Thu 1 May 2014
by John M. Shade
The show starts when the woman in rags sets the box down.
Worn edges and flecks of dried blood stain the sides. The wooden box has a depression in the top where the old woman has stood for years. She sets it onto the ground at the back of the tent without a word, and the crowd is already holding their breath, waiting for the miracle to come again.
The old tent sways around them to the wind coming off of the flatland. It lay in the back, small and stained and away from the rest. Prayer flags snap in the distance. Cheap lights have been strung up over the center and across the entrance flaps, and out front, a driftwood sign sticking from the ground states: THE BULLETPROOF GAL, SHE DIES TONIGHT.
The crowd waits patient, eager, sterling timepieces ticking away, the shadow of a pistol here or there beneath a suit coat. Those that come armed are fewer and fewer each year, the woman in rags knows.
But everyone waits to see if it’s true. Already, sounds are coming from the other tents, of the other shows starting up: a wolf’s howl, a laughing crowd, an announcer’s call.
But inside this tent, it remains quiet.
Soon the noise from the other shows begins to fade (something like magic, a newspaper man would write), and after a time there is nothing left to hear at all but the old woman’s voice.
“Shoot,” she says.
The crowd fidgets, nervous glances all around.
“Shoot,” she says again. Her hand moves slowly up toward her holster, scanning the crowd. She can pick them out on instinct, the ones that have the nerve. As if they had some marker upon them.
Three young men jump up from their seats, drawing pistols of their own, hammers ticking back. They fire, one after another and shoot the woman in rags in the chest, the arm, the neck, the gunshots splitting the air, blood flying against the tent. Screams echo. The instinct to run is too powerful. The crowd climbs over one another for the entrance flaps.
Every night, she dies alone next to the old box. There is always someone willing to kill for a memory, no matter where the tents are set. Fewer and fewer each year, she thinks, dying there. Some day there won’t be any left.
The show travels the towns in the meadow basin, and then farther out again where the hills grow taller and the shadow of the Drowning Mountains looms close, and the towns grow farther and farther apart. The wagons are old. The wheels creek and groan and the quick-shot men whistle to the beat as they march on.
When they pass towns or villages not on their route, they wave to the people. They say, as if from a script, “Come follow us, just a little farther until we set up for the show!” even though it isn’t true most times.
Ellie, the Bulletproof Gal, rides beside the wagons during the day. The master of the show is a broad man with eight sons. Behind her, there’s the Plains Brothers and further back rides the wagon crew.
The sun goes down on other towns, other seasons. She teaches the old quickness games to children before their parents can shoo her away. When the children ask if she will die tonight she says yes. And if it hurts, she says yes. And if she would teach them the trick to never die, she says maybe tomorrow. It is always tomorrow.
Sometimes they camp for the night in derelict mansions or old farms or other, older ruins. Stone towers reclaimed by vines and underground labyrinths and dead towns at the edges of an encroaching desert, set to swallow everything. Sometimes people follow close and sometimes they stay far back, and Ellie can see their outlines in the morning haze along ridge-line, waiting for the show to start again. Waiting for lost days come alive, if only for a moment.
She understands. It was what attracted her in the first place.
The young man comes on the last night of shows, trudging up the shallow hill to the lights and the noise in his stuffy, pressed uniform, clipboard in hand. He watches the shows, the lion tamers and the men shooting bottles off nervous, shaking heads while the lights on the Bulletproof Gal’s tent have yet to come on. He watches her show when it is ready, watches them cart her body off to the surgeon, and then waits at the edge of the tents for her to come out of her wagon again.
“Ellie Dimeaux,” he says when she finally appears.
“Yes,” she says.
“My name is Paul,” he says.
“I’ve known a few Pauls.”
“No,” he says, “Forgive me, we’ve never met. I’m writing a book.”
“All right. Good for you.”
“Yes,” he says.
She walks over to the well and dips a spoon in and drinks. He waits until she’s finished and says, “I’m writing a book on the old ways. How it used to be.”
She says, “That’s a tricky subject. People don’t do such a good job of remembering times.” She wipes her mouth.
“It was something I’d hope you’d let me in on.”
“Better off leavin’ it be.”
“Something you might know of,” he says.
She stops from dipping another spoon-full. “You’re wantin’ to know about Elsin.”
“I don’t know where he is. Dead, likely.”
“That doesn’t seem to stop you,” Paul says.
She looks at him. “He’s not here now, so get to goin’.”
“Had some questions for you, too.”
She takes another sip of water, then heads for the gunsmith’s tent, the boy falling in step behind her.
“Like you want to know what really happened. They tell about the burning windmill and the duels at sun’s rise in the school rooms, don’t they? Ask the teachers.”
“They do, but I wanted to hear it from someone that was there.”
“Sorry,” she says. “More shows and more towns to go. Don’t have time to be jawin’ with you.”
The gunsmith’s tent lay ahead. She can hear the music of the tools whirring inside, the oven starting up. She expects he’ll stop short once he hears the sounds too, but he doesn’t.
“I bought a memory of you,” he says. “One of Elsin’s.”
“It’s a fake,” she says over her shoulder.
“I don’t think so.”
“Trust me kid, everyone wants to be him. Don’t think you’re the only one that got hold of a bad memory that’d been passed off as his. The surgeons wouldn’t make any money otherwise.”
He stops at the entrance of the gunsmith’s tent like she wanted, but then pulls it aside and comes in behind her. The three gun-hands standing at the table eye the boy as he comes in.
Ellie says, “You’ll be taking a hint now, and getting on home.”
“I’ll stay for as long as it takes.”
One of the gun-hands says, “Got an admirer Ellie?”
The other two smile.
Ellie holds up a hand. “It’s all right. I’ve got a handle on this.”
The other gun-hands fidget. Their hands play with coins or string or twigs to keep their fingers quick and busy. Only a matter of time until that’s not enough, she thinks.
She looks at Paul, something in it telling him the danger he’s in. How the next few seconds could be his last. “You come in the morning and I’ll show you where he’s buried.”
“You won’t run?” he says.
“I’m old,” she says. “Take it or leave it.”
She looks back at the gun-hands.
“All right,” says the boy.
“All right,” says the old woman.
She was born in a town nestled against a river, in the shadows of distant, alien mountains. Mountains she cannot remember the names of anymore. She had had a name for each peak in her youth, and there were many; some tall and jagged and others soft and sloping, and that she had even given imaginary names to the people coming down off of them too: explorers, travelers, gun-hands, storytellers, and other, mysterious folk that would tip their hats to her from the other side of the river.
