The Cutting

A simple cut turns into a hellscape

The Cutting
Image licensed from Adobe Stock


Charon grabbed Gabby’s small wrist like it was about to fly away. “That’s not for you. Let go of that.”

The little girl let go. Charon snatched the knife from the table and walked it over to Peyta. “What’s wrong with you? You know better than that.” She dropped the knife in front of her startled sister.

When Peyta shrugged, the long, straight black hair that draped over her back did, too. “Sorry.”

“You can’t be sorry. That’s not enough.” Charon’s stern voice was normally suitable for a choir, but now it cascaded as an angry echo across the din of the small metal kitchen. “How would you feel if…” Charon made a motion across her thin neck as if slicing her own throat. She accompanied the motion by blowing through her overbite and slightly crooked teeth. She looked at Peyta. “Huh?”

“I know. I said I was sorry. I was dumb.”

“Dumb is talking to a boy. Leaving out a knife for Gabby to grab is death.” Charon looked at Gabby, who had moved on to a saltshaker that she was emptying onto the table into a pattern of salt that she arranged with her fingers. “She shouldn’t even be here.”

Somebody’s gotta watch her,” said Peyta.

Charon sighed. “She won’t last the year. But okay, yeah. Whatever.”

“That’s a shitty thing to say about your little sister, Char.” Peyta walked over to Gabby and stroked the top of her head.

“I don’t mean in the world. God, Peyta, what kind of monster do you think I am?”

Peyta shrugged.

“I mean she should be with the matrons. I love mom. But she’s being stubborn not letting Gabby live with the matrons like the other little kids do. She’d just be safer there.”

Peyta’s eye squirted a tear that she wiped away with the frayed end of her sleeve, part of a raggedy piece of long underwear that had lost its bright white generations ago. “Mom’s just scared,” she said through a light whimper.

“Of everything,” replied Charon crossly. Charon’s clothing wasn’t much better. An ancient pair of distressed jeans and a green t-shirt printed with words so badly faded nobody could read them.

Peyta looked at Charon like she had betrayed them to the enemy. “Well?” she said. Neither said anything for a moment before Peyta added, “Shouldn’t she be?”

“All the more reason to let the matrons take care of Gabby. It’s what they do.”

“Hello, I’m right here,” came their mother’s voice from the doorway. She had heard the entire conversation. She leaned against the frame of the doorway with one hand extended, another hand on her hip.

Sheba Fastfoot. Age: approximately 35. Real family name: unknown. Grandparents born almost in another world, long ago, before time was splintered off from then to the irreconcilable horrors of now. Three daughters. First one now twelve, the others nine and two.

Sheba’s first awareness of The Cutting came about three years after the Third Eradication when Charon was ten years old. Sheba’s friend and frequent lover, Sailor, had been cutting a rare tomato that had escaped the Exterminators’ pestilence.

The first tomato Sailor cut was so juicy that she and Sheba ate it almost before they could react to their indiscretion. Both women laughed themselves into tears as they shoved large pieces of the tomato into each other’s mouths. The tomatoes squirted gloriously into their palates, the juices dripping down their chins to create expressions of undignified joy on their gaunt faces.

When Sailor cut the second tomato, she laughed when she accidentally cut her finger. “Such excitement over a fruit,” she giggled as Sheba retrieved a clean cloth and a dollop of honey to treat the small wound, which revealed itself as a thin sliver of blood along the inside tip of Sailor’s index finger. “Well, ain’t you a mama bee,” smiled Sailor as Sheba took Sailor’s damaged finger into her palm.

Sheba gently daubed the wound, then kissed Sailor’s hand. She wanted to kiss a lot more when she said, “I’m so smitten by you.” But she wouldn’t have time for that, because, mysteriously, strangely, the wound expanded as she kissed the top of Sailor’s palm.

Sailor’s eyes grew wide with concern as the length of the cut spread across the full tip of her finger. “What the…” she stammered. Then, as if animated, the cut spread along the length of her finger, spilling blood across the table in spurts. “It was just a nick, Shebe.”

