Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
It was my destiny to die like my mother did. Earth goddesses always die for their people.
“I must go,” Mother said, kissing my forehead. “When I am gone, you will lead. One day, when I am all used up, you will become their bricks.”
“Don’t,” I said. But Mother uprooted a yew tree, sharpened it to a point, and pierced her own heart.
Her priests stripped away her flesh and innards and kneaded them with their feet until she turned to clay. With hammers, they shattered her bones into straw. They mixed the two together with my tears, molded her into rectangles, and dried her in the sun.
In the first century of my reign, my people craved safety. I instructed the priests to build a wall around our village. The wolves still howled at night, but everyone slept without fear.
The village grew, the forest shrank, and hauling enough fuel to heat homes and cook food became a terrible burden. Mother only taught me how to make homes and walls, but I fiddled and thought, and eventually made efficient brick ovens for my people.
They no longer needed to spend so much time chopping wood. They’d always sung songs, but now they also wrote books and painted and wondered about the world. So I devised brick roads for easy travel, connecting our town to other towns, sprawled over the whole continent.
Towns became cities. There was never enough clean water, and diseases ran rampant. By now, I knew how to fit bricks together. I devised aqueducts, drains, and sewers.
That used up the last scraps of what had once been my mother, a mighty Earth goddess.
My people did not stop thinking, trading, and wondering. They wanted to walk on the Moon. To travel to the stars.
I found a yew tree, and began sharpening it. They would need more bricks.
My daughter caught my hand. “We don’t need the walls anymore, Mother. Let’s repurpose those instead.”
From the old walls, we built a brick staircase as high as we could go. But it wasn’t enough.
“Maybe we can make the sewers out of something else,” she said, and used the old ovens to smelt metal, replacing my work with pipes and letting us build higher still.
But it was not enough. All of the bricks of my mother would not be enough. I picked up my yew tree.
“Don’t,” my daughter said.
“It’s my destiny. I must be their bricks.”
She stared up at me with eyes of oceans. “All of her bricks and all of your bricks might reach the Moon, but never the stars. Is it my destiny to become a staircase, too?”
I wavered. My beautiful daughter.
From so high, I could see the criss-crossing, curving brick roads and aqueducts made from my mother’s body. “She gave them so much. How can I do less?”
“Grandmother gave them the raw power of bricks. You became a clever builder. Trust me to do my part, to invent new things. Dying isn’t my destiny.”
Wasn’t I supposed to suffer, like Mother did? Wasn’t I a bad daughter if I didn’t? Or was I a bad daughter because I hadn’t argued well enough to save her?
I glanced up at the Moon. Perhaps a staircase wasn’t the only way to reach it. I looked down on those gently curving brick lines. I had clay in my flesh and straw in my bones. Perhaps my people needed me like this – as a living, breathing, thinking brick, instead of a pile of blocks.
I looked at my daughter, and I knew that her mind was more precious than generations and generations of bricks.
I took her hand. I let her lead me down the staircase. I couldn’t think the way she did, but as she sketched plans for a rocket ship made of metal pipes and fueled by flames, I quietly rearranged my mother’s body into a foundry worthy of her granddaughter’s brilliance.