Rank #1: PodCastle 581: Fathoms Deep and Fathoms Cold
- Author : Merc Fenn Wolfmoor
- Narrator : Brian Murphy
- Host : Setsu Uzume
- Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
- Discuss on Forums
Content warning: sexual assault
Rated R, for lustful magic.
Note: Merc recently changed their name, so while the podcast lists an old name, they are now going by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, the name credited on the website.
Fathoms Deep and Fathoms Cold
By Merc Fenn Wolfmoor
Tage lights a cigarette and watches the man in the scarlet fedora come nearer. Hat like that’s hard to miss. This one’s his contact. His heartbeat gets quick. The docks are loud, briny, thick with bodies. Storms scrape the horizon, kick up sharp winds. He can’t show desperation. It’ll get him killed or left stranded. Same difference.
“Afternoon.” The man tips his hat. Long black duster hangs about a too-thin frame, but he don’t look weak. Dual revolvers rest on his hips. “I hear tell you’re looking for passage.”
Tage grunts, shifts his weight for better balance. He didn’t expect another wizard. The twisty, rusted aura ‘round the man is too fucked to be purely one Clan. It puts his guard up, fast. “Depends whereto.”
The man smiles, charming. It never reaches his faded blue eyes. “We’re headed for Aldare. Whale Fall’s a good vessel, and we have room for a couple passengers who’ll work for it.” He speaks with a slow drawl. “You left a calling card with the barkeeper.”
“I can work,” Tage says. He don’t have enough to pay even a modest fare. He ran, scarce a fortnight ago. Left everything behind. He ain’t got much experience, and when word gets out he’s VanDrake, a wizard from one of the most feared Clans, no crew will risk taking him on.
The Clan thinks he’s dead. He keeps trying not to wish it, too.
“You ever been on a submersible?” the man asks.
The man hooks his thumbs through his belt. He might’ve been eye-catching once. Sharp-boned face, shaved, with odd-shaped tattoos across one cheek that match his hair — black and gray. He looks Tage up and down, critical. “It’s cramped. Not much space, and no deck. Can you handle living in metal and glass for long days?”
Tage ain’t sure. There’s nowhere to run in the sea. “What’ll the work be?”
“Manual, easy enough.” The man’s gaze is iron-hard. “Do what you’re told and no magic. Clear?”
Tage’s gut turns. Something’s wrong here — not just the threat. The man should be asking more questions. “Yeah.”
“Good.” Suddenly, the man smiles again and proffers a hand. “I’m Marcus Grey.”
“Tage. VanDrake.” Last test. If the other wizard balks, shows any sign he’s here to grab Tage, he’ll run. Or fight. Ends the same — he won’t be taken back to the Clan.
Marcus Grey’s expression and body language don’t change. “May I welcome you aboard the Whale Fall, VanDrake?”
Self-exile. He don’t want to see the ghost-memories of everything he’s lost, the ones that won’t let him rest. It’s Kane’s face, mostly. He got his brother killed and he can’t forget. It hurts too much to stay here.
Tage takes a final drag on the cigarette, drops it, then crushes the butt under his boot heel. He takes Grey’s hand, shakes it once. “Yeah.”
The Whale Fall ain’t even docked. Tage squints against the salt spray whitening the wharves. Waves shatter against piers, rock the ships at anchor. He’s so close to the furthest pier edge, one step and he’d be in the sea. He leans hard against the barnacle-crusted post.
Beside him, Marcus Grey holds his fedora down with one hand, shields his eyes with the other. Wind scratches their coats, bites with ice.
Tage shivers. He’s soaked through. Has to shout above the storm. “Where’s your boat?”
Grey leans into the wind, teeth bared in delight. “She’ll be here. Hold steady.”
Water froths, peels aside, and blackened steel rises from the ocean, well away from the dock. Tage can’t see more than the front of the Whale Fall. He almost steps back off the wood planking.
The vessel’s long, arrow-shaped with a domed front made of shadow-darkened glass. Sharp fins line the top like a razored spine. Under the water, he glimpses pale light: circular windows dotting the sides. Even distanced, he feels the hum of unfamiliar power in his bones. Tage ain’t sure the ship’s alive, but it’s close.
A skiff jumps against the waves, zips right toward them. Unmanned. It bumps against the pier, holds steady. A thin cable connects it somewhere near the middle of the submersible’s bulk.
“Last chance to refuse,” Grey shouts.
Wind gusts hair into Tage’s face and salt-stings his eyes. Escape. He tastes it, metallic in the air, sees it in the dark frame and magic-wrapped glass.
He swings down next to Grey in the skiff. Reeled in, the tiny boat skims through the choppy waters. Tage grips the edges until his fingers numb. There’s a narrow ladder curling rib-like down the Whale Fall’s side. Grey climbs, quick, wet duster slapping his sides. Tage follows.
Inside it’s too warm. They enter a small chamber, smooth walls and a ceiling higher than he expected. He can stand without hunching. The smell hits him. Dry air laced with sweat, metal. All ‘round him the ship’s wards brush his senses, solid and . . . safe. He expects hostility, pain. But the Whale Fall feels like a home.
Unexpected, Tage wants to run. He don’t deserve to feel safe again.
“Put your weapons here.” Grey touches one wall; a panel pops open. A small locker. Blue-green light rings the ceiling, thin piping he don’t recognize. No flames. “No one will touch your effects.”
Tage eyes the other wizard. Grey’s magic still ain’t distilled into something he can pinpoint. It itches his nape, constant. He notices his clothes are drying fast.
Grey grins. “We’re surrounded by an ocean. I don’t need wet crew dripping in the halls.”
Above them, a hatch snaps closed and Grey spins the lock. Air hisses, then the hatch is sealed. Tage puts the pistols and two knives in the locker. Don’t take off the charms ‘round his wrists, or the boot knives.
Grey only lifts an eyebrow. “If you harm anyone on this vessel without my permission, VanDrake, I’ll give you to the sea.”
Tage narrows his eyes. Long as no one gives him reason to hurt ’em, he won’t. He’s an enforcer. He’s used to threats. He nods once, shows he understands.
A narrow hallway leads them to another room, this one with windows. Tage blinks. Some mirrored trick or illusion on the glass lets him see the full length of the Whale Fall, prow to tail.
“I can sense everything inside and out on this ship,” Grey says. “But I like to give the men a good view, too.”
Tage gives Grey a sidelong glance. He shifts, can’t entirely dismiss the way the wizard’s damp clothes cling against his body.
Engines hum, propellers turn. They begin sinking. He grabs the wall, his stomach near his throat. The storm-tossed waters turn from slate to deeper blue, then black. Downwards. Lights snap on against the Whale Fall’s sides, illuminate the deeps.
The turbulence eases.
Tage touches the glass. It sparks with a rust-tinged magic bite, but it don’t hurt him.
“I’ve warded the whole ship,” Grey says. “I won’t say it was easy, or gets easier with each voyage, but it’s what I live for.” The madness ain’t faded from his eyes. “To traverse the ocean deeps, where no man can live . . . It’s like walking among the stars of Heaven.”
More like Hell, in the dark, where there’s nothing alive.
“Giving your usual poetic spiel to the unwary, Mr. Grey?”
Tage turns, sharp. He keeps his back straight, don’t drop hand to his pistol. Realizes too late he’s already locked it away.
“You wound me, Captain.” There’s a smile in Grey’s voice. “I did warn Mr. VanDrake what life aboard this ship was like.”
A woman in an immaculate white smoking jacket and high black boots strolls towards them, flanked by two crewmen. Big, broad, hair as white as her coat, the captain projects authority, calm. She ain’t one to trifle with.
Tage nods, polite. “Captain.”
Captain Norris’s sharp gaze sweeps Tage head to toe. It’s got none of the suggestiveness Grey’s looks do. “Another wizard, Mr. Grey?”
Tage glances at Grey, who shrugs one shoulder.
“Very well. You will follow Mr. Grey’s orders to earn your passage.” The captain offers a hand. “Might I welcome you aboard, Mr. VanDrake?”
Tage shakes Norris’s hand, still tense.
The captain turns. “We dive to fifteen fathoms, and then continue deep across the sea.”
The trio leave Tage and Grey alone.
“This way,” Grey says. Down the hall again, into another shallow room. Brass-rimmed circular windows dot the wall. These don’t show the full vessel, just the sea’s darkness. “This is the port observation pod. It’s got a fine view, if you fancy.”
Grey leads him through all of Whale Fall: the bridge, the tiny crew bunks, the engines, the galley, one observation pod that smells of tobacco smoke. “If you want to smoke, you do it here and only here,” Grey says.
They arrive back at the tiny cabin Tage has been given. A narrow bunk built into the wall, a chest, nothing more. It’s enough.
“We run on engine power for a while,” Grey says. He leans against the door, left open. “I’ve a few volumes of nautical research, if you like dry reading. Savatori has cards or dice. You can always ask Alton, the ship’s cabin boy, if you want anything else.”
Tage nods. “So what do you do?”
Grey’s teeth show. “I’ll show you.”
Behind the bridge there’s a ladder that leads up to a small domed chamber hidden among the sharp fins atop the ship. The air smells of dried sweat and leather. Tage squints. His nape tenses. Too easy to get jumped in the dark.
“Watch,” Grey says, and the darkness changes, shifts. Takes a moment before Tage realizes the walls have slid back. They’re in a glass bubble, nothing but the sea above and all around them.
Tage’s breath catches. The submersible is descending at a slow incline, lights wrapping the ship in faint luminescence. Sleek fish flit past, a silver band in the soft headlamp’s glow. The edges of rock formations shimmer with crabs and clams, and he spots a school of multi-colored fish dancing around long strands of kelp that float like ghosts.
Grey lays a hand against the glass. “This is what makes it worth it. Our cargo manifest, the jobs we take. It’s mercurial. Necessary. This is what reminds me there are beautiful things in the world.” He rests his forehead on his arm. “It’s the closest I feel to home.”
Tage glances sharp at Grey. He didn’t expect that — the other wizard sounds lonely. Adrift, like him.
“Where you from?” Tage asks.
“Originally? Aldare, but I’ve not called that home in a long time.”
A manta ray glides past them. Tage cranes his neck, watches the winged fish sail through the water graceful as an angel. His throat tightens. He wishes Kane were here. His brother would’ve loved everything about the submersible. Would’ve asked all the questions Tage can’t think of.
“You look like you need a drink,” Grey says.
In the galley, Alton the cabin boy sets two wooden mugs on the narrow table. Can’t be more than fourteen. Pale, sandy-haired, bright-eyed.
Grey catches Alton’s elbow and offers a wry smile. “Get the cook’s old brandy, and grab a mug for yourself. New hands need to be properly christened!”
The kid grins, scuttles off. Tage don’t miss the admiring glances Alton casts at Grey over his shoulder.
Grey sobers soon as the kid is out of sight. “I won’t ask who you lost.”
Tage opens his mouth, the words dried in his throat. Sharp pain scrapes behind his eyes, salty. He glares and clenches his hands on his knees. Grey looks at him — Tage never did find the line between pity and sympathy. Neither will bring his brother back.
“May the one you lost rest well until the Heavens return.” Grey touches his knuckles against his chest and then spreads his hand, palm up.
The gesture throws Tage. That a stranger would care don’t make sense. He looks away.
Alton returns. Grey takes the bottle, pours them each a brandy. He passes one to the kid.
“To our new crewmate, Mr. Tage VanDrake. Long life and health to you — and may you always stay on the ocean’s good will.” Grey tosses back his drink.
Why not. Tage drains his mug.
A day passes. Tage checks for any loosened bolts along the ballast tanks. Wrench in his hand’s like a club. Still, it’s work and he don’t have to think. Marcus Grey comes to check on him, nods in approval at the job done, Tage feels good. Ain’t lost that want for appreciation.
“What Clan are you from?” he asks. The odd sensation any time he’s near Grey unsettles him. He needs to know.
“Originally VanMere.” A Clan renowned for its fascination with and power of illusions. As if to prove it, he twists his hands and cups the life-like image of a fire dragon, the symbol from which the VanDrake Clan took its name. The palm-sized dragon hisses at Tage; its teeth look all-too sharp. Tage is impressed.
Marcus tosses the dragon into the air and it slithers into the ballast tank and vanishes. “That was a long time ago. You know how invasive magic is.”
It’s in blood and seed, the whole body. The magic spreads through sex: wizards taking the uninfected and turning them. Ain’t always consensual. Wizards need other wizard lovers to keep the magic strong, replenished. The magic can also be taken: pulled through skin and breath. It’s agonizing, messy, deadly. Takes a skilled wizard to channel another’s power and use it as their own without killing their partner. Tage’s handler, Bonnie Frost, is one such woman. She did it to him rarely, but he sometimes has nightmares about the pain.
“So happens, I had a few too many partners who weren’t VanMere. Including VanDrake wizards.” Marcus winks. “Over the years, it changes a man.” He rubs a thumb along the steel-plated wall. “I call claim to no Clan anymore.”
Tage’s fingers twitch. He used to hunt rogues. How’s he any better now?
Unexpected, Marcus laughs. He streaks his hair back with one hand. “Clanless doesn’t mean rogue, Tage. The VanMere Clan disowned me. Not the other way around.”
“Clans don’t let anyone go.” Kane’s dead because of that. Because of him. He clenches his fists before he chokes on guilt, on tears he ain’t shed.
Marcus eyes him up and down again. “Hell’s saddle, you’re a piece of work. I forget how hard they break you in.”
He tenses, throat tight. He ain’t broken.
No, he fought to keep Kane safe. Except he pressed too hard, and Kane ran, joined a murderous rogue to escape. A malfunctioning portal killed Kane and the rogue. Alive one moment, dead the next. Nothing Tage could do to stop it.
Tage needs air, needs it bad. He turns, stumbles into the hall. He’s so alone it hurts. Knife wounds and crushed bones don’t bring pain like this. He wants it to stop. All around, the water presses at him. The sea is forever, massive. It’ll crush him. He needs out.
A hand claps his shoulder. “Breathe, mate.”
He jerks away, turns.
Marcus lifts his arms, non-threatening, and steps back. “Easy there, easy. You’re pressure sick. Happens to some on first dive. Breathe slow, it’ll pass.”
Tage leans back against the wall, fists clenched. Focuses on what’s real: his coat. It’s his pride. He’s been VanDrake for ten years, since he was fourteen. Heavy, supple leather presses against his shoulders and spine, grounds him. Air in his lungs is enough. The panic ebbs.
Tage sucks in a shaky breath, then another. The ocean don’t feel as close, now. The submersible’s shielded, safe. He won’t drown. He nods once, not trusting his voice.
Marcus offers a wry, honest smile. “Good. Just rest. It gets better, one way or another.”
Third day into the journey, Marcus swings by his cabin after evening mess. “How you doing?”
Tage is reading one of the books Savatori lent him — a pulp novel about pirates. He’s not impressed. Pirates ain’t nearly that civilized in his experience. He sets the book down. “Fine.”
Marcus leans on the doorframe. His shirt’s unbuttoned, and he ain’t wearing his hat. Looks relaxed. “Glad to hear. We’ll be in Aldare by midday tomorrow. We’ve just entered the Trench of Heaven.”
Marcus grins. “Norris dubbed it. It’s a rift cut deep between bedrock. Total blackness. I think she meant it as a joke. Still, it’s a direct path and still waters for a dozen leagues or so. Couple hours and we’ll start purging the ballast tanks and rising towards the shallows.”
Tage nods. “Been wondering. What’d you do before this?” Jerks his chin at the cabin, means the submersible.
Marcus pulls off his shirt. Lean, muscular, he sports more tattoos than scars. Great black and blue whorls in intricate patterns cover his back and slip ‘round his waist and dip lower. Faint scar ridges show under the ink. A whale skeleton sinks towards a sandy seabed on one arm; the other’s covered with words Tage can’t read.
“I’ve been many things, for a lot of people. I’ve traveled the world and seen . . .” He clears his throat. “Wonders and horrors is close enough to describe it. Bet you’ve known the same, huh?”
Tage shrugs. He’s seen horrors, yeah. Maybe some wonders, too.
Marcus smiles. “Being aboard the Whale Fall is the most rewarding job I’ve had. Besides, I meet such intriguing people.” He winks.
Tage hides surprise, but it’s secondary to building arousal as he looks at Marcus. It feels like forever since he’s been with anyone. He swallows. The loneliness is as bad as the ache, the need to be touched. Tage has always — only — wanted partners older than him. Can’t stand the idea of younger lovers. It’s too easy to hurt the ones who can’t fight back.
And with Marcus, he don’t got to worry about hurting no one.
“What are you going to do with your life now?” Marcus takes a step closer. In the cabin, he only needs one step to be nearly touching Tage.
Tage can see the other wizard’s as hard as he is. “What do you mean?”
Marcus shrugs, runs a hand through his hair. Tiny barbed tattoos trace the sides of his neck and link across his spine. “You’re not going back to your Clan, are you?”
Tage tenses. “You’re one to talk.”
“I know the look . . . they hurt you, and they’ll do worse again if they get you back.” He grabs Tage by the shoulders, brings his face close. “You could stay on, you know.” His voice turns husky. “No one can find us under the sea. On this ship, you’d never be alone again.”
Tage don’t want to know how Marcus can read him so well. Don’t want to think about that offer, or how tempted he is.
Marcus says, “Ponder it,” and kisses Tage hard on the mouth.
Tage’s heartbeat pounds his ears. He snags Marcus’s shaggy hair and pulls him closer. Marcus’s tongue against his teeth makes his whole body tingle. Skin is hot against his.
“You consent?” Marcus asks, his hands against Tage’s chest.
Tage is almost caught off guard, being asked. But it snuffs out the lingering doubt. “Fuck yes.”
Marcus chuckles, knees apart Tage’s legs, unbuckles his belt. Tage sucks his breath in. Marcus kisses him again. Heat — pleasure — curls up Tage’s belly. He wants more. He drags Marcus closer, desperate. He shifts his weight back, lets Marcus pull his jeans down, out of the way. Marcus pauses long enough to shuck free of remaining clothes. Tage appreciates the view, leans forward, cups his hands ‘round Marcus’s hips and pulls him close.
The cabin lurches, throws them both against the side wall. Tage flails, catches himself before he falls. “What the hell —?”
Marcus staggers back, cursing. The Whale Fall keels again. He scrambles for his trousers, pulls them on, bolts for the door. “Something just slammed us starboard.”
Tage fumbles for his jeans. The strain in Marcus’s voice has his nerves edged. Goddamn it.
Sailors brush past him, scrambling for stations. Swearing echoes. The floor tilts again. Tage grabs at the wall, his stomach lurching opposite the ship. He pushes his way into the bridge, stops cold. Can’t speak, can’t even breathe.
Outside the domed glass and steel mantle, all he sees are monsters.
They float, glowing in the dark. Spiraled shells rimmed in blue-green luminescence. Big shallow eyes rest on either side of a swarm of tentacles that curl out from the shell. The tip of each tentacle has a pinkish-white glow. There’s a dozen creatures, maybe, big as draft horses.
One nudges into the Whale Fall’s nose, tentacles sliding across the glass. Wards flare bright. The creature pokes the ship again and wiggles more appendages free of its shell. The others crowd nearer, tentacles still bunched inside.
“Nautiluses,” Captain Norris says. “I was not aware they migrated this high so early in the year.”
Tage wants them away from the glass. He keeps picturing those tentacles ramming through the window, letting in the sea.
Marcus laughs, leaning on the captain’s chair in relief. “They’re just spawn.”
Norris’s scarred jaw tightens. “They are big enough to damage my ship, Mr. Grey.”
“But not a threat,” Marcus says. A swirl of tattoos, thin teal lines, shine iridescent on his skin. “We just intersected with a passing stream. Dim the forelights and they’ll lose interest. They must think we’re one of them.”
The headlamps on Whale Fall fade. The great beasts still dart and twirl around the ship, bumping into it with glowing shells and tentacles. The ship rocks, holds.
Marcus laughs again. “They’re just curious children, Captain. They aren’t trying to hurt us.”
“Their intent matters little,” Norris says. “Madam d’Flay, ready the harpoons.”
The gunnery officer, a swarthy woman with thick braids hanging down her back, cranks a series of wheels. Slides her hands to a bronze lever. Outside, Tage catches sight of the edge of huge bladed harpoons swiveling towards the monsters.
“No, wait.” Marcus’s voice has steel in it now. “Whale Fall will hold. Let them be.”
The captain and wizard stare at each other.
“We’ll be fine, Captain,” Marcus says, near a whisper.
Norris looks back at the nautiluses flitting about in the deeps. “Stand ready, d’Flay, but hold.”
Marcus dips his chin, turns aside.
Soon the monsters drift farther away.
Norris stands, glances between Tage and Marcus. “Is all well, Mr. Grey?”
Marcus nods, tendons taut in his neck. The tattoos almost burn against his skin now, darker, duller. “Unexpected, that’s all.”
“Dismissed from the bridge, Mr. VanDrake,” Norris says.
Marcus flicks a hand at him, arm trembling. “I’ll meet you back in your cabin?”
Tage hesitates. He don’t need light to see something’s badly wrong. Both the captain and the wizard are too tense, trying not to show worry. Or pain, in Marcus’s case.
Tage backs out. The bridge door snicks shut — it’s a thick grille. None of the inside walls block sound too well. He leans a shoulder against the metal. Hall’s empty. It digs under Tage’s thoughts, the slow realization that rarely are any of the crew near Norris or Marcus. Or him.
“Assessment?” the captain asks, deceptively even-toned.
“They didn’t rupture any skin. No engine damage. It’s the shields that took the brunt of it.” Marcus sounds out of breath. “As I said, I reckon they were just curious as to what we are.”
“You’re shaking.” Sharp accusation. “I want a full report, Mr. Grey, and I want it now.”
A pause. Tage leans closer, breathes shallow so he won’t be heard.
“The wards are strained,” Marcus says at last. “Well below half capacity.”
“Is our hull pressure compromised?”
“Not yet, ma’am.”
A scuff of boots on the floor. “I haven’t yet rebolstered the spells. They’ll hold fast to our destination if we remain steady and don’t run into any more nautiluses.”
“I’m not an optimist, Mr. Grey.”
“Neither am I.”
“So we’re at minimized defenses, and we have over fifty leagues to landfall.” Norris sighs. “How soon will you be able to reinforce and repair your wards?”
“We were interrupted,” Marcus says slowly. “Sea monsters kill a mood right fast.”
“Then you’d best be back to your acquisition before we encounter any other unexpected elements.”
Tage grits his teeth, his spine chilled.
“Begging your pardon,” Marcus drawls, more bitterness than sarcasm. “It’s not as if I can pin him against the bunk and fuck him.”
“Make it that simple.”
The captain’s lucky there’s a metal wall between ’em. Tage swallows a curse, shaking.
“I don’t coerce my lovers,” Marcus says, angry. “Don’t spit on my honor, Captain.”
Norris’s tone don’t change. “We’re over twenty fathoms deep, Mr. Grey.” There’s finality in those words. “We have ten leagues before we’re clear of the trench and there’s no room for us to surface until we’re clear. I won’t risk the lives of my crew on your sense of honor.”
“I reckon you should remember it’s my honor that keeps this ship intact, Captain.”
Tage holds his breath, so tense his muscles hurt.
“There’s Alton,” Norris says. “Or the VanDrake. Those wards will be repaired within the hour.”
Silence leeches out, heavy in the narrow hallway. Tage’s heartbeat bruises his ribs.
“We have an understanding, Mr. Grey?”
Marcus don’t answer right away. Then, “Yes, Captain.”
The door latch grinds. Tage lurches backwards, wedges himself into the ladder well. Slides a knife from inside his boot into his palm. Anger chokes tight. He ain’t being used by anyone, not again. Goddamn it. He don’t know if he’s more mad or hurt. Worst of it is, he still wants the other wizard. It’s fucked up, he knows that. Wishes he didn’t care.
Marcus steps from the bridge. Tage bulls from the ladder well just as Marcus passes, slams the other man into the wall. Marcus grunts. Tage has the knife under his chin too fast for the other wizard to react.
“Ain’t happening,” Tage snarls.
Marcus scowls, don’t look surprised. “Put that away. My wards are life-linked. You kill me, the pressure will crush Whale Fall like a tin can.” He nudges Tage hard in the belly with a knife of his own. “Put it down, VanDrake.”
Tage is tempted to ignore the threat. But he ain’t gonna sentence the whole crew to death; he’s got enough blood etched in his hands. Slowly, he lowers his arm. Marcus removes the knife.
“You want a proper explanation?” Marcus’s worn eyes look old. Tired and hurt, for all his expression is steel. “Eavesdropping leaves out salient details.”
Tage’s jaw aches, teeth clenched. “Talk fast.”
Marcus scoffs, shoulders past him. “My cabin’s soundproof.”
Tage is torn. He don’t fear a fight. He’s got weight and muscle on the other man. He’s been well trained how to use it. And if Marcus’s words ring true, his magic’s tied into wards and spells lining the submersible. Gives Tage more of an advantage. No, he ain’t afraid. He wants to hear the clanless wizard’s explanation, even if it makes things worse.
Stiff-backed, he follows. Marcus’s cabin is in the submersible’s aft. Not much bigger than Tage’s bunk, but there’s ink drawings on the walls — crinkled and faded, near unrecognizable with water stains — and sea charts, maps, sketches of marine life.
There’s room for one chair nudged tight against the bunk, draped with Marcus’s duster and red fedora. Tage ducks through the door, stops on the threshold. Blocks the way out.
Marcus slumps on the bed. “I’m hardly in a seductive mood. Relax.”
“This why you brought me aboard?” Better rage than pain. “A goddamned tool to run your fucking ship?”
Tage could beat the hell out of the other man, easy. He’s done it often enough. It never fixes the dull guilt or hurt when he’s done, but that don’t stop him, either.
Marcus glances up, don’t raise his guard. Like he wants to get hit. “It wasn’t that difficult to find out who you were when you left your card at Anna’s. One of Madam Frost’s enforcers: her prized Tage Ranheim.”
Tage freezes at that. How much else does Marcus know?
Marcus rests his elbows on his knees. “The only scuttlebutt I could find was that you’d gone missing, suspected for dead. It wasn’t that hard to figure out what happened after that. You wanted to get away, and I could help. I didn’t hire you to warm my goddamn bed, VanDrake.”
“You did it just to help?”
“Oh, I had hopes for more, true. Do you blame me? Madam Frost isn’t exactly shy in choosing her entourage for their looks as much as skill and size, now is she?” The corner of Marcus’s mouth quirks. “I made mistakes, long ago. I’ve tried to make them up ever since. So yes, my friend —”
Tage punches Marcus in the jaw. The other man’s head snaps back. He kicks out, catches Tage in the hip, rolls off the bunk and lands crouched, his eyes suddenly flat. Tage staggers back, widens his stance, readies himself for a brawl.
“Don’t call me that,” Tage snaps.
Marcus stands, licks blood from a split lip. “Don’t lay hands on me like that again, unless you mean to carry through.”
Tage glares, wills Marcus to attack him.
As sharp as bone snapping, Marcus’s mood shifts again and the threat fades. “The wards didn’t need bolstering yet, for Hell’s sake. We shouldn’t have dived this far. Norris is impatient. We have sensitive courier messages and some, ah, goods that port masters aren’t keen to allow. Expensive spices, items for spellwork. She’s pushing too fast.” He twists his wrist, sleight of hand, and in his palm he holds the paper scrap Tage left for contact with Anna. “You asked for help. I reckoned I could offer that.” He snaps his fingers and the paper turns to ash. “Earlier? I wanted you in bed because I like you, Tage, there’s no other reason.”
“Your captain seemed pretty fucking clear what she wanted.”
“Norris is my captain, not my owner. We’ll make this simple. Will you help me?”
“Then I won’t touch you. You can finish your stint as a hired hand and put off at Aldare.”
It ain’t that easy. Never is. “What’re you gonna do?”
“Find a way to channel energy reserves to fix the godforsaken wards so we aren’t pulled into the lockers.” He yanks his fingers through his hair, tilts his head up. “I told Alton no. I’m not using him any more than I’m using you, and I’m not taking an apprentice.”
“And if you got no choice?” Tage’s voice is a rasp.
Marcus stares at him flatly. “Then Whale Fall will be lost with all hands.” There’s no conviction behind the words.
Tage swallows. He ain’t responsible for this crew. It ain’t his old gang, or his family.
He tries not to wish they hadn’t been interrupted, earlier. Tries not to wish he’d never listened in on Marcus Grey and Captain Norris. He thought, in his bunk, maybe he could have something good again.
“Go back to your cabin,” Marcus says, boot toes against Tage’s. “I’ll tell you when your muscle’s needed. We pump the ballast tanks —”
A shudder slams the length of Whale Fall. Marcus staggers, flinches as if kicked in the ribs. “Hell’s whisky.”
Tage backs out. “What’s wrong?”
Sweat beads across Marcus’s forehead. “We’ve been spotted.”
“Only thing in this trench that’s bigger than us. The nautiluses — the adults.”
Tage’s stomach lurches as the submersible lists again. “How do you kill ’em?”
“You don’t kill the gods of the sea, partner. You pray to your own. If we can’t outrun them, we’re dead men.” He sprints for the bridge.
Tage curses and follows.
More of the crew has gathered. Savatori. D’Flay. Alton. This time, Alton’s expression is glazed, content, drugged. He leans on Savatori’s arm.
Tage don’t get a chance to protest. Outside, lit by the ship’s lamps and its own luminescence, a giant nautilus hovers in the water. Massive tentacles half the Whale Fall’s girth slowly extend from a blue-grey shell. Tage can’t even see its full bulk, just one huge pearlescent eye.
“Mr. Grey,” Norris says.
Marcus leans against the captain’s chair. “Hour’s not up, ma’am.”
Tage feels the tension, so thick it chokes out any panic. No one moves.
“Stations, men. Prepare to fire harpoons, Madam d’Flay.” Norris’s commands are obeyed in silence. They’re all dead men walking, and they know it.
Savatori shoves Alton at Marcus, who catches the boy, supports him.
Tage reaches for a pistol he don’t have. “Don’t,” he whispers.
He ain’t gonna stand idle while anyone — wizard or not — rapes a kid for magic-fuel. It won’t work fast enough, anyhow. Those tentacles will crush Whale Fall long before Marcus has the strength to boost shields.
“I need your help,” Marcus says, between threat and begging. He shoves Alton to the floor.
The nautilus glows whitish-green, a hypnotizing series of lights that etch the shell and tentacles.
“Harpoons ready, Captain,” d’Flay says.
Norris lifts a hand. Marcus shakes his head. Despair masks even fear. Harpoons’ll do no good, and they only got two shots with the forward guns.
Tage keeps telling himself if he wanted to die, he’d have shot himself when Kane was killed. He won’t be used. Even if he gave in, there’s no time.
Tage can’t set the nautilus on fire, can’t shoot it or knife it. Frustration at his lack of options bubbles under dull terror. He don’t want to drown, crushed in metal and glass as the ocean pours in.
But there’s more than one way to use magic.
“Make us look like it,” Tage says. “Illusion the ship.”
The captain says, “Fire” just as Marcus cries, “No, wait —” and d’Flay releases the harpoons. They bounce off the nautilus’s shell and it rumbles.
Tage hasn’t got time. He shoves the raw, unchecked magic at Marcus. It’ll either work, or it’ll kill them both. Marcus said his magic is different. Adapted. Changed and strengthened and malleable. He’s had VanDrake lovers before. Tage won’t be used, but he can give Marcus some of the energy he needs. Power shared.
The magic burns, raw fire in his veins. It’ll hurt Marcus worse. But the other wizard don’t scream. A small, choked sound escapes him as he pulls the magic into him. Tage feels it being swallowed. He gasps, pain sparking white behind his eyes.
Startled, he realizes he’s seeing what Marcus sees.
The whole ship, outside and in. It don’t change, but its appearance does. Its skin ripples, shifts from metal and glass to shell and flesh. The outer lights dim, become luminescent. Eyes appear where the bridge is, and instead of Whale Fall, an adolescent nautilus stares back at the giant before it.
The questing tentacles pause.
Tage feels his body stretched, expanded beyond proportion. Against his skin, the weight of the sea presses, cold and solid, the world’s bones. It will turn him into nothingness and he’ll welcome it . . .
Inside the shell, heartbeats flutter. His. Marcus’s?
The ship-nautilus meekly pulls in its tentacles, waits before the sea god. Humble. Harmless. May I pass?
Tage can’t find his body. Panic touches cold inside the shell, in him. The illusion wobbles, pulled at the edges. The giant nautilus reaches again.
Hands grab his shoulder, his chin. Does he have a body still? The sea takes no notice of tiny motes, fragile bones crushed to nothing.
“Hold fast,” Marcus is saying, forever away. He’s pulling Tage apart; inside there is a vast expanse, never filled. The other wizard feels hollow, not-real. A shell washed clean on a beach. He’ll pull everything from Tage, unmake him.
Stop, Tage wants to say. He has will, somewhere. Knows he does. He ain’t . . . weak. Promised Kane he’d never be weak again, that he’d always protect them both. He can’t lose himself. He won’t.
Tage grasps at the things he knows are real. His coat, the scars, the memory of Kane and Bonnie and the Clan and food that ain’t stolen and soot in the air and cities and ghosts and pain and another’s warm, solid body against his. Not alone.
His vision blurs, shows him the ship and the not-nautilus and Marcus’s face right in front of him. He clamps down on the magic, on himself. Realizes Marcus is holding him up by coat-front and chin.
And he’s himself. He ain’t a ship or part of the sea. He ain’t a helpless kid no more. He won’t be broken, no matter how it feels inside.
He takes a breath, jerks away from Marcus. The man lets him go. Tage lands on hands and knees. The glass is blurry, or maybe it’s his eyes. Outside, the giant nautilus drifts by, an endless expanse of shell and light.
Tage feels the illusion burning his skin, his senses. Marcus holds it steady, body rigid and eyes blank. Tage can’t hear nothin’ but his weak heartbeat. Unsteady. Then stronger. He pushes himself to his knees, sways, blinks until his eyes clear. His bones ache, feels like he burned the marrow from ’em all.
“How long until we clear the trench, Mr. Savatori?” Norris’s voice comes at a distance.
“One league, ma’am.”
“Damage report, Mr. Grey?”
“We’re fine, Captain.” Marcus sounds like he swallowed razors. “We’re in the clear.”
Tage coughs. His chest aches, muscles strained, lungs aflame. Pain reminds him he’s alive, whole. Still himself.
Shaky laughter, relieved swearing. The crew calms. Except Norris. The captain stands, looks down at Tage.
Tage tries to brace himself. He’ll still fight, somehow. Ain’t gonna be put down easily. He’s survived because he don’t give in.
Marcus kneels, claps a hand on his shoulder, steadies him. “We’re in the clear now.”
Tage don’t blink or look away, realizes he’s already got a knife in hand.
Norris nods once. “Mr. VanDrake.”
“Captain,” Tage says, hoarse.
Marcus helps him to his feet, offers him an arm. Tage limps on his own until he’s in the narrow hallway. Wobbly, he leans against Marcus until his breath steadies.
“Thank you,” Marcus says.
Tage ain’t used to being thanked. He straightens a little, thinks the scraping ache from so much lost magic don’t hurt as much anymore. “Didn’t know it’d work.”
Marcus chuckles. “I’ve had worse done to me. I like how you think, though.”
Tage looks away. Too much is churning in his head. He stumbles, feet heavy. Marcus keeps Tage from falling.
“Get some rest,” Marcus says.
Tage stares at his bunk. His vision blurs at the edges.
“You’ll be safe,” Marcus adds, backing away. “You have my word on that.”
Tage shuts his eyes before he admits that means more than Marcus could ever realize. Safe. He believes it too, just this once. It lets him sleep.
He’s still thinking on Marcus’s words — “What will you do now?” — when Whale Fall reaches Aldare.
A new country, a new city. He’ll be alone again, this time with no backing from the Clan, no support, nowhere to return.
“You could stay,” Marcus said, the words running over and over through Tage’s head. He can’t ignore ’em.
Stay. Maybe not for long, but it’d hurt less not to be alone. He can’t forget Kane, forgive himself for failing. It can’t be so wrong to want to find a little peace, though, somewhere. Or maybe it is. He’s wanted worse.
The rest of the crew has disembarked. Marcus says he’s staying behind to prep Whale Fall and keep her ready while the crew takes a day’s leave and Norris sees to business. Tage stands on the low, flat deck of the submersible, staring at the rise of forest and mountains distant.
He notices Marcus beside him. The other man offers him a cigarette. Tage accepts. The wind tugs his hair, slides under his coat. One step down, into the skiff, and he won’t set foot on the submersible again.
“You still looking for a crew hand?” Tage asks at last.
Marcus grins. “I like men with previous sailing experience.”
A bit of strain eases inside Tage. They finish their smokes and climb below.
Marcus leans against the wall, his hat tipped back. “Not going ashore?”
Tage shrugs. He looks Marcus in the eyes. He knows what he wants. “Earlier, we got interrupted.” He kisses Marcus hard.
Heat and magic-sense tingles Tage’s mouth, spreads through his belly and legs. Marcus tangles his fingers in Tage’s hair, hooks an arm around Tage’s waist. Tage is pleased. Gentleness scares him, makes him think he’ll break the one he’s with.
“You all right with this?” Tage asks.
“Fuck, yes,” Marcus says, and kisses him again.
Impatient with clothes, Marcus drags him towards his cabin, pulls Tage down on the bunk. Tage unbuckles Marcus’s belt.
He ain’t alone tonight.
Rank #2: PodCastle 579: I Am Not I — Part 1
- Author : G. V. Anderson
- Narrator : Tatiana Grey
- Host : Setsu Uzume
- Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
- Discuss on Forums
Previously published by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Rated R, for human parts sundered and sold.
I Am Not I
by G. V. Anderson
I found the emporium on old Tanners Row. A prime location, to be sure — within pissing distance from a Saps’ slum. Its proprietor, Madame Qlym, boasted better pickings in her own back garden than any other acristologist in the city. But despite this and every revered thing I’d heard about it, the emporium looked in poor shape: the gilt lettering on the lintel was in mid-peel. Even as I watched, a tiny flake of autumnal gold broke off and fluttered past me. I frowned, but quickly shook away my doubts. Acristologists like their theatrics, after all. With its steep grime banks and lingering stink, Tanners Row provided more than ample ambience for the prospective customer.
I glanced round; the Row was empty. I eased open the door to the emporium and slipped inside.
There was only one aisle, wide enough to spread out my arms and brush the shelves with my fingertips — not that I wanted to get too close. The shelves creaked under the weight of thousands of dusty jars containing hands tinted amber by formaldehyde; eyeballs trailing optic kelp; and butter-bean fœtuses that watched me with milky, unformed eyes. Sap parts, all of them. Collected and sold for the pleasure of Varians.
The preservation of Saps’ bodies is a fundamental aspect of acristology, but it has also become a mark of status, a way to flaunt one’s wealth and intimidate one’s rivals. Almost every Varian household has one or more of these jars — the bigger and more complete the specimen, the higher the prestige for the family.
I shivered. Gaslights hung from the ceiling but their greasy glow did more to hide than illuminate. I wiped my hands on my new jacket; I’d not touched a thing and already I felt grubby.
“Is anyone here?”
The door at the back swung open and out she scuttled. I recognised Madame Qlym’s eight spindly arms and her infamous coiffure, so stiff it wobbled as one mass, but her body had lost its shape like a shrivelling balloon, and her powder — a new layer applied every morning, already months deep — was starting to crack. She bore little resemblance to her old tabloid photograms.
Theatrics, I reminded myself firmly.
She threw me a generous, moss-toothed smile. “You must be Miss Strohm-Waxxog! Oh, let me look at you!” and before I could protest she was inches away, jerking my chin this way and that to admire the glitter of her lamps in my six eyes, twirling me round to look, to pat —
I flinched. My wings, stale as a new butterfly’s, rustled against my clothes as I moved.
“Ah,” she said, withdrawing her hands. “No true flight? It happens, it happens. What a pity. And your poor eye . . .”
I knew I looked unspectacular. When I’d telephoned to arrange this interview I’d given her my real surname — a reckless move, but I needed her to employ me; few would turn away a member of the city’s most powerful family. She’d probably spent all morning imagining what beauteous manner of mutation would be walking through her door later. And here I was, with sore, brittle wings and a gammy eye.
“It’s the Strohm gene,” I gambled. “Infections in the third pair are common.” I needn’t have worried. She was so blinded by reverence for my family that she swallowed this without question.
After a tour of the emporium — a glorified sweep of her hands, really — we sat at the kitchenette table and talked business over stale biscuits and tea: black for me, peppermint for her. I presented my identification papers and letter of recommendation, all painstakingly forged by my own hand, but her eyes barely took in the words. She seemed more impressed by the lush vellum. When I prompted her about the expected duties, she recalled herself: “You’ll run the shop until we close for lunch, then accompany me to my meetings in the afternoons.” She sipped her tea, leaving a cracked lipstick impression on the rim. “Most transactions are completed at the customer’s home. It’s more bespoke that way.”
I rubbed the handle of my teacup. Specks of grime clung to the delicate china. When I lifted my head, my gaze snagged on some well-established cobwebs fluttering in the corners of the ceiling. Finally, I met her eye. “Your advertisement mentioned payment.”
“Oh, yes . . .” She choked delicately on the admission that my salary would be just five pence a week.
I fought to keep the dismay from my face. “So little? Surely such a prestigious emporium as this could afford to pay more?”
She blushed through her powder. “Commission is available, of course, although it won’t keep you in the manner to which I’m sure you’re accustomed,” she said, her eyes downcast. “The Strohm-Waxxogs have such grand houses, the most exquisite feasts. You must have been brought up surrounded by luxury.”
I knew the childhood she was imagining for me — could almost imagine it myself.
“You know,” she said, leaning in with a forced intimacy that made me recoil, “it is so unusual to hear of a Strohm-Waxxog working at all . . .”
“My mother insists on a vocation. She says it builds character.” The lie coated my tongue like treacle.
Only five pence a week . . . I remember thinking that I could still get imperiously to my feet and storm out, could still return to the squat I called home, with no harm done. But — damn it all! — I needed money, and I didn’t dare believe that the great Madame Qlym, the acristologist of whose skills I’d heard so much in my life, could be as poor as all that. She must be hiding something, I decided. “Is my application a success?”
She reached out to stroke my hand, her lipsticked mouth puckering like overstretched elastic. “Of course, darling. How could I refuse?”
Her lingering, covetous caresses were only bearable for so long, and I soon asked to be shown to my new room. Underneath thick dust sheets, I found a bed, a chipped desk, and a wardrobe. Opening the wardrobe gave me a fright: a mounted Sap skeleton had been stuffed inside, its eye sockets level with mine. I caught my breath and tapped the sternum with a fingernail—it was only hardened resin, a worthless imitation.
