Advertisement

The Other Side of Mictlān

Tonalli:

Soul of development, reason, warmth; inhabits the skull.

 

To cross the threshold that splits the living world and enter the City of the Dead, we must first pay the Tlamatini. Nine pesos wrapped gently in a bundle of maize husks is what I hand him. The pesos are the real kind, stamped in gold with a gleaming silver trim, the way they don’t make them anymore. Taken from the black box Mom kept in the back of her closet, behind her coats, and Dad’s old folded up wheelchair, and other useless things. The pesos she made us promise as kids to never ever use unless it was for the most severe emergencies.

“Because there are so few of these left in our family anymore,” she’d said. Fewer now.

But here in the Tlamatini’s apartment, on this back Mexico City street, where the evening light hangs lethargically and the furniture smells like incense and leather and burnt bones, he gathers his items: bone splinters, owl feathers, delicate spider legs plucked from a glass vial. A tooth plucked from a coyote skull. He drops them into his oil lantern, the flames wafting the smell of orange marigolds already curling within the glass—what we’ve purchased. I know these scents, I recognize the black bars outside the window, same as the ones from Mamá Cuca’s home where, once Dad was gone, we’d visited for the first time. And where Mom and Mamá Cuca had whispered their incantations and shown us how to flow out Tonalli from our fingertips and flex shadows like all the brujas before us had.

Each of us drop totems we’ve brought in anticipation for this into the lantern. Mine’s the pestle of the molcajete Mom gifted me the day I moved out—so full of mine and her Tonalli that through my grip it hums a mariachi tune. I drop it into the lantern, which blazes full of my bit of soul. Because the soul doesn’t just stop at your skin and bones. Your soul is trisected into your Ihíyotl, Teyolía, and Tonalli. Tonalli is the soul that flows into you, out of you. It travels realms while you sleep and promises to make it home each morning. This is your essence, and your essence sticks to others, and places, and domestic objects too.

Mom always made sure we knew that part. Domestic objects.

Quint’s object is Dad’s Éric Gagné Dodgers jersey—his fingers lock into the white fabric sainted beige. He stands with his arms crossed as if he’s the tough guy here, says, “This is a waste of fucking time,” when the Tlamatini clips a corner off the sleeve.

Emiliano’s been behind all of us, saying nothing as always. He’s got those lost puppy eyes I want to slap dry. I translate the Tlamatini’s Nahuatl, telling him to give up his object: a photograph of the five us when there had been five of us. He drops the whole thing in, and the candle flame laps it up. Then the city’s orchestra outside stops.

And the streets are dead.

And it’s night.

And the dog splattered against the harsh sidewalk edge outside the window—I’d ignored it on our way in here while Emiliano couldn’t look away—laying under the halo of a streetlamp jerks. Flinches. Lurches itself upright, leaving its intestines as knots behind it, and rattles towards the apartment in loose skin and bones. Its paws tik-tik-taping up the steps outside the paint-peeled door. The Tlamatini lets the dog in and in the lantern’s glow etches the raw, exposed bone of its face.

“Xoloitzcuintle will show you the way,” the Tlamatini says. He blows out the flame, rolls the ash into a joint and holds it between cracked lips. “You’ll have until the sunrises, lest you never find your way back. ¿Están listos?”

I think of the note I found in Mom’s apartment:

He came for me, now He’s taking me home. I love you all.

—Mom

I think of summers when broken people would line up outside the pueblo and whisper “buenos días” to us as they waited for Mamá Cuca and her potions.

I think of Mom ripping out the stars in the Los Angeles skyline the night she told us Dad was sick, and I’d thought it was a joke and laughed.

I think of hospital beeps.

I tell the Tlamatini, “Sí.” He blows the ash in our faces, and we’re blown away with the gust of ash. Away from the room and its smells—Mom’s smells—and the ash carries us into blackness.

 

“I’m having dreams of her,” Mom had said to me over dinner one night. Just the two of us, because I was the only one who made the time to visit. “In this dream Mamá Cuca is in her courtyard, and she’s looking at me with those tired eyes of hers. It’s funny. When I think about her, she’s still who she was before I left home. But this time she was little, and old. She said she was looking for me. Wondering why I wasn’t home.” From across the sea of an empty table, I wondered if Mom would look just as brittle to me in a few years. “When I moved here with your father, I always promised I’d go back home. It was never a goodbye, you know? Just a see-you-later. I didn’t mean to stay.”

 

There are nine realms in the underworld that you journey through when you die. Mom had told us this years ago and I’d etched it into memory with the rest of our history. Kept it alive in me, because without it, what would I be?

Cross the Apanohuaya—you’ll find your spirit guide.

Skirt through the ravine of two rival mountains—hope that they won’t argue, then stir, then crush you in another of their spats.

Climb the obsidian mountain—you will get cut.

Through the icy winds—if the shards did not cut you before, the wind will now.

Through the place of flags—you’ll leave yours here, whatever symbol you bare.

Between the crossfire of arrows—if you’re at peace they will not hurt.

Pass the Alebrijes, who lurk in the dark, who crave your human heart.

Cross the last narrow path of this city of dead—the last threshold

And when you’re stripped down to the core of you, you’ll stare down the Lord of Mictlān himself, the Scatterer of Ashes, the Lord, and He will give you rest.

 

The ash drops us into a river that grabs and won’t let go. It’s liquid—not water—the Tonalli of every had-lived being tugs the strands of my being, wanting to rip me apart. It rushes down my throat, swelling my lungs. Voices crowd my ear whispering Hold on, and Join our eternal oneness, and I think I’m going to die. I scream for Emiliano, for Quint. For Mom—I remember the first time I’d siphoned Tonalli from a marigold. How I’d wrung out its color to snap a flame in the palm of my hand. Never mind that my fingers were bruised raw from snapping all through the night and exhaustion hung from my eyes, the flame was there. Flicking alive.

“Why now?” I’d asked Mom when she found me there in the morning, the fire still cradled in my hands. It had come so naturally for Quint. “I don’t know what I did different.”

She touched my forehead, sticky and hot. “Brujería is not forced, mijo. It’s a natural feeling, a letting go.”

Right. Let go.

I stop my gulping—Tonalli need not breath. I stop my thrashing. I let the current of cosmic energy rushing all around me, carry me instead. I bend with it. Twist it. Then flow with it as the moon grabs water until I’m not drowning, or falling—I’m rising. The Tonalli lifts me up and out until I’m high above the red river where I find Quint at the lip. The river spits him out, and drops me beside him, breathless and gasping, but alive. Finally arrived in the Land of the Dead.

 

There is no true ground in the Land of the Dead. Just more layers of city stacked over the next with Mexica pyramids or modern skyscrapers. The Xoloitzcuintle from the living world leads the way. Her face still a ragged skull, but now links of femurs and hooked ribs armor her body. The space where her guts had been is full again, and across her throat blooms a necklace of fat and glowing marigolds.

I’d spotted other Xolo dogs like her at the river. They ferried across the liquid small boats with weeping figures, or bargainers—those who think they deserve more of life than everyone else. Some of the passengers sat quietly with peaceful resolve. Our Xolo had found Quint and I bickering—Quint about how he didn’t need my help getting out of the river, me saying that next time I’ll let him drown. The Xolo’s bark was what shut us up. She said, “Can you see you’re missing one of you?”

Fuck!—the river had taken Emiliano. Because of course, this would happen to him. Always stumbling or lagging behind—complicating what should have been a simple journey. Quint was already heading down the river shouting for Emiliano, but Xolo barked at him. “You’re still living souls,” she said, “with so much Tonalli flashing like a beacon for the Alebrijes that must now be following our scents to eat you whole. We can make it, but we must hurry before sunrise.”

She scampered up the slope and waits in the mouth of an alley between two pyramids, the residents of which are watching us like confused little Día de los Muertos skulls. I followed but Quint hesitated, his jaw knotted, eyes fixed on the river. I was ready to leave him too when a roar split the clouds.

“There’s no time!” Xolo barked. “We must leave now.”

Another roar.

Quint followed, saying nothing for a long while as we’d hurried after Xolo, deeper, deeper into the city’s maw.

Now the streets of Mictlān bow above and below us, the sidewalks carpeted with flower petals red, yellow, purple, blue. We follow Xolo like the candles that orbit her, bending around corners, and skirting down dense city streets, our foot falls dropping, lifting, making no sound on the cobblestone. I never look up for more than a glance; too long and my human eyes would crisscross until there was no up or down, and near and nigh would cease. Some blocks are dense concrete buildings, others wide open prairies with plazas and pueblos—we pass through one where the skeletons that live there hang out their mortal memories to dry. Xolo tells us not to touch them, or we could get stuck within them and forget that we ever were our ourselves.

Sometimes we pass skeletons sitting on porches of empty homes while others dance together through the night. Their hollow grins telling me that they’re waiting for something still. I wonder if that’s how I looked on bus rides back home, hollow eyes and all. Never moving out of LA, because I couldn’t abandon Mom—couldn’t just drop off my family’s history behind, because then what would I be?

Stars bend across the sky, the night shifts from black to heavy purple. Quint bitches about how much time we have left, and I snip, “How about you leave it to me and the dog and just chime in when we need help, okay?”

He clenches his fists. All these years later and still the oaf can only feel through them, lest any other sign of emotion be deemed Pussy Shit, echoing Luis, Dad’s father, like a kid in an adult’s jacket.

Of course, I was the idiot who thought I could rely on my brothers now, even when I never could before. I was the one who proofread Mom’s emails, who helped with her taxes. Who moved, but not far, far away like them. The only one who can do what needs to be done.

“She’s in the ninth realm with all the other souls,” I tell him.

Quint laughs. “And what makes you so sure? Lemme guess, you read about it in a book?”

Funny. For once I don’t need to be smarter than him to know; it’s just a gut feeling.

He came for me, now He’s taking me home. I love you all.

There was no home in Mexico to go back to. Mamá Cuca’s house crumbled with no one to tend it. I’d thought of her dreams and knew the Lord of the Dead took her. Why would He bother with the route of mortal souls? No, she’s in the city’s heart.

“I just know,” I tell Quint. To Xolo I ask, “We’re almost there, right?”

She nods but Quint’s still going. “And the journey back? Or did you forget about Emiliano?”

I haven’t. But he’s going to think his way is right, still trying to squeeze into that void that Dad left to be the Oldest Brother. Never minding that he calls himself American first and Mexican second, that Quint fits more comfortably over his bones than Cuetlachtli. I could tell as soon as we got here that he does not belong. Then the realization slaps me. “You swam to the edge of the river,” I say. “The river didn’t try take your Tonalli.” I thought we were at least still family. “But you don’t have any Tonalli to take, do you? You closed yourself off.”

No, that’s what stings—he is still family.

I clench my jaw. “Oh, you fucking bastard.”

That’s what starts it—our clash of verbal blows all over again. Lacerations so familiar they might as well be artifacts. My stronger brujería; his accusations of Mom favoring me; my hate of his tokenization of us, his immaturity, his shame of us.

Our shouting catches the curiosity of the ever-bored skeletons on their balconies until a roar breaks us apart again—the Alebrije. An amalgam monster with eagle feet and eyeballs blinking in its wings. It crashes down between the buildings—claws at us with talons. Xolo barks and we follow her, weaving through the narrow streets of the dead around corners and archways, the walls pressing in. We vault over steps and carts, the Alebrije’s teeth scraping the gaps of air behind our heels until Xolo kicks open a door to a house that maybe looks like Mamá Cuca’s before it crumbled to dust, and we spill inside, shut the door. Hold it there while the beast pounds-pounds-pounds on the other end.

“What the hell are you doing?” a woman calls from the dining table across the room.

“You know, hell is a rather a poor choice of words,” I huff.

“Always a smart ass,” she says and immediately I know that voice. Still holding the door shut as the beast rages outside, I look across the living room to the table in the kitchen where she sits with a mug in her hands.

Mom?”

 

Teyolía:

Soul of passion, knowledge, community; inhabits the heart. 

 

When Camilo had called me last week to tell me the Lord of the Underworld had taken Mom, I was drunk. Drunk and sticky at a queer bar, so far gone that I couldn’t feel the buzz-buzz-buzzing in my back pocket, let alone hear my thoughts; the brujería pounding against my skull. Mom, Camilo, or Quint never saw me like that, knees scrapped and drenched in glorious glitter. Not when our family dinners had been only full of jokes or chastising, none of us opening up or exposing our feelings the way we could a corpse’s ribcage with our magic.

We didn’t talk about these things. If I’d started it, then all their eyes would be on me. Drinking me in.

It wasn’t until Camilo’s fifth call that I finally peeled myself away from my friends—the first I’d ever had, who were all some flavor of queer too, and understood how in a normal setting with voices talking over me, how small I shrank—I answered the call outside in the night air that smelled like fresh rain. I told Camilo I couldn’t help him, I couldn’t even fucking speak Spanish, but he’d insisted. “We’ll need all our Tonalli, Emiliano. Together.

Now I’m alone. Small again. Walking in darkness, desperately dragging a jagged, chewed up fingernail along my wrist, again and again until my skin splits and warmness trickles out. I suck it up, swallow the bitter metal flavored Tonalli and with its power snap a spark between my fingers. Gone in a flash.

FUCK!

I drag my nail again—again! Arm throbbing, and wetness dripping off my fingertips. I tell myself: Ignore the dark. Swallow your fear. Never mind that you still sleep with the night light on because even in your dorm room with another person there, you’re still afraid of being alone. I make my way through snap-shot glimpses of whatever temple the river spat me out in. Azteca ruins, tiled paths and narrow walls. I make a deeper cut this time, muscle screams and the snap blazes out! It roars through the ancient tunnels, I yelp, and the flame puffs away again.

Damn it!

I kick the wall and the whole temple rattles. Shudders and spits its laugher back at me: They left you. Forgot you. Useless you. Always in the back and ignored, Emiliano.

“Shut up!” I shout into the dark.

The echoing stops. But it’s right though, I shouldn’t have come. Not when my magic is weaker than Quint’s or Camilo’s and they just brushed me off the whole way over here anyway with Yeah, yeah, Emiliano, we know, if they even said that at all. I should have stayed away.

In the silence someone else’s sniffles reach me from the dark.

“Hello?” I mutter, then louder, “Are you okay?”

More weeping, a loneliness I know deep in my bones. I snap my fingers again for a spark of the narrow alleyway, and head towards the cries.

I find her among ruins and starlight. Her soaked white dress and long stringy hair. The weeping woman crooks up at me from across the emptiness and watches me with wet eyes.

“Ol’ Broken Face said I’d find you here.”

I ask her what she is, and she smiles with blood stained teeth. “Someone who’s ripped apart real men much braver than you.”

That should have terrified me, but I’d heard her sadness. I say, “You’re lost. Like me.” When she blinks, I tell her I’m looking for my Mom, my brothers.

She howls, “AAAAYYYEEEEEEE MIS HIJOSSSSSSSSSSS” so loud the sky quakes. Her voice tears open her throat, and between her sobs, she stares me down. “I lost my children once.”

“I’m sorry,” I tell her. She’s no older than I am. I close the space between us, close enough to touch damp flesh. “Maybe I can help you look for your kids while I look for my mom.”

Fingers inches from shoulder bone, she growls, “I won’t play no brujo tricks.”

I pull back, hands up like I have no gun at all, and truth is I don’t. Wouldn’t dream of it. “No tricks,” I say. I try and force a smile, “or treats. I’m not a real witch anyways.” I never was. I don’t share my family’s memories of Dad before he was sick, or Mamá Cuca in her twilight. I came too late and too young. Raised too American to understand the foreign brujería buzzing on my fingertips. Always on the outside of them looking in.

“You don’t want to go where they’ll be,” the Weeping Woman says, quietly with a softness in the glint of her eyes. An understanding. Or regret. “He wants you all there when the time comes. But you can still find your way back to the living while you can.”

I consider it. Then I think of all the fights between Mom and Quint, or Mom and Camilo, or Camilo and Quint, or any of them with me. How I just know we would all say “I’m sorry” if that phrase was as easy to conjure as spells and tricks.

“No,” I say, stepping back. “Show me my way to them, please.”

Tears dribble from grieving eyes. She points towards a dark and far away temple that scratches the sky. “That way. I’m so sorry.”

 

Ihíyotl:

Soul of instinct, reaction, will; inhabits the liver.

 

Cigarette smoke had hissed through the cracks in his teeth, and his eyes watched me from the recesses of his skull, all his seventy-three years of life hanging off him in loose skin.

“Your mother will be drinking out a mug you’ll all think is champurrado.” His voice was breathless, rasping, like obsidian slicing stone. Luis. My Grandfather. I was broad shouldered, larger than most people with a gut Mom would poke, and lonjas she’d pinch always with her, “Ya necesitas hacer mas ejercicio.” But Luis was an arrow point of a man, standing taller than me. Skeleton-thin in his black suit, hat, shoes.

“I’m getting old, mijo. You gotta get that mug for me, your old man. Porque tu eres mi nieto.” He squeezed my hands tight with care when he said it—no hugs, no useless words, a solid squeeze.

My brothers didn’t get that about Luis. He was a man from a different time, a veteran, and with calloused hands. He never gave a shit about Latine or Latinx the way my brothers insist on, not when Luis was busy providing for his family. Sucking up his dreams. Becoming a man.

And Luis saw the man of the house I was working to be.

I’d told Luis where I was heading when he asked why I need to borrow money for a flight. Money was tight, and I’d be damned to ask Camilo for a loan. Camilo would peck at me until he so smugly got what was owed to him. And Mom owed Grandpa something big.

“When she married your father, her magic was to be shared with my half of the family,” Luis said, his cigarette stink curling up my nose. “But Mamá Cuca was a jealous woman. Jealous of the roles de hombres. But this is how. Things. Are. Brujas always try to keep from us the power that by blood right should be ours. She turned your mother against me, and when my son passed, she convinced your mom to hoard all that magic for herself and you three and drove you all away from me. But in the underworld, what’s left of her magic will be served in her champurrado. Bring it back, son. To me. And together we can help your magic grow strong again too.” His smoke hugged me, his trust, his pride.

“I won’t let you down.”

 

I’m watching the tazita on the table now, where Mom set it down. Camilo’s already on his feet beside her, urging her to get up now and go-go while more and more beasts claw at the walls from outside. But Mom’s not budging. She’s sitting with skeletons that must be Papá Ernesto with his bomber jacket, and Mamá Cuca in her black and red huipil flowing off her bone shoulders to bone toes. She’s between them, dark skinned still with night-colored hair, she’s there waiting for me. For a second, I think Dad. I search the room for any other skeleton but he’s not here. It’s only them.

The Alebrijes outside slam harder. The whole pueblo trembles. The tazita is still there, small and brown with little orange stones pressed into the clay. Steam rises from within, all that raging and powerful magic of my mother’s and abuela’s and so on, all right there in that little cup.

Take it.

Camilo tries hauling Mom from her chair, shouting and swearing while tears slick his eyes. “We came all this way,” and “Mom, I’m not fucking around, let’s go.” But Mom half laughs, half cries, and says to us, “Mijos, I can’t go back.”

Take it and run as fast as you can! Back the way we came with the Xolo dog and fuck Camilo for dragging me down here. He’ll end up fine anyway, he always does. And maybe I’ll find Emiliano too and he’ll forgive me and I’ll give the tazita to Grandpa, let him drink Mom’s magic so that I won’t lose him either, and then we’ll rebuild the pieces of us together. Without the ties to the sentimental or soft or domestic. Camilo be damned. He never bothered to call once I moved out, and Mom’s already here. All those years of her telling me to lose weight, to be more diligent like Camilo, to stop it with the country music, the podcasts she called “basura,” my line of work she thinks is traitorous. I just have to take. That. Cup.

My fingers brush the pores of its clay handle when Mom finally shouts over Camilo, “Don’t you get it, mijo, I chose to stay here!”

For once Camilo has nothing to say. Then again, neither do I. And if I did, it doesn’t matter. The Alebrijes rip open the walls and pull down the floor. The whole house, with all those family ghosts, and memory portraits of my brothers and me as kids, Mom and her sisters as kids, Mamá Cuca as a kid and so on—the ones I’m just noticing now—all of it crumbles and falls.

