When the desert finally lets you go, naked and stumbling, your body humming with raw power and the song of dead things coiled under your tongue, you find Marisol waiting for you at the edge of the bluffs. She’s dressed in long sleeves and a skirt over her boots, her black hair tucked under a hat and a blanket wrapped around her shoulders against the night cold. Madam Lettie’s bony horse whuffs at you in the glow of the lantern as you approach.
“You were gone longer than usual,” says Marisol. “I got worried.”
Human speech is always slow to return on the nights when the desert calls you. You nod in reply.
Marisol sets the lantern down and pulls off her blanket to wrap around you. Most girls her age would flinch away from touching a naked boy’s skin, but her fingers brush yours indifferently. She’s seen your body as many times as you’ve seen hers, in all of its pitiful states: bruised and scratched; bramble–bled from running through the thorns with the coyotes; finger–marked by rough hands. “Did you step on any scorpions?”
You turn your head and spit a brown, dusty gob into the dirt. You hope she doesn’t notice the fur and tiny bone fragments caught in it. “Who do you take me for?”
A wan grin spreads across her face, and she almost looks like the kid she is—that you both are. “Check ‘em anyway.”
You glance at Madam Lettie’s horse instead of at your battered bare feet. “She’ll be furious when she finds out that you took Belle.”
“She’s always furious,” says Marisol. She swings onto the horse, and the animal shivers as you climb up behind her. “Besides. She pretends otherwise, but she knows how you get home every night. She’s never raised a hand to me about it.”
“Good. If she does, tell me. I don’t want you to get in trouble.”
“Just hold the lantern,” says Marisol. She nudges Belle forward and the three of you turn toward the road leading to the Bisden mines. A few pinpricks of lamplight glimmer along the ridge from the town beyond, and the path snakes through the sand like a pale sidewinder.
The horse’s back rolls beneath you like dirt in a goldrusher’s pan, and you practice breathing. In, out, with the rhythm of the hooves and Marisol’s heartbeat.
“Some of the men from the big mining company out east visited the house while you were gone,” Marisol says. “The city folk who rode in on the California–bound train yesterday. They’re staying across the street.”
Oh. “Which did you have?” you say.
“The tall one. The one with dark brown hair and the Yankee accent. He speaks pretty enough, but he’s not… kind.” She shrugs. “But then, who is to a whore?”
You hold her tighter.
“One of them asked for you.”
“For me?” you say. No one notices you, not you, the small and half–feral boy kept in the back to clean the kitchen. Bless Madam Lettie’s heart for taking you in, you poor soul, with your dead witch–father and propensity to make discarded bones quiver and shake like living things. Poor souls, both.
“He looked like some kind of preacher. But there was something off about him.” She won’t look at you, not while she’s guiding the horse back to town, but when you press your face against the back of her neck, strands of hair tickling your cheek, you can feel her breathing relax. “I don’t know why, but he reminded me of you.”
“I’m not sure,” Marisol says. “But the city folk are planning to hold a party at Madam Lettie’s in a few days, so he’ll probably be back tomorrow with the rest. You can see for yourself then.”
You’ve witnessed a few parties at Madam Lettie’s, and mostly that means a rough night for Marisol and the rest of the girls at the brothel. Madam Lettie will probably have you attend the guests, too. Just thinking about it makes you wince.
The town is quiet, the sound of Belle’s hooves muffled against the sand. Madam Lettie’s is the only building with candles still burning in the windows, and the empty, boarded up buildings littering the stretch remind you of when the town was still lively, before the silver dried up, before the desert’s call grew too loud for you to ignore.
Marisol helps you up the stairs, past the bar, and together you stumble into her room. It stinks of sweat and musk, but probably no worse than you do. The two of you collapse into Marisol’s bed. It’s barely big enough for one person and your own cot is down the hall, but everything in your body aches, and Marisol feels so human against your bones. You need that right now.
“I saw my pa tonight,” you say into Marisol’s hair. Her dark braids smell like smoke, and you bury your face into them, just behind her ear. “Walking among the brush with the rest of the dead.”
“I didn’t find your folks, though. I heard their voices, but I couldn’t dig a path deeper into the mine.” You’d torn your hands to pieces, ripped the skin and flesh down to the bone, and the desert had built you back out of sand and briars, then pushed you rudely away from the entrance to the collapsed mineshaft. The wandering skeletons of slain cattle and men had stopped their nighttime shambling to watch through ant–eaten eyes. Stay away from this, child.
She sucks in a breath. “If you found them, could you bring them back?”
You close your eyes. “No. Not like you want. I could make their bodies move, but it wouldn’t be real.”
She nods and holds your hand tight. It’s a conversation you’ve had a few times, ever since the desert started pulling you away from Madam Lettie’s every night and you started being able to coax dead things into dancing for you. This time, Marisol says, very softly, “Sometimes I wonder if that would be enough, just seeing them again.”
It wouldn’t, but you don’t need to tell her that. Her grip on your hand means that she knows.
One of the company men appears on the doorstep in the morning, black hair slicked away from his naked face, too young and too nervous to be standing in front of a saloon–turned–cathouse in broad daylight. Madam Lettie, who is lean and tough like rawhide, lets him in, and as they pace the ground floor and talk about plans for Saturday night, you and Marisol sneak peeks from behind the kitchen door.
“That’s not the preacher man, is it?” you say. Marisol shakes her head. She’s helping you with laundry today, and the filthy sheets bunch up between you, muffling the sounds of your bodies moving.
“I figured it out,” she says, “the preacher man’s strangeness. He walked like his feet didn’t touch the ground, and he stank. God, he was foul.”
“You’ve said the same about me,” you say. And it’s true; usually you’re so much dirt that you could grow plants in the creases of your arms and fingers, if the sullen clouds over Bisden ever gave water. But when she glances at you, there’s no humor in her eyes.
“Ellis, I’m telling you. That man reeked like a body left bloating in the sun at high noon. I never smelled something so bad in my life, even from across the room.”
