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The town had become a city, but a gentle one, and there were places to hide if you knew where to find them. Leah had lived in San Francisco, and in New Orleans. Those were not gentle places and she had not done gentle things. Going home was not the right way to disappear, but she bought a bus ticket anyway. She had changed, and she wanted to see how the town had changed. Her childhood was like a story about someone else, but maybe the town was a place where she could be reborn one more time.

The house where she grew up was still there. Her parents were long gone. Some people who she did not know lived in the house. She watched them from a bench on the greenway. When Leah was a child there had been only woods behind the house, no greenway. There was a creek she had played in. She had talked to the trees. There was one tree that talked back.

When she returned as an adult, her first order of business was to find a place to stay on an extremely limited budget. A nonexistent budget, really. She ended up in the Rose Garden. There was an abandoned amphitheater at one end and a thick stand of trees at the other and in between there were rose bushes growing on arbors and trellises. The roses and the trees there provided shelter, but they did not talk to her. The police did not seem to notice that she was camping out there. Other people who lived outdoors stuck closer to downtown, where there were shelters and opportunities to make money on the sidewalks. It was a gentle city, and she found a place to hide.

She started passing the time on the greenway. She got a map at the public library and started walking the entire circuit. There was an access point near the Rose Garden, where a swath of asphalt led off from the road, down past a culvert and then on. The greenway spiderwebbed across the whole county, following the creeks mostly. And, it turned out, it snaked up beside the creek that ran behind the house where she grew up. The creek even had a name, which she never had never known as a child: Cemetery Branch. It made sense, because it ran out from near the original town cemetery, out into the suburbs and finally into the reservoir lake north of town. Leah was more interested in hydrology as an adult. In the flow of things.

She got a decent pair of running shoes at the Goodwill; they fit her perfectly and were a ridiculous shade of red with gold trim. When she got tired, there were benches, and there were water fountains in the parks. People stared, but people had always stared at her. The city of the greenway was a mirror of the city of roads and buildings. Walk south and there were other people who camped out in the thickets and the high ground in wetlands. Most of them were harmless but word was that someone had been murdered in a parking lot of a convenience store, and the cops came and destroyed a site where a bunch of folks had tents. Maybe one of them was the murderer. Probably not. Walk far enough south and there were needles, crack pipes, and human feces on the greenway. The gentleness of the city was worn down in these places. The greenway ran through tunnels under the highway, and when Leah walked through them she thought about being back in New Orleans or San Francisco again. About her former life, where part of the job description was handling situations that could break out into irreparable violence. She used more of her precious stash to buy a knife at a head shop, a cheap thing for teenage boys, with a locking blade and a dragon embossed into the handle. She had never stabbed anyone, and didn’t like the idea of stabbing or being stabbed, but it made her feel safer to have the knife in her pocket. It was safety but it was also a foolish risk, because she still had an outstanding warrant in San Francisco. Nothing violent, but enough, if a cop stopped her and ran her in all the cop databases.

Walk north and there were people on new bicycles, many of them wearing colorful jerseys. Lots of people, most of them white, walking dogs or running or even birdwatching. One of her first days back in town, Leah passed a Boy Scout troop out cleaning up a stretch of greenway, and she thought she recognized one of the adult leaders. They had been in some of the same classes in high school, PE and health and Latin. He was staring at her as she trudged up to them. She tried to think of a name, tried to take the age off of the guy the same way he was trying to subtract the years from her. Rusty, that was his name. Maybe he was different now too; maybe he was Russell instead of Rusty. But it was all over in an instant. She passed the Scouts, said a quick “hello” to the staring man, who returned the greeting with a blank expression and a “hi.” She kept going. They had nothing to talk about. They had too much to talk about.

There were other things to stare at on the greenway. There was the backwards woman. The first time Leah saw her, it looked like the backwards woman was falling, twisting and trying to catch herself. Leah felt the urge to go help. But the woman wasn’t falling. She was running backwards. She wore glasses with little mirrors on them to see where she was going, and a cycling helmet. Leah hated questions, and she hated it even more when she was the one who had a question. “Why are you running backwards?” sat there on her tongue, waiting to leap out, but she kept her mouth shut. Questions and answers were bad news most of the time. From then on she saw the backwards woman every day. Here she’d come and then there she’d go, except she’d be facing Leah as she went, smiling but staring into her little mirrors. Leah never saw the backwards woman fall, even though the greenway was bumpy in places where tree roots were re-emerging, and slick in the moist shady places where moss grew.

Leah’s favorite place on the greenway was the spot behind the house where she grew up. There was a bend in the creek there, and on the other side a little hill, and on that hill was the brown house where she had lived from age zero to age seventeen. She sat on the bench and looked up at her past. That was part of the routine she fell into. She did not do drugs anymore, but she had done her share. She had been intimately connected with the consumption and sale of drugs. But now her drug was to take care of daily business—find food, wash up—and then to walk the greenway, and to end up sitting and staring up at that house. She half imagined that she’d see her younger self in a window there. A man and a woman lived there now.

She’d been doing this for a week before the tree finally spoke. The woman was working out back on the deck. Leah realized that she was the backwards woman from the greenway. She was potting flowers and smoking a cigarette. It made Leah want to smoke, but she’d quit that too when she quit the drugs, and so they were linked in her mind. It was a “negatively involved association,” that’s what a social worker in San Francisco had said. Besides, cigarettes were expensive.

“You do not need to smoke, and fire has no place here anymore,” is the first thing the pin oak said to her. Not the first thing in her whole life. The first thing since she returned.

“Well hello, friend,” she said. “I was beginning to think that you were gone. Or that you’d never been there. A figment, or a fragment.”

