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"Mother's dead." Tilana's voice was strong. Her words numbed me but deep within I felt the anticipation, the realisation that change was due. I blocked it out.

Thorn and jent had been arguing when Tilana appeared. We were in a small clearing on the oakwood slopes, nearly two hours from the village; we had been digging combe-roots for most of the morning, hacking away at their tough skins to let the sweet juices solidify, then sacking them for transportation and storage.

I was waist-deep in the pit, tugging at a difficult corm, when I sensed the atmosphere growing tight. Over the buzz of the grade-flies I heard thorn say that he had been taken into the Core again. "What a chore," he said. "You'd think they'd give a man a break." He laughed. I knew the taunting tone in his voice. Jent had probably provoked him but thorn was always too ready to retaliate.

The three of us are of much the same age but the Women of our village have clearly taken a special liking to thorn. They have called him six times, if his stories are the truth. I have no reason to doubt him. He is young, fast, healthy, he has a charm apparent to us all. But he also knows how to choose his targets. He can boast to me all he likes and I'll grin and take it, I don't resent his good fortune. I am bound to be called at some date or another: the Women know the value of diversity. But jent will never be called. He was born with his left forearm absent, the hand joined at a precarious angle to the elbow. Such deformity is a frequent occurrence, affecting many more Females than males. Jent will never receive his summons to the Core: no Woman would take such a risk.

"Hey, thorn, will you give me some help?" I am accustomed to breaking up the fights of my two friends. They are close, as the songs say we should be, but there has always been a tension between them. I smeared a muddy hand across my forehead and glared, my hands on my hips, a Woman's pose, when She is mediator. Thorn grinned nonchalantly and slid a cut combe-root into his sack but jent took a step towards him, spat at his feet.

That was when I spotted Tilana. Tilana is my blood sister: from womb to puberty we were closer than brothers but now she is Woman, now she is Nameless. Tilana is no more.

We are not supposed to distinguish between the Nameless — they are Woman — but Tilana has always retained her individuality for me. Self-consciously, I rubbed the mud from my forehead.

Just then, the sight of Woman made me defensive. They shouldn't come out this far, not alone: the Women of our village are too few, we cannot afford to lose any to the dangers of the forest. She was breaking the codes.

When Tilana's eyes fixed on us I wondered if it was she who had called thorn into the Core. He probably wouldn't know: to him there are no distinctions.

She headed towards us and I scrambled out of my combe pit and pushed between jent and thorn for a sack. "Come on," I muttered, "you're getting behind." I hacked at a root and slid it into the bag and was relieved when thorn and then jent resumed their work. Most men do not object when one of the Nameless intervenes in a dispute, but my signal was obvious. Thorn and jent are my friends — there was nothing serious enough to warrant interference — and Tilana was my sister. We did not need her judgment.

But she was still approaching so I looked up again. Tilana is tall and strong, her skin dark and smooth. I often wonder why she has never called me to the Core. I am healthy, surely I deserve such an opportunity? I wondered why she should approach us out there in the oakwoods and then I sensed that something was wrong.

"Mother's dead," she said. That was all, and now she has left us again, with our combe-roots and our thoughts.


Mother is the voice of the gods. She is our channel to the heavens. Also She governs the village, She guides the Nameless, directs the course of their lives. As Woman is to man, so Mother is to Woman. Now our village is without a Mother and the world is a darker place.

We must be cautious if we are to survive the four days until the moon is full and we have a new Mother. We are lucky. In the past there has been longer to wait. For these four days the Women of the village will not leave the central circle of huts we call the Core; so we, the men, are unprotected, unguided in this hostile world. There are perhaps ten dozen of us, cowering in our huts that cluster around the Core, but without our seventeen precious Women we are emasculate. The order of our lives has vanished. It is an exciting time, a nervous time, tensions are close to the surface. Things will be better when we have a new Mother.


It is cold out here, on the edge of the village. We can light no fires without a Mother to shield us from the gods. Our food is uncooked and goes largely uneaten: our emotions interfere with the traditional patterns. After a time, the sounds of argument merge into the background. It is three days since Mother died and, without mediation, our aggression is always ready to erupt. I have experienced such times twice in my adult life but on both occasions I was too young to understand. Now I can see it all about, I can feel it in my spleen. We fight because we are without guidance, we fight because the Woman in us all is hidden deep within; but more, we fight because we are scared. The continuity of our existence has been fractured, we are lost.

I breathe deeply. So far I have avoided the petty squabbles and conflicts. By tomorrow night we will have a new Mother — I shudder at the thought: the anticipation breaks all barriers — and then life will settle again.