The familiarity of it builds a sense of relief and dread in you. Almost every one of the customers Madam Lettie demanded you take had said something similar. They’d never lasted long; the last rancher who’d slipped his hands into your trousers had bitten your neck, then turned and vomited off the edge of the bed.
Lettie had kept his money and made you clean the floor, which you had done patiently, without complaint. By then it had become a system between you two, and you’ve seen and done worse beneath this roof. Though she cannot stop you from wandering the desert at night with the dead things, just as she could not stop your father before you, she can at least turn a profit off of your peculiarities.
The saloon doors swing open and a group of men walk in. The one at the front is immaculate and fair–skinned, like he’s never spent a day sweating under the sun. His pale blond hair is combed back in a smooth wave, and he walks with the easy confidence of a wealthy man. Behind him is the tallest man you’ve ever seen, a gaunt, bent figure in priest’s robes. A dizzying rush of power—the call of the desert, the urge to shed your clothes and run with the coyotes through the brush, to dig up the dead to dance with—hits you down to your bones.
The preacher man turns his head and looks straight at you, grinning past the bar with empty eyes.
Marisol grabs your hand so tight it hurts. “Stop that,” she says, quiet and sharp. “You’re doing it again.”
Harriet, the girl on kitchen duty today, is backing away from the sink, knife held high in shaking hands. The sound of bones rattling against metal fills your ears, and you turn to look; the chicken she’d been preparing for dinner staggers back to its feet, half–skinned, half–butchered. Its flesh hangs in open, swaying flaps. The discarded pile of plucked feathers begins to swirl around it like an obscene snowfall.
“Witchcraft,” Harriet whispers. She’s new; she’s never seen you do this before. The rest of the girls have some inkling of your strangeness; they cross themselves when they pass you, and they stay well away from you at night, when the dust in your skin begins to prickle with electrifying power.
“Stop that,” Marisol snaps, at her, at you, at both of you. “Ellis, breathe. Bring it down.”
You can feel each movement the dead chicken takes, your blood pounding in time with its footsteps.
You focus, breathe out, and force your fists to unclench. The chicken’s headless neck whips toward you, snakelike, its ragged circle of severed bone and muscle gleaming at you like a malevolent eye. Its toenails rasp against the sink. Calm down, you think, and it sways, sinking to its knees. Go back to sleep.
“What is going on here?” Madam Lettie demands from the kitchen door. Her body fills the entrance, arms outstretched and resting on the doorframe to keep anyone from coming in behind her. At her back are the company men, the pale one who looks like a prince and his nervous, dark–haired retainer. And the preacher man, gaunt and grinning. He nods at you the way a man would a lady, as if he’d just doffed his hat.
The desert’s voice screams through your body, an unfiltered torrent of power tearing at you like the most vicious of dust storms. Any control you have over the bird evaporates in its wake. The chicken launches itself from the sink—no feathers, no gravity, no sense but magic to keep it aloft—and flies at Madam Lettie, talons extended. She screams and beats it away. The company men behind her are shouting, and there is blood and meat everywhere. You barely hear Marisol yell your name before you’re out the back door, running blind and fast, back towards the bluffs. Come, the desert sings, come home my son, and you scarcely make it past the town’s border before your human form falls away and you are wild, uncontainable, raw, free.
Time passes differently for you when you aren’t human. Animals operate on cycles of eat–sleep–hide–stalk, and although you are not quite an animal like this, you’ve found that the land, which beats in your blood, operates on similar principles. Cycles of heat–burn–cool–dark, the wind blowing balefully over the baked, cracked earth. Now is heat–burn, and though the ground sears your feet, you barely notice.
Your father’s grave is marked by a pair of yucca trees, their straggly branches clawing toward the heavens. There is no tombstone. A cluster of scorched stones lie scattered at the feet of the trees, marred by some mysterious immolation, and the coyotes have taken to leaving small gifts of bones there as well.
You pace before the grave, listening for your mother’s voice. Her sighs are in the scuttle of desert rats in their hiding holes, the scratch–scratch of burrowing owls’ claws against the dirt as they run, stick–legged, chasing the shade. She’s called you here for a reason, you’re sure, but in this form you have no voice with which to answer her, and so you must wait.
Instead of the desert’s comforting murmur, the words of your father’s favorite lullaby trickle down around you, sung in a raspy human voice:
“Shake, shake, yucca tree,
“Rain and silver over me—”
All of the animal bones lying on his grave begin to tremble, shivering and crying clack–clack clack. Dread bites you deep in the stomach, and you snarl with all of your mouths, the sand swirling at your feet.
“Stormclouds, gather in the sky,
“Mockingbird and quail, fly;
“My love, my love, come haste away!
“You’ll surely drown here if you stay.”
The bones on the ground snap together into a single line pointing to the trunk of the biggest yucca. High above you perches the preacher man, contorted into a shape with his knees raised to his ears. His black clothing seems to glimmer in the heat, and the way his neck arcs makes him look like a giant vulture, begrudgingly fitted into human form. His shadow stretches long and thin across the ground like a single, accusing finger.
“I was the one who taught him that song, you know.” The preacher man blinks at you and smiles again. “A prayer to bring down the rain. And this town could use some resurrection, couldn’t it?”
The branch he’s sitting on doesn’t look strong enough to hold a man of his size, but that doesn’t bother the preacher man. In a blink, he’s gone from the tree, and in another blink, he’s standing over you, hunched shoulders blocking out the moonlight. The moon, you realize, is out, a pale sliver cutting the night sky.
Marisol is right. The preacher man smells like death.
“You truly are the spitting image of him,” he murmurs. “I suppose he was your father, wasn’t he. You have the same hair, the color of the clay deep in the earth. And the same talent for making sleeping things rise up when they shouldn’t.” The preacher man cocks his head, adjusting his wide–brimmed hat. “I taught him that, too. He was mine before he came to seek his fortune out west, with all the rest of his brothers. Before he turned his back on me for my sister.”