When she was a child, she could hear noises that the plants near the creek made. Talking noises, breathing noises. The ones who talked, most of them didn’t make words, or if they made words they didn’t make sense. The honeysuckle vine, she could just hear it breathing. Sometimes it would sigh heavily. There was a redbud tree that babbled nonsense constantly, but quietly. You had to get right up next to it, and even then it was just a ghost like wheeze. “Bifurcated revolving plasm angle in Z block,” it would say. “The thing that was left in the place there at the bottom was no longer in that place but moved instead into the protoregium,” it would say. Sentences but then sudden words she didn’t know, as she strained to hear and make sense of it. You could try talking back to the redbud, but it wasn’t listening. It just kept up its quiet patter. “Plainly Paris pinhook pie pencil pirouette buffalo turquoise flange protocol.”

But there was one plant who talked quite plainly, and who listened to her, and that was the pin oak. “Hello. I am a pin oak,” was the first thing that it had said. “Or you might call me Quercus palustris. But my name is Cleverwell. What is your name?” At the time, Leah’s name was Lee, and Lee was in need of a friend, and thus not particularly startled by a talking tree. In fact, quite happy to have a special friend. They were friends all through Lee’s childhood. Cleverwell gave advice. It was usually better advice than Lee’s parents gave, when you could figure it out. Cleverwell said, “I must stay here, but you can go anywhere.” And so Lee did go somewhere. Cleverwell said, “I will always be Cleverwell, and a Quercus palustris, but you can change.” And so Lee changed. At first into Leaf. When she was Leaf a lot of things changed. She grew her hair out and dyed it pink and then she let it mat up into dreadlocks, which she quickly regretted. She started wearing dresses that she got at thrift shops. She started hanging out with a different crowd at school. She thought that she had found herself, and by doing that, she left Cleverwell and the other plants behind. She didn’t spend much time in the woods anymore. She didn’t spend much time at home. She was out, staying on couches and in basements.

“Can you read my mind?” Leah said, sitting there on the bench. “I mean, in my memory I can hear your voice. What was I hearing, all those years ago?”

“We don’t need to make noises to communicate, if that is what you mean,” the tree said.

“And why have you waited so long to communicate? I’ve been back for days now.”

“Time moves differently for you and me. You know that. We used to discuss that at great length when you were here before. You were smaller then, and looked different.”

An older couple went by, power-walking as best they could. Leah had seen them often since she’d returned, and they were friendly enough. She waved. They both smiled. The man tipped his baseball cap. The Giants. She wondered why he liked the Giants, San Francisco’s baseball team. She had gone to a Giants game once with Manny. Manny was the dealer she had worked for in San Francisco, and in New Orleans. “You’re going to go straight, that’s funny,” Manny had said. “No way you can go straight, girl.”

“Can you hear what they are thinking?” she asked Cleverwell, speaking of the older couple.

“No,” Cleverwell said. “Do you not remember? You asked me that when you were a child.”

“That’s so long ago, tree.”

“It is not a long time, not for me. And my name is Cleverwell.”

“My name is Leah.”

“I know. Lee, Leaf, Leah. What will your next name be?”

“I think I’m sticking with Leah for good.” And she said that, and it was sort of true, but it did make her wonder if she was in a terminal state. Was there another change ahead of her? She felt the same on the inside. Maybe less confused.

“What else have you forgotten?” Cleverwell said. “Did you forget about the sun?”

A memory slotted itself into place. Leah saw herself, under Cleverwell’s guidance, stretching her arms out and facing the sun.

“Tell me about the world, Leah,” Cleverwell said.

“You know as much about it as I do.”

“Yes. But tell me of your travels. I want to hear your story.”

And so she told the tree her story.

Drop out. Try to get back in. Fall in with a fun crowd. The wrong crowd. Burn bridges. Take drugs. Sell drugs. Move away. Party on. Brushes with the law. Brushes with death. Brushes with ignorance. Move back.

When she was done, Cleverwell asked, “What are the trees like there?” She did her best to describe them. She didn’t really remember them that well, though.

Cleverwell said, “What is the line from the poem that you read to me? ‘The transformation of waste’? Perhaps you could get a job transforming waste. There is a lot of waste in the world. There is more of it every day. Everything falls apart.” And so she did get just such a job.

She got work doing the cleaning and recycling for a bar near the university. The owner had a line on a cheap garage apartment, too. She liked the Rose Garden. She knew it wasn’t really safe but it felt safe. Even though someone was clearly tending the roses, nobody much came there. Every Sunday afternoon people would show up to take engagement photos. But all in all it was a peaceful place. The plants there did not talk to her.

One day she asked Cleverwell, “Do other plants talk to people?”

“Some do,” it said. “But it is not common. You and I are rare. Mostly I just talk to the other plants here. We sing.”

“Sing me a song,” Leah asked. “Why have you never sung me a song?”

“You cannot hear my songs,” it said. “I am singing one right now, but you cannot hear it. I am almost always singing a song.”

Then when she worked at the bar, which she did every day until it opened in late afternoon, she started singing too. First she tried singing songs she remembered from her youth. Then she just started making up noises and stringing them together. Humming tunes that twisted and changed and reformed into different songs. Making space alien noises when she felt like it. No one could hear her in the back parking lot next to the dumpsters as she pulled the sticky, smelly empties from garbage bags and sorted them. Glass, metal, plastic, paper, trash. No one could hear as she sponged and swept and mopped up the previous night’s stains and debris. The bar owner’s name was Dwight.

And then the rain came, the first real soaking rain since she’d returned, and she realized that the garage apartment made sense, even if she’d be away from the beautiful mute roses. She moved her worldly possessions, which fit into a backpack and a large garbage bag, from their hiding place in the Rose Garden to the apartment. She didn’t have many possessions but there wasn’t that much space in the apartment.