A mirror with a worn wooden frame hung inside the door of the wardrobe. My brown face glared out of it. Two of my eyes sat in my sockets; two more emerged from my temples. The third, smallest pair sat within the procerus muscle between my brows, and it was one of these that had swollen. When I blinked, the eyelid juddered over the surface of the eye. The damn thing wouldn’t last much longer.
I had only one tiny, rot-swollen window, which I forced open to air the room. From here I could see the slums concealed behind Tanners Row: a maze of buildings and empty clotheslines, a constant trickle of gutter water. Glassless windows gaped from every surface. In one of them I saw a pale, doughy face. A Sap’s face. I scowled in disgust.
We were all Saps once, before genetic splicing made wings, strange mouthparts, advanced digestive ability, super strength — Varians — possible. Varians quickly grew in number, forging dynasties and complex class systems, developing languages and dialects to accommodate their new physiologies, while the Sap became an undesirable evolutionary leftover — like an appendix or wisdom teeth. They were elbowed to the fringes of society and reviled.
But the Sap gene still runs in us all. They don’t like to admit it, but no Varian is immune to the possibility of a Sap child. These children are drowned at birth and forgotten about. It’s considered the kind thing to do.
If only my mother had been so kind.
When I was born, so I’m told, my father ordered me destroyed. But against his knowledge or consent, my mother instead kept me in a cold, bare room in the old servants’ quarters — one’s first child warrants some maternal instinct, I suppose, although she refused to name me, as if I were some animal bound for the abattoir and she daren’t get too attached. We had a few years of tenuous peace together. Once, I fell over and sliced my knee; I remember her alarm, her hesitant hairy palps patting the dark skin of my leg, my anatomy a mystery and a wonder to her.
The only other soul who knew I lived was the housekeeper, Ms Gishak, and when my father eventually thawed and welcomed my mother back to his society, it fell to her to provide for me. She didn’t relish the task. I don’t even have to close my eyes to picture Ms Gishak’s nostrils flaring, her beak clicking with impatience. She fed me scraps from the table and slipped anti-Sap pamphlets under my door to teach me to read. Her company was cruel. “Do you know why we call you Saps?” she once hissed in my ear, her voice as sharp as a pinch in the dark. “Because you’re parasites, the lot of you.”
As time passed, it became difficult to conceal me from the growing household. My father had taken a second wife and my mother had conceived again; space was at a premium. The night I turned fifteen, Ms Gishak smuggled me out of the house to meet an extensioneer by the name of Heechi. She left me on the operating table, openly pocketing the small change my mother had meant for me with a nasty grin.
As soon as my wings and eyes were implanted — my mother’s parting gift to me — I was cast out onto the streets, nameless and alone.
“Close that window!”
My head snapped round. Madame was standing in my doorway, clutching her neck. I closed the window slowly and slid the bolt home, and by the time I’d done that she was already tottering downstairs, muttering to herself.
My weekday mornings in the shop turned out to be dull, since Madame had no customers. I ached to do something about my eye, but I was obliged to sit by the till in frustrated silence while she did whatever it was she did upstairs. When I paced the aisle, the fœtuses floating around in their jars seemed to follow me with a turn of their pale bodies. My eyes skimmed their faded labels, the dates they were “harvested” — such a pastoral word, as if they’d been plucked painlessly from trees, not wombs. In the end, I turned the jars around.
The afternoons weren’t much better. Madame and I called on her customers: past patrons with no intention of a second purchase, or collectors unlucky enough to have their name whispered in her vicinity. With all eight arms she would lift her rotund torso off the ground and advance from every angle, her breath rancid with peppermint. The few sales we made were struck out of a desire to be rid of her.
“Perhaps,” I said, after one fruitless encounter, “I could conduct the meeting next time?”
Madame glared at me, her cheeks flushed. “You think you might do better?”
After a week, as I dropped my first measly five pence into the collection box under my bed and heard its hollow plink, I could no longer tell myself that my low wage was a result of Madame’s stinginess. The next morning, I searched for anything that could help me understand what I’d tangled myself up in. I came across a small metal box stashed in a kitchenette cupboard, and for two hours sat cross-legged on the sticky floor flicking through the paperwork inside. Bills, demands, notices. Unpaid invoices and overdue rent, all stamped red for now, now, now. I slumped against the cupboard door, the papers sliding from my hands.
Heechi’s extensions had lasted longer than any others I’d heard of, but after ten years, even they’d started to fail. Before I started working for Madame I’d tracked him down to Port Street, a slum like Tanners Row, and had demanded that he fix his work. He told me he would only accept the same price my mother had paid in the first place: two hundred guineas. Cash.
I’d expected a high figure far beyond my means, of course. I answered Madame Qlym’s advertisement — had intentionally placed myself in the constant company of a woman who killed Saps for profit — on the understanding that her business was profitable, and that the money I needed to pay Heechi would be easily found. I’d got it wrong. The emporium was in serious financial trouble, and I’d put myself in harm’s way for nothing.
I couldn’t understand why, when stock was so plentiful. We had stacks of jawbones teetering up the side of the tiny staircase and navels spilling out of alcoves, and thick knots of Sap hair hanging from the kitchenette ceiling like bundles of onions, and baskets overflowing with teeth assorted by incisor, canine, and molar, and a dozen reinforced spines lounging in the umbrella stand by the front door — we had enough inventory to pay Heechi ten times over.
I stuffed Madame’s paperwork back into its box. If she couldn’t sell this lot, I would. And extensioneers need Sap parts as much as Varian ones, for those rare freaks desperate to go the other way — perhaps Heechi would lower his fee in exchange for some of these jars. My only problem was Madame’s insistence that I stay by her side at all times — she even panicked at the sight of me stepping out for the milk.
The bartering, trading, and circulation of pickled Saps is only half an acristologist’s work. Madame had a partner for the other half — the procurement of new specimens — and I met him for the first time four weeks into my employment.
He knocked on the door just after lunch, wearing a wide-brimmed hat with a full veil that hid his features completely. “I’m sorry, sir. We’re closed. Business hours are —”
“Quite a serious little acristologist, aren’t you, hmm?” His voice was muffled, but I could hear the thrum of a chuckle.
I almost slammed the door in his face, but Madame had already seen him. “It’s all right, darling, let him in! He’s late, though, the devil! Pull the blinds, will you?” I did as she asked and obscured the only natural, clean light in that squalid space. I turned as he was removing his hat and veil.
He was more hive than flesh. He wore a loose shirt and pressed trousers, braces slung uselessly about his hips, and every available patch of skin was riddled with deep, black holes. Holes that went nowhere at all. They obscured his face, his mouth; he had no hair, just tunnels boring into his head. As Madame ushered him through for refreshment, a bee emerged from the depths of a neck-hole and perched in the opening to watch me.
This was the first company we’d had in weeks — I would never get a better opportunity to see Heechi. So I declined to join them, citing some urgent personal errand.
Madame’s brow creased.
“Oh, let her go,” the honey man said, laughing. “Knowing you, I expect she’s barely had five minutes to herself since she started.”
I waited in the aisle until the kitchenette door closed with a soft click, then dove for the jars. What would an extensioneer have need for? I had no idea. I grabbed slender jars full of green-tinged fingers, a handful of nipples. Rolls of skin, as sheer as photogram film — I unravelled five inches and held it up to the gaslight to reveal a constellation of pores, follicles, moles, and scars. Teeth could be useful; eyes, too. I scraped a handful of coins from the till for the tram fare and raced down the Row, my pockets bulging.
As I walked away from the slum, I felt the city come alive around me. Colour and light were a part of my world again. Varians of all descriptions were in the streets doing their shopping, hollering to friends across the road, bustling from one important place to another. An enormous gastropod with four rows of swollen teats and a cluster of ten offspring had left a sparkling trail on the pavement; my boots made imprints in it as if it were snow. The buildings became cleaner and taller, and the traffic of winged Varians grew thick in the air. I began to see signs of civilised life: electric streetlamps, recently installed and humming; and boxy televisions in shop windows playing black-and-white anti-Sap propaganda.
The Sap teeth tinkled in my pockets and I thought about selling a few there and then, but I could only hope to get pennies for them. The reward was far greater when Heechi opened his door to me: he gaped as I emptied my pockets.
“Pickled personally by Madame Qlym of Tanners Row,” I said, “the best you’ll find. Ears, feet, nails, kneecaps, scalps — whatever you need. Would that bring the price down?”
He agreed to lower his fee to one hundred and fifty guineas if I could supply him with certain parts. It still seemed like an impossible amount of money. I would have to work hard to sell every last thing in that shop. “Fine,” I said. “What parts do you need?”
“I’ll write you a list.”
It was getting late by the time I let myself back into the emporium, but there was still a faint light under the kitchenette door. I put my ear to the grain.
“— the average Varian doesn’t buy acristological jars these days, Madame, and hasn’t for some years. Attitudes are changing.”
“The average Varian,” Madame said loudly, slurring her words, “is bored by appendages and organs. Hic. I need full specimens. That’ll bring them flooding back.”
The honey man’s voice was low. “Full specimens are hard to find.”
“But you know, hic, where to look, don’t you, darling?”
I wished I could slip upstairs unnoticed, but unless I was prepared to shimmy drainpipes in the dark and climb through a window, the staircase at the back of the kitchenette was my only option. I knocked on the door and peered round. “I’m back.”
Madame started at the sight of me. “I was starting to worry you’d, hic, abandoned me!”
“I trust your errand went well?” the honey man said.
I slipped into the kitchenette and slowly headed for the stairs. “Yes, very well. I didn’t mean to disturb you . . .”
“Oh no!” Madame said, pulling out a chair from under the table and patting the seat. Her eyes were glazed. “Do sit and join us, there’s no rush! Come, come!”
Reluctantly, I sat down. Madame poured me a cup of stale tea. A bee landed on the rim of my teacup, its antennæ trembling. I flicked it away with a finger.
“As I was saying, full specimens are hard to find,” the honey man said. “And the humans are growing restless. Bolder. There’s been talk of riots not far from here. The press are prohibited from reporting it, of course, but word slips through.”
I stared at him. I’d not heard Saps referred to as humans in a long, long time. “Sap” is such a commonplace slur, it hardly occurs to anyone that it was once a slur in the first place. Ms Gishak had used it exclusively, and I’d picked up the habit in a pathetic attempt to please her.
The honey man ignored us. “For a while, I’ve been wondering whether we should look in a different direction entirely.”
Madame frowned. “A different direction?”
“It’s said there are humans hidden within the greatest families. Think how much a collector might pay for . . . well —” his eyes rose to meet mine “— a human Strohm-Waxxog, for example.”
“We can’t go around upsetting the important people,” Madame hissed at him, shooting me an anxious glance. The honey man and I sat quite still, our eyes locked, but his gaze was as disturbing as his mutation and I looked down at my teacup instead. A fine crack ran through it, which I’d not noticed before — perhaps the pressure of my grip had buckled the old porcelain. My ears filled with buzzing; I couldn’t tell if it came from the bees clustering around me, or my own mind.
“I’m sorry. You’re right, of course,” said the honey man, breaking our awkward silence. “The slums are getting dangerous, but they’re far from empty. I’ll plan an expedition for us soon, Madame. It will be just like old times.”
“Old times,” she repeated. “Oh, that would be, hic, lovely.”
He glanced at me. “I fear I’ve overstayed my welcome. Would you mind fetching my things?” As I stood to oblige him, he whistled. Bees poured from every conceivable crevice in the kitchenette — even from the spout of the teapot — and wriggled back into his body like furry maggots, his skin bulging slightly to accommodate them.
His was a mutation unlike anything I’d seen before. The symbiosis between man and bee was bizarre, somehow: out of place — it didn’t follow the usual rules. I walked him to the door and handed him his gloves, greatcoat, and veiled hat. “I never did catch your first name,” he said lightly, shrugging on his coat.
“I never said it.”
He grinned. “You really should see a doctor about your eye. It looks sore.”
I almost parroted the Strohm gene excuse, but something told me the honey man was too sharp to swallow it. “I’ve made an appointment,” I said instead.
“Indeed.” His gaze was sly, but this time I met it squarely and held it. “I’ll call again soon if you’ll permit, Miss Strohm-Waxxog?” I nodded, and as soon as it was polite to do so, I raced upstairs to the mirror in my wardrobe. The infected eye now had a white, glassy sheen. The surrounding skin was hot and tender.
I wandered back down to the kitchenette, passing Madame on the stairs on her way to her room. I rinsed the cups and saucers in the tiny chipped sink. I used a rag to scour away Madame’s lipstick stains and the invisible — but no less tangible — footprints of bees. I scrubbed so hard that my hand cramped into a thoroughly un-Saplike claw.
A loud buzz made me jump. A bee had blundered in through the rotten, riddled woodwork and bumped once, twice against the grubby glass in confusion. An innocent bee, perhaps, but I lunged from the sink and silenced its awful buzzing with my palm.
Over the following weeks, I worked harder than I’d ever worked in my life. I reinstated the emporium’s mail-order service, which had lain dormant for years. I went door-to-door — forgoing breakfast, as that was the only time of day I could slip away — handing over our newest brochure. I even persuaded Madame to allow me to conduct our afternoon appointments. Whenever the clients commented kindly on my eye, Madame would burst out an explanation of the infamous Strohm eye ailment to stunned, polite silence. It wouldn’t have mattered, but I’d cultivated a more sophisticated client list that might rub shoulders with Strohm-Waxxogs every day: the Ybb-Xybryses, the Slins, the Aujoxes — families of quality. So I’d raise an eyebrow, or roll my eyes behind her back at these moments, as if to say, Don’t mind her, she’s an embarrassment, but what can you do? Sometimes, as we shrugged on our coats to leave, the clients would approach me with a gentle touch on my arm and a question — “Just bring yourself next time?” Things were turning in my favour, the clink of coins in my collection box sounded less hollow with every passing day, and Madame was discrediting herself without even realising.
But while the afternoons buoyed my mood, the nights dragged them down; the eye had turned hard now, a frozen pea buried painfully in my brow. One evening, after my wings had been particularly sore, I shrugged off my blouse and turned to see the connective skin bruise-purple, the seam chapped. I pressed a finger to my shoulder blade, gasping with pain. A pearl of pus trickled down my back.
I was running out of time.
This concludes Part 1 of “I Am Not I.” Part 2 will be posted on June 25, 2019.
Rank #3: PodCastle 572: Into the Wind
- Author : Marie Brennan
- Narrator : Karen Bovenmyer
- Host : Setsu Uzume
- Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
- Discuss on Forums
Children of a Different Sky, edited by Alma Alexander.
Into the Wind
by Marie Brennan
The tenements presented a blank face to the border: an unbroken expanse of wall, windowless, gapless, resolutely blind to the place that used to be Oneua. Only at the edges of the tenements could one pass through, entering the quiet and sunlit strip of weeds that separated the buildings from the world their inhabitants had once called home.
Eyo stood in the weeds, an arm’s length from the border. The howling sands formed a wall in front of her, close enough to touch. They clouded the light of Oneua’s suns, until she could barely make out the nearest structure, the smooth lines of its walls eroded and broken by the incessant rasp of the sands. And yet where she stood, with her feet on the soil of Gevsilon, the air was quiet and still and damp. The line between the two was as sharp as if it had been sliced with a razor.
“I wouldn’t recommend it, kid.”
The voice was a stranger’s, speaking the local trade pidgin. Eyo knew he was addressing her, but kept her gaze fixed on the boundary before her, and the maelstrom of sand beyond. She didn’t care what some stranger thought.
People came here sometimes. Not the Oneui — not usually — but their neighbors in Gevsilon, or other residents of Driftwood looking for that rare thing, a quiet place to sit and be alone. The winds looked like their shrieking should drown out even thought, but their sound didn’t cross the border, any more than the sand did. As long as you didn’t look at the sandstorm, this place was peaceful.
But apparently the stranger didn’t want to be quiet and alone. In her peripheral vision she saw movement, someone coming to stand at her side, not too close. Someone as tall as an Oneui adult, and that was unusual in Driftwood.
“You wouldn’t be the first of your people to try,” he said. “You’re one of the Oneui, right? You must have heard the stories.”
Oh, she had. It started as a dry, stinging wind, after their world parched to dust. Then it built into a sandstorm, one that raged for days without pause, just as their prophecies had foretold. Eyo’s grandparents and the others of their town had refused to believe it was the end of the world; in their desperation, they gathered up their water and food and tied themselves together to prevent anyone from getting lost, and they went in search of a place safe from the sand.
They stumbled into Gevsilon. And that was how they found out their world had ended.
But not entirely. This remnant of it survived, caught up in the cluster of fragmented realities known as Driftwood: the place worlds went to die. Gevsilon, their inward neighbor, had gone through an apocalypse of its own: a plague that rendered all their people sterile. There weren’t many of the Nigevi left anymore, which meant there was enough room for the Oneui to resettle. Just a stone’s throw from the remnants of their own world, and everything they’d left behind.
Of course some of them tried to go back. The first few returned coughing and blind, defeated by the ever-worsening storm. The next few stumbled out bloody, their clothing shredded and their flesh torn raw.
The last few didn’t return at all.
“Why do you lot keep trying?” the stranger asked. “You know by now that it won’t end well. Is this just how your people have taken to committing suicide?”
Some worlds did that, Eyo knew. Their people couldn’t handle the realization that it was over, that Driftwood was their present and their future, until the last scraps of their world shrank and faded away. They killed themselves singly or en masse, making a ritual of it, a show of obedience to or protest against the implacable forces that sent them here.
She meant to go on ignoring the stranger. It wasn’t any of his business why she was here, staring at the lethal swirls of the sandstorm. But when she turned to go, she saw him properly: a tall man, slender and strong, his hair and eyes and fingernails pure black, but his skin tinged lightly with blue.
In Driftwood, people came in all sizes and colors and number of limbs and presence or lack of horns and tails. Eyo didn’t claim to know them all. But she’d heard of only one person fitting this man’s description.
“You’re Last,” she said. Sudden excitement made her tense.
His eyes tightened in apprehension, and he retreated a careful step. “I am.”
“You can help me,” Eyo said.
He retreated again, glancing over his shoulder, toward the faceless wall of the Oneui tenements, and the nearest opening past them. “I don’t think so, kid. Sorry. I —”
She stepped forward, matching him. She didn’t have her full growth yet, but she was quick and good at running; she would chase him if he fled. “You’re a guide, aren’t you? Someone who knows things, knows where to find things.”
He stopped. “I — yes. I am.”
One of the best in Driftwood, or so people said. He knew the patchwork of realities that made up this area, because he’d been around for longer than any of them. The stories claimed he was called Last because he was the last of his own world — a world that had been gone longer than anyone could remember.
Clarity dawned. “Oh. You thought I was going to ask you to go into the sandstorm?”
He gave the howling storm a sideways glance. “You wouldn’t be the first.”
Because the stories also said he couldn’t die. Eyo scowled. “Someone asked you? Who? Tell me their name. I don’t care what the storm is like; the idea of sending an outsider in there, asking them to bring back the —”
She cut herself off, but not before Last’s eyebrows rose. “Bring back? You lost something in the storm?”
“It isn’t lost,” Eyo snapped. “We know exactly where it is.”
Now she saw clarity dawn for him. “That’s why your people keep going in,” he said thoughtfully, gaze drifting sideways again. “Look, whatever it is — it may not even be there anymore. This is Driftwood; things crumble and fade away, even without apocalyptic sandstorms to scour them into dust.”
Conviction stiffened Eyo’s crest, her scalp feathers rising in a proud line. “Not this. Everything else will fall apart and die, but not —” She swallowed and shook her head. “When we are gone, this will remain.”
His shrug said he didn’t agree, but he also didn’t care enough to argue anymore. “So if you don’t want to send me into that, what do you want me for?”
Eyo smoothed her crest with one hand, as flat to her skull as she could make it. If he knew her people, he would recognize that as a gesture of humility and supplication. “I want you to help me find a way to survive the sand.”
“I told you it wouldn’t work!”
In his fury, Last kicked the wall, which earned him a swift glare from Uaru. Eyo’s grandaime had helped build this tenement with their own hands after the Oneua fled the sands. If Last broke something, they would take it out of his hide.
He gestured in apology, and Uaru went back to bandaging Eyo’s fingers, their touches as gentle as possible. Eyo bit her lips until she was sure she could speak without hissing in pain. “You said it probably wouldn’t work. I had to make sure.”
“By sticking your hand across the border and letting it get torn apart? Use some common sense, In-Eyo! Get yourself a hunk of meat, wrap that up in the slidecloth, and see how it fares before you risk your own flesh!”
She hadn’t thought of that. Her hand throbbed under Uaru’s ministrations, as if in reproach. By the Oneui’s best guess at keeping their old calendar, Eyo was an adult now; she’d gone through her rite of passage two triple cycles of Gevsilon’s moons ago, with Uaru and Eyo’s other hanaime kin drumming and singing the traditional songs. But Last still called her In-Eyo, as if she were a child, and it was hard to tell him to stop when she’d just done something that proved him right.
“I’ll be more careful next time,” she said.
Last scowled. “If you had any sense of self-preservation, there wouldn’t be a next time. In-Eyo — Sa-Uaru — won’t one of you tell me what’s in there? What are you so desperate to retrieve?”
Uaru pressed their lips together and shook their head. They’d been furious when they found out the person who asked Last to go into the storm was another hanaime, Aune. But even Aune hadn’t told Last what they were looking for — not after he refused to go.
Eyo’s hand was fully bandaged. She cradled it gently after Uaru released her and began putting away their supplies. “It’s something important, Sa-Last. Something we need. Our people never would have left it there if they’d realized . . .”
Her throat closed, ending the sentence. If they’d realized they could never go back.
She’d grown up on stories of all the things her grandparents had left behind, everything from shell cameos of ancestors she’d never met to her grandfather’s favorite chair. The things they brought with them had the aura of holy relics — even the mundane ones, like the battered tin cup out of which Eyo’s grandaime drank their salt tea every morning. But one absence loomed larger than all the rest, not because people spoke of it so often, but because they didn’t.
Last turned away and braced his palms against the wall, head down. Eyo’s hand throbbed again as he watched him. Finally, breathing out a long sigh, he said, “I’ll keep looking. Slidecloth obviously isn’t enough to protect you. And you would have been walking blind anyway, with that over your eyes. You need something better.”
“Thank you,” Eyo said.
He straightened up, his air of determination returning. “Thank me by being less reckless with the next possibility.”
But the next possibility, when it came, couldn’t be tested with a piece of meat.
Last handed over the package with something less than confidence. “You know, normally when a Sut-kef-chid is trying to sell you something, they praise its qualities to the skies. When she heard what I wanted this for, though, she got a lot less enthusiastic.”
Eyo unwrapped the cloth, revealing a small ceramic flute. “This should calm the winds?”
“It does calm winds. And it works outside of Sut-ke; I tested it. But whether it’s strong enough to overcome the sandstorm . . . the only way to find that out is to test it.”
Which meant playing the flute. While standing in the storm.
Last’s hand twitched. He clearly regretted giving her the flute. Eyo said, “I’m not as foolish as I used to be. Can you get me more slidecloth?”
It wouldn’t protect her against the winds for long; she’d proved that three lunar years ago. But it could buy her some time. “I’ll see what I can do,” Last said.
Wrapped in slidecloth, with a rope harness tied around her body and the flute in her hand, Eyo faced the sandstorm again. Someone had built a bridge over what remained of the Eckuoz Sea at the beginning of the last solar year, widdershins of Oneua and Gevsilon; it turned the weed-filled gap between the windowless backs of the Oneui tenements and the sandstorm into a thoroughfare for people in that part of Driftwood. Garbed and harnessed as she was, Eyo garnered a lot of odd stares from passers-by. Last held the other end of the rope, ready to pull.
“Give me a hundred heartbeats,” she said.
Last snorted. “What am I, a fishmonger with a day-old catch? No bargaining. I’ll give you thirty, and I’ll pull you out sooner if I see the slidecloth start to shred. You’re already going to get your face flayed.” Unhappiness weighed down his words.
There was no arguing with him. Short of taking the rope harness off entirely, she couldn’t prevent him from yanking her back. Eyo’s younger self might have done it in a fit of bravado, but she was smart enough now to accept the precaution. “All right.”
She pulled the slidecloth mask down over her face, leaving only her mouth clear. Somehow, not being able to see the storm made it far more frightening. Her pulse pounded, counting off the beats faster than usual. Eyo’s breath shallowed, and when she brought the flute to her lips, it took her three tries to produce a sound, even though she’d practiced for this day.
Gevsilon never had much of a breeze, as if the forces that brought Driftwood together needed some cosmic counterbalance for the maelstrom of Oneua. What movement there was died as Eyo began to play, the air settling around her like a warm, damp blanket.
She wasn’t ready. But she made herself step forward anyway.
The list of things that didn’t work grew longer as the years went by.
Slidecloth didn’t last long enough. The flute might have worked, but the winds tore away Eyo’s breath before she could produce a note, and when she tried going back with a slidecloth-covered barrel over her head as shelter, the flute only affected the air inside the barrel. Then Uaru had to pick splinters out of her cheek after the barrel shattered. A potion whose seller swore it would make her invulnerable turned out to be nothing more than flavored wine. Someone else legitimately had the ability to turn Eyo insubstantial, but that would have made it impossible for her to do anything else — like carry an object. Burrowing underground kept her safe from the storm; unfortunately, she could spend the rest of her life digging tunnels and never find what she was looking for, not without some way to orient herself. Flying could lift her above the winds, but that didn’t change the fact that she would have to descend into them eventually. Remembering her grandparents’ stories of how the world dried out before the storm began, Eyo even looked into the possibility of channeling the remnants of the Eckuoz Sea across the border into Oneua, on the principle that it might lay the dust. But a broken dam in Ishlt left the aquatic Leshir in desperate search of a new home, and they took up residence in the waters of Eckuoz before Eyo could put that particular crack-brained idea to the test.
Last showed up intermittently, whenever he found some new prospect for Eyo to consider. Sometimes his absence stretched out to a solar year or more. But she never had any doubt that she would see him again; the possibility of him losing interest was as inconceivable as his death.
He never offered to go into the storm for her. And she never asked.
She worked as a trader, primarily among the Brenak’i, where her scarred face and hand earned her respect. When Eyo was young, the prospect of being a hero to her people had consumed all her thoughts; as the years passed, it slipped further and further into the back of her mind, pushed aside by duties and opportunities more immediate.
But it never went away. And when her daughter was born, it came roaring back to life, as if it had never faded at all.
Ila wasn’t her first. Eyo had an older child-pair, a boy and a hanaime, sired by an Oneui lover. But even if her second birth hadn’t been single — a rarity among her people — the girl’s appearance would have told everyone her father was an outsider, her eyes too small, her face too round, her skin more Brenak’i gold than Oneui red. She had scalp feathers, but none along the backs of her arms.
“It happens with almost everyone, sooner or later,” Last said one night. All three of Gevsilon’s moons were in the sky, making what the Nigevi had called “false day;” people went about their business in the half-light, but the strip of packed dirt between the tenements and the border was much less busy than usual. “Some peoples manage to keep themselves completely separate until they’re gone, and a few seem to be fertile only with their own kind, but most wind up mixing with other races in Driftwood.”
About half the inhabitants of Gevsilon these days were Drifters, the descendants of such cross-world encounters. Products of a hundred worlds, they had no world but Driftwood itself. “It all goes away in the end,” Eyo said, her voice thick. “Ila’s great-grandchildren will be Drifters. They’ll know nothing of Oneua.” Then she pounded her fist against the ground. “I say that as if I know anything about it. All I know are my grandparents’ stories! I was born after they fled here. We try to live as they did before, but it isn’t the same. We eat the food of the Brenak’i, wear fabric the Thiwd make from worms. Without our suns we can’t count time correctly, so all our rituals are guesses. If we had —”
She swallowed the words before they could come out. Last nodded. “If you had whatever it is you left behind.”
He’d given up on asking her what it was. But he hadn’t given up on finding her a way.
Eyo let her head sag. “I know it won’t fix anything. Everything in Driftwood fades eventually; the Oneui will be no different. Generations from now, that storm will be gone, and some other dying world will have taken our place. But what happens before then — that still matters. At least to me.”
Last stroked her crest. There was no one else she allowed to make such an intimate gesture anymore, now that Uaru had passed away. Last wasn’t kin — she didn’t even know what world he’d come from — but somewhere during these years of effort, he had become family.
“I’ll keep searching,” he said. “For you.”
Driftwood took, and took, and took — but it also gave.
Ila was growing like a weed and Eyo’s eldest pair had passed their rites of adulthood when Last appeared with news from the Edge, the rim of Driftwood where new world fragments appeared. “You have something,” Eyo said, hope flaring in her heart.
He’d had something before, countless times. But usually he looked optimistic, or maybe skeptical. This time he looked grim. And that, against all logic, gave her hope.
“I do,” Last said, the words dragging with reluctance. “But it — hellfire. Eyo, it’s something they do to their criminals.”
In Driftwood, customs of punishment varied as much as anything else. For all Eyo knew, criminals in this newly-arrived world were made to wear outlandish costumes, or eat foul-smelling herbs. “I don’t care. Whatever it is, I’ll —”
Last put up his hand before she could finish her sentence. “Don’t. I almost didn’t even come tell you, except . . . I can’t do that to you. Can’t lie. I’ve always brought you everything, and so I have to bring this. But it’s permanent, Eyo. Assuming it even works here, you won’t be able to come back from it. And I can’t swear that it will help you. I don’t know what it is you need to retrieve from Oneua, but you might do this to yourself and then find you aren’t able to bring that thing out like you want.”
“Sa-Last.” The formal address brought him up short. Eyo laid her hands over his and said, “Tell me.”
He’d lived for a long time. More lifetimes than anyone could count, him included, Eyo thought. Somewhere in all those ages, he’d learned how to spit out bad news without choking on it.
“They turn their criminals into wind.”
Her fingers went slack.
Like the never-ending storm in Oneua.
“Self-aware wind,” Last said. “You’ll still be yourself. You’ll know where you are, and be able to move as you wish. And if what you’re looking for is small enough, you might be able to pick it up and blow it to the border. But you’ll be like that forever, Eyo — until Oneua is gone.”
Her heart seemed to have gone silent in her chest. If what you’re looking for is small enough. It was — oh, it was.
Which meant that if this worked — if these newcomers to Driftwood could change her into wind — if she could find her way into the sanctuary — if she could control herself well enough —
Then she would die. Her mind would linger, but as far as her people were concerned, she would be gone. Lost forever in the storm that had consumed Oneua, until Driftwood finally ground the last of it out of existence.
Eyo said, “Ila is still a child.”
Someone else might have thought she was preparing to refuse. But Last knew the Oneui: once Ila passed her rites, Eyo’s obligations to her half Brenak’i daughter would be done.
And he knew Eyo.
If the air of Gevsilon hadn’t been so still, so quiet, she wouldn’t have heard his words. “How long?”
“Two lunar years,” Eyo said.
Last nodded. “I’ll be ready when the time comes. But if you change your mind —”
They both knew she wouldn’t.
No one had come to watch her previous attempts. People who thought they could go back into Oneua were eccentrics at best, lunatics at worst; the polite thing to do was to turn a blind eye.
But when the day came that Eyo faced the border for the final time, the tenements emptied, and the well-trammeled thoroughfare from the dwindling Eckuoz Lake was filled with the silent, watching ranks of Oneui.
Last stood a pace from the border with their visitor, a magistrate from the distant world called Tzuh. If this one was any example, the Tz were a short, stocky people, the least airy beings Eyo could imagine. Last referred to the magistrate as “they,” so Eyo thought of them as hanaime, though in truth they had no more gender than a rock. She hadn’t spoken much to them. Right now, all her thoughts were bent on her own people.
The eldest hanaime among them performed the rites: a funeral for one who would soon be dead. Stripped bare, her skin covered in an intricate lace of white paint, Eyo turned to face the border — and was caught halfway through her turn by Ila, flinging her arms around her mother’s waist in defiance of all custom.
“I love you,” Ila whispered into her shoulder, fierce through the tears. “And I will remember. Every bit of it. I’ll teach my children about Oneua, and they will teach theirs, from now until the end of Driftwood.”
Eyo laid her cheek atop her daughter’s head. The promise was as impossible as it was heartfelt. This was the truth of Driftwood: that in the end, everything went away and was forgotten, no matter how hard people tried to cling to the scraps.
But the effort still meant something.
“Wait for me at the border,” Eyo said back, stroking her daughter’s crest. “I will bring it to you — I swear.”
Then she pried Ila away, gently, and approached Last and the Tz magistrate.
Last met her gaze. He understood, she thought. He of all people would.
He murmured a phrase in a language she didn’t recognize. His own native tongue? It had the sound of a blessing. Then he stepped back and it was just the magistrate, who set their feet against the ground and began a series of clicking noises that seemed to slip between the pieces that made up Eyo, separating them, slicing the bonds between them until they all came apart —
An instant before she became entirely insubstantial, Last placed his hands against her back and shoved.
The storm was never-ending insanity.
Particles of sand tore through Eyo, robbed of their power to harm her. But she cartwheeled through the air without any sense of up or down, left or right; there was only forward, borne along on the ever-changing currents. Backward did not exist at all. In the face of such fury, even the thought was impossible.
She could not fight the wind, any more than she had been able to withstand it before. In order to survive, she had to join with it. And in order to win passage through, she had to ride the torrent.
Forward, forward, always forward, swirling and veering and tearing across a landscape she knew only from her grandparents’ stories. Everything was worn down by the constant friction of the sand, rounding into smooth shapes she could barely identify. Then it would all vanish, as she arced upward and away and lost track of where she was.
But gradually she learned.
And even more gradually, she began to work her way toward her goal.
It was slow progress. Sometimes she wound up further away than before, her own strength nothing against the power of the storm. But Eyo had learned patience, in her years of trying to enter Oneua. She simply rode the winds away, then came back for another pass. She found spaces between the crumbling buildings where the fury was quieter. She mapped out the vortices where everything became chaos, and found there was pattern within it after all.
And then, one night when both of Oneua’s suns had set, she slipped inside the hollow wreck of a building whose sand-scoured walls still bore the unmistakable tint of green jade.
The winds had broken open doors, windows, roofs. But not floors, not yet — and in here, where only a portion of the storm could reign, Eyo’s hard-won skill bore fruit. In a single instinctive movement she was across the entry chamber, into the inner room, at the entrance to a spiral staircase winding downward. The storm itself aided her now, dragging her down that spiral, but she almost missed the opening at the bottom, flinging her insubstantial form through it by the narrowest of margins.
Here the air was almost still. The place was as dark as Last’s hair; no flame had illuminated it since the Oneui fled. But a wind did not need eyes to see. Eyo spread herself out, floating along at a pace of her own choosing, farther and farther from the reach of the storm. Soon hers was the only movement, drifting past a double rank of statues whose lines were as crisp and unworn as the day they were first carved. They seemed to watch her go by, and Eyo offered up a silent prayer to them, that she would not have done all this in vain.
She had not.
It sat in a shallow bowl of gold, untouched by the distant wind. A single feather: the most holy relic of her people, taken from the crest of Ona, foremother of their race. Too precious and fragile to risk in the storm, the feather had remained behind when the Oneui fled, because they didn’t realize they would never be able to return for it.
Eyo could move a feather.
But could she keep it safe from the storm?
She gathered it up with the lightest touch, wafting it on a breath of air to the center of herself. She would have only one opportunity: once she re-entered the tempest, there would be no chance to retreat and try again. If she lost control of the feather, or let the sand rip through her and her precious burden . . .
Waiting would not make her any more ready. Eyo wrapped herself around the feather, prayed, and launched herself back into the wind.
A balcony lined the back wall of the Oneui settlement in Gevsilon, facing the border.
It had changed a great deal from the early years. Children now played there in their idle moments, and laundry often hung from its railing. Still, the place had a touch of the sacred to it, and from time to time anyone who came out there would pause in their work or play and gaze at the border with Oneua, the unabated fury of the storm just a short distance away. Moss and flowers grew in the space between, since the thoroughfare had been blocked up.
Ila sat in her accustomed spot just a pace away from that silent, sand-torn barrier. Waiting.
A bell rang, near the center of Gevsilon. She’d grown accustomed to the sound since the Wilsl moved in, taking the place of the now-extinct Nigevi. Soon one of the children would bring her food, and brush her hair, and talk with her for a little while before leaving her to her vigil.
She never troubled herself to wonder what would happen after she was gone. Her mother had promised to bring the feather to her. Ila’s faith was absolute.
Something swirled by in the sand and was gone.
Ila rose, so quickly her aging bones protested. Had she imagined it . . . ?
Then it came again. Without hesitation, she plunged her hand through the intangible barrier, from one world into the next, and took hold of what she’d seen.
She expected to feel sand tear the skin from her hand, the flesh from her bones. Instead she felt a brief, soft caress — and then, before the storm could take her, Ila pulled her hand back.
Slowly, not daring to breathe, she uncurled her fingers. Ona’s crest feather balanced in her palm, irridescent and gold.
Tears slipped down Ila’s cheeks. “Thank you,” she whispered to the storm, then turned to face the Oneui who had come to a halt on the balcony, raising the feather high above her head.
Eyo had kept her promise.
Rank #4: PodCastle 554: Hosting the Solstice
- Author : Tim Pratt
- Narrator : Brie Code
- Hosts : Setsu Uzume and Peter Behravesh
- Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
- Discuss on Forums
PodCastle 554: Hosting the Solstice is a PodCastle original.
Sound effects used in the host spot are in the public domain and can be found here.
Hosting the Solstice
By Tim Pratt
The first note came a week before Halloween. I glanced at an empty parking lot while I was out walking Bradbury and the leaves blew around to form the words “IT’S YOUR TURN TO HOST.”
I put my head down and tugged Bradbury’s leash to hurry him up and pretended I hadn’t seen anything at all.
The second note came a week later, when my son Rye was working the haunted house fundraiser at the high school — he was only a freshman, but his obsession with monster makeup tutorials from the internet meant his “bloody-face-wound zombie” was good enough to join the seniors-only “scare crew” for the big terror finale just before the exit. My husband, Corey, was handing out candy to trick-or-treaters in the living room. I went into the bathroom and saw the words “IT’S YOUR TURN TO HOST” dripping in blood down the shower wall.
I was almost done cleaning it off when Corey came in, putting his hand on my hip in a way that still sends a thrill-shiver up my spine after 18 years together. “Whoa. Did Rye do this? Halloween prank?”
I almost said, “It was my sister,” but there was no point, so I just shrugged.
“What did it say?”
Only the word “HOST” was left. “It said, ‘Boo, I’m a ghost.’” I could count on one hand the number of times I’d lied to Corey, but telling him the truth in this case wouldn’t accomplish anything.
Corey snorted. “That sounds like Rye. Come to the living room when you’re done, I’ve got Trick ’r Treat cued up.”
My husband loves horror movies. I like them too. They make me laugh and laugh and laugh.
The third note came in mid-November, and the words were written in ice on the windshield of my car. It took me half an hour to scrape them off.
The fourth came on Black Friday, the day after the annual gargantuan Thanksgiving dinner at my mother-in-law’s house. Me and Rye and Corey were being lazy, eating turkey sandwiches, with Bradbury begging for scraps and being indulged too often. I went to the bedroom and saw “IT’S YOUR TURN TO HOST” written in a spiderweb on the ceiling, Charlotte’s Web style. I was impressed. A few years ago, it would have been written with the bodies of actual spiders, lined up like members of a marching band spelling out the team name on a football field at halftime. Poe’s control was getting better.
The last note came in early December. I’d hoped ignoring them would make them go away; it had in the past, once or twice. But I was walking Bradbury one morning, scarf pulled up over my nose, hat pulled down over my ears, when I glanced up and noticed the clouds shifting to say “WE’LL SEE YOU ON THE SOLSTICE” before uncurling back into nonsense shapes.
“Well, Bradbury,” I said. “It looks like my family is coming to visit for the holidays.”
My dog had no idea what I was talking about. Lucky dog.
“I was raised by monsters.” I dished out big bowls of my favorite winter stew — apples and onions and carrots and potatoes, bacon and roasted garlic — and set them in front of my husband and our son. “Or maybe demi-gods, or demons, or angels, or the fey, or just the ‘Old Folks,’ as Mom and Dad sometimes call themselves. We lived in caverns, and on mountaintops, and in the belfries of churches. One summer we lived on the moon, when mom was mad at Dad. I used to sneak out and go to school, though, every chance I got. There was a glamour on me, on all of us, that allowed us to pass unnoticed among the humans, and all I wanted was the life I saw other kids have: skateboarding, sneaking cigarettes, kissing boys, growing up, going to college, meeting people who weren’t your immediate family and forming connections with them.” I cut up hunks of fresh bread and passed those around the table, then poured glasses of water. “I wanted to get married and start a family of my own, set the terms for my own life, and leave all that . . . other stuff . . . behind. So I did! It took a lot of breaking and binding and some dramatic behavior on my part, but I got away, or thought I did. But now my mom and dad and brother and sister are going to visit us for the holiday, their holiday, and I don’t know what to do.” I sat down at my place across from Rye and at Corey’s left hand and they were both staring at me very strangely, which was very strange.
“Is this a new story you’re writing?” Rye asked, and I stared at him.
I wrote things for a living, but they were things like technical documentation for software products, and I only rarely dabbled in fiction. “I . . . what?”
“What are you talking about?” Corey said. “You didn’t know your mom and dad. You grew up in foster care until you got emancipated and went to college when you were sixteen.”
“You . . . wait . . . you heard all that? What I just said?”
“Babe, are you okay?” Corey said.
“My mother is frost,” I said. “My father is the wind.” I sped up. “My brother is all the things that crawl and bite and lurk. My sister is the last thing you hear in the dark place of your greatest fear, her chuckle in your ear and then the spurt of your own blood. And I — I — I’m—”
Rye was beside me, kneeling by the chair, clutching my hands, his eyes wide and worried. Corey was on the other side, wrapping his arms around me, saying, “Holly, it’s okay, we’re okay, what’s wrong, what are you talking about?”
“You could never hear me before,” I said, numb. “I told you about my family so many times, both of you, and you’d just smile and nod and respond like I’d told you about getting a haircut or finding a new place to get a manicure or a good Cuban sandwich. The spell, the glamour, it always worked on you before, I never thought — my parents must have lifted the spell. They’re coming. They’re really coming, and they’re not going to just pass before your eyes unseen like they did at the wedding, no, they’re going to meet you.”