The desert hisses in you, and you can feel your body humming with her rage, her resentment, her regret. Coyotes slink out of the darkness to flank you, their eyes glinting like rough–cut gems. But the preacher man just laughs, his mouth too wide.
“Twice–blessed, twice–cursed. You got my gift, and hers.” The preacher man leans in, his dry, fetid breath ghosting across your face. “But I didn’t come out here just to scare you. There is a storm brewing, little one. Something bigger than you can understand, brought here by the men who came on the train.”
That gives the desert pause and she coils in you like a waiting snake. Your heart is beating so fast that if you were still human, you would worry about passing out. But before you can try to force words out, to ask him what he means, a voice rings across the plain.
There’s a small figure in the distance, one arm raised to shield their eyes. It’s Marisol, her bandana tied around her face, pulled over her nose to protect her from the dust. No horse this time; she must have run after you on foot.
No, no, you don’t want her to see you like this. Your dust storm kicks up into a twisting column, sending howling gusts to buffet her slight form. Marisol staggers back.
“Dammit, Ellis! Stop!” You can barely hear her over the storm, and the preacher man chuckles.
“What a loyal friend. But remember, child—bad things happen to men who marry the desert. Don’t forget what they did to your father, out on your mother’s territory, when they thought no one could see.” The preacher man touches your forehead with one long, thin hand, and his fingers are stiff and ice cold. “People fear what they don’t understand. That’s why, no matter what you choose, you will always end up alone.”
“Ellis!” Marisol is struggling, fighting her way through the blinding gale. When you glance back, the preacher man has vanished. “Ellis, please, get a hold of yourself!”
The power roars through your veins still, but with the preacher man gone, so is some of the intense pressure in your head. No, you think, tamping it down forcefully. If he is right, then this power is yours—a gift from your mother and from your father, to do with as you please. You will make it obey.
And for the first time in your life, for the first time since your father died and the desert began to cast its madness on you in his stead, you can feel your mother’s power bend to your will, into a shape you can control. You clench your fist, and the winds die down to a quiet whisper. At the same time, you search back through yourself for the human frame that feels familiar to you, a boy with a small, bony body and earth–dark skin. A shape to fit your own power into.
No sooner have you slipped back into your own body than Marisol’s arms are around you, clutching you tight. “Lord. I thought I’d lost you.”
You sag into her embrace, feeling drained but so full. You’ve never come back to yourself like this before, not until your mother was ready to let you go. “I thought so too,” you murmur against her cheek. “But I’m here. I’m not leaving.”
“Chrissakes, I’m always cleaning up your messes.” The bite in her voice makes you flinch, but her arms are gentle around you. Her footprints have been wiped away behind her, but even the wind can’t scour away the deep, sharp divots her heels carved out of the ground as she fought her way to you.
“I’m sorry,” you say. God, you love her so much. And not the way so many men desire women; you’ve never felt that, for anyone, in all your life. But Marisol has never touched you that way, and the warmth of her body here, now, is more than enough.
Still, the preacher man’s words ring in your ears. You will always end up alone.
“It’s all right.” She begins to tug you away, back toward the direction of the town. “I’m used to it by now.”
“Wait.” You hold her hand, and she looks back at you, her braids framed in the scant light. “Marisol… you saw me. Like that.”
You suck in a breath. “Weren’t you scared?”
Her grip on your hand tightens. “I’ve seen worse.” And she has; you both have, from the cave–in that orphaned the both of you, in different ways, to the haunted look in her eyes as you help her tighten her corset strings every evening, her hand shaking as she unstoppers the tiny bottle of laudanum she keeps behind the vanity mirror.
But she has never seen you as desert–wild as you were tonight, a mad creature stripped down to the bone. And there is some comfort in knowing that she has witnessed you, and that she can still look at you without turning her face away.
“Let’s go back,” Marisol says, very gently. She doesn’t say home, and you’re grateful for that.
Madam Lettie’s hand cracks hard against your face. “Where have you been?” she hisses. You don’t answer her—she knows already where you’ve been, you smell like the coyotes and animal piss and dried blood—and she hits you again. “I told you not to run off like that. You shamed me in front of our guests, fleeing past them like some mad, filthy creature. Thank the Lord they still want to use the saloon on Saturday.” Lettie wipes her hand on her skirt like she’s touched the most disgusting thing she’s ever seen. You remember the times, when you were little and your father was still alive, when she used to touch your face with kind, gentle hands. When she held you because she wanted to, not because she had to. You remember the soft look in her eyes. You remember when she still used your name.
You think she might have loved you, once, before she learned to fear you.
“Now, now, Lettie.” She starts—it seems she hadn’t heard the two company men walk up behind her. It’s the pale, princely one and his nervous, dark–haired companion. You wonder, briefly, if the latter is the one who had spent that first night with Marisol. The princely man has a cultured accent; you can tell by the way Madam Lettie straightens her shoulders unconsciously when he speaks to her. “It’s quite all right. I don’t think we’ve had proper introductions, though.” He looks straight at you, not through you the way so many people do. “My name is William Lacombe. And your name is?”
Madam Lettie’s lips purse. “The girls call him Ellis.”
He barely looks at her. “Are you Ellis, then?”
“Yes,” you say, very quietly. The preacher man is not with them, and you can’t sense his presence any more. You’re not fool enough to think he’s gone, though.
William’s gaze travels to Marisol, who is standing silently behind you, and stops. “And the brave girl who ran out after our new friend. Who might you be?”
“Marisol,” she says. William reaches out and takes her hand; then he brings it to his lips and kisses the back of it. Madam Lettie’s expression goes sour enough to pickle a jar of vegetables. William’s companion’s brow tightens.
“Marisol.” He says her name the way the desert says yours, like the heat crackling across the rocks. Marisol. Heat crackles across your face, too, at the sound of it in his mouth. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance. Has Lettie told you why I’m here?”
“No, sir.” She withdraws her hand, uncertainty flickering through her eyes, and takes a step back. William only smiles and straightens up, looking from Marisol to you.
