Lillian heard the high catcall at the mouth of the black alley down which she had, with insane courage, just walked. The whistling straightened the hairs on the back of her neck, standing at attention as if they alone could protect her body. As the shadows began to form at the mouth of the alleyway, reaching with long silhouetted figures for her form, Lillian knew exactly what was going to happen next.
"Hey, it's Lily!" laughed a voice barely past puberty. Lillian could have played "guess who," but it mattered little. Most men in Vaust were the same.
"You know her, Martin?"
"Hello little girl. What are you doing out here?" Do not answer, she told herself. Do not show them the fear in your voice.
"Guessing she wants some of this!" Lillian could see the gesture being made even as she continued walking down the alleyway away from the sound.
As the calls became more random, more insistent, and closer, Lillian let one hand brush the jagged brickwork of her quickly narrowing alley. This town is falling to pieces, she thought, and every shattered brick, every new medicine these people abuse, every man at my back, makes it more impossible to live here.
"Hey, Lily stop! I just want to talk to you." A liar says. "Lily, you're ugly. We won't do anything to you, so just wait a moment." Lillian's stomach roiled with acid, but she kept walking, knees tensed for that first critical test.
"Lily" was not her name. "Lily" was the name of the girl that they planned to drag inside a dark place and clean out. "Lily" could be the girl dragged deeper, drugged harder, and locked away like some of her friends to be used whenever. Her attackers would be upon her very soon.
But Lillian had a secret.
Ever since the cataclysm fifty years ago, Vaust had been the literal end of the world. The only other land north and east of Vaust was a significant volcanic region, spewing endless hot gas, ash, and lava at all hours of the day. Vaust should have been a bright place, as the sun was permanently fixed nearly directly over it, but a malevolent cloud of soot and fire loomed above the valley letting through only occasional dirty grey lights.
Before reaching Vaust, one would pass through the wastelands, a desolate, cracked plain punctuated by failed cities and wily predators. And Minutemen. Appointed into law establishing posts by the Physicians that ran Vaust, these Minutemen aggressively forced women to pluck herbs at the far southern fringe of the wasteland, where the plains dissolved into meadows and mountain fields. Vaust reeked of week-old damp laundry with the burning of these plants, particularly the Ophelix, which was burned for pleasure; users ate articles of clothing, shouted slurs from window sills, and met with strangers outside Lillian's uncomfortable loft just to fornicate while she tried to sleep. Even Lillian's father vanished after purchasing a combination of herbs as their family's food supplies began to dwindle. Lillian had needed to support herself ever since.
With these thoughts in her mind, Lillian ran. She ran to the only place where the Minutemen would not catch her and rape her. She ran to the volcano. To her surprise, the ash and heavy dust in the air around and in the volcano did not impede her ability to breathe. Every day, when she finished laboring at the only farm outside of town, milking emaciated cows to feed people who had no inclination to feed themselves, she took off sprinting across the craggy volcanic lands. Every day, her legs became stronger. Lillian began to feel powerful, able to run away from any threat.
And then, one day, she witnessed something spectacular. Stumbling to the ground after a hard sprint up the largest volcanic crater, she saw--at eye level--a single, undisturbed blade of grass. This is impossible, she thought, how could grass survive here? When she touched it, feeling its smooth rigidity even as it arose from the ashes, she tried to pluck it from the ground to save it as a reminder of the value of life--even in a world where death was an impermanence.
Snap! Her thumb was suddenly slick with blood. The grass had actually cut her! It seemed as though the grass did not want to be pulled out. The grass remained upright and strong. Lillian, empowered by the resilience of this miniscule plant, straightened herself up and continued running.
It was not long before Lillian discovered another blade of grass, and another, and then a patch of grass, and then, in the middle of the volcano where the molten rock nearly circled her, a wide ring of living, green grass and small white flowers surrounding a single rock. It meant something that plants existed here. Lillian gave the rock a hard kick, sending fragments of pumice flying around her.
Deep inside that stone, dimly visible through crevices that Lillian was breaking open with her foot, was the bark of a tree.
The first man who tried to grab her received Lillian's strongest fist to his solar plexus, sending him reeling against a brick wall. While the first man gasped for air, a second man pulled a long serrated knife out of a belt loop on his trousers and charged at Lillian from behind. Lillian spun and lashed the man's face with the heel of her boot, following through on the momentum of her kick to cinch her foot into the man's neck and drag him into the pavement.
Lillian had been teased her whole life for her appearances. Muddy brown hair that never settled down punctuated a firmly squared jawline such that it was easy to mistake her for a boy. Lillian hoped that these men, some she certainly knew, could appreciate the irony that she was now being mistaken for a typical girl who would have no idea how to handle herself in such a situation.