I wished I could pass out, like people do in books and movies when some horrible revelation occurs. Instead I sat there, in the hands of my family, very awake and aware and unsure of what to do or say next. My husband has seen my brain vapor-lock before, that thousand-league stare I get when my thoughts are so jumbled none of them will get into an orderly line, and he is a being of infinite patience, so he said, “Let’s finish eating. Give you a few minutes to get your thoughts together. Then we can go sit down in the living room and you can tell us what you want to tell us, okay?”
“Okay.” I kissed my fourteen-year-old son on the head and patted his hand so he’d think I was all right. I ate the slow-simmered sweet and savory stew I’d created, the taste of autumn itself in a bowl, but I couldn’t enjoy it; I was thinking ahead to winter.
My husband and son were very sweet and supportive, and they didn’t believe me at all. Finally I told Corey to go get the shoe box full of love letters from under the bed. Early in our relationship we’d spent a few months apart while he was on a research trip for his PhD, and we had written to one another with fervor. In between professions of love and tales of the quotidian, I’d spilled out my entire life history, knowing his eyes would pass over those lines without seeing, or that my tales of winters in the court of the Holly King and the spring we spent on the bottom of the sea would be transformed into banalities by his mortal mind.
But now the glamour was lifted, and he stared in astonishment at the old pages, turning them over and occasionally silently handing a page to my son (none of the sexy parts, I hoped; it had been a long separation). “These are real?” Rye said at last. “You didn’t just . . . like . . . make these, or . . .”
“These are the originals,” Corey said. “It’s not a trick. Or . . . it was a trick.” My husband looked at me, his dark eyes full of compassion (fine) and pity (ugh). “I’m so sorry, Holly. I never knew.”
I shrugged. “You knew I had a challenging childhood and felt alone and out of place a lot. The emotional truth made it through, if not the exact details.”
Rye’s eyes held no pity, only sparkle. “My grandparents are magic? I have an aunt who can turn into shadows and an uncle who can control rats?” My heart did an uncomfortable flip at the enthusiasm in his voice.
Corey got into bed beside me that night and said, “Are they dangerous?”
I snorted. “Are ice storms dangerous? Hurricanes? Sheer cliffs in the dark? Spiders? Sure they’re dangerous.”
“Should I take Rye away on the solstice and let you handle them yourself?”
I put a pillow over my face for a moment and then took it off. “No. They’re not . . . they’re not bad. They never abused me or anything, though my sister’s teasing can be intense. I was older and stronger, though, so maybe it was sort of self defense. My dad would be the personification of pride if he wasn’t already the personification of the wind. My mom can be cold. Poe is . . . actually Poe is my favorite. He encouraged my rebellion, even, though he likes disintegration and chaos as a rule. I didn’t leave because my family was terrible, I left because I didn’t want to live like they did, and they couldn’t understand that. They think they’re the greatest and their life is the best, so to them I was ungrateful at best, and unhinged at worst.”
“It’s like they’re from a religious tradition you chose to turn your back on.” Corey hmmed. “We’ll respect their culture while making it clear we’re doing our own thing. Right?”
“Sure. I don’t even know if they’ll acknowledge you. They lifted the glamour, so maybe, but they’re weird about mortals.”
“We’re going to have to talk about you being immortal later,” he said. “I think it has some tax and retirement implications.”
I barked a laugh. My husband was a CFO for a tech company, and he was an economist by training. I’d definitely messed up all his statistical models.
“It’ll be fine.” Corey put his arm around me. “The solstice will come and go, and we’ll still do Christmas at my dad’s as usual, so there won’t be any need for excuses or explanations.”
“Excuses and explanations are never a problem for my family,” I said. “The problem is the visit itself. They’ll be here. In our house. Overnight.”
“If they’re used to living in caves and junk I think our guest rooms will be good enough, Mom.” Rye punched a pillow a few times and tossed it down onto the fold-out couch in the basement. We had a guest room for Mom and Dad, and the fold-out and an air mattress downstairs, which would do for my brother and sister. They liked basements. Lots of shadows, higher-than-usual likelihood of bugs, what wasn’t to love?
After some negotiations (which involved me shouting into a drain in an empty lot) I convinced them to arrive at noon on the solstice instead dawn. Waking up in the morning is hard enough without contending with them. It was Rye’s winter holidays anyway and Corey took the day off, so we were all home when the doorbell rang. Rye sprang up and shouted, “I got it!” but I followed him close behind.
He pulled open the door, and there was no one there, of course, because my family has to make an entrance. First a pile of leaves in the yard swirled into a person-high column, and then the leaves fell, and my father stood there, dressed in an old-fashioned brown suit and looking mostly like a respectable English professor, except that his hair and beard were pale green against his dark skin.
Snow flurried down behind him, first just a few flakes, then a torrent, the flakes building up into a humanoid shape that somehow became my mother, dressed in a pale blue gown, her hair white as rime, her skin tinged faintly bluish.
Rats and pigeons scurried into the yard in a great flapping skittering horde that ran away to leave my brother revealed in their midst, slouching in a black hoodie and jeans.
“Hi, Sis,” my sister said, stepping out of a shadow behind me and speaking right into my ear. I didn’t flinch; I’m her older sister, and I know her tricks. Her skin was as pale as mom’s but with more of a greenish pallor underneath, rather more corpse than frost, and she was dressed like an assassin out for a night at the Goth club.
“Corey, Rye, this is my family. My brother Poe, my sister Ligeia, my mother, Camille, and my father, Le Bon.” Those weren’t their real names, just recent aliases. Their real names are just . . . sounds.
Bradbury growled at them. Ligeia looked at the dog, and he yelped and ran for the backyard. Off to a good start.
“It’s so wonderful to see you, Eulalie,” my mother said.
“I go by Holly these days,” I said.
“Holly. Kind of on the nose, isn’t it?” So said my sister, a demigod of shadows and death who’d named herself after an Edgar Allan Poe character best known for dabbling with forbidden secrets and dying of a mystery disease.
My dad tromped solidly up onto the porch, looked Corey up and down, nodded, then gazed down at Rye. “You are my grandson. Orion. I welcome you to the family.”
He put a hand on Rye’s shoulder, and I put a hand on Rye’s other shoulder and pulled him back a step. “No sense standing around outside. Come on in.”
My family trooped obediently indoors, though Mom and Dad aren’t indoors people, and Poe and Ligeia prefer crawlspaces and rooftops. “We’re a no-shoes house,” I said, which was both true and passive-aggressive.
Father quirked a bushy eyebrow and slid out of his loafers. Ligeia’s black combat boots just dissolved into smoke, while Poe kicked off his battered sneakers. Mother slid out of her heels, and her feet were deer hooves. I looked at her, and she looked back at me with a half-smile, then gave the faintest roll of her eyes. When I looked again she had slim white feet.
“Would you like to see the back garden?” Corey said to my father. “Holly thought you might like some of the mobiles. I make kinetic sculptures, sort of overgrown wind chimes really, it’s just a hobby, but every once in a while I sell one—”
“I am familiar with our collaborations,” my father said stiffly. “But yes, I have some suggestions for how you could improve them. Show me.”
“Uh, sure, that sounds great.” He tossed me a look of love and reassurance as they departed.
I looked around for Rye, and he was deep in conversation by the fireplace with Poe and Ligeia, telling them excitedly about his zombie Halloween costume, as far as I could tell. They were a sympathetic audience, too sympathetic, and no good could come of zombie talk, not given the things Ligeia could do—
Before I could interrupt, my mother emerged from the kitchen with two glasses of white wine and pressed one into my hands. I hadn’t chilled a bottle — more passive aggression — but it was icy cold anyway, of course. She gently steered me toward the breakfast bar and sat me down on a stool beside her. “Eu — Holly. You look well. Your home is . . . charming. Very, hmm, well-insulated.”
“Why did you come, Camille? All these years without contact, in either direction, and then . . . holiday ambush.”
Her eyes flashed, the glint of sunlight off a frozen lake. “We understand you chose to make a new life. We have accepted that. But don’t we deserve the opportunity to meet our grandson? Don’t your siblings deserve a relationship with their nephew? You know new family members are rarities in our . . . culture.”
True. We were mostly jealous and territorial beings, solitary or moving in small family groups. Eventually Ligeia might meet some chthonic entity, or Poe might find himself a spider queen, or they’d be attracted to their opposites, the creatures that dwell in sunbeams or the presiding genius of a lifeless salt lake, and I might get nieces or nephews of my own . . . but my siblings were still very young as my kind reckon time, and in no hurry. I wished I could get rid of the tension in my neck. “What kind of relationship did you have in mind?”
“A better one than you and I have, perhaps?” Her smile glittered. Mom always glittered. I was grubby and earthy and up to my elbows in dirt next to her, no matter what I wore. “It depends on what Orion wants. That’s an interesting name. Do you sense something of the stars in him? The void? Or do you hearken back to the old stories? Is there something of the hunter in him, perhaps?”
“Rye is an ordinary teenage boy. We just liked the name.”
“I’m sure,” she murmured.
“I’m his mother. If he’d . . . inherited anything . . . I’d know.”
“Mothers always know best, don’t they?” She glittered and sipped her wine and I thought, Okay, one point for mom.
We gathered around the big table, Corey at the head and my father at the other end, which I’m sure he thought was the head, because wherever he sat was the eye of the storm. I know that metaphor doesn’t really make any sense, but I get irritated, so cut me some slack. We started passing bowls and platters around and my mother simply passed the dishes down without taking anything. Poe and Lie took big helpings of everything, potatoes and turkey and green bean casserole, and Poe dropped stuff on my father’s plate while he just scowled at the table from under his eyebrows.
Rye was watching everything. We were a complex system and he was going to map our every interaction.
“Something wrong, Le Bon?” I said. “Corey’s a great cook.”
“It’s just not . . . the traditional meal,” he said.
Corey cocked his head. “Stuffing, turkey, mashed potatoes . . . but I guess that’s more Thanksgiving or Christmas. What’s traditional for a solstice meal?”
Le Bon opened his mouth to answer. I hunched into myself. The solstice, in this hemisphere, was about the return of the sun and the renewal of life and the coming time of plenty, and for our annual dinners, we’d all go out and bring back something to share, and it was usually something bloody.
Then Le Bon waved a hand. “It doesn’t matter. This is your house, and I . . . we . . . it’s . . . You welcomed us. We are pleased to be here.”
“Well said.” My mother glittered at him.
I looked at her for a moment, then went into the kitchen and came back with a crystal dish full of crushed ice and set it before my mother. “Mineral and spring and well water ice. Nothing that flowed through a pipe.” I’d spitefully held back the dish, and I felt small about that now.
Mother didn’t glitter at me. She sparkled. It was a subtle but meaningful difference. She put her cool hand over mine and said, “Thank you, dear.”
We all ate, and after a few moments of contemplative silence, Rye blurted out, “You’re all really magic! I can’t believe it!”
“Your mother is too,” Lie said. “We all thought she’d have ten babies and eighteen dogs and a hundred cats and that she’d work at a plant nursery and a human nursery and have fruit trees in pots all over your house.” Ligeia flapped her hand at me. “Your mom’s sphere of influence is nature, growing things, bounty, fecundity.”
Rye’s eyes widened. “She’s like . . . a dryad?” They’d done a unit on Greek and Roman mythology at his school.
“More like Gaea.”
“We’re not gods,” I snapped.
“Speak for yourself,” mother said.
“Flowers used to grow in her footprints,” Lie said. “I just really thought… you’d be a gardener, or something, Sis.”
“Biology isn’t destiny.” I kept my voice level. We didn’t exactly use biology in our bodies, but close enough. “I can do meaningful work with my mind, not just my . . . natural talents.” Writing was a bit like gardening, though. Sometimes you had to coax the words, carefully cultivate them, and sometimes they bolted, and you had to prune them back to promote healthier growth.
“How do you not have ten babies though,” Poe said. “Seriously.”
Corey was trying hard not to laugh. I was trying hard not to scream. If Rye was trying not to blush, he was failing.
“I have an IUD,” I said. “Modern technology is amazing. Come out of the cave sometime and you’ll see.”
“We’ve been living in some trees mostly lately,” Poe grumbled.
After dinner we drank spiced cider, and then Rye showed his aunt and uncle his makeup collection, and mother discussed math with Corey — who knew she was into math? — while my father and I sat in silence. He rose abruptly. “Come outside. I wish to discuss something with you.”
We stood out beneath one of Corey’s more ambitious pieces, a series of colorful nested triangles counterbalancing several proliferating arms that dangled ovals and squares and circles, all turning lightly in the breeze. Le Bon stood straight as a birch tree and watched the movement as he spoke. “Your son is of our blood.”
“We don’t even have blood unless we want to.”
“Then say instead that the old songs sing within him. Or the old wind blows. I have looked into him. I see his power.”
I’d always worried Rye would manifest . . . something. Some ability, some quirk, some fundamental strangeness. I’d hoped that even if he did, the glamour that protected us while we lived within the mortal world would suppress any symptoms, as it did most of my own unusual qualities. Even more, I’d hoped the issue would never come up at all. I wanted to say, “You’re wrong,” but though Le Bon was many things, he wasn’t usually wrong about magical matters. “What’s his sphere?”
“Glamour.” Le Bon shrugged. “It makes some sense, given how he has been raised. We often develop what we need to survive and thrive.”
I frowned. “We all have glamour.”
Le Bon shook his head. “We blend. It is . . . your brother told me a word for it . . . Crypsis. Animals do it. Chameleons, stick insects, the octopus. We match our background, and this protects us. If we step out of that background, the glamour helps there, too. Mortals do not truly see the world, not as we do. There is too much information for their senses to take in, so their brains discard what is meaningless or confusing, and create a little . . . puppet theater version of reality, brightly colored and simplified.” He shrugged. “It might be nice, sometimes, to see less clearly. But. Orion can see. Orion can change what others see. Not in the passive way our glamour does, but actively. He can create illusions. He can decorate the puppet theaters of mortal minds any way he sees fit.”
I thought about Rye’s monster makeup, so realistic it startled even jaded teenagers who’d grown up on a steady diet of horror movies. I thought about the times I’d asked if he’d cleaned his room and he’d said yes and it looked clean, and then a little later I came back and it was demolished again. I thought it was just talent, for makeup and for destruction, but what if Rye was changing what people saw? A talent of a different kind.
“His powers are nascent,” my father said, “but once I have trained him—”
“What? You can’t train him. You can’t stay here, Le Bon. We have schedules, routines, a whole life.”
“I do not wish to stay, Eulalie. Orion should come with us and discover his true nature—”
“Out,” I said. “All of you, out.” I grew. I didn’t mean to, but I couldn’t help it. I rose up, until I was taller than Le Bon, and fangs crowded my mouth, and spines burst from my elbows, and talons from my fingertips, and the roots in the garden trembled and readied themselves to tear Le Bon apart and toss him to the four winds where he belonged.
Le Bon scowled and bowed his head, but not even he could stand against me in my garden, in my home, and he shredded into colored smoke and blew away. Inside the house I heard shouts as my banishment took hold, and when I looked through the back door, I saw mother turn into a reverse snow, falling up to the ceiling; Ligeia fading into a silhouette and then puddling to a shadow on the floor and disappearing; Poe exploding into thousands of scuttling things that disappeared beneath a crack under the door.
Corey and Rye looked at each other, stunned, and then Rye, fourteen years old, began to cry, and my husband took him in his arms.
I watched them as I slowly let my greater essence drain away. I needed to look human again before I went inside or I’d just make things worse.
“They had to go,” I repeated. “Don’t take it personally. They’re terrible at goodbyes.” I was the one who was terrible at goodbyes. My mom and dad and I had argued for months, and then one night I just left, never expecting to see my family again, willing to make that trade for a new life of my own.
“Okay,” Corey said. “Maybe they’ll visit again sometime, Rye.”
Rye sniffed and nodded and disappeared upstairs.
Corey started to speak, but then just put a hand on my shoulder for a moment and went upstairs himself.
I sat downstairs in the dark and brooded. My family had come to take Rye away. They wanted to drag him into their world, always wandering, contending with dark forces, being dark forces. Le Bon wouldn’t give up easily, and my mother even less so. I’d have to be vigilant, set up wards, remember old safeguards—
I started to swell, then fought it down. My sister was in the armchair off to my left, just a shape in the dark. “Lie. How did you get in here?”
“You can’t banish shadows without a lot of light, Sister, and you seem short on that just now.”
“What do you want?”
Ligeia chuckled. “Dinner was really nice.”
I wouldn’t let myself soften. I said nothing.
“Poe and I . . . Mom and Dad too . . . we really enjoyed meeting Rye. He’s a great kid. Quick, smart, enthusiastic. Reminds me a lot of you.”
“He’s my son.”
“I know. I’d know even if I’d met him at random on the street. He has your heart, too.”
When I left home, Ligeia’s only interest in hearts was making them stop through the sudden application of terror. But that was a long time ago. Back then she couldn’t have circumvented my banishment, either. She’d grown.
“We came to your wedding,” Lie said.
“I know. You weren’t invited. I saw you, standing at the back. I was afraid you’d . . . I don’t know . . . do something. Thank you for making a stressful day even more so.”
Lie sighed. “We didn’t come to disrupt anything. We came to show our support, but you ignored us, and we left because we didn’t want to bother you on your special day. We came, Holly, because even though you stopped being our family, we never stopped being yours.” She leaned forward, still a shadow, but a nearer one. “I won’t pretend there weren’t a couple of cold years. Mom can hold a grudge, and Dad took it all really personally. But Poe and I talked to them, explained that things change, and that you just wanted to live in a different world. We still loved you, and if we’d handled things better, maybe we wouldn’t have lost you. I’m sorry I was such a little monster. I didn’t really understand that you’d leave. I couldn’t imagine leaving. I still can’t. You’re stronger than me, Holly, in some important ways.”
“I . . . thank you, Lie. That means a lot.” It surprised me that it did.
“We looked out for you, too, when we could, over the years.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, just little things. It’s not like we stalked you. We mostly left you alone, but Rye is family, and we can sense things, so sometimes . . . remember when he was a newborn and the doctor was afraid he had bacterial meningitis?”
I nodded. That had been one of the most terrifying days of my life. Even babies who survive that diagnosis often develop serious disabilities, and I’d been so scared. “The doctor said it was a false alarm.”
“That was Poe. He sent the bacteria away.”
I stared at her. “What? That’s not . . . Poe, he’s . . .”
“The lord of all scuttling things.” She shrugged. “Turns out that includes bacteria, though it was hard for him to drive them away, so he won’t be curing any pandemics. Microbes are harder to shepherd than rats or beetles. We did a few other things for Rye. Even in the coldest winter, he’s never very cold. That’s a gift from mom. Dad makes sure the wind is always at his back, and that his kites fly high. You know how fairies love to give babies gifts.”
“Did you . . . give him anything?” The idea of my sister’s gifts was frightening.
“He’s never been scared of the dark, has he, Sister? Because when he was very small, first learning to sleep through the night on his own, I made the dark sing lullabies to him.”
I’d thought of my family as an estranged and abandoned thing, but they’d been there, without being asked, without hope of thanks or appreciation. Wasn’t that what family was? I’d changed diapers, nursed Rye through fevers, soothed his tantrums, without expecting gratitude or acknowledgment, because he was my son. My family.
“I appreciate all that. But . . . Le Bon wants to take him away.”
“Le Bon is undiplomatic and bossy, Sister. I would have brought up the idea more delicately. We’re not going to steal him away. It’s just — visiting relatives. He goes to stay with his other grandparents in the summer, doesn’t he?”
I nodded. “But they don’t want to teach him magic.”
“He is magic. He’s your son, he’s mine and Poe’s nephew, he’s Mom and Dad’s grandson. His powers will manifest. It’s a question of whether they’ll do it with or without guidance. You really want a teenage boy who can control the perceptions of other humans running around without any training?”
“But what if he learns about your life, the way you live, and he . . .” what if I lose him what if I lose him what if I lose him.
“You got to choose, Holly.” Her voice was soft in the dark. “You tasted our life, and mortal life, and you made a choice. Not one I would have made, but I respect it. Doesn’t Rye deserve the same chance?”
I wanted to say no, but instead I said, “He’s too young to decide that.”
“Agreed. Too young for a decision, but not too young to start getting informed. His powers will grow, too. You can deal with that on your own, or we can help. Mom and dad are good teachers, and you have a special perspective from living among the mortals. We can teach him the logistics of using his super-glamour . . . and you can teach him the ethics.”
I considered. “Living in a cave is not going to be very tempting for someone who grew up in the mortal realm. Firelight on the wall is no match for video games.”
Lie laughed. “So why worry? Anyway, you’re thinking about this all wrong. Le Bon’s mistake way back when was making you choose: our world or the mortal world. You’re a lot smarter than Dad, though, Holly. If you don’t make Rye choose, he won’t have to. He can visit our world and live in yours, or, when he’s older, if he decides . . . vice-versa.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Do that.” She kissed my cheek, fleeting as a shadow in shifting light, and she was gone.
The day after Christmas, we all stood in the cold on my porch. “Just until the end of winter break, Le Bon,” I said. “Rye needs to be back in time for school. Remember the date.”
Le Bon nodded. “I do not know what these dates mean. They are meaningless numbers. Tell your sister the phase of the moon.”
“I’ve got it, Sis.” Lie grinned. “We’ll have him tucked home the night before.”
Rye had a backpack like he was going camping — which he sort of was — and he bounced around the lawn in delight. For a moment, he seemed to shimmer, and looked less like a boy and more like a forest spirit, hair shaggy with leaves, skin textured like bark, face an arrangement of merry knotholes, and then he flickered back to my usual son again.
Mother stood beside a sleigh of gleaming silver, pulled by reindeer carved from ice. I wondered how the neighbors, or even Corey, saw the sleigh. Probably as a station wagon or an RV. “If we have so little time, we should go soon!” she called impatiently.
“Think about spring break.” Poe gave me a hug. “I’ll take him to the swamps and show him amazing things.”
“We’ll see how this visit goes first, Poe.” But I hugged him back.
“By Mom! Bye Dad!” Rye waved as he danced toward the sleigh. He was off on an adventure. Being with my family was kind of an adventure, I supposed, if you had a home to come back to, and Rye always would.
Ligeia stepped out of a shadow and said, “Don’t worry. We’ll take good care of him.”
“I know you will, but I still want to hear from Rye every night, Lie.”
“Dad will send his voice on the wind.” She grinned and hugged me, and then, to my surprise, hugged Corey. “You two made a good kid. You should make more. I like being an auntie.”
I snorted. We watched the sleigh pull away and vanish in a cascade of sparkles. I knew Rye would be safe. No harm would come to him in the company of my family, and much good might result. But even so, I worried. I can’t help it. I’m not a mother goddess, not really, but I’m his mother.
“Well,” Corey said. “Twelve days of no parental responsibilities.” He cleared his throat and moved a little closer. “What do you think of your sister’s suggestion?”
I elbowed him away. “I think we agreed to have one child, and that agreement stands.”
“Fair enough, Still, we have the whole house to ourselves. We could, you know. Celebrate the return of the sun.”
I laughed, and pulled him inside, and banished worry for a while.
Rank #5: PodCastle 573: The Court Magician
- Author : Sarah Pinsker
- Narrator : Dave Robison
- Host : Setsu Uzume
- Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
- Discuss on Forums
Originally published by Lightspeed and a 2019 Hugo Finalist for Best Short Story.
The Court Magician
By Sarah Pinsker
The Boy Who Will Become Court Magician
The boy who will become court magician this time is not a cruel child. Not like the last one, or the one before her. He never stole money from Blind Carel’s cup, or thrashed a smaller child for sweets, or kicked a dog. This boy is a market rat, which sets him apart from the last several, all from highborn or merchant families. This isn’t about lineage, or even talent.
He watches the street magicians every day, with a hunger in his eyes that says he knows he could do what they do. He contemplates the tawdry illusions of the market square with more intensity than most, until he is marked for us by his own curiosity. Even then, even when he wanders booth to booth and corner to corner every day for a month, begging to learn, we don’t take him.
At our behest, the Great Gretta takes him under her tutelage. She demonstrates the first sleight of hand. If he’s disappointed to learn that her tricks aren’t magic at all, he hides it well. When he returns to her the next day, it is clear he has practiced through the night. His eyes are marked by dark circles, his step lags, but he can do the trick she taught him, can do it as smoothly as she can, though admittedly she is not as Great as she once was.
He learns all her tricks, then begins to develop his own. He’s a smart child. Understands intuitively that the trick is not enough. That the illusion is in what is said and what isn’t said, the patter, the posture, the distractions with which he draws the mark’s attention from what he is actually doing. He gives himself a name for the first time, a magician’s name, because he sees how that, too, is part of the act.
When he leaves Gretta to set out on his own, the only space granted to him is near the abattoir, a corner that had long gone unclaimed. Gretta’s crowd follows him, despite the stench and screams. Most of his routine is composed of street illusions, but there is one that seems impossible. He calls it the Sleeper’s Lament. It takes me five weeks to figure out what he is doing in the trick; that’s when we are sure he is the one.
“Would you like to learn real magic?” I send a palace guard to ask my question, dressed in her own clothes rather than her livery.
The boy snorts. “There’s no such thing.”
He has unraveled every illusion of every magician in the marketplace. None of them will speak with him because of it. He’s been beaten twice on his way to his newly rented room, and robbed neither time. He’s right to be suspicious.
She leans over and whispers the key to the boy’s own trick in his ear, as I bade her do. As she bends, she lets my old diary fall from her pocket, revealing a glimpse of a trick he has never seen before: the Gilded Hand. He hands it back to her, and she thanks him for its safe return.
By now he’s practiced at hiding his emotions, but I know what’s at war within him. He doesn’t believe my promise of real magic, but the Gilded Hand has already captivated him. He’s already working it out as he pockets the coins that have accumulated in his dusty cap, places the cap upon his head, and follows her out of the marketplace.
“The palace?” he asks as we all near the servants’ gate. “I thought you were from the Guild.”
I whisper to my emissary, and she repeats my words. “The Guild is for magicians who feel the need to compete with each other. The Palace trains magicians who feel compelled to compete against themselves.”
It’s perhaps the truest thing I’ll ever tell him. He sees only the guard.
The Young Man Who Will Become Court Magician
Alone except for the visits of his new tutor, he masters the complex illusions he is shown. He builds the Gilded Hand in our workshop, from only the glimpse I had let him see, then an entire Gilded Man of his own devising. Still tricks.
“I was promised real magic,” he complains.
“You didn’t believe in it,” his tutor says.
“Show me something that seems like real magic, then.”
When he utters those words, when he proves his hunger again, he is rewarded. His hands are bound in the Unbreakable Knot, and he is left to unbind them. His tutor demonstrates the Breath of Flowers, the Freestanding Bridge. He practices those until he figures out the illusions underpinning them.
“More trickery,” he says. “Is magic only a trick I haven’t figured out yet?”
He has to ask seven times. That is the rule. Only when he has asked for the seventh time. Only then is he told: if he is taught the true word, he has no choice but this path. He will likely not return to the streets, nor make a life in the theaters, entertaining the gentle-born. Does he want this?
Others have walked away at this point. They choose the stage, the street, the accolades they will get for performing tricks that are slightly more than tricks. This young man is hungry. The power is more valuable to him than the money or the fame. He stays.
“There is a word,” his tutor tells him. “A word that you have the control to utter. It makes problems disappear.”
“The Regent’s problems. There is also a price, which you will pay personally.”
“May I ask what it is?”
He pauses, considers. Others have refused at this point. He does not.
What is the difference between a court magician and a street or stage magician? A court magician is a person who makes problems disappear. That is what he is taught.
There is no way to utter the word in practice. I leave it for him on paper, tell him it is his alone to use now. Remind him again there is a cost. He studies the word for long hours, then tears the page into strips and eats them.
On the day he agrees to wield the word, the Regent touches scepter to shoulder, and personally shows him to his new chambers.
“All of this is yours now,” the Regent says. The Regent’s words are careful, but the young court magician doesn’t understand why. His new chambers are nicer than any place he has ever been. Later, when he sees how the Regent lives, he will understand that his own rooms are not opulent by the standards of those born to luxury, but at this moment, as he touches velvet for the first time, and silk; as he lays his head on his first pillow, atop a feather bed; he thinks for a moment that he is lucky.
He is not.
The Young Man Who Is Court Magician
The first time he says the word, he loses a finger. The smallest finger of his left hand. ‘Loses’ because it is there, and then it is not. No blood, no pain. Sleight of hand. His attention had been on the word he was uttering, on the intention behind it, and the problem the Regent had asked him to erase. The problem, as relayed to him: a woman had taken to chanting names from beyond the castle wall, close enough to be heard through the Regent’s window. The Court Magician concentrates only on erasing the chanting from existence, concentrates on silence, on an absence of litany. He closes his eyes and utters the word.
When he looks at his left hand again, he is surprised to see it has three fingers and a thumb, and smooth skin where the smallest finger should have been, as if it had never existed.
He marches down to the subterranean room where he’d learned his craft. The tutors are no longer there, so he asks his questions to the walls.
“Is this to be the cost every time? Is this what you meant? I only have so many fingers.”
I don’t answer.
He returns to his chambers disconcerted, perplexed. He replays the moment again and again in his mind, unsure if he had made a mistake in his magic, or even if it worked. He doesn’t sleep that night, running the fingers of his right hand again and again over his left.
The Regent is pleased. The court magician has done his job well.
“The chanting has stopped?” the court magician asks, right hand touching left. He instinctively knows not to tell the Regent the price he paid.
“Our sleep was not disturbed last night.”
“The woman is gone?”
The Regent shrugs. “The problem is gone.”
The young man mulls this over when he returns to his own chambers. As I said, he had not been a cruel child. He is stricken now, unsure of whether his magic has silenced the woman, or erased her entirely.
While he had tricks to puzzle over, he didn’t notice his isolation, but now he does.
“Who was the woman beyond the wall?” he asks the fleeing chambermaid.
“What were the names she recited?” he asks the guards at the servants’ gate, who do not answer. When he tries to walk past them, they let him. He makes it only a few feet before he turns around again of his own accord.
He roams the palace and its grounds. Discovers hidden passageways, apothecaries, libraries. He spends hours pulling books from shelves, but finds nothing to explain his own situation.
He discovers a kitchen. “Am I a prisoner, then?”
The cooks and sculleries stare at him stone-faced until he backs out of the room.
He sits alone in his chambers. Wonders, as all court magicians do after their first act of true magic, if he should run away. I watch him closely as he goes through this motion. I’ve seen it before. He paces, talks to himself, weeps into his silk pillow. Is this his life now? Is it so wrong to want this? Is the cost worth it? What happened to the woman?
And then, as most do, he decides to stay. He likes the silk pillow, the regular meals. The woman was a nuisance. It was her fault for disturbing the Regent. She brought it on herself. In this way, he unburdens himself enough to sleep.
The Man Who is Court Magician
By the time he has been at court for ten years, the court magician has lost three fingers, two toes, eight teeth, his favorite shoes, all memories of his mother except the knowledge she existed, his cat, and his household maid. He understands now why nobody in the kitchen would utter a word when he approached them.
The fingers are in some ways the worst part. Without them he struggles to do the sleight of hand tricks that pass the time, and to wield the tools that allow him to create new illusions for his own amusement. He tries not to think about the household maid, Tria, with whom he had fallen in love. She had known better than to speak with him, and he had thought she would be safe from him if he didn’t advance on her. He was mistaken; the mere fact that he valued her was enough. After that, he left his rooms when the maids came, and turned his face to the corner when his meals were brought. The pages who summon him to the Regent’s court make their announcements from behind his closed door, and are gone by the time he opens it.
He considers himself lucky, still, in a way. The Regent is rarely frivolous. Months pass between the Regent’s requests. Years, sometimes. A difficult statute, a rebellious province, a potential usurper, all disappeared before they can cause problems. There have been no wars in his lifetime; he tells himself his body bears the cost of peace so others are spared. For a while this serves to console him.
The size of the problem varies, but the word is the same. The size of the problem varies, but the cost does not correspond. The cost is always someone or something important to the magician, a gap in his life that only he knows about. He recites them, sometimes, the things he has lost. A litany.
He begins to resent the Regent. Why sacrifice himself for the sake of a person who would not do the same for him, who never remarks on the changes in his appearance? The resentment itself is a curse. There is no risk of the Regent disappearing. That is not the price. That is not how this magic works.
He takes a new tactic. He loves. He walks through his chambers flooding himself with love for objects he never cared for before, hoping they’ll be taken instead of his fingers. “How I adore this chair,” he tells himself. “This is the finest chair I have ever sat in. Its cushion is the perfect shape.”
Or “How have I never noticed this portrait before? The woman in this portrait is surely the greatest beauty I have ever seen. And how fine an artist, to capture her likeness.”
His reasoning is good, but this is a double-edged sword. He convinces himself of his love for the chair. When it disappears, he feels he will never have a proper place to sit again. When the portrait disappears, he weeps for three losses: the portrait, the woman, and the artist, though he doesn’t know who they are, or if they are yet living.
He thinks he may be going mad.
And yet, he appears in the Regent’s court when called. He listens to the description of the Regent’s latest vexation. He runs his tongue over the places his teeth had been, a new ritual to join the older ones. Touches the absences on his left hand with the absence on his right. Looks around his chambers to catalogue the items that remain. Utters the word, the cursed word, the word that is more powerful than any other, more demanding, more cruel. He keeps his eyes open, trying as always, to see the sleight of hand behind the power.
More than anything, he wants to understand how this works, to make it less than magic. He craves that moment where the trick behind the thing is revealed to him, where it can be stripped of power and made ordinary.
He blinks, only a blink, but when he opens his eyes, his field of vision is altered. He has lost his right eye. The mirror shows a smoothness where it had been, no socket. As if it never existed. He doesn’t weep.
He tries to love the Regent as hard as he can. As hard as he loved his chair, his maid, his eye, his teeth, his fingers, his toes, the memories he knows he has lost. He draws pictures of the Regent, masturbates over them, sends love letters that I intercept. The magic isn’t fooled.
All of this has happened before. I watch his familiar descent. The fingers, the toes, the hand, the arm, all unnecessary to his duty, though he does weep when he can no longer perform a simple card trick. He loses the memory of how the trick is performed before the last fingers.
His hearing is still acute. No matter what else he loses, the magic will never take his ability to hear the Regent’s problem. It will never take his tongue, which he needs to utter the word, or the remaining teeth necessary to the utterance. If someone were to tell him these things, it would not be a reassurance.
For this one, the breaking point is not a person. Not some maid he has fixated upon, not the memory of a childhood love, nor the sleights of hand. For this one, the breaking point is the day he utters the word to disappear another woman calling up from beyond the wall.
“The names!” The regent says. “How am I supposed to sleep when she’s reciting names under my window?”
“Is it the same woman from years ago?” the magician asks. If she can return, perhaps the word is misdirection after all. If she can find her voice again, perhaps nothing is lost for good.
“How should I know? It’s a woman with a list and a grievance.”
The magician tests his mouth, his remaining arm, with its two fingers and thumb. He loses nothing, he thinks, but when he goes to bed that night he realizes his pillow is gone.
It’s a little thing. He could request another pillow in the morning, but somehow this matters. He feels sorry for himself. If he thinks about the people he has disappeared — the women outside the wall, the first woman, the entire population of the northeastern mountain province — he would collapse into dust.
I can tell he’s done before he can. I’m watching him, as always, and I know, as I’ve known before. He cries himself out on his bed.
“Why?” he asks this time. He has always asked “how?” before.
Then, because I know he will never utter the word again, I speak to him directly for the first time. I whisper to him the secret: that it is powered by the unquenched desire to know what powers it, at whatever the cost. Only these children, these hungry youths, can wield it, and we wield them, for the brief time they allow us. This one longer than most. His desire to lay things bare was exceptional, even if he stopped short of where I did. I, no more than a whisper in a willing ear.
I wait to see what he will do: return to the marketplace to join Blind Carel and Gretta and the other, lesser magicians, the ones we pay to alert us when a new child lingers to watch; ask to stay and teach his successor, as his tutor did. He doesn’t consider those options, and I remember again that I had once been struck by his lack of cruelty.
He leaves through the servants’ gate, taking nothing with him. I listen for weeks for him to take up the mourners’ litany, as some have done before him, but I should have known that wouldn’t be his path either; his list of names is too short. If I had to guess, I would say he went looking for the things he lost, the things he banished, the pieces of himself he’d chipped off in service of someone else’s problems; the place to which teeth and fingers and problems and provinces and maids and mourners and pillows all disappear.
There was a trick, he thinks. There is always a trick.
Rank #6: PodCastle 556: Shadow Boy
- Author : Lora Gray
- Narrator : Setsu Uzume
- Host : Setsu Uzume
- Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
- Discuss on Forums
Originally published in Shimmer.
Content warnings for self-harm, suicide, and body dysmorphia.
By Lora Gray
I am sixteen and sitting on the edge of an empty subway platform when Peter, forever small, reappears. His black eyes are bright, and he smells like licorice and cinnamon. He is wearing purple mittens and a pigeon-feather skirt.
“Who the hell dressed you today?” I ask.
“I did.” Peter tips his head as if considering. “My taste is terrible. Tragic, really, but I didn’t have much choice.”
“Everybody has a choice.”
“Do they, dear Prudence?”
“Don’t call me Prudence.” Tugging my jeans more snugly around my hips, I shift. Chains rattle over the metal platform, and a safety pin fingernails across the yellow line at the edge.
“It’s your name.”
“Nobody calls me that anymore.” I tap a cigarette out of my pocket. It takes me three tries to light up.
“I call you that,” he says.
“You don’t count.” I drag and exhale into Peter’s face.
Peter doesn’t cough. “Feeling sullen?”
“I’m lonely.” I grit my teeth and shrug.
“How can you be lonely?” he asks. “You and me, we have a whole city to play with.” He kicks his legs back and forth, heels denting the platform gleefully. Thump. THUMP. A grin stretches his mouth wide.
My skin prickles and I feel the familiar lurch, reality threatening to wobble around me. “Why are you smiling like that?”
Peter levels his black eyes at me and says, “I found your shadow.”
I am eight years old.
We arrive at midnight, Momma, “Uncle” Leon, my shadow and I, crammed into a Buick the color of old piss. The long stretches of upstate soybean peel away to reveal an army of high-rises marching into the light-polluted never-dark. My shadow surges up from the floor mats when the headlights hit him. He is excited and starry-eyed. He has never been to The City before.
He still believes in adventures.
“It doesn’t work that way,” I whisper. Adventures don’t begin with dodging landlords and eviction notices and shoving unwashed clothes into black trash bags.
“What was that, sugar?” Leon’s voice is Georgia-thick and he is dirty-grinning at me in the rear view mirror. He strokes the back of Momma’s neck, pressing greasy circles into her hairline, and my shadow bristles.
“I’m not sugar.” I tug my sweater over my fingers.
“Sugar and spice and everything nice.” Leon’s fingers dip beneath the collar of Momma’s shirt. “Isn’t that what little girls are-“
“I said this car smells like shit.”
“Prudence!” Momma whips around, but Leon’s hand turns vise-tight, and he glares the rest of the ride into silence.
My shadow seethes and I press my forehead against the rear window glass, neon lights flipping my reflection from infant to ancient. From ugly to divine. From girl to boy. I cling to that last like a secret as my shadow winds himself around me. Sinking into his embrace, I count cars until Brooklyn.
By the time we arrive, my shadow is strong. He hefts trash bags easily over his broad shoulders and pounds his new kingdom flat with giant boy feet as we walk to Leon’s apartment. I shuffle, but my shadow struts. He leaps up broken concrete steps and hurdles winos. He dodges dumpsters and conquers trashcan castles and ignores Leon’s angry shouts of, “Hurry up!” and “Oh for God’s sake.”
My shadow and I only stop when we reach the neighbor’s stoop. There is a small child there, huddled in an oversized trench coat, a paper bag lumped onto his small head like a fedora. For a moment, he seems to float, and my stomach swoops sideways, a boat tipping beneath my feet. My shadow begins to tiptoe around him when the boy looks up. Black eyes pin me.
“I’m Peter,” the boy says. His breath is licorice and cinnamon.
I lean closer to my shadow. “Peter?”
“Yup. Peter Pan. Peter Rabbit. Saint Peter. Take your pick.” He shuffles toward the edge of the stoop and squints, one pudgy finger inching over his nose. “What’s your name?”
Peter laughs like my name is a joke, the baby fat under his chin puckering. Then, very carefully, he shoves the brim of his paper hat back and looks directly at my shadow. “And who are you?” he asks.
Peter, perched on the edge of the concrete like a pigeon, waits, but by the time I open my mouth, Leon’s voice, belting bright and dangerous, jabs the world into motion again.
“We haven’t got all night!”
Goosebumps rocket me to where he and Momma are waiting before I can gather the courage to see if Peter is still watching me.
Later, when Momma and Leon are kissing, I peer out the window of my new room, bare feet on a dirty mattress, and look for Peter, but there is only a rumpled paper bag tumbling end over end down the lonely alley. I imagine an empty world, Peter flying with trench coat wings, tiny naked toes gripping the concrete like talons and lifting it up, up, up! Peeling the skin off the city like an orange.
And who are you?
I look down at my shadow and whisper, “P.J.”
I am twelve years old.
“You’re not wearing that.” Momma circles the living room in a pencil skirt and a broad, black hat. “It’s a funeral. Don’t you want to look pretty for your grandpa?”
“Why? What’s he going to do? Sit up and applaud?” I flop onto the sofa to avoid the pinch of her eyes. “Besides, he’s not really my grandpa. He’s Leon’s dad.”
Exasperated, Momma grimaces at my jeans, my t-shirt, my short hair. I tap my toe against my shadow’s long foot and brace myself for the inevitable, “You used to be so pretty. You used to have such nice hair. If you would just try to look a little more feminine…”
Before Momma can say it, Leon’s voice roars from the kitchen. “Change your clothes, Prudence! I won’t have a freak at my father’s funeral.”
I grind my fingers into the arm of the sofa. “I told you. It’s not Prudence, it’s P.J.”
For a breath, my shadow refuses to move. He stays stubbornly glued to the shag carpet until the memory of bruised wrists and a hard slap send him stomping to my room. I slam the door behind us.
It takes me five minutes to unearth the only dress I haven’t hacked into a t-shirt. The lace scratches my neck as I wrestle myself into it, my wrists torqueing sideways as I shove them through puff sleeves.
When I’m finally done, my shadow gapes at me. His hair is spiked at odd angles, fingers splayed, long legs awkwardly knocked under the wide bell of the dress. Biting my cheek, I turn slowly. Breasts jut out of him, sharp and pointy as new teeth. My shadow snaps forward again, boyish and narrow, but the damage is done. He is quivering and he tugs at my heels, trying to crawl inside me and away from that foreign, curving shape as I hurry out of the room.