“Well, the Lacombe Mining Company owns the land that this town is built on. We developed the mine just outside the bluffs. It took a few months to hear of the tragic news of the collapsed shaft—so many good men were lost, and for that, I offer my deepest condolences.” His eyes look sad, and he holds his hat to his chest. This gesture makes you trust him exactly as much as you did before, if not less. “Of course, the vein of silver was blocked off as well. Samuel—my companion here—and I have been sent to evaluate the damages to the mine and draw up the appropriate compensation for the families of the lost miners.”
“When did the fits start?” Samuel says abruptly, staring at you. It seems he isn’t one for pleasantries. “The thing with the bones.”
“The boy’s done this since his father died.” Madam Lettie won’t even say his name, for all he’d adored her. You’d adored her too, then, even if she was your father’s second wife.
“Is he yours?”
“Heavens, no. He was his father’s child and came to me as such.”
William coughs and shoots Samuel a sharp glance. “We’ve never seen anything like this out east. Is this a common… phenomenon in your town?”
“I hear you burn your witches out east,” says Madam Lettie. You stare at the floor and try to disappear. The place where she slapped you aches, a sensation that won’t go away, and your heart feels like it’s been scratched deep by acacia thorns. “No, he’s the only one, since his father died. Small mercies. In spite of his bedevilments, I’ve kept him under my roof ever since.”
“I see.” A hand slips under your chin to tilt your face up, and you find yourself looking into William’s eyes. “Ellis, it seems you have a rare and unique gift. It may well be devils’ work, but I am a God–fearing man who has seen many things, and I have no fear of you. I would like you to accompany us to survey the mine tomorrow morning.”
“Sirs, that would be a terrible inconvenience—”
“We can compensate you for his time, of course.”
“He doesn’t have a horse,” says Madam Lettie. Her fists are knotted in her skirt, and there is something in her voice—a tinge of panic, perhaps—that reminds you of Marisol. It makes you think again. Maybe it’s your imagination, but you haven’t heard her talk about you like this since… well. “It’s a dangerous area, gentlemen. Surely you would be better served by taking some of the men displaced by the cave–in. They have their own firearms as well.”
“We have our own men. What we don’t have is someone who can talk to the dead.” Your breath catches in your throat. He had seen you, after all. Out of the corner of your vision, Marisol looks scared as well, her shoulders tense like she’s ready to grab you and run.
William releases your face. “We ride at dawn. Pack accordingly, Ellis.”
“You can’t take him.” To your surprise, it’s not Marisol who says this, but Madam Lettie, stepping between the two of you. “I won’t allow it.”
William turns a beautiful smile on her. “My dear Lettie, it isn’t a request.”
As he sweeps out the doors and into the night, Samuel stalking at his heels, you realize that William is humming something under his breath. It takes you a moment to recognize that it is your father’s song.
You leave the town on a borrowed horse as the sun begins to stretch over the horizon, Marisol’s stained red bandana wrapped around your throat. Marisol is up to see you off, her shawl wrapped around her to protect her from the cold night.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” she says as you ready your horse, her voice pitched low enough to carry to your ears alone. “If you see any of those walking things, gallop the hell out of there. These city folk be damned.”
She is so fierce, such a survivor, your Marisol. Each of you is the other’s only friend, and so much more. You open your mouth to tell her how you feel, but what comes out instead is, “The prince can’t take his eyes off of you. This could be your ticket out, Marisol.”
She kisses your cheek so she doesn’t have to look at your face, and that’s how you know that she knows, too. William, with his money and his fondness for her. With his life a cross–continental train ride away from this terrible, dying town, away from the saloons where tiny bottles are hidden behind mirrors and men with rough hands prowl the corridors, some new place where a person like you or Marisol could start over.
When Marisol pulls back, her dark curls tickling your cheek, her eyes are hard. “Don’t pin your hopes on dreams. Just get back to me in one piece, Ellis.”
You kiss her cheek and swing up onto the horse. “I will.” I won’t leave you alone.
“Come, boy,” orders Samuel. He and the rest of the company men are already mounted and ready to go, with William at the head of the party. All of them are cloaked in ponchos or jackets to ward off the sun, when it arrives. There is no sign of the preacher man.
Obedient, you follow, the coyotes howling in your head, your head down and hands tight on the reins. You don’t look back at Marisol, but you can feel her growing smaller and smaller in the distance, the distance of the land between you stretching with each new step.
The company men ride all day with little conversation, and the sun rises in a slow arc, glaring overhead like a malignant eye. It’s hard to stay on the horse; you don’t have much practice riding, and the horse is fidgety, as if it can smell the feralness on you.
After last night, your grip on your wild, brittle, real self is firmer, but being away from town and heading into the heartland of your mother’s territory slowly erodes your self–control. At Madam Lettie’s, you drift like a ghost through the halls, sweeping floors, cooking meals, disappearing into the shadows. But here, as the mountains cup the sky with deep brown hands, the call to bound away, howling, with the coyotes in the brush becomes almost unbearable. Your skin itches, as if your clothes are too tight, and you ache to be among the yucca and wild honeysuckle, the fields of bones where the mesas rise in strange bestial shapes from the flat ground.
The company men have few words for you, although Samuel keeps a distrustful eye on you, always placing himself between your horse and William’s. William, as gracious as he’d been in town, seems to have retreated into himself, watching the horizon silently.
The first of the dead things stumbles across your path when your party is a few miles away from the mine. It looks like the corpse of a bull, an unlucky casualty of a careless, ambitious rustler, judging by the bullet holes punched in its ragged hide. The men pull up short, and Samuel hauls your horse up to the front, your reins fisted in his hand. The bull stares at you both with ponderous, sightless eyes and paws the ground.
“Can you stop it?” demands Samuel. Behind him, the men murmur among themselves. Cursed and possessed and devil work catch your ears.
“I don’t know,” you murmur.
“You best figure it out fast,” says Samuel, and he’s right; the dead bull, mostly bones and empty skin, has thrown its head down, ready to charge. It has no lungs, no voice, and its silence is unnerving. “Guns aren’t going to help against something like that.”
