Content warnings: graphic death, injury

They dug the first tunnels before the king, before his father, before his grandfather, before the word for king was spoken. There are few trees on our island, no forests but in the verdant north, only plains of grass and heather. Our people built with earth, having nothing else. The first tunnels were barns for their sheep, and the hay they cut for them. Sunken barns, sunken houses, cellars for potatoes and pots of sour milk. Tunnels leading to the trenches of peat-diggers, brick-makers, bog-iron collectors. They built the town of straw and sod, the houses half-buried in the ground or dug into the sides of gullies, miles of tunnel running beneath it all. In winter, when the wind was like shards of glass and the rain fell hard enough to blind, the tunnels would be warm with bodies and the smell of butterfat lamps and the sound of damp cloaks brushing against the walls.

Travelers coughing in the wet air of the tunnels, reaching out to steady themselves, sitting down in weariness. They become forgetful, doubt pathways they were sure of, loose their way. Some don't find it again. Most hardly notice anything. A few misremembered turns, paleness, mild fever, a cough. They depart shaking their heads, distracted by their work, blaming the weather or a lifetime of dusty air and peat smoke. At first no one catches it from them.

A young weaver with bright eyes and a neat shaven head returns feverish from the tunnels, and the next day their sister cannot remember the way home or her elder sibling's name. She is too fatigued to stand, or be frightened by the coughing of her family. She coughs herself awake in the dark of the bedroom. Then she feels the wind on her face, and her parents tell her she is looking at the stars.


We hear the townsfolk burning the first bodies. The pyres that burn hot enough to crack lips and sear the eyes. Hear them coughing as smoke covers them. Soon they run out of firewood, are forced to prepare graves. We feel the patter of quicklime thrown against shrouds. Then an avalanche of earth.

Minders called, couriers summoned. A pendant for everyone permitted out after dark. The disease kills humans but not rats, and soon the rats are running along like swarms of black ants. They glut themselves on the dead and copulate in ditches that were once footpaths. Looters follow them. Fire won't burn stone and sod, but many buildings have wooden beams, and in the night we feel them collapsing. The lords deliberate. Some of them die. Others lose children. One falls sick and lives. His body is covered with blemishes and bloodletting wounds. When he coughs he still bleeds at the mouth, and he stares at his peers through milky eyes. He says they should ask the king's help. The king has sent it unasked. Soldiers come. The parliament women in the north summon physicians and the physicians say it is parasitism. Everyone in the south knows it is a curse.


By and by a city grows quiet. Mold blackens unattended curds, unfound bodies wither in their beds, soldiers pass out bread in silence. The rats in the streets run slower now, there are no feasts left for them. Far away we feel the cuts of ditches opening, hear the scraping of hoe and adze. Farmers burying dead sheep, watching as seizures and loss of appetite spread among those that remain. We feel a farm girl's footsteps. She wanders away in the field, forgets what she was to do. Her eyes are rheumy with plague. She curls up by a claypit, where she realizes she cannot remember the face of the woman she loves, and then forgets that she loved a woman at all, so she does not cry. We try to wake her but our voices are faint as snow. The wind rolls over her in the night and carries her soul away.

In the city soldiers walk the streets. Smoke trickles out of chimneys. No sound.


Women dug the pits of this city. It was women who dug clay and peat, who made the bricks and mined the iron. It was said that women came out of the earth, that once there were only women, but they were not sufficient to themselves, so the mother of the world made the first men out of air and fire. So men do not dig clay or mine iron as women do. But they helped women raise the walls, and quarried stone instead of making brick. They say they honor the earth, that they take counsel from the women, but they carry swords and hang witches and put lime in the eyes of vagrants. Where are the counsel-givers, we wonder. Where are the parliament women? Do they tell the king that his soldiers have driven gallow-posts into us to hang the bodies of the ugly and inform? Do they tell him that every night we can hear his men buy beggars for food, and feel them force themselves on the ones they cannot buy?

And what about the earth below us, our creator's eldest child? We have heard her voice forever, but we had forgotten it. We hear it again, without human noise to drown it out. We hear her murmur in sand trickling down our walls, hear her humming in the stone, the voice that we forgot like a cowherd forgets the bells, like every living thing forgets the wind, which was always there, even before the world, before everything.