And falls.

And we all plummet down, darkness swallowing us whole.

 

 

WAKE.

The voice scratches through the darkness. I think it’s Luis at first.

STAND UP AND FACE ME, THOSE OF YOU WHO DO NOT YET BELONG HERE.

I open my eyes and find the strength to stand among the pueblo’s rubble, I look up and meet His: stars twinkling far away in the black hollows of His skull. His face a grin, tobacco smoke curling out between bleached teeth. I know who He is. Even when the Xolo dog bows and calls him Señor, I know the Lord of Mictlān. I’ve always known him. We all have. He watched us grow, He Who Bows His Head, the Scatterer of Ashes.

Mictlāntēcuhtli.

We stand before him in the belly of His massive throne room. The Lord of the Underworld leaned forward in his throne, a lazy hand resting on his charcoal thigh, his headdress shifting slow and heavy with him. Owl feathers dragging against the stars. The symbol of the dead is sculpted into the crown’s center disk, each jewel gleaming around it heavy, large enough to squash us whole—us who’re so small in the shadow of True Essence.

Camilo is on his feet, helping Mom up. He shouts at the Teotl, “We came to bring her back.”

Mictlāntēcuhtli points one dagger finger to the sun burning far, far away at the ceiling of His temple. IT IS ALMOST DAY LIGHT, he says. ONCE THIS SUN LEAVES, YOU WILL BE MINE TO CLAIM. ALL FOR A MORTAL WHO CAME HERE WILLINGLY?

Camilo and I turn to Mom, and I realize how much taller I am than her. That down here in the darkness and bones she looks more like Mamá Cuca than the scared twenty-five-year-old who I imagined held me in her arms while another child was growing inside her. With a husband who chose to love her even after his father told him not to marry some immigrant girl. I see how tired Mom is.

And I’m disgusted with myself for having swiped the tazita into my jacket. I hand it back to Mom when I ask her, “What does He mean?”

 

Neltiliztli:
Rootedness; the lived truth of self, extending through Tonalli, to community, cosmos. It is felt, and lived, and understood. This is love.

What to say to them? Your sons.

Like when they were babes and they’d ask you why the sky was blue—you didn’t know. Something about light refraction? You’d said it was because blue was the color Quetzalcoatl chose to paint it. Or like the time Cuetlachtli asked how it felt to be in love the day he confided with you about a crush—you thought you didn’t know. How could you have explained to him then what it was like to meet his dad? A man who was kind with his words but sharp with his wit. Who even after you showed him how you could fold the stars and sea still joked that you were full of trickery. Who reminded you of all the ways you thought men couldn’t be—gentle. Sea-shell coarse to finger touches then soft when your fingers pressed in. Sentimental for plants, and soil, and the pictures he took.

Gone before you knew what Love Forever truly meant.

How you’d wanted to die that night and journey yourself with your soul slung heavy on your shoulders down the mountains of grief here to the City of Bones. You, little Orpheus to find your Euridice. To look down the Teotl Lord of Death Himself, as you do now, and demand he give your lover back.

But you knew dead was dead. And you had your lifetime gift of him. And had three more lifetimes still, each with big brown eyes and soft baby fingers jittering with magic twine all looking up at you asking, “What are we going to do?”

You stayed. You trisected your soul into threes and loved each one. You brought them to your home you’d grown up in, to help them harness that gift you’d passed to them as your mother had to you. A gift of brujería—a power from the soul—and the soul is more than the self; it’s a pouring out, a pulling in. This is what their grandfather never understood—why he’d never look in to find what’s already there, waiting to be harnessed even if you’d aimed him to see it—that the soul is so much more than one body, one self, one life.

How do you explain all that to them? When they’re still so young?

Even though Cuetlachtli’s older than your love when you married him, and Camilo’s still trying so hard to be strong. How do you tell them that they grew up, and as they did, you’d cut away training wheels little by little without them asking, or noticing, because that was how to best teach someone to ride a bike on their own? Even if you didn’t always do it right. And they felt your cuts as lacerations now laid bloody and raw before the Lord. But you continued trisecting your life until you were splintered shards. You didn’t even notice the hollowness until Camilo visited your empty apartment like he always did and asked, “What would you do with yourself now that we’re all moved out.”

You let the question hang between you.

“You could open a restaurant,” he’d added. “Or finally go to Machu Pichu, or Europe.” All the things you were too old, too tired to do alone. And brujas cannot survive alone.

So you gathered your owl heart, bat skull, spider legs. You burned the masa and incense and whispered the Word to cast your spell and summon Him. He took up all your sight, from corner to corner of your Los Angeles apartment and you told the Lord of Death, “Allow me to become an Alebrije to find my love and my brujería is yours.”

His eyes shimmered in his sockets. I’VE SEEN YOU FROM BLOODY BABY, TO MASTER MOTHER. YOUR TONALLI RADIATES IN ALL THE COUNTLESS BEINGS YOU TOUCHED, RIPPLES OF LOVE STRETCHING WIDE. YES. I WILL ACCEPT YOUR DEAL.

You’d shaken that cold, bone hand.

How do you tell your children that? That you’re still on your quest searching for their father, your lover, somewhere in this sprawling other side of Mictlān, and that they cannot join you, not yet, because their lives are not yet lived?

You don’t. The Lord does for you and when He asks if He’s correct, you nod—gutting Camilo, his Tonalli which burns full of rage and passion. Fury he’s had since childhood. How do you tell him that he’s enough? How do you tell Cuetlachtli you’re sorry? Or Emiliano, wherever he is, that he’s the best of you. Speaking these feelings was never you, when handholds, hugs, cooking with fresh chiles and herbs said it better than you could. This time you tell him, “You have to go on your own, mijo.”

To the Lord above you, you look up and stare him down as you had the day he took you, and the day your husband died, and say, “Let them return home.”

Mictlāntēcuhtli laughs. EH-HE-HE-HE-HE-HE-AH escaping smokey teeth. His jaws snap open. THOSE WHO COME WILLING RISK TO STAY. THE STARS MUST RETURN TO ME, AND THE SUN TO BEGIN ITS DAY.

THEY’VE RUN OUT OF TIME. AND NOT ALL THREE ARE HERE. TELL ME, LITTLE MOTHER, WHY I SHOULD LET THEM RETURN TO WARMTH?

“Because I’ll wager you!”

His voice echoes across the empty hall. By the whisp of it, the fear quivering under his volume, you know who it is. How long has he been here? Emiliano staggers forward from the dark. Standing tall as if he too could take up as much room as the Lord of Death himself.

WHAT DO YOU PROPOSE? The Lord asks with curious eyes.

Emiliano askes the Lord about the mug in your hands—what’s left of your brujería the Lord let you keep, that keeps you from becoming bones like the rest of the spirits here—and says the game is simple: one of your sons gets to drink from the tazita. “On three, we’ll choose who get some of our mom’s purest magic. If you guess who we’ll chose, they stay. Here with you. But if you guess wrong, then you don’t really know us at all, and the three of us leave. Together.”

Camilo’s smiling, catching on. Cuetlachtli looking weary. The Lord shifts forward, folds himself knees to chest to get down low enough, his feather crown swallowing you all.

YOU DARE?

Emiliano stands firm. “I suppose I do.”

The Lord rises. Stands far and wide and drags up the macuahuitl resting against his throne. Long and heavy, He raises it above his head, the weapon’s edges glistening with hungry obsidian teeth.

YOU DARE!?

You fight against every fiber in your body to shield your child when the Lord chops the sky—brings the macuahuitl down—crashing down at the base of your son. Not over him. He’s trembling, eyes shut with his breath sucked in, but he’s still there.

The Lord laughs again with a wicked grin. ALRIGHT, YES. I’LL PLAY YOUR GAME.

Your Lord taps a finger to your chest, sending his answer reverberating into your bones: Emiliano.

And so you watch the game; your three halves spreading away from each other over the rubble of your home, until they’re a perfect Mexican standoff with their hands at their sides, ready to point—to choose who’ll get your magic at the feet of the Lord of Death. Camilo who can’t seem to let him just be himself, who won’t let Cuetlachtli have it. Cuetlachtli who can’t look past himself. Emiliano who they’ll chose. You want to step in. You want to tell them STOP IT! Can’t bear to see him stuck here with you, but this is not your fight—all you can do is watch them shoot off their choices at the count of three—

two—

Cuetlachtli points to Emiliano. Emiliano to Cuetlachtli. And Camilo—also picks Cuetlachtli.

You all sigh with relief—no. Not relief. With breath. Life.

Mictlāntēcuhtli laughs laughs laughs with his toothy grin. A LOVELY GAME! He declares, before giving Cuetlachtli the tazita and snapping his jaws open once more to swallow the stars.

BUT NOW THE NIGHT IS ENDED.

With a final look with those burning eyes, far way inside the darkness, He smiles and says, LEAVE. AND I’LL REMEMBER YOU THREE WHEN WE MEET AGAIN. IN DUE TIME.

Whiteness erupts from the room, swallowing the Lord, His throne, pillars, the rubble too, and slowly your sons. All of them turn to you. “Mom…” they say. But there’s no chance for a hug. No goodbyes either. They have the other side, and you have your quest, so you smile, and you wave, and you tell them, “See you later.”

A lifetime from now.

To Walk the River of Stars

Listen. There’s a rite of passage all Yineng girls go through when it’s time for us to become women. Here’s how it goes.

On the first full moon after you turn fourteen, you will need to go to the nearest river. For me, it was the stream that cuts through the ditch behind Aldean Textiles, but for you, that should be Mill Creek on the other side of the levee. Leave your cell phone at home, and don’t bring a flashlight with you, either. It’s important that you have no other source of light on you, but you shouldn’t need one, anyways. The moon will be bright enough to help you down the levee, no matter how steep the sides, no matter how clouded the night.

Once you’re down there, wade in up to your ankles and start walking upstream. It will be cold. Your feet will chill, you will lose all feeling in your toes. But eventually, the water will transform.

The river will turn into a ribbon of light underfoot, a river of stars. It will shake free of its earthen banks and rise up into the sky, aiming straight into the night. Take this path.  The world will fall away as you climb. You will go up past the clouds, up beyond the edge of the sky, higher and higher until you are standing in front of the moon itself.

There will be a door. It will look impenetrable and forbidding, but as soon as you reach for it, it will swing open, inviting you in.

When you walk through the door, you will find yourself in the palace of Mazulim, the Yineng goddess of the moon. Mazulim herself will be sitting on her throne at the far end of the hall. By all accounts she is the most beautiful person you will ever have encountered, and the kindest, and possessed of the most sarcastic sense of humor possible.

Go to her. She’s a goddess, after all, she won’t come to you. Your legs will probably ache by now, and it will take everything you have to cross those last few meters. But if you make it to her and kneel down and press your forehead to the tops of her feet, she’ll grant you a gift of power unlike any that’s ever been seen in the world before and that will be granted to no one else ever again. Don’t tell anyone what she gave to you, not even your own mother, or your future spouse. Whatever Mazulim grants you is a mystery for you, and you alone, with which to change the world.

Or so I hear, anyways.

Your grandmother was the one who learned about the river of stars. She was working as a janitor in the Museum of Culture and Arts decades ago when they hosted an exhibition of ancient pottery. At the time, Yineng were forbidden from learning how to read, but your grandmother knew enough to recognize the word “Yineng” on a plaque next to a display of decorative urns. Every night when she was cleaning in that hall, she would memorize the shape of the letters and copy them down when she got home. It took her a month to copy down the entire contents of the plaque. But she never learned what they said, not until decades later, when the laws changed enough that she could send me to primary school.

Imagine how terrified I was that night down at the river, and how hopeful. I would be the first of our family to walk the river of stars since Integration. It was just barely spring that night, and all I wanted was to knock on that door on the moon, step inside, and see what my great-great-grandmother, and all the women of my family before her, must have seen.

It didn’t happen like that. I walked until I was near dead with frostbite, but the river never transformed, the stars never rose beneath my feet, the moon stayed nothing but a lump of rock hung in the sky. I got nothing for my efforts but a citation for trespassing and a night in a holding cell trying to rub the feeling back into my dead toes. My feet have never been the same since.

But times have changed. Things will be different for you. There are bestselling Yineng novelists and hot new Yineng restaurants, and every film festival now opens with an acknowledgement of native Yineng rights to the land. Yineng culture and history is being resurrected from its pauper’s grave and given new life in university courses and TV shows and online opinion pieces.  The world is changing. Threads once snipped short are being sewn together again.

So listen, child. One day soon enough, you will go down to the river. You will walk in the dark and the cold. And so will your own daughter, and her daughter, and hers. On and on down the line of generations, until Mazulim paves the way to the moon and we can climb up and kneel at her feet and claim the power that should never have been lost to us in the first place.

One day, one of us will understand what it means to walk the river of stars.

Girl, Cat, Wolf, Moon

Content Note: Child Abuse and Assault

 

Lila found the cat market when she was seven. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say the cat market found her.

It was the night of the Harvest Moon, and the maize and the soybean were almost in. The villagers had gathered around a crackling fire, the men drinking arrack, the women singing folk songs, the children dancing. The beats of a dholak clashed with the twanging of a sarangi. It had been a good year, an excellent monsoon season. Nobody had died.

Lila gorged on peanut brittle, popcorn, and sesame candy until her mother told her not to be a pig. Sulkily, she retreated from the fire to a cool spot on the grass further away. Her two older sisters laughed and whispered to each other. Lila watched them, feeling left out.

The moonlight stroked her skin, its touch like silk. Such a lovely moon tonight, fat and silver. But one end was bitten off, like a monster was nibbling the edge, swallowing it in slow motion.

Before she had time to get worried about this, a large black cat materialized in front of her, making her jump. Delighted, she reached out a tentative hand to pet it. Cats were a rare sight in the village of Rampur, which was overrun by a pack of pye-dogs.

But the cat shrank back from her, its topaz eyes gleaming with disdain.

Lila stuck her hand in her pocket and came up with a few crumbs of popcorn. “Here, kitty,” she said hopefully, holding out the crumbs.

The cat shot her a scornful look and stalked away, tail held high in the air like a pennant.

Lila followed, of course. It was a cat that was meant to be followed. She rounded a bush, caught sight of the proud tail behind a sheaf of maize, and picked up speed. The sounds of music and laughter faded away. She arrived in the fields bordered by the forest, and a frisson went through her. Why was it so dark? She glanced up at the sky and froze.

The moon was nearly half-gone. Hadn’t she heard stories about nights like this, stories of monsters with bloodshot eyes, knife-like teeth, and excessively long claws?

The cat gave a sharp meow. Hurry up, it seemed to be saying.

Lila’s feet propelled her forward, quite independently of her brain. Stop, she scolded herself. Turn around. Ma will be looking for you.

But that was a blatant lie, and her feet refused to listen. Lila followed the cat across the shadowy field, over the irrigation ditch, and round the massive banyan tree that marked the end of the cultivated plots and the beginning of the forest.

A tunnel of arched trees stretched before her, glimmering with fireflies. As the cat trotted into the tunnel, the fireflies settled on its fur, making it glow.

Stop, warned the prudent part of her brain. This isn’t what the forest normally looks like.

But—the fireflies! gushed the imprudent part.

It was an unequal fight; prudence had never been her strong point. Lila walked into the tunnel, goosebumps prickling her skin as the fireflies alighted on her. The fragrance of jasmine permeated the air. She sniffed deeply, wishing she could bottle it up and take it home.

Abruptly, the scent of jasmine was replaced by a strong aroma of fried fish. An explosion of light and noise and color hit Lila. She lurched to a halt and blinked.

The tunnel had vanished. Instead of trees, lamplit stalls and vendors’ carts clustered before her. Cats of every size and type strolled before the stalls, perched on the awnings, and crowded the shop counters. Black, white, ginger, tabby, calico, even tortoiseshell cats—dozens and dozens of them—argued, talked, bargained, sang, and snarled at each other. Not a single human was in sight. Even the shops were manned—catted?—by cats.

I’m dreaming. I fell asleep beside the fire, and Ma will shake me awake any second, and all these beautiful cats will be gone.

But no one shook her awake. The cats, if anything, increased in number. The smell of fried fish was quite overpowering. Could you dream smells? Lila edged closer to the stalls and stared, her eyes nearly popping out of their sockets.

Iridescent birds sang in painted cages, mounds of strange fruit glistened on creaky old carts, ancient books teetered in unsteady towers, whimsical clocks ticked on wooden peg tables, golden masks glared down from walls, and clockwork mice ran hither and thither, chased by delighted kittens.

“Rat got your tongue?” came a smooth, indisputably masculine voice.

Lila started. The black cat sat beside her, washing his paws. “You spoke!” she squeaked.

“You heard,” he remarked in acid tones.

“Who are you? Where am I? Is this a dream?” The questions tumbled out of her, the words running into each other.

“Figure it out,” said the cat. He stretched and yawned, revealing sharp white teeth in a pink mouth. “Come on.” He sauntered into the midst of the stalls, and Lila hurried after. Cats parted before them like a river. She could have sworn she saw some of them bowing. She bowed back, but they took no notice of her.

A tough, muscular-looking tabby stalked up to them and meowed. The black cat hissed. The tabby hissed back. The conversation seemed to be mostly the black cat growling, “Mine, mine!” and the tabby going, “Oh yeah? Oh yeah?” Eventually the tabby spat, “Not my problem,” and backed away.

“What was that about?” asked Lila.

“Never you mind,” said the black cat.

“Why did you bring me here?” she tried.

The cat bristled. “I didn’t bring you. You practically chased me. But if you must know, the spot where you were sitting was unsafe.”

“How—”

“No more questions,” said the black cat crossly.

“At least tell me your name.”

The cat threw her a reproachful look. “We’ve barely met, and you’re already asking my name? How rude.”

“Sorry,” said Lila, bewildered. “I didn’t realize it was rude to ask a cat their name. It’s quite normal among humans.”

Humans,” said the cat, in the tone in which one might say turds. “Rule number one of the cat market: do not ask anyone their name. There are cats who would have clawed your eyes out for this insult.”

Cat market, thought Lila in delight. Aloud she said, “I’ll remember.”

“Don’t tell anyone your name,” he continued. “Don’t eat or drink or steal anything. Leave between moonset and sunrise—unless you never want to go home.” The cat tilted his head and regarded her out of half-shut eyes. “Think you can manage all that?”

She nodded, her gaze straying to a cart groaning under the weight of hundreds of wooden toys and mechanical contraptions.

“Try not to get into trouble.” The cat turned away.

“Don’t leave me!” she cried in a panic.

He made a huffing sound that could have been a laugh. “I’ll be back soon.” He vanished into the crowd before she could say anything else.

For a moment, she was petrified. Then the proprietor of the cart with the wooden toys—an elderly Siamese—began to demonstrate his clockwork mice to a pair of white kittens, and she forgot her terror.

His mice could not only crawl, run, and hop, they could also sing in squeaky voices and dance the Kathak. And they were edible. The Siamese demonstrated by popping one wriggling mouse into his mouth. “No, no, mercy!” shrieked the mouse while Lila and the kittens watched in morbid fascination.

The next stall had bottles full of miniature huts and fields in its display counter. Lila bent down to peer at them. Why, this one was just like her village. And those tiny people—were they not replicas of her own family? One of the figures turned and waved at her, and she got the most dreadful shock. That was her.

She snapped upright and glared at the stall owner—a handsome, blue-eyed Persian. “That’s me in there!”

The Persian tut-tutted. “Don’t be silly. My models are one inch tall, and you are such a great big girl.”

“But it looks like me,” she insisted, bending down to stare at herself again. The tiny Lila gave her another cheeky wave.

“Are you buying?” asked the Persian with asperity. “No? Then please leave. You are blocking customers. Paying ones.”

Lila withdrew reluctantly. The next several shops were all stocked with various delectable food items. Fish of every kind sizzled on pans, leaped haplessly in reed baskets, and lay in glassy-eyed stupor on the counters. Chickens turned on spits, and sweet white kheer bubbled in iron pots. And the laddus! Lila had never seen so many different kinds, not even during festivals. They rose in tier after tier of golden glory, making her mouth water.

“See something you like?” came a honeyed voice next to her ear.

The speaker was the tough-looking tabby who had argued with the black cat earlier.

