Fandom: Mad Max
Pairing: the Dag/Cheedo the Fragile
Summary: When she was born, her parents named her something softer and sweeter.
The Dag knew she wasn’t always called the Dag. When she was born, her parents named her something softer and sweeter- something like Althea or Annabel. It was long since lost; they started calling her the Dag before she was old enough to walk, and after that no one cared to remember who she had been before. The Dag for her part, preferred her new name: sweetness and softness were all well and good, but dag sounded harder and harsher, a name fit for surviving in a world where softness never lasted long.
It was the Old Woman who gave her her new name. The Old Woman, like the Dag, hadn’t always been called Old Woman- but she had been so old for so long, no one could recall her being anything else, and what better title was there for a woman who had outlasted all those born beside her? Her age had made her wise, and so everyone went to her when they were desperate for knowledge. She could tell where to find fresh water, what scrubby desert plants were safe to eat and which would eat a person inside out, and how to keep a sick child from passing to the other side. The older she got, the less she spoke, but she still watched over the rest of them with a sharp eye. The Old Woman approached the Dag’s parents one day, when the baby was still only a handful of days old, and placed a finger to her cheek.
“This one will see everything,” she said slowly. No one else spoke. When the Old Woman chose to gift them with her wisdom, it was thought best to be quiet and listen. “She’ll see everything, and it’ll break her in the end.” She shook her head sadly. “No help for it.”
Under her hands, the baby chortled, reaching up to grab the long strands of her hair. The Old Woman smiled down at her. “You’re a bit of a dag, aren’t you?” she asked, stroking her cheek softly. “Maybe it will save you in the end.”
The Old Woman was right and wrong. The Dag saw everything. But she never broke.
As she grew older, and the Old Woman’s prediction began to come true, the reactions of the others were mixed. Some recognized her as the Old Woman’s natural heir- she had no children or grandchildren of her own, and though she’d lived to a great age, no one expected her to last much longer- and gave her the deference they thought the title conferred. Others were less respectful. It was one thing to respect a woman of age, who’d been around long enough to earn it. It was quite another to bow and scrape to a skinny little slip of a girl with a loose tongue, who burbled up with things that made no sense and expected everyone around her to understand what she meant. She’d not proved her worth yet, so why act as though she had?
The Dag didn’t much mind the derision; she had the Old Woman, and that was all she needed. Even her mother and father (who had other, easier children to love) faded into the background. Her mentor still didn’t speak much, but she didn’t need to. She drew patterns in the dirt, sometimes maps and sometimes runes, and pointed to old and wrinkled pages that she’d somehow kept safe as the world fell. She watched her apprentice learn on her own, throwing up after eating sour fruit and cooking rat meat at different lengths until she got it just right. She took the Dag along with her when she presided over sickbeds and childbirths, and the Dag took it all in, committing the sights and sounds to memory. Sometimes she even hummed the tunes to songs that had long ago lost their lyrics, and so the Dag sang along with words of her own invention. She drew spirals in the sand with her fingers mapped out the movements of the moon, and wondered if shooting stars ever landed on the earth. She imagined creatures that had once walked the earth, and creatures that someday would again, and what cities had been before they all burned. She didn’t always speak of them out loud- she knew the Old Woman tired easily, and needed to sleep without interruption- but she hugged each image close to her heart.
The Old Woman died when the Dag had lived for five thousand days. She sat next to her mentor as the last breaths rattled in her chest, weeping silent tears as everyone else kept their distance. When it was over, they buried her in the desert, heaping what rocks they could find on her grave to keep scavengers from taking the body. The Dag sat beside the grave long after everyone else had left, wailing endlessly into the night.
She was not grown yet; she wasn’t even a young woman. She was only a girl full of fantasies and feelings but not enough to help her family the way the Old Woman had. There hadn’t been enough time, and now there was no one left to carry on. The Dag might be able to deliver a baby (if nothing went wrong) or to find food (with help) but she wasn’t nearly independent enough to earn her keep. And who could afford to feed a growing girl who brought back nothing in return?
Until the Old Woman had died, the Dag’s family had lived in the ruins of what had once been someone’s house. It had been abandoned long ago, and was more wreck than building, but it kept them all sheltered when they needed it. Afterwards, though, when they no longer had to worry about the Old Woman being able to keep up, they packed their things and left. The family- fifteen people all told, some more closely related than others- straggled across the desert, with no clear goal in sight, only hoping to find something better than what they’d had. The Dag trailed at the back of their miniature caravan, tracking their progress by the stars and wondering what was left of the rest of the world.