There was no power in a name, she knew. They flowed one into the other, the memories dripping away, changing, stretching, contorting, diving, tethered, spinning round and round about the Low Country like the people themselves, town to town to town. They were a currency, one of many. You could end up with a memory you had as a child on your death bed, and that would be all right, she thought, to remember yourself at the very end.
She grew tall and menaced the boys under the long afternoon suns. She played the quickness games with the others, and learned the old songs (Of the Reaping Grain, Of the Businessman, Of the Traveler) like they used to. The schoolmaster taught her other songs, too. Of the Ready Gun, Of the Forest’s Path, Of the Noon. He had a scar and a glass eye. She can only see his eye now. She’d traded the rest of him away for a piece of bread and water for her horse so long ago.
Ellie remembered the gunfighters on the river, though. Would never have traded them away. She always watched them from the opposite bank as they let their horses drink, before they moved on again, out into the sage fields and whatever lurked beyond. She’d wondered what it would take to cross the river and become a part of their world, traveling town to town and building a legend people would tell as the candles went down.
She worked the kilns of the town’s bakeries but her family couldn’t afford proper gloves, so she learned the value of speed without a gun. Sometimes the gunfighters would come into town for food and ammunition. She traded them bread for memories, and learned of another kind of quickness. She learned the old ways–when to talk and when to shoot, how to take a town and when to bring someone back–and practiced with twigs or spare kindle shaped like a pistol when no one was looking. When the days were done, she went home to a house full of brothers and sisters, and dreamed of the long, endless roads stretching out before her.
Elsin had come to the town in the spring.
The clouds were gray above, and it was raining when he rode in. She remembers the hiss of the motors pumping water away from the village, and that the whole town had come out despite the rain. Merchants had set up their market stalls at the entrances and the people lined the porchways of the roads, whispering to one another rumors of why he’d come. Vengeance, some said, or the Nine Families had sent him, or he carried a message for the mayor alone. But none of them were true. She could see it in his face, worn, but still so young. Like he was tired of running. Like he didn’t know where home was anymore.
There were others that rode in with Elsin. Men and women. A long train of gunfighters, hopefuls, followers, and slaves.
Ellie stood beneath the porch of the bakery, ribbons of sun-drenched rain cutting down in front of her view as the mayor met them in the open road.
“Who’s in charge here?” Elsin said, his voice carrying just above the rain patter.
“I am,” said the mayor.
“We’ve come to lay claim here,” said Elsin. “You’ll supply us with clean beds and food and roofs over our heads until another comes to contest our claim. Do you understand?”
“We know the way of things,” said the mayor. “The children have been taught.”
“Good,” said Elsin.
He dismounted and led his horse to a boy nearest him and said, “Take this to the stables and see that he’s fed,” and he handed the boy slips of soggy currency.
She remembered him striding past, and the look he gave. Nothing more than a passing glance.
But even then she could feel something on its way, hair on end like a distant storm. Even before her and Elsin looked out on an army marching across the Low Country. Before the deserts came to swallow everything, and the smell of gunpowder, and the taste of blood, were as commonplace as the fires dancing within the kiln.
The days were long and the food short as spring came to be summer. More than one young man had gotten the idea to take them on and challenged Brist or Daniels or the Fairweather Brothers, or even Elsin himself.
Ellie watched their duels from the kiln, paying half a mind to the heat, and collected more scars than she had all year in only a few days. She watched them before, and after, and in the moment between. The subtle change in their draw if they expected to win or die. Most of them were only wounded, but might as well have been dead.
You lost your right to choose when you lost the duel. If anything, that’s what it was about. Conscription, not murder.
They took the young men into the surgeon’s hut who worked on them throughout the night, stuffing memories down into their heads, and taking out the rest to be sold at auction. Ellie could hear the screams from her bed, even over the hissing of the river motors and machines of the gunsmith’s shop. When it was finished the gunfighters paraded their newest recruits around the town. The young men recognized no one, not even their mothers crying at their waists, the men pulling their wives back to the sidewalks as the parades cut down the roadways, coiling around buildings and choking the porchways like the great, writhing serpents of old.
After a few days the duels died down and the people, if not content, were at least submissive. The town settled into the old rhythms again. And everything was peaceful for a time.
It was afternoon when Elsin sent one his men to talk to her.
“Hello there.” The man had strolled up through the porchways (boards hardly creaking to his weight) and on to the kiln where Ellie was busy keeping the fires going. It was afternoon, and he was young. Like Elsin. But this man had a wide, vicious smile. He loomed over her, the sun behind his head, his face in shadow.
“Hello,” Ellie said.
She didn’t remember this one from the town. He had been taken earlier. Somewhere far away. She tried to imagine where he’d come from. The coastal towns? Villages perched against deserts vast as seas. Or a city, buildings as far as her imagination could stretch, sweeping down across the valleys and plains of the world.
“You aren’t going to offer me bread?” said the man.
“You’ve got hands,” she said. She looked up a moment.
He smiled again, and it shone bright even against the shadow.
He leaned down. “I could push your head right in that fire, you know.”
“You’d be comin’ with me, then.”
He said, “I thought all the young fools were dead or with us now.”
“Not all,” she said. “Most, though.”
She watched him. His eyes flicked from her to a bird perched on an iron gate nearby each time it fidgeted.
“Aw fuck it,” he said. He drew his gun and shot twice at the bird before it fluttered away.
He shrugged, and held his hand down.
“Well you’ll have to come to dinner then,” he said.
“If I don’t want to?”
“I guess maybe both our heads’ll be in that fire, then.”
“I know the old laws. I don’t have to come if I don’t want to.”
“That’s true, you don’t. You can sit here making bread for the rest of your life, and have children that look just like their father, and coo over every moment. But you don’t want it.”
A breeze traveling down off the mountains brushed past her face and went on.
“They say Elsin can’t be killed.”
He said, “You’ll have to come find it out for yourself, girl.”
“What do you think?” she asked.
“About what?” he said.
He said, “He hasn’t led us wrong this far.”
Something in the way he said it gave her a doubt that hadn’t been there before. As if it were only a matter of time.
“That wasn’t my question,” she said.
He only shrugged. She would not get this chance again, he was saying.
“All right,” she said. She stood up from the kiln and brushed the crumbs from her steel apron. The fire crackled behind her.
They would get another to replace her, she thought. There was always someone else behind you in a town like this, ready to take your place.
She couldn’t realize that it was the last time she would ever feel safe again.