Dwight gave her an old bicycle too, a rusted Schwinn Sting-Ray. It was older than she was, but it was the right size for her. She started riding it on the greenway, making herself that much more conspicuous. There was no way that she could blend in with the people in Spandex on their sleek new bikes. She didn’t have a helmet, and felt bad about that. But she could cover much more ground on the bike, roaming over the whole county. In the afternoons she still ended up back behind her childhood house, talking to Cleverwell, and meditating. The bench had a little plaque screwed into it. “In memory of Pemba Reendar,” who was someone she did not know. She felt like she should look up the Reendars, give them a call and ask if it was OK for her to spend so much time on the bench dedicated to Pemba. She’d read an article at the library about meditation, how it was good for you. Cleverwell quite respectfully did not talk to her when she meditated. It could read her mind, though, so for all she knew it was listening in as she breathed and tried to think of nothing but breathing. What does a tree think of nothingness? She never asked.

She rode the bicycle and when the hills were steep she got off and walked it. She catalogued the greenway: the rocks in the streams that looked like faces or like whales, the wetlands and the meadows, the backs of all the houses. As curious as she was about her childhood house, she had no desire to move back there. She did see a lot of places that inspired fantasies of owning a home, though. Houses that looked like mountain chalets, with big open windows. Older houses that were very close to the greenway, with sheds full of junk right there and “NO TRESPASSING PRIVATE PROPERTY” signs nailed up. The greenway was never boring. You could fantasize yourself into hundreds of lives on it, whether in the people that you passed or the houses that you could see. And Leah did just that, thought about a path to a new life. How would that even work?

She would get one of the more modest houses around the lake. The real estate around the lake was fairly exclusive but the lake itself was a great equalizer. The greenway encircled the lake, which had been built by the Corps of Engineers, and it was a park attended by people of all races and ages. The house she liked was up on a ridge, a little 1970s cabin, with big glass windows that faced the lake. The backyard was fenced in but there was a gate down at the bottom and a little path that led to the greenway. In the mornings she could make coffee and look out and see Canada geese, mallards, and the one heron that seemed to hunt in the lake. There were deer that prowled the underbrush. She would pay a neighborhood kid to mow the grass for her, and let the backyard go completely natural. There was a stone fireplace and chimney. She could get a big flatscreen television to hang over the fireplace. She imagined a big open kitchen, a laundry room, and a garage with a treadmill and her car, one of those electric ones. Just enough room left for a master suite and a guest room.

That was as far as she got, because while she could imagine the insides of the houses, she couldn’t imagine anything else about her existence. Even if this was all powered by a winning lottery ticket, there was nothing else inside.

One day she realized that these beautiful houses were still full of unhappy people. And in fact if she were to occupy one of them, she’d still be herself. With her same problems. Even if she had some money. She would still be alone. She would still be not the biggest fan of herself.

This made her happier, though. The realization that all these fantasies dangled in front of her, as daily she traversed this strip of nature or pseudo-nature, that they wouldn’t solve many of her problems, it helped. She’d have more space, but she wouldn’t be that much safer, living in one of those places.

One day she’d fallen asleep on her bench, exhausted because the night before she hadn’t got much sleep. While she was meditating the next day she dozed off, the Sting-Ray leaning against the bench. She had asked Cleverwell if it minded if she leaned the bike against it, and while it didn’t care, she still thought it was more respectful to lean the bike against the dead wood of the bench. When she woke up it was dark. She didn’t know where she was for an instant. She’d been dreaming about a punk rock toothbrushing contest, between Billy and Stewart, who were both actually dead now. Billy had OD’d and Stewart had jumped off the top of the college library, eleven stories up. In her dream they’d been stomping around in their engineer boots, frantically sawing away at their foaming mouths, trying to best each other at daily oral hygiene.

Cleverwell was silent, and when she reached out to it with her mind she didn’t get a response.

“Cleverwell,” she said aloud. Still no answer.

Around her the trail was dark but there were lights from the houses that bordered the greenway and the creek. Including in the house where she’d grown up. She could see the people in the kitchen. She sat and watched them. Her eyes were already adjusted to the dark, and her distance vision was good. The couple was having a fight. The woman paced back and forth behind the man, who was standing at the sink, facing out into the dark. Leah was still sure that this was the backwards woman, although now she walked in the normal direction. Neither the man nor the woman were wearing shirts. Maybe they were both completely naked. The fluorescent light was a sickly hue, not one of those new ones that were the same color as the sun. Maybe it was the same bulb from when Leah had lived there. She started thinking about all the other things in the house that might be the same. The place where she’d first written her new name, L-E-A-F, in cursive on the inside of her closet with a Sharpie. She had sat in there cross-legged on the floor, in a piled jumble of Converse and Vans shoes. Was the lock still broken on the downstairs back door? Had they replaced the 1970s wallpaper in the upstairs bathroom, all oranges and greens on a silvery background? Was it still the same house, or was it a different house now, and when exactly did it change from one to the other?

The man had a knife in his hand, a big chef’s knife. She couldn’t see the woman. The man held the knife up to his wrist and brought the blade across. Leah’s first thought was “That’s not how you commit suicide.” Everyone knew you cut lengthwise. That was something you learned…where? How did this terrible nugget of wisdom get distributed to the world? Then the surprise hit her, and she realized that she was actually seeing this. It was actually happening, not just a movie projected on a tiny screen up in the night. The man was screaming in pain, doubling over, but then there he was standing up again, turned toward the woman and still yelling. Maybe crying. The woman came over to him, but instead of dropping the knife and letting her tend to his wound, they began physically fighting. Grappling. His knife hand slipped free and that’s when she saw it. He thrust the knife into the woman. It wasn’t like in a movie. The woman kept moving. They kept struggling. But it was clear now, the man was trying to kill the woman. He stabbed her again, and then they moved out of the frame of the kitchen window.

