Fiction


by Patricia Russo

Mother Roughcoat lived in a one-room shack in the center of the city. She wasn’t, and never had been, anybody’s mother, but because she was older than the municipal hall, or looked it–in truth, she looked older than the Foundation Fountain, and that thing was crumbling to sand–people called her Mother out of an old-fashioned sort of politeness. The Roughcoat part came from her attire, a formidable piece of old tech that nobody really believed could possibly work anymore, a personal protection device of great gray and bristly ugliness that covered her from neck to knees. The chances of there being any poison left in those spines, or any charge remaining in the stun-spikes, was infinitesimal, but folks gave Mother Roughcoat her space. Just in case.

Aunt Far Away lived a considerable distance from town, out in the sticks in the back of the boonies, miles and leagues and long muddy stretches from where the streetcar route ended. Not that she ever took the streetcar. Aunt Far Away walked everywhere, slowly and steadily, with a rucksack on her back and a pouch tied around her middle. People could always tell when she was coming, because Aunt Far Away liked to sing. Loudly. The fact that her singing sounded very much like cracked shrieks stitched together by gasps never stopped her. Folks put up with the singing. She was family, or family to someone they knew. Over the years, Aunt Far Away had accumulated many, many brothers and sisters (of the chosen kin sort), and therefore many, many brothers-and-sisters-in-law, and consequently many, many nieces and nephews. And grandnieces and grandnephews. You had to be polite to your relatives, if you didn’t want people to think you were a total asshole. Folks also put up with the singing for another reason. Since Aunt Far Away walked everywhere, she saw many things and heard a lot of news, and once you got her to take her rucksack off, sit down, and have a cup of tea or three, she was always happy to kick off a story-telling session, and Aunt Far Away was a good storyteller. She always made sure that everybody was clear about when she was recounting something she had seen herself, and when she was passing along a tale, or anecdote, or bit of rumor or gossip, that she had been told. People looked forward to her visits.

Now all of this takes place after the gods who made nice things for the city had taken themselves off somewhere else, so there was a lot of grumbling and muttering and yearning for the old days. Mother Roughcoat, even though she never removed her personal security suit (people figured she slept in it, and as for washing, it was clear as soon as you got within a couple of meters that Mother Roughcoat didn’t), wouldn’t hold with such talk. The old days are gone, she said. The old stories don’t do anybody any good. People have to live in the here and now, and if they don’t like it, the least they could do was keep their mouths shut and not spread the misery around. Mother Roughcoat’s suit might not have had any juice in it any longer, but if she wanted to she could make the spines quiver and the spikes spring up (bioelectrics, that was, said folks in the know, or who claimed to be in the know, powered by a tiny charge drawn from her own skin), and when she did that, cheap trick or not, folks took to nodding fast and agreeing quick.

Aunt Far Away had nothing against a good grumble. She was a cheerful sort herself, but she never begrudged anyone else having a bit of a moan. She would sit and sip her tea (if there was any tea to be had), and listen. People did seem to feel better once they’d told their stories, and cried a little, and smashed an old framed photograph, or thrown a plate against a wall, or punched a dead com screen.

On most sunny and not too chilly days, when the sky was a tranquil hue and no uproar beyond the usual was going on (no new building fallen over, no blight suddenly appearing on the greenstuff in the roof gardens, no reports of decades-old roads dissolving into muck and crumbs of tar), Mother Roughcoat would sit outside her shack, on a three-legged stool, with her hands folded her in lap and a little smile on her star-burned face. Everybody knew that this was Mother Roughcoat’s way of signifying that she wanted company. Mother Roughcoat was a neighbor it was important to keep on the good side of, so folks would gather behind a shed or inside a courtyard and draw lots. Or play rock-paper-scissors. Or simply argue until someone gave in and sighed, “All right, all right, already. I’ll do it.” Everybody else would also sigh, in relief. “Brave fellow.” “Good woman.” “Better you than me.”

Aunt Far Away walked to the center of the city sometimes. Every pair of months or so, one of her meandering routes would circle around this and about that and cut through that other stretch, and end up in the middle. The people there were as eager for news as those in any other district or region, and they smiled more than most, so Aunt Far Away was always sorry when she had distressing information to impart.

That day, she found that she didn’t have the heart for singing.

It took folks a while to notice.

The center of the city was the most densely populated area. It was the place where the old gods who made nice things had bestowed many of their gifts: shade trees that bore fruit three seasons of the year, self-repairing bricks, kind bees, and a park that once provided endless hours of entertainment for both children and adults. Ever since the fountain had crumbled, the park wasn’t used very much, but it was still as green as ever, and that was something. The residents of the city’s central neighborhood counted their blessings.

Mother Roughcoat was an anomaly. How she had come to live there, nobody knew. And where that shack had come from, built of scraps of this and scrag-ends of that, with no windows and one door that had once obviously belonged to a garden shed, was a mystery. The walls were plywood and tarpaper, and the roof was planks tacked down haphazardly, covered with plastic sheeting tied down with twine. And the interior – reported the neighbors who had accepted Mother Roughcoat’s occasional offers of refreshment and conversation – was tacked all over with plastic as well. More intriguingly, the shack was crammed with wooden chests and metal caskets and boxes of all sorts. Mother Roughcoat was clearly rich. She might not have been born in this neighborhood, and she certainly had an abrasive personality, but nobody ever dared to treat her with anything other than respect, at least to her face.

Now, for years Aunt Far Away had tried to be friendly toward Mother Roughcoat, waving whenever she walked by her shack. Mother Roughcoat never waved back. In fact, Aunt Far Away was sure that the bristly-suited woman sitting in front of her lashed-together hut sneered at her every time she waved. Glowered. Scowled. Even, once, Aunt Far Away would swear, stuck out her tongue.

Mother Roughcoat’s attitude presented an obstacle, because today Aunt Far Away needed to speak to her urgently.

Even though Aunt Far Away did not sing as she made her way toward Mother Roughcoat’s shack, and didn’t walk with her usual jaunty air, eventually folks did spot her and begin to call out greetings. They expected her to smile; they expected her to shout back cheerfully, to toss out a teaser or two for the tales that were to come, to joke that there had better be plenty of tea on hand, and biscuits, too, if they wanted to hear her first-rate stuff. Aunt Far Away tried to smile, but she had never been very good at dissembling. People glanced at each other. Some began to follow her, slowly, keeping their distance, their faces anxious. Parents sent their children inside. Others, the bravest ones, or the most eager, called, “Is it bad news? Aunt Far Away, is it very bad?”

There were always some who were keen to hear the grimmest reports. Aunt Far Away found it hard not to chide them, particularly when they giggled. She did not think anybody would laugh this time. She did not bring rumors of a fresh bloodfeud between the six-fingered lot that had taken to what was left of the woods (or what was returning to woods) and their usual trading partners downstream, who were still doing their damnedest to levy tolls on anybody traveling on what they considered to be their section of the river. (She had heard such a rumor, complete with claims that a six-fingers had been drowned, and a child of the river country had had her eyes torn out in revenge, but that was not the tale Aunt Far Away meant to tell today.) She did not carry a story of huge and terrible worms chewing and writhing in the red clay far beneath the foundations of the city, growing larger and stronger and hungrier with each passing month, until the time came when they would rise to the surface and devour them all. Aunt Far Away had told that story to great effect at a housewarming party just the other week, taking care to ensure that everyone present, drunk or sober, was clear about the fact that it was only a tale, an invented entertainment. She was not going to be giving that tale today, either.

The people following Aunt Far Away began to guess where she was heading, and she heard a susurrus of curiosity and concern swell up behind her. She took a quick glance over her shoulder. Twenty or so folks were trailing her, still at a cautious distance. Twenty was a good number to sit and hear stories, to drink tea and laugh and exclaim, to relax and exchange news of their own. Twenty, she thought, might also be a good number to witness what she had come to tell Mother Roughcoat. She doubted the presence of an audience would make the bristly old creature behave herself, but sticks and stones, as the old saying went. The important thing was that witnesses would ensure that what passed between them could not be kept secret. There were times for secrets, but this was not one of them.

Though it was not a particularly fine day, the sky overcast and with more than a hint of wet in the air, Mother Roughcoat was sitting outside on her three-legged stool. The expression on her face was not welcoming. Aunt Far Away had heard of Mother Roughcoat’s periodic longings for company; she found such a desire perfectly natural, though she felt sorry so many folks considered it a chore that must be performed in order to keep Mother Roughcoat pacified. “What does she talk about?” Aunt Far Away had asked a group of news-listeners once, when one of them complained that he’d had to sit with Mother Roughcoat and drink her hooch for hours the day before, and had a hell of a headache weighing on him in consequence. “The old days,” people said.

“About the gods that made nice things for the city?”

“No. About how she used to be rich and had lots of nice things for herself.”

Then, of course, somebody asked, as someone always did whenever the gods that made nice things were mentioned, if Aunt Far Away thought they would ever come back. No, she said, as she always did. New things would come, though. Why, look around yourselves, she said. Hadn’t dozens, hundreds, of new things already come into the world?

“But they aren’t nice things.”

“It’s all a matter of how you look at it. The sky sculptures the pigeons create in the spring, they’re very pretty, aren’t they? And what about this tea, right here? We never had this sort of tea before. I don’t think any of you are old enough to remember that when that little blue-leafed bush started growing, here, there, and everywhere, people didn’t know what to think. They were afraid it was a weed that would run wild, invade their gardens, choke their crops. They were even afraid it was poisonous. Oh yes, they were. And see?” Aunt Far Away took a sip from her cup. “Perfectly nice.”

She felt it was her duty to say those sorts of things, when people got depressed or angry about the old days being gone, especially young folks who had no knowledge of what the old days had really been like. A pernicious nostalgia was worse than religion, in Aunt Far Away’s opinion.

As Aunt Far Away approached, Mother Roughcoat’s expression, which had started as a scowl, deepened into a glare. All the spines and spikes and needles of her suit were twitching. She looked like a great angry porcupine, Aunt Far Away thought, if porcupines wore boots and smelled of decades of dirt and liquor. Aunt Far Away checked again to see how many folks were trailing her. Not so many as before, not twenty or so. Perhaps ten or twelve. Aunt Far Away hoped that no more would melt away.

“What do you want?”

It was good that Mother Roughcoat had spoken first. Aunt Far Away smiled, and inclined her head. She felt very little desire to smile, but the forms of friendliness were her own suit, her second skin between her and the world. “I bring news.”

“Go take it somewhere else.”

“It is grave news.”

“I don’t want any.”

Behind her, Aunt Far Away heard the murmurs rise again. Grave news, grave news.

“On Hinson Street, there is a tree,” Aunt Far Away said.

Mother Roughcoat’s suit bristled. She looked away, then said, mockingly, “Once upon a time, there were three little princesses who lived in a red house on a hill.”

“The tree cracked, and a bird flew out.”

Mother Roughcoat jerked her chin dismissively.

“The bird flew away, but the crack is still there. The tree is gone, but the crack is still there. The crack grows larger by the hour.”

“Aunt Far Away, Aunt Far Away!” The people who had followed her to Mother Roughcoat’s shack had not moved closer. They stayed a good ten meters back. Some of them, she saw, were holding hands. “Is that a true news?”

“Yes. I would say you may go to Hinson Street to see for yourselves, but I think it is best for everyone to keep away from there. The crack is very wide now, and stretches up to the clouds.”

“I suppose swarms of monsters are clambering through this crack, eating babies and slaughtering the chickens?”

“No monsters.” Aunt Far Away looked back at the people listening. “This I saw myself. This is not a tale I was told. There are no monsters coming through the crack.”

“Not yet,” Mother Roughcoat muttered.

“And you wonder why people find it such a chore to visit with you.”

“I don’t.” Mother Roughcoat’s lips twitched. “Wonder.”

“A bird flew out,” Aunt Far Away said. “It was a small bird, with gray feathers. It circled the crack where the tree had been, and circled it again. When it flew behind the crack, it disappeared from sight. Do you understand what I am saying?”

“Not a word.”

“It landed on my shoulder, and whispered in my ear.” Aunt Far Away turned, so that the people behind her could see her face. “The bird said that a great storm had shaken and quaked its world, a storm without rain or thunder or wind, and a thousand cracks had broken the earth and the sky, and now, in its world, there was almost no air left to breathe. To save themselves, the people had settled themselves into sleep, underground.”

“These people being birds.”

“Different worlds, different people.”

Mother Roughcoat snorted. “Different birds, too. This one didn’t go to sleep, eh? You’re telling us it went on a tour-of-ten-worlds instead.”

“Tour of ten worlds,” Aunt Far Away repeated, softly.

“It’s just an expression.”

“You remember.”

“Old stories. Nobody really believed them. Except the same fools who believed in gods that made nice things for the city.” Mother Roughcoat touched the collar of her suit. “It was only ever us, who made the nice things and the cruel things and the useful things and the silly things.”

“There are ten worlds,” Aunt Far Away said to those who were listening, who had not fled, and they nodded eagerly.

“There might be a hundred. There might be a thousand.” Mother Roughcoat stamped her foot, and all the spikes and spines of her suit leapt into warding mode. “Why are you bothering me with this nonsense? If you think I’ve got a load of cryogenic cylinders tucked away in the cellar, you’re more crack-minded than I imagined. I don’t even have a cellar.”

“The bird told me that its people had made the wrong decision by making themselves sleep. The cracks in its world have continued to grow. When they wake, if they wake, it will be to devastation.”

“Quite a chatty little bird.”

“It wanted someone to know, and to remember them, its world, its people. That’s why it flew through the crack. Our crack, the one on Hinson Street. That one was different, it said. It did not suck air from its world. The other cracks lead to nothing, it thinks. The space between the stars, perhaps. Not one of the ten worlds. It plunged into ours, hoping to find friends.”

The listeners had crept a bit closer. “Where is the little gray bird now?” a pinched-faced man asked.

“On my shoulder.”

Mother Roughcoat laughed.

The listeners did not.

“Is it still talking to you?” Mother Roughcoat asked.

“No. Not since I left Hinson Street.”

“May that be a lesson to you. Even imaginary friends will let you down.”

“The bird told me,” Aunt Far Away said, more loudly, “that the crack on Hinson Street may be just the first. It would take masses of people to seal it, and they would have to do that with their own bodies. If the crack is not closed, the air, and light, and life, from our world will seep into it, and though this might take ten seasons, or fifty, in time everything that is in our world will bleed into its, which will not help the people there at all, as none of their cracks has been closed, and so whatever trickles into it rushes out again almost at once.”

“There is no bird on your shoulder.”

“There is,” a thick-necked woman called out. “I can see it. It has a short blue beak, and skinny black toes.”

Mother Roughcoat looked at Aunt Far Away. “See what you’ve done. So, will you lead these fools to Hinson Street, gathering more and more along the way, and cheer them all on as they jump into this crack of yours?”

“It does have a blunt blue beak, and thin, well, toes isn’t the right word. Claws, isn’t it? And it is sitting on my shoulder, on the strap of my rucksack, to be precise, and it is exuding sadness the way a cradlewood tree sweats bitterness. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And no, haven’t I told them all to stay away from Hinson Street?”

“Which shoulder?”

Aunt Far Away looked at Mother Roughcoat for a long time. “No,” she said at last. “You will not harm it.”

“It’s your friend now, I suppose.”

“Yes.”

“Have you adopted it yet? Oh, no, you don’t do that. You just collect play-siblings.”

“Will you listen to me? We cannot seal the crack. The cost is much too high. And there may be more, the bird says. So we must do another thing.” She turned again to the listeners. “Pay heed, now, pay heed. There is a thing we must do.”

They edged closer. “Yes, Aunt Far Away. Yes. Yes.” The woman who claimed she could see the bird was in the lead now, squeezing hands and patting shoulders.

“You and the bird,” Mother Roughcoat said.

“You and I,” Aunt Far Away replied. “We must begin it.”

“Go away now,” Mother Roughcoat said. “Go away to your Far Away place, and leave me in peace. I’m tired. I’m going to take a nap.”

“We have to build a door.”

“There are carpenters who will do that, for a pot of soup and half a kilo of scrap metal. Or, in your case, maybe even for a story about three little princesses who lived in a red house on top of a hill.”

“You know the sort of door I mean.”

“What sort, Aunt Far Away?” called the pinch-faced man.

“I know,” said the woman who could see the bird. “A door out of this world. Not a crack, but a door.”

“Yes,” said Aunt Far Away. The bird whispered, and automatically she cocked her head. She noticed Mother Roughcoat’s eyes narrow. She knew which shoulder the bird sat on, now. Aunt Far Away whistled softly: take care.

The pinched-faced man said, “Must we leave this world, then? Is that the only way to be safe?”

“The kind of doors this mad old woman is babbling about do not exist,” Mother Roughcoat said. “Never existed.” She paused. “And there is no safety.”

“There were doors, in the old days,” Aunt Far Away said. “That is how it came to be known that there are ten worlds. Ten worlds where people – different worlds, different people – live. That is how the bird knew that this world, our world, is the fourth in the chain. Its world is the ninth. They had doors, too, but the cracks swallowed them all.” She listened again. “The crack in Hinson Street felt to it like a door twisted inside out. It thinks the crack from its world engulfed an old door in this one. We cannot use it, because it would take us only to the ninth world. We must build a new one.”

“To take us – and you are very free with the word us, aren’t you, Far Away? – where? To the third world, which is desert, or the fifth, which is tower upon tower of glass, or the tenth, where the people, if you can call them that, fight war after war, with stone weapons and pointed sticks hardened in flint-struck fires?”

“Those tales are a hundred years old. Many things change in a hundred years. Haven’t many things changed here, in less time than that?”

“But to leave our world,” the pinched-faced man said. “I don’t think I could.”

“Let us build the door,” Aunt Far Away said. “Then each can chose, to stay or go. No one will be forced. But would you deny others the choice?”

“Your bird is talking again,” Mother Roughcoat said, and she was staring directly at it.

“It asks why you are so afraid.”

“It has a shifty look. I suspect it made that crack itself.”

Aunt Far Away did not believe Mother Roughcoat could actually see the bird. “The bird flew a long and arduous way to warn us.”

“Brave bird!” the people cried, and some began to applaud.

“Do not be sad,” said the woman who could see it. “We will be your friends.”

“Enemies may come in innocent guises,” Mother Roughcoat said.

“And the strong in weak ones,” said Aunt Far Away. “And fear in angry ones. Take off your suit. A door has many parts. I will make one. You will make another. Two parts will allow us to fashion a third. And three parts will point us to the fourth.”

“From my suit? Make a door from my suit?”

“A small part. The smallest part, if that is all you can bear.”

Mother Roughcoat stood up from her three-legged stool. “I will kill you now.”

“You will not,” said the woman who could see the bird, and she walked up to Mother Roughcoat and put her arms around her. All the spikes and spines and needles of her suit were raised, but when the woman embraced Mother Roughcoat, she did not cry out, though Mother Roughcoat shoved against her, driving the points into her skin. The woman was broad and strong, and held on tight. Aunt Far Away saw a flash of panic cross Mother Roughcoat’s face.

“No one must be forced,” Aunt Far Away said.

“I am not forcing her. I am hugging her.”

“You will not take my suit!” Mother Roughcoat cried.

“No one will take your suit,” Aunt Far Away said.

“Let go of me!” Mother Roughcoat pushed the woman hard, making her stagger. “Idiocy atop idiocy! Lies stacked on lies!”

“This is no lie,” Aunt Far Away said, and gestured to the woman to move away from Mother Roughcoat. Before she did so, the woman dipped her head down and kissed Mother Roughcoat on the cheek. When she stepped back, her skin was dotted with drops of blood, but she did not wince, or wipe them away, or appear to care about them at all.

“Look,” Aunt Far Away said, coming closer. She held out her hands.

“No.”

“Look. I’ve already made a start on my part.”

“What’s that? That is nothing. It is a length of dry bone.”

“It is my bone, from my body, and I will shape it into a doorknob.”

“Lies.”

“Touch it. Touch it and tell me that I lie.”

Mother Roughcoat did not move. “You are a fool. Doors are exits, but entrances as well. Open one, and you have no way of knowing what will come inside.”

“Both exits and entrances are necessary.”

“You don’t know how to make a doorknob.”

“I will learn.”

“May you use up every bone in your body, and die as a sack of pus and fat.”

Aunt Far Away felt the bird launch itself from her shoulder. She locked her eyes on those of the woman who could see the bird. With relief, she saw that the woman understood. The woman said, casually, “If Aunt Far Away uses up all her bones, then I offer mine. And you, Mother Roughcoat, no one is asking for your bones, but only a scrap of old tech.”

The bird landed on Mother Roughcoat’s head, and Mother Roughcoat screamed.

“It won’t hurt you!” Aunt Far Away cried. She slid her bone back into the belt-pouch she had taken it from. There were other items in that pouch, as well, some of which the bird had led her to. And in turn, she had led the bird to Mother Roughcoat. There are two of us in this city who can try to do what you advise, she had told it. I am one, and I will take you to the other. And the bird had trusted her, and ridden on her shoulder the whole long way to Mother Roughcoat’s shack.

The courageous, the curious, the people who had followed, and who had stayed through the telling and the showing, did not run. Ten or twelve of them, the best in the city, Aunt Far Away thought. Or the best in the city on that day, on that path she had taken, at that hour of the afternoon. Terrified, magnificent people. Aunt Far Away was very proud of them.

And the bird, which had battled its way here from the ninth world, a world now lost to it, except as a grave, which had every reason in the universe to be brusque or impatient, or burning with fury, or insane with grief, did not scratch with its claws or stab with its beak or flap its strong wings in Mother Roughcoat’s face. It perched on her head lightly, enduring her screams, ignoring the attempts she made to bat it off. Aunt Far Away loved that bird, that stranger, that lost and caring soul, more at that moment than she had ever loved her very, very favorite brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces. She grabbed Mother Roughcoat’s wrists before she could try to hit the bird again.

“All it wants to do is to tell you something.”

“Get it off me! Get it the fuck off me!”

“You can’t see it, can you, but you can feel it. So you can’t deny it’s real.”

“I can deny anything I damn well like!”

“Mother Roughcoat, listen, please. I think you will be able to understand the bird’s words.”

Aunt Far Away nodded to the bird, which bobbed its small gray head in response.

The bird whispered. Mother Roughcoat listened, a sour expression on her face. A young woman tugged at Aunt Far Away’s sleeve. “Is it talking?”

“Shh.”

“What is it saying?”

“Shhh!” the others admonished her, and the pinched-faced man pulled her back.

Mother Roughcoat looked like she wanted to spit. Spit acid, if she could have. The bird bobbed its head a final time, and flew to perch again on Aunt Far Away’s shoulder.

And Mother Roughcoat picked up her stool, went inside her shack, and shut the door.

“Aunt Far Away?”

“Come,” she said. “We need to give her time to think. Will one of you put me up for the night?”

“Of course.”

“Gladly.”

“My home is yours.”

“She’s going to sit in there and get drunk, and won’t come out for days,” the woman who could see the bird said.

“If that’s what she does, then that’s what she does. Meanwhile, we can begin our own work.” She laid a hand on her pouch. “I will continue to fashion the knob. And you, you can warn people about Hinson Street, tell them the news – but tell it true and plain – and see if we can get any old engineers or tech collectors to come along and share some tips, or maybe even a tool or five. And dear heaven, what I wouldn’t give for a cup of tea.”

They gave her tea, and they gave her stew, and they gave her the most comfortable armchair any of them possessed (after squabbling a bit over which one that was), and one very young man who was Aunt Far Away’s great-great nephew said, “But what about the bird?”, even though he couldn’t see it himself, and so they set out a cup of water and a plate of bread heels, and Aunt Far Away thanked them for their kindness. She did not tell them that the bird was well content with a few sips of tea from her own frequently refilled cup.

Eight of the folks who had followed and stayed and listened and seen set out to spread the word about Hinson Street. The other three (so there had been eleven who’d stuck with her the whole way, Aunt Far Away thought), the woman who could see the bird, the boy who’d mentioned shyly that he was her great-great nephew, and the pinched-faced man (they’d ended up at his house, as it was the largest) stayed with her. The pinched-faced man (no kin) and the woman who could see the bird (“I think my sister-in-law’s cousin’s father was one of yours”) got busy with slates and styluses, sketching out all manners of doors, and parts and elements and accoutrements of doors. Aunt Far Away let them. It kept them busy and it did no harm. She had a picture of the type of door that was needed in her head, down to the tiniest detail. Her kin-boy stared hard at Aunt Far Away’s shoulder. Trying to see the bird, she knew. She said nothing to him, either. Some could, and some couldn’t, and some others might be able to in time if they kept trying.

At one point, the woman who could see the bird asked, “How big a door do you think we’ll need?”

Aunt Far Away was smoothing the length of bone (a lower rib, nothing she couldn’t spare, though her side did ache a bit where it had been removed; the bird had done it with its beak, without much mess at all; the little crimped scar where the bird had pressed the sides of the wound together nip by nip was rather pretty, Aunt Far Away thought) with a pumice stone. A doorknob, she had said, but really it would be more like a handle, a thin curved handle that she hoped would be welcoming to the touch. “Not a very big one, dear,” she replied. “I know you’re thinking about crowds and mobs and panics. But I believe most will go one by one, or in small groups. And some will not go at all. And besides, once we build one door, it shouldn’t be a difficult matter to construct others, in various parts of the city.”

“And outside the city?” said the pinched-faced man.

“Of course, outside the city as well.”

“This will take hundreds of people,” her line-nephew said. “Tons of material.”

“I expect so.”

“Aunt Far Away.”

“Yes, son.”

“Is the bird asleep?”

Tell the boy he may ask what he wishes, the bird whispered.

“No, not yet,” Aunt Far Away said. “Do you want to say something to it?”

“I was just – it’s only that – ” The young man squirmed. “It ran away from its world. Or flew away, I mean. And when it came here, when it battled out of the crack, how did it find you?”

“I was there. I was on Hinson Street. I told you all, this is news I saw myself, not a tale I have carried from other mouths.”

“It told you about the cracks that broke all over its world.”

“Yes.”

“And how the crack on Hinson Street is only the first one to appear here, that there will be more and more?”

“Wait,” Aunt Far Away said, sternly. “No, it did not tell me that. Do not elaborate the story. If you want to be a good tale-carrier and news bearer, you must always be very careful about when to embellish and when not to. With news, you do not. And if you are not sure of certain details, then tell your listeners that you are not sure. Do not invent things simply to hold their attention, or to keep the story going. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Aunt Far Away.”

“The bird told me that there may be more cracks coming, not that there will be.”

The bird whispered to her again.

“But that is not what you wanted to know, is it?”

Her line-nephew looked down at his hands. “Whose idea was the door?”

“The bird was very tired after its journey, and very afraid. It grieves, for the friends and kin and world it has lost, but it is not afraid now. It sees that the people here are people like its own – different worlds, different people, but people all the same – and it wants to help us.”

The boy looked up.

Ah, Aunt Far Away thought. We come to the nub of it.

“We thought of it together,” she told him. “The making of doors is old-days knowledge here, written down in books that have long since moldered to mulch, recorded on tech no one can coax a byte of data from anymore. But there are other ways to hold on to knowledge. The bird knew of the doors, and I remembered them. And we thought, yes, this can be done.”

“Why does the bird want to help us? It could fly far away, to the other side of the world, if it wanted, and live out its life in peace, long before all the air in this world is sucked away.” Her kin-boy seemed embarrassed to give voice to the question. He hugged himself, and would not look at anyone.

“It came in the hope of finding friends. We are new friends, that is true. But don’t friends help each other?”

The bird whistled sharply.

They all heard, the pinched-faced man, the woman, the line-nephew.

Aunt Far Away smiled. “Is there any more tea?”

“Certainly,” the pinched-faced man said, rising quickly.

“But Mother Roughcoat,” her line-nephew said. “You went to her, you and the bird, because of knowledge, and not merely memory. Or am I wrong?”

“No. You are correct.”

“But she won’t help.”

“Give her time,” Aunt Far Away said. “She has her own fears to work through, and many of those fears are very old. And she needs a while to think through what the bird told her.”

“What did it tell her?” her nephew asked.

“That is not for me to say.”

“She will not come,” said the woman who could see the bird.

The next day many people came, those who had heard the news of the crack on Hinson Street (some of whom had gone to see it, despite the warnings), those who had heard rumors of the news and wanted to hear Aunt Far Away give the account, those who wanted comfort, those who wanted to help.

Mother Roughcoat did not.

“She is in her shack,” a neighbor reported. “Talking to herself. Smashing things.”

“Leave her alone,” Aunt Far Away said. She had almost finished her handle. Two girls who were good weavers sat on the floor at Aunt Far Away’s feet, plaiting slow sunlight. Now that was old tech, and old knowledge, and old skill, and the girls, who were cousins, had learned it from an old man who had learned it from his grandmother. The lengths of light the girls were able to knit had the solidity and consistency of soft glass. It was hard work, and painful, but the girls sang to each other to keep their spirits up.

“That is very useful,” Aunt Far Away said. “Energy! And better than any battery. We’re getting somewhere now.”

The reports from Hinson Street were alarming. The crack continued to expand. Everyone who ventured within a kilometer of the area could feel a constant wind blowing past them, rushing into the crack. The neighborhood had been evacuated. Some people had even fled the city, though Aunt Far Away thought that was a bit premature.

She said nothing about it. She told stories to keep the worried calm and to lighten the strain on the workers. She told the bird the history of the city and its old customs and beliefs, and the bird expressed great fascination. She waited.

Mother Roughcoat came to the pinched-faced man’s house (it had become the de facto base of operations) on the fourth night. She knocked on the door.

“I’ll get it,” Aunt Far Away said, and everybody in the house went silent.

Mother Roughcoat was wearing her suit. Aunt Far Away had expected this.

Mother Roughcoat looked like she wanted to cry. Aunt Far Away had been expecting this, too.

“I’m glad to see you,” she said.

“Shut up,” Mother Roughcoat said. She held out her hand. “Here.”

Aunt Far Away put out her own hand. Mother Roughcoat dropped a small piece of metal into it. She turned away.

“Wait.”

“That’s all you’re getting.”

Aunt Far Away examined the object Mother Roughcoat had brought. It was a hinge. It was, in fact, a perfect hinge for the sort of door they were laboring to create. And with this perfect hinge as a model, others would be, not easily, but accurately, fashioned. The bird cooed happily.

“You can tell that bird to shut up, too.”

“Mother Roughcoat,” Aunt Far Away said, “thank you. We all thank you.”

“Don’t.”

“Mother Roughcoat – ”

“Don’t. I cannot bear it.”

She walked away.

She never came to see the first finished door, nor any of the others. She never went through one, but then many people chose not to, preferring to wait and see if things got worse before making such a major decision. Aunt Far Away did visit her again, about a year later. The bird did not accompany her. It had already gone ahead, to the tenth world.

Mother Roughcoat was sitting on her stool. “You,” she said.

“Me.”

“Where’s the bird?”

“On a trip.”

Mother Roughcoat snorted. “That bird was a piece of work. You know what it told me? Of course you do. You were listening.”

“Yes. It told you the same thing you told us. That there were never any gods who made nice things for the city, that it was only ourselves, making the good and the bad, the helpful and the harmful.”

“Do you believe that?” Mother Roughcoat asked.

“Yes.”

Mother Roughcoat nodded.

“The hinge you made was very helpful.”

“Don’t start that shit again.”

“I’m sorry. I won’t. May I sit down?”

“I don’t have another stool. And you are not welcome in my house.”

“The ground is fine,” Aunt Far Away said, and lowered herself to the grassless, lumpy earth before Mother Roughcoat could protest. “I have a favor to ask.”

“No.”

“You haven’t heard what it is yet.”

Mother Roughcoat clenched her fists. “All right. Fine. What?”

“Tell me a story.”

“I have never liked you, you know.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t tell me a story.”

“What kind of story?”

“Any kind. Whatever sort you like.”

Mother Roughcoat spat.

Aunt Far Away waited.

“How about,” Mother Roughcoat said, “the one that goes, Once upon a time, there were three little princesses who lived in a red house on the top of a hill.”

“That will do splendidly,” Aunt Far Away said. She folded her hands in her lap, and shifted her right leg a bit, to get more comfortable.

Mother Roughcoat grimaced. Then she sighed. “Once upon a time.” She paused. The pause stretched.

Aunt Far Away waited. Patience had always been one of her strengths.
____
Copyright 2013 Patricia Russo

Patricia Russo’s first collection, Shiny Thing, is available from Papaveria Press.

by Rashida J. Smith

Ben

When Nana left Ben the house and acreage it took him a full week to remember he’d spent much of his childhood in Strange. A month after the funeral he missed and between jobs, he decided the Saab could use a good road trip. Time to figure out why he could barely recall the closest thing he had to a hometown.

Crossing into the valley from the cool California coast was like entering a hostile planet’s atmosphere. He cruised up Highway 101 to Ukiah taking the exit for Highway 20 and enjoying the way the car handled the swift succession of turns as the road wound around Clearlake. By eleven o’clock, the sun pounded his scalp and the dust kicked off the road from fruit laden semis clogged his sinuses. He put the convertible top up and turned on the AC. He almost missed the turnoff for Highway 16. A quick downshift and a tap on the brakes earned him a tight turn with the hint of tire squeal on pavement. He loosed a self-indulgent grin at his own reflexes. Ahead, the narrow two-lane road opened up into a valley with a string of simply named towns: Capay, Barley, Reed. So this is home.

The town Strange didn’t exist according to the navigation and not a single green county road sign marked it from the highway. He pulled over, scanning the directions from the lawyer in Woodland who had executed Nana’s will. They ended at a grocery store: Four Corners Market. Then, without looking, he pulled onto the road and sank his foot on the gas. Brakes squealed behind him over the accelerating purr of his own engine. In the rearview mirror he caught an extreme close-up of the big pickup he’d cut off. He gunned the Saab’s engine.

“Sorry, farmer John,” he said.

He left the pickup in heat waves rolling off the pavement, turning at the faded brown road sign pointing to the town. Buildings appeared out of dust and glare: old homesteads bleached grey by weather and often so shapeless it was impossible to tell the farmhouses from barns. In cracked fields irrigation pipes rusted. The real estate agent had said the house, two almond orchards and a pasture Nana rented to local ranchers turned out to be worthless on the market. Looking at the neighbors he wasn’t surprised. Nothing could be worth much around here.

As he entered Strange proper, he noted cracks in the pavement sometimes large enough to set two pieces of road uneven. He winced every time the Saab bumped over the cracks. He peered through the fine powder on the windshield at the town. If memory, dejavu and vertigo all could be rolled into one it would be the feeling washing over him. How could he not remember this when it seemed so familiar?

On generous consideration, Four Corners Market was an overgrown convenience store with a wraparound porch. Beside the door, a man that could have been anywhere in age from a hard-lived forty to a sprightly sixty reclined in the warped rocking chair.

“Martinez,” he said, rising to greet Ben.

In his youth Martinez had been a big man, with a barrel chest and a long back now bent from age. His grip was one of a man much younger. He sized Ben up with a good head-to-toe look leaving him feeling like the sandy haired elementary school kid he had been years ago.

“You’re the Goodwin boy,” Martinez said, without waiting for an answer. “Looking for the house then.”

“Benjamin,” he said. “Ben.”

Martinez didn’t seem to consider the lack of directions odd. He combined hand signals and traditional directions, landmarks thrown in for good measure, concluding with:

“That’s what I heard this morning from Tom.”

What the hell was that supposed to mean, and who was Tom – the city planner?

Ben looked out into the heat at the rumble of an engine to see an old red Chevy with more dents than paint left pulling a horse trailer down the broken pavement. Face shaded by a wide brimmed hat, the driver raised an index finger from the steering wheel. The old man cracked a smile full of tobacco-yellowed teeth and lifted a hand from his belt buckle. Ben also made the gesture with a lopsided smile. The driver’s chin lifted enough for him to see a narrow chin with skin color of Madrona bark and a full lipped, frowning mouth. While he watched she replaced the single raised finger with its less polite, next-door neighbor.

So this was the truck he’d cut off.

“It’s Farmer Joan then,” he said under his breath.

“Joan,” Martinez said, scrutinizing him as though he’d just started reciting Shakespeare. “That’s Mara Hughes. She’s down the street from Nana’s these days.”

Great. He’d already made friends with the neighbors. The truck slowed without braking. The old man jerked his thumb in the direction of the road leading into the rolling hills east of town. The hat brim tipped down once and the truck made the next turn, up the Second Street.

“I guess it’s been a while,” Ben said. “Better get up to the house before it gets dark.”

“Power’s off.” Martinez hitched his belt beneath his paunch and took a few laborious steps into the store, still talking. “You’ll need some candles and a lantern. Susie at the post office will get the power on in the morning.”

Great. The post office doubled as the utilities station?

“And a phone, she’ll fix that up too,” Martinez said from the back of the store.

And the phone company. Rich. The headache migrated to his temples.

“You’ll want dinner,” Martinez said, returning to the porch holding an oil stained paper bag with the top rolled down to the lumpy contents within. “Nana had everything town couldn’t use donated to the food bank.”

The old man flashed broken teeth and held out the bag. Nana had a particular attachment to Spam. Ben’s imagination jumped to his father’s stories of growing up on Spam sandwiches. To be polite he took the bag and mentally vowed to starve before he ate anything in it.

“Tina’s got mincemeat pie tonight, best in town,” Martinez said, gesturing down the road to a little brick building with an empty table out front.

He wheezed laughter at his own joke.

“Only in town,” he said. “Still the best.”

Feeling more foolish, Ben thanked him and started down the sidewalk.

Attached to a canary colored house, the restaurant perched on the corner with honeysuckle climbing the cyclone fence around the patio. A dog, almost identical to the building in color but faded with age, lay in the shade under the awning. The dog heaved itself to its paws, clumsy with the belly hanging under its ribs. That didn’t stop it from limping around Ben’s heels with a wagging tail and bright eyes.

Again recognition darted just out of his reach. He dragged open the restaurant door. Inside the sensation grew stronger. The smell of the place washed over him and his stomach rumbled despite the heat. His nose picked out cilantro, garlic and peppers.

“It’s little Ben Goodwin!”

The lanky woman behind the counter grinned, slipping a long silver braid over her shoulder so it raced down her back. She came around the counter and opened her arms for a hug.

“¿Cómo estás mijo?” she said, “¡Mira cuánto has crecido!”

The awkward smile returned before he could speak. The other diners, two ranchers and a woman in a postal uniform, looked up and nodded greeting.

“Let go of your Spanish, then?” She pushed him back to arm’s length and frowned. “Used to be I hardly tell you apart from my own kids, you spoke so good.”

“I’m sorry,” Ben said, shaking his head. “It’s been a long time.”

Her eyebrows lowered. He could see the fine lines in her face this close. She must have been near 50 but her age was as elusive as the place in his memory where she should have been.

“It’s Tina,” she said. “You’ll remember more once you’ve been here a bit.”

She looked up into his face, searching for something familiar. Like Martinez her eyes had a youthful glow.

“Welcome home,” she said. “I’ll get you some dinner. You’ll eat here, right?”

“I’m headed up to the house,” he said, hesitating before he added: “I’m just in town to settle things. I live in the city now.”

She disappeared into the kitchen before he could finish. He grabbed a seat at the counter and waved his fingers at the two jean and Stetson clad ranchers who kept glancing his way. They looked like father and son. He realized what struck him as odd – they spoke Chinese. Embarrassed at being caught starting, he focused on his phone until Tina came back with a heavy foil covered plate. She tried to make conversation but he pleaded a desire to get to the house before dark and left as quickly as he could.

The house smelled as if it hadn’t been opened in months. Dust formed a protective coating over the furniture and windows. He walked through the main hall and into the parlor, scanning the photos on the mantle. Some of them must have been over a hundred years old. In a fading Polaroid, a girl no more than 11 sat astride a pony. An unsmiling boy stood at the pony’s head, holding a suitcase in one hand. Himself, he realized with a start. He looked miserable.

“Get the house settled and get the hell back to civilization,” he said to the boy on the mantle. “They don’t want you here anymore than you want to be here.”

The oil-stained bag contained candles, a lantern, matches, and a few lighters. He stuck with the battery-powered lantern; not confident the dusty old place wouldn’t burn down in candlelight. A wise choice, considering he didn’t last a minute once he’d lain down on the musty mattress.

He woke once during the night. He had the same disoriented sensation he’d experienced after waking to find an massive earthquake caused a section of the Bay Bridge to collapse on itself. He turned over, certain it came from sleeping in a new bed. He didn’t remember fault lines in Strange.

In the morning he put on his running shoes. The short jog to the Post Office would be a good warm-up for a longer run out to Highway 16. He hoped to use his cell phone – he got no reception in town. The post office was not “just down the street from Tina’s,” as Martinez indicated the day before. He got in the better part of his run looking for it. On his third time running past Four Corners he noticed Martinez on the porch and smiled with a little wave.

“First Street, past Oak,” Martinez said, pointing in the opposite direction.

Ben raised a hand in salute and wondered if something was wrong with the old man’s memory.

Mara

She pumped the brakes, cutting her wheel to avoid slamming into the Saab darting from the shoulder into the single lane of blacktop. The trailer loaded with horses swayed behind her truck and her arm went over the bench seat across the boy beside her.

“Asshole city drivers,” she said.

“Ouch, Mar,” Manny said, clearly more put out by the gesture than any discomfort.

She gave Manny a slantwise look.

“I forgot eight year olds are made of rubber,” she said. “Next time I’ll let you bounce off the dashboard.”

His eyebrows dropped beneath a shaggy forelock of dark hair.

“I have my seatbelt on,” he said, rubbing his solar plexus. “You cussed.”

“I’m a grown woman,” she said. “And until you’re 18, I’m the boss of you. So do as I say, not as I do.”

Squinty eyed at the glare, he scowled and stared out the window. She smiled, peeking at him. If he were a colt, she would have said he would be big and bold– a champion sporthorse. They often started out like he did: all limbs and the largest head she had ever seen on a kid his size. According to his teacher he read at a fifth grade level, and Mara ignored the implied surprise that an orphan raised by a horse trainer could be smarter than most kids his age.

Too bad his mom hadn’t stuck around to find out just how great he turned out. She supposed small towns could be like prisons in some ways; getting adjusted to the outside was too hard for the ones who weren’t hell bent to get away. Strange had it’s own pull. The folks that started out there never did fit right anyplace else. Mara had years on the outside to prove it. It wasn’t until she came back that she realized what she hadn’t been able to see when she left.

She watched the Saab pull away. It followed the faded brown county sign pointing out the turn for Strange – 11 miles – vanishing into the heat waves rising from the baked pavement over the next hill.

“What’s he doin?” Manny’s eyes tracked the plume of dust from the car’s tires. She slowed the truck and put on her blinker.

“I supposed if he made a wrong turn we’ll find out when he tries to run us off the road on his way back,” she said.

“And if not?” Manny said.

“We’ll hear from Tina when we take you to get a haircut,” Mara said.

Manny groaned as the truck rolled onto the gravel and Mara focused her eyes ahead just in case the Saab did come tearing back her direction. She’d have to stop at Four Corners; even at this distance she could see things had changed.

“What do you think that city a-hole wants in Strange?”

“Manuel Enrique Fonseca.” Her voice held the same edge of warning that made the young horses settle down.

“Didn’t say it.” He grinned.

She sighed.

“Dunno,” she said. “But Martinez will know first.”

“Everybody stops at the Corners for directions,” he said.

“Yup,” she said. Welcome to Strange.

Manny

I hate haircuts. Miss Tina’s cool and all, but I hate being told to sit still for the ninety-ninth time in Spanish and English. She thinks if one doesn’t work, the other will? Then the hundredth time, Tina slaps the back of my head, mangles both and says, “Be still mijo.”

She cuts it too short, too.

Today, she and Mara can’t stop going on about Ben Goodwin. He’s been in town a couple of days talking to people. Sizing things up, she says. Mara says ever since the city people decided a slower paced lifestyle was the next new thing they’d been zooming up and down the valley in their European sports cars buying up property right and left. Perfectly good farms and ranches turned into weekend playgrounds for yuppies.

Mara says he’s one of them but I saw him at the Post Office talking to Suzie about the power. He looks like Nana Goodwin in the eyes. Like he watches everything. He’s tall like Nana too. I think people and horses are similar, you can tell a lot about how they’re gonna act by which ancestor they look like. Tina says Mara’s the spiting image of her dad, except pretty, who himself was the image of the first Hughes; a retired buffalo solider who came to Strange to raise horses. Mara’s as good a trainer as both, maybe better, so there’s truth to that. Ben said hi to me, but Mara said not to talk to him so I just looked at him out of the corner of my eye and nodded.

“All done,” Tina says, brushing the hair off my shoulders and ears. “People who belong in Strange always find their way back. You should understand that better than most.”

At Corners, we wait to talk to Mr. Martinez because Mrs. Fitzgerald who runs the boarding house is on a tear. I call her Fits cause she’s always p.o.’d. Her freckly face looks like a tomato when she’s fired up. Mara calls Mrs. Jansen a recluse and says Fits hasn’t had any boarders in years so no wonder they got put next door to each other. People always get put where they need to be. Look at Mara and me. Both our dads have tombstones in the cemetery.

I go to the counter while Mara pretends to read the stock listings. Mr. Martinez winks and slides a peppermint across the glass at me.

“Things’ll change soon enough,” he says to Fits.

“It’s that Goodwin boy,” Fits says. “My place is next to Nana’s, so nothing moved.”

“Be careful not to put the blame where it don’t lay, Ellen,” he says, calm as Mara working one of the stubborn colts. “Lots of things been on the move since Ben arrived. Just not your block. You might consider why that might be.”

Then he just acts like she isn’t there. Fits storms out. Mr. Martinez shakes his head and smiles.

“Mara, what’s in your bonnet?”

“Ben has been talking to people, interviewing them,” Mara says.

Mr. Martinez hooks his thumbs in his belt and joins her at the window.

“Shaker had puppies last night,” Mr. Martinez says to me. “Behind the counter. Go see.”

The three puppies are small and chestnut colored. Their eyes aren’t even open, and they wiggle around each other mewing like kittens. Shaker wags her tail at me, licking each one. I know she’d never take off. I pick the smallest one up and hold it against my neck where it’s warm and safe. Mara said that’s how she got me to stop crying the first morning.

“He’s just trying to figure it out,” Martinez says. “Nana said he works as a reporter for a big newspaper. He asks questions, that’s his way.”

“He doesn’t belong here,” Mara says. “This is our town.”

“Careful how you talk there, Miss Hughes,” Martinez says, and I look up cause he never calls anybody formal. “Your grandfather and Nana Goodwin’s folks were the ones who made the bargain of this town because of talk like that.”

“The can’t-we-all-just-get-along-crew?”

“Yess’um,” Mr. Martinez doesn’t even get upset when Mara talks about the founders that way. I guess he has lots of practice.

“If he writes a story and word gets out,” Mara says. “It could be the end of things. We can’t take the chance.”

She’s standing with her arms crossed over her chest. Her jaw is clenched so tight I can see the muscle bulge. The weird thing is, she looks more scared than mad.

“You forget,” Mr. Martinez says, “Ben Goodwin is Strange folk.”

“He left a long time ago.”

“A boy just a bit bigger than Manny left here. Seems you and Mr. Goodwin got some business to finish up.”

“I don’t owe him anything.”

“Did the city folks give you a hard heart with all the book learnin, Mara?”

I go back to looking at the puppies – I don’t want to see Mara cry.

Ben

Out of the corner of his eye, Ben saw Tina approach with the coffee carafe and leaned back from the napkin he’d been doodling on. She poured a little too early. Ben flung himself away from the hot splash of coffee landing on the napkin.

“Damn!”

Tina smiled, finishing the refill. “I didn’t get cha did I?”

Ben looked at her, annoyed by her utter lack of alarm. He dragged his napkin out of the mess, but the ink was blotted. So much for his map.

“It’s fine,” he said, forcing a smile.

“What are you working on there?” She said, peering at the rest of the papers as she swiped at the wet table with the rag in her other hand

“Research for a story,” he said.

“May I?” She said, slipping into the booth across from him before he could nod. He dragged a notepad over the photocopied aerial shot of the valley.

“I heard you were a reporter,” she said. “Or do you write books? You used to talk about how one day you would write a book about space ships and Martians or a cowboy and his horse.”

He shook his head, even as a chill raced up his spine.

“No time for a book,” he said. “Maybe one of these days.”

“What paper do you work for?”

“I sell my stories to lots of different papers and magazines,” he said, amending. “Mostly the Examiner though.”

Her fingertips played at the edges of the photocopied articles. He resisted the urge to pull them away.

“How long have you owned the diner?” he said.

“It’s been in the family for generations,” Tina said. “Like writing’s in yours. Did you know your abuela was a fine chronicler?”

He shook his head.

“She kept all the records of this town,” Tina said. “Writing’s in your blood.”

“What is it about this town Tina?” he said, leaning toward her. “There’s a story here, I can feel it. I just have to find it.”

She laughed again and slid out of the booth, lifting the carafe.

“Is that why you’re making silly napkin maps and going to Woodland looking for plans?” she said. “For a story?”

He covered his papers with one hand. She started back toward the counter then turned halfway and met his eyes. He couldn’t decipher the look on her face, but her eyes were no longer laughing.

“Just don’t miss what’s important,” she said, “looking for your story.”

After lunch Ben wandered outside, sucking down the last of a soda from the glass bottle and wondering why they always seemed to taste better than in cans. He squinted out into the heat waves rising off the cracked pavement. It was 10am and almost 90 degrees in the shade. The rest of the day would be unbearable.

The man he had nicknamed Sisyphus after the doomed Greek pushed his wheel barrel full of gravel along the road. At every crack he would pause and scoop shovelfuls into the deepest fissures. Everyone Ben met called Sisyphus by a different name, and he didn’t speak a word as far as Ben could tell. He ate at Tina’s and slept in a shed out back of the diner, Ben supposed in exchange for his endless public service. Social services, Strange style. On impulse, Ben lifted his hand in greeting. Sisyphus smiled back at him before looking into his wheelbarrow and continuing down the road.

Ben finished his soda and set the glass in the recycling bin next to the door. For a moment he allowed himself to think his theory was an early warning symptom for heatstroke. If he believed it, he’d say things that shouldn’t be moving were. The reporter in his brain refused to let it go. He’d started writing down addresses, noting the changes, and talking to everyone he could.

After a week in town the only thing he knew for sure was everyone was hiding something. His Nana’s old friends were polite or senile, or at least they seemed to be when it came to questions about the town. There were no more leads in town to follow. He checked his notepad and the single name that had not been stricken.

Mara Hughes. Thirty-four years old, college educated and training horses in a nowhere town. They had been in the same grade and bussed to nearby Capay for school as kids. Like a tic under the skin she just kept popping up. She lived alone with the kid Manny, who wasn’t hers but shadowed her everywhere. People in town deferred to Mara almost as much as Martinez, but Ben never saw her around. On days he managed to find the house it was empty. As the sign on the door constantly indicated, she was “out riding.”

He considered a trip out to the highway to get cell reception. Maybe something in the water or air brought on some kind of mass delusion. Who did he know in psychiatry? He kicked at a pile of pebbles next to the road. The lines were still there, dividing the pavement in no discernable pattern.

He looked up at the sound of an engine cutting off and the creak of an old pickup door. Mara stepped out, the toes of her boots peeking out from jeans faded thin over her knees. It was as though age had only stretched the girl on the brown pony in the picture to adult height.

She leaned back into the truck, laughing, and emerged with Manny dangling piggy-back around her lean frame like a baby possum. Small for his age — except for an enormous head — his weight hung against the wiry arms wrapped around her shoulders. Then she saw Ben. She said something and Manny slid to his feet, running into the Post Office. When the boy was gone she straightened up, brushing the hank of sun faded dreadlocks, each twisted and no thicker than a pencil, over her shoulder.

She crossed the street without looking: the act would have been suicide in the city. In Strange, the fact that he couldn’t leave the curb without checking twice made him stand out. She walked straight toward him. Considering he had been trying to track her down most of the week he couldn’t explain why his mouth felt August dry. He pushed a hand through his hair, wincing at the soreness that was probably pre-cancerous sunburn on his scalp.

She stopped at the curb a few feet from him, resting her foot on the angled concrete. Beneath hat brim’s shade her pale brown eyes were freckled and ringed with black. She did not smile.

“A good hat will save your life around here,” she said. “Ben Goodwin, it’s been awhile.”

“We were kids around here at the same time?”

“Neighbors. For a while.”

He tried to read her but her expression gave nothing away.

“I’m sorry for cutting you off,” he said. “On the road.”

“I’m learning to drive defensively around you folks,” she said. “How long are you in town for?”

“A few more days I think.”

“That’s too bad, ” she said, without a hint of disappointment. “No time to catch up then.”

“Maybe we could get a cup of coffee?”

Her eyebrows lifted at the suggestion, making him aware of the bead of sweat rolling down his temple.

“Iced tea?” He amended.

“I’m working a horse for sale all week and I have a feed shipment coming,” she said. “I won’t have spare time.”

“It would just take a few minutes,” he said. “I’m working on a feature piece, for the Weekender Magazine. I was hoping to talk to you.”

Any sort of humor left her eyes. “About what?”

“Rural farming communities,” he said. “Did you know most towns this size are dying – but Strange – funny thing is the population has been increasing over the last few years. I looked at the census data and the increases aren’t so much in birthrate as in adults. People are coming back.”

He flashed the smile that had broken down many a resistant subject. “Like you. Your name popped up on the competition circuit down south. I heard you made it out to Ocala. That’s big time for horse people.”

“You want to interview me?”

“Is there a better time?”

“No.” Her arms crossed her chest and locked there.

“Okay, if I could just get a few minutes,” he said, pulling out his recorder.

“You misunderstand – I’m not a subject for your article.”

“It’s about the town, and peoples’ relationship to it.”

“No thanks,” she said. “Nice seeing you again.”

She started to turn away.

“Four horses you’ve started have gone on to be grand prix contenders,” he said. “People have shipped them from as far Florida and New York for you. You could live and train anywhere. Why a dried up town in walnut country, California?”

She spun on one heel, her mouth set in a tight line.

“Who are you to tell me where I belong?” she said. “This land has been in my family for generations, Strange is my home. I don’t expect you to get that.”

He’d pushed to far without knowing what had set her off. He took a deep breath, might very well be his last chance. “You probably know this town better than most then. What do you make of the changes?”

“Changes?”

He heard caution, not confusion in her voice.

“You know, here one day, over there the next,” he said.

She paused.

“It’s been hot,” she said, her voice low and a little husky with effort of control. “I know you’re not used to that. Maybe it’s making you think there’s something going on that’s not.”

To his reporter’s ear, the end of her statement was almost sympathy. He had one last card – rather, a bluff.

“Look, they’re going to run the story,” he said. “I’d be delighted to work with you. I’ll also run it without you. I’ve got enough interviews. Hell, the guy that cut up his wife when she killed herself is in the state facility in Sacramento. Said he was trying to ‘rearrange’ her like the town did ’cause no one would believe him. Makes for some interesting stuff.”

He realized the composure on her face had been a mask when it slipped away. A memory sparked from the Polaroid photograph on the mantle struck him between the ribs like a stitch in his side.

He pushed Brownie’s nose away before the tears in his throat could spill free. Behind him, his dad honked the horn.

“Come to the city,” he said to her backing away. “When you grow up.”

She twisted the pony’s reins with uncharacteristic impatience and gave it a kick. The pony crow hopped and Ben leapt sideways to avoid hooves. In a cloud of dust she was gone. He crawled into the car beside his dad and tried not to cry.

“Don’t worry Ben,” his dad said, patting his shoulder. “Where we’re going there’ll be lots more kids like you.”

He winced, looking at the woman with the girl’s eyes. They hadn’t just been in the same grade riding the same school bus; they’d been friends.

“I’ve heard lots of things about reporters,” she said, never raising her voice. “But you are ruthless. What happened to you?”

She walked into the Post Office.

Ben picked up a bottle of water at Four Corners and lingered on the porch, keeping his eyes on the old pickup. Mara and Manny emerged from the post office hand in hand. She opened the door to the truck. Before the boy slid across the seat he put his arms around her neck. She planted a kiss on his forehead. When the boy was inside, she hopped up the step to the bench seat, meeting Ben’s eyes. He looked away first.

Rocking in his chair, Martinez lifted a hand as the Chevy pulled away. “Something the matter with your water, Ben?”

He shook his head, studying the heat waves rising off the baked pavement.

Ben got lost on his way back to the house. Flummoxed, he stood on the corner of Oak and Second Street and counted houses. He walked back a block, looking for Ash Street. He scrambled through his notes. Sheets of paper fluttered around his feet and he crouched over them on the sidewalk, shuffling.

He snatched up a yellow page torn from a legal pad. “Goodwin House, 117 Second Avenue, left on Second past Corners, cross Elm, third house on the right. Left.”

He puzzled at his own handwriting. The word ‘right,’ once written distinctly had been crossed out. Elm – once had been Ash. He glanced over his shoulder the way he had come. Six or eight blocks down he could see the yellow building and the house –- Tina’s –- and if he looked farther down he could see the American flag hanging still in the heat in front of the post office.

Wait. He stared, then rifled through his notes again. “Post office, 23 Oak Street?”

“What do you have there boy?”

An age spotted hand snagged the yellow piece of paper from between his fingers and shadow fell over him. He rocked back on his heels. An old woman with skin the texture of thin parchment and an enormous, lumpy head held his note page in her spider thin fingers.

“Jesus,” he muttered.

She bared her teeth and put her hands on her hips, defining her bony frame in the otherwise shapeless floral muumuu.

“When I was a girl, you take the lord’s name and ‘WHAM’ with a ruler,” she said. “Nowadays you wretches talk like the devil is in your mouth and nobody even blinks. World’s off to hell and gone.”

“Sorry, Mrs.–” he said.

He stood, towering over the slight figure and caught a whiff of Mentholatum and bourbon. On closer inspection, the lumps outlining her head turned out to be rollers jutting out from the scarf covering her graying hair and adding inches to the circumference of her skull.

“Jansen,” she offered.

“Ben,” he said.

“Goodwin,” she finished. “I know, boy. It’s a small town. Even I hear everything – especially now that red-headed biddy is next door talking sun up to sun down.”

She cast her voice loud enough for the stout woman in the neighboring yard to pause pinning a sheet to the line and look. The woman flung a glare at Mrs. Jansen before her face softened into a brilliant smile.

“I heard you were in town Benny and I was wondering when you’d make it down this way,” she said. “Mrs. Fitzgerald, from Sunday school.”

“I’m sorry ma’am, it’s been a while,” he said.

“You can’t have forgotten Mrs. Fitzy?” She pressed her palm between her abundant breasts.

“Of course he did dear,” Mrs. Jansen said. “This good looking boy has no reason to remember an old hen like you. Now get back to your laundry – it’s my turn to tell tales, right Ben?”

He nodded, not trusting himself to speak and risk the chance of smiling.

“I’ll make you something cold and we’ll talk,” she said, tugging his arm.

Jansen’s house smelled of mothballs and Mentholatum. She sat him down at a chipped Formica table that wobbled on the linoleum floor.

“You’re wondering how we keep the lights on, and the stove burning, with all this moving around.”

He pulled out his notepad.

“Not so fast, Mr. Hot Shot reporter,” she said, sucking her teeth.

She snapped the pad out of his hand.

“Those fools think you’ll come around on your own,” she said, waving her hand. “Or Miss Mara ‘high horse’ Hughes will help you, but I know better.”

“I’d just like to jot down a few things,” Ben said, reaching for his notepad.

She tapped his temple and pulled the pad out of his reach. “Jot away.”

“So how do you keep the lights on,” he said. “The phone for that matter. I can’t even reception on my cell.”