You swallow and focus. The desert’s power curls in your palm, the way it had behaved for you the night before, but it feels jagged, uneven. Still, you hold out your hand. Stop.
The animal skeleton quivers and lifts its head tentatively. Then it takes a step toward you. Then another, and another, until it breaks into a gallop. The horses behind you began to panic, and so do their riders.
“Kill it!” hisses Samuel. Sweat beads his dark brow. “Dammit, boy, you’re the only one who can put it down!”
“Ellis!” shouts William. “Do it!”
“I can’t!” you cry. Stop! Stop! But it’s not listening. You’ve never taken a dead thing apart before, only made them come together, and then only by accident. And then William is beside you, gripping your shoulder. Power spikes through you—
Shake, shake, silver and rain over me—
—and the desert, your mother, screams through you. Lightning strikes through your vision, and when you blink, gasping for breath, there are visible threads of power running through the undead animal, bright as silver. You close your fist and pull on those strings. STOP.
The bull stops in its tracks, frozen, only a few yards from you. And then it spasms and collapses into a heap of bones and sun–weathered skin.
There is a moment of utter stillness. And then William laughs, clapping you hard on the shoulder. Your concentration shatters, and you fight to keep your power, your human shape, contained. “Well done!”
Your head is full of the screams of dying cattle, your nose the acrid scent of gunpowder, and you sway on your horse, trying to hold on.
The rest of the men stay away from you, huddling together. Only Samuel rides up to you and William, reining his horse in as close as he can get.
“What were you thinking?” he snaps. But he’s not asking you, he’s asking William, who just grins. “You could have gotten yourself killed!”
You realize it then. He looks at William the way you look at Marisol. He looks at William like he would do anything for him, even die, unquestioning, for him, his name on his lips.
“It worked, Sam,” says William. He sounds giddy. “He took it apart. Did you see that?” He turns to you almost feverishly. “If he can wake the dead, why can’t he put them back to sleep? I knew it, I was right!” His hand is still on your shoulder, but you have the feeling that, as he stares into your face, he’s looking through you. “Ellis, you’re our chance to get to the mine safely. That’s why we need you.”
“One time isn’t a pattern,” says Samuel. “It’s not safe. And the boy looks like he’s about to fall over. Assuming this… witchcraft works again, how long can he keep this up?”
Witchcraft. You swallow past the knot in your throat as William and Samuel argue in low voices. Witchcraft is what got your father killed. His songs to bring down the rain and his nighttime journeys to visit your mother, to worship her on her soil.
People fear what they don’t understand.
A flask bumps your hand, and you find Samuel looking at you with dark eyes. Behind him, William has galloped to join the rest of the men, waving them in. “Drink,” Samuel says quietly. “You’re parched, aren’t you.”
You take his flask uncertainly. But the water is good, tinny and warm on your tongue.
“Can you get us to the mine?” he asks. He lets you drink as much as you want, and you appreciate that small kindness.
“I don’t know,” you say, staring at your hands. “I didn’t know I could make the dead… stop. Not until now.”
“You best learn.” Samuel stops you when you try to hand his flask back. “Once William makes up his fool mind about something, it’s impossible to change it. We’ll get to the mine or we’ll die trying.” He tilts his chin up at you. “I would prefer not to die. And I hope to deliver every one of our men safely home. That includes you.”
The sun beats down as he rides away, motioning to William. As you shade your eyes, clutching his canteen and squinting past the acacias in the direction of the mine, you can still taste gunpowder. And although you see nothing on the flat horizon beyond the mesas, you swear you can hear the preacher man’s soft chuckle rolling with the chollas across the sands.
The sky over the mine is as cloudless as it has been since the night your father was murdered. Dead men and animals pace the grounds in tattered skins; skeletal owls and sparrows perch on the broken wooden beams that used to frame the entrance to the mine, chattering their empty beaks. It smells worse than rancid, and your mother’s displeasure boils through you as too–hot power, the compulsion to slough off your skin, to turn around and flee into the brush and never come back.
But you do not leave. Instead, you hold your ground in front of the company of men and call the dead down, one by one, forcing them to their knees, then to their faces. Their deaths wash over you as you lay them to rest
stabbed eaten whole my mouth is so dry will I never see my children again suffocating bleeding broken neck teeth tearing at me I don’t want to die
and they go peacefully. You, though, do not; after only a few of these anti–resurrections, you’re shaking and howling and barely able to stay on your horse for it. The men watch fearfully from a distance, and the horse almost bucks you off before Samuel catches its head, whispering soothing words into its ear. The only other person who comes close is William, his hair glittering bright as a newly unearthed vein of silver.
“You can do it, Ellis,” William says in a low voice. Samuel watches you wordlessly, his hand at his hip, thumb resting on the handle of his pistol.
No one else has been able to come close to the mine in the three months since the collapse. You force the dead things into order, their wild disarray of energy into something malleable, and send them back into stillness.
hurts bleeding starving my mouth is so dry ripped to pieces I can’t feel my legs don’t let me die like this please lantern flickering out oh god someone save me
The miners’ voices flood your mind, and you scream, your vision darkening. You are underground, crushed and unable to move, your ribs splintering with the weight of immovable rock. Last thoughts flicker through your head: a woman’s face, a dog left tied to a post outside with no one to let it free, Marisol standing on the street in threadbare clothes, looking up at the sign for Madam Lettie’s establishment.
And then the darkness is different, and so is the body you’re in; it is nighttime, and pinpricks of starlight shine through the burlap sack over your head. The rough bark of a yucca tree digs into your back, and your wrists are bound behind you. There are so many voices, some the same as the miners’. There is a sharp sound, like steel against rock, and then flame springs to being at your feet, licking at your legs. Bright red flames, and you think Lettie, and Ellis, and then there are no more thoughts, only pain.
STOP STOP STOP STOP
“Don’t shoot!” William shouts. Rough hands shove you, and the visions break, along with your grip on the dead things. You land hard in the red dirt. William dismounts and stands over you, an arm extended to shield you from the rest of the men.