At the funeral, Leon parades us through a church the color of old bones. My shadow shrinks further into me as Momma makes introductions. “This is my daughter, Prudence.” This is my daughter. This is my daughter. My shadow clutches at my little finger from the inside, frantic to shake the untruth of the word, but I don’t know how to comfort him and I close my eyes. It’s only when I smell licorice and cinnamon that I finally look up.
Across the aisle, dwarfed by the lily-white rental casket, is Peter. He is no bigger than the last time I saw him, but the trench coat and paper bag have been replaced by a daisy-print dress and combat boots. He lifts his head and winks at me, narrow lips pursed around a cigarette. Dizziness sloshes over me and, for a moment, the mourners, fat and watery and pale, seem to dissolve. I can’t look away as Peter jigs a circle around the casket, stomping a rhythm only he can hear. Black eyes shining, he laughs and then, very carefully, he leans over the casket and taps ash onto the body’s waxy cheek.
Nobody else sees him.
Nobody stops him.
I am sixteen years old.
The October sun tosses shadows across the fire escape. Ropes. Fingers.
And the shadow sprawled beneath me? It isn’t mine. She’s a wide and rounded thing, wasp waist, thick hips, and an empty space between her thighs. Four years of trying to escape her and, still, she clings to me like tar.
My true shadow has become a furious refugee in my own body. He claws at femurs, scrapes bone to marrow, tears muscle apart in bursts of rage. In dreams, he rushes through my pores like water through a sieve, but every morning he is still there, howling for a larger shell.
The howling never stops.
I flick open my lighter and pass the razor blade through the flame three times.
Through the cracked living room window, I can hear Momma and Leon, their voices, serrated and angry, cut through the buzz of day time T.V.
“Leon, please, it’s just a phase. She’ll grow out of it.”
“Like she outgrew that haircut? Or those clothes? Did you hear what Mickey Barlow said about her? The whole neighborhood thinks your daughter’s a dyke.”
“Prudence isn’t gay. She doesn’t even like girls.”
“I suppose she told you that.”
“Well, no, but-“
“You’re going to tell me the whole neighborhood is wrong? She’s disgusting. Don’t you look at me that way.” A beat of dangerous silence. “I caught her stuffing a sock in her underwear. You’re going to tell me that’s normal? You’re going to tell me your daughter parading around as a boy is normal?”
The razor blade is still warm as it opens my skin. Blood slugs down my forearm, swerving over the familiar cross-hatch of scars. My shadow strains against the shallow breach. If I just close my eyes and let him ease out of me, if I just let him out…
The window opens with a groan. “Prudence?”
Startled and guilty, I whirl around and the blade resting against my skin accidentally slips sudden and deep. I gasp. Blood fountains over the window sill and the rusted drain pipe and into Momma’s hair as she clamors onto the fire escape. There is a flash. Pain. No, lightning. Momma’s eyes are wide and inches from my own. Heat gushes over my hand.
The world smells like licorice and cinnamon.
There is a rush and a screech, a thousand tires peeling rubber. Above me, a trio of pigeons pause mid-wing, hieroglyphs punched into the autumn sky. Above me, Momma flickers out like a candle snuffed. Above me, the sky is changing from blue to black.
I look down and there, mingled with the blood rushing out of the slit in my arm, is my shadow. He crawls out, prying my flesh apart with long, dark fingers. He curls upward like smoke until he is facing me, dream-heavy and naked. Tension quivers between us and there is a deep, aching pull, a cable stretched too far. He opens his mouth, but there is no sound, no breath, and desperation swells behind his eyes.
He is only a shadow. He will never be strong enough to become a real boy. He’ll never speak. He is nothing but a wailing ache.
In a flurry of teeth and nails, he tackles me. It’s graceless and uncoordinated, his body too new for quickness, but his shoulder slams into my belly and I collide with the railing. A crack of pain, the sharp corner jarring my ribs. The fire escape shudders and we grapple, my hand jammed against his face, fingers full of inky hair, grunting and shoving even as we topple and fall.
We crash into the dumpster below, our bodies a snarling tangle of blood and shadow that bursts apart as we ricochet onto the concrete. My shadow staggers away from me, disconnected and confused. Hands clutching his head, he turns and sprints down the deserted street, dodging smashed cars and cabs, still smoking where they’ve rammed into telephone poles, street signs, each other.
Their drivers have disappeared. The sidewalks are empty. There are car alarms, but no sirens.
The city is silent.
I am crouched at the mouth of the Battery Tunnel when Peter appears beside me, the smell of him sudden and overwhelming. The can of spray paint clatters out of my hand and I scramble back until I hit the tunnel wall. Peter is backlit and wearing a polka-dot onesie two sizes too big. The sleeves spill over his hands, and the collar dangles off one narrow shoulder as he shuffles toward me. He is holding a dead pigeon like a rag doll in one hand.
With a thoughtful hum, he examines my graffiti, the faltering outline of my missing shadow boy, the uneven words. “‘Help, I’m still here.’” Peter snickers. Any part of me that might have been relieved at the sight of another person shrinks. “Oh, that’s cute.”
“They all disappeared.” Distantly embarrassed, I scrub the tears on my cheeks with the heel of my hand.
Peter shrugs and squats in front of me, resting his round cheek against his fist. “I’ve been looking for you for ages,” he says. “You’re shorter than I remember. Paler, too. But maybe it’s all that black you’re wearing.” He reaches out to flick the collar of my jacket, and I twitch my head against the concrete.
“You don’t understand,” I say. “Everybody’s gone. Momma. Leon. Everybody. Like they were never even here.”
My laugh is wild and unhinged. “So are you.”
“Oh I don’t know about that. Maybe you’re just imagining me. Maybe you’re still on that fire escape dribbling all your blood away. Drip, drip, drip.” Peter’s mouth splits into a rubbery caricature of a smile. He has too many teeth. “Maybe you’re the one who disappeared.”
After two weeks of screaming for help and sobbing in the corners of empty delis and bus stops, my brain is sluggish and thick. I blink hard. “Is this hell or something?” Nausea spikes through me. “Am I dead?”
“Do you want to be?”
I shake my head, trying to dislodge the memory of razor blades. “What kind of question is that?”
“A pretty simple one. How do you feel about morgues? Cemeteries? Funerals? You didn’t seem too keen about the last one. And that shadow of yours? He never shut up after that. Day and night, night and day. You know you hated it.” Peter cocks his head to one side. “Listen. He’s still at it.”
“Shadows don’t talk.” I try to believe it and coil my hand against my stomach as if I could stopper the empty space my shadow used to occupy.
“And anyway, mine disappeared. I can’t hear anything.”
“He must be playing hide and seek with you,” Peter says and covers the dead pigeon’s eyes with his thumb. “Count to one hundred and we can look for him together. Oh! Or find a mirror and we can play Bloody Mary. Say his name three times and he’ll magically appear.”
Anger flares past the fog in my head. “This isn’t a game! What’s going on?”
“Everything’s a game. Just because you didn’t make the rules doesn’t mean you don’t have to play.”
A sharp gust of wind tumbles a fistful of newspapers down the vacant street. Peter’s black eyes make the world quiver.
“What do you want?” I finally manage.
Peter raises his finger. “Your shadow.”
My gut clenches cold. “My shadow?”
He swings the dead pigeon idly from side to side. “I don’t have one of my own.” I look down and his feet are completely surrounded by sunlight. He seems like he’s floating and, woozy, I avert my eyes. “Nobody trusts a kid without a shadow and you don’t want yours. He’s been nothing but trouble from the start. I’ll help you find him and then you’ll give him to me and then poof! All is right with the world.”
I hesitate. “If I do that, everything will go back to normal?”
Peter smirks and raises three fingers. “Scout’s honor.”
After three weeks of searching, Peter is wearing a kimono and a ten-gallon hat with a pigeon feather tucked into the brim. The bird’s head dangles around his neck like a bloody talisman. He’s told me that the mannequins in the department stores dress him every night. A ball gown from Macy’s, a purple velvet suit from Barney’s, a pair of neon underwear and lipstick war paint from Bloomingdale’s. It’s hard not to stare, and I’m certain he knows it.
“You should feel honored.” Peter hikes the hem of his kimono up as he climbs over a mangled Yellow Cab.
“Why should I feel honored?” I kick at the dangling headlight and huddle more deeply into my jacket. “This is all a game to you. You just want my shadow. You don’t give a shit about me.”
Peter grunts as he stands atop the hood, hands on his hips as he turns in a slow circle. “My guts are made of chrome and feathers, goblin piss, and griffon tails. There’s no room for shit.”
“Poetic.” I snort and light another cigarette. “Come on. I want to search the West Side before the sun goes down.” I remember how my shadow had warmed when we sneaked into Chelsea last summer, his howling softening when a tall man in a white blazer called me son.
Peter clucks his tongue and leaps off of the car with a spectacularly loud thud. A street sign teeters from the impact. “You should feel honored because I don’t adopt just any shadow. Only the dark ones.”
I roll my eyes and begin walking faster. “They’re shadows. They’re all dark.”
“Oh, no, dear Prudence, they’re not.”
“Ah, ah, ah.” Peter waggles a finger as he falls into step with me, stubby legs churning impossibly fast beneath the kimono. “P.J. is your shadow boy. You don’t own that name any more than you own all those little boy bits you were convinced you needed.”
I keep my eyes fixed on the street ahead of me. “I named him. The name is mine.”
Peter waves a dismissive hand. “You’re giving him to me.”
“It’s my name!”
Peter tugs me to a halt, moon-round face peering up at me, black eyes narrow. “You think he cares what you named him? You think he cares about you at all?”
I shake myself from his grip and flip my cigarette against a rusted scaffold.
“He lied to you every day,” Peter continues. “Told you you were a boy. Take a look at yourself. Why, you don’t look anything like a boy! But that didn’t stop him from tricking you into believing it.”
“I know what I am.” My shadow’s absence is like a stone in my throat. I try to swallow. The stone rolls deeper.
“Of course you know what you are. You’re a smart girl. You don’t like lies. Your shadow is a liar. Why would you want him back?”
My fingers curl, but there is no shadow hand to hold onto. I tell myself that the sting in the back of my eyes is from the cold.
“Everything will be easier without him, Prudence.” Peter pats my sleeve with his tiny palm. “Everything will be normal.”
Jerking away from him, I duck my head and walk briskly down the abandoned street. As Peter patters after me, I try to ignore the emptiness lodged deep in my chest, abnormal and heavy and very, very real.
“I found your shadow.”
Peter’s words propel me out of the subway terminal, through the arteries of the city, past the yawning windows of untenanted store fronts and the twisted wreckage of cars. Peter scampers beside me, laughing. He dances over drainpipes, scales streetlights to crow, hops over an upturned bus and squeals his way into Brooklyn.
The sun is melting over the skyline by the time we arrive, and I am wheezing. Tar webs my throat, wet and thick, and I pause to hack onto the pavement. When I look up, the familiar apartment building is crawling out from behind the shamble of dumpsters in the back alley. I half expect to see Mickey Barlow smoking weed on the corner or Leon and Momma kissing in the window.
But the only one there is my shadow boy. He is slumped against the apartment’s fire escape, his arms twined around his waist, head bowed. The tangled mop of hair obscures his profile, but I can see the plump of his lower lip, the flutter of his long throat as he swallows. He is trembling.
“Ah-ha!” Peter dashes past me and thrusts a triumphant finger at him, legs planted wide. “Get him! Get him, get him!”
My shadow heaves a sigh and I exhale and, slowly, we look at each other. Breath shushes between us, murmurs secrets through the back alley. Edging carefully around Peter, I heft myself onto the Dumpster and grip the lower wrung of the fire escape.
“Don’t let him get away!” Peter is hopping from toe to toe, hands clapping hysterical polyrhythms, but I don’t answer him.
Instead, I climb, fist over fist over fist until I am standing face to face with my shadow boy. He raises his head and, for the first time, I feel the weight of his eyes. This is the boy who for sixteen years has been screaming through the pockets of my lungs. This is the boy in my fingers, longing for a broadness that never was. This is the boy who sobs every month for five days when I bleed. This is the boy who scratches my breasts with sewing needles and demands to know why they are there because they don’t belong on his body.
They’ve never belonged on my body, either.
“What are you waiting for?” Peter is screeching and I can feel the earth quaver. Metal rungs creak. Brick and mortar moans. Window glass crackles. The sky begins to darken. “What are you waiting for?”
I look at my shadow. My shadow looks at me.
He raises one dark hand, my shadow boy, and touches my cheek.
And the moment before our arms and bodies and souls reconnect, I whisper, “I don’t know.”
Rank #7: PodCastle 560: Suddenwall
- Author : Sara Saab
- Narrator : C. L. Clark
- Host : C. L. Clark
- Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
- Discuss on Forums
Originally published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
By Sara Saab
In the amnesty-city of Vannat, Aln Panette has let guilt go.
The city of Vannat is a strict and inscrutable rulemaster, so Panette doesn’t question the rules. She lives a plain, clean life. Keeps her recollections as free of the war as she can.
Panette figures she has earned an indulgence or two for her decade as a soldier. Memories of Odarr Harvei are one indulgence. Harvei’s smile of fifteen years ago flashing in the light of the war caravan’s lanterns, her easy company, their mild one-upmanship. The unbroken sky above them.
Other small indulgences Panette allows herself:
Leading the stallions at Vannat’s racecourse stables through their daily exercises.
A now-and-then treat of salted fish in tart molasses that reminds her painfully of Camillon, her home.
And in this city of unremarkable languages passed naturally from parent to child, not a drop of magic in the syllables, not the barest trace of rebellion or fury, Panette indulges in the knowledge that — at least in Vannat — the killing has stopped.
Seven years after Panette’s last encounter with Harvei, accidental, fraught, a neighbor appears at her door. He’s here to tell her that a veteran from Panette’s war caravan (“Harway? Halveigh? Not so easy to hear through stone — ”) has been trapped by a suddenwall. Panette jogs a long time down dusty side streets, her throat hot and tight and dry. The morning is dull as pewter. Commotion in the city’s Southern Quarter winds her nerves tight.
The suddenwall’s appeared inside a house that smells exactly like Harvei, bark and new-woven muslin. A crowd’s concentrated at it: a seamless floor-to-ceiling curve of ochre stone that isolates a corner of the starkly furnished bedroom. There’s a cocksure ruckus, as if every ex-tactician and ex-armorer in Vannat has gathered here. Fists against arcane masonry. Voices pitched to carry through stone. Battering poles hoisted, crowbars hefted.
“We’ll get you out.”
“How many behind there?”
Panette hears an answer hop from tongue to tongue: three. There are three of them walled off by the vigilante immune response of the city.
Three that Vannat has judged? Or two, or one, plus collateral? (Three people — in what must be Harvei’s bedroom. That, Panette does not unpack.)
Panette pushes to the front, shouldering other veterans aside. Rests fingertips against the suddenwall.
“Harvei!” she shouts.
The rescue party is so loud. Panette hears nothing from the other side. Questions she would ask, given time and privacy: What did you do, Harvei? How did you make Vannat so mad? Where have you been, these years?
Question she does ask, again and again: “Harvei, it’s Panette, can you hear me?”
And finally, from the other side, a voice she’d never forget in a thousand years: “Panette? I’m — ”, and something obscured, and “Help.”
Panette would have helped her anyway. She can’t turn away. But everyone gathered here knows that whomever Vannat meant to hold here, meant to extrude — there’s no way to stand Vannat down. Not really.
Three the city has judged; or two, or one, and collateral.
A long time ago, Aln Panette is sixteen years old. She’s still living in Camillon, still growing up. She’s a devoted stablehand. In exchange for riding lessons, Panette tends the beautiful purebred mares, would do it even if there were nothing offered in return. Now that she’s finished with school, she’d like to spend the rest of her life in the service of horses.
She’s never heard of the Ruumari, only vaguely knows what The Pockets are. (In that invincible, unthreatened way of the young.)
Then Camillon’s godkeep comes down. The bomb’s vibrations shake the whole city. Panette doesn’t see it but is caught in the ensuing stampede of bloodied worshippers. Moments later she smells the destruction — sour, smoky, ancient. The greatest city in the world becomes a fragile thing.
Much later, during their years side by side in the war caravan, Panette asks Harvei about the day the Ruumari bomb went off.
“Were you close enough? To feel the blast?”
Harvei’s brushing her horse’s flank with an oiled comb. Next to her, Panette wraps preserved rations for the next campaign.
“A few streets away. Saw the dome shatter.” Harvei stares unfocused into the now-glossy chestnut coat. “Over the tops of the buildings. The shockwave rattled my jaw.”
“That was the day I enlisted,” Panette says. It’s an oddly private secret, hard to share.
Harvei watches Panette in her unreadable way. “The same day?”
“Yes.” Panette laughs. “Hot blood.” She passes a handful of pitted dates up to Harvei. “When did you sign up?”
Harvei doesn’t laugh. “Camillon, those days? There was nothing else for someone like me to get good at. I was headed for this war before anyone had thought of it.”
Panette’s quiet. She wants to say it isn’t true. That this war is just a detour for them both. But the moment hangs silent, until Harvei stands, clucking, to lead her horse away.
During the Extinction, the Camillonese war machine is a hundred thousand strong, a sledgehammer bearing down on the brittle defenses of The Pockets and the Ruumari militias cowering inside. In the early days of the war, Panette’s survival and safety aren’t at stake. Even guilt is more a nuisance than a scourge.
Panette has imagined her earliest encounter with Harvei a hundred different ways. She is sure in hindsight that they’d been in the same war caravan from the start, but can’t decide on the first time she noticed her. Was it a glimpse here, a quick, terse instruction there? The slope of shoulders from behind, a hypnotic rhythm during a hypnotic march?
A fact she keeps snagging on: Harvei somehow avoids shaving her hair as a cadet, wears heavy black curls braided under a helmet until the day she gets a direct order to comply with regulations.
Panette would have given that order if she’d noticed. A privilege of rank. A smudge of guilt absorbed easily into the bigger body of what they’d been sent to do.
The first conversation between them that she distinctly remembers:
“He’s only ten years old, Captain.”
“Does he speak Ruumari?” Panette asks.
“He won’t speak at all.”
Panette begins to saddle her horse. Annoyance gives her clumsy fingers. “Make him speak and find out. Is this your first day in the caravan, Officer?”
“With respect, Captain. He’s ten,” says Odarr Harvei. Her buzzed black hair hasn’t settled on how it’s supposed to sit.
Panette rankles at the way this upstart’s insubordination courses through her chest. “That’s enough. Go do it. Go.”
She loathes it, but Panette notices Harvei after that, watches her out of the side of her eye. After a while, she still watches but no longer thinks of the Ruumari boy by association.
Much later, when she dares shoulder a fraction of the crippling guilt that Vannat’s built to carry (brief, rare instants), Aln Panette sees the Extinction for what it is.
Ruumari is a lean language. In Camillon the prevailing anecdote is that Ruumari has a single noun for males, females, children, and no grammar to differentiate acting, possessing, or being moved.
The language is a miracle tongue: never taught, never written down. Spontaneously, children come to speak it. Youngsters too old to babble are caught mouthing gibberish into their palms. Words slip out in the solitary dark of sleep. Panette sees a boy separated from his family on the cobbled street leading to the horse market. He catches her eye, face wide and pleading, lips working in a way that pebbles her skin.
It’s unsurprising that as adults these Ruumari speakers, mistrusted and persecuted from childhood, would seek out others like them. And in the lead-up to Camillon’s godkeep coming down, they do. They organize; they pray in simple, overdetermined words for a homeland — for Ruumari to ring loud when they haggle over the price of flour, for its marching songs, unbearable noise cutting through Panette’s home, to be their nightly entertainment.
The Ruumari annex fragmented lands on the frontiers beyond Camillon. They call these lands Anachbatarr — heart-homes. The Camillonese call them The Pockets.
Then the godkeep explodes. The Ruumari insurgency has struck too close to Camillon’s core. Panette’s not the only Camillonese with hot blood. In the logic of devastation, every Ruumari speaker is equally to blame.
The Extinction: genocide, for speaking a language.
That is why Panette’s guilt is too big to bear.
It’s fifteen years prior to the suddenwall in Harvei’s bedroom. Panette and Harvei arrive in Vannat, part of two disbanded war caravans. The Extinction is over. The Pockets are a deadland. The war is won.
Camillon is safe, but its soldiers are unsalvageable.
Panette and Harvei whisper about Vannat throughout the final wet season of the war, an amnesty-city being constructed at tremendous expense, product of collective remorse. There are nearly a million Camillonese veterans after ten years of the Extinction. One day history begins to shift and the realization spreads — fast as the fires that razed The Pockets — that they have done something terribly wrong.
How could we?
Genocide, for speaking a language.
Guilt that could crush a heart, crush a people. Vannat is the best salve Camillon’s alkemists can muster.
Panette, to her troop, in various debriefing tents on the journey from Camillon to Vannat:
“This has always been about duty. Camillon called, and we answered.”
And: “You’ll be able to rest your conscience. You’ll be able to let the city decide what’s moral, what’s good. What justice is.”
And, forcing herself not to look for Harvei in the humid tent as thumb-thick horseflies drone against canvas: “We’ve given a lot of ourselves for this war. Vannat will accept what we are.”
Except for the trade-off that the alkemists of this miracle couldn’t avoid. “As one of its inhabitants, you’re within Vannat’s purview. You live there, purified, but you live by new rules. If you act in a way the city deems immoral, it’ll act. Protectively. It will eliminate you from itself.”
Exile. Camillon too scarred to take them back. Vannat too righteous.
Maybe it’s this threat that forces Panette and Harvei apart just inside the gates of the amnesty-city after their war is over. They study discharge orders to avoid looking at each other.
“Where are you staying?” asks Harvei.
“The Hall of Breath.”
“I’m in the Hall of Joy. I’ll find you after we’ve gotten settled,” says Harvei.
In Harvei’s eyes, Panette sees every order she’s given, the Ruumari lives she’s commanded to an end. Panette looks away first.
She doesn’t see Harvei again for three years.
It’s early in the war. Panette’s a junior officer. She’s only just qualified for her first warhorse, a grey gelding she’ll call Agha. A year later he’ll be put down after breaking a foreleg during a tricky river crossing just a morning’s journey from the northernmost of The Pockets.
A few days before she swaps the sluggish packhorse she’s ridden from Camillon for loyal, spirited Agha, Panette makes her first kill.
The Ruumari’s firing a repeating crossbow from a defensive outpost equidistant between two Pockets. The squat bolts ping into the winter-hard arid soil of this plain. Clods of soil flip into the air twenty breadths from Panette, then ten, then five. It’s madness: a single Ruumari fighter, the Camillonese force a thick glinting sea, pennants slack in the still morning. The war caravan extends indefinitely east from the hill Panette’s been caught on.
Panette’s mounted; she grips her saddle painfully hard. It’s the first time in the war that she fears for her life. The whiff of death is exciting and strangely illicit. (Later, she’ll begin to suspect that the gravest risk to her safety is ambient — the accumulation of small, self-inflicted incisions to the heart.)
Two bolts ping. Then no more. The Ruumari topples from the rampart, downed by the arrows of at least two Camillonese archers. Panette is the first to ride over, shield braced above her head. He’s still alive, legs at wrong angles, hands clawing at the wounds in his torso.
He shouts. He flaunts the language. Impossible syllables. Consonant-rich sounds that heat Panette’s ears beneath her helmet.
She hitches her weight and stabs down one-handed through his leather mantle with her pike, through the ribs. Bone and flesh resist, but the shouting cuts short.
The risk to her safety is gone, replaced with an oilier deposit in the base of her stomach.
She flicks the reins and rejoins the caravan.
They pull Harvei and two others — a man and a woman — through the suddenwall after dark. They’re shaken and thirsty, arms covered in pulverized stone to the elbows.
Panette hasn’t had water or food either. She took a single break from the rescue effort to relieve herself hours ago and tried not to pore over every clue about Harvei’s life on the table in the house’s latrine.
The rescue party begins to disperse, but the mood is solemn. Any reprieve from Vannat’s devices is temporary.
Harvei looks so deflated, nothing of the soldier in her. Her eyes are downcast. Then they’re searching, dancing from face to face, and then they’re downcast again. At Harvei’s left, as yet unnoticed, Panette puts a hand out to touch Harvei’s shoulder, remembering many a steadying hand as they rode in the war caravan. Back then, muscle beneath soft armor. Now, beneath fabric, mostly the sharpness of bone.
Harvei turns. Sees her. A slight recoil beneath Panette’s palm. “Captain Panette.”
Panette flinches. “No titles here.” A convention among veterans, not Vannat’s own rule. It is still odd to hear it broken.
They drift towards the back of the crowd. “Where will you go tonight? Stay with me.”
“I need to stay with Ammar and Lei,” says Harvei. She finds the newly rescued pair in the crowd as she names them.
“You three can’t be in the same place tonight, after what’s happened.” Unsaid: that by separating Harvei from the others, they would soon divine which of them Vannat was targeting. Unasked: who are they to you?
Harvei lets Panette take her home. She feeds her, gives her anise spirits to calm her nerves. After dinner they walk to the racecourse and Panette takes her to see the stabled stallions.
Harvei is subdued. Every now and then, through the fog of what Vannat’s decided, Panette catches something: the hunch of Harvei’s shoulders when she wants to be alone, or how she still favors her left leg after that long-ago fall from horseback during an ambush. The old tilt of Harvei’s chin when she’s shaking off a thought.
Those old incisions to the heart. Panette discovers they never healed through.
When the war is over and Camillon is thrashing in its own guilt, there are no informant reports of Ruumari speakers for many months. This is when the war becomes known as the Extinction.
But the miracle tongue is a hardy thing, and after some years, there are rumors again. Then firsthand accounts. Of children afflicted with the language across the frontierlands, and eventually, within Camillon itself. The numbers are not large. It’s as if the sturdy trunk is broken and now only yellow shoots push through.
Camillon begins work assimilating the few Ruumari who come to the city’s attention. They’re taught suppression techniques — counting, deep breathing — to still their tongues. They’re partnered early in adolescence to Camillon’s most loyal bloodlines.
In the shadow of the Extinction, some Ruumari are not so eager for assimilation.
Panette remembers this: it’s soon after they’ve taken the northernmost of The Pockets, hard years after that first conversation with Harvei. Panette and Harvei have not spoken words beyond commands and acknowledgements in as long as Panette can remember.
At first, she thinks it’s exhaustion. Morale is low. The horses are sickly and their riders too. Rasping coughs have punctuated the rattle-clomp of the war caravan’s progress the last few nights. Panette cannot stomach elaborate conversation either. But after weeks of this, she wonders if Harvei’s okay. She watches her twice as closely, hates herself for the accounting she does of Harvei’s every action. She wants to ask outright what the matter is. Her pride won’t let her.
Then they find a Ruumari child in an abandoned home, maybe five. She’s underfed and alone, mumbling in the tongue, so scared that she’s soiled herself. Panette is outraged that they cannot find the parents. The idea of executing the girl alone is an inexplicable step further than doing by rote: mother, father, child.
So Panette takes the Ruumari by the hand, away from the troop. Harvei follows, her gaze locked on Panette in a way she’s never experienced before. Panette is thrilled by the attention — and also ashamed. That oily feeling in her stomach again.
The child is in a housedress, shoeless. Flies hound her. Her wails stutter in a dried-out throat. Panette washes her from the pail in her own tent. When she is no longer repulsed by the stink of filth, Panette raises a finger to silence the unsettling cries and wraps a matted old fur around the child’s thin neck.
She glances at Harvei. “Take her away. Far as you can get before the sun goes down.” She pins the fur at either shoulder. “Find a village that’ll take her. Tell them — ” Panette straps the child’s hair back. “Tell them orders of the Camillonese army. To keep the child safe.”
“Yes, Captain.” Harvei looks at her in a brand new way. This is Panette’s reward. She soaks it in like sunlight.
Then she pushes the little Ruumari in Harvei’s direction and goes back to the head of the troop.
Three years after they first arrive in Vannat, Panette encounters Harvei on the grand steps leading down to Corner Avenue. Panette’s in a hurry, rushing to the track to watch Udu race. The young bay stallion is her favorite. He’s so responsive when she gallops him; stops as soon as he’s sure of the tug on his reins.
She and Harvei almost collide. (Vannat? A taste for whimsy?) Harvei’s arms are heaped with fabrics. Bolts go tumbling and unfurling down the steps: tangerine, white, olive. Panette scoops up three rolls of silk from the roadside before she sees who is carrying them.
Harvei’s smiling, and then Panette’s smiling too. She wants to orient this moment inside the years she’s lived in Vannat, three years the whole time wondering, feelings a bit ripe, a bit bruised. But she can only think in the register of the jubilation that springs awake in her chest.
Panette has never heard her given name in Harvei’s voice before.
“What — where are you going with all that?” Panette asks.
Harvei’s smile widens. “The tailor.”
“I’m going that way,” Panette lies. “Shall I walk with you?”
Udu wins the race comfortably; Panette’s on the other side of the city when he crosses the line. The tailor is across Vannat’s huge central square. They walk in silence for a time, then it rekindles: the easy company, the mild one-upmanship.
“Surprised you thought you could carry all this alone,” Panette says as Harvei struggles.
“Strong shoulders from carrying your second quiver for a decade,” Harvei says. “And your shield. And your mud boots.”
“No, no. I travel light,” Panette counters, smirking at the clear sky. “You insisted on having a whole armory to hand.”
Panette stops with Harvei at the door to the tailor’s. She can’t bring herself to ask for more of Harvei’s time. Too proud. Too ashamed. So she doesn’t, and Harvei doesn’t volunteer it.
Panette strides across the road and raises an arm in goodbye. Cutting her eyes away is like smashing a latch.
The next time they see each other is the day the suddenwall appears.
Harvei spends the night after the rescue in Panette’s home. The hardness about her barely softens. The only familiar cues are the involuntary tells of her body.
They set a mat down in the spare room, and Panette gets a single impassioned reaction — when Harvei won’t let Panette make a bed for her.
“Everything I learned in the war caravan counts for nothing,” Harvei says, “unless you give those sheets to me. Captain.”
The next morning Panette heads down to the spare room with a glass of orange blossom. Waking up, she remembered the way Harvei would tease her about how she sat a horse. She’d exaggerate a lean to the left — you sit off-balance, Captain — until her horse whinnied nervously and other soldiers began to stare.
Panette has her line ready when she rounds the hall towards Harvei’s room — since you envied my horsemanship during the war, shall we ride today? She stops short.
Even if she wanted to go further, she can’t.
A suddenwall is in the way.
This time, there is no doubt. There are no associates of Harvei’s to share the enclosure Vannat has built for her. The amnesty-city is pushing her out.
Given enough time and fodder, even yellow shoots grow into trees.
After a long lull, in the wake of the Extinction, rumors of Ruumari speakers turn into rumors of Ruumari agitators.
On the face of it, Camillon has been rehabilitated. Pacifist approaches prevail: a Minister for the Ruumari, ambassadors, receptions to celebrate cultural exchange. Theories appear about how the Ruumari language is acquired, rekindling speculation about whether it’s teachable. Scholars read treatises aloud to captive audiences gathered for horse races and concertos. There’s such a glut of new studies that crowds learn to arrive later and later for public events.
The assimilation isn’t enough. Attacks by Ruumari fighters are sporadic but on the increase. Nothing as dramatic as the day the godkeep came down — nothing will ever sear into Panette’s memory that way — but there are Camillonese victims. A Ruumari swordsman breaks into the stalls at Panette’s childhood stables, kills jockeys, kills horses.
Like all veterans of the Extinction, Panette pays attention to the disturbing news from Camillon and the frontiers. Although not too much attention. Vannat is always passing judgment, and all of them worry. No one is sure what raises the city’s ire.
Aln Panette sounds the alarm throughout the neighborhood — a suddenwall, a suddenwall here. Her door stays open for a stream of volunteers.
The suddenwall in Panette’s house is thicker than yesterday’s. Vannat has redoubled efforts, as she knew it would.
They excavate until dark, until Panette is blinking ochre dust from her bloodshot eyes, and though she can hear Harvei’s voice on the other side, they still do not break through.
Panette’s hands don’t falter, but she mouths no no no no without pause. A string of words like a defensive stream of arrows, because otherwise she will have to accept what this means.
If Harvei stays? If Harvei stays, a suddenwall will spring up too close and crush her, or entomb her in an unbreachable thickness of miracle stone. These deaths happen. They are not as rare as they should be. Camillon’s veterans have become dependent on a city that lightens burdens, antidote city to every sediment that’s ever settled inside a heart. To bear its rejection is almost inconceivable.
After midnight Harvei scrambles out from behind the suddenwall. She’s ashen wherever she’s not covered in dust. She’s barely standing.
“I was asleep,” she tells Panette. “The head of my mat began to lift. I rolled away. Woke. Saw this.” Tips her face at the suddenwall.
“Why is this happening?” Panette whispers as she wipes Harvei’s face with a cool cloth in the latrine. It reminds her of dressing injuries in the war caravan, even Harvei’s own once or twice. All of the rescuers have gone home to tell cautionary tales of the woman Vannat has condemned.
Harvei’s face is set, chiseled. When Panette scoops dust from the corners of Harvei’s eyes, from the hollows of her cheeks, there’s not a hint of emotion, not even this close up. Panette half-imagines clay, not flesh, beneath the track of cloth. The only thing to indicate life is the wild black hair that’s come free at Harvei’s temples.
“I eliminate suspected Ruumari speakers,” Harvei says. “For money. That’s how I survive.”
Panette stops, the cloth midway between them.
“Ammar and Lei are my clients,” she adds. “They work for interested parties in Camillon.”
Panette puts the cloth down.
“All ages,” Harvei says finally. “Even children. A lot of children.”
There’s something terrible shackled behind the control of her features, the untouchable focus of her eyes. It never undams. There’s only the cutting wound to Panette’s heart, incision overlaid on old incisions.
Panette never moves away from Vannat. When on occasion she takes the stallions out beyond the city’s walls, the sky’s oppressive, the ground too red-rich with the minerals left behind by the Extinction’s shallow-buried dead. She forces herself to ride Vannat’s circumference every so often. A reminder, she supposes, of how tattered her heart would be without the balm of the amnesty-city.
Harvei survives Vannat’s extrusion, leaving on a packhorse not unlike Panette’s first mount of the war effort. Panette sees her off.
Nights, Panette dreams of Harvei being crushed. The suddenwalls in these dreams are not stone but walls of sound, walls of syllables that scald Harvei’s skin as they close in on her.
Waking up from these dreams, Panette recalls more and more from her years with Harvei. In the war caravan. During the Extinction. These memories she sifts, on her back with her eyes closed, fists knotted in her blanket. She’s searching for the most untarnished of them to keep. Does Vannat know these too? Do the memories count in her favor or incriminate her?
Panette only wonders briefly, and only privately, by first light.
When she hears about a new suddenwall, she tilts her chin to shake the thought away.
Rank #8: PodCastle 558: A Place to Grow
- Author : A. T. Greenblatt
- Narrator : Tatiana Grey
- Host : Setsu Uzume
- Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
- Discuss on Forums
Originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
SFX used in the host spot of this episode can be found here:
A Place to Grow
By A. T. Greenblatt
Lillian was wearing one of her uncles’ old suits again. Her family always wore suits when they were going to tear down a world.
Trouble was that this world, unlike the dozens before it, had started to feel like home.
You don’t know that for sure, Lillian reminded herself as she strode through her dying garden, fists clenched at her side. You never had a home.
Trouble was, her uncles got bored of the worlds they built so quickly. So now the last of her daisies, tulips, and lilies surrounded her like sickly, wilting walls, praying for one last glimpse of sunlight before they died.
A useless prayer. Her uncles had dismantled the sun two days ago.
I’m not going to let them gut this world and put it on a shelf, Lillian thought as she weaved her way through the garden. Not this time. She didn’t bother picking up the hems of her pants dragging through the dirt or tucking in her arms so that her baggy sleeves didn’t catch on the yellowing leaves. She let her garden cling to her like her uncles’ hopes and plans that one day she would be like them and build worlds of her own.
Her uncles’ suits never had fit her well.
Lillian stole a quick glance back at the house in the middle of her sprawling garden. With a bit of luck, Uncle Simon and Uncle Arthur wouldn’t notice that she wasn’t packing. By now, they should be so consumed with their own preparations, they would forget to look out the window. They would miss her oversized clothes and her telltale face and hands, which even from a distance looked like a quilt made from many different skins. They wouldn’t see her walking away.
And if they did . . . well, they’d be furious. They’d tell her she was wasting her time. Her energy. Her abilities, on a flawed, doomed world.
Which might be true. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to try.
You need to understand the risks first, she reminded herself.
The Wall. She needed to see the Wall, or rather, what was beyond it now. She needed to understand what it was like to be without a world.
Her uncles’ town surrounded the house and garden in a perfect circle. So did the Wall, except that surrounded the town. The flaws in this world became more visible the farther she walked. There were deep cracks in the road, air temperature fluctuations every few steps, places where the water main broke so frequently that the glass foundation gleamed through the patches of eroded earth. A few townies stood on their lantern-lit porches from the homes that lined the road, raising a hand as she walked by. Worry and hope mixed in their expressions. Her uncles had promised to build everyone a new, better home, but right now, the world was being dismantled around them and no one knew what would come next.
The vast, stone Wall seemed to rise up out of the pile of rubbish at its base, collected there as if all the things that weren’t needed in the next world had just rolled downhill and settled at the boundary of this one. Old furniture, dented pots, broken light bulbs. The ladder was still there, though, braced against the lip of the Wall, where the stonework met the glass. So Lillian placed a patchwork hand on a rung and started climbing.
This wasn’t her first time up. Four days ago, when she’d pressed her hands against the smooth glass barrier of this world, she’d seen wildflowers. Endless fields of color rushing out to meet the horizon.
It wasn’t real, of course, the flowers beyond the Wall. Unlike the ones in her garden, this was just an illusion. Something Uncle Arthur had created to keep everyone sane.
For good reason, Lillian realized now as she bit back a scream. Because now . . . now beyond the Wall there was nothing. Only a vast, terrible, consuming emptiness. It was as if she was falling, failing, losing, and she would never find herself again.
Her knees shook, banging against the ladder’s rungs, and she squeezed her eyes shut. They were right. Her uncles, the townies. It was better to have a world, despite the flaws, despite her uncles tearing it down and rebuilding it every year or so, than to face that infinite nothingness.
If you make a mistake, this is where everyone will end up, she thought. Completely lost.
She knew what the rational decision was. She understood that letting this world go was the safer choice.
There was a small, insistent part of her that wouldn’t let her give up so easily. The tiny part of her that had put down roots outside of her uncles’ laboratories and workshops. She’d poured hours into learning how to make things grow, how to keep them alive, and she had succeeded. She could spend an entire day in her garden with Marci and Gil, weeding, watering, laughing and it never felt like wasted time.
Before this world, she didn’t think it was possible for someone like her to feel at home. An orphaned world maker who couldn’t even remember the world she came from. Not until she discovered she could coax something in her uncles’ rigid creations to grow. To change.
She couldn’t let them take that away.
She’d been lingering in the garden again. Arthur could smell the honeysuckles on her, dying though they might be.
“We could live our lives within glass bottles and it would be the largest place we’d ever know,” Arthur muttered to himself, though he made sure to be just loud enough for Lillian to hear.
“Except we do live in a glass bottle, Uncle.”
Her voice carried, reverberating off the shelves of beakers, delicate instruments, and boxes of things that didn’t have names. Arthur turned and saw his niece in the doorway, her mismatched hands tightening, her scarred and bricolage face full of impending stubbornness.
“You should be packing,” he said as he corked the beaker he was holding. “Not puttering around in that ridiculous garden.”
“You didn’t think it was ridiculous when we first made this world.”
“That was before I realized how unpredictable and stubborn flowers are,” he said. Like nieces, he added silently. “Why are you here?”
“I saw what’s really beyond the Wall today.”
Arthur nearly dropped the beaker he was holding. Of course, he’d intended to show her what the illusion was hiding, though it wasn’t something you showed too soon. Except the woman standing in the doorway wasn’t a patchwork child anymore. She’d grown into all her skins.
He could see that she understood now. There was fear on her face, the fear of what she could lose.
“Good,” he replied, and hesitated. In some ways, he was proud of her initiative. But what had she thought of the emptiness beyond the Wall? In that terrible void, had she found the hunger to create, to defy, like he and Simon and her mother had done?
Arthur opened his mouth to ask, but the words caught. He couldn’t quite meet her eyes. She couldn’t quite meet his. Their silent questions hung in the space between them.
“Where are we going this time, Uncle?”
This wasn’t the right question. But Arthur was grateful. He knew how to talk about worlds.
“Mountains. With real snow. Come see.”
He beckoned Lillian towards the center of the laboratory, where resting on a table between the shelves and benches, a large glass bottle glowed. Nestled within its body, the hazy mountains looked conquerable. Of course, they weren’t really miniatures, just like the world in the bottle wasn’t really on the table. It was an illusion, a trick of perspective. Even the grandest mountains could appear as small as your thumb from the right distance. It was just a matter of getting the math right.
“It always seems so far away, when we’re looking at them from the outside,” she said, peering at the bottle.
“I know,” he replied, smiling. Arthur could hear the new world calling him. This was the home they’d been searching for. This time he was certain. “We always did love the snow as children.”
But Lillian wasn’t listening. Her gaze had drifted to the shelf behind him. The one full of large, dusty bottles. Remnants of all the worlds he and Simon had made before this one. Flaws, flaws, and more flaws. And there was an empty space on it, ready for this world of flowers.
“The next world will be perfect,” he said, raising his voice. “It’ll be the last one we make.”
“Except you said that about this world.”
“And the one before that.”
He glared at her and she returned the expression, neither of them willing to lower their gaze, their stance.
How could he explain that something was missing here? His careful calculations for happiness, once again, hadn’t added up.
Arthur scowled and turned away from his stubborn niece. “Well, if you’re going to stand there, you might as well be useful.”
“Why? What are you packing?”
A small, sharp frown appeared between her eyebrows, but wordlessly, she rolled up her sleeves and Arthur relaxed. She was still his lab assistant, first and foremost.
Together they measured, stirred, distilled, and measured again, their hands working in parallel to refit a handheld lamp. With infinite care, Arthur lit the wick, and in an instant, the flame was burning as bright as a beacon. Seconds later, the first star arrived with a clink.
“It’s working. Excellent,” Arthur said, pleased.
Together, they wandered out to the balcony, lantern in hand. Arthur studied the sky, noting the frequency of arriving stars. He began to explain the art of the nightscape, but after a minute or so, he realized Lillian wasn’t watching the sky. She was staring at her garden instead.