Leah remembered the first time she saw a dead body. People died all over, not just in ungentle cities but in gentle ones too. Maybe there was no such thing as gentle.

Leah had no idea what to do. She had no phone. Run to a nearby house and demand they call the cops? That was a recipe for disaster, for her getting in way over her head when she was already just treading water. Run up the hill and break into the house, brandishing her little dragon-handled knife? She asked Cleverwell what to do, but again got no answer. She waited for a long time, maybe an hour, but nothing happened in the house that she could detect. No change in the lights. No one visible in the kitchen window. Maybe they were both bleeding out on the kitchen floor. Maybe she’d been confused by what she saw, still asleep and dreaming there on the bench, and they were fine. Leah decided to try and find a pay phone. They were thin on the ground these days, but she remembered one near the bar. She pedaled the bike back to the bar (which was closed, a Sunday) and went to find the phone. The little kiosk was still mounted to the side of a brick building next to a gas station. The phone was there but the handset had been torn off, and a piece of bright blue gum had hardened in place on the coin slot. Leah had no idea what to do. So she went home and went to sleep. She was used to sleeping under stressful conditions.

The next morning she got the paper from the mailbox in front of the bar—Dwight still “took the paper,” as he called it. Nothing in it about a murder. She biked over to the public library and checked the local news sites, but there was nothing there either. A fatality in a DWI accident. A train derailed. A possible hurricane on the way. No mention of blood in a suburban kitchen.

She did the morning recycling, just trying to focus on the colors of the glass. A working meditation. But after she was done, she cycled the greenway over to her childhood house. She passed some of the mid-morning regulars, although she didn’t see the backwards woman. Instead of parking at her bench, she took one of the access paths out to the neighborhood itself. Something she’d not done since coming back, worried that the confused pain of nostalgia would knock her over. But there she was, walking up the slope of Edgewood Drive. There were no sidewalks, because it was a suburb built when people rode in cars everywhere. Some of the houses were unfamiliar—newer McMansions built where smaller houses had been. Then up the last curve, and there was the driveway to her old house. The mailbox was different, which didn’t surprise her because it was always getting knocked over when she was a kid. It was a strain to pedal the bike uphill with only one gear, but still she rode slowly past instead of stopping. Swiveled her head around to see if anyone was out in their yards. Were there any neighbors there who remembered her? When she was a kid, the Wainwrights had split up, and Mrs. Wainwright had kept their house. Maybe she was still there, although now her house was covered in English ivy and had trees planted close to all the windows. Mrs. Wainwright had gone crazier than anyone else in that neighborhood. Until now, at least. As far as Leah knew, knife murder was a new thing for the neighborhood where she grew up.

Leah turned and rode back down the hill. She tried to be casual as she stopped and flipped open the mailbox lid. Printed in there, in marker on a white card under some packing tape, were two names. She committed them to memory. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do with the information. She needed advice. And so she went to see Cleverwell.

She explained to it what she’d seen the night before. “Do you go to sleep at night, or something? I tried to talk to you, but you didn’t answer.”

“We do not sleep, not the way you do. But we never talk after the sun goes down. Only singing.”

“So you saw what happened?”

“Yes, I did.”

“What should I do?”

“Something brave, I think. You should do something quite brave.”

“What’s that?”

“You will think of it, I am sure.”

Cleverwell logic. Tree logic. No point in trying to push past it. They talked about how nice the weather was now. Leah tried to explain Daylight Saving Time, but Cleverwell didn’t comprehend her. The light was going to last longer in the day. It was going to get warmer.

She rode to the library again, checked the local news sites again. Nothing. There was more news, but none of it was about a bloody knife murder. Or murder/suicide. Or whatever had happened in there. She was getting more comfortable with deciding that it hadn’t happened at all. Or maybe it had been staged. A play fight. Some kind of fantasy kink. She’d seen plenty of that kind of thing in San Francisco. Maybe it was even for her benefit—Leah was a denizen of the greenway, and there were plenty of regulars who saw her on it every day. Maybe the people in the house wanted to freak out that strange woman who sat on that bench down by the creek.

The crisis of what she’d seen made her think about the greater crisis of existence. She was getting stronger, riding that bike all over the county. But she still had no idea what to do with her life. When she left, Manny had said that she was welcome to come back and work for him any time. She’d be the one taking all the risks, though. Manny couldn’t afford a third strike. His operation now was so big, he didn’t need to touch the business directly. He flew around, checking on production, checking on supply channels, making sure product moved from point A to point B without actually getting that close to the product.

She realized that she had to go back into the house, all these years later. That was the only way to find out what had happened. And she knew exactly how to do it, maybe, if the old back door still worked the way it once did. It locked, but it wasn’t a deadbolt, and the lock was broken to where if you lifted the door up just so you could coax the latch to open. She discovered this when she was twelve, and in her teens Leah had snuck back in the house late at night many times by this method.

She rode back out to her bench, her headquarters, and waited. The sun went down and Cleverwell fell silent. They’d been talking about mountains. She was describing mountains to him, how it got colder the higher you went, even in summer. She had a sneaking suspicion that Cleverwell knew all about mountains and weather and axial tilt, but was just playing dumb.

It was like watching herself in a dream, when she got up and started walking to the nearest access path, the one that would take her to Edgewood Drive. She didn’t know why she was doing it or what she would find, but she was slowly making her way to the house. A ghost looking for a place to haunt. She moved up the street. All the other houses were full of people, probably all staring at their televisions. When she got to her old address she turned and walked quickly down the drive to the back.