There was only one hotel in the town, a leftover from some other time, some other people. It had stained glass doors with etchings of strange animals and faces. You could tell the places where the bullet-holes were patched, the craftmanship never the same. The hotel was three stories up–the tallest in the town–and the manager was from a town by a sea far to the south.
Ellie was led in by the smiling man, who called himself Coates. The manager flicked his eyes between Coates and Ellie as they walked through.
“Welcome,” the manager said, his arms thrown wide like a performer. He flicked his eyes toward Ellie. “May I help you?”
The lobby was clear, the marble floor beneath them was stained with dust and sand. But no signs of blood anywhere. She was always told to stay away from hotel. She always imagined the gun-hands with the smell of blood on them, a metallic tang like stanching fresh cuts. Like after the battle was won. But there was only the smell of food in the kitchens (using her bread? she wondered), and the smoke clotting the doorway to the saloon.
“Elsin,” said Coates.
“The tables I believe,” said the manager.
“All right,” said Coates. He looked to Ellie, took out a canteen. “Go on, then. I’ve got business.”
Whenever someone stopped her, she said “Elsin,” and was let through. On past the first rooms where the women danced, and then out into the main room, with a small stage shoved into the back corner and a few haphazard lights glowing down on it. A woman stood singing a low traveling song, and patrons sat at tables paying little attention, playing cards or whispering stories or laughing, already a little drunk.
“Elsin,” she said one last time to a man in a broad coat. He motioned to the bar and the young man sitting at a far stool. She could barely see him in the haze.
“So you came,” Elsin said.
“Yes,” said Ellie.
“You know the old laws,” he said.
“Yes,” she said.
“Good,” he said. “Most people don’t realize what it is they’ve come for. But you do. You know I have the right to replace you if you don’t measure up.”
“I know,” she said.
He led her out the back of the hotel, and then down the alleys, the others following close. There were clouds in the sky. A slow drip of water somewhere. They came to the edge of town where the graveyards stood (the rough mounds wrapped it all the way over, like any good town), and Ellie and Elsin and the others jumped the iron fence where the dirt stopped and the long, endless prairie started.
Elsin said, “We’ll go with Coates.”
Coates emerged from the crowd. He checked his pistol.
“Do you have a pistol?” said one of the men.
“No,” said Ellie.
“Do you want mine?”
Ellie pointed. “I want his.”
Coates raised an eyebrow. “Mine?”
“You don’t want his,” another said. “It never quite hits anything.”
“It’s cursed,” said another.
“All right,” said Elsin. “He can have mine.”
The pistol was heavier than she thought. It made her arm slump down. She stuck it in her belt and the others chuckled. Dust mixed with the dirt of the nearby graves, hanging in the wind. The sun had just touched the horizon when the others backed away and everything was set.
“You can forfeit, you know,” said Coates. He stepped cautiously, watching his footing.
“So can you,” said Ellie.
“Say it, then. I’m well and ready, girl.”
“You say it,” she said.
She felt a slowness in her veins. Sluggish. Congealing. Not lightning. Not the quickness songs like she was taught, like she thought would come thundering through her veins and into her muscles when the time was right. When she needed it most. Just the slow, crawling truth that she was going to lose with every heartbeat. She wasn’t fast enough, and she would die, or be replaced by someone else’s memories. She thought perhaps a lost lover of one of the others. Of Elsin himself, maybe?
“What are you after here?” she asked, trying to stall for time.
But Coates could already see her fear. She saw that much. He reached for a gun.
She could nearly see the Silent Gods in their grottos behind her eyes, beckoning toward her, all the lost duelists waiting around for another chance at fame.
A crack of gunfire, and a bullet whistled past her ear. She lifted the pistol, a half-hearted luck flowing through her arms. She pulled the trigger and the kick sent her to the ground. But while she was there, looking up from the dirt, she saw that Coates had gone to the ground as well. He lay with a hole poked through his chest, back arched in pain.
“I can still…I can still…” he said. His trigger finger twitched, neck muscles straining.
He looked at her straight, eyes tired, trying to swim into the back of his head, and he said, “Please.”
Please. As if she could take it all back. Or maybe it was to have her deliver some final message to a family or lover or friend he could recall. She had been taught the stories, of gun-hands that had ridden for months to deliver messages from those that had fallen. She’d dreamed of the journeys she would go on, the people she would meet. But now she knew they were lies.
There was nothing different after a death.
Just the feel of the shovel piercing dirt, and the indifference on the faces around her. She remembered the graveyard sounds best of all, the crunch-sweep of dirt, the rhythm of muscle and breath, like some great monster dragging itself on to the world’s end.
Ellie and Paul ride from the tents in the night and do not stop until their horses are ridden down and a few days worth of sores have begun to crawl across their thighs. They camp amongst tall stone ruins under the stars. Ellie checks her ammunition by the firelight while Paul brings water for his horse.
“We’ll be there in a day or so,” Ellie says.
Paul eyes her, then the gun. “Are the dead to be feared now?”
“Rather not be reckless if I can help it. There’s always a chance things can go wrong.”
“Is that what it was like in the old days? You had to look over your shoulder every moment?”
She shrugs. “It’s never as bad as you might suppose.”
“Never that good, either,” says a voice from one of the stones. A man is leaning against them part ways in the dark with a sharp grin on his faces. He says, “Wouldn’t try it, ma’am.”
Others come out of hiding all around them, guns drawn. Their faces come into the light, and all the scars and dirt and scraggly hair with them.
“Guns,” the man says. “Please.”
Ellie looks to Paul. “I wouldn’t,” she says.
Paul says, “We aren’t all brave like the old days, you know.” He throws his gun to the man’s feet.
“Never as good as you think,” Ellie says. After she throws hers away, they bring the ropes and gags.
An hour later they sit, hands bound, beside the dwindling campfire. A few of the highwaymen are rummaging through Ellie’s bags, and soon they turn to Paul’s. They toss pages to the ground, and the breeze tumbles them away, down the dark slope of the hill, lost forever.
“My notes,” Paul grumbles through the gag.
It costs him a crack over the head.
“Quiet,” one of them says.
“If I’m not mistaken you’ve somewhere to be,” says the leader. “A bit longer and you’d have to put down these horses. Must be somewhere special.” He motions to one of the men close to Ellie. “Their gags.”
“We’re not going anywhere special,” says Paul.
The hammers tick back on guns nearby. “That’s a pity.” The others stop searching and there is a slow, bleeding silence.
“We’re headed to Elsin’s burial place,” Ellie says. “If you would like to come along, that’d be fine.”
“Do we look like grave-robbers?”
