By Nastassja Noell
The streets are empty. People hide inside, or underground. In corners. Alley ways. Beneath wooden beds in shambled houses.
From one of the homes, out walks a little boy, yet to turn five. He walks into the street wearing his father’s wool coat, the waist of the coat drags as he steps.
In the shadows, his father moves from body to body, one hand grasping a leather bag. The other hand pressing into exposed skin, fingers sensing for life. Cold wrists. Rigid necks. Green uniforms. Patchwork villagers. Enemy. Friend.
A woman gasps for breath. The man leans in close to her. Words fly from his mouth like bats rushing from a cave at sunset. She gasps again.
The little boy stands a few bodies away, watching, still as a street lamp. A crow lands on his shoulder. The man looks up at his son, his wrinkled eyes widen for a moment, and then he nods.
The boy walks over, fidgeting with the medic patch on his father’s wool coat, hanging his fingers on a round wooden button.
The man reaches for his son’s hand, small like a sparrow. He explains to him that the woman is strong and courageous, and that he, the little boy, is strong and courageous. He asks the boy to sing for the woman.
The little boy stares at his father, and then looks at the woman’s eyes wavering on her horizon. When he finally opens his mouth, a songs flutters out. The song that his father and mother would sing when relatives pass to the other side. The song for the spirit birds who always come, to show the way home.
As his father moves from tangled body to bruised head, pittering heart and angled neck, the boy’s chest grows wide and he sings the song for the soil to heal their families, for the village. He sings the song for the birch forests who will grow again, saplings sprouting from their severed and living roots.
Pigeons swoop down to search the slick cobblestones for worms, hopping and flushing near the boy’s rope shoes as the boy sings the song for the fungi who open locked hearts, the song for the lichens who balm shattered minds.
A wind stirs and the umbrella seeds of a dandelion float up into the air, and the boy sings the song that all lives are woven by sun and wind and stone, worthy of living, worthy in dying.
The eyes of the dead blink. The little boy’s breath seizes. And then the breath moves within him again. The boy’s small frame sways in the breeze as he sings and songs, and his father closes a series of eyes and their lids.
The sun sinks below the fields. Curtains swish behind windows and people tumble from doors. Those with strong muscles lift arms and carry legs, while those with strong hearts sort the torsos, wrap the bodies.
Beneath the canopy of the giant walnut trees, the voices of the villagers echo and bend above the songs of the boy and the whispers of his father. Voices of pounding grief, shrieks of breaking stones, trembles of collapse. All the while, singing songs for a world where silence is loud and others are self. Songs for a world where all humans are people – and all people are
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Nastassja Noell (she/her and they/them) is a lichenologist who struggles to stay within the fenced pastures of science. Their fiction has appeared in Dark Mountain Project, and their non-fiction has appeared in Radical Mycology, NW Travel, Patagon Journal, and elsewhere. She’s also the co-author of Delmarva Lichens (Torrey Botanical Press) and a recipient of the United Plant Savers Deep Ecology Artists Fellowship. Nastassja lives in the Southern Appalachians, outside Asheville, NC.