Logic and Magic in the Time of the Boat Lift
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…
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. Read about this in Miami’s Libraries.
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.
“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.
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?”
“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?
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.”
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.
“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
About the Authors
Ben Burgis writes speculative fiction and realist fiction and sometimes even grocery lists and rent checks and Facebook status updates. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast program in Maine, where he spent his residencies sitting in workshops during the day and sneaking bottles of whisky into swimming pools at night with degenerates like Zachary Jernigan and the lady sometimes known as Caspian Gray. These days, he enjoys a respectably bourgeois life as an adjunct community college professor in Florida.
His story “Smokestacks Like the Arms of Gods” was the first piece of full-length original fiction to run at Podcastle, and his story “Dark Coffee, Bright Light and the Paradoxes of Omnipotence” appeared in Prime Books anthology People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy. He blogs at benburgis.livejournal.com.