Short story and title photo by Wanda Sonnemann
Tsiuri was fading. Each time she saw her reflection in the washing bowl there was less vibrancy in her face. Mother said she would get better soon, but Tsiuri knew. Her mother’s eyes knew. She was ill, not stupid, and she noticed the sorrowful glances mother cast in her direction when she thought her daughter wasn’t looking.
It was summer, the trees smelled of honey. Father had let the window open so she could breathe more easily. She could hear the other children outside, fighting their playful war between tiny klans. Her brother was among them, his laughter carried all the way to her arched window. She climbed from her bedstead, took the few shaky steps until she could see the trees. The window frame was wide enough to sit in. She scratched her shaking hands and weak knees when she climbed into it, but she could watch the children in the courtyard up there. Yeul, nine winters old, was standing on a low wall and pointing at imaginary enemies. She smiled. His tiny voice was so full of joy and life, it made her forget her own looming fate for a few breaths. He turned and saw her sitting in the window, and his face shone like the sun. He abandoned his warriors and came running towards her, climbing the window frame from the outside.
“Sister! Are you all better?” He cheered, but then his face grew stern. “You are not, are you? Mama lied to me. You’re fragile. Like a butterfly. You weren’t before.” She smiled at him. “It’s all right,” she hushed, her voice to weak to fill her lungs. “I’m okay with being a pretty butterfly. Don’t worry about me.”
“But I do worry already.” He protested. “Mean Ilea says you’ll leave us. What am I going to do without you?” “You’ll be fine.” She ensured him. “You are much smarter than me.” “I don’t want to be fine. I’ll defeat the gods in combat and force them to let you stay with me.” She laughed, a stifled, croaking sound: “By yourself?” “No. With my army.” He persisted. There was a glow in his face, and it sent a shiver down her spine that had nothing to do with the fever. He was but a boy, four years younger than her, but for a breath she was afraid of him. “I made them,” he explained. “It took me a whole day. They are only made of clay and thistle seeds. Ilea’s papa made her soldiers out of wood. But my Kommandāns have dragonfly wings on their helmets.” He stopped. “I would sacrifice every one of them so I can keep you.”
She believed him.
“If anyone can do it, it’s you.” He looked at her; she saw in his eyes that he was searching the words to form a promise. The other children called his name.
“I have to go.” He chimed the smile back in his face. He was nine years old again. “I am the Suzmeyliak Kommandān in this game. You are the Matriarch, because you are fragile but still unbeatable. We have to defend you from the other klans, you see.” He jumped down from the window and turned back to look at her. “You survive anything. Always. Otherwise your Kommandān can’t fight anymore.” She smiled again at his earnest face.
“Then this matriarch has no choice but to heed her Kommandān’s orders.”
He saluted and stormed off with his friends. She felt cold despite the summer heat.
There was noise at the door. She turned just in time to see her father enter, carrying a tray with food and medicine. “What are you doing, pub.” He asked softly, setting down the tray on a wooden chest. “Watching. Yeul is going to defeat all the other clans.” Her father shook his head, but his anger was a mild one, riddled with sadness. “You should be lying down. You can play with the other children when you get better.”
He picked her up in his arms and carried her across the room to her bed. She rested her head on his shoulder, hiding her face in his hair
“Papa,“ She asked, voice drowsy, already half asleep: “Butterflies die in Winter, don’t they?”