Sheba noticed the growing alarm on Sailor’s face almost as thoroughly as she absorbed the threat to Sailor’s finger, which became covered in copious amounts of blood while the wound expanded across the width of the finger’s interior. The wound seemed to come alive. Both women whimpered simultaneously as Sheba wrapped a bigger cloth around Sailor’s hand. “Hold that tight,” Sheba said. “While I try to find…something.”

Options were limited. Medicine was nearly non-existent. And besides, what kind of medicine could treat this? What, exactly, was this? She rummaged through a cabinet containing some first aid supplies, but nothing struck her as useful. Instead, she was struck by a scream from Sailor’s mouth.

Sheba ran to Sailor, who was bent over the sink trying to stanch an impossible river of blood from her forearm. “Sailor!” cried Sheba.

Sailor was crying: “What is happening?” When Sheba pulled on Sailor’s arm to bring it near her, she saw that Sailor’s palm was completely consumed by open flesh peeling in opposite directions. The wound traveled from Sailor’s finger along the width of her wrist, peeling it open like a banana, then up to her elbow. Sailor became delirious, her eyes rolling to the back of her head, her neck falling backward, her back bending.

She was no longer screaming or crying or whimpering. Blood was rippling out of her wrist, rivulets blending into potato skins lying in the sink from the night before.

Sheba had no idea what to do. She tried wrapping Sailor’s wrist tightly, then applied a tourniquet. But the gash along her friend’s arm spread faster than she could act.

Sailor’s arm looked alien, fully red, the bone from her elbow jutting out of sinewy carpets of muscle, tributaries of blood splattering all around as Sailor collapsed to the floor, Sheba holding on as she fell, too. Sheba screamed into the pine smell of their temporary home, a place they barely knew as nomads, then, with the palm of her hand, pounded against the hard wooden floor next to her dying partner of this never-ending apocalypse.

That was the moment Charon encountered The Cutting, too. She rubbed her eyes when she walked into the kitchen after a long nap. “Mom?’

Startled, on her knees, Sheba yelled at her oldest daughter. “Get out!” But Charon just stood staring at Sailor’s limp body and the ghastly traveling horror show consuming her deformed arm. Whatever was eating Sailor was leaving her with a blood-soaked tank top that Charon somehow was thinking should be grey but wasn’t.

It wasn’t possible, but there it was. A presence. Not a living creature that looked anything like what mom or daughter had ever seen, but alive, nonetheless. A living, breathing wound grew into Sailor’s neck and peeled open its flesh. It reminded Charon of thick paper being slowly consumed by fire. The fire of blood.

“Gather your sisters!” Sheba commanded, thinking that the Exterminators must have devised a new pathogen even more despicable than those that had rampaged in the past.

But all Charon could do was watch Sailor’s face become transformed into a grotesque mockery of itself as if someone was pulling open a zipper from her chin up to the back of her head to reveal the bones and cartilage of her nose.

Something that resembled a gruesome smile formed with two sets of reddened teeth much larger than Charon could have possibly imagined existing within the sweet thin smile of her mother’s transfigured friend.

“Now!” Sheba tried again through a sob.

Charon ran off, unable to comprehend the events of the moment. Strangely, as she raced to find Gabby and Peyta, she thought about a pile of chocolates that Sailor had found in an old restaurant in the abandoned city north of their settlement.

“Won’t it be bad after all this time?” Charon had asked when Sailor proudly offered some to her.

“Oh no, sweetheart. Chocolate is a magical food that lasts a very long time,” Sailor had said. And it was magical. A taste Charon would never forget. The memory felt like torture when Charon reached her sisters, who were playing with a stray dog found the previous day.

“And I heard every word,” said her mother, approaching. She kissed Charon’s forehead. “And you’re right. We should let the matrons take care of your sister. But we won’t be here long enough.” They had been here longer than any place before in Charon’s life. She reported this to her mother as if her mother didn’t know. This made Sheba smile.

“Well, that’s true I guess, isn’t it?” said Sheba. “And you like it here for the most part, right?”

Charon nodded. “I’m sorry, Mom, I shouldn’t be such a little bitch.”

“You are not a little bitch. You’re my strong warrior. I don’t want you to ever be afraid to tell me what you are thinking, even if you think it seems crazy, or that I’ll hate it. All I ask is that you don’t keep anything inside you. Your fears. Or even your anger toward me. Because that, my child, will kill you.”