Samuel’s pistol is cocked and pointed at your head. It’s not the only gun aimed at you among the company.
“You caught on fire,” Samuel says. His voice is bland, and there’s an indiscernible look on his face.
Your skin seems intact, no burn marks in sight. But you know what you felt, and for a moment, you know that you’d lost yourself to your father the way you’d lost yourself to your mother so many times before. “Are they gone?” you rasp.
“Not quite,” says William. Sweat sheens his face and his hair is disheveled as he pushes it back with his fingers.
Heaps of bones cover the ground, collapsed amidst the brittlebrush that crawls across the sand. Most of your mother’s handiwork destroyed, her curse unraveled, not gone. But there are still a few meandering about, gathered in front of the mine’s entrance. They don’t look like proper animals; they’ve been cobbled together from the large, abandoned bones of many different bodies, some human, some beast. By now, you feel much the same.
You’re so tired, and your limbs are trembling. You’ve pulled so much power into yourself that it aches. And the desert is not pleased; the searing heat of her anger boils in you, demanding the change, demanding you leave, demanding, demanding.
“Just a few more,” says William, reaching down to clasp your shoulder. As his skin touches yours, you flinch—that same explosive rush of energy hits you, the way it had in the kitchen, and with the first dead bull. But this time, the flashback of another death takes over your vision
Samuel, sweet, stupid Samuel, blood on his shirt, holding your hand, calling your name frantically, and the dry laughter of the preacher man, an offer you wouldn’t refuse even if you could. An offer of power, an image of the dead working the mines across the country, tireless, without pay, without complaint. And of you, watching the numbers tick upward in the newspapers. You laugh, too, with your last breath, and seal the preacher man’s deal with a trembling finger smeared in your own blood
and you stagger back.
“You can do it,” says William. Pale, immaculate, cold to the touch. He smells of expensive cologne, but under that, a sickly, fetid stink.
“So can you,” you say. He stills. “Can’t you.”
He blinks once, his eyes clear and colorless, and flicks a finger at the skeletons. They collapse in a rainfall of bones. “Good job, Ellis,” he says in a voice that carries to his men. But he’s not looking at them.
“Why did you need me?”
“This goddamn desert,” he says in a voice that is only for you. At the same time, he reaches for you, and you shrink back. “In the past few months, we’ve sent so many men to scout out the mines in this area. Not a single one who traveled south of the Rio de Lino and west of the Rio Grande made it back, even the ones who could bid the dead do their bidding. Devoured by this goddamn desert, torn apart by the coyotes, sent wandering in circles until they collapsed and died. But when I heard about your father’s death, and about you, it all clicked into place.”
The preacher man’s words echo back. He was mine before he came to seek his fortune out west, with all the rest of his brothers. Before he turned his back on me for my sister.
William smiles. “She has no love for men like us. But she wouldn’t dare hurt you. Not her own child, and his.” He hauls you to your feet, his grip tight on your arm. “Come, Ellis. Walk with me, and stay close. Let’s get a good look at the mine.” He gestures, and the rest of the men approach cautiously, treading among the fallen bodies, leaving a wide berth around you and occasionally making the sign against evil as they pass.
This man doesn’t care about the town. None of his pretty words to Madam Lettie about recompense, or about reopening the mine to reestablish commerce, matter. The town is just a field of bodies to use as he pleases. And he will use you, too. As a shield against your mother’s wrath, as a hostage to make the desert behave.
But his power is different from yours. He has only the preacher man’s blessing, and you have something else.
The desert change roars through you like a tide, a demand you can’t ignore to undo your skin and let your real self run free. This time, you embrace it.
COME, demands the desert, and you shatter, finally, fully.
One of the other men is the first to see what is happening to you, your skin peeling off in long slabs, shedding your human form for something uncontainable, something lightning–legged, bent–backed, and wild. All of the desert’s power you’d pulled into yourself courses through your limbs, back into the ground, silvered lines darting across the baked earth. All around, the piles of bones tremble and quiver, then rise slowly into the air, taking their forms once again.
“Monster!” he screams. Damn you, for there is only relief in your heart that he did not call you witch.
The desert rides you, and you are no longer your own. The winds kick up, blowing sheets of dust into the men’s faces. If your mother has her way, and you yours, you will bury them all here, deep in the mine, with the rest of the humans.
What about Marisol? a small part of you asks, but it is drowned out by your mother’s and your combined fury.
William has stumbled away, his hands out, and you can feel him fighting you for control of the dead. He’s much stronger than you, much more experienced. But your mother pours more power into you, and you fight back. The sandstorm grows, blinding the company men who are fumbling for their guns.
The desert’s dead are approaching when Samuel steps between you and William, his pistol leveled at you. There is fear, but his arm is steady.
“Samuel, no!” roars William, but there is no hesitation in Samuel’s eyes.
His pistol cracks, and you think of Marisol in that split second before impact, and then there is nothing.
“Shake, shake, yucca tree,
“Rain and silver over me—”
The clack–clack clack of bones all around you. The preacher man’s voice is creaky, parched as he sings, his hands brushing over your stone–still chest. Another, familiar voice joins his, a woman’s voice like the whisper of scorpions’ legs through the bone fields, a gentle tickle laced with the promise of poison. The ground hums under you with your mother’s grief.
Stormclouds, gather in the sky,
Mockingbird and quail, fly;
My love, my love, come haste away!
You’ll surely drown here if you stay.
Your eyes are open, the evening sun glaring into your eyes, but you can’t blink. Every muscle is frozen in place, and it takes great effort to open your mouth.
“Am I dead?” you croak. You can’t feel your chest moving.
“Very,” says the preacher man. “But that’s nothing new.”
Slowly, you force your fingers to clench. “How long have I been… gone?”
“A few days. They tried to burn your body, but I wasn’t about to lose another like that.” His mouth twists into a parody of a smile. “When the flame wouldn’t take, they left you to the vultures.”