Regardless, when she finished completely breaking the first attacker's ribcage with repeated stomps, she allowed a third man to grab her and drag her away. Lillian, now calm, assessed his grip on her shoulders and waist as he maneuvered her through dark corridors to corners of the town she had never seen nor considered. She could break out.
She would wait and watch where they took her. Because Lillian had a secret.
It took months to break apart the pumice shell with her hands and feet. She watched her body grow in the process--muscles coiled like tense steel underneath her sweaty shirt. She stole food from the town larder, where she delivered warm milk every night, to help her keep on her feet while she broke apart the stone that covered a tree.
A tree in the middle of a volcano. It was far from being a majestic tree, as Lillian could guess from the illustrations of trees she had seen in her childhood, but it had a presence to it.
Lillian knelt in the soft shadow of the tree, illuminated by spouting lava behind it. While she was, once again, trying to discern how she was capable of breaking the rock without breaking the tree inside, she hear a soft voice.
"You bend your knee in supplication. Were you the one that set me free?"
Lillian looked around frantically for the voice. Out of the corner of her eye, a long blond strand of hair dripped like velvet sap out of a tree branch. Lillian snapped her head around to watch: the hair was followed by a scalp, then luminescent fully green eyes with no whites, a child-like face, and the body of a child. This visage, wrapped in a silky peridot dress, draped upside down mere feet from Lillian's head.
"Did you release me from that rock?" the young girl intoned, without opening her mouth, before flipping and dropping down to the grass. The voice emanating from this being seemed much older than the body in front of Lillian.
Lillian nodded slightly. "Do wish to possess my powers? I perceive in you a natural aptitude. Tell me, young one from Vaust."
Lillian wondered how this tree-woman knew her history and actions without ever being told. In spite of her doubt, she found herself nodding again.
"I will challenge you to a duel. Know that I am the Aspect of Creation. To me, evil is the desire to remain idle while all around you withers, the hedonistic hell where not one human can nor will sow seeds. In your life, you have witnessed much evil. If you survive my challenge, you may inherit my will and way. Do you accept?"
Lillian considered Vaust. The smoke filled streets, the starving people who abused herbs issued by the Physicians just to experience a false life, and the father who abandoned her. The ruffians who loitered on street corners calling to young girls and old women alike before dragging them into unknown places where they were never seen nor heard from again, and the Minutemen looming like an ever-present sword over her head. The loft she lived in, filled with everything she could gather from the outside world except for that one resilient blade of grass that cut her when she dared to try and pluck it.
She wanted to be that blade.
When they handed her over to those standing in a room of hard tile floors and stark white walls punctuated by brown desks where men dressed in white coats with ties sat, Lillian almost laughed. I could not have been more lucky, she thought, looking around the room and noticing a steel door, behind which Lillian could feel bodies.
The bodies of women, hunched over cots after returning from a long day in the wasteland, hands scrubbed raw from pulling grass and sharp stemmed plants out of the ground with no gloves. Older women permanently hunched after a lifetime, or possibly even several lives considering their conditions, of uprooting for men who smirked at their twisted spines while kicking them back down to the dust.
Lillian felt something boiling inside as the first white coated man reached for her shirt. Immediately, she used her muscular legs to twist underneath the man holding her, dislocating one of his knees and dropping him to the tile floor. Hopping backwards to put a little distance between herself and the other people in the room, Lillian flicked a hand skyward.
"Lily, what are you doing? Stop-"
My name is not Lily. Water began to shoot out of the ceiling towards the floor as if the entire building had been engulfed in a flood which was beginning to breach the inside. Water knocked men over and flipped desks. Water pushed objects up and to the side and around, cracking teeth and mangling faces. Lillian stood in the rising waves unfazed as she slowly dropped her hand to the level of the floor and suddenly clenched it into a fist.
A solid block of something dark appeared in the middle of the room underneath the water. Within seconds, all water disappeared from the room, revealing the object to be a green cube. A cube which erupted, sending a bright forest of sharp vines into every last crevice of the once sterile room, impaling men against walls with enough force to shatter bones and tile alike.
And although these penetrated men writhed, they could not free themselves. Although they would die, they would remain suspended against the walls while they returned to life, only to bleed out and die again. Amidst this grisly scene, Lillian calmly stepped across the jutting tendrils to the steel door ripped open by vines.
Lillian, as well as many other women of her age and older, walked out of the Office of the Physicians and past the impaled Minutemen and through the dirty city streets.
Lillian, as well as many other women who joined this procession as it swept through the town, walked through the wastelands and into a land of their own making, a city constructed and managed by their own hands.
To this day, no women live in Vaust.