“No, but then again Elsin didn’t live an ordinary life. Stands to reason what’s in his crypt wouldn’t be ordinary either. Might say expensive, seein’ as how long he lived.”
She could see it change on their faces, just like watching the crowds at the shows, just like waiting for the twitch of movement in a duel. It was the same skill, over and over. The years piled up like clouds on the sky.
“We’ll leave in the morning,” the man says. He walks to the edge of the stones, hands on his belt. “Remember, we only need one of you. Don’t let me down.”
Ellie rode away with Elsin and the others when they had had their fill and their ranks had swelled enough. Her mother and father didn’t come out to watch her go. Her brothers and sisters either. They had been taught the old ways. Even if they had met her on the road, or at the markets, or by the hotel, they wouldn’t have noticed her. She was a ghost now, as good as dead.
They passed by the bakery as they left in the early morning, and another girl was there, already stoking the flames.
The townsfolk didn’t pay her any mind, and they rode out from the town further south, following the arc of the sun.
Ellie rode with them when they fought off the Salt brothers and their tribe, and when they took the Twin Rails and cracked the safe at the back.
They had already lost three from her town by then: two to disease and one to a conductor’s rifle. Sometimes she wondered how long it would be before she was the last from their little town.
(You didn’t predict your own death. It was the first step to madness, and the first thing she learned on the road.)
They were always on the move, in and out of towns. Folk talked of an army building in the north, and a desert growing to the east. Whole towns swallowed by the sands, and a man drawing every soul with a gun toward him.
The gun tribe grew, and folk started calling them quick-shots. Performers would hunt after them, and be waiting when they arrived at a town. And the townsfolk would clap when one of the others showed a feat of quickness. Elsin never participated. He stayed in the hotel on the first night, while the dark parades and the tumblers and the strange instruments came trotting by. Fireworks lit the sky, and could be seen from miles around. They were half an invitation, half a warning. Ellie sat on on the balcony with the others, chin on crossed arms, looking up at the colors.
“Do you know what’s great about this night?” said Reb the gunsmith.
“The women?” yelled someone from the back, laughing.
“The food!” said another.
“The music!” said another.
“The dancing!” said another.
They went on like that, and when they got tired of it they told stories of old wounds and dead, loyal horses and distant towns filled with strange, exotic women.
It wasn’t until Elsin had come down, standing in the doorway, that the men had quieted.
“Ellie,” he said to her, nodded his head to the stairs, “Follow me.”
The others looked at her.
She followed Elsin up the stairs and then up another flight to the roof latch. It whined, grinding with ancient gears as Elsin pushed it up, breathing hard, and she could smell the alcohol on his breath.
“Be careful,” Ellie said as Elsin walked around the edge.
He gave her a look. “Do you think this will kill me?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t think it will,” she said.
He looked down over. Green and blue and orange washed over them. The explosions above felt so close, like she could reach up and rake her fingers across the fire just once. She was fast enough, she thought.
“And you want to know how,” Elsin said.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s worth it, I think.”
“Is it?” he said.
He stumbled at the edge, knocking bits of wood off the side. “When you joined I thought you would come to grow out of it. You grow up fast on the road, you know. But you’re not going to grow out of this, are you?”
She shook her head.
“You know what you’re doing then,” he said.
“Yes,” she said.
He drew his pistol slow so Ellie could see, and then took it in his hand and pointed the muzzle at her.
“Shoot,” he said.
She drew her pistol. The fireworks burned above.
“You aren’t giving me a chance?” she said.
“I’m giving you one right now. You wanted to find out how to live forever. Some things, complicated things, aren’t so easy to give away, no matter how much you want to. Some things you’re stuck with.”
She thought at that.
“You aren’t going to get anywhere like that,” said Elsin. He cocked the hammer back. “Hesitating’s for the dead, girl.”
She felt her finger drawing the trigger back. She wanted it, she knew. Some things were worth risking over. She fired and the crack of gunshot fell in with the fireworks, and Elsin’s smile didn’t fade, even as he sailed back, off the roof, sliding into the shadows below.
There were four dead the morning after the fireworks, and Elsin was among them, pale and rigid, like all the rest. She had made sure he was dead after the fall, and in the morning again. He did not wake like she imagined. Like in the stories.
Elsin’s boys dragged his body down the roadways, past the dissolving crowds and curious strangers, and laid him down at the surgeon’s hut on a wooden sheet like the rest.
Strangest of all, no one paid Ellie any mind. It seemed almost commonplace.
They held the auction in the afternoon for Elsin’s memories, and a young man from a town bordering the Long Desert bought them for an easy sum.
“I’m going to be the quickest of all!” he yelled to his friends, who were cheering him on, clapping him on the back and shoulders, as he entered the surgeon’s hut.
Ellie didn’t know the pain they went through then. She could hear the screams coming from the surgeon’s hut that night, but never fathomed how deep things could hurt, down to the very essence. And that even a little trick of magic in the world could be ruinous, and those around it that were already caught in its orbit, whether they knew it or not, would never be able to leave, no matter how hard they tugged.
Ellie caught sight of him in the saloon that night, through the haze of smoke and candlelight and the dancers’ shadows. Elsin was in the corner, drinking alone.
“Not what you expected?” he said.
“No,” Ellie said. She slid into the wood booth across from him. “Where did you find it?”
He poured another drink. “It still hurts, you know, the bullets, the knives. You’d expected something grand, something with a bit showmanship. Sorry to disappoint.”
She didn’t know what to say.
“There it is. It’s always going to be uglier than you imagine.” He motioned toward the tables. “The others carry around memories of dead lovers, friends, family, did you know that?”
He flicked his glass toward Little Thom. “Thom’s got the rest of a woman in a jar he’s carried for five years. Long dried away, but he still carries it. That jar with the black swill and bits of gray in it? That’s her. Houser has a woman that tried to kill him–the only one he says–and Paul has his twin brothers, ready for new…hosts. For some of them, they’ll find a body to cram them into and go on a few years more, but some others have jumped too many times. When they die they can’t be brought around again. Everything wears down, eventually.
“But not me. You wanted to know the secret when you came here. Well, I don’t have it. A last bit of trickery in the world. Even a little of my memories, for quickness or health or stamina, and I take over, rip the other apart and I come back appearance and all, like I never aged a day. Like nothing had even happened.
“I’m a plague, and I can’t ever die.”
There was a woman that had come on stage and begun to sing. A song of change; a death in the Low Country. Ellie could barely see her through the smoke. Her voice carried thick across the heavy air, and Ellie knew it to be a funeral song. The saloon quieted. The funeral songs were rare. Remembrance, even a false one, was precious. Sometimes Ellie lay up at night wondering which was the worse to inhabit: the memories of someone else or the stories of so many.