We did not realize we carried the disease, that travelers who climbed down into our depths had come back coughing, fevered, forgetful. When we did we listened to the earth, we asked why, why, why. And she gave no answer, as her plague followed rats and travelers from our tunnels to the fields, as buildings burned and fell above us, as our passages went untrodden and our timbers began to rot. But we couldn't resent her, because we knew she didn't choose to hurt them. Our builders were careful when they dug us first. They kept the tunnels shallow and made no more than they needed. Then they became greedy, sprawling through the earth, always more bricks to build greater manors, always deeper shafts to bring forth more gold. And the wounds festered and bled plague on those who made them. We feel the rot of the bodies the townsfolk cast into us in desperation, heaps of corpses smothered in lime. Like caries in a tooth. They poison us until they will not walk along our veins, will only speak of us with dread, are too frightened to kill or control us. And we realize, as they fill us with bodies and seal our doorways, that we did not need them, or want to be what they intended. Here, in her skin, where we were carved, we can grow without hurting her, without miners and masons to make our bodies for us.


One day we see an old masya coming down the streets to a once-great manor house. She is not sick yet. She smells of tobacco and lavender and sour milk, is dressed in a ragged shawl and skirt, supports herself with her staff. At the manor a noblewoman and her daughter greet her, the daughter tall and proud and thinned to the bone with hunger, her mother's body so wasted by plague she cannot stand or see, and barely speaks. The noblewoman's son died a month ago, he was ten. His ghost possessed their servant. They want the masya to find him and set him free, scatter his spirit on the wind, as his ashes might have been scattered if they'd had money for a pyre. So she climbs down into the tunnels below the cellar. We feel the cold of her bare feet. She coughs on the damp air. We want to scream at her through the wood of the timbers and the clay of the walls, leave us, you shouldn't be here, the air is poison.

She finds her way to a staircase. A set of steps leading to a shrine in the earth, the shrine a niche in the wall with a veiled statue and an unlit lamp. But the stairs go past the shrine, steeper, made of rougher stone. A stairway of our making, the steps laid as we dreamed them.

When were we born? When did we realize, like children, that the names our creators kept speaking were our own? When did we realize that we were not the houses or the roads, nor the earth into which our veins were cut and our hearts carved? When did we realize we did not know what we were, or why our builders had created us? When did we realize that the shape of our bodies was not theirs to dictate? When did we begin to hate them?


The masya walks down the staircase. We don't know how long it's been. An hour, two, five. Her lamp keeps going out. She begins to cough, and we feel her fall down, feel the lamp tumble out of her hand and crash down the staircase, oil splattering on stone. We feel her head strike the floor as she falls, a tooth chipped inside her cheek. Her skin bruises like rotten fruit. She lies there coughing for a long time, then takes her st0faf and rises, nails scraping on the wall as she steadies herself. She takes off her mask and summons light with a word. We see a scrap of moonlight emerge from her  mouth, see her coughing and choking as if she was birthing broken glass from her throat. The light crawls out of her and she holds it in her hand like a mouse. She walks slower now.

She tries to speak to us. She makes a little lavender and rockmoss burn between her thumb and middle finger and begins to chant. We don't reply. She comes to a landing, a knot of our held hands, staircase after staircase reaching for the great silence that has never told us what we should or shouldn't be. And we ask her if she likes what she sees, these bodies we are making for ourselves, the sound of tunnels spreading out like roots, supplanting the language in which we and her fellow shamans have conversed.

You're beautiful, she says.

We have no eyes, we do not cry.

We tell her where the boy is. He has drifted through us like a moth, fluttering up to his family and back down again to our wells. We have crushed him in our hands but cannot hold him still or make him die. Even in his pain he is too scared to die.

When she speaks to him he understands, though he can hardly speak anymore. We listen. From the bottom of the well where he has place himself he spins out a rush of fragments, mother, sister, I hate you, please help me. All around there is silence and darkness and air so heavy with the dampness of the earth it feels like drowning when the masya breathes, and every breath comes with coughing and blood, lungs breaking and tearing from the weight of the air. Herbs smolder in between her fingers. The effort of the magic burns her skin like coals, blisters forming and breaking on fingertips, skin wearing down to bone. She brings the boy up out of the well, a child clutching a doll to his chest, rheumy fluid streaming from blind eyes. She bids him approach and he goes to her, and at the touch of her hand there is nothing of his spirit in the world anymore except what people can remember. The masya's light goes out.

She speaks to the earth, saying, I adore you. I am so grateful.

Then she speaks to us. She says she is sorry she will die here, that she does not want to defile us, and we tell her we will guide her to a river. The daughter below us does not love or hate, is not defiled or praised. She will accept her.

Thank you, the masya whispers. Her voice is almost gone.

We open a new tunnel. We feel the warmth of her hand follow it down to the river.

Harper Petrasovich (she/they) is a student at Bennington College, where she studies literature and creative writing. She grew up in New England.