“Um, it’s all very nice,” she said.

“Choose something,” said the tabby. “Go on.”

Lila shook her head, although she was dying to taste one of the laddus on display. “The black cat told me not to eat or drink anything.”

The tabby grinned. “He’s in enough trouble without you eating anything. But I won’t tell if you don’t.”

“Why is he in trouble?” she asked.

“He shouldn’t have brought you here,” said the tabby. “Humans are not allowed.”

Was she supposed to be talking to him? Lila scanned the market, wondering where her black cat was.

“Looking for Prince?” The tabby’s tail swished from side to side. “He’s been summoned by the council.”

“You know his name!”

The tabby looked at her askance. “Not his real name. He might be my colleague, but we don’t have that kind of relationship. What do you take me for?”

“Sorry,” she said, abashed.

“Absurd alias, if you ask me,” said the tabby. “There are five brothers between him and the throne. Now me, my unreal name is Veeru.” He paused expectantly.

“Oh, er, mine’s Dolly,” said Lila, giving the name of her eldest sister. “What do you mean, there are five brothers between him and the throne? He’s a real prince?”

“Barely,” said Veeru. “He’s the youngest of six and the queen’s least favorite. She’ll disown him before the night’s out. She knows why he broke the rules, but that won’t help him. It only happens once in several years, thank Shashthi.”

“What happens once in several years?” asked Lila.

“The Harvest Moon passes into the shadow of the earth, and the doors between our worlds thin,” came a cold voice. “Why are you doing this, Veeru?”

Prince stood behind them, his fur erect, his hackles raised.

“You’re the one who kidnapped her,” said Veeru. “I am merely making conversation.”

“I’m the one who saved her,” snapped Prince. “Go away.”

“The queen will have your tail for this.” Veeru nodded to Lila and strolled away.

“Let us walk,” said Prince.

Lila fell into step beside the black cat, staring at the stalls they passed, each more eye-popping than the last. “Are humans really forbidden here?”

“There are exceptions,” said Prince. “Tonight is an exception.”

He stopped in front of a shop full of mirrors: little heart-shaped mirrors framed by metal roses, gilt-edged rectangular mirrors as big as doors, round mirrors framed by ornately carved wood, mirrors in pairs, mirrors in trios, mirrors which threw Lila’s reflection back at her a thousand times until it seemed there was an infinity of her trapped within their cold walls.

In front of the shop, leaning against the counter, was an oblong mirror framed by old black wood. Lila peered into it, expecting to see herself and Prince, but it was obscured by clouds and shadows.

The clouds parted, and a red moon peeped out, illuminating a massive, snarling, crimson-eyed creature.

Lila reeled. The moon darkened, and the mirror was opaque once more. “What—what was that?” Like a hyena, with its thick, misshapen head and stripy skin, only much more terrifying.

“Corocotta,” said Prince. “Did I not say the doors are thin tonight? You have a narrow window between moonset and sunrise to leave the cat market and return safely home.”

Corocotta. The word sent a shiver through her, as if the act of naming had brought to life all the monsters that had existed so far only in stories heard around the fire.

She looked back the way she had come, at the arch of trees which led to her world. The tunnel seemed ghostly somehow, less real than the market itself. Her home seemed ghostly too, far away and unimportant. She had a family; she knew that. Two older sisters, both prettier than her. A mother who hadn’t wanted her. A father to whom she was just one more mouth to feed.

But the knowing did not bring hurt. It was as if she was remembering someone else, a stranger who inhabited her life in that other world.

“What would I find if I were to go now?” she asked.

“The creature you saw in the mirror is one possibility,” said Prince. “I suggest you do not go now, unless you wish to be eaten.”

She shuddered at the memory of its dripping fangs. “Such creatures should not exist.”

“The corocotta have as much right to exist as you and I. There are things which are even worse. Don’t worry,” he added, “I’ll tell you when it’s time to go, wake you up if you fall asleep.”

“I won’t sleep.” How was it possible to sleep when she was having the most amazing night of her life?

They continued their promenade down the market. It had become even more crowded and clamorous. She stepped on a calico’s tail and apologized profusely. A brown kitten hopped down from an awning onto her shoulder, thrust its cold nose into her ear, then leaped down and trotted away.

“Rudeness,” commented Prince with a sniff. “I apologize on behalf of my youngest cousin.”

“That was your cousin?” Lila craned her neck, but the kitten had vanished into the throng.

As they walked deeper into the market, the offerings became stranger: a spell to immobilize a thief, a whistle to trap a dog, a song to milk a cow, a brush to change appearance, a drink to become larger or smaller, a dream to float above the trees, another to take root in the earth, and—most delightful—wings to fly.

Lila halted in front of the wings shop. There were all kinds: white with black tips, black with white tips, sweeping and elegant, soft and feathery, rough and wild. Her heart gave a swoop of longing.

“No,” said Prince, his voice implacable.

“I didn’t say anything,” she protested as he chivvied her away.

“You didn’t have to,” he said drily. “Your thoughts were as loud as a scream. It hurt my ears.”

She tried to yearn more quietly after that.

A little later, they arrived at what Prince told her was the heart of the cat market. A large space had been cleared in the middle, and cat musicians were playing the dholak, the sarangi, the flute, the iktara, the dilruba, and many other instruments she had never seen before and could not name. Several cats swayed and danced in a large circle around the musicians. The music was fast and lively, and Lila tapped her feet, wishing she could join them.

To her enormous surprise, Prince stood up on two feet and whirled her away into the crowd of dancers.

It should not have been possible to dance with a cat, but she did. Either she had shrunk or the cats had grown, for there no longer seemed much difference between her and them. Standing on two feet, Prince was as tall as her, and a most elegant dancing partner. She laughed and said breathlessly, “Prince, you are the handsomest cat in the world.”

He bent his beautiful head to her ear and whispered, “My name is Prince-Tranquil-Light-In-The-Endless-Dark.”

He’d told her his real name! And how impressive-sounding it was. “Mine’s Lila,” she whispered back, wishing there were more than four letters to her name.

“Lovely,” said Prince with perfect seriousness, twirling her.

Lila wanted the dance never to end, but after a while her head felt heavy, and her eyes began to close. When she collided with the cat playing the sarangi, Prince led her away from the dancers’ circle and into a quieter area of the market, toward a cart draped with silk scarfs. He had a word with the cat selling the scarfs, and a bright gold coin changed paws. She curled up on the grass beneath the cart, tucked her hand beneath her head, and fell fast asleep.

She dreamed bright, lucid dreams filled with the shapes and sounds of the market. But the cats themselves stayed away. Why was she not dreaming of the cats? It seemed unjust.

A paw shook her awake. She sat up blearily, bumping her head on the cart. Prince crouched before her, his whiskers quivering, his fur standing on end. “Time to go.”

She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. “Why didn’t I dream of you?”

“Cats do not dream each other,” said Prince, which didn’t make any sense.

She crawled out from under the cart. It was very early in the morning, barely dawn yet. Most of the shops and stalls were gone; cats were busy dismantling the rest, loading them onto caravans pulled by strange animals that looked like a hybrid of a donkey and an ostrich.

“Where are they going?” she asked, a sense of loss welling up inside her.

“Not for you to know.” Prince poked her with a paw. “Get up.”

There was such urgency in his voice that she scrambled to her feet, although she was a bit fuzzy about where she ought to be going and why.

Prince pointed toward the arch of trees. “Run. And do not try to return.”

His words hurt, but his anxiety was a flare that ignited her own. She ran toward the arch of trees, nearly tripping in her haste. When she reached the tunnel, she turned for a last look behind.

There was nothing but forest, dark and impenetrable. The cat market was gone. Gone.

“Prince?” she shouted, but no one answered. A wind rustled through the trees, whispering go go go.

No. No, I don’t want to.

You must.

Lila ran back to the forest. Perhaps Prince had hidden behind one of the trees? She called his name as she stumbled through the underbrush, trying not to cry. Branches whipped her face, thorns pricked her arms, and tree roots poked her bare feet.

At last, she gave up and turned around. Home. A place where she was expected, even if not wanted. She walked through the tunnel of trees, her heart heavy. Not even the fireflies had remained to keep her company. She emerged into the familiar landscape of denuded fields just as the sun peeped into the sky. Would she ever see Prince again? Would anyone believe what had happened to her? Could she even tell anyone what had happened to her? The events of the night blurred like a dream. Had it been real?

Yes. Realer than anything in the world. Fiercely, she clung to her memories, went over them one by one. She recited Prince’s true name in her mind, again and again, like a talisman. She would not forget him. She would not forget any of it.

No one was working in the fields yet—not surprising, considering the late night revelry. But no one was drawing water at the well either, or washing clothes by the pond, and that was unusual. The cows were lowing in their sheds, sounding like a rebellion. They hadn’t been milked. What was going on?

As she neared her family’s hut, a keening sound rent the air, making the hair on her neck stand on end. She pushed open the door and tiptoed in. Her mother and sisters were gathered in a circle on the straw mat in the middle of the room. The keening sound was coming from her mother.

Her mother took one look at her and screamed, “Lila!” She leaped up and grabbed the bewildered Lila by the shoulders. “Where were you? What happened to you?” She shook Lila until her teeth rattled.

“I was with the cats.” The words tumbled out of Lila’s mouth.

“Cats?” Her mother glared at her, the tears drying on her cheeks. “What cats?”

“In the forest,” said Lila, although a voice inside warned her to be quiet, “there were many, many cats.”

The slap came from nowhere, like a lightning strike. Lila stumbled back, her cheek stinging.

“Liar,” said her mother, massaging her hand.

“Do you know how worried we were?” It was Dolly’s turn to shout. “We thought you were dead.”

Lila didn’t dare ask why. She kept her eyes lowered and her mouth shut, and after a while, they lost interest in her. She slunk to the kitchen and helped herself to a glass of water from an earthen pot. Her throat was parched, her stomach a hard, empty knot. She wished she was back in the cat market.

“There goes any chance of compensation,” said her mother.

“At least she’s alive and well,” said Dolly.

Her mother grunted. “Shilpi, go find the men. Tell your father she’s come home. No need to waste time searching for her body, at least.”

There was a current of disappointment in her voice, as if she’d been cheated out of her rightful share of the money.

Lila got the story piece by piece over the next few days, some from gossip she overheard, some from the constable who questioned her—and whom she managed to fob off by acting vacant and dull—and some from shadowing the district policemen as they combed the village and surrounding fields.

Two men and two women had disappeared on the night of the Harvest Moon. Vikram, the son of the village priest, was taken while he was sleeping with his parents in a charpoy outside their hut. Dhiraj, a toddy-tapper, was grabbed while he and his wife Arunima were returning from harvest celebrations the next village over. Deepti, the wife of a local farmhand, vanished when she went to the outhouse in the middle of the night. And Hasina, the tailor’s daughter, disappeared a short distance away from the fire—right where Lila had been sitting. Out of all the possible witnesses, only Arunima got a glimpse of the attacker, and she was too shocked to give a coherent account of what she saw.

Lila heard rumors of a huge animal with a misshapen head, striped like a hyena, with teeth as long as a man’s forearm. Another rumor said the victims had been taken as sacrifice by tantriks who had disguised themselves as wolves. The only thing everyone agreed on was that this had happened before. Twenty-three years ago, five people had vanished. That night, too, had been Harvest Moon.

The police found large paw prints at the crime scenes, which supported the wild animal theory, but no drag marks, which supported the human theory. Lila, trailing the police at a discreet distance, knew they were both wrong. The creature she had glimpsed in the cat market mirror was neither a wild animal nor a human. It was its own monstrous thing. It defied classification, because it was not of this world. What had Prince called it? Corocotta.

The police summoned the elite Corps of Detectives and a dog squad. The dogs found a torn bit of sari—Deepti’s—and a finger—Vikram’s. The scent led them to a cave on a hill two hours away from the village. Inside the cave was a skull that was too old to belong to any of the recent missing people. It was sent to a lab in the state capital for analysis, but Lila knew what they would find: that it belonged to one of the people who had vanished twenty-three years ago.

A detective noticed Lila following them and called her over. She came forward unwillingly, wishing she had hidden herself better.

The detective crouched in front of her. “Why aren’t you in school?”

No one had ever asked her that before. The village had an elementary school, but attendance was desultory and the schoolmaster often absent or drunk. Besides, only boys got sent to the secondary school in the district capital. Lila hung her head and said nothing, the best policy to adopt when confronted by uniformed authority of any kind.

“Did you know the missing people?” he asked.

Lila nodded. Everyone knew everyone in Rampur, population two hundred and fifty-six. No, two hundred and fifty-two now.

“Where were you the night they disappeared?”

She debated whether to lie, but if he’d singled her out, he likely recognized her as the girl who’d been reported missing and then turned up alive. “I followed a cat into the fields,” she said. “And then I fell asleep on the grass.” That was all she’d admitted to the constable.

“Did you notice anything out of ordinary at all?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No, except the moon was being eaten, and the fields were dark.”

He regarded her with disappointment. “The moon was not being eaten. It was a lunar eclipse. It’s when the earth’s shadow blocks the sun’s light from falling on the moon. See, this is why you need to be in school. Cat, you said? You’re sure it was not something…bigger?”

“It was a cat,” she said firmly. “I followed a cat and then I fell asleep and when I woke it was morning so I returned home.”

A huge black police dog snuffled her neck, and she shrieked. The detective laughed and rose, and the dog’s handler pulled it back.

“Sultan says he would like to see where the cat took you,” said the detective.

Sultan—the dog? Several excuses rose in Lila’s mind. She could pretend to faint, she could say she forgot, or she could simply run away. But the dog would probably catch her, and the detective would think—would know—she had something to hide.

Lila led the detectives and their dogs out of the village, across the fields, and toward the banyan tree. Midway through, the dogs got hold of a scent that excited them, and they dragged their handlers toward the forest. Lila watched them, heart in her mouth. Suppose Prince was still around, hiding in the trees? Those dogs would tear him to pieces.

But the dogs did not find Prince. They found an arm, bitten off at the shoulder. The detectives speculated on the identity of its owner, and Lila quietly vomited behind a bush.

The detectives left a week later, case unsolved. For a while, the villagers were afraid. Mothers kept their children close, and people slept indoors. It’s okay, Lila wanted to tell them. The corocotta are gone. For now.

Every full moon night, she slipped out of her hut to scout the village and check if the moon was being eaten by the earth’s shadow. Once, she thought she saw a piece bitten off, and a thrill ran through her. Would she find the cat market again? Would Prince be waiting for her? Or would the corocotta find her first?

But the bitten piece soon regrew, and the moon shone whole again. Hollow with disappointment, she returned home.

But she didn’t give up. She grew better at moving unseen, catlike. As long as people didn’t notice her, she could slip away, pretend to be somewhere else, someone else. She could run across the fields, imagining monsters behind her and fireflies ahead.

When ten full moons had come and gone, her eldest sister Dolly was married off to the son of a moneylender from the next village. It was a good match and a lavish wedding. For her dowry, Dolly got thick gold bangles, richly embroidered sarees, fine clothes for her new in-laws, a scooter for the groom, a full set of cooking utensils, and two hundred thousand rupees. The in-laws had wanted more, but Lila’s parents managed to negotiate more reasonable terms. Dolly was attractive, after all, and the moneylender’s son liked her. Still, Lila’s father had to take a loan to meet the wedding expenses.

“It’ll take three years to pay off, if the crops do well,” he told them when the wedding was over and the food was eaten and the guests were gone. He gazed at Shilpi and Lila with bitterness. “And then it’ll be your turn. Why didn’t God give me sons?”

“You could pretend we’re sons,” said Lila, staring at the floor, her face hot. “You could send us to the district school, and we could get jobs when we graduate.”

“Foolish girl,” said her father after a moment of shocked silence. “We don’t have money to waste sending you to the district school. What’s the point? You’ll have to be married in a few years anyway.”

“If we can find someone to marry her,” said her mother. “Such a plain, dark face. Not like her sisters.”

Lila tuned her out and thought of Prince. Did cats marry? Were their weddings grand affairs with lots to eat and drink? Did they have dowries?

Surely not. If cats gave each other gifts, it was because they wanted to, not because they’d been presented with a list, like an ultimatum. And dark-colored cats were just as pretty as wheat-colored ones.

The night of the Harvest Moon arrived. It was a subdued affair. The events of last year were still too fresh in the villagers’ minds.

But they’ll forget, thought Lila, watching them play mournful tunes around the fire. In five years time, or ten, or twenty, when the doors are thin again, they’ll forget.

She crept away from the fire, out of the village, and across the harvested fields. The moon shone bright in the sky, not a shred of darkness marring its silver face. Still, it was the night of the Harvest Moon. Perhaps the doors were slightly thinner tonight?

She arrived at the venerable old banyan. No arch of trees was in evidence. An owl hooted, and leaves rustled. She walked into the forest, pushing branches away from her face, taking care not to trip on exposed roots.

“Prince?” she called, but no one answered. Had she really expected him to? The trees were only trees, bereft of cats or fireflies.

She trudged home, unable to form words for what she was feeling. Could you be homesick for a place you’d only visited once?

Do not try to return, he’d said.

She should never have left.

It was hard to say when Lila lost faith. Perhaps it was the night of the midsummer moon three years later when it fell into the earth’s shadow. She ran across the fields as the moon turned blood-red, heart beating with excitement. She’d never seen the moon look like that before, except in the cat market mirror. It was a night for magic if ever there was one.

But when she arrived at the banyan tree, there was nothing of note except a small deer, crashing through the undergrowth. She sat below the tree and cried, but the forest remained unmoved, and no voices whispered in her ear.

Or perhaps it was the day Shilpi was married off to a farmer’s son in the next district. It wasn’t as good a match as Dolly’s, but it wasn’t bad either. The groom was the eldest son and would inherit his father’s land, as well as half his father-in-law’s. That was the deal they’d struck. There was no money for a dowry or expensive gifts, but land was forever. Except when you mortgaged it for a daughter’s wedding. Lila’s father still hadn’t paid off his debts, and the interest kept piling up. Shilpi was not happy about the wedding, which was less splendid than her sister’s, or the groom, who was a dour, unremarkable young man.

“Let’s run away,” said Lila, the night before the wedding.

“Silly, there’s nowhere to run to,” said Shilpi.

“We could go to the capital,” said Lila. “I could work as a maid.”

Shilpi laughed, a thin, ragged sound. “We wouldn’t last two days.”

Or perhaps it was later still, when Lila’s usual catlike reflexes failed her, and she was caught wandering in the fields by the village leader’s son and his friends. They tied Lila to a peepal tree, pawed her and pulled her hair and ripped her clothes and said, later, they’d only been teasing, and why had the freak been out so late at night anyway. Which was exactly what her mother screamed while slapping Lila until her head spun and her jaw ached.

That was when Lila stopped going out on full moon nights to look for the cat market. It had been a decade, after all. She was no longer a child, and magic had not saved her.

A few months after the tree-tying incident, Lila’s mother told her they had arranged her marriage to a forty-five-year-old widower with two grown sons who lived in the same village as her sister Dolly.

“He owns a shop and is a respectable, well-known man in the community,” said her mother. “You should be grateful to your sister for arranging this match. He doesn’t even want much dowry.”

Lila listened, too numb to respond. A few days later, the prospective groom himself visited with a box of sweets, accompanied by his sisters and his eldest son. Lila, decked in a red sari, sat with her head bowed while the women chattered and the men sat in judgmental silence. Just before they left, she peeked at her husband-to-be.

He was a tall, hefty man with thinning hair and small blackbird eyes that promised violence. His mouth smiled, and she stared at the ground, clenching and unclenching her hands.

The date for the wedding was set for the Harvest Moon. “The most auspicious time for the girl to start a new life,” announced the village astrologer, pouring over star charts.

Harvest Moon, thought Lila. New life. Because hope was a treacherous flower that would bloom even in the mud of her darkest despair.

On the night of her wedding, just before her sisters and cousins were to lead her outside to the mandap, Lila asked for a minute alone so she could pray for strength. They gave her strange looks, because she wasn’t the praying sort, but a girl got married only once after all. They filed out of the hut, giggling and gossiping among themselves.