Arthur sighed. She’d done good work with the flowers and plants, making them thrive after he and Simon had given up on them. But the garden wasn’t the same as the one he, Simon, and Aster had in the world they once called home, before . . . well, before. Besides, it was Aster, Lillian’s mother, who’d loved that garden. Without her, this place felt like a bitter mockery of the home they had lost.
“Your mother was excellent with growing things too.”
“I know,” she replied. “Uncle Simon told me,” she added in reply to his surprised expression. “I think we can fix the flaws here. I have some ideas.”
Arthur scowled. Absurd . . . the flaws ran too deeply and it wasn’t worth the effort. How could she not see that this world was a cheap imitation of what it was supposed to be?
But then, Arthur saw her expression and he understood. She’d fallen in love with this world. She still hadn’t learned how the things you love most can be snatched away on a whim.
“You need to go,” he whispered.
Because everything’s too fragile, too fleeting.
“Because the laboratory always moves first,” Arthur snapped. He turned his back on the garden and hurried towards the balcony doors. “And I’m going to move it now. Get out.”
Damn it, damn it, damn it. Really, she shouldn’t have been surprised that Arthur wouldn’t change his mind. She should’ve known. Well, she had known . . .
From the pocket of her secondhand suit, Lillian pulled out two large, beautiful bottles. World-making bottles. They should have been too bulky, too obvious, to fit in her pockets, but Lillian was her uncles’ student. She knew their tricks.
Honestly, that was almost all she knew. It was all she had been taught. Before she learned how to make things grow.
She didn’t have her uncles’ nostalgia. Forests and islands, and all the other worlds that came before this one, were meaningless to her. She couldn’t remember their first world, the one they hadn’t made. The one that was grand enough to have beaches, cities, and mountains all in one container. But the smell of honeysuckles, the act of sticking her fingers into the rich soil reminded her of . . . something. It helped that Marci and Gil had joined her. She’d learned how to make friends in this world, too.
Lillian paused for a moment in the hall, wondering if Arthur had noticed the missing bottles. If he’d come storming after her. A small part of her wished he would. Then they could have this fight out in the open.
But the laboratory doors stayed shut.
So, Lillian tucked the bottles back into her pocket and started down the hall again. She couldn’t go back to being just her uncles’ apprentice. She didn’t want to be just a world-maker anymore.
Don’t do anything drastic yet, she reminded herself. You still have one more uncle.
Through one of the hall’s many windows, she saw there were no stars left in the sky. Lillian hurried.
If we want to change the world, we must rebuild it around us.
Simon smiled as he tightened another bolt. This was his workshop and this was his simple tenet. It fit neatly among the panting engines and spinning axles.
He’d never admit this to his brother, but his workshop was the only place Simon felt some measure of happiness. His hands were covered in grease as he engaged pistons, meshed gears, and built the machines that ran the world. Here, he could lose himself for hours in the work. Here, the memories didn’t haunt his every breath.
The smell of honeysuckles wafted in and he knew, without turning, who was standing behind him.
“And I thought I was being sneaky,” she said.
Simon chuckled. But then he saw the expression on his niece’s face, and his smile died.
“What’s wrong, dear?”
“I saw the void today.”
Inwardly, Simon’s heart ached at this lost of innocence. Outwardly, he nodded. “It’s an emptiness that’ll haunt you.”
“How do you and Arthur deal with it? How do the townies we fish out of the void? Some of them were adrift in it for days.”
So were we, Simon thought. But she was too young to remember that. Or rather, young enough to forget. “We save what we can. Fix what we can. And when we can’t, we build new worlds.”
She nodded and wandered over to his workbench, picking up his failed attempt at a small mechanical wren. “There’s still so much we can fix here,” she said.
“Your uncle thinks this world is ugly and flawed.”
“Do you?” Lillian fiddled with the bird. A wing flapped awkwardly and Simon hunched his shoulders. Those birds were supposed to have been a gift to Aster, her mother, back when they weren’t in the business of building worlds. Back when they had a world more exquisite and complex than anything they could create.
“I always welcome the chance to redesign.” He turned back to the engine he was working on. “Look at this improvement.”
Simon reached up and began cranking one of the dozens of handles on the machine. At first, nothing happened. Then, there was a faint whistle from the hundreds of brass pipes overhead and a white vapor began to grow. Slowly, it blossomed and condensed, pressing up against the water-stained ceiling. A perfect cloud that grew darker and denser. Then, without warning, it began to rain.
Lillian gaped as raindrops began trickling over her face and palms. Simon grinned, pleased with the effect. He’d finally recreated another small piece of what was lost, and the next world would be better for it.
“In the mountains, this will become snow,” he explained.
“I’ve only ever read about snow,” she said, awed. Then her shoulders straightened. “But I think we should stay in this world.”
“What? And let all this work go to waste? Don’t be absurd, dear.”
“But we can use this here. The flowers —”
“Are too thirsty. It would overtax the system. Best to leave them behind,” he said. “Besides, you won’t have to spend hours watering anymore.”
“I like watering. I like all of it.”
Her quilted face was full of fierce determination. And Simon understood then, the love Lillian had for this world.
He understood it all too well.
When their world had shattered, the one they’d called home, he, his siblings, and his young niece escaped only by luck. Lillian was in poor shape, her mother even worse. He’d managed to sew Lillian back whole, but Aster . . . Simon always tried to fix what he could, but some days, everything was a reminder of what he couldn’t save.
“And what do Marci and Gil think?” he asked, and regretted it instantly. He’d seen how the three friends worked shoulder-to-shoulder in the garden.
Lillian was kind enough not to answer. Instead, she said “Can I help you with your work?” She ran a patchworked hand over the tools on the workbench. Hers were good hands, world-building hands. She had that much, at least.
Simon shook his head. Suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to be alone. “You’d better get back to your rooms. The workshop will be moving soon.”
For a moment, Lillian looked as heartbroken as he felt. She turned to go but paused with a hand resting on the doorknob. “Do you really want to leave, Uncle?”
Simon gave her a sad smile. “If I have nothing new to build, what will become of me?”
Lillian burst into her own small workshop like a storm, brimming with frustration and sadness. Marci, who’d been waiting for her, jumped when the door slammed open, making her drop the book she’d been reading. Across the room, Gil looked up but otherwise didn’t react as he continued to knot and unknot a piece of rope.
“They didn’t listen,” Lillian said.
Her friends’ expressions fell. No one was exactly surprised, but that didn’t mean they weren’t disappointed.
“What will you do?” Marci asked.
Lillian pulled out the two bottles from her pockets. “Stop them.” She tossed the bottles to Gil, who caught them in one swift, neat motion. “Ready?”
“It looks just like these?” Gil hefted a bottle in each hand.
Gil smiled that smile that Lillian knew spelled mischief. He placed the bottles on her desk and slipped out of the room.
“This might be a terrible idea,” Lillian admitted as soon as she was sure Gil was out of earshot. “If I get this wrong, I might ruin this world and my uncles’ new one, and we’ll all end up in the void. You should probably be trying to convince me not to do this, Marci.”
“Probably.” Her friend shrugged. “But I’m tired of saying goodbye to places I like. Besides, we’ve put too much work into the garden to just abandon it.”
Sometimes, Lillian wondered how she’d survived without friends for so long. Marci had washed up on her uncles’ beach world when they were both eight or nine, and though they had always been friendly, they’d never really become friends until Marci wandered into the garden as Lillian was planting her first tulip bulbs and offered to help.
Yet another thing she was grateful to this world for.
But who was she to risk everything because she’d found somewhere that made her happy? Or that sometimes, but only sometimes, when the light was just right, her flowers brought back a few patchy memories of the world she and her uncles had lost?
“This is selfish,” Lillian whispered.
“No,” Marci said, with surprising force. “It’s not. There were always rumors, you know. People in town are banking on you saving this world.”
“They should’ve told Arthur and Simon they wanted to stay here.”
“They did. A few times, actually. But you know how your uncles are.”
Yes, Lillian knew quite well. Marci put a hand on her shoulder. “Give us a world, Lillian. A permanent one.”
One glance at her friend’s earnest expression told Lillian that she wasn’t the only person who’d started to think of this place as home.
“Okay,” she said as she took a seat at her desk, the two bottles in front of her. From a pocket of her secondhand suit, she withdrew the toolkit she’d stolen from Simon’s workshop. “Okay.”
And she set to work.
Yes, this was infinitely better. Arthur could feel the change as soon as he transferred his laboratory into the new world. The air was colder, fresher, and the view from the windows would be stunning once they reassembled the sun. The mountain lodges they’d built were simple yet idyllic.
He stepped out of his laboratory and onto the balcony of the lodge, into the unfinished world. There were still vast swaths of gray space, and only the dusky outline of mountains was visible in the distance. But the shape of the world was here. The potential.
The world was so unfinished that if Arthur looked closely, he could see the glass walls of the bottle, its neck tapering in the distance. And beyond the glass, he saw the world he’d left behind, far away and minuscule below him. The perspective, after all, had changed. The house and the garden were still visible, though. Still within his reach.
Arthur withdrew a pair of thin, delicately curved tongs from his pocket, designed to pass through the illusion of perception. With the care of a glass blower, he reached through the narrow neck of the bottle of this world that was not as far away as it looked and into the neck of the world he was leaving behind.
Slowly, gently, he grasped the edges of the balcony of Simon’s workshop with the tongs and pulled. His brother’s workshop disengaged from the house, as it was designed to do, with a click, and carefully Arthur began to draw it through the narrow neck of each world. The workshop grew larger, heavier, more unwieldy as he pulled it closer. But Arthur’s practiced hands didn’t shake as he set the workshop down into the adjacent mountain lodge Simon had designed for himself. When the workshop was set in place, his brother came out onto the balcony of his new home and waved.
Arthur smiled. There was nothing quite like finally assembling your creations after so much planning and design.
Maybe he’d move Lillian’s rooms next. For all her stubbornness, she was a good assistant. Sharp. One day, she’d build worlds of her own. He didn’t fault her for falling in love with her work, only for not learning yet that nothing ever stayed the same.
Resources were going to be scarce, but maybe he’d create some asters and columbines for her here.
But first, where had he put those stars?
Gil knew himself. He knew he wasn’t nearly as clever as Lillian and Marci. He could not make worlds. He hadn’t even realized he was living in a vast but breakable world until his home had shattered like a ship against a reef. He knew he was no match against the void.
He had two talents, though. The first was fishing, and that came in handy. He was a master at finding valuable things beyond the Wall, among the torn newspaper clippings, bent cutlery, and the infinite amount of other junk that floated in the blossoming fields cleverly hiding the void. Standing on the Wall, in front of a window cut in the glass, Gil could spot where a good pair of shoes lurked or a packet of seeds. With a quick flick of his wrist, hook and sinker would vanish into the endless, flowering meadows, and when he reeled them back in, he would always have a prize. This skill had kept him well fed and honest back when he was just a sunburned sailor looking to catch the biggest fish. Back when he didn’t know other worlds existed. But here, it made him indispensable.
His second talent was thievery, what he used to rely on before he mastered the art of fishing. But he hadn’t used it since Simon pulled him through one of those windows in the glass and over the Wall. Out of the void.
He owed Simon his life.
Gil still dreamed of being lost in the void. Some nights he woke up shaking, too terrified to scream. He’d made himself irreplaceable for a reason. And the thought of losing yet another world . . .
So, he snuck into the gray and empty place that had been Arthur’s laboratory and found the glass bottle that held the new world sitting alone on the vacant floor.
His fingers hadn’t forgotten their old craft. He scooped up the bottle with practiced nimbleness and began retracing his steps to Lillian’s rooms. Each stride was a balancing act, so that not even the slight tremor touched the bottle in his hands and tipped the hats of the two men inside.
He felt guilty for the deception but not enough to make the slightest mistake. Gil didn’t care about the flower garden, like his friends did, but he had a place here. A purpose.
For that alone, this world was worth saving.
Despite what he’d told his niece, Simon did regret the necessity of destroying this world of flowers. But he needed the parts.
So while his brother fussed in his laboratory, Simon began pulling his equipment through the bottlenecks of the worlds, using greasy but still lovely world-making tongs of his own.
While Arthur created beautiful templates and models, Simon made them possible. Lillian had a knack for this too. At night, when worry and guilt gnawed at him, it was a comfort to know that this last surviving part of Aster could endure on her own, no matter what happened.
Simon’s workshop grew cluttered with his creations. For now, he placed them where he could fit them, more focused on getting the basics up and running than tidiness.
Still, he couldn’t help smiling as he worked. All the things he was going to create for this new world, all the upcoming improvements, would keep him busy for many days to come.
Lillian didn’t have Arthur’s skill to move entire rooms while she was standing in them, or Simon’s knowledge to build weather-changing machines. She was just herself, with her own ideas.
So she picked up one of the two bottles she’d filched from Arthur and crossed the room to the workbenches and shelves full of the materials and spare parts that she, Marci, and Gil had collected over the months. All the parts that were needed to start a world. Worlds.
Using needle-nose pliers, delicate and sharp, Lillian gently grasped the bottom of a shelf. Then, with an infinite amount of care, she did the impossible: she lifted the laden shelf with only the pliers and a steady hand. As she drew it closer to the mouth of the bottle she held in her other hand, the shelf began to diminish, until it was tiny enough to push through the opening of the bottle and into the world she’d built within the glass. She repeated this process over and over, until all the shelves were gone and her workshop felt strangely roomy. She bit back a laugh when she saw Marci’s amazed expression.
“Well, it’s all about perspective,” Lillian said as she placed the now-filled bottle on her desk. Her friend nodded, wide-eyed.
But like a tempo that picked up speed, her uncles started working quickly. She could hear the clicks when they moved vital pieces out of this world and into theirs. Though Lillian couldn’t see them or what they were transferring, she could feel her world begin to wither and shrink.
She didn’t hear Gil slip in and set the bottle with the new world on her desk, but Lillian swore when she saw how much progress her uncles had made. They would be moving her rooms soon.
“I need your help,” she told her friends. “Now.”
Marci became her second pair of hands, delivering tools when she asked, and Gil another set of eyes, quick to spot when Arthur or Simon removed a critical piece of this world. Lillian extracted what she could from their new world, moving machines like the generators and the water pumps into the second stolen bottle, also sitting on her desk. If she wanted to keep this world, the trick was to make their new creation collapse before this one did.
This will work, she thought. This will work. She ignored the exhaustion creeping into her fingers and refused to allow her hands to shake with doubt.
The strongest pangs of guilt hit her when she stole back the dismantled sun. She would’ve built her own from the scraps left behind, but her flowers would be long dead by then. She hoped Simon would understand.
Lillian dared to look up, just for a moment. From her window, she saw the crumbling stone Wall drawing closer as her world was emptying, disappearing. She wasn’t working fast enough.
“Get everyone from town in here, now,” she told Gil through clenched teeth. She kept her hands steady, but inwardly she was cursing, cursing, cursing.
Her home was slipping away.
Marci struggled to keep up with the urgent orders and swift hands of her friend. It was like when her older brothers used to play chess: frantic and calculating, removing some pieces while adding others back on. It set her teeth on edge, even though she knew they were making up the rules and no one was actually being sacrificed.
Lillian and her uncles were playing chess with the world around them.
Witches. That’s what her mother would’ve called them. Destroyers of worlds. But it wasn’t true. Marci had seen that aching look in Simon and Arthur’s eyes. The look you wore when you’d lost everything and found yourself floating in an endless void. She knew she wore that expression too, though she was only nine when she’d lost the world she called home. Still, she would never walk down the city streets she loved again, the smell of fresh pears and even fresher bread chasing her every step. Her home was gone for good.
The thing was, everyone in this little world wore that same expression. Everyone had that same ache. Except Lillian.
Marci had originally offered to help the quiet, strange-looking world-makers’ niece because she and the other townies realized that Arthur and Simon would never listen. They would never be satisfied with any world they made. The townies all agreed they needed a new strategy.
At first, Marci just wanted to convince Lillian to help them, but over the last few months, her motives had changed slightly. It wasn’t just this world that she needed to save. Marci never wanted to see that pained expression of loss in her friend’s eyes.
Something was wrong. Arthur could feel it. He’d finally found the stars tucked under a stack of papers. But when he stepped out onto the balcony again, the world had become inexplicably smaller. The mountains crushed up against the edge of town: the walls of the bottle were far too close. The world was losing mass somehow.
Swearing, Arthur began thinking through the math again.
No, stabilize this world first. He’d find the mistake when he was certain this world wouldn’t come crashing down.
Maybe, just maybe, he could transfer the entire house from the old world into this one. That should offer some mass balance, though it would be tricky to move such an enormous object between worlds. But if it worked . . .
Arthur ducked inside to retrieve his tongs.
Simon realized something was wrong with this world. The clouds he made refused to float out onto the balcony and into the open sky. He stepped out of his workshop only to discover that the glass boundary of this world was inches away. Their new world was on the verge of collapse. Arthur must have made one of his rare errors in calculations.
Simon wiped the engine grease from his hands. Once again, it was up to him to fix his brother’s mistakes. He strode through his workshop searching for the largest machine he had: the sun.
Only to find it was gone.
Lillian transferred the bottle that held her uncles’ world into the glass bottle she’d painstakingly filled with bookshelves and tools. She set the world down on the floor there among the rows and rows of shelves. Her uncles would notice the world had moved without their permission.
But she hoped they could forgive her for it.
“What the hell is going on?”
Simon heard Arthur slam through the doors of his workshop. “I think . . . I think we’ve been betrayed, Arthur.”
“Impossible. By who?”
Simon didn’t answer. Instead, he walked out onto the balcony, the hammer heavy in his hand, the ache in his chest more so. With the gentlest of strikes, he reached out and tapped the boundary of the world.
The glass cracked, and the world of mountains and snow fell away.
“She stole our world,” Arthur said, his hands tightening into fists, as the glass crumpled and fell, shattering at their feet, and they found themselves in a world they didn’t recognize.
“Arthur . . . look.”
The new world was little more than just a room. But it was stuffed with workbenches and tables, and rows and rows of shelves full of empty bottles and spare gears, valves, and hundreds of other materials collected from the void. Most of the bottles weren’t as large or clear or beautiful as the ones they normally used to build worlds. But this place was a treasure trove, the heart stuff of hundreds of new homes, waiting to be born.
The note on the closest shelf read: “Thank you for all you taught me. Build new worlds for all the people still lost in the void.”
The workspace appeared to stretch into eternity. It was an illusion, of course. But it was a good one.
“We can’t just abandon her,” Arthur said. “Aster would never forgive us. We should go back.”
“Could we do that without destroying this place?” Simon asked, running his hands over the gleaming workbenches.
Arthur opened his mouth but then caught sight of the immaculate laboratory Lillian had designed for him. “We could create so much here. Think of the possibilities, Simon,” he said, eyes shining. “Do you think she’ll be all right on her own? Until we design a world large enough for all of us, that is.”
Simon didn’t trust himself to speak, so he just smiled. He would miss his niece terribly, but with her gift, he could do so much, save so many.
For the first time in years Simon felt the faint tugging of a world he could call home.
Her world was a mess. And when Lillian stepped out of the house in the middle of the garden, she was wearing one of her uncles’ old suits again. Except this time, she’d altered it to be patchworked like her. After dozens of long days of work, the sun was bright and her flowers were flourishing again. This time she wore her suit because it fit.
Her irises and foxgloves had grown tall and wild in her absence, and Lillian brushed the petals with her fingers as she walked through the garden towards town.
There were still cracks in the road and the water main was dripping again, but she had some new designs in progress. The townies were busy rebuilding too, sweating but smiling as she passed, and she waved to them but didn’t slow her pace. She didn’t hesitate when she reached the ladder leaning against the Wall and swiftly climbed to the top.
Beyond the Wall, her illusion needed work. It wasn’t much to look at, just damp earth and pale skies that stretched out forever. But the promise of spring lingered in the air, like untapped potential.
I can work with this, Lillian thought, nodding. She was home now. She had time to learn how to make this world grow.
Rank #9: PodCastle 563: El Cantar de la Reina Bruja
- Author : Victoria Sandbrook
- Narrator : Sofia Quintero
- Host : Setsu Uzume
- Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
- Discuss on Forums
Originally published in Sword & Sonnet.
El Cantar de la Reina Bruja
By Victoria Sandbrook
Mothers, hear me! I am alone but for your graces. My mistakes have bound me. My weaknesses have hobbled me. My pride has torn me from you.
Alejandra pricked her finger on her rough iron chains and whispered lilting iambs until all appearance of fatigue fell from her. When they came for her, she would look herself again.
Well. Not her true self. Not even the self she’d donned a decade ago to snare herself her king. What chaos there would be if her husband’s guards — nay, the entire kingdom! — discovered that the bruja chained in the metal palanquin had been their queen these ten years. “I must hide you from the priests,” Ciro had said, pallid with self-pity over his own deceit. “They would burn you for heresy.” Thus, Alejandra discovered what husband-kings did with unwilling, powerful wives. Now he risked much by dragging her on this yet unblooded campaign. But he had a rival to conquer: a widowed queen he thought to wed. With his wife’s help, of course.
The cabos — honored soldados, yes, but still babes with new chains of rank about their necks — held swords aloft when they opened her door. Unnecessary but flattering.
One motioned Alejandra forward, her voice as stern as a sargenta’s. “You’re to survey the battlefield, Doña Alejandra.”
Doña! Alejandra locked her jaw against the reply that boomed in her head. I was a goddess, wretch! I am your queen, dung-hurler. Avert your eyes and hold your tongue lest I find a better use for them.
She — Alejandra Isabella Celia de Las Vientas, Reina Coronada, Daughter of the Wind Women, Rightful but Secret Queen of the Valle — rose with the power of her ethereal forbears at the tip of her tongue, ready to fell the insignificant caba with the thunderclap of a curse.
But her own enchantment stopped her. The same spell she’d originally used to slough off her gossamer goddess soul. The same spell that had given her the form to seduce the delicious young King Ciro she’d spied from above. The form he’d bedded after exchanging whispered vows that made her his queen. The form that could be chained as her windborne self could never have been. The form that could not bear enough magic to break the spell that made it.
So she — Alejandra Isabella Celia de Las Vientas, Reina Coronada, Daughter of the Wind Women, Rightful but Humbled Queen of the Valle — demurred and did as she was bid.
I will suffer the great pain I have wrought. With a whim, I bought but tears and chains. With my words, I will buy freedom.
They skirted around the camp, parting dense, high grasses in silence. Birdsong, ever Alejandra’s companion in the palanquin and in her tower-room in the palace, lilted and swirled on the breeze. The morning air was damp, cool against her wrinkled red gown. The stiff stalks tried to seed her hair with burrs and dry bits, but the chaff fell from her like dutiful supplicants. The insolent caba behind Alejandra would have no such luck.
A quarter-mile from camp they stopped at the still-bleeding stump of a newly-felled tree before a field thick with mist. There stood her husband-king, not yet in his mail, draped in a sapphire brocade cloak. Ciro looked younger than his fifty-two years, skin the firm tawny-tan of cypress thanks to the week-long march, gray-streaked hair masked in the haze, the set of his bearded jaw, eyes limned with desire. Just not for Alejandra.
Ciro signaled to the cabos to wait back in the grass.
Alejandra stared into the fog as their footsteps retreated. How far away was the enemy, she wondered. Were they waiting just beyond her sight, ready to pounce? Were they still abed, assured of victory?
Ciro began. “Wife.”
“Your Majesty.” She curtseyed.
He handed her the willow stationery box.
Alejandra’s hands trembled as the wood breathed relief into her, its protection spells easing. “What do you ask of me today?”
He squinted, as if trying to conjure the future from the mist. “A dry field for our side. Muddy for the enemy. Fog to cover the vanguard. To drive them well toward the eastern mountains.”
By way of reply, Alejandra whispered an old couplet to the tree stump. It transformed, offering her a lacquered desk and fine chair at which she could sit. The willow box went on top and slightly to her left. From it she drew a sheet of paper milled by lovers quarreling at midnight; a dark tincture-ink of mustard seed and sheep’s birthing blood; her bone quill, carved from the crooked finger of the still-living but long-forgotten god that had forged her in her first-mother’s womb.
Her quill kept time with the birdsong while Ciro’s impatient coughing and throat-clearing cut in at ill-chosen intervals. Alejandra’s lips mimed the words between breaths, ever cautious not to speak without intent. Before her, the cantar de gesta — the song of great deeds — formed in layers, as if each syllable, each line peeled back another length of mist-covered field toward the enemy.
Alejandra reached the end and spit on the paper. She rolled it tight and licked where the seal should have gone. The paper singed and fused. Then she handed it to the king.
“Tie it to a burning arrow,” she said, “lit with a flint by a man on a gelding. Shoot it toward the enemy as you signal the charge.”
His finger brushed the charmed seal and she clucked her tongue.
“You know what happened the last time you read one of my poems, my king.”
Ciro ran the same finger along the line of her jaw. “Yes it took me long enough to break free of your thrall, didn’t it?” The hem of his cloak brushed her hand. He was looking for something in her face. Alejandra did not blink.
“You have a great reward coming if we win this war.” His voice was soft. He always was a fine seducer.
“Yes, Your Majesty.” She hid her hope where she’d long ago buried it inside her. Her answer was rote.
Ciro seemed not to notice. “You’ve waited a long time, with more patience than I thought you had in you.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Steady breathing. Steady. Easy.
He dipped his head until his lips were against her ear. “I have missed you in our bed. What a shame that you never bore me an heir. At least we know Queen Émilie, mother already to a royal brood, will be more equal to the task.”
Alejandra told herself to stay cold. Cold like a decade of nights in that tower room alone. Cold with fear, if that is what it took. Though it was fear of failure ahead, not of the past. Not of him. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
He stepped away and called the cabos from the high grass. He looked toward the battlefield instead of to her. “Then it is a good agreement we have reached, bruja. Surely we will neither of us find fault with a positive outcome.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Carry my words, if you cannot carry me. Grace them with speed if you cannot grace me with hope. I will burn from this earth-bound life a new sky for myself.
The battle was won under cover of an uncanny mist. Alejandra’s relieved tears surprised her. After so many years with only the most quiet power within her grasp, she had doubted herself. But maybe her mothers were with her, just hidden on the subtle breeze.
The enemy retreated east, but settled camp with a wide, fast river between themselves and the Vallean ranks. Alejandra stared at the firefly-lights of their cookfires from her stone desk in the river shallows, water raging at her feet, loose hair blowing about her shoulders. Was Queen Émilie looking back at her?
By the light of Ciro’s lantern, her bone quill etched lines in shell-blue ink, on thirsty linen paper that gulped the pigment. She kept her eyes on the opposite bank as she delivered the balada, folded and tied with a hair from her head.
“Ford the river at first light with this braided into your stallion’s mane. Let no horse ahead of yours. After the army has crossed, push the paper into your wineskin and pour out a measure on the first man you kill.”
Ciro smirked. “What if I kill a woman first?”
Alejandra kept her face a mask. “Then wait for a man. But drink no more. You must pour the rest into the river after the battle. When you return to camp, the skin will be full again.”
The king shook his head and looked at the unalarming paper. “All that from a poem?”
“I know no other way to cross a river once the bridges have been burned, nor another means of tormenting our enemy’s dreams after the battle.” Alejandra turned back to him, eyebrows raised. “Unless you preferred to change your orders, Your Majesty.”
Ciro chuckled. “The fresh air has given you some of your spunk back, hasn’t it, Ale? This time next month, you might be free again.”
“May our enemy fly swiftly before your sword, Your Majesty.”
Six battles, six spells. Written beneath canvas canopies, astride fallen logs. Scrawled in mud-ink and saffron paste on papyrus and vellum and pressed-pulp. Blessed with tears and dandelion down. Offered on the battlefield by man and woman, by fire’s heat and icy gale.
The camp bards wrote much of the blessed campaign of Ciro, King of the Valle. He hid his army in the thinnest morning mist. His horse crossed the raging Cillotar River in a single bound. A great cat prowled his fields of battle, granting swift deaths to all who fell. His foe fled in terror every time they met, ceding villages and towns and cities, bleeding soldados and civilians alike. In the fantastic revelry, only Alejandra understood where magic ceased and fear took hold.
The Vallean army did not press forward unscathed. Many in the ranks paid the cost of the king’s requests for magnificent victories. Alejandra heard them first, crying in the dark, beneath the full moon. After a few weeks, she could smell them, even from her place on the furthest outskirts of camp. By then she was starting to ache in ways she never had before and she was out of spells to aid in her own comfort. But she could aid others.
“Please,” she begged at palanquin’s window slits, hoping the cabo before it pitied the sick as she did. “Ask the king if I might help. I’ll wear shackles if I must. I can disguise myself as a crone. I can work only at night, to relieve the healers —”
“Silence!” His hiss shocked her. She could only see the back of his head, hair cropped short beneath his livery cap, chain of rank tarnished where it touched his skin. And then, after a tense moment, he turned his chin toward the palanquin. “Can you save them?”
“Not all of them,” Alejandra admitted. “But more of them than will live if I do nothing.”
He nodded and said no more.
An hour after he was relieved from duty, a coronel-doña and her alféreces escorted Alejandra and her willow box to the healers tents. The sick and dying and dead lay next to each other on cots and pallets and horse blankets. The flies seemed to know where to find their easiest marks.
Alejandra rolled up the sleeves of her gown, once a pious red cotton now patchy with ochre spots of mud and sweat. She looked at the first poor soul before her, writhing with fever and delirium. “Get this man some water, alférez.” Someone darted to the corner to comply, but the coronel grabbed Alejandra by the arm before she could kneel next to the patient.
“Come back to this one,” she said between gritted teeth. Alejandra took the woman’s measure: ten years her junior; a dark coronet braid unraveling beneath her bedraggled feather cap; her chain of rank boasted double links of gold and silver between the steel but was caked with mud and something darker. The coronel’s hazelwood eyes dared Alejandra to countermand the order. Intrigued, Alejandra assented.
On the other side of the tent, the coronel’s younger, sicker double lay atop a cot, bandages oozing above pale and graying skin. She still wore her battle-torn tunic though they had not seen action for days.
The colonel swallowed before pushing the willow box at Alejandra. “Her. First.”
“Of course, doña.” Alejandra lowered herself onto a stool next to the dying girl. “What is her name?”
“Rocío. My sister.”
“And your name, doña?”
The coronel snapped. “What does it matter? She is dying, not me!” She stopped herself just short of a sob.
Alejandra kept her voice steady. “You lay your sacrifices at the feet of idols and icons. The stone and paint that give them form are languages spoken without a tongue. What others do with their hands to name the gods and their power, I do with words.”
“You speak to the gods on our behalf? But you’re no priestess, you’re a bru —”
“All I need is your name, coronel. Your sister needs you now more than your piety.”
The coronel’s lips went white as they thinned. She brushed a thick curl of hair off her forehead. “Pilar.”
Alejandra bowed her head. “Then I will work as quickly as I can.”
“See that you do.”
Alone with her patient, Alejandra chose a tincture of willow heart, ash from a priestess’s funeral pyre, and petals of the rare, black-flowering cherries that blossomed in mournful clouds on the Vallean Mountains every thirtieth spring. She removed the largest bandage, shushing Rocío’s whimpers. Then she dipped her bone quill first in tincture, then in blood, and began her work.
The spell wrapped first around the sword wound in Rocío’s torso, its lines fracturing only with punctuation and rhyme, the iambs lining up just so as Alejandra worked in the round. The vial of tincture ran red then crimson as the nib mixed brew and blood. After three circles about the wound, Alejandra’s mester de brujería sprawled outward, tracing organs and infection. The confining meter of the cuaderna via was not her forte, but Alejandra fought through it. When the sword wound began to dry then close, Alejandra pressed the nib deeper to draw forth Rocío’s blood: there was still a fever to fight. The text ran beneath and over the girl’s bare breasts, across the fleshy skin over her pelvic bone, in eddies about her liver and kidneys.
Sweat had collected on Alejandra’s brow and when the first drop fell on Rocío’s healing body, the girl’s eyes opened with true waking.
Alejandra smiled, licked her quill clean, and hailed a passing cabo. “Call the coronel-doña. Her sister will live.”
The man’s eyes were wide with horror at Rocio’s naked and bloody form, but by the time Alejandra had turned back to the girl, the words that had saved her were already fading.
“Doña? Who are you?”
“Just a voice, child. Thank the Wind Women next time you pray.”
Mothers! Hear me! Through these mortal hands I wear, your work has saved so many. Those hours I was your vessel will never be far from my mind, tantalizing and heartwrenching at once. But another hour nears and I will have rent my chains. Will you be with me in the end?
Say you will be with me in the end.
Alejandra awoke before dawn the morning of what should be the last battle, in a real tent, her body comfortable beneath serviceable furs of dappled lynx and red fox. A cabo stood within, staring at the back wall and affording her no privacy, but what was privacy when it only came with metal walls and a chamber pot? She deserved better, but she had earned this much with her healing these last weeks. How many of Ciro’s officers had she pulled back from the brink? How many cabos and coronels and generals, dons and doñas had been spared death or grief through Alejandra’s words?
Enough that Ciro could not keep her a secret any longer. A decade ago, his decision to brave the priests’ scorn might have warmed Alejandra’s heart, reminded her of how much she’d loved him. But her years of forgiveness were behind her. Instead, she had thanked Ciro before his officers and nobles, and had enjoyed her tent while it lasted.
She dressed in a fresh gown sewn from recovered war banners, torn and battered. It threatened to be a maudlin choice, but she reminded herself that it was her only source of cloth and Ciro did love his heraldry. The trim silhouette flattered her, though she missed her fuller palace figure, soft with fine foods and little work. In the end, though, what she looked like would matter so very little.
Alejandra rode to the ridge from which Ciro surveyed the battlefield, still trailed by her cabos, but at a distance, as her newfound respect afforded her. Her willow box was strapped to her back, her hair braided and knotted by lilting couplet as was her custom in the palace. She’d conjured a diadem for herself, its gemstone blue and clear for her husband-king’s honor. He could not object to overt signs of her power. Not now that she’d won the hearts of his people.
“My queen,” Ciro said when her horse drew up beside his.
Her smile was genuine. “Your Majesty. What do you ask of me today?”
Ciro gestured to the vista before them. “Bring down the enemy.” As if he asked no more than her favor before a fight.
The tall heights of the eastern mountains, just reaching their summer glory. At their foot, a stoic stronghold carved from the mountain’s black heart. Impenetrable, it was said.
Alejandra dismounted and called a desk up from a grassy hillock. She ordered her things just so. From the box, she retrieved brilliant green ink pigmented with the vibrant yellow pollen of a wolf pine and the powder of a delicate mushroom that grew only beneath blood moons and turned blue when crushed. She pressed the nib of her quill into the soft flesh of her ring finger. Ten drops of Alejandra’s blood turned the ink black.
She turned to her husband-king. “Your knife?”
“As if your quill couldn’t do?” But he handed her the weapon.
Its heft was tempting. How much did the cabos love her now? Could she test them?
For the first time in three months, since that first morning before that first battle, her will tested the limits of the enchantment. It held. Alejandra could not carve her freedom from Ciro with a knife. She smiled at the weapon. Maybe she would not have anyway. Maybe.
She lifted her overskirts and tore her cambric shift with her dagger. The piece she removed was ragged about the edges but strong in the middle. It would do nicely.
Alejandra looked out at the fortress as she composed this last cantar de gesta, the bone quill never faltering in its task. She knew battles now, the careful choreography between great foes, the difference one brash soldado could make to a compañía, the difference an impassioned compañía could make to its tercio, the ways a tercio could grasp victory from the jaws of chance. In bodies she knew, in bodies she could name, the tide would rise and fall and rise as she saw fit.
But the final stanzas offered her the promise toward which she’d worked these long months. She wrote her own tack toward freedom in words she hadn’t dared compose — even in her solitude — for fear she would sap their power too soon. She shed a few tears, laughed at her haughty pride over her craft, and set the quill down.
“It’s done then?” Ciro asked, reaching for the fabric.
Alejandra stilled his hand with a soft touch to his wrist. Her eyes never left the field before them. “I must carry this one into battle, Your Majesty.”
All he said was, “You’ll need a different horse. Tell any coronel you see, and ask for whatever armor you would choose. We ride in an hour.”
She’d expected him to deny her. But he did not. Was it trust? Willingness to risk her for his ends? Did it matter?
Luck or chance drew Coronel-Doña Pilar to the stables just as Alejandra arrived.
The coronel did not take her king’s orders to heart. “You cannot risk yourself, dear doña! What would we do if you were killed? Captured?”
Alejandra smiled and looked the few free horses up and down. “There is work to be done on the field. No one can see through this task but me.” Then, to distract Pilar as much as herself: “How is your sister?”
“Well.” The coronel fell into step behind Alejandra. “She’s still confined, but finds it hard to complain of spending every waking hour with her son. I would not be so easily kept abed.”
They shared a smile, then Alejandra stopped before a chestnut mare with a scar beneath one eye. The horse stopped prancing and took Alejandra’s measure. “This one should do.”
“There is no better horse in this army, doña.” Pilar’s voice was strained. “She has never led me wrong.”
Too many coincidences. Alejandra’s eyes stung and her chest constricted. Her mothers were with her.
Mothers! Hear me!
“Then it is to be,” she said aloud. The coronel’s jaw gaped. “Go back to your sister and nephew. Do not set foot on the battlefield this day —”
“But my compañia —”
“I will explain; the king will not gainsay me now. No eagle can ignore a changing wind.”
“Go, Pilar. By nightfall, the tale will be told and you’ll be glad to be alive to hear it.”
Please do not forsake me.
Please do not forsake me.
Please do not forsake me.
Alejandra was unarmed and unarmored when Ciro called the charge. He insisted she keep away from the vanguard, that she had no place in the first lines. She instead led Pilar’s compañia, which trailed a great siege engine. Boulders had been flying toward the fortress all morning, but every one had shattered against the walls. The enemy’s army, bedecked in black as deep as their stronghold, flooded out of the gates to meet the charge, the debris bedamned.
When the first clash of swords rang back through the tercios, Alejandra stood in her stirrups. The king’s bannermen were in the thick of it, which meant Ciro was, too. Her hand went to the spell tucked beneath her belt. It was time.
“Hold here,” Alejandra shouted to the soldado behind her. A caba protested, but the queen ignored her and urged Pilar’s war-mare into a gallop.
The clean, unbroken tercios formed alleys through which she rode toward the fray. A wind ran down from the heights behind the Valleans, as if to speed Alejandra on her way. She wanted to face it, to throw her arms wide in welcome, but she did not falter. Even as the sounds of death met her. Even as flying boulders whistled overhead and their horrifying pounding made her tremble. Even as she caught sight of Ciro, unhorsed, locked in battle, his banners drooping in the hands of dying cabos.
The mare pressed through the fighting. The bards would later argue whether it was chance or grace or the power of a beautiful woman riding like the Wind Women that kept horse and rider from harm. But Alejandra knew she was blessed. Ciro looked up as she caught a banner in her hand. He shouted at her, unintelligible over his battle-rage and the screams of good people dying on good swords. Alejandra unfurled the cambric spell, tied it to the banner pole, and raised it high above her head. She shouted one powerful word, both mundane and magical in the same breath.
The field fell still in waves. Alejandra’s voice carried on the wind to every soldado, cabo, coronel, general on both sides. To every ear in the fortress. To the sick and healing in the Vallean camp. A lone boulder flew and crashed, ignored. In the deepening silence, Alejandra could hear the newly formed pebbles raining down around the bodies and rubble.
Then one horse moved, a white blur across the field. A dark figure sat astride, taking the form of a woman in mail. Her horse and sword and face were spattered with blood. Her mahogany-brown coronet of braids was already flying loose. By her bearing if by nothing else, all knew her as Queen Émilie.
Even Ciro did not move as the woman approached. Though Alejandra did watch him try.
“You!” Queen Émilie shouted as she closed the distance between them. “Who are you?”
Alejandra bowed as best she could atop the mare. “I am the voice on the wind, Your Majesty. I sent the skylark to your tent each dawn. The fresh breeze for your fevered and fading. The courage to return to the field seven times in the face of certain defeat. Our enemy bore you my letters with every charge but this one. Now, I deliver him to you. And I bring you an army. And myself.”
Émilie’s hands were tight on her reins. “The poems . . . the love poems . . . they were real?”
“Do I look real?” Alejandra dared a smile.
“Yes!” She sobbed a laugh. “Yes, you do. Then I did not conjure your face in my loneliness.”
“No, Your Majesty.”
The queen urged her horse closer. “And you are not harmed by this Vallean scum.”
“No, Your Majesty.”
Closer now, the queen looked tired, road-weary, and she had every right to be. She removed a glove of mail and leather and touched Alejandra’s cheek with trembling fingers. “And I have not lost everything.”
“No, Your Majesty.”
Daughter! Hear us, beloved one!
We are here. We are here. We are here . . .
The bards would have it that the Kingdom of Valle-Monts is ruled in deed by Queen Émilie and in word by Queen Alejandra. Many songs recall the romancero the Vallean queen wrote to woo her lover, a new cantar and ballado with every battle. They sing seldom of the royal dead, for what money is there in remembering Ciro the Captor? They sing memorials for the others, though, the hundreds or thousands who fell before the winds changed and bound the kingdoms in love.
There is, of course, some truth in their tales. The romancero would never be read or sung again if Alejandra would have it: she knew too much of battles to wish such a book of such spells to be left for Émilie’s children. But she writes her consort-queen poems — just poems — to assuage the loss of those first, heartfelt pleas.
Alejandra, if no one else, thinks of Ciro often. Of his trial and death. Of his funeral pyre at which she stood vigil. Of the ashes she collected beneath the cloud-crowned full moon that now swirl in a vial of vinegar in her willow box. His usefulness has not yet waned.
The other dead plague her. On stormy nights, she walks the wind-battered battlements and sings into the moaning gale, naming them to their gods in every tongue she knows.
But she chooses to stay, to keep her mothers from gathering her up and crossing the earth over with joy. And if the bards knew this much, they would make a fortune. For what tales they could tell of the La Reina Bruja, Daughter of the Wind Women, who bound herself, saved herself, and named herself savior.
Rank #10: PodCastle 557: The Griffin and the Minor Canon
- Author : Frank Stockton
- Narrator : Jen R. Albert
- Hosts : Setsu Uzume and Peter Behravesh
- Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
- Discuss on Forums
This story was originally published in 1885 and is in the public domain.
The sound effects used in the host spot can be found here.
The Griffin and the Minor Canon
By Frank Stockton
Over the great door of an old, old church which stood in a quiet town of a faraway land there was carved in stone the figure of a large griffin. The old-time sculptor had done his work with great care, but the image he had made was not a pleasant one to look at. It had a large head, with enormous open mouth and savage teeth; from its back arose great wings, armed with sharp hooks and prongs; it had stout legs in front, with projecting claws, but there were no legs behind — the body running out into a long and powerful tail, finished off at the end with a barbed point. This tail was coiled up under him, the end sticking up just back of his wings.