A hundred days after they began their journey, they arrived at the Citadel. Some cried when they saw it, grateful beyond words to have found a new home. The Dag was warier. She saw the guards with their guns and the citizens in their rags, and wondered what sort of civilization they had found. Some of them men watched her with greedy eyes, and it made her fearful, though she didn’t know precisely what it was she feared. She tried to say as much, but her mother hushed her: they had found what they were looking for, and who was she to ruin it for everyone?
It was three hundred days after they reached the Citadel that the pale boys came for her. Covered head-to-toe with flaking white paint, they look to her like ghosts, or harbingers of death to come. They took her by both arms, flanking her on either side, and she screamed when they pulled her away. No one else made a sound. She tried to stretch her hands back out towards her family, but they had all turned their faces away. It was then that she understood she had been sold.
They took her up a high hill- the one Immortan Joe dispenses water from- and handed her to two women who stripped her naked, scrubbed her clean, and plaited her hair. They painted her lips and cheeks, drew dark lines across her eyelids, and dressed her again in white scarves. “Smile,” one of them said. “It’s the best thing for you.” They took away her boots and put her feet in sandals instead. All the while, the Dag stayed still, too shocked by it all to try and fight their grasping hands. No one explained what was happening. No one spoke of what was to come, or what had come before. It was as though time had ceased to exist, that there was no longer a world outside this room and these strange women. For the first time, she thought she might break.
When they women were finished painting her, they ushered her up a flight of steep, rocky stairs, and into a different room. This room had an old woman at the door, and the Dag couldn’t help but gape: every inch of her skin was mapped out in words, in languages the Dag didn’t know and letters she didn’t recognize. She took the Dag from the two women who’d brought her in, and pulled her into the room with a look that wasn’t quite kind, but wasn’t cruel either. “I’m Miss Giddy,” she said. “This is your home now. And these are your sisters.”
Her new “sisters” were a tall golden woman and a shorter one who was red and solid. Both looked at her the same way the old woman had: something that might have been pity.
“Welcome to the Vault,” the golden one said with a dark laugh.
“I’m Capable,” said the red one. “And this is Angharad. There is another . . .” She trailed off. “You won’t see her.”
“None of us are going to see her again,” said Angharad.
There was a conversation happening between them, but it was passed in looks and silences, and the Dag was too tired and too lonely to puzzle it out for herself. Instead of asking who the third woman was, she wandered across the room to look out the window. The desert stretched out as far as she could see, until it faded into the bright blue of the sky, impossibly far away. Too far for her to reach.
She never broke. But those first few days as a Wife, she came close.
Her first visit with her new “husband” was the day after she arrived, and it left her bruised and shaken. Capable and Miss Giddy tended to her after she returned, and she let them, staring blankly into the distance. Afterwards, she lay in her bed for days, her hair strewn in tangles across the pillow. Capable tried to talk to her. Angharad left her alone, but she could hear Angharad’s ranting from the other room. Anger, it seemed, was a comfort to her.
She soon learned that her third sister- the one she never met- had been Zara the Gentle, and she had just lost her third pregnancy in a row. They had three chances, Capable explained to her, and if they hadn’t produced a healthy son by then, they would be cast out into the Wastes to starve. Those who produced half-sons- living boys who might be missing a limb, or never learned to speak- might be given a second chance, depending on how many tries it had taken her and how useful the boy could be.
That was the only time the Dag raised her head from the pillow. “What if we have healthy girls?”
Capable froze, then shook her head. There was some old grief there, the Dag thought, but she didn’t probe any further.
She rose from her bed after fourteen days, lured by the sounds of music being played in the other room. They had a piano, it turned out: somehow she’d missed seeing it when she first entered. She didn’t know how to play, but Miss Giddy taught her, and she found she had a talent for it. She learned to play all the songs that they had written down in the Vault, and sometimes made up tunes of her own, picking out the keys that suited her best. Capable and Angharad sung along sometimes; Angharad’s voice was as beautiful as the rest of her, low and melodious. Capable’s was less remarkable, but she knew how to carry a tune. Miss Giddy had taught them, they said. She’d also tried teaching them how to play, but neither one had the aptitude for it. “But now we have you,” Angharad said, and while it was said with the familiar bitter twist of her mouth, the Dag sensed that she was still glad to have her.