Lila kicked off her beaded sandals (borrowed), tore off the heavy wedding dress and imitation jewelry (rented), and slipped on her faded gray salwar kameez. She donned her canvas slippers and climbed out of the window at the rear of the hut just as her mother was coming in the front door.

“Lila!” screamed her mother.

Lila dropped out of the window and ran. She ran like she had never run before, not even when she was trying to escape the village leader’s son and his friends.

“Lila, come back!” roared an uncle in hot pursuit.

Of course, they couldn’t let her get away. Better a dead girl than one who brought dishonor to her family, her village. What would they do if they caught her?

No, better not to think of that. She redoubled her efforts and left the village behind. The fields were empty; the harvest was almost in, and everyone was at the wedding, expecting a feast. A double celebration: the marriage of the village freak and the Harvest Moon festival. The disappearances eleven years ago had been forgotten.

A furious voice shouted, “There she is.” Was that her would-be-groom?

Lila flew across the fields, her chest burning, her hair falling out of its tight bun. She couldn’t let them catch her, she couldn’t, she couldn’t.

And what will you do in the forest, love? The voice of the wind, heard after so long, was an icy whisper in her ear.

I’ll live in the trees. I’ll eat berries and mudapples.

There was a breathy laugh. But there are things here that would eat you.

The field darkened. As the men chasing her drew closer, she risked a quick glance up at the sky.

One edge of the moon was smudged, as if someone was trying to rub it out. Was it an eclipse? Would it last? Would it be enough, this time?

An anonymous hand made a grab for her shoulder. She slipped out of its grasp, putting in an extra burst of speed.

The quality of the air changed, becoming thinner, sharper. Far ahead, the trees arched into a dark tunnel, spangled with pinpricks of light. Fireflies.

There was a terrible scream behind her, abruptly choked off. Lila kept running, willing herself not to look behind.

A second scream, and a third. Please oh please, thought Lila in desperation.

The sounds of pursuit died.

Run faster, the voice whispered. And don’t look back.

Of course, Lila couldn’t help herself. She looked back.

In the dim red light of the eclipsed moon, she saw a hulking beast looming over one of the bodies strewn on the field. Corocotta. It seized the head of the corpse in its powerful jaws and tore it off. Blood fountained out of severed arteries, drenching its muzzle.

The gorge rose in Lila’s throat. She swallowed it down and shut her eyes.

A growl thrummed the air, setting her teeth on edge. Once again, she was running, her legs aching, her breath coming in short gasps. The field was endless. Space had stretched; the tunnel of arched trees with the beckoning fireflies appeared no closer than before.

A blast of hot, fetid air enveloped her. Behind her, the growl became louder, savage, and triumphant. Something sharp and heavy hit her between the shoulder blades, and she stumbled. Knifelike claws ripped her back open, and she bit back a scream.

Ah, said the voice, sounding regretful. Only death can save you now.

No. She hadn’t waited all these years for a Harvest Moon eclipse only to die. She kept running, sobbing with pain, her eyes on the arch of trees ahead.

 Huge paws knocked her to the ground. She scrabbled to get up, tasting dirt in her mouth, crying at the unfairness of it. She was close, so close. Jaws of steel clamped over her arm and shattered it.

She screamed in agony. And from the depths of her agony, something twisted, something small, sleek, and sinuous. It wriggled out of her bleeding, broken body just as the jaws snapped around her neck and crushed it.

Lila leaped out of her ruined skin and sped across the moonlit field. Behind her, the corocotta howled in frustration and sprang after her.

But Lila was fast now, faster than the monster, faster than the wind. She raced into the arch of trees, leaving her fear and pain behind. The fireflies settled on her fur, curious, delicate, welcoming.

Well done, the voice whispered. Oh, well done.

A babble of feline voices rose in the air, arguing, laughing, bargaining, singing. Lila burst out of the tunnel and into the noise and color of the cat market.

Shops, everywhere. Cats, everywhere, some turning to look at her askance, some leaning forward to sniff the air, as if at a dubious new treat. Lila threw herself on the ground and trembled, dazed and exhausted.

“Move along folks,” came a familiar, beloved voice. “Nothing to see here.”

Cats turned their bewhiskered faces away, back to the business of the market.

Prince stood above her, his topaz eyes warm and bright. “Lila-Soul-Of-Cat, welcome home.”

Lila shook and cried. Prince laid a calming paw on her back. “Cats are usually not so emotional. But today, it is allowed.”

“I died,” she said, remembering the jaws around her neck. “I died.”

“Yes,” he said. “You have to die to be reborn.”

Shakily, she got to her feet. Her four feet. “How…how do I look?”

Prince gave her a knowing grin. “Would you like to see yourself before we meet the queen?”

She swallowed. “Will she allow me to stay?”

“Of course. You belong here now.”

“Why did you tell me not to return?” she asked.

“Because it was dangerous. I saved you once. The second time, you had to save yourself.” He nudged her with his nose. “Shall we?”

The market was even bigger and grander than Lila remembered. Fireworks exploded in the sky, and a toy train full of excited kittens trundled past, nearly treading on her paws.

At the mirror shop, she saw reflected back at her a pretty black cat with a white snout, amber eyes, and a bottle brush tail. She laid a paw on the mirror, afraid the illusion would break and she’d find herself plunged into the human world once more. “Is that me? Really and truly?”

“It has always been you,” said Prince.

She thought with a pang of the poor, broken body she’d left behind. “And the girl?”

“Is also you. Do you think you need the skin to make you what you are?” He strolled away. “Come. The queen awaits. And then we will fly.”

She trotted after him, giddy with anticipation. As they walked, the moon slid out from the earth’s shadow. It rose over the many worlds, and it saw terrible things. But in the cat market, a small black cat with a bottle brush tail danced to the tune of a different song.

 

(Editors’ Note: Rati Mehrotra is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

 

The 207th Time I Went Back to March 9, 1980

This is my 207th time returning to March 9, 1980, but the 35th time I have broken into my childhood home. Before I started using my homemade time machine, I had never been one to defy rules. Back at age seven, I stole a candy bar from a grocery store. Anvil-heavy guilt compelled me to confess everything to my mom before I’d taken a single bite.

“Thank you for coming to me. You did the right thing,” she’d said, smiling. “You’ll remember this lesson forever.”

Nothing is forever about memory.

I enter through the unlocked back door. I immediately deploy the dozen mini drones stored within my duffle bag. Each is the size of a fist with jointed legs like spiders. They whir off to attend their assignments, some absorbing different textures, others lifting objects to take in their heft. I stand in the living room with its wood-paneled walls and green shag carpet, fighting back tears.

This will be my last time here. I must urgently compile the data I’ve acquired from the past.

Our old cat Carter purrs as I scratch his chin. He has another three years of life. His death will crush me more than anything else in my early childhood. I pet him, and the sobs come.

I’ve explored my hometown and home with an intimacy I never knew as a kid. I can’t deploy my drones in public, so I’ve adorned myself with monitors and walked everywhere. At the market a block away, I resisted the urge to gasp at the ridiculously low prices and the odd product packaging. John’s Hamburger Drive-On-In deserved particular attention, though I didn’t dare order anything. I stroked hardtop tables with sensor-sheathed fingertips and breathed in fumes fragrant of oil and seared beef.

I’m there right now—child-me, a mere toddler, along with my older brother and parents. We kids just romped at a nearby playground for over an hour while my parents sat and talked, enjoying a brisk, sunny afternoon that my dad had off of work.

My mom considers this the best day of her entire life.

Up until six months ago, she remembered everything about it with clarity that I have proven to be astonishingly accurate. To her, me and my brother were at a perfect age. We were all happy. My dad wasn’t burnt out at his job yet, or started the cough that would hint of the cancer to come.

My hands ball into fists as I pass the ashtray kept beside his favorite recliner. I’m not here to try to save him, though his death in twelve years will be horrible. Science’s failure to keep him alive inspired me to go into the field. Neither can I take away my mom’s second marriage. Miguel loved her, loved us all. We lost him last year.

The drones begin to buzz back to my duffel bag. A strange metallic wrenching sound rings out from the kitchen. I run into the room. Carter has a drone pinned to the linoleum. He bats at its propellers with a white paw. He’s been placid during all of my other visits—why’s he playing the attack cat, now?! In that instant, I imagine my entire known future destroyed because something happens to Carter, my mom’s perfect day becoming one of her worst.

I rush to extract the drone. It rises and buzzes away. I pry open Carter’s mouth to check for choking hazards or cuts. I palpate his neck, his face, his paws. His tail lashes in annoyance, and I soothe him with quick strokes. He looks okay. My warning timer dings. I have to go.

I can only hope he truly is okay.

My heart is still pounding as I return to the time machine. The drones begin uploading their data the instant we land in my lab, a mere second after we initially departed. I take comfort in that my house is still here and everything appears as it should, but unease continues to pulse through me hours later as I go to see Mom at the Memory Center. I carry the virtual reality headset I created.

We greet each other as I sit at her bedside. “Please tell me about March 9th, 1980,” I say.

Her face clouds for an instant, and then, to my relief, brightens. “The park and burgers day with Reggie and my little ones! My perfect day!”

“That’s right.” I squeeze her hand.

She looks me up and down. “You keep visiting me, don’t you? What’s your name again?”

Pain needles me, soul-deep. I squeeze her hand again, unable to speak. I can’t help her remember the here and now, and maybe that’s for the best. Miguel’s death almost broke her last year; the one mercy of rapid onset of Alzheimer’s is that she’s dwelled more often in the far-distant past, though it, too, has begun to fuzz.

I will help her to truly dwell there.

“I have special glasses for you to try out. Would you like to see your old house on 14th Avenue?”

“Can I?” She sounds intrigued.

I slip the unit over her head and initiate the VR prototype. She gasps.

“I am in my old house! Oh! And that—that’s my Carter! Hello, pumpkin!”

“I have the whole house mapped out, Mom, and most of town. Give me a few more weeks, and you’ll be able to pet Carter and feel him, too.”

She’s dreamily smiling. She’s lost in the past, and I’m grateful with that. March 9, 1980, her happiest day, can be the one that lasts forever for her.

 

At the Lighthouse Out by the Othersea

Outside the big window, the Othersea danced.

Its swirling clouds piled about one another, forming and reforming, the bubbles that boiled out around them outlined in the glittering energy released in the collision of regular space and otherspace. I looked down at my hands against the dark warm earth of the food garden, and for a moment my skin glittered too, the green feathery carrot tops frothing around my fingers.

The outer proximity alarm went off, and I blinked, dispelling the imagined shimmer. The ship would be a few hours yet, then. No hurry. I rarely hurry, here at the Lighthouse.

I took the carrots up to the kitchen, washed my hands, and went to the top floor control post. The ship was, as I’d expected, the Fair Stars, due sometime this week. Interstellar travel isn’t an exact science; you can never be sure quite how long it’ll take you to get through otherspace. Currents are unpredictable; exits shift.

I brought up the comms interface.

“Come in Fair Stars. This is the Lighthouse.”

Fair Stars here. What is it?” There was an anxious note in the skipper’s mid-range voice.

“Just checking in. You’re about three hours, at your current speed, off the edge of the Othersea. Your nav should lock onto the Lighthouse soon.”

“I’ve a slot booked.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “You’re on my list. You need to dock here first, check in with me. Like it says in the booking information.”

Before I took over here, ships could go straight into the Sea, but I insisted on giving them a chance to back out. Even if it meant I had to make dinner for, and conversation with, someone who might never return from the Sea.

Maybe because of that.

“Right,” the Fair Skies’ skipper said, uncertainly.

“So you need to send me your docking chit,” I prompted, “and I’ll see you in three hours or so.”

The docking chit pinged onto the screen, and I pulled up the booking list to compare it. Fair Skies, correct ship ID, single skipper—they always are—but the list had Ines Silva, she, and the docking chit had Peres Silva, ze. Different citizen ID too; not just a name change. At the bottom of the chit was a Bureau note attached to it, authorising Peres Silva to take over Ines Silva’s slot sailing the Othersea.

Huh. I scratched at my beard. That was—unusual.

In general, otherspace stays where it belongs, on the inside of wormholes, where ships can sail themselves through it and back into regular space. Here, at the Othersea, is the only place (that we’ve found so far) where otherspace leaks into regular space. The Lighthouse was built here to warn people away. I’m the lighthouse keeper, three years into a five-year stint. It’s a solitary, peaceful job, which is why I applied. And the Sea is beautiful. To live by it, to see it every day, is a privilege.

Humans being humans, there are always people attracted to the beautiful, and to the dangerous, and especially to that which is both. And the Lighthouse has to be funded somehow. So four times a year, someone wins the (very expensive) opportunity to come here and surf the edges of the Sea. Those glittering energy releases propel them across the boundary and back out again, skipping between here and there. They tell me, afterwards, still caught in the exhilaration of that repeated transition, their eyes gleaming with passion, how glorious it is, how intoxicating; they tell of seeing things impossible to describe in human language, colours that don’t exist anywhere else.

At least, the three out of four who make it back tell me that.

As I listened to the hums and clanks of the airlock, I tried not to wonder which category Peres Silva would be in. The airlock hissed open, and Peres ducked under its low lintel. Ze had broad shoulders and a stocky build, with dark hair braided back from zir face, and zir blue-grey eyes were sombre in the same way zir docking-chit holo had been.

“Hello,” ze said. “Peres Silva, of the Fair Skies. Ze.”

“Hi Peres, and welcome to the Lighthouse. I’m Felix. He.”

I gave zem my best smile, and a tiny return smile appeared on zir lips before it disappeared again. I beckoned zem to follow me along the corridor and into the living area.

The huge window looking onto the Sea is right opposite the entrance to the living area. People see it and stop in their tracks. The Sea is glorious and captivating. I spend half my time here just watching it. I’ve seen sailors cry at their first glimpse.

Peres took one brief look and turned zir head away.

I caught zir brief expression of surprise at the rest of the room. Maybe ze had expected something more station-like. But I live here, all the time; it’s not a public place. I have soft rugs, and a couch for a home, rather than for being hosed down weekly. I keep the place tidy (makes a nice change after years of living with a large family and always feeling behindhand even when everyone was pulling their weight), but it’s visibly lived-in. It’s visibly my home.

I have art up across the room from the Sea. Paintings, with their extra layer of meaning, can hold their own against it in a way that pics, even holos, can’t. One of my paintings shows the blue-green tangled vegetation of Gliese, my adult home; the other, the rocky red mountains outside the Martian domes where I grew up.

Peres stared at the Gliese painting for a bit, then wandered around the room, looking at things, zir back always to the Sea. Ze came to a small carving made by my partner Narith, and I nodded permission to touch. Ze turned it over in zir fingers, then glanced back at the painting.

“Yes, the wood’s from there,” I told zem. “Good eye. It’s Gliese. My partner and kids live there.”

Peres’s eyebrows twitched, but ze still didn’t speak. Ze put the carving down gently, and went over to the couch. My kid Leah brought the knitted blanket folded over its back with her last time she visited. We used to curl up under something similar and read together, when she was little.

“Everyone who comes to sail the Sea stays here?” Peres asked. Ze was looking down at the blanket, stroking it, and I couldn’t quite see zir expression. It feels good, that blanket. Soft, and warm.

“There’s not that many of them. Of you,” I said. “But yes. I can show you the guest room now, if you want. Or I was about to make tea if you’d like some?”

It was odd Peres had asked. The sailors who come here know a lot about the Sea, and the Lighthouse. They’re experienced pilots, with years of wormhole sailing behind them. They’ve read the accounts of those who’ve sailed it. They know as much as you can about what happens here without having done it themselves. Otherwise it wouldn’t be risky to do this, it would be suicidal.

If Peres wasn’t part of that community, if ze hadn’t nursed that desire for years, did ze truly know what ze was getting into?

But then, Peres had authorisation. Ze must have the skill. It wasn’t my job to make this decision. That wasn’t quite enough to dismiss the worm of worry at the back of my brain.

“I just want to check,” I said, as I put the kettle on in the kitchen corner. “Rules, you understand.” Not true; the Bureau handled all that side of things. I just didn’t want to admit my concern. “I expected your ship around now, right enough, but my list had Ines Silva, not Peres.”

“My sister.” For the first time, Peres looked over at the Sea, then zir eyes skipped away again. “She died. Six months ago. She’d always wanted to do this. She was—so delighted, when her name came up.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.

Peres didn’t respond.

“So you’re doing it…for her?” Well, that was a bloody terrible idea.

“They let me take the slot. I want…” Ze looked back at the Sea. “As a memorial,” ze said, distantly.

Doing something with a twenty-five percent fatality rate didn’t sound like the ideal memorial to me. But was it my place to say so? Let everyone go to hell in their own way.

But I’ve never believed in absolute individualism. People’s decisions are their own; but at the same time, looking out for others is, surely, part of being a decent person.

The thing was, Peres was the thirteenth sailor I’d seen come through. The others had been nervous, sure, but they’d had fire in their eyes. Excitement. They’d all wanted to do it, wholly and desperately. I didn’t see that desire in Peres, and it bothered me.

But hell, maybe I was wrong.

“You’ve read all the information?” I asked, feeling my way. “Your sister would have, on application, but I don’t know how they manage it in a situation like this.”

“You mean the fatality rate,” Peres said, flatly. “Yes. It’s exactly the sort of thing Ines loved.”

Which didn’t answer the question I wanted to ask: that’s as may be, but is it the sort of thing you love?

“Could you show me the guest room?” ze asked, taking a step backwards.

I’d pushed too hard.

“Of course,” I said. “I’ll have dinner ready later. Unless you’d prefer something from the dispenser in your room.” It’s nice to eat with other people, when they’re here, but only if they want to.

“Uh,” Peres said, startled. “Yes. Dinner would—that would be lovely.”

Maybe I’d have another chance later. Or maybe I’d have talked myself out of interfering.

When Peres came back into the living area, ze had changed into a flowing shirt in a bright blue that reminded me of the oceans back home, and a long soft-looking split-sided skirt in deep purple. Ze’d brushed out some of zir braids, and tied the rest back with silver cords. It struck me how much more comfortable ze looked in this than in grey ship-canvas. Ze must be a decent pilot to have brought the Fair Stars here at all, but ze just didn’t seem like the home-is-where-the-gravity-isn’t adrenaline-junkie starfarers I’d seen come through here before.

This time, ze looked straight at the Sea.

“It’s beautiful,” ze said, softly. “I’ve read about it and I’ve seen holos, but the real thing…” Ze walked over to the window and rested zir hand on the frame, still gazing out. “Ines and I used to talk about it, when we were kids.” Did ze know ze was speaking aloud? “I wanted to know why, and what, and how. Ines always said that wasn’t the point. She said it was beautiful because it was unknown.”

If Peres had been talking about this since childhood, maybe I was worrying for nothing.

Ze turned around and smiled at me. “Sorry. I’m getting distracted. Can I help, at all?”

I shook my head. “It’s nearly ready. Please, sit down.”

There were only a couple of dishes left to bring through from the kitchen. I like making food. I enjoy the physical feel of chopping and stirring, and creating something nourishing. I enjoy it when it’s just me—which is just as well—but it’s good, too, to share it with someone.

By the time I put down the last dishes on the low table by the couch, Peres had sat down and was petting Leah’s blanket again. I smiled.

“A gift from one of my kids.” I handed Peres a mug, and sat at the other end of the couch. “You can put it over your lap, if you want. If you’re cold.”

“I wouldn’t want to spill on it.” Peres tilted zir head slightly to one side, looking over at me. “You have kids?”

“My kids are why I came out here,” I said cheerfully. “Which sounds terrible, but they think it’s funny. I spent twenty-five years at home raising and educating and minding and clearing up after my kids. I was about ready for a while all by myself, and some quiet.”

“Uh.” Peres shifted in zir seat. “I can go to my room, like you said…”

“Oh, not at all,” I reassured zem. “I get visitors maybe six or seven times a year. Two supply drops, one family visit, and the four sailing slots. I’m fine for solitude, believe me. It’s nice to have a chat once in a while.” I gestured at the table. “Please. Help yourself. Ask me if you want to know what anything is. It’s all grown here.”

I picked up my own bowl and started to fill it, hoping to encourage Peres.

“You’re self-sustaining?” ze asked. “I noticed how quiet it is. Quieter than the ship.”