So close, so close to her personal history, running on adrenaline now and feeling kind of faint. But she had passed the point of turning back. She had a bandana and she used that to keep her prints off the doorknob of the back door underneath the deck. It worked exactly as she remembered. Lift it slightly, work it back and forth, and it clicked open with ease. She thought about the murderous man in there; she thought about alarms. She decided that a murderous man was more probable than an alarm system, and she decided she preferred that scenario. No alarm went off. She walked into what had been, and what still clearly was, the laundry room. Moonlight streamed in through the windows, and her eyes had adjusted. The familiar old wood paneling was gone. Now the walls were white. The floor was carpeted. She left her shoes in the laundry room and continued into the house in her socks.

She went upstairs to the kitchen, thinking that she was either about to solve a crime or become the victim of a crime. But there was nothing out of the ordinary there. She looked out of the kitchen window down toward the creek, toward Cleverwell. She thought of the woman. There was no one in the house, she was sure.

She walked down the hall to her childhood bedroom. The door was open. It was darker in this room, more shaded from the moonlight. She could make out the shape of a desk and computer, and a lot of boxes. Probably used for storage or an office now. She walked over to the closet and opened the door. She walked in, right into the clothes hanging there. She turned and lifted her arms and felt for the pipe that ran just below the ceiling of the closet. She slid her hand across it until she felt something that was not a dusty pipe. It was a ribbon tied around the pipe, down at one end. It was the ribbon she’d tied there years before, when she was Leaf, before she left home. She stood there and worked at the knot until it came free.

When she finally got it loose, she panicked. Her eyes had adjusted to the deeper dark and she could see everything now, and she realized that she was standing in a house that she’d broken into, one where quite likely a serious crime had been committed. She took the ribbon, went and padded down the stairs and got back into her running shoes. She pulled the back door shut behind her and the wonky latch clicked into place. She thought about trying to stumble down the hillside through the trees and brush, but that would attract more attention and could break an ankle. After ten deep breaths she walked up the drive and back down Edgewood. Back onto the greenway, to her bicycle, and then to the apartment. A light rain had started. She had the old ribbon in her pocket. She wondered if it was still bright green, or if it had faded.

Days passed. Leah checked the news constantly but saw nothing. She became convinced that she’d seen a play, a bit of misdirection for her benefit, and that the couple had gone on vacation. Backwards woman was no longer on the greenway and so that was definite, it had been backwards woman living in her old house. The house stayed empty and dark and she would sit down by the creek watching the sun go down, talking and then waiting for Cleverwell to fall silent.

One morning when she arrived at her spot she saw something yellow flapping in the breeze, surrounding the house. Police tape. So something was amiss. She couldn’t risk talking to cops, though. She pedaled back to the bar as fast as she could. She was getting faster, and stronger, even on the ridiculous bike.

The television was already on when she got to the bar.

“They caught the guy who killed that woman,” Dwight said, pointing. The shot was of a reporter standing in the front yard of her house, just outside the police tape. The reporter was saying something but Dwight talked over the noise of the television.

“I mean, they’ve got him in Canada, trying to extradite him. A jogger spotted his wife’s body dumped at a construction site. All carved up and soaked in bleach. I don’t know why people do this stuff. You know they’re gonna get caught. Don’t they watch TV?”

“Can we listen to the news story?” Leah asked.

“That’s about all there was to it. They’ve already done the autopsy. Didn’t have much family, just a cousin from Montana. Gonna bury her in the old town cemetery.”

Dwight was kind enough to give her a job and find her a place to stay, but he wasn’t much on conversational skills. She wanted to talk to Cleverwell. Leah thought about the woman lying there out in the elements. About her getting stabbed. Could Leah have saved her?

Before she could leave, the emergency broadcast system kicked in on the television. A tornado warning. Funnel cloud spotted. Take cover immediately. So she and Dwight went into the back office. The rain came, and the power went out, and the wind blew hard enough to rattle the building, but they were not in the direct path of the tornado. Dwight was prepared. He had a little battery-powered radio, so they didn’t have to try to converse.

Eventually they both fell asleep in their chairs. In the morning, the power was back on. She got up and went into the bar and flipped on the television. The tornado had touched down in the city, skipping through in a path just north of downtown. An image of a map was displayed, with the line of the tornado superimposed. She already feared the worst. Then they cut to the live feed. Oh, the irony, that a neighborhood shocked by a bloody murder would be hit again, this time by a force of nature. Shreds of police tape, trees and power lines down everywhere. The camera panned around and her house was crumpled under the weight of two big trees, the roof mostly torn off and sitting in the front yard. The camera zoomed to show the path of the tornado. How it had come up the hill from the creek.

And there, at the end of the shot in the distance, was Cleverwell, now fallen, lying across the greenway, completely uprooted.

Leah raced back up the greenway, to sit with the corpse of her friend, but she could hear noises before she got to the bend in the creek where the tree had been. Pemba Reendar’s bench had been crushed when Cleverwell fell. Leah heard voices, and the roar of a chain saw. She ditched the ridiculous bicycle and started running. There was the Boy Scout troop, and Rusty was wielding a chain saw, cutting up the corpse of Cleverwell into sections. The Scouts were heaving these into a wheelbarrow and carrying them over to dump in the creek. Others were picking up limbs and piling them in the woods. It was more than Leah could bear, even if it made no sense. What was the city, the gentle city, going to do, leave a tree lying across the path? Leah ran over to the far end, near the top of Cleverwell’s corpse, away from where most of the Scouts were working, trying to hide herself in the branches that still bore green leaves. She bent down and put her hand on Cleverwell but she heard no voice.

Rusty stopped his chainsaw and told the Scouts to take a water break. He walked up to Leah, who still knelt turned away from him.

“This tree meant a lot to you?”

“Yes, it did.”

“Well, it’s going to mean a lot to the beavers now.”

