Ben Crowder

Never to Return

Fantasy. Around 15 pages. Published April 9, 2022.

Salviana pulls a small potato out of the fraying wicker basket in the corner. The potato’s too small, not enough to feed one, let alone the five of them. She feels around in the basket, hoping. Little clods of dirt, a few bits of straw. No more potatoes.

Well, then. Dearly missing her parents — Father, anyway — she turns to her younger brother Elátor, who is leaning against the wall and clearly daydreaming of his girl Dietri. Draped in some of Father’s threadbare clothes that are too large for him, he’s sixteen and thinks himself thirty. His fingers are too nimble for his own good. Father always made him give it all back, whenever he caught him at it.

“All we have is this,” she says, holding out the potato. Her meaning is clear.

He stares at her for a long, long moment. Scratches his nose. He’s been trying to stop. He winces, then softly shakes his head, refusing to give in this time. “Anamora?”

What he’s referring to is Aunt Anamora, Father’s older sister. She lives in the city with her detestable slug of a husband Rault, and ever since Father died she has been constantly conniving to get Salviana and her siblings to move in with them.

“No,” Salviana says firmly, withdrawing her hand. She rubs the dirt off the potato. “She’s insane. And she’s still painting those disturbing landscapes, so it’s going to get even worse. And Rault? Ugh, no. If someone swapped him out for a squash I don’t know if I’d even notice.”

Elátor has blanched during all of this. He awkwardly clears his throat. “Um.”

“Maybe we should go now.”

Salviana spins around, surprised that she didn’t hear their approach, wondering how much they heard. Probably all of it. She feels her cheeks go hot. She doesn’t know what to say, so she says nothing.

Aunt Anamora is of course standing in the doorway. Of course. Of all the luck. She’s holding a flimsy cardboard box that smells delicious. Uncle Rault hovers behind her, the picture of insipid blandness.

Ria, Salviana’s younger sister, has jumped up and given Aunt Anamora an exuberant hug. Timo, the youngest brother, and Navi, the baby of them all, join her. It’s pathetic.

“I’ll be back soon,” Elátor says as he picks up Father’s knife and slides past the visitors. He’s going to hunt for a rabbit, clearly. Good. They’re able to take care of themselves, even if Aunt Anamora can’t see that.

“I didn’t know you felt that way.” Aunt Anamora is still staring at Salviana with those huge mournful, hurt eyes. Rault’s unblinking gaze is fixated on the dirt under his feet.

Now wishing she had picked up on Elátor’s meaning before opening her mouth, Salviana swallows. “Sorry,” she whispers. “I didn’t mean it.”

She watches Ria take the box from Aunt Anamora and start unpacking it on the table. A cloth bag of little dried gray windfish, lots of them. Gilded bean triangles wrapped in leaf. A ceramic bowl that turns out to carry some kind of potato curry Salviana hasn’t had before, but it’s the source of the good smells. They’ll have to return the bowl later, of course, which is probably why Aunt Anamora chose to bring it. She’s sly that way.

“We can’t stay,” Aunt Anamora says. “Rault has a meeting and I have to finish three more paintings for this show. If you need anything, though, let us know.”

With that, she backs herself out of the doorway and she and Uncle Rault get back into their carriage — a new one Salviana hasn’t seen before — and off they go.

Salviana finds herself wishing Aunt Anamora lived farther away. Other side of the world, even. She knows the woman means well, but can’t she see that Salviana is more than capable of taking care of everyone?

Salviana realizes she’s still clenching the solitary potato.

She puts it back in the basket and joins the others at the table, where Ria has already set plates. “We wait for Elátor,” Salviana says. It’s important to her that they stick together as a family.

“Tell us a story,” Navi says, leaning her cute little chin on the palms of her hands, elbows on the table.

A story. There are many to choose from, thanks to Father and his insistence on not telling the same story twice.

Salviana’s lip begins to tremble. She misses him. Misses him tucking her into bed. Misses the off-key sailor tunes he’d hum while she drifted off. Misses his hugs, his smell, his beard.

But he’s gone. And she won’t see him again until she too is gone, so there’s nothing to do but keep living.

“Long ago,” she begins, her voice all a hush, “there was a village called Laza. A small, baby village. The people there were good and kind, and they loved each other.”

This was the first story that came to mind, though Salviana now wonders why, since it’s not exactly a pleasant tale. So few of Father’s were, but still.

“The people of the village lived happy lives until one season, when the morquelazas came.”

Timo frowns. “I thought they were called molakalazas.”

Salviana shakes her head and puts her finger to her lips. “The morquelazas came from who knows where, for they had never been seen in that part of the land before. Not until now. Now then, who was the first to go, and the first to see?”