The sculptor, or the people who had ordered this stone figure, had evidently been very much pleased with it, for little copies of it, also of stone, had been placed here and there along the sides of the church, not very far from the ground so that people could easily look at them, and ponder on their curious forms. There were a great many other sculptures on the outside of this church — saints, martyrs, grotesque heads of men, beasts, and birds, as well as those of other creatures which cannot be named, because nobody knows exactly what they were; but none were so curious and interesting as the great griffin over the door, and the little griffins on the sides of the church.
A long, long distance from the town, in the midst of dreadful wilds scarcely known to man, there dwelt the Griffin whose image had been put up over the church door. In some way or other, the old-time sculptor had seen him and afterward, to the best of his memory, had copied his figure in stone.
The Griffin had never known this, until, hundreds of years afterward, he heard from a bird, from a wild animal, or in some manner which it is not now easy to find out, that there was a likeness of him on the old church in the distant town.
Now, this Griffin had no idea how he looked. He had never seen a mirror, and the streams where he lived were so turbulent and violent that a quiet piece of water, which would reflect the image of anything looking into it, could not be found. Being, as far as could be ascertained, the very last of his race, he had never seen another griffin. Therefore it was that, when he heard of this stone image of himself, he became very anxious to know what he looked like, and at last he determined to go to the old church, and see for himself what manner of being he was.
So he started off from the dreadful wilds, and flew on and on until he came to the countries inhabited by men, where his appearance in the air created great consternation; but he alighted nowhere, keeping up a steady flight until he reached the suburbs of the town which had his image on its church. Here, late in the afternoon, he lighted in a green meadow by the side of a brook and stretched himself on the grass to rest. His great wings were tired, for he had not made such a long flight in a century, or more.
The news of his coming spread quickly over the town, and the people, frightened nearly out of their wits by the arrival of so strange a visitor, fled into their houses and shut themselves up. The Griffin called loudly for someone to come to him but the more he called, the more afraid the people were to show themselves. At length, he saw two laborers hurrying to their homes through the fields, and in a terrible voice, he commanded them to stop. Not daring to disobey, the men stood, trembling.
“What is the matter with you all?” cried the Griffin. “Is there not a man in your town who is brave enough to speak to me?”
“I think,” said one of the laborers, his voice shaking so that his words could hardly be understood, “that-perhaps — the Minor Canon — would come.”
“Go, call him, then,” said the Griffin; “I want to see him.”
The Minor Canon, who was an assistant in the old church, had just finished the afternoon services and was coming out of a side door, with three aged women who had formed the weekday congregation. He was a young man of a kind disposition, and very anxious to do good to the people of the town. Apart from his duties in the church, where he conducted services every weekday, he visited the sick and the poor, counseled and assisted persons who were in trouble, and taught a school composed entirely of the bad children in the town with whom nobody else would have anything to do. Whenever the people wanted something difficult done for them, they always went to the Minor Canon. Thus it was that the laborer thought of the young priest when he found that someone must come and speak to the Griffin.
The Minor Canon had not heard of the strange event, which was known to the whole town except himself and the three old women and when he was informed of it and was told that the Griffin had asked to see him, he was greatly amazed and frightened.
“Me!” he exclaimed. “He has never heard of me! What should he want with me?”
“Oh! you must go instantly!” cried the two men. “He is very angry now because he has been kept waiting so long, and nobody knows what may happen if you don’t hurry to him.”
The poor Minor Canon would rather have had his hand cut off than go out to meet an angry Griffin but he felt that it was his duty to go for it would be a woeful thing if injury should come to the people of the town because he was not brave enough to obey the summons of the Griffin. So, pale and frightened, he started off.
‘Well,” said the Griffin, as soon as the young man came near, “I am glad to see that there is someone who has the courage to come to me.”
The Minor Canon did not feel very brave, but he bowed his head.
‘Is this the town,” said the Griffin, “where there is a church with a likeness of myself over one of the doors?”
The Minor Canon looked at the frightful creature before him and saw that it was, without doubt, exactly like the stone image on the church. “Yes,” he said, “you are right.”
“Well, then,” said the Griffin, “will you take me to it? I wish very much to see it.”
The Minor Canon instantly thought that if the Griffin entered the town without the people’s knowing what he came for, some of them would probably be frightened to death, and so he sought to gain time to prepare their minds.
‘It is growing dark, now,” he said, very much afraid, as he spoke, that his words might enrage the Griffin, “and objects on the front of the church cannot be seen clearly. It will be better to wait until morning if you wish to get a good view of the stone image of yourself.”
“That will suit me very well,” said the Griffin. “I see you are a man of good sense. I am tired, and I will take a nap here on this soft grass, while I cool my tail in the little stream that runs near me. The end of my tail gets red-hot when I am angry or excited, and it is quite warm now. So you may go, but be sure and come early tomorrow morning, and show me the way to the church.”
The Minor Canon was glad enough to take his leave and hurried into the town. In front of the church, he found a great many people assembled to hear his report of his interview with the Griffin. When they found that he had not come to spread rum, but simply to see his stony likeness on the church, they showed neither relief nor gratification but began to upbraid the Minor Canon for consenting to conduct the creature into the town.
‘What could I do?” cried the young man. “If I should not bring him he would come himself, and, perhaps, end by setting fire to the town with his red-hot tail.”
Still the people were not satisfied, and a great many plans were proposed to prevent the Griffin from coming into the town. Some elderly persons urged that the young men should go out and kill him, but the young men scoffed at such a ridiculous idea.
Then someone said that it would be a good thing to destroy the stone image, so that the Griffin would have no excuse for entering the town; and this plan was received with such favor that many of the people ran for hammers, chisels, and crowbars, with which to tear down and break up the stone griffin. But the Minor Canon resisted this plan with all the strength of his mind and body. He assured the people that this action would enrage the Griffin beyond measure, for it would be impossible to conceal from him that his image had been destroyed during the night. But the people were so determined to break up the stone griffin that the Minor Canon saw that there was nothing for him to do but to stay there and protect it. All night he walked up and down in front of the church door, keeping away the men who brought ladders, by which they might mount to the great stone griffin, and knock it to pieces with their hammers and crowbars. After many hours the people were obliged to give up their attempts and went home to sleep, but the Minor Canon remained at his post till early morning, and then he hurried away to the field where he had left the Griffin.
The monster had just awakened, and rising to his forelegs and shaking himself he said that he was ready to go into the town. The Minor Canon, therefore, walked back, the Griffin flying slowly through the air, at a short distance above the head of his guide. Not a person was to be seen in the streets, and they went directly to the front of the church, where the Minor Canon pointed out the stone griffin.
The real Griffin settled down in the little square before the church and gazed earnestly at his sculptured likeness. For a long time, he looked at it. First, he put his head on one side, and then he put it on the other; then he shut his right eye and gazed with his left, after which he shut his left eye and gazed with his right. Then he moved a little to one side and looked at the image, then he moved the other way. After a while he said to the Minor Canon, who had been standing by all this time:
“It is, it must be, an excellent likeness! That breadth between the eyes, that expansive forehead, those massive jaws! I feel that it must resemble me. If there is any fault to find with it, it is that the neck seems a little stiff. But that is nothing. It is an admirable likeness — admirable!”
The Griffin sat looking at his image all the morning and all the afternoon. The Minor Canon had been afraid to go away and leave him and had hoped all through the day that he would soon be satisfied with his inspection and fly away home. But by evening the poor young man was very tired and felt that he must eat and sleep. He frankly said this to the Griffin and asked him if he would not like something to eat. He said this because he felt obliged in politeness to do so, but as soon as he had spoken the words, he was seized with dread lest the monster should demand half a dozen babies or some tempting repast of that kind.
“Oh, no,” said the Griffin; ‘I never eat between the equinoxes. At the vernal and at the autumnal equinox I take a good meal, and that lasts me for half a year. I am extremely regular in my habits and do not think it healthful to eat at odd times. But if you need food, go and get it, and I will return to the soft grass where I slept last night and take another nap.”
The next day the Griffin came again to the little square before the church, and remained there until evening, steadfastly regarding the stone griffin over the door. The Minor Canon came out once or twice to look at him, and the Griffin seemed very glad to see him; but the young clergyman could not stay as he had done before, for he had many duties to perform. Nobody went to the church, but the people came to the Minor Canon’s house and anxiously asked him how long the Griffin was going to stay.
“I do not know,” he answered, “but I think he will soon be satisfied with regarding his stone likeness, and then he will go away.”
But the Griffin did not go away. Morning after morning he came to the church, but after a time he did not stay there all day. He seemed to have taken a great fancy to the Minor Canon, and followed him about as he worked. He would wait for him at the side door of the church, for the Minor Canon held services every day, morning and evening, though nobody came now. “If anyone should come,” he said to himself, “I must be found at my post.” When the young man came out, the Griffin would accompany him in his visits to the sick and the poor, and would often look into the windows of the schoolhouse where the Minor Canon was teaching his unruly scholars. All the other schools were closed, but the parents of the Minor Canon’s scholars forced them to go to school because they were so bad they could not endure them all day at home — Griffin or no Griffin. But it must be said they generally behaved very well when that great monster sat up on his tail and looked in at the schoolroom window.
When it was found that the Griffin showed no sign of going away, all the people who were able to do so left the town. The canons and the higher officers of the church had fled away during the first day of the Griffin’s visit, leaving behind only the Minor Canon and some of the men who opened the doors and swept the church. All the citizens who could afford it shut up their houses and traveled to distant parts, and only the working people and the poor were left behind. After some days these ventured to go about and attend to their business, for if they did not work they would starve. They were getting a little used to seeing the Griffin; and having been told that he did not eat between equinoxes, they did not feel so much afraid of him as before.
Day by day the Griffin became more and more attached to the Minor Canon. He kept near him a great part of the time and often spent the night in front of the little house where the young clergyman lived alone. This strange companionship was often burdensome to the Minor Canon, but, on the other hand, he could not deny that he derived a great deal of benefit and instruction from it. The Griffin had lived for hundreds of years and had seen much, and he told the Minor Canon many wonderful things.
“It is like reading an old book,” said the young clergyman to himself; “but how many books I would have had to read before I would have found out what the Griffin has told me about the earth, the air, the water, about minerals, and metals, and growing things, and all the wonders of the world!”
Thus the summer went on and drew toward its close. And now the people of the town began to be very much troubled again.
“It will not be long,” they said, “before the autumnal equinox is here, and then that monster will want to eat. He will be dreadfully hungry, for he has taken so much exercise since his last meal. He will devour our children. Without doubt, he will eat them all. What is to be done?”
To this question, no one could give an answer, but all agreed that the Griffin must not be allowed to remain until the approaching equinox. After talking over the matter a great deal, a crowd of the people went to the Minor Canon at a time when the Griffin was not with him.
‘It is all your fault,” they said, “that that monster is among us. You brought him here, and you ought to see that he goes away. It is only on your account that he stays here at all; for, although he visits his image every day, he is with you the greater part of the time. If you were not here, he would not stay. It is your duty to go away, and then he will follow you, and we shall be free from the dreadful danger which hangs over us.”
“Go away!” cried the Minor Canon, greatly grieved at being spoken to in such a way. “Where shall I go? If I go to some other town, shall I not take this trouble there? Have I a right to do that?”
“No,” said the people, “you must not go to any other town. There is no town far enough away. You must go to the dreadful wilds where the Griffin lives, and then he will follow you and stay there.”
They did not say whether or not they expected the Minor Canon to stay there also, and he did not ask them anything about it. He bowed his head and went into his house to think. The more he thought, the more clear it became to his mind that it was his duty to go away, and thus free the town from the presence of the Griffin.
That evening he packed a leathern bag full of bread and meat, and early the next morning he set out or his journey to the dreadful wilds. It was a long, weary, and doleful journey, especially after he had gone beyond the habitations of men; but the Minor Canon kept on bravely, and never faltered.
The way was longer than he had expected, and his provisions soon grew so scanty that he was obliged to eat but a little every day; but he kept up his courage, and pressed on, and, after many days of toilsome travel, he reached the dreadful wilds.
When the Griffin found that the Minor Canon had left the town he seemed sorry, but showed no desire to go and look for him. After a few days had passed he became much annoyed and asked some of the people where the Minor Canon had gone. But, although the citizens had been so anxious that the young clergyman should go to the dreadful wilds, thinking that the Griffin would immediately follow him, they were now afraid to mention the Minor Canon’s destination, for the monster seemed angry already, and if he should suspect their trick he would, doubtless, become very much enraged. So everyone said he did not know, and the Griffin wandered about disconsolate. One morning he looked into the Minor Canon’s schoolhouse, which was always empty now, and thought that it was a shame that everything should suffer on account of the young man’s absence.
“It does not matter so much about the church,” he said, “for nobody went there; but it is a pity about the school. I think I will teach it myself until he returns.”
It was the hour for opening the school, and the Griffin went inside and pulled the rope which rang the school bell. Some of the children who heard the bell ran in to see what was the matter, supposing it to be a joke of one of their companions; but when they saw the Griffin they stood astonished and scared.
“Go tell the other scholars,” said the monster, “that school is about to open, and that if they are not all here in ten minutes I shall come after them.”
In seven minutes every scholar was in place.
Never was seen such an orderly school. Not a boy or girl moved or uttered a whisper. The Griffin climbed into the master’s seat, his wide wings spread on each side of him, because he could not lean back in his chair while they stuck out behind, and his great tail coiled around, in front of the desk, the barbed end sticking up, ready to tap any boy or girl who might misbehave.
The Griffin now addressed the scholars, telling them that he intended to teach them while their master was away. In speaking he tried to imitate, as far as possible, the mild and gentle tones of the Minor Canon; but it must be admitted that in this he was not very successful. He had paid a good deal of attention to the studies of the school, and he determined not to try to teach them anything new, but to review them in what they had been studying; so he called up the various classes and questioned them upon their previous lessons. The children racked their brains to remember what they had learned. They were so afraid of the Griffin’s displeasure that they recited as they had never recited before. One of the boys, far down in his class, answered so well that the Griffin was astonished.
‘I should think you would be at the head,” said he. “I am sure you have never been in the habit of reciting so well. Why is this?”
“Because I did not choose to take the trouble,” said the boy, trembling in his boots. He felt obliged to speak the truth, for all the children thought that the great eyes of the Griffin could see right through them and that he would know when they told a falsehood.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” said the Griffin. “Go down to the very tail of the class; and if you are not at the head in two days, I shall know the reason why.”
The next afternoon this boy was Number One.
It was astonishing how much these children now learned of what they had been studying. It was as if they had been educated over again. The Griffin used no severity toward them, but there was a look about him which made them unwilling to go to bed until they were sure they knew their lessons for the next day.
The Griffin now thought that he ought to visit the sick and the poor, and he began to go about the town for this purpose. The effect upon the sick was miraculous. All, except those who were very ill indeed, jumped from their beds when they heard he was coming, and declared themselves quite well. To those who could not get up, he gave herbs and roots, which none of them had ever before thought of as medicines, but which the Griffin had seen used in various parts of the world; and most of them recovered. But, for all that, they afterward said that, no matter what happened to them, they hoped that they should never again have such a doctor coming to their bedsides, feeling their pulses and looking at their tongues.
As for the poor, they seemed to have utterly disappeared. All those who had depended upon charity for their daily bread were now at work in some way or other; many of them offering to do odd jobs for their neighbors just for the sake of their meals — a thing which before had been seldom heard of in the town. The Griffin could find no one who needed his assistance.
The summer had now passed, and the autumnal equinox was rapidly approaching. The citizens were in a state of great alarm and anxiety. The Griffin showed no signs of going away but seemed to have settled himself permanently among them. In a short time, the day for his semiannual meal would arrive, and then what would happen? The monster would certainly be very hungry and would devour all their children.
Now they greatly regretted and lamented that they had sent away the Minor Canon; he was the only one on whom they could have depended in this trouble, for he could talk freely with the Griffin, and so find out what could be done. But it would not do to be inactive. Some step must be taken immediately. A meeting of the citizens was called, and two old men were appointed to go and talk to the Griffin. They were instructed to offer to prepare a splendid dinner for him on equinox day-one which would entirely satisfy his hunger. They would offer him the fattest mutton, the most tender beef fish, and game of various sorts, and anything of the kind that he might fancy. If none of these suited, they were to mention that there was an orphan asylum in the next town.
“Anything would be better,” said the citizens, “than to have our dear children devoured.”
The old men went to the Griffin, but their propositions were not received with favor.
“From what I have seen of the people of this town,” said the monster, “I do not think I could relish anything which was prepared by them. They appear to be all cowards and, therefore, mean and selfish. As for eating one of them, old or young, I could not think of it for a moment. In fact, there was only one creature in the whole place for whom I could have had any appetite, and that is the Minor Canon, who has gone away. He was brave, and good, and honest, and I think I should have relished him.”
“Ah!” said one of the old men very politely, “in that case I wish we had not sent him to the dreadful wilds!”
“What!” cried the Griffin. “What do you mean? Explain instantly what you are talking about!”
The old man, terribly frightened at what he had said, was obliged to tell how the Minor Canon had been sent away by the people, in the hope that the Griffin might be induced to follow him.
When the monster heard this he became furiously angry. He dashed away from the old men, and, spreading his wings, flew backward and forward over the town. He was so much excited that his tail became red-hot, and glowed like a meteor against the evening sky. When at last he settled down in the little field where he usually rested and thrust his tail into the brook, the steam arose like a cloud, and the water of the stream ran hot through the town. The citizens were greatly frightened and bitterly blamed the old man for telling about the Minor Canon.
“It is plain,” they said, “that the Griffin intended at last to go and look for him, and we should have been saved. Now who can tell what misery you have brought upon us.”
The Griffin did not remain long in the little field. As soon as his tail was cool he flew to the town hall and rang the bell. The citizens knew that they were expected to come there; and although they were afraid to go, they were still more afraid to stay away; and they crowded into the hall. The Griffin was on the platform at one end, flapping his wings and walking up and down, and the end of his tail was still so warm that it slightly scorched the boards as he dragged it after him.
When everybody who was able to come was there, the Griffin stood still and addressed the meeting.
‘I have had a very low opinion of you,” he said, “ever since I discovered what cowards you are, but I had no idea that you were so ungrateful, selfish, and cruel as I now find you to be. Here was your Minor Canon, who labored day and night for your good, and thought of nothing else but how he might benefit you and make you happy; and as soon as you imagine yourselves threatened with a danger — for well I know you are dreadfully afraid of me — you send him off, caring not whether he returns or perishes, hoping thereby to save yourselves. Now, I had conceived a great liking for that young man and had intended, in a day or two, to go and look him up. But I have changed my mind about him. I shall go and find him, but I shall send him back here to live among you, and I intend that he shall enjoy the reward of his labor and his sacrifices.
“Go, some of you, to the officers of the church, who so cowardly ran away when I first came here, and tell them never to return to this town under penalty of death. And if, when your Minor Canon comes back to you, you do not bow yourselves before him, put him in the highest place among you, and serve and honor him all his life, beware of my terrible vengeance! There were only two good things in this town: the Minor Canon and the stone image of myself over your church door. One of these you have sent away, and the other I shall carry away myself.”
With these words, he dismissed the meeting, and it was time, for the end of his tail had become so hot that there was danger of it setting fire to the building.
The next morning the Griffin came to the church, and tearing the stone image of himself from its fastenings over the great door he grasped it with his powerful forelegs and flew up into the air. Then, after hovering over the town for a moment, he gave his tail an angry shake and took up his flight to the dreadful wilds. When he reached this desolate region, he set the stone griffin upon a ledge of a rock which rose in front of the dismal cave he called his home. There the image occupied a position somewhat similar to that it had had over the church door; and the Griffin, panting with the exertion of carrying such an enormous load to so great a distance, lay down upon the ground and regarded it with much satisfaction. When he felt somewhat rested he went to look for the Minor Canon. He found the young man, weak and half starved, lying under the shadow of a rock. After picking him up and carrying him to his cave, the Griffin flew away to a distant marsh, where he procured some roots and herbs which he well knew were strengthening and beneficial to man, though he had never tasted them himself. After eating these the Minor Canon was greatly revived, and sat up and listened while the Griffin told him what had happened in the town.
“Do you know,” said the monster, when he had finished, “that I have had, and still have, a great liking for you?”
“I am very glad to hear it,” said the Minor Canon, with his usual politeness.
“I am not at all sure that you would be,” said the Griffin, “if you thoroughly understood the state of the case; but we will not consider that now. If some things were different, other things would be otherwise. I have been so enraged by discovering the manner in which you have been treated that I have determined that you shall at last enjoy the rewards and honors to which you are entitled. Lie down and have a good sleep, and then I will take you back to the town.”
As he heard these words, a look of trouble came over the young man’s face.
“You need not give yourself any anxiety,” said the Griffin, “about my return to the town. I shall not remain there. Now that I have that admirable likeness of myself in front of my cave, where I can sit at my leisure, and gaze upon its noble features and magnificent proportions, I have no wish to see that abode of cowardly and selfish people.”
The Minor Canon, relieved from his fears, lay back, and dropped into a doze; and when he was sound asleep the Griffin took him up, and carried him back to the town. He arrived just before daybreak, and putting the young man gently on the grass in the little field where he himself used to rest, the monster, without having been seen by any of the people, flew back to his home.
When the Minor Canon made his appearance in the morning among the citizens, the enthusiasm and cordiality with which he was received were truly wonderful. He was taken to a house which had been occupied by one of the banished high officers of the place, and everyone was anxious to do all that could be done for his health and comfort. The people crowded into the church when he held services, so that the three old women who used to be his weekday congregation could not get to the best seats, which they had always been in the habit of taking; and the parents of the bad children determined to reform them at home, in order that he might be spared the trouble of keeping up his former school. The Minor Canon was appointed to the highest office of the old church, and before he died, he became a bishop.
During the first years after his return from the dreadful wilds, the people of the town looked up to him as a man to whom they were bound to do honor and reverence; but they often, also, looked up to the sky to see if there were any signs of the Griffin coming back. However, in the course of time, they learned to honor and reverence their former Minor Canon without the fear of being punished if they did not do so.
But they need never have been afraid of the Griffin. The autumnal equinox day came round, and the monster ate nothing. If he could not have the Minor Canon, he did not care for anything. So, lying down, with his eyes fixed upon the great stone griffin, he gradually declined and died. It was a good thing for some of the people of the town that they did not know this.
If you should ever visit the old town, you would still see the little griffins on the sides of the church; but the great stone griffin that was over the door is gone.
Rank #11: PodCastle 574: Mister Dog
- Author : Alex Jennings
- Narrator : Laurice White
- Host : Eden Royce
- Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
- Discuss on Forums
PodCastle 574: Mister Dog is a PodCastle original.
Drug use; abuse to animals
Rated R, for sex, drugs, and haunted souls.
By Alex Jennings
Trenice felt the car more than she saw it. Or she saw it without seeing it. She couldn’t be sure. Had the car’s driver meant her harm? Probably not. Here in New Orleans, sloppy driving was usually accidental.
Trenice had worked late again at Chez Lazare, and while the weather was still hot, the days faded earlier and earlier. By the time she made it to Armstrong Park, sunset had come and gone. She had seen the Jackson-Esplanade bus ready to turn onto North Rampart when the streetcar sailed across Esplanade. Streetcars were slower than buses, so if she wanted to catch the 91, she couldn’t wait until she reached Canal. Instead, she’d have to take the Armstrong Park stop and dash across North Rampart, waving her tattooed arms above her head to make sure the driver saw her.
Trenice tried not to think about how badly she needed a new car, how much hassle it would save her every day, as she cut across the street. The car that nearly hit her whooshed by so quickly she barely registered it. All she got was a scent of patchouli and tobacco that cast her back ten years.
Still, she didn’t miss a beat. She clopped across the asphalt in her business hooves, waving her right arm without thinking about it. The bus sighed to a halt and knelt for her to climb on.
“Girl, you gone get hurt if you don’t get some sense,” the driver said.
By the time Trenice fit her key into her apartment’s front door lock, she was sure she’d seen Trill gaping at her from the driver’s window of the car that had nearly hit her, but that couldn’t be, because Trill was dead.
If he were a ghost, would he be angry with her? Even at the best of times, his mood swings had been unpredictable. His highs had been so high Trenice had felt buoyed along with them, but his lows had been bitter, bleak, and hard to take.
She slept fitfully that night, tossing and turning on her secondhand mattress. Her bedroom’s window unit air conditioner was on the blink again. She’d have to scrape some money together to get a new one or have this one repaired. Even at the end of September, the city heat was stifling. It lay on her like the weighted blanket she used in the winter, but its pressure didn’t soothe her.
When she slid too close to wakefulness, her mind presented a slideshow of memories. She and Trill sitting on a Red Square bench, kissing hard in the chilly night air. She and Trill making eyes at each other across a Seminar Building classroom. She and Trill sitting, stony-silent, in a darkened movie theater, refusing even to look each other’s way. Trill’s stupid car he so dearly loved, the dog he had viciously abused. Trill and Lemur smoking meth off a makeshift tinfoil screen. Trill. Trill. Trill. Trill. Trill.
At seven, she turned off her alarm before it could ring. She felt like the worst version of herself. She checked her reflection in the mirror before heading out to work. Dark skin, hair like Frederick Douglass, lips too thin for a black girl. She picked out her hair and called it done. She sucked her teeth as she glanced at her skinny-fat arms. She was too old and too tough to feel this way. She knew the toughness was killing her, but it was all she had.
Chez Lazare’s offices operated out of a converted funeral home near the corner of St. Claude and Elysian Fields. It was an ugly old place — three stories, lots of gray painted concrete, and a front porch with stone tile that couldn’t decide whether it was a washed-out tan, or a washed-out gray. The location was mostly secret — Lazare housed women and children on the run from their abusers. Years ago, the dormitories had been FEMA trailers, but grant money had allowed the organization to build something more permanent. The place was beginning to look like a mismatched apartment complex.
Sometimes Trenice loved the place — it wasn’t fancy, but it was functional. Other organizations spent money and resources building or renovating new offices, trying to look soigné. Chez Lazare didn’t care about appearances. For all its faults, this was the kind of nonprofit where service came first.
Almost five years ago now, she’d been hired on the spot at her job interview with a bearish unkempt executive who couldn’t stop dicking around on his BlackBerry long enough to look her in the eye. She’d known nearly nothing about grant writing or fundraising, but she believed in Lazare and its mission. Now Trenice could spit out compelling copy with minimal effort, but she felt no more employable than she had at twenty-two. The job wasn’t fun anymore, and she was tired, but when she considered moving on, she suspected she had nowhere to go.
Trenice didn’t realize it until Ida-Rose spoke, but she’d registered the other woman’s scent several minutes ago. Notes of lavender threaded through a dark, nutty aroma — like oatmeal or toasted walnuts. The word “scrumptious” occurred to Trenice, and she thrust it away. Looking up, she found Ida-Rose standing beside her cubicle, expertly angling her body. The black line of the choker across Ida’s throat and the ridiculous flare of her hips beneath her Ultrasuede skirt made Trenice blush.
Even if she were willing to sleep with a co-worker, Trenice was too smart to take a chance on Ida-Rose. The woman had started as an intern six months ago and had already installed herself as volunteer coordinator. She hadn’t dropped out of Tulane to take the job, but she was spending her entire school semester on suspicious-sounding “independent study” credits that somehow allowed her to work fifty hours a week at Lazare. That kind of ambition marked her, in Trenice’s mind, as a crusading white girl from Away who would leave Lazare any time she wanted for far more lucrative corporate work.
“Yeah,” Trenice said. “What’s up?”
“I’m having a hard time with the copy for the Thank You Turn Up. Do you have anything I could use from the Goldring Proposal?”
Trenice wasn’t sure why Ida needed this now. The Donor Newsletter wouldn’t go out until next week, and Volunteer Beat wouldn’t go live on the website till the same day. She cleared her throat. “Here at Lazare, we’ve replaced the Thanksgiving holiday with our own Thank You Turn Up, a week-long event consisting of multiple volunteer projects across New Orleans, culminating with a night of music, food, and drink, free for our donors and volunteers. All you need —”
“‘Music, food, and drink?’” Ida asked.
“In that order?”
“Yeah,” Trenice said. “It sounds better.”
“Once I’ve got a draft, can I run it by you so you can make it sound like someone my age wrote it?”
Trenice blushed. “I’m not that much older than you.”
“I know, but everything I write sounds like an abstract for a science paper.”
“Sure,” Trenice said. “Yeah. I’ll look it over.”
“Oh my God, you are an angel.” Ida beamed. “Are you coming to Cosimo’s tonight?”
“Yeah, I was — yeah.”
“Good,” Ida said and cocked those hips. “I owe you a drink.”
Trenice met Trill during her first week at the Evergreen State College, way up in Olympia, Washington. At a college fair Trenice had attended in New Orleans, the subject of Evergreen had come up. Evergreen hadn’t sent a rep, but one from Portland State University had pronounced it “A good school . . . but druggy.” That had been enough of an endorsement for Trenice.
During orientation, the more conscientious students spent their time attending workshops and seminars with their parents or relatives, but most everyone on the sixth floor of A Dorm skipped those sessions in favor of what one kid — a dumpy little hippie with coke-bottle glasses and big, scarred knuckles — called “team building exercises.” These exercises consisted mostly of drinking like fish and smoking weed using as many esoteric delivery methods as possible. It was Trill who had introduced the sixth-floor crew to knife hits.
He was raw-boned without being tall — as if he was built to a smaller scale. Bronze skin, dirty-blond kinky hair, and hollow, hazel eyes. He wore baggy corduroy pants, maroon Doc Martens, and a blue-and-white striped hoodie. The first time he locked eyes with Trenice, she felt herself moisten. She knew they’d wind up in bed together before classes started.
“It’s better with a torch,” he explained. He addressed the entire gathering, but Trenice felt as if he spoke only to her. “You know. Acetylene? But you can do it with an electric stove. You could probably do it with a gas stove, but I ain’t never tried that, so who knows? You heat the ends of the table knives until they’re red-hot — glowing and shit —” He pulled the two knives from where he’d stuck them between the burner coils, and nodded to his sidekick, Lemur, who waited with a tiny mass of weed. “You smash a little weed up between the knife ends, and you . . .” He paused to position a paper towel tube to catch the smoke from the operation. He inhaled, shook his head like a dog, and coughed hard.
“. . .suck the smoke riiiiiiiiight up,” Lemur finished for him, wide-eyed. His voice was a cartoonish falsetto.
Trill pointed at Trenice. “You’re next, Denise.”
“Trenice,” she corrected.
He raised his golden eyebrows, widened his eyes comically. “Fuuuuuuuuuck! My bad.”
Trenice shrugged. “What’s your name?”
“Thomas Eugene Merrill III,” he said. “People call me Trill.”
For lunch, Trenice ducked around the corner for a poboy from Gene’s, then brought it back to the courtyard, where she sat at an uneven picnic table shaded by the great, gnarled branches of a live oak that dominated the outdoor space. Eventually, that tree would need pulling up to keep it from assaulting the dorms or the main office house, and Trenice hoped she wouldn’t be around to see it happen.
She picked her sandwich apart without eating much. Trill’s voice sounded in her memory: Daaaaaamn, Treeny. You sure can eat! She wasn’t exactly svelte these days, but she’d been thicker then. Trill had liked that about her.
She caught herself just shy of snapping at him aloud, then jumped as LaShauna sat down beside her.
“Too many ghosts in town,” LaShauna said. She was tall — over six feet, with fat, neat dreadlocks and long witchy fingers. She’d been living at Lazare for two months now with two children and an infant granddaughter.
“That’s what people say,” Trenice said and shrugged.
“You don’t believe?”
Trenice creased her neck, rolling her chin to the left. “I wouldn’t say that,” she said. “My Mamaw says the dead talk to her, and she ain’t lying.”
“They stopped coming round so much after the storm. But all these white folks moving in brought new ones, you know? Got no manners.”
“Wait, are you saying even the ghosts getting gentrified?” Trenice said, forgetting for a moment that carefully edited version of herself she displayed at work.
LaShauna grinned sadly, showing her gums. “Ain’t that some shit?”
If the white folks streaming into town were bringing new ghosts with them, what about the people who moved away for years and then returned? Could the ghosts of their exile follow them home?
During sophomore year, pot smoking gave way to harder drugs. As a freshman, Trenice had heard crazy stories about A Dormers smoking crack “by accident” during a drinking trip to Vancouver, but she never thought her friends would be interested in partying that hard. She, Trill, Lemur, and Lemur’s girlfriend Jerrica got a house together for their second year in Olympia, then went one step further and all got jobs working at the McDonald’s on Harrison. That was where they first tried speed.
Trenice had enjoyed it well enough. She liked the razor’s-edge high and loved the nights she and her housemates spent dancing way too hard at Thekla or at tapings of Dance O’Dance. Still, that quarter, Trenice’s grades suffered and her uncle threatened to stop paying her rent, so she dropped the drug entirely and suggested to Trill that he do the same.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty busted,” Trill said, as he applied a strip of papier-mâché to the wire bulb that would be the head of the monster pope puppet he was designing for his program. He didn’t look her way. He’d been brooding a lot lately — worrying about his father’s stomach cancer.
“I’m not trying to nag you or run your life,” Trenice said.
“You’re not nagging me,” Trill said, and now his voice held real warmth. “And, fuck, man. Somebody gotta run my life. No more speed. I promise.”
Rush hour smelled like melting asphalt and car exhaust. Trenice was so unused to leaving work at a decent hour that the daylight seemed like an affront. She visored her left hand over her eyes as she crossed Saint Claude to the streetcar platform, her change card from this morning held between the first two fingers of her right hand. She knew she should walk to Esplanade, but a weariness had settled into her bones. She wondered whether she should see someone about her depression.
It dawned on her as she stood waiting for the streetcar that if she went uptown now, there was no way she’d come back to go to Cosimo’s. Her bank account was perilously low this close to payday, but if Ida bought her that drink, Trenice could nurse it all night and have a half-decent time.
She didn’t think about her real reason for staying downtown: despite her misgivings about Ida’s motivations, Trenice liked her. Maybe more than she cared to admit. The attraction was more than physical, but the idea of intimacy with anyone seemed absurd. The fingers of her left hand twitched at her side. She wished she still smoked, or at the very least that she hadn’t left her headphones at home.
Trenice unzipped the big pocket of her backpack and rifled through it again. Fruitless. As she zipped it back up, something drew her eye to the Walgreens parking lot on the other side of the avenue.
Three rows nearest to Trenice were all full. The arrangement of the cars and their colors reminded Trenice of ornamental Flint corn and of fall. One car sat toward the back of the lot, a black Volkswagen Jetta. The moment Trenice laid eyes on it, the Jetta’s engine thrummed to life.
Trenice could see no driver behind the tinted windshield, but the car revved its motor as it sat in place.
Mr. Dog. The name made Trenice shiver. It made her think of Trill’s dog, Callie, and how badly he’d treated her once his addiction had fully taken hold. The worst thing about it was that Trill alternated between effusive affection and violent outbursts — kicking Callie, screaming at her, locking her in closets. Trenice had confronted him more than once, and Trill seemed just as disgusted and horrified by his own behavior as she was.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. There’s something in me. Something bad. I know I’m going to fuck up, and everyone will turn their backs on me, and it’ll just be me and Callie. She doesn’t deserve this.”
“Then stop. Take her to live with your mom and dad. You shouldn’t be putting an animal through this.”
“If I do, you’ll stuh-stay with me? You won’t leave?”
“Leave where?” Trenice asked. “Where I’m gonna go?”
Trill did as Trenice asked, took Callie to his parents’ house and left her there during spring break. Instead of flying him back to school, his parents had given him the Jetta, which he had named Mr. Dog. Trenice hadn’t understood what the car represented for Trill at the time, but in retrospect, she understood that the car was tangible proof of a good thing he’d done.
Trill’s parents seemed to hope vehicle ownership would pull him back on track, help him claw his way back out of junkiedom. By then, Trenice knew better than to hope the car would truly make a difference. Nothing could, short of his father’s miraculous recovery.
Trenice yanked herself back to the present. There must be thousands of identical cars here in New Orleans, the exact same make and model as Trill’s pride and joy. Trill was dead and gone, and that Jetta was not Mr. Dog. She glared at it.
She flinched as a hand fell on her shoulder.
The man’s ratty trousers were held up by a rope belt. The sight of him blasted her with guilt.
“Bus fare?” he said.
Trenice gave him her change card, the better part of ten dollars still on it.
“God bless. God bless.”
Trenice didn’t answer. She turned away from the covered stop to head back up Elysian Fields. She would walk over to the French Market and buy herself a pair of flashy cheap sunglasses. Tonight, she’d take a break from herself.
Ida kissed hard, like a man. Every so often, she’d point the tip of her tongue and slide it between Trenice’s upper lip and her teeth. Every time she did, Trenice groaned with hunger, and somewhere far away she was a little embarrassed to be making out like this in the back of a Lyft on its way to Mid-City.
Trenice didn’t remember leaving the car. All of a sudden, they stood on a compact covered porch. Ida-Rose fumbled with her keys, her back to Trenice, an aroma of booze and cigarettes radiating from her skin — or was that Trenice’s skin? She didn’t care. She let herself consider the shape of Ida-Rose’s ass beneath her skirt. An aching heat spread from her center.
“Jesus fucking fuck,” Ida-Rose said as the door swung open. She glanced at Trenice over her shoulder, then blushed.
Trenice took a step toward her. The distance between them felt like a crime.
“One thing,” Ida-Rose said.
Trenice barely understood the words. “What? What.”
“My apartment’s haunted.”
“I know,” Ida said. “I know. But it is. You probably won’t see anything, but you might, and I don’t want you to — I don’t know. I don’t want you to leave.”
Trenice felt something shift inside her. The porch light didn’t change, the quality of the sky remained the same, but all the heat and desire deserted her. She hung her head. “I don’t think I can do this,” she said.
“I’m supposed to be someone else tonight — I’m not supposed to be anxious or scared or . . . or . . . or overthinking everything. I’m supposed to just see what I want and go for it, but . . . but I’m still just me.”
Ida turned and watched her for a moment. “Good,” she said finally.
“I don’t want to be part of your vacation from yourself,” she said. “That’s not — do you think that would be fair to me?”
Trenice blushed. “Well.”
“I know I make you hot. But there’s more to it than that.”
Trenice closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, Ida had come closer. She was looking directly into her face.
Ida sighed explosively. “Then get in here and fuck me. Please.”
So Trenice did.
Later, as they lay in Ida-Rose’s queen bed, their hips pressed lightly together, Trenice allowed herself to feel . . . was it contentment?
“You know, I’d given up on you,” Ida said, and ashed her Kool 100 into the tray resting on her belly. Yellow lamplight from the street outside slanted in to cast a butter-gleam on the pale flesh of her breasts and belly. She’d opened the window to smoke, and Trenice was glad. She hated the idea of Ida-Rose putting clothes on to venture outside.
“You knew this would happen,” Trenice said. It wasn’t a question, but it wasn’t a statement.
“I thought it never would,” Ida said. “I thought you were too sad. I figured you were in the closet.”
“I came out in high school,” Trenice said. “My family wasn’t great about it, but they weren’t terrible.”
Ida-Rose’s calico cat stalked out of the kitchen and glared at them for a moment before curling up by the living room’s inert fireplace.
“Then why are you so sad?”
Trenice didn’t answer for a long time. She tasted her words like marbles in her mouth before letting them into the air. “You can’t have all of me all at once.”
Around four in the morning, Trenice climbed out of bed and padded to the bathroom. The pitch and yaw of the apartment’s hardwood floor made it clear that she was still good and drunk. The latch on the wooden door stuck a little at first, but Trenice had seen Ida jiggle the knob in its collar, so now she did the same. The door popped open to reveal an old-fashioned full bath with what must be the original vanity and a claw-foot tub-and-shower combo surrounded by a curtain that bore Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
Trenice did her business, wiped, then stood at the sink to wash her hands. She cocked her head. A buzz like electrical feedback had crept into the edge of her hearing. No. Not feedback. More like the expectant buzz of a guitar amplifier. But was it a sound? Ida-Rose snored away in the bedroom, just as audible as before.
A subtle movement drew Trenice’s eyes back to the mirror before her. The shower curtain slowly parted.
Trenice stood very still.
An olive-skinned boy of about eleven stood in the tub. He stared at Trenice, wide-eyed, the quiet bow of his lips drawn slightly up at the corners.
The boy seemed as surprised to see Trenice as she was to see him. Together they waited, eyes locked. Finally, the boy opened his mouth and crooked the fingers of his right hand into a shovel. Theatrically, with deliberate motion, he drew his hand up to his open mouth and dropped it to his side again.
Trenice whirled to find the bathtub empty. When she turned back, the boy’s reflection was still there. He repeated his gesture three more times; then his image became a collection of shapes and shadows in the dim of the room. He did not disappear, but what had been his figure became the pattern of the tile on the bathroom’s far wall, a shadow cast by a palm tree outside the bathroom’s frosted window, a smudged stain on the wall behind the bathtub . . .
It was the damnedest thing.
Well, second damnedest.
After all, she’d seen Trill.
“I’m so embarrassed,” Ida-Rose said, then took a bite of praline bacon. For breakfast they’d come to the Ruby Slipper on Burgundy Street, after which Ida-Rose would walk to the French Quarter and pick up her car. Even with October around the corner, this was another brutally sunny Saturday morning.
Still, all Trenice had to do to banish her headache was wear the sunglasses she’d bought yesterday. She wasn’t sure how she felt about things with Ida, but she remembered enough to know the sex had been amazing. She had to admit her interest in more.
“Why embarrassed?” she asked.
Ida looked at the table, took another sip of her coffee.
“Really,” Trenice said. “So, it’s a ghost.”
“It’s fucking transplanty as fuck,” Ida-Rose said. “‘Oh, I’m a Tulane student living in Mid-City because I feel like that makes me more authentic. By the way, there’s a ghost in my bathtub.’”
“But that’s not it.”
“It’s not,” Ida-Rose admitted. “You said I couldn’t have all of you all at once.”
Trenice just watched her.
Ida-Rose seemed to crumble. “Okay,” she said. “Fine. It’s because I can’t see him. I’ve never seen him.”
“He was my grandmother’s baby cousin, Nicolai,” Ida-Rose said. “He was sick when he came over from the Old Country. Almost died in steerage, but he pulled through, I guess. When the family got to New York, he just stopped eating and wasted away. I guess that’s why he does the thing where he mimes food.”
“You sound like you’ve seen him.”