Glancing towards the Core I spot something, a figure edging through the shadows. Curious, I follow. Quickly I recognise the confident movements of thorn, even as he clings to darkness.

I hurry after him. "Thorn," I whisper. It is the first time I have spoken since Tilana told us the news. I have kept my distance, these three days. Closeness merely breeds conflict at such times.

He is frightened. He jerks at the sound of my voice, turns sharply. I see his eyes narrow in the light of the nearly full moon. "You," he says dismissively, and in that instant I realise that my isolation has only been partly due to my own efforts: perhaps sensing my mood, my friends have been avoiding me. Then he shrugs and turns. "Come on," he says. "I want to see what's happening."

He is going to spy, he is going to break the codes in order to alleviate his own share of the tension we all feel. What can I do? I can leave him, pretend to myself that I have not seen him this night, fight alone with my conscience. I can raise the alarm and so prevent his transgression, but by so doing I might implicate myself and my current mood is one of tense caution. Or I can go with him, try to modify his actions, guide him with my own restraint.

I follow him through the moon-cast shadows of the huts. These inner huts in the men's cluster are used for storage, roots and juice and nuts and grains, tools and firewood and winter clothing. There is an open space between these huts and the Core, a space kept clear of vegetation. Thorn wants to cross this space but I catch his arm and lead him around to the south side where there is a rocky outcrop that extends halfway towards the Core. We reach the innermost boulder and I say, "No farther, thorn: the codes."

He shrugs, relieved, I think, that I am here to curb his impetuosity.

There is a convenient gap between the Women's huts, where the long bulk of the crèche disrupts the regular pattern. The children should be asleep now, but I know from experience that the tension reaches into the crèche too. From our uncomfortable viewpoint we can see right through the circle of huts and into the heart of our village.

The Women are gathered in their debating circle but my eyes are drawn first to Mother, nailed to Her cross, Her head tilted up, pale in the light of the moon. Stripped of Her robes, Her body is horribly thin and wasted. Her face is like a skull, Her ribs stand free, Her ... I tear my eyes away. She has been our Mother for four years, a long time in the service of the gods. Tomorrow, the Women will heap wood around the cross and the new Mother will light the first fire of Her reign. It will be a wonderful event.

A safe distance from the cross is the joss-house and in it, the throne that Mother must only ever leave when the moon is full and the flow is to be praised.

Thorn is restless, his plans defused, only half-realised. From our outcrop we can see everything but the voices from the debating circle only reach us as a half-heard murmur, the words indistinct, susurrant.

"Who do you think will be chosen?" says thorn, breaking the codes again. Speculation is the seed of the night, something to which we are vulnerable when we are left unprotected, as now. I touch the rock. Contact with the Earth is always a comfort.

In the past it is said that Mother was always one who had bred, one who had proven Her fruitfulness. In my time She has always been chosen from the fresh, the unproven. The codes say our Mother must never bear children. It is the way.

I sit until the sky begins to lighten and then I leave, realising that boredom must have taken thorn long before.

At some time in the night I recognised the figure that had been holding the circle rapt. One Woman distinct from the others. Tilana. It was then that this nervous anticipation took form in my mind. I looked for a long time at the animated figure of my sister, the shadows she cast, and then I felt the fear and, more than anything, the joy. As I return to the hut I share with jent and thorn I keep reminding myself that it is mere supposition, I have no way of knowing. Not until tonight.


The night is sharp like a blade. Alone, I can taste the frost on the still air. The stars burn more brightly than I have ever known. Atmosphere is a powerful drug.

We are already gathered by the firewood hut when the horn blows, drawn together by some subconscious magnetism. Here, the taste of frost is absent, the warm fug of bodies smothering all else. We are men together.

So I tell myself. It has a reassuring shape in my mind, such a thought. The tension is greater than ever but there is no arguing, no aggression. Tonight is the night of the full moon, the Bleeding Moon, as the Women call it and the men are not supposed to know.

The horn, the horn. A single, plaintive note, not loud but heard by us all. We stir, this crowd of men, and then we process solemnly past the storage huts, heading towards the Core.

It feels wrong to be walking openly across this space, the barrier of nothing between male and Female, but we proceed regardless. Most of the men are older than me; I guess that more than half — maybe as many as seventy — have made this journey alone, heading for a night of service to the tribe. Maybe that is why it feels wrong: copulation is a private thing, yet now we cross the boundary en masse, called by the horn and the full, Bleeding Moon.