Elsin took breakfast on the hotel’s patio in the early morning, and Ellie stood by the railing. A few others were there, guns holstered, waiting for trouble. He didn’t need the protection, and she had wondered about that when she had first joined, but now she figured it was just for people to be near.
This morning they looked down on a procession of horses trailing back down the roadways out of town. Riders sat slumped, tired, in their saddles. So many she couldn’t count. Another tribe had come to lay claim.
“An army,” whispered Ellie.
“Almost,” said Elsin. “Tiller’s horde.”
She could feel their hard stares on her, and everyone else on the patio. Her little tribe in the midst of all those guns.
“You don’t have to be nervous,” said Elsin.
Ellie realized she had her hand on the grip of her pistol.
“They won’t start anything yet, it’s too early.”
Elsin finished his breakfast and left her there on the patio to watch the procession, with no signs of abating. They had set camp at the far edge of town, and when night came, the campfires lit up and spread across the valley, and she knew something that perhaps those that lived long ago in their castles felt, looking down at a besieging army, and searching for the reasons not to run.
The exodus began at noon. Mothers led their children away on horse-drawn carts or on foot (horses were tough to come by so late; the smart ones had already gone, and only the stubborn remained), and there were men in the streets turning newcomers away and shouting out last requests for work.
The markets thrived then. They always did, but this was something else. Something special. Men and women coming for one last memory, one last piece of exotic fruit, one last trip behind the red door of the brothel. They always knew it wouldn’t last, but being at the edge of something was different than sighting it from afar. Now it was upon them, and they wanted to hold on for as long as they could.
Ellie walked the side streets alone, weaving between the crowds, not sure of what she was looking for. She was glad to be out in it, though. She knew soon the dark parades would come, filled with performers and dancers, and they would snake across the town, consecrating it for the fight to come. And after that, the town would be silent. One last day before the gunfire came, and the air became suffused with the smoke again.
She walked the streets tired. She had begun to dream in the night, and they woke her more often than not. Not dreams of past victories, or the stories told about her like she would have thought by now, but of home. The faraway rhythm of the mill’s gears, the sounds of a passerby on the busted cobble outside her window. Her and her mother working away while her brothers and sisters dashed through the tight hallways after each other. Her mother had taught her to clean and wash and rinse; she had learned the quickness games on her own. Her mother only read to her the stories as every child knew, the gunfighters of the old days, and the new ones too.
“You always want to make yourself presentable for them, Ellie,” her mother had told her. “Who knows, you may have storied gunmen fighting over you someday. The girls are always beautiful in the stories. You’ll live a long time like that. Yes, a long time like that.” There was a sadness in it, she remembered. She remembered never wanting to look that way.
She turned a corner away from the crowds, and found herself hungry. She found a baker on the next street, and trotted up the stairs and pushed the door open, the bells chiming above her. At the back were some of the men that had rode in. Members of the other tribe. They were a mix of hard and soft faces. Some only barely men, others were lifetimes of experience. There were others, too. A young couple taking a last breakfast at the bakery, an older man and his two daughters.
“Hello,” said the baker. “My name is Roland. Be seated anywhere you wish.”
“Or I could just leave,” Ellie said.
“No,” said one of the younger men. “Stay.” The others looked to him. He motioned to the table next to theirs.
Too many guns, thought Ellie.
“As you wish.”
The baker came with milk and a plate of fresh rolls, and she cleared the plate in only a few minutes.
“The days are quite lovely here,” said the young man. He had leaned back in his chair, a sideways grin about him. Black hair, brown eyes, no different from a thousand others. But somehow, he was.
“The dead wouldn’t agree,” Ellie said.
The baker glanced her way, nervous. She felt a bit of pity for him.
“No?” he said. “What would you know about the dead?” He rose and came around the table, dragging his fingers along the lip.
She couldn’t stop herself. The damage was done. “A thing or two.”
The young man looked up at the couple and the old man and his daughter and the baker, too. He motioned for the door. His smile was venom. “Please.”
The second they were gone, the two older men burst from their seats, half-tackling Ellie, but she’d felt it coming. She twisted down and wriggled free enough for her gun and shot one across the knee cap. She lost it in the scramble then. The weight of them crushing down on her. Fingers scrabbling against the floorboards, the wood collecting under her nails. Survival, that’s what it was about now. She thought she saw Elsin beyond the window, walking past, pretending not to see.
“I always see it,” the young man said over the noise. “The notion light in them that they could pull away, reach their gun, kill everyone.” He crouched next to her with a raised eyebrow. The two men had her firmly against the floor now. “In my experience,” he said, “They never do.”
She kicked at the wounded man’s knee holding her arms. The leeway was enough. Ellie’s hand flashed up and caught hold of his holster, tipping it for his knee, and pulled the trigger. The shot buried into his hip and bit through muscle and sinew. She tore the gun free as the man fell back. She shot the other in the eye when he came at her (only disbelief on his face, the only expression she could ever see in her dreams again), and soon it was just the young man and Ellie.
“You’ve nerve pointing it at me, girl,” he said.
“I’m leaving,” Ellie said, blood warm on her lip.
She stood slowly, backing to the door.
“You’re not,” he said.
Faster than a blink and he stood in front of her. Fast as God, she couldn’t help thinking. She popped her elbow back for a shot and drew in a quick breath, but his cold fingers were already around her wrist, and the shot went wide into glass.
His fingers locked down, squeezing her wrist. She wouldn’t let go of the pistol, so he flung her around, throwing her against the counter. Hard boots stomped down on her clinched gun hand. He dragged her to the back of the bakery, the heat from the kiln nearly unbearable even with the brass ventilation pipes chugging hard across the ceiling.
“Nobody’s gonna remember you,” he said.
“Tiller!” Ellie thought she heard Elsin. Thought she saw him in the doorway with the others, rushing toward her. It was marked in his face, the danger she was in. The fire meant nothing left to salvage. Nothing to bring back.
She felt herself tossed sideways into the kiln’s maw, and then land in the very heart of the fire.
Ellie wakes in the cold sunlight, the muscles in her gun hand clamped into a fist. It takes her a minute to work them loose.
The camp is still and quiet around her. It is early morning. Paul and the others are still asleep, the stink of several days’ travel lingering on them. She rises slowly, everything aching. She thinks of running. Thinks how easy it would be. She moves around a bit to see how her muscles would take it.
She already knows the answer. They would catch her, but not before killing the boy.