“You won’t be able to,” she said. “There’s more to living in a place than turning on services. You have to agree.”

“Agree to what?”

“To be a resident,” she said, smiling. Years rose off her cheeks and chin. “Did you know I was a beauty queen once?”

She rose without waiting for his answer and left the room. When she returned she laid a little photo album on the table between them. She pointed at the plump, attractive young woman in a rhinestone Miss Central Valley crown.

“May I?”

She handed it to him. He slipped the photo from the sleeve, holding it by its edges and peered at the date on back. If he believed the photo the woman in front of him had to be in her eighties. He covered his surprise with a wink.

“That can’t be you,” he said, half teasing. “Is this your mother?”

“You always were a sweet talker,” she said and her smile turned impish.

“You remember me?”

“Benjamin James Goodwin,” she said. “When you were 6 years old I caught you in my strawberries, you had eaten every berry right off the crown. You told me it was my fault for growing the best berries in the valley.”

“When you were 10,” she went on. “You and Mara Hughes come through my yard on that old brown pony. Riding the same horse and calling yourselves cowboys and Indians.”

She shook her finger at him. “Kicking up dust all over my laundry. Mrs. Fits and I used to laugh at you little ingrates after we finished yelling. We would make coffee and complain when the Hughes place wound up too close to town. Course that was before she and I had a falling out.”

She paused, a former beauty queen’s smile on her face.

“I hardly remember it,” she said. “Isn’t it funny?”

“You two were friends?”

She nodded, looking out the window.

“Oh my Lord! Ben, get Martinez.”

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s Ellen.” Mrs. Jensen ran for the door.

Ben glanced out to see Mrs. Fitzgerald in a crumpled heap next to her laundry basket in the opposite yard. He would have thought her a discarded pile of wash, if not for the red hair.

Mrs. Jansen tottered out of the house to the clothesline. “Hold on, Birdie!”

Mara

She praised the Saab’s speed as they roared along the two-lane road. Damn sports cars were good for something after all.

“My cell’s in the glove box, should we call ahead?” Ben didn’t take his eyes off the road.

She had the phone out, dialing before he finished.

She had been waiting at Corners for Martinez when Ben ran up. His shirt was stained dark with sweat. She knew he liked to run, but thought even he had better sense than to go for a jog in 100-degree heat. Before she could write this off as some extreme sport she noticed the look on his face.

“We need an ambulance,” he panted, looking into the shuttered and locked store.

“Martinez is gone,” she said, jogging down the porch. “And there’s no time anyway. It’ll take an hour to get here and back. We need a car. Who is it?”

“Mrs. Fits collapsed,” he said, and remembered to add. “Oak and Second.”

He put his hands on his knees, swallowing great gulps of dusty air. She started running. He followed for a pace or two then dropped back.

“I’ll get my car,” he said.

She had just reached the yard when she heard the little Saab’s engine roaring down the street. It took both of them to get Mrs. Fits into the back seat and Mrs. Jansen refused to be left behind.

At the hospital Mara talked to the doctors and nurses. She knew hospitals well and it was easier the second time around. She remembered the call from Tina and the older woman’s voice fuzzy on the line as she explained how Hank Hughes had collapsed working a three year old in the round pen. His heart just quit. By the time Mara got there, all there was to do was talk to doctors. Her father never regained consciousness.

Coming back to Strange hadn’t seemed optional at the time. The ranch and his horses needed her. The owner of Hill Jumper Farms had made it clear there would be no more rides for her if she left during the peak of show season. She could have gotten work at another barn or sold the place and started a few horses on her own. But when she pulled into Strange she knew she was tired of living above someone else’s stalls and answering to some idiot owner who wanted so much out of a horse too young to give it.

Coming home helped the hurt some but it did not ease the loneliness.

While they waited, she watched Ben drop to one knee at Mrs. Jensen’s feet like a suitor. He pressed her fingers around a coffee cup. She patted his cheek and tears escaped her lashes. While Mrs. Jansen dabbed her cheeks he looked up and met Mara’s eyes. Something sad and hard lingered about edges of the man he’d grown up to be.

How he’d changed from the boy who helped block her father’s path to an age beaten pony standing listlessly in the pen.

“Mar this pony is a hundred years old and sour,” Hank Hughes said. “He’s not worth half the work it’d take to bring him around.”

Mara shook her head, unable to speak.

“We’ll take him,” the boy said. “Mara can do the training. I’ll help.”

Mara gaped at him. Ben nodded. She looked back at her father.

“You said I could have my own horse,” she said.

“Mara you don’t want that old jughead,” he said. “I only brought him home because somebody needed to put him out of his misery. What about the jumper we looked at in Woodland?”

“Brownie’s got good legs and a nice eye,” Mara said. “Somebody was mean to him but he was a good pony once. We can turn him good again.”

“Strange takes care of everybody,” the boy said. “Even ponies.”

Her father’s lips twitched under his thick mustache. That was always how she knew they’d won. Then he handed her the halter. “Your pony, your responsibility. Solid feed. I’m taking it out of your allowance. Light exercising in the pen. No riding until I say.”

In the hospital waiting room Mara watched the grown up version of the boy. Assigning blame came easy: this is your fault, she thought, coming to town stirring things up. On the ride home Mara kept her face to the darkening fields out the passenger window. It was easier to think he’d changed beyond recognition. She didn’t like seeing the familiar in him.

“They want her to move to Woodland?”

“A home,” Mara said. “It was mild, but it was still a stroke.”

“Do you think she will?”

“Mrs. Fits is old Strange,” Mara said, shaking her head. “She’d rather die at her clothesline than in a home somewhere. As soon as they let her go she’ll be back. Sounds like Miz J might move in with her, though. It’ll be good, neither one of them needs to be alone at their age.”

“I guess whatever static between them is cured,” Ben said.

“That’s Strange for you.”

“You believe this town rearranges itself to make people resolve their problems with each other.”

“Martinez says making you forget things might be the town’s way of protecting itself,” she said, as a peace offering. “You’ve forgotten a lot.”

“What happened to Brownie?”

Surprised, Mara hesitated.

“I remember a few things,” he said.

“He died in his sleep, nose in his feed bucket, when I was 16,” Mara said. “He never changed much. Still as likely to nip you as do tricks for treats.”

“How did you wind up with Manny?”

“After his dad died his mom had a hard time,” she said. “She wasn’t from Strange. One night she packed up and left everything, including Manny. In the morning my bedroom window was facing their yard. I heard him crying. He’s been with me ever since.”

“I guess Strange still takes care of everyone,” he said.

Goosebumps rose on her arms. He took his eyes off the road when she spoke.

“Even ponies,” she said.

He dropped her off at the driveway to the farm.

“Are you sure, I could–”

Mara shook her head and climbed out of the car. “Thanks for the ride.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “For coming here. If it’s made it hard for you.”

Mara shook her head and her smile touched her eyes. “You saved Mrs. Fits.”

Mara fed the horses and left Manny watching a horror movie marathon. She spent some time scanning the stock auction listings for a couple of good Thoroughbreds that hadn’t made much of themselves on the track but might be good prospects. She went to bed, tossed and turned. It wasn’t the heat or the restlessness that sometimes kept her awake.

She went down to the horses. In a big stall at the end of the barn, a leggy mare waited with head thrust over the door as if she had been waiting. Called Azza, the horse never made money because, as the trainer told Mara: “She just loves to run. Not race. Not win. Just run.” It suited Mara fine. Mara threw a looped rope around the horse’s neck then opened the stall door and vaulted astride.

When she came back to Strange she came home. Before tonight, she would have been sure Ben was not one of them. Being in Strange meant taking care of their bonds and learning to work it out, because they had to or they were all lost. He hadn’t forgotten the important things.

Ben

If there was thing he appreciated about the central valley summer it was the way night settled on a warm breeze over the sun soaked hills. He dropped off his car, opened up the windows to let the house air out and decided to go for a walk. Sisyphus and the faded yellow dog were out front at Tina’s. He waved as he passed. The lights were on at Four Corners and he wandered in without thinking. Martinez greeted him with a six-pack and they drank four in companionable silence on the porch.

Just before midnight, he declined the wad of chew but took the offered beer and started for home. He forgot to ask for directions. He wondered if Mara cracked a beer once in a while and what she was like when she had a few. Had she outgrown the churlish giggle that drifted up through his memories of riding behind her on the sway-backed pony? He was walking toward where the house should be – or maybe where it was yesterday or the day before – when he heard hoof beats.

A coal black horse stared down at him. “I have to show you something.”

Talking horse? Nonplussed, he looked higher. From the horse’s bare back, Mara smiled down at him as if reading his mind.

“You want me to ride?” He asked.

It hadn’t seemed so scary when he was ten and the horse had been a lot smaller.

“That’s the plan,” she said.

He took a deep breath and shrugged. “As long as I’m not driving.”

She maneuvered the horse next to the fence. He climbed onto the low rail and wavered. She offered her hand. It was warm and callused across the palm and fingertips. He slipped. She sighed.

“Don’t you remember how to get on?”

“It’s been a while, Mar.”

He got it on the second try, only just.

“Have you been drinking?”

“Martinez,” he grunted by way of explanation as hung on.

She caught him before he slid off and spent a minute calming the startled horse.

“Hold onto me, and whatever you do, don’t kick,” she said.

The horse felt like flesh-covered steel beneath him. Its every breath pressed against the insides of his thighs. He scooted closer and wrapped his arms around her waist, resisting the urge to look down at the ground. The scent of lavender and alfalfa came from the hundreds of thinly twisted locs pressed between them. She clucked and the horse started to walk. He lost track of the time and the distance they traveled. It took the better part of his concentration to hold on to her.

When he looked up again they were in the hills outside the town. Strange lay before them, an imperfect grid of houses and shops splaying out to a rambling assortment of barns and sheds, ranches and orchards around the edges.

She faced the town and the horse dropped its head, grazing.

“No one knows how it does what it does, Strange,” Mara said. “But you can feel it, when it changes.”

“How often?”

“It’s not every night these days,” she said. “But if it does it’ll be soon.”

It started slow, the air shifting the same way heat waves did rising off pavement. When he glanced up, the stars wavered in the sky. The more he tried to follow the shifting movement the more it evaded focus. Instead he watched the houses as each one became less distinct. As the waves dissipated the towns new placements were revealed.

Memories hit him physically, knocking the wind from his chest. In the strongest one they lay belly down in the grass and shoulder to shoulder, counting the stars that streaked across the sky until one of them nudged the other.

“It’s starting.”

“What do you see?”

“Nothing yet.”

“There it is?!”

The familiar clench in his gut, like vertigo or an earthquake.

“Oh where’s the ranch?”

“By Jansen’s.”

“Bet I can find the Post Office first.”

Ben returned to himself. Did she realize she had let her weight go, leaning into him? “How many times did we do this?”

“Almost every night until you left for good.”

Mara

When Strange shifted she saw a patchwork quilt being rearranged before the seams were set. She watched Mrs. Jensen’s house rise and spin over the Post Office, and Tina’s diner drift a falling leaf into place past Elm on Third. Her own ranch on the edge of town slid sideways and Nana Goodwin’s place wiggled underneath it, settling in the space at the bottom of the long driveway.

“You snuck out most nights,” she said. “Your dad thought I was a bad influence.”

“He said you didn’t know how to be a girl,” Ben said.

She snorted and gave her calves a squeeze, indicating to the giant horse: move on.

“Stay put,” she said to Ben.

She asked the mare for a jog and then an easy lope. Ben’s grip on her tightened and his body tensed. Relax, she willed him, remember. She didn’t ask for a walk until they reached the edges of town. Behind her, Ben began to breathe again.

“You okay back there?”

“I’ll live,” he said.

“You used to like that part,” she said.

She laughed as the horse’s hooves clopped on the pavement.

“Why did you leave Strange?” he said.

“Is this part of your interview?”

“Will you answer if I say yes?”

“Strange seemed small at 18,” she said. “Hell, you told me I should come to the city.”

She was glad he couldn’t see her face flush. Azza halted at the touch of the rope on her neck, nosing the rose bushes beside Nana Goodwin’s gate.

He slid down from the horse and looked up at her. “Can you come in?”

She looked at him, eyebrows raised.

“I finally got you talking,” he said.

“Only if I can leave my horse in your yard,” she said.

“I suppose so.” He cracked a tired smile.

He apologized about the state of the house twice before they reached the front door, and once more after he’d found the lights. She sat down at the table where he’d spread his research from Woodland, flipping through the photocopied pages and notes.

He returned with an armload of photos and a dust-coated bottle of wine unearthed from the back of the pantry. Frames clattered against each other. The loose ones fluttered as he walked. He wobbled to the table and she caught the top one as it slid off the pile. She held the Polaroid of a little boy standing next to a girl on a skinny brown pony. The day he left Strange. He dumped the photos on the table.

“Tell me,” Ben said. “Remind me, of these stories.”

She handed him the Polaroid in exchange for a glass of wine.

“Your dad thought we were pretty crazy for sticking around,” she said. “You told him it would be boring to live anywhere where everything stayed the same. I guess he figured it was time to get you out of here before you were lost completely.”

“The Founders.” She held up another photo.

In this one, toned sepia with age, a team of heavy-set horses stood in front of the original Four Corners Market, pulling a wagon load of grinning kids that could have come out of a multicultural 70’s Coke commercial.

“A bargain was made, three maybe four generations back,” she said. “We asked for help to live together. This is what we got.”

“And Strange has rearranged itself ever since?”

“Or Martinez fixes it the way it needs to be,” she said. “The man is older than dirt and he always seems to know what’s going on. Odd, huh.”

She pulled out another set of pictures – teenaged Jansen and Fitzgerald girls standing arm and arm beside crates full of artichokes labeled with the Jansen logo. In the next, young a couple stood on the steps of the little chapel on their wedding day. He recognized Nana’s script: Mr. and Mrs. Manuel Fonseca. Manny’s parents. When he yawned she stopped telling stories.

“I should go,” she said, rising from the table. “These are good memories and without Nana we have no one to keep them safe.”

When he put his hand on hers she knew loneliness because of its sudden absence. They went up the stairs together, two at a time.

She woke up alone in the dark. She slipped on her jeans and t-shirt, carrying her boots to avoid clacking across the floor. Ben slumped over the dining room table in front of his laptop in a pair of shorts, his breath deep in the crook of his folded arm. Her heart beat hard against her collarbones. She brushed her finger across the touchpad and the screen came up with the title bar “Small Strange Town, For Weekender Magazine.”

He’d described everything in unmistakable detail.

If he had his way, Strange wouldn’t belong to just them anymore. He blinked owlishly at the sound of the laptop fan and she jumped. He looked from her to the screen and back.

“Mara-”

“Still working on that story?” She said.

He wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“Damn you Ben Goodwin,” she said. “You saw it. You know what it is. Why would you threaten it?”

The center of her ribcage had the same sharp pain as when a horse landed a kick.

“Mar, wait.” He caught her arm.

“When I got to the city, I thought I would find something better than what’s here,” she said. “You know there’s nothing better than Strange. I’m not gonna lose that. Publish your story Ben. We’ll deny every damn word of it.”

“It’s a great story, Mara,” he said, his voice tender. “I don’t mean any harm. If people come here it might save the town.”

“We don’t need saving but from folks like you,” she said. She yanked her arm free.

In the front yard, Azza had grazed Nana Goodwin’s roses to the thorny stems with the pleased expression of a child given free rein at a candy dish. The mare had also left a steaming pile right in front of the gate to the driveway where Ben’s Saab was parked. Mara noted it with distinct satisfaction as she vaulted astride and rode away. She was feeding horses an hour later when Manny staggered down to the barn, yawning.

“No more midnight marathons, Bub,” she said. “Get that truck ready to leave, we’ve gotta take the grey to the gal in Santa Rosa today. If we leave by 10 we can catch dinner and a movie.”

His eyes grew wide. “In the theater?”

She grinned.

“Sure, we’ll get a nice steak somewhere and a movie or two.”

He vanished into the house. After she finished dumping hay she spent a long moment watching the horses. They were much better at figuring out how to live with each other. We’ve lost a lot, she considered, getting civilized.

Ben

He watched the plume of dust rise behind the Chevy as it towed a shiny slant load horse trailer out of town. He thought of Mara sleeping soundly in the space he’d never known was empty, and the sound hooves on the lawn as she rode away.

When the truck disappeared he went back into the house and finished packing his bag. The screen on his laptop registered new mail – the phone had been working this morning so at least he had dialup. His editor wanted a status update on the story.

He stopped at Tina’s for lunch though his stomach felt as if a rock had settled in the space it used to be.

“You leaving hoy, mijo?” Tina refilled his iced tea.

“That’s the story,” he said.

“Gonna miss you, ¿lo sabes verdad?” she said. He found himself missing her already. She cleared his table and smiled. “Persistent, more than most.”

“Terco, necedad.” Stubborn, he said. Amazing how much had come back to him almost overnight.

“That’s Strange folk for you.” She laughed, shaking her head. “We have to be to make it out here. Don’t be gone por mucho tiempo Ben, ¿me escuchas?”

He promised to come back soon and left a big tip. Driving out of town he stopped at Four Corners to say goodbye.

“How’s that story,” Martinez said.

“Stranger than most,” Ben joked.

Manny

Mara drives to Woodland every Sunday since Ben left. Sometimes I go along if she says we can stop at the library. She buys Ben’s paper, turns every page and then throws it all away. At the library she searches the Internet for his name. I don’t know why she’s searching; when Ben calls the house once a week she shakes her head at me when I answer the phone. He asks me about the pup Martinez said I could keep and school. He’s gotten pretty good at not sounding disappointed cause she never calls back. One Sunday, she finds it. We stand at the corner of Cherry and Main in Woodland while she reads every last word.

“He didn’t do it,” Mara says, hugging me so hard I think my ribs might crack.

On the way home I read it too. The article is called, “Small Strange Towns,” but there’s nothing about our Strange at all. At the bottom it says writer Benjamin Goodwin lives in Strange, California and is taking a break to work on his first novel.

I wonder if he’ll be home when we get there.

____
Copyright 2013 Rashida J. Smith

Rashida J. Smith is a Pacific Northwest based writer. She blogs occasionally at www.rashidajsmith.com but can be found more often on Pinterest as reddiesmith and Twitter @eddygrrl. Some folks call her Eddie. It’s a long story.

by Ken Liu

The fifteenth day of the first month in the seventh year of the Huayin Era:

The old man, Hae-wook Lee, had been bedridden for months. He lay on the sleeping mat, wrapped in a blanket. The drugs helped him sleep, and forget about the harsh words of his son.

It was an unseasonably warm winter day, here in this corner of Northeast Asia. Though the fire in the kitchen hearth next door had been extinguished, the gudeul smoke passages below the floor would continue to radiate residual heat for several hours. The room was so warm that the maid, Kyoon, had left the windows open to give the old man some fresh air, dry and invigorating after the new snow of the day before.

He dreamt that he was having a dinner of gogi gui. That pretty girl from years ago served him. He felt a pang of regret.

The marinated meats made his mouth water, and he felt the heat from the grill on his face. He reached out to pour some water on the grill to lower the heat a bit, but the grill only grew hotter.

The old man coughed and could not breathe. He opened his eyes. Smoke filled the room, and tongues of flame licked the ceiling and the walls. The straw mats, wooden furniture, and even the jangpan paper floor were all on fire. He cried out for help, but no one came.

“Mistress, a man is here to see the old Master.” Jiyin, thirteen, her face still showing baby fat, knelt by the door to the kitchen.

The woman she addressed was barely more than a girl herself, but she carried herself with an air far older than her nineteen years. Sui-Wei Far was dressed all in white, wore no makeup, and her dark tresses were pinned into a knot covered with a white kerchief. Grief had made her eyes red and tired.

She nodded and stood up.

“Jiyin, finish making the offering to the hearth spirits in here for me. Be sure to thank them for keeping the food from our kitchen healthy and safe these last few weeks, when we were all so distracted. And then bring out tea for the guest.”

Sui-Wei went to the front hall and knelt so that the silk screen in the middle of the room hid her from the view of the male guest, in accordance with the precepts of her Confucian teachers.

“Honored Guest, you wish to see my father?” She bowed.

Through the silk screen, the hazy outline of the man bowed back. “I am Yeon-joo Lee, son of the silk merchant Hae-wook Lee. I have urgent business to discuss with Litigator Far.”

The mention of her father’s name made the grief fresh again. She struggled to keep her voice as calm as the surface of a lotus pond. “My father passed away last week.”

The hazy shoulders slumped. “My condolences. I just lost my father as well.” His voice sounded young, uncertain. “Is there a young master who will carry on Master Far’s trade?”

“I am my father’s only child.”

“That is too bad. An innocent girl’s life is at stake.”

She thought about the times, when she was younger, when her father would take her on investigations, have her copy out petitions to the magistrates, explain to her the intricacies of the law, lay the evidence before her and ask her to explain how she thought the deed was done.

“If only you weren’t a girl,” her father would say. “You are brighter than any apprentice I’ve instructed, and you would make a fine litigator.”

“Stop talking nonsense,” her mother would say, back when she was still alive. “You need to think about finding her a husband. Men do not want their wives running about assisting criminals.”

Jiyin came in with a tray of tea and snacks, knelt, and poured two cups, placing one on each side of the screen.

What would her father have wanted?

She reached out and pushed the silk screen aside, ignoring Jiyin’s gasp of surprise. Yeon-joo, as she had suspected, was barely in his twenties, and his eye were kind, if sad.

“I am Litigatrix Sui-Wei Far. How can I be of assistance?”

“The ignorant think that litigators turn black into white, guilt into innocence. That is not so,” her father had said. “A litigator must always seek out the truth, and defend only the truly innocent.”

It was not always easy to find the truth in the chaos of Yiefeng, capital of Dawul.

The tiny kingdom, founded by a Chinese general who had escaped the turmoil of the civil wars in China at the end of the last dynasty, occupied a few hundred square li on the border between China and Korea. Its inhabitants were a mix of Chinese, Koreans, Mongols, and Jurchens. Beijing left Dawul alone because Dawul carefully acknowledged Chinese suzerainty, and Hanseong left Dawul alone because the Korean kings deemed it too much trouble to conquer such a small mountainous state.

So Dawul made itself into a trading hub, and Yiefeng was filled with adventurers of all stripes: Chinese merchants and Korean nobles, masterless ronins escaping the incessant wars between the daimyos in Japan, Christian and Buddhist missionaries, rogue Tibetan smugglers, and even voyagers from distant Europe with blond and red hair.

Crimes were bad for business, and worse for the collection of taxes. The kings of Dawul ran an efficient system of yamen courts. The magistrates investigated crimes and prosecuted criminals, determined guilt and meted out punishment.

“The magistrates mean well,” her father had said. “But they often make mistakes in their haste and zeal. Though they despise the litigators, our work is crucial. We cast doubt on their theories, force them to examine and consider all the evidence. And when a man is wrongly accused, litigators are the only ones who can save his life.”

Yeon-joo and Sui-Wei walked through the smoldering ruins of the Lee house. She spoke to him in Korean, and he to her in Chinese, each trying to make the other feel comfortable. Through the piles of rubble capped by broken ceramic shingles, the general layout could still be discerned.

Though a prosperous merchant, Hae-wook’s house was tiny and modest, combining both Korean and Chinese features. It followed a square plan around a central courtyard that provided light and ventilation. On the north and abutting the street was the front hall, where the old man received guests and conducted business. Other residents along the street, a little-trafficked thoroughfare connecting two much larger avenues, saw no strangers pass through on the day of the fire. They did report seeing the maid, Kyoon, leave the house during the first hour after noon, and Yeon-joo himself left about a quarter of an hour later.

Beyond the front hall, the central courtyard was filled with potted bonsai (all consumed by the fire) and several large scholars’ rocks. To the west of the courtyard were the kitchen and the maid’s room, and to the east, Yeon-joo’s room and the study, where the old man had kept his books and did his correspondence. It would have been impossible for intruders to enter the house from either direction due to the thick, windowless, brick firewalls that separated the house from the neighbors.

South of the courtyard was Hae-wook’s bedroom, where he had been confined due to his illness. The bedroom had outside windows facing south, and when healthy, the old man had enjoyed the view, where, beyond a grassy yard and a sharp bank, a small stream flowed past. A close examination revealed no sign of anyone having climbed up the bank recently.

By the time the fire brigade had been summoned, the entire house was already in flames. No one could say definitively where the fire had started.

Magistrate Wu and two of his inspectors were on site, along with a couple of other men, likely friends of the dead merchant. One of the men was a thin Portuguese with light brown curly hair. Another was older, bald, and dressed in the furs of a Jurchen merchant.

“Yeon-joo,” Magistrate Wu said, “I am now even more convinced that this was a case of arson, and that your maid Kyoon was the perpetrator. Except for you and Kyoon, no one else could have entered the house and then left without being seen by any witnesses. You, of course, are above suspicion.”

“Could it not have been an accident?” The Portuguese ventured. “The underfloor heating system must be prone to the risk of fire.” His Chinese was accented with both the flavor of his native tongue and the speech of the southern coast of China.

The Magistrate shook his head. “I’ve examined the masonry floor and the underfloor heating passages and found no cracks. The fire must have started in the kitchen. Although Yeon-joo said that he saw no flames in the hearth after lunch, it’s likely that the maid banked the fire so low as to escape his notice. The key is that the girl acted very suspiciously. Inspectors found her at her parents’ house, agitated and in distress. When they told her that her master’s house had burnt down, she fainted. A search of the premises revealed a small pouch of jewelry that the family claimed to be ‘gifts’ from her employer – likely story! It’s a pretty plain case of a greedy servant committing theft followed by murder to cover up her tracks.”

“Kyoon is not a murderer,” Yeon-joo said. “The jewels were gifts from my father to the family for her long service.”

“Yet the family could produce no letter indicating it was a gift. Surely they would have treasured such a letter from Master Lee.”

Yeon-joo had no answer for this. But he went on, stubbornly. “Kyoon was nervous because any sixteen-year old girl would by frightened by the sight of the police showing up at her house. You must catch the real killer. I’ve retained Miss Far to prove her innocence.”

Magistrate Wu eyed Sui-Wei, who shifted awkwardly under his intense gaze. “I did not know that you were taking up your father’s habit of arguing with the law. This is hardly a suitable pursuit for a lady of good breeding.”

Sui-Wei stiffened. “Is it not in accordance with the teachings of Confucius, Your Honor, for a child to aspire to be viewed with the same estimation as her father? Whence the dishonor?”

The Magistrate’s face grew red, and he coughed to cover his embarrassment.

“Based on what I’ve heard of Master Far, the young lady has apparently inherited her father’s quick wit,” the Portuguese said. He winked at Sui-Wei, who smiled back politely.

Still, it’s best to not make the Magistrate angry with her. “Your Honor, my father spoke often of your fairness and willingness to be persuaded. I would rather have your respect than the respect of the gossiping public.”

The judge softened his gaze. “Though he constantly vexed me with his questions and arguments, I appreciated the zeal your father brought to the pursuit of the truth. I’ll see you in court in two weeks, when I’ll try her.”

Sui-Wei bowed in farewell as Magistrate Wu departed.

Yeon-joo introduced her to the Portuguese, who had adopted the Chinese name Ben-Ni Lo and was in Dawul to purchase furs and silks for export to Europe, and the Jurchen merchant, whose name was Aguda, both a friend and competitor of the Lees. They offered Yeon-joo their condolences. Aguda and Ben-Ni did not know each other but bowed respectfully.

“I came as soon as I heard, as I was out of town on business until this morning,” Aguda said. “It will be hard to run the business on your own. Please do not hesitate to call on me for help. It has long been my dream to partner with the Lee name.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t get to see Old Master Lee one more time,” Ben-Ni said. “He had very strong ideas about how things ought to be done and I respected that. But perhaps you’ll consider some changes that can only be advantageous to his legacy.”

Keeping one ear on the conversation, Sui-Wei examined the scholars’ rocks. Carved from natural sedimentary formations at the bottoms of lakes, these rocks were as tall as a man and full of holes from eons of erosion. Contemplating their thin, wrinkled shapes and thousands of open perforations was said to cultivate the mind for more elegant thoughts. Although they were now covered in soot and water from the fire brigade, Sui-Wei, careless of her dress, knelt down to examine the lower holes. She saw bits of paper that had been trapped in them and thus saved from the fire. Reaching in with her hand, she retrieved what seemed to be fragments of accounting records and personal letters, as well as a decorative rooster cut from red paper.

“Might Miss Far permit me to call on her at some point in the near future?”

Sui-Wei straightened and saw that the speaker was Ben-Ni. She blushed at the rudeness of the bold request. The way he stared at her openly with his hazel eyes was unnerving – but she also felt flattered by his attention. “I shall be at your service.”

“And I shall repay you by showing you some of the wonders of Europe, unknown in Asia.”

Aguda gave Ben-Ni a surprised and calculating look. “You aren’t thinking of getting in trouble with the law, are you?”

“Not at all. But it’s always a good idea for a merchant from far away to know men – and women – who can defend him in local courts.”

“You might want to purchase some jade ornaments from me. They improve luck, especially the sort that keeps legal troubles away.”

Sui-Wei continued to the south side of the house, next to the bank. The fire had melted the snow and ice covering the yard, revealing the dead grass below. In several spots, the grass lay flat, as if something heavy had been placed there.

“The fire destroyed Old Master Lee’s collection of ice sculpture too,” Aguda said. “He, a far more poetic man than I, said that they reminded him of the transient nature of all life. I just like making them as a hobby. I had given him an ice statue of a dancing girl drummer for his birthday last month, but the statue is now gone, like the recipient, long before the natural course of life.”

Kyoon, the accused maid, huddled in terror in her holding cell, and it took many minutes before Sui-Wei was able to coax the young girl’s story out of her.

On the morning of the day of the fire, the girl had followed her routine. She gave the old master breakfast, cleaned the house, and then served an early lunch. Afterwards, while the old man took his afternoon nap, she left to run errands and to visit her parents. She had made sure that the fire in the hearth was put out.

Yeon-joo confirmed her account. He had studied in his room all morning, and saw Kyoon from time to time. He spoke to the old man briefly after lunch, and then left the house to check on the warehouse in another part of the city. Before he left, he checked to be sure that his father was safely asleep, and that nothing was out of place in the kitchen.

“What did you buy at the butcher’s?” Sui-Wei asked the maid.

“Rib tips.”

“For the Chinese radish and pork soup?”

“Yes, the master likes it for the cold winter nights.”

Sui-Wei silently berated herself. It was just like a woman to be interested in such irrelevant trivia about groceries and cooking. Her father would never have asked such stupid questions.

But her father had also told her, “Don’t overlook details. You never know which thread will untangle the whole mess.”

She told the doubting voice in her head to be quiet.

“After the butcher shop, your last stop, you went to your parents?”

“Yes, straight away.”

“Which path did you take?”

“By the city gates. It’s longer, but I like to walk through the market there.”

“Oh, I like the hanfu dresses there too. The Su family’s styles are striking this year.”

“Yes, Miss Far. Though I couldn’t see their display that day. The hour was late, and they were deep in shade under the awning.”

And on and on it went. Sui-Wei found out nothing of any use.

The only point on which she did not feel entirely confident of Kyoon’s answers concerned the small pouch of jewels found in her house. She claimed that they were gifts from the old master, and Yeon-joo confirmed it.

“But it’s very unusual for employers to give a maid such generous gifts without a formal letter of explanation. Was there a special reason?”

Kyoon looked at Yeon-joo with terrified eyes and the young man took over. “My father had always been generous with servants. He felt a special bond with Kyoon and her family because her mother used to work for him before her marriage, and Kyoon herself has worked for us ever since she was a little girl.”

Sui-Wei remained unconvinced. Something about the way Kyoon looked at Yeon-joo troubled her.

Just because Magistrate Wu said there were no witnesses didn’t mean that it was true.

Sui-Wei and Jiyin arrived at the ruins of the Lee house just after dusk, the hour of dinner. Yeon-joo was staying temporarily as a guest with Aguda, so the place was deserted.

“Mistress, I don’t like ghosts,” Jiyin said, shivering in the darkness.

“Don’t worry. We’re just here to visit the household hearth spirits.”

Jiyin was relieved. Men did not pay much attention to the lowly hearth spirits. But Sui-Wei and Jiyin always took care to keep up the offerings to their own house hearth spirits for safety from fire and for the rice to not be burnt. From a basket, Jiyin took out dumplings and candied fruits and set them out on small plates in what remained of the hearth. Sui-Wei lit the candles beside them and began to pray.

“Honored Spirits of the Hearth of the Lee Family, it is time for dinner to be made. I have rekindled the flames in this cold hearth.”

Poor spirits, she thought. The hearth spirits were having a hard time these days, with so many households converting to Christianity and driving them out. Homeless spirits could sometimes squeeze in at hearths in other houses. But no spirits would want to share the hearth with refugees from a burnt-down house because they were bad luck. In this cold winter, it would not be many days before they faded away with no sustaining fire.

Gradually, as the flames from the candles flickered in the wind, two translucent forms, an old man and an old woman, appeared in their faint glow.

Thank you. Thank you.

“Honored Spirits, can you tell me what you remember of the fire?”

Terrible light.

Sui-Wei had to strain to hear their weak voices above the wind.

So hot. So bright.

“Did you see how the fire started?”

From the sky. From the floor. From the sky. From the floor.

Sui-Wei frowned. They were not making any sense.

“Did you see who started the fire?”

The couple began to dance. The old man jumped about, holding an imaginary buk barrel drum over his shoulder and hitting it with an imaginary stick.

Tum-tum, tum-tum. The old man and woman chanted as they danced.

“You are celebrating,” Sui-Wei whispered. An idea hit her. “A celebration involves fireworks. You’re saying that the fire began when someone launched lit fireworks into the house? That’s what you meant by ‘from the sky’?” But that couldn’t be. Somebody would have seen or heard the explosions.

The old couple ignored her and began to bicker.

She’s your flesh and blood!

I’ve done all I can for her.

Not nearly enough.

Sui-Wei shook her head. She had come too late. The spirits were old, and the destruction of the house must have shocked them and driven them mad.

Jiyin was flabbergasted. For a man to visit an unmarried woman at such a late hour was scandalous. But Sui-Wei told her that it would be even ruder to refuse him entry.

Jiyin made a show of banging the teakettle in the kitchen as loudly as possible.

Oblivious of the lack of welcome, Ben-Ni sat down. “Miss Far, I hope the investigation is going well.”

“Actually, I’ve made no progress at all.”

“You seem exhausted. Perhaps a conversation with a foreigner would help you think of a new perspective on familiar persons and things. Ah, perspective, that is what I have come to show you, a marvel of European ingenuity.”

Ben-Ni pulled out a metal tube from his traveling pouch and went into the courtyard. Sui-Wei was intrigued. Like her father, she enjoyed learning about all sorts of subjects.

He set up the instrument on a stand so that it pointed into the sky, peered through the lower end, made some adjustments, and gestured for Sui-Wei to take a look for herself.

It was a view of the Moon, but a Moon that was much closer and bigger. She gasped and pulled back.

Ben-Ni laughed. “This is a telescope. It employs the principles of optics to magnify distant objects.”

Sui-Wei bent down again. The Moon appeared as a piece of jade etched with dark shadows and patterns. She looked in vain for signs of the Rabbit and the Osmanthus Tree from the fairy tales of her childhood.

“Astounding,” she murmured.

“The mechanical inventions of Europe are as delightful as the fine water silk of Korea, and such marvels ought to be shared. But Korea forbids her merchants from selling to us because we sell weapons to Japan.”

“Is that why you wanted to trade with Master Hae-wook Lee here in Dawul, to get around the restrictions?”

Ben-Ni nodded. “I was willing to offer him higher prices and an exclusive on European goods, but Lee was suspicious and did not want to offend his buyers in China, and he saw no use in my mechanical clocks and other ‘toys.’ His son, however, is much like yourself, and intrigued by the possibilities of the new. I understand that father and son did not get along.”

Sui-Wei filed away this information in her head.

She asked Ben-Ni to explain the principles of optics, and pressed him to sketch out the means by which lenses focused and bent light. Ben-Ni then excitedly trained the telescope on another part of the sky. As Sui-Wei bent to look through the tube, Ben-Ni hovered behind her and put one hand on her shoulder.

Sui-Wei froze and looked back, but Ben-Ni’s guileless face, eagerly anticipating her reaction, showed that he had not meant to insult her. She tried to relax, and gazed at the rings of Saturn through the telescope. But her mind was not among the stars. She blushed at the heat of his body, transmitted through his hand and her thin dress.

Long after Ben-Ni left, she remembered the feel of his hand.

“Did your father have enemies?”

They were walking back from an interview with Kyoon’s parents, a simple couple. The mother had moved to Yiefeng from the countryside twenty years earlier and found work as a maid for Hae-wook Lee, and the father was a Jurchen laborer. They shed no light on the situation.

Yeon-joo chose his words carefully. “I don’t know my father very well. As a boy, I was sent away to study in China, and returned only last year. But I believe that he was a careful and fair man. While he made sure that he got his due, he did not exact unfair advantage from his trading partners. The only man who might dislike him is Aguda. My father and he were fierce competitors, but it was my father, not Aguda, who won the license to import Korean silk. They were civil to each other though, and Aguda visited my father during his illness.”

“But he was away on the day of the fire.”

“Right. And he’s been pleasant to me since then, offering to acquire my father’s – my – Korean silk license and our entire inventory on hand until I can get my affairs sorted out to buy the license back from him. Indeed, I’m staying with him now. His offer is low, but I might have to take it. The fire destroyed all our business records, and it will take a while to reconstruct accounts and customer lists.”

They had passed by the Lee warehouse earlier. Sui-Wei remembered glancing at the lifeless building, doors locked, the snow in front pristine, unsullied by the footprints of laborers and buyers, as though it were in mourning for its master.

Sui-Wei stopped at the market to purchase food for dinner. She had been running the household since her mother’s death, and she didn’t mind doing the errands herself.

“Could I have some rib tips?”

“I’ve none left,” the butcher said. “Everybody wants rib tips for soup in the winter. You have to come early if you want them.”

Disappointed, Sui-Wei settled for some inferior pigs’ feet.

“I’ll walk you back to Aguda’s,” she offered.

Aguda’s house was in the style of a Jurchen hunting lodge. There was no central courtyard, and all the rooms were in a row.

“Please excuse my appearance,” Aguda said, laughing as he wiped the sweat from his face and neck with a cloth. “I was not expecting visitors.”

“Master Aguda has been pursuing his hobby,” Yeon-joo said. “He’s the best ice sculptor in Yiefeng.”

“Young Master Lee is far too kind.”

“Why don’t you show Miss Far your workshop?” Yeon-joo asked.

“Oh, it’s dark and damp and cold, hardly a place for a lady.”

Sui-Wei’s face grew hot at this. “No, I do want to see it. I am not so delicate.”

Reluctantly, Aguda led them through a shed into an underground ice cellar. There was an empty workspace in the middle, lit by several large oil lamps backed with curved, silvered mirrors to focus the light. Sui-Wei appreciated the novel design of the lamps, now that she had learned something about optics from Ben-Ni. Aguda was clearly a clever man to have discovered such principles on his own.

“I keep this cellar insulated with straw and stock it with river ice all winter so I can work even in summer.”

The sculpture he was working on was a great ice dragon, half finished, so that it seemed as if the translucent creature was leaping out of a block of ice. Chisel and hammer lay on a bench nearby, testifying to Aguda’s exertions.

She looked around the cellar and saw ice wolves, soldiers, dancers lifting buk drums over their heads.

“Was this one of the sculptures you gave to Master Lee?”

Aguda nodded, his face clouding over with sorrow.

She walked closer to examine the sculpture. The ice dancer stood on her tiptoes, lifting the buk high over her head, one of the flat surfaces tilted slightly downwards. Sui-Wei imagined the statue outside the window of Hae-wook’s bedroom. Even lying down, the old man would have been able to see the girl’s head and arms, and of course the drum, glowing bright with the sun behind it.

“I stand in the presence of a great artist,” Sui-Wei said.

Aguda brushed away the compliment with a laugh that sounded forced.

The cold and stale air in the ice cellar made Sui-Wei uncomfortable, and the flickering shadows unsettled her. Aguda’s demeanor was not exactly warm. Everything made her want to leave.

She grew annoyed with herself. Her father had often gone into shadowy places and met with distrust. If she was going to carry on her father’s legacy, she had to be bolder. She decided to ask for something from this cellar to prove that she was not frightened.

“May I ask for a memento of my visit?” She asked. “I truly admire your art.” She pointed to a small, rough cylinder of ice on a workbench.

Shadows flickered across Aguda’s face, but he soon grinned. “That is nothing more than the core I drilled out of the model of a well.”

Sui-Wei forced herself to overcome her natural instinct to be diffident. She had to learn to push. “Nevertheless, I’d like to have it, if you would honor me so.”

Aguda handed it to her wordlessly. One end of the cylinder of ice had carved markings that imitated the rim of a well. He was telling the truth.

She thanked Aguda, and the three emerged from the cellar to take tea in the backyard. It was a bright day, but still not too warm.

Sui-Wei placed the ice core next to her on the swept earth. In natural sunlight, she noticed that the ice cylinder seemed to be grey. Looking closer, she saw that many fine particles were suspended in the translucent ice, giving it the dark coloration instead of the expected brilliant, cloudy white.

The warm teacup in her hands chased the memories of the chill and dank ice cellar away. They chatted of inconsequential things.

After tea, Sui-Wei stood up to say goodbye. But as she bent down to pick up her memento, she saw only a tiny frog carved from ice, but ice so clear that the frog almost disappeared against the ground.

She picked it up in her palm, amazed. “How was this done?”

Aguda scratched his head and mumbled, “I was trying to make a sculpture of the frog at the bottom of the well. I wasn’t sure it would work.”

Sui-Wei remembered the dirty appearance of the ice cylinder. “You carved the frog first, out of the clearest river ice, with no trapped air or imperfections. Then you immersed it in a solution of water and fine river silt, so that the frog was frozen inside a column of dark ice. Just like how we sprinkle coal dust to melt ice before doorways, the dark ice of the ‘well’ melts first to reveal the clear ice frog within.”

“Miss Far is indeed wise,” said Aguda. “I’m certain that the truth of Master Lee’s murder will soon be revealed to your gaze just as this frog has been revealed by the heat of the sun.”

As Sui-Wei handed Jiyin the basket of groceries, she paused and considered the pigs’ feet, a poor substitute for rib tips.

You have to come early if you want them.

“You lied,” Sui-Wei said.

Kyoon began to cry. She put her arms around her knees and rocked herself.

“You bought rib tips on the day of the fire. Many favor the cut for its richness in these cold winter days, and the butcher generally sells out by early afternoon. The distance between the butcher’s and your family’s house is only a quarter of an hour’s walk. Yet you told me that you could not see the Su family’s dress display in the shadow of late afternoon. There’s a missing hour or more in your account of the day.”

Mixed in with Sui-Wei’s disappointment was also some pride. This was a detail that even her father might have missed. A woman’s detail.

“Tell me how you really spent the hours between the butcher shop and your family.” Is the girl guilty after all?

“I can’t. I just can’t.” The girl wiped the tears with her sleeves. “I didn’t start the fire. I would never do anything to harm the old master.”

Instinctively, Sui-Wei believed the girl. But, she is hiding some other secret.

The maid’s face was porcelain white from the lack of sunlight and nourishing food, pale like the pristine snow before the Lee warehouse.

No one had been there since the last snow, which was on the day before the fire.

Sui-Wei shuddered. Yeon-joo did not go to the warehouse on the day of the fire. He had lied too.

In her mind, she saw again how the frightened girl had looked to Yeon-joo for direction the last time she was here.

She took a gamble.

“You met Yeon-joo.”

The girl stopped crying and stared at her, her mouth open in shock.

Sui-Wei’s heart pounded in her chest.

He gave you those jewels, didn’t he? You were in love and he wanted to give your parents your bride price.”

But the girl emphatically shook her head. “No, no. The young master … it’s ridiculous, what you suggest.”

Again, Sui-Wei believed the girl. If Yeon-joo was not in love with her, then what was he doing meeting the maid in secret?

She made a show of nodding in approval. “Good. That shows the proper mindset of a servant. Young Master Lee already told me everything. He could not allow you to speak freely last time because prison guards were around. Just now, I was testing you, to make sure you weren’t getting any wrong ideas after all he’s done for you.”

Kyoon sighed in relief. “Thank you, Miss Far. But you’re like the young master, kind, yet unpredictable.”

“He really shocked you that day, didn’t he?”

“Oh yes. That morning, when he and the old master shouted and argued, I was so scared that I ran into the kitchen and hid behind the woodpile. But he caught me later on my way to my parents’ and insisted on giving me the bag of jewels. I was so confused.”

Sui-Wei tried to keep her voice level. “He told me you had a nice long chat.”

Kyoon nodded. “He asked me so many questions. What it was like when I was little, what foods did I enjoy, what did I think of the old master. And then he asked me whether I heard what he and the old master were arguing about. I said no because I was so scared that I stuffed my fingers in my ears. He said that was fine. Just don’t ever talk about the argument, or our chat. And he said that the jewels were from the old master. ‘It’s what you deserve.’”

Sui-Wei’s mind was a chaotic mess. She paced around her room and waved Jiyin away in irritation when she came to inquire about dinner.

Kyoon and Yeon-joo were the only two who had access to the Lee house on the day of the fire. They were the only plausible suspects.

The good news is that her client was innocent. The bad news is that her employer was probably the murderer.

Yeon-joo had admitted that he was not close to his father. And Ben-Ni had indicated that there was tension between the father and the son over the direction of their business. Impatient with the old man’s conservative approach, was Yeon-joo tempted by the idea of getting his father out of the way?

The argument that morning was probably the last straw. Once Kyoon was out of the house, Yeon-joo had ample opportunity to start the fire and leave, or even kill Hae-wook in sleep and use the fire to destroy the evidence. The chase after Kyoon, the jewels, the extracted promise of secrecy—these were the actions of a man intent on silencing a witness with bribes to cover his tracks. His insistence that the jewels were a gift from his father was a lie to get Kyoon to accept the jewels. The questions he asked the girl were probably intended to test whether she lacked sophistication and could be easily dominated and manipulated.

Or, even more deviously, were the jewels an attempt to make the authorities suspect Kyoon? In that case, hiring Sui-Wei Far to defend Kyoon just added another layer of deception. After all, who would suspect the person paying to defend the accused of intending to frame her for murder?

Sui-Wei gritted her teeth. Yeon-joo probably picked Sui-Wei Far as the litigator specifically because of her lack of experience. He thought she could be easily fooled.

“Which would you obey,” she asked, “your employer or your conscience?”

Sui-Wei had agreed to help Ben-Ni select a suitable jade ornament from Aguda’s eclectic collection of curios and antiques. Aguda was away for the moment to take care of some business while he left his guests to browse in his shop on their own.

She could not decide on the right course. To save Kyoon she had to find out the truth, but if the murderer really was Yeon-joo, then her investigation also seemed a kind of betrayal. Ben-Ni was the only one she felt she could talk to.

Ben-Ni stopped his examination of a small jade horse and turned around. “I’m not sure. Life is often about compromises. But there’s a satisfaction in giving the truth its due that is sweeter than anything else.”

Sui-Wei nodded and mulled over Ben-Ni’s words as she continued to look around the cluttered storeroom. Scholars’ rocks and corals were in one corner, and bronze weapons and ritual vessels in another. Shelves along one wall held clocks, jade figurines, intricate jiguan models and Tang porcelain. Aguda had acquired his collection with little organization or taste.

She picked up a metallic tube from one of the shelves. It was a telescope, smaller than the one that Ben-Ni had shown her.

Where did you get that?” She heard Ben-Ni’s shout and saw that his face was drained of color. Startled, she dropped the telescope, and it cracked against the ground, scattering rolling glass lenses around the floor.

As they both knelt to collect the pieces, Ben-Ni lowered his voice and apologized. “I’m sorry to have startled you. I was surprised that Aguda had such a thing in his possession.”

“He must have gotten it from another European.”

Ben-Ni nodded. “I beg you not to mention this mishap to him. He will gouge me on the price for the jade if he is in a bad mood. Please hand me the pieces.” He hid them away in his pouch. “After the purchase, I will show him these and explain that it was my fault.”

Aguda came back, and they haggled over the price for the jade horse a bit before concluding the deal.

“Miss Far, would you mind departing on your own? I have some additional matters I’d like to discuss with Master Aguda.”

Sui-Wei happily made her escape. But as she was about to leave the house, she realized with dismay that one of the lenses of the telescope had been caught in the folds of her voluminous sleeve. She picked up the smooth, curved glass, and hesitated. She did not want to go back, but it would be wrong to deprive Aguda of a chance to fix his instrument because of a missing piece. Reluctantly, she turned around and walked back to the storeroom.

As she prepared to knock on the door, she heard shouting voices from within.

“How could you have been so careless as to leave it out in the open? We aren’t even supposed to have met till the old man died. She’s very clever.”

“You were the one who insisted on sniffing after her like an eager puppy. What game do you think you’re playing?”

For a moment, the noise of blood rushing into her ears drowned out all other sounds. Sui-Wei forced herself to calm down. She carefully backed herself down the hall into the room next door, a pantry for sacks of grains and potatoes, and put her ear to the thin wall.

“… tabs on what she knows.”

“You should have stayed away. Let the stupid magistrate hang the maid.”

“She’s beginning to suspect Yeon-joo, and I nudged her a bit. If he hangs, even better.”

The pantry was stuffy and dark. But there was a small window high up, and a slanted shaft of light, through which a million dust motes floated, cut through the darkness.

She had no coherent thoughts. Idly, she held up the lens into the light. It cast a fuzzy image of the scene outside the window onto the opposite wall. She stared at the image but could not make any sense of it. She remembered that Ben-Ni had explained that this was because the light was not in focus.

“Buy Yeon-joo’s license as soon as possible, as we planned. If she accuses him and he is convicted, it will escheat to the state.”

Sui-Wei moved the lens so that the image fell on her opened palm. She moved the lens up and down, trying to make the image clearer. As the rays of light were focused into a single bright point, she almost cried out. The point of light was so hot that it burned.

But the pain also cleared her mind, brought it into sharp focus. An image of the hearth spirits miming a drum dance, lifting an imaginary buk drum high overhead, came unbidden into her head.

“Are you confident that you can save Kyoon?”

Sui-Wei nodded.

Yeon-joo shuffled awkwardly for a bit. “I can’t actually pay your fee right away, as I have very little cash and you insisted that I not sell my inventory and license to Aguda. I’m grateful for your hospitality. It just seems unfair when I am supposed to be paying you.”

Sui-Wei had insisted that Yeon-joo move into her house from Aguda’s before the trial, despite the gossip such a move created. She had explained that she needed to consult him often to prepare for the trial. She was much relieved when he complied.

Magistrate Wu emerged from the door at the front of the yamen courtroom in his formal robes and hat. The bailiffs, standing in two lines along the front of the courtroom, pounded their staffs against the flagstone floor rhythmically as he ascended the dais to take his seat behind the bench. The murmuring among the audience quieted down. Sui-Wei looked around and saw that both Aguda and Ben-Ni were in the crowd.

The Magistrate slapped his hardwood ruler, the symbol of justice and his authority, against the surface of the bench in a loud snap that rang around the room. The court was in session.

“Now we hear the case of the murder of Hae-wook Lee. My staff and I have diligently investigated the matter and concluded that the cause of death is arson, committed by one Kyoon, maid of the Lee household.”

The Magistrate surveyed the audience with cold eyes as two of the bailiffs brought Kyoon in shackles. She was made to kneel before the bench.

“On the day of the fire, you stole valuable jewels from Hae-wook Lee and did mischief in the kitchen to start a slow fire that would grow out of control after you left the house. You had the motive, the means, and the opportunity. How do you plead?”

Sui-Wei stepped out of the audience and stood beside Kyoon. She bowed deeply. “Your Honor, I am Litigatrix Sui-Wei Far, here to speak for the accused. We plead innocence.”

“Very well. What do you have to say?”

“You think she kept a low fire going in the kitchen, but I can prove that the fire did not start there.” She reached into the folds of her sleeve and retrieved bits of crumpled paper, and handed them to one of the bailiffs to bring up to the bench.

“These were found lodged in the holes in the lower sections of the scholars’ rocks in the Lee courtyard. A burning fire pushes hot air away from itself on top, and replenishes itself by drawing in cold air below. So these bits of paper were blown into their refuge by the cold air currents fueling the fire before it had spread to all the rooms. The accounting records and letters clearly came from the study, on the east side. And the red paper rooster was the kind of charm commonly hung on the wall of the kitchen for New Year’s. Together, they show that air was drawn out of both the east and west sides of the courtyard at the beginning of the fire. The murderer started the fire not in the kitchen, but in Hae-wook’s bedroom.”

The Magistrate stared at Sui-Wei. “But how could that be? Yeon-joo saw his father’s bedroom after Kyoon already left, and there were no signs of any fire. No one could have entered the house during the relevant hours.”

“I will show you.”

Sui-Wei placed a piece of paper on the floor of the courtroom.

“This is called a lens,” she said, and took out the glass lens that she had kept from Aguda’s telescope. “It has the ability to bend light rays and focus them.”

She held the lens over the paper, adjusting the distance until sunlight from the windows along the southern wall was focused into a single bright point on the paper. Soon, the paper began to smoke, and a tongue of fire began to dance on its surface. The crowd gasped.

“On the day of the fire, there was already a lens at the Lee house, ready to do mischief as the sun reached the proper alignment.”

From the sky. From the floor.

Sui-Wei raised her voice to be heard above the excited crowd. “Your Honor, I will prove my claims. But first, you must immediately detain the merchants Aguda and Ben-Ni for conspiracy to commit murder.”

As Magistrate Wu watched, Sui-Wei directed the bailiffs to carry out the ice sculptures of the drum dancers from the cellar.

“Since Hae-wook refused to sell Korean silk to Ben-Ni, both Aguda and Ben-Ni desired to get the old man out of the way and force his son to sell the silk license cheaply to Aguda. Combining their knowledge of optics and ice, they planned murder for profit.

“The greatest advantage of using an ice lens to start a fire is that the instrument would be destroyed by the heat, leaving no evidence. And the murderers would not need to be nearby, giving them good alibis. But the disadvantage of such a method is that it is unreliable, and success depends on the right weather and more than a bit of luck. That is why they made multiple statues, so that if one should melt and fail to ignite, others could be gifted to Hae-wook to try again.”

The Magistrate walked gingerly around the ice drum dancers, as if they could burst into flames at any moment. “But where is the lens?”

Sui-Wei pointed to the buk drums over the dancers’ heads.

“Aguda has discovered the art of creating ice sculptures in layers that would reveal themselves as darker ice melted before light ice. He hid a clear lens inside a drum made of dark ice.”

Carefully, Sui-Wei melted the layer of dark ice with her hands dipped in warm water until the clear ice lens emerged.

“The murders knew that Hae-wook would be left alone at home most afternoons. They calculated the angle and focal length of the lens to bring the heat of the sun to a single burning point on the paper floor of the bedroom when the sun was high in the west. Then, Aguda installed a statue outside Hae-wook’s window as a gift. They only needed to wait for a warm day to bring forth fire from ice.”

“Litigatrix Far,” Magistrate Wu said, his voice gruff, “ignore the gossips. Your father would be proud to see you today, and I shall always be honored to have your assistance in my court.”

Sui-Wei bowed deeply and hid her surprised tears of gratitude with her sleeves.

As Magistrate Wu read out the formal charges against Aguda and Ben-Ni and placed them in shackles, he seemed to have forgotten about the bag of jewels that made him suspect Kyoon in the first place. And that was just fine. Not all truths needed to be broadcast. A good litigator knew when to be discreet.

Yeon-joo stood protectively next to the freed Kyoon. Now that Sui-Wei knew the truth, she could easily see the family resemblance.

“She’s your flesh and blood!”
“I’ve done all I can for her.”
“Not nearly enough.”

The hearth spirits had been repeating a fragment of the argument between Yeon-joo and Hae-wook. Yeon-joo was endeavoring to pay for his father’s sins in secret, to recompense the girl ignorant of her own paternity without bringing shame to the family.

Both of them, she realized, were working to preserve the legacy of their fathers, one by uncovering the truth, the other by hiding it. Some day, she hoped, Yeon-joo would find the courage to tell his sister who she really was.

Kyoon stepped away for a moment to be embraced by her parents.

“Litigatrix,” Yeon-joo said, bowing to her. “The Lee family is in your debt.”

“There’s a satisfaction in giving the truth its due that is sweeter than anything else,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Now, would you come with me to welcome your hearth spirits into my house, until you can rebuild a house of your own?”

___
Copyright 2013 Ken Liu

by Alex Jeffers

“The men are afraid,” I said.

“Of course,” said my friend the foreign magician. “Aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

Behind us in the belly of the boat, my crew huddled over their oars, muttering, praying. I felt that was not wise. The Mother, it seemed to me, must have fled our island, far beyond the reach of any man’s voice, long before the little people who honored her. Else why had the great bull of fire under the sea grown so restless, so angry? Even as I thought this, he bellowed. I flinched. Murmuring my own vain prayer, I glanced over my shoulder, north across the choppy waters of the gulf. White steam and black smoke billowed from the peak of the new mountain the bull had shouldered out of the sea. It appeared to be taller than when last I saw it, only two months before. Red as bull’s blood, subterranean flame stained the smoke and steam. Lightning flickered within the column of cloud as the bull thundered again. A warm, caustic ash of burnt stone began to fall. One of the rowers coughed violently.

“None of you need accompany me,” my friend said. “I will go ashore and you may leave.”

I stared at him, perturbed. “But how will you depart? You cannot mean to remain.”

Turning away, he indicated the southern shoreline, where the handsome villas of princes and magnates clustered, white and red, among orchards and terraced fields on the hillsides. Knossos and the seaports of Canaan are impressive from any distance but not beautiful, not as abandoned Thira was beautiful. Several of the newer buildings had slumped, broken backed, when the island shrugged beneath them. A few scarlet columns had cracked or split, revealing the pale wood at their hearts. Below the hillside villas, the humbler dwellings of sailors, fishermen, market gardeners, artisans were less grand, more charming, each with its olive or pomegranate tree and terra-cotta trough for pot herbs and flowers. All of it lost, all of it abandoned—I had not known I was a sentimental man. The trees still lived, though their leaves were dulled by films of ash, but without irrigation flowers and herbs had wilted and died.

I glanced to my ship’s prow where a pottery bowl was filled with the earth of Thira and planted with simple herbs, thyme, oregano, rosemary, an ancient charm meant to keep the home port always in wandering sailors’ eyes. Every morning those herbs received a sailor’s measure of precious fresh water and now they flourished as those on land could not.

But my friend was indicating a litter of small, forgotten fishing boats drawn up on the strand beyond reach of the waves, canted on their keels. “If I choose to depart, I imagine I could handle one of those.”

He was no sailor, my friend: he was an entertainer, a mountebank, a poet—a madman. I turned to remonstrate, but said nothing, struck again by his unchanged countenance. I was merely a boy when the magician came to Thira, exotic visitor from an unknown land. Ten years later, he looked no different: austere, handsome, amused. As a boy I had believed him the tallest man in the world. Now that I was a man myself, he still towered over me and every man I had ever met. I had voyaged to Tyre and other towns of Canaan, whence he had permitted us to believe he came, and seen handsome, swarthy men who somewhat resembled but none who matched him.

He smiled.

I turned again, to order landfall, but my mate spoke before I could. “We will not ground the boat. The bull is restless. We must leave.” He addressed my friend. “If you insist on setting foot on this cursed island, sir, you will have to swim.” He had the grace to look ashamed and avoid the magician’s eyes. “You have paid us well, and we thank you, but neither payment nor thanks can benefit any of us beneath the waves or under broken earth.” As if in agreement, the red bull below the waters bellowed again.

