The Broken Bones of Summer

Xan van Rooyen

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M y brother has beautiful hands. It’s a pity I have to break them.

His fingers are delicate, the rounded tips made for stroking wildflower petals scattered in summer meadows. I hold the longest of his fingers between my palms, feeling the knuckle gouge into my heart-line when he flinches. My touch leaves blue smudges of frostbite in his heat bright flesh.

He strains against the chains woven of midnight and ice holding him captive. His lips, usually smeared with honey smiles, are torn and bleeding. His every breath a cloud, fading, his power dissipating.

His gaze holds mine, his eyes the devastating blue of empty skies. I have tried, begged, demanded and threatened – but my brother has only ridiculed my pleas for balance.

“Go to Manala,” he says. “You belong in the realm of the dead. Leave this earth for the living.” But he will leave this earth a desiccated carcass unless he can be made to see sense.

His finger turns brittle between my hands – blood slowing to sludge and cooling into crystal – snapping as I apply gentle pressure. The bone splinters, shards piercing mottled skin. He doesn’t scream as pearls of sweat seep from his brow, only clenches his teeth. Soon, those will be mine too. My kapeet, flitting sprites wrought of lunar light, wove moonbeams into silver in anticipation. Now the braided thread lies in the pocket of my dress, awaiting new baubles.

“It doesn’t have to be this way.” I release his trembling hand. “You know what I’m asking.”

“The world is mine.” Skin flakes from his lips. “You still have your darkness. Be content with that.” He tries to pull his hand away, stubborn to the last. “Just admit defeat.”

I shake my head, sniffing back tears of disappointment. “I’m not the one held captive.”

His expression hardens, his gaze a viper’s, tongue darting to lap at stained lips. He has always thought himself the best of us, light-drenched and radiant. And therein lay his vulnerability as he stumbled sun-drunk upon my borders, singeing the edges of my realm. But my kapeet gathered the wandering souls of the dead and forged them into a shield – a trap.

He’d thought his shadow a pale and feeble companion. He didn’t notice how its color deepened and fingers lengthened as my power infused it with purpose, nor how my kapeet lured it to stand among their legion – not until it had wrapped charcoal fingers about his throat and left him chained and at my mercy.

I turn my brother’s wrist and a pall of fear draws across his eyes. Here, in my wind-whipped tundra, he is feeble.

“I will take back what you stole.” My words snap, sharp as the first freeze.

He grins, lip oozing, and I crush another knuckle. This time he gasps, sucking in a mouthful of frigid air. A sound like lake ice giving way to spring – my brother’s teeth cracking in the cold.

“Marras, please.” My name on his tongue is a lance of sunshine. It tears through me, leaving a wake of doubt and grief. But my kapeet are there, already stitching snow and shadow across the damage he has wrought. I won’t let him win. I won’t let him bleed me dry.

I snap finger after finger, his hands wilting, blackening. Hands that have burned their mark across the south: forests scorched to ash, meadows left parched and barren, marshes turned to tumbleweed deserts – and everywhere upturned faces charred by a sun burning too bright through too thin air. Perhaps my brother cannot hear their prayers for cooling wind or how they mourn the winter; perhaps he simply doesn’t care.

“Kesä.” I wield his name like a blade. “You have to stop.”

“The world is changing. I choose to embrace that change.”

“You betrayed us.” I touch the crown upon my head: the bones of our siblings fused in jagged peaks. Only the two of us remain.

He snarls with teeth streaked scarlet. “You are everything they detest.”

“This was your doing.” I stroke the polished beads rescued from the corpse of Helmi, her body left broken in the wreckage of a forest damp instead of frosted.

“I honor them.” My touch drifts to the splintered remnants of Joulu, to the shards I salvaged from the crumpled ruins of Tammi. She’d fought the longest and hardest, determined to preserve the winter, but she too had succumbed.

“I carry them with me.” I press the crown against my skin, feel blood trickle down my temples and soak into my hair. I stroke each fragment of my lost siblings, each undone by the brutality of the brother we once loved as Summer: Maalis, Huhti, Touko–the spring triplets left scattered like a windblown petals; Heinä and Elo, those closest to Kesä, their power already subsumed; their remains bleached by a careless sun. My fingers stumble over the gaps in the adornment.

