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A Picture's Worth A Thousand Words

Title: Day is Done
Author: Scrunchy
Rating: G
Pairing: none
Notes: Written for slodwick's A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words challenge.
Spoilers: None. Just that Mal...um...exists
Disclaimer: Except for the few who are, these folks ain't mine. They’s Joss’s and FOX’s, for better or worse. All I got is this piece of sky outside my window, and you can’t take it from me.
Feedback: Very much appreciated, and can be sent here

***

Mal narrowed his eyes and spread his fingers out farther, sneering against the unsettling feeling of the bristle haired flesh. I know you ain't happy 'bout what went down today, he thought, Lord knows if they cut off mine, I'd be right sore too. No pun intended. Mal threw the last ounce of his strength forward, slamming his shoulder into the side of the barrow. The pig whined and slid sideways into the pen. The boy fell forward onto the gate, flipped the lock shut and rested his head against it. Panting, he pushed himself to his feet and shook his head at the pen full of gelded hogs, huddled together in one corner. He pulled off his gloves and threw them into an empty trough. Kip sat on a bale of hay in the doorway of the barn, fixing a flail with some of the new twine he'd haggled for an hour to buy last time a supply ship stopped by. His arm was bandaged sloppily, the red-stained cloth haphazardly taped over where one of the hogs had taken a bite out of him. He looked up and grinned as Mal passed. Leaning up against a post was Mal's mother, looking into the corral where Layla was walking the perimeter with the Luce, the youngest colt on the ranch. Mal sidled up next to his mom, resting his tanned forearms next to hers on the fence. She looked over at him, mussed his hair with one brown hand and patted his arm. He leaned in and kissed the top of her golden gray head, hugged her close. Mal raised a hand in greeting to Layla and turned away, off to end his day the way he always did.

Back past the pens, the barn, the corral and the gardens, the dirt turned to sand. Mal walked slowly, bordering on exhausted and humming a song about a sainted man under his breath. Waving rushes of thistle grew beneath his feet, and he crouched to gather a handful. Hardy trees grew leafless and gnarled across the landscape, and deep thick brush thrived in the shadows of the mountains. Mal removed his hat as he stopped beneath one of the taller trees, where a stone cross cast a long shadow in the failing sunlight. He knelt and made the sign of the cross, placed a handful of purple wildflowers in the shadow. Long day today, he spoke softly to the spirit of Bella. She had taught Mal how to ride, and held his hand the first year he was allowed to watch the hogs get castrated. That was four years ago, when Mal was nine and understood only that the hogs, called barrows now, were crying. Now thirteen, he understood why, and today he had carried out the task with a kind of stoic sympathy. Bella passed two years before, succumbing after months of lying silent, wasting away from some ailment none on the ranch knew how to help. Each night she lay in bed, and after his day was done Mal would come talk to her and pray by her bedside. When it was over, the whole ranch helped dig her resting place, and a then eleven year old Mal erected the stone cross, weeping as he placed the final rocks around its base. He still visited her every night.

He said a final prayer and stood, brushing the sand from his knees. He replaced his hat and shivered as the saturated band pressed cool against his forehead. His neck ached and his hands were the same dirt color of his trousers. He headed back towards the mountains, towards what was regarded by all as incontestably his place. When things got crazy 'round the hub, everyone knew where Mal could be found. The couch came into sight over a rise, and Mal felt like he was walking the final feet to his rest.

He sat down heavy on the couch with a grunt as he felt each tensed up inch of his back uncoil into the worn fabric. The creeping chill of the night air coming down from the mountains was combated by the day's warmth still retained by the soft upholstery. A large spider crawled over the bridge of Mal's foot and dear God in heaven he hated the desert sectors sometimes. He lolled his head back and breathed in deep through his nose. The air smelled like nightfall and horses, dry raspy sagebrush and the smell of his body, damp and dusty from the day. He opened his eyes and saw the sky. He breathed out hard, a soft "wow" escaping through cracked lips. Every night he looked up, and every night the sky surprised him. Most nights it looked like fire when he got out to the back yards, sundown on Shadow and the sun cradled a deep slice of yolk in the valleys ahead of him, bright aching rings of orange and red reaching up and back farther than he could see. He had missed the fire time that night, and now everything was tinged in the cobalt haze of the coming dark. The sky was swirls of purple and pink, white wisps of clouds curling against the remainders of gold and red from the sunset he had missed. He shifted, his head on one of the couch's arms and his legs stretched out over the other. His breathing evened and his eyelashes fell gently on his cheeks.

Hours into the night Mal shivered and opened his eyes. He pulled his arms tight around him and blinked up into the sky. No clouds, just stars and acres of night. Out there, much farther than he could see with any telescope, was the entire universe, vast whole systems of planets teeming with cities and farms and people...so many people. At the edge of it all was a young man alone with sleepy eyes, staring up and dreaming of the endless freedom stretching far into the deep blue sky.

*END*


© scrunchy 2003