“I grow my own food, but the supply ships bring tech and metals and so on, and a few trace minerals. The plants downstairs can handle one person’s oxygen, and the air’s moved by convection. It’s static, not like a ship. Low energy needs.”

“It’s nice,” Peres said, almost shyly, and reached for a dish of stir-fried carrots with ginger.

We ate in silence for a little. Peres seemed to agree I’d done a good job with the food. Eventually ze sat back and stared out at the Sea again, zir fork idle in zir hand.

“Ines would—Ines always wanted to see this.” Zir tone changed. “See it; and fly it.”

“Are you looking forward to it?” I asked.

“For Ines.” Zir chin went up. “Yes.”

“She was an experienced pilot, then?”

“As am I,” Peres said sharply. Zir shoulders stiffened. Ugh. So much for subtlety.

“Do you ever get researchers out here?” ze asked.

“Not while I’ve been here,” I said, glad for the change of subject. “No one’s working on it now, as far as I know. There was a big flurry straight after it was discovered.” I’d read a fair few of the papers myself, over the three years I’d been here. “But I think people have given up.”

“It’s a shame. I did my doctorate on wormhole theory, you know. I always hoped to work on this.” Ze gestured at the Sea, zir eyes wistful. “It’s so different from the rest of otherspace. Being able to see the interaction, there’s so much potential data there.” Ze pulled a face. “It’s frustrating. People think because we can use it, because we can get ships through it and out again at roughly the right place, that’s enough.”

“You disagree?” I asked, as I wrapped flatbread round a spoonful of ful medames.

Peres made an exasperated gesture. “I don’t understand how people don’t want to know. But once the basic problems were solved, the funding dried up. My supervisor’s group was the only one still working on it, and then she died. No one else had the experience to take over, so the university shut the group down. Sorry. I’m going on, aren’t I?” Ze made an apologetic gesture and smiled at me, leaning forwards to take some of the steamed greens.

“It’s all right to have desires,” I said, gently.

“As a child I always dreamt of discovering something groundbreaking, something wholly new about otherspace.” Ze half-laughed, glancing out again at the Othersea. “I was young, I suppose. It just hasn’t happened.”

Yet, I wanted to say. It hasn’t happened yet. Instead, we talked of Gliese and Mars and the station where Peres grew up, and I didn’t ask any of the questions I badly wanted to.

Peres was a grown adult. Ze wasn’t my responsibility, and discovering if ze truly wanted to do this, if chasing zir sister’s dream would make zem happy; that wasn’t my job.

Later that evening, once Peres had gone to zir room and I’d gone to mine, the cold, lurking fingers of self-doubt began to grip the pit of my stomach. That gnawing, lurching, familiar feeling that I’d done something wrong, said something wrong, that I was just, somehow, and for no reason I could specify, wrong. Maybe it was asking about Ines being a pilot; but we’d had a perfectly pleasant conversation after. Or. Maybe.

It could have been anything, or nothing, and I wouldn’t know. That was precisely the problem.

When I first thought of coming out here, Narith and I talked over a great many things. But what he worried about most was that being away from people for this long would screw with my social anxiety. Which wasn’t, isn’t, an active problem any more. I’ve dealt with it my whole life, and I have strategies. It’s just something that comes up every so often, and then I handle it. Narith thought the sheer volume of social interactions, when we were in the throes of raising kids, meant I got inured to it, and with less practice, those skills might atrophy. Myself, I didn’t think I would suddenly forget everything I’ve learnt. I argued that fewer opportunities to freak out would mean less freaking out.

It turns out we were both right. Statistically, I am more likely to get anxious in any given interaction out here than back at home, possibly because it’s always higher-impact. No casual conversations down the shops out here. When it does happen, my strategies still work.

On the other hand: there is a great relief in never having to consider anyone else’s comfort, or their wellbeing, or whether they’re around and what their plans are. In not needing a facial expression. In never having to explain myself to anyone. Not that I had to explain myself, exactly, to my family; but here, there’s no one else even to tell. And, yes, then visitors come, and having to remember all those things can be overwhelming, but I cope.

This was something different. There’s a thing that happens, where you think you’ve got a handle on something and then you haven’t, and you forget all your coping strategies and then you wonder why you aren’t coping.

That. That had just hit me like a rock.

My best coping strategy is honesty. I tell whoever it is that I’m worrying I’ve been weird. I say I get anxious, sometimes, around other people; that I enjoyed talking to them; and that I find it helps me, when I’m anxious, to check in with people. Turns out, somewhat to my initial surprise back in the day, most people react pretty well. But I could hardly wake Peres up in the middle of the night for reassurance. So I did other things instead. I talked myself through the likelihood this was baseless. I reminded myself Peres had seemed to enjoy our conversation. I spent twenty minutes meditating. And finally, I got to sleep.

The sleep didn’t get rid of the anxiety. So when Peres showed up for breakfast, looking like ze too hadn’t slept well, I got straight to the point.

“I’ve been worrying, this morning,” I said, “that I overstepped the mark yesterday. Your decisions are your own, and I shouldn’t question them, even by implication.”

Peres blinked, a small frown appearing on zir face. “I—no. Not at all. This is your responsibility, here. It must be odd, seeing people come through here, and not, always.” Ze paused. “Not always coming back. I understand you wanting to ask.”

Zir tone still sounded flat, the way it hadn’t any more by the end of the previous evening, but I didn’t press further. The other part of dealing with this is not second-guessing what people say. Or there’d be no damn point in asking in the first place. Instead, I started making pancakes, putting my anxious energy into beating the mixture and achieving the perfect brown-and-gold lace. I’d transferred a stack to the table before Peres spoke again.

“Do I have to go today?”

I blinked. “Of course not. Not today, and not at all. It’s not obligatory.”

“But it’s all arranged.”

I shrugged. “That’s never a good reason to do something.”

Peres didn’t look convinced. I carried on. “You have five days at most here, that’s your only limit.” The Bureau doesn’t like other people being around the Lighthouse, or the Sea. “I have things to do, but you’re welcome to do whatever you’d like around the Lighthouse. I could show you the control room later? Or you could come down to the garden?”

“I’ll just stay in here, I think. If that’s all right.” Peres transferred a pancake to zir plate.

“Certainly. Help yourself to a book, or food.”

I smiled at zem, but ze was looking down at zir plate, face solemn, and I felt awkward again. I ate a couple of pancakes as quickly as I decently could, muttered something about chores, and left zem to it.

I checked over the seedlings and the indicators on the composter, and tried not to think about Peres’s decision; because it wasn’t my damn decision. Grief has its own logic. Perhaps doing this for Ines was the right thing for Peres to do. Perhaps it wasn’t. But the last thing ze needed was someone else with an opinion.

The people who fly out to the Sea make their choice, just like I choose to come out here. All I wanted for Peres was for zem to choose for zir own reasons, not for anyone else’s. Not even mine.

When I came back from the gardens, Peres was on the couch. A handful of sheets of paper, scribbled over with equations, lay on the table in front of zem, and a tablet was balanced on the arm of the couch. Ze was staring out at the Sea, turning a pen over and over in zir fingers. Ze turned to me, and I saw tears on zir cheek.

“Ines was always the golden one, you know.” Ze sounded like the thought had been there for a while, waiting for someone to say it to. “The one to look up to. She thought she needed to protect me. And she did need to, sometimes. She was my sister, that was how we were. Sometimes.”

Cautiously, I sat down on the other end of the couch, not wanting zem to stop talking.

“But to everyone else, it was always. Ines always in the front. Our parents—Ines met all their expectations, overflew them, every time. And I, I.” Zir throat moved as ze swallowed. “I didn’t. I was never what they wanted. I swear, I could see my mother thinking, at the funeral—why her and not Peres?”

My heart contracted at the thought of any of my own children thinking I, or Narith, felt such a thing. I wanted to do something; but the best thing I could do right now was to listen.

Peres was still talking. “I thought, this thing, this one thing, I could prove something. I don’t know what. Something. But I’m not her, am I? I’m not her.”

I bit my lip. I had no idea what to say. “You don’t have to be her,” I said, in the end.

“Ines wouldn’t even have wanted it.” Peres’s voice cracked. “She always just told me to be myself. That was what she was protecting, that was why—she always said, do what you want, be what you want, and I’ll handle the bullies.” Tears slipped down zir face as ze spoke. “That’s all that matters, she said. Me being myself. It’s just the same if the bullies are family, isn’t it? Or if they’re just in my head. I’m still me, and not Ines. I don’t have to be Ines.”

All I could do was nod.

“Like you,” Peres added, and I blinked, surprised. “You’re right here, being yourself.”

“Haven’t always been,” I said, honestly. “It’s taken a while.”

“You asked. You asked. Only a little bit, but no one else even tried. No one else challenged me. Ines would have challenged me. Ines would have asked whether I really wanted this. Ines would have said, there’s no need to be, to do, what anyone else wants.”

“Ines,” I said, “sounds like a sensible person.”

We both stared out at the Sea, its fractal shaded edges swirling and bubbling and glittering, always different, always moving.

“It’s beautiful,” Peres said. “It’s so beautiful. Ines would have loved it. She would be out there already.”

“She would.” I didn’t look over. “But what do you want?”

Peres didn’t say anything for a while. I resisted the urge to prompt. Or to look down at that pile of paper.

“You don’t have to know,” I said, instead. “Or if you do know, you don’t have to tell me.”

We were both silent.

“I was sitting here,” Peres said, eventually. “Sitting, and looking.” Ze gestured at the papers. “I don’t have all the references here, and it’s been a while, but I want to understand it. The way those edges interact, I can feel there’s something there. I haven’t quite grasped it yet, but I can feel it.” Zir voice steadied, became more certain. “That’s what I want. I don’t want to sail it. I want to discover it. To know more about the Sea. It’s the key to otherspace, I’m certain of it. We shouldn’t be satisfied with piloting through it on guesswork. We should find out.” Ze turned to look at me. “When you look at it, don’t you want to know more?”

“I’m not a researcher, myself,” I said, carefully. “I just—admire it. The Sea.”

“Ines admired it. She thought that meant it had to remain mysterious.”

“It’s not that. There is beauty in understanding, and in seeking to understand. But that isn’t me. Not here and now. If I did that,” I paused, looking for words. “I would begin to expect something of myself, in relation to the Sea. That’s not what I want from being here.”

“Flying the Othersea was what Ines expected of herself,” Peres said.

“You get to choose your own expectations,” I said. “Or none at all.”

“I want to know more,” Peres said; and now, at last, I could see desire in zem, fire in zir eyes.

I opened my hands to zem, and to the Sea, gesturing invitation. Peres sighed, and it sounded like hope.

Silently, we watched the Sea break against its invisible shore. I let my breath fall into sync with it; let my mind rest.

When, finally, I looked round again, Peres had fallen asleep. I got up, and gently covered zem with Leah’s blanket. Ze didn’t stir.

Peres had four more days to embrace zir search for understanding, before ze would have to leave the Sea, and the Lighthouse, to be once again mine alone. For a while, at least; ze would be back, I was sure of that.

For now, I could share the Sea’s peace; and in that sharing find my own peace too.

Blessed Are the Healers

Your birth was auspicious, you know—no, no caul to be torn into. You arrived during a storm. The nurse laid you on my chest as a snowsquall gridlocked every skyway and side-street. You first latched at my breast while blizzard winds whipped icy flakes into a blinding fury. There is nothing more sacred than the quiet hours and soft luminescence that follow heavy snow.

I should have believed you when you told me the first time.

You’ve always known who you are. As soon as language settled on your tongue you let it be known: things were not as they seemed. And that we should call you Ahyeya. I smiled. Things spoken from the mouths of babes.

Would you believe me if I said I didn’t think of the translation then?

Your eyes grew star-speckled and each morning I hummed while brushing away the moths that coated the glass of your bedroom each night. You began to sleep-talk in forgotten tongues and I simply fell asleep to your ancient lullabies.

My willpower is great. There are a great many things I chose not to see.

I spoke your name aloud and held it in my heart daily, yet chose not to hear. Ahyeya means healer.

Sometimes I miss the temple—the scent of smoking agarwood, the volcanic glass tiles smooth and warm beneath bare feet, the soft glow of the all-fire pulsing behind pearlescent sconces. And I am sorry we never celebrated your decadium, it’s just that, if you were right, and I presented you to the Divine…

No, I was not ready. And my thoughts have not changed: the world does not deserve you. Am I so wrong for thinking so?

The spring after your decadium you spoke the words that snatched away my blinders leaving me flinching in the bright light—“I am to be Font.”

Your conviction has always landed cold on my spine and warm behind my eyes—I bore you, and raised you, and have never once held my truth or purpose as clearly as you do. Yes, I should have listened the first time. Perhaps then I would have known that you meant to present yourself at the temple. Perhaps I would have been brave enough to go with you.

They tell me the Divine greeted you with dazzling light. Shades of pink and red flowed from the idol and bathed you in the Divine’s loving glow.

They tell me all present wept. That your face was beatific.

I am to understand that this was the stimulus. And that the catalyst happened long ago.

Eventually the High Minister and a team of scholars were sent to fetch you. They smiled, patiently. Bowed slightly. Told me, it was an honor.

I turned away, saying I was quite sure I didn’t know what they meant. The High Minister held my gaze, then spoke slowly: You are but a grain of sand in an hourglass. The world turns, will you turn with it? Or be swept under?

They read it in the stars, you know. The scholars always know when a Font has been born; eventually celestial bodies will align to show them where. The Heavens themselves would have given us away. By the time I understood, it was too late. (Some would argue that fate is as it was, as it would always be, and my feelings on the matter are forever moot, but I disagree and digress.) Had I known, from the day you were born we would have circled the globe in an airship. Lived among the clouds, feet never touching land. We’d have joined one of the floating cities of Orleans. Let the stars attempt to track us then when we never spend a second night in the same place.

I say this to Bezen and she looks at me with soft eyes. “What would you have done when the stillness took her? When her body became too heavy for you to move on your own? Would you have continued to lead chase even then?” Bezen says she understands, but the pity that clings to her words grates at me. Her child became true-Font ten winters ago; he is black marble, veined with gold. Those weighed heavy with grief bathe in the waters that pool in the heavenly basin they’ve built at his feet. I’ve never heard Bezen speak his given name, but he is known world-over as He Who Heals Sorrows.

Two Font-children born within the same quintum. Some scholars find this worrisome. I hear them whispering among the halls of the great palace. They feel we are on the precipice of some unseen change. It irks them to not know.

“Do the stars not speak?” I sneer as the scholars inhale between questions; they strive to find commonalities between me and Bezen and the other living Font-Parent. Uxel’s child was old even when I was born. There is a suggestion that bearing a Font prolongs the life of the parent; I think this unspeakably cruel.

I saw Uxel’s child once when I was young, on a visit to the capital. Known only by the mononym Mars, they are dove-grey granite with an iron core. Those who would, lay down in their rust-stained waters and leave their bitterness behind. Mars’ tears have left orange-black streaks down their placid face, down their frozen robes. Their left hand turned first, they say, forever curled into a tight fist. I sometimes think Mars is like me—ever fighting the things ordained for them.

You named yourself, and I forget that sometimes.

Word has gotten out. The circuits are buzzing with the news. There is a ceremony planned to introduce you to the world. This is the last time we are to be alone. It has been five moons since you moved last and even then it was only a fluttering of the eyelids, a turn of the head.

Amethyst becomes you.

Lavender and smoke.

The smooth quartz of you a reflection of your purity in the eyes of the Divine.

While I was busy grieving, your atoms were busy rearranging themselves into something highly ordered, more favorable for bearing blessings. I hold your hand and touch our foreheads together and remind myself that you were never mine. Your first duty is to yourself. You read my heart as I think this, I am certain. My skin buzzes where we touch. I hear your name, your third name, like an inscription across the back of my brain. You honor me, so.

They will know you as The Finder.

Fear is a liar, in you they will find truth.

The denizens travel by heli-wings, rickshaw rocket, and velocitrains to bathe in the water of your ever-flowing tears. The crowd in the plaza is monumental. In your crystalline shadow they weep and exalt “Blessed are the Healers!” and clutch at your outstretched hands. They know nothing of our stolen years, your given name, nor your chosen one. Nothing of the snowstorm during which I held you first. My fears made manifest and yet, I cannot find the dread that has been a companion these long years.

I press through the throngs.

Streams of sunlight give you the impression of luminescence from within.

I climb the basin that encircles you and step one foot into the water there.

Bones Are Stones for Building

Inside the stasis gel, I awaken to Mother’s incoherent ravings corrupting my circuits; heart detonating in exponential elevation. My lungs fight to expel the thick gel and I shouldn’t be able to gain consciousness before the rising solar radiation levels announcing morning trigger the gel’s breakdown process. As my body convulses—leftover organics labouring at the task on pure instinct—my cybernetics rush in to sedate and return me to sleep. Mother persists in my mind.

bone upon bonea wicker cradle. Osseous womb. Digbeyondherringbonegenomedead.stemteeth. O, voices, haematopoiesis-tongued. O cavernous voices!

Since co-integrating with her higher functions as a boy, never have I heard her mind so loud or distressed as this. Her telemetry lights up against the displays in my eyelids. I never stop hearing her or the Tower even in deep sleep, but her neural activity wails in my cerebral cortex.

::HEART RATE 123 bpm/EPINEPHRINE LEVELS 140 pg-mL/INCREASED THETA WAVE OSCILLATION:: 

I have no choice but to initiate wake-up protocol. The gel melts too slow to my liking. As soon as my face breaks the surface, the oxygen reacts with the gel in my lungs and evaporates in thick wisps of smoke twirling from my mouth and nostrils. Next to me, my husband hacks, waking up, disoriented from being woken too early.

“What’s happening?” Boril asks, worry and drowsiness in equal proportion.

“She’s falling apart. Again,” I answer as I rise and shake off the rest of sleep and the gel. Pure chaos overruns my mind, but I can find enough concentration to speak to him. “She’s overloaded herself running the calculations for the multiverse engine.”

To his credit, he jumps up immediately and gets dressed, only a step behind me as I run towards Mother’s quarters. The hard-light door winks out into a honey-combed latticework to grant us passage. My feet slap, slap, slapping their unfeeling mercury on floors that absorb the impact and digest it to feed its systems.

“Her deterioration increases exponentially now,” Boril says in step with me.

“I know.” I relegate the Tower’s murmurs and exchanges of data to the background as I wrestle with the screaming alarms as Mother’s distress mounts further.

“She won’t hold out any longer before full body breakdown,” he continues.

“I know.” I can’t think about this. Not when she’s raving in my head.

“Is she any closer to figuring out how to design the engine?” He asks the right question at the wrong time, and I don’t know how to react. How dare you! I cling to the accusation, but minimize it for another time. A time, where I can think.

Cellular death chantsIn the stroma, the soil listens. Waiting! We do what we must!

Her voice obliterates every computation process in my brain for a nanosecond. It’s too short to affect my balance, but more worrisome. What if her next bout shuts me offline? Who will help her?

“I don’t know,” I tell him.

The answer is no. I lie, because the answer to his question means the extinction of the Tower, and it’s always no since she got assigned the construction of the multiverse engine—the impossible commission the High Seats tasked her with. She would run her simulations and calculations, and fail even at full processing capacity during stasis. I would repair the damage in the morning and fail to patch her up. Within a month, her body has weaned and shrivelled. It won’t be long until no medical procedure can save her.

“It’s going to be all right. We’ll not let her go, and we’ll do this as many times as it takes.” Boril senses my fears, he’s good at that, and takes my hand in his. The left one, the one I was originally born with. It has so few sensors, practically insensate compared to my inorganic limbs, but his touch sings in me. Oxytocin rises in my system, and reduces the stress and tension in my body just in time as we enter her quarters. She glows, curled like an embryo, in a gel bubble on a bed of hard light. The silence in her room almost deceives me she’s at peace.

I override Mother’s sleep protocols and initiate waking sequences. The bed beneath her shapes into a stand, which props Mother in a standing position, and the gel thins in great billows. Through the residual gel layers, the Grand Architect glistens under the light, black as deep space pleated with nebulas and interstellar dust.