“I want to keep part of…the tree,” Leah said.

“What, you want to roll a log out of here? That sounds a little impractical, uh. Remind me your name?”

“My name’s Leah.”

“Sorry. Leah. How about a branch? Maybe you could make you a crooked walking stick or something. A memento.”

“Yes, a branch.”

Rusty went and got a bow saw and started cutting on a branch about six feet long, a straight branch that bore green leaves and acorns.

“I can do that myself,” Leah said, and she got up and took the bow saw out of Rusty’s hand and finished the job.

“Thank you,” she said, and she carried the branch away in her arms.

She carried it up the greenway. She passed the whispering redbud, unscathed by the tornado, but didn’t even try to listen to its random babbling. She passed the modern house, and the swim club, and she made the precarious road crossing near the Catholic school. She started talking to Cleverwell along the way as she carried part of his remains. She carried him back to her apartment.

The next week, at the cemetery, she found the grave of the murdered woman. She gently laid the branch on top of the sod. There were no flowers, nothing beyond a simple marker set in the ground with a name and dates. She introduced herself and Cleverwell to the dead woman, and then she pulled a ribbon from her pocket and tied it around the top of the branch. Faded green against the bright green leaves. She sat on the ground with her feet tucked under her, picturing all of Cleverwell as if it were still here, a giant tree standing in the middle of the graveyard. Picturing the woman walking backwards, smiling, unknowable. She started humming a made-up tune, wordless, something to commemorate the two of them. She wanted to sit there all night, but she spotted a little golf cart in the distance, puttering up the paths of the cemetery. Some kind of graveyard cop. So she left, going back the way she came.

When she returned the next day Cleverwell was gone, and there were some flowers on the marker. Three red roses. There was also a woman at the grave, standing and staring down at her feet as Leah walked up.

“Oh, hello,” the woman said, as she looked up at Leah. She waited a moment, and then asked, “Did you know her?”

“I saw her…around town. On the greenway, mostly. We never really talked.”

“Greenway, yes,” the woman replied, nodding. “I was her friend.”

A breeze blew, rattling the roses on the bronze plaque. The woman stepped sideways toward Leah and held out her hand. Leah took it.

After a moment, Leah opened her mouth and began to sing. Not even a melody, just a long, low drone. The woman joined in, harmonizing. Leah changed pitch and the woman followed, slowly moving up an unknown scale. It was like meditation. Finally they stopped.

“Thanks for that,” the woman said. “I was feeling really lonely today, and now I don’t feel so lonely anymore. Maybe we’ll see each other again tomorrow.”

And they did see each other again the next day, and every day after that, and so they became friends, Leah and this new woman. In the days they worked and talked and held hands, and they walked the greenways and they hiked on trails, sometimes forward and sometimes backward, although Leah wasn’t as good at that. In the nights they did not talk so much. But there was always singing.

Hundred-Handed One

(Content Note: Attempted Child Death, Abuse, Self-mutilation)

 

When the doctors tugged me from Ma I gripped on so tight with all my hundred hands that I left little handprints all over the umbilical cord. I grasped before I gasped. And then I was crying because they had to peel my fingers away, one by one, and swaddle ninety-eight of my hands in cloth so tight it felt like bumpy flesh against Ma’s breast, against the thin hospital gown. Are all babies this lumpy, she asked.

It’s all that flopping around in the womb, said Grandma, in her acerbic, to-the-point Teochew. Leaves a dent. Your milk will puff him back up.

Later she went to the feng shui man at the bottom of our block and asked what they had done to deserve this not-child.

Pa,

When you threw me into the sea I gasped first and then I tried to grab onto you but you were already walking away, striding through the foaming surf, and all your footprints in the sandbed were washed away.

It was like being unborn. First I ran out of air, and then I was sinking into the water. But it was so soon, Pa, so soon after they cut the cord, that I never forgot how to live without breathing. And it was so soon, the little nub in my belly still flopped like a little worm, and as the currents teased and swept me into the dark it opened up like a flower and remembered again. It sucked at the water the way I fed at Ma’s breast, and the sweet life flowed through me again, a thousand metres out from shore and a hundred metres under it.

I drifted, arms paddling gently, taking it in turns. The sea was filled with such wonderful things, that everywhere I floated there was something astonishing to look at. There were jellyfish with glowing tendrils that wove tapestries on the ebb of the current, and hurricanes of fish that blotted out the light filtering through the surface, and corals that spread like crystallised forests beneath my pale feet.

The water coddled. When I breathed it in it was sharp and salty like memory. Grandma, returning with the amulet and the knife and the plastic lighter from the convenience store to cauterise the wounds. The creaking click, the flickering flame, dancing shadows across the crib, startling the lizard that had crept up close. She came close, but could not bring herself to do it. And so, Grandpa, kneeling at the altar, lifting joss sticks that trailed wisps of smoke across the living room and curled around the offerings of oranges and cake. Pa, your silver cross with the man spread out to die. The air was so thick with desperate faith in different gods it must have cancelled each other out. In the end the compromise was the default of all the islanders that there ever were—to offer up the horrors to the ocean, and hope the wax and wane of the seas brought back something transformed.

After nine months of drifting the sharks found me. They burst through the water trailing bubbled froth, almost silver in the dappled moonlight. I reached out with as many hands as I could and skimmed their velvety hides, nuzzled their rounded noses. Their curiosity made me laugh, the way babies laugh, giggling and gurgling the brine. I grasped onto their fins and knew I had been born again.

How many years, Pa? One loses track of time. Many, many moons. I learned to swim, with purpose, to grasp onto the tides and bend them to the intent of my body. I swam all the way up the peninsula and all the way back down, further than you have ever been. The sharks taught me to flatten my arms against myself to slip through the slivers in the currents, and throw out my palms to stop, fanning like a wall of white coral. I caught eels and rays and snatched tuna from the schooling hurricanes, one after another, arms darting in and out of the swarm.