“Okay. Well,” said Charon. “Can we stay a little longer then? Always traveling, it’s just hard, Mom, especially with these two clowns.”

Peyta hit Charon on the arm. “You suck.”

“It’s been quiet here,” Sheba acknowledged. She bent down to Charon and whispered, “Almost too quiet,” which made Charon giggle.

Sheba had quartered her three daughters in a small settlement southwest of the ruins of St. Louis in a thick forest that Sailor had claimed was once ruled by a legendary writer named Mark Twain.

The forests were relatively safe compared to cities, villages, farmland, or any other area easily assaulted by air drones. So far, the residents had not reported any experience with The Cutting, although they were careful with sharp objects and thorny plants of the forest, because they had heard of its grotesque power.

Sometimes, the Exterminators sent small armies of drones that looked like dogs into the forests, but they were clumsy and easily defeated. Real dogs were a bigger problem. Packs of thousands of dogs called dog swarms were said to roam the forests, but Sheba had never seen any of these swarms. The packs she saw were big enough, though.

The settlement consisted entirely of women. Men were dangerous. Sheba would almost prefer encountering a pack of a hundred drooling, snarling dogs than any one man.

The settlement’s eerie quiet, like the quiet before a tornado, Sheba thought, was better than a settlement under siege or hiding in the forest alone with her children.

“We’ll stay a while longer,” nodded Sheba. This brought forth a thrusting hug from Charon.

“May Queen will be happy,” said Charon after letting go.

“Wait. Who is May Queen?” asked Sheba.

“The magic lady,” interjected Peyta.

“I wasn’t aware this settlement had any of those,” said Sheba unhappily. “We stay away from witches, remember?”

“She’s not a witch, mom,” said Charon. “Most people call her a priestess.”

“Oh, yeah?” scoffed Sheba. “And what God does this priestess aspire to?”

Charon shrugged. “How do you think everyone here has survived, Mom?”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Without magic, people die. Or run, like us.”

Sheba rolled her eyes. “It’s all smoke and mirrors, Char, you know this.”

Charon looked down at the floor. “I don’t. I don’t know this.” Charon’s straight black hair had streaks of natural gray in them, which often made Sheba sad, but in the sunlight of the kitchen looked radiant as the hair fell to each side of Charon’s face.

“Well, I want to meet this May Queen,” said Sheba.

“Fine,” said Charon. “Everybody just calls her May.”

“Oh, do they. And who else are my daughters spending time with that I haven’t heard about it?”

“Oh, mother,” sighed Charon. “It’s not a secret. She’s not a troll hiding under a bridge in the woods.”

“She was the first person to knock on our door after we got here,” said Peyta. “The day after they gave us the house to live in.”

“Peyta!” snapped Charon at their secret’s revelation. They had both been told firmly not to answer the door while Sheba was away meeting with the matrons and town magistrates.

Peyta looked up innocently from her handiwork and dusty rolling pin. She had resumed her activities of rolling out a round circle of flatbread dough derived from the harvest of a short wheatgrass the matrons had developed to grow on the forest floor.

Meanwhile, Gabby had managed to unload the entire contents of the saltshaker onto the table during the conversation.

“Goddammit,” said Sheba. She snatched the saltshaker from Gabby and used her finger to push as much of the salt as she could off the table back into the saltshaker, saying, “So I essentially have no control over my girls. They’re answering doors when I tell them not to, they’re spending time with witches. Got any spells you’d like to cast for me, Char?”

Sheba slammed the saltshaker onto the table. “Maybe you can put the rest of the salt in with some hocus pocus.” Gabby started to cry.

“It doesn’t work like that, Mom,” said Charon authoritatively as she dashed to Gabby to comfort her.

“What doesn’t?” demanded Sheba.


“So now you’re an expert. And you wonder why I want to leave this place.”

“You promised we could stay,” replied Charon.

“A while longer,” said Sheba. “A while being about ten more minutes.”

Charon ignored her irritated mother. “May says it’s not really magic, what she does. It’s something she calls quantum something or another.”

Peyta jumped in: “Separation.”

“Is that it?” asked Charon.