“I did,” Ida admitted. “Once. In Connecticut. In my grandmother’s house, when I was like six. I freaked out, threw a bucket of Legos at him. I haven’t seen him since. I didn’t even know he was . . . still with me, or whatever, until I moved out of the dorms. Girls I brought home started seeing him, and . . . ?” She let her left hand flutter in the air before her as if to say, And the rest is history. “So. Maybe it’s not my apartment that’s haunted, it’s my family. Or me. That’s probably my biggest secret.”
Trenice opened her mouth. She snapped it shut again without speaking.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Ida-Rose said softly.
“I want to.”
“What do you think will happen if you say it out loud?”
I’ll die. The top of my head will fly off, and my brains will shoot straight out my ears. The building will collapse on us. The gravity of my hurt will draw everything into me, and everything will end. Anything. Everything. Or nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
While Ida-Rose’s car sat unattended in the French Quarter, someone had broken its driver’s side window and stolen nothing but a box of tampons. Trenice sat agape at her cubicle desk listening to Ida-Rose explain the situation over the phone.
“I don’t know,” Ida-Rose said. “I guess I should be pissed, but Jesus Christ. Whoever did it needed those tampons.”
Something gave way in Trenice’s chest. She realized now that she’d been waiting months for Ida-Rose to say something racist, or, at the very least, terminally clueless.
An exquisite tenderness crept into Ida’s voice. “What is it?” she asked. “What are you not saying right now?”
“Nothing,” Trenice said. “Just . . . you have a good heart.”
“Do you know that you were the first person to be nice to me when I started at Lazare? Nobody was mean, but you bummed me a cigarette on my first day, and you said, ‘We gotta take care of each other.’ Do you remember that?”
Trenice frowned, confused. What was happening here?
“I remember . . .”
“I’m not even going to call the cops,” Ida said. “I’m just going to take it to the mechanic and get an estimate. Finish that letter.”
“Can we —?” Trenice asked. A hard lump rested in her throat. She made an effort to speak around it. “Can I see you Sunday?”
“You can see me,” Ida-Rose said. “You can see me whenever.”
Trill’s parents were rich. It had taken Trenice almost a year to realize it, but during the summer after freshman year, Trill asked Trenice to join him on the family vacation to “Florence. Like, Italy Florence.” Trill’s father was already ill by then, but the family didn’t know. He was a light-skinned black man with coppery red hair and summer freckles. The moment she met them, Trill’s parents seemed to take to her. They adopted her, after a fashion, and it wasn’t until years later that Trenice realized how jealous Trill must have felt.
He seemed to feel his parents were terrible people, especially after his father announced the cancer during one of Trill’s weekly calls home. Trill didn’t say anything when he ended the call. He sat, looking down at nothing for several minutes. Then he crossed the room and turned on Mario Kart. He played all night with a white-knuckled aggression that left no room for enjoyment.
Trenice asked him more than once what was wrong, then finally decided she’d have to let Trill explain in his own time. After losing a race, he’d pulled the Wii out of the entertainment cabinet without disconnecting the wires and hurled it into the kitchen where it broke against the fridge. Then he’d stalked outside and started chopping wood in the dark.
From the porch, Trenice watched as he split log after log, never stopping to rest. “He’s known for months,” he said finally. “Months. He’s fucking dying, Neece. They’re going to experiment on him, and nothing’s going to work.”
“Is it cancer?” Trenice said. “He could go into remission.”
“I’m scoring tonight,” he said. “You want some?”
“No, but . . . just . . . whatever you need.”
Distracted as she was, it took Trenice until four in the afternoon to finish her letter of interest for the Kellogg Foundation grant. Finally satisfied, she submitted it along with the other application materials and looked around to find the office empty. Ida might have a ghost in her apartment, but there were none here at Lazare. It stood to reason — after all, why would dead folks hang around a mortuary? It had likely meant nothing to them when they were alive, and there was nothing interesting about the place. In the silence of the vacant office, no hidden eyes watched, no starving boys mimed.
Trenice let herself out the front door and locked up behind her before using her phone to summon a car. After waiting a few minutes with no results, Trenice checked her phone again to find the driver had canceled.
Sucking her teeth, she tried again, and after a few minutes that driver canceled as well.
She was not surprised when the black Jetta pulled up at the curb.
She thought of Ida’s starving uncle as she watched the car idle on the street.
Should she be afraid?
She sucked her teeth. Fuck that. No rich-boy ghost from fucking Philly was going scare her into submission. She descended the steps and walked around to the passenger door.
Trill drove without speaking. Trenice wondered what they must look like. Just another car on the road? Nothing particularly ghostly about it? Would onlookers see Trenice suspended in midair, like Wonder Woman in her invisible jet?
Trill laughed as if he’d seen the image as well. “You’d be all over the news,” he said.
Trenice smiled. “So, how does it work? What’s actually happening right now?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. Nobody gave me a manual or nothing. I’m just here.”
Trill guided the car past Saint Claude and made a U-turn farther down Elysian Fields to turn north, heading for Chalmette. He looked better than he had the last time Trenice had seen him. She had dropped him off at Portland International for a direct flight to Philly. Trill was terrified of flying, so the idea of taking two planes home for his father’s funeral had been out of the question.
The sky had been a baked cerulean blue, the clouds piled one atop the other like a stairway to infinity. It had been more than a year since he and Trenice had been together, and in that time, Trill had become a monster-movie version of himself. Never thickset, he’d lost weight, become scarecrow-thin. His hollow eyes had gathered shadows around them, and he had developed a sort of shell-shocked glare. Dirty blond dreadlocks grew from his scalp as if a child had glued them there. He wore a hooded sweatshirt the color of boiled liver and his lucky T-shirt. PILOTS ARE PLANE CRAZY it read in sober block caps. Trenice had given it to him for his twentieth birthday.
Trill reached for the door handle.
“Are you going to be okay?” Trenice asked. They were the wrong words to express her thought.
He let go the door handle and placed his hand in his lap. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I think I’m fucked. All that money. What am I going to do but get as much skate as I can and just do it all?”
“Please don’t,” Trenice said. “Go to rehab. Get it together. Please. Please.”
He watched her for a moment, as if she were a stranger. Then, without answering, he got out of the car.
“I went to rehab,” Trill said. “I was clean for years.”
“Then what happened?” Trenice asked.
Trill smiled crookedly as he watched the road. “Mom must have called you.”
Trenice just looked.
“Unfair,” he said. “So unfair.”
They’d sailed through Chalmette, heading toward Pointe à la Hache. Daylight had begun to fade. Farms, houses, businesses became fewer and farther between. Mr. Dog gobbled the road, growling his pleasure.
“I can’t go with you,” Trenice said.
Trill shrugged. “I know,” he said. “I’m not here to shame you or scare you or any of that. You know . . . you know it wasn’t your job to save me, right? You can’t do that for people.”
For the first time since she’d gotten into the car with him, Trenice noticed the tears pouring down her cheeks. “I would have,” she said.
“You know it’s the truth,” Trill said. “But you know it in your head, not in your heart.” He drove in silence for some time. “I’m tired of driving,” he said. “I want . . . I want to go see my dad.”
“You didn’t mean to keep me here,” he said and laughed a little. “I loved you so much. So much. Stop using me to fuck up your life.”
“What if I’m not ready?”
“You’re ready,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”
Trill never turned the car around, but somehow, before Trenice knew it, they were headed through Chalmette again. By the time they reached Trenice’s apartment on Saint Andrew and O. C. Haley, something had taken shape inside her. It felt similar to the lump in her throat that she’d spoken around to ask Ida about Sunday, but there was something both heavier and easier to it. As if it was offering her something rather than keeping her from it.
“Can I touch you?” Trenice asked.
“No,” Trill said. “Those times are gone.”
“Okay,” Trenice said. “I loved you, too, you know.”
“I know,” he said.
Trenice unfolded herself to stand on the sidewalk. She shut the door and as she did, she lost track of Mr. Dog. She knew she was looking directly at the car, but her eyes couldn’t find it. Then it was gone.
Trenice stood on the street, trying to think what to do or say. Finally, she slid her phone from her pocket.
“Niecy,” Ida-Rose said. Trenice thrilled at the husk in her voice.
“Listen,” she said. “Luh-listen. I used to do meth with my boyfriend, but he died, and I never got over it.”
“The, uh, the window. Was it expensive?”
“Yeah,” Ida said. “I’m getting another quote on Monday.”
“I let go of my ghost today,” Trenice said. “And, you know, if you and me are going to be a thing, you’re going to have to deal with yours.”
“Yeah,” Ida said. “Uh. Wait.”
“We’re going to be together?”
Trenice’s smile was more than a smile. It was a grin. “Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, we are.”
Rank #12: PodCastle 570: Elegy for a Slaughtered Swine
- Author : Rafaela Ferraz
- Narrator : Carlo Matos
- Host : Setsu Uzume
- Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
- Discuss on Forums
PodCastle 570: Elegy for a Slaughtered Swine is a PodCastle original.
The PodCastle forums flash fiction contest is on! Visit our Submittable for more details. Submissions are open until April 30.
Elegy for a Slaughtered Swine
Men do not often cook, out behind these hills. It’s women’s domain, the kitchen, but they’ve shown me the ways of all that is theirs to rule. I could cook up a soup or a curse without leaving this room. The former is simple. Cabbage and potato and smoked sausage and olive oil. The latter is simpler still.
Your mother is expecting. Her womb is the first ingredient. Already you have six older brothers to race you for her love, or six older sisters. When she names you, she is careless with her choice. Later, the priest cannot untangle his prayers, his tongue slips on the edge of the baptismal font. We’re cooking, remember: stir it all with a wooden spoon and the devil will know you are unwanted. Your mother, she doesn’t care for you, for this mistake she’s made in the marriage bed, or out behind the church with her skirts hiked up, or up on the moor wearing as little shame as sin itself. Neither does your father. They have six other, older mouths to feed. They’ll let you feed yourself, may the devil bless them. You will hunt. You will run with the wolves. You will grow hackles and claws and eyes the color of burnt sugar, and you will be gone from their concerns. You will cross seven cemeteries and seven streams and seven hills and seven sins from your ledger every night before Sunday dawns.
I was the seventh. I never hunted. I never ran with the wolves. I never grew hackles or claws or eyes the color of burnt sugar. My curse was spoiled halfway in the making, when they called me Benedito and spoke all the proper words and drowned me in holy grace. No precaution was too great, but still they would not have me. Better to find the finest doorstep in the village and leave me to wake the terrible man within with my cries. Say the devil did come for me, against all odds? I don’t blame them for thinking the master of this great house would be the one to ward him off.
The second boy’s parents must have thought the same, but Ezequiel was ten on a rainy morning, and I was nine, Ezequiel was filthy, and I was pristine in my Sunday best, Ezequiel was cursed, and I so blessed. It’s been over a decade since we’ve met, and little has changed.
He is sometimes man, sometimes wolf.
It falls to me, once a week, to await him by sunrise and wrap him in coarse blankets and help him back into his body. It falls to me to make this soup, and to keep my eyes on the kitchen table where his rifle lies in wait for his hands, and to pretend I didn’t use it to kill a man tonight while he was away.
“How’s Father?” Ezequiel asks, enunciating every word as if learning how to speak it, eyes flat on the dancing flames in the hearth. He was gone the whole night — a thoughtless beast — yet he won’t waste a moment on himself. His new skin glistens on his bare shoulders. He may be raw and still unfinished, but no matter. Guilt will do that to a man. Guilt and shame and a curse for a legacy, though he just calls it fate.
I didn’t kill him. Our father. The master of this great house, I should call him, since he’s no father of mine. I killed one of his men, yes, a shepherd turned hunter, but not him. He is already feeble, in need of no sharpshooter to aid in his passing. The village women tell me he slips from us, night after night, because the air in his lungs was once inside a wolf’s own. Strange, the village women think. There are no wolves here, only large dogs and a cursed young man. What a mystery. What a tragedy. What a real, real shame.
Their mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers taught them how to exorcize this miasma from a dying man, but it takes a tool and a purpose, and they have none. If cabbage soup and curses are simple, this is arithmetic the likes of which we don’t learn so far from the city. The tool is a severed windpipe, butchered right out of a wolf and held up high; the simplest of waters, when poured through, will turn into medicine in the sick man’s drinking glass. It takes a wolf to save a man damned by a wolf, they say, but no howling has traveled the Iberian winds for months. What a real, real shame, the village women keen, clicking their tongues and needles towards brighter thoughts.
More than the tool, they lack the purpose. When he’s gone, they will not stoop to mourn their master, and neither will I. We have been on the receiving end of his lashes, his words, his endless reproach. Ezequiel too, but he’d present his face to any fist and care for the bruised knuckles afterwards. Sometimes man, sometimes wolf, and faithful fucking lap dog above it all.
To think I killed for him tonight. Used up all my blessings because a hunter tracked him — the wolven farce of him — through the night, followed his every move down the barrel of a gun, and I pulled the trigger before he could. Once in the gut and once in the head.
I’ll tell Ezequiel about it. Once he’s done with his soup. I will. I promise.
But it was an accident. I wasn’t thinking, I didn’t mean to kill him, I just—
I’ll tell him. Eventually.
I just didn’t know how else to protect you.
There is a girl who runs with the wolves, too. She distrusts me and I her, but we hold a bargain. In the morning, I drop three sacks at her feet, their burlap changed from tan to viscous red to crusted brown, and we are alone with this secret in the holy geometry of these mountains. The bells toll down in the village. The girl walks a slow circle around me, her bare feet leaving no footprints, her eyes dark as plums in the sleep-deprived emaciation of her face.
“For a man blessed even in name,” she begins, “you’ve done a very ugly thing.”
“And how would you know?”
She smiles, like only mischievous children can. “The devil talks.”
“Yes, but you shouldn’t listen.”
“He tells me stories. You never tell me stories,” she says, kicking one of the sacks open. I look away. I may have hacked this man to pieces, swung the cleaver like I’ve seen the butcher do, rubbed my palms raw on the washboard afterwards, like so many dirty sheets, up and down and up and down until the water ran clear of blood — but I haven’t really seen.
“He told me about you, last night,” she continues. “He thinks you should write a letter to your parents, tell them they can stop praying for your soul. The devil’s found you, and he’ll walk beside you from now on.”
I pull at the knees of my pants and crouch before her. “The devil said that, did he?”
“He did,” she says, standing very straight, morphing into something old and weathered, like the wrinkles are only just waiting for the right moment to settle on her still-soft face, her plush cheeks, her baby-fat chin. Girls like her, we call peeiras, wolf fairies, wolf maidens. It takes a town to push a wolf, but only a girl to pull a pack. She is a legend in its infancy.
“And what did you say to him?” I ask.
“Nothing. The devil talks more than he listens.”
She’s right, as it seems women so often are about these things. I’ve heard him too, a ringing in my ears after that first shot, a rush of blood to my head, the drag of my lids like sandpaper against my eyes whenever I tried to blink the forest into focus. Ezequiel, shrouded somewhere inside that scrawny wolf, had kept on running. We’d meet at dawn. I’d slip my arm through his and kiss his shoulder and we’d stumble our way home. We’d live — but it seemed unfair that the hunter would, too, so I fired again.
I may have meant the first shot, but I know the devil meant the second.
I’ve known about him longer than he’s known about me, ever since I was young and in love and uncouth with my blessings, and Ezequiel laughed into that first kiss and welcomed it as part of his fate, too; ever since I took our truth to confession and found nothing but talk of the devil beyond the latticed partition, nothing but hatred spoken like the truest of scriptures. A man is not a woman, I was told. No, I thought. A man is a man is a man, even if he is sometimes a wolf. And maybe the devil could find a home in the space between the two, but it was not the devil who compelled me to love. Not then, and even though I’ve done this very ugly thing, not now.
“Next time you see him, Maria,” I begin, and her face perks up. “Next time you see the devil, tell him I don’t care for him. Tell him he has no business with me. Tell him he has no business with any of us.”
“The devil listens less than he talks.”
I flick her nose and stand up. She smiles, charming but ruinous, every yellow tooth a reminder of the forces of nature encased in this ten-year-old body, and slumps back into girlhood.
“Thank you for the meat. The pack will appreciate the kindness.”
Such is our bargain. She keeps the wolves out of the village. I keep them fed. She distrusts me and I her, but I love Ezequiel and she doesn’t hate him, though it’s likely her wolves would. We’re all better off if we keep out of each other’s way.
Inside the house, the air is as thick as my day-old soup. Ezequiel often complains the house smells stale to him, who runs one night a week, who wakes to the sun on his face and the dirt on his back, but it’s the first I notice it. Candle wax and fried food and smoked meats and fermented grapes and something medicinal underneath it all and the railing so thick with grime I could carve Maria’s stories into it with my fingernails.
In the upstairs hallway, candles float in shallow dishes of olive oil, bathing Our Lady of Fátima and the Infant Jesus of Prague in flickering flame. I push the master’s door open, and he raises his head off the pillow, just an inch or so. When he croaks, it sounds like Ezequiel.
“No. Just me, old man,” I assure him, drawing closer to claim the armchair by his bedside. He gives me a once-over as I settle against the throw pillows, and I wonder if he sees what I’ve done, what’s come to change since the sun last set on us.
“How is—” he struggles to speak and breathe at once, and it offends the very memory of who he used to be, a man fit to rival the devil himself, a voice to drown out the very thunder.
“He’s fine,” I offer, and the master settles. Ezequiel’s fine. Ezequiel still wasn’t speaking much, still sat cocooned in his blanket when I left to meet the wolf maiden, still hasn’t come upstairs if this question is anything to go by — but these are details. All the master wants to know is whether his second son survived the seven cemeteries and seven streams and seven hills he had to cross before Sunday dawned.
He did, and I’m the one to thank. I say so. He says I did good. I scoff. Good is my only attribute. Good is the reason I’ve become a man in this great house, when I could have just as easily died a baby on its doorstep. Good raised my station from seventh son to first, from fearful parents to a fearless master. Good is all I strive to be, despite everything. Despite the ways of this dying monster and the unforgiving confessional and the blood under my fingernails.
I’ll tell Ezequiel about it, once he’s done with his blanket. I will. I promise.
I find him downstairs, just outside the kitchen, splitting firewood for the stove with the sun on his back. On his face, he carries the knitted brow and guarded expression I’ve come to expect from Sunday afternoons — Ezequiel isn’t fully returned, not yet, but already it’s hard to believe he was ever gone.
“You should go see him,” I say, about the man he calls father and I call master. “He’s asked about you.”
Ezequiel swings the maul and misses; the momentum drives the sharp edge inch-deep into the splitting block, and this isn’t what bones sound like when they break, but my stomach still turns. He struggles to unwedge it and stops trying. He tucks his shoulders into his chest and his arms under each other.
“He doesn’t want me around,” he says as he walks past me and into the busy confines of the kitchen. Our old Aurora, wearing black from headscarf to house slippers, peels potatoes for supper, and Ezequiel stomps his feet on his way to her side. It takes her a moment to find the sounds he makes, but she smiles when he picks up a knife and lends his idle hands to the chore. I take up a pan that needs scrubbing, and we are all three lulled, right away, into the comfortable silence we can only cultivate in this room, where the master’s influence doesn’t dwell. Though I grit my teeth at times, when the scouring pad scratches new lines into my ruined palms, I don’t complain. We are a hundred-year-old widow and a cursed man and a blessed man. We have no use for small talk.
“I shouldn’t have come back,” Ezequiel whispers. This isn’t for Aurora to hear.
“What do you mean, you shouldn’t—”
He presses the knife flat against the cutting board, like he meant to slam it but couldn’t stand the noise. “I just told you what I mean.”
“Tell me in better words, then. Simpler words, if you will.”
There is a glint of amusement in his eye when he looks my way, but he’s searching for something other than sincerity, and he won’t find it. What little skill I had for provocation is gone. I’m stripped bare by the ugliness of what I’ve done, just another one of those naked souls in paintings, awaiting judgment.
I haven’t been to church in years, so it should be a long wait.
“He wants me dead,” Ezequiel says.
And then he’s tapping his throat, and it rings hollow as a wolf’s, and I’m sure I’ve misheard him somehow, but Aurora’s already crossing herself so how much was there to hear, really, how much was there to misunderstand when his fingers have made the subject of his words so clear?
The master wants him dead. For his windpipe. For the tool of his salvation.
“But you’re not a—”
“—a wolf?” He offers the word like a challenge, and it’s a challenge I don’t stand up to. In the unopposed silence that follows, he begins to pace, the weight of all that he carries settling back on his shoulders. “I suppose I am enough of one.”
Ezequiel, beautiful Ezequiel who is sometimes man, sometimes wolf, wasn’t there the night Aurora told me how fates such as his can be broken. She never calls it a curse; just a fate, a fado, etched into his life as the heart lines into our hands, and she wouldn’t have told me had I not asked. It’s no easy task, driving off that which can’t not be.
We were alone in this kitchen, I toed the line between old boy and young man and she stood as ancient a woman as she’s always been, and I told her everything. How somewhere between a kiss and a caress I’d lost track of myself, and how later, somewhere between man and wolf, I’d lost track of Ezequiel. How I’d learned no two people and no two things can be the same at once. You can’t be blessed and cursed, you can’t be man and wolf. And yet, if you look just right, she said, and I listened as intently as if she were teaching me to stare down the devil, not even you will be able to deny he is man and beast at once. If you look just right, young master, you will see. Make him bleed then, and he will no longer be fated to run with the wolves.
How, I asked.
God does not care how you bleed, so long as you do, she answered.
God may not care how Ezequiel bleeds, but God and I aren’t speaking, and I don’t trust His messengers. I care. I cared enough to maim a man last night, and I cared enough to let the devil force my hand into the kill.
Blessed as I may be, I’m done with unearthly counsel. I can guide my own hands.
I charge into the dining room, where the table’s set for three on the embroidered cloth, waiting for the master to come down for supper with his rescued sons, and I snatch the silverware as I pass through. It’s caked with dust, the handles dull from lack of polish, but it should be enough to buy us our way out of here.
“Put it back, love,” Ezequiel says, coming up behind me. When he kisses the nape of my neck, it does seem ridiculous to be standing here, planning a grand escape armed only with a butter knife — but I don’t know what else to do. “It’s too late, I’ve been sent for.”
The master wants Ezequiel dead and Ezequiel wants whatever the master wants. Sometimes man, sometimes wolf, sometimes faithful fucking lap dog, and it seems, ultimately, sacrificial lamb.
“You may have been sent for, but you haven’t gone yet,” I say.
“I don’t care about last night, I care about—”
“—Father sent a man for me.”
Oh. This part of the story, turns out, I know all about.
“It should have been done last night,” Ezequiel continues, breathing down the back of my shirt collar, “but the man didn’t come back, and I did, and — and I don’t know what to think, maybe I killed him, maybe—”
His voice breaks, and he doesn’t put it back together; it takes every last ounce of my self-control to stay here and witness this when I could be taking my silverware upstairs to feed the master his own tongue. He is hell-made flesh, and that I’ve always known, a stranger to the crucifix standing watch above his bed, but to think he would ever send for one of our deaths to delay his own . . . it changes things. It rearranges the rooms in this house, and we are no longer welcome.
It rearranges the things I’ve done, none so ugly as this, and just like that — the devil’s gone from my side.
We check on the master every morning and the morning after. The morning after that, too. He doesn’t get better nor does he get worse, and it’s difficult to think of this plateau as anything other than a prelude to a steep decline.
Unwanted as he may be, flaunting a life that should have ended last Saturday, Ezequiel still sits by his bedside, pressing the back of his hand to his nearly translucent forehead, tucking the mercury-in-glass between his chapped, swollen lips. Sometimes, I can swear the master’s fingers twitch on the flannel sheets. I can swear he bares his teeth when Ezequiel bows his head or leans over his prone body to tuck the covers under his clammy chin. How it must ache, to be so close to the object of his salvation; how it must ache harder still, to know I’m watching.
“I’m sorry I hid it from you,” Ezequiel tells me one morning, holding out a piece of apple on the tip of his pocket knife. We’re sitting astride the stone wall that marks the edge of the master’s orchard, and this is as far as he’ll go and I’m tired of fighting, so I just inch closer and bite the apple off the blade.
We haven’t talked about it, but it’s here, looming between us, it’s here in the way he avoids my eyes to hide his shame. He knew. He knew about the hunter long before I did and it’s not difficult to imagine how that little council must have gathered, the master of this great house and his wolfman of an adopted son and the hunter who would kill one to save the other.
“I just wanted to do the right thing,” he says. “All those years ago, he knew I was fated to run, but he still took me in. I thought — I thought he’d seen something of worth in me then, and this would be the time to prove it.”
I know, and that I can forgive; I can forgive that he would give up on us, on me. I can forgive that he would do anything for the man he calls father. Children don’t chomp their way out of the womb and dogs don’t bite the hand that feeds, and to demand the opposite is to corrupt their very essence. This is who he is. “But why not tell me about it?”
Ezequiel smiles, but he’s all teeth and no bite. “Because you’d lose your mind.”
I did lose it. But I’m no longer sure I’ll tell him.
“I wanted to spare you,” he continues. “I wanted to — I wanted you to sleep through it. You’d wake up on Sunday and go to church and start over, and — and I’d no longer be a burden to you.”
“A burden, is that—”
“You deserve better than a cursed thing.”
He’s playing with his pocket knife when he says it, picking bits of moss off the dips in the wall, and it’s a while before I hear it. Curse. Not fate, this time, fuck fate, fate wouldn’t sentence him to the precise point where a dagger ends and a throat begins, and it’s not too late to see the path this realization sets before us, it’s not too late to break free. If it takes a wolf to save a man damned by a wolf, we’ll put the wolf to death. We’ll break the curse. We’ll relieve him of whatever value the master sees in his slaughter, we’ll—
“We could fix you,” I say. “Aurora knows how, we could—”
“It’s not my choice to make.”
No, of course not. It’s God’s, or the devil’s, and may the dirt we stand on swallow them both. The hills are so quiet, this evening. The sun’s about to settle among them, the farmers and shepherds have taken to their homes. It’s just us and this wall and this apple tree, and Maria just beyond the horizon with her wolves that never howl, lest we hear them and dive for their windpipes, too, and Ezequiel is a precious cursed thing and his hair twists into spirals in the wind and I love him past the point of butterflies, I love him through thick and thin and till death do us part.
It’s my choice to make, then. God won’t slit his throat, the devil won’t break his curse, but I am a blessed man, I am the only blessed man here, and if not me, then who?
I review Aurora’s lesson as we walk back to the house. Look just right. Find the moment when he is man and beast at once. Make him bleed. It’s simple enough, and his rifle is where he’s left it, propped against the doorframe.
I can do this.
I go to Maria first. I bring a blanket and a just-baked, still warm loaf of broa to the wolf maiden, and we sit together atop the hill. She looks through me with her big black eyes and says nothing. We are alone in the world.
“I need your help,” I demand, more than ask, before I explain the details of my plan. I repeat Aurora’s words to her, though I am clumsy with them, less respectful of their history, and she smiles at me like a priest on the receiving end of a sermon. I suppose she’s heard this story before. I suppose she knows all about curses and how to break them.
“I need you to tell me when the moment is right, Maria.”
She stops as she halves the bread, the hardened crust cracking but not quite breaking under the force of her frail — and now distraught — hands.
“It’ll never be right,” she wraps her shawl tighter around her narrow shoulders, pulling her knees to her chest, “if you do it against his will.”
“He has none.”
“He has some. He just won’t tell you.”
I still haven’t made my peace with the things he won’t tell me, but I swallow the bile and try again. “Just tell me what you want in return for your help. I don’t care what it is, just say the words and I’ll find it for you. I can’t do this alone.”
She stares at me, her teeth worrying at a shard of bread crust, and even though she needs saving too, I know she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t know Ezequiel. She knows of him, through my words and through the howling, but she doesn’t know him. She wouldn’t mourn him if he were to die. No, perhaps she would even rejoice, free to roam the mountains with her beasts again, a pack of glorious wanderers without a bargain to uphold.
“I want stories.”
“Maria, please, be serious—”
“I want you to come visit more often. The devil’s loud when I’m all alone,” she says, wound tight around herself, her wolves circling just beyond the edge of my vision, “but you could speak over him if you tried.”
It baffles me that she can ask for so little and so much at once.
In the end, I tell Ezequiel to forgo the master’s hunters. I will do it. I tell him that if he is my burden, I will carry him to the end. Get me a gun and a knife, and before Sunday dawns you’ll be but a butterflied dead wolf, throat slashed open, short a life-saving windpipe.
He kisses me, hands tight on my neck, and I wonder if he believes me at all, if he hopes I’ll place my scarring hands on him just like this and rip out his throat, bleed him for a man I hate and live in peace afterwards. I wonder if he trusts me so little, or so much.
We walk the cobblestones together as the village sleeps behind lace curtains through the longest night of the week. Down by the crossroads, Ezequiel slips out of his cloak, shivering as he kneels on it and waits, like always, for the devil to come and claim him. I join him on the ground, taking his fingers between mine, and look for a girl breaking curfew.
“You know,” Ezequiel says, “I think it was God’s hand that saved me. Last time, from the hunter. Maybe we were fated to end up here. Maybe it just — it wouldn’t be right if you weren’t the one to do it.”
I say nothing. Let him think it was God’s hand on his rifle. Let him think it was God’s hand quartering a man and feeding him to the wolves, I’ll be whoever he needs for as long as he needs it.
There’s Maria now, crouching tiny between a lone cart and a stone wall.
“You should let go,” Ezequiel warns, his head falling forward as a shiver runs through him, pulls his muscles into a tight coil. “It’s starting.”
Out of habit, I do let go, and Ezequiel doesn’t fight the fall when his bare arms meet the ground. It’s a new moon, the sky coal-black but clear, the stars bright and distant. I raise the rifle. His rifle, the tool of this betrayal. All I have to do is shoot, make him bleed in the precisely right moment, and he’ll no longer be cursed. God does not care how you bleed, so long as you do.
“Tell me when,” I speak into the night.
The girl slips from behind the cart to come stand at my side.
Ezequiel convulses, and I force myself to look on past the point of luridness. It’s akin to something I saw once, parasitic wasps devouring a caterpillar from the inside out, slithering under its gelatinous skin, maneuvering their diseased host to their will. This wolf, too, is a parasite, crawling its way out of a ribcage too large for its body, clawing at skin yet unbroken, an animal moving inside a human suit, adjusting the seams to its form. I keep my finger steady on the trigger. This is not its body to claim.
“Now,” she whispers.
The thing is now clearly wolf-shaped, but bare, tailless, a naked dog displaying its belly for rubs. Grotesque.
“Now, or you won’t get another chance.”
I keep my finger steady on the trigger. The thing rolls onto all four legs, testing them out, learning to walk as fur sprouts from its skin. When it turns to face us, the sound is that of sharp new claws on ancient cobblestones. When it licks its lips, when it shakes its head and watches us both with curious brown eyes, the stance is that of a soulless husk — nothing left of the man I love.
The moment is gone.
She rests a cold, dirty hand on my wrist. The wolf, as if awaiting word from its queen, walks away into the night. Ezequiel is gone. I lower the rifle, and he is still cursed. Still a wolf. Still vulnerable. Still of worth to those interested in curing the master of this great house.
“Watch over him,” I tell her. Then I run.
I run, certainly not with the wolves but just like them. I run towards the great house and up against the front door, which I struggle to unlock. I vault the steps of the main staircase and try to slip down the hallway without disturbing the perpetual candles, but they’ve been snuffed out.
“I did not think we would need them anymore, young master,” Aurora says as she shuffles past me, her voice made uneven by age and faulty hearing. “What a tragedy. What a real, real shame.”
I push the master’s door open.
It’s so quiet the fire itself has dozed off, just embers left to warm the dying man, but he is awake. He struggles to sit upright, but words are lost to the froth on his lips and I’m sure, if he has indeed asked Ezequiel for his life, if he has indeed placed his final shot in the hands of a cursed no-son-of-his but lover-of-mine, he won’t be able to confirm it. I’m sure, this time, he won’t recover.
“Settle down, old man. It’s just me.”
He blinks, slowly, with intention. I take it as encouragement to continue, but I remain quiet, clutching a checkered throw pillow. Why did I even wait for his signal? What is there left to fear if I speak out of turn? What, pray tell, when he lies supine and I stand so very tall?
What am I trying to say to him, anyway? That my purposes are noble, that I am blessed, that I am doing the right thing? That I killed his hunter, that I tried but failed to break his son’s curse, that we all knew this day would come?
“I am really, really sorry for this,” I say instead.
Ah. So he speaks, still. I relax my grip on the pillow. “Take your time.”
But he has nothing left to say, other than please.
I replace the pillow. I fix my hair, fix my face, fix the sheets, fix the dead man’s eyelids, rekindle the fire. I pack my things, though they are few; Ezequiel’s too, fewer still. I dump the silverware into a suitcase, then a children’s book.
Let us cross seven cemeteries and seven streams and seven hills and seven sins from our ledger before tomorrow dawns.
Rank #13: PodCastle 568: The Pull of the Herd
- Author : Suzan Palumbo
- Narrator : S.B. Divya
- Host : Setsu Uzume
- Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
- Discuss on Forums
Originally published at Anathema.
Content warning for violence against women.
Rated: PG-13, for predators and prey.
The Pull of the Herd
By: Suzan Palumbo
My doeskin calls to me from under the woollen blankets in the cedar chest at the foot of our bed. Diya murmurs beside me, eases back to sleep. I cling to her, try to calm the panic welling in my chest by inhaling her cardamom scent. The metallic taste of a skin thief lingers in the air this morning and, though I’ve sworn never to return, every nerve and sinew inside me is screaming: get back to the herd.
I swing my feet onto the wooden floor. Human soles are weaker than keratin-covered hooves — less sure, though they suit their purpose. I undress, then pad over to the trunk. My fur stirs as I lift the lid and pull it from beneath the blankets. It twines up my forearm, grip like hardened horn sheathed in fraying velvet.
It’s humid when I open the front door. Other than the birds, I’m completely alone. There’s no guarantee the doefolk will heed my warning. I smother my doubts. I must get to them.
Pulling the pelt over my head and torso is familiar but restrictive, like a bra that supports but cuts too tightly against your ribs. It winches my back forward, conforming my body to its shape. A jumble of scents: musk, dirt, blood, excrement, and something out of place, something heavy, town-like, collide around my muzzle.
Layers of fur envelop my front quarters; tension builds in my hinds. A muscle snaps. I dart into the back woods — an arrow zipping through the trees.
The terrain is uneven but my hooves pivot and pick, flying over crumbling logs and brambles. I can’t remember the way. The limits of human locomotion have tainted my visual spatial perception, but my legs carry a compass of their own. They propel me deep into the bush.
How long do I run? I can’t tell; time is measured in heartbeats.
Then all at once, the air is cooler. I’m at the edge of the old clearing. The darkness has become a greying haze. There are figures with hands thrown in the air, legs kicking in abandon. Their doeskins are strewn on an outcrop of jagged, white rock nearby. I inch toward them. They are performing the Matutinal: a farewell to the night and a greeting of the day, sung in syllables as old as the trees.
They embrace me, to my surprise, aunts and cousins patting my neck and back, and for an instant I’m doused in the warmth of their welcome. Then my sister Vashti fixes her glare on me. The granite glint in her eyes strips me of any comfort.
I’m an outsider.
In spite of her, the convergence continues. Vashti’s disdain for me can halt the sunrise.
The herd presses against me, compels me to join, even before I can transform. I scan the perimeter of the clearing for the threat I’d sensed earlier, but they sweep my caution aside — pushing me toward the centre of their circle. I’m caught in their torrent, bucking and prancing. My doeskin chafes against my limbs while they contort around me in their bipedal forms.
A twig snaps during a lull in their song. My ear twitches. I jerk my head toward the rocks in time to catch a pair of hands snatching a buff-coloured pelt. I crash through the circle, bounding after the man, his legs pumping like fury toward the forest’s edge. He’s downwind but the heavy odour of iron and oil trail behind him. It’s the same scent I’d caught earlier, near the cabin. Halfway across the clearing, he glances wide-eyed over his shoulder and trip-tumbles onto his back.
I’m over him before he can inhale. I trample his left hand, relishing the satisfying crack of hoof crushing bone. Then I straddle his torso with my hooves, pawing at his chest. Pinning him.
His hair is thick and coal black. Despite the grease smeared across his forehead as camouflage, it’s clear he’s young, perhaps a decade younger than Diya.
Like everyone from town, he’s known of the doefolk’s existence since childhood. He’s been weaned on stories of shapeshifting women in the woods who will submit to anyone cunning enough to steal their hides. It is an unofficial rite of passage for him to try and steal a wife.
His pupils constrict as the herd comes up behind me. They’ve seen his pained expression many times before.
He was prepared for the fight. He never expected to fail.
A cousin, Neelum, crouches next to the thief and tears her skin from him. The acrid scent of urine mingled with fear wafts up toward us.
“I will take that,” she says through clenched jaws. She grabs him by the chin and jerks his head to the left so she can look him in the eye. “Wanted a silent wife, huh?” She pushes his head away and draws herself up, stepping back. I follow her lead. “Get up, skin thief.” Her voice cuts flint rock spare. “We’ll kill you if you come back.” She’s beside me, clutching her hide tight to her chest. The herd is a breathing wall at our backs.
For a moment he’s frozen, caught in the creeping daylight with his sin plastered across his face. Neelum doesn’t flinch, doesn’t look away. She gazes at him as he’s probably watched her for days, perhaps weeks. The weight of her stare is caustic without the shield and shadow of darkness to protect him. He pushes himself away crabwalk style — a papery cry escaping his throat as he twists to get up and limp-runs back to the forest, clutching his broken hand. We watch him until all that’s left is the hint of movement in the under-story.
The women accompany me to the clearing’s edge, pelts slung over their shoulders. Their collective heartbeats slow as they embrace, reassuring each other in the tactile language of muscle and bone that they are safe, accounted for.
“This is the third time in as many full moons a skin thief has tried to take one of us,” Vashti says as she walks up beside me. Her posture is commanding. “Now this one has discovered the clearing, the abduction attempts will increase.”
An anxious murmur ripples through the herd. It’s been decades since a human, emboldened by the fantasy of a submissive wife or servant, has successfully kidnapped a doe. I don’t count, of course. I left on my own. But this man had come close. He’d held Neelum’s skin in his hands. If he’d escaped, Neelum would have been bound to him forever.
“I’m safe, thanks to Agni,” Neelum says, her onyx eyes slick with gratitude. “We’ve beat them back every time. If we’re vigilant and stick together, we’ll be safe.”
I soften at her words. Though I mustn’t let myself confuse her appreciation with acceptance. I’m not one of them anymore.
“You reek of human,” Vashti says to me. Her voice is low. No one else can hear her above the continuing discussion of the herd’s safety. Her words coat me in a thick shame that’s eaten away at me since fawnhood. She hasn’t forgiven me for being who I am, for leaving. Nothing’s changed.
The women are deciding their next course of action when I turn to the woods to leave.
The journey back home is slow, painful. My doeskin cuts into my joints, like shrinking elastic, tightening with each successive hoof fall.
Unlike the others, I’ve never been able to wear it for long. As a fawn, I’d sneak off to a thicket near Diya’s cabin to pry myself from its grip and wander among the trees — press my feet into the leaf-carpeted dirt and trace the textured branches with my fingers. I could breathe there, enjoy a careless moment where the tension of holding myself together for everyone else dissipated.
But the herd would eventually notice my absence, and my mother, in her human form, would come to drag me back.
“There’s a time and place for everything, Agni,” she’d said once. “When you run off like this, there are fewer eyes to keep watch. It puts us all in danger, especially you.”
“It doesn’t fit, Mama!” I’d choke in anguish, fur catching in my throat as she jammed my doeskin over my head. The herd was an ever-watchful witness, complicit in my distress.
I tried to grit my teeth at constricted limbs, tolerated the bite of strangled circulation. I existed for the fleeting freedom of the Matutinal each morning when I could stretch my hide loose, to please my mother and our kin.
Until two years ago, when the resident wolf pack ambushed my mother and me and tore Mama’s throat out.
I couldn’t force myself to wear my ill-fitting pelt after that. Couldn’t wash the ferric scent of Mama’s blood from my muzzle. It lingers there now, threatening to stifle me anew.
As I hobble toward the cabin’s clearing, my last argument with Vashti echoes in my ears:
“If you abandon us, don’t come back.”
“I’m not abandoning you; I can’t live like this.”
“You’ve always put your freedom above the herd’s safety. Even Mom’s life.”
“I’m not free.”
On the cabin porch, I peel the pelt off, stretching it loose in the sun. Inside, my toes splay across the rough ridges of the floorboards, savouring the luxury and release of relaxed muscles as I move through the rooms. I fold the fur into a rectangle and force it into the cedar chest in our bedroom.
Diya has left for work at the park and our bed is rumpled and empty. I slide on a shirt and a pair of loose cotton pants and go into the kitchen to pour myself a cup of coffee from the batch she’s made for us to share.
“It’s okay,” Diya had said my first night indoors as she handed me this very mug. “You’re safe here. You can be yourself.” There was a soft depth in her eyes that made me trust her, that made me think she understood how difficult it was to let go of the unbearable.
I take my mug to the back porch. The bench there offers an unobstructed view of the forest. I sit and listen to the birds bicker.
By now, the herd will have moved deeper into the woods to bed down for the day. They’ll masticate their cuds and doze in the shade until dusk, when they’ll wake to rejoice in their unity. Without me.
The woods are submerged in shadows when I finish washing up after dinner. Diya’s already in bed, reading. She closes her book and slings her arm around me when I curl up next to her.
“You went back this morning?” The muscles in her arm are tense.
“Yeah.” I look away from her, not wanting to see the frustrated disapproval sweep across her face. “I caught the scent of a skin thief. He’d snuck up on them downwind. I helped fend him off.”
“Did they thank you?”
Diya doesn’t relax. “Did your sister apologize?” She takes a lock of my hair and twirls it around her finger when I don’t answer. “You don’t owe them anything because you left. You know that, right? I wish you hadn’t gone back. What if the skin thief —” She doesn’t let herself continue.
Her words prickle my arms. There’s a cold liberty in knowing I can live without them, that the herd needs me more than I need them.
“It’s hard,” I say, looking at her pinched expression. “Sometimes, I still forget where they end and I begin.”
I wrap my arms around her and shut my eyes, remembering the afternoon. I came to live with her: the crisp blue sky, the crack of her laundry flapping in the summer breeze.
I’d stolen her clothes — ripped them from the line and donned them as I broke free of the herd.
She found me . . . skulking at the edge of the yard in her outfit. It was a size too large.
“I-it’s all right,” she said with her palms held up. “Keep the clothes for as long as you need them.” Her voice was tinged with curiosity and fear. I stepped toward her, forced myself to meet her eyes. She considered me for a moment then invited me in.