The magician inclined his head and smiled again. “Your argument is persuasive. Very well. One word of advice before we part. The bull of the sea, as you call it, will break free very soon. There is nowhere you can sail that you will not hear it. If you are still at sea, remain far from land for a day or longer if you wish to survive to spend your gold. If you are on land, retreat at once from the coast, find the highest ground you may, for the bull’s escape will cause waves mightier than you can imagine to fall on the shores of every land you know.”

For an instant he continued to appear stern, then smiled for the last time and moved to embrace me. “Farewell, old friend.” He bent to untie the sandals from his feet and then pulled loose the dyed linen of his kilt, keeping only stout leather belt and sheathed bronze knife. Before I could think to stop him, he had stepped to the side and leapt. Striking the water, he raised a splash that fell back on us—the droplets of water felt shockingly chill.

“You have sent him to his death,” I said, too shocked to be angry.

“He intended to die already. Better one man than all eleven.”

The mate began to harass the oarsmen into turning the boat about and beating free of Thira’s anchorage onto open sea, where the sail might be raised and a swift wind found back to Anafi, tiny, inhospitable isle of our exile. It was a place of no springs and entirely without snakes and thus, I believed, out of favor with the Mother. When it was decided to flee the bull, I argued we should flee farther than Anafi, west to the great island of our ancestors or much farther east, to the island of copper, but I was one small voice. Unfortunate princes and magnates of Thira would be but small men in Knossos, while the people of the copper island did not speak our language or know our Mother, their own being a strange, savage god who married the king for a year and then demanded he die. In tiny Anafi, Thiriot princes might be kings, magnates princes, though the realm be paltry and unblessed.

I watched my friend swim strongly across the deep waters toward my home. I could see the house where I was born, not the grandest nor yet the meanest. Until the red bull woke, I had never imagined lovely Thira would not be my home—my destination at the end of every voyage: that I would not, someday, wed there and raise my children and finally die. In Anafi was the exiled girl I was meant to marry, a child I scarcely knew and to whom I felt little attachment, small affection. The magician had paid me to bring him back, true (the gold and other goods were in my mother’s safekeeping in her new house above the harbor at Anafi), but it was friendship, old attachment and old affection and stranger bonds, that made me agree. I saw that he had nearly reached the shore, and glanced once at my fearful mate and crew. I dove into the sea.

I have not called my friend the foreign magician by any name, for the one I knew was, it seemed, merely a convenience. When he came from the east, he had us call him Nuh, a name common enough among the people of Canaan. He came aboard my father’s ship from Byblos, though it was not his home, and dwelt with us in my mother’s house for some time until his stories and songs, his sleights of hand and glamors and tricks recommended him to the patronage of wealthier families. He could persuade one of marvels, conjuring flowers from a child’s ears, causing the ring on a man’s finger to vanish, then reappear on his other hand. If a woman among his audience wore an armlet in the form of a serpent, he transformed it for moments from flesh-warmed gold to cool golden-scaled flesh coiling about her arm, tasting the air with its flickering tongue. He made music sound from the empty air, eerie, fluting music such as nobody had ever heard.

Even after he moved on to larger, grander households, he remained friendly with my family. When he met me or my small sister or smaller brother about the town, he greeted us fondly. Whenever my father returned from a voyage abroad, Nuh was certain to congratulate him on the success of his endeavor and attend the feast that celebrated survival and profit. He told stories of Canaan and ancient Egypt, distant lands I should not have believed existed except I knew my father had visited them. He brought to life for his listeners the mighty cities of the Hittites, the antique land of two rivers, the isle of copper to the east, the strange, far western countries where tin was found. Sometimes, not often, he spoke of a place no man of our nation had seen.

Irem of the Thousand Pillars lay far from the sea, many long days’ journey south of Canaan’s ports and farmlands, across stretches of barren desert that would swallow Keftiu, Thira, and the isle of copper whole and not be satisfied. Surrounded by endless wastes of dreary sand was Irem and yet the city thrived, for beneath the bedrock of its foundations lay a subterranean sea of sweet water that might never be exhausted. More ancient than Egypt of the pharaohs was Irem of the Thousand Pillars, and yet more ancient still was the abandoned, ruined, nameless city that stood on the sands just beyond the underground shores of the lightless sea, for that city was older than men or the gods of men, nearly as old as time.

When he spoke of Irem of the Thousand Pillars and its nameless neighbor, Nuh’s eyes would grow distant, bleak and cold. He never said it, but I believed Irem had been his home and he longed for its palaces raised on mighty columns above fertile gardens, its grand avenues and fountains, the colossal statues of its kings, men and women who looked like him. Had he left by choice, I wondered, or if not by choice what terrible act had he performed to be exiled?

I was a romantic, dreamy child, eager to grow up so I might follow my father’s wake across the blue sea to distant shining cities. It never occurred to me that his voyages were labor, as much as the tedious household chores I performed for my mother, nor that he might long for home when he stood in the markets of Canaan and the ports of the Nile delta. One day I, too, would ache to return to Thira, but as a boy I never tired of Nuh’s stories.

He was not my first lover, the foreign magician. As a travelled man, I have learned that our customs are not followed in every land—that, indeed, many people believe us perverse and wicked. Why, they wonder, do we not honor the Mother and our lesser gods with grand temples? Their gods are better pleased if lovely young women and men sell their bodies in the temple for priestly profit than risk their lives dancing with the Mother’s bull. How is it we have never gone to war? Our bravado in trusting to the sea to defend our wealthy cities astonishes them. How can boys on the brink of manhood tolerate being kidnapped by their father’s brothers and friends, married in the Mother’s eyes as if they were girls, and bedded like slaves?

I was carried away at midnight from my mother’s house by a band of raucous bandits, yes, adorned like a bride in tiered skirts and serpent bracelets, poppies and cornflowers, a golden dust of precious saffron around my eyes and on my nipples, the perfumed oil of almonds combed through my hair. Outside a shepherd’s croft in the hills far from town, I was made drunk on unwatered wine. And then a priest wearing a mask of the Mother’s face, the bladders of his leather tits dribbling more wine, his unwieldy leather prick bouncing as he danced—then the priest made me swear awful oaths, and wed me to my father’s youngest, handsomest, merriest friend. And then, while his fellow bandits continued feasting and drinking and singing about the bonfire, my first beloved carried me into the croft and on soft sheepskins fucked me very soundly, made me a man. As has always been done among my people.

Not long after, for now I was a man, I took ship with my father for the first time. We sailed no farther than Keftiu, which I had been taught (though the lesson never took) to consider my true home, yet I saw marvels and acquitted myself well enough. But when we came again to Thira, I learned I was widowed: my handsome, merry husband had eaten bad shellfish in a distant port and died in puking agony.

It was not done for any man to wed a widowed boy. We possessed no temple-brothel where I might offer myself up or find another lithe body on offer. Eventually, of course, when I had built up sufficient fortune, I should take a suitable girl to wife, and it might be that one day some friend would discount my bad luck and invite me to kidnap his son. For the present, though, I was alone and unloved. As was the foreign conjuror, that beautiful, exciting, frightening man.

As ever, the water of Thira’s bay was cold, as chill as if there were snow on the island’s hills instead of hot ash and summer-withered grasses. It was only off other shores that the sea was pleasant. I lost all my breath and nearly replaced it with choking salt water before breaking surface again. Glancing back once, I was relieved for their sakes to see my oarsmen’s sweeps dig into the waves, rise, dip again on steady meter as the boat retreated, unfaltering. My madness was not their concern. I turned again toward my lost home.

Struggling through icy water, I believed I saw something move in the depths below. Something larger than any fish I had ever seen in harbor waters familiar since childhood. The cold would not permit me to pause but I gazed down when I could.

There were more than one, moving about at the margin of darkness where the sun’s light failed in the depths. They were black, so black as to be entirely distinct from the darkness below them, with an oily sheen so that they resembled huge inconstant masses of bitumen. They were not wholesome fish. In some ways they resembled jellyfish, in that their substance was mutable, fluid; in others, those fleshy, immobile, flowerlike creatures that crowd rocks at the water’s edge and sting the finger of the unwise child who touches them. All were bigger than a man my size, though their shapes varied so that it was hard to tell—most appeared larger than the greatest tunny of the open sea. Sometimes they moved slowly, creeping somehow, by extending a portion of their substance like a long arm and then pulling the remainder of the body into that limb, which swelled until it became the entire body again; at others merely drifted as though on invisible currents; sometimes jetted swiftly, with great purpose, the trailing end fluttering like a mantle in high wind.

Perhaps I should have felt fear of these peculiar interlopers—and yet we were very far apart, I splashing at the surface like the drunken fly in your wine cup, they the fantastic creatures painted in its depths. It seemed to me they knew I was there but did not care to notice me. I was irrelevant to their purposes, inconsequential, not worth the effort of turning their innumerable, inconstant eyes like the jellied eggs of frogs on me, still less to capture and…not devour, but absorb my flesh. Were they the interlopers or I? When my ears dipped under water, I believed I heard them speak among themselves in a kind of high, irritating whistle, a repetitive idiot cry made up of no words I knew: Tekeli-li, tekeli-li.

By the time I floundered ashore, I felt nearly dead. My limbs trembled and my teeth chattered. Scrambling across the strand to where the sand was dry and hot, I half-buried myself to bake out the chill.

I was not there very long before a shadow fell on me and my friend said, “Foolish young man.” The long frigid swim had not, it seemed, affected him as it had me. As though I were a tiny child, he lifted me in his arms and carried me up into the town. Once a sharp tremor shook the ground under his feet but he scarcely staggered. At length, he brought me within doors of a deserted house that was not my family’s, through several rooms, until he deposited my unresisting self into a basin of scalding water piped from one of the springs heated by the red bull’s subterranean fires. “Rest,” he said, “recuperate.”

He was gone only a short time but I was beginning to rediscover myself when he returned. Lowering himself into the bath with me, he lifted my head and held a cup to my lips. It was cool, unwatered wine that caused me to choke and sputter first but then went down nicely and began to warm me from the inside. “What were you thinking, my dear?” he asked.

He was no sailor, I told him in many more words: when it came time for him to leave, the smallest abandoned boat would defeat him, he would founder or be lost forever on the trackless waves.

My friend was gentle with me. When my tremors ceased at last, he helped me out of the bath and dried my unresisting limbs. He did not dress me but nor did he dress himself. The summer air was warm—it was only the waters of the bay that were chill. He led me upstairs, to a high open terrace overlooking the town, the harbor, the bull’s smoking mount. We must sit on sun-warmed flags, for it seemed the owners of the house had not abandoned all their furnishings when they joined the exodus to Anafi two months previous. They had abandoned some parts of their larder, however: Nuh offered me morsels of salty dried fish, hard as rocks, leathery strips of salty dried beef, and sweet oil to soften them. There was more wine, a good deal of wine, crisp cool water, and bits of dried fruit. It was no worse than I would eat on any long sea voyage.

We spoke little. I had not inquired before, nor did I now, his reasons for returning to Thira after joining, indeed encouraging, the exodus. Although I had no cause to believe he should know, I asked about the strange sea beasts I had seen.

“Not beasts, precisely. Less than beasts, for they are made things, and in some ways more. They are servants, you might say, who do the bidding of certain…persons whose aims I do not favor. You need not worry. They will not survive.” He looked away, over the bay, and his fine lips formed half a smile within his beard like the pelt of a black lamb. “They like the cold,” he murmured, as if I was to understand the chill of the gulf’s waters to be a consequence of the creatures’ preference.

He said no more. We finished our repast. He led me back indoors.

This was the house of the last family to host him before we all departed for Anafi. In the chamber that had been his remained an adequate pallet on the bed platform. I made a noise when I saw the four bronze hooks embedded in the walls, for I recalled being puzzled by them the first time. “Yes?” he said mildly.

There was also a box, a chest, of unusually fine workmanship—no Thiriot craftsman could match it. I had always avoided inspecting it, both because it was his and because the panels of incomprehensible ornament carved in high relief on its ebon sides and lid made me uneasy. That he had not taken it to Anafi made me think my friend had all along meant to return. When he knelt to open it—something he had not done in my presence before—he muttered a phrase in an unfamiliar language, syllables and sibilants that no human lips ought to utter. My throat tightened. A tremor shook me but I could not determine whether it was the floor beneath my feet or my own muscles, and I took a careful step back. He lifted the lid.

An odor breathed from the yawning chest, at once sickening and intoxicating—as if fragrant lilies bloomed from a decomposing corpse, or aromatic resins and woods and herbs burned atop a mound of fresh shit. I gagged, and hungrily inhaled.

My lover pulled out the oil. I can’t say why I had not on earlier occasions questioned the container though it was fashioned from a substance I had never encountered elsewhere, as if the most transparent quartzes were to be smelted together like copper and tin, then forged into a flask as insubstantial as a bubble on the surface of the sea. The slippery oil within, neither olive nor almond, always smelled to me like new blood.

He drew out the familiar coils of rope and tossed them behind him toward the bed. Twisting through the air, they writhed like the Mother’s serpents. One fell short. Snatching it up from the floor, I ran it through my hands. Braided of cured, oiled leather, it would not chafe and, if one struggled, the knots would draw tighter.

Next would come the switches and batons, supple cane and leather-covered wood, one covered in fine, dense fur, another shaped like an oar’s blade and wrapped in the scaled hide of a Nile crocodile, which made for artful welts. Eagerness settled my uneasy bowels even as I felt increasing distress. I did not believe I had followed my friend with no other desire than to be beaten, and soothed, beaten again until pain became something quite separate from pleasure, until my flesh could no longer contain me. I had meant to rescue him from himself, surely, not beg him to grant me momentary salvation.

As he continued sorting through the implements of gratification in the chest, I turned away. The room’s eastern wall contained a small niche. In another man’s chamber, I would expect to find there an image of our Mother, a figurine of bronze or painted clay. Her arms would be raised, coiled with serpents, while a lock of her hair coiled between life-giving breasts and her great black eyes recognized me, judged me. Perhaps, instead, in some households it might be a heavy-shouldered figure of the red bull, great horns lowered to toss the dancer who grasped them. But it was something else. I moved closer.

It was black, like the beast-things in the bay, shiny, greasy looking, like a congealed lump of bitumen. I could make out no marks of carving or molding, as if it were indeed merely a piece of débris collected for no reason, and yet I could not doubt its intention: that it was a made thing meant to be regarded, contemplated—and I felt it would contemplate me in return if I were not too small to be noticed, a minute spark flickering for an instant amid concerns too vast for a man to comprehend.

Dizzy, I placed the palms of my hands on the wall to either side of the niche. Like the beasts in the water, this…idol was shapeless, its shapelessness altering with each glance, but where they appeared to be membraneous bags of fluid, variable by nature, the entity represented by this object was incomprehensibly complex, incomprehensibly vast. Each glimpse encountered but the tiniest fragment of its being, more difficult to reconcile than a man’s ear and his small toe, or the parts of an island gently sloped and forested to windward, craggy and barren on its leeward shores. If my eyes followed a crease or contour in the oily substance, it seemed always about to resolve into something, something recognizable: the arm of a man or a crab or an octopus’s tentacle, an ass’s jaw, a bull’s horn or the curled horn of a ram or the fierce beak of an eagle or a dolphin’s snout. But always as I was about to grasp that fragment of appearance, I would slip into an abyss of meaninglessness, only to emerge seeking something very different. An aimless, irritating music seemed to have been playing for all my life, as if an idiot child had been given a flute and infinite patience, infinite breath. My temples throbbed with a sullen ache and colors I could not name sparked and bloomed before my eyes.

The conjuror prevented me from falling. He crossed his arms over my ribs and I pressed back against his broad chest and firm belly, grateful for human warmth, gasping for the air that had been too frozen, moments before, to breathe.

“Not now,” he murmured in my ear, and I knew he was contemplating the black idol—seeing more within its enigmatic twists and congealed knots than could ever be visible to me. “Never now, never in your lifetime nor the lifetimes of men or their gods, their worlds, their suns. My lord sleeps and dreams us, and the worlds and all of time dream him. When he wakes….”

The magician did not complete his sentence. I feel that if he had I should not still be breathing. The horrible mad music fluted on, its strident notes muted by distance. I shuddered—unless it was the island beneath the foundations trembling. “Your lord?”

“My lord,” he agreed. Taking my left hand in his, he lifted it and, despite my vain struggle, forced it to touch the black idol. I still feel the searing chill of that momentary contact, which caused me to groan in a high, thin voice and forced tears from my eyes. The slick scar on my index finger does not fade. It aches in the heat of summer and the cold of winter.

“My antics amuse him, now and then when the paths of his dream lead me to him.”

He sounded so calm. I trembled again—I and the island, both, jolting—and I felt a sharp pang in the flesh of my chest. Raising my uninjured hand, I touched the place and discovered fluid oilier, more substantial than sweat. Blood. New red blood smeared on my fingers. My friend moved his own hand, not so much to reveal the blade that had sliced my skin as to press its hilt into my palm. Unthinking, I closed fingers around shaped wood.

Knives, blades, had not before been accessory to our pleasures. Sometimes there was blood, but by the way, never from intentional slicing or gashing or nicking or pricking. The crocodile hide was rough and might open the skin it bruised. There were bites, fingernail scratches. He might fuck me before I was prepared, more roughly than flesh tolerated.

He said nothing as I turned the weapon in my hand. Its fashioning perplexed me: the means by which wooden handle was fastened to metal blade. It appeared inevitable, I could not comprehend a more elegant method, but I had never seen it done nor could I understand the way of it.

The blade itself, too, puzzled me. I did not recognize the metal. It was neither copper nor tin, which any smith can work, nor the stronger, less brittle bronze that masters forge from the two ores, mixed. It was not rare silver or rarer gold, either too soft to be fashioned into useful tools. The craftsmanship was so subtle it scarcely seemed to have been worked at all, no hammer dents or file blemishes, only the smooth, unwavering lines of the white metal and an edge so sharp I didn’t recognize it had cut the testing thumb until I saw welling blood.

My lover bound me. Or I bound him. It was not clear in my mind. One of us was bound spread eagle on the bed, anchored by leather ropes to the hooks in the walls. One of us was thrashed about buttocks and thighs and shoulders until pain and the impossibility of escaping it became a drug like wine. One’s bruises and scrapes were kissed, bathed with cool water and burning wine, anointed with soothing oil, punished again. One of us was marked by that knife, its impossibly sharp blade fashioned of a metal, my lover explained, no person of this world could work. I believe it was him, that I wielded the blade, for my skin carries no scars of that precision, that depth of artistry and affection. One of us was fucked, and again I believe it was him for it would have been the only time.

And all the time the flute went on piping, ceaseless, deranging. Frequently I was overwhelmed by dizzy blackness. Once, my shoulders stroked by the supple leather-bound crop, I twisted to look back at my lover and he did not resemble himself. Rather, I was scourged by a fierce scowling black man—blacker than the very dark persons I have seen in Egypt’s markets, as depthless black as the idol of his lord. His skin gleamed with sweat but his eyes were dull as stones. Once, carving an intricate design I did not understand into his lower back, I discovered the skin my knife cut to be no longer human but tough, pelted animal hide, which nevertheless the blade sliced effortlessly. And then he slipped his bonds, for no rope could restrain boneless tentacles, and then he embraced me with all his limbs, holding me tight and safe until the blackness of his eyes and membraneous wings became the blackness of existence.

I followed him across the sky on leathery black wings to Irem of the Thousand Pillars with its palaces stacked high on columns formed of stone drums a thousand men could not have shifted, and I saw untold thousands of tall, austere men and women going about their business in the markets and gardens and courts. The men resembled my friend, indeed, as I had known him, swarthy and handsome, with oiled beards like the pelts of black lambs. I could not see their bodies, nor the women’s, for all wore voluminous white robes and head cloths bordered in gold and Tyrian purple. We joined a procession of such persons into what seemed a great cavern. I felt it was a temple—I had seen such edifices, in Egypt, in Canaan, though my people do not build them and I had been shy of entering them.

Within, the air smelled of blood and rare woods and the sweat of countless people. It was dark but there were lamps that did not gutter and smoke but burned white and true within transparent shells, illuminating idols of polished stone and polished metal. These gods resembled neither my companion’s lord nor the Mother of my nation nor the idols of any people I have done business with. Some were unholy masses of flesh, hybrid assemblages of limbs, wings, claws, toothy maws, hundreds of blind, staring eyes; yet the majority seemed merely to be enormous crocodiles until I saw that each of their four limbs bore delicate, clever hands. The worship of the folk of Irem was mistaken, I seemed to understand, yet my companion remained charmed by them, unready to destroy them.

And then he led me through the earth to the subterranean sea he had spoken of. I feared to see the amorphous black beasts of Thira’s harbor as we dove deep, but perhaps the waters were not cold enough for their liking, perhaps they preferred salt to sweet.

We came to the labyrinths and catacombs beneath the ancient nameless city—the ruined city of those very crocodile men worshipped as gods at Irem. These strange folk, too, were mistaken: their gods were the misshapen things that appeared equally ill suited to live on earth, in the seas, or soaring in the air. Below the catacombs, I was allowed a glimpse of the strange radiant cavern where the last few thousands of the crocodile people believed themselves still to be alive.

And then we flew up, up, through the labyrinth into the air and high into the sky, beyond the sky. I saw that the world below was round, something that did not trouble me though it was larger than I had imagined—my long sea at the center surrounded by many broad lands, themselves encompassed by illimitable ocean. I saw that all the great works of men were merely scabs on the earth’s flesh, scabs that would heal and slough off and leave no mark, not even scars.

Deep within moon-washed seas I saw—for my eyes were very keen—titanic subaqueous cities inhabited by those same black, formless creatures of the harbor at Thira. My eyes and mind were troubled by the great ashlars that made up the cities’ buildings. Straight lines appeared not straight, angles turned in impossible ways, solid stone was fluid, metamorphic. The black monsters went about their business as if they were people, swimming or creeping along deep stone avenues, serving each other or being served, occasionally eating one another, ensuring their own gods’ comfort.

And these gods, heaps of disordered flesh, were the models for the crocodile folk’s idols. They slept and dreamed, agelessly, uncaring, as they had slept since before there were sensible, thinking beings in the world, nearly since the distant eons of their advent from far shores, far stars. Now and then one might wake for a moment, negligently wreak destruction or as thoughtlessly create, and then as if relieved of an itch subside again into sleep. They amused my companion as often as they irritated him, bound as they were into their minute perception of time and space, this world and others, and now and then he found it entertaining to stir them up, as a child stirs up a nest of ants, or crush one and all its foolish followers.

As we rose still higher, beyond air or the need to breathe, it came to me that the world was not round like a platter but round like a juggler’s ball, a toy, or like a fruit, its rind all the earth and all the sea. As I saw it, this perception seemed merely true, but now it distresses me and I wish to dismiss it. When I stand on the planking of my ship and look out over the sea, I know the surface of the waters to be flat to the farthest circuit of the horizons and I can no longer comprehend how liquid should cling to a globe without cascading off.

We grew vast, my companion and I, vaster than worlds, and we became one.

Beyond time, beyond space, we entered the precinct of his lord. The music made me mad but I was all ears and could not stifle them. Great entities like drifts of stars, the sleeping lord’s waking attendants swirled around us, a ponderous whirlpool larger than time. Sight of these beings—if being could be ascribed to them, for were they not brief unthinking emanations of their master’s dreams?—sight of them maddened me, but I was all eyes which I could not close.

I believe I glimpsed the sleeper, the dreamer. Yet how can that be? I continued living.

I was once again small. A frightened, deranged, bruised young man, I woke crumpled in the round belly of a little fishing boat, adrift on the pathless, star-speckled sea. In one hand I clutched a crude clay statuette of the Mother, whom I now understood to be the foolish fancy of blind, ignorant men, in the other Nuh’s subtle knife. Untangling my limbs, I rose to my knees.

The boat’s mast was stepped but the linen sail not raised. No sail, but leathery black vanes outstretched as though to harness a wind from the stars. My lover clutched the tip of the mast with his octopus tentacles lest he be blown away and whispered in a voice like whistling flutes, “Remember the advice I gave your crew, old friend. And now farewell.”

When he launched himself from the mast, the fragile boat rocked and dipped, nearly swamped. I was thrown again against the ribs of its hull, gaining more bruises for my own ribs. I struggled upright. I thought I still heard the thunderclap beat of his wings, retreating but growing ever louder. I was mistaken.

Not so far as the horizon, the red bull under the sea wrestled into his own awakening. I saw the birth of his fires but then had to clench my eyes shut against blindness, and saw it still through the translucent flesh of my eyelids. I felt the blasting heat of those fires must crisp my skin and char my boat, but it did not. I felt the tremendous thunder of the bull’s waking would deafen me, and perhaps for a time it did—still, years later, I seem to hear its distant echo booming far away. Projectiles of flaming rock, each far larger than my little boat, rocketed forth from his bed beneath the waters and traced black arcs across a sky now brighter than day. Where they fell, geysers of steam blew up and whirlpools of foam roared. My boat was rocked and buffetted but miraculously never struck, never swamped. Perhaps my lover watched over me.

It went on and on forever, the explosive destruction of the cyclopean undersea city it was my lover’s caprice to extinguish. The black beasts whimpered mindless in my ears: Tekeli-li, tekeli-li. The hot ash drifted down.

It was not much later that I sailed within view of little Anafi as the sun rose before me from the sea, yellow and less fearful than the red bull’s fires. I could hear him still grumbling in the far west behind me. My lover’s advice I had not forgotten but I no longer cared for my life.

My boat rose up on a vast swell of the sea until I towered high above the little island and saw the waters withdraw far from its coasts. The ships and small boats moored in Anafi’s paltry bay subsided into the sands and muds of the harbor floor. Hundreds of minute persons, tiny as flocking ants, gathered at windows, on terraces, in the open spaces of the town to witness the marvel. And then the waters returned.

Eventually, I came again to Keftiu. Knossos, city of palaces, great Knossos—tiny Knossos, pathetic Knossos—lay far enough from the shore that it had not been overthrown, though columns had snapped and roofs fallen when the earth shook. Its port, though, and all its great fleet were splintered, and the surviving peoples of my nation demoralized.

I possessed nothing but my battered little boat, having lost the idol of the Mother when first the boat overturned. The small fortune I had accumulated was swept away when the wave took my mother and her new house at Anafi and all the sorrowful exiled princes and magnates of lost Thira. My lover’s subtle knife was not a thing to be bartered.

I possessed nothing but I was fit and able and my sad little boat was more than remained to the merchants and captains and sailors who yet lived in Knossos. So over forgetful years I endeavored to accumulate another small fortune. I did not marry, for that girl was a sodden corpse gnawed by fishes and crabs. As I grew prosperous, I found or purchased lovers who were horrified by the practices of love that would soothe me, and so I continued unsatisfied.

And years later I sailed in a fine new ship to the place that had been Thira, lovely Thira. My crew were all young men: they had never seen my home, knew only dreadful stories of its destruction—were indifferent, unamazed.

My home was gone. The very shape of the island was altered, the outlines of its coasts. I recognized nothing. Where I believed the town had stood in serene jumble on gentle slopes rose sheer, titanic cliffs of jagged new rock. The red bull’s mountain was entirely vanished, as if it had never risen from the sea, but there was a new, small, smoking peak just protruding from unsettled chop where, surely, once had gaped the deepest, coldest gulfs of the ancient harbor and once had stood the subaqueous city of the black creatures and their unknown god.

My home was gone. Standing in the prow of my fine new ship, I looked from this burned and barren unknown land to the earth-filled bowl at my feet, green with herbs from Keftiu—never my home—and silently damned the dreams of young men. I tossed the thing overboard.

I am no longer young but I am not the oldest man I have ever encountered—I don’t imagine I will live so long. Yet I have outlived every man and woman I cared for save one. Him I saw once, years after, in the market of a distant land.

I had changed as he had not, the lover I knew as Nuh and as something other than a man, but though I knew he recognized me as easily as I him we did not speak. Unsmiling, he looked past me, through me, as though I were too small to make out. His eyes were black with vaster visions, larger than any prosperous merchant or unforgotten lover, larger than a world in which merchants and lovers believed themselves persons of substance, of value.

Then he half-mantled his eyes and the lips in his oily black beard smiled as he began to turn away. I pulled from my belt his subtle knife.

What I intended to do with it I do not know. Plunge its sharp blade into his flesh? Carve my own desires and terrors into mine? On the white metal which had always been blank, too clean and keen for blood to stain, were inscribed opaque signs that made my eyes tear, my mind flinch.

Unmanned, I lifted my eyes again. The capricious savior of my little life, changeless companion of my youth, was not to be found amid the throng of foreign and resident merchants. Those strong, clever men continued about their business in the way of men, or ants, unaware, but I no longer heard their voices. In my ears, the red bull once again destroyed my home, a leather-bound crop striped willing flesh as an idiot flute piped. Tekeli-li, tekeli-li, sang black creatures beneath the trackless sea.

I knelt to the sandy paving of that market far from any home I have ever known and laid the knife on the stone. He was not watching but he would know. I had no doubt the subtle knife would return to his possession before I reached the temple-brothel where no gold could buy what I required.

____
Copyright 2013 Alex Jeffers

Since his March 2012 first appearance in GigaNotoSaurus, Alex Jeffers had published two books: the collection You Will Meet a Stranger Far from Home and the novel Deprivation; or, Benedetto furioso: an oneiromancy. He has stories forthcoming in a number of anthologies later this year and into early 2014.

by Rahul Kanakia

On the morning of my fund day, our pilot landed the house with a particularly gentle touch. I was probably the only family-member who felt the house kiss our Philadelphia docking station. I abandoned my desk and went to the window. A crowd of grubby locals from the adjacent Suareztown had already gathered around the marble pediment of the docking station. It might be hours before we began recruiting, but they had no better use for their time than jostling for a place near the house’s entrance. Although Father refused to indulge their pretensions to serfdom by directly sharing our family’s arrival times with the Suareztowners, some groundskeeper had probably told them, days ago, that we were coming.

The leading edge of the crowd was just fifty feet below me. The mass of dirty limbs and garishly clothed torsos swayed, and arms were raised up. I waved, and the carpet of humanity rippled in time to my movements. I presumed they were cheering.

For years they had cheered me on the basis of the slenderest hope that I could help them. Today, I was finally going to fatten up those hopes.

I saw several phones raised high in the air. They were taking photos of me. I grimaced, and made the window opaque with a tap. I was glad that Yasmina, the remote operator who watched me on most days, had interpreted that gesture right. Last time, she thought I wanted to open the window. I flashed a thumbs up to the empty air and was rewarded when a whisper-soft “Thank you, ma’am,” dribbled out of the speakers.

Once, I’d loved being photographed, but my looks had suffered during my long exile. I was no longer the energetic sixteen year old waif with short hair and a size 2 frame that had fashion designers competing to dress me. Now, my waistline had expanded, and my face had begun to acquire my mother’s florid features. I wasn’t ugly, but I’d lost my youthful vividness. And that was fine. It would only make it easier to recapture the public imagination: the tabloids would glory in calling attention to my physical deterioration.

The intercom chimed. Andreas, the house’s chamberlain, said, “We have just landed in Philadelphia. First, I and all the staff would like to join together in wishing Natalia a happy twenty-first birthday. It has truly been a pleasure to watch you grow up into such a poised young woman. Second, your mother and father would like to remind you that you have a presentation to make in one hour, at today’s family status meeting, and that a birthday celebration has been scheduled for you this evening.”

On the other side of the door, one of the guards groaned. The servants hated Andreas’ updates, but I appreciated them. Of course Andreas hid all kinds of nonessential information from us, but the public nature of his updates reassured me that he wasn’t actively lying to us.

Andreas continued, “Carmina, Mr. Suarez is running fifteen minutes late. Please delay his breakfast. Guards, take your places by the entrances. Recruiters, stay by your screens, we should have initial procurement information available within the&#8212”

I snapped my fingers. The intercom went silent: another victory for Yasmina.
Normally I liked to listen to the full morning update in order to ensure that my penny-pinching father hadn’t fired half the staff during the night, but I needed to prepare for the meeting.

Luckily, my presentation consultant was based in McKinsey’s Vientiane office, where it was already tomorrow. I called him up on the wall screen and let the sweating man&#8212one of those loathsome MBAs that even the most socially conscious owner must sometimes enrich&#8212energetically expound upon the analysis I’d commissioned. Our consultation was constantly interrupted, though, by birthday congratulations from a number of friends and relatives.

Finally, my cousin Letitia called.

“Happy fund day,” she said. “It’s been too long! You look…good.”

I hadn’t spoken to Letitia in years. Her father thought my father’s stinginess was unconscionably boorish, and they took turns cutting each other dead at various public gatherings.

“I’m ready to reenter society,” I said. “Can you help me?”

“I’d heard you wanted to come back,” she said. “But doesn’t your dad still have a veto?”

“A joint veto,” I said. “I think I can persuade Mother.”

“Your mom? But she’s poor. Why does she get a vote?”

“Our family operates rather democratically,” I said.

“All right then,” she said. “I’ll have you set up in no time.”

“I’ll send the money later today. You’ll have five percent of my fund to play with. Your activities should be in line with the latest fashions. I don’t want my people to be ashamed of me.”

“We’ll start with a spritz from the air. It’s no problem. I’m happy to help!” Letitia would expect to be paid well for her “help.” Since most of Letitia’s fund had been stolen by a deceitful financial manager, she was little more than a servant nowadays.

I ended the call and tried to concentrate on my slides, but my heart was beating too fast. This felt just like the first time I had tried to pilot the house. After I’d taken control, we’d dropped ten thousand feet in a few minutes. During the dive, I’d quickly run out of ideas as to what to do, and I’d just sat there stock-still and quiet. The housepilot, Amit, laughed and waited until we were a few thousand feet from crashing before he took over.

Johan was in the West receiving room, lying on his back and chanting, with his belly stretching up into the air. I smiled. The backpacker had been wandering the house for eight weeks, ever since he’d responded to my online proffer of couch space. Johan was the latest in a series of servant-class itinerants whom I’d tried to befriend during my parentally-imposed exile from polite society.

As I passed, he said, “Where are we? Yesterday it was snowing, but today it’s sunny.”

The wallscreen right next to him showed an up-to-the-minute itinerary, but, of course, to Johan that wall would be blank.

When I stepped into the sunroom, a glass table extruded from the wall and a section of floor rose up and reconfigured itself as a seat. Carmina entered from behind a sliding panel and put a bowl of mixed fruits on the table. I wondered what she saw on the screens. Probably the prices of seasonal produce. We always ate local.

“Carmina,” I said. “Could you print a copy of our itinerary for my guest? Please underline that we’re here for eight days and that our next destination is Mexico City.”

“So we’ll definitely stay here tonight?” Carmina said. She clapped her hands together. “I would really like to attend the party at the Klein/Sandoval house tomorrow.”

Mother and Father liked to joke about the fad for democracy that had given Carmina a number of invitations to households where they themselves had never been received, but they refused to see that this fad was being used to deliver some very calculated insults to our family.

I paused my fork in mid-air. The house groaned, settling down into its foundations. As usual, no one else noticed. I was the only one with ears for the house. I was awake to its snorts, when clogs in the pipes were blasted free with an increase in pressure, or its twice-daily sneezes, when cleansing fluids misted all its inner workings, or the long inhalation right before it leapt into the air. The house was alive to me, and dead to everyone else. For years, I’d looked forward to inheriting it and rescuing it from Father’s neglect. But, after today, I wasn’t sure I’d be welcome here anymore.

I arrived in the executive suite fifteen minutes early to make sure that Fritz, Father’s personal assistant, had printed the agendas and loaded the slides onto the conference table, which was currently showing a large picture of Grandfather. I wondered if that was Father’s doing.

Before his death two years ago, Grandfather’s disdain for me had driven him to make several comments to the media regarding my shallowness and stupidity. Father had convinced him not to cut me out, but Grandfather had made several last-minute changes to his will that had led us to today’s impasse.

Father came in exactly at nine. He embraced me and said, “Happy birthday! Tonight’s party will be great fun. I kept it to limited attendance.”

That was Father’s polite way of saying that attendance was limited to whichever members of our family loved him so much that they were willing to endure the social stigma of being seen at his table. Most of the large owners were disgusted at how Father had steadily downsized our household since Grandfather’s death; he’d fired hundreds of long-time servants without providing any pensions.

Father sat on the edge of his seat and studied the papers that Fritz handed him. Mother came in fifteen minutes late, wished me a happy birthday, then reclined in her chair, and glanced through the papers.

As usual, she went first.

“Let’s see here,” she said. She flipped through the papers. “I’ve got five surgeries scheduled today. Fritz has the details attached as an annex somewhere in this mess. Bottom line: I’m being paid about eleven grand. The total expense to the family, including amortization of the tele-operating suite in the basement, uplink time, technician time, etc, etc, is about five thousand, for which I’ll fully reimburse you.”

Father and I approved Mother’s schedule without any discussion. The last time we’d used our family veto had been four years ago, for their twenty-fifth anniversary. She’d suffered through the party with such a sullen simulation of good humor that we now purchased her at her hourly rate whenever we needed her time.

Father’s schedule presented more difficulties. I had not wanted to anger him prematurely, but when the picture of Grandfather was replaced by a patched-in feed from Suarez headquarters, I knew that we were about to be subjected to more of Father’s cheapjack buffoonery. On the screen, Morris Kenneman, the CEO of Suarez Industries, rubbed his jowls with his weathered hand.

I leaned in to the camera so that my face filled the outgoing picture. “You don’t belong in here. This is a family meeting.”

In that slow voice of his, the CEO rumbled, “Hell, Nat, you know I’m just a hired hand. When your dad claps, I’ve gotta jump.”

Father held a majority of the company’s voting shares and had uneasily occupied the chairmanship of the Board ever since Grandfather’s death, but he remained overawed by the CEO&#8212Kenneman had been one of Grandfather’s protégés.

“Come, come,” Father said. “I just wanted Mr. Kenneman’s opinion on some expenses. At the request of some…some interested parties”&#8212an anonymous letter from some of our workers&#8212 “I’m here to take a look at the mining concerns. Now, Fritz says that his cousin can rent us a car for about $100, and with all the expenses, including gas and Fritz’s time, the day shouldn’t cost more than $750. And really, I think that just a day should be fine, don’t you, Mr. Kenneman?”

“No,” I said. “That is unacceptable. These people have spent their lives working in mines bearing your name, and you want their first glimpse of you to be rolling up a dusty road in a single car? How will they be able to trust your judgment? This will be a disaster! Productivity will plummet! Did you learn nothing from last year’s oil field strike?”

“I don’t want to step on any toes,” Father said. “We have managers to deal with the workforce.”

“The managers are part of the workforce,” I said.

“Do you want to end up like Taru Mittal?” Father said. “His father meddled too much in the business, and they lost everything. No, I’m not going to subvert my own managers.”

“Haven’t we seen the folly of trusting MBAs?” I said. “They’ve robbed the whole world blind, and now they’re robbing you too. The mines are probably failing because the managers are siphoning off assets. No, you’ve ducked your responsibilities as an owner for too long, but surely you see the necessity of showing the workers that you are the real boss. The minimum you’ll need is four helicopters, a team of accountants, a business processes analyst, an armored car, a driver, a caterer, a mobile kitchen, an event planner, guards, wardrobe, lighting, servers, and…oh, of course you’ll want to hear grievances and dispense gifts…the workers need to trust you enough to disclose to you the crimes of their managers…”

I continued gently trying to educate Father as to his responsibilities, while Morris Kenneman looked on. His deep eyes were a nest of wrinkles; he never spoke, except sometimes to say, “Good point” after one of my salvoes. He knew that someday he’d be working for me. Still, after a few moments, Father called for a vote, and Mother sided with him, overriding me.

“Wonderful.” Father said. “Can you make the arrangements, Fritz?”

The assistant nodded and glanced up at the ceiling. Somewhere, Andreas was watching. Andreas never let anything slip.

I snapped a finger and pointed at the screen. Morris Kenneman unceremoniously disappeared.

“Well then,” Father said. “You should have gained control of your trust fund today, but, because of your Grandfather, you’re unfortunately just getting a vote. However, you’ve been good and quiet for so long that your mother and I are prepared to let you set up a life outside this house, as long as you’re not too extravagant. This money has to last for the rest of your life, and maybe your children’s’ lives too. But…well…why don’t you tell us what you’re thinking?”

“I’m thinking of taking upon myself the responsibilities that you’ve abrogated,” I said.

With a wave of my hand, I called up my first slide and began describing the Natalia Suarez Foundation: a tax-exempt charity dedicated to bettering the standard of living in all seventy-eight Suareztowns. I proposed donating 95 percent of my trust fund to my eponymous charity over the next ten years.

Father attempted to cut in, but I spoke over him. Finally, he exploded, “Don’t be absurd! Your Grandfather spent his life earning that money. Do you really think I’m going to let you give it away? You might as well be burning it!”

After he’d gone on for some time, I called a vote to approve disbursement of the first tranche of funds to the NSF.

Father burst forth with more objections right as Mother said, “Okay.” We outvoted him.

While the argument continued, I told Fritz to witness the decision, scan it, and send it to Letitia. He smiled at me for a long moment before bending his head to examine the documents.

Andreas met me in the stairwell. “Did you hire the agitators?” I said.

“They’re moving through the crowd right now,” Andreas said. “The news crews are waiting at the south entrance.”

“Good, keep the cameras away from me until the right moment.”

Andreas smiled at me, and I swear that it was the first time I’d ever seen his facial expression change.

I descended.

The Lower Quadrant was the belly of the house. It encompassed the garages, kitchens, servant’s quarters, storage, and engine rooms and was served by the North Entrance: a two story metal arch that opened onto the marble surface of the docking station.

Johan was down there, sitting on a wheel well and heating tea on a portable burner he always carried with him.

Anxious for my moment, I approached the entrance. At the scanning stations, the guards were carefully searching the new hires for weapons and parasites. Farther out, recruiters were assessing the crowd that had gathered beyond the arch.

In front were tired men with old faces who had worked for us before and had been in the system for years. They stood quietly, often holding boxes of tools, because they knew the recruiters were familiar with their skills, which ranged from plumbing to debt collection, and that if we needed them, then they’d be hired. Behind them was a clamoring mob of young men, some of them shirtless, who waved their ID cards and vied with each other in making claims about how long and how hard they could work. Some threw their ID cards forward, at the recruiters, in the hope that the card would be picked up and scanned into the system instead of being trampled underfoot. Snaking along one edge of the crowd was a line of men and women in business attire. This line attempted to stay in contact with the entrance, but it also wriggled fitfully whenever the boisterous working men came too close. Off to the side was a little clot of women&#8212often dressed in chic, if dirty, clothes&#8212who stood up on their toes and shouted at me, calling me “Natalia” or even “Tally”. They cried out that they’d played with me when I was a kid, and didn’t I remember how I’d come to their house all the time and taken tea. They probably weren’t lying. I’d played in so many Suareztowns over the years.

Down at the base of the docking station, the Philadelphia Suareztown was almost empty. It was a tightly-packed shantytown sprawled over many acres. The richest homes&#8212where the families of our permanent house-servants often lived&#8212were silvery trailers that had sunken into the mud. Slightly less affluent were the houses made of scavenged plywood, with roofs of corrugated tin. Others lived in nylon tents, or mud huts, or lean-tos propped against ruined buildings. Cooking fires still burned in places, tended by distant figures: the ones too old, crazy, disabled, or depressed to engage in the job search. Most of the estate was given over to parks and gardens that constrained the growth of the Suareztown. But even in the gardens there were patches of ground that were scarred and blackened: places where dwellings or illicit crops had been burned away to prettify the estate for our arrival.

While we were docked, this Suareztown would bloom like a desert after a rainstorm. Pipes that only flowed when the house was docked would scrub clean the refuse-strewn alleyways and allow these people their first decent showers in ages. Electricity illicitly tapped from the house would light up a few of the wealthier homes, where dozens would gather at night to watch television or listen to music. Men would come back from the house with their pockets full of money and put new shoes on their children. Their families would eat hamburger for the first time in months. At night, there would be dancing atop the marble docking station. Liquor would flow. Debts would be repaid. Minds that were used to thinking only of food would open up and find room for love. Young couples would ask Father for his blessing and after he irritably waved them off they would hold their weddings under the arch of the North Entrance and carry on until late in the next morning.

When we left, a little bit of that life would remain. Maybe someone would use a fully charged battery to power a phone, so they could search for jobs, or a light, so they could keep up with their studies. Maybe one of the permanent staff-members would marry a local or father a child and continue to send remittances for awhile. Maybe someone in this crowd would be hired on permanently and their family would move into a trailer. But mostly the town would lapse into silent, tenacious struggle. There’d be thefts and killings and beatings. Old hustles would be trotted out. Some would sicken, or starve. Others would move away, hoping to find a better village, and leave their homes open to those arriving from worse villages. All would anxiously pass the business gossip to each other, hoping that each little rise or dip in Father’s portfolio heralded another visit from us. They knew that our next visit might not be for ten years, and they’d regret not having made the best of this one.

Theirs was a tragic life, but it was the life to which they’d been born. I could pour my whole fortune into that hole without improving it. I wasn’t the cause of their poverty. Their livelihoods had been stolen by much more cunning people than I: people who’d held it for only a few moments before squandering it. My fortune was merely that portion of the world’s wealth which had not yet been destroyed by that insatiable manager-class of MBAs.

I heard the sound of my helicopters. There were two up there, and a third arriving. Johan sauntered up to me.

“I still can’t believe people live like this,” Johan said.

“Is your village much better?” I said. “What family do you follow? I hear that the Stern-Hsus have spent considerable money on cosmetic improvements.”

“I don’t live in a village…I’m from Houston,” Johan said. “I lived in a nice, little suburb. My parents have jobs. I went to college.”

“Did you?” I said. “I never saw the point in it.”

“I guess you wouldn’t,” he murmured. The sound of the helicopters almost drowned out his words.

Bits of paper started falling from the sky. My men and women in the crowd must’ve done their work well. Long before the first piece of paper was low enough to be clearly seen, hands were reaching up for it.

The crowd surged away from the entrance. The Suareztowners were jumping up and down, trying to snatch money out of the sky. Then my embedded agitators started the chant. Soon the whole crowd was shouting, “Natalia! Natalia! Natalia!” as they jumped.

The guards moved amongst them, looking for people who’d fallen underfoot. They pulled up one man, and he shook free from their grasp and started leaping up again. Far away, I heard the South Entrance open. Somewhere, news cameras were rushing towards me, but I did not let that stop me from observing the happy spectacle in front of me.

Some of the falling papers were not green dollars, but silvery coupons for admittance to the house tonight. At first these were looked at with puzzlement, and then they too were fought over.

“This is so inefficient,” Johan said. “You’re just encouraging them to cluster around your docking and mooch off you. If you really wanted to help people, you’d&#8212″

“I don’t want to help people,” I said. “I want to help my people.”

He shrugged. Then he heaved his backpack up onto his shoulders and walked into the crowd.

Father was right that we couldn’t really improve their lives. This was the world we had, and no one knew how to change it. But that didn’t mean I had no responsibility towards them. At least I could be kind to them. Father shunned them, and still they persisted in the belief that they were vassals of the Suarez family and that their fortunes rose and fell with ours. Despite the flimsiness of this belief, it provided them with some consolation.

I wouldn’t be as cruel as Father. I would do my best to show them that my family was worthy of their loyalty.

Over the next several hours, Father telephoned several times to berate me. I didn’t take the calls. His opinion wasn’t important right now.

The near-riot at our docking station was featured on a number of news channels. At the scene, I’d told the reporters about my newfound commitment to the greater good. It was not a major story, but it was a slow day, and the channels were anxious to recycle images from my spree of five years ago: the high-speed chases, the smashed cars, the burning buildings, the overdosed companions….the evolution of my supposed pathology gave the commentariat something to mash their lips about.

I hired a publicist from the line of professionals at the North Entrance and told him to field all my media calls, while I handled the personal calls.

Ever since my name had hit the airwaves, long-lost friends and family had been calling to accept invitations to tonight’s party. I forgave them for their late RSVPs, and ordered Andreas to double, triple, quadruple the size of the celebration.

When Mother emerged from the operating theater, she said, “How much did that stunt cost?”

“Five thousand for the helicopters. Fifteen thousand for the cash.”

“Not a bad expense-to-giving ratio. If you can keep that up, I’m willing to give you a little more slack,” she said. “At least it’s more productive than burning down a nightclub.”

“So you saw that they’re replaying the old footage.”

“It’s not my name that’s getting dragged through the mud,” Mother said. “But…there won’t be any property damage this time, right?”

“I don’t need to do that anymore.”

“Okay,” she said. “I knew you’d never really get serious. It’s the money; it doesn’t let you do anything seriously. At least you didn’t end up all fussy like your dad.”

With the exponentially increasing size of tonight’s party, the whole house was in a tumult. Andreas was barking over the intercom every ten minutes. Each time his voice filled our ears, the workers cursed his name and then redoubled their labor. Everyone who’d ever served before had been hired, and now rank newcomers were being scanned, searched, and put to work.

And Andreas had ordered the reopening of the banquet hall: a vast lung right at the top of the house, covered with a thin bubble of screens that could go transparent to show the sky or could display panoramic views of 1.4 million real or simulated locales. Father hated the extravagance of the place. It hadn’t been used since Grandfather’s wake.

It was a joy to see it brought to life again. I stood in a corner, as tables and silverware were brought up from the docking station’s warehouse by the new workers. The dust was blown out of the place, and its familiar smell of aged wood, with a slight tinge of cigar smoke, reasserted itself. Overhead, the dome was lit up with skeining colors as newly-hired technicians calibrated the screens.

Two Suareztown workers walked past me, holding a table. The older of them said, “Now see here, Dan, I worked here plenty of times. You got to be careful not to scuff these floors. These floors are ancient. The old man installed them when he built this place. Hell, I was here when this room had its first event: the old man’s second wedding.”

The other worker said, “I heard that whoever’s got these silver invitations is gonna get a million dollars tonight.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, if that girl can show she doesn’t care about money by giving away all her millions by midnight then her dad will feel safe about letting her inherit his billions.”

“Shit, my daughter had one. She sold it to Ken Rodgers for $100.”

The silver tickets were Letitia’s innovation. I hadn’t yet asked her what she meant to do with them.

I was still in the banquet hall when Father caught up to me several hours later. The tables were set up and clad with silverware. The servers were being hastily retrained at the other end of the hall. Father wove through the tables with a hasty step. He was within arm’s reach before he let a word escape from between his gritted teeth.

“You’re going down that evil road again,” he said.

“I did what I said I would. I gave the money away.”

“I’ve had a lot of calls today from my brothers. They said that these ‘charities’ are the new fad amongst you kids. You use the money to stage horrible events: rallies, fights, races…making people crawl and debase themselves for money…they showed me pictures of the charity games that your cousin Letitia threw on her fund day….they made me sick…really physically sick…I thought you’d changed. After your last…difficulties…we talked things out. You went to therapy. You said you realized you’re not the center of the world.”

“I did what you should have been doing,” I said. “You’re too old to understand that we can’t treat people like mere employees anymore. They won’t let us. They demand to be treated like peasants, because peasants get taken care of.”

“And the gladiator fights your cousin staged? Was that taking care of them?”

I had never heard of any fights, but I wasn’t going to cede my ground. “Some kind of abasement has to be demanded from them as a symbol of our interlocking responsibilities.”

“I don’t know how I raised such a monster,” Father said. “I can’t believe I spent all those years arguing with your Grandfather about you. I’m done. I’m giving all this up. The servants, the docking stations, the house, the helicopters, the cars, everything. It was a mistake to keep them. Your Grandfather deserved them, because he’d earned them. You and I haven’t earned anything. I’m putting the house on the market tomorrow morning.”

“You can’t!” I yelled, as Father stalked away.

I stopped myself from running after him. He couldn’t be serious about selling this place. An owner without a house would be nothing more than a name on a bank account.

By nightfall, there were a dozen houses floating above, larger than clouds, and sending down tiny helicopters full of guests. Some had flown for much of the day in order to attend what was being called the rebirth of an enfant terrible onto the social scene.

All three of Father’s brothers arrived, with wives and children in tow. Mother’s family was cobbled together, thrown on planes, and picked up from the airport by limousines. More distant cousins, whom even my father hadn’t seen more than twice in his lifetime, appeared by the score. And there were a number of attendees from other families: the Aldritches, the Yamagachis, the Stern-Hsus, the Bilals, the Mittals, the Morgensterns, the Okowonwes, and many more. I recognized most of the scions from my younger days.

And then there was Morris Kenneman. How could my Father have invited him? He and his wife walked alone through the halls of my house. Wherever they went, eyes narrowed and heads shook. At dinner, the Kennemans’ assigned tablemates stood up and went to other tables. My father took pity on the CEO and invited the Kennemans to sit with him and Mother up on the dais. In the presence of my parents, Kenneman became expansive. He exploded with laughter and clapped my father on the shoulder. My father sat forward, with the splayed fingers of one hand poised on the table, and soaked up Kenneman’s business lectures with open eyes. Why did he worship that man so much?

After dinner, the guests drank copiously, and the youngest set, the ones who’d come up after me, sampled the new drugs in bathrooms and bedrooms and carports. The din reached a crescendo and fell and started again like it was some modern composition, ‘Wealth,” As Performed By Three Hundred Voices.

I was feted wherever I wandered. I preferred the darker corners, where my old set gathered to relive more dissipate days.

I’d last seen Father on the dais in the banquet room. He was speaking in soft, but quick, words to Kenneman. Their heads were so close that they were almost whispering into each other’s ears. When I tried to gain his attention, he remained silent.

I was standing with Letitia, Sean Stern-Hsu, and Leon Aldritch in the sunroom. While I’d spent the last five years contemplating my place in the world, they’d spent them in a continuous debauch. Apparently, I’d chosen the more taxing occupation. They’d managed to retain the beauty which I’d lost.

“Natalia was always the wildest,” Sean said. “Remember the time you bought out a library that was closing down, and burned all the books?”

“Oh god, you loved fire,” Letitia said.

“It was a political protest,” I said. I didn’t like to be reminded about those wild days. I’d derived far too much pleasure from that mayhem.

“What were you protesting?”

“I don’t remember.”

“You did everything for the cameras,” Letitia said. “And you got more of them than anybody.”

“I…must have been protesting the library closure.”

“When did you ever go to a library?” Leon said.

“People use libraries,” I said. “They’re necessary things. People use them. Come on. We all know that this is about more than cameras.”

After a few more drinks, Letitia took us down into the little holding room where we jailed erring servants until land-based authorities could be reached. Right now it was crammed full of about fifteen Suareztowners. We stared at them through the one-way glass.

“They’re the ones who came with the silver tickets,” Letitia said.

“What do you have planned?” I said.

“Maybe an Impossible Game?”

“What about A Red Herring?” Sean said.

“My sister tried an Adoption Party,” Leon said.

I laughed along with them. During my exile, I hadn’t paid much attention to society news. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I had asked Letitia to make my return as chic as possible.

Some time later, I detached myself from them and shadowed Father through the back hallways. I needed to catch him alone and make him see reason.

At the end of the hallway, someone said, “I can’t believe anyone could have this many servants.”

“Most of them are temporary. They’re from the Suareztown.” I recognized Johan’s voice.

“Oh god. From that slum?”

Johan came into view. He had a girl with him who I’d never seen before.

“Hey Natalia,” he said. He waved to me. “This is my college friend, Sarah.”

“So all this is for you, then?” Sarah said.

“It’s my birthday party.”

“How can you bear to do something like this when people are living in shacks all around you?”

“I’m sorry, what family do you serve?” I said. If this girl and Johan came from such wonderful villages then some family was making the rest of us look bad.

“I work,” Sarah said. “I’m in marketing.”

“Mother works,” I said. “She doesn’t earn very much money, but she likes it. She pulled herself up. I’m glad you managed to pull yourself up. It’s not easy to do.”

“What is she talking about?” Sarah said.

“What family is your village attached to? Have you ever met them? They might be here.”

“I’m not from a slum!”

“Oh, you’re another one like Johan. Some of the older Suareztowners still call their home ‘a suburb’ too.”

“We’re nothing like your fucking ghetto servants,” Sarah said. Her face was flushed now, and her chin was shaking. “I work. My parents work. Everyone I know works. I have an MBA in&#8212”

“Oh,” I said. “You’re managers.” I turned to Johan. “You as well?”

He shook his head as if he didn’t understand me.

“What is your father’s profession?”

“He’s in financial services, what he does is…”

As Johan went into a long explanation, I got angrier and angrier. Two managers had snuck into my home and taken advantage of my hospitality. Of course, I’d rubbed shoulders with managers before, at the stores and bars and clubs where that vulgar class was only too quick to squander the earnings it had stolen from us. But at least in those settings, I was not expected to socialize with the managers.

“How dare you step foot in a productive household?” I said. “How dare you steal our hospitality?”

“Look,” Johan said. “I’m just travelling around, trying to learn about the world and about how people live so that I can start trying to fix all the prob&#8212”

“You want to manage the whole world, don’t you?” I said. “I thought you were a struggling beggar, trying to find a place. But you’re just a manager spy.”

I turned and walked away. I thought of having them ejected, but I’d much rather round up Sean and Leon and convince them to pulverize some managerial scum, they way we used to.

While I was looking in the banquet room for Letitia, Sean and the rest, I ran across Father. He was on the dais, worrying away with delicate nibbles at the morsels of flesh inside the broken-open torso of a crab. One of his brothers was snoring next to him. The dome was lit up with a view from Father’s hunting lodge in the Smoky Mountains. It was a sped-up view, transitioning from dawn to dusk in less than fifteen minutes, and going through the night and back to day.

I sat down next to him and waved at the sky. “Is that where you’re going?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I’ll live in a New York apartment.”

“You can’t be serious. There’d be MBAs everywhere. You might even have to share a wall with one of them.”

“What is it that you think your Grandfather and Great-Grandfather did?”

“They were businessmen,” I said. “They created wealth. They didn’t steal it.”

Father snorted. The banquet room was in disarray. There was half-eaten food on many of the tables. The tablecloths were splotched. Near the bar there was a large group of heavy drinkers still going at the whiskey. Here and there, tables were still animated and full of life. Elsewhere, duos looked into each others’ eyes or up at the shifting starscape and whispered quietly.

“You can’t give it all up!” I said. “Mother and I will veto it.”

“I already talked to her. She will approve it, as long as we settle near a hospital. She’s anxious to have blood on her hands again.”

“And what about me?”

“You have your fund,” he said. “We’ll allow you a small stipend for your upkeep. And your mother supports your charitable activities. She even suggested that I start my own charity.”

“She doesn’t support me,” I said. “She’s just unhappy. She hates us.”

“I know you love this house,” Father said. “I won’t sell it.”

“Thank God,” I said. “I knew you’d recognize your duty, eventually.”

“I’ll destroy it,” he said. “I’ll burn it down like you burned down that nightclub. I’ll leave it right on this docking station as a blackened wreck.”

“Grandfather built this house,” I said. “You have no right to harm it!”

“He left it to me. He trusted me in a way that I’m not sure I can ever trust you.”

“That trust was misplaced,” I said. “You’re ruining this family. You know you’re not as capable as Grandfather, so you pinch pennies, trying not to lose the money he left behind. But your miserliness has made you weak and friendless and vulnerable to the managers. They’re bleeding you, just as they’ve bled so many other owners. If we’re going to survive, we need to make sure that the servants and workers are loyal enough to combat this management robbery.”

“If you want this house to survive, then abandon these regal pretensions,” Father said. “Dissolve your trust fund. Return it to me. Learn thrift and caution. Then, maybe, when I die, I’ll be able to hand all this over to you in good faith.”