Peyta nodded as she finished rolling the dough. When she pulled a long rectangular bread pan from a shelf, she looked at her mother and said, “May’s always at the bread oven, minding it. You can see her there when I bring the bread.” Her voice, like Charon’s, always reminded Sheba of song. Higher pitched than Charon’s, still adorned with the twang of a young child.

“So, quantum separation,” continued Charon. “May says that they just change an object’s position in a time field or something, which changes whatever might be happening.”

“They?” asked Sheba, exasperated. “You know, Char, for someone who wants to stay in this town, you’re not making it any easier.”

“I dunno, mom. I think May just meant magicians in general. Not a bunch of them here. She’s the only one I know here.”

“That’s very comforting,” Sheba said sarcastically. She looked at Peyta. “I think I know who she is. She wears the purple turban with the pendant in the front, right?”

Peyta nodded. “She’s nice. Not the kind of nice you always say to be careful of. She’s not the kind of nice that wants something.”

“Is that where you met this woman?” asked Sheba. “At the central kitchen?”

Sheba nodded again. “She’s always minding the ovens.”

Sheba had seen the woman dozens of times but had never paid much attention. She felt comforted knowing that May Queen took it upon herself to be certain that kids did nothing stupid around the ovens.

She was leery of magic’s ascent during her lifetime, even though she understood it as being an evolutionary response to the constant siege of cyborgs, robots, and augmented humans. But she had also learned never to exclude anything that could help her girls survive.

“Let’s go meet your May Queen,” said Sheba to Peyta while she pushed her palm against the back of Charon’s head. “Bring the little one.” Even when she was angry, she always wanted to hug Charon, who was thinner than a breadstick and barely taller than Peyta. Yet somehow, strong, too. Sheba loved Charon’s strength, her occasional sass, her forthrightness. She was sure that it would help her survive this wicked world.

Peyta was no slouch, either. Strong in her own way, studious about all things, determined to learn about everything from textiles to food.

Charon smiled broadly. Peyta quickly rolled the dough onto the baking pan. Sheba and the girls left their small house and walked to the brick ovens on the far side of the small settlement along a wide footpath made of stone and hardened detritus from the woodlands. The footpath was bordered by rows of small round stones that various people had sanded over time to remove the edges.

When they reached the ovens, Sheba recognized the woman in the purple turban. May Queen wore a black tunic emblazoned with bright yellow facsimiles of the planet Saturn within a wide grey border along the front.

Sheba thought the woman was attractive, with a long thin nose and skin that reminded her of Sailor’s caramel, her dark eyes shaped almost exactly like large pumpkin seeds. When Sheba neared May, she noticed that May’s skin was mottled with small patches of grey. Her purple turban was impossibly clean.

“Child!” May exclaimed delightedly as they approached. “You bring me bread!” Peyta was beaming. Peyta extended the pan to May, who said, “I’m very hungry, thank you! But you know where the oven is.”

Sheba couldn’t help but smile as Peyta walked past May to a large brick oven and carefully slid the bread from the pan into the oven using a long-handled spatula with a massive half-oval metal end. When Peyta finished, May clapped her hands with a brief cheer.

“And you must be Sheba,” said May after shifting her eyes to Sheba.

“That I am,” said Sheba. “I’m sorry we haven’t had time to meet. But you know who I am?”

“Have you seen the size of this settlement, my dear? Everyone knows who you are. You bring some fear into this settlement, but everyone does. You deserve as much space as you need for that to clear. It will in time if you let it.”

Sheba nodded. She realized that everything she did was governed by the fear May described, which made her want to sob. And so she did, just a little, as a tear formed in the corner of one eye.


May Queen was right. And so was Charon. They remained in the settlement and were rewarded with a spate of normalcy they hadn’t experienced since Sailor’s death. Charon and Peyta found friends. Gabby did, too, as much as such a young girl can.

Sheba began a delicate friendship with May, not fully trusting, careful, circled with mutual respect. One day, May invited Sheba to join her to harvest some grass.

“It’s a cousin to the old foxtail grasses that used to grow along the rivers in these parts,” she said as they walked under a dark canopy of oaks and hickories. “But these little fellas need little sun and don’t have the millet texture that foxtails had. You can use it for a good flatbread without needing anything else to mix it with.”

“That’s amazing,” said Sheba, marveling at how a bread grain could grow in such dark surroundings.