Fools, says your mother. The desert herself, the heat and mercilessness, wrapped like a vice around your heart. You wonder if you’ve been dead since the first night she called you into herself, that first time you gave up your body to become something more. As if I would let my creatures hurt you. Would that you could say the same of yours, brother.
The preacher man winces. It looks strange, with his empty sockets. “I indulged that boy too much. I thought I could keep him east, out of your territory. But his ambition overgrew his sense—”
He murdered my son!
“This child is my kin, too,” hisses the preacher man. “Don’t deny me that, sister. You’re the one who let them flee back to their town, with not a scratch on them to pay for their misdeeds.”
I would have those who harmed him pay accordingly.
“So would I. That may be the first matter we’ve agreed on in centuries.”
“Whose side are you on?” you say. The preacher man cocks his head.
“Mine. And yours, though you may not believe it.” He offers you his hand, and you take it, your body moving slowly. “I always was too fond of your father,” he says in a low voice. “And your mother never let me forget it.”
You wonder whose power is making this possible, his or your mother’s. You are hyperaware of the dead things around you, their potential energy, just as you are of all the creatures skittering and prowling the earth, and the ancient hum of the ground.
The preacher man leads you to the entrance of the mine, where boulders and broken beams cluster tight, blocking the way. “What do you see?”
You place your hands on the boulders and close your eyes, focusing. The lines of your mother’s power spread like a net through your mind’s eye. And far beneath, pockets of the dead, of fallen men.
It has been three months since your unforgiving mother, in her grief, took your father’s burnt body into her own and spat out every dead desert thing for miles around, sent them haunting the mine, the roads, until there was nowhere safe to go but down, down, down into the earth. And when the mineshaft collapsed, suffocating the miners in the tunnels, she still would not forgive, and held the rainclouds three months away from the town so that nothing would grow.
You open your eyes. “I see potential.”
The preacher man cackles, and even your mother gives a pleased crackle. I told you he was clever.
The men from out east, even William with all of his power, could not move the boulders on their own. They would be back with proper mining equipment, maybe even fancy machines from their waterside cities, but likely not for months.
You don’t need months. Not with the preacher man on one side of you and your mother all around, her presence like that of an oncoming monsoon.
“Lend me your power,” you say. For something this big, you’ll need more than what you have. More control, more finesse.
Pledge yourself to us. And we will pledge ourselves to you. Both of us. The preacher man nods.
You’re already dead, and you can’t go back like this, even if you wanted to. You have nothing to lose; nothing to lose except Marisol, and by now, surely news of your death has reached her. In dying, you have lost her, too.
You hold your hands out to both of them in assent. “Yes,” you say simply.
Your name in your mother’s voice is like the rush of the monsoon rains, water licking the parched ground, the promise of life and destruction at the same time. The preacher man leans in, places his dry forehead against yours, and breathes your name in a whisper that promises rest, peace, the passing of time in the cold, dark earth.
You hum, swaying. The preacher man unbuttons his coat and drapes it across your shoulders. His desiccated torso, open from sternum to belly, houses small, dark–furred fruit bats in its hollow. They hang upside down from the battered, broken ribs, their eyes glimmering at you like little embers.
“Shake, shake, yucca tree, rain and silver over me,” you sing softly. The purr of your mother’s power in you, her pleasure and approval, fills your hands. You see the pattern of the boulders, and you ease them free, one by one. They glide along the lines of your mother’s power, smooth as oil.
The miners come next, their broken, insect–eaten bodies beginning to stir. The preacher man hums along with you, his movements matching yours. “Stormclouds, gather in the sky, oh mockingbird and quail, fly.” With each insistent pull of your power, the miners stumble free into the dying light, into the empty air. You take each one in hand, and you focus, and the signs of death melt away. Their bodies are still cold, but the insect damage, the shattered limbs, are gone. You know, somehow, that this is only temporary and cannot last. But one night will be enough.
You think of Marisol and your cold chest tightens. It will have to be enough.
The movements of every desert creature buzz at the edge of your consciousness. The beating of owls’ wings as they stalk their prey, the soft–tailed mice that creep beyond the rocks to howl at the moon in voices like tiny wolves. The slow unfurling of saguaro blossoms, petals parting against the inquisitive noses of tiny bats. The snakes twining in their burrows, tongues flicking out to taste for moisture in the air. And your coyotes, padding to meet you, glittering finery stolen from dead men clutched tight in their mouths, finery that is just your size.
You let the rail–thin crows lift the preacher’s coat from your shoulders and shrug on the new jacket. It shimmers like moonlight. The desert creatures dress you as the coyotes pace, brushing against the preacher man and barking their devotion aloud. He smiles, knowing that devotion isn’t for him.
When you are clad in the glittering suit, as fine as any prince from Marisol’s books, a bird made of bones brings you a single honeysuckle blossom. You tuck the stem into a neat bullet hole in the jacket, right above at your chest.
“Come, then, my dear Ellis,” says the preacher man. “Don’t be late to your own party.”
Indeed, your mother says. She sounds almost pleased. Go show them a night they’ll never forget.
You grin, baring your teeth. Something almost like a horse trots up to you, its skeletal hooves clacking against the hard ground. As you swing atop it and turn towards the road, the miners begin to follow, not with slow and shambling steps, but with the pace of confident men. High above you, the beginnings of dark clouds slink across the sky, something unseen for months.
My love, my love, come haste away!
You’ll surely drown here if you stay.
The moon rises high and sharp, like a glittering mouth, as you descend upon the town. Your mount tosses its head, and if it had any lungs, or anything else inside its ragged bones, it might have whickered.
Banjos and fiddles brighten the air in Madam Lettie’s saloon. The band stutters in confusion as you push the doors open, the dead men at your back. It is crowded inside, and as people take in the scene, gasps rise around you. Some gasps of fear, some gasps of joy at an apparent miracle. But you only have eyes for one person, and you stalk through the mass of townsfolk reaching for their loved ones, pushing them out of your way.
