Hush – Dylan Farrow

It always starts the same: a deepening blue in the veins about the wrists. This much is common knowledge. What follows is shallowness of breath, coughing, fever, and muscle pain. Once contracted, one or two days may pass before the darkened veins spread throughout the body, at which point the sclera of the eye will become tinged and mottled. The coloration reaches the extremities next, turning the fingers and toes a dark, thundercloud blue. In the final stages, the veins become increasingly sensitive, pulsing and ready to explode. In the most severe cases, they burst beneath the skin. Eventually, the pain becomes unbearable, accompanied by varying degrees of delirium and paranoia. As one Bard famously reported, “They are even more afraid than we are.” The current epoch has been irrevocably tainted by death and chaos; our streets, fields, and homes run thick with the foul, rotting stench of disease. A cloud of smoke rises above Montane from countless thousands of funeral pyres, from the homes we must burn to purge the af liction. The means to end this tragedy lie in understanding its origins. The disease, referred to as the “Indigo Death” or “Blot,” was first reported in a rural manor in the southwest. As if contracted by mere word of mouth, no sooner had word reached a village than the outbreak would claim it. It spread so ef iciently that, in only a few days, outbreaks had been reported in every corner of Montane.

Anyone displaying the telltale symptoms was immediately quarantined, but isolating the af licted did nothing to stem the tide of death. Riots ensued. Pandemonium reigned. We were a nation consumed by pain, fear, and chaos. There are those alive today who still remember the grim processions of masked doctors through the countryside, leading caravans of blue corpses to their final fire. It was only after careful dissemination that the Bards of High House discovered the nature of the enemy: Ink. We had welcomed it willingly—in our stories, letters, and news. We had invited it into our homes, passed it along with our hands, and distributed it in our very warnings. But together we shall rise above the ashes of our fallen and usher in a new era of peace in Montane. The time is come to join High House in ensuring this tragedy is never repeated.

The tyranny of the Indigo Death can be overthrown. Our history shows that vigilance and caution are tantamount to survival. Burn the ink from the page. Turn away from forbidden words, toxic tales, and deadly symbols. Cleanse the country of this malignant blight. Join us. Shae sat beneath the old tree outside the house where her brother lay dying. Only the loudest, most keening wails of mourning could reach her there, and they had lessened as he grew weaker. He was not gone yet, but he would be soon. Before her sat a basket of rags.

She ran her fingers through them, tearing the fabric into long strands, grief seizing in her throat. Once Kieran’s death ribbons were hung from the tree, everyone would know the Blot had come for her family. She thought about the blue veins crawling over her brother’s skin and shuddered. Her elders kept her from going near him, but she had seen the telltale signs of the plague worsening through a cracked bedroom door. She heard the sounds he made, mostly screams of pain and violent coughing. He was only a child, younger than her by three years. It wasn’t fair. A dark pull in the pit of her stomach swelled as she stood, preparing to ascend the tree, and another long, keening wail came from the house. The only sounds for miles were Kieran’s haunted cries and Ma’s soothing voice, carried away on the wind down the gray mountainside. Shae shoved the ribbons she had darned in her pocket and began climbing.

She found a spot to sit, and reached up, beginning to tie the dark blue ribbons to the branches. The bleached winter sun peeked out from the clouds, throwing the gnarled shadows of tree branches over her cottage. Shae shuddered. The shadows looked like plague veins. From her high perch, Shae saw three men riding horses in the distance, swiftly making their way up the path. She had never seen such beautiful horses, though she’d heard about such creatures, so different from those of her village. Everyone in Montane knew the story of the First Rider: long ago, centuries before the plague came, he tamed a wild horse, a beast, they say, who was born from the sun. On its back, he galloped through the empty darkness of the unborn world, bringing forth life with the words that flowed from his lips. Where he trod, the land sprang into being and color. These horses’ manes and tails flowed like they were underwater and seemed to glisten, even in the fading light.