May nodded as she led Sheba to a large patch of foxtail growing under several trees. “Local legend has it that it was established by geneticists fleeing from augmenters. I have no idea. It does defy what I understand of how local grains of old behaved.”

May reached down to pull some of the grass. “Here,” she said as she used her long fingernails to strip off the end of several of the thick pieces. Grains dropped into her palm like dirt from the edge of a stick. She poured the grains into Sheba’s hands.

“Tastes nutty,” smiled Sheba when she dropped them into her mouth.

May nodded with a smile. “It sweetens some upon baking. It’s unleavened. A fast bake.”

“I would say it sweetens considerably,” replied Sheba. She had enjoyed the taste of the settlement’s breads ever since her first taste upon arrival. “You don’t harvest with bladed tools?”

“We can’t. For obvious reasons. I haven’t seen a Cutting. But I’ve heard enough. It’s too risky. Gathering the grains by hand is onerous, but not so bad when you have thirty chatty women doing the work,” she laughed.

“But I’ve seen bread knives at the ovens,” said Sheba.

“There are two bread cutters in the settlement. But, well, this sounds horrible, but it is fact. These women are very old.”

“Expendable?” Sheba was slightly horrified.


Sheba was quiet at that. Her memory processed Sailor’s suffering in an instant, and then it was gone.

“We’ve had three cuts in the last two years. But no Cutting. Just a bit of water, honey, and a small bandage, and they were fine within a couple of days. As they should be.” She said the last sentence angrily.

“I always thought it was a pathogen,” said Sheba after a beat.

“Probably something like that,” agreed May. “Some nanotech, too.”

“I’m sorry. What is nanotech?”

“I guess the best way to describe it is microscopic drones.”

That sent a shudder through Sheba. “They can do that? But how?”

“If I knew, I’d be one of them, now wouldn’t I?” said May bitterly.

Sheba nodded. “My daughter says you know magic. But I’ve never seen you use it.”

“Magic is everywhere. It surrounds us. It’s in these trees and in the soles of your feet. But I don’t understand it much beyond that. Reputation. That’s where your daughter got her sense that I know magic. It’s where your daughter’s notions come from. All the women here, all the children, they’ll report the same thing. But we can’t rely on magic to bake bread or bathe or bask in the sunlight during those precious moments we are free from our pursuers.”

“Sorry. I don’t understand,” said Sheba.

“It happened on a cold November day. Several of the children were playing a game in the forest. A form of hide and seek. I was chaperoning, along with a few others. Sometimes we also trade with a small community of men north of here who learned long ago not to trouble us. A couple of them were there, too, guarding the perimeter of the area where the children were playing.

“I heard a savage sound, well beyond my experience, the full-throated scream of men, then barking. Lots of barking. I tried to run to gather the children, as others had begun to do, but I was too late. We were all too late, too slow to react. The children were surrounded by a pack of dogs. Much larger than any pack I had ever seen. There were hundreds of them. Maybe as many as a thousand. They set up a ring around the children as if directed by a general.”

A dog swarm, thought Sheba.

“I had never seen such a thing. Such primal intelligence. But there it was. Unmistakable. The ring closed in, in a very orderly fashion. The children, they were remarkably quiet and calm. Not one cry, not one whimper. Perhaps they were fascinated. I don’t know to this day.”

“That sounds awful,” said Sheba, afraid for the next part of the story.

“I’m not sure where the magic came from, my dear. Maybe it came from the children themselves. Because every single one of those dogs was snarling, their teeth bared, saliva spilling out of their mouths as if they had discovered the meal of their lifetimes. And yet, as I said, not a whimper from the surrounded children. Not even a shudder.

“Something came over me. I can’t really describe it. A quiet confidence. That’s all. But, no, something more. I approached those dogs with whatever it was that came over me, whatever was filling me up inside, and then, out of my vocal cords came the strangest sound. The sound of children speaking at once, all the children within the circle. And I said in that voice, in their voice, ‘Be gone!’ Very loudly. And the dogs left. The circle broke up, and they all scampered away into the woods, never to be seen again.

“And now,” laughed May, “the children think I’m a witch!”

Sheba was amused. “That’s it? That’s your magic?”