Synthetic skin and flesh leak red warning lights from her cybernetics as real time data pinpoint hot spots where computing strain has overloaded Mother’s system. Overheating has loosened her flesh around her skull, neck, and spine. It hangs loose and steams up the room; thankfully, no blood vessels have burst. The heat moves its way down to her major organs. Deterioration data floods unbidden and projects how many more patching cycles I can administer before the Tower loses its Grand Architect.

“This isn’t good.” My voice cracks. I can’t do this on my own…“I’ll do whatever I can, but I need the medical core. Cryo-liquid, an auxiliary core, and a new processor.”

“I’ll alert the Head Surgeon. I’ve already started refitting the room for flesh printing and limb refitting,” Boril says. He’s programming at the environment panel at the back wall and the smooth ceiling above Mother distends and lowers down tools and hoses. “Following dire care procedures, convalescence should conclude within ten hours.”

Am I staring at your imminent death as you stare at the Tower’s, Mother? I ask her without vocalizing as I prepare to graft new skin on her face. Sometimes she can hear me this way. Do we have the time, Mother? Is the face I make now the face you made weeks ago, when you received the assignment?

I rerun the footage of that day in my mind again as to convince myself it happened at all. All Millennium Houses were in attendance in the Grand Terrarium Reception Dome. Obsolete royals herded themselves at the Plaza beneath the highest point of the Dome. Their eyes were glued up to the projections of the High Seats. Seven faces, shining bright, formed from the hard-light dome and loomed over the Court as heavenly bodies, cheek to cheek, too massive for their own horizon.

“We are at the precipice of an extinction,” the High Seats spoke in unison. They did so slowly and inefficiently, voices weighed down by the authority of ruling the Tower. “Our resources have depleted dangerously low and Earth is no longer a viable option.”

“But how? I designed the Tower to be self-sufficient.” Mother spoke the truth, incredulous as she was. I have memorized the Tower inside and out, so I knew resources should never have been an issue at all. The Tower could hold out until the heat death of the universe.

“Apparently not,” one of the royals sneered at me and revealed sapphire teeth.

They do so often. Address her when they speak to me. Treat me as no more than a prosthetic in the shape of a person. I held my tongue then.

“That matters not. We wish for you to build an engine. An engine that will take us to another Earth in another universe. This should not be a challenge for the Grand Architect, yes? What is a trifle such as this for a woman of your extraordinary talents?”

The indifferent flattery still angers me. Did you know then that you would fail?

“Yes,” Mother answers and startled I drop the tool from my hand.

Her eyes are empty when we lock gazes. Dirty grey with electronics blinking in patterns. I don’t have memories of the time before her eyes became her drawing tools; a camera that projects her will over the Tower and alters its composition in an instant to meet the High Seats’ functionality requirements. But I don’t remember them as unseeing as they appear now.

I run a performance test just to be sure. ::RESULT Fully Operational::

Yet, they are not the same. There is something wrong in how they look at me.

“Grand Architect! You are conscious!” Boril sounds so relieved, when he hears her voice, and fills the void of our silence with assurances. In a few strides, he stands beside me and takes up the tool I’ve dropped to pick up the work, but Mother pulls her head away.

“Please, Grand Architect. I must tend to the damaged areas now, if we’re to make you better.” He skilfully omits the fact she’ll die, if not.

“All things organic die, Boril.” Her speech slurs from trying to move lips and a tongue that have distended and lost all stretch and responsiveness. “You mustn’t pretend otherwise. I can substitute and preserve this body to the point all my parts are freshly cloned and manufactured, but I’m still organic.”

Boril, flustered, stands with tool in his hand unsure what to do, and I try to coax her to stay still.

“You’re in critical condition. You’ll feel better, when we install new processors.”

Mother waves with a hand and the space reconfigures. The entrance, through which we came, shrinks and thickens into a wall and the ceiling swallows its tools. The light dims and her rooms become cut off from the rest of the Tower. It’s easy to forget how much control Mother has over the Tower. The High Seats might rule it, but Mother is it.

“I said no and I intend to have my will recognized,” she says and takes a ginger step off from her stand. Somehow her skeleton keeps her upright in its half-molten state. “I’ve been dying. You both know it. My funeral has taken a lifetime to complete. But it ends now and you’ll throw the final handful of dirt on my grave.”

Her choice of words perplexes me. These terms are absent in the vocabulary storage we share between each other on a daily basis. Missing amidst septillions of definitions and concepts, archaic and modern. There is it—a private portion of memory that only she possesses. I thought she hid nothing from me. Audio snippets rotate through language archives, until definitions emerge from the time before the Tower, centuries ago when time owned people and not vice versa.

FUNERAL

(n.) a ceremony or service held shortly after a person’s death, usually including the person’s burial or cremation.

DIRT

(n.) a substance, such as mud or dust, that soils someone or something.

GRAVE

(n.) a hole dug in the ground to receive a coffin or corpse, typically marked by a stone or mound.

Definitions cross-reference with historic accounts and meaning arrives, heavy and unpleasant. It does so a full second after the sound travels to my ears—a second too late. Where before we had instantaneous mutual comprehension—an intimate knowledge richer and more rewarding than our shared genomic sequences—now, there’s suspicion and envy. How is it that she can know all there is about me and in me and I have still to discover more secrets about her? I wish to have a secret of my own.

“Oh, son. These are old things I speak of. Forgotten and obsolete cultural practices,” she coos and hobbles towards me to comfort me once she reads my telemetry. “There should have been no reason for me to teach any of this to you. Neither our roots, nor how we became Grand Architects. All these years, I hoped I’d never have to tell you. I hoped I had built all there is to build in this world. The High Seats proved me wrong now, though, didn’t they?”

A series of beeps rings outside the quarters. I receive requests from the medical core to enter, but I can’t do anything. Only Mother can grant them access.

“Please, Grand Architect. Let the Head Surgeon in. She’ll save you. We can upgrade your core—improve your processing power. Don’t give up on us now,” Boril pleads with her.

“It’s not about the processing power, but the planet yielding. For months, I’ve tried to arrive at the design for the engine, but no matter how I approach this, I can’t arrive at a viable prototype. Not until the dreams revealed what needs doing,” Mother explains and walks to the farthest wall in her room at a slow pace. Each shift in her body ripples across her loosened flesh.

Dreams…The ravings that woke me were all dreams. I wonder what Mother must have seen to come to such words, ill-fitting in the Tower as they are. A useless phenomenon—dreaming; yet underneath the logical reassurances, I still mourn its absence in my sleep cycle.

“The truth of the matter is, I’m not meant to build the multiverse engine,” she says and presses her palm against the surface.

“You are, son,” she announces and as she does, space large enough for two caves under her touch. “Come now. We need to trace your ancestry.”

“You’re in no condition to go outside,” Boril tries to reason, both of us closing the distance to Mother. We share a knowing look. There’s nothing either of us can do or say to sway Mother, but still we each take hold of one of her arms. Not so much to suppress her, but to negotiate.

“Please listen,” he begs. I look on, ashamed for not saying anything. All I have on my mind is the certainty my mother is going to die tonight. “I can’t let you die. It’s my duty to preserve you—”

“Until I have completed the engine, yes?” He nods in shame. “Then you have to trust me that I will fulfil my obligation as a Grand Architect, and that entails leaving with Orlin. I won’t let you die, Boril. You believe me, don’t you?”

Mother strokes his cheek and wipes away errant tears streaming down his face. I haven’t noticed when he started crying. After a long minute, Boril lets go of her. Still hesitant he’s committing a critical mistake. It’s not an easy choice to make. I am unsure if passively complying with her will won’t undo our whole existence. We part silently as I take my place by Mother inside the elevator. It comets down from the Tower’s heights so fast, I register the heat index increase. In close proximity, she tells me of our family history—finally.

“Before our great Tower reached the exosphere, before the High Seats ruled humankind as one, people were few and lived in small communities; the land between them raw, crude, indomitable. In a small village ringed by woods, where people feared noises in the dark, three brothers decided to build a great house of stone. So grand as to put to shame all other buildings where tradesmen counted coins and boasted of riches. A building the king himself would honour.”

So begins her story—every second word unfamiliar, alien. Millisecond delays layer atop one another as I run through word banks and archival footage to substantiate what Mother tells me of our past. She decompresses a history the size of a nucleus until it gains mass to inhabit my mind, until I have enough context to understand it. As it grows larger in my circuitry, my sense of scale shrinks and reduces. I suck up all the cubic kilometres I calculate, visualize the space into me, and flatten it to a single plain, where three brothers manipulated the land.

Worked. That’s the term Mother used. Yes, work. Back down the timescale of civilization, there existed a time where matter slept to the touch, where it didn’t jump, galvanized by the desire to take the shape held in one’s mind. Unconceivable to me. The three brothers raised cut stones with firm hands under the sun, laid foundations, and when the skyline ripened red, the first walls stood. All this gruelling work results in what? Walls…Short, dead walls. I can raise walls kilometres high in seconds and they’ll sing in pleasure. I find it preposterous we descend from such a blood line.

“The land rebelled,” Mother continues. “Each morning the brothers returned to see their work undone. They persevered and repeated this doomed enterprise, until the hands that built bled—” Yes, this I understand. I had once bled as a young boy before I had to amputate most of my limbs, “—and the youngest brother, tricked by his elders, travelled far into the deep woods for a solution.

“This was the First Architect. A kind mind. An honest man. One who wanted to improve life for his people, and the one who paid the biggest price for the privilege,” she explains right as we stop our descent and the elevator’s walls dissolve into a yawning darkness.

We have to go outside where there is no more hard light. Where I can’t hear the Tower and the air hasn’t stirred in centuries. Chemical analysis from the air filtered through the Tower’s exterior reveals a hostile environment.

::PM10 LEVELS 780 µg-m3/CARBON DIOXIDE LEVELS 67982 ppm/HUMIDITY 83%::

I ignore the rest. My lungs can survive this. Mother’s, on the other hand…

“I’ll be fine. For what we have to do, time will not be an issue,” she says, breaking the eerie quiet, and hacks as the stale air swirls into the hypoallergenic breath of the Tower. It’s only then I truly become aware of the silence in the darkness.

We’ve travelled farther than the lowest registered accessible point at the Tower’s foundation. The elevator is taking us beyond the lower tip of the Tower, hovering kilometres above the planet’s surface. Calculations confirm it. The elevator extends as a tendril towards the horizontal world—the Flat Empire before the Tower, where inferior designer alloys continue to deteriorate under the weight of time.

As the doors of the elevator open to a darkness unlike that of space, a wall of nothing carves into my feed. The Tower buzzes somewhat distantly as a weak cocoon and the only feed I receive is Mother’s. This hollowness in my head terrifies me. Stepping out means empty feeds—a prospect more terrifying than when Boril, early on in our courtship, took me to the crown of The Tower at the cusp of space.

The crown spread out into wisps of floating viewing platforms connected to the craters of the moon, where he wanted me to go and see the abandoned ruins from before the Tower. Artificial gravity held him firmly on the thin platform, where he bobbed up and down. It’s my favourite memory of him and on especially bad days, when I feel like nothing more than a hollow tool, I replay it over everything I do, on repeat, to remind myself that he sees a person in me.

“Come now, you can do this,” he invited me to step through the opening. He extended a hand clad in a glimmering protective suit which made him look like a constellation come to life. I shook then, unable to set foot outside the Tower.

“What if I shouldn’t? What if I shut down?” I whispered that last part to him because I feared the Tower would hear, and then all would know that I really was the machine they all thought me to be.

“I’ll keep your heart beating.”

“How?” I was not good with flirtation.

“You will have to come and find out.” He was always so self-assured, and I followed his request, compelled and entranced. When obeying Mother’s commands, I lose autonomy and comply before I even register what’s happening. With Boril, I released control and felt it as it happened. And that is the story of our first kiss.

“Breathe and calm yourself.” I hear both Boril and Mother tell me simultaneously as I’m both at the top of the Tower in my past and at its bottom in the present. Yes, I have to steady myself. I remember how he smiled that night on the platform, squeezed my hand when I finally trusted him to venture out of the port, and all the inferior receptors in my skin flared with such ecstatic delight. The Tower hums in my mind still as I both gaze outward into the twinkling galaxy in the past and at the thick, impenetrable darkness. We step out and the floor groans under our weight and once again I am all right.

Lungs filtering the harmful air, I mould my prosthetics until the lean human legs elongate, thighs thicken, and feet expand to lengthen my gait and shift the centre of my gravity so Mother is comfortable as she climbs on my back. She hooks each leg onto the oval flippers I grew for her from my hips and rests on my back.

This is how we proceed in the dark. My eyes illuminate the way with high-impulse lights that ionize the air and hopefully clear the air Mother breathes. Along the way, she continues her narration, which retains the same rhythm. It’s a pulse, I distinguish now that it’s only her that I hear in my head.

“The price the youngest brother paid was a human life,” Mother explains.

“Feed the land and it will stand still. This is what the wise woman living in the woods declared, and tricked once more by his brothers, the First Architect was forced to build his wife into the cold, dead stones of the building with only a single breast of hers uncovered as to let their infant daughter suckle.” As Mother narrates, she feeds me images from some private memory banks, perhaps from the time before she built the Tower and her world resembled this story. I see the meaning painted in my mind, and it disturbs me as it is not my own. It dismantles every single tangible truth I have about how the world works. I can’t believe it, but I sense that Mother wants me to believe and I do my best to trust her. I am the first in my line to have stayed within the Tower never having set foot down here until now. What do I know?

Ache pinpricks my heart for the First Architect. Some days I feel built into this Tower, just an interface with my being completely walled off in code, and there’s only this one sliver of space my husband can reach through with his hand to touch me.

One life—one building. A transaction of another time, another place, but one that has borne a legacy of servitude. A day came when the daughter of this building walled in her father to pay the land at the behest of a king. Once fed, the second architect turned the building into a palace, only to be herself walled in by her own daughter decades later, at the behest of another king, and then another.

A violent hacking fit overtakes Mother. Her frame shakes against my back, light as the outer casing of a protective suit caught in a gust of solar wind. I offer to stop, but she waves me off and pushes my limbs in motion to further our excavation of time and forgotten architecture. We’ve reached an early 21st century construct—a tower. Its greatest tower!

Hah! This pin of reinforced concrete and corrugated titanium, twisted in a modular Y-shaped structure with a triple-lobed footprint. Vibrations from my steps scurry off and down suspension cables, eliciting the faintest high-pitch groans at being awakened from their dilapidation. In the days past, my descent would be cast in golden light from the aluminium-glazed glass panels now mostly missing. As childish as this tower is, it’s nonetheless impressive that it remains erect to this day. A testament to the bargain our family has made with the land.

Inferior alloys and dusty concrete give way to steel and iron and brickworks, then devolve into wood and masonry. In all this time, Mother delineates our unwilling ascension while we make the same journey in reverse. She tells me the name of the architect, their biggest accomplishment, and the name of their era. The names sink into my background feeds, but there are those that demand recognition.

Vesela, Grand Architect LXX—The Moon Tether—The Lunar Colonial Era

Daria, Grand Architect LVII—The Sub-Oceanic Districts—The Continent City Era

Serafim, Grand Architect XXXII—The All-Continental Bridge—The City World Empire

At first, the increments of time are so short. Each lifespan barely scratches a century. Those first commissions from demanding rulers are all petty and in the name of vanity. But then, each new successor makes ever larger strides across history, until Mother built the Tower. It had to be the last thing to be built—a floating world pointed like a beam of light from the troposphere all the way to the exosphere and beyond—if only we had not drained the planet of its resources. Now emaciated, it needs the multiverse engine to live and Mother to die.

As she utters the last word, I take my last step. I don’t know how I made the journey without asking Mother for directions; she certainly provided no navigation. My feet know where to go, tapped into some sensory memory that goes beyond my data bank. Darkness deep as space pools here and I switch to infrared, the light having failed to pierce through the veil of particles—even denser than above. Mother hacks now between every breath, even through the mask I printed her from my shoulder. Grainy images swim, small shapes and chambers that could barely hold a full family present for assembly, much less be used for anything. Our journey concludes by a wall at the lowest level where the stone is sectioned off by mosaic archways as tall as a person. From each slot in the wall gazes out a serious face etched into the stone; my ancestors.

“Do you hear…the voices?” Mother asks, robbed of full sentences by ever deepening inhalations. “They feel…like home. Listen…to them carefully; they’re your…instructions.”

I listen hard, but there’s nothing save for the weight of silence and telemetry counting down to her death.

“My microphones pick nothing,” I admit in shame.

“That’s not…how…you’ll hear them. They’ll come…to your mind.”

“How do you know?” I blurt and wrestle with an onslaught of panic. Shielded by the Tower, I had forgotten what it does to a mind. “Voices, dreams, ancestral memory. That’s not how the world is built!” That’s not how you built me; that, I don’t say to her. What happens, if the line ends with me? If I’m not human enough to access those memories; the people before me will not recognize me as a person in their death.

“Trust me, Orlin,” she wheezes. “Your blood carries power. The land will recognize it when the time comes. Your family will recognize it, too. Whatever narratives the other Families spin, it’s wasted breath. Do not believe their attempt to make you lesser. All they want is our position, our significance in their existence. Now, you’re the Grand Architect and you will build!”

We stand at the spot where the etchings end and the blank wall continues. The image of the Grand Architect’s mother—my grandmother—graces the spot. Mother takes a few moments to trace the outlines of the faded face I never laid eyes on. In the meantime, my arms form into a chisel and hammer, but it takes just a single hit to convert a section of the wall into a cavern large enough to fit Mother. Fine dust spills outward, coating my feet to my ankles. Mother steps in and rests her back against the hollow. Her eyes peer at me and I hesitate.

“It’s all right. It’s where I long to be. I love you, son.”

After I’ve sealed my mother, it takes a while for her to die. That’s the worst part as I tread back—her telemetry screams in my head. I live through my Mother’s death not far into my return and the sudden shiver at the silence as the feed cuts off, paralyzes me mid-stride. She’s gone. Truly gone. There’s wetness around my eyes and the feed from the infrared cameras blurs.

In those seconds, I hold onto my memories—those that keep me separate from her. Those that I have earned myself. All those touches I exchange with Boril. That night on the platform with eyes on the stars and the muted hum of the Tower beneath my feet, the accumulation of morning kisses, the fine needle pricks of sedation I worked into his flesh after his second cybernetics update, the maintenance work he does on mine, when parts of me overheat. I hold on tight to the micro-snippets of life untethered to Mother and I brace myself. I brace myself for the possibility that I’ll be deleted along with Mother’s consciousness and remain as a husk in this forgotten graveyard or that all our shared past, two minds linked as one, will vanish and I’ll be left with only my own starved collection in my head, so I hold onto each moment as to build some kind of wealth, as small as it is. There’s silence where her telemetry used to be. I wait. Nothing happens. I am still me.

I’m alone in my head now without a single system connected to me. I don’t collapse as I feared I would without anyone to keep me whole. But there are also no voices here to soothe or whisper the solution to the multiverse engine. I’m lost.

So this is what it is to be entirely in your head. How can something as small as the mind be so vast and silence so heavy?

I return to my quarters a full hour before waking. My insides ache to find solace in surrendering to sleep as my systems work overtime to filter all the gunk I’ve breathed. He waits in her quarters, where we left him, worried and pale in the face.

“Is she…?” He can’t bring himself to say the words, because he knows what he has allowed to happen tonight—been complicit in this crime—will not be unpunished. The Tower lost its Grand Architect, more so its Mother than mine, and its fate is in uncertainty.

“Yes,” I answer and he embraces me, because that is what one does when they lose a parent—so we have heard, but it has happened so rarely, not many people know what’s appropriate. I do not know what to do with my feelings. What they are in the first place. I let myself be held and feel the exhaustion. Not physical, because I’m never tired, but mental.

“There will be consequences,” he tells me the obvious and I hold onto him tighter, because both of us will be punished. He has forfeited his life because of me, if I have nothing to show for letting the Grand Architect die.

“That is a problem for tomorrow. Before she died, she told me to go to sleep.”

“Then sleep you shall, Grand Architect.” The words hit me. I am the Grand Architect now and that astounds me. I’ve become something so big…beyond organic and cybernetic, and yet, I felt nothing in the transition. Nothing. But I smile to encourage him and we go to sleep finally.