During the day the Women formed a chain between firewood hut and Core, passing kindling, branches, logs, from hand to hand, Woman to Woman. The children helped, too, but now they will be locked inside their crèche. They will pay their respects to Mother tomorrow.

Our tight-nerved procession passes through the circle formed by the Women's huts, the outer perimeter of the Core. We stare at the ground, watch the placing of our feet, but in the periphery I can see the huge pyre they have built around our dead Mother. She is still staring at the moon.

The Women stand in a circle around the unlit fire, heads turned downwards. The scene is lit by the stars and the moon. I stare at the ground.

We spread ourselves out until we form a wide circle that encloses the Women and the waiting fire. We look up, finally, and I see that Mother's throne has been moved from the joss-house so that it now stands to one side of the huge pyre.

The Women start to hum and then they turn to face outwards and we join in. We have to sing to the elements, you see, we must follow the codes if our Mother is to be effective in protecting us from the world. Earth, Fire, Soul, Water, Air, Flesh.

The songs lift us. I can almost forget what is happening. Beside me, thorn, and on the other side, jent, sing our hymn, one strong and loud, the other weak and barely audible. As ever, I am between them, I sing with spirit but I do not have a voice like thorn's.

After a full song-cycle the Women stop singing but they are so few that the volume of our chorus barely drops. They go down to their knees, press their lips to the soil. One of them holds a bronze pot aloft and chants the secret Female names of the elements three times over. Then She tips the pot and pours its dark red contents into the soil. It is said that this is part of a monthly ceremony but a man cannot know for sure. I watch and sing as the blood pools on the soil and its steam rises. It will be soon now: we will have a Mother again. Thorn's voice comes to my mind: Who do you think will be chosen? Now is a legitimate time to think such thoughts. Now the moment is near.

I study the Women, each an individual, yet they are the Nameless, indistinguishable. Surely the time must be close!

Then one of the Women steps into a space, raises Her hands to the Bleeding Moon, tips Her head back. I recognise those rapt features and suddenly I am scared, no, ecstatic ... I cannot keep up with the flickering state of my emotions and so I stop trying. All I can do is try to appear calm. I must not spoil things now.

I watch as Tilana — my sister, how I desperately want to think of her as such! — kneels and traces a finger through the pooled blood of the village's women. Then her entire hand, spreading the dark stain, seizing a fistful of the bloodied soil.

When she stands and turns I know it is true, I know that it is meant to be.

I appear to have lost some time because suddenly she is before me. She reaches out, smears the blood and soil over my forehead and along each of my cheekbones.

I feel alone and scared and overjoyed. The men around me have rearranged themselves, isolating me in their envy and their awe.

I am overcome, I lose more time, look around, recognise where I am. They have carried me across and placed me in the Mother throne; now I am truly at the Core.

Now it is the women who are singing alone, a low, apparently tuneless hymn, a secret anthem that I know I must have heard before and still cannot remember. The women are around me and I forget the men, that is all gone. Even my fear has gone by now.

I am serene as I stretch and look up at Tilana, at the blade she is holding. A faint, physical tug and one of the women has removed my cloth.

As the blade touches my skin and Tilana sets about parting me from my manhood I know that physical pain has become a constant part of my life — however long that may be, before the fevers or the Great Weakness take hold — and that the pain will peak each month as my wounds are reopened under the Bleeding Moon, but that no longer concerns me.

I look down. Tilana's task is done, let the red flow be praised. Our village has a new Mother. It is the way.



An odd little story, this one, and not set anywhere I've lived!

This story tied with Lisa Tuttle's splendid "Lizard Lust" for last place in that year's Interzone readers' poll. I have quite mixed feelings about that. My first reaction at the time was actually to be quite pleased: Lisa's story was my favourite of the year, so it was perversely gratifying to tie with it. It also meant that my story had provoked strong responses in its readers: in the Interzone poll at the time, readers were asked to submit negative votes as well as positives, so a significant number of readers must have voted against "Mother".

Looking back, it's not too hard to identify some of the reasons for this. At that time, in particular, there was a fair undercurrent of resentment that the country's only professional SF magazine was inclined towards the arty, lit'ry end of the spectrum, and it's easy to see that there might be a reaction against any story that might appear to be overly politically-correct. In this story I wasn't actively trying to make a statement on gender politics; it was a straightforward piece of what-iffery, extrapolating from the question of how society might adapt to a situation where breeding women were rare. How to find a matriarch, when women must both rule and breed? But it's not too surprising that some people might see it differently.

And maybe I just didn't do it very well, after all. I don't know. I've re-read the story and I think it's worthy of inclusion here. I hope you agree.

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