There she is, dancing with William amidst a circle of company men. He is immaculate once again, dressed in a fine–tailored suit. Her hair is done up, her corset laced (albeit clumsily; perhaps Harriet helped her in your stead), a smile painted on her face. You recognize the set of her jaw, the way she holds her mouth when she’s fighting back sorrow.
“Marisol,” you say, and her head snaps toward you, eyes widening. You pace towards her and she lets go of William, stepping to meet you. William doesn’t try to stop her. Even if you weren’t risen from the dead, you know he can see something new in your face, something as feral and bleak as the desert.
He backs away, fearful, and you offer Marisol your hand. “Dance with me,” you say in a voice like the wind whipping through a dead man’s bones.
“Ellis,” she breathes, and then she’s in your arms. Other cold, pale arms reach out behind you, grasping William tight; he yelps, but they yank him away and he’s swallowed by the crush of bodies in their best, ragtag finery. You catch sight of Samuel, but he, too, is pulled into the masses before he can reach you. Dance, you think viciously, and they will, clasped tight in desert magic, until their bodies are torn to pieces.
Marisol is the one who taught you how to dance, on the groaning floorboards of her tiny room, and you hold her close as you sway to the music. She smells like she always does in the evenings, like perfume and dust. She can’t take her eyes off of you, and you wonder what you look like to her, whether the glamor cast over the miners has lent you your old appearance back, or if you have been transformed into something wholly different.
“Let’s get out of here,” you whisper, and Marisol mouths Yes. Grasping her tight, you elbow your way through the crowd of people reuniting with their family members, their brothers, their husbands. Some have taken to dancing again, those lost to them clutched tight.
You glance over your shoulder for Madam Lettie, but she’s standing stock still, gazed locked on the figure of a man who had joined you halfway across the flats, rising from the shade of a pair of yucca trees. As he draws closer, Lettie’s face fills with impossible hope.
“Robert,” she sobs, dashing forward and holding him close. His hair is the same color as yours, red like the earth, veined with silver, and his skin is dark as the dust. He holds her gently, his arms around her waist. Whatever words they have for each other are swallowed by the sound of the band and the crush of bodies around them.
Marisol’s slipper is lost in the rush, but the two of you flee from the lights and whirling skirts into the dust outside, the starlight bearing down on you like a thousand icy stares. Her hand in yours is the warmest thing you’ve ever touched.
“Ellis, you crazy bastard. They told me you were dead.” She laughs, too wild, tinged with grief. “Why didn’t you come back sooner?”
You are silent, turning her hands over in yours. “They weren’t wrong,” you say at last.
“I don’t understand,” says Marisol, but you can see by the sinking hope in her eyes that she does.
“I did die.” She shakes her head vigorously. “I’m still dead, Marisol. But I couldn’t rest without saying goodbye to you.” It’s mostly true, and it will do for now.
“I’m sorry, Ellis.” She’s crying, and your heart sinks. Marisol rarely cries, and seeing her waste water on you is more than you can take. “I should have stopped them from taking you, I should have fought harder—”
“This isn’t your fault,” you say into her hair. “Not at all.” A gentle tug of your power, and your bone and brittlebrush horse trots up to meet you. You drape your glittering coat over its back to make a seat for Marisol as she watches, unable to keep the fear and awe from her face.
“I didn’t know you could do that.”
You smile crookedly. “There are a lot of new things about me now. Come, get on.”
She swings up on the mount and scoots forward, holding her hand out to help you up. But you don’t take it. Instead, you reach into your pocket and press her stained red bandanna into her palm. It’s heavy with coins taken from the bodies of the dead, enough to buy a one–way train ticket out east. You know; you counted it yourself.
“No,” she breathes.
“You need to let me go,” you say gently.
“I can’t.” She grabs for you; you step back out of her reach. “Ellis, no! Get on the goddamn horse! We’re in this together, or not at all!”
“I can’t go with you,” you say. “I wish I could. God, I wish I could. But I belong to the desert now. I can’t leave.”
“Then I won’t either.”
“Don’t be a fool,” you snap, and she recoils. “Marisol, one of us needs to escape this place. And I can’t any more.” You gentle your voice. “Please.”
In the end, you give her your boots to wear in place of her single slipper. Your dark, naked feet stand out against the sand, but whether the sand is bearable because of the nighttime cool or because you no longer feel the desert’s burn, you don’t know.
Marisol promises to buy a ticket, but she also promises to come back for you when she can. You hope she will forget the second promise, but you know her too well to believe it.
“I love you,” she says, her eyes hard. “That’s the only reason I’m leaving. For you, Ellis. If you forget everything else, don’t forget that.” She digs her heels into the horse’s sides and it gallops away, your coat glittering under her skirt as she rides east.
“Well done,” murmurs the preacher man. He stands behind you, his coat flapping in the growing wind.
Well done, echoes the desert.
“Keep her safe,” you murmur. “Both of you, until she passes out of your realms.”
We know you will, says your mother, and the preacher man nods in agreement.
You watch Marisol’s horse until she passes out of sight, but you can still feel each hoofbeat strike against the baked clay, a staccato at the edge of your consciousness. You flex your fingers and look over your shoulder at the saloon. The windows are bright, and the chatter and music leaks from the doorway.
Nothing is permanent, but maybe Marisol was right. Maybe seeing a miracle and the ones you love, even for just one night, for one last time, will be enough.
The desert hums in your throat, and the language of the dead things coats your teeth. Back, then, towards the bluffs and the mesas, to the wilds where the coyotes cry over the yucca and the bodies of fallen men. Your kingdom lies out there among the wide, desolate plains, waiting for you to lay claim to its whispering bones.
The rising sun sears long red marks into the cloudy sky, and behind, you can hear the dead dancing themselves into a frenzy, long–lost miners with their wives and friends held close, spinning inhuman wild, as if afraid a spell will break.
You straighten your borrowed shirt and begin walking. Overhead, the sky rumbles with the promise of rain.
© 2016 by Alyssa Wong