“I’d carry them all, but you left nothing of Syys and Loka for me to find.” They’d been incinerated–the autumn erased. They had been my season-sharers and closest kin, dressed in russet and gold – now only I remain: where gold turns to rust, light dims to dark, and life slips toward death.

Flames flicker in the depths of Kesä’s eyes, so devoid of remorse.

“Some sovereign you are,” he scoffs. “You are the monarch of absence, of nothing!”

“And you have reduced your kingdom to dust and cinders.”

“You are what they are forced to endure in the hopes of my return,” he continues. “I am light and life, I am exaltation.”

“You are thirst and blistered skin, a tyrant who refuses to see how his people suffer.” Anger roils in violent eddies within me, sleet unfurling on the twisted tresses of my hair, my tears whisked into snowflakes by the frenzied kapeet.

How many bones must I break before he surrenders? And if he doesn’t… I cannot simply kill him. To do so would be to smother this land in perpetual night and pervasive cold. I wouldn’t end the suffering, only alter it, and be no better than the brother bound before me.

“It is what they wanted.” He studies his mangled hands, attempts lopsided fists, and winces. “They shaped their world for unending summer.”

He cannot understand that what they did was a mistake. He cannot taste their shame, curdling what little remains of the glaciers slipping into bubbling oceans. He cannot fathom their guilt as swaths of land turn arid and inhospitable. He doesn’t see the ghosts, a deluge in the afterlife – souls crowding Manala, weeping for what might’ve been had they only been able to outrun the heat and storms devouring their homes.

Perhaps sensing my despair, my kapeet flutter about my shoulders. They buzz and hum, their bumble-bee voices spinning elegies across the night. Their songs writhe in shades of green and pink, ribbons of light embroidering the darkness. The sky above is an oil slick iridescent with stars, now aglow with coruscating lament.

Kesä lunges, cursing the chains sinking frozen fangs into his limbs. He thrashes and jerks against the bonds, scattering blood that steams in the carpet of snow at our feet.

My efforts are futile. He will not – cannot – change. He has been so wrong, but a single truth sounds clarion in the silence of my mind.

I am Death, and Life is mine to take.

“Dearest brother, I wish it didn’t have to come to this.” I place my hand on his chest and he shivers at my touch. His breaths are ragged, lungs struggling against ribs drawing tight as marrow and sinew seize.

“Don’t.” Tears like mirages blur the keen edges of his irises, cloud their wolfsbane blue. “Please.” His voice, a strained zephyr.

A rime of regret scours my withered heart as his sternum turns to gory shrapnel beneath my excavating fingers. I reach into the cavity and remove the throbbing organ of my brother’s power. His life beats slowly between my hands and still he watches me, his tears glistening trails of frozen disbelief as I raise his heart to my lips.

I bite. I chew.

When it is done, his essence stirs within me, a thrumming counterpoint in perfect harmony with the one I’ve always known.

Too long I waited and hoped he would come to understand. And now I carry my brother within, the me and him slowly knitting together to become the needed we. Together now, perhaps we stand a chance of healing the fractured earth.

In my crown, his teeth sit on threads of silver, the words caught between them whispering of warmth and green rejuvenation. A needle of finger bone sews dreams of blue skies and summer showers across the shadows in my mind.

My kapeet gather the rest of what remains, rising through the darkness of my impenetrable night. They toss the glitter of my brother across the stars and, together, we watch the sun breach the horizon.

I lean into that warmth and its gentle promise.


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Xan van Rooyen

Author image of Xan van Rooyen Climber, tattoo collector, and peanut-butter connoisseur, Xan van Rooyen is an autistic, non-binary storyteller from South Africa, currently living in Finland. You can find Xan’s stories in the likes of Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Daily Science Fiction, and Galaxy’s Edge among others. They have also written several novels including YA fantasy My Name is Magic, and adult arcanopunk novel Silver Helix. Xan is also part of the Sauutiverse, an African writer’s collective with their first anthology due out this November from Android Press. Feel free to say hi on their socials.

© Xan van Rooyen 2023 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created using an image by YaroslavGerzhedovich - many thanks!

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