Timo shrugs, Ria smiles knowingly, and Navi slaps her hands down on the table. She knows this story well. “Poor Inim was the first to go. And the first to see was Wennicormirit.”

“Yes,” Salviana says. “Poor Inim was a father of three tall, hard-working girls. Wennicormirit, the youngest, came out of the house in the dark of the morning to milk the cows. She saw her father standing in the middle of the lane and, beyond, a cloaked creature. A morquelaza. It swept its cloak up in the air and when it brought it back down again, Poor Inim was gone.”

“As if he’d never been,” Navi whispers.

“Never to be seen again,” Salviana continues, nodding. “Over the next week the morquelaza returned again and again, until the only one left was Wennicormirit. Did she stay or did she go?”

“Go go go,” Timo said. “She got out of that creepy place. Plus, if she didn’t go, there wouldn’t be anyone to tell the story.”

“Not so. You’re forgetting something about morquelazas. Navi?”

Navi grins nervously. “They don’t vanish their victims until someone’s there to witness.” It’s Father’s line, passed down to them and now precious far beyond the words themselves.

Though these words are mere stories, they still unsettle the children. They hear the wind picking up outside and branches rattling. This, Salviana thinks, is when it would be especially helpful to still have parents.

Timo’s stomach grumbles loudly. The food is getting cold.

“Okay, okay,” Salviana says. “I’ll go get him.” Elátor is probably waiting for Aunt Anamora to leave — he can’t stand conflict.

Through the window Salviana can see that dusk has come. She grabs the other knife, the small one for paring. She fumbles with the latch to the glowbug jar on the shelf near the door, grabs the second to last bug after only two tries, sticks it in her mouth, and swallows. “Only one left,” she says over her shoulder to Ria as she walks out and closes the door behind her. A few steps out she hears the bar slide into place. Good.

Where oh where has Elátor gone, Salviana wonders. Hunting, he said, but he’s said that before when he’s gone to see Dietri in the city (an increasingly common occurrence), or gone to hunt valuables out of the pockets and closets of unsuspecting persons.

Elátor is as hungry as the rest of them, though — probably even more so, at his age — so Salviana expects he is in fact hunting. He has probably ambled out toward the woods. Along the edge of the forest it’s a little easier to find rabbits, and squirrels, and nightdoves, too, so that’s where she’s heading.

The stark line of trees stands half a mile from home through tall weeds and tangled bushes. She finds the trail and trudges along it. A slight cool breeze gives her the shivers. She doesn’t like being out at dusk, when men and beasts go prowling. Several times she yearns to go back home and start the meal without Elátor — he’s almost a man, he can take care of himself, and he has the better knife — but she’s now as close to a parent figure as the other children are going to get, and it doesn’t seem the responsible thing to do.

She steps around a half-rotted stump and feels another flush of shame at the memory of what she said about Aunt Anamora. Better to hold your tongue, Father always said. He was right. Even if everything Salviana said was true, and it was, it still wasn’t right. She wanted to be a good person.

Her glowbug looked large enough when she was fishing it out of the jar, but it must have been weak or more of a baby, because Salviana can’t see quite as well as she expected. She hopes her nightsight lasts long enough for her to get back home.

After almost twisting her ankle on a rock that isn’t as stable as it looked, Salviana approaches the edge of the woods. She stops. She listens. Chittering and buzzing, a bit thicker woodward. That’s all she can hear. She’s drowning in it for a moment, swallowed up by the sound. She could just lie down on the ground — the soft, soft dirt under all the weeds — and curl up and relax. That would be nice.

No. She bites her lip hard enough to draw blood, and the feeling passes. She’s here to find her brother.

To keep from getting lost, she walks along the edge of the forest, peering in as best she can, hoping Elátor will be close enough for her to see. If he has gone farther into the forest than that, well, that’s his choice, his consequences.

She mulls as she walks. Back at home, their money is starting to run thin. Father left a good-sized pile, and Mother didn’t take all that much with her, but feeding five is more of a drain than Salviana ever expected. Someday Elátor will marry — Dietri, perhaps, though she doesn’t seem the type — and he’ll move out to build his own life. That’ll still leave four, though. And while Timo or Ria may turn out to be good at hunting, they may not.

No sign of Elátor yet. Salviana’s hand scrapes against a sharp burr on one of the tall stalks she pushes past. There is no trail here. She isn’t worried about finding her way back, though, because when she looks back over the weeds, she can see the lights of the city. West Alz, home to buildings so tall the clouds have to watch out.

She hears a sound from within the forest, a sound that pierces the chittering and buzzing. Someone nearby is chanting.

Her heart beginning to skitter, Salviana walks farther along the edge, and the chanting grows louder. Closer.