Diya’s drifted off to sleep now. I climb out of bed. The canvas pants and jersey I took from her still hang on my side of the closet, next to the entire wardrobe we’ve bought for me to wear. I slip the old clothes from that first night off their hangers, then fold and shove them on top of my doeskin in the cedar chest, easing the lid shut.
I strain against the tug of my fur as I crawl back into bed with her. It calls to me with a strangling familiarity, a cloying ease that never relents. I’ll always have to fight against it.
I settle under our light summer sheets and let the sound of distant hooves lull me.
“Could you come into town with me?” Diya asks two days later. Her breakfast dishes are in the sink and she’s dressed.
“Why?” I can’t blunt the sharpness in my voice. Town has always meant the weight of iron, servitude, and death to doefolk. I’ve only gone with her twice: once to buy my clothing; the second time, I’d asked to stay in the Chevy while she ran errands.
“We need some plywood and sheet metal. The roof on the back shed’s leaking. I’ll need help loading the truck. Gonna get the oil changed too, while we’re at the building supply.” She must sense my apprehension because she adds, “It’ll be okay.”
I nod. I can’t bring myself to say no after all she’s done for me.
We drive in. Down the hard-packed dirt of our hidden drive and onto the sharp gravel road that leads to the paved outskirts of town. The building supply is at the far end of Main Street. It’s a quiet town. “Typical of any small backwater,” Diya had explained during our early days together.
Diya had never been in step with the town folk. Said she’d never wanted to grow up and marry one of the football boys and raise a brood or go away to secretarial school like the working girls. When her parents passed, she took her inheritance and built her cabin in the woods. “I needed to get away,” she told me. “You and I have that in common.”
We park the truck in front of Anderson and Son’s: Mechanics, next to Wilson’s building supply. I wait for Diya in the lot while she goes in the storefront to drop off the keys.
An hour later she’s pushing the listing dolly while I steer the front of it toward the truck. As we get closer, a man in blue cuffed coveralls limps out of the garage. His hair is slicked back in that greaser style Diya says the city kids are crazy over. He’s favouring his left leg. When I see the cast on his hand, my stomach lurches.
“Hey, Diya. Truck’s done. Dad changed the spark plugs for you, too. Do y’all need help load . . .”
The scents of metal and oil tendril off him and slither up my neck. I inhale and it crams its way down my throat, making me gag.
My heart is pounding. It’s him, here, mid-morning, chatting with Diya, and there’s nothing I can say or do to get away. I knew I’d cross paths with one, one day. It’s why I hadn’t wanted to come into town: there’s nowhere to hide. I grip the front of the dolly to keep myself from dashing out of the parking lot. The metal biting into the insides of my knuckles keeps me tethered.
“Thanks, Zander. How’d you hurt your hand?” Diya asks, taking the keys from him. He accompanies us back to the truck.
“The deer women.” He’s shaking his head as he speaks. “I found one of their skins and they attacked me.” He pauses to help Diya load the plywood and sheet metal into the truck with his non-broken hand. “They cracked Michael Wilson’s collar bone and three of his ribs a few weeks ago. Threatened to kill me.”
Diya flicks her eyes toward me.
“The mayor’s called a meeting for tomorrow. It’s not like the fairy tale they tell you when you’re a kid. Guys are getting hurt. The women take their skins off, then attack you for falling for it.” An earnest look splashes across his face. He’s a victim.
“I’m sorry about your hand, Zander,” Diya says. She’s placid, betraying nothing. “How much do I owe you?”
“Let’s go in and get that settled with Dad.” He looks over at me, eyes appraising. “Does your friend want to come in, too? We’ve got coffee.” His smile is practiced. “I’m Zander. Sorry, I didn’t introduce myself earlier.” He holds out his right hand. I glare at it like it’s a sharp-toothed bear trap and force the corners of my lips upward. My grip on the dolly tightens.
Diya steps between us. “Zander, this is my cousin, Agni. She’s staying with me for a bit. She hasn’t been feeling well. I’ll pop in and we’ll be on our way, if that’s okay?”
“Cousin, huh?” Zander smirks and folds his arms across his chest. “Nice meeting you, Agni.” He tips his head. Flashes another smile.
I manage a rigid nod. Diya walks ahead of him into the shop. When they’re inside I let go of the dolly, fling the passenger side door open, hurl myself into the cab, and slam the door.
“He’s a liar,” I yell when Diya gets in and closes the door. “He didn’t find any skin.” I’m shaking as she eases the car out of the parking lot onto Main Street. “He tried to steal Neelum from us. We were protecting her. We have the right to defend ourselves.”
“You mean they have the right to defend themselves.”
“I’m them, they are me. No difference.” I spit the words out as I watch the drab town slide by through the window.
“There is a difference. They’ve never accepted you.” Her hands are stiff on the wheel.
“That doesn’t mean they deserve to be forced to marry.” I can barely talk around the knot in my throat. “Raped.”
We’re silent for the rest of the ride home.
Diya leaves at six p.m. the next evening for the meeting in the church basement. I watch the cloud of dust billow behind the truck as it turns down the bend toward the gravel road. We agreed it was best for me to wait at home.
“What if they decide to put up a fence? Let’s not panic,” she’d said in an attempt to calm me before she’d left.
I pace back and forth between the bedroom and the kitchen. My doeskin is battering the lid of the trunk in our room. Each knock sends a shudder through my ribcage. It knows I’m anxious. It wants me to alert the others and disappear into the shadowy safety of the woods. I want to disappear, too. I’m weary of the burden of fight or flight. I’m sick of the world falling apart the moment I stand still.
I go out onto the back porch, try to divert myself with some of the books Diya gave me for reading practice, but I spend the entire time straining, listening for an errant hoof fall or the swish of a tail. As the sun sinks, the pounding inside the cedar chest intensifies.
The stars are out when Diya pulls into the drive. I run to the front porch to meet her. Her face looks wrung out. Her lips are bloodless.
“What did they say?” I ask, following her inside.
She’s stone silent as she grabs a can of beer from the fridge. She sits down at the kitchen table, cracks the can open, and takes a thirsty swig before she speaks — like the drink will fortify her for what comes next.
“Council said they’ve ignored the deer women situation for too long and now the herd’s a menace.” She pauses. Takes another drink. “They’ve injured five men in the last two years. One critically. The council’s organized a hunting party for tomorrow morn —”
I’m out of my chair, bounding toward the cedar chest, tearing my clothes off before she can finish.
“Wait!” she says as I fling the chest open. My pelt slams into me and clamps onto my arms in a death grip. Diya grabs me by the shoulders and spins me around to face her.
“Wait for what, Diya? For them to murder everyone I’ve ever loved?” My voice is falling apart around the words. I’m trembling. I push her away. “I know you don’t care, but I can’t let them die. Even if they hate me.”
“Listen.” The artificial calm in her tone is infuriating. “Help them. You’re going to go no matter what I say, anyway.” Her eyes are brimming with fear.
“Good.” I turn from her again. She flips me around. Her fingers dig deep into my fur-clad arms. Bruising.
“Let me finish.” She’s stronger than I am in my human form. Struggling only tightens her hold. “Zander said there’s a clearing where the doefolk meet. Said he knew how to get to it without being seen.” She swallows. “The hunters will make their way to that clearing an hour before dawn and ambush the herd. Do you know where they are now?”
“No.” Acidic defeat floods my tongue. Sweat trickles down the back of my neck. I want to collapse. I want to run — to do anything but stand here logically discussing the premeditated killing of my entire family.
“The hunters will meet here,” she continues. “You leave ahead of them. Get to the clearing to warn the herd. I’ll stay with the hunting party.”
“You’re helping them?” Any hope I had left bleeds out of me.
“No.” She’s surprised by the question. “Zander was asking about you. Wanted to know what town you’re from. I offered to let them meet here to get him off my back. I’ll stay close to the group so I can alert you if they get to the clearing and you’re still there.” Her grip on my arms becomes loose, hesitant.
I want to trust her judgement, but my pelt is wailing at me: This is the end if I don’t warn Vashti and the others now.
“Okay.” My knees are on the edge of buckling. She walks over to the door, picks up my clothes, and gives them to me. We cram my unwilling fur into the chest. I dress and then lie motionless in bed, letting the chirps and calls in the forest engulf me.
“Get some sleep,” Diya whispers. She lays down next to me. “We’re going to need all of our strength in the morning.”
But in the dark I can only relive my mother’s death . . .
I’d returned to the thicket. She’d come to fetch me. Her pelt was draped over her shoulder, the ebbing sunlight casting a golden edge around her silhouette. She was transcendent — graceful and seamless both as doe and woman. I ache even now, knowing I’ll never be like her.
“Agni, come on!” Her whisper was urgent. “The pack’s close.” Then she’d cocked her head to the right, looked me in the eye, and put her index finger to her lips. We both knew I couldn’t stretch my doeskin out in time. I’d never outrun the wolves.
“It’s not your fault,” she said before she flicked her wrist and her pelt cascaded over her. “We should have let you be.” She bolted away, making as much noise as she could to draw the attention of the pack away from me.
I hid until the bloodthirsty barking was sated — until a cloak of silence blanketed me.
I found her afterwards. Disembowelled. Lifeless. What remained of her mangled fur was slick with fluid. Her pupils were blank, beginning to cloud. Grief stung my eyes but I couldn’t cry. I lay next to her, soaked in her blood, chasing away the crows that came to pick at her body, brushing away the flies ready to gorge on her flesh, until the moon was high and the wind heavy with the baying of the wolves come to reclaim their kill. I fractured inside after I left her.
When I told the herd Mama was dead, Vashti turned her back on me. She wouldn’t look at me even after I got on my hands and knees and begged for forgiveness. She didn’t speak to me again until the day I left for Diya’s cabin.
I check the clock. It’s four a.m. Time to go. Diya gets up to make coffee for the hunters. I strip off my clothes and retrieve my fur, stretching it as much as I can. I numb myself to all that could go wrong and focus on the adrenaline coursing through me. Diya follows me to the door. The transformation is barely complete before my hooves yank me toward the forest.
“Come back safe,” Diya calls.
I don’t look back.
I’m there before the Matutinal. Alone. My pelt has already shrunk. I wait, motionless for an eternity, muscles trembling from exhaustion.
I hear them. Faintly at first: the snap of a branch, a shift in the taste of the air. They emerge en masse from the other side of the clearing, ethereal, as if from the realm between waking and sleep. I wait until they reach the white rocks and remove their pelts before I creep out of my hiding place.
They freeze at the noise I make, ready to pivot and flee. But they recognize me as I hobble toward them.
“Why are you here?” Vashti’s question gores my chest. I step on my left forehoof with my right and tug my left leg. My pelt slides away. I straighten to stand in my human form.
“You’re not safe.” There’s an involuntary quiver in my voice. The doefolk gape at me.
“What do you mean?” Her claw-like stare rakes across my face.
I exhale. “The skin thief we stopped, he’s rounded up a bunch of hunters from town. They’ll be here soon. They’re going to kill you.” The end of the sentence catches in my throat.
The collective intake of breath is destabilizing. Neelum steps forward to address the herd. “We have to leave,” she says. “It’s not safe to perform the ceremony.”
“How could you do this to us.” Vashti’s shaking her head. It’s an accusation, not a question.
“I’m telling you to run.”
“Why should we trust you? Look what happened to Mom.”
I crumble. My sister’s always known how to wound me the deepest. “I don’t want you dead, Vashti, even if you don’t care if I live.”
There’s rustling in the forest on the far side of the clearing behind me. “There.” Diya’s voice wafts toward us on the breeze.
“Go!” I say.
The women slide into their pelts like liquid. Scatter for the trees behind them.
Only Vashti hesitates. She looks in the direction of Diya’s voice then back at me. She believes me. “No one’s skin fits perfectly.” Her anger disintegrates into fear. These may be the last words we say to each other. “If you’d try, Agni. Mama always said we were safer together. We could be whole.” Her lips are in the shape of a plea. “Just come with us.” She looks over her shoulder. The skin thieves are close. There’s not much time.
My loyalty to the herd and my life with Diya are splitting me apart. I want Vashti’s words to be true — that if I adjusted my posture and held my breath long enough, my pelt would magically fit. I could vanish into the woods. Leave the hunters and the wolves and the guilt behind. But she isn’t offering me forgiveness or an apology. This is an invitation to a covenant I’ve never known how to keep.
“I am whole,” I whisper. And for a flash, the memory of my mother’s blank eyes transposes over Vashti’s. The back of my throat sours. I look away.
She gives me a curt nod. “Goodbye, sister,” Vashti says. She sprints to the woods, leaping into her fur and transforming mid-stride.
I’m alone in the clearing when the crack of a rifle rushes toward me. The bullet ricochets off the rocks. I huddle behind the outcrop, trying to stretch my skin loose. It’s so tight. It rips when I pull it over me.
The impact in my lower left flank is like being hit by a baseball bat. A dull ache radiates up and down my leg. I make for the tree line. My leg collapses in the underbrush several feet in. I lie there trying not to move. Voices: Diya . . . Zander . . . skin thieves thrashing in the woods nearby. Be quiet. Be quiet. The air is saturated with blood. If the hunters miss me the wolves won’t.
This is the death I deserve.
“It went that way!” Diya’s voice? More crashing through the underbrush, moving away from me. Deeper into the forest.
“This is as far as I go.” Diya again, quieter, almost to herself.
She’s next to me. Her familiar hands pull at my hide. I shift and step on my fur with my foreleg, help her shuck it off. I bite my lip, holding back a screech.
She takes my pelt and wraps it around the bullet hole in my leg. The pressure jolts me, intensifies the ache. “It’s so cold here,” I chatter. “I don’t remember a summer morning feeling so cold.”
“Stand up,” she whispers to me. “We’ve got to get you home.” Her voice is splintering. “There’s blood everywhere.”
I lean on her. We stumble in the direction of the cabin along the edge of the clearing. I’m so tired. I want to lie down. Everything’s blurry. The forest is whirling green.
“Agni.” She sounds so far away. “I need you to . . .”
I wake in our bedroom, dressed in a loose shirt and underwear. My leg is bandaged and elevated. Diya’s sitting next to me on the bed.
“Did they get away?” I croak.
She puts her hand on my forehead. “Here, take these and drink this.” She offers me some pills and a glass of water. Her eyes are red. I sit up and wave the glass away. She puts everything on the nightstand.
“Did the skin thieves get them?”
She clears her throat and looks out the open window. “Not all of them,” she says. “They shot —” She clears her throat, again. “Zander and his friends got three. The rest of the herd escaped across the river. You helped most of them get away.” She gives me a weak smile.
“Did they get Vashti?” The bullet hole in my leg throbs.
“Sleep,” she says. Her face is pained. When I don’t lie down, she looks at her palms. “I don’t know, Agni. I don’t know what Vashti looks like. They couldn’t get their pelts off clean. They tried. They had to . . . they cut them down the middle. All of them were indistinguishable from regular deer on the inside.”
My stomach churns. Bile burns my stomach. An aunt, Neelum, my sister Vashti. Flayed and gutted for wanting to stay free. For defending themselves. I clear my parched throat. “Gone.”
Diya purses her lips.
“I want to be alone now,” I say.
She puts a hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she says. She turns off the bedside lamp and leaves the room.
Next morning, Diya’s slumped in the bedroom chair watching me. She leaves when I move and returns carrying a tray with toast and juice. She sets it down next to me.
“Thank you.” I grimace. I’m still in agony. She waits until I’m finished eating, then moves the tray aside.
“Doctor Hayward from town will be back this afternoon to check on you.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve known him since I was little. He’s a good man. We can trust him.”
I nod. I don’t trust him, but I believe Diya.
She reaches behind her and holds out my doeskin. “I thought you’d want this back,” she says, setting it down on my lap. I stare at it. Why hasn’t it called to me in the last twenty-four hours?
But there’s the pull again. It’s changed — it’s weaker, less insistent. The pelt coils up my forearm as I hold it up to inspect it. There’s a circular hole in the upper left flank. The fur is matted and stiff with dried blood. The inside of the right hind leg is torn, and the earthy smell of the woods is smothered by a pall of lead and copper.
I’ll never be able to stretch it out to wear it again.
“Do you want me to wash it? Put it away in the chest for you?” Diya asks.
“No. I’ll keep it with me,” I say.
“Okay.” She nods. “Get some more rest.” She picks up the tray and closes the door.
My doeskin clings to me. Its embrace is tender now. Soft. It knows I’m alone, the last of my kind this side of the river. A breeze blows through the window and fills the room. The air is light and filled with chatter. The sound is familiar and yet it feels thinner, as if the herd’s absence has muted the core of its tenor.
I close my eyes, let the fur envelop my chest while Mama’s words ring in my ears: There is a time and a place for everything, Agni. Her smooth voice transports me to the clearing deep in the woods.
I stroke the fur, soothing it, soothing myself. When I’m stronger, when I can walk there on my own, I’ll find my way back to the clearing.
I’ll hold vigil at dawn and welcome the Sun, for the herd and for myself.
Rank #14: PodCastle 567, ARTEMIS RISING: The Weaver Retires
- Author : Kai Hudson
- Narrator : Jen R. Albert
- Host : Setsu Uzume
- Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
- Artist : Yuumei
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PodCastle 567, ARTEMIS RISING: The Weaver Retires is a PodCastle original.
Content warnings for domestic abuse and fatphobia.
PG-13, for needles and blackest thread.
The Weaver Retires
by Kai Hudson
They come from all over: exotic, far-off places with names Weisa can barely pronounce. Australia. Japan. Venezuela. Last week, some alien-sounding place called Pen-sil-vay-ni-yah.
Her grandson Ashti says they come because she’s famous. She’s on the Internet, he tells her, this great big place like a temple in the air, full of books and magazines anyone can read at any time. Apparently someone wrote about her a few months ago, and that’s why people come.
She doesn’t mind it so much. They break up the monotony of the day, when she comes back from feeding the pigs or killing cockroaches with her sandals to find yet another foreigner sitting awkwardly with Ashti inside the hut. Today it is one of the ones with skin like someone dusted him with bread flour, with a balding head and damp patches decorating his brightly-colored shirt. A fat woman presumably his wife slumps in Ashti’s usual chair, fanning herself with her hat. Ashti has politely moved to the floor.
“Ah, Ima,” her grandson says, rising upon her entrance. The foreigners don’t move. “We have visitors.”
She’s always amused when he uses that word. When Weisa was little, visitors meant aunts and cousins from the next village over, or perhaps traders from afar, their donkeys laden with bright plastic toys and exotic candies that burst like bubbles of honey on her tongue. If they were really lucky, visitors meant a small group of slightly bedraggled people, lean and dusty from travel, who smiled with gaps in their teeth and offered, in exchange for food and lodging, her absolute favorite thing: stories.
The weavers, as they were called, were a spectacle throughout the village. A visit from them meant hot food and laughter shared late into the night, music and dancing around roaring bonfires. And, of course, the stories. Flashes of light and threads of darkness twisting through the air like errant snakes, setting their hearts afire with tales of brave warriors and faraway battles, great floods and seasons of bountiful harvest. If Weisa had been very good, her mother would let her have a story, and many a time she would fall asleep in an adult’s lap as dawn broke over the horizon, dizzy with the magic in her skin.
Weisa nods at her grandson and starts across the hut, intending to fetch the small cookie tin sitting next to her sleeping mat. The white man, however, heaves himself up with much effort and stands in her way to jam his hand forward. He smiles and says, “Hah-lo-ai-muh-but,” which she assumes is a greeting in his language.
She smiles back and shakes his hand. It’s greasy with sweat and he squeezes too hard, making her knuckles ache, but she makes sure not to show it on her face. They’ve journeyed very far to see her; she doesn’t want to make them uncomfortable. The man’s wife stops fanning long enough to bark something at her husband, but doesn’t seem able to summon energy for much more than that. The man nods and lifts the heavy camera hanging from around his neck, turning to say something to Ashti as he indicates Weisa’s bare arms. Ashti shrugs permission. He knows Weisa doesn’t mind.
And she doesn’t, even as the man follows her across the hut, camera going click click click as he photographs the stories inked all over her skin. She doesn’t mind at all. Stories are meant to be remembered, and if this is how they do it in today’s world, not with needle and thread but a big clunky machine, then so be it.
She bends slowly down and picks up the tin, unable to help a soft groan as her back dutifully protests. It seems everything in her body is going these days: the stiffness in her ankles, the painful grinding of her knees, her swollen finger joints and fading eyesight. Nicola, her great-granddaughter, says she calculated it and Weisa is over ninety years old. “That’s almost a century!” she’d said the last time they spoke on the phone, like it was an important thing. Weisa doesn’t really understand. The stories she weaves are much, much older.
She motions for the man to go outside. He does, and with a loud, whooshing sigh that dramatically announces how difficult this all is, his wife gets up and does the same.
Ashti smiles sheepishly. “Sorry, Ima. They came a long way.”
“Did they come from the Internet?” Weisa asks, and doesn’t really know why Ashti laughs. The world is a strange place nowadays.
In the patch of cracked dirt outside the hut, the foreigner’s wife has already plopped herself down in the only shaded area beneath the grassy awning, leaving her husband to sit awkwardly cross-legged under the sun just outside the door. Ashti immediately goes back inside to fetch the umbrella. It’s bright orange with some foreign company’s logo on it, a gift from the people who came a few months ago and did whatever they did to put her on the Internet. It doesn’t always open right and one of the spokes snapped off a while back, but Ashti manages to wrestle it into position, standing over Weisa to provide some relief from the relentless sun as she squats down next to the white man and opens the tin.
Inside is a set of needles, long and thin and ghostly silver. No thread. Weisa nods at the man. “Where?”
Ashti translates for her. The man rolls up the sleeve of his shirt and points to the bare patch of his upper arm. Weisa was taught that one’s first story should always be near the stomach where the spirit resides, but she makes no objection. For some reason, most foreigners prefer the arms or the back, though she’ll never know why.
She doesn’t ask the man what kind of story he wants. It’s not his place, or hers. Stories do not come from the weavers themselves.
She squints into the tin for a moment, the smell of metal and rust filling her nose as she struggles to distinguish the different needle lengths through the slow-expanding clouds in her eyes. One day she will not be able to do this anymore, when age and fatigue become too much. But today, her eyes, though blurry, can see, and her fingers, though aching, can move. She selects a medium-length needle that glints in the sun.
The man startles and draws in a hissed breath at the first puncture, laughing a bit to cover it up. Weisa ignores him and uses her thumb to swipe the blood away as she moves the needle through soft, pliant skin. Cloth rustles and there is movement out of the corner of her eye: the man’s wife finally lumbering to her feet to lift her own camera. Click goes the shutter, as she steps directly into Weisa’s light. Click, click.
Weisa doesn’t say anything, just pauses for a moment, needle tip still embedded beneath the man’s skin. Eventually the wife decides she wants a better angle and moves away. When the light returns, Weisa turns the needle and forces the tip back up to pierce the air. The man gasps and trembles.
The needle draws out of the man’s skin, trailing a thin, wispy thread of black. Weisa hums and tugs until she feels resistance about a foot later. It’s not bad, really. When she was a child, people’s stories were many feet long, shimmering in a rainbow of colors. Weisa’s grandfather only ever had one story, but it took three days to complete and splashed color from his cheeks all the way down to his ankles. By comparison, Weisa’s longest story only took one night, running from the base of her neck down to her left hip.
The foreigner’s black thread shimmers weakly in the sunlight. His wife gasps and quickly snaps pictures. Ashti read Weisa a few articles from the Internet in the beginning, people with faraway jobs living in faraway cities with faraway ideas about what it means to weave. There were many photographs of her work, and these people claimed the story was in these images, that if one were to squint and study hard and long enough, one would be able to see a neat beginning, middle, and end in the blocky lines and nonsensical shapes drawn into dozens of people’s foreign skin.
They are wrong.
Every weaver knows the story is in the thread.
The man has an odd name: Herbert. The thread wants it to take the form of a teardrop, so Weisa weaves it into his skin accordingly, squinting to make sure the thread sinks in completely, transforming into dark ink to cement the name. Herbert. He’ll turn fifty-six next month, and he wonders if Shelly will even remember. They haven’t had sex in months because Shelly keeps saying she has migraines, even though she never has migraines when it’s time to go out to the pub with her friends from the pool club.
Herbert’s resentment becomes a small black diamond in his skin. The next section of thread vibrates with guilt, because he feels bad about sneaking into the basement every other night to beat off to porn, but not bad enough that he thinks of stopping. He’s been ogling the cute maid at their hotel all weekend too, which has made Shelly snap at him twice, but Shelly has no right to be jealous, does she, because she promised him she’d be better, she promised him last summer she’d start her diet and go swimming for real and make it so that he doesn’t have to be married to a goddamned whale, but she didn’t keep her end of the bargain, did she, so he’s allowed to look, it’s not like he’s going to do anything.
Three parallel black lines for Herbert’s desperate disgust with his wife.
The story turns, and this is where Weisa has to be especially careful. Two years from now, Shelly will find a lump in her breast. She’ll be dead by the turn of the next decade, and Herbert will cry at the funeral and be relieved that he is still able to feel something for her, that she didn’t kill his humanity completely. Four wavy lines for Herbert’s future widower status.
Six months after that, he’ll meet a young twenty-something with fake-blonde hair, and he’ll fall head over heels for her giant tits and how she laughs at all his jokes, even the ones that aren’t funny. He’ll marry her by the end of the year, he’ll buy her a new car and spend whatever’s left of Shelly’s life insurance payout on jewelery and dresses and fancy dinners out, anything to keep her around, to keep her smiling and looking at him like he is the most important person in the world. An eye-shaped ellipse for Herbert’s naïveté.
When she vanishes three months after they marry, taking with her all the money in the house along with his social security number, bank cards, and retirement savings, he’ll drink. Weisa is very careful now, drawing the thread around in a series of slow-expanding concentric circles. One rainy evening in October, Herbert will stay out late at the pub, have one too many drinks. He’ll get angry. He’ll get stupid.
The thread is almost gone now, only about half an inch left. Weisa bends in close, squints down her nose at the needle to complete the final circle. A car crash at sixty miles per hour, a forehead slamming into a thick windshield hard enough to spiderweb the glass. A helicopter, surgery, ventilator. She must not allow her hands to slip and make a mistake. She must not accidentally save his life.
Herbert’s story finishes with a decision by his eldest daughter, years from now, to take him off life support. The last bit of thread sinks into skin, the curve of Herbert’s upper arm now a conglomeration of seemingly random black shapes and lines. Weisa sets the needle, bloody, down onto the lid of the cookie tin with a soft clink.
There are tears in the man’s eyes — from the pain, Weisa assumes, because only the weaver can see the story. She still has bits and pieces of it, enough that she remembers his name starts with a “huh” sound, and he doesn’t like his wife much. After a few seconds, even that fades away.
The foreigner gets shakily to his feet and says something to Weisa that probably communicates gratitude. She nods. Ashti speaks with them for a few moments longer, money changes hands, and then they are gone, disappeared down the road in the old, beat-up Jeep driven by Weisa’s grand-nephew. Maybe the story she wove today will be on the Internet tomorrow.
She doesn’t think much about the story as she washes the needle and shuts the tin. It could be considered cruel, she supposes, to see someone’s grim future and not do anything to change it. But that is not the expectation of a weaver. Whether someone’s life is to be long and adventurous or short and boring or any combination in between, it is not for her to judge. She works the needle, not the thread.
Ashti counts the money in the sun. “This can buy some of that tea you like, Ima,” he says, and Weisa smiles. Her grandson has never asked for a story, and she has never offered. She likes that about him, that he is a blank canvas so full of possibilities, yet he chooses to stay here with her. He makes things easier as she is getting old.
As if in agreement, her fingers ache. She groans and massages her wrist. Ashti goes to fetch some cooling herbs as Weisa heads back into the hut and her sleeping mat. She eases herself onto the soft, woven grass, breathes in the comforting smell of home, and closes her eyes.
When she dies, so will the art of weaving. That is not so bad. The world has a story in and of itself, and she is just one part of it.
She takes that comfort with her into sleep.
She dreams of a story. She is young, lithe, beautiful. Her skin shines clean, ready for the thread of her life, so she draws it from herself and it is a beautiful glimmering red, the color of celebration, and so long it reaches all the way to the stars. Buzzing with anticipation, she grasps the needle and weaves, in and out and up and down through the canvas of her skin, pictures of dragons and monsters and great houses in the sky, handsome men and dancing women and festivals full of music and more food than she could ever eat. The story of the world, and she has been blessed to carry it.
She wakes to Ashti gently shaking her shoulder. “Ima,” he says, and his face is as if he can’t quite decide whether to smile or grimace. “Ima, wake up. Nicola is here.”
Weisa blinks the wisps of sleep from her eyes and slowly sits up. It is late afternoon now, the sun slanting in through the door of the hut, and she can see her visitor sitting in the corner, half in shadow, half in light. She frowns and beckons. “Come here, child.”
Her great-granddaughter shuffles forward obediently, and Weisa’s heart sinks. Nicola’s left eye is swollen and purple. She cradles her arm to her chest, and even with the cataracts Weisa can distinguish the deep, finger-shaped bruises there.
“Oh, child,” she murmurs, opening her arms, and Nicola crawls into them, shaking with tears.
Ashti explains in the background, voice a low growl. Weisa can’t distinguish the words between her hearing loss and Nicola’s sobs, but she doesn’t have to. There is a story on Nicola’s skin that Weisa didn’t weave, but it’s old and deep nonetheless.
Nicola quiets after a moment, enough for Weisa to catch Ashti’s words. “I’ll kill him,” he hisses, and he’s already standing by the door of the hut, fists clenched, as if the story is already written, as if, in his head, he’s already in the city, seeking out the owner of the hand that bruised his daughter so. “I’ll drag him into the street and beat him like the dog he is. I’ll cut his throat. I’ll shoot him through the heart.”
This only makes Nicola cry harder. Weisa sighs and looks at her grandson. “You can’t do that. You’ll go to jail, and then who will take care of Nicola?” And me, she doesn’t add.
Ashti shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “He can’t be allowed to do this anymore, Ima. And Nicola, why do you keep going back? I told you before —”
“Stop it,” Weisa snaps, and Ashti’s mouth shuts with an audible click. She strokes her great-granddaughter’s soft black hair and sighs. “We’re all tired. Nicola has come a long way. Let’s all eat dinner and have some peaceful conversation, and then go to sleep. We can talk about it more in the morning.”
“But, Ima —”
“That’s all, nanu.” And with that, all the fight leaves Ashti in a breath. His shoulders slump and he nods, turning to fetch the old tea kettle from the corner.
Nicola stirs in Weisa’s arms. Her great-granddaughter lifts her head and wipes tears from her face. “Don’t worry, Amima,” she says, and it breaks Weisa’s heart how reedy-thin her voice is, fake bravado stretched taut over a yawning chasm of despair. “I won’t go back. Not this time. I promise. Me and Diago are done.”
Weisa smiles at that, and hopes it looks encouraging. She gently wipes a last tear from Nicola’s cheek with her thumb before resting her hand on the story that starts at the girl’s collarbone. Nicola asked her to do it when she turned sixteen, and it’s just a small one, only reaching past the curve of her left breast. Weisa wants Nicola to be like her, to have several stories that honor the change and choices she makes in her life.
Right now, though, she feels only sadness as her fingers tingle with the echoes of the girl’s future. She already knows how this story goes.
That night, she can’t sleep. Weisa lies on the mat and stares up at the hut’s ceiling, at the bits of black sky visible through the thick grass. Ashti’s snores drift from the other side of the hut, a slow, comforting rumble. Nicola’s warmth settles reassuringly at her side.
She turns to regard the girl. Nicola twitches in her sleep now, cries out occasionally even, and Weisa knows this is because of Diago and the meanness in his eyes. There’s a full moon tonight so she can make out the curve of Nicola’s bare shoulder, and this close she can see the scars: a long diagonal scratch that might have been accidental, and beneath it, a raised, ugly burn that is decidedly not.
The anger isn’t new. You don’t get to be as old as Weisa without having seen things that sometimes make shutters come down behind your eyes, make you want to lock yourself away from the world for a while and want nothing to do with stories. But that is dangerous too. And Weisa has a choice.
Weavers are storytellers, not storymakers. Weisa is a medium for a person’s story-thread; she draws it into whatever shape or pattern it wishes to take, but she never dictates. She never alters the ink.
But she loves Nicola, and she is getting old.
Perhaps here, on this cusp of night when the last weaver in the world is in the twilight of her days, something can change.
Nicola doesn’t stir when Weisa rises slowly off the mat. She is exhausted from her journey, and from Diago before that. Even so, Weisa tiptoes to the back corner of the hut. She feels out the slight depression in the dirt there by memory, and begins to dig.
The soil is arid and dusty and throws up the scent of dried-up things. Weisa ignores it. Her hands flare up in pain at the exertion but she ignores that too, because the object she is looking for is not buried very deep. In fact — there. Cool metal against her fingers.
She draws the pair of scissors from the earth and blows on it to get the dirt off. It is made of the same material as her needles, but has seen far less use.
Nicola complies with barely a snuffle when Weisa returns to the sleeping mat and gives her shoulder a gentle nudge, encouraging her to shift onto her back. The moonlight reveals her story, all done up in multicolored experiences, and it takes no time at all for Weisa to find the piece she is looking for, a two-inch-long band of black just above the heart. It sends a tiny frisson through her when she touches it, an echo of love-hate-fear-pain and a mixture of memories, some happy, most sad, and all featuring the same young man with glittering coals for eyes.
The thread materializes when she asks it to, lifting up from the skin and manifesting from ink to fiber without hesitation. She is a weaver, after all. Weisa bends close — she must be very careful — and makes sure to cut in the right places. Snip: the start of the black band, that sunny afternoon in the park when Nicola first looked over her laughing friend’s shoulder and caught a glimpse of a toned body and the most handsome face she had ever seen. Snip: the end of the band, Diago’s sneering, flushed-red face an instant before his fist ate up her whole vision and exploded the world in bright white agony.
Weisa sets the scissors down and regards the limp length of black thread now pinched between her fingers. Such a small, insignificant thing for a small, insignificant man. Below her, Nicola shifts in her sleep and lets out a sigh. For the first time that night, her shoulders relax into complete peace.
With a tiny shudder like a dying earthworm, the thread disintegrates. Weisa lets out a breath. When she wakes in the morning, Nicola will not remember anything of a savage named Diago.
But Weisa will. And she is not done.
She packs only what she needs: some bread and fruit, an old plastic bottle half-full of water, and Nicola’s ID card, printed with her current address. She reburies the scissors and leaves the needles where they are.
Ashti will understand, when the dawn wakes him tomorrow and he sees his grandmother is gone. He will know that she decided to write her own story.
It takes her a day and a half to get to the city. It’s a confusing mess, especially since she can’t read any of the signs or understand the dozens of different languages being barked and shouted all around her. Most of the people brush her by in their hurry to live their lives, running from one place to the next and yammering on their phones like it means something, but some are polite; the bus driver doesn’t charge her fare because she doesn’t know she has to pay for it, and tells her which direction to walk so she can reach Nicola’s neighborhood. A middle-aged woman who could pass for Nicola’s mother — may the gods bless her with great stories in heaven — walks several blocks with her to locate the exact apartment building, and even offers to accompany her in the elevator up to Nicola’s floor. Weisa politely but firmly declines. She will be the only witness for this.
The man who answers her knock has the same face she cut from Nicola’s story the previous night. There are bags under his eyes, he is unshaven and unkempt, and the stench of alcohol clings to him like a coat. He snorts, swallows mucus, and looks Weisa up and down. “Yeah? Who’re you?”
Weisa smiles. “Hello, Diago. I am Nicola’s great-grandmother.”
“Oh, the weaver.” Diago instantly looks wary, but it seems his mother did not raise him as a complete buffoon: he shuffles aside to allow her entrance. “Uh. How is she?”
“This is a very nice house,” Weisa answers. She imagines that to be at least partly true: the place is probably tiny by city standards, the garbage is overflowing and there are a few days’ worth of dishes in the sink, dirty clothes on the floor and the whole place smells of beer and cigarettes. Still, it is maybe twice the size of her hut, and the sunlight shining in through the grimy windows paints the place in bright, cheerful yellow.
“Thanks.” Diago shuts the door, but doesn’t quite seem to know what to do about Weisa being suddenly in his home. “What do you want?”
Weisa sighs and allows her shoulders to hunch. She sits down on the stained couch and smiles up at Diago. “Nicola has told me many things about you,” she begins, and instantly sees his wariness increase.
“I’d like to offer you a story.”
From the way Diago blinks, this was the last thing he expected. Weisa adjusts her seat on the couch and groans as her back protests. “I am getting old, child. Very old. Almost a century. And as you have no doubt read on the Internet, weaving will die when I die.”
“I’m sorry,” Diago says, in the same flat way Ashti might say I have to piss.
“I’m not bothered by it,” Weisa says. “But I am bothered that, after I go, there will be no more stories. So I wish to weave as much as I can before the time comes. To . . . leave a legacy, I suppose.”
She sees it the instant Diago understands. His eyes light — not with joy or honor, but with greed. No doubt after she dies, those who carry her work will suddenly be very important. Such a small, insignificant man.
“Child,” she says, looking into those dark, glinting eyes, “Will you allow me to weave your story?”
He sinks down next to her on the couch before she even finishes the sentence. “It would be an honor, Amima,” he says. Weisa has to resist the urge to wince at his use of the honorific. Only family can call her that.
Given the enormity of what she is about to do, though, she lets it slide.
“Where would you like me to start?” she asks, and predictably, Diago turns and tugs his shirt off, tapping between his shoulder blades.
“Make it come out in like a wing pattern,” he says, “so it’s not all lopsided and ugly like Nicola’s.”
“I understand.” Weisa lays a gentle hand on Diago’s back. The skin there is warm, almost feverish, as if even now his body cannot contain the burning, rageful fire inside. Oh, Nicola, she thinks. I will never regret this.
It takes no coaxing to draw the thread out. It’s thicker than the foreigner’s from yesterday, solid obsidian-black, and doesn’t catch the light at all, seeming instead to suck it up and swallow it. Weisa tugs gently. Six inches, then eight. Ten. A full foot.
Then she feels it: the resistance that tells her she has reached the end. The thread vibrates against her fingers, heavy with story. Past, present, and future.
Gods forgive her.
She clamps her fist around the thread and yanks.
The thread snaps from Diago’s back with a sharp crack and a brief spout of blood. The man howls and falls forward, smashing into the coffee table and sending empty beer bottles and full ashtrays scattering every which way. Weisa leaps to her feet and plasters herself against the wall.
Diago doesn’t even notice. He writhes on the floor as if in a seizure, eyes shot so wide she can see the whites all around. Thick cords of vein and muscle strain down his neck and arms. His mouth opens and closes but emits only a thin, high-pitched “ah, ah, ah” as if even language has fled him. And in a way, it has.
She’s breathing hard. Weisa stares down at the thread in her hands. It wriggles like a beheaded snake, twisting about as if in pain but she keeps her grip on it, forces herself to hold on even as tears prick her eyes. The story sears through her in brief, crazy flashes: Diago as a little boy, screaming as he leaps on his father’s back to protect his bruised, bleeding mother. Diago as a teenager, riding his bike as fast as he can, thinking that if he just aims for that wall, that rotting brick wall and gains enough speed and doesn’t stop then maybe he’ll smash and break and everything will end. Diago as a young man meeting Nicola and thinking she’s pretty enough. Diago digging his dad’s old revolver out of the closet when Nicola tells him she’s never coming back, and going to the village where she lives with her retarded backwards country family and shooting all of them in cold blood, yes, even that shriveled old weaver grandmother of hers. Diago in prison smoking and laughing and playing cards, Diago getting released eight years later because he knows the right officials to bribe, Diago trying to find work, Diago failing, Diago alone, Diago drinking, Diago getting hit by a bus and bleeding out in the street while they wait for an ambulance that doesn’t get there in time.
The thread gives one last shudder and goes limp. Weisa opens her hand, fingers trembling, and the ugly black thing disintegrates into so much wispy smoke. She looks down once more at Diago, sprawled on the floor, still making those horrible wordless sounds, and shakes her head.
“May the gods bless you,” she whispers, “with great stories in heaven.”
She exits the apartment and shuts the door behind her with exaggerated care. She will never forget those terrible sounds, or that awful look on his face. She will never be able to look Nicola in the eyes again, knowing what she has done. She will die in a few years — of pneumonia, not a bullet — and make sure she never teaches anyone her craft so that the weaving of stories into skin will become a mere memory after she passes, and then eventually a folk tale, and then a legend.
All this will happen, and the story of the world will grind on.
The wetness on her cheeks surprises her. Weisa doesn’t know why she is crying, but she doesn’t mind. It’s a beautiful day. Ashti and Nicola are waiting for her.
Wiping away the tears, she asks her aged body for a little more strength and points herself in the direction of home.
Rank #15: PodCastle 569: TALES FROM THE VAULTS — The Yew’s Embrace
- Author : Francesca Forrest
- Narrator : Stephanie Malia Morris
- Host : Matt Dovey
- Audio Producers : Peter Behravesh and Peter Wood
- Discuss on Forums
Originally published in Strange Horizons.
This episode is a part of our Tales from the Vaults series, in which a member of PodCastle’s staff chooses a backlist episode to rerun and discuss. This week’s episode was chosen by associate editor and social media manager Matt Dovey. “The Yew’s Embrace” originally aired as PodCastle 227.
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The Yew’s Embrace
by Francesca Forrest
We could still see the old king’s blood in the cracks in the flagstones beneath the new king’s feet when he announced to us all that this was a unification, not a conquest, and that we had nothing to fear from the soldiers that fenced us round. The new king said that my sister the queen would become his wife and that he’d make the old king’s baby son his very own heir. That’s how much he loved and honored our people, he said.
A month later, on a stormy day when the rain blew in at the windows and puddled on the floor, and we were huddled round the hearth, spinning by the light of oil lamps, the king burst in, soaking wet. Eyes a-glitter, he told my sister that he had caught Lele, the wet nurse, down by the stream at the edge of the grove of the gods, drowning the baby prince.
“She said she wouldn’t permit him to grow up under my authority,” he said. “I tried to save him, but I was too late.” He held up his dripping hands. River weed clung to his arms above the elbows.
“She’ll be punished, though,” the king continued, and you could see his whole body trembling like a struck bell as he spoke. It was anger, red anger, that caused him to shake. None of us dared to move. “I’ve ordered her flayed alive in the grove of the gods. It will stand as a lesson,” he said, catching us each by eye, one by one, lingering on my sister. “No one may cross me. I will show no mercy to those who oppose me.”
Continue reading this story at Strange Horizons.
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