Ellie spots the leader on a rocky hillock next to the sun, and gets up quietly and walks. She takes a spot next to him on the nearest rock. He hands her his canteen.
“You’re going to kill that boy there aren’t you,” she says.
“Planned to,” says the leader.
“And me too.”
“Only need one to lead us to the crypt.” He turns to her, a strange look on his face. “You don’t recognize me do you?”
She shakes her head.
“I was there when you first killed a man,” he says.
He shakes his head.
She pinches her lips together. “Coates.”
“Yeah. That was me all right.” She passes the canteen back and he drinks. “I Don’t got no hard feelings though. My papa used to tell me the world’s got a big memory; don’t go doing nothing you can’t reconcile when the years have gone by.”
“Not the smartest man,” she says.
“How do you figure?”
“If he was he’d still be walking around.”
She passed the canteen back and he took a swig. “What makes you think he ain’t? Out there somewhere, starting fresh, a whole new life. That’s the good ending, ain’t it?”
“Maybe,” she says.
“Yeah,” he says. “I think it is.”
He looks back at the rest, still sleeping.
“We’ll have to go soon,” he says. He points to the horizon, an edge of sunlight creeping into view.
“You came back,” she says.
He nods. “I reckon it was one of them like your boy Paul there, wantin’ to dig up as many relics as possible. Sometimes you just get shot for your trouble, though.”
“You didn’t answer me fully,” she says. “From before. Are you going to kill him?”
“Maybe,” he says. “Might need him. Don’t know what’s in this burial place of yours. Don’t want to be wasting my men on surprises like traps. Violence is hard to find these days in people. We’re days gone by, you and me. A dying breed.”
“Yes,” Ellie says.
“You can’t say it’s any better, the world like this, no moving, hardly any shooting,” he says. He looks her way, the early sun on his shoulder.
“Not better,” she says. “Different maybe.”
“Worse,” he says.
He says, “I remember the gunfire outside my window like a lullaby. Back when things made sense I reckon, when you could solve things easy, quick.”
“Painful,” Ellie says.
“You’ve got a funny way of honor for the old ways.”
“New ways, old ways. There ain’t much difference but which side you fall on.”
“Maybe,” he says.
She doesn’t tell him this is what happens when the world’s hero dies a coward, like any other. When he wanted to die that way.
They sit on the rock for a few moments more, passing the canteen between them.
Ellie remembers the duel beneath the burning windmills. The flecks of ember sweeping down across their faces in the night, as if the clouds had just learned how to rain fire. The debris crashing down, and the noise. Such noise. Screams echoed out across the dark fields, calling for those that were no longer there. Those that had been burned away, leaving nothing left to salvage. The groan of burning wood. Crackles of distant gunfire. This was what made up that night.
In the center of it all she stood with Elsin, ready to follow him anywhere but into the burning doorway of the mill in front of them.
She watched as the flames licked higher and higher above them, Elsin padding his feet forward. And she thought she saw a smile cross his face, the only time.
What are you but what you can’t protect?
Ellie woke in the surgeon’s light. Her eyes watered. Awareness crept down her body, and with it, pain. She remembered the fire.
“Awake,” said a man’s voice nearby. “Early.”
She was reaching for her gun.
“It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right,” said another man’s voice.
Rough hands pressed against her skin, and the pain shot up all across her. Every movement of her skin. Every breath.
“No, Ellie, you listen to me closely,” Elsin’s face swam in and out of view. “There are no burns on your body. There’s nothing hurting you right now. Only what’s in your head.”
She could see the burns ribbed across her flesh. Saw them clear as anything. She lifted a charred arm, starting to breath heavy at the sight.
One of the others said, “No, it’s not real, girl. You come back from this, you here? There ain’t many braver than you, girl. You come back from this.”
“I see them!” she gasped.
Something had a hold of her heart, her lungs. Her chest tightened.
“You look!” Elsin shouted. Her head was yanked to the side. A window, tables and chairs in front with a pale light coming in. She was still at the bakery, but there was something different bundled on one of the tables, wrapped in cloth, with a dark red patch at the top. It was shaped like a body. Elsin had brought the surgeon to her, to the bakery; it happened only when there was nothing much left to recover, and time meant losing more.
Elsin drew his gun and said, “I shot you in the head last night with this. Your burns are there, not here. If you’re going to leave ’em behind it’s got to be now, Ellie.” She heard the click. “Can’t let you suffer like that.”
She couldn’t move. She wanted to.
The muzzle pressed cold to her forehead. “I’ll kill Tiller. I’ll kill him. Now you reach up and take this gun away from me, Ellie.”
Her hand tried to find the handle, the muzzle, anything in all that dark, but it crept in around her, and she couldn’t take any more. She fell away into a deeper sleep than she ever had before.
Ellie rides in the middle of their little caravan, the bandits on either side, in front and behind, and it reminds her of the traveling shows. The line between performer and killer was always just for appearances. So the crowd felt safe enough to let their guard down for the surprises to come.
Paul rides beside her. Their hands are left unbound. The only thing marking them as prisoners are the pistols absent from their holsters. They travel the broken lands, cracked by the heat, so near the desert.
“You’d better not be leading us on,” Coates says at times. But other than that he keeps quiet, content to listen to the others as they whistle the old traveling songs. Every day they get closer to Elsin’s tomb, and Ellie can feel something tugging at her.
“I lied to you once,” Paul says one afternoon. The air grows cold as the sun dies, and he’s wrapped himself in a riding shawl.
“Probably more than that,” Ellie says.
“Just the once,” says Paul. He tries to keep his voice low enough to escape from earshot, but loud enough not to arouse suspicion. “I lied when I said I bought a memory of you.”
“It’s all right.”
“I’ve bought many of his memories.”
Ellie shrugs, “People do.”
“You don’t understand,” Paul says. There is a glint to his glasses she doesn’t like. “I have all of them. His childhood, his training, the days he spent before he met you. The only one I don’t have is that one day. The day of the windmills. Of the fires. Of Tiller and the whole mess that changed things.”
“Must’ve taken a long time for that.”
“You think it’s buried with him,” Ellie says. Not a condemnation, or a revelation. Simply fact.
“I should be him by now,” Paul says. “I’ve gotten them all. But that one day must be the key.”
Ellie motions to the men of the column. “You think they’ll just let you take it for yourself?”
“I think they’ll rejoice when they realize Elsin has come back to lead them out of this miserable existence.”
She can see why she nearly liked him. Why she didn’t let him die so many times when she could have. His movements, his smile. All but a step away from Elsin’s. A shadow, a flawed copy; nothing more.