Toast joined them six hundred days later. None of them had been cast out yet, though Capable had been through one brief pregnancy that ended in blood at sixty-five days. Neither Angharad nor the Dag had conceived yet. “He’s getting desperate,” Angharad said. “He’s growing older.” Perhaps he would die before he had the son he wanted. The Dag hoped so, anyway.
Toast was prickly and brusque, but the Dag didn’t mind. Most often, she butted heads with Angharad, both of them roiling with anger they couldn’t direct anywhere else. It was left to Capable to keep the peace, while Miss Giddy sat out their fights entirely and the Dag sat at Miss Giddy’s feet. It was not quite like having the Old Woman back- she knew that none of the knowledge Miss Giddy offered was taught in the spirit of making the Dag her apprentice, but she still hungered for new stories. Miss Giddy called herself a history woman, and said it was her job to remember what everyone else forgot. The Dag showed her the marks that the Old Woman had given her on her fingers, and said she was a history woman too. Perhaps it was a condition of age, she thought, that all old women became history women in the end. They were the only ones who saw the value in telling these tales.
But even with Miss Giddy’s tutelage, the Dag could never trust her entirely: her allegiance was to Immortan Joe, after all, even if she treated them kindly. And so, the Dag had no one to truly confide in, no one to whisper her secrets to, no one who understood her when she spoke of the stars. It was like wandering the desert again, surrounded by those she loved but didn’t understand. She lived for her stories, crawling away in her mind to a place where no one could touch her. She sang herself to sleep at night with the promise that one day, her life would change.
That happened when Cheedo arrived.
She was just a small thing, shivering with cold and fear, but the Dag took notice of her instantly. Capable mothered her, Angharad preached to her, and Toast left her alone for the most part, but it was the Dag who spoke to her. She said nothing of life in the Vault or the Citadel, nothing about their status as Wives, nothing about the increasing pressure to deliver Immortan Joe an heir. Instead, she told Cheedo all the stories she knew, all the songs of ships lost at sea and long treks across the desert to find the way home and people who sprouted wings and soared above the clouds. She helped teach Cheedo to read, offering up her favourite books from Miss Giddy’s bookshelf and shaping letters for her on the blackboard. Her favourite book, the one she always returned to, was Cyrano de Bergerac. “My song jets forth so clear, so proud, so peremptory, hat the horizon, seized with a rosy trembling obeys me.” She loved the wordplay, the promise that she could harness the world to her will if she said the right words. Cheedo leaned against her side as she read, mouthing along with the familiar passages, never rolling her eyes at the Dag’s proud declamations, and for the first time since the Old Woman died, the Dag felt wholly understood.
At first Cheedo slept in her own bed at night, as they all did. One night, though, the Dag woke to find Cheedo standing at her bedside. “What is it?”
“I’d rather sleep with you,” Cheedo whispered, and the Dag pulled her covers back and beckoned Cheedo in. They never slept alone after that, and no one else commented on it. The Vault was so small, it was impossible for them not to know each other’s secrets, but they were polite enough to pretend that they were unaware. At night, the Dag traced her fingers over Cheedo’s arms and whispered to her the names of constellations, the stars to follow in order to find food and shelter and water, the ancient maps that warned here there be monsters in the blank spaces they had no name for. The Dag wasn’t afraid of monsters. The biggest monster she knew was the one who ruled the Citadel, and one day, he was going to fall.
“I want to be a history woman too,” Cheedo said one day, and the Dag took out a needle and ink and gave her her first tattoo: just a tiny thing behind the bend of her knee where Joe would never see it. She drew a star- the north star, the brightest one in the sky- for Cheedo, her star, her guiding light. When she was done, she pressed her lips gently against the tender skin. “There,” she said. “Now you’ll always be able to find home.”
Cheedo had been named wrongly, she thought: she ought to have been a Stella, an Astra, a Danica: something to tell all who met her that she was the brightest star in the sky. But they were not all named according to their natures, and the Dag knew that it was just as well they kept this sweet secret between them. The others still called her the Dag, and that was who she was to them. Cheedo, in their most secret and quiet moments, whispered to her a name that was all her own, and if Cheedo was to be the one who gave her her truest name, then the Dag was content.