I felt a tear forming, and surreptitiously wiped it away. Father didn’t say anything. We sat there in silence for a long time. Eventually, he started snoring. I sniffed his glass. It was very full of undiluted whiskey.

“Yasmina,” I said. “Please make this dome transparent.” The landscape altered, and I could see the blank, grey night. Most of the houses had drifted away by now. One hundred feet below, the Suareztown was lit up brilliantly. There were thousands of people down there. They’d stopped whatever they were doing to look up at me.

Even after a lifetime among them, the Suareztowners were still faintly alien to me. In my mind, they existed only collectively, and I found it hard to credit them with individual thoughts or feelings. I loved my house more than I had ever loved anyone from the servant class. It had cocooned me since birth and learning its secrets had been the major joy of my life.

Was their loyalty really important enough to me to be worth losing the house forever?

“There you are!” Letitia’s voice called out. “I should’ve known you’d be precocious enough to meet us here.”

Letitia, Sean, Leon, and the rest of our set had rambled in, herding the fifteen ticketholders, each of whom was now holding a young child.

“You missed the first round,” Letitia said. “We did it by the North Entrance. They had to pick their favorite child!”

“The crowd loved it,” Sean said. “The women were crying, and blessing each child, and saying prayers over them. It was quite a scene.”

There were dozens of news cameras trailing them, held at a decent distance by our guards. Andreas was there in the wings, directing the movements of the crowd. Servants came to the front, near the dais, and cleared the tables. Two workers picked up my father and took him off to bed. The party was ushered towards me.

Letitia sat next to me on the dais.

“We’re playing The Scholarship Game,” Letitia called out.

All of my set applauded. A few older people stood in the wings, looking on. Some shrank away when the cameras panned to towards them, and others did not.

What Letitia proceeded to outline was an auction. The bidders had educational data on each of these children, and knew all about their potential for work, so they’d compete with each other to pay money to the parent of each child. The winner of each auction would get to take the child away, for a ten year term of service, during which they’d learn a trade. It was the Suareztown dream of finding a place in a big house.

I thought the children would fidget through these explanations, but they stared with wide unblinking eyes and seemed to see everything that was inside us. Only one parent objected. He said, “But we want to work for Mr. Suarez.”

Letitia carefully explained that all of us came from good families but any parent had the option of refusing the money when the auction was over.

I was sitting in the place of honor, with all those cameras pointed at me. Letitia served as auctioneer. She brought up the little boy of the father who’d spoken out. I knew that all this about educational data was just a pretense. My set joked with each other, starting off with absurdly low amounts, and only raising their bids infinitesimally, trying to see the father squirm.

The father thought he was going to have to choose between selling off his boy to a stranger for a pittance or losing the best opportunity he’d ever been given.

I entered the bidding, and kept bidding, destroying their fun. I ignored Letitia’s whispered comments that I was disrupting the cadence of the game, until she was forced to gavel the auction to a close and declare me the winner.

I sat the little boy down next to me, and motioned for some more food to be brought out.

Letitia whispered, “You weren’t supposed to win. Leon liked the looks of that one.”

“Wait,” I said, before Letitia started the next auction. “Yasmina. Please enable exterior broadcast.” It was the protocol my Grandfather had used to show the town his wedding ceremony. I knew that the exterior of the dome would light up with the image of the dais, and that our words would be broadcast through the town at ear-splitting volume.

Then I proceeded to buy all the rest of the children. At first, my set was angry that I’d disrupted the auctions. What was it that they had planned to do with these children?

But then Letitia went among them and told them about a new game. After that, they smiled and bid me up to astronomical sums just to see the sheer, molten hope bubbling out of those parents’ faces. I wasn’t going to pay the money, of course. I’d claim a misunderstanding and send them off with only a tiny sum, just as I wouldn’t really enslave their children, I’d apprentice them so they could learn to be pilots, or sommeliers, or cooks, or waiters and eventually find good places in good households…or more likely just spend their lives waiting, silently, in front of some family’s recruiting entrance.

When Letitia returned to her seat next to me, I asked, “What are you doing? If I hadn’t stepped in, you’d have riled up the servants.”

Letitia wrinkled her forehead. “I thought you wanted to have some fun…”

I opened my mouth and then closed it. My hands smoothed the edges of my dress. Letitia wasn’t acting. The reddened faces of my peers were open holes that drained bottle after bottle and spit up jangly laughter. None of them were acting. They’d become what society needed them to be. But they hadn’t yet realized they were necessary. They thought they were just having fun.

Letitia rose to raffle off one more child. But then my cousin squeaked and an amplified gasp ran out over the room and, presumably, the Suareztown below. Father had pushed her back down into her seat. He rose up at one end of the dais and shouted, “I’m here! I’m your master, aren’t I? Well I’m right here! Listen to me! I have”&#8212his voice suddenly grew ten times louder as the contextual operators caught on and began amplification&#8212″an announcement for you!”

I gestured frantically at the walls. I even went so far as to mouth the words, “Yasmina. Cut off the exterior feed.” But nothing happened. Her eyes were probably pinned on my father.

“Come on up here, Mo.” Father gestured, with an empty champagne glass, at the CEO. A waiter appeared and filled the glass. “Don’t be shy. Come up here! This is all going to be yours soon!”

Every organ in my body was switching off. I wanted to stand. I wanted to shout. Letitia looked at me with her eyes wide open and grabbed the meat of my upper arm. But I could do nothing.

Morris Kenneman maneuvered his old man bulk onto the dais. My staggering Father grabbed the CEO’s hand and raised it high into the air. All of this was being projected live on the exterior of the house!

“It’s a complicated transaction. I’ll leave Morris here to explain it. But the company’s buying all of this. The house. The docking station. The lodges. The summer homes. Everything. And they’re buying back all my stock too. Every share. Morris is going to arrange financing through his contacts in the financial sector. And I’ll be stepping down as Chairman, of course. It’s time the company was entrusted to more capable hands than mine.”

I couldn’t speak. I could barely think. Was Father really subjecting our company&#8212Grandfather’s company&#8212to a leveraged buyout?

Morris was stony-faced. He said a few words, but quickly realized he wasn’t being amplified.

Father said, “Andreas! Fritz! You’ve got the contracts. File them.” Then he sat down abruptly. Immediately, Fritz was on hand, having shouldered his way past Kenneman. He gave a bottle of water and a few pills to Father, who swallowed them without looking. Kenneman assayed another attempt at a speech, but his voice still came out quiet. He shook his head once and then clambered off the dais.

All around, guests were leaving. Above, helicopters danced around each other as they tried to land and pluck their owners from a birthday party that had suddenly turned into a funeral.

My father sank down, rested his head against the back of his chair, and fell asleep. Fritz organized a crew of servants to carry him to his room. At the foot of the docking station, the Suareztown shimmered: doors were opening and closing; hundreds of people were milling in the streets. Within a few weeks, they’d be living in a Kennemantown.

I woke up with a splitting headache. Letitia and I had kept drinking until early in the morning. She wouldn’t stop asking me if things would be alright. Finally, she left me and hopped a ride with Sean.

The house rumbled through my body. Laying atop my bedspread, in the darkened cocoon of my room, I could pretend that everything was still okay. What time was it? I snapped a finger and pointed at the windows.

They remained opaque.

I sat up.

Wait…the house was rumbling a bit too much. I dropped to my knees and put an ear to the hardwood floor. The whole house was humming with the distant orchestral sound of eight engines working in concert.

We were flying. Why? Where was Father taking us now?

I stepped into a pair of sweatpants and shrugged into a t-shirt, then I said, aloud, “Yasmina. Put me through to Father.”

Nothing happened.

I walked to the door and it did not open. I tapped on it and it did not open. I slammed my open palm against it and that whispery voice drifted out of the speakers, “I’m sorry, ma’am…Andreas says…”

“What the hell is going on!” I yelled.

The door clanged. A muffled shout. Then footsteps echoed out.

The room filled with Andreas’ voice. “Greetings and good morning! Late last night, the house developed technical difficulties that hampered central control of appliances. Currently, we are in the air above Los Angeles, en route to our maintenance station in Yokohama and…”

I put my ear to the door. This wasn’t the daily report. This was only coming out of the speakers in my room; it wasn’t being broadcast to the hallway.

“Help me!” I shouted. “I’m held prisoner!”

Andreas’ report suddenly cut off. I kept shouting and slamming my body against the door. Finally, I heard voices on the other side:

“…she’s a whore…just keep her hip-deep in cocaine and cock and she’ll let us do whatever we want…”

Then Andreas said: “She’ll stay inside until we figure out how to manage her.” The voice wasn’t coming through the speaker. It sounded like he was actually standing in the hall.

“…then what? You’ll be in charge? No…fuck that…” this voice sounded a bit like one of the cooks.

“Last night she promised money for my boy…what about his scholarship…?”

Andreas said, “We must stay calm. She will be released eventually. We just need to&#8212”

“You all saw her face last night. She hated the old man just as much as we did. She’ll be grateful to us.”

“Sides…we can’t keep her holed up for long…all kinds of reporters have been calling and emailing and trying to get ahold of her…”

This time the speaker was my usual door-guard: “…if someone’s gotta be in charge…then it sure as hell can’t be old Andy here. He’d work us to the bone in no time.”

“…she was going to give away all her money. She wants to help us!”

Andreas said, “We can manage without her. You just need to trust me.”

But the chant had already started: “Let her out! Let her out! Let her out!”

Through my speakers, Yasmina whispered, “Forgive me” and then the door opened. The servants surged into my room. Carmina put an arm around me and warded off the rest with her other hand. She pulled me out into the hall. The guards yelled at me to forgive them. A woman, holding her son by the shoulders, told me she didn’t have anything to do with this, and did I really think her boy could&#8212

“Wait!” I said. “Where are my parents!”

A throat cleared. Andreas said, “Your mother is in her operating room.”

Fritz burst out. “We did it for you! He was going to sell your house!”

They swirled all around me. Through the windows, all I saw was white. Not clouds&#8212ice. Off to the left, a huge jet kept pace with the house: it was our in-flight refueling tanker. With it, the house could remain aloft indefinitely.

“Where are we?” I said.

They went silent. Andreas said, “We’re in international waters. The Arctic circle.”

“This is insane,” I said. “You can’t hold my father prisoner…”

“He’s sick,” Andreas said. “Thousands of people saw him behaving erratically last night. He’s been getting stranger and more withdrawn for ages. Now he doesn’t want to see anyone.”

“Take me to him.”

The crowd pulsed and opened up a space for me. Cooks, guards, maids, drivers, and dozens upon dozens of people I’d grown up alongside&#8212none of them met my eye. Andreas stepped into the vacuole.

“No,” he said. “Your father doesn’t want to see you.”

“That’s a lie. You’re imprisoning him.”

Andreas pursed his lips. “Fritz and I both witnessed and signed the documents attesting to his incapacity.” He sighed. “And…in light of that incapacity, certain provisions of his and your trusts have become active. As of today, you are his voting proxy for the company stock.”

A warm sensation sludged my veins and Carmina caught my outflung hand. We tottered for a bit, but she kept me upright.

“The company is still ours, then?” I said.

“Your Father grew ill before we could file the paperwork,” Andreas said.

Someone in the crowd shouted, ” He was going to sell us downriver!”

They devoured me with hungry eyes. As my breathing quieted, they grew stiller and slower. Movement stopped. Even the boy eventually stopped fidgeting. How desperate must they have been to join together in this terrible plot?

“What are you going to do?” said the boy’s mother.

I looked out the window and shivered. Then I let out a holler. “Can’t say I’m in the mood for snow right now. How about you prep the shuttle? I think I’ll take a run down to Rio. A few days on the beach sounds like just the ticket.” We hadn’t visited the Brazil Suareztown in six years. If the house servants were this desperate, then how much bolder and angrier must they be in the neglected Suareztowns? Our family’s apathy had bred so many enemies.

“We’ll have you prepped for departure within the hour,” Andreas said. The crowd milled around me. Then Carmina smiled, and they broke open, sweeping me along in a babble of questions. At one point, I was carried past mother’s operating room. Amid the torrent of noise, she emerged with the sensory-transmission gloves still on her hands.

She nodded to me. “I thought you’d finally have to make something of yourself,” she said. “But I hear you wriggled free.”

“Take good care of dad!” I said. “I’ll be back soon to check up on him.”

“You could have been something,” she said. “You could have done something.”

I was loaded up with bags upon bags: everything I could possibly need. They didn’t give me an unescorted moment until they loaded me into the shuttle. But then, just before its doors closed, Andreas plopped down beside me.

“If he goes free, you know that he will sell everything.”

I was going to have to spend the rest of my life watching Andreas. He was my Morris Kenneman.

“Give me a month or two to build the case for dad’s ‘illness.,'” I said. “Then we’ll transfer him stateside.” I’d give him his apartment in Manhattan, if that was really all that he wanted.

Andreas nodded slowly, and then he popped out. The hatch snapped shut immediately.

As the shuttle flew past the house, I thought I saw a man in a suit standing in the window of Father’s bedroom. But he did not see me. His fingers were touching the glass and his eyes were locked on the glaciers down below.

___
Copyright 2013 Rahul Kanakia

Rahul Kanakia is a science fiction writer who has sold stories to Clarkesworld, the Intergalactic Medicine Show, Apex, Nature, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He currently lives in Baltimore, where he is enrolled in the Master of the Fine Arts program in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. He holds a B.A. in Economics from Stanford University and used to work as an international development consultant. If you want to know more about him then please visit his blog at http://www.blotter-paper.com or follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rahkan.

by C.S.E. Cooney

For Janelle McHugh

Of the woman he was to wed on the morrow, Shursta Sarth knew little. He knew she hailed from Droon. He knew her name was Hyrryai.

“…Which means, The Gleaming One,” his sister piped in, the evening before he left their village. She was crocheting by the fire and he was staring into it.

Lifting his chin from his hand, Shursta grinned at her. “Ayup? And where’d you light upon that lore, Nugget?”

Sharrar kicked him on the ankle for using the loathed nickname. “I work with the greyheads. They remember everything.”

“Except how to chew their food.”

“What they’ve lost in teeth, they’ve gained in wisdom,” she announced with some pomposity. “Besides, that’s what they have me for.” Her smile went wry at one corner, but was no less proud for that. “I chew their food, I change their cloths, and they tell me about the old days. Some of them had parents who were alive back then.”

Her voice went rich and rolling. Her crochet hook glinted on the little lace purse she was making. The driftwood flames flickered, orange with tongues of blue.

“They remember the days before the Nine Cities drowned and the Nine Islands with them. Before our people forsook us to live below the waters, and we were stranded here on the Last Isle. Before we changed our name to Glennemgarra, the Unchosen.” Sharrar sighed. “In those days, names were more than mere proxy for, Hey, you!”

“So, Hyrryai means, Hey, you, Gleamy?”

“You have no soul, Shursta.”

“Nugget, when your inner poet is ascendant, you have more than enough soul for both of us. If the whitecaps of your whimsy rise any higher, we’ll have a second Drowning at hand, make no mistake.”

Sharrar rolled her brown-bright eyes at him and grunted something. He laughed, and the anxious knots in his stomach loosened some.

When Shursta took his leave the next morning at dawn, he lingered in the threshold. The hut had plenty of wood in the stack outside the door. He’d smoked or salted any extra catch for a week, so Sharrar would not soon go hungry. If she encountered trouble, they would take her in at the Hall of Ages where she worked, and there she’d be fed and sheltered, though she wouldn’t have much privacy or respite.

He looked at his sister now. She’d dragged herself from bed to make him breakfast, even though he was perfectly capable of frying up an egg himself. Her short dark hair stuck up every which way and her eyes were bleary. Her limp was more pronounced in the morning.

“Wish you could come with me,” he offered.

“What? Me, with one game leg and a passel of greyheads to feed? No, thank you!” But her eyes looked wistful. Neither of them had ever been to Droon, capital of the Last Isle, the seat of the Astrion Council.

“Hey,” he said, surprised to find his own eyes stinging.

“Hey,” she said right back. “After the mesh-rite, after you’ve settled down a bit and met some folks, invite me up. You know I want to meet my mesh-sister. You have my gift?”

He patted his rucksack, which had the little lace purse she’d crocheted along with his own mesh-gift.

“Oohee, brother mine,” said Sharrar. “By this time tomorrow you’ll be a Blodestone, and no Sarth relation will be worthy to meet your eyes.”

“Doubtless Hirryai Blodestone will take one look at me and sunder the contract.”

She requested you.”

Shursta shrugged, sure it had been a mistake.

After that, there was one last hug, a vivid and mischievous and slightly desperate smile from Sharrar, followed by a grave look and quick wink on Shursta’s part. Then he set off on the searoad that would take him to Droon.

Of the eight great remaining kinlines, the Blodestones were the wealthiest. Their mines were rich in ore and gems. Their fields were fertile and wide, concentrated in the highland interior of the Last Isle. After a Blodestone female was croned at age fifty, she would hold her place on the Astrion Council, which governed all the Glennemgarra.

Even a fisherman like Shursta Sarth (of the lesser branch of Sarths), from a poor village like Sif on the edge of Rath Sea, with no parents of note and only a single sister for kin, knew about the Blodestones.

He had no idea why Hyrryai had chosen him for mesh-mate. If it had not been an error, then it was a singular honor. For his life he knew not how he deserved it.

He was of an age to wed. Mesh-rite was his duty to the Glennemgarra and he would perform it, that the world might once again be peopled. To be childless–unless granted special dispensation by the Astrion Council–was to be reviled. Even with the dispensation, there were those who were tormented or shunned for their barrenness.

Due to a lack of girls in Sif, to his own graceless body, which, though fit for work, tended to carry extra weight, and to the slowness of his tongue in the company of strangers, Shursta had not yet been bred out. He had planned to attend this year’s muster and win a mesh-mate at games (the idea of being won himself had never occurred to him), but then the Council’s letter from Droon came.

The letter told him that Hyrryai Blodestone had requested him for mesh-mate. It told him that Hyrryai had not yet herself been bred. That though she was twenty one, a full year past the age of meshing, she had been granted a reprieve when her little sister was murdered.

Shursta had read that last sentence in shock. The murder of a child was the highest crime but one, and that was the murder of a girl child. Hyrryai had been given full grieving rights.

Other than this scant information, the letter had left detailed directions to Droon, with the day and time his first assignation with Hirryai had been set, and reminded him that it was customary for a first-meshed couple to exchange a gift.

On Sharrar’s advice, Shursta had taken pains. He had strung for Hyrryai a long necklace of ammonite, shark teeth and dark pearls the color of thunderclouds. Ammonite for antiquity, teeth for ferocity, and pearls for sorrow. A fearsome gift and perhaps presumptuous, but Sharrar had approved.

“Girls like sharp things,” she’d said, “so the teeth are just right. As for the pearls, they’re practically a poem.”

“I should have stuck with white ones,” he’d said ruefully. “The regular round kind.”

“Bah!” said Sharrar, her pointy face with its incongruously long, strong jaw set stubbornly. “If she doesn’t see you’re a prize, I’ll descend upon Droon and roast her organs on the tines of my trident, just see if I don’t!”

Whereupon Shursta had flicked his strand of stone, teeth and pearl at her. She’d caught it with a giggle, wrapping it with great care in the fine lace purse she’d made.

Hyrryai Blodestone awaited him. More tidepool than beach, the small assignation spot had been used for this purpose before. Boulders had been carved into steps leading from searoad to cove, but these were ancient and crumbling into marram grass.

In this sheltered spot, a natural rock formation had been worked gently into the double curve of a lovers’ bench. His intended bride sat at the far end. Any further and she would topple off.

From the smudges beneath her eyes and the harried filaments flying out from her wing-black braid, she looked as if she had been sitting there all night. Her head turned as he approached. Perhaps it was the heaviness of his breath she heard. It labored after the ten miles he’d trudged that morning, from the steepness of the steps, at his astonishment at the color of her hair. The breezy sweetness of dawn had long since burned away. It was noon.

Probably, Shursta thought, falling back a step back as her gaze met his, she could smell him where she sat.

“Shursta Sarth,” she greeted him.

“Damisel Blodestone.”

Shursta had wanted to say her name. Had wanted to say it casually, as she spoke his, with a cordial nod of the head. Instead his chin jutted up and awry, as if a stray hook had caught it. Her name stopped in his throat and changed places at the last second with the formal honorfic. He recalled Sharrar’s nonsense about names having meaning. It no longer seemed absurd.

Hyrryai the Gleaming One. Had she been so called for the long shining lines in her hair? The fire at the bottom of her eyes, like lava trapped in obsidian? Was it the clear bold glow of her skin, just browner than blushing coral, just more golden than sand?

Since his tongue would not work, as it rarely did for strangers, Shursta shrugged off his rucksack. The shoulder straps were damp in his grip. He fished out the lace purse with its mesh-gift and held it out to her, stretching his arm to the limit so that he would not have to step nearer.

She glanced from his flushed face to the purse. With a short sigh, as if to brace herself, she stood abruptly, plucked the purse from his hand and dumped the contents into her palm.

Shursta’s arm dropped.

Hyrryai Blodestone examined the necklace closely. Every tooth, every pearl, every fossilized ridge of ammonite. Then, with another breath, this one quick and indrawn as the other had been exhaled, she poured the contents back and thrust the purse at him.

“Go home, man of Sif,” she said. “I was mistaken. I apologize that you came all this way.”

Not knowing whether he were about to protest or cozen or merely ask why, Shursta opened his mouth. Felt that click in the back of his throat where too many words welled in too narrow a funnel. Swallowed them all.

His hand closed over the purse Sharrar had made.

After all, it was no worse than he had expected. Better, for she had not laughed at him. Her face, though cold, expressed genuine sorrow. He suspected the sorrow was with her always. He would not stay to exacerbate it.

This time, he managed a creditable bow, arms crossed over his chest in a gesture of deepest respect. Again he took up his rucksack, though it seemed a hundred times heavier now. He turned away from her, letting his rough hair swing into his face.

“Wait.”

Her hand was on his arm. He wondered if they had named her Hyrryai because she left streaks of light upon whatever she touched.

“Wait. Please. Come and sit. I think I must explain. If it pleases you to hear me, I will talk awhile. After that you may tell me what you think. What you want. From this.” She spread her hands.

Shursta did not remove his rucksack again, but he sat with her. Not on the bench, but on the sand, with their backs against the stone seat. He drew in the sand with a broken shell and did not look at her except indirectly, for fear he would stare. For a while, only the waves spoke.

When Hyrryai Blodestone began, her tones were polite but informal, like a lecturer of small children. Like Sharrar with her grayheads. As if she did not expect Shursta to hear her, or hearing, listen.

“The crones of the Astrion Council know the names of all the Glennemgarra youth yet unmeshed. All their stories. Who tumbled which merry widow in which sea cave. Who broke his drunken head on which barman’s club. Who comes from the largest family of mesh-kin, and what her portions are. You must understand,” the tone of her voice changed, and Shursta glanced up in time to see the fleetingest quirk of a corner smile, “the secrets of the council do not stay in the council. In my home, at least, it is the salt of every feast, the gossip over tea leaves and coffee grinds, the center of our politics and our hearths. With a mother, grandmother, several aunts and great aunts and three cousins on the council, I cannot escape it. When we were young, we did not want to. We thought of little else than which dashing, handsome man we would…”

She stopped. Averted her face. Then she asked lightly, “Shall I tell you your story as the Blodestones know it?”

When he answered, after clearing his throat, it was in the slow measured sentences that made most people suck their teeth and stamp the ground with impatience. Hyrryai Blodestone merely watched with her flickering eyes.

“Shursta Sarth is not yet twenty five. He has one sibling, born lame. A fisherman by trade. Not a very successful one. Big as a whale. Stupid as a jellyfish. Known to his friends, if you can call them that, as ‘Sharkbait.’”

Hyrryai was nodding, slowly. His heart sank like a severed anchor. He had hoped, of course, that the story told of Shursta Sarth in the Astrion Council might be different. That somehow they had known more of him, even, than he knew of himself. Seeing his crestfallen expression, Hyrryai took up the tale.

“Shursta Sarth is expected either to win a one-year bride at games, do his duty by her and watch her leave the moment her contract ends, or to take under his wing a past-primer lately put aside for a younger womb. However, as his sister will likely be his dependent for life, this will deter many of the latter, who might have taken him on for the sake of holding their own household. It is judged improbable that Shursta Sarth will follow the common practice of having his sister removed to the Beggar’s Quarter and thus improve his own lot.”

Shursta must have made an abrupt noise or movement, for she glanced at him curiously. He realized his hands had clenched. Again, she almost smiled.

“Your sister made the purse?”

He nodded once.

“Then she is clever. And kind.” She paused. The foam hissed just beyond the edges of their toes. A cormorant called.

“Did you know I had a sister?” she asked him.

Shursta nodded, more carefully this time. Her voice, like her face, was remote and cold. But at the bottom of it, buried in the ice, an inferno.

“She was clubbed to death on this beach. I found her. We had come here often to play–well, to spy on mesh-mates meeting for the first time. Sometimes we came here when the moon was full–to bathe and dance and pretend that the sea people would swim up to surface from the Nine Drowned Cities to sing songs with us. I had gone to a party that night with a group of just the sort of dashing handsome young men we would daydream about meshing with, but she was too young yet for such things. When she was found missing from her bed the next morning, I thought perhaps she had come here and fallen asleep. I thought if I found her, I could pretend to our mother I had already scolded her–Kuista was very good at hanging her head like a puppy and looking chastised; sometimes I think she practiced in the mirror–and she might be let off a little easier. So I went here first and told nobody. But even from the cliff, when I saw her lying there, I knew she wasn’t sleeping.”

Shursta began to shiver. He thought of Sharrar, tangled in bladderwrack, a nimbus of bloody sand spreading out around her head.

“She was fully clothed, except for her shoes. But she often went barefoot. Said even sandals strangled her. The few coins in her pocket were still there, but her gemmaja was gone. I know she had been wearing it, because she rarely took it off. And it’s not among her things.”

A dark curiosity moved in him. Unable to stop himself, Shursta asked, “What is a gemmaja?”

Hyrryai untangled a thin silver chain from her hair. If she had not been so mussed, if the gemmaja had been properly secured, it would have lain across her forehead in a gentle V. A small green stone speckled with red came to rest between her eyes like a raindrop.

“The high households of the eight kinlines wear them. Ours is green chalcedony, of course. You Sarths,” she added, “wear the red carnelian.”

Shursta touched the small nob of polished coral he wore on a cord under his shirt. His mother had always just called it a touchstone. His branch of Sarths had never been able to afford carnelian.

“Later, after the pyre, I searched the sand, but I could not find Kuista’s gemmaja. I was so…” She hesitated. “Angry.”

Shursta understood the pause. Hyrryai had meant something entirely else, of course. As when calling the wall of water that destroyed your village a word so common as “wave” was not enough.

“…So angry that I had not thought to check her head more closely. To see if the gemmaja had been driven into… into what was left her of skull. To see if a patch of her hair had been ripped out with the removal of the gemmaja–which I reason more likely. But I only thought of that later, when… when I could think again. Someone took the gemmaja from her, I know it.” She shook her head. “But for what reason? A lover, perhaps, crazed by her refusal of him? She was young for a lover, but some men are strange. Did he beat her down and then take a piece of her for himself? Was it an enemy? For the Blodestones are powerful, Shursta Sarth, and have had enemies for as long as we have held house. Did he bring back her gemmaja to his own people, as proof of loyalty to his kinline? Was he celebrated? Was he elected leader for his bold act? I do not know. I wish I had been a year ago what I am now… But mark me.”

She turned to him and set her strong hands about his wrists.

“Mark me when I say I shall not rest until I find Kuista’s murderer. Every night she comes to me in my sleep and asks where her gemmaja is. In my dreams she is not dead or broken, only sad, so sad that she begins to weep, asking me why it was taken from her. Her tears are not tears but blood. All I want is to avenge her. It is all I can think about. It is the only reason I am alive. Do you understand?”

Shursta’s own big, brown, blunt-fingered hands rested quietly within the tense shackles of hers. His skin was on fire where she touched him, but his stomach felt like stone. He said slowly, “You do not wish–you never wished–to wed.”

“No.”

“But your grieving time is used up and the Astrion Council–your family–is insisting.”

“Yes.”

“So you chose a husband who… Who would be…” He breathed out. “Easy.” She nodded once, slowly. “A stupid man, a poor man, a man who would be grateful for a place among the Blodestones. So grateful he would not question the actions of his wife. His wife who… who would not be a true wife.”

Her hands fell from his. “You do understand.”

“Yes.”

She nodded again, her expression almost exultant. “I knew you would! The moment I held your mesh-gift. It was as if you knew me before we met. As if you made my sorrow and my vengeance and my blood debt to my sister into a necklace. I knew at once that you would never do. Because I need a husband who would not understand. Who would not care if I could not love him. Who never suspected that the thought of bringing a child into this murderous world is so repellent that to dwell on it makes me vomit, even when I have eaten nothing. I mean to find my sister’s killer, Shursta Sarth. And then I mean to kill him and eat his heart by moonlight.”

Shursta looked up, startled. The eating of a man’s flesh was taboo–but he did not blurt the obvious aloud. Had not her sister–a child, a girl child–been murdered on this beach? Taboos meant nothing to Hyrryai Blodestone. He wondered that she had not yet filed her teeth and declared herself windwyddiam, a wind widow, nameless, kinless, outside the law. But then, he thought, how could she hunt amongst the high houses if she revoked her right of entry into them?

But.”

He looked up at that word and knew a disgustingly naked monster shone in his eyes. But he could not help it. Shursta could not help his hope.

“But you are not a stupid man, Shursta Sarth. And you do not deserve to be sent away in disgrace, as if you were a dog that displeased me. You must tell me what you want, now that you know what I am.”

Shursta sat up to remove his rucksack again. Again he removed the lace purse, the necklace. And though his fingers trembled, he looped the long strand around her neck, twice and then thrice, before letting the hooks catch. The teeth jutted out about her flesh, warning away chaste kisses, chance gestures of affection. Hyrryai did not move beneath his hands.

“I am everything the Astrion Council says,” Shursta said, sinking back to the sand. “But if I wed you tomorrow, I will be a Blodestone, and thus be more useful to my sister. Is that not enough to keep me here? I am not so stupid as to leave, when you give me the choice to stay. But I shall respect your grief. I shall not touch you. When you have found your sister’s killer and have had your revenge, come to me. I will declare myself publically dissatisfied that you have not given me children. I will return to Sif. If my sister does not mesh, you will settle upon her a portion worthy of a Blodestone, that she will never be put away in the Beggar’s Quarter. And we shall be quit of each other. Does this suit you, Damisel Blodestone?”

Whatever longing she heard in his voice or saw in his eyes, she did not flinch from it. She took his face between her palms and kissed him right on the forehead, right between the eyes, where her sister’s gemmaja had rested, where her skull had been staved in.

“Call me Hyrryai, husband.”

When she offered her hand, he set his own upon it. Hyrryai did not clasp it close. Instead, she furled open his fingers and placed her mesh-gift into his palm. It was a black shell blade, honed to a dazzle and set into a delicately scrimshawed hilt of whale ivory.

“Cherished Nugget,” Shursta began his missive:

It is for charity’s sake that I sit and scribble this to you on this morning of all mornings, in the sure knowledge that if I do not, your churlishness will have you feeding burnt porridge to all the grayheads under your care. To protect them, I will relate to you the tale of my meshing. Brace yourself.

The bride wore red, as brides do–but you have never seen such a red as the cloth they make in Droon. Had she worn it near shore, sharks would have beached themselves, mistaking her for food. It was soft too, to the touch. What was it like? Plummage. No, pelt. Like Damis Ungerline’s seal pelt, except not as ratty and well-chewed. How is the old lady anyway? Has she lost her last tooth yet? Give her my regards.

The bride’s brothers, six giants whose prowess in athletics, economics, politics and music makes them the boast of the Blodestones, converged on me the night I arrived in Droon and insisted I burn the clothes I came in and wear something worthy of my forthcoming station.

“Except,” said one–forgive me; I have not bothered to learn all their names–“we have nothing ready made in his size.”

“Perhaps a sailcloth?”

“Damis Valdessparrim has some very fine curtains.”

And more to this effect. A droll scene. Hold it fast in your mind’s eye. Me, nodding and agreeing to all their pronouncements with a fine ingratiation of manner. Couldn’t speak a word, of course. Sweating, red as a boiled lobster–you know how I get–I suppose I seemed choice prey while they poked and prodded, loomed and laughed. I felt about three feet tall and four years old again.

Alas, low as they made me, I could not bring myself to let them cut the clothes from my back. I batted at their hands. However, they were quicker than I, as are most everybody. They outnumbered me and their knives came out. My knife–newly gifted and handsomer than anything I’ve ever owned–was taken from me. My fate was sealed.

Then their sister came to my rescue. Think not she had been standing idly by, enjoying the welcome her brothers made me. No, as soon as we’d stepped foot under the Blodestone roof, she had been enveloped in a malapertness of matrons, and had only just emerged from their fond embraces.

She has a way of silencing even the most garrulous of men, which the Blodestone boys, I assure you, are.

When they were all thoroughly cowed and scuffling their feet, she took me by the hand and led me to the room I am currently occupying. My mesh-rite suit was laid out for me, fine ivory linens embroidered by, she assured me, her mother’s own hand. They fit like I had been born to them. The Astrion Council, they say, has eyes everywhere. And measuring tapes too, apparently.

Yes, yes, I stray from my subject, O antsiest (and onliest) sister. The meshing.

Imagine a balmy afternoon. Warm, with a wind. (You probably had the same kind of afternoon in Sif, so it shouldn’t be too hard.) Meat had been roasting since the night before in vast pits. The air smelled of burnt animal flesh, by turns appetizing and nauseating.

We two stood inside the crone circle. The Blodestones stood in a wider circle around the crones. After that, a circle of secondary kin. After that, the rest of the guests.

We spoke our vows. Or rather, the bride did. Your brother, dear Nugget, I am sorry to say, was his usual laconic self and could not find his way around his own tongue. Shocking! Nevertheless, the bride crowned him in lilies, and cuffed to his ear a gemmaja of green chalcedony, set in a tangle of silver. This, to declare him a Blodestone by mesh-rite.

You see, I enclose a gemmaja of your own. You are no longer Sharrar Sarth, but Damisel Sharrar Blodestone, mesh-sister to the Gleaming One. When you come of croning, you too, shall take your seat on the Astrion Council. Power, wealth, glory. Command of the kinlines. Fixer of fates.

There. Never say I never did anything for you.

Do me one favor, Sharrar. Do not wear your gemmaja upon your forehead, or in any place too obvious. Do not wear it where any stranger who might covet it might think to take it from you by force. Please.

A note of observation. For all they dress so fine and speak with fancy voices, I cannot say that people in Droon are much different than people in Sif. Sit back in your chair and imagine me rapturous in the arms of instant friends.

I write too hastily. Sharrar, I’m sorry. The ink comes out as gall. I know for a fact that you are scowling at the page and biting your nails. My fault.

I will slow down, as if I were speaking, and tell you something to set your heart at ease.

Other than the bride–who is what she is–I have perhaps discovered one friend. At least, he is friendlier than anyone else I have met in Droon. I even bothered remembering his name for you.

He is some kind of fifth or sixth cousin to the bride–though not a Blodestone. One of the ubiquitous Spectroxes. (Why are they ubiquitous, you ask? I am not entirely sure. I was told they are ubiquitous, so ubiquitous I paint them for you now. Miners and craftsmen, mostly, having holdings in the mountains. Poor but on the whole respectable.) This particular Spectrox is called Laric Spectrox. Let me tell you how I met him.

I was lingering near the banquet table after the brunt of the ceremony had passed from my shoulders.

Imagine me a mite famished. I had not eaten yet that day, my meshing day, and it was nearing sunset. I was afraid to serve myself even a morsel for the comments my new mesh-brothers might make. They had already made several to the end that, should I ever find myself adrift at sea, I might sustain myself solely on myself until rescue came, and still be man enough for three husbands to their sister!

I thought it safe, perhaps, to partake of some fruit. All eyes were on a sacred dance the bride was performing. This involved several lit torches swinging from the ends of chains and what I can only describe as alarming acrobatics. I had managed to eat half a strawberry when a shadow dwarfed the dying sun. A creature precisely three times the height of any of the bride’s brothers–though much skinnier–and black as the sharp shell of my new blade–laughed down at me.

“Bored with the fire spinning already? Hyrryai’s won contests, you know. Although she can’t–ah–couldn’t hold a candle to little Kuista.”

I squinted up at this living beanstalk of a man, wondering if he ever toppled in a frisky wind. To my surprise, when I opened my mouth to speak, the sentence came out easily–in the order I had planned it, no less.

(I still find it strange how my throat knows when to trust someone, long before I’ve made up my own mind about it. It was you who first observed that, I remember. Little Sharrar, do the greyheads tell you that your name means Wisdom? If they don’t, they should.)

“I cannot bear to watch her,” I confessed.

“Afraid she’ll set someone’s hair on fire?” He winked. “Can’t really blame you. But she won’t, you know.”

“Not that. Only…” For a moment, my attention wandered back to the bride. Red flame. Red gown. Wheels of fire in the night. Her eyes. I looked away. “Only it would strike me blind if I gazed at her too long.”

What he read in my face, I could not say (although I know you’re wishing I’d just make something up), but he turned to follow her movements as she danced.

“Mmn,” he grunted. “Can’t say I see it, myself. She’s just Hyrryai. Always has been. Once, several years back, my mother suggested I court her. I said I’d rather mesh with a giant squid. Hyrryai’s all bone and sinew, you know. Never had any boobies to speak of. Anyway, even before Kuista died, she was too serious. Grew up with those Blodestone boys–learned to fight before she could talk. I wouldn’t want a wife who could kill me with her pinkie, would you?”

My eyebrows went past my hairline. In fact, I have not located them since. I think they are hiding behind my ears. My new acquaintance grinned to see me at such a loss, but he grasped my forearm and gave it a hearty shake.

“What am I doing, keeping you from your grub? Eat up, man! You’re that feral firemaid’s husband now. I’d say you’ll need all your strength for tonight.”

And that, Nugget, is where I shall leave you. It is morning. As you see, I survived.

Your fond brother,

Shursta Blodestone

He was reading a book in the windowseat of his room when Shursta heard the clamor in the courtyard. Wagon wheels, four barking dogs, several of the younger Blodestones who had been playing hoopball, an auntie trying to hush everyone down.

“Good morning, Chaos,” a voice announced just beyond his line of sight. “My name is Sharrar Sarth. I’ve come to meet my mesh-kin.”

Shursta slammed his book closed and ran for the door. He did not know if he was delighted or alarmed. Would they jostle her? Would they take her cane away and tease her? Would she whack them over the knuckles and earn the disapprobation of the elders? Why had she come?

The letter, of course. The letter. He had regretted it the moment he sent it. It had been too long, too full of things he should have kept to himself. He ought to have expected her. Would he have stayed at home, receiving a thing like that from her? Never. Now that she was here, he ought to send her away.

Sharrar stood amongst a seethe of Blodestones, chatting amiably with them. She leaned on her cane more crookedly than usual, the expression behind her smile starting to pinch.

No wonder. She’d come nearly twenty miles on the back of a rickety produce wagon. If she weren’t bruised spine to sternum he’d be surprised.

When Shursta broke through the ranks, Sharrar’s smile wobbled and she stumbled into his arms.

“I think you need a nap, Nugget,” he suggested.

“You’re not mad?”

“I am very happy to see you.” He kissed the top of her head. “Always.”

“You won’t send me away on the next milknut run?”

“I might if you insist on walking up those stairs.” He looked at his mesh-brothers. His mouth tightened. He’d be drowned twice and hung out to dry before asking them for help.

Hyrryai appeared at his side, meeting his eyes in brief consultation. He nodded. She slung one of Sharrar’s arms about her shoulders while Shursta took the other.

“Oh, hey,” said Sharrar, turning her head to study the newcomer. “You must be the Gleaming One.”

“And you,” said Hyrryai, “must be my sister.”

“I’ve always wanted a sister,” Sharrar said meditatively. “But my mother–may she sleep forever with the sea people–said, so help her, two children were enough for one woman, and that was two more than strictly necessary. She was a schoolteacher,” Sharrar explained. “Awfully smart. But I don’t think she understood things like sisters. She had so many herself.”

For a moment, Shursta thought Hyrryai’s eyes had flooded. But then she smiled, a warmer expression on her face than any Shursta had yet seen. “Perhaps you won’t think so highly of them once I start borrowing your clothes without asking.”

“Damisel,” Sharrar pronounced, “my rags are your rags. Help yourself.”

There was a feast four days later for the youngest of Hyrryai’s brothers.

“Dumwei,” Sharrar reminded Shursta. “I don’t know why you can’t keep them all straight.”

“I do not have your elasticity of mind,” he retorted. “I haven’t had to memorize all three hundred epics for the entertainment of the Hall of Ages.”

“It’s all about mnemonic tricks. Let’s see. In order of age, there’s Lochlin the Lunkhead, Arishoz the Unenlightened, Menami Meatbrain–then Hyrryai, of course, fourth in the birth order, but we all know what her name means, don’t we, Shursta?–Orssi the Obscene, Plankin Porkhole and Dumwei the Dimwitted. How could you mix them up?”

By this time Shursta was laughing too hard to answer. When Hyrryai joined them, he flung himself back onto the couch cushions and put a pillow over his face. Now and again, a hiccup emerged from the depths.

“I’ve never seen him laugh before,” Hyrryai observed. “What is the joke?”

“Oh,” Sharrar said blithely, “I was just mentioning how much I like your brothers. Tell me, who is coming to the feast tonight?”

Hyrryai perched at the edge of the couch. “Everybody.”

“Is Laric Spectrox coming?”

“Yes. Why? Do you know him?”

“Shursta mentioned him in a letter.”

Shursta removed his pillow long enough to glare, but Sharrar ignored him.

“I was curious to meet him. Also, I was wondering… What is the protocol to join the Sing at the end of the feast? One of my trades is storyteller–as my brother has just reminded me–and I have recently memorized a brave tale that dearest Dumwei will adore. It is all about, oh, heroic sacrifice, bloody deeds and great feats, despair, rescue, celebration. That sort of thing.”

Observing the mischief dancing in Sharrar’s eyes, a ready spark sprang to Hyrryai’s. “I shall arrange a place of honor for you in the Sing. This is most kind of you.”

Groaning, Shursta swam up from the cushions again. “Don’t trust her! She is up to suh–hic–uhmething. She will tell some wild tale about, about–farts and–and burps and–billygoats that will–hic–will shame your grandmother!”

“My grandmother has no shame.” Hyrryai stood up from the edge of the couch. She never relaxed around any piece of furniture. She had to be up and pacing. Shursta, following her with his eyes, wondered how, and if, she ever slept. “Sharrar is welcome to tell whatever tale she deems fit. Do not be offended if I leave early. Oron Onyssix attends the feast tonight, and I mean to shadow him home.”

At that, even Sharrar looked startled. “Why?”

Hyrryai grinned. It was not a look her enemies would wish to meet by moonlight.

“Of late the rumors are running that his appetite for hedonism has begun to extend to girls too young to be mesh-fit. I go tonight to confirm or invalidate these.”

“Oh,” said Sharrar. “You’re hunting.”

“I am hunting.”

Shursta bit his lip. He did not say, “Be careful.” He did not say, “I will not sleep until you return.” He did not say, “If the rumors are true, then bring him to justice. Let the Astrion Council sort him out, trial and judgement. Even if he proves a monster, he may not be your monster, and don’t you see, Hyrryai, whatever happens tonight, it will not be the end? That grief like yours does not end in something so simple as a knife in the dark?”

As if she heard, Hyrryai turned her grin on him. All the teeth around her throat grinned too.

“It is a nice necklace,” Sharrar observed. “I told Shursta it was a poem.”

The edges of Hyrryai’s grin softened. “Your brother has the heart of a poet. And you the voice of one. We Blodestones are wealthy in our new kin.” She turned to go, paused, then added over her shoulder, “Husband, if you drink a bowl of water upside-down, your hiccups may go away.”

When she was gone, Sharrar nudged him. “Oohee, brother mine. I like her.”

“Ayup, Nugs,” he sighed. “Me too.”

It was with trepidation that Shursta introduced his sister to Laric Spectrox that night at the feast. He need not have worried. Hearing his name, Sharrar laughed with delight and raised her brown eyes to his.

“Why, hey there! Domo Spectrox! You’re not nearly as tall as Shursta made you out to be.”

Laric straightened his shoulders. “Am I not?”

“Nope. The way he writes it, I thought to mistake you for a milknut tree. Shursta, you said skinny. It’s probably all muscle, right? Wiry, right? Like me?” Sharrar flexed her free arm for him. Laric shivered a wink at Shursta and gravely admired her bicep. “Anyway, you’re not too proud to bend down, are you?”

“I’m not!”

“Good! I have a secret I must tell you.”

When Laric brought his face to her level, she seized him by both big ears and planted an enormous kiss on his mouth. Menami and Orssi Blodestone, who stood nearby, started whooping. Dumwei sidled close.

“Don’t I get one? It’s my birthday, you know.”

Sharrar gave him a sleepy-eyed look that made Shursta want to hide under the table. “Just you wait till after dinner, Dumwei my darling. I have a special surprise for you.” She shooed him along and bent all her attention back to Laric.

“You,” she said.

He pointed to his chest a bit nervously. “Me?”

“You, Laric Spectrox. You are going to be my friend for the rest of my life. I decided that ages ago, so I’m very glad we finally got to meet. No arguments.”

Laric’s shining black face broke into a radiance of dimple creases and crooked white teeth. “Do you see me arguing? I’m not arguing.”

“I’m Sharrar, by the way. Sit beside me tonight and let me whisper into your ear.”

When Laric glanced at Shursta, Shursta shrugged. “She’s going to try and talk you into doing something you won’t want to do. I don’t know what. Just keep saying no and refilling her plate.”

“Does that really work?”

Shursta gave him a pained glance and did not answer.

Hyrryai came late to the feast and took a silent seat beside Shursta. He filled a plate and shoved it at her, as if she had been Sharrar, but when she only picked at it, he shrugged and went back to listening to Laric and Orssi arguing.

Orssi said, “The Nine Islands drowned and the Nine Cities with them. There are no other islands. There is no other land. We are alone on this world, and we must do our part to repeople it.”

“No, no, see–” Laric gestured with the remnants of a lobster claw, “that lacks imagination. That lacks gumption. What do we know for sure? We know that something terrible happened in our great-great grandparents’ day. What was it really? How can we know? We weren’t born then. All we have are stories, stories the grayheads tell us in the Hall of Ages. I value these stories, but I will not build my life on them, as a house upon sand. We call ourselves the Glennemgarra, the Unchosen. Unchosen by what? By death? By the wave? By the magic of the gods that protected the Nine Holy Cities even as they drowned, so that they live still, at the bottom of the sea? Let there be a hundred cities beneath the waves. What do we care? We can’t go there.”

Laric glanced around at the few people who still listened to him.

“Do you know where we can go, though? Everywhere else. Anywhere. There is no law binding us to Droon–or to Sif–“ he nodded at Sharrar, whose face was rapt with attention, “or anywhere on this wretched oasis. We know the wind. We know the stars. We have our boats and our nets and our water casks. There is no reason not to set out in search of something better.”

“Well, cousin,” said Orssi. “No one could accuse you of lacking imagination.”

“Yes, Spectrox,” cried Arishoz, “and how is your big boat project coming along?”

Laric’s round eyes narrowed. “It would go more quickly if I had more hands to help me.”

The Blodestone brothers laughed, though not ill-naturedly. “Find a wife, cousin,” Lochlin advised him. “Breed her well. People the world with tiny Spectroxes–as if the world needed more Spectroxes, eh? Convince them to build your boat. What else are children for?”

Laric threw up his hands. He was smiling too, but all the creases in his forehead bespoke a sadness. “Don’t you see? When my boat is finished I will sail away from words like that and thoughts like yours. As if women were only good for wives, and children were only made for labor.”

Hyrryai raised her glass to him. Shursta reached over to fill it from the pitcher and watched as she drank deeply.

“I will help you, Laric Specrox!” Sharrar declared, banging her fists on the table. “I am good with my hands. I never went to sea with the men of Sif, but I can swim like a seal–and I’d trade my good leg for an adventure. Tell me all about your big boat.”

He turned to her and smiled, rue twining with gratitude and defiance. “It is the biggest boat ever built. Or it will be.”

“And what will you name her?”

The Grimgramal. After the wave that changed the world.”

Sharrar nodded, as if this were the most natural thing. Then she swung her legs off the bench, took up her cane, and pushed herself to her feet. Leaning against the table for support, she used her cane to pound the floor. When this did not noticably diminish the noise in the hall, she set her forefinger and pinkie to her lips and whistled. Everyone, from the crone’s table where the elders were wine-deep in gossip and politics, to the children’s table where little cakes were being served, hushed.

Sharrar smiled at them. Shursta held his breath. But she merely invoked the Sing, bracing against a bench for support, then raising both fists above her head to indicate the audience should respond to her call.

“Grimgramal the Endless was the wave that changed the world.”

Obediantly, the hall repeated, “Grimgramal the Endless was the wave that changed the world.

Sharrar began the litany that preceded all stories. Shursta relaxed again, smiling to himself to see Hyrryai absently chewing a piece of flatbread as she listened. His sister’s tales, unlike Grimgramal, were not endless; they were mainly intended to please greyheads, who fell asleep after fifteen minutes or so. Sharrar’s habit had been to practice her stories on her brother when he came in from a day out at sea and was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open. When he asked why she could not wait until morning when he could pay proper attention, she had replied that his exhaustion in the evening best simulated her average audience member in the Hall of Ages.

But Shursta had never yet fallen asleep while Sharrar told a story.

The first city was Hanah and it fell beneath the sea
The second city was Lahatiel, and it fell beneath the sea
The third city was Ekesh, and it fell beneath the sea
The fourth city was Var, and it fell beneath the sea
The fifth city was Thungol, and it fell beneath the sea
The sixth city was Yassam, and it fell beneath the sea
The seventh city was Saheer, and it fell beneath the sea
The eighth city was Gelph, and it fell beneath the sea
The ninth city was Niniam, and it fell beneath the sea…

Sharrar ended the litany with a sweep of her hands, like a wave washing everything away. “But one city,” she said, “did not fall beneath the sea.” Again, her fists lifted. “That city was Droon!”

That city was Droon!” the room agreed.

“That city was Droon, capital of the Last Isle. Now, on this island, there are many villages, though none that match the great city Droon. In one of these villages–in Sif, my own village–was born the hero of this tale. A young man, like the young men gathered here tonight. Like Dumwei whom we celebrate.”

She did not need to coax a response this time. Cups and bowls and pitchers clashed.

Dumwei whom we celebrate!

“If our hero stood before you in this hall, humble as a Man of Sif might be before the Men of Droon, you would not say to your neighbor, your brother, your cousin, ‘That young man is a hero.’ But a hero he was born, a hero he became, a hero he’ll remain, and I will tell you how, here and now.”

Sharrar took her cane, moving it through the air like a paddle through water.

“The fisherfolk of Sif catch many kinds of fish. Octopus and squid, shrimp and crab. But the largest catch and tastiest, the feast to end all feasts, the catch that feeds a village–this is the bone shark.”

The bone shark.”

“It is the most cunning, the most frightening, the most beautiful of all the sharks. A long shark, a white shark, with a towering dorsal fin and a great jaw glistening with terrible teeth. This is the shark which concerns our hero. This is the shark that brought him fame.”

This is the shark that brought him fame.”

By this time, Sharrar barely needed to twitch a finger to elicit a response. The audience leaned in. All except Shursta, whose shoulders hunched, and Hyrryai, who drew her legs up onto the bench, to wrap her arms around her knees.

“To catch a shark you must first feed it. You must bloody the waters. You must send a slick of chum as sacrifice. For five days you must do this, until the sharks come tame to your boat. Then noose and net, you must grab it. Noose and net, you must drag it to the shore where it will die upon the sand. This is how you catch a shark.”

This is how you catch a shark.”

“One day, our hero was at sea. Many other men were with him, for the fishermen of Sif do not hunt alone. A man–let us call him Ghoul, for his sense of humor was necrotic–had brought along his young son for the first time. Now, Ghoul, he did not like our hero. Ghoul was a proud man. A strong man. A handsome man too, if you like that sort of man. He thought Sif had room for only one hero and that was Ghoul.”

Ghoul!

“Ghoul said to his son, ‘Son, why do we waste all this good chum to bait the bone shark? In the next boat over sits a lonesome feast. An unmeshed man whom no one will miss. Let us rock his boat a little, eh? Let us rock his boat and watch him fall in.’

“Father and son took turns rocking our hero’s boat. Soon the other men of Sif joined in. Not all men are good men. Not all good men are good all the time. Not even in Droon. The waters grew choppy. The wind grew restless. The bone shark grew tired of waiting for his chum.”

The bone shark grew tired of waiting–

“—Who can say what happened then? A wave too vigorous? The blow of a careless elbow as Ghoul bent to rock our hero’s boat? A nudge from the muzzle of the bone shark? An act of the gods from the depths below? Who can know? But our hero saw the child. He saw Ghoul’s young son fall into the sea. Like Gelph and Saheer, he fell into the sea. Like Ekesh and Var and Niniam he fell into the sea. Like Hanah and Lahatiel, Thungol and Yassam. Like the Nine Islands and all Nine Cities, the child fell.”

The child fell.

“The bone shark moved as only sharks can move, lightning through the water, opening its maw for the sacrifice. But then our hero was there. There in the sea. Between shark and child. Between death and the child. Our hero was there, treading water. There with his noose and his net. He had jumped from his boat. Jumped–where no man of Sif could push him, however hard they rocked his boat. Jumped to save this child. And he tangled the shark in his net. He lassoed the shark with his noose and lashed himself to that dreadful dorsal fin! Ghoul had just enough time to haul his son back into his boat. The shark began to thrash.”

The shark began to thrash.”

“The shark began to swim.”

The shark began to swim.”

“Our hero clung fast. Our hero held firm. Our hero herded that shark as some men herd horses. He brought that shark to land. He brought that shark onto the sand, where the shark could not breathe, and so it died. Thus our hero slew the bone shark. Thus our hero fed his village. Thus our hero rescued the child. He rescued the child.”

He rescued the child.”

It was barely a whisper. Not an eye in that hall was dry.

“And that is the end of my tale.”

Sharrar thumped her cane to the floor again. This time, the noise echoed in a resounding silence. But without giving even the most precipitous a chance to stir, much less erupt into the applause that itched in every sweaty palm present, Sharrar spun on her heel and glared at the table where the Blodestone brothers sat.

“It was Shursta Sarth slew the bone shark,” she told them, coldly and deliberately. “Your sister wears its teeth around her neck. You are not worthy to call him brother. You are not worthy to sit at that table with him.”

With that, she spat at their feet and stumped out of the room.

Shursta followed close behind, stumbling through bodies. Not daring to look up from his feet. Once free of the hall, he took a different corridor than the one Sharrar had stormed through. Had he caught her up, what would he have done to her? Thanked her? Scolded her? Shaken her? Thrown her out a window? He did not know.

However difficult or humiliating negotiating his new mesh-kin had been, Sharrar the Wise had probably just made it worse.

And yet…

And yet, how well she had done it. The Blodestones, greatest of the eight kinlines gathered together in one hall–and Sharrar had had them slavering. They would have eaten out of her hand. And what had she done with that hand? Slapped their faces. All six brothers of his new wife.

Shursta wanted his room. A blanket over his head. He wanted darkness.

When his door clicked open several hours later, Shursta jerked fully awake. Even in his half doze, he had expected some kind of retributive challenge from the Blodestone brothers. He wondered if they would try goading him to fight, now that they knew the truth about him. Well–Sharrar’s version of the truth.

The mattress dipped near his ribs. He held his breath and did not speak. And when Hyrryai’s voice came to him in the darkness, his heartrate skidded and began to hammer in his chest.

“Are you awake, Shursta?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” A disconsolate exhalation. He eased himself up to a sitting position and propped himself against the carven headboard.

“Did your hunting go amiss, Hyrryai?”

It was the first time he’d had the courage to speak her name aloud.

The sound she made was both hiss and plosive, more resigned than angry. “Oron Onyssix was arrested tonight by the soldiers of the Astrion Council. He will be brought to trial. I don’t know–the crones, I think, got wind of my intentions regarding him. I track rumors; they, it seems, track me. In this case, they made sure to act before I did.” She paused. “In this case, it might have been for the best. I was mistaken.”

“Is he not guilty? With what, then, is he being charged?”

“The unsanctioned mentoring of threshold youths. That’s what they’re calling it.”

She shifted. The mattress dipped again. Beneath the sheets, Shursta brought his hand to his heart and pressed it there, willing it to hush. Hush, Hyrryai is speaking.

“What does that mean?”

“It means Onyssix is not the man I’m hunting for!”

“How do you know?” he asked softly.

“Because…”

Shursta sensed, in that lack of light, Hyrryai making a gesture that cut the darkness into neat halves.

“Well, for one: the youths he prefers are not, after all, girls. A few young men came forward to bear witness. All were on the brink of mesh-readiness. Exploring themselves, each other. Coming of age. Usually the Astrion Council will assign such youths an older mentor to usher them into adulthood. One who will make sure the young people know that their duty as adult citizens of the Glennemgarra is to mesh and make children–no matter whom they may favor for pleasure or succor or lifelong companionship. That the privilege of preference is to be earned after meshing. There are rites. There is,” her voice lilted mockingly, “paperwork. Onyssix sidestepped all of this. He will be fined. Watched a little more closely. Nothing else–there is no evidence of abuse. The young men did not speak of him with malice or fear. To them, he was just an older man with experience they wanted. I suppose it was a thrill to sneak around without the crones’ consent. There you have it. Oron Onyssix is a reckless pleasure-seeker who thinks he’s above the law. But hardly a murderer.”

“I am sorry,” Shursta murmured. “I wish it might have ended tonight.”

From the way the mattress moved, he knew she had turned to look at him. Her hand was braced against the blankets. He could feel her wrist against his thigh.

“I wished it too.” Hyrryai’s voice was harsh. “All week I have anticipated… Some conclusion. The closing of this wound. I prepared myself. I was ready. I wanted to look my sister’s killer in the eye and watch him confess. At banquet tonight, I wished it most–when Sharrar told her tale…”

“The Epic of Shursta Sharkbait? You should not believe all you hear. Especially if Sharrar’s talking.”

“I’ve heard tell of it before,” she retorted. “Certainly, when the story reached the Astrion Council, it was bare of the devices Sharrar used to hold our attention. But it has not changed in its particulars. It is, in fact, one measure by which the Astrion Council assessed your reputed stupidity. Intelligent men do not go diving in shark-infested waters.”

The broken knife in his throat was laughter. Shursta choked on it. “No, they don’t. I told you that day we met–I am everything they say.”

“You did not tell me that story. Strange,” Hyrryai observed, “when you mentioned they called you Sharkbait, you left out the reason why.”

Shursta pulled the blankets up around his chin. “You didn’t mention it either. Maybe it’s not worth mentioning.”

“It is why I chose you.”

All at once, he could not breathe. Hyrryai had leaned over him. One fist was planted on either side of his body, pinning the blankets down. Her forehead touched his. Her breath was on his mouth, sharp and fresh, as though she had been chewing some bitter herb as she stalked Onyssix through the darkness.

“Not because they said you were stupid, or ugly, or poor. How many men in Droon are the same? No, I chose you because they said you were good to your sister. And because you rescued the child.”

“I rescued the child,” Shursta repeated in a voice he could barely recognize.

