In advance of the publication of The Woman Who Didn’t Speak on June 29, here is a short excerpt:
There was no light in the sky when Marjiana rose from bed. The red sun—which she had yet to grow used to in the fifteen years she had lived on this planet—remained hidden from sight behind the horizon. It did not feel like home this place. Not even after all this time living here, not to mention the extended journey to arrive at this destination. It was still a place she had come to, not a place she was from.
And also the place she would be spending her remaining days, however many they might be. For there was no leaving here, no matter how much they all might wish to.
That was a thought best not dwelt upon, especially not first thing in the morning, lest it cast a shadow over the rest of the day. There were shadows enough in this place without bringing more into this world. Life was hard enough as it was.
She did not turn on any lights in the house, preferring to move about by feel, and wanting to preserve their reserves of electricity for necessities and emergencies. A splash of cool water on her face after brushing her teeth was the only luxury she allowed herself. That and the coffee she set to boil atop a gas burner . It was not real coffee, but she had mostly forgotten the taste of the real thing. This was near enough, and even the supplies of it were dwindling.
Day by day all their supplies were dwindling. And what would remain when they were gone?
Another thought best put aside. There was a long day’s work ahead and Marjiana did not need to join those who had succumbed to the settler’s melancholy, remaining in their homes, leaving their fields to ruin, waiting for starvation or the elements to release them from their suffering. Not that it wasn’t tempting. But she had four mouths to feed—five if one counted Kjessel, and she supposed she had to. He was her husband, after all.
When the coffee was ready she drank it, savoring each drop, closing her eyes to listen to the stillness around her. Neither Kjessel nor any of her sons were awake, and none of them would be until after the sun rose. None of the neighbors were up and out in the fields either. The quiet—so strange, at first, after a lifetime spent on a planet with birds and insects, or on the vessel that had brought them here, where there had been a constant hum and hiss of systems at work—was now something she treasured above all else.
It was the one thing she would take from this failed world, if she could. Given there was no leaving here, it was her only solace.
She could hear someone stirring in one of the other rooms and, taking that as her signal, she rose from the kitchen table and went out to the fields to begin her day’s work.
Garuhj, the hetman, welcomed them all to the main square of the settlement, embracing many of the women and clenching the hands of the men, beaming from ear to ear. He had been elected hetman in the fifth year of the settlement, the first time the crops failed. They had failed twice more since then, to say nothing of the rhesus fevers, which had killed more than half of those in the settlement. Yet his beaming countenance remained unchanged.
Even now, as the crops began to show the first signs of the strange rot that no one could determine the cause of, Garuhj maintained his outward optimism. Marjiana suspected his own thoughts were not so positive, but the hetman was a politician above all, and versed in projecting confidence. She considered him a thing to be suffered, no different than the rot and the fevers, another of the burdens of this place to be endured.
“Welcome Marjiana. Danjiel. Codij. Jeriem. I hope you are all well. Kjessel is not joining the celebration?”
Marjiana shook her head.
“He’s not well,” Danjiel said, a little too quickly.
The hetman did not notice, his gaze already going beyond them to the next family of settlers he was to greet. In the celebration that followed, Garuhj gave his usual speech, marked by his typical platitudes and his claim that hope was necessary, in spite of all that had gone wrong.
“When we set down on this day, thirteen years ago, it was to an uninhabitable rock. We knew there would be trials and tribulations, and no doubt there have been. Not all of us have survived them, and we would be remiss if we did not remember them. But we need to honor their memory and sacrifice by recognizing what we have achieved, which is so much.
“Where once there was a barren windswept landscape, now there is soil, there is air and there is water. All the necessities we require to survive. Instead of looking at all those places where we have struggled and failed, we should look at what we have achieved, and recognize that we have it in us to survive here.”
Garuhj’s eyes flashed with emotion as he spoke. He truly believed. But the celebrations that followed were tepid, everyone only too aware of the failures of the colony. For they were in evidence all around them. The cloudless sky that promised no rain yet again. The thin soil they trod upon, from which little could grow, and which seemed to contain the germ of the rot that ate at what did.
Even the food at the celebration was a sign of failure, for it was taken from the ever-dwindling supplies the vessel that had brought them here had carried. Intended to tide them over during the first lean years after the terraforming was complete, they had been unused initially during those bountiful years, only to become absolutely necessary now.
As Marjiana and the boys prepared to take their leave of the celebration and begin the walk back to their home, about a kilometer from the central square of the settlement, Garuhj intercepted them, barely hiding his concern.
“Leaving so soon?” he said. When no one replied, he added, “What’s this I hear about you not speaking anymore?”
Marjiana did not reply, shrugging and motioning her one hand slightly in dismissal in reply. The hetman blinked, unsure how to respond.
“She started a month ago,” Danjiel said, flushing red under the hetman’s gaze.
“What other symptoms does she have? Has the doctor seen her?”
“Oh, she has no symptoms. She just chooses not to speak,” Danjeel said as Marjiana nodded.
Garuhj seemed unsure of himself. “I will ask the Fenon to come by.”
Marjiana frowned and shook her head, with a finality anyone might have understood.
“Of course, I understand, but what about your sons?” the hetman stammered.
“It’s no problem,” Jeriem, her youngest, said. “We understand her fine.”
Garuhj looked as though he wanted to say more, to argue that Jeriem could not possibly be telling the truth, but a look from Marjiana stopped him short. She led her sons back home, aware as she left the celebration that a number of those present had been watching her conversation with the hetman very closely.