The beautiful animals could only come from one place: High House. The Bards were coming to burn her home. Though their faces were hooded, Shae swore she saw the Bards’ lips moving steadily in the shadows. The wind blew harder as they approached, and the wails rose to match its fevered pitch. The tree branch lurched beneath her, and Shae lost her balance. She slid, the branch above slipping through her grasp. All she could see as she fell was a frenzy of ribbons, furious and wild, snapping in the wind. 1 Snap. Snap-snap-snap. My eyes whip open, and I’m in my bed, its thin unpadded pallet stiff beneath my back.

That same dream, as vivid as when it happened, five years ago. A dark figure stands over me, snapping her fingers. “Rise and shine!” “Shh!” I whisper. “Keep it down, or you’ll wake Ma.” She needs her sleep worse than I do. Fiona huffs, stepping back from the bed and into the line of gray dawn cast from the window. She is less fearsome in the light. Tall, willowy, and blond, with the highest cheekbones in all of Montane, she is like the dappled sunlight beneath a tree—beautiful in a way she herself cannot see. My parents were both brown-haired, short, and stocky. I never stood a chance of growing up tall and fair like Fiona.

Neither of them were tormented by thousands of freckles on their faces, however—that seems to be my unique misfortune. My friend shrugs. “Somehow I doubt that, if she sleeps as heavily as you.” I glance at my mother. Tucked beneath her covers in the bed across the room, she is a frail form, her ribs gently rising and falling with every breath. Fiona might have a point. My mother sleeps like the dead. “What are you doing here?” I pull the ragged quilt off my legs and begin massaging out the crick in my shoulder. “It’s the first quarter moon, remember?” Fiona’s father sells the wool from our sheep and repays us with food from his general store. They are one of the only families in town that will associate with mine since the Blot touched us.

And so, every month at the first quarter moon, Fiona stops by and we exchange the meager goods that allow our families to survive. “But why so early?” I stifle a yawn. My feet ache as they hit the cold floor, my legs trembling with exhaustion. I couldn’t sleep last night, even after a long day in the fields—dark dreams hovered at the edge of my mind, full of faint whispers and shadows. I sat up for hours, squinting at my needlework under the pale light of the crescent moon through the window, stitching to distract myself. Fiona follows me to the other side of the room where my clothes hang. A simple white shirt, faded green skirt I embroidered with thread spun from wool, torn and muddied at the hem, and a matching vest lined in soft rabbit fur—far from fine, the opposite really, but the only apparel I own. I prefer pants for working the overgrown pastures, but after years of growing out of them just as soon as I’d finished their hemming, it became easier to wear a skirt, tying it in knots above my knees when it’s hot or the terrain is rough. Fiona politely turns her back, rolling her eyes at my modesty as I change out of my nightgown. Once dressed, I usher her from the bedroom, closing the creaky door as quietly as possible behind me.

“Pa wants me back at the store before we open,” Fiona says, watching my hands—callused and raw from spinning—as I place the prepared skeins of yarn in a basket for her. “The Bards arrive today.” The Bards. Suddenly I feel as though the house has been encased in ice. The town elders say there’s power in words—that certain phrases can change the world around you. The same was said for the color of the disease. Indigo was avoided as if merely the sight or sound of it would cause a resurgence of the sickness. Now it is referred to—when absolutely necessary—as the “cursed color.” Only the Bards can harness words safely, through their Tellings. Everyone in Montane knows that any fool can speak disaster into existence by uttering something forbidden.

Some say my brother was one of those fools. They say the Blot started with the written word. The havoc it wreaked has long since turned to terror at all words, written or spoken. Any careless utterance could be enough to revive the pandemic. It was enough for Ma to stop talking completely after losing Kieran. A familiar feeling of dread snakes through my gut. The Bards arrive once or twice a year with barely a day’s warning, a message delivered by a raven to the town’s constable. He, in turn, summons the town in preparation for their arrival. They collect the town’s tithe for High House and—if they are pleased—they may perform a Telling to grant blessings to the land and its people. They are rarely pleased.