Of course, he wanted to say. Of course, Hyrryai, that would move you. That would catch you like a bone hook where you bleed.

“Had you not agreed to come to Droon, I would have attended the muster to win you at games, Shursta Sarth.”

He would have shaken his head, but could do nothing of his own volition to break her contact with him. “The moment we met, you sent me away. You said–you said you were mistaken…”

“I was afraid.”

“Of me?” Shursta was shivering. Not with cold or fear but something more terrifying. Something perilously close to joy. “Hyrryai, surely you know by now–surely you can see–I am the last man anyone would fear. Believe Sharrar’s story if you like, but… But consider it an aberration. It does not define me. Did I look like a man who wrestled sharks when your brothers converged on me? When the crones questioned me? When I could not even speak my vows aloud at our meshing? That is who I am. That’s all I am.”

“I know what you are.”

Hyrryai sat back as abruptly as she had leaned in. Stood up from the bed. Walked to the door. “When my hunt is done, we shall return to this discussion. I shall not speak of it again until then. But… Shursta, I did not want you to pass another night believing yourself to be a man whom… whom no wife could love.”

The latch lifted. The door clicked shut. She was gone.

The Blodestones took their breakfast in the courtyard under a stand of milknut trees. When Shursta stepped outside, he saw Laric, Sharrar and Hyrryai all lounging on the benches, elbows sprawled on the wooden table, heads bent together. They were laughing about something–even Hyrryai–and Shursta stopped dead in the center of the courtyard, wondering if they spoke of him. Sharrar saw him first and grinned.

“Shursta, you must hear this!”

He stepped closer. Hyrryai glanced at him. The tips of her fingers brushed the place beside her. Taking a deep breath, he came forward and sat. She slid him a plate of peeled oranges.

“Your sister,” said Laric Spectrox, with his broad beaming grin, “is amazing.”

“My sister,” Shursta answered, “is a minx. What did you do, Nugget?”

“Nugget?” Laric repeated.

“Shursta!” Sharrar leaned over and snatched his plate away. “Just for that you don’t get breakfast.”

“Nugget?” Laric asked her delightedly. Sharrar took his plate as well. Hyrryai handed Shursta a roll.

“Friends,” she admonished them. “We must not have dissension in the ranks. Not now that we’ve declared open war on my brothers.”

Shursta looked at them all, alarmed. “You declared… What did you do?

Sharrar clapped her hands and crowed, “We sewed them into their bedsheets!”

“You…”

“We did!” Laric assured him, rocking with laughter in his seat. “Dumwei, claiming his right as birthday boy, goaded his brothers into a drinking game. By midnight, all six of them were sprawled out and snoring like harvest hogs. So late last night…”

“This morning,” Sharrar put in.

“This morning, Sharrar and Hyrryai and I…”

Hyrryai?” Shursta looked at his mesh-mate. She would not lift her eyes to his, but the corners of her lips twitched as she tore her roll into bird-bite pieces.

“… Snuck into their chambers and sewed them in!”

Shursta hid his face in his hands. “Oh, by all the Drowned Cities in all the seas…”

Sharrar limped around the table to fling her arms about him. “Don’t worry. No one will blame you. I made sure they’d know it was my idea.”

He groaned again. “I’m afraid to ask.”

“She signed their faces!” Laric threaded long fingers through his springy black hair. “I’ve not played pranks like this since I was a toddlekin. Or,” he amended, “since my first-year wife left me for a man with more goats than brains.”

Sharrar slid down beside him. “Laric, my friend–just wait till you hear my plans for the hoopball field!”

“Oh, the weeping gods…” Shursta covered his face again.

A knee nudged his knee. Hyrryai’s flesh was warm beneath her linen trousers. He glanced at her between his fingers and she smiled.

“Courage, husband,” she told him. “The best defense is offense. You never had brothers before, or you would know this. My brothers have been getting too sure of themselves. Three meshed already, their seeds gone for harvest, and they think they rule the world. Three of them recently come of age–brash, bold, considered prize studs of the market. Their heads are inflated like bladder balls.”

Sharrar brandished her eating blade. “All it takes is a pinprick, my sweet ones!”

“Hush,” Laric hissed. “Here come Plankin and Orssi.”

The brothers had grim mouths, tousled hair, and murder in their bloodshot eyes. They had not bothered looking at themselves in the mirror that morning, for Sharrar’s signature stood out bright and blue across their foreheads. Once they charged the breakfast table, however, they seemed uncertain upon whom they should fix their wrath. Sharrar had resumed her seat and was eating an innocent breakfast off three different plates. Laric kept trying to steal one of them back. Hyrryai’s attention was wholly on the roll she decimated. Orssi glared at Shursta.

“Was it you, Sharkbait?” he demanded.

Shursta could still feel Hyrryai’s knee pressed hard to his. His face flushed. His throat opened. He grinned at them both.

“Me, Shortsheets?” he asked. “Why, no. Of course not. I have minions to do that sort of thing for me.”

He launched his breakfast roll into the air. It plonked Plankin right between the eyes. Unexpectedly, Plankin threw back his head, roaring out a laugh.

“Oh, hey,” he said. “Breakfast! Thanks, brother.”

Orssi, looking sly, made a martial leap and snatched the roll from Plankin’s fingers. Yodeling victory, he took off running. With an indignant yelp, Plankin pelted after him. Hyrryai rolled her eyes. She reached across the table, took back the plate of oranges from Sharrar and popped a piece into Shursta’s mouth before he could say another word. Her fingers brushed his lips, sticky with juice.

It did not surprise Shursta when, not one week later, Laric begged to have a word with him. “Privately,” he said, “away from all these Blodestones. Come on, I’ll take you to my favorite tavern. Very disreputable. No one of any note or name goes there. We won’t be plagued.”

Shursta agreed readily. He had not explored much of Droon beyond the family’s holdings. Large as they were, they were starting to close in on him. Hyrryai’s mother Dymorri had recently asked him whether a position as overseer of mines or of fields would better suit his taste. He had answered honestly that he knew nothing about either–and did the Blodestones have a fishing boat he might take out from time to time, to supply food for the family?

“Blodestones do not work the sea,” she had replied, looking faintly amused.

Dymorri had high cheekbones, smooth rosy-bronze skin, and thick black eyebrows. Her hair was nearly white but for the single streak of black that started just off center of her hairline, and swept to the tip of a spiralling braid. Shursta would have been afraid of her, except that her eyes held the same sorrow permeating her daughter. He wondered if Kuista, the youngest Blodestone, had taken after her. Hyrryai had more the look of her grandmother, being taller and rangier, with a broader nose and wider mouth, black eyes instead of brown.

“Fishing’s all I know,” he’d told her.

“Hyrryai will teach you,” she had said. “Think about it. There is no hurry. You have not been meshed a month.”

True to his word, Laric propelled him around Droon, pointing out landmarks and places of interest. Shops, temples, old bits of wall, parks, famous houses, the seat of the Astrion Council. It was shaped like an eight-sided star, built of sparkling white quartz. Three hundred steps led up to the entrance, each step mosaiced in rainbow spirals of shell.

“Those shells came from the other Nine Islands,” Laric told him. “When there were nine other islands.”

“And you think there might be more?”

Laric cocked his ear for the hint of derision that usually flavored such questions. “I think,” he answered slowly, “that there is more to this world than islands.”

“Even if there isn’t,” Shursta sighed, “I wouldn’t mind leaving this one. Even for a little while. Even if it meant nothing but stars and sea and a wooden boat forever.”

“Exactly!” Laric clapped him on the back. “Ah, here we are. The Thirsty Seagull.”

Laric Spectrox had not lied about the tavern. It was so old it had hunkered into the ground. The air was rank with fermentation and tobacco smoke. All the beams were blackened, all the tables scored with the graffitti of raffish nobodies whose names would never be sung, whose deeds would never be known, yet who had carved proof of their existence into the wood, as if to say, “Here, at least, I shall be recognized.” Shursta fingered a stained, indelicate knife mark, feeling like his heart would break.

Taking a deep, appreciative breath, Laric pronounced, “Like coming home. Sit, sit. Let me buy you a drink. Beer?”

“All right,” Shursta agreed, and sat, and waited. When Laric brought back the drinks, he sipped, and watched, and waited. The bulge in Laric’s narrow throat bobbled. There was a sheen of sweat upon his brow. Shursta lowered his eyes, thinking Laric might find his task easier if he were not being watched. It seemed to help.

“Your sister,” Laric began, “is…”

Shursta took a longer drink.

“Wonderful.”

“Yes,” Shursta agreed. He chanced to glance up. Laric was looking anywhere but at him, gesturing with his long hands.

“How is it that she wasn’t snatched up by some clever fellow as soon as she came of age?”

“Well,” Shursta pointed out, “she only recently did.”

“I know, but… But in villages like Sif–small villages, I mean, well, even in Droon–surely some sparky critter had an eye on her these many years. Someone who grew up with her. Someone who thought, ‘Soon as that Sarth girl casts her lure, I’ll make damn sure I’m the fish for that hook! Take bait and line and pole and girl and dash for the far horizon…”

Shursta cleared his throat. “Hard to dash with a game leg.”

Laric plunked down from the high altitude of his visions. “Pardon?”

“Hard to run off with a girl who can’t walk without a cane.” Shursta studied Laric, who in turn tried to read the careful deadpan of his face. “And then, what if her children are born crooked? You’d be polluting your line. Surely the Spectroxes are taunted enough without introducing little lame Sharrar Sarth into the mix. Aren’t you afraid what your family will say?”

Damisel Sharrar Sarth,” Laric corrected him stiffly, emphasizing the honorific. He tried to govern his voice. “And… And any Spectrox who does not want to claim wit and brilliance and derring-do and that glorious bosom for kin can eat my…”

Shursta clinked his mug to Laric’s. “Relax. Sharrar has already told me she is going to elope with you on your big wooden boat. Two days after she met you. She said she’d been prepared to befriend you, but had not thought to be brought low by your, how did she put it, incredible height, provocative fingers and… adorable teeth.” He coughed. “She went on about your teeth at some length. Forgive me if I don’t repeat all of it. I’m sure she’s composed a poem about them by now. If you find a proposal drummed up in couplets and shoved under your door tonight, you’ll have had time to prepare your soul.”

The look on Laric’s face was beyond the price of gemmajas. He reached his long arms across the table and pumped Shursta’s hand with both of his, and Shursta could not help laughing.

“Now, my friend,” he said. “Let me buy you a drink.”

It was at the bar Shursta noticed the bleak man in the corner. He looked as if he’d been sitting there so long that dust had settled over him, that lichen had grown over him, that spiders had woven cobwebs over his weary face. The difference between his despair and Laric’s elation struck Shursta with the force of a blow, and he asked, when he returned to Laric’s side, who the man might be.

“Ah.” Laric shook his head. “That’s Myrar Yaspir, poor bastard.”

“Poor bastard?” Shursta raised his eyebrows, inviting more. It was this same dark curiosity, he recognized, that had made him press Hyrryai for details about Kuista’s death the first day they met. He was unused to considering himself a gossip. But then, he thought, he’d had no friends to gossip with in Sif.

“Well.” Laric knocked back a mouthful. His gaze wandered up and to the right. Sharrar once told Shursta that you could always tell when someone was reaching for a memory, for they always looked up and to the right. He’d seen the expression on her face often as she memorized a story.

“All right. I guess it began when he meshed with Adularia Yaspir three years ago. Second mesh-rite for both. No children on either side. He courted her for nearly a year. You could see by his face on their meshing day that there was a man who had pursued the dream of a lifetime. That for him, this was not about the Yaspir name or industry or holdings, but about a great burning love that would have consumed him had he not won it for his own. Adularia–well. I think she wanted children. She liked him enough. You could see the pink in her cheeks, the glow in her eyes on her meshing day. And you thought–if any couple’s in it past the one year mesh-mark, this is that couple. It’s usually that way for second meshings. You know.”

Shursta nodded.

“So the first year passes. No children. The second year passes. No children. Myrar starts coming here more often. Drinking hard. Talk around Droon was that Adularia wanted to leave him. He was arrested once for brawling. A second time, on more serious charges, for theft.”

“Really?” Shursta watched from the corner of his eye, the man who sat so still flies landed on him.

“Not just any theft… Gems from the Blodestone mines.”

Shursta loosed a low whistle. “Diamonds?”

“Not even!” Laric leaned in. “Semi-precious stones, uncut, unpolished. Not even cleaned yet. Just a handful of green chalcedonies, like the one you’re wearing.”

The breath left Shursta’s body. He touched the stone hanging from his ear. He remembered suddenly how Kuista Blodestone’s gemmaja had come up missing on her person, how that one small detail had so disturbed him that he had admonished his sister to hide her own upon her person, as if the red-speckled stone were some amulet of death. He opened his mouth. His throat clicked a few times before it started working.

“Why… why would he take such a thing?”

Shrugging, Laric said, “Don’t know. They made him return them all, of course. He spent some time in the stocks. Had to beg his wife to take him back. Promised her the moon, I heard. Stopped drinking. But she said that if she was not pregnant by winter, she’d leave him, and that was that.”

“What happened?”

“A few months later, she was pregnant. There was great rejoicing.” Laric finished his drink. “Of course, none of us were paying much attention to the Yaspirs at that time, because we were all still grieving for Kuista.”

“Kuista. Kuista Blodestone?”

Laric looked at Shursta, perturbed, as if to ask, Who else but Kuista Blodestone?

“Yes. We burned her pyre not a month before Adularia announced her pregnancy. Hyrryai was still bedridden. She didn’t leave the darkness of her room for six months.”

“And the child?” Shursta’s mouth tasted like dried out fish scales.

“Stillborn. Delivered dead at nine months.” Laric sighed. “Adularia has gone back to live with her sister. Sometimes Myrar shows up for work at the chandlery, sometimes not. Owner’s his kin, so he’s not been fired yet. But I think that the blood is thinning to water on one end, if you know what I mean.”

“Yes,” said Shursta, who was no longer listening. “I… Laric, please… Please excuse me.”

Shursta had no memory of leaving the Thirsty Seagull, or of walking clear across Droon and leaving the city by the sea road gates. He saw nothing, heard nothing, the thoughts boiling in his head like a cauldron full of viscera. He felt sick. Gray. Late afternoon, evening, and the early hours of night he passed in that lonely cove where Kuista died. Where he had met Hyrryai. Long past the hour most people had retired, he trudged wearily back to the Blodestone house. Sharrar awaited him in the courtyard, sitting atop the breakfast table, bundled warmly in a shawl.

“You’re back!”

When his sister made as if to go to him, Shursta noticed she was stiff from sitting. He waved her down, joined her on the tabletop. She clasped his cold hand, squeezing.

“Shursta, it’s too dark to see your face. Thunder struck my chest when Laric told me how you left him. Are you all right? What died in you today?”

“Kuista Blodestone,” he whispered.

Sharrar was silent. She was, he realized, waiting for him to explain. But he could not.

“Sharrar,” he said wildly, “Wise Sharrar, if stones could speak, what would they say?”

“Nothing quickly,” she quipped, her voice strained. Shursta knew her ears were pricked to any clue he might let fall. Almost, he saw a glow about her skull as her riddle-raveling brain stoked itself to triple intensity. However he tried, he could not force his tongue to speak in anything more clear than questions.

“What does a stone possess other than… its stoneness? If not for wealth… or rarity… or beauty–why would someone covet… a hunk of rock?”

“Oh!” Sharrar’s laughter was too giddy, almost fevered, with relief. She knew this answer. “For its magic, of course!”

“Magic.”

It was not a common word. Not taboo–like incest or infanticide or cannibalism–but not common. Magic had drowned, it was said, along with the Nine Cities.

“Ayup.” Sharrar talked quickly, her hand clamped to his, as if words could staunch whatever she thought to be his running wound. “See, in the olden days before the wave that changed the world, there was magic everywhere. Magic fish. Magic birds. Magic rivers. Magic… magicians. Certain gems, saith the grayheads, were also magic. A rich household would name itself for a powerful gem, so as to endow its kinline with the gem’s essence. So, for instance, of the lost lines, there is Adamassis, whose gem was diamond, said to call the lightning. A stormy household, as you can imagine–quite impetuous–weather workers. The Anabarrs had amber, the gem of health, the gem that holds the sun, said to wake even the dead. Dozens more like this. Much of the lore was lost to us when the Nine Islands drowned. Of the remaining kinlines, let me think… The Sarths have sard–like the red carnelian–that can reverse the effects of poison. Onyssix wears onyx, to ward off demons. The jasper of the Yaspirs averts the eyes of an enemy…”

“And the Blodestones?” Shursta withdrew his hand from her stranglehold only to grip the soft flesh of her upper arm. “The Blodestones wear green chalcedony… Why? What is this stone?”

“Fertility,” Sharrar gasped. Shursta did not know if she were frightened or in pain. “The green chalcedony–the bloodstone–will bring life to a barren womb. If a man crushes it to powder and drinks it, he will stand to his lover for all hours of the night. He will flood her with the seed of springtime. Shursta… Why are you asking me this, Shursta? Shursta, please…”

He had already sprinted from the courtyard. Faintly and far behind him, he heard the cry, “Let me come with you!”

He did not stop.

The Thirsty Seagull was seedier by night than by day. Gadabouts and muckrakes, sailors, soldiers, fisherfolk, washing women, street sweepers, lamplighters and red lamplighters of all varieties patronized the tavern. There were no tables free, so Shursta made his way to the last barstool.

Shursta did not have to pretend to stumble or slur. His head ached and he saw only through a distortion, as if peering through a sheet of water. But words poured freely from his mouth. None of them true, or mostly not true. Lies like Sharrar could tell. Dark lies, coming from depths within him he had never yet till this night sounded.

Women!” he announced in a bleared roar. “Pluck you, pluck you right up from your comfy home. Job you like. Job you know. People you know. Pluck you up and say, it’s meshing time. Little mesh-mesh. Come to bed, dear. No, you stink of fish, Shursta. Wash your hands, Shursta. Oh, your breath is like a dead squid, Shursta. Don’t do it open-mouthed, Shursta. Shursta, you snore, go sleep in the next room. I mean, who are these people? These Blodestones? Who do they think they are? In Sif–in Sif at least the women know how to use their hands. I mean, they know how to use their hands, you know? And all this talk, talk, talk… All this whining and complaining… All this saying I’m not good enough. What does she expect, a miracle? How can a man function, how can he function in these circumstances? How can he rise to the occasion, eh? Eh?”

Shursta nudged the nearest patron, who gave him a curled lip and turned her back on him. Sneering at her shoulderblades, Shursta muttered, “You’re probably a Blodestone, eh? All women are kin. Think that’s what a man’s about, eh? Think that’s all he is? A damned baby maker? Soon’s you have your precious daughters, your bouncing boys, you forget all about us. Man’s no good to you till he gets you pissful of those shrieking, wailing, mewling, shitting little shit machines? Eh? Well, what if he can’t? What if he cannot–is he not still a man? Is he not still a man?

By now the barkeep of the Thirsty Seagull was scowling black daggers at him. Someone shoved Shursta from behind. He spun around with fists balled up. Nobody was there.

“Eh,” he spat. “Probably a Blodestone.”

When he turned back to the bar, a hand slid a drink over to him. Shursta drank before looking to see who had placed it there.

Myrar Yaspir stared at him with avid eyes.

“Don’t know you,” Shursta mumbled. “Thanks for the nog. Raise my cup. Up. To you. Oh… It’s empty.” He slammed it down. “Barkeep, top her up. Spill her over. Fill her full. Come on, man. Don’t be a Blodestone.”

Amber liquid splashed over the glass’s rim.

“You’re the new Blodestone man,” Myrar Yaspir whispered. “You’re Damisel Hyrryai’s new husband.”

Shursta snarled. “Won’t be her husband once my year’s up. She’ll be glad to see the back of me. Wretch. Horror. Harpy. Who needs her? Who wants her?” He began to blubber behind shaking hands. “Oh, but by all the gods below! How she gleams. How she catches the light. How will I live without her?”

A coin clinked down. Bottle touched tumbler. Myrar’s whisper was like a naked palm brushing the sandpaper side of a shark.

“Are you having trouble, Blodestone man? Trouble in the meshing bed?”

“Ayup, trouble,” Shursta agreed, not raising his snot-streaked face. “Trouble like an empty sausage casing. Trouble like…”

“Yes, trouble,” Myrar cut him off. “Yet you sit here. You sit here drunk and stupid–you. You of all men. You, whose right as husband gives you access to that household. Don’t you see, you stupid Blodestone man?” His hand shot out to grab Shursta’s ear. The cartilage gave a twinge of protest, but Shursta set his teeth. When Myrar’s hand came back, he cradled Shursta’s gemmaja in his palm.

“Do you know what this is?”

Shursta burped. “Ayup. Green rock. Wife gave me. Wanna see my coral?” He fished for the cord beneath his shirt. “True Sarths wear carnelian, she says. Carnelian’s the stone for Sarths. You ask me, coral’s just as good. Hoity-toity rich folk.”

“Not rock. This–is–not–rock,” Myrar hissed. His fingers clenched and unclenched around the green chalcedony. By the dim light of the wall sconces, Shursta could barely make out the red speckles in the stone, like tiny drops of blood.

“This is your child. This is the love of your wife. This is life. Life, Blodestone man. Do you understand?” Myrar Yaspir scooted his stool closer. His breath was cold, like the inside of a tomb. “I was you once. Low. A cur who knew it was beaten. Beaten by life. By work. By women. By those haughty, high-nosed Blodestone bastards who own more than half this island and mean to marry into the other half, until there is nothing left for the rest of us. But last thing before he died, my grandad sat me down. Said he knew I was unhappy. Knew my… my Adularia wept at night for want of a child. He had a thing to tell me. A thing about stones.”

Dull-eyed, Shursta blinked back at him.

“Stones,” he repeated.

“Yes. Stones. Magic stones. So.” Myrar Yaspir set the green chalcedony tenderly, even jealously, into Shursta’s palm. “Take your little rock home with you, Blodestone man. Put it in a mortar–not a wooden one. A fine one, of marble. Take the best pestle to it. Grind it down. Grind it to powder. Drink it in a glass of wine–the Blodestone’s finest. They have fine wine in that house. Drink it. Go to your wife. Don’t listen to her voice. Her voice doesn’t matter. When she sees how you come to her, her thighs will sing. Her legs will open to you. Make her eat her words. Pound her words back into her. Get her with that child. Who knows?” Myrar Yaspir sank back down, his eyes losing that feral light. “Who knows. It may gain you another year. What more can a man ask, whose wife no longer loves him? Just one more year. It’s worth it.”

All down his gullet, the amber drink burned. In another minute, Shursta knew, he would lose it again, vomitting all over himself. He swallowed hard. Then he bent his head to the man beside him, who had become bleak and still and silent once more, and asked, very softly:

“Was it worth the life of Kuista Blodestone? Myrar Yaspir, was it worth the death of a child?”

If cold rock could turn its head, if rock could turn the fissures of its eyes upon a living man, this rock was Myrar Yaspir.

“What did you say?”

“My wife is hunting for you.”

Myrar Yaspir became flesh. Flinched. Began to shudder. Shursta did not loose him from his gaze.

“I give you three days, Domo Yaspir. Turn yourself in to the Astrion Council. Confess to the murder of Kuista Blodestone. If you do not speak by the third day, I will tell my wife what I know. And she will find you. Though you flee from coast to bay and back again, she will find you. And she will eat your heart by moonlight.”

Glass shattered. A stool toppled. Myrar Yaspir fled the Thirsty Seagull, fast as his legs could carry him.

Shursta closed his eyes.

The next three days were the happiest days of Shursta’s life, and he drank them in. It was as if he, alone of all men, had been given to know the exact hour of his death. He filled the hours between himself and death with sunlight.

For the first day, Sharrar watched him as the sister of a dying man watches her brother. But his smiles and his teasing–“Leave off, Nugget, or I’ll teach Laric where you’re ticklish!”–and the deep brilliance of peace in his eyes must have eased her, for on the second day, her spirits soared, and she was back to playing tricks on her mesh-brothers, and kissing Laric Spectrox around every corner and under every tree, and reciting stories and singing songs to the children of the house.

Hyrryai, who still prowled Droon every night, spent her days close to home. She invited Shursta to walk with her, along paths she knew blindfolded. He asked her to teach him about spinning fire and she said, “Let’s start with juggling maybe,” and taught him patterns with handfuls of fallen fruit.

Suppers with the Blodestones were loud and raucus. Every night turned into a competition. Some Shursta won (ring tossing out in the courtyard) and some he lost (matching drinks with Lochlin, now known to all–thanks to Sharrar–as Lunkhead), but he laughed more than he ever had in his life, and when he laughed, he felt Hyrryai watching him, and knew she smiled.

On evening of the third day, he evaded his brothers’ invitation to play hoopball. Sharrar immediately volunteered–so long as she and Laric could count as one player. She would piggyback upon his shoulders, and he would be her legs. Plankin, Orssi and Dumwei were still vehemently arguing against this when Shursta approached his mesh-mate and set a purple hyacinth into her hands.

“Will you walk with me, wife?”

Her rich, rare skin flushed with the heat of roses. She took the hand he offered.

“I will, husband.”

They strolled out into the scented night, oblivious to the hoots and calls of their kin. Their sandals made soft noises on the pavement. For many minutes, neither spoke. Hyrryai tucked the hyacinth into her hair.

An aimless by and by had passed when they came to a small park. Just a patch of grass, a bench, a fountain. As they had when they met, they sat on the ground with their backs to the bench. Hyrryai, for once, slumped silkily, neglecting to jolt upright every few minutes. When Shursta sank down to rest his head in her lap, her hand went to his hair. She stroked it from his face, traced designs on his forehead. He did not care that he forgot to breathe. He might never breathe again and die a happy man.

The moon was high, waxing gibbous. To Shursta’s eyes, Hyrryai seemed chased in silver. He reached to catch the fingers tangled in his hair. He kissed her fingertips. Sat up to face her. Her smile was silver when she looked at him.

“The name of your sister’s murderer is Myrar Yaspir,” he said in a low voice. “I met him in a tavern at the edge of Droon. He had three day’s grace to confess his crime to the Astrion Council. Let them have him, I thought, they who made him. But when I spoke to your grandmother before dinner, she said no one had yet come forward. I believe he decided to run. I am sorry.”

The pulse in her throat beat an inaudible but profound tattoo through the night air.

To an unconcerned eye, nothing of Hyrryai would have seemed changed. Still she was silver in the moonlight. Still the purple flower glimmered against her wing-black hair. Only her breath was transformed. Inhalation and exhalation exactly matched. Perfect and total control. The pale light playing on her mouth did not curve gently upward. Her eyes stared straight ahead, unblinking sinkholes. The gleam in them was not of moonlight.

“You have known this for three days.”

Shursta did not respond.

“You talked to him. You warned him.”

Again, he said nothing. She answered anyway.

“He cannot run far enough.”

“Hyrryai.”

You–do–not–speak–to–me.”

“Hyrryai–”

“No!”

Her hand flashed out, much as Myrar Yaspir’s had. She took nothing from him but flesh. Fingernails raked his face. Shursta did not, at first, suffer any sting. What he did feel, way down at the bottom of his chest, was a deep snap as she broke the strand of pearl and teeth and stone she wore around her throat. Pieces of moonlight scattered. Fleet and silver as they, Hyrryai Blodestone bounded into the radiant darkness.

One by one–by glint, by ridge, by razor edge–Shursta picked up pieces from the tufted grass. What he could salvage, he placed in the pouch he had prepared. His rucksack he retrieved from the hollow of a tree where he had hidden it the night before. The night was young, but the road to Sif was long.

Despite having begged her in his goodbye letter to go on and live her life in joy, with Laric Spectrox and his dream of a distant horizon, far from a brother who could only bring her shame and sorrow, Sharrar came home to Sif. And when she did, she did not come alone.

She brought her new husband. She brought a ragged band of orphans, grayheads, widows, widowers. Joining her too were past-primers like Adularia Yaspir, face lined and eyes haunted. Even Oron Onyssix had joined them, itching for spaces ungoverned by crones, a place where he might breathe freely.

Sharrar also brought a boat.

It was a very large boat. Or rather, the frame of it. It was the biggest boat skeleton Shursta had ever seen. They wheeled it on slats all the way along the searoad from the outskirts of Droon where Laric had been building it. Shursta, who had thought he might never do so again, laughed.

“What is this, Nugget? Who are all these people?”

But he thought he knew.

“These,” she told him, “are all our new kin. And this–” with a grand gesture to the unfinished monstrosity listing on its makeshift wagon, “is Grimgramal–the ship that sails the world!”

Shursta scrutinized it and said at last, “It doesn’t look like much, your ship that sails the world.”

Sharrar stuck her tongue out at him. “We have to finish it first, brother mine!”

“Ah.”

“Everyone’s helping. You’ll help too.”

Shursta stared at all the people milling about his property, pitching tents, lining up for the outhouse, exploring the dock, testing the sturdiness of his small fishing boat. “Will I?” he asked. “How?”

Laric came over to clap him on the shoulder. “However you can, my mesh-brother. Mend nets. Hem sails. Boil tar. Old man Alexo Alban is carving us a masthead. He says it’s a gift from all the Halls of Ages on the Last Isle to Sharrar.” Taking his mesh-mate’s hand, he indicated the dispersed crowd.. “She’s the one who called them. She’s been speaking the name Grimgramal to anyone who’ll stand still to listen. And you know Sharrar–when she talks, no one can help but listen. Some sympathizers–a very few–like Alexo Alban, started demanding passage in exchange for labor. Though,” his left shoulder lifted in a gesture eloquent of resignation, “most of the grayheads say they’ll safe stay on dry land to see us off. Someone, they claim, must be left behind to tell the tale. And see?”

Laric dipped into his pocket, spilling out a palmful of frozen rainbows. Shursta reached to catch a falling star before it buried itself in the sand. A large, almost bluish, diamond winked between his fingers. Hastily, he returned it.

“Over the last few weeks, the grayheads have been coming to Sharrar. Some from far villages. Even a few crones of the Astrion Council–including Dymmori Blodestone. Each gave her a gem, and told her the lore behind it. Whatever is known, whatever has been surmised. Alexo Alban will embed them in the masthead like a crown. Nine Cities magic to protect us on our journey.”

Shursta whistled through his teeth. “We’re really going then?”

“Oh, yes,” Sharrar said softly. “All of us. Before summer’s end.”

It was not to Rath Sea that Shursta looked then, but to the empty road that led away from Sif.

All of us,” Sharrar repeated. “You’ll see.”

Dumwei Blodestone arrived one afternoon, drenched from a late summer storm, beady-eyed with irritation and chilled to the bone.

“Is Sif the last village of the world? What a stupid place. At the end of the stupidest road. Mudholes the size of small islands. Swallow a horse, much less a man. Sharkbait, why do you let your roof leak? How can you expect to cross an ocean in a wooden boat when you can’t even be bothered to fix a leaky roof? We’ll all be drowned by the end of the week.”

“We?” Sharrar asked brightly, slamming a bowl of chowder in front of him. “Are you planning on going somewhere, Dimwit?”

“Of course!” He glanced at her, astonished, and brandished a spoon in her face. “You don’t really think I’m going to let you mutants have all the fun, do you? Orssi wanted to come too, but now he’s got a girl. Mesh-mad, the pair of ‘em.”

His gaze flickered to the corner where Oron Onyssix sat carving fishhooks from antler and bone. Onyssix raised his high-arched eyebrows. Dumwei looked away.

With a great laugh, Laric broke a fresh loaf of bread in two and handed the larger portion to Dumwei.

“Poor Orssi. You’ll just have to have enough adventure for the two of you.”

Dumwei’s chest expanded. “I intend to, Laric Spectrox!”

“Laric Sarth,” he corrected.

“Oh, yes, that’s right. Forgot. Maybe because you didn’t invite me to your meshing.”

“Sorry,” the couple said in unison, sounding anything but.

“And speaking of impossible mesh-mates…” Dumwei turned to Shursta, who knelt on the floor, feeding the firepit. “My sister wants to see you, Shursta.”

For a moment, none of the dozen or so people crammed in the room breathed. Dumwei did not notice. Or if he noticed, he did not care.

“Mumsa won’t talk about her, you know. Well, she talks, but only to say things like, if her last living daughter wants to run off like a wild dog and file her teeth and declare herself windwyddiam, that’s Hyrryai’s decision. Maybe no one will care then, she says, when she declares herself a mother with six sons and no daughters. And then she cries. And granmumsa and Auntie Elbanni and Auntie Ralorra all cluck their tongues and huddle close, and it’s all hugs and tears and clacking, and a man can’t hear himself think.”

Shursta, who had not risen from his knees, comprehended little of this. If he’d held a flaming brand just then instead of ordinary wood, he might not have heeded it.

Sharrar asked, carefully, “Have you seen Hyrryai then, Dumwei?”

“Oh, ayup, all the time. She ran off to live in a little sea cave, in the… That cove.” Dumwei seemed to swallow the wrong way, though he had not started eating. Quickly, he ducked his head, inspecting his chowder as if for contaminates. When he raised his face again, his eyes were overbright. “You know… You know, Kuista was just two years younger than I. Hyrryai was like her second mumsa, maybe, but I was her best friend. Anyway. I hope Hyrryai does eat that killer’s heart!”

In the corner of the room, Adularia Yaspir turned her face to the wall and closed her eyes.

Dumwei shrugged. “I hope she eats it and spits it out again for chum. A heart like Myrar Yaspir’s wouldn’t make anyone much of meal. As she’s cast herself out of the kinline, Hyrryai has no roof or bed or board of her own. And you can only eat so much fish. So I bring her food. It’s not like they don’t know back home. Granmumsa slips me other things, too, that Hyrryai might need. Last time I saw her… Yesterday? Day before?” He nodded at Shursta. “She asked for you.”

Shursta sprang to his feet. “I’ll go right now.”

But Sharrar and Laric both grabbed fistfuls of Shursta’s shirt and forced him down again.

“You’ll wait till after the storm,” said Laric.

“And you’ll eat first,” Sharrar put in.

“And perhaps,” suggested Oron Onyssix from the corner, “you might wash your face. Dress in a clean change of clothes. Shave. What are they teaching young husbands these days?”

Dumwei snorted. “Think you can write that manual, Onyssix?”

“In my sleep,” he replied, with the ghost of his reckless grin. Dumwei flushed past his ears, but he took his bowl of chowder and went to sit nearer him.

Obedient to his sister’s narrowed eyes, Shursta went through the motions of eating. But as soon as her back was turned, he slipped out the front door.

It was full dark when Shursta finally squelched into the sea cave. He stood there a moment, dripping, startled at the glowing suddenness of shelter after three relentlessly rainy hours on the sea road. There was a hurricane lamp at the back of the cave, tucked into a small natural stone alcove. Its glass chimney was sooty, its wick on the spluttering end of low. What Shursta wanted most was to collapse. But a swift glance around the flickering hollow made it clear that amongst the neatly stacked storage crates, bedroll, the tiny folding camp table, the clay oven with its chimney near the cave mouth, the stockpile of weapons leaning in one corner, Hyrryai was not there.

He closed his eyes briefly. Wiping a wet sleeve over his wet face, Shursta contemplated stripping everything, wrapping himself in one of her blankets and waiting for her while he dried out. She hadn’t meant to be gone long, he reasoned; she left the lamp burning. And there was a plate of food, half-eaten. Something had disturbed her. A strange sound, cutting through the wind and rain and surf. Or perhaps a face. Someone who, like he had done, glimpsed the light from her cave and sought shelter of a fellow wayfarer.

Already trembling from the cold, now Shursta’s shivers grew violent, as if a hole had been bored into the bottom of his skull and was slowly filling his spine with ice water. Who might be ranging abroad on such a night? The sick or deranged, the elderly or the very young. The desperate, like himself. The outcasts, like Hyrrai. And the outlaws: lean, hungry, hunted. But why should they choose this cove, of all the crannies and caverns of the Last Isle? Why this so particular haunted place, on such a howling night? Other than Hyrryai herself, Shursta could think of just one who’d have cause to come here. Who would be drawn here, inexorably, by ghosts or guilt or gloating.

His stomach turned to stone, his knees to mud. He put his hand on the damp wall to steady himself.

And what would Hyrryai have done, glancing up from her sad little supper to meet the shadowed, harrowed eyes of her sister’s killer?

She would not have thought to grab her weapons. Or even her coat. Look, there it was, a well-oiled sealskin, draped over the camp stool. Her fork was on the floor there by the bedroll, but her dinner knife was missing.

Shursta bolted from the cave, into the rain.

The wind tore strips from the shroud of the sky. Moonlight spintered through, fanged like an anglerfish and as cold. Shurta slipped and slid around the first wall of boulders and began to clamber back up the stone steps to the sea road. He clutched at clumps of marram grass, which slicked through his fingers like seaweed. Wet sand and crumbled rock shifted beneath his feet. Gasping and drenched as he was, he clung to his claw-holds, knowing that if he fell he’d have to do it all over again. He’d almost attained the headland, had slapped first his left hand onto the blessedly flat surface, was following it by his right, meaning to beach himself from the cliff face onto the road in one great heave and lie there awhile, catching his breath, when a hand grasped his and hauled him up the rest of the way.

“Domo Blodestone!” gasped Myrar Yaspir. “You must help me. Your wife is hunting me.”

The first time Shursta had seen Yaspir, he had looked like a man turned to stone and forgotten. The second time, his eyes had been livid as enraged wounds. Now he seemed scoured, nervous and alive, wet as Shursta. He wore an enormous rucksack and carried a walking stick which Shursta eyed speculatively. It had a smooth blunt end, well polished from age and handling.

“Is that how you killed Kuista Blodestone?” he blurted.

Myrar Yaspir followed his gaze. “This?” he asked, blankly. “No, it was a stone. I threw it into the sea, after.” He grasped Shursta’s collar and hefted. Myrar Yaspir was a ropy, long-limbed man whose bones seemed to poke right through his skin, but rather than attenuated, he seemed vigorously condensed, and his strength was enormous, almost electrical. Hauled to his feet, Shursta felt as though a piece of mortal-shaped lightning had smote down upon the Last Isle just to manhandle him. “Come,” he commanded Shursta. “We must keep moving. She is circling us like a bone shark, closer, ever closer. Come, Domo Blodestone,” he said again, blinking back rain from his burning eyes. “You must help me.”

Shursta disengaged himself, though he felt little shocks go through him when his wrists knocked Myrar Yaspir’s fists aside. “I already helped you, child-killer. I gave you three days to turn yourself into the Astrion Council. I am done with you.”

Myrar Yaspir glanced at him, then shook his head. “You are not listening to me,” he said with exasperated patience. “Your wife is hunting me. I will be safe nowhere on this island. Not here and not in Droon cowering in some straw cage built by those doddering bitches of the council.” He bent his head close to Shursta’s and whispered, “No, you must take me to Sif where you live. Word is you are sailing from this cursed place on a boat the size of a city. I will work for my passage. I work hard. I have worked all my life.” He opened his hands as if to show the callouses there; as if, even empty, they had always been enough.

Shursta felt his voice go gentle, and could not prevent it, although he knew Myrar Yaspir would think him weakening.

“The Grimgrimal is the size, maybe, of a large house, and we who will sail on it are family. You, Domo Yaspir, are no one’s family.”

My wife is on that boat!” Myrar flashed, his fist grasping the sodden cloth at Shursta’s throat. His expression flickered from whetted volatilty to bleak cobweb-clung despair, and after that, it seemed, he could express nothing because he no longer had a face. His was merely a sand-blasted and sun-bleached skull, dripping dark rain. The skull whispered, “My Adularia.”

Shursta was afraid. He had only been so afraid once in his entire life, and that was last year, out on the open ocean, in that breathless half second before he jumped in after Gulak’s young son, realizing even as he leapt that he would rather by far spool out the remainder of his days taunted and disliked and respected by none than dive into that particular death, where the boy floundered and the shark danced.

Now the words came with no stutter or click. “You have no wife.”

The skull opened its mouth and screamed. It shrieked, raw and wordless, right into Shursta’s face. Its fists closed again on the collar of Shursta’s coat, twisted in a chokehold and jerked, lifting him off his feet as though he had been a small child. Shursta’s legs dangled and his vision blackened and he struck out with his fists, but it was like pummeling a waterspout. Myrar was still screaming, but the sound soon floated off to a far away keening. Shursta, weightless between sky and sea, began to believe that Myrar had always been screaming, since the first time Shursta had beheld him sitting in the tavern, or maybe even before. Maybe he had been screaming since killing Kuista, the child he could not give his wife, and who, though a child, had all the esteem, joy of status, wealth and hope for the future that Myrar Yaspir, a man in his prime and a citizen of proud Droon, lacked.

Is it any wonder he screamed? Shursta thought. This was followed by another thought, further away: I am dying.

The moment he could breathe again was the moment his breath was knocked out of him. Myrar had released his chokehold on Shursta, but Shursta, barely conscious, had no time to find his feet before the ground leapt up to grapple him. He tried to groan, but all sound was sucked from the pit of his stomach into the sky. Rain splattered on his face. The wind ripped over everything except into his lungs.

By and by, he remembered how to breathe, and soon could do so without volunteering the effort. His mouth tasted coppery. His tongue was sore. Something had been bitten that probably should not have been. Shursta’s hands closed over stones, trying to find one jagged enough to fend off further advances from a screaming skull-faced murderer. Where was his mesh-gift, the black knife Hyrryai had given him? Back in Sif, of course, in a box with his gemmaja, and the pressed petals of purple hyacinth that had fallen from her hair that night she left him. All his fingers found now were pebbles and blades of grass, and he could not seem to properly grip any of them. Shursta sat up.

Sometime between his falling and landing the awful screaming had stopped. There was only sobbing now: convulsive, curt, wretched, interrupted by bitter gasps for breath and short, sawtoothed cries of rage. Muffled, moist thumps punctuated each cry. Shursta had barely registered that it could not be Myrar Yaspir who wept–his tears had turned to dust long ago–when the thumps and sobs stopped. For a few minutes it was just rain and wind. Shursta blinked his eyes back into focus and took in the moon-battered, rain-silvered scene before him. His heart crashed in his chest like a fog-bell.

Hyrryai Blodestone crouched over the crumpled body of Myrar Yaspir. She grasped a large stone in her dominant hand. Myrar’s bloody hair was tangled in her other. Her dinner knife was clamped between her teeth. As he watched, she let the head fall–another pulpy thump–tossed the dripping stone to one side and spat her knife into her hand. Her movements ragged and impatient, she sliced Myrar’s shirt down the middle and laid her hand against his chest. She seemed startled by what she felt there–the last echoes of a heartbeat or the fact there was none, Shursta did not know.

“It’s not worth,” he said through chattering teeth, “the effort it would take to chew.”

Hyrryai glanced at him, her face a shocky blank, eyes and nose and mouth streaming. She looked away again again, then spat out a mouthful of excess saliva. The next second, she had keeled over and was vomitting over the side of a cliff. Shursta hurried to her side, tearing a strip from his sleeve as he did so, to gather her hair from her face and tie it back. His pockets were full of useless things. A coil of fishing line, a smooth white pebble, a pencil stub–ah! Bless Sharrar and her clever hands. A handkerchief. He pulled it out and wiped Hyrryai’s face, taking care at the corners of her mouth.

Her lips were bloodied, as though she had already eaten Myrar Yaspir’s heart. He realized this was because she had been careless of her teeth, newly filed into the needle points of the windwyddiam. Even a nervous gnawing of the lip might pierce the tender flesh there.

Blotting cautiously, he asked, “Did that hurt?”

The face Hyrryai lifted to Shursta was no longer hard and blank but so wide open that he feared for her, that whatever spirits of the night were prowling might seek to use her as a door. He moved his body more firmly between hers and Myrar Yaspir’s. He wondered if this look of woeful wonder would ever be wiped from her eyes.

“Nothing hurts,” she mumbled, turning away again. “I feel nothing.”

“Then why are you crying?”

She shrugged, picking at the grass near her feet. Her agitated fingers brushed again a dark and jagged stone. It was as if she had accidently touched a rotten corpse. She jerked against Shursta, who flailed out his foot out to kick the stone over the cliff’s edge. He wished he could kick Myrar Yaspir over and gone as well.

“Hyrryai–“

“D-Dumwei f-found you?” she asked at the same time.

“As you see.”

“I c-called you to w-witness.”

“Yes.”

“I was going to make you, make you w-watch while I–“ Hyrryai shook her head, baring her teeth as if to still their chattering. More slowly, she said, “It was going to be your punishment. Instead I came upon him as he was, as he was k-killing you.”

And though his soul was sick, Shursta laughed. “Two at one blow, eh, Hyrryai?”

“Never,” she growled at him, and took his face between her hands. “Never, never, never, Shursta Sarth, do you hear me? No one touches you. I will murder anyone who tries. I will eat their eyes, I will…”

He turned his face to kiss her blood-slicked hands. First one, then the other.

“Shh,” he said. “Shh, Hyrryai. You saved my life. You saved me. It’s over. It’s over.”

She slumped suddenly, pressing her face against his neck. Wrenched back, gasping. A small cut on her face bled a single thread of red. When next she spoke, her voice was wry.

“Your neck grew fangs, Shursta Sarth.”

“Yes. Well. So.”

Hyrryai fingered the strand of tooth and stone and pearl at his throat. Shursta held his breath as her black eyes flickered up to meet his, holding them for a luminous moment.

“Thief,” she breathed. “That’s mine.”

“Sorry.” Shursta ducked his head, unclasped the necklace, and wound it down into her palm. Her fist snapped shut over it. “Destroy it again for all of me, Hyrryai.”

Hyrryai leaned in to lay her forehead against his. Even with his eyes shut, Shursta felt her smile move against his mouth, very deliberately, very carefully.

“Never,” she repeated. “I’d sooner destroy Droon.”

They left Myrar Yaspir’s body where it lie, for the plovers and the pipers and the gulls. From the sea cave they gathered what of Hyrryai’s belongings she wanted with her when she sailed with the Grimgrimal into the unknown sky, and they knelt and kissed the place where Kuista Blodestone had fallen. These last things done, in silent exhaustion Shursta and Hyrryai climbed back up to the sea road.

Setting their faces for Sif, they turned their backs on Droon.

___
Copyright 2013 C.S.E. Cooney

Check out this fabulous video of “The Epic of Shursta Sharkbait.”

by Caroline M. Yoachim

Tripp got his first scrap of paper the day his mother died. He was four, and the paper was pure white. It was a rectangular sheet the size of his foot, folded into the shape of a feather. It came from the left wing of his mother’s god.

His mother died in the middle of winter, and it was so cold that the other kids crowded into the one big room of his mother’s house instead of waiting outside. All the kids who were old enough to have a chance at getting paper came, from eleven-year-old Warder all the way down to Smoke, who was a few months younger than Tripp.

Most of the kids played a gambling game as they waited, flicking small stones off of a big rock and trading scraps of paper depending on where their stones landed. From time to time the older kids would glance up at his mother’s bed, worried that she would wake up and yell at them for scattering stones all over her swept-dirt floor. They didn’t know whether Tripp’s mother would die from her illness, but Tripp was sure. This was the only time her god had ever stopped talking.

The god was perched on a piece of white plastic pipe that cut across the corner between two mud-brick walls. Its head was tucked beneath one wing. Tripp’s mother had no eye for color, and had taken any paper she could get. The parrot was, at least in Tripp’s eyes, one of the ugliest gods in the village. He was glad to have first pick from the paper when his mother died, because there was only one sheet worth having, and he was so small that if he had to fight for paper he’d likely get nothing at all.

His mother never woke before she died, never said a word to Tripp. Her spirit simply slipped away a couple hours before sunset. At the moment she died, the magic that held her parrot together ended. All the scraps of paper burst apart and fluttered to the floor. The children eyed the paper eagerly, but held back. No one else could take anything until Tripp had selected his one piece.

He walked along the edge of the room, careful not to trample any of the paper. He grabbed the white feather, and as soon as his hand closed on it, the room erupted in a frenzy of activity. The oldest kids emerged from the fray with armfuls of paper. Many of the younger children came out with nothing, for the parrot was not a particularly large god. Tripp was surprised to see Smoke clutching a tiny scrap of pink in her stubby fingers.

When the others had gone, Tripp unfolded his feather and smoothed out the creases. He put the flattened sheet into the collection box his mother had used when she was a girl. He vowed to collect more paper than she had, all in matching colors. His animal would be so fantastic that it would attract the most powerful of all the gods.

When Tripp was six, his uncle took him to see the wall of gods. It should have been his parents to take him, but his mother was dead and she had never spoken of his father.

“This is an important moment in your young life,” Uncle Sariff said. “You will not make your god until you are twelve, but you must collect your paper and plan. The sooner you choose the form of your god, the better.”

Uncle Sariff’s god was a monkey. It perched on his shoulder and picked through his hair as they walked to the temple.

“Different forms call to different gods,” the monkey said. “Think about what you want in a god, and choose carefully.”

The monkey gave good advice, but Tripp had trouble taking it seriously because it kept eating bits of fluff that it picked out of Uncle Sariff’s hair. He studied the road as they walked, so that he could avoid watching the disgusting monkey.

The temple was out beyond the outskirts of town, on a black-stone road that was built by the forsaken ones. Many years ago, the sides of the road were littered with ancient treasures. Even in his mother’s day, a little digging often turned up something useful. She’d found the white plastic pipe that her god perched on somewhere along the road.

The temple itself was a relic of those older times. The building was an enormous rectangle, with a vast expanse of black-stone spread all around it. Part of the roof had collapsed, but one room was completely intact — a room as big as Tripp’s mother’s house, with a large window made of glass. It was the biggest piece of uncracked glass that anyone in Tripp’s town had ever seen, even Granny Aura, who had seen a lot of things. On either side of the doorway that led to the wall of gods hung faded tapestries carefully embroidered with symbols that no one remembered how to read.

“Respect,” the monkey whispered as they approached the room. “Images of gods prefer silence.”

Uncle Sariff opened the door for Tripp, and he stepped into the temple. On his right was the window, stretching nearly the entire length of the wall. On his left was the wall of gods — every inch of its surface was covered in a strange material, white like paper and crisscrossed with black lines to form an uneven grid. Each box of the grid contained an animal, not a live animal, but not exactly a picture either. The entire wall writhed with the movement of animals scurrying or climbing, waddling or flying. A few animals slept, and others swam.

Several children sat quietly on the floor, studying the gods. Tripp made no move to join them, but instead walked right next to the wall, to get a closer look at the animals. Most were familiar — birds and lizards and small mammals. A few were grander gods, that Tripp had heard of, but never seen. After all, who could collect enough paper to make a rhinoceros? Even Tripp, only six years old, knew better than to attempt such a thing.

He shook his head as he walked, dismissing each animal as too grand or too plain, too ugly or too extravagant. Then something caught his eye. A small but prickly creature, covered in black spines with white tips. It was a god he had never seen in the town.

Tripp reached out to touch the wall, but before his fingers could brush up against it someone grabbed his shoulder and pushed him away.

He yelped.

“Don’t ever touch the wall of gods. Didn’t your mother teach you anything?” Uncle Sariff had never laid a hand on Tripp before, and though his voice was quiet out of respect for the temple, Tripp could tell that he was angry.

Tripp hung his head. He should have known better. He would be banned from the temple for weeks now, maybe more. As his Uncle pulled him away, he snuck one last look at what would one day be his god. He didn’t even know what the creature was called.

One look at his uncle was enough for him to know that this was not the proper time to ask.

As punishment, Tripp was forbidden from entering the temple until four years had passed. This despite the fact that he had not actually touched the wall. He supposed he should be grateful to Uncle Sariff for stopping him, since if he had actually touched the wall he might have been banned for life.

Still, his punishment was harsh. While the others studied their gods and planned their construction, Tripp got further and further behind, knowing only that he should collect his paper in black and white.

Smoke was some help to him. She was making good progress on her flamingo, and if she was feeling particularly generous she would sometimes study his god and answer his questions about some little thing. There was so much he still didn’t know, although he had finally learned his god’s name. Porcupine, his uncle said, a few months after Tripp had been banned.

Some children took several visits to the temple to decide on a god, and many changed their minds early on. But Tripp was sure. It was the perfect god, all in black and white, covered in thousands of long needles. To do it properly, he would need a lot of paper.

Four years passed slowly, and Tripp gathered black and white paper as best he could. He could not go to the temple and meditate on the plan for his god, but he knew that he was far short of the paper he needed. When he was finally allowed back into the temple, he sat respectfully on the floor with the other children and studied his god. His heart sank. His paltry supply of paper was nowhere near enough. Paper was hard enough to come by for children who took anything — he had spurned anything colorful, anything dirty, anything damaged or torn. Somehow he had to find more.

As he emerged from the temple, filled with despair, he saw Smoke walking down the dirt road, her canvas collection bag slung over her shoulder.

“I’m going to walk the road to the dead city, will you come?” Smoke asked.

It sounded like a waste of time to Tripp. He had planned to watch Kale assemble his god, in hopes that there would be scraps of paper that would not fit. Kale had given a scrap of paper to Autumn yesterday, when it was clear that he had no use for it.

“Most of Kale’s paper is green, you wouldn’t want it anyway,” Smoke said, guessing the reason for his hesitation. “We might find something you can use in the city.”

Smoke had a knack for getting him to do what she wanted. He didn’t mind, really. She wasn’t as bad as most of the other kids. Her eyes were even kind of pretty, colorless and gray. She caught him looking and made a face.

“Fine.” Tripp said. “But I call dibs on everything that’s black and white.”

Smoke considered his offer.

“I still need some black,” she said.

“Do you want me to come or not?” he replied. She didn’t answer. For a while neither of them moved. He wondered if there was really a lot of paper in the dead city. Finally he relented. “I get all the white, and half of the black.”

“Deal.” Smoke laughed. “I’m hoping for mostly pink, anyway.”

Smoke was going to make a flamingo. Tripp thought it was ridiculous, but you didn’t go around questioning other people’s gods. It was a strange choice, though. Everyone else wanted the best animal, the most paper, the powerful gods. Tripp had asked Smoke once, before he was old enough to know better, why she wanted a flamingo. She’d simply shrugged and said she thought it suited her.

It took them a couple hours to get to the dead city, trudging along on the black-stone road. Smoke chattered the entire time, but Tripp didn’t pay much attention. The abandoned buildings here were bigger than the ones in his village, but fewer of them were intact. Nearly all of them had collapsed, and the ground was covered in gray rock rubble and sparkling piles of shattered glass.

It was a terrible place to look for paper. He turned to tell Smoke as much, but she had vanished. He peered up and down the road. There was no way to move forward, with the mountains of debris blocking the way. There was no sign of Smoke behind him, on the road back home.

“There won’t be any paper up there,” she called. Her head was poking out of what looked like a window, cut into the concrete at the bottom of a pile of twisted steel beams. “I’m not handing over half the black if all you’re going to do is stand up there and gawk.”

He squeezed himself through the window. He took a few tentative steps past Smoke and into the middle of the room. His movement triggered some technology from the time of the forsaken, and suddenly the room was lit nearly as bright as outside.

He jumped backwards, bumping into Smoke in his haste to get back to the window. Smoke laughed. “Lily told me about this place, once she had enough paper. There’s a whole maze of rooms down here, and most of them still have lights!”

“You could have told me,” he grumbled, and started towards the nearest door.

Smoke ran up behind him and grabbed his arm. “Sorry. Lily laughed at me the first time I came. I guess it wasn’t that funny to me, then.”

She handed him a bit of chalk. “Mark your path with arrows or something, and don’t get lost. We have to meet back here in time to walk back to the village for supper, so don’t go too far.”

Tripp snatched the chalk and walked briskly away. Smoke called something after him, but he ignored her. She should have warned him about the lights. It wasn’t funny.

He had gone through several rooms before he realized he hadn’t marked his path. He knelt at the door he’d just come through and drew an arrow pointing back the way he’d come. He thought about backtracking to mark the rest of his path, but it since it was a straight line of doors he was reasonably sure he could find his way.

He looked around. Like most things from forsaken times, he couldn’t make heads or tails of the room he was standing in. It was filled with machines, tall boxy things with switches and display panels. None of them appeared to be working, although Tripp wasn’t sure he’d be able to tell if they were. Certainly they were quiet and dark, and none of them were moving. He stood on tiptoe and reached up to brush the top of one. His hand came away covered in dust.

The next room had more machines, although these were more varied in shape than the previous ones. There was a table made entirely out of metal, and a cylindrical bin woven from wires. The bin was empty, but Tripp rather liked the odd container, so he stooped to pick it up, and when he bent over, he noticed a tiny strip of black along the bottom of the wall.

Higher up, someone had hung a decorative piece of cloth, a quilt or a tapestry, not unlike the ones that decorated the entryway to the wall of gods. There, the wall hangings framed the door, and Tripp could see scratches on the floor where someone had moved a file cabinet to see if there was an opening next to the quilt. But whoever it was hadn’t thought to look behind the quilt itself. Tripp pried one side of the quilt away from the wall, carefully placing the metal fasteners on top of the file cabinet.

He smiled to see the black door against the white wall. A hidden treasure, black and white, as though it was put there just for him.

When the lights came on in that next room, Tripp dropped the bin to the floor. The metal clanged against the tiles, but Tripp hardly heard it. One of the walls was lined with shelves, and one of the shelves was full of books.

Books. Each with hundreds of sheets of paper inside. He had never seen one before, he’d only heard the stories Granny Aura told. But they were unmistakable. The whole room even smelled of musty paper. It was intoxicating.

He ran back to get Smoke, carefully marking the entire path with arrows to be absolutely sure they wouldn’t lose the way to the treasure.

“It’s a holy place, we shouldn’t touch them.” Smoke said.

“No one has been here in a long time.” Tripp had been too excited to think it through, but of course Smoke was right. At some point, this had been a holy place. Otherwise why would it be behind the quilt? “And it’s a lot of paper.”

Smoke sat on the floor and studied the books, much like everyone studied the gods at the temple.

“We came here to find paper.” He wheedled. “And now that we’ve found it you don’t want it?”

“It doesn’t feel right to take them,” she answered. “Lily found a few loose scraps, I thought it’d be more like that. These are books. Do you actually think you could take one apart just to get the paper out?”

Tripp marched up to the shelf and pulled down a book. He opened it, and before he had a chance to think about it, he carefully pulled on the first sheet, slightly yellowed with age, but definitely white. It came free from the book with an ugly ripping noise. He stared at the jagged-edged sheet of paper in his hand, his emotions a mixture of pride and regret.

Smoke was nearly in tears. She ran from the room and out of sight. Tripp sighed. He placed the mutilated book into the wire bin he’d taken from the other room, and then stacked several other books in with it. There were still dozens of others on the shelf, but once Tripp returned with his loot the other kids would find this place and raid it for paper. One of the books on the lower shelf caught his eye. The cover was pink, and sure enough some of the pages inside were printed with pink castles and peachy-pink butterflies. His bin was full, but he took out one of his precious black-and-white books to make room for the pink monstrosity. He wanted Smoke to have something for helping him find all the books, even if she had gone all soft once they’d found them.

The town hall was packed full of every adult in the village, and, of course, their gods. Everyone was seated in no particular order, and gods slithered or scampered or flitted about, sometimes pausing to whisper something to their humans or to each other. Children, being godless creatures, were not normally allowed in the hall, but since Tripp and Smoke had found the books, they were permitted to stay.

“The books shall be displayed in the temple, alongside the wall of gods.” Tripp’s uncle was with the group that favored preserving the books intact, and his monkey was proclaiming such to anyone who would listen, as though it had already been decided.

Granny Aura’s guinea pig sidled up to Tripp. “Books?”

Tripp nodded, unsure of what the guinea pig was after.

“Books,” the guinea pig mused. “Books books books. Paper bound, blocked like bricks, boring boring block-bound bricks.”