Gel rushes through my nostrils as I press myself against my husband’s back. His warmth feels good against my cheek. I wrap my human arm around him and place my fingers onto his chest. His skin is warm and I take his heartbeat into mine. Drowsiness overtakes me swiftly, but in the half-moment of wakefulness and sleep, voices wiggle into my mind—a different category of hearing all together. Mother is among the chorus, soothing me, and asking me to build.

I smile as I fall asleep and dream.

 

(Editors’ Note: Haralambi Markov is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

 

This Village

You don’t know who we are, but we promise you we are harmless, and we made this village for you. Well, for you and for us, and for all the others that might follow.

Each of us built their own little house. Some are made from hard candy, with gingerbread window frames and a door with a taffy handle. When you curl your fingers around it and pull, it practically melts in your hand. It leaves a sticky residue on your palm that you can’t get rid of for hours.

Not all of us have the same taste of course. Some houses look like little cottages, foreboding and crude. It makes those of us who built them feel like witches. No, we are not actually witches—although baking is a kind of witchcraft. Real witches are as rare as dragons these days. You should consider yourself lucky if you ever bump into either of those. You probably expected us to be old and raggedy looking, with menacing smiles. That’s what people expect when they come here. But our smiles are earnest. And even though some of us are indeed old, some of us are little more than children, and some of us are tall, and some short, some plump, some thin, some are women, some men, and some neither. You get the picture.

Other houses are pure white nougat with a bright blue Turkish delight roof, like houses in the islands around the Mediterranean. Or farmhouses with walls of fried dough and tamarind roof tiles. You see, we come from all over the world, but this place is now our real home, where we feel safe.

There is always a trail wherever you live. You just have to find it. If you peer through an opening framed by two linden trees. If you follow the foam of the waves on a cold night. If you are not afraid to crawl into the long narrow caves that open like mouths on jagged rocks. You will see them. They all lead here. To this village.

And now that you’re here you’re welcome to build your own house right in this clearing. We got all sorts of sugar and pastry; we have chocolate and honey and nuts. Your roof can be a thousand layers of phyllo dough one stacked on top of the other. The trees are heavy with fruit you can turn into preserve to paint your walls. Anyhow, we won’t interfere. We will love whatever you choose to do with the place.

There might be a time later when you wish to leave the village. You can of course do that. Not everyone likes to live on popsicles for the rest of their lives (although many of us could eat a bucket of ice cream a day without so much as blinking). If you choose to do so we’ll all take the house apart with our bare hands and then eat its parts in a great feast, like families do. It’s a farewell ritual to celebrate your new life away from here. The house will come apart easily because it will know you are leaving it. Just like it will be indestructible for as long as you stay.

We will not ask you why you came to our village. We already know. The people who find it are the ones who need it. Perhaps they read about it in a book when they were children and now—nearing the end of their life—they just want this village to be true. Perhaps their family is starving, and the village can feed them. Perhaps someone is chasing them, and they need a safe place to hide. No matter the reason, they are now a part of the village, even if they choose to leave.

We told you before that we were harmless but that was a sort of lie. You came here looking for safety, but someone has followed you, even though you were mouse-quiet when you opened that door and rabbit-fast when you made for the path in the woods. They followed your thrumming heart, your fast breathing, and the crunching of leaves under your soles. At the end of the day, they knew you were about to leave them. People like them always know. They followed you with harm in mind, but the village will find them. We will find them and deal with them. Their arms will turn into branches that will give us shade. From their mouths will sprout flowers. Their voice will be the murmur of the river. And you can stay as long as you want. Because we made this village for you. So you can be fed, and safe, and happy. But don’t worry about it for now. Now it is time to build.

The Kaleidoscopic Visitor

It wasn’t the first time I’d found the stranger in the red coat somewhere no one was supposed to be, but it was certainly the first time I’d found the stranger somewhere it should’ve been physically impossible to enter. The attic had been locked for over a year. When I found the key and opened the door, the dust coating the padlock was clear evidence that it had lain untouched for months and months. But the stranger was sitting on the floor between two storage crates, their knees tucked under their chin, waiting for me.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

The stranger didn’t answer for a long moment. Like I always did, I tried to discern their expression, but looking at them was no easy task. At first all I saw was the red silk of their coat, flaring like an ember, and then I blinked and was able to see the glint of rubies and topaz at their wrists and neck. When I tried to focus on their face, individual features pressed themselves against my mind like a dried flower in a dusty book, each one remaining for an instant before vanishing into shadow and being replaced with another. I saw a carnelian earring, then the hint of a solemn frown, then a curl of dark hair.

None of it was particularly masculine or feminine, or at least it didn’t seem that way when presented in fractures rather than as a graspable whole. I’d never been able to figure out the stranger’s gender, although I was fairly sure they were no older than sixteen. It was hard to put my finger on why, but it seemed like they were my age, if such a thing as “age” could be applied to whatever the hell they were.

When the stranger spoke, their words were shaped from the gentle sounds around me: floorboards creaking, cloth rasping, rain pattering gently against the slanted roof. “What do you want?” they asked.

“What do I want? You’re the one in my house.”

“Oh,” they said, soft as a sigh. “I’ll go.”

Then they were gone. There were no marks in the dust to indicate they’d ever been here.

“That’s a really annoying trick, you know,” I said sternly to the empty air. “It’s rude to leave without explaining yourself.”

No response, of course. Now that I was alone again, the attic felt oddly lackluster. The world was bright and electric where it touched them, and after they left, standing in the wake of their absence was close to painful in its staleness.

By now they’d appeared without explanation enough times for me to be fairly sure about who they were. When the Kaleidoscopic Visitor came by, made of shards of loveliness, people went wrong. It was just a rumor, but it was the kind of rumor you heard all the time. The gossip was everywhere, around dinner tables and at sleepovers and in break rooms. It was hard to not hear stories about the bad things that happened to people who confessed to seeing the glint of gems or the flash of red.

Wives packed their bags and left without a word, taking the next train into the city, never to return. Good kids turned rebellious overnight, adopting outlandish hairstyles and unsavory friends, throwing away whatever decent future had been waiting for them. Sordid tendencies revealed themselves, sowing ruin for each household unfortunate enough to be blighted by the Visitor’s appearance. Sometimes it would happen over and over again in the same place until an entire town was upturned, peace and order gone forever, like a field swallowed by weeds, never to yield a harvest again. The changes came out of nowhere, heralded by nothing, save for that the people gone wrong all reported seeing a figure dressed in scarlet and jewels in the corner of their eyes.

I left the attic and locked the door behind me. I went downstairs in a haze. I’d gone up there to fetch something or the other, I was sure of it, but I was too restless with nerves to remember what it was. I hoped desperately that my expression looked normal on the outside.

It was imperative that no one find out that the Kaleidoscopic Visitor had been here. When everyone talked about the people who did insane things after the Visitor came to see them, they always said, well, there’s always been something not quite right about them, hasn’t there? They were all wrong from the start. The Kaleidoscopic Visitor was the catalyst, but if they came to visit you, it was probably your fault.

That all added up, as far as I was concerned. I had no idea what the Visitor was going to drive me to do, but I did know that there was something not quite right with me. It twisted away deep inside. It was an unease that started between my lungs and my ribs and spread all throughout my body, wriggling like a pinned insect at the mention of the nicest, most innocuous things, like the fact that I was almost done growing up. It wasn’t that I was especially attached to childhood—mine had never been all that great. It was more that all throughout my life, I’d known I wasn’t yet an adult, and that knowledge had felt like a stay of execution. Why it was that way, I had no clue, but it had something to do with how being an adult meant being an adult woman. Just thinking about it was like standing on the edge of a tall building: the fear of my falling more a nausea in my stomach than a thought in my head.

Sometimes I would talk to myself when I was alone, just saying I’m going to be a woman to the hollow air. It was difficult. I realized I needed to do it over and over again if I ever wanted to get used to it. I needed to shape my mouth around the words the same way I whittled wood, with steady dedication, movement by movement, cut by cut. I tried to do the same with the sentence I’m a woman now, which was truer, but much harder to say. My teeth wanted to bite down, to stop it from escaping. The rational parts of my mind had trouble understanding what the problem was; it was a perfectly factual, perfectly normal sentence.

The terrible dread worming its way through my body’s viscera begged to differ.

After the Kaleidoscopic Visitor disappeared from my attic, it was days before they found me again. I was chatting with a neighbor on the street who’d been congratulating me on my upcoming birthday. I said all the right things and smiled at all the right moments, and when I walked away from him at first I was walking calmly. But a creeping horror began to itch at my palms and the soles of my feet, and suddenly I found myself running, just running with no direction, nothing but a feverish need to escape.

Before I knew it I was standing in a field, having left the town behind, out of breath and out of road to run down. The smell of burning was in the air. There was ash on the wind, carried from wildfires many miles away. I realized that in my haste I’d dropped my mask somewhere between the town and the edge of the field. That wasn’t good—it was never a great idea to inhale whatever dangerous substances the fires had swallowed up and spat out in its cinders. The sensible thing to do was to return. I should retrace my steps, find my mask and whatever else I’d left behind on accident, go home.

And then I saw the Visitor.

They stood where field gave way to forest, distant enough that they were nothing but a smudge of scarlet to my eye, shifting like a candle.

It would have made sense for me to be frightened. I’d never dealt with so much as a spider without recruiting help, and according to everything I’d heard, the appearance of the Kaleidoscopic Visitor was supposed to be far more frightening than a spider. But the thrill in my gut was not fear, but something else entirely. I didn’t want to run away. I wanted to come closer.

I walked forward.

Their back was to me. They didn’t turn as I approached. As if I were looking with the sight of a dizzied drunk, my gaze slid between their gold-embroidered cuffs and their sorrowed mouth and the tiny sapphires spangled about their hair. I asked the question that had been tugging at my tongue. “Why do you talk to me? I’ve never heard anyone mention you talking. Everyone says you just show up in the distance and disappear before people get close. But I could—”

I made myself stop talking before I said, But I could reach out and touch you.

When they spoke, their words were drawn from the wind-rattle of dead leaves and the distant cicada song. “I didn’t need to talk to them. I didn’t want to. I want to talk to you.”

“Why?”

I saw a flicker of a furrowed brow, a hand fiddling with a ruby-encrusted ring. “You’re not scared.”

“What do—”

“What do you want?”

Last time they asked me that, I took it as an accusation—another way of saying what are you doing here, to demand I defend my presence or my existence. But this time I was too tired, too raw, to be wary, and so I heard the quiet entreaty in their voice and knew it for what it was: an invitation.

“I don’t know,” I said. It was hard to talk, surrounded as we were by hazy, polluted air. A flake of ash landed on my lower lip. “Lots of things, really. Doesn’t everyone want lots of things?”

“Your wanting is different.”

“But all I want is, I don’t know, normal things. Money. Fun. Health. To get a day off from school. For it to rain. For the air to be clear.”

“For the air to be clear,” they said. “You could have that.”

“I mean, if the weather decides to hand us a miracle, I guess.”

“You could have that. That, and anything else you wanted, if you wanted it enough. There’s something else, isn’t there? Something else you desire?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Liar,” they said gently.

“I’m not—”

“I think I need to give you something. Is that alright? If I give you something? You can throw it away if you don’t want to keep it.”

“What is it?”

They reached into their coat and retrieved an object. The thing resisted sight in the same way that the Kaleidoscopic Visitor did, but I could tell that it gleamed both in the manner of metal and in the manner of jewels. Maybe I should’ve hesitated longer before I reached out to take it, but for the first time that I could remember, I let my curiosity get the better of me.

Once I held it, it solidified into something I could see properly: a pair of scissors with a handle studded with garnets, each stone dark enough to rival obsidian.

“What is this?” I asked.

“It’s what you want.”

“Um,” I said. “Am I…supposed to sell it? For money?”

It was hard to tell, considering their expression came to me in shadowed fractures rather than as a whole, but I got the strong impression that they thought I was very, very stupid. “No. It’s for using, not selling.”

“No offense, but I don’t really need scissors? I’m really sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, I just…I have a pair at home?”

“No,” they said again. “It’s what you want. It’s yours. It was always yours. I just made your wanting into something you could hold.”

Walking back into town, I was twitchy and paranoid, shoulders stiff and gaze shifty. I was hiding the Visitor’s gift in the folds of my dress, but I was convinced that people would see it anyway. The scissors were too real. Too present. The scissor blades were warm as a living creature in my hand. I could swear I felt the metal throb like it had a pulse. The gems set into the handle didn’t want to hide in the cloth. They wanted to be seen. Acknowledged. The knowledge of their longing was clear to me, sharp and crystalline in my thoughts, and I made it all the way back to my doorstep before it occurred to me that those thoughts were coming from outside of my skull, not inside it.

The moment that realization hit me, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I dashed around to the back of the house, drew my arm back, and threw the scissors as hard as I could. They spun through the air, catching the sunlight in its afternoon slant, glowing like a spark or a star. They vanished into the snarl of greenery that lay beyond the border of our backyard. There was another house there, but it had been abandoned for years, its garden left to grow wild until the rosebushes and hydrangeas were tall enough to rival trees. Not even the roof was visible behind the leaves. No one would stumble across the scissors there.

I spent the rest of the day carefully doing normal, unexceptional things. Chores, dinner table conversation. Said all the right things, smiled in the right places. My thoughts were a frantic chorus: No one must know. Hide it. Hide. No one must know.

The chorus only quieted once I was lying in bed with the lights snuffed, eyes open into the darkness. Then it was the Kaleidoscopic Visitor’s words that echoed in my skull. For the air to be clear. You could have that. Did they really mean that I could bring rain to my town or brush the pollution out of the air? That didn’t sound like a bad thing. There had to be a catch I couldn’t see.

Maybe it was my imagination, but my pillow seemed lumpier and harder than usual. Restless, I turned over.

The Visitor was lying in bed beside me.

A scream made it all the way up my throat to the back of my teeth before my jaw snapped shut—the nameless wriggling unease in my guts taking control of my muscles, remembering the meetings between the Visitor and I were a secret I needed to keep. I lay there, heartbeat wild, muscles tensed to run or fight, my face inches away from the Visitor’s. They were curled up under the covers like they were trying to make themselves small. Here in the dark the shadows swallowed the red of their coat and the glitter of their gems, but I saw a flash of closed eyelids, then a flash of the dark, exhausted smudges beneath them.

“Why are you here?” I said in the quietest rasp of a whisper.

“Shh,” they said. Their words were shaped from the muffled sounds that came from outside, the distant rustling of dry leaves from the plants that were steadily devouring the empty house that neighbored ours. “I’m sleeping.”

Slowly, I sat up. I ran a hand over my pillow and felt something hard and angular stuck inside my pillowcase. I glared at the Visitor. “Why do I have a feeling I know what this is?”

They shifted minutely, trying to burrow deeper into the blankets. “I don’t know. I don’t know why you feel things. Why would I know why you feel things?”

I unbuttoned the pillowcase and retrieved the scissors. They pulsed in my hand. “You said I could throw it away.”

“I said you could throw it away if you didn’t want to keep it.”

“You didn’t say it would come back.”

“I didn’t know it would.”

“So, what, this thing going to follow me until I do something with it?”

“It’s following you because you still wanted the things you want, even though you threw their shape away. Why won’t you use it?” Their eyes were still closed. Their voice was now so soft I could barely hear them at all. “Is it really that bad, what you want? Is it so horrible, wanting?”

It was now clear to me that ignoring the Visitor or their gift wouldn’t stop them from springing up in the dusty corners of my life, erratic and persistent as dandelions taking root. That should’ve incited fear or helplessness, but a strange relief was descending upon me instead. Once the Visitor began to visit you, your ruin was a foregone conclusion. If I couldn’t help but end up where I was going to end up, I didn’t have to blame myself for what was about to happen.

I reached inside my pillowcase and retrieved the scissors. “You said I could get rid of the ash in the air,” I said. “How?”

I followed them out of my bedroom and down the hall and out to the backyard, careful not to wake my parents. I stood with bare feet on yellowed grass speckled with ash. A red glow crowned the horizon, heralding the wildfires crawling up the other side of the mountains. The Kaleidoscopic Visitor whispered quiet suggestions, but I was the one who reached up with the scissors, up and up and up, until the blades caught against something I couldn’t see. The unseen connection sent a shiver down my arm, rattling my bones like a struck tuning fork. I breathed in the burning on the breeze. A raw and exhausted longing welled up in my mouth. One day of clean air, that was what I wanted. Just one day. I was just so tired—

“Now,” said the Visitor.

I cut.

The wind roared. The clouds tore like paper, peeling back to reveal a swathe of clear starry night. The shifting of the clouds directly above me set off a cascade of swirling motion that spiraled out across the whole of the sky. I saw a storm gather itself together in the distance; a process that would ordinarily take hours but now was taking only seconds.

I cut again.

A crack of thunder. On the horizon, over the mountains, rain began to fall.

I focused as hard as I could, summoning the heart of my weariness, and cut again. I felt, rather than saw, the separation of the pollution from the air. It was a bright silent singing. Now moving by instinct, I made a dozen more cuts, opening up a dozen tiny apertures in the fabric of the sky for the pollution to vanish into.

When that was done, I hesitated, uncertain, but before I could ask, the Kaleidoscopic Visitor swept their arm and the apertures sewed themselves shut. The Visitor’s fragmented form twinkled as they moved; my perception of their body was overrun with the dazzle of their jewels, washing like a stained-glass wave across my eyes.

I lowered the scissors. There was a sweet cleanness in the air.

No words I could muster would ever be anywhere near sufficient to talk about what had just happened, so I settled for saying quietly, “Wow.”

“It won’t be forever,” the Visitor said. “All storms run out of rain.”

I was about to say but I can just do this again, can’t I, but then I realized the scissors had changed with every cut I made, going from overbearingly, burningly present to mere beautiful object to a glassy, translucent simulacrum of the scissors’ former self, barely visible in the nighttime. At the same time, my longing had steadily quieted. It was still there, but it was easier to carry. The Visitor’s gift, raw overflow of desire that it was, was being used up.

“What should I do with the rest of it?” I said, looking down at the scissors. Now that I knew it could do the impossible—that it could banish the smoke, that it could let me breathe without struggle, at ease and at home under the sky—I knew I had to use the scissors’ last remnant for something that mattered.

The Kaleidoscopic Visitor didn’t answer. I looked up, wondering why, and found that they had already left.

It was weeks before I saw the Kaleidoscopic Visitor again. I kept the scissors next to me all through those days. The object was almost entirely vanished now, nothing but an outline in the air, the faint suggestion of a gleam. I seemed to be the only one capable of noticing it in this diminished form. I took to taking long strolls among the eucalyptus groves that grew outside of town, carrying it in both hands while I walked. I was learning to let it accompany me without flinching away from it. I was getting better at understanding its wordless suggestions. We were fast becoming friends, the Visitor’s gift and I.

Today I was wandering farther than I usually did, searching for paths I hadn’t found before and ready to make my own if I could find none. I came across a clearing with a creek winding through it. The creeks and ponds near my house had all dried up during the drought, but the storms had brought rain, and now for the first time in years the water was flowing.

Somehow I was less surprised to see the Visitor sitting by the water’s side. Their scarlet coat was puddled around them like flame licking across underbrush. I smiled and came closer.

Instead of a greeting, they asked, “Are you content?” Their voice was made of the trickle-sounds of the water and the low hum of the breeze.

“No,” I said, but right now it wasn’t an unhappy thought. The wriggling discontent in my body didn’t feel like an enemy anymore. I’d been becoming better acquainted with it. I was ready to let it be my ally, and so I put the first of its desires into words.

I held the scissors out to the Visitor. “Will you cut my hair for me?”

A flash of a smile emerged from the muddled shards of their form. “How short?”

“Short,” I said.

They gestured for me to sit beside them. I faced my reflection in the water, noting that the Visitor had no reflection at all. They were only a shimmer on the water’s surface.

They began to cut my hair. As they tipped each severed lock of hair into the water and let the current take it away, I thought of whittling wood—moving cut by cut, steady and sure, until what was left had that certain loveliness that can only be forged by one’s own hand.

I said, “So, uh, do you have a name? Sorry, I’m just not sure how to refer to you.”

