First you pay your dues, then you get to weave.
Murfrey Lupart’s voice echoed in his daughter’s ear: fatigued, parental, disappointed at having to explain the same old thing for the twentieth time.
Torcha tied her smock on and wondered–also for the twentieth time–if it was worth it.
She knew she’d been given a rare opportunity. She knew that apprenticeships at Madem Yelisey’s were highly sought-after. Doing this bitchwork–and that’s what it was, bitchwork–would open up worlds to Torcha that would otherwise be inaccessible.
Smock and boots in place, she opened the door to the bug room.
The sawdust-musty smell and constant chitter-clitter-clack of thousands of caged beetles all hit her at once. Whenever Madem Yelisey started paying her, the first thing she was going to purchase was something to plug her ears. For now she used torn-off bits of cotton from the spinning room, and those barely blocked any of it out.
Despite everything that everybody said, despite the blatant envy in the eyes of the village girls when Torcha told them where she worked, she wondered if she’d been sent to this place as punishment.
Whether it was punishment or not, she still had to do the work. Holding her breath, Torcha pulled on her gloves and flipped open the lid on the first tank. The bubbly, poor-quality glass was so opaque that she could barely see the glittering emerald-green beetles within, but as soon as she dumped in the first few handfuls of mealworms, the beetles swarmed across the tank’s floor and she could see them through the opening. Shiny, thumbnail-big, teeming by the dozen.
She fed them all, tank by tank. Some ate mealworms. Some ate the last few scraps off deer legs and the cracked-open marrow inside. Some ate clippings from Madem’s garden. Torcha shoveled the feed in with casual indifference. Feeding them was the easy part.
“Madem Yelisey?” she called through the bug room door, once all the beetles were eating. “What are we making today?”
A rough, feminine grunt from down the hall. Then Madem Yelisey’s voice, like a bleating goat:
“Red dye today, Torcha.”
She looked aside to a row of tanks where crimson beetles nibbled on sweet potato stalks.
“Sorry, bugs,” she said, and went to fetch the boiling nets.
Scooping up a net of writhing beetles, Torcha marched over to the vats. Madem Yelisey had the chemicals all ready to go–a secret mix the apprentices weren’t allowed to know. The fires beneath the big copper-bottomed drums burned hot, and Torcha gave the bellows a squeeze. Already, the liquid within was boiling.
She dunked the bug-net below the bubbling surface of the liquid and left it there.
Within seconds, the screaming started.
Don’t you worry, Torcha remembered her father telling her. I know it sounds terrible, but the whistling noise is just steam bubbling through their shells. They aren’t actually screaming. They’re just insects.
She gave the handle of the net a stir, then dragged it upward, chemical-stinky water streaming down off half-cooked carcasses. The beetles weren’t squirming anymore, though a few had legs that still twitched a little, feebly. She turned the net inside out and plunged them into the bath.
Shaking dry the net, she grabbed the long-handled masher off its spot on the tool rack.
With a soft grunt of effort, Torcha leaned over the vat as close as she could, its astringent vapors biting at her eyes. She flipped the switch on the side, counted to five as Madem Yelisey instructed, and drained some of the liquid. Then she heaved the switch back up the other way.
Then she started mashing.
The bugs only had to boil for half a minute or so to get nice and soft. Like a butter churn, Torcha worked the handle in her hands, the liquid in the vat blooming from light rose pink to a deep, dark, bloody red. She huffed and panted with the effort, breaking out into a sweat. If she kept at this for as many years as the Madem, soon her hands would have those same calluses along the innermost knuckles, even through the gloves. Her hands might resemble the spiders and insects they boiled and crushed.
It doesn’t matter, daddy, she’d said.
What doesn’t matter?
If the bugs are screaming for real or not.
She twisted as she mashed down, grinding the insects in the vat into a fine paste. Sometimes stuff just had to die for people to make a living. She was only ten and she understood that. She couldn’t figure out what her father’s hang-up was.
Daddy, you’re making a mistake.
How could her father keep doing this, with as bad as things were getting? Weavers were disappearing from the village left and right. Half the Madem’s apprentices didn’t come to work anymore, too scared to travel the roads or their entire families long since fled.
Still, Murfrey dropped his daughter at the Madem’s every morning. He told her these skills were too vital not to learn. She could mix dye now, and spin yarn, and dye cloth. The Madem was letting her weave two years early, for lack of able hands to do the work. Her education was too important.
Important enough to risk getting fucking shot? Because when the Narlies arrived, that’s what they were going to do.
Every day, the same argument: Torcha told her father she had to go. She had to go to the mustering. The girls at the Madem’s, they said their fathers and aunties and siblings were going. Some big-dick soldier from the Inland Empire was taking recruits. They called him the Shrike. Torcha was certain he’d take her once he saw what she could do with a rifle.
You’re fourteen, girl. That’s insanity.
But it wasn’t. Someday soon, this town would need her.
So she packed her rifle with her every morning. Her father couldn’t stop that. And after her lessons and her weaving, she marched to the edge of the woods, beneath the grasping legs of all the dangling spiders, and practiced.
When they finally came for Semmer’s Mill, it was just Torcha and the Madem left.
And still, that very last morning, Murfrey held her to their routine. She’d wonder about that for the rest of her years. Was he just too scared to act? Did he hope that if he somehow acted like nothing had changed, nothing would?
Their officers were polite. They called everyone to the town square, announced their intentions. They’d only bivouac for a matter of days. They would requisition supplies and move on. That those supplies would come from the locals’ cupboards as an unspoken understanding.
Torcha went to the Madem’s, as ordered. She ground the bugs and grit her teeth and trembled with the magnitude of her own anger.
The Shrike’s men pinched in from the northwest.
Days turned into weeks.
They left Torcha’s parents alone, but everyone knew not to let their children out after dark.
Then one day, the Madem wasn’t at the shop.
It was time to step up where her father would not.
They were the beetles now. She would not be boiled.