The ships frightened me. They passed overhead like eternal storms, casting absolute darkness into the depths. Their nets stirred frenzy in the black, the sounds of thrashing, keening creatures pressed against the ropes, eyes bulging in the gaps, tails beating furiously against one another. They reminded me of the blankets, being swathed so tightly my arms lost all feeling, bound and twisted to my chest.

They took the tuna hurricanes, gobbling them up with one big bite. They took the turtles and the dolphins that weren’t quick enough to get away. Their chitters, sliced into squares by the gridded ropes, echo long after the ship has passed on. They took the sharks. Great whites with rows of dagger teeth swept up like minnows, vanishing into the depths of the groaning steel leviathan.

The sharks were the worst casualties. My kin, my protectors, my kings, falling like rain, falling like comets with scarlet tails. Sharks cannot live when they cannot swim; sharks cannot swim when their fins have been cut off. The boats lifted them to the sky, took what they wanted, and cast them back out. The water ran red and I could do nothing but drift in the grisly shower, see them wriggle like bloated eels with panting gills, crawling towards death. I wished I had a lighter from the convenience store, so I could sear the rotting edges of their wounds. I wished I had jasmine altars and gods to pray to. Pa, I could only pray to you.

When they pulled me from Ma and you saw the arms all across my body, like maggots you said, you left the room. You only returned when the doctors assured you I had been made presentable. Then, though your cheeks were pale, you managed to make a joke. So many hands, must be good for something, right? I cannot say what you imagined for my future. Standing on a factory line, perhaps, fifty workers squashed into one, like a foreman’s wet dream.

Grandpa was the one who ventured, Become a dealer, ah. Good at holding cards.

Many moons, many ships, many showers of soon-to-be corpses.

Desperation makes gamblers of men, just like Grandpa pronounced; I was blind and wild with grief when I found the sharp edge of shale lying on the ocean bed. The first time I cut off one of my arms and presented it to a dying mako, it was penance. It was a brand of solidarity, of suffering. How was I to know the arm would take? That the sinews would meet, crawling toward each other like lost lovers, entwining in flesh and blue blood, pale meeting grey, fingers going rigid?

With my flesh erect on its spine, blood sealed away from the salt, the writhing shark became graceful again. It flicked its tail and jettisoned through the water, a gleaming satin blur.

You believed in God to judge the value of your life. I found, that day, that I was worth one hundred lives. It was little. Too little. But I did what I could, Pa. I only did what I could.

You know what else came to me, Pa, as I anguished over the lives I restored with the centesimal of my own? Your voice, floating into memory like waves. Something you must have said in all your fervent prayers when I was still on land.

This is my body, broken for you.

You want to know how I returned to you.

Once I was careless, distracted by the way the sunlight trickled through the water, and made the little fish that darted through it glitter in its shafts. I didn’t notice the ship until it was far too late. I was swept up in the fleeing swarm, and I could not get away. I kicked furiously, but for every fish I pushed away a hundred more swelled into the gap, and all the time the net closed in. It engulfed us like a whale and began to drag us up, up, up. I was pressed against a thousand flailing fish, their scales writhing against my scars, tearing them open. My blood flowed into the ocean below, and the sharks came, circling. I wondered if, by then, they recognised the scent.

I was spilled onto the steel deck, gasping and flopping. The air was so brittle and dry, the sky so scorching and bright, the steel so severe against my skin. All around me were the sharp slicks of metal hacking away at scales, sawing away at cartilage. The air was so thick with blood it devoured all else. My own blood pooled and dried, copper in the afternoon. I thought of that man around your neck, dying on top of a hill, his limbs splayed out for the world to see.

You had aged. It was no longer the face that swirled in inchoate tides in my memory, earnest and dark-haired, with a dimple in one cheek and a widow’s peak. You were an older man, skin browned, fingers calloused. You had a scar on one cheek and heavy eyes.

You didn’t recognise me either. We stared at each other, on opposite ends of that sterile white bed, wondering if the people who had brought us both here had gotten it all wrong. You stepped forward, opened your mouth, shut it again, looked out the window at the snaking highway.

Ma perched over your shoulder like a pheasant, but when she saw me her eyes widened and she pushed past you and rushed to my side. Tears streamed down her face. She said a name over and over, cradling my face between her hands, until I realised it was my name she was saying. She ran her fingers through my long coarse hair, skimmed her thumbs over my cheekbones.

Then she seemed to realise how the blanket was draped over my chest, tucked neat around my body. She stopped, and hooked her fingers under the edge, and with one swift, triumphant motion threw the covers back, as though she had been waiting for this my entire life.

This is where we had our wedding dinner, Ma whispers. She rubs my shoulders and her hands slide down my smooth torso. She isn’t fazed. She almost revels in knowing. You see, she tells you, nothing to hide from me anymore.

The restaurant is gilded and gold, with dragons on the banisters and cranes on the folding screens. Fish swim languidly in tanks stacked against one wall. We are ushered to a table in the very centre, with the cream tablecloth draped, the places set, the lazy Susan polished to a mirror shine. You, Ma, me, and Julia, who is a pretty young woman studying to become a lawyer and who eyes me with the cool, practiced appraisal of the trade. My sister. She has two arms and ten fingers, the nails painted rosy pink.

Tea is served. Ma blows onto my cup—hshshsh—and then offers it to me, pressing the ceramic gently against my lips. I let the chrysanthemum trickle down my throat. Julia nibbles at the peanuts.

So, she says, how did you end up in the middle of no fucking where?

Julia, Pa snaps.

She shrugs with one shoulder.