“That’s it. I couldn’t make a flat of bread disappear if I wanted to, or anything else for that matter. Unless I ate it very quickly, which I sometimes wish to do after that sweet smell comes out of the oven.”

“I’ve seen magic,” said Sheba. And she had. “I don’t trust it.”

“You’ve seen something that looks like magic, as have I. But it’s science. Why that science has been made accessible to humans after eons of nothing? I can’t say. Maybe that part of it is magic. Maybe whatever spirit oversees us has enabled that power in light of our misfortune. Alas, not everyone has access. Including me.”

“Except for that one day,” said Sheba.

“Except for that,” acknowledged May.

“Do you ever wonder if there’s more? More inside you?”

May shook her head. “I connected with the spirit world for that one moment. If the moment happens again, well, I don’t consider myself cowardly, but I don’t want to contemplate what might bring such a thing on again. No. I won’t look for it. Perhaps I’m more like you than you know.”


A few days later, a torrential rain washed the settlement, turning the ground into soft loam. The thunder accompanying the rain shook the trees. Lightning split one tall hickory near Sheba’s small house. Gabby cried, but the two older girls excitedly pointed through the wire mesh window after Sheba was able to remove the interior window tarp as the rains calmed.

Peyta loved soaking her clothes and feeling the rain on her face, so she went outside into the somnolent rain and spun around with her arms open, her head tilted back, her mouth open. Sheba hated when Peyta did that but rarely tried to stop her unless an identified threat was imminent. She couldn’t help a sense of deep foreboding whenever Peyta performed her little rain dance. It was illogical, but she felt like Peyta was calling attention to herself while every other sensible person remained indoors.

Sheba watched her daughter through the wire mesh of the home’s front window. Her foreboding grew deeper than usual as Peyta’s face changed from the smiling, happy girl to one of worry. Peyta stopped moving and looked up at the sky for a moment, strands of wet, long black hair plastered onto her cheeks. Peyta’s eyes furrowed, then she ran to the door. Sheba ran too, her heart pounding. When Sheba opened the door, Peyta scampered in.

“Mom,” she said breathlessly, her look of worry replaced by a simple but still serious gaze into her mother’s eyes. “The rain feels different.”

“Are you okay?” asked Sheba.

Peyta quickly nodded several times. “Uh-huh. It’s just different somehow.”

“How so, sweetie?” asked Sheba, terrified.

Peyta shrugged. “I don’t know. Just different. Heavier. Can rain be heavier?”

Sheba quickly dried Peyta’s hair with a towel and commanded her to change her clothes, which she did. When Peyta emerged from her small bedroom wearing a white linen robe, Sheba was staring out the window.

Sheba said nothing. She was consumed by what she saw growing around the trunks of the trees. Long ivy plants with extended, crawling tendrils began to appear. They wrapped around tree trunks, then spread across the ground within the break in the forest canopy where Peyta had been dancing in the rain. “Mom?” Sheba heard nothing. She was transfixed by the impossibility of seeing vines growing in front of her eyes.

Peyta and Charon joined her at each side. Gabby cooed in the background. “What’s going on?” asked Charon.

“I don’t know,” responded Sheba without glancing at either of them. She stared straight ahead. One of the matrons appeared outside with a machete. Sheba wanted to yell out to stop her, but she didn’t need to. The matron was stopped by something else.

Vines whipped around the matron’s legs and toppled her. Her hand released the machete as she fell. Before Sheba could react, she saw that the woman was covered in the vines like a green cocoon. Almost as quickly, the vines released the matron as if they had made a mistake. She rolled around the ground as the vines traveled along the loamy soil toward the homes of the settlement.

Sheba watched out her window as the ivy continued its trajectory. The plants seemed to have an inner locomotion like thousands of snakes. Some of the ivy curled up into the air, while other vines sped across the ground with the alacrity of water moccasins racing along the surface of a pond.

When Sheba glanced back at the matron, the woman was nothing like her former self. The Cutting had taken hold and rendered her flesh a bloody mass of tissue. Its only sign of life was the still screaming throat until, it, too, was shredded, leaving nothing but the trail of an anguished voice disintegrating into a choking gurgle.

Sheba was terrified and paralyzed. She couldn’t take the kids outside to make a run for it. The vines were everywhere. Squinting, she noticed large, sharp thorns along the stems of the wriggling, highly animated ivy that had broken into their home.