Elátor is a foolish young boy, and one who seems to delight in frustrating her, but she knows he knows that hunting requires quiet. So it’s not him. A trickle of cold slips down her spine. Her breathing has gotten shallow.

It could be a camp of wistwomen, with the annual Alzan carnival only weeks away. She wouldn’t expect them to camp in the forest itself, but their ways were often inscrutable.

Could also just be someone escaped from the Alz Imperial asylum. Some were harmless, but others less so — she’d had more than one nightmare about a bonebreaker getting hold of her.

She is sweating now. She stops. Listens. The chanting feels slanted and sticky, somehow. It’s probably nothing to do with Elátor, and she should turn round and check the other direction. The food is getting cold.

She steps forward. She’s very close now. Another few steps and she can see something, though she doesn’t know what it is. She’s slow now, very careful, doesn’t want whoever it is to know she’s here.

Salviana takes one last step and now can see. It is, in fact, Elátor. He holds a dead rabbit by the ears in one hand. With his other hand, trembling, he’s pointing a knife.

The coolness of the dusk begins to feel cold indeed. As Salviana squints, she can see someone standing ten, twenty feet farther into the forest. They’re cloaked and hard to see, but the chanting is theirs and their head is bobbing up and down with each syllable.

She doesn’t know who it is or what they want but what she does know is that she needs to get Elátor out of there, and now.

Planning to heft a stone at the chanter, Salviana steps forward, ever so careful to avoid making a noise, watching her feet. Yet she does. A snap, underfoot. Betrayed by a twig.

When she looks up again, the chanter is gone. But so is Elátor.

This startles Salviana. She spins round, wondering if she’s somehow turned the wrong direction. No sight of either of them. The trickle turns to a flood.

She knows, now.

She turns back — thankfully she can still see the lights of the city —and she runs.

Salviana is home, swaddled by the walls of her house against the bleak darkness beyond. Timo and Navi are curled up on the bed, gently snoring. Ria sits across from Salviana at the table, frowning. “Tell me already.”

“Elátor,” Salviana says. Her voice quakes and cracks. She’s teetering on the edge of collapsing into sobs but somehow manages to keep from falling into that abyss, at least for another minute.

Why hasn’t she told them yet? Why indeed. She knew she should. She meant to. But it was almost bedtime, and she thought it would be kinder to tell the younger ones in the morning. Bad news is worse in the dark.

Ria can’t know what’s coming next, but her eyes well up anyway. This pushes Salviana off the edge.

Slow minutes of stifled sobs pass. Between the flashes of blind agony her mind tries to make sense of it. Elátor was frustrating and irritating, but he was still her brother and she loved him. She misses him. She needs him. The pain is just as deep as it was with Father.

“I think it was a morquelaza,” Salviana says finally, her ragged voice just a whisper. “I didn’t think they were real.”

Ria, who has been her companion in tears, shakes her head. She doesn’t understand.

“It was standing there, chanting. Awful, dreadful chants. It took Elátor. Somehow. He just vanished.” Salviana swallows as the realization settles upon her. “I was the witness.”

Saying it aloud makes it seem foolishness, but she saw what she saw and she can’t deny it. Nothing else could disappear like that.

“Are you sure?” Ria asks. “It was pretty dark out there, even with a glowbug. Maybe it was someone else?”

Salviana plumbs her memory. She’d been so sure at the time, and until Ria’s question she felt secure in that knowledge. But now, she feels that surety cracking a little. The edges of her memory are already wearing away, worn down by a couple hours of time. It could have been someone else. It could have just been trees.

No, no, no. She knows what she saw. Besides, Elátor is not home, and he would be by this hour. Hard as it is to accept, he is gone.

Salviana nods. “I am sure.”

So, she thinks to herself, trying to stave off another bout of sobbing, there are morquelazas in the forest. Their home is too close. Suffocatingly close. They can’t stay here, that much is clear. Navi or Timo could go wandering and run into one. Or a morquelaza could leave the woods and come to them. The mere thought makes Salviana start shaking.

But where to go? Aunt Anamora’s is the obvious answer, she knows. Not an option. She’d go mad living there with them.

Ria has her head in her hands. “We’re never going to see him again.”

Salviana doesn’t know what to say to that. It’s true, of course. Unless… “That’s possible, but maybe Father’s story is wrong. Or incomplete, at least. Maybe the morquelazas aren’t eating their victims—”

“Ew,” Ria says. “I never thought they were eating them.”

“Really? I thought it was pretty clear that that’s what was happening. Either way, maybe they’re just being taken somewhere else. Maybe we can find them.”

Saying those words is when it becomes clear to Salviana what she needs to do.