Aster’s offerings are meager: an armful of wool, a few bundles of pale wheat. The hide and antlers of a buck, if we are lucky. A Telling in Aster has not occurred during my lifetime, but the oldest of the elders, Grandfather Quinn, often recounts one from his childhood. After the Bards left, his family’s wheat farm produced a harvest that lasted six weeks. The last time I saw the Bards was from a distance, the day Kieran died. After, Ma forbade me from seeing them—the final words she ever said aloud to me. But it’s not as if I have time to peer in on their visitations. With the land scrubbed dry by a merciless sun, I often have to drive our flock miles away to be sure they’re fed at all. Last month, we lost a three-week-old ewe lamb to starvation. Now I understand why Fiona came so early.

If the meager skeins of yarn from our sheep make the town’s tithe look even a little bit better, perhaps the Bards will aid in ending the drought. The village of Aster has not seen rain in nearly nine months. “Are you all right?” Fiona asks quietly. I jerk my head up from the yarn and look at her. Lately, I’ve been haunted by strange things I can’t explain. Dreams that seem more like terrible, nonsensical predictions. I awaken with the growing fear that something is deeply wrong with me. “I’m fine.” The words fall heavily out of my mouth. Fiona narrows her large green eyes at me.

“Liar,” she says bluntly. I take a deep breath as a desperate, foolish idea starts to make its way through my head. With a quick backward glance at the closed bedroom door, I grab the basket of yarn with one hand, Fiona’s wrist with the other, and walk purposefully out of the house. The sun has barely touched the sky as we step outside, and the air is still cold and dry. The mountains that surround us cut a dark, jagged line ahead and cast the valley in a veil of gauzy shadows while mist rises from the withered grass. I lead Fiona around the side of the house in silence. Despite the chill in the air, my skin feels hot and prickly. My mind is spinning. I worry that if I turn to show Fiona my face, even for an instant, she will somehow know the truth. I could be in serious danger, and by just being near me, so could she.

It started about a year ago, right after my sixteenth birthday. I was embroidering one of Ma’s headscarves, black birds arcing across the fabric, when I lifted my face to see a flock of them forming an arrowhead through the sky. Not long after, I was stitching a hare with a white tail onto a pillowcase, when one of the neighbor’s bird hounds came into the pasture with a bloodied white hare in its teeth. A warm tingling began to fill my fingers whenever I sewed. Not unpleasant, but strange. I spent countless nights lying awake, staring at the austere wooden beams of the ceiling, trying to figure out if I was mad or cursed—or both. There was only one thing I knew for certain: the shadows of sickness had fallen on us before. We have been touched by the Blot. We can’t possibly know what other catastrophe might befall us from that contact. And ever since I discovered my embroidered fantasies echoed in the world around me, Ma’s silence has felt more and more deafening.

The house echoes with everything that is unsaid. Loss. Exhaustion. Gnawing hunger, day after day. The morning air sends a shiver through me, stirring the frigid fear in my gut. When we reach the side of the barn, I finally release Fiona, but can’t help another wary glance over my shoulder. The little gray wooden house is still and silent in the morning mist, as we left it. “What’s gotten into you, Shae?” She quirks an eyebrow, suspicious, but intrigued. “Fiona,” I begin, biting my lip hard as I realize I’m not sure how to say it. “I need a favor.

” It’s the first truthful thing that comes to mind. Her eyes soften. “Of course, Shae. Anything.” Instantly, I want to choke back my words. I try to imagine what might happen if I simply explain the truth to her. I might be cursed by the Blot, so I want to ask if the Bards can cure me. At best, I risk losing my friend out of fear that I’ve brought my curse upon her, and the whole town will know within the day. Her parents will cancel their deal with Ma, no one will buy our wool, and my family will starve. Even saying such a thing aloud is forbidden; any word that conjures thoughts of malice must never be spoken.