They camp that night on a bluff overlooking the desert, and Ellie tells them tomorrow they will be there. Coates tells them tomorrow will be the day they won’t have to scratch a living anymore, robbing petty merchants and huntsman. She figures it a lie. Take the money, kill the rest. Sometimes habits are harder to break, even through lifetimes. Even for the world.
Ellie lay awake under the stars. They flicker endlessly, and she thinks it may be the last time she sees them. For a little while at least.
Most of a person’s days were traded away for food or for horses or alcohol or a little extra money. The mundane, the commonplace, or the painful were cut away for the essentials. Survival, that’s what it was about. So it was that, looking back, most of a person’s life was a patchwork affair. Those days that remained whole were kept for a reason.
Ellie had traded most of her old life away. It happened in increments, too slow to notice. A war of attrition, one life overlapping another. Now she could barely remember the sounds of the mill at the river back home, or the smell of the baker’s chimney. One man had bought her memories of the kiln to help not burn his hands as much, to speed up the learning process and impress his boss. A woman bought childhood days from her to replace her own of a mother that was never there.
When she came to again, Ellie lay on a table in the surgeon’s hut, unmoving. The ceiling was just boards stacked over one another, nailed together, and painted to look as if care had been taken. The rain still dribbled in, though. Drops hit beside her head sometimes, and a puddle had begun to form, catching some of her hair in it as it grew.
But it wasn’t her hair. She didn’t have to remind herself of it. The color was wrong. The feel of it. She took a long time to sit up, and then to walk. But she did. Survival, that’s what it was about.
The day of the burning windmills Ellie stepped from the surgeon’s hut, covering up in her new clothes against the rain, making her way back to the hotel.
Ellie stood in the doorway to Elsin’s room. He was seated on his bed, watching strangers pass below.
“Why didn’t you kill me,” she said.
“I didn’t have to–” he said.
Elsin looked at her over his shoulder.
Ellie said, “You took one look at me and knew I couldn’t take it. Some people can, being put somewhere else like that. If it would’a been anybody else–”
“I would’ve pulled the trigger. That’s right.”
“I needed someone I could trust for this.”
Elsin said, “I need someone for when I’m gone.”
“You should have put me out of my misery. My story was good enough to die there, killed by Tiller.”
Elsin said, “Maybe.”
“You selfish prick,” she said. “You put us in front of Tiller’s army for yourself. So you could die? You don’t know what you’ve signed me up for.”
“I’ll be gone soon,” he said. “You’re going to have to take over. The boys are gonna–”
“You’re here forever,” she said. It was the most hurtful thing she could think of. The look on his face told her that it had worked. A flash of pain. She turned and walked for the door.
“Not forever,” she heard Elsin say.
It started at sundown.
The signal was raised on the tallest building: a collection of spare wood tacked together and burned, visible for miles around.
There were no parades, no strange instruments, and no help coming. No one came close to Tiller’s horde without being made a part of it. It was as close an army as you could come to in the Low Country.
Ellie watched from the hotel’s roof. Tiller’s men filled the streets, pouring over abandoned merchant carts and stands and into shops and stores that had not been fully cleaned out. Some shot their pistols into the air, hollering in her direction. She rested her elbows on the overhang and watched on.
Reb came up the steps behind her.
“He’s gone,” he said.
“Elsin,” Ellie said.
“He’s going to fight Tiller by himself,” Ellie said.
“That’s right,” said Reb.
“Do you know where?” she asked him, and he pointed to the outline of the mills beyond the town. The only part of them still visible were the dark blades rotating against the horizon.
The desert had done its work well. They have to dig at the sand for hours before it is pushed back enough to enter the cave. Ellie and Paul are made to dig, and by the time they are finished their muscles are drained and their mouths parched.
Coates points to three of his men and says, “Stay here.” He gives them his canteen and goes into the entrance, followed by the others.
They walk for a long time. Stalactites hang above them. The ground is uneven. Ellie tries not to fall.
“It’s longer than I remember,” Ellie says. She half-smiles to Paul, but he is consumed in thought.
Coates says, “We can start up again if you’d like, after this of course. You know, the way it was before, traveling around town to town.”
“Those days are over,” Ellie says.
“New can resemble old,” Coates says.
“Not when the world’s died,” Ellie says.
“That’s a shame.”
“You weren’t about to have me around anyway. For what? Some old lady hangin’ around, slowin’ everything down? No, that’s not it at all.”
“You’ve got a point,” Coates says.
Paul says, ”We’re getting close. I can feel it.”
“I reckon,” says Coates.
Up ahead they find a door hewn into the stone with a small window slit cut into it near the top.
Coates says, “The boy goes first.”
Paul steps forward. He hesitates a moment, looking back at them, but it is only a formality. He wants it as much as they do, she knows. He places a palm on the handle and waits, glancing around. The door comes open, cracking like the sound of bones.
She brought seven others from the hotel and slipped down the roadways out of town. They found Elsin on the hill by the windmills. Tiller was in front, a retinue of half a dozen behind him, and a half dozen more around the base of the mill, lighting it with torches. The flames had only begun to catch. Ellie and the others took their place behind Elsin.
“Look there, the burned girl,” Tiller said with a smile. “You all can be our witnesses then. We’re going to settle this in the oldest of ways.”
“Not a way I know of,” Ellie said.
“There’s always something older than what you know,” said Elsin.
Tiller said, “He challenged and I accepted.”
“But,” Ellie said, “You’re going to duel in there.”
“Yes,” Elsin said.
“The loser burns and is forgotten forever,” Tiller said. “Nothing will remain.”
Ellie drew her gun before she knew what she was doing. It wasn’t like the duels in the streets, or hunkered down behind a couch or table. She felt bare, alone.
Elsin said, “Don’t.”
“It’s not done yet,” said Ellie. She raised her gun at Tiller.
“You aren’t beholden to it. You can still come away.”
There was a pause.
Elsin said, “I won’t.”
“You’ve made up my mind at this,” Ellie said.
She turned the gun on him. “I could shoot you here. Haul you away.”
“You could,” Elsin said.
The moment hung there, the flames out of their infancy, climbing higher.
Ellie turned the gun back to Tiller. She pulled the trigger back, and let the bullet fly. One of Tiller’s men jumped in the way, and it struck the man’s side, taking the breath out of him so only a grunt remained. Other shots rang out, zipping past her. There was a scream behind her as someone went down.