Tripp continued nodding, hoping the guinea pig would leave.

“Free the bound! Break the bricks! Set them free and hope it sticks!”

Granny Aura, perhaps noticing Tripp’s discomfort, came to collect her god. “She gives good advice,” Granny said, “but she can get a little over-excited sometimes.”

The meeting went on for hours, with Granny Aura and her followers calling for the paper to be used to freshen the supply and make god-bodies, and Uncle Sariff and his lot calling for the books to be preserved and worshipped. In the end, it was the preservationists that won out, over the screaming protests of Granny Aura’s guinea pig.

Tripp handed over the books that he had brought back from the dead city. All of them but two — the book that he had damaged and Smoke’s pink book were hidden safely away in his mother’s old abandoned house, under the bed where she had died.

Tripp saved the books, his and Smoke’s, until the spring before they turned twelve. He knew that Smoke had mixed feelings about the book, but he wanted her to take it. He waited to give it to her until he was sure she would need the pink paper to make her Flamingo.

“I don’t want it.” Smoke stared at the book in his hand, refusing even to touch it. He should have expected her response, but he had hoped that once the other books were in the temple she’d be more enthusiastic.

“You need pink,” he said, “this has pink.”

“I won’t destroy it.”

He could see that she meant it. Still, there was no way Smoke would have enough paper to make the god she wanted if she didn’t take it. He didn’t want her to have an ugly patchwork god, like his mother’s. She was the only one in the village who was nice to him, and she deserved a pretty god. So Tripp took the little pink book back to his mother’s house and used a knife he borrowed from his Uncle to carefully slice out each individual page.

He worked methodically, cutting a dozen or so pages at once, concentrating on keeping the cuts clean and straight. He put the pages in a neat stack. Then he looked at the cover and nearly burst into tears. He had cut the pages as close to the cover as he could, but thin strands of paper clung to the spine. When he had torn the single page from his book, it had looked much the same afterwards, once the book was closed. But this was different. The cover was empty, and it closed in on itself, mangled, hollow, incomplete. He resisted the urge to shove the papers back in. The paper would have new life in Smoke’s flamingo. How could that be wrong? Granny Aura’s god had wanted it that way, paper was better used than sitting bound in a book.

His hands trembled as he carried the paper down the road to Smoke.

She took it from him.

He waited for her to speak, but she said nothing. She stared down at the stack of paper with a sad expression, as though what she held was not precious pink paper but some sort of dying god.

“I thought. . .” He wanted to explain how she ought to have the best paper, the prettiest pink, so that she could make a beautiful god, but the words seemed shallow and empty in his mouth.

She shook her head and walked away without ever having spoken a word.

The last months before his godsummer were lonely. Smoke had been his only friend, and she wouldn’t speak to him now.

He sat near her when she studied the god wall at the temple, and of course they both went to collect paper when Parna died. Tripp was lucky enough to grab several sheets of black paper, but when he tried to give one to Smoke she refused to take it.

When summer finally came, Tripp and Smoke and the village’s four other twelve-year-olds buried themselves completely in the tedious task of building bodies for their gods. They all sat together in the town hall, a space too big for a group so small, and rolled and folded and smoothed their papers into shape. Adults came in to monitor their progress, and some days younger children came to watch, in hopes of a scrap of unused paper.

Day in and day out the twelve-year-olds sat together in silence, their god-bodies growing larger in front of them and their piles of paper shrinking behind them. Tripp often watched Smoke work as he rolled his paper. His god was mostly quills, which required a lot of rolling. The work was mindless, once he got into a rhythm. Black quills tipped with white, roll and roll the paper tight. He packed the paper rolls close together all around his god body, rolled so tight they were sharp. His fingers were laced with tiny cuts from the rolling and pinprick dots where he’d jabbed himself on the quills. Here and there the white paper bore stains of his blood, but his god would make its body pure, once it was summoned. It would absorb the blood and that would only serve to bind them closer.

Smoke, unlike Tripp, never looked up from her god. She worked carefully, but quickly, her hands flying over her paper to shape intricate feathers in shades of peach and pink and white. Tripp had seen her god on the wall, and thought it a gangly, awkward sort of beast, but in person it looked tall and stately, with long legs and a neatly curved black beak. Even the color was not so terrible. Tripp looked for the paper that he had given to Smoke, but could not find it in among the feathers.

For several days he watched for it, as he rolled his quills, packing them over the body of his god while Smoke mirrored his work in pink feathers. Even when she had finished, there was no sign of the paper he had given her.

He had destroyed a book for her, and she hadn’t even used it.

Her work finished, she sat quietly in the hall. Even without work to draw her attention away, she did not look at him.

Finally, without her flamingo to distract him, he focused on his god-body. In his inattention, he had packed his quills too close together. The effect was actually rather nice, it made the body of his god look fuller and more elaborate. But the effect on his paper supply was devastating. He had rolled far too many quills, and he had only a few dozen sheets of paper left to make legs for his god. Not nearly enough to support the over-packed quill-heavy weight of its body, and there was still a bare spot near the tail that needed more quills.

Worse, he was running out of time.

He laid out his remaining sheets, trying to think what to do. There wasn’t enough time to thin the quills and unroll them and press them flat and use them for legs. There wasn’t enough paper to make four legs. Or even two. He had enough to make a single leg, and what good would that be?

He rolled his last precious sheets of paper into quills and filled in the bare patch on his god-body’s tail. He wondered if anyone had ever created such a pitiful body before, and whether anyone had ever done so poorly as to not attract a god at all. He was so absorbed in this line of thought that he didn’t notice Smoke approaching until she touched his elbow.

“Here,” she said. It was the paper he had cut from her book, still neatly stacked and untouched.

It was pink.

He shook his head. He didn’t want the sort of god that would inhabit a pink-legged porcupine; he would rather carry his god wherever it wished to go. He hoped that there was a god that would understand his choice, and be willing to inhabit a legless body.

The disembodied gods began to arrive at sunrise on the last day of summer. They examined each of the god bodies in turn — Smoke’s flamingo, Tripp’s legless porcupine, Pike’s rainbow patchwork crow, Coral’s potbelly pig, and the twins with their matching set of geckoes.

Outside of any body, the gods were like smoke or mist, hazy wisps that drifted about, sometimes suggesting a human form, other times looking more like one animal or another. They were graceful, and at dawn the room was filled so full of them that Tripp couldn’t see the ceiling or the walls.

But very quickly some gods decided that they didn’t fit the bodies that were offered. Soon the air began to thin, as hundreds of gods became dozens, and dozens dwindled down to ten. Two gods were particularly intrigued by the matching geckoes of the twins, and as they were without competition, they settled in, one in each body, and their respective humans splintered off a piece of their soul to bind the god to the body and the body to themselves.

Two gods were interested in the potbelly pig, and they hovered for a moment in front of Coral before somehow settling the dispute. One drifted off, and the other became Coral’s god.

Two gods wanted the patchwork rainbow crow as well, although Tripp had no idea why. It was an ugly thing, with bright and garish colors that didn’t match. They too settled their dispute, with one taking the body and the other drifting away. Neither of the losing gods even came to look at his body before leaving, and there were only four gods left.

All four of them were gathered around Smoke’s flamingo, and these were more persistent or more stubborn than the others. Here, at least, Tripp could see that the god-body was worth fighting for. The flamingo was beautifully made with paper carefully matched and different shades of pink and peach scattered just right to make the body look natural. It had a subtlety that the patchwork crow lacked, that even his own god body would not have attained even had he managed to finish it. And Smoke, of course, would be a good human to have, if one were a god.

When none of the gods showed any signs of leaving, Smoke approached them. She whispered something, and two gods left. Neither came to Tripp’s legless porcupine. After a long pause, Smoke selected one of the two remaining. It swooped gleefully into her flamingo, and the remaining god hovered. Slowly, sadly, it came to hang before Tripp.

Tripp looked over at Smoke, but she was busy binding her god. What had she whispered, to make the first two leave? Had she coerced this god to come to him, if it was not chosen for her flamingo? He did not want an unwilling god, but he had little choice. It was this god or none at all, and he bound it to his pathetic legless porcupine.

“Take me to the dead city,” Porcupine said.

“Why?” Tripp asked.

“Because I don’t have legs to walk there myself.”

Tripp sighed. “I meant why do you want to go.”

Porcupine didn’t answer, and Tripp picked him up and put him on the newly-constructed wagon. “What do you think?”

“The wood is a little hard.”

“I’ll try to find a blanket.”

All Tripp’s agemates had bonded well with their gods, and they were comfortable with each other’s presence. Tripp, on the other hand, could never escape the guilt he felt for trapping a reluctant god in a legless body. It didn’t help that Porcupine was always bringing it up.

He walked to the dead city, pulling Porcupine in a wagon behind him. Porcupine made a big show of moaning and groaning any time there was even a slight bump. When they passed the temple, Porcupine said, “let’s go in. I want to look at the wall.”

Porcupine loved to look at the diagram on the god-wall that showed what he was supposed to look like. He sighed over his missing legs, and took no comfort from the fact that his quills were far lovelier than what was shown in the picture.

“Do you want me to take you to the dead city or not?” Tripp asked.

“Fine.” Porcupine said, then mumbled, “I am a god, you know.”

They walked in silence after that, until they got to the building where he and smoke had found the books.

“I want to go in.” Porcupine said. “You’ll have to carry me.”

Tripp picked up his god and carried him down through the narrow window that opened underneath the jumbled steel bars and concrete rubble. He took Porcupine through the maze of rooms until they found the door behind the tapestry, and went inside. The books were gone, of course — all taken back to the temple where they could be worshipped.

“This is where you found them?” Porcupine asked.

Tripp nodded.

Porcupine sniffed the air and studied the shelves. “Only one shelf with books, you said?”

“That one.” Tripp pointed it out.

“There were more. On other shelves.”

“No –” Tripp began.

“Oh yes. There were lots. I can smell them.”

Following Porcupine’s directions, Tripp went deeper into the forsaken building. Porcupine was awkward to carry, and his arms were soon covered in tiny pink lines where the quills scratched his skin.

Mostly, Porcupine led him down. There were stairways scattered here and there through the mazes of rooms, and they would travel down a few flights on one, then it would be blocked off and they would find another.

Tripp saw room after room of tall block-shaped machines. The ones up high were silent, but as they descended some of them were humming slightly.

“This one is mine,” Porcupine said, forcing Tripp to stop for several minutes beside a machine that looked exactly like all the others. What connection Porcupine had to that particular machine, Tripp didn’t know, but he had no choice but to wait since he hadn’t brought any chalk and he couldn’t remember how they’d gotten down here.

At last they moved on, winding through several more machine-rooms until suddenly they came through a doorway into the biggest open space that Tripp had ever seen. It was filled with shelves, and the shelves were full of books.

“There must be a million sheets of paper down here. Ten million, maybe,” Tripp said, awed.

“Yes.” Porcupine answered. “We used to call places like this libraries.”

They stood staring at the books.

“You can use them to make more gods.” Porcupine said.

“More gods?”

“Yes, why should you have only one? You saw the machines, there are plenty of gods waiting.”

“But how would I bind them? I only have so much self, and I must use a piece to tie my god to its body.” Tripp puzzled through his thoughts, speaking them aloud. “And besides, a god can only be made in a human’s twelfth summer, and called on the last day of summer.”

Porcupine snorted. “I don’t know where that started. Gods can take a body at any time, and they needn’t be bound to humans. But that’s no matter. There’ll be plenty of time for that later. First I’ll need my legs.”

Tripp looked down at Porcupine, who he’d set down on the floor. It was forbidden to add to your god body once it held a god, but was that restriction merely to make sure the children had enough paper? For here was paper enough to make an army of gods, and Porcupine needed legs.

“I think they should be black.” Porcupine said.

Tripp had hoped that once Porcupine was complete he would be less whiny, but apparently complaining was simply a part of his nature. The new legs were sturdy and held Porcupine up off the ground, but there was something wrong with them — they didn’t move. In between long tirades about the sad state of his defective legs, Porcupine berated Tripp to work faster at building new gods. Tripp was going as fast as he could — after a bit of exploring they had found a short route to the surface, and now he only stopped to go up and find food, or relieve himself, or to go to the temple and study the diagrams on the wall of gods. He even slept in the library. Working like this, he could make a god in a week.

The first god he made, on Porcupine’s instructions, was a monkey.

“He’ll have hands,” Porcupine explained. “So he can help you make the other gods.”

Most of the books in the great library were black text printed on yellowing white paper, and the monkey was made entirely from this. From a distance he looked yellowish gray, which Tripp thought was rather unappealing. Worse, the monkey did not move. Porcupine was furious, but he insisted that Tripp keep working.

More animals followed, getting bigger and grander as they went — a poodle and a bobcat, an ox and a horse and a cow, a striking black-and-white zebra, and finally an elephant so large that Tripp had to move a few of the shelves out of the way to make room for it. How it would get out, Tripp didn’t know, but Porcupine had become quite confident in his instructions, and Tripp felt like he was finally making up for his failure to give Porcupine legs.

But the new animals, small and large, remained stiff and lifeless, and not a single disembodied god came to look at them.

“You’re missing something.” Porcupine said.

“Maybe we have to go to the town hall?” Tripp asked. “Or it’s just the wrong time. We always call the gods in the summer, and it is winter now.”

Porcupine kept at him to build more gods, and Tripp did the best he could, although now his fingers hurt from all the tiny cuts, and his eyes hurt from working all the detailed folds in the dim light of the underground room. Still he kept working and working until finally he was interrupted by a familiar voice.

“Oh, Tripp.” Smoke stood at the entryway, ignoring the many shelves of books and instead looking only at the animals that Tripp had made. Her flamingo stood behind her, craning its neck this way and that to take in the room.

“It’s the porcupine’s fault,” the flamingo said.

Porcupine bristled and hissed, but since his legs couldn’t move, the threat was empty.

“Do you know which one is his?” the flamingo asked. “Which of the machines?”

Tripp tried to remember. They had not returned to that room after the first time, but there would be tracks in the dust. He backtracked along their trail until he found it, leaving Porcupine behind in the room with all the books.

“They sent me here to find you,” Smoke said, softly. “Some of them are angry, but the others are only worried for you.”

“Which are you?” Tripp asked.

“Worried.”

Flamingo was circling the machine, much as Porcupine had. Then he began to peck furiously against the casing with his beak, making a frightful clanging noise that echoed through the room. The casing fell away to reveal a tangle of brightly colored wires.

“Don’t do it, Flamingo, it’ll hurt the boy.” Porcupine called from the library.

“Is that true?” Smoke asked.

“Yes,” the flamingo answered, “but the boy is already hurting.”

“What will happen to me?” Tripp asked. “What about Porcupine?” Porcupine wasn’t a very good god, but he was his god.

“You will lose the part of yourself that binds him. He will lose all of himself.”

“Because we tried to make other gods?”

“It is not the way of things. One human and one god, bound together at the height of summer. What he wants will destroy the balance of the world.”

“So you will destroy him? There must be another way.”

“He cannot be allowed to build an army. When summer comes, the gods will take the bodies you have made, and they will remake the world to suit them. It has happened before.” Flamingo said.

“And why do you care, if you’re a god too?” Smoke asked.

“Because I am your god, and I am part of you and you are part of me. If Porcupine gets his way, both of us will be destroyed.”

“What if I just destroy the other god-bodies, and stop building new ones?” Tripp asked. He didn’t want to harm Smoke, but it didn’t seem fair to hurt Porcupine either, even if he was whiny.

“Porcupine would find a way to convince you again.”

“I will leave him here.” Tripp said.

“That would be worse than what I want to do — such a solitary existence might not be the mercy you intend.”

“He should have the choice,” Tripp said. “I will ask him.”

Back in the library, Tripp explained to Porcupine. “He’s wrong,” Porcupine sulked, “it wouldn’t hurt Smoke, or you, or anyone.”

Tripp wanted to believe his god, but he had known all along that building the other animals was wrong. Porcupine had led him down the wrong path, and now he had to make it right. “You have to choose, Porcupine. Stay here in the library, or let flamingo break the machine?”

“I don’t want to die,” Porcupine whispered.

“Then I won’t let them kill you.” Tripp replied.

Tripp took apart the paper god bodies sheet by sheet, smoothing each paper and stacking it in tidy piles on the library shelves. Last of all he took back Porcupine’s legs, though he wished he could leave his god at least that much. Smoke and her flamingo watched them closely the entire time, to make sure that Porcupine did not regain his influence.

When all the work was done, Porcupine said, “I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want to stay here.”

“If you do not stay, we will destroy you,” Flamingo said.

Porcupine turned his attention to Tripp. “Flamingo says I must be killed, because I would have killed people. But I never killed anything. We made things, you and I. Beautiful things. We could remake them, all the grandest animals to house the most magnificent gods –”

“No, Porcupine,” Tripp said. He had wanted that, once. He had spent his entire childhood dreaming of the perfect animal and the most fantastic god, but he had never meant for things to come out like this. He was surrounded by the evidence of his bad choices. Stacks of paper filled the shelves and empty book spines littered the floor. And still, in the midst of it all, was Porcupine, urging him even now to build more bodies.

Tripp looked at Smoke and Flamingo, waiting quietly for him to decide. He barely knew Flamingo, and yet already he trusted Flamingo more than he trusted his own god. Or maybe he simply trusted Smoke more than he trusted himself. They both knew that Porcupine was too dangerous, and that Tripp was too easily influenced. Tripp forced himself to admit it, and to say aloud, “I’m sorry, Porcupine. If you don’t want to stay locked away down here, we have to destroy you.”

“Destroy me, then,” Porcupine said. “I have backups, stored on machines all around the world. All I will lose is this sorry excuse of a body.”

Flamingo went to Porcupine’s machine, but Tripp stopped him.

“He is my god, I will do it. Tell me how.”

So he followed Flamingo’s instructions, pulling wires here and there, and when he was finished, he felt that bit of himself that held him to Porcupine dissolve away. He ran back to the library for a final goodbye — misguided as he was, Porcupine was still his god — but when he got there all that remained was a pile of paper.

Tripp walked back along the black-rock road with Smoke and Flamingo, keenly aware of his missing god. “It was my fault as much as his. I trapped him in a broken body. If he had been whole, he might have been content.”

To his surprise, Smoke put her hand on his shoulder. “When the gods came on the last day of summer, I did something foolish. I saw that none of the gods had chosen your porcupine, and so many wanted my flamingo. So I asked that whichever one I didn’t choose go and be your god.”

Flamingo stopped and gave her a hard look.

“Flamingo told me later that it wasn’t a request, but a command,” she said, “but I didn’t know that at the time. I thought I was asking. Either way, it’s my fault that your god was trapped in a broken body. Your god was so sure that I would choose him, he was willing to risk being stuck in a broken body.”

Tripp turned to Flamingo, “And you were also sure?”

“No,” Flamingo said, “I hoped for Smoke, of course, but I am not like Porcupine. I would have gone to you willingly if Smoke would not have me.”

Tripp wondered what it would have been like, to have Flamingo as his god. It didn’t matter, he supposed. Now he would be the only adult in the village without a god at all. “And now I’m broken, just like Porcupine was. I lost a piece of my soul and I don’t even have a god. I don’t know why I’m even going back. No one will want a godless man in their village.”

“You destroyed your god because you knew it was the right thing to do. There will be at least some people who appreciate that.” Smoke said. She reached out and held his hand. Even before Tripp had a god, his obsession with building the perfect god had gotten in the way of his friendship with Smoke. He’d lost his god, but regained his friend.

There was a town meeting not long after he returned. Tripp was not allowed inside to attend the meeting, but when the council had reached a decision, they called him in.

“It isn’t right to have a godless man in our village,” Granny Aura began, and Tripp’s heart fell. He stared at the old woman. Her guinea pig grinned up at him from her feet.

“We cannot have a godless man,” Granny Aura repeated, “but we will give you a second chance to make your god.”

Granny Aura beckoned, and Smoke stepped into view. In her hands she held a stack of paper.

“The only condition is that you must only use the paper that you had available to you on your twelfth summer,” she continued, “and you must use all of that paper.”

Granny Aura’s guinea pig, no longer able to contain itself, bounded over to Smoke and did an excited little hopping dance around her legs. Smoke smiled at Tripp, but also fanned out the paper so that he could see, in the middle of the stack, the pink paper she had offered him when all his black and white was gone. It had been available to him then, and he would have to use it now.

Strangely, the idea of a partly pink god no longer bothered him. He accepted the conditions of the council, and when the summer came, he sat amongst the twelve-year-olds, and built himself a god.

He made another porcupine, for there had been little time to plan and a porcupine was the only body he knew that used the right amount of paper. It would be another layer to his punishment, to look each day upon the god he had once destroyed. He packed the black-and-white quills tight around its body, and used the pink paper from Smoke to make short sturdy legs. It was not as beautiful as Smoke’s flamingo, but it was whole, and when the gods came to choose their bodies, one of them selected it.

At his new porcupine’s suggestion, Tripp collected all the paper from the disassembled army of gods. It was hard work, but rewarding to think that he was making up for his past mistakes. Every day for months on end, Tripp walked back and forth from the city, carrying stacks of paper in his basket made of wire mesh. He moved the paper to a small storage room in the temple, to be shared out amongst the village children. Even Uncle Sariff agreed that the paper should be put to use since the books had already been destroyed. With Porcupine’s encouragement, Tripp labored without complaint until it had all been moved — ten million sheets of paper, all in black and white.

____
Copyright 2013 Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim is a writer and photographer living in Seattle, Washington. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and was nominated for a Nebula Award for her 2010 novelette, “Stone Wall Truth.” Her fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

by Cat Rambo and Ben Burgis

They said the Marielitas were escoria – scum. The abuelitas muttered it to each other, and the young girls coming home from school clustered together like butterflies, looking thrilled and worried whenever the wind whistled at them. The newspapers said Miami was under siege, that Castro had loosed the worst from the Cuban prisons and madhouses.

The respectable Cubans already in Miami – the ones who weren’t driving the boats to bring over their cousins and brothers and grandparents who’d managed to flee to the port of Mariel – were quick to repudiate the incoming. Some of them put bumper stickers on their ten-year-old town cars: No me digas Marielito.

The crease-browed TV news anchors said the Marielitas “contained a disproportionate amount” of drug addicts and the criminally insane. They predicted crimes, rapes, murders. In the evenings, they showed us it was already starting: a kid kicked to death over a pair of sneakers, a bosomy young woman with her tongue cut out. The baby that…

Some things are too hard to dwell on.

But I wasn’t too worried about the Marielitas. Petty criminals, drug runners, the occasional voodoo priest.

What I was worried about wasn’t human.

Liberty City was hot, sweltering, loose veins of traffic stitching the city’s languid body together. Tempers flared in the heat, producing bloody clots of violence and murder, stunned bruises of aftermath.

Sister Premonition had sent me to the bar, Cowboy Queso. The place was trying to be different by combining a hint of western with a dose of quirk, but no one was buying. There was more glitter than sawdust, and who cared about the longhorn skulls on the walls as long as they could get a gramito de cariño in the lariat-marked restroom. A silk-shirted man slid up, slithered away when I indicated I wasn’t interested.

Some guy arrived, flashed a baseball-sized lump of cash, bought everyone drinks. Ten minutes later he was two tables away, doing lines off the mirrored surface of the table top while disco ball sparkles danced off the back of his dark-haired head. I stood outside the snowfall, watching. Welcome to Miami, Sir. His pale skin marked him either a drug dealer from the East Coast or a nightwalker. Given how many people were coming to talk to him, it was a toss-up.

Pretty men and women glided by. I caught a few looks, but at the far side of thirty, it’s hard to stack up next to long-legged shy of two decades, no matter how good you look in high heels.

Then my eye went so cold in my head that I thought my brain would shatter.

The Powers of Light didn’t care much how they alerted me. Only one of the many things I hated about my life.

My attention snapped towards the cigarette-hazed entrance. She had smoke-textured hair, almost blending with the air except for the dress like a silver fish-scale shimmy.

She paused by the half-light of the entry-way and looked over the room, expressionless as a minnow. I observed her observing the room. I didn’t dip my gaze when her eyes met mine. Hers widened, attention caught by the challenge, an instinctual internal shudder like an eel caught in the moss of a neglected tank. Out of nowhere, I remembered about Wittgenstein saying that if fishes could speak, we wouldn’t understand what they said. No, wait. That wasn’t quite right.

She started towards me through the thump and drum of the club. When she got to me, the music was deafening. She tried to shout over it. I tilted my head forward, pantomiming my lack of comprehension.

She held out her hand.

I reached forward. A small round thing passed between our hands with a weird little squirm, like a moist newtling or unborn mouse.

She staggered forward as someone pushed past her, a guy with a bright pink shirt and a Native American profile.

He turned, black eyes glittering. Alarmed by something near her, but I couldn’t tell what.

His hand flashed out at waist height. She recoiled.

I stood up, gestured at the bartender, occupied eight red leather stools down.

She reeled away through the crowd, frantic long swoops through the sea of people that finally cast her towards the entrance. A scarlet stain swam down over the silver dress, falling on the heel of her shoe.

The pink-shirted guy snarled, staring after her. Then he turned to sweep the room, saw me, saw my gesture to the bartender, saw the bartender stepping forward. Then he was gone too, gone back into the sultry Miami night even as the bartender came to my elbow.

I shrugged him away before uncurling my fingers.

Centered in my palm, rolling along the crease of my life line, was an inch-wide black pearl. What they call a peacock pearl, a secret whispered from the ocean’s heart, full of blue and purple gleams. I closed my fingers over it again before it captured some pickpocket’s magpie attention. My vision had returned to normal.

What. The. Hell.

When I got back to the bike shop, I poured hot tap water in a cup and added a jasmine tea bag. I sniffed the delicate aroma, shrugged, and added a half mug’s worth of sooty liquid from the coffeepot, ink and rusty bolts thick. It would wake me up enough to decide my next move, before someone came looking for…

“You.”

I looked up. Standing in the doorway was tall, dark, and pink shirt. A lot of women would have melted under the force of those black eyes, crows-wing eyebrows, lashes like a smolder of incense. But something about the flatness of his stare, his hair’s swamp-water shine, gave me the creeps.

“Me,” I said, half question, half challenge. “Violet Twilight, specifically, being me. And you are?”

“Violet Twilight,” he repeated, stretching out every syllable.

“No, that’s my name. What I asked was yours.”

Pink Shirt snorted. “Sounds like a stripper name.”

I sipped my tea and smiled my very thinnest smile. Why me, why was I the one who couldn’t just live a quiet life with my bike shop, but had to seek out thugs who always said the same thing?

“A brilliant and insightful observation, which I have of course never heard before. But I’m guessing you’re not in my shop to discuss my mother’s naming skills.”

He glanced around at the clutter of parts, the pegboarded tools, the skull and crossbone neon behind the front counter. “Where is it?”

I flicked a menthol out of the pack on the counter, and stuck it in my mouth. With the amount of adrenaline I was generating au natural right now, I didn’t really need the nicotine, but it was a good excuse not to talk for a bit while I searched my pocket for the lighter and then got it going.

“’It’ is an interesting word. By remaining totally general and failing to rule anything out, it totally fails to fix reference to any particular object. You should read some philosophers of language. Wittgenstein. Kripke. They’ll help you get a lot clearer about the use of referents.”

My visitor made the kind of rumbling, sub-vocal noise I didn’t think mammals could make.

I shut up and took another drag of my cigarette, savoring the minty taste.

When he spoke, he drew out every syllable like something a little threatening and a lot obscene. “It. Is. The. Pearl.”

I blew out a mouthful of smoke, and gave him a blasé shrug.

“Do I look like the kind of girl who wears a lot of pearls to you? I own a bike shop.”

For the first time in our conversation, intelligence flickered behind the cold stare.

“So you do. How’s your insurance?”

Here are some interesting facts about me. Before I opened up Twilight Wheels, I was a waitress, and then a bike mechanic working for this guy Carlos…well, the less said about him the better.

Before any of that, though, the thing that I did for the longest and enjoyed the most was grad school. I wrote esoteric papers on paraconsistent logic, enjoying the feel of understanding and control that comes from manipulating long strings of symbols and deluding myself into thinking that my…condition…wouldn’t stop me from getting a tenure-track job when I got out.

I got my PhD. A diploma hangs in my office to prove it. I do enjoy that. Far from sounding like a stripper name “Dr. Twilight” sounds like something out of Marvel Comics.

Sadly, that’s about all that diploma does for me these days. It turns out that the job prospects for people who specialize in paraconsistent logic are not great.

They’re even worse if your glass eye is one of the Thirteen Artifacts of Power, and the damned thing is prone to sending waves of pain through your body when the Powers of Light decide they need you for something halfway through an interview.

I still subscribe to the professional journals, I still pretend I could have a normal life. I keep up my philosophical reading in my spare time. It’s fun.

Systems of logic are like motorcycles. You can ride them without knowing much about how they work, but to understand when and why they break down, you have to know what the pieces are and how they fit together.

Example: Let P and Q be sentences, any sentences. Maybe P is “Ron Reagan will win the election next year” and Q is “Violet’s store will be burned down by the creep in the pink shirt.” In logic we say that Q follows from P if every time P is true, Q is true too. The fancy way of saying that is that the inference is valid because it preserves truth.

In classical logic, any Q follows from any statement “P and not-P,” even though they have nothing to do with each other, because classical logic works on the assumption that ”P and not-P” is never true for any P. The claim that Reagan both will and will not win can’t be true, because nothing like that is ever true.

Sure, P can be true in one sense and false in another one, but nothing can be both true and false in exactly the same way at exactly the same time. Aristotle said that, thousands of years ago in a book called The Prior Analytics. Since then pretty much everyone’s agreed with him. You can see why, and if you’re talking about a normal sentence like the one about Reagan winning the election, it sounds pretty fucking undeniably reasonable.

Here’s the problem, here’s why I’m not part of that “pretty much everyone” who agrees with Aristotle and why I spent my grad school career looking into weird non-classical systems of logic where there are different rules about contradictions.

Let’s say I take a playing card with all the print worn off. I take out a ballpoint pen, and on one side of the card, I write, “1. The sentence on the other side of this card is true.” On the other side, I write, “2. The sentence on the other side of this card is false.”

Is 1 true or false? Well, if it’s true, then 2 is true, but if 2 is true, then 1 is false. If 1 is false, then 2 is true, but if 2 is true, then 1 is true too, because what 1 says is that 2 is true.

One way or the other, the stuff I wrote is both true and false, both true and not-true, and that’s just as much of a contradiction as Ron Reagan winning and not winning the election. It might seem inconsequential, silly, a party trick, a ridiculous reason to have to abandon thousands of years of western philosophy that was based on everybody agreeing with Aristotle, but that’s exactly what it is.

I broke logic with a faded playing card and a ballpoint pen. Pretty cool, right?

Pink shirt had been staring the whole time I explained this. First confused and then angrier and angrier as he figured out none of this had anything to do with the pearl. He asked the insurance question again, almost shouting this time.

I made an elaborate show of not responding to that. Slowly, I turned around to slip the playing card I’d marked up for my little logic lecture into my purse. Then I put my game face on, turned back to the bastard and stared him down.

I don’t like people pushing me. That’s just how I’ve always worked. When the Powers of Light first selected me to be a messenger, they started out with dreams and portents. A one-eyed crow, a purple moon. I ignored them.

They tried nightmares and a ghostly sending that kept appearing on my breakfast table, its head on the table next to its body, reading the paper that the hands held up to it. I started sleeping less and bought an extra kitchen chair so I didn’t have to sit on the ghost’s lap.

A kelpie appeared out of a fountain and tried to talk to me. Then a ki-rin, a selkie, and an I-shit-you-not flying horse that spoke in rhymed couplets. I ignored them all. Bottom line, I’m the kind of girl who cares a lot more about logical arguments and cost/benefit analysis than destiny and theatrics.

It wasn’t until a dragon swooped down, grabbed me in its claws and dragged me to a cloud-covered, half-metaphorical mountain that I had to listen.

Even then, it took a lot of arguing.

Now, rolling in the hollow ache of my left eye-socket is a purple orb that once resided in the purple skull of a toad god. It lets me see things that Normally Walk Unseen and spot lies more easily than most. It also does some other stuff, but when I can, I prefer to solve my problems with talking.

This guy was pushing me, but he wasn’t lying. He genuinely thought I should be scared of him, which meant that he was either over-estimating himself or underestimating me.

With people that didn’t know me, it was usually the latter.

I stubbed my cigarette into the once-white ashtray on my desk. “I think I misheard you.”

Tall, dark and stupid started again. “I asked you, how your insurance was.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought you said. Don’t say that.”

He growled and took a long step towards me, arms held out as though reasoning with a small child.

“Give me the pearl, and we don’t have a problem. You never have to see me again.”

One more step and he’d be close enough to kiss. I clenched my teeth and got ready to do my thing. I hated it when I had to do shit like this in my shop, where expensive tools and bike parts could get hurt.

I closed my real eye and concentrated. A beam of red light shot out of my glass eye and hit him in the shoulder.

I blinked before the hole in the pink shirt was much bigger than a cigarette burn. The skin under it would itch for a while, but that was it. Just enough to calm him down before he did anything stupid.

It wasn’t working.

Sweat poured down his forehead. His teeth chattered. He stumbled forward until he was directly in front of me.

His breath smelled like rotting vegetation in a humid night while he whispered in my ear. “You. Stupid. Bitch. You shouldn’t have pissed me off.”

I shoved him hard, and he collapsed onto his knees. He was still sweating faster than I’d ever seen a human being, or anything else, perspire.

“Seriously, dude? You’re going to give me the Bruce Banner line after what I just did? Really?”

He titled his head up and opened his mouth, but if he meant what came next to take the form of actual words, it didn’t work out that way. There was a blur of color, pink and brown, black and green, flailing arms and scales.

Oh yes. Scales. A pile of tattered clothes on the floor.

OK, this was new.

A long, greenish-black alligator stretched across the floor of my shop. Its snout opened and closed to expose rows of gleaming teeth.

A guttural croak came out of the thing. Random meaningless noise, probably, but for just a second, it sounded a lot like “I told you.”

Fire shot from my eye. Scales charred. The alligator caught my ankle and dragged me down. I twisted away, trailing blood over the floor.

He lurched and snapped. I punched and flamed. My shop got torn to shit.

Truth was, my insurance sucked.

I rolled away and scrambled to my feet.

We circled around each other, looking for openings.

I got ready to do my thing. The gator tensed.

The door to my shop swung open. With its one lousy ceiling fan, Twilight Wheels is never cool, and on a night this humid, warm wind should have come in every time any one came in or out.

This time it didn’t.

A wave of cold swept through the shop.

You know the way your head feels when you gobble up ice cream too fast? Multiply that by a hundred. All over my body. My goddamned soul.

This was the kind of cold that the ice and snow of all the cold places in the world are just silly imitations of. It was cold with a point, temperature with a message. It wanted you to know that no one ever really loved you, and you would die alone.

I fell on my ass. Across the room, the gator writhed.

Something walked between us, cloven hooves going clickety-clack on the cement. A cape swept behind it, made of a patchwork of animal fur and what I was fairly sure was human skin. Black horns jutted out of its head.

When it spoke, its lips moved like a regular human person talking, but the smooth unaccented voice came from everywhere at once.

“Which one of you has the pearl?”

“He does,” I said, pointing at the gator.

It must have had some sort of inborn lie detector like the one in my glass eye, because it snarled and lunged.

I fell back against the gator. Only the cold slowing its reflexes prevented it from taking off my hand at the wrist. Teeth scored my skin as I pulled my arm free of its mouth.

The demon landed on me from the side, clawing for my face. I couldn’t get a break. My foot collided with the gator’s stomach, and I pushed off and back against the wall, slamming the air out of the demon with a sulfurous puff. It flew up towards the ceiling as black smoke. Only moments before it reconstituted itself, as strong as ever.

I didn’t look back to see what the gator did. I made my way through the bathroom and out the tiny alley-facing window, landing next to the urine-scented dumpster.

I hailed a taxi. Sister Premonition had a lot to answer for.

She worked as a cleaner for a retirement home. But not just any retirement home.

I signed in at the front gate. She was with her favorite client, cleaning out the three room, one bath, and patio suite accorded him as a former star of a popular series still garnering considerable money in television reruns. She was in the kitchen trying to make him a lemon and mint drink that he’d like more than Lipton’s diet sweetened forced on him by his diabetes. The battle had been going on, by my estimate, for about a decade.

He bared his teeth and hooted in the direction of the kitchen as I entered through the sliding glass patio door. On the television screen, Tarzan signaled to an elephant.

“I’m here” I called.

I held out my hand with two sugar-free candies in it. Cheetah sniffed them and took the treats with a certain resignation. He crossed to the chest of drawers across the room, painted in bright primary colors, and slid open a tiny blue drawer in order to drop the candies in.

He turned to look at the TV as a younger version of himself came onto the screen. His lips twitched wide, he smiled, before turning back to stare out the glass door of the patio.

Chimpanzees are only used in television and movies until they reach adulthood. After that they’re considered too dangerous to be used and are retired, some to circuses or zoos, others to places like this retirement home for stage and screen animals, which housed six other chimps, two elephants, a shifting number of dogs and cats, and a horse that had been in all three episodes of an immediately –canceled and long-forgotten attempt to bring back Mr. Ed.

Cheetah and I both jolted at a plonk against the thick glass of the patio’s sliding door. A swallow lay twitching on the red bricks outside.

Sister Premonition came to the doorway and stared at me through strands of bone white hair, thick as a mop. Her eye shadow was blue and layered thick. The air smelled of artificial pine.

“Did you get it?” she rasped.

“Get what?”

“The pearl.”

“Maybe. The one you didn’t mention? So what about the gator and subsequent demon?”

She didn’t blink, just kept staring. Finally she huffed out a breath, reminding me of nothing so much as an ancient carriage horse, and went back into the kitchenette.

Cheetah hooted at me.

I said to him, “What’s up, old man?”

He gestured at the patio, signed, bad days ahead.

Sister Premonition came out with frosted cylinders of unsweetened lemon and mint. I drank half of mine down. Cheetah sipped his, lips puckering.

She said, eyes swiveling between Cheetah and myself to gauge reaction to both words and drink, “The pearl is an artifact.”

“Of course it is.”

She reached in the pocket of her apron, slid out a greasy Tarot deck. You could get a deck that looks a bit like hers, if you didn’t know enough to tell the difference, at a knick-knack store in Coconut Grove, not two blocks from Twilight Wheels.

The real thing has a lot of cards you might recognize, the Lovers and the Chariot, Hermit and the Magician and the Fool, but it doesn’t have the Fat Man. It doesn’t have the Murdering Sisters or the Emperor of Hell. It certainly doesn’t have the Clock of Skulls, which Sister Premonition turned over to find out that the last boats permitted out of Mariel would leave in a few short weeks, on October 31st. It doesn’t have the Thirteen Artifacts, which she turned over before announcing where the pearl belonged.

Which was a place that it was vitally important that I go, immediately, to return the pearl before the cloven-hooved demon or something worse got ahold of it. And which was a destination that I could now look forward to explaining to some boat driver when he asked me why I wanted a ride in that direction. The pop-culture Tarot does have the Tower, which was the deck’s reply to my question about what would happen to the world if the demon got the pearl, and which required no explanation.

“Well, fuck.”

Sister Premonition just nodded.

Cheetah looked up at me with big, sad eyes.

You’ll be fine, he signed.

I wished, not for the first time, that my glass eye wasn’t quite so good at detecting lies.

Cuba was like Miami on the other end of a fun-house mirror. The same palm trees swayed in the same hot wind. Life had the same languid pace and scantily-clad people talked and flirted the same way at outdoor bars. The same lilting Spanish filled the air, but without Miami’s ever-present contrasting stream of English.

On my first day in Havana, I kept doing double-takes as I stared at billboards that by all rights should be encouraging people to ENJOY COCA-COLA but were instead full of pictures of Che Guevara and slogans about la revolución and the ongoing struggle against yanquis imperialistas.

Che had been killed more than ten years earlier by the CIA in Bolivia, and if he hadn’t been he would have been in his fifties by now, wrinkles creasing his face and gray in his hair. On the billboards, though, he was perpetually young and confident, his beard jet black and his eyes, a few inches beneath the ever-present beret, cast ahead as if staring straight into some bright communist future only he could see.

On my first night in Havana, alone in a dingy hotel whose manager complimented me on my stilted Spanish–as far as he knew, I was a tourist from the Ukraine–I dreamed of Che. We sat together on the beach, under a blank blue sky, and shared a cigar spliffed with ganja.

He asked how I was enjoying my stay in his country. I took a puff and pretended to be confused.

Wasn’t he born in Argentina, I asked him as I passed him the cigar. Was this truly his country?

Instead of becoming prickly or defensive as I expected him to be, perhaps hoped that he would be, he surprised me by telling an old-fashioned joke, folksy and complicated, about an Argentinian and a Cuban arguing about the price of a chicken.

The joke was silly, its punchline barely a pun, but I laughed as if I had never heard a joke. Well, I thought, he is very handsome. Besides, I reasoned, the ganja was probably getting to me. No doubt it was mostly the ganja.

We sat, this young Che and I, in companionable silence as we smoked. Finally, I asked if he had killed a lot of people in the revolution here, or in the revolution he had been trying to start in Argentina. He shrugged, unmoved but unoffended, and asked me what I thought.

Was it all worth it, I asked him? Was what he died for worth it? I looked him in those striking eyes. Although this whole time we’d been speaking Spanish, he answered me in heavily accented English. “What about you, Violet Twilight? What you came here to die for, is that going to be worth it?”

But what sort of life did I have, at the beck and call of powers I didn’t even really understand?

What I had come to die for was to die.

On my second day in Havana, I started to puzzle out the clues Sister Premonition was able to give me about where I was supposed to return the pearl.

I had a few ideas, but mostly she’d provided vague and unhelpfully poetic stuff about the ocean and a river, something about “the place where the mighty fall.”

The whole island was a place where the mighty fell–the Spanish Empire was driven out in the Spanish-American war, the Batista dictatorship and its American backers were humbled by communist guerillas sixty years later.

I was pretty sure it had to be in the capital city. I just hoped the Powers of Light didn’t expect me to drop off the pearl in some mansion, historically important for some mighty-falling reason but now occupied by one of Castro’s generals. I was having enough trouble as it was avoiding contact with the communist policía and their thousand inevitable and utterly unanswerable questions about who I was and what I was doing in Cuba.

But an elementary school happened to be in a position relative to the ocean and one of the biggest local rivers that lined up perfectly with what Sister Premonition had mumbled to me.

There weren’t the armed guards at the doors that my fevered imaginings about Life Under Castro made me half-expect, but I got a lot of funny looks as I wandered the halls, passing by rooms full of bright-eyed children babbling away in Spanish and little conference rooms populated by teachers on their free periods, huddled together to drink from paper cups of café con leche and bitch about the kind of petty complaints that seemed to be the common lot of all the world’s teachers. When I saw an middle-aged woman point me out to a tall man in an official-looking suit, both their faces drawn in concern, I made my exit.

No sign of any mystical resting-place for my pearl there. Of course not. That would have been far too easy.

Frustrated, annoyed and increasingly hungry–I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, had barely eaten since I arrived–I beat a hasty retreat from the school. I ended up in a corner café a block up from my hotel, where I sat outside, sweating in the heat and eating down a breakfast of beans and rice, fried sweet plantains and black sugary Cuban coffee.

At first I people-watched as I took slow bites, still thinking through the next place I could check Ocean, river, the mighty fall, God damn it, Violet, think harder. After a while, I was just eating, gobbling down hot plantains gulping coffee and utterly focused on spearing bits of black bean with my fork.

It took me a long beat to notice the man standing in front of my table, casting his shadow onto my plate.

He was wearing a black shirt now, but there was no mistaking who it was. Tall. Dark. Sometimes turned into an alligator.

I tensed up. He laughed. It wasn’t a pleasant noise. “Not here, sweetheart. I don’t think that would be a good idea for either one of us.”

I nodded, conceding the point.

“So you still have my pearl, or are you here following it back too?”

“Your pearl?”

“You know fish girl stole it, right? Her tribe isn’t supposed to have it. It belongs to us.”

The glass eye let ”fish girl stole it” pass, but did its itchy lie-detection thing for ”it belongs to us.” No surprises there.

“It doesn’t belong to either of you. When the demon comes for it, you won’t be able to protect it from him. You won’t be able to protect it, and that’s going to be bad news for all of us.”

He puffed up his chest. “We’ll be able to protect it. We can handle ourselves.”

I didn’t quite get an itch from that, but the glass eye didn’t like it. It could tell gator-man didn’t know if it was true.

“It doesn’t belong to you,” I repeated.

For a second, I thought he’d lash out right there and then. He didn’t. He turned aside, spit on the dusty ground, and looked back at me. He spoke more slowly now, measuring his words. “Maybe, sweetheart. Maybe not. But if I find out that you’ve got the pearl, next time I see you alone I’m going to do my goddamndest to put you in the ground.”

With that, he turned heel and walked back into the hazy-bright Havana afternoon, knowing damn well that I knew that what he’d told me wasn’t a lie.

My second night in Havana, I dreamed about logic. I stood in front of a chalkboard full of P’s and Q’s and connecting symbols. Cheetah was there, wearing a suit and tie, and one of those Groucho Marx fake-mustache-and-big-fake-glasses combos. I held a piece of chalk, but I had no idea what to write next.

I can’t believe you haven’t figured it out yet, Cheetah signed at me. His hands flew up in more complicated signs that I’d ever seen him make, but I understood them. All of your fancy human philosophical training, and you can’t figure out a simple turn of phrase? For shame, Dr. Twilight.

Sister Premonition sat on the floor, shuffling and re-shuffling her deck as elaborately as a card shark in Vegas. “Pick a card,” she told me. “Any card.”

I reached for one in the middle of the deck. She stopped me. “Not that card.” She handed me the one on the top. “Pick this card.”

It was the Three Murdering Sisters, their young faces splattered with blood. I squinted at it, and cartoon-y speech balloons appeared next to each sister’s mouth. “The sister to my right” is lying, the one on the far left was saying. “The sister to my left is telling the truth,” the sister in the middle explained. “Please figure out where to put the pearl,” the one on the far right implored. “Please figure it out, Violet. I don’t want to die.”

On my third day in Havana, I woke up in my sweaty hotel sheets and ate my breakfast downstairs before the break of dawn. I pulled my Ukranian-tourist routine well enough to get a marked-up map of the city, and spent the entire day going from possible-pearl-resting-place to possible-pearl-resting-place, each one with a more tenuous connection to the original clues than the last.

Twice I saw gator-man, on the other side of a street or standing across a crowded room. We nodded at each other, wary, and left it at that.

Wandering around a park, I thought I saw the girl from Liberty City, smoke-textured hair and all, and I did a double take. Not the same girl. A few years older, less skinny and less skittish and more sure of herself. She saw me looking at her and smiled, genially confused.

By sundown, I’d resigned myself to the inevitable. I was going to have to start going to Big Official Historically-Important Buildings. Ones with guards and forms and questions, and why didn’t I have my Ukranian travel documents again? Why was it that I wanted to speak to the General? Why shouldn’t this strange woman with the world’s least-convincing accent simply be thrown into jail while we figure out who she is?

Damn it.

I wolfed down something with beans and pork and hot bread and went up to my room early, prepared to get as much sleep as possible before more than likely getting my ass tossed in a Cuban jail. When I opened the door, I saw, sitting on my bed, calm and composed, the woman who I’d mistaken for the girl who’d given me the pearl.

I leaned against the wall and looked at her.

She met my stare.

“Buenas noches,” I finally said. “¿Cómo está usted?”

“My sister gave you our pearl for safe keeping,” she responded in unaccented English. “In Miami, in the city of Liberty, she gave it to you to keep it safe from the men who become the lizards.”

“Yeah. Except it’s not really your pearl, is it?”

“It’s certainly not the lizards’.”

Suddenly even more tired, I slumped down on the floor. “You won’t be able to keep it safe from the demon.”

She let the silence stretch after that, and when she responded it wasn’t exactly a response. “You want to return it to where it came from.”

“Yes.”

“Very well.”

I nodded, immensely relieved. “Do you know where it came from?”

“No. But we will find it. Together..”

When I finally closed my eyes, I tried not to think about tomorrow at all.

That night, I dreamed about fixing bikes. I was in Twilight Wheels. Not only was the shop not trashed from my fight with gator-man and the demon, it was somehow glistening, like everything in it was shined-up with three layers of wax. I was reassembling the parts of a Kawasaki Z1900, the first Japanese super-bike when it came out six years ago and to this day one of the most beautiful machines I’d ever seen. Whatever had been wrong with this bike when it came into my shop, it was perfect now, or it could be. I couldn’t make a single mistake in the reassembly. I had to make it just as flawless as it was when it rolled off the factory floor.

It took me a long time, and when I was done, I kept running my hand, reverently, over the bike’s shimmering flank. I’d done it. Every part of it fit with every other part. If you just followed the logic.

I woke up with a start.

I knew where the pearl went.

Even after I roused fish-woman and we trekked back to the elementary school, it was still pitch-black outside. Mentally, I kicked myself over and over for my mistake. The place where the mighty fall, not where the mighty fell. No reason why it had to be historically important. It was present-tense. The demon was mighty, and if I returned the pearl, his plans would crumble, and the school fit every clue but that. It was such a simple puzzle, and I’d taken so long to figure it out. The place where the mighty fall.

On a roll, I went with my hunch about why I hadn’t seen anything interesting last time I was there. I popped out my glass eye, took the pearl out of my pocket–prompting a little gasp from fish-woman–and stuck it in my eye socket.

A wave of dizziness hit me. I was almost off my feet with the disorientation of seeing two completely different scenes at once. The deserted halls of the elementary school, and a cavern suffused in reddish light.

I closed my real eye and stared ahead. I held out my hand, and fish-woman took it without question. I stepped forward as the floor of the cavern curved up beneath me, fairly sure the floor the school was staying flat.

I turned to glance through the pearl at fish-woman. She stood with me on the elevated ground, silent but looking around in shocked awe. I let go of her hand, squinted with my real eye, then opened it all the way. No more double-vision. Just the cavern.

A few more steps brought us to a plateau. As we climbed onto it, I could see a stone platform emerging from a pool of water. On top of the platform, a shell was glowing so brightly it hurt my eyes. Damn thing might as well have had “insert pearl here” written on it.

And, standing half-submerged in the water, in between me and the shell, was the cloven-footed demon.

Gator-man had made it before me too. He’d come early, seen the demon and started to transform to fight him. I could see his alligator body, floating in the water by the demon’s knees, a few feet away from his bobbing severed human head.

Mental inventory of the contents of my pockets:

One glass eye, not in my eye socket where it can do the most good.

A faded playing card with paradoxical sentences written on the opposite sides.

Some crumpled-up Cuban money.

Basically, nothing.

“I can start eating your head and spit out the pearl into the palm of my hand before you’ve even lost consciousness.” The demon says this as matter-of-factly as if he were discussing bike repair. “You know I can do this.”

Just barely, I managed to unfreeze long enough to nod.

“If you just give me the pearl, I won’t tell you that I’ll spare you your life, that you’ll live to a ripe old age and die in your sleep, surrounded by fat and happy grandchildren. You can tell lies almost as well as I can.” I nodded again, more quick and jerky this time, desperate to keep the demon talking.

Something about that promise.

“I will assure you of this. Give me the pearl, and you will be the last human to die.”

I popped the pearl out of my eye socket, dug my glass eye out of my pocket. If I was going to pretend, I couldn’t actually say anything. He could detect lies.

He could detect lies.

For all my time in grad school studying paradoxes and weird logic, I’d never tested this. My eye only knew verbally-expressed lies, and only when someone else knowingly told them. Still, I was fairly sure that, if the eye was responding to someone it wasn’t attached to telling a lie that was also true, also not a lie, it would go haywire. If that could be combined with whatever reaction the demon’s internal system had to it, then maybe, just maybe.

I held up the pearl. Fish-woman let out a moan of longing. The demon stepped forward to take it.

In one motion, I swapped the glass eye into my hand and put it in the demon’s hand. I started running at the glowing shell.

“THIS SENTENCE,” I screamed, getting the words out in a rush as I ran, trying with everything I had to get them out before the demon dropped my eye. “THISSENTENCETHATIAMSAYINGRIGHTNOWISALIE.”

I released the pearl. The shell sucked it into itself like a vacuum. White flames engulfed the demon’s body. He kept trying to toss the eye onto the ground.

It was too late.

On the afternoon of October 31st, All Hallow’s Eve 1979, after a week in a Cuban hospital telling increasingly desperate lies to increasingly suspicious doctors, I stand on the deck of a boat speeding me and dozens of Cuban refugees to Key West from the Port of Mariel. The sun has just barely begun to set.

I sip rusty coffee from a thermos and look out at the water. I wear an eye patch, and I’m still having trouble with depth perception, but I’m getting more used to it with every passing day.

A long silver fish swims along the side of the boat. I stare in frank appreciation. Later, when no one’s watching, she’ll finish her swim and return to her human form. Later still, she’ll reunite with her sister in Miami. I’m looking forward to that part. I’ve lost my link to the Powers of Light, but it’s only a matter of time before they find a new way to reach me.

Dream-Che wasn’t entirely wrong about that.

I fought like hell to resist the Powers’ plans for me, once upon a time. I’d thought, more than once over the years while wallowing in self-pity after some botched job interview, or nursing my wounds after the Powers had sent me into some mess, that accepting that glass eye and everything that went with it had ruined my life.

But dream-Che was right. What happened to me in Cuba was a kind of dying.

A snatch of poetry I’d read as an undergraduate pops into my head. From Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot. “I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different.”

Change is dying. And it’s life.

Any minute now we’ll see the landmass of Florida stretching out in front of us. In Miami, children will be going from door to door asking for candy. Grown-ups will get drunk at Halloween parties and make passes at each other. Television stations will play hokey old horror movies deep into the night. People will fall asleep on their couches watching those movies, unaware of the real monsters and the real magic alive in the unknown corners of the night.

Respectable Miami Cubans will still drive around with their “No me digas Marielito” bumper stickers for a while, and then they won’t. They’ll get used to the new arrivals, like people always get used to these things. The Marielitos themselves will adjust to their new life, the end of the world they knew and the beginning of life in America. I’ll adjust to my life, the monsters and the magic in the night, and the occasional mermaid swimming beside me.

I’ve seen death. I’ve seen birth. I know they aren’t different.

___
Copyright 2013 Ben Burgis and Cat Rambo

by Patty Jansen

The ship glided into the dock, into the care of grappling arms and snaking robotic leads.

Clang, click, contact.

The navigation hub flashed with the station control override. The screen showed a logo, but no inbound or outbound communication.

Seated next to the pilot, in the bluish glow of the controls, Zhyara didn’t realise how tightly he’d been gripping the edge of the seat, all the way while they’d drifted past the scratched surface of the station, all the way while he listened to the pinging of their unanswered broadbeam probes. His instinct, after being cut off from his associates on Zhiminda station for so long, ached for confirmation that personal networks were still intact.

“I think they could have provided some better damn light in here.” The pilot’s voice pierced the tense silence. The remark, no doubt intended to be light-hearted, fell flat. Everyone aboard the ship was tense.

“But I guess things could have been worse,” the pilot added into the heavy silence.

“Much worse,” Zhyara confirmed.

He breathed out tension. At least someone was still alive aboard the mining station. At too many other stations, they’d found nothing except dead husks of metal, where the emptiness of space had erased evidence of the living.

The floor shook and juddered in time with harsh metallic clangs.

“They’ve used hard-dock,” the pilot observed, unnecessarily; the team knew all the sounds.

“Certainly, we’re not going to get out in a hurry,” Zhyara said.

The pilot glanced aside, a reflection of blue light in gold-flecked black eyes. “Do you think we need to?”

Zhyara didn’t reply to that. Right now, he feared anything was possible.

“Damn,” someone behind him said. “We’re the only ship in this place.”

The dockside image feed, when it flickered into life, showed that three people waited outside.

Zhayra glanced over his shoulder at his seconds, and behind them, their seconds and the third layer of associates behind that. A neat pyramid of order. Eight technicians, four supervisors, two leaders, and him at the top. They were his people, his small branch of the loyalty network. They knew their places and functions down to the smallest flick of an eyebrow.

Aboard this station, his equal, his zhayma, was a woman called Emiru. She would fill him in on the station’s running. Both of them as a team answered to Asha Domiri, the stationmaster; that was how his part of the network slotted together.

But the people out there were all male.

“Who are those guys?” The unease in Zhyara’s mind grew.

“They’re not our associates,” said a technician at the back, reading data from the ID tags on the screen. “Names are unknown. No rank or affiliation known.”

“What happened to Asha Domiri or Emiru Azimi?”

“Truly, anyone’s guess is as good as mine.”

That held no good promise. An unknown man meant Zhyara would have to trace matters of superiority. A normal stationmaster would have been Third Circle, like Zhyara, and there would have been some prior contact, some precedent through which to trace rank. By rights, a stationmaster would have superiority over Zhyara. That was the way things were supposed to be.

The air lock flashed ready. Zhyara got up from his seat. “Is there anything good to report besides that the station is not completely dead?” What if we’ve disturbed the killers of the station halfway through their grisly job?

“Not at the moment. Most of the station functions are unresponsive.”

The door hissed open. With the cold tang of station air came wan light, and shadows of silhouettes on the dock, slowly walking towards the ship. Zhyara breathed the air, but could detect no offensive or challenging hormonal scents.

“They seem keen to meet us,” Chiaru said. She was strapping her gun bracket to her upper arm, ready to assume her position as Zhyara’s guard. If anything, she was exuding a challenging scent.

“Or board us,” a technician added.

“No one will be boarding anything. We’ll be happy to provide off-station transport, but first we need to know that we’re not letting aboard some kind of alien killer disease along with any passengers. Arrange a guard.”

His associates nodded assent; additional weapons were retrieved from storage places. The team’s obedience and their defensive scents brought Zhyara comfort.

He walked down the extended walkway into the cold and utterly silent docks. Only tiny pinpricks of emergency lights punctuated the huge curving hall. No ships, no people anywhere.

The three figures waited. One stood forward, the other two behind him, a classic triangle formation. They looked… normal, if unfamiliar. No sign of wounds or diseases. They weren’t alien like some of the inhabitants they had found on distant worlds. Some of those looked Coldi enough, in terms of body shape, numbers of eyes and hands and legs, but they had little or no social structure and showed unrestrained curiosity, anger and fear like Coldi toddlers. These three people were, without a doubt, Coldi, Asto people, but unfamiliar ones.

“Well met,” Zhyara said, tight like a spring.

The man bowed, his hands by his sides, a subservient greeting. He was thin, gaunt, and his hair, which should be black and glossy with a metallic sheen, was dull. His station uniform looked like he’d been wearing it continuously for a long time, the collar and sleeves tainted with grime. Zhyara could now detect a faint scent in the air, but it was a pacifying flavour, not the strong musk of a leader. In fact, one of the associates had a stronger scent.

The man didn’t look into Zhyara’s eyes. If he did, instinct would trigger and they would have to settle the matter of superiority immediately. With someone unknown like this, there could be a fight. Zhyara had led a protected life recently and was woefully out of fighting practice. Besides, he didn’t want to fight. Not before he knew what was going on, and not even afterwards. If he fought, he might win, and he didn’t want to be stuck with the command of this sick and limping station.

“Well met, network coordinator,” the man said.

“I’m Zhyara.”

The man nodded; he would know. Zhyara’s name would appear as network coordinator on all communication the station received from Athyl.

“And you are…”

“Desya.” Still no eye contact. His earlobes were bare, with little pinpricks of holes where he had removed his clan earrings.