In a crammed neighborhood in West Alz near the pond, Salviana and her three remaining siblings stand on Aunt Anamora’s doorstep. Sway, rather — they’ve been walking for over four hours with little food or water. Twice along the way they got lost, dead-ended in trash-strewn alleys, because Salviana was young when last they visited and her memory of how to get there has frayed.

But here they are at last. Everything of value that they own is behind them tied to a ramshackle wagon Timo and Ria built a few weeks ago. It’s not much.

Salviana swallows — she still doesn’t want to do this — and raps her knuckles on the door. She doesn’t use the fancy sculpted bronze knocker, because her hand is just as good. She almost hopes nobody answers.

The neighborhood here is nicer than in the outskirts where their home is, but not as nice or as large as Salviana remembered. Everything is rammed up next to each other in one solid mass, no breathing room between apartments. Pale trees jut out of the dirt sidewalks, and at least half of them have someone living in their meager shade. There are dogs everywhere.

Across the street some children with sticks in hand are hitting a ball down the walk. They keep staring at Salviana and her siblings. She wishes they wouldn’t.

Ria sits down on the porch and within seconds Timo and Navi join her. Eventually Salviana does too. It’s too hot here. No wind. The air is stale and reeks a little.

Time drags on, with no answer at the door. Her plan might not work after all, she realizes. Maybe this isn’t Anamora’s house after all.

But then, after what feels like hours, the door opens. It’s Uncle Rault, bespectacled, wearing a hideous red and blue woolen sweater over light striped pants. From the arched eyebrows and pursed lips it’s clear he is not expecting them.

Which he wouldn’t be, after what Salviana said the day before. She feels like her stomach is all twisted up, from that and from losing a brother and now from being here, begging.

“Hi,” she says, wishing she hadn’t done this. She knew it wouldn’t be worth it.

Uncle Rault coughs into his hand. He’s wearing white gloves. Goodness, Salviana thinks, the man looks ridiculous. He stares off into the distance, taps his foot on the floor, clears his throat. He clears his throat again and speaks. “Best be off. I’m sure you’ll be happier at home.” He begins to close the door.

Salviana’s heart sinks. She’s misread the situation. This really is not going to work. So they need to go. Where to, she doesn’t know, but anywhere would be better than here.

Ria sticks her foot in the door just as it’s about to swallow up the last few inches. “A morquelaza took Elátor.”

Uncle Rault stops closing the door. They can’t see him, hidden behind it. But Salviana hears his breath catch.

They remain there in deadlocked silence for several prolonged seconds.

“Please remove your foot,” he says in an angry whisper.

Salviana nudges Ria, who defoots the doorway.

The door closes with a slight slam. From the other side they can hear a lock turning and, high up, a bolt sliding loudly into place.

“It’s okay,” she tells the others, trying to keep the tremble out of her voice. “We’ll figure something out.”

“I’m hungry,” Navi says.

Timo nods. “My legs are going to fall off, too. Can we rest first?”

“Let’s find some shade and rest a minute,” Salviana says, “and then we can find food.” Where or how to find food in the city, she doesn’t know.

They step down from the porch and are ten or so paces down the walk when she hears the door open again, behind them.

“Wait! Don’t go.” It’s Aunt Anamora, wearing a color-stained apron, her hair tied back in a tail. She vaults down from the porch and hurries over to them. “You look hungry. Do you want some lunch? Are you okay? What happened?”

They tell her.

“You can’t stay there,” she says, shaking her head. “Too dangerous. We have plenty of room and would love for you to stay with us.”

Salviana puts up a hand. “But Uncle Rault said—”

“Ignore Rault, he’s in a mood. He’ll come round. Come on. Let me get that.” Aunt Anamora takes the end of the wagon’s stick handle from Timo and pulls it around. The handle falls off. She shrugs, leans down, and grabs hold of the wagon itself. “I was thinking of making sweet rolls for lunch. Not healthy, I know, but every once in a while it’s fun. Does that sound good?”

She leads them up the porch and into the house — the Abbey, she calls it. It’s chock full of stairs and oddities. It isn’t at all what Salviana remembers.

It’s several weeks later. They’ve all gained a few pounds. They’ve woken Uncle Rault in the night with their crying, missing Father and Elátor. Aunt Anamora is surprisingly good at comforting them. Ria is learning how to paint. They all have new clothes that actually fit.

It’s time. Early one morning, Salviana leaves a note: “Thank you for everything. I have to go find Elátor.”

Part of her thinks she should try to enlist Aunt Anamora and Uncle Rault — they’re adults, after all — but they don’t seem to believe that it was actually a morquelaza, or that Salviana saw anything at all. She’ll have to do this herself.

Her stomach is a bag of butterflies and her eyes are leaky as she slips out the back door, ever so quietly. She’ll be back someday, she vows, and on that day she’ll have Elátor with her.