It’s okay, dear, Ma says. Hshshsh. You can tell us the story when you’re ready.

We sip tea in silence. It has been so many years that we have nothing to say to each other. Ma works as a florist. You are a big manager at the harbour, where thousands and thousands of ships come and go every day. The thought makes my head spin. We went for a drive the other day, and you showed me the shipyard from a distance. See, you said proudly, those are the cargo ships. Those are the shipping containers from Europe. Those are the loading cranes. Those are the fishing boats. In the passenger seat of your grey Audi, with the air-conditioning cold and dry against my cheeks, the ships were merely specks that disappeared as we rounded the bend. I thought how small you must think they are, if this is how you see them, every hour of every day.

Finally, Julia says, relieved, as a waitress appears carrying a large dish.

The ceramic clatters lightly on the lazy Susan, and the waitress sets down bowls and pepper shakers and plates of beansprouts and scallion. She lifts the lid to a steaming brown broth, strewn with pale shreds and green coriander. She ladles the thick soup into the bowls and serves one to each of us. For your health and prosperity, she proclaims, just barely stuttering when she lays eyes on my floppy sleeves. Quickly she averts her gaze, tops off the bowls with a flourish, and whisks away the empty dish.

Ma shakes pepper over my soup and adds the vegetables, then scoops and blows. Hshshsh. She lifts it to my lips. Shark fin soup. The strips are spongy and chewy. They taste like nothing, and taste the same. I swallow, imagining the sinews making their way through my bloodstream to wriggle their way to my scars, returning life to lent limbs.

Jiak, jiak, you murmur, burying your gaze in your own soup. Eat, eat. The sound of your voice stirs another phrase, another devotion. A second part, I think, to the first. Eat, eat. There is a voice that is neither yours, nor mine, but a discordant harmony of ages. Eat, eat. Eat in remembrance of me. Down the ridges of my abdomen, my stomach stretches, clenches, closes like a newborn’s fist.

How to Safely Store Your Magical Artifacts After Saving the World

1. The Sapphire Sword, its luster dimmed. In another world, you held the Sword aloft and it blazed blue in your hand. It made you feel a hero, even on the days you hacked and stabbed and felt anything but. Yet now you have saved that world, you have returned through the portal, you have come home. Modern battles are waged through words and tweets and press conferences, and you have no need of three feet of enchanted steel. Wrap the Sapphire Sword in several layers of blue tarp, smudge it with sage, and bury it in your backyard under a full moon.

 

2. Seven-League Boots, mended. Once, you used these to cross the country in a matter of minutes. You were ready and willing to be at the side of those who needed you. Without steady access to a supply of enchanted wax, the charms on these will soon fade. Keep them in a dark closet until you can wear them around your house without smashing through doors. After that, you can safely wear them when you attempt to return to your old life, the life you knew before you first stepped through the portal and found yourself in the midst of a battle. This old life will feel unfamiliar and strange, like a scratchy sweater. The Boots, once uncomfortable, now fit like a glove. Be careful, as the Boots, even without their charm, have a tendency to wander.

 

3. The Cape of Protective Armor, torn. Please note that the Threads of Life Energy sewn into the cloth are still active, and will continue to consume the wearer unless removed. You will need to pick them out with a seam ripper, and store the bits of Thread in a sealed mason jar. It is normal to weep over the Cape as you pick it apart. You may be surprised, as it seems as though it would be a joyous occasion to set down the Cape that once protected you as you fought. You may find yourself reaching for it for long after. Again, this is perfectly natural. With the Threads removed, it will lose its magical properties but it will also no longer draw on your own lifeforce. If it comforts you to continue wearing it, do. There is no wrong answer.

 

4. Missives from your Companions in the Heart of Enemy Territory, painful. We understand that many Heroes arrive home with these letters still in their pockets. The paper these are written on cannot go into mixed recycling, as it has a mystic coating. Yet leaving them where they may catch you unawares can make the healing process harder. Tear these letters of love and resistance into strips, and disperse them. One in the pocket of a warm jacket, offered to an acquaintance. Several more as cushioning for cut wildflowers, a gift for a new neighbor. There is no substitute for losing your chosen family. But some of the fragments will take root and grow.

 

5. The Glass Ring of Portal Transportation, broken. The stress of the final trip home invariably shatters the Ring beyond repair. Please consign the broken pieces to the fireplace. This door is closed, and will not reopen.

 

6. The Potion of Healing, full. Place this by your bedside and drink as necessary when the memories are too much to bear. You will wake at the slightest noise for a long time. A branch, tapping on the window, is an ogre, ready to spear you. A squirrel skittering is a burst of dragon fire, the second before it ignites. You will wake in the morning, jaw already clenched, eyes searching for the royal messenger, running to you with news of fresh horrors. There is silence in your bedroom and the silence will seem a trick.

 

7. The Handbook of Heroism, stained with your own heart’s blood. Once you consulted this guide for advice on everything; how to fletch an arrow, how to make an undetectable poison, how to fall and fall and yet get up again. You annotated notes of resistance in it. You wrote of your triumphs, and your despair. It has always had the knack of opening to the page you need. Pick it up and watch it open to a page very near the end. How to Safely Store Your Magical Artifacts After Saving the World. You read about the storage of the Sword, and the Missives, and the Boots, and you place the Ring in the fireplace and the Potion by your bed.

Drink from the Healing Potion, it says. Drink again, and you do.

Turn the page when you are ready.

What did you readily recycle? What was a challenge to set down?

The Sword, waiting at the bottom of the garden, is regenerating. It needs time for the blood to leach from its metal, for the protection of the earth to creep over it and heal.

The Book, with the memory of what you felt and saw and heard, is a touchstone to which you can return when you are met with lies in the future. I was here, it will say to you. These are the truths I saw, these are