at the world below. She wanted to go back home, but had a severe interest in the new kingdom they were now descending into.
This downward climb was the most difficult thing Inck had done in her lifetime. Her muscles ached and shuddered. As they went further, Alice became more and more worried about her mother’s shaking.
One third of the way down, Inck had to stop. She steadied herself. Aside from her tremors, she could not move. Physically she could not continue. She looked down and wished upon her ancestors that she’d had the strength to continue just a little farther. Inck closed her eyes. She wished she hadn’t headed west for so long. She held onto the regret for but a moment.
Then she thought of Alice, who was doubtlessly concerned clinging to her back. Inck was certain that one of them would survive the fall. She channeled her life, her reserves. She shed her regrets. And then, she pushed away from the mountain.
Alice screamed out of shock. She couldn’t comprehend what was happening. She clung to her mother as tight as her small body enabled. It was tight enough. The fall ended sooner than expected, and Inck took the landing as hard as she could. Nearly all the force went into her leg muscles, and then into her bones. Her shins and thighs crumpled under the force. Her spines broke.
Her daughter felt the force of multiple gravities, but was unhurt overall. Alice dropped off of her mother’s back and ran around to her front.
“Mum! Ah!” She didn’t know what to do.
She looked at her mother with a pleading expression.
“Dear Alice… Alice May Dawngale…”
Inck looked at her lower half, damaged beyond conventional healing. She watched blood ooze slower and slower as her superficial outer wounds healed. Still she did not let go.
She said, “When I stop moving, wait but a day. Then, bury me in front of that boulder.”
Inck pointed with her long damaged fingernail to the stone. It must have been part of the mountain at some point, as it stood out starkly from the surrounding forest.
“Copy this onto it.”
She handed the stone to Alice. She could not read it, she could not read at all yet.
I am your Mother,
Inck Alice Dawngale.
They spoke together, of home, of the sandstorm and their perilous journey, but most of all Inck focused on Alice’s future.
“You must find a home. Any home, even if it is not our old home. You must live a happy life for me, for yourself.” Inck shed a tear, as deep a red as her eyes, “You needn’t even be productive. Simply happy.”
Alice nodded, and embraced the parts of her mother that were still alive. She too cried ruby tears. Though it was morning the two, exhausted, slept together for the last time.
Leagues away, Inck’s partner still grieved, having lost his whole family into the sand sea.
The next evening, Alice felt her mother. She was warm, but she suspected it was no longer the warmth of life. Alice scavenged for food and found many fruits. She returned and fed some to the mouth of her mother.
“…” Inck exhaled, and gave Alice one final look, a look of hope. And then she died.
Alice looked at her for a long time, frozen. She looked at this vacant expression of hope for many moments. And then, when she felt she had absorbed all she could from this last mortal message, the final emotion from her mother, she moved. She reached forward and closed the eyes. She took the fruit and ate it. Then, she began to dig.
Inck’s story draws to a close, and the mission of life is passed to Alice. To follow Alice’s footsteps, see the short story series, Alice and Finch.