“Do not refer to me.”

“Okay,” I said quickly. “Sure.”

“Why do you ask?”

“I’m still not really sure what you—I mean, who you are.”

“I am…other. I am…what you are not. For some, for those who are like you, I am what you are not yet.

By now they’d sheared away enough hair for me to feel the lightness of its absence. “Are you going to leave now?” I asked.

“If I were to leave, it would mean that I was here. To be here, to have a location, I would have to be a thing at a point in space. Space and I don’t sit easy in each other’s presence. We keep poking at each other ’til one of us breaks.”

“Okay, but will you keep showing up around me?”

“Is that what you want?”

They weren’t touching me, but they were close enough that I felt the prickle-warmth of them, the heat of their disjointed, radiant skin reaching me from across the empty air. “I’d like you to visit again,” I said. “If you felt like it.”

“I will,” they said.

When they finished, they cupped what remained of the scissors in their hand—a few glimmerings in the air, emptied of substance—and poured it into the water. The glimmerings transformed into ripples and dissipated. I tilted my head this way and that, memorizing my wavering reflection in the water. My hair was short enough that a stranger might look at me and think man instead of woman.

“Thank you,” I said.

They put their hands on my shoulders and pressed a kiss into the back of my neck. The sensation was fractal, prismatic, bright.

“Good luck,” they said.

When I turned around, there were no gems to trick the light and slide in and out of shadow, nor red to flow and flicker and burn. There was nothing but me and the creek and the trees, struggling toward greenness despite the drought.

 

Ribbons

Monday’s lover tugs at Jan’s ribbon with his teeth. Jan doesn’t yell at the lover to stop. The guy just received bad news from the front—a friend lost to a bomb, perhaps, a sibling blown to bits; Jan doesn’t ask. He tells the lover, instead, to be careful: We don’t want my head rolling off now, do we? We’ve all heard of them, after all, the stories of women taking it off and their heads falling to the ground.

Monday’s lover nods and keeps his teeth to himself. Says he’s never seen a guy with a ribbon before.

What can I say, love? Jan tells him. I’m special.

Jan is a name he chose himself, early on, for it secretly reminded him of Janus, the god of change and passages.

Yes you are, the lover says as he kisses the scars on Jan’s chest, his eyes that lustful color lovers get in the half-dark of his little room. Have you been conscripted yet? he asks.

I’m waiting my turn, Jan lies.

Silently, he counts the days. Only a week left until induction.

The lover tells him the stories of his own scars then, how he got some of them on the battlefield and others in the dark wooded area on our northern border where witches and snakes make your wishes come true in return for a bit of finger or a first-born child. And when he’s done with his own he tells Jan the stories of a soldier friend of a soldier friend and his seven sisters who grew out of a tree in their mother’s garden, one every year, much to their mother’s delight, until their father went and chopped it down with an axe.

Jan only half-listens to him. The ribbon cuts into his skin and the knot at the back chafes his neck, and so he runs his hands up and down the man’s torso to keep them from fumbling with it. He wishes he remembered how he got his ribbon, but he’s found few people ever remember how theirs or their child’s appeared. Was it given? Did it grow from the skin? Was it the result of a deal some ancestor made with a spirit living under the river?

Maybe, if he knew, he’d know how to take it off without losing his head.

And, is that all he would lose?

He’s asked others how they got theirs, but no one would give him a straight answer. Still, he catalogues them in his mind, and runs through them now and then, when he feels the most desperate and lost: One trans woman told him she’s had her ribbon since birth; another that it appeared some time into her transition, overnight and without warning. Some enbies don’t have and never get one. Among those who do have them, some seem to love them, while others conceal them with high-collared shirts and turtlenecks; and then there are those who, as far as Jan knows, are content with loose ribbons they buy at the market. They tie them around their necks some days, then remove them, then tie them again when the mood strikes or the need dictates.

Jan wishes his ribbon would disappear the way that trans woman’s had appeared—and what does it mean for his own manhood that it didn’t?

He hasn’t met any other trans men he could ask. Perhaps, if he just accepted it, Jan thinks, he could learn to be happy. Perhaps that’s what all the other trans men out there have been doing, or maybe they’re just born without ribbons, like most men. Besides, people are getting blown up at the border. The world is burning and I’m thinking about a ribbon? What a selfish, worthless son of a bitch.

He asks himself: Who do you think you are that you can reject this?

Who do you think you are that you can escape?

And yet, in the next breath he dares wonder: Will it feel like a shedding? Like a molting? Will I be naked without it?

When the lover pays and leaves, Jan opens the windows wide to let the man’s smell out. In the light of day, his place looks strange, no longer a low-ceilinged cocoon built of fabric and carpets and hanging fairy lights, but a small, concrete prison, its damp and dirt and ugliness only hastily concealed.

The woman who lives across the street leans against her own window. She touches her ribbon absently with the tips of her fingers, the bright green matching the color of her eyes. People say she’s enchanted, but who isn’t, in this country, this place of animal hides kept in boxes, magic flutes that make you follow the one who breathes into them, veils that descend upon your eyes unexpected and make you see the world different.

He doesn’t always hate his ribbon. He likes the way it makes his neck look longer when he wears a plunging neckline that shows off the dip between his collarbones and the hard-earned flatness of his chest. The way the ends sometimes move in the breeze and tickle the back of his neck. Perhaps, he thinks, he ought to always hate it. Perhaps that is his mistake.

Six days to go and the Painter lies next to him; he breathes in the pinewood scent of her hair, runs his tongue across her neck, wetting her ribbon as she slips her fingers into him and he gasps.

Afterwards, she asks to paint him and Jan tells her okay, but I don’t want to be painted with a ribbon.

She takes a large notepad out of her bag, a piece of charcoal. She has him sit propped up against the peeling green wall. Don’t move, she says, and her charcoal flies across the page in quick, bold strokes. When she’s done, he moves to peek, but she hides the paper and asks for his lips first. Everything must be bartered for around here, after all. He kisses her deeply, the taste of her mouth reminding him of the wild berries that grow along the forest paths and make your tongue tingle if you pick them at the wrong time of day or kill you if you pick them with a false heart.

She smirks and reveals the portrait.

A young man leaning back on an unmade bed. Full lips, a soft jawline, wispy hair. Sharp shoulders, long neck. No ribbon.

Jan passes his fingers over him, ruining his pretty, clean lines.

Wednesday’s lover is a challenge: he just became human again after spending a few years as a bird. Some enchantment or other. A nettle shirt, perhaps, a kiss gone wrong. Jan knows better than to ask after other people’s curses.

The Procurer brings the birdman to Jan’s door, says the man’s family came to find her, and can he be discreet, as if he’s ever anything else. As if he needs to do anything other than be and walk around and breathe for people to notice him: a fake to the haters, a curiosity to the lovers. A lovely freak.

The Procurer is a war vet. This place belongs to her, but she’s happy to let Jan live here. She uses her network to find him clients; there’s no shortage of people lonely and broken by the war among her friends, people who can use a non-judgy companion, or indeed a lovely freak. She ushers the birdman in now, and Jan expects to see one of his arms is still a bird wing, but no, both arms are human, a young man’s arms, a boy’s really. His family and friends think him uncanny, the Procurer says, and he’s finding it hard to adjust. Jan pictures him looking around as if he just woke up from a long sleep, and peering at his loved ones vacantly, as if asking, these people, who are they? Have I met them before?

So they brought him to me, Jan says.

The Procurer nods. They thought, perhaps, you would understand him the best.

When they’re alone, Jan lets the birdman be, and he chooses a high chair next to the shuttered window to perch on and preen his clothes.

Jan takes the bed and stares at the birdman. Finally, he thinks. Someone who doesn’t give a shit about my ribbon.

He drifts off. He imagines what the war is like up close, which he does more and more as the time approaches. Tries to visualize the battlefield, to conjure up what it will smell like, sound like. Sees himself in it. Pictures his body obliterated in an explosion, ripped apart at the seams.

Eventually, they do talk. It’s Jan who coaxes the man into speaking.

What kind of bird were you? he asks.

The birdman looks at him sideways, as if his eyes were still located at the side of his head. He shrugs. Do you think birds have names for themselves?

He’s right, Jan supposes. They can fly. What use could birds possibly have for words? But then the birdman tells him about izkora and tekeli-li and something else Jan doesn’t understand, names the birds make up on the wing and quickly forget and replace with others when the wind calls for it or when they touch the ground, because birds can’t hold onto anything on the ground, and they can never look down with anything but dread. He still has nightmares about that, the birdman says, and he sometimes feels like he’s losing his grip on things, his name and other people’s and the names of objects and verbs, just by being on the ground.

He also tells Jan about the time he flew over to the west and to that magicless country with its cars and its phones and its polluting oil they so desperately want from us now, and he fell in love with a human who captured him and sold him off to an eccentric who treated his birds like people and let them out after breakfast and put them back in their cages after supper, and then the war and then this city.

The birdman forgets his words.

If he let you out, why didn’t you leave? Jan prompts.

The birdman holds out his arms, palms up, thinking about his answer for some time.

Jan watches the way the birdman moves: awkwardly, still clumsy, as if ill-fitting to this life of legs, this featherless existence.

It’s hard to be like this, the birdman says eventually, you know?

Yeah, Jan says. I know.

Thursday’s lover doesn’t turn up. Jan is fond of all his regular clients, but most of all he’s fond of her: of her body, slight like a boy’s, all milky smoothness and bold colors and wild braids and rings through her eyebrows, her lips always painted and her eyeliner glittering like her eyes; of the way she doesn’t ask to be held so much as pushes herself into him, an expert of long-distance embraces by virtue of having lost so many to the war; of the way she talks to him as if he were not strange at all.

Jan retraces the last time they were together in his mind, looking for anything that might explain why she missed their appointment: Did he do something that hurt her? Is she ill? Did something happen to her?

He remembers her being a bit more skittish than usual, a bit more distracted. Perhaps she grew tired of him? Perhaps she just decided to call off their sessions—but then she’d already paid for today. Moment by moment, he replays their meeting again, even more slowly now: the nervous hello, her eyeshadow smudged as if she’d been crying but, when asked, said it was rainwater, and it was indeed raining that day, the clouds rolling in heavy and dark from the west. His breath hitching when she unbuttoned her shirt despite having seen her naked so many times before, the tenderness then, so unlike her. Was she saying goodbye? They lay side by side, afterwards, and he traced her ribbon with his fingers and asked, Ever thought of getting rid of it?

She blinked at him, no never, as if he’d asked the most absurd thing in the world, and that was the first time he realized not everybody struggles with their ribbon—either its presence or its lack. It’d never crossed his mind before that someone could be at ease with it, one way or another; that they were not all fighting and pretending to be something they weren’t. There really are people who don’t think about their ribbons constantly? Who don’t spend days fantasizing about how to remove them?

He wondered, then, what it would feel like to not live his life with this unceasing noise in the background, that deep, dull ache, that dark obsession.

Really? he asked again to make sure.

She said she didn’t mind it at all, and he believed her because of the carefree way she said it. It wasn’t even that she wasn’t worried about her head rolling off if she did remove the ribbon; it was as if she’d just never given it any thought and it’d never given her any pain.

But still Jan wondered if she was telling the truth.

Now he waits for her the entire day, pacing his room, opening the windows and then closing them again. He thumbs his ribbon and then his lips and at night as he gets into his pristine bed he thinks, Jan, what a fool you are, falling for a girl that pays you to fuck you.

Three days left and the Procurer tells him Thursday girl was conscripted. She’d already received the order by the time she last saw Jan but never reported for duty; instead, she disappeared. Some say she defected, others that she turned into an animal.

Jan thanks the Procurer for the information and then thinks that perhaps he ought to do the same: head for the woods once more, strike a bargain, be transformed, then transformed again.

He did try to make a bargain one time. A single year of life without a ribbon, and then the witch could have his heart, his liver, his bones, whatever other gory piece of him she desired. But she felt sorry for him and called it off at the last minute. She said, your head might still roll off, eventually, ribbon or not. You’ll only be giving me things and getting so very little in return.

But no, he could never run away. Reflex tells him this isn’t the way of men, but that’s bullshit and he knows it, so it must be something else that pulls him towards that battlefield; a penchant for self-destruction. A weakness, perhaps, a curse.

He takes the day off. Puts on his favorite jacket, green velvet with brass buttons and pockets he likes to push his thumbs into, and an old-fashioned black cap with a curly feather tucked in its band. He ambles through the city with its beggars and its rich and its poor and its cobblestone roads and its parks and its statues, with its towers that are guarded by dragons and its unsaved queens and its labyrinthine, narrow alleys overgrown with thorns. He ventures into the woodwork district, idly browsing the store windows and their ersatz butterflies, the trapped birds, the magic doors, until he finds his way down to the river. There, halfway across the Bridge of Small Mercies, he pauses and gazes at the slow-moving water below. He spots a green ribbon caught in the reeds of the riverbank, wonders how it got there. Was it bought? Was it torn? Was it given away?

When his mother died, she left him her ribbon. He never found out how she removed it, if it happened post-mortem or if that was the reason she died. He simply found it on his bed, coiled like a tiny green snake. He didn’t want to keep that ribbon, either, but he did learn to cherish it. Mother always said you have to be grateful for the things you have, even if you never wanted them.

The balustrade is rough under his palms, but the water below soothes him in its forever motion. He imagines Thursday girl as a swan, her mighty wings thundering as she takes off over the water.

He thinks of the stories he knows about the river:

that it’s easier to drown in than any other water;

that the water here never freezes on its surface, no matter how cold the winter, but ice forms beneath it; that beneath the ice, there’s a place you can breathe;

that animals find refuge in the river, that they have names in the river’s language which humans cannot pronounce, and that, when the animals die, they turn into people you find along the riverbanks, corpses smiling, and you say, there, that’s someone who lived a happy life;

that the river has seen a lot in its long travels and sometimes it dreams of moving on, rendering the city riverless and dry;

that sometimes, it stretches its long limbs across the entire city, as if to test what it would feel like to go;

that, when it does that, it floods certain people’s dreams and speaks its names, and when that happens you must name your children after it, even if you can’t pronounce the words;

or not have children at all, spare them and the world a curse;

that, when the city is quiet, say at night, you can hear the river breathe.

At night, Jan tries that. Instead of the river’s breath, his dreams are filled with people turning into animals, great big boars and slender-horned antelopes, and with nettle shirts and shedding all his feathers one by one. They float down the river and whoever finds one will be forever cursed. Their skin will grow needles that they will have to use to embroider their children’s eyelids, and then their children will be able to see a future so distant that everything around them will already seem a wasteland, and they will want to travel but only the river will be there to guide them, and the trees naked and dead, petrified songbirds perching on their branches with ribbons caught in their beaks.

Saturday goes by in a blur, and Jan thinks it a tremendous waste, so he decides to work on Sunday, too, because he doesn’t feel like being alone on his last day.

It’s the client’s first time with Jan, and he turns out to be a tall, muscular guy—square jaw, short hair, jacket ripped at the shoulders to show off his big arms, a proper war vet, entirely unremarkable. Jan doesn’t mind. He pulls the man in and makes him sit on the bed to do his usual informal interview; if he’s good at it, the clients never know they’re being interviewed—and he’s good at it. They chat for a while and Jan deems him safe, so he nods and sits next to him on the bed, his hand resting casually on the man’s knee.

So how do you know the Procurer? Jan asks.

The man looks at him, as if he’s weighing Jan as well, measuring his mettle; it makes him squirm a little where he sits, and that’s when Jan perceives the softness in the corners of the man’s eyes, the laugh lines, the subtle tremors of his hands. He must be satisfied with what he sees in Jan, too, because he lies back on the bed and stares at the ceiling, relaxed, as if he’s been in this room a thousand times before and can share with Jan the easy familiarities of old friends.

We were in the same section, the man says. I was there when half her squad was blown up. We were tasked with making sure no one crossed the border…no rebels, no soldiers, no civilians. We were told to shoot anyone who tried to run. And I…

He trails off, closes his eyes, and presses his thumbs against them.

Things were demanded of me that I wasn’t willing to give, he continues. Big, macho guy, that’s all people see.

He returns to sitting on the bed again and looks at Jan, who’s wrapped his arms around himself, hands hidden in his armpits. Are you okay? the man asks. What’s wrong?

Sure, Jan replies, forcing himself to release his hands and let them hang loosely at his sides.

I can go if you’re not feeling up to this, the man says. He pauses, waits a moment, then adds: I need someone who’s okay, you know?

I lost someone, Jan blurts out.

Who?

Jan tells him about Thursday’s lover as he brews a hibiscus tea and pours it into his brightly colored glass cups.

The man drinks his tea as he listens and then he undresses without responding. Jan tries not to stare at his swollen pecs, the deep lines crisscrossing his back and chest, the star-shaped scar on his shoulder blade. He fails. He moves up and puts his fingers on that star, he can’t help it.

The man turns around and grabs his hand. Jan fixates on the man’s ribbonless neck. Thinks, irrationally, how handsome a ribbon would look there.

Slowly, the man brings Jan’s hand to his lips and kisses the fingertips that touched his skin. It’s something else, too, I can tell, he says.

Jan shrugs. My ribbon, he says. Feels tight lately. Tighter and tighter.

Why don’t you take it off?

Jan lets out a laugh. What? Haven’t you heard what happens?

The rolling heads. The necks ripped open, the torsos like chopped down trees standing in their dresses.

I have, the man says. But stories is all they are. You don’t know what will happen.

Other people…Jan starts to say, but the man cuts him off.

Other people are other people. Maybe those women wanted to destroy themselves and that’s why their heads rolled off. Maybe their ribbons meant something different to them than yours does to you. He pauses. Do you want your ribbon?

Jan shakes his head. It’s choking me, he says. I’ll die with it on my neck. It’s a noose.

Okay then. That’s all it takes. You don’t have to understand why you have it or to come up with a rule that explains who else in the world does, or account for everyone else who wants one or doesn’t. You don’t need a unified theory of ribbons to decide yours is not for you.

You’ve given this some thought, then, have you? Jan asks. It comes out harsh, like an accusation, and Jan doesn’t know why. But the man gives him a look—open, unarmed—that makes all of Jan’s brief anger dissipate: his how-dare-yous and who-do-you-think-you-ares. The shame of his reaction, too. He thinks of the birdman then, how Jan was content to let him be the way he needed to be. He didn’t ask the birdman to justify his feelings. Why should Jan?

The man takes Jan’s hand and pulls him next to him on the bed. He smells like fallen leaves and, perhaps, the river. Jan catches himself eager to stay like this for a while, inhaling him.

You know, I met another boy with a ribbon, once, long ago, the man says.

Truly?

He nods.

Did he ever take it off?

He never wanted to, the man says.

Then when they lie together in bed, the man on his back and Jan on his side, he admires the man’s strong torso, the long limbs, the hardness of him. I want him, Jan admits to himself, and I want to be him.

You’re scared you’ll change, the man says, and that’s okay.

I’m scared I’ll disappear, Jan thinks of saying, and somehow he’s sure the man would understand what that’s like, too. I’ve been conscripted, Jan says instead, causing the man to push himself up on his elbows and look at Jan’s face, a dark look in his eyes.

Don’t do that, he says. Run away.

Jan can sense the wound in his voice, the shrapnel buried there.

I have to, Jan says.

Why? the man asks.

Jan pulls him back down to the mattress, a gentle hand on his broad chest. Love, he says. You know better than to ask after other people’s curses.

He lets it go.

Then, Jan asks, What do you want? And the man says, I want to be taken. Make me feel weak.

Jan reports for duty the next day.

When they give him his uniform, he puts it on and stands in front of a mirror. He inspects himself, his slender body clad in dark green, the cap that fits snuggly over his head. He imagines the war: dusty fields sown with poppies and soldier parts, deep underground shelters, sealed metal doors that open into a great body of water.

He looks at his ribbon, lifts his hand to touch its length. Then he holds one end between forefinger and thumb and pulls and pulls until the ribbon gives and the knot comes undone. He tugs once more and feels the fabric slide silky over his skin and then he waits for the other sensation, the rip, the tilt, but the ribbon simply comes away, and it’s fine. Nothing happens. It’s fine.

Advertisement