Zhyara didn’t wear his clan designation either; it threw up too many questions, but the Ezmi clan name would also be displayed on all the records. This man didn’t smell like he was Ezmi, and the only other clan that didn’t always display colours…

“Omi?” Another clan of mainly workers. Unlike the Ezmi, they usually lived happily in the overcrowded cities of Asto and worked obediently in factories and offices; Omi had the reputation of being dumb and without ambition.

Desya nodded, again, still looking away. Not at the floor, like one who recognises subservience, but at the opposite wall. The stale air carried another whiff of his hormonal scent. Not subservient, not dominant either… confusing.

Zhyara rolled out his spiel. “We’ve been sent by the Mining Exploration Board at Athyl for your failure to send your scheduled report. We were worried.”

“Yes. We’ve had some problems,” Desya said. He hesitated.

“Problems?”

“Come with me, we can talk about this with all staff.”

Zhyara exchanged glances with his seconds. Chiaru tapped her gun, as if to assure him that they could handle the situation.

Zhyara nodded, not sure if guns could provide a solution. They followed Desya and his two silent associates into a corridor that led into the bowels of the station. With each step, his unease grew. Discussing with the staff? You didn’t discuss things with your staff; you told them what to do and they did it. Just who was in charge of this place? He hadn’t seen either of the man’s two unnamed associates make eye contact either. Not with him and his team or with their own leader.

This reminded him of something that had happened before he left.

“So, what are you doing here?” His mother’s voice held no warmth.

She sat across from Zhyara at the table of her one-room house. Her fingers were going lightning-fast over her embroidery work, pushing the needle in, out, in, out.

“I wanted to see you,” Zhyara said.

“You never come just to see us.” She tied off the thread and bit the end off with her front teeth–brown and worn to stumps. Her work was some sort of picture with patterns of leaves and thorns, likely a belt panel for a zeyshi desert rebel.

Zhyara shrugged and blew out a breath through his nostrils. She always behaved like this, and he would do well not to let himself get riled up by it. “Well…”

“You’ve come to tell Xiya off again for illegal skim-racing? I guess you know that I can stay in his house–much as it is a dump in your eyes–only because of the money he earns?”

“I’m sorry that I did that, and I’ve already said this many times.” Every time he’d visited since that ill-considered action of his, in fact.

Zhyara sighed again, letting his gaze roam the rickety shelves on the wall behind her, with carefully-stacked, mismatched bowls and plates and boxes containing small treasures like buttons and sewing needles. She was not making this easy. “I’ve come because…”

She raised her eyebrows.

He hesitated. Carefully-rehearsed words evaporated like water poured in the desert sand outside his mother’s door. The heat and the sounds of the street outside–people talking and merchants yelling–suddenly became very loud. “I’ve come because I may not come back.”

That got her attention. She lowered her work. “What? You’re moving to the colonies? I thought you were all set with your associations and networks?”

He detected a measure of glee in her words. At times, he couldn’t work out whether she and his brother hated or were jealous of his proper association, and the thought that his mother rejoiced at the thought of it breaking up brought anger perilously close to the surface. He sat stiff, clamping his mouth to stop himself shouting Fuck you, I’m trying!

She raised her embroidery work again.

“I am the Mining Exploration Board’s network control manager,” he said, forcing his voice to calm. “I travel to all the mining stations throughout Coldi colonised space.”

She flicked her eyebrows as if she wanted to say Tell me something new, but the fact was that out here, in the Outer Circle, where poverty prevented people even buying a train ticket into the Inner Circle–if their permits would allow them to travel there, which they did not–people did not grasp the concept of interstellar travel, of the space port, of the Exchange network and anpar lines. Every time in the past when he had assumed his mother understood, he had found that she did not.

“Lately, there have been a number of mining stations failing to report in. When that happened, I…” and his associates, but he judged it better not to mention them, “… have travelled there to find out what was going on. Each time, and there have been three such occasions, the station was dead, destroyed, with no sign of the inhabitants.”

Again, that tell me something I don’t know expression.

He frowned at her. “You’ve heard the news?” Those few news channels that had coverage in the Outer Circle only broadcast local gossip, and betting information, lots of that.

She said, “Who do you think were the workers in those stations, lost while valiantly defending Asto and its colonies?” The last words were spoken with an intense mocking tone. “They were people off the streets from around here. Vashya from the workshop–but you will know him–has lost his brother. He only found out because he works in Eighth Circle and travels on the train every day. He’s been trying to find out what happened ever since.”

I have been trying to find out.”

“And?” She continued her embroidery.

“It seems like out there on the edges of Coldi civilisation, we’ve run into something hostile, something that doesn’t like us being there, but leaves no trace when wiping us out. This is why I’m here. There has been a fourth report, this time from a station at Zhiminda, which is… the furthest you can travel and stay within Coldi-colonised space. Ever since the first station was wiped out, I’ve feared that one day, I’m going to travel somewhere and run into the aliens who are wiping us out. I fear this may be the time. Zhiminda is nine anpar jumps away from here. It is deep into unfamiliar territory.”

She let a silence lapse in which she clearly expected him to say something.

He did not, so she said, “So? What are you going to do about that?”

“Be as careful as possible.”

She snorted. Not the answer she expected, obviously. “Son of mine, have you considered not going to these dreadful places? There is no one who says that you have to go risk your life for people who don’t deserve it.”

“Vashya’s brother doesn’t deserve it?”

“Vashya’s brother is dead. It’s the Third Circle bosses who are still running those evil places. They don’t deserve it.”

“How can you say that? Those people are my associates.” Most were as much bosses as they were subordinates.

She snorted. “Sometimes I’d think those associates are more important to you than we are.”

“They’re not. They’re just…” Associates. He’d known they were associates the first time when he met each and every one of them. He’d met Chiaru’s eyes in Third Circle training and they’d both known that instant that their relationship was meant to be. She’d brought to the association Diliya the pilot and his equal, his zhayma, and together, they had actively looked for someone to be Chiaru’s zhayma. When he ran into Eyana in the canteen, they both knew it was right, and Chiaru knew it was right, because Eyana smelled right, and the way he looked at Chiaru was right and the way he was subservient to Zhyara was right. The same applied to Menya, who he shared his apartment with, and everyone else in his social network. Choice did not come into the decision. In a similar way, he did not have a choice about checking on the stations. It was his job. His superior had told him to do it, because it was important, because the stations were part of the network.

His mother put her embroidery on the table. She rose and opened the door to the small cabinet on the wall behind her.

She took out a small box that looked very dusty and old and set it on the table before Zhyara and sat back down. “Since you’re so keen to get yourself killed, I may as well give you these. Your father had two pairs made when he came into some money. One pair for each of you. I’ve given Xiya his, so it’s only fair that I give you yours.”

Zhyara heard, I’m not sure you deserve this and he hated how she liked to use the word deserve as a weapon, as a wedge to drive between him and his brother. Did she even care about him?

He opened the box and found, as he more or less expected, a set of earrings. They were beautifully made, silver filigree with the amber stone that symbolised the Ezmi clan within. They must have cost a fortune.

Most children in the city were issued with clan earrings the moment they left the house on their own, usually to attend education. But in the Outer Circle, no one attended education, and if you walked the street with something valuable while looking unarmed, you were likely relieved of your possessions.

He turned the box, and the stone glittered in the light coming in through the open door.

“They are beautiful.” And they were, but the leaf and thorn filigree screamed zeyshi, desert rebels, people who rejected the city’s structure and lived in secret underground warrens, stealing water and food.

“Come on, then, put them in.”

Zhyara did, reluctantly, maybe just for now; he’d take them off again in the train. Zeyshi might wander relatively free into this part of the city, but there was no way he could wear these into the Mining Exploration Board office.

His mother smiled, but it looked forced.

“Thank you,” he said, and he rose. “I don’t have much time. I have to be back at work this afternoon. I brought you a bottle of medicine. Please use it when the water makes you ill again. Next time, I’ll see if I can bring a small purifier.”

She said nothing. He pushed the rickety chair back against the table, feeling its familiar worn surface under his hands.

“I’d like to see Xiya. Where is he?”

“To say goodbye to him? Iyamichu ata, huh?” she said. It was the pledge of loyalty to the Asto leadership, the confirmation of alignment to the ultimate loyalty network with the Coordinator at the top, a pledge normally taken by soldiers before going off to battle.

But her voice was mocking. “If you had any sense, you’d ask him for a place to hide so that you could escape your slave masters.”

“Mother…” Always needling him. “Please can you just tell me where he is?” Now he was getting worried. If his brother could arrange places to hide, then what was he getting involved with these days?

“He went to the Forum, but I can’t guarantee you’ll find him there. You know your brother. Hard to tie down to one place.”

The corridors of the station were empty, with long eerie shadows in the fitful light of emergency lamps, a mark of a low power situation. Again, there was no damage, no sign of a struggle or indeed anything that might have caused the near-catastrophic failure of the habitat.

The control room. Even that was virtually empty, many seats at the hub unoccupied.

“Where is everyone?” Zhyara asked, and the question seemed to sink in space.

Desya indicated a ring of chairs that surrounded the command chair. Desya did not sit in that chair, but left it unoccupied, like a sore in the middle of the room. There were only fourteen people. At capacity, the command centre would hold hundreds.

“Is this all that’s left of the station population?” Zhyara asked.

Desya nodded. A few others murmured words like terrible and unbelievable. Their faces were pale, mirroring unspeakable horrors. The air was full of conflicting scents. One young woman, slightly apart from others, had a fairly strong dominant scent, but her position–meek, with her hands in her lap–reflected none of that.

“We were sent to offer assistance.” Zhyara hesitated, not wanting to talk about the other dead stations he and his team had found. Just what sort of monsters had they run into at the edges of colonised space? “We can affect communication repairs so you can contact the Mining Exploration Board. We can offer our ship to take—”

“We didn’t ask for assistance,” Desya said. “We are coping.”

“Then where is everyone? My records say that you have more than ten thousand people aboard. I see only fourteen.”

There were a few moments of intense silence, and then one of the station workers broke the silence, against all protocol.

“There were… problems. We intercepted… signals. Hostile signals.” The man showed no deference, and looked Zhyara in the eyes.

“How were the signals hostile?” Zhyara did his best to ignore the itch in his head that told him to fight this man.

“There were alien ships. They pretended to hit us, and then swerved. When they passed, they fried our communication channels. The workers went to defend us. They took the harvesting rigs.”

Well, that explained the emptiness of the place. But… “You allowed so many of them to leave? You left no one of their associates here? And no ships, so you could evacuate?”

“There was a great hurry. We feared the aliens might… attack.”

“Who were these creatures exactly?”

“We didn’t see. There was no contact. But they destroyed one of our mining vessels.”

Zhyara filled in the blanks. “So you sent out an army, but they didn’t come back.”

“They haven’t… yet.”

“How long ago was this?”

“More than ten days.” Desya stared at his hands folded in his lap. “They vanished.” He didn’t look at anyone; no one looked at him. No one paid attention to him.

“Have you seen the attackers since?” Zhyara asked the talkative employee.

“No. We think our workers may have been taken prisoner, or possibly…” He glanced at Desya, who was still watching his hands; Zhyara sensed that there was an underlying disagreement, something else that shouldn’t happen, had the social structure been properly set up.

“We think they might have joined the alien force,” Desya added.

“What makes you think that?”

“Well, we noticed—” the employee began.

“No one knows what happened for sure,” Desya said over the top, his voice loud.

“Of course not,” the man said.

“What did you notice?” Zhyara pressed on.

“Well…” The employee cast another glance at Desya. A shrug. “He’s right. We don’t know what happened.”

An uncomfortable silence followed.

Then Desya said, “The only thing we know for certain is that they left, and have not come back. Their beacons faded and became too weak for us to follow the craft. There were no explosions. We found no bodies. Wouldn’t you draw the conclusion that the workers have been taken alive?”

Zhyara remembered his father as a tall man–then again in the eyes of a four-year-old, anyone was tall. The only memory he had of his father’s face was of a grainy image his mother kept in one of her treasure boxes. It showed a man with uncommonly light eyes and a broad, flat nose. Whenever she took it out, his mother’s eyes went misty at seeing the picture, but he just felt… nothing.

Zhyara remembered hiding in the top bunk with his brother, pretending to be asleep when his father came in. His mother cried and threw herself in his father’s arms. They kissed and for a number of days after that, Zhyara had boasted to the other kids in the street that he’d seen his parents Doing It. Until an older kid told him that kissing was not It, and they teased him about that.

It seemed like a stupid memory to have of someone who was supposed to be important in his life.

Later he’d heard that his father had done times in jail. Mother never told him what the charges were; like so many things, she seemed to assume that he knew. Most likely, it would have been smuggling or evasion of some sort of duty, or any of the things young men and women were still being picked up for today. Skim racing, gambling, swearing at guards.

One thing he knew for sure: his father was not–and had never been–zeyshi. He had no tattoos and didn’t wear a shayka. His father’s brother and cousins lived in the Outer Circle, and not in the zeyshi warrens in the desert.

When Zhyara decided–much against his mother’s wishes–to try for the Eighth Circle exam, the officer had asked were there any zeyshi in his immediate family, and Zhyara had said no. It was the truth, and he felt proud of that. Poor Outer Circle people could be redeemed and educated; zeyshi were lost forever. They stole and murdered. They did not observe any social structure. Their lives were worth less than a cup of water, especially the young men.

So the question was this: why would his father have ordered expensive silver earrings made with leaf and thorn patterns?

He had promised his superior to be back for a meeting later in the afternoon, and time was short, too short possibly to try to find Xiya, but what his mother had said had disturbed him. Xiya was young and passionate, and could so easily follow the wrong examples.

He left his mother’s house for the dusty street, or the thoroughfare that passed for the street. Way back when the Inner Circle elite had grown sick of the eyesore of humanity that built up on the city’s fringes, someone in charge had ordered stone houses and streets to be built, but no one had thought to add any more buildings as the population grew. When people ran out of housing space, they built their own, lean-to shacks that were little more than glorified tents, and houses like his mother’s, built from second hand building materials. The streets suffered the same degree of neglect. No one cleaned or maintained them. Whatever paving had ever been present had been covered in layers of yellow desert sand. Street sellers occupying the sides swept their own little square every day, heaping the sand in big mounds, from where it blew away again in times of high winds.

Zhyara’s uniform gave him away as someone with money, so those street sellers followed him for as far as they dared stray from their wares. Most of the vendors were leather-skinned, deeply tanned older people. Grandmothers and aunties from the aquifer farming families trying to make some extra money over what the city’s food authorities paid by selling their produce direct. Their presence was illegal, but they came anyway.

They shouted at him, trying to sell their wares.

Mushrooms, sir? Very fresh, picked them myself this morning.

Two shirts for the price of one, sir. Quality material, sir. Real quality.

A group of street singers stood in a half-circle, chanting and clapping as sweeping rhythm. The song they were singing was an Ezmi clan chant, sung by adults at street gatherings, sung by his mother when he’d been little. He remembered Xiya banging the table with this little fists, as if the tabletop was daini drum.

Zhyara avoided meeting the singers’ eyes. Most of them were Ezmi people, wearing their amber stones with pride. The silver, zeyshi earrings felt like they were made of lead.

The Forum was one of those constructions built when this area had been settled. Originally intended as a covered marketplace, it had been used as such only until some stupid accident caused the explosion of a vat of zixas, and the deaths of hundreds of people from the resulting fumes. The building had stood empty and burnt-out, for many years. When Zhyara was little, older boys would crawl in through the gaps in the boarded-up windows and challenge each other to stay after dark, when the ghosts of the dead were said to come out.

Then one day there was a big raid by the First Circle guards. Zhyara remembered standing on the side of the street watching several zeyshi youths being marched from the building. In that time, people in shaykas were hardly ever seen in the Outer Circle. That night, he and Xiya had spent time trying to wind bedsheets from his waist to the left ankle, across the right shoulder to the right ankle, across the right shoulder back to the waist. And finding that he ran out of bedsheet less than halfway through.

Real zeyshi used huge lengths of thin fabric. The whole ensemble was held together with a broad belt, which could be plain fabric or metal, or made from beads or embroidered. Women’s shaykas crossed at the front, men’s at the back. This had a reason. Go figure.

Soon after that raid, a legal drinking house had moved into the building.

These days, all the building’s arched side entrances had been boarded up and the pink marble façade that had once looked grand was dusty and stained from years of neglect. The entrance on the corner was the only one still open, and out of this dark maw billowed a wall of heat and sound.

He lined up in the foyer, where people crowded to get in.

The people around him pretended they didn’t see him. In the Outer Circle, people did not do superiority greetings and they knew he had the power to arrest them for it, if he so wished.

When he had almost reached the door, he spotted two people, looking like a couple, leaning against the side wall of the foyer. The woman wore a tattered mechanic’s suit stained with grease, and the man non-descript dusty trousers and shirt such as worn by a lot of street sellers. Street sellers didn’t come here. They lived in the aquifer clefts and went to their families once they’d sold their wares. They wasted no money coming here. Street sellers didn’t have a head full of clean hair. Backyard mechanics didn’t have shoulders like they’d been in military training for years.

These were First Circle guards. Zhyara didn’t know them–their loyalty would branch off long before his, and they’d be connected through the Security and armed forces network that would loop back to someone in the Mining Exploration Board.

The two saw him. In his Third Circle uniform. Wearing damned zeyshi earrings. Double damn.

The woman smiled at him and gestured. Having travelled in First Circle company, Zhyara was familiar with the First Circle guard signs. She thought he was here on some undercover operation. Sure. Wearing his uniform and all that.

He nodded to her. Indicating what, he did not know. Bluff. Pretending that he had the matter under control, whatever matter they thought he was attending. He didn’t want them here. He didn’t want them anywhere near his brother.

Heart thudding, he went into the room, aware that the two were likely to follow. He’d make a round, then signal to them that he didn’t find what he was looking for, and then quietly sneak off to the station.

It was dark inside the Forum’s main room, and the air thick with the scent of bodies and vibrating with sharp staccato beats of the daini drums.

People bumped into him, dancing, talking and laughing. He did his best not to look at anyone, in case people would recognise him. He tried not to look behind him, in case the two guards were following. His head ached with the noise. At the back of the room, where there were tall tables where people stood drinking, the air was thick with the scent of zixas, a sharp and acidic scent that made his mouth tingle. You were not supposed to breathe the fumes.

He wanted to leave this place. He wanted to lose the guards. He didn’t feel at home here, and never had.

Then someone said, “Hey, brother, what are you doing here?”

Oh, no. Xiya.

His brother stood at one of the tables. All arms and legs like a typical adolescent, but with dust-ingrained skin, he looked wise as the desert itself. He wore his hair loose, and it hung past his shoulders in a tangle of metallic black curls. There were a couple of youths with him, and on the table between them lay a couple of sheets of waxy paper.

Zhyara groaned. His brother was arranging a race. Those pieces of paper were stakes, debts or other liabilities that racers wanted to be rid of. If a contestant won, the losers would pay off their debt. Usually they involved unpaid bills for rig maintenance–if workshops didn’t accept jobs by stake, they didn’t have much work–but sometimes there were more sinister things, like gambling debts. Of course all of this was illegal. And he turned up with two First Circle guards in tow.

Zhyara gestured with his eyes to where he suspected the two guards to be, while motioning for his brother to move the incriminating material out of sight.

Xiya’s eyebrows went up in a What are you being stupid about? kind of way.

Zhyara mouthed, Just for once listen the fuck to what I say.

But it was already too late. The pair of guards pushed past him and joined Xiya and his mates at the table.

“Hey,” said the woman. “I know this game. Can I challenge?”

“You race, huh?” Xiya said. He sounded so young, so naïve.

“Sure.” She flicked hair out of her face.

Zhyara wanted to scream Look at her shoulders, she’s a First Circle guard! but he could do nothing. He shook his head. The damn earrings felt like needles where they hit the soft skin of his neck.

Xiya ignored him. “Sure. What is your stake?”

“I’m not betting. I owe nobody anything, but my friend has a bet for you.”

The man produced a signature cube and set it on the table. “I got myself a contract, arranged by my family, but the woman’s a right bitch, and I’d be happy if someone paid half of what I paid to take her off my hands.”

Zhyara shook his head even more. First Circle contracts involved huge sums of money. Even half that was more than Xiya would ever see in his life. Besides, he was far too young for contracts.

But Xiya grinned, an innocent boyish grin. “I accept.”

“That’s a boy.” The man clapped him on the shoulder. Xiya wobbled visibly under the force of it.

“So what have you got as stake?” the woman asked. “Is it going to be worth the race?”

“I got something much better than you.” He extracted a piece of waxed paper from his pocket.

The woman picked it up and read. “Notice to report for work duty? ” She laughed. “A ticket? Is that worth a race for you?”

Ship-side quarters were cramped, and protocol dictated that visiting delegations were offered on-station hospitality. Zhyara had stayed in the station’s guest quarters before, but never had his party been the only one there. Mining stations normally bustled with visiting prospectors and others offering their services.

He ordered his people to take food supplies brought on their ship and instructed them not to touch any of the food provided by the station. He posted a guard at the entrance to their small apartment.

Normally, he would share his room with Emiru. They would talk over the latest news and bring each other up-to-date. She would talk about the station; he would talk about things happening in Athyl. Re-cementing loyalty networks over this huge distance. It would involve food, and many glasses of zixas and usually passionate lovemaking, because that was what associates were for, to make you feel loved and needed, and part of the network.

Now he was just alone. Too quiet. His associates in the next room only spoke in low voices, waiting for his orders. There were no other sounds from elsewhere in the station.

What if Desya’s story was true and aliens would come back and attack the station? They would be helpless. Too few to man weapons, if they had any, and most mining stations were woefully incapable of defending themselves. What if Desya saw him and his team as a threat, too? These rooms would be full of listening devices. He studied the ceiling and walls, examining every bump or depression.

Nothing.

He paced the room, past the desk, the cupboard, the bed–

Emiru, what had happened to her? The last time he’d been here, she’d ambushed him in this room, shutting the door behind her. Her cheeks had been red, her eyes bright, and through her gossamer-thin singlet, he could see the red tinge of her skin on her chest and shoulders. He’d been shocked; a woman only flushed when she wanted to conceive, and that only happened when contracts had been signed. But there she was, wanting, desperate and her reason clouded by the hormonal flush that she had allowed to happen. Shutting the door on him. Her expression saying come on, fuck me.

He’d protested, tried to tell her to get back to her quarters until the flush passed, but he was a man, evolved to react to her female scent. And react, he did, in a crazy and very satisfying way. He’d still been covered in bruises by the time he came home.

He’d never mentioned it to anyone, had been too embarrassed. It should not have happened, and he should not have given in. But what if there was a more sinister reason for her behaviour that he’d never thought to inquire about? He remembered asking, when lying exhausted in her arm, but she’d changed the subject.

Stupid. He should have insisted. Every woman with a permit to live on Asto had the right to have two children. No one gave that right away lightly. Not without contract, or payment, or both. Not on a mining station. Of course she’d been trying to tell him something.

He turned around and paced the other way.

This place was sending him up the wall. Too empty; the scents were all wrong.

He had to talk to someone.

In the small living area, the technicians were poring over the station’s communication logs which they had downloaded from the hub. Chiaru sat in the corner, staring in front of her and biting the end of her ponytail.

She looked up when he entered, eyes wide, like a startled animal.

He flicked his eyebrows and jerked his head towards the door.

She rose, her eyes still wide, and whispered past him into the room.

At home in Athyl, lower-ranking workers would never consort with their direct superiors. You just did not do that; it was abuse of power.

“I just need someone to talk to,” he said, by way of apology. That was wrong, too. You did not apologise to your seconds.

He shut the door, and then went to pour some drinks, his mind searching for a way to ask, What does it mean when a woman flushes for you without any agreement to do so? but failing. He was supposed to have all the answers, and he had none.

When turned back to the room, she sat on the couch, her hands jammed between her knees. One of her legs was jiggling up and down.

“Relax,” he said, putting the drinks on the table, and when she didn’t look convinced, he continued, “I just want to know what you think of this situation. What do you think happened?” He pulled his pad on his knees to open his report on the station.

“I… don’t know.” Her voice sounded oddly strangled.

“What is the matter–” He looked up from his pad just in time to see her charging at him, all muscle and fierce female strength.

His instinct fired immediately. He flung the pad aside and thrust up his arms. She crashed into him. He managed to get hold of one of her arms and deflected her direction away from him. She fell and dragged him off the couch. He rolled on top of her, and pinned her to the floor. Her chest heaved with panting breaths. There was nothing familiar in her eyes.

“Chiaru, what the hell was that about? Why did you do that?”

“I…” She shook her head. Confused. “What are you doing?” She craned her head to look at her hands, which he pressed against the floor.

“What am I doing? You looked like you were trying to kill me.”

“No, I wasn’t.” Her expression softened; she frowned. “I just… smelled nothing. No familiar scents at all. I… panicked. I don’t know…” Her eyes glittered with tears. “This place gives me the creeps.”

“Yes, me, too. Are you all right now?”

She nodded. “You smell right now.”

He let go of her and she sat up, rubbing her arms. “Can I… Can I please stay with you tonight?”

“I think we’ll all sleep in this room.” To keep an eye on each other. To keep his network strong.

He wanted to get out of here, and quick. He might have enough strength to bring his seconds back in line, but Chiaru might not be able to control hers.

Zhyara was powerless.

Xiya and the two undercover guards shook hands and handed their stakes to the racemaker, a young man who must be one of Xiya’s friends. Then they all left the Forum. At hearing that there was to be a race, all of the local ratbags crowded around the challengers, forming a wall of hot adolescent flesh, impenetrable to anyone not part of the group.

Zhyara ran after the group, furious. Why had his mother not told him that his brother had received a ticket? Zhyara could have helped his brother avoid duty–legally. Tickets were for poor Outer Circle people found loitering or otherwise having earned the displeasure of the authorities. They’d be sent to some place to work on a major project. Digging aquifers, building a sea wall to keep out the poisonous ocean water, constructing a train line across the desert, that sort of thing.

This woman was not racing to lose, and even if Xiya won, he would still lose. She wouldn’t take his ticket. She would arrest him, or hold him to the stupid bet with her colleague, or something else. It would cause him pain, literally or figuratively or both, or saddle him with insurmountable debts for the rest of his life.

That was her entire point of racing, to make an example out of him.

The procession came to the edge of the settlement. Unlike the Eighth Circle, the Outer Circle had no boundary wall or fence and slowly bled into the desert. Houses became less dense, streets petered out, mostly where the land became too rocky or steep to support the shacks.

The rumour of the impending race had preceded the contestants and a steady stream of people was already making its way zig-zagging up the side of the crater wall. Zhyara ran up, clambering through loose sand. The trail was only wide enough for one person at a time, and Zhyara had to venture into the dust and rocks to push past, which earned him raised eyebrows. Mostly men in dirty and dusty garb. Some were zeyshi, wearing their billowing shaykas without a care for who might see them. They wore fine belts, some with intricate metal work, some with more gruesome souvenirs, like teeth and talismans woven from human hair, or finger bones.

People elbowed each other, whispered in each other’s ear and pointed at him. He could almost hear their voices. Is that really Zhyara Ezmi? How dare he show his face here dressed like that?

Zhyara was too much in a hurry to allow himself to get angry at their comments. He could already hear the roaring of engines up at the crater rim; he could smell the cloying odour of the crater gas. And every time he came here, it frightened him how familiar it still felt.

He reached the crater rim, and even that felt like home. As well as the familiar path that led off to the left. And the view. He used to come up here as a young boy to get away, before he started racing. That was back in the time that Xiya had been such a pest, always arguing with Mother, never coming home when she had told him to. And then, all of a sudden, Xiya was her hero, and Zhyara, who was the oldest and had done something with his life besides illegal skim racing and gambling, was the cause of all ills in the world.

He hurried along the path. On one side, the steep curving abyss that fell away into the crater floor, invisible underneath a woolly mass of grey-purple gas. On the other side, the yellow sand of the desert bled into the pink buildings of the city. The sky was white overhead, the horizon dusty. To the left was the deep cleft of an aquifer, fenced off so that Outer Circle dwellers wouldn’t enter and steal the crops being grown there for the rich.

The city was like a multi-layered fruit. First came the Eighth Circle boundary, a stark wall higher than a house, with pointy metal spikes on top. Beyond that, the Seventh Circle boundary, a less stark presence, but still clearly visible. Beyond Fifth Circle, boundaries became less aggressive and less visible.

He could see the airport, rising from the buildings like a multi-pronged monster. The space port was in Third Circle. Third Circle was industry and commerce. The Mining Exploration Board was there, as was his apartment. A short ride in a rig, a slightly longer ride on the train, five check points, but for these people a lifetime away.

He came to the warm-up area at the crater rim, where the two rigs stood side-by-side.

The woman’s rig was, as he had expected, brand new, with a foldable canopy, now open, and beautiful seats of fresh green upholstery.

The other rig was the one that Zhyara spent many hours restoring. A low elegant shape with broad delta wings. Its surface shone silver, the open cabin upholstered in faded red fabric. Dusty and battered, but a mean machine. Familiarity hit him, heavy, unexpected. Damn it, that was his rig, in which he’d won many races. His brother had the engine panel open, checking the charge levels. Zhyara had hammered into his brother’s head, Don’t trust the gauge, it has a mind of its own.

“Xiya!”

Zhyara’s brother straightened. He raised his eyebrows. “Look who we have here.” But he wasn’t looking. His eyes were unnervingly black, devoid of any gold flecking, staring at some point in the distance, neither in obeisance nor defiance.

“Don’t race. It’s a trap,” Zhyara said.

Xiya didn’t move, but his eyes displayed an and? expression. The awkward silence stretched. Zhyara had never felt further removed from his family than this.

“They’re First Circle guards.” Look at me, damn you.

“You don’t say.”

“You actually want to race them? You’re crazy! They’ll lock you up if you lose.”

“Then I’d better not lose.”

“Xiya, please–”

Xiya laughed. “I’m going to race. I’ll win. They will eat their ticket.”

“Please, Xiya, don’t race–”

“Leave me alone, I have a race to fly.”

He turned his back.

Zhyara took a few steps across the dusty ground and hissed in his brother’s ear, “And you think that this stupid, criminal business is the only way you can have a life, huh?”

His brother’s hormonal scent hit him like a hot breeze. Blood rushed to his face. He was overwhelmingly aware how his heart thudded against his ribs. His ear registered little but the roaring of blood. He staggered back, jamming his hands in his pockets.

Xiya barely moved, although he must be aware of the effect. When had he grown up so much?

“We are skim racers,” Xiya said, with the emphasis on we.

I’m not. Not anymore.” Zhyara’s cheeks were on fire.

Xiya snorted. “Leave me alone, brother, with your superior moralising bullshit. Who are you to say what I can and can’t do? You don’t even live in the Outer Circle anymore.”

“You don’t have to live here either.” Zhyara put all his frustration in those words. “Please come with me. I’ll put in a good word with Eighth Circle instructors. I know people who work in the aircraft servicing plants. You’re smart. They’d be happy to have you. Then I’ll help you appeal to get out of your ticket. Legally.”

“You come all the way to tell me that? And you want me to live in your stuffy world, where there are rules about who I can talk to? And associations that tell me who I hang out with?”

“There are no rules. You just follow your–”

“You really don’t understand, do you?”

And Xiya still wasn’t meeting his eyes.

Zhyara, Chiaru and everyone who wasn’t on duty all slept in the same room. Chiaru slept in Zhyara’s bed, but he didn’t touch her besides letting her fall asleep against him, a warm and heavy weight.

He felt restless, and listened to the sounds of the station. From somewhere in the corner of the room came soft whispers and rustling of bedding. Someone was having fun there. He tried to repel feelings of intense jealousy. He couldn’t see who was in that corner, but he knew that all his associates had their zhaymas and he was the only one alone. He had not expected this: to be alone with the station still intact. He’d expected destruction. If not, he’d expected to have to deal with the fallout from his last visit, to be presented with a contract for Emiru’s child. Now, he lay in the dark wondering if that child had died before he had been aware of its existence. He imagined a small boy who would carry Emiru’s clan name and be unburdened by the fact that half the blood in his veins was Ezmi. His own family had never been taught the importance of loyalty networks. They didn’t understand and it was too late for them. But this baby, he’d teach him well, and he’d be successful, a well-respected member of society, free of his shameful heritage.

Staring in the dark, Zhyara gained and lost a son, letting the tears of grief stream down his face, until he was convinced that Desya was a killer and somehow at fault for what had happened.

And that was not a healthy line of thinking.

What if there were evil aliens out there? What if Desya and his remaining staff were so traumatised that they could not reform new alliances? What if they were scared not only of new aliens, but of Zhyara and his party and whatever punishment they could mete out?

He pushed himself up and left the room, carefully stepping over mattresses and legs.

In the apartment’s tiny hub, he found one of the technicians. The man quickly rose and took the subservient greeting pose. Zhyara touched his shoulder, making it all right for the man to meet his eyes. He noticed that the man had been working on the station logs.

“So, what did the logs say?” he asked.

“Nothing out of the ordinary. Since we were last here, there were sixty-three dockings of mining vessels. They unloaded ore and ice. They installed power satellites.”

“Any reports of alien sightings?”

“No. There was only one minor incident. A ship was put in quarantine on hold for a few days.”

“One of their own ships?”

“Yes. Station control said it was a contamination issue. They’d harvested ice and failed to follow decontamination procedures.”

“Let me have a look at that.”

The man displayed the information on the holo console.

The ship had been to the system’s asteroid ring, which occupied the habitable zone.

“I guess the asteroids show life signatures.” Any celestial body that contained water or ice almost always did.

“Microbial, yes.”

That was always the risk. If someone had told Zhyara at the start of his job, that he’d spend half his time observing procedures of quarantine, he would have laughed. These days, he would say Half? Is that all? “Do you think our killer could be microbial–no, there’d be bodies.”

“Desya would know. He might be telling stories about attacking aliens in order to hide shoddy quarantine procedures.”

“Might.”

Although the alien story was likely a lie, Zhyara wasn’t convinced. He was sure a microbial disease wiping out thousands would leave a much bigger trail, especially if only fourteen people were left to clean up the mess. With all the will in the universe, he couldn’t see fourteen people disposing of thousands of dead. But one thing about the suggestion did strike a chord with him.

“Whatever caused it the disappearances or deaths of the crew must have been random. If Desya had sent people to fight aliens, he would have sent whole associations, leaving an intact branch on-station.” Yes, that made sense. The fourteen didn’t show subservience to each other, because they had no relationships. And no new ones had been forged, because they were people thrown together by a random event, with no instincts firing between them.

So–could it be a microbial threat despite the absence of clear evidence?

He asked, “Tell me about this vessel that was refused.”

“It was just a mining craft.”

The holo display flickered and showed an open-cut image of a typical mining vessel, wide-hulled and square, with grappling arms down the sides. This ship had a crew of twelve. That seemed a little high. Twelve crew, four women, eight men. The number was wrong. If there had been a full network branch on board, there should have been seven on board, or fifteen.

“What was this vessel’s brief?”

“Gathering ice.”

“With twelve crew?”

What was more, the snapshot showed them all on the bridge, and none in the harvesting stations.

“What was the issue that caused the quarantine warning?”

“Station scans showed their water tanks to be contaminated with foreign organisms.”

He patched another scan. Clearly, bacterial life. Not in itself a reason to refuse the ship back.

“Did they order decontamination?”

“Yes.”

“And then, what happened?”

“Nothing, for two days. After that, the vessel was allowed to dock.”

“Was there any communication in those two days?” That seemed like an awfully long time for decontamination.

“No.”

“None at all?”

“Not that I can find.”

It’s been wiped, Zhyara realised with crystal clarity.

But what about the unusual crew configuration?

“Who were these people?”

“I don’t know. I could find out.”

“Please do.”

Surrounded by adolescent boys and girls who seemed to be his brother’s associates, Zhyara could do nothing. They didn’t look like normal associates, following a normal order. Several of them sported leaf-and-thorn tattoos, and everyone knew zeyshi didn’t do associations. They had this silly notion that everyone was equal, that the association instinct was some figment of the imagination. As a result, zeyshi were always brawling and had no clear long-term leaders, and Zhyara didn’t know how to appeal to any of these youths for help. Worse, they cheered; they helped unlash the rig’s teethers and shove the fuel canisters into the tubes. They liked seeing Xiya risk his life for this stupid race.

If Xiya was gone, then who would look after their mother? Zhyara had plenty of money and could apply for a bigger apartment so she could live with him, but she would never accept his help. People were allowed to live in circles higher than their qualification if they were dependents, but needed to carry permits everywhere, and were not allowed to work. That was not a solution; that would be prison to her. She never made much, and only sold a bit of embroidery at the markets, made zeyshi belts and fixed the dusty overalls of the builders and land workers from the aquifers, most of those garments already beyond repair. But her hands needed to be busy. Mother couldn’t look after herself if she got sick, or if people refused to pay, or came to extort money from her.

Xiya did that; she needed Xiya.

Zhyara scanned the onlookers for help. He saw his mother’s empty eyes in every face in the crowd. He also saw a lot of clean faces, and a lot of broad shoulders, a lot of Outer Circle people who… weren’t.

What was going on? What were they all doing here?

And here he was, in his uniform, standing out to them and to the locals.

A few rigs flew out slowly to mark the agreed race course, down into the crater where the blue murk swirled and eddied. Zhyara could almost smell the gas.

When you flew in that boundary between air and mist and engaged the landing gear, it boosted the craft’s speed. But woe betide the rigs that went too deep. The mist dragged on the wings. It made your voice go funny. A bit deeper, and you couldn’t breathe, and the engine would stall, and you would sink. No one knew how deep the crater was, but the bottom of it must be littered with dead stupid boys and their rigs. Stupid boys who had let the zeyshi criminals or murderous guards outsmart them, because few of the deaths were accidental. When the rigs left the mountaintop, all rules of flying and of civility were off.

A young boy with arms as thin as sticks and too-wide clothes beat the race gong. The thing was taller than him, and its sound made the very air vibrate.

Xiya climbed into the rig, slid in the pilot’s seat, his thin adolescent fingers on the controls of a machine that could kill him. That would kill him, if the woman in the shiny white rig had anything to do with it. At least if her rig was damaged, she had a canopy.

Zhyara wanted to scream at his brother to stop, to let him buy out his ticket. He wanted to point out the guards in the crowd, but they considered him to be loyal to them, and he was, of a sort. But he didn’t want anything to happen to his brother.

Xiya merely grinned, pulled the mask over his face and gunned the engines, hard. A cloud of pink dust billowed up.

The crowd cheered.

The youth hit the gong again, and with a roar, the rigs were off, diving into the crater.

The next morning, Zhyara felt exhausted. He would have liked to take a break, but owed it to his team to continue with the investigation and get out of the station as soon as possible.

One of the station’s nameless survivors came to collect him. He took Chiaru, and one of her seconds, and then was afraid that the station people would pick up on the fact that he’d left a relatively complete network on the ship.

But when he entered the oppressive atmosphere of the control room, it wasn’t distrust he sensed, but disorientation. All of the fourteen employees were doing things, but none of them exchanged looks or small gestures or fleeting touches that should have been common.

Desya appeared to be doing nothing. He sat in the same seat he had occupied the previous day, and still did not meet Zhyara’s eyes.

“You sit there.” He gestured at the empty command chair.

Zhyara bypassed the chair and took the seat he’d occupied yesterday. “I am not the station administrator. You need to appoint an administrator.”

Desya nodded, but Zhyara knew that it would not happen, at least not until the association had been repaired.

He continued into the silence, “We can offer you and your staff transport back to Athyl, once we have installed procedures that keep the station stable.” Leaving a station empty and unguarded would not please his superiors. “But for that to clear my boss’ approval, I’ll need to know exactly what happened. We’ve looked at the logs and can’t find any evidence of alien activity, save for one mining vessel that was held up in quarantine with alien bacteria in the water tank. The ship was help up for two days, without any communication to the station.”

“That was a technical problem. It has nothing to do with the attack.”

But Desya obviously remembered this otherwise insignificant occasion far too well.

“The problem is, we cannot find any evidence that an attack has ever happened. If you have anything, images, recordings, instrument readings, please give us access to them, so that we can help you.”

Desya nodded again, but said nothing, and none of the station crew moved.

Just what was going on here? Was he going to have to beat someone up in order to get to the truth?

Chiaru glanced aside; she would notice his aggressive scent. She made a small hand gesture. Calm down.

He sighed. “What sort of people were on board this ship?”

Surprise. “Just… workers.”

“Twelve of them?”

Desya’s eyes widened. He came very close to meeting Zhyara’s eyes, and Zhyara felt the heat of rage close to the surface. If Desya looked up, there would be a fight.

“Twelve is not a full association. A crew is three people, or seven, or fifteen, if you really need that many on a mining vessel. Twelve is not a crew.”

“We thought these people had gone to join the aliens. And then they came back, demanding access to the station.” Desya’s voice sounded strangled.

“There still is no evidence of aliens. These people were made to wait for two days. Either the communication between the station and their ship was absent, or, more likely, deleted from the logs.”

Another silence.

Zhyara repeated, “Who were the people aboard this ship?”

“As I said, just workers.” He sounded close to tears.

“Could we have a look in these workers’ dormitories?”

A slight hesitation. “Suppose. I don’t know what you expect to find there, they’re just dormitories. We’ve depressurised them, but we can pressurise one wing.”

“Please, do.”

Zhyara waited in tense silence while the crew opened the wing, and when pressure had equalised, Desya went with him.

The dormitory was dark and intensely cold. Vacuum conditions had done some interesting things with people’s possessions. A bottle of skin cream had burst and its contents snap-frozen and dried into hard globs. A bag had exploded, spilling underclothes all over the floor.

They walked past row after row of bunks.

Zhyara started at the very back, looking in each drawer and cabinet for personal possessions. In the third one, he found what he was looking for: a small marble carving with an amber stone. In the next one, he found an amber earring wrapped in a love letter. In the next one, a picture of a man with leaf and thorn tattoos. At another bunk he found a ticket taped to the wall, complete with marks for how many days the owner still had to go. He collected all these items in a pillowcase.

“What are you looking for?” Chiaru asked, her voice low.

Zhyara held the pillowcase open. She looked in; understanding hovered in her eyes.

The craft came out from nowhere and rammed into his brother’s rig. Zhyara saw it happen, and knew there was nothing he could do, not from all the way on the other side of the crater. There was an explosion of bits of metal. His brother’s rig was limping, losing speed while the First Circle woman raced on.

Zhyara cursed and pushed his brother’s astonished minders aside, then he was running, and jumped in the first rig he encountered. He ignored shouts, probably from the owner, yanked the mask over his face while gunning the engine. It roared under the floor. So familiar. He’d won so many races before he stopped racing, before he realised he was wasting his life doing something that would probably kill him.

The rig dived towards the cloud mass. He engaged the wing flaps and eased into the glide at that boundary between mist and air. The rig handled smoothly—he gathered its well-heeled owner would not be happy.

Ahead, his brother’s stricken craft was slowly sinking in the mist.

“Xiya!” Zhyara called out, his voice dark with the effects of the gas.

There was no movement in the craft.

For one heart-stopping moment, Zhyara feared his brother had fallen out, but then he spotted the slumped form in the pilot’s seat.

The idiot. He wasn’t even wearing a helmet.

Zhyara rammed the rig into hover mode, manoeuvring it as close to the familiar rig as he dared. He took the grappling iron and tossed it over the side.

It caught on the third try.

Then slowly, abandoning all pretence he was skim racing, he disengaged the flaps, gunned the flight engines and pulled the rig up.

The grappling mechanism emitted clangs and hisses. A small shudder, and the ship floated free of the station. The dockside viewscreen still showed Desya and his two nameless associates at the access tube; the outside screens showed the scratched side of the station. No real damage, just the normal weathering from micrometeorites and radiation.

A small backwards thrust and the pilot had fired the engines.

Zhyara checked the voice communication channel. The lights were off. Good. And it chilled him, too. He should not have any secrets from the people at the station. That was what loyalty networks were for.

“When you’ve engaged the autopilot, I want everyone here,” Zhyara said, from the command chair.

His people responded with assuring nods and soon gathered on the benches surrounding him. All at once, he felt at home and that thought filled him so much that emotion welled up in him. At home with his network of people who he could trust.

“Are you all right?” Chiaru asked, and her voice held concern.

“Uhm–yes. I am now. That group gives me the chills.”

“Me, too,” Chiaru said, and her zhayma Eyana squeezed her hand. The pilot, who was Chiaru’s second, put and arm on her shoulder, and the co-pilot, the pilot’s zhayma took his other hand, and so it went on, around the group, until everyone sat around Zhyara, and everyone touched one another. Zhyara held hands, touched cheeks, stroked arms, enveloped in familiar comforting scents from his people. A tear ran down Chiaru’s face. Zhyara wiped it off, but a new one formed. His vision blurred, too. He leaned on Eyana’s shoulder while holding Chiaru’s hand. Someone stroked his hair. Someone else sniffed.

This was associations were about. Not feeling ashamed. Feeling safe. He didn’t understand why anyone would reject this, but the fact was that all of his family did, and everyone in the Outer Circle did.

“All right,” he said when he sensed that everyone had calmed and relaxed. “I gave a number of you a task. Let’s hear what you have found out.”

His associates settled back into their seats, attentive expressions on their faces.

“There was no evidence of the use of any weapons against the station,” the pilot said. “I searched all the particle charge and radiation logs.”

Another reported, “The station workers were of all clans, but the mining crew were mostly Ezmi.”

Zhyara nodded; he’d suspected as much.

Chiaru eyed his empty earlobes, and shrugged. “Sorry.” She knew, of course, what clan he belonged to, but he had possibly never acknowledged it to her.

And she clearly wasn’t sure how to respond.

He wasn’t sure himself; for a long time after he left the Outer Circle, and possibly even before that time, a deep hole raged in his soul in the place where other people put their families. His family didn’t understand him, but he didn’t understand them either. He’d cringed at their chants, he’d refused to play the daini drums, he’d forgotten their stories.

And now his distant relatives were lost out there, and he had always denied them, never bothered to learn their clan chants, their lineages and their stories. And there were a lot, except none of them fitted inside what he considered respectable society. From his youth, he remembered the festive gatherings on the outskirts of the city. Rowdy songs played on homemade instruments. Robot-fighting contests. From a distance–from, say, Zhyara’s Third Circle apartment–Ezmi were eccentric, defiant, colourful. Easy to forget that they were real people. His cousins. And now ten thousand of them could be dead.

“I didn’t know the Mining Exploration Board used ticket holders to work in the stations,” she said.

He nodded; he had known. It was probably because so many new stations had been opened recently, and the Mining Exploration Board had found it hard to find workers.

He said, his voice thick, “Here is my theory: I don’t believe that anything attacked the station. I don’t believe that there were any aliens. I believe there was a disagreement and the workers left.”

“How can that be possible?” Chiaru asked. “We had all the loyalty networks in place.”

“I don’t know,” Zhyara said, and rubbed his hand over his face. “I just don’t know.” Surely, the Mining Exploration Board wouldn’t have put any of those Ezmi workers on the transport to this station if they had not yet formed associations? “It’s just that… I suspect that’s what happened. There was a fight, a break in associations, and they left.” Ezmi rejected associations. Their networks would have been weak, at best.

“I think that first a couple of them left–they were in that ship that was refused to dock. They found a place to live within this system, and they came back to collect the others. That’s where they’ve gone.” He let his shoulders slump.

“Are you… all right?” Chiaru’s voice was hesitant, scared almost.

He was their anchor and he needed to be strong to reaffirm their place in the network. “Yes, I’m just…” To him, finding the station in this state was barely better than finding it empty. The missing people included his family. They understood that; they feared how it affected him. Young men and women with amber stones in their earrings, but all of them in some way related to him.

Somewhere in a small box in his cabin he had the earrings his mother had given him, and right now, the felt an insane urge to jump up and get them.

But he sat and struggled to keep his breathing under control, to keep his face even.

In the forward viewscreen, the station was visibly shrinking in size. The engine hummed, the crew were busy at work.

The pilot asked, “Where do we look first? The vector showed that at least one ship has left outwards from the sun.”

Total change of subject.

Zhyara reviewed the information on the screen. “Do a total system scan.” Yes, he was going to find these people and bring them back.

The holo display behind the pilot’s seat cleared.

The system had seven planets. The sim shots showed him the approaches to each individual body. A diagram, then to scale, and then the planets one by one. The sim gave warnings for the innermost gas giant; the planet was very hot and had a violent magnetic field. It orbited so close to the primary that sunlight dimmed visibly when it passed in front, which it did no less than three times in each shipboard day cycle.

The second planet… was pretty much the same, minus the strong magnetic field. It had two smallish moons, rocky–the spectrum returned a high content of iron–and irregular in shape. The moons were too hot, too close to the sun to sustain the type of colony that could be plonked down in days.

The habitable zone contained only an asteroid belt, which was where the ship had been mining. Some of the larger bodies might support a small colony, rich as they were in metals.

“I think we should check those large asteroids.”

The ship’s engines increased their hum. At the back controls, the technicians engaged heat scanners and microwave receivers. There was comfort in the busy silence.

Zhyara went to his cabin and slept, alone. He was exhausted. But in his sleep, he saw Xiya’s face, and his empty expression, how his eyes had failed to meet Zhyara’s, how his scent had overwhelmed him. How his brother was unprepared for what was happening to him, and how he wasted the gift of network loyalties.

However, when he woke up, repeated beamsweep scans had turned up no signals, no engine signatures, no unexplained sources of heat, no emissions of any kind. There were some larger bodies that clung onto a tenuous atmosphere, some with a very small percentage of oxygen, but nowhere accessible. The asteroid belt was as dead as it looked.

Zhyara ordered the telescopes pointed outwards.

Three much smaller rocky planets orbited outside the habitable zone. One was rich in minerals, the other two were mainly rock and ice, but none of them had anything resembling an atmosphere. The scans were quick; they delivered nothing of interest.

Planet number six was a gas giant with a single huge moon, whose gravity constantly pulled and pushed the surface of the planet into asymmetrical shapes. One moment, the reddish bands would encircle the planet, the next moment, they would trail the moon before being sucked back into the planet. This strange dance of vast clouds of ions went on relentlessly. Zhyara had no doubt the moon was about to crash into the planet and the environment was beyond deadly for any living organism.

The seventh planet was perhaps the oddest of all. This planet, too, was a gas giant, blue-purple in colour, with a wide system of pretty rings. It had thirty-five moons, all of them either too small for a colony or too dangerously close to the rings. Many had erratic orbits. The planet described an elliptical orbit perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic. And it moved backwards, spinning rapidly. More oddly, when the crew obtained a higher magnification scan, it showed that the planet wasn’t circular; it was more like a coagulating cloud.

“Does that thing even satisfy the requirements for the definition of a planet?” Chiaru asked.

“It’s… strange.” That was really all that could be said about it.

Then the pilot said, “The scan indicates life.”

Zhyara regarded the bluish misty outside of the cloud. It reminded him of the crater, and of skim racing. “If they’re anywhere, they will be on that one.”

Xiya hovered in and out of consciousness for two days.

Zhyara sat by his bed, while Mother spent most of the time crying. Occasionally he would lose his patience and snap at her. Not even in this time of distress did she call on her associates–who were they, anyway? Did she even have associates? His head hurt at the thought of being alone. Yet she and Xiya rejected him, time and time again.

Meanwhile, he knew he would have to do some talking to make up for his absence from his job. There would be questions. About what he’d done, about where he’d been. He would have to defend himself over and over again all the way down several levels of his carefully-built network. He would have to prove that while he might belong to the Ezmi clan and his family lived in the Outer Circle and didn’t have networks, he was 100% trustworthy. He sent messages to Chiaru. She spoke to his boss on his behalf. A bad accident in the family, he told her to report to his boss. He would understand better than his family might; Third Circle people had functioning family networks.

On the day Xiya regained consciousness, a group of scruffy youths filed into the house. They wore dirty clothes, missed limbs and had wounds and open festering sores. And thorn-and-leaf tattoos, plenty of those.

Zhyara sat in the corner in his Third Circle uniform pretending not to be there, but digging his nails into his palms. Did he feel ashamed of his neat clothes while his clansfolk were so poor, or did he feel angry at them for deliberately cutting themselves off from the loyalty networks in the city? They could be part of society if they wanted; they could be educated, get jobs and medicines; they chose filth, poverty and disease. For what reason?

Then another young came in and told a story of being chased by the First Circle law enforcers, but escaping into the maze of the Outer Circle.

Everyone in the room was laughing, and Zhyara could no longer contain his anger.

“That is what you get when you challenge the guards! They may not have caught you now, but they will, and then they’ll send you to a desert labour camp, or give you a ticket.” He turned to his brother, who sat, like a king, in his mother’s only comfortable chair at the table. “Why don’t you grow up, get sensible and get a proper network and find your rank in society? Then you won’t have to suffer like the people who get tickets. You can even bring something good to the miserable lives of your friends. I’ll be willing to stick out my neck for you; yes, I’m that stupid that I would do that for you, brother. Because I care for you, if only you get your shit together.”

Xiya narrowed his eyes and rose, slowly, from his chair. “You really don’t get it, do you?”

In two steps, Zhyara crossed the room, into the influence of his brother’s hormonal scent. He didn’t fight it this time. It was time to deal with it.

Mother screamed and the young men laughed.

Zhyara grabbed the front of his brother’s shirt. “Fight me, brother! Let’s have this over with.” His hands trembled. If only his brother would engage him so that they could settle where each of them fitted in the family association.

But Xiya only looked at the opposite side of the room and stood passively. Zhyara hit him in the face with all his strength. “Fight, damn it!” In all his life, this type of aggression had never failed to get a response.

But not in Xiya. He stood there, his cheek blossoming red.

Zhyara hit him again, and when his brother still did nothing, looped an arm around his brother’s neck.

Then his brother’s friends grabbed his arms and yanked Xiya from his grip.

Zhyara wrestled against their grip. “Let me go. I’ll kill him.”

But his brother’s friends kept a firm hold on him until he calmed down. A young man guided him to the other side of the room, out of his brother’s scent. He pushed Zhyara down until he sat on the floor and knelt in front, blocking his view of his brother. The man’s hair was long and loose, his skin tanned golden. He wore jewellery made of gold and silver, and had an amber gemstone set in his front teeth. He was dressed in a blue-green silk shayka and had several rows of thorn and leaf tattoos circling both arms.

“Yes, you would have killed him.” The tone in the young man’s voice sounded like that of a desert wise man.

Everyone in the room had fallen quiet. The young man smelled utterly like a leader, like his brother did, Zhyara realised. He looked down in the subservient pose.

“I love my brother,” Zhyara said, his voice choking both with anger and grief. “He’s not joining you, do you hear that. I forbid–”

“I think your brother can decide for himself.” His voice was clear and calm, and oozed authority. Zhyara fought the sense of being subservient to this man. Zeyshi for crying out loud. “I want the best for my brother.”

“The best for him is that you leave and stay out of his life.” A tanned hand entered Zhyara’s vision and pushed his chin up until his eyes met the fierce expression of the zeyshi man. “And stop this grovelling rubbish. No one owns you. Not your family, not your city bosses. Not even me.”

He let go of Zhyara’s chin, rose and spat on the ground. The wad of spit narrowly missed Zhyara’s right leg.

Zhyara left his mother’s house. Alone, he climbed onto the crater rim. He watched the blue mist swirl in the crater. A few young boys were throwing stones, as he and Xiya had often done when they were little. He cried. Later still, he slunk down to the station and caught the train back to his neat apartment in the Third Circle, back to the people he understood.

The world was a huge cloud, and from close-up, the ring system extensive. Zhyara counted twenty-seven bands in various colours. They were, inexplicably, not symmetrical, with ring material, ice mostly, accumulated more thickly in a couple of spots along the rings. The surface of the planet, if it could be called that… was an odd kind of blue-green and in the side turned away from the star, threaded through with fluorescent red auroras. The end-effect was luminescent purple.

The density was higher than one would expect for a gas planet. Much higher. But…

“It’s highly lumpy,” one of the technicians said. “There’s a circular area in the cloud mass that is very dense. The rest is much thinner.”

A bit later, another technician said, “That mass is moving.”

It was.

Zhyara replayed and replayed a recording of the dark spot. The dark mass looked like a shadow, but none of the moons were big enough to cast it, and besides, the system’s primary was on the wrong side.

Then he checked the read-outs again. The density wobbles. And he realised: the dark spot was a shadow indeed…

“I think,” he said, “…there’s something inside that cloud. Take us closer.”

So the pilot steered the craft closer. With each further measurement, it became more likely that Zhyara was right.

“It’s not really a planet. It’s a cloud of planets.”

“Rubble,” the pilot said. “It’s my guess that the planet was happily orbiting along in what’s now the asteroid belt, and a large rogue object struck it, not hard enough to fuse with it or destroy it, but hard enough to knock it out of orbit and do a lot of damage to the surface, or maybe a moon or two.”

By the time they were above the cloud tops, they knew more. There were two larger bodies inside the cloud, and a collection of smaller ones. The larger bodies were both large enough to be spheres. One consisted mainly of ice, and liquid water underneath. The second body was a rocky planet with a semi-molten core. The gassy ‘atmosphere’ enveloped them both. The cloud was probably unstable over a long period of time, but for now, it was replenished by huge outgassing cryovolcanoes on the ice planet.

“Fly into it,” Zhyara said.

“What?” the pilot turned to him, shock on his face. “I can’t do that. We don’t know what—”

“I’ll do it.” Zhyara pushed himself up.

The crew didn’t question his commands. The pilot slid out of his seat, and Zhyara took the controls, guiding the craft ever closer to the mist. The blue light shone eerily on the crew’s faces, which were wide-eyed with fear.

Once or twice, Zhyara spotted two of them talking to each other, but he knew they wouldn’t challenge him.

Still…

“You don’t need to worry,” he said. “One time, long ago, I used to be a skim racer in the crater outside Athyl.”

“For real?” the pilot said.

“For real.” Now that he had started, he wanted to tell them everything. For years he had hidden his background, never wearing his clan designation, always deflecting questions about where he came from.

But he needed his wits to fly the craft safely.

Further and further down they went.

The vision dimmed and blotted with dense cloud. The temperature of the craft’s outside rose, and rose. The extremities glowed orange. Updrafts and eddies buffeted the craft. Speed dropped.

Zhyara went through the motions. Slow down. Ease the craft onto the mist. The technician read out atmospheric measurements. Hydrogen, mostly. Something small thunked into the hull.

Several of his crew took sharp intakes of breath. Zhyara was sweating. It was like skim racing, but it was not. Yet, this was just the type of place where Ezmi people from the Outer Circle would have gone. Surely one of them would have been a skim racer.

He tried to un-cramp his hands, hoping they would hit nothing larger. The scans showed clear, but he wasn’t sure how well the results held up in this murk.

Then they were through the clouds. The mist cleared abruptly, the sky turned purple, and before them, in the feeble glow that filtered through the clouds, floated a planet and its huge white moon, orbiting each other in a tight circuit, inside the gas cloud. The moon showed as a crescent, and a huge glittering gout of gas spewed from its limb.

“Will you look at that,” the pilot muttered. “How in all the heavens is this possible?”

A few moments of stunned silence followed.

“I’m still getting heat readings on the hull,” a technician said.

“We’re in a bubble of air,” Zhyara said.

The tension was replaced by a long silence. The crew took measurements. Data readings scrolled over screens. Zhyara just observed the immense beauty of the strange world. Volcanic, rich in metals, clothed in velvet-black. There was water and breathable air, even signs of life, although how it survived in the dark was a mystery to him.

“This world couldn’t possibly be stable,” Chiaru said.

Zhyara agreed. “No, over thousands of years, it wouldn’t be.”