She was running toward them in the midst of the bullets. She shot a man in the shoulder and another in the leg. The fire climbed higher on the windmills and she could almost see clearly between the flickers of light and the muzzle flashes. A man with a scar across his lip came at her with a knife and she shot his kneecap, and then the shin. He grabbed her and his weight pushed her to the ground.
Tiller still had his smile on as he strolled away toward the windmill’s door.
“You’re fucking dead, you hear,” spat the man on top of her.
She knew the rest of them would be coming soon to kill her off. Easy prey was always the first to go. She remembered the bakery. Survival. She grabbed his wrist and bit into it, feeling bone, the joint against her teeth. There was an opening for only a moment, and she pressed the gun up under his chin and pulled the trigger.
When she got up she ran toward the door, where Elsin was standing, ready to go in.
Through the haze of smoke and ember, he looked back at her.
She said, looking at the flames, “Not going in there. Not again.”
“I know,” he said.
“You want to leave that bad?”
“It’s not about want. You’ll understand some day.”
She didn’t say anything back.
Elsin turned. He produced something from his pocket, a scrap of paper, and said, “I want you to have something. I figured I’d let it burn with me. Had this planned for a long time now, but I think you can have it.”
He had to get close to hand it to her, and when he did, she kissed him once, and then again.
He didn’t say anything more. There was nothing to say. He turned and walked through the flames to die one more time.
Coates knows it first, and Ellie can tell.
Around the small stone room behind the stone door, there is nothing but empty shelves, empty coffers, empty everything. No vault, no treasure, no Elsin.
It takes them a second, but still too late. Ellie snatches a pistol from a holster (a last bit of quickness) and fires a shot into Coates’ chest, then one for the next man nearest him.
A shot goes off behind her, hits her in the back. The room swims. She keeps her arms up like the schoolhouses used to teach. Arms up, still fighting. Arms down, dead standing. She compensates. She fires on the run, pulls down one of the shelves and uses it as cover to reload. She scrounges for ammo in a dead man’s pockets and comes up firing again. Another goes down. The noise is deafening across the ancient walls. Paul is on top of a bloody-faced man, pounding his fists into him.
Ellie gets hit in the leg, and she fires again at Coates, who is on the ground, bleeding but still alive. One more takes him down. He lay back, slack jawed at last.
Another shot to the head and the last of them dies. The room settles into a quiet except for Paul’s labored breathing, still beating away at the man.
“Paul,” Ellie wheezes.
He stops for a moment. Sees her wounds. He calculates while looking at her, some unknown formula.
Ellie props herself up on a wall, barely able to stand. “They’ll be more coming. Take the gun, wait by the door. You know how to do it.”
Paul says, “I was always scared to hold a gun before I got all of his memories.”
“The ones you have’ll do.”
He waits by the door and when the other three come, the shots are precise, deadly. She watches him work, and almost believes Elsin is there again. It is so very close.
When it’s done and the rest are lying dead in the hall, he drops the gun and strides across the room toward her.
“It was a lie then,” he says. “There’s nothing here.”
“No, I never opened it. The piece of paper that Elsin gave me was a location, here. This is where he found the trick.”
“But you found it, the show, you can’t die,” Paul says.
“No, padded vest. Only a little puncture, a little blood.”
He looks as if he understands. Quicker than she thought.
“That’s a lie, too,” Paul says. “You’re stalling. You’re going to tell me.” He picks up the gun. Puts it to her head. Draws in close.
“You want this, to always come back?”
He brings the hammer back. “I’ve come a long way. This is my last chance. No more transfers for me. Everyone can feel it, too. People are scared. There’s something leaving this place that let us cheat death for so long.”
“Yes,” she says.
He doesn’t see the knife she has until it’s too late. She is fast for a moment more, and the blade slides past his skin, into his heart.
Blood trickles from his mouth.
A shot goes off. The bullet hits her shoulder.
“It’s a terrible burden,” she whispers. “You don’t know what it did to him, to me, even if you can see what happened and have the knowledge, you still can’t feel it.
“The reason is you don’t have the memory of the burning windmills. Of the kiss we shared. We fell in love right there, and things like that change you. That’s why you’re not him.
“You’re more like Tiller than you are Elsin, you know.”
The knife comes loose and Paul staggers back, drops to his knees. He tries to raise the gun but can’t.
Ellie pushes off from the wall and hobbles for the door.
“Aren’t you…going to bring me back?” Paul says. “I can be him again.”
“No,” she says. “The time for that sort of thing has passed. We’re rare breeds now.”
Paul’s shoulders slump. His chin touches his neck. He says, “I can be him…I can be him for you.”
Ellie closes the stone door behind her and walks on toward the desert light, using the wall to guide her.
The shop is set out of the way for a reason. A squat building tucked in the back of an alley, with a borrowed driftwood sign out front, swinging in the low breeze. In past the door, the shelves are filled with jars of all sizes. Some large or small, with black swill, or dark gray, or brown, or even white. There is a counter with an old register on top (it hasn’t worked for years), and behind it there are more jars filled with deeper, older liquids, clumpy and sodden.
Sometimes young men enter–the bells chiming sweetly–with a notion of what they’re looking for. Sometimes they wander in on accident, and sometimes they know what they’ve come for. But they’ve all heard the stories. The duels at noon. The guns. The memories.
But all they find is a museum from another time, jars of strange liquids with pieces of gray or brown floating inside, and an impossibly old woman standing behind the counter.
She says to them like a performer, “I may never die. Take all the time you need.”(The traveling shows have long dried up. Too few now.)
But they never buy. They come only to look on for awhile, to wonder what may lie in each jar, and then trudge back out into their world, safe again.
At night the old woman plays the quickness games in the courtyards by the fire alone. She thinks this is the town she was born in, but she can’t be sure anymore. She recognizes buildings at times. A hint of a face, a familiar gesture here or there. But only guesses.
The young men prowl the roadways and the courtyards around her looking for girls. They pay her no mind. They holler at the windows with the women on display, and when the doors are opened, the music from the pianos comes rolling out onto the street, soft and tired. New songs that she doesn’t know.
She sleeps above the shop, and the days add to one another, over and again. She sweeps the floors in the morning. In the evening, she goes to the market and then on to the well. It is slow at first. But she starts to learn the new songs, the new ways. She goes to the bonfire celebrations and watches the fireworks light the sky. She dances by the fire with the rest. She starts again.
She goes on.
Copyright 2014 John M. Shade.
John M. Shade lives in Houston, Texas and has had work appear in Daily Science Fiction and Everyday Weirdness. He attends the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program in creative writing, and is at work on his first novel, and a graphic novel.