Such words are said to harbor curses of their own, upon the speaker as well as those who hear them. The words would likely summon such an occurrence into existence all on its own. Worst case, I spread my curse to my dearest friend in the world. I can’t take that chance. Staring at Fiona’s sweet, eager face, I know I can’t. I can’t risk losing her too. “Can I deliver the wool to your pa?” I ask instead. “I’ll need you to bring the flock up to the north pasture while I’m gone. They shouldn’t be too stubborn this morning, and I can give you all the instructions. You’ve seen me do it plenty of times.

” Fiona’s brow knits. “That’s all? Yes, of course. But why?” My heart starts pounding heavily in my chest. I take a deep breath, leaning against the rough siding of the barn to steady myself and clear the scattered thoughts in my head, frustrated by how terrible I am at this. “Oh, I know what’s going on.” A sly smile tips the corner of Fiona’s mouth and my heart suddenly goes quiet as it plummets into my feet. “You’re going to see Mads, aren’t you?” “Yes!” I breathe a sigh of relief. “Exactly.” No one would question why I would go to town and see Mads unprompted—or if they did, their suspicions would be far from the ones I’m worried about. “Shae, you don’t need to be embarrassed.

” Fiona laughs. “I completely understand.” I force a thin, hopefully convincing laugh, though it sounds more like breath getting caught at the back of my throat. “Thank you. I owe you.” “I’m sure I’ll think of something.” She leans in and hugs me. I’m tempted to pull away, as if even my touch could infect her. Instead, I let her scent of fresh dill and brambles and stream water wash over me, feeling, in this moment, not cursed, but lucky. Fiona and I have always been an unconventional match as far as friends go.

Where I’m short, she’s tall. I’m dark and she’s fair. Where I’m broad and husky, she’s slender and soft. She has suitors, and I have sheep. Well, sheep and Mads. But it’s all just as well. Fiona is loyal, thoughtful, and willing to put up with all of my moods. She’s the kind of person who would happily assist me and expect nothing in return. She deserves better than my secrets. “He adores you, don’t you think?” Fiona asks, pulling away.

The sly smile has become a fullfledged grin. “I never thought you’d be married before me.” I let out a real laugh. “Let’s not go that far!” If Fiona has a flaw, it’s her love of gossip. And young men tend to be her favorite topic. If as many of them paid attention to me as they did to her, it might be mine as well. Mads seems to be the singular exception in the entire town of Aster. He kissed me once, last year after a disappointing harvest festival. The next day, the constable declared that the drought had returned, and Mads and his father left for three weeks on a hunting trip. We never spoke of the kiss.

Even now, I’m not sure exactly how I feel about it. Maybe everyone’s first kiss is underwhelming, and they just lie about it to make everyone else feel better. But Mads is the least of my worries. I only hope that I can sustain this little act of subterfuge long enough to make it to town and back without Fiona or my mother knowing the real reason—and without any prying neighbors finding out. In Aster, anyone could be watching. Everyone usually is. “You promise you’ll tell me everything when you get back?” Fiona asks, driving the knife farther into my chest. “I promise.” I don’t meet her gaze. “Here, let me show you what to do with the flock while I’m gone.

” Fiona obediently follows me around the weathered old barn toward the gate. Like the house, the wood siding has grayed with age, along with the shabby, thatched roof. It’s impressive that it’s still standing, if barely, let alone that it manages to keep predators and thieves out. The flock bleat and shuffle around happily as I unlock and open the door. They waste no time trotting outside to the pasture. Mercifully, they seem to be cooperative today and stick together as they file out into the valley. Only Imogen is a little slow, but I forgive her for it. She’s due to give birth within the week. Giving us another lamb is worth the extra time it takes to wait for her to catch up. We lead the sheep to the hilltop east of the valley, which can’t be seen from the house, before I turn and take Fiona’s hands.

“What?” she asks with a confused look.

.

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