On the timeframe of a human life, however, it was stable. Surely this was where the workers had gone.

But scan after scan for radio or electric signals turned up negative.

Eventually, the technician shook his head. “It’s an interesting system, but there’s no one here.”

“Wait,” another technician said. “I’m getting a reading.”

A tense silence while he located the signal.

“It’s coming from outside.”

Zhyara flooded with relief. That was why they had found no one. The harvesting rigs were slow boats, and had taken much longer to reach the cloud planet.

“Let’s go to meet them.”

When Zhyara finally stepped off the train at the station in Third Circle, the day was turning golden. This was the time when the sky turned from white to deep orange and lengthening shadows grew distinct double edges, which were never as obvious at midday, when both Yaza and Beniz were overhead.

The plaza outside the station bustled with the usual busyness of people shopping and eating out and relaxing in general. There were no fights, and no beggars, and no rigs in the street, or mushroom-sellers. And no smell.

Home. And yet, it felt like something inside him had broken.

And he still didn’t understand why his brother would want to give all this up to join the zeyshi and starve in a hole in the ground. Xiya was good with engines. He was smart. The Third Circle Aircraft engineering Cooperative was always looking for good people. If he, boring, shy Zhyara, could do all the required exams to move from Eighth Circle to Third, then his brother could certainly do it. He wouldn’t even have the disadvantage of being the oldest in his classes, and if he took off his Ezmi earrings, no one would ask any questions about his origin.

He just did not understand it.

Many people had stopped work for the day, but he went to the Mining Exploration Board office, which was in the Third Circle’s vibrant commercial sector that surrounded the airport. Aircraft whizzed overhead, smaller local rigs and the occasional larger one from elsewhere on Asto, like the Beratha, or from Ceren, in-system, or other Coldi-colonised worlds.

In the huge hall of the Mining Exploration Board building, communicators sat in the glass-walled hub. A huge holographic in the centre of the room showed the locations of the Board’s stations, mostly supporting nearby planet-based colonies and their fledgling industries. Anpar lines flickered over the three-dimensional image, whenever communication took place.

Zhyara stopped briefly to watch. If only his brother could see the beauty of this, he would certainly want to come. But, without an Eighth Circle permit, Xiya wouldn’t even be allowed on the train. Why didn’t he want to try the exams?

Why, why, why?

He turned away and went into one of the cubicles that surrounded the central hub. Here, his local superior was at work. Valayu sat in her console, surrounded by images of cut-open technical drawings. She gave a brief greeting without looking up–as superior, she didn’t have to–and continued drawing on the transparent pad before her.

Zhyara took it as a sign that it was all right to sit next to her. He did and she said nothing for what seemed like a long time. The stylus tracked over the soft pad and glowed faintly where it touched the pad. Lines appeared on the holo-screen facing her, in three-dimensional projection. The soft glow lit her face.

“I’m sorry for being absent,” he said after a long silence.

‘It’s all right. It will be sorted out, one way or another.”

He wanted to say, Like how? but anything he said might bring his brother in danger. He wasn’t sure how much Chiaru had told her about his family, although most of it, she could probably guess.

He studied the hollow curved tube with supportive struts that she was drawing. Realisation clicked. “I didn’t know we were planning a new station.”

“At Beynazha. Has to be operational within a year.” Click, click, click went the stylus and a series of doors sprang into being.

Beynazha was where Zhyara had found the previous destroyed station. Memories of empty, airless passages sent a chill over his back. The station walls had peeled open like a fruit, all air and inhabitants sucked into the void.

“Is that wise? We don’t know yet why the station was destroyed, and now we have another station failing to report.”

“We must go on. We won’t give in to this alien menace. Now if we could get the personnel side sorted out…”

“Is there a problem?”

Click, click, click. Another wall with doors appeared. “Not my department, but yes, there is. We distributed tickets, but it appears that a young and charismatic zeyshi leader is convincing the Outer Circle residents that fleeing to the zeyshi is a better option.”

“That sounds… unwise.” Zhyara didn’t know what he was saying; his heart beat so furiously. Xiya had received a ticket. Both he and the young man who had told him off at his mother’s house had the strong hormonal scents of leaders. Xiya, who knew places to hide. What if his brother had already joined the zeyshi?

“Unwise, as you say. The only thing fleeing to the zeyshi will achieve is bringing forward the time of the next raid.”

Zhyara’s first thought was, No, Xiya! Raids meant huge numbers of troops coming into the Outer Circle and desert to weed out, gas, poison and destroy the zeyshi warrens, ostensibly to ‘clean up’ the Outer Circle. Raids meant bodies lined up in the street for all to see. Raids meant young men and women herded and taken away to jails and labour camps. His second thought was Of course, that’s why there were so many guards watching the race.

Zhyara and his crew found the source of the signal: an asteroid mining vessel, the hull battered and scratched, as these ships often tended to be. It was moving on a steady in-system pace, but on a vector directed out of the system, not aimed at the cloud planet. As with a ship that would not want to be seen, it projected no broadbeam signals, just the steady blip of the beacon, which couldn’t be turned off. Where did these people think they were going?

The pilot’s simple hail returned nothing but the most basic handshake command, nothing that required active pilot input. When they came close enough for a visual scan, it turned out that the ship’s lights were off. Worse, there was not much in the way of a heat signature.

Zhyara and his team suited up for vacuum. He chose to bring Chiaru and one of her immediate seconds. They opened the air lock and pilot matched speeds exactly with the mining vessel. As team leader, Zhyara went first. He unlocked his tether and jumped through open space to the miner’s emergency hatch.

This was why a leader needed reliable staff. He could only do these tricks of bravado because there was a tight team behind him, people bound to him through hormonal instinct, people he would trust with his life.

The emergency hatch’s outside control was dead, the lights dark and the panel unresponsive. He banged on the hatch, dread rising in him. By the time the rest of his team had arrived, there had been no reply from inside the ship, so Chiaru attached her power module to the control panel to force the door open.

This was the point at which the ship’s air lock should appear as a brightly-lit cubicle in the darkness of space. But when the hatch opened, it was dark inside.

“The ship’s dead,” Chiaru said, voicing what everyone already knew.

A victim of alien attacks? Zhyara had seen no damage to the hull.

They cycled through the air lock, the three of them crammed into the tiny cubicle.

As soon as the inner door opened, the environment scans on Zhyara’s suit blinked warnings. Low oxygen, high methane, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide. Cabin pressure higher than normal. And it was damn dark in here. The glow from Zhyara’s helmet light formed a beam of illuminated fine material—dust or haze he couldn’t tell. His analyser indicated that organic content was high. There was no one on the vessel’s bridge, and no one in the flight crew rooms. Zhayra floated from one compartment to another, finding nothing out of place, nothing that indicated what had happened or where the crew were hiding—

“Zhyara, please, come here!” Chiaru’s voice in his helmet comm had an oddly strangled quality to it.

In a moment of panic, Zhyara saw images of her being attacked by her technician in the way she had attacked him the day before yesterday. How dumb, he should have warned his team about this; he should have told them what happened.

Heart thudding, Zhyara pulled himself to the rear of the vessel, to the cargo hold, where the beam of his helmet light cut through a haze of thickening air. He grabbed the opposite door frame and shone his light in.

Chiaru was at the entrance of the cargo hold, her technician just inside the room. His first thought was one of relief that neither of them had attacked the other, but then he realised what the dark floating shapes in the room were.

Bodies floated in the cavernous space, most without suits, their skin and clothes horribly burned and blackened. Faces unrecognisable with black decay. Hands and feet bloated, skin split open. Foul globs of fluid floated in the air.

“How many?” Zhyara asked, feeling sick. As he turned to Chiaru, he noticed that her suit was coated with brown gunk.

“More than four hundred.”

“A flying sarcophagus,” Zhyara said, holding a hand over his faceplate of his helmet and imagined an unpleasant smell creeping into his mask, even though the suit was airtight and that was impossible. “This ship can’t carry this many passengers.” Overcrowding? Had they fled the station? Had they picked up refugees from another ship? He couldn’t see how they’d cram this many live people aboard a ship this size. And that gave him an awful thought. “How long have they been dead?”

“The ship log says the ship has been cold for more than fifteen days.”

Zhyara did a quick calculation. “That means…”

Chiaru completed, “They were killed inside the station.”

Third Circle was where Zhyara belonged. He had known that the moment he stepped off the train and smelled the faint scent of ozone that always hung around the airport. Now, on his way home, he saw it in the faces of the people, many of whom he knew. He could feel the power of the loyalty networks, and knew that it was right. The sight of the elegant building that held his apartment made his heart beat faster.

He almost ran across the street, and jiggled his hands in his pockets while the lift took him up to the top floor.

He went out onto the gallery, where the view over the city hit him more forcefully than usual. In the distance, behind the pronged landing platforms of the airport, he could see the white spires of the Inner Circle palaces. There was the seat of the Coordinator, to who all networks came back. Seveyu Palayi watched over all her little workers like a matron. She sat at her command post, enhanced with all technology to keep up with the demands of all het loyalty networks. Zhyara had three: his station network, his Mining Board network and his network of friends. Most people also had a family network. The Coordinator had hundreds. She was at the top of the Army, of the local government, of the wellbeing of her citizens, of the education, the guards. Every one of those networks would ask her for advice, and she would answer and delegate, often to more than one person at the same time, using three feeders at the same time to keep in contact with everyone. All her networks inter-linked and because of this, she stopped arguments before they had a chance to fracture society.

He had seen her in the flesh once, a woman not so much older than he was, carefully selected by the tests to be able to withstand the demands of so many networks. She had fought her rivals–fought and killed, as those at the very top often did, and every time Zhyara heard her name, he felt the need to look down and take the subservient pose. Ever since he came to Third Circle, it had been a comfort to him to know that someone at the top was in control and would decide to do what was best for the people.

And now he wondered how it could be that such a kind system was so badly failing a group of people he cared about.

When he opened the door to the apartment, there were fast footsteps in the hall and the next thing, Menya closed him in his arms.

Zhyara hugged his social zhyama back, and for a long time, neither of them said anything; they just breathed each other’s familiar scent. Then Zhyara went to change out of his uniform–the desert stains would need to be washed out–and returned to the living room in just a pair of shorts, where Menya had poured drinks. They sat on the couch facing the window, staring at the view.

“There was trouble,” Menya said. It was not a question.

“Xiya,” Zhyara said, and that was enough of a reply. Menya knew everything about Zhyara’s family. After a silence he added, “It’s worse than usual. I’m afraid he’s about to join the zeyshi, and there is going to be another raid.”

Menya tightened his grip on Zhyara’s hand.

Zhyara faced him. Menya’s earrings glittered in the golden light reflecting off the buildings of the city. Earrings with red stones.

“I love my family,” Zhyara said, his voice choking. “I just don’t know what I can do to help them.”

No longer just to help them overcome poverty, but to help them survive.

“And I’m leaving tomorrow, and I’m afraid that the raid will happen before I come back. Xiya has received a ticket, and he’ll be one of the ones sent to Beynazha station for sure… only to be killed by whatever is out there killing them. I’m out of ideas. Please help me.”

Menya said nothing. From previous discussions with him, Zhyara knew that people who had grown up inside the city, with proper networks, didn’t feel any responsibility towards those of the Outer Circle or the zeyshi. According to them, the Outer Circle people were never told that they could not do the Eighth Circle exams. In fact, the opposite was true. Industries always needed reliable workers. Organisations like the Mining Exploration Board paid for teachers in Eighth Circle. Many of them were even free. A steady stream of people, like Zhyara, did take the opportunity they offered. The ones who didn’t… well, it was their choice, wasn’t it?

But like most things in life, it wasn’t that simple. Menya understood that. And if Zhyara had brought a tiny bit of understanding into an elite family like Menya’s, he felt he had achieved something.

Menya said, “You could, of course, warn them that a raid is about to happen.”

“I can’t go back. They’d kill me.”

“No, but I can.”

Zhyara met Menya’s dark eyes, the irises with tiny flecks of bronze, matching his earrings. He felt overwhelmed with emotion. He knew why he had a zhayma and why Menya did everything for him, and he would do everything for Menya. “I wouldn’t want you to put yourself in any danger.”

Menya shrugged. “There is no danger. I’m going to Eight Circle to pick up my rig from the workshop. I believe you know the man Vashya who runs the place. He’s talkative, and I might casually drop something about raids.”

Zhyara strode into the station’s control room at a pace just short of running. The few workers looked up, must have understood why he was here, tried to get up, but acted too slow.

Zhyara was already at Desya’s chair.

“Hey, what—” Desya’s eyes widened.

He grabbed Desya by the elbow and hissed in his ear, “What happened? Either you tell me the truth or we fight. In either case, I get to know.”

His fingers dug into thin flesh and twisted Desya to face him. Chiaru and Eyana had their weapons out in no time, but Desya didn’t resist. He hung limp in Zhyara’s grip.

“What is going on? There are thousands of bodies out there. You killed the workers and stowed their bodies into the cargo vessels and hoped we wouldn’t find them. You lied about attackers. There were never any attackers.”

“We had no choice! There was no one who could give us assistance. The workers had already killed everyone in the middle command. They had no ties of loyalty to anyone and there was no other way we could restore order—ow—I’m telling you the truth.”

But Zhyara heard nothing. “Those people were from my clan.” He dragged Desya from his chair by his collar. A few of the station workers rushed forward, but his seconds had their weapons out. There were flashes when weapons fired.

“They were people with families, people with lovers and brothers and sisters.” With every word, he lifted Desya up and slammed him into the control panel.

“Stop it, stop!” Someone, Chiaru he thought, pulled him back, leaving Desya on top of the panel, where lights flashed their protest. His nose was bleeding.

“You’ll kill him, and then we have no one to bring to court.”

Zhyara struggled through the red haze of hormonal anger. He took a long time to calm down. Desya’s breath rasped in the tense silence. A scent of ozone hung in the air, from discharged guns.

With great effort, Zhyara got control of his voice. “I’m guessing the trouble started when some of the Ezmi would not follow station orders?”

Desya nodded.

“I’m guessing that there was a breakdown of the loyalty chains within the station. A section of the population was never ready to conform to orders, most of those of the Ezmi clan.”

“They were useless zeyshi.”

Zhyara slapped him. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

Desya wiped his cheek, but for once, his look was defiant. “They have no loyalty networks. Oh yes, some of them said that they did, but they were lying.”

Zhyara heard the voice of a charismatic zeyshi leader, Yes, you would have killed him. And he understood.

The zeyshi and many in the Outer Circle had no loyalty networks.

They had no need for them.

No need for leaders who took the job for life.

No need to fight to establish rank.

Zhyara took a deep breath and continued in a low voice, “They did not disobey because they don’t want to fit in, but because they can’t. Their instincts do not fire the way ours do; they are born that way and it seems that the Ezmi clan is heavily burdened with these people. Our instincts are programmed to see them as enemies. I know. I am Ezmi. I am not one of the instinct-deprived people, but once I almost killed my brother, who is.”

Why had no one realised that before?

He dissociated himself from the command hub, and everyone gathered there, and let his people deal with Desya. Anger and grief raged inside him. He should have seen this before, when it had stared him in the face.

He went to stand at the hub, staring at the three-dimensional display of the strange solar system.

They would have to take the remaining station workers to Athyl under arrest. He would have to put the station in sleep mode. Power down auxiliary processes, depressurise everything except the docks. The technicians would already have installed routines that would fire the station’s jets whenever it threatened to lose orbit. In time, there would be a new crew, and new workers… They were likely to be more ticket holders who only pretended to have loyalty networks, and the whole damn thing would start all over again.

It was wrong.

He looked over his shoulder.

Chiaru and Eyana were taking the station survivors’ details and arranging for them to be taken to the ship. It became more and more quiet in the command room.

Zhyara made the only decision that felt right to make.

Surrounded by silence, Zhyara called the station maintenance routine on the screen and turned off the orbit maintenance routines. Then he turned off the station’s beacon. With an unstable orbit like this, the station would have crashed into the sun by the time the Mining Board found it again. Then he focused on the cloud planet, and called up the coordinates. He wrote them on the waxy paper that held the dead worker’s ticket. At some time in the future, an astronomer might be interested in this strange planet.

Then he rose, and made his way to the ship where Desya and the others had been confined to cabins with whomever they were least likely to kill.

Chiaru and everyone else sat around the pilot and it was a while before Zhyara realised that something was off.

“Anything going on?” Zhyara asked, still feeling dazed.

The pilot frowned. “Listen to this.” He took off his earpiece and turned up the volume on the communication channel. It was a constantly repeating message. To all approaching ships. Parts of Third Circle airport are compromised. Do not use the western side of the airport, from prongs 3-576 ranging to 4-875. Doing so is likely to land you in rebel hands. Repeat…

Zhyara stared at the pilot, feeling stupid. “Rebels? Who are they?”

“It seemed that First Circle ordered a raid on the zeyshi, but they were prepared and set an ambush. They took the guards’ vehicles and flew into the city, and occupied a number of platforms.”

And just who had notified the zeyshi of the impending raid? He grew cold. “Show me.”

He slid behind the control and scanned through the news headlines.

Emergency situation.

Airport authority demands army action.

We cannot indiscriminately charge against our own people, administrator says.

…the young charismatic leader has struck a chord with many of the disenfranchised in the poorer parts of the city…

They are poor by their own choice, administrator says.

Zhyara raised his hand to cover his mouth. No, Xiya. When he had asked Menya to warn the zeyshi he’d merely wanted to save his brother’s life. He hadn’t thought he would start a rebellion.

By the time Zhyara and his group returned to Athyl, the occupation of the airport had developed into a siege, with part of the airport still functioning, busy and cramped, and another part sectioned off, as if it no longer existed. No one spoke about it, not even Zhyara’s boss to whom he delivered the traumatised station workers.

The Mining Exploration Board was in damage control mode, with outrage from the Outer Circle about the lost lives, and on top of that, Zhiminda station no longer sent in its automated beeps.

“We’ll lose the station,” Valayu said, seated in her console with the design of the new station in front.

Zhyara nodded. Yes, they would lose the station. A fitting end for a place where so many had died.

“Maybe we need to reconsider how we recruit staff for these projects,” he said, his voice measured and careful. “I wouldn’t mind working with some medical people to determine the pathology of this… defect of large parts of my clanspeople.”

She gave him a sharp look, and then her expression softened, as if she realised that his family would be affected. She sighed. “Yes.” And a while later again, “Yes.”

“Meanwhile, what is First Circle going to do about the zeyshi occupation?”

“What they usually do: they’ll ignore the issue until the occupiers decide to leave.” Did he detect some anger? She continued, “It’s a disgrace, and reflects poorly on the guards, but no one can talk to these people. There are no networks. And evicting them forcefully will make many other people angry. So they just wait until the zeyshi get hungry and leave of their own accord. It’s still a disgrace, and will not reflect well on them either. The next raid will be faster, and more vicious.”

That was right. Fighting someone was easy if there were no loyalty ties. But neither the zeyshi nor the Outer Circle was completely free of those ties, were they? There had to be hundreds of people like him, cut away from their families by this genetic flaw. Those people would not agree that there were no loyalty ties. The ties were one way, from Zhyara and others to their families, but they were present. And therefore, First Circle guards could not attack them where they were highly visible, but would have no qualms about attacking them in the desert where there were no witnesses.

He realised that Valayu was looking at him, probably expecting a further recommendation, or maybe a miracle solution. There wasn’t going to be one.

He shrugged. He’d better go back to Menya. A good cry, a bath and some action in the bedroom would make him feel better.

But wouldn’t help Xiya holed up at the airport.

Or his mother worried about her favourite son.

Or Vashya, whose business would be under strain if it became known that the warning had come through him.

As Zhyara rose from his chair, something crinkled in his pocket.

And he had an idea.

As soon as he left the building, he sent a message to Menya that he’d be a little while longer, and went to the airport.

Up on the third floor, he found the passage that led to platforms 3-566 to 3-600 barred by a couple of First Circle guards.

“Can’t go through here, Sir,” one man said after observing the proper greetings.

“I’ve been authorised to speak to the rebels.” When the guard raised his eyebrows, he added, “Xiya Ezmi is my brother.”

The guard’s face showed pity, but he let Zhyara through and he walked into the deserted corridor until he came to a closed gate, from where he could see the zeyshi camped out on the platform.

City people would see these young people as dirty, disgusting beggars, but to him, the figures in dust-stained shaykas with loose hair were familiar. He spotted a couple of familiar faces.

They sat in the shadow of a couple of larger troop-carrying craft that would belong to the First Circle guards. Craft with closed cabins that would be capable of reaching the anpar point. The zeyshi would have flown those craft here. Good.

Several of them, including Xiya, would be half-decent pilots. He wasn’t sure if they were up to the challenge he was going to give them, but he had to try.

He took the waxed paper from his pocket. He had nothing heavy to weigh it down except his timer. It was fairly new and had cost him a bundle–damn it–but it would be worth his brother’s freedom. He wrapped the paper around the device, and then yelled, “Oy!”

Several of the rebels looked in his direction.

He flung his missile over the fence. It bounced several times on the concrete. A young man ambled over to pick it up. He unfolded the paper, and then went to show it to his mates.

While Zhyara walked away, he retrieved his earrings from his front pocket and put them in. He went home, to his bath and Menya’s comforting arms.

They ate and drank and slept until late.

When Zhyara rose the next morning, he was not surprised to hear that the zeyshi had gone overnight, and had taken the First Circle ships.

No one knew where they had gone.

___
Copyright 2013 Patty Jansen

Patty Jansen lives in Sydney, Australia, where she spends most of her time writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her story “This Peaceful State of War” placed first in the second quarter of the Writers of the Future contest and was published in their 27th anthology. She has also sold fiction to genre magazines such as Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Redstone SF and Aurealis. Her novels (available at ebook venues) include Watcher’s Web (soft SF), The Far Horizon (middle grade SF), Charlotte’s Army (military SF), and Fire & Ice, Dust & Rain and Blood & Tears (Icefire Trilogy) (dark fantasy). Her novel Ambassador will be published by Ticonderoga Publication in 2013. Patty is a member of SFWA, and the cooperative that makes up Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and she has also written non-fiction. Patty is on Twitter (@pattyjansen), Facebook, LinkedIn, goodreads, LibraryThing, google+ and blogs at: http://pattyjansen.com/

by Christopher Reynaga

This story is dedicated to Chuck Palahniuk, who helped me unlace the sutures in the skin to find the dark heart of it.

This is not about stitching a straight line through cloth like a seamstress. Not about the tight suture of a surgeon closing a wound. This is an art. This is about interweaving patterns of the fold and musk. An intricate lacework of innocence. Each tailor creates his own signature stitch unlike any other.

“Hand me the needle, girl,” said Papa. He took the curved steel from me, wetting the silvered thread through his lips to make it lie flat in the eye. “Now, hold her leg apart for me.”

He already had her other thigh parted with one callused hand and gripped the needle delicately with the other. The steel glinted under the oil lamps. My elbow wrapped around the girl’s knee and held the leg against me firmly. She was sixteen, a bit older and stouter than I, but I knew how to brace against her so she wouldn’t kick out in fear and rip the stitches. My other hand took her damp fingers. She looked at me, eyes wide and glistening. Her mouth squeezed shut, trying to be brave. Her family’s womenfolk surrounded her, the gelded aunts and sisters. Her mother wiped a damp rag across her forehead. The women stood in the back, singing the chants of celebration and maidenhood.

“It’s alright,” I said to her, pressing her hand against the upturned hem of her calico dress. The folks of Leedsville had pitched in, bought her such a pretty dress — cornflower blue with a bit of lace. “My papa’s the best tailor there is,” I said. “He’ll make you safe.”

The girl looked at me hard when I said it, and Papa’s eyes paused on me, needle poised just over her vulva.

“You’re no danger, Anna,” the mother said to her daughter, “You’re going to be a woman. You’re a woman and you’re not going to hurt anyone ever.”

The girl choked back a sob. “Please Mama, I don’t want to kill. Sew me up… Do it.” Tears ran as her mother squeezed her hand, hushed at her.

Do it!” she screamed at Papa.

Papa slipped the sharp steel through her vaginal lips and began to sew shut her womb. Her body jerked as the silver thread tugged through. I had that leg locked against me good, but something in her sobs shook me until I looked away from her face. Papa ran his thumb down her labia as he worked, wiping the blood away. He was a very good tailor.

When you sew shut a virgin-mother’s womb you use a polished, steel, taper-cut needle with a fishbone curve. The eye is threaded with silvered silk that holds a bend yet moves like butter.

A blacksmith’s son once told me what his father’s trade was like. I tried to imagine my hands forging the crude, silver rings. Piercing the blunt edge through the foreskin of a boy’s penis and sealing it tight. Tucking it around the scrotum and driving the metal through the hanging tendon until it was bound like a snake eating its own tail.

I reckon blacksmithing has its own grace and artistry, like tailoring, but both trades serve the same purpose. They keep the virgin-bound safe and all other folks from dying of their curse. The original sin of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of Life. The curse the chapel priests say would strike if a virgin-mother and virgin-father had sex the way that animals do. A wrathful curse that kills everyone and swallows towns whole, leaving nothing but vast, haunted woods in their wake.

Woods like these.

Papa walked the edge of the path ahead, reaching his hand to brush a mossy trunk. My feet stayed in the center of the road, well away from the dark tangle of branches. Papa never was scared of the trees the way most folk were. As a tailor it was as much his job as a wood-cutter’s to keep the dark heart of the forest at bay. I trailed behind, slower than I’d usually walk in such a cursed place. I was in no hurry to get where we were going.

I saw the tumbledown walls of houses ahead in the trees. A splintered gray signpost tilted under the roots grown around it. Lexington. The root-tangled trunk that bound the sign was shaped like a woman, as if the tree had burst up and swallowed her. There was no face in the head-like burl, but the perfect grey lips of a hollow stretched in a surprised “O”, collecting the shimmer of dark rainwater.

“Papa?” I asked, stepping up next to him.

“What is it girl?” He shifted his gray felt hat to keep the dapple of sun out of his eye.

“I… don’t want to go to Portsmouth to see Tom.”

Papa’s face hardened and he started walking ahead, “I’m not arguing Elana. Jed Wayland’s son is a good man, from a good family of blacksmiths.”

“He’s only fourteen and I hardly know him,” I said, catching up.

“He’s a man of sixteen, and bound as a virgin father. His brothers have already left to take up their trades, and Tom’s ready to marry. Most firstborn girls your age are already sewn and married.”

“I don’t like him. He’s… he’s burnt across his face and can’t see out of one eye.”

“The boy knocked over a forge, Elana. It’s not his fault, any more than its your fault that you are what you are.” He stopped by a black oak with the vague shape of a woman gripping a misshapen burl as if it were a child. “You think this is easy, trying to find you a match when we have to pretend you’re gelded? Most towns we travel through would drive us out if they knew you were my firstborn. They’d look at you and see walking death. I can’t help that there’s no town or kin left to guard you. Sacramento is dead and gone, taken just like this place,” he said waving his hand at the trees.
“I don’t want to be…”

I swallowed. “I’m scared Papa.” The fear burned the inside of my belly. I glanced quickly at the dark silhouettes in the trees.

Papa’s face softened. “Look, this…” he looked around at the dark woods, “none of this is ever going to happen to you. It’s not a curse to be firstborn, Elana. It’s a blessing. You should have been raised in a town with all the honors and protection that a family gives to its virgin-mothers. We may have lost that home to the woods, but you still have the chance to marry out of this life of tailoring and hard roads. The road killed your mama, Elena, and I will not let it kill you.”

“Mama,” I whispered to myself. I reached up and touched her pendant on my neck, fingers tracing the way papa had etched her face into the wood with his needles. I could remember the stories he told of the way she would charm horses and pick their hooves and sing. Sometimes I could almost remember the sound of her voice, though her face was lost to me beyond this bit of wood. I felt the ache in my belly return, and the fear that chased it.

“You said Mama liked the freedom of the road,” I said.

“She thought she would,” said Papa, “but it was harder than she’d been raised to expect. She passed on that first hard winter, God bless her.” Papa looked away. I could hear the quake in his voice. “I never should have dragged you across the West Union territories like this,” he said at the trees, and then looked back at me. “But we do what we must to survive, and you must marry, Elana.”

“I just — Tom, he’s not the one, Papa.” The words caught in my throat. “Just give me one more season helping you with the needles and the girls. There’s time to find the right man — I haven’t had the change yet,” I tried to hide the quake in my own voice.

“No,” he said, and his voice carried the weight of a mountain. “It was easier to hide your secret when you were young, but you are growing up fast. You’re almost sixteen and your fertility is coming. I know it came late in your mama, but I won’t wait anymore — it’s dangerous.”

We passed a tangle of trunks like people clinging together. I put my hand on my belly and cringed. Papa pressed my head against him.

“If you come into your fertility on the road,” said Papa, “we’d be lucky to get you gelded before you were driven off to die. Not even Tom’s kin would have you if you were far enough along. The best you could hope for would be my own gelded fate. I don’t want you to become a tailor, Elana. Girls and their mothers screaming at you. Cold looks whenever you pass through town. Blacksmiths have it bad I’d wager, but no one likes knowing that you drew steel needles through their daughters. The world needs tailors and no one wants to live with us. It’s a hard life.”

Don’t leave me behind. My lips formed it, but I gave it no breath. I wanted to tell him a tailor’s life was all I’d known. That I liked the feeling of a needle in my hand far better than the feeling inside my belly. I wanted to tell him I would be gelded and stay. But I knew what things to push with him and which to leave be.

We passed the center of town. The shells of houses caved from the weight of limbs. The chapel’s roof was broken outward from the branches of a massive black maple twisted up with the curtain roots of a strangler fig. A tangle of faces had sprouted from the bark.

My eyes looked to a little tree below it in the town square, a smooth white birch. The milk-white body stretched slender and perfect with the eyeless face of a young girl. Her arms lifted into branches as if in prayer. Her smile was ecstasy. I shivered and looked away.
We walked past a well overflowing with roots to where the road south should have been. One of the great old trees had fallen, crushing a few others. It blocked the road with a tumble of dying branches taller than our heads, leaving a great blue hole for the sun.

“Can we go around it, Papa?” I said, searching for a break in the thicket.

“Stay to the road, Elana,” said Papa, putting down his carpet bag and testing a trunk with his foot. “These trees won’t hurt us, but there are things out in that underbrush that might. Now, you hand up that bag when I’m ready.” I held the bags in my hands, but I stopped short of touching the pale bark, wrinkled like dead skin.

He stepped up on two branches and glanced back. “You don’t need to be afraid of them, Elana,” said Papa. “The curse has gone from them. They’re just trees that drop seeds like any other now.” He leaned against the wide trunk at the top, trying to see a foothold over.

“I think,” he said as he put his foot out. His other foot thrust downward suddenly with the crack of a branch breaking. He gave a sharp cry as he dragged his bleeding leg up. He gripped his ankle.

“Papa!” I shouted. I dropped the bags and clambered up the branches. “Are you alright?”

Breath escaped his teeth. He nodded and looked at the deadfall above him like it was some dog that had turned on him. He glanced back at the long way we’d come through the woods.

“Let’s go back to Leedsville, Papa. We can’t stay here.”

“There is a town…” he said, “not far east of the river from here. Applington. We can make it by nightfall if we hurry.”

“I ain’t heard of it Papa. The Eastland’s not our route.”

“You wouldn’t have. I don’t much like it, but there’s a road back down to Portsmouth from there.”

My heart weighed when he said it, but it was a few more days between us and Portsmouth to bide my time. His arm went round my shoulder and we hobbled past the tree-filled chapel until a weathered trail opened up, barely more than a path in the forest’s green light.

A tailor’s stitch needs a flex against the skin that never loses pattern. The stitch must allow for the flow of urine out, and when it’s time for children, allow the straw head of the surgeon’s seeding rod in. It doesn’t take much of a man’s seed to do it. Just the smallest green drop.

Green, like the sap that comes from a virgin-mother when she becomes fertile. The green of grass and heartwood. The color of life. The stitch anticipates this change, allows for its constant flow. It guides the sap through to the pads of cloth that a virgin-mother wears always, except for those times she’s pregnant with child.

When I go down to the streams to wash the blood from the linen bandages we use when we sew the girls, I wash the small green spots from my own.

Papa limped drag-step by the time we passed the clear-cut fields of weathered tree stumps and entered the apple orchard on the edge of town. Smoke painted the twilight, and I saw the flickering of some bonfire on the southern edge of the village. Voices cried out in the distance and I could hear a concertina and a fiddle over the laughter. Two boys leapt around the corner of the slump-roof barn, chasing each other. The smaller one slowed to look at us. He had a fat frog impaled on a stick, and its long hind legs twitched as he ran.

My head pressed against Papa’s shoulder and I moved forward, but he shushed me with a finger over my mouth and pointed his head off to the right.

“Up through that way,” he said, nodding between the barn and the shadow of the tall, dark chapel. He stopped me with a fierce grip when we stepped off the road and pressed his mouth to my ear.
“Listen and listen well. We’re leaving as soon as I get my foot bound up. Don’t you leave my side and don’t talk to anyone. The ways are different in the east, Elana. They don’t suffer firstborn strangers. If they found out you weren’t gelded, they wouldn’t drive you from town — they’d kill you.”

I stood, stunned, until he nudged me forward. We shuffled around the barn until we came to a tall white house on the edge of the orchard. A weathered surgeon’s pole curled its red and white ribbon up one of the front porch pillars. My feet balanced up the steps until my hand could slip away from his back and rap hesitantly on the front door.

It opened quite suddenly to a lit candle-stick and a man’s stout, balding head.

“What is it? I’m closed,” he said. He glanced back and forth at the both of us. “Who are you?”

He brought the candle closer to Papa. “Joshua?” he asked. Papa looked away.

He held the candle on me for a moment and stared as Papa sagged against me.

“Who is it?” called a woman’s voice from the hall. A head craned past the balding man’s shoulder, tangled black hair in a bonnet. Her eyes blinked when she saw me.

The man held the candle away from our faces. “No one. Go back to your room, Wendy,” said the man. “Now,” he snapped when she didn’t move. Her footsteps hurried down the hall with a creak of wood. The man stepped back and said in a low voice, “You’d better come in.”

We stepped through the threshold to a set of rolling doors, and into a dark surgery with tall windows. The cracked stone washbasin beneath them was chipped smooth on one corner. The man held the candle to the basin’s oil lamps and turned up the wicks until the room glowed. A black iron swivel chair craned in the center, surrounded by cabinets and wooden benches.

I dropped the carpet bags and swung Papa into the chair. It swiveled toward the man, who had draped a surgeon’s apron around his neck and rolled up his shirtsleeves.

“What happened?” he asked Papa.

“He hurt his foot crossing the woods,” I said. The surgeon considered me carefully as he picked up a bandage from a crooked stack and dipped it in the basin. He cranked up the chair’s leg-rest, and peeled back the torn trouser.

“Now, what were you doing in Lexington Wood?” he asked, looking at Papa’s leg, but somehow I felt the words come at me.

Papa coughed, cleared his throat. “Traveling my way to Portsmouth. The roadway south is blocked. Deadfall.”

“Lot of dead ends in the woods,” said the surgeon as he moved the ankle around slowly. “The trees are treacherous. We’ve been clearing eastward, burning the wood at the quarter-festivals. Someday it will all be gone.” He smiled. “Wouldn’t that be something to see Lexington with children running in the streets again?” He seemed to cast his gaze out the window, but I felt his eyes in the reflection as he squeezed blood from the cloth. “Pity it’s a crossroads to the west. Some say Lexington fell because it was tainted by those loose West Union ways,” said the surgeon as he squeezed the wound. Papa winced and looked away.

“Is he alright?” my voice creaked out, my feet stepping forward.

“Your daddy will be fine, girl,” the surgeon said. “It’s a bad sprain, but I doubt the bone’s broken. I’ll bind it up with a poultice. He’ll be able to walk on it fully in a day or two.” He turned and dug his hands into a jar of yellowed herbs on the cabinet shelf.

“I can pay,” I said. I dug through the bags until I pulled out a few fat bundles of red bills.

“Unionist dollars,” the man said, raising an eyebrow. “We don’t take those here, girl. They’re hardly worth blowing your nose on, even in the west. If you don’t have coin then you’re going to have to trade something.”

“I got some good venison jerky,” said Papa, “or smokehouse almonds. I have a spyglass with a good fire-making lens.”

“I think you’ve got something more valuable to trade here, Joshua,” said the man as he glanced at me. “This town would appreciate the services of a good tailor. We’ve got two fine girls of age this quarter festival. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to cut out their wombs if a tailor didn’t pass through by quarter next.”

Papa nodded slowly as the man wet the poultice and smeared it on his skin. “There is that,” Papa said.

“Step into the other room child,” said the surgeon without meeting my eye, “Your daddy and I have things to discuss.”

I felt my face go warm and I drew in a slow breath. Papa looked reluctant. “Go on, girl,” he said.

I walked into the hall and drew shut the sliding doors. Some dim spill of light came from another door down the hall and I could see the red floral pattern of the hall rug.

Papa’s voice echoed through the wood with the quick, hushed tones of the surgeon. I turned my head, ear drifting closer to the crack trying to make out the words. I was focused so hard on the sound that I almost cracked my head against the door when I saw the woman staring at me from down the hall.

The sliding doors next to me rattled open. I stumbled back, the surgeon’s face close to mine. He stepped after me and slid the door firmly shut behind him. The candle in his hand was the only light in the dark hallway. The woman was gone.

“What’s your name, girl?”

“Elana.”

“I am Mister Greely.” He looked at me as if he was expecting me to curtsy. I nodded.

“Your daddy has agreed to stay on a few days and lace up our virgins. He is still a practicing tailor, is he not?”

“Yes sir, best in the West Union. I’m his apprentice daughter.”

“You uh,” he licked his lips, “you have had your womb branches cut and tied by a surgeon?”

“Of course,” I said, face reddening. “A summer back, in Georgetown.”

He gazed at me a moment. “Shame about Georgetown,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I said.

“The news only reached us a fortnight ago,” Mr. Greely, said reluctantly, “Georgetown was taken by the woods. Killed every man, woman and child. There’s nothing now but a forest sprung up over it as wide as a county.”

I blinked.

“West Union or not,” said Mr. Greely, “damn to hell the whores that ended that place.” He shook his head.

“How do you know my papa?” I asked slowly.

“How do I know your papa,” he repeated, his eyes trailing up my chest before continuing up to my lips and eyes. “You look just like your mama. She was a fine woman.”

“Did you know… Did they pass through here?”

Mr. Greely sniffed his nose. “Your mama, Daphne, was from right here in Applington. Your daddy was from Lexington. Least he used to be.”

My mouth felt too dry to form words, but I said “I’m sorry sir, my momma and papa were from a big town called Sacramento, far in the west.”

“I’ve never heard of it,” he said.

“It was taken by the woods a long time back.”

“Is that so? Where is your mama, girl?”

I looked away, “She died on the road when I was young.”

“Elana!” called papa’s voice.

Mr. Greely paused, his mouth wide like he’d been about to ask something. He reached back and slid the door open partway. “Your daddy’s going to rest in the chair tonight,” he said. “There’s a room for you across the hall here, next to mine.”

I could feel Papa’s eyes on me even though I didn’t look. “I’d rather rest in the room with my papa if it’s all the same to you, sir. To take care of him.”

Mr. Greely’s eyes ran down my belly to my feet.

“Suit yourself,” he said.

Every tailor creates a signature stitch unlike any other. Papa’s stitch is like arched branches, holding back the wind. My stitch is a series of lacy, interlocking hearts. I used to practice it in secret on the edges of raw steak, my fingers slick with blood and fat.

When I knew I would follow my Papa’s trade, I pulled out the simple cat’s cradle of little-girl stitch from my own body, and took to practicing my tailor’s stitch on myself. I’ve completed and pulled it out countless times, working in furtive moments. It feels good to bind the fear in my belly away with a thousand little stitches. I never let myself think that doing this was lying to Papa, or that Papa would ever lie to me.

The sharp points of stars glimmered in the tall windows. I stared restlessly at them until my vision began to go white and I saw points of black on the insides of my eyelids when I blinked. Papa snored in the chair, hat over his face. I pushed off the carpet bags and wrapped my hands around my feet. Mama’s pendent dropped from where I’d held it gently in my lips, and it dangled against my neck. I tasted the musk of its wood.

Your mama, Daphne, was from here in Applington.

The sharp creak of wood from somewhere in the hall startled me. I looked to Papa. He snorted but his breath stayed slow and even.

I stood up and crept to the sliding door. It was open just a fingers-breadth and the wheels squeaked as I pushed it open farther. Shadows filled the hall, but the red trellis of rug wound its flowers toward a light at the end. A doorway held the glow of a lamp on a kitchen basin. The other doors in the hall were firmly shut, save the one I’d seen the woman looking from. It was open, dark. I glanced back at Papa and stepped into the hall. My toes felt the rough weave of the rug through the holes in my stockings.

I tried not to breathe as I stepped by Greely’s door. I let my breath out when I was past, but the floor creaked under me as if the sound had escaped with my exhale. A chair scraped in the kitchen and the shadow on the wall stood up.

“Who’s there?” came the harsh whisper of a woman’s voice.

The woman stood by a table, knife in hand. The crimson rind of an apple curled off her plate. Her shoulders hunched like I’d caught her at something shameful. Her other arm came up to touch her face, and I realized the slender stump of it had no hand.

“I’m sorry,” I said quickly, almost stepping back.

“You shouldn’t be back here,” she said. Then she looked closer, lowering the knife. “You look just like her,” she said.

“Look like who?”

“Daphne. She’s your mama isn’t she?” she said. “I’m Wendy –Wendy Greely. Is your mama with you, down the hall?”

I tucked the pendant back into my shirt. “No, she’s… passed.”

The woman flinched and looked to the side. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just hoped when I saw you. I mean, your daddy showing up suddenly after all this time. Most folks around here thought she and Joshua were dead after they run off fifteen years back.”

“Why did they run?” I said, stepping into the kitchen.

“Didn’t your daddy tell you?

“I’m starting to think Papa never told me anything at all.” I gripped the back of one of the chairs.

Wendy looked at me. “I think maybe you should go. If Harlan comes home from the bonfire and sees me talking to you, he ain’t going to be happy.

“Tell me about my mama,” I whispered as I sat down at the table. “Please.”

After a moment she nodded. “Would you like some?” she said, pointing the knife at the apple. She pressed her stump into the dimple at the stem and sliced off the rest of the red skin.

“What happened to your hand?” I asked.

She hid the stump in the folds of her skirt. “Penance. I touched a boy’s thing. Y’ain’t supposed to do that.”

She brought the knife up again, sliced the apple in half. She put down the knife and picked up the white meat, bit into it.

“Daphne was a bit older than me,” she said. “We wasn’t the closest friends, you know, not like her and Harlan and Sarah Turnbuckle, but we all spent a lot of time together. Daphne was arranged to marry Joe Underhill, the preacher’s firstborn son from Lexington. She put up such a fight with her daddy. Had no idea why. He was a boy of good standing. It made the other suitors come right out of the woodwork, it did. No one expected your daddy.”

“He asked for her hand in marriage?” I said, picking up the wedge of apple.

“Hardly. Your daddy was secondborn, and a tailor’s apprentice at that.”

The apple slipped from my hand leaving a wet stain on the table’s edge as it skittered onto the floor. I reached for it but I ended up staring at my own shaking fingers. Wendy gazed at the lamp, eyes far away.

“Joshua was supposed to help his daddy stitch Daphne up for her wedding day,” said Wendy. “Instead he up and runs off with her. What a scandal. He was my age — just about to get gelded like me. She was in love with him, though. I brought her my daddy’s brass seeding rod from his surgery kit when she asked. Told her she was a fool to do it…” she trailed off. Blinked, looked at me.

“You’re her firstborn daughter, ain’t you?”

“No, no,” I said, “I’m just a tailor’s apprentice now. I’m gelded.”

“It’s ok,” Wendy said with a grin, “I know how to keep secrets. I remember when you were just a dot. Your mama bore you right in that surgery chair in the other room. She and your papa snuck back into town for that. Nobody knows about that but Harlan and me. I think you were the first baby Harlan ever done deliver. He didn’t let me or your daddy watch but I heard you cry through that door crack.”

“He helped my folks?”

“Course he did. They ran off from their kin into a world of trouble. Who else were they going to turn to?”

“What happened to my mama’s kin?”

“Well… Some of them lived in Lexington, and the rest, they were all there the night that… Well that the woods ate everything. That’s how Harlan tells it.”

I sat back in the chair, eyes on the glow of the oil lamp.

“Harlan, Mr. Greely, he’s your husband?”

“No,” her laugh a nervous bray. “Harlan’s my brother, he’s firstborn but he ain’t married no one yet, so he took up daddy’s trade when he died. I’m secondborn, gelded but I ain’t an apprentice like you. I just keep the house. Help out in the surgery room where I can. But you… you’re Daphne’s firstborn, ain’t you?”

I nodded.

“Must be frightening, being a virgin-mother with no town or kin to protect you.”

I felt a chill pass through me, and she must have seen it. She reached out her good hand and laid it over mine. “Only woman I ever met that wasn’t scared of nothing was your mama, so don’t you worry either.”

I heard a door slam open and she stood suddenly.

“Wendy?” Mr. Greely’s voice echoed down the hall. I heard the front door close.

Wendy’s jaw worked, but nothing came out. She picked up the knife and waved me back toward the wall next to the doorsill.

“I’m getting a bite to eat, Harlan,” she called. His heavy footsteps came down the rug. She pressed me up against the wall by the doorsill with her stump, and stepped into the doorway.

“What are you doing out of bed?” His voice slurred just outside the sill. I could smell the corn whisky from his breath.

“Hush, Harlan, you got guests, remember?”

There was silence, a long sniff.

“You stay away from them, you hear? Just a tailor passing through. He’ll do his work and be gone come festival end.”

“Yes, Harlan.”

I heard footsteps move away, the creak of the hall floor.

“Not a word about them to anyone, you hear?”

“Yes, Harlan.”

The click of a door swinging shut.

“You,” said Wendy, looking down the hall.”Back to your daddy. Don’t come out. Not till you’re done with your work and heading far away from this place.”

I looked down at her hand with the knife. Her fingers were gripped white on the handle.

She took up the lamp and left the knife in the basin. I traced her footsteps down the hall past Mr. Greely’s room. She gazed at me as she turned down the wick to nothing. I turned in the dark doorway and couldn’t tell if I had seen the glint of Papa’s eyes, watching from the chair.

The heart of every stitch is the heartstring — the thread that, when cut, causes the pattern to effortlessly slip aside for birthing. The whole stitch must slip wide when the baby’s head is ready to crown or it can strangle the child. A tangle in the pattern can tear out the stitches, letting the mother bleed to death. The pattern must be able to draw back together like a boot-lace the moment midwives lay the leafy green placenta into a hot iron skillet.

I’ve helped Papa rethread the heartstrings of virgin-mothers. It’s simple work, whether the stitch is another tailor’s or your own. Sometimes I dream I’m threading a woman’s heartstring and when I look up from my bloody fingers, her face is the one on my mama’s pendant. These dreams always comfort me.

The nightmare is when the face is my own.

My fingers threaded the needle, licking on a bit of spit to make it lay flat on the eye. I placed it with the others on the fold of cloth, and laid out the spools of silvered thread, the linens, and kettle of steaming water. Papa was quiet the way he’d been since he returned. Nothing more than orders and grunts.

I had awoken late morning to find him gone. I could hear the bass of his voice from a closed door down the hall, mixing with Greely’s drawling baritone. The sun had crawled past noon before papa returned with a bowl of fried chicken.

Papa didn’t meet my eyes as we ate in silence. He’d spent his time staring at the empty surgeon’s chair. There was a knock and Mr. Greely ushered in the first of the girls before I’d finished my last drumstick.

This girl had to be younger than me by a year. She lay in the iron chair, her fingers playing nervously with her bonnet string. The hem of her red velvet dress fanned up below her chin, and she had to stop herself from folding it down as she watched Papa wash his hands again and again in the stone basin. The room felt naked without the familiar group of womenfolk gathered round to chant and hold her hands. I didn’t know if Mr. Greely had arranged to keep the womenfolk away from Papa, or if this was just the way they did things in the east.

“Mr. Greely has left us some ether to use on the girls, to keep them calm,” said Papa as if the girl wasn’t laying right there, eyes nervous. Next to the bottles of alcohol and penicillin, a wadded rag lay tucked against the ether. On the table before it, Mr. Greely had laid out a white cloth with a line of gleaming scalpels.
“Remember child, a little ether goes a long way,” said Papa. He folded his sleeves back to the elbow.

“What are the knives for Papa?”

“Don’t you worry about them,” said Papa. “Easterners, they often cut… the girls before they sew them. I won’t do such things. You just tend to that ether. No more than a few drops now.”

“Yes, Papa.” I uncorked the bottle and turned toward the sink. I poured a big palm sized splash of ether onto the cloth and spread it around with my thumb.

The girl flinched as I pressed the cloth over her mouth and nose. She glanced between me and Papa sorting his needles. Within a breath, her eyes went unfocused and rolled slowly back into their lids. The room was very quiet.

“Papa?” I asked as I handed him the first needle.

“Yes, girl?” he said flexing the girl’s flesh carefully with his fingers to pucker the folds of skin just right. He didn’t even need to hold her leg.

“Did you and Mama birth me in Sacramento, or… after you escaped from it?” I said.

His eyes glanced sharply between the girl and me. “Elana Anne, this is no subject to be speaking on,” he said, his tone final.

“She can’t hear us talking Papa.” My hand lifted the cloth from the girl’s mouth, showing the smooth, slack face.

“That don’t matter. These aren’t questions to be asking a father.”

“I ain’t got no mama to ask these things to, Papa. You’re having me marry Tom Wayland in less than a fortnight. You’ve showed me how to sew a virgin-mother, but there are things about birth and the curse that Mama would have taught me by now.”

He sighed, suddenly small and weary. “We bore you on the road, but your mama and I conceived you the way that all parents do. With a jar of water and a brass seeding rod.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Not if it’s done right.”

“What if it’s done wrong?”

Papa kept working, his fingers nimble.

The girl moaned. I checked her eye with my thumb and draped the cloth back over her mouth.

“I reckon I should have told you the birds and the bees by now,” said Papa, drawing the threads taught. “I’m sorry I’ve kept so much from you.”

I nodded.

“Imagine,” said Papa, “that you are a woman whose fertility has come. Your womb is like a little tree Elana. A little girl tree with two branches, heavy with fruit. Every seed a man puts inside will try to find one of those fruit. Every seed. Inseminate a woman with a drop of a man’s green seed diluted in a pint of water and you may bear a child, or two or three. Give a woman much more, and she becomes something unlike herself. The little tree inside starts to grow and take shape. There’s something in us Elana, something that can’t be put to sleep once it’s woken.”

“What does it have to do with the curse, Papa?”

“I don’t know that it rightly is a curse, Elana. The chapel hymns will tell you so. Your mama used to say that the Tree of Life was supposed to grant life eternal. That there was something holy about the trees if we could just find it. I loved your mama, but I can’t say I believed her way either. The trees don’t burst out of the ground at God’s call to punish people nor to grant them eternal life.”

“They don’t?” I whispered.

“No,” said Papa. His eyes grew distant. His fingers laced without looking, making the pattern distort.

“The people are the trees, Elana. The trees burst from inside of them. It spreads like wildfire the moment they’re caught by the branches and roots of those others that have been touched. Their skin splits and the roots rush everywhere. The sound of it is terrible.”

My back touched the lip of the stone basin as I shrank back from his words.

“How would you know what it sounds like unless you watched it happen, Papa?” I said, staring into his eyes. “You didn’t come from Sacramento. You and Mama saw it happen right here, didn’t you? In Lexington.”

Papa stared at me, stunned. He stood still, trapped with a taught thread in each hand. “Where did you even… Shut your mouth, girl.”

“No.”

“You will mind me.” he said.

“You can’t make me. You can’t even make me marry Tom. You and mama ran away from that fate yourself.”

“You have no right no right to be talking to me this way!”

“You gave me this right,” I screamed, “when you lied to me about everything!”

His slap stung my face. My head turned round slowly, lips shuddering. The needles swung back and forth on their threads below Rebecca’s bleeding labia. All of the tension in the thread had gone out.

I stumbled back toward the doors and ran.

“Elana,” Papa cried as I shoved through the sliding doors and out the front door. It slammed open so hard it bounced closed again.

I ran past the barn and through the apple trees, ran toward the main road and the sounds of music, the distant smell of wood smoke.

I slowed and stopped amidst the dark boughs, my back against the far side of a gnarled trunk. The tears came. The ache of it wracked me from head to belly. I crouched and gripped the little pendant at my neck till the cord bit my skin.

“What are you doing out here in the trees, girl?” a voice said by my ear. My breath leapt from my mouth. Mr. Greely came round the far side of the tree supported by his hand.

“Leave me alone,” I said.

“Aren’t you supposed to be helping your daddy with the debutantes?”

“No,” I croaked and stepped back from the tree.

“Where you going?” He said, stepping forward. A half smile played on his lips.

“I have to get back to my Papa.”

He gave a guttural sigh and leaned against the trunk, nodding as if this were some great revelation.

“You picked a fight with him didn’t you?” he beamed. “Don’t deny it. I can see it on your face.”

“No,” I said.

He laughed, “I thought you would. Now what did you fight about?”

I edged toward the road and the distant sound of laughter.

“Oh,” he said, not moving. “You asked about your mama, didn’t you?”

My feet stopped.

“Did he tell you where your mama is?” he said, voice growing earnest. “Tell me, girl. Tell me what happened to her.” His eyes searched my face.

“I don’t know,” I said in a fierce whisper.

His eyes burned into mine for second, but then he laughed, settled his whole weight back against the tree. I caught that faint sharpness of whisky over the mold of fallen apples.

“Did he tell you that he was supposed to stitch up your mama and that he stole away with her instead?”

“No,” I whispered. His smile grew wider.

“Did he tell you they came sneaking back one night when her belly was like a cow, begging me with nowhere else to turn? She was half starved and I was sure those babies in her had to be dead. You and your little brothers and sisters–all still-born except for you. Your daddy ruined her, made her an outcast. And I was the one that pulled those dead babies from her and told her I’d take care of her and bury her secrets. I told her if she begged to the town elders, I’d say that your daddy took her against her will. I told her I’d love her and make her an honest woman. And she said yes.” He pounded his fist on the trunk.

“No, she’d never…” I whispered.

“Oh she did,” he said, pushing himself off the tree slowly. “And you know what she told me when I pulled you out of the womb, live and wriggling?”

I could only shake my head.

“She told me to give you over and she damned me to hell for tempting her. So I reached down and ripped out that whore’s stitches. Told her she’d never survive the bleeding if she didn’t stay. I would have killed you then if your daddy hadn’t burst in. He didn’t know why she was screaming and clutching at you, but for all the blood and those dead babies on the floor. He promised to drag you both off and never return. But I knew she’d crawl back to me if she wanted to live a good life. So I let her go. And the next day, Lexington was gone. Just gone. And she’s gone.” A tear rolled down his quivering lip.

His hand grasped my elbow and yanked me forward. My knees skinned against tree roots, and I shrieked. He pressed himself against me. “You may be no virgin-mother like her, but you’re a lying whore just the same.”

I screamed into the sweaty cloth of his shirt as my skin dragged down the bark. His weight stabbed the wooden pendant into my skin and I choked under his hand and his corn-liquor breath.

His fingers tore at his belt and my skirts until I felt the crude, metal rings in his skin press against me. He fumbled at them, trying to twist the metal as I kicked him. Rings are forged to hold, but somehow he worked them loose quickly until his hardness slapped against my thigh. The barbed jag of the open metal hoop tore my skin as he slid against my stitches and failed to thrust inside. He was blurting my mother’s name over and over, and there was a gush of warmth from his seed. I felt it splash across my aching thighs.

“Crap,” he said, in a small voice.

I choked against his fat palm, feeling the terror in my belly as his seed dripped down the outside of my stitch, burning my skin like a rash. I froze, afraid to move even as the anger grew past fear and my teeth bit at his hand till he yanked it away.

“You bastard!” yelled a voice that I first thought was mine. Wendy was slapping at Greely, hitting him on the head. “Get off of her!” she yelled. “You can’t make her touch you the way you made me. Don’t you know what she is? She’s a virgin!”

I yelled and fought to push him off, no longer hearing Wendy’s shouting, just kicking and wrestling. His face changed from angry to empty to terrified. His hands came back, wrapped around my throat, choked off my scream.

Something rose through my terror and fury, something like a distant voice. It called my name with the urgency of a mother. I felt the deep well of power in my belly as I thrashed and choked and the sky went black. Mama’s voice was with me as I was dying, whispering my name, and the sound of what I could become.

I reached for that inner fire as his fingers crushed the last breath from my throat. My fingers scratched down his side until they slipped between us and gripped my aching stitches. I found the heartstring and ripped it. My fingers twitched in the dying light, then thrust the failed wetness of his seed inside of me.

The pain left instantly. The shadows became such a beautiful color I had never known. Blackgreen. My body filled with strength and wildfire, pushing him up.

He clutched at me and began to yell. Tried to get off and couldn’t. He just kept slipping and shuddering as the black veins burst from my belly and burrowed into his flesh.

As he threw himself back, his penis ripped free of his crotch. The little thing dangled in the roots that grew between my thighs, draped like a weed caught in driftwood. Wendy started screaming. Mr. Greely fell over and made no sound.

I wanted to hold this hatred, but it’s hard when the world is so beautiful. The sound inside my head was the verdant chorus of a thousand leaves. I basked in the shafts of sunset light, each caressing me like a kiss. The woman’s screams clashed against the song, so I put a hand out to stop her. The vines of my fingers burst through her mouth. Her body writhed as my flesh rooted into hers, joining her into our growing song. She fell on top of him, already wracked with his own becoming.

Mama’s voice was in me, I could hear her song clearly from the wooden pendant against my skin and know that Papa had carved it from her own wood. In a language without words the voice welcomed me home.

Another voice, just as familiar as Mama’s, called out through the orchard. It rose against the music of the distant bonfire.

“Elana! Elana where are you?” Papa called and the sound of his voice felt like the color of summer rain. He limped around the trunk of the apple tree.

My many tendrils wrapped around Papa.

“Papa,” I cried, as he yelled and struggled. “What happened to Momma?”

“No,” he cried, “No… Not like this.”

“Tell me what happened to her.” The budding limb of my arm reached out and touched him, brushed his hair softly.

He broke into a sob and the words came out in a rush. “She was bleeding to death. We tried to go back to our kin in Lexington, but they beat her and locked us up. They were going to kill us. Kill you.”

The tendrils cradled him as he whispered the words. “She wanted us to cause the wood together, to live forever where we could always be with you. I pulled… myself out of her when she stopped breathing. I thought she was dead. I broke right out of that room and ran with you. When I heard the sound of the trees tearing through the town behind us, I knew she must have still….”

“It’s ok, Papa, Mama’s here with us, and it’s so beautiful,” I whispered, feeling the quickening inside. The song surged beyond all control, a joyful goodbye to all anger and lies. To all cruelty and shame. To all stitches and rings.

I stretched in all directions, tunneling through wall and stone, wood and flames, men, women and screaming children.

“No. Please,” he whispered as I brought him home.

____
Copyright 2013 Christopher Reynaga

Christopher Reynaga is a first place winner for the 2012 Writers of the Future, recipient of the Bazzanella Literary Award for Short Fiction and a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. He has stories appearing in such venues as Cemetery Dance, The Book of Cthulhu 2, Boys of Summer and Expanded Horizons. You can follow him into the dark heart of the woods at @ChrstphrReynaga and www.ChristopherReynaga.com

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