“Just move them, Mom!” screamed Charon with a voice far from the soprano song of her usual lovely chords. This voice was like a wheeze, but loud, as if only her throat was speaking, without any assistance from her vocal cords or the larynx that they belonged to.

Sheba couldn’t imagine what Charon meant. Move them? A vine snapped angrily against the mesh of the home’s window, startling Sheba and the girls enough to send them backward. Then another vine whipped against the mesh hard enough that parts of it poked through to reveal three thick thorns that wriggled against the intruding plant’s main stem as if they might try to unlock the mesh screen, push it open, and lead the monstrosity into the home for its kill.

“I mean, I mean, back, mom. Send them back,” Charon sobbed. Sheba would have loved to. She would have loved to send the vines back to their origin, back to the augmenters who created them, to choke the life out of all of them.

Charon pulled on Sheba’s sleeve and forced her mother to turn around to face her. Through tear-filled eyes and lips shuddering like they were in a frozen squall, Charon said calmly, “In time. Send them back in time.”

Sheba was trying desperately not to cry herself. She didn’t want her darlings to die in a terror-filled den of tears. She wanted them to die strong, if die they must. All she could do was shake her head at the nonsense. A form of nonsense that made complete sense to her because the situation was hopeless, and what else is a child to do but search for impossible answers?

Charon pushed her mother away. She bundled her fists as she spun, then stood and stared at the invaders. Her voice changed again, this time into the voices of a hundred women. “Go back!” the women screamed in unison. “Everything go back to the way it was!” But there was one primary voice, one just a little louder than the others. It was Charon’s. Her skin had turned from its dark brown hue to nearly albino white.

The vines remained, but they stopped moving. Sheba could see through the mesh that they stopped spreading along the ground, too. She looked at her oldest daughter, who was still standing with her fists clenched at her side. “Go back!” yelled the voices through Charon’s mouth.

It was then that Sheba saw a machete through the window. Born from a fresh angle of sunlight that had found its way through the forest canopy, a flash lit its blade as the machete fell upon the vine at their window. The vine severed, and the piece inside the house became limp. May Queen peered through the mesh with a worried look, then spun around. Sheba guessed that May was hacking at more vine.

Finally, May Queen burst into the house. She looked shaken. “I don’t know,” she said as if answering a question. “I have no idea what just happened.” Panting heavily, she peered out the door. Sheba heard yelps from women who must have been busy hacking at other pieces of the plant. May Queen looked at Sheba. “We’ll need to burn this entire place to the ground. I guess you’re a nomad again.”


The women from the settlement began a new trek upriver. Large groups of men were in the nearby foothills, so the matrons wanted to remain in the valley. “We can stage raids when we need a mate for children,” joked one of them.

After a long day of hiking, they found a place to camp along a loud waterfall. They had lost two matrons and three donkeys to the attack. They considered themselves lucky.

It’s not a simple task settling nearly a hundred women for a night in a dangerous unfamiliar forest, so nerves were on edge.

Sheba and May sat outside a large fire where some of the women had driven posts into the soft ground to hold a large kettle for soup. The two women hadn’t spoken of the vines or The Cutting. May took a bite from a piece of bread someone had baked on a metal sheet over one of the two fires.

“I’m gonna miss those ovens,” May said. The ovens had been masoned a long time ago. They weren’t portable.

“I’m going to miss being in a land without magic,” said Sheba, looking at Charon, who was tending to Gabby.

“Won’t be the last time that child saves your life,” said May.

Sheba nodded. “I reckon that’s so.”

May pulled a tomato from her tunic.

“Where the hell did you get that tomato?” laughed Sheba.

“On the run,” laughed May in return. “Grabbed it from one of the good vines.” She giggled and shoved it gently against Sheba’s mouth, which opened and received the precious fruit with a cackle as the two women bumped foreheads and kissed one another gently on the lips.

The End

Thanks for reading!

This story first appeared on the fiction website, Simily. The story is part of The MagicLand Chronicles, which are a series of short stories that take place at various times within the 2,000 years preceding the events of MagicLand with completely different characters and plots.

To read Feathered Quill’s review of MagicLand, go here