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Many Mouths

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The May Queen sleeps for two days after the coronation. Her bed is made high with blankets - she shivers, although it isn’t cold - and the children of Hårga pile into the beds beside her to watch in shifts throughout the day and night. New family, crowding out the memories of those who used to sleep beside the May Queen. Their eyes are wide and eager even though she does nothing but sleep, and shift every so often. Most of them are too young even to remember the last time someone new joined the commune.

Maja pauses outside the doorway. The tray in her arms is heavy and laden down with everything Ulrika and Karin could cram onto it. Pickled fish and vegetables, and dark bread, and creamy soup, and three boiled eggs in a nest of herbs and thinly grated and fried rutabaga. Pastries oozing jam take up a full quarter of the tray, heaped on top of each other and dusted with sugar. The smells would be delicious on their own but all together it’s - overwhelming, and Maja’s nose has been sensitive lately. Siv had laughed at that and told her it was the baby, and even though she knows it’s far too early she likes the thought.

Two of the children, Ebba and Frans, tumble off the bed when she steps inside. Dani doesn’t stir at the noise, but still Maja shoots them a firm look and tilts her chin towards the outside. Ebba rolls her eyes at being bossed around by someone not twice her age, but Frans tows her along with him and Maja is alone with Dani in the building.

She sets the tray down on the bed and sets herself down beside it, smoothing her skirt over. Dani’s head is just visible in her nest of blankets. A drying flower, half-crushed, clings to her hair. There are flowers all over the commune now, trampled into the grass and carried to and fro, picked up and tucked behind ears. Maja has one in her belt. Everyone wants to make their new May Queen welcome and beloved, and so everyone is carrying pieces of her around.

“I’m not really hungry.”

Dani doesn’t move or open her eyes but Maja takes in a sharp, startled breath. She glances at the tray. It seems too much now, like something for a celebration. She should’ve brought just the soup, and maybe the bread. Four summers ago Maja was very ill and the elders didn’t think she would survive, but they fed her soup every day, by hand most of the time, and she regained her strength. The pastries, especially, are cloying and sticky sweet in the warm afternoon.

Finally Dani sits up, sloughing blankets like a heap of snow tipped off a rooftop. She looks tired, still, but calm now. Maja hands her a cup of tisane and the shake in her hands makes ripples in the surface that fade when Dani accepts it and cups it in her palms.

“You haven’t eaten.”

Dani shrugs one-shouldered and drinks from her cup. “Yeah, I guess.”

Maja casts around for words. She knows a little English, from one of the older women who joined the commune after leaving her birthplace in Canada. But not enough to talk easily, like she could in her native language, and Dani is new to Hårga. They understand her, but there will be work to do still.

“You should eat.”

Dani wrinkles her nose and frowns down at her cup. The liquid in it is the same golden-gleaming as her hair in the afternoon light, refracting patterns of shadow on her chin. At the bottom sits a little furl of dried flowers and herbs. “I should,” she agrees.

She lifts her eyes to Maja and they land on the band of red fabric wound around her waist. It’s long enough to be wrapped twice right now, though she’ll have to loosen it as she grows heavier and heavier. Dani reaches over and rubs an unselfconscious thumb over the fabric, tracing the embroidery of the same color, and Maja’s breath leaves her lungs.

Dani pulls her hand back. “So it - stuck?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.” She looks away again, and this time she alights on the tray of food. Pelle had talked about her in letters to Siv, earlier in the year, and Maja still remembers the way he had described her. Someone who craves more than Christian can give her. Hungry to belong. It’s in her eyes, when she looks at Hårga. She leans over the space between the beds and the scent of twinflower reaches across with her.

Dani tilts a spoonful of the soup up and back into the bowl, runs a fingertip over the vinegared surface of the pickled vegetables and sucks it into her mouth, and settles on one of the pastries. The burnished surface crackles under her hands as she breaks it open. The jammy filling smears onto her skin, deep red and sticky.

“When my mom was carrying my sister, she used to get these cravings,” Dani says. “For all kinds of things, but mostly sweet foods. I was too little to remember, but my dad used to talk about it. He’d have to go to the store in the middle of the night to buy her cookies.” She holds out half of the pastry and Maja takes it and breathes in. The smell of the berries is sour under the sugar. She eats.

Dani finishes her own piece in three clumsy, ragged bites and rises from the bed in a graceless movement. She’d changed out of her May Queen dress into a thin white shift, panelled with blocks of embroidery, and she wipes a hand over the side of it and leaves a dark stain to match the one on her lips. The distance between them narrows.

The hand that cups Maja’s chin is hard and trembling, and the jam on her fingers smears sticky over Maja’s skin. Dani tilts her up to look at her, and leans down, and licks her mouth clean. Her tongue tastes like flowers, and Maja feels it in her head and her belly and between her thighs.

Dani presses forward, forward, until she’s halfway in Maja’s lap before she finally pulls away. Her eyes are blown wide, and Maja’s breath deserts her. She looks like one of the tapestries that Maja used to stare at in the night, prophecy and history and tragedy sweetly braided together.

She reaches for the tray again with one hand. The other rests on Maja’s side, cupping her belly and painting dark purple fingerprints on the band of red fabric. There’s no swell under there yet but Dani holds it like it’s a promise already. The tray overflows with food, spills onto the bedspread.

Dani picks out another pastry and tears it in two. This one is savory, a neat circle of crust that tears apart with a wisp of steam and the scent of blood and mushrooms and herbs. She presses half of it into Maja’s hand between their bodies.

Maja takes the offering, and the gamey taste of bear meat melts on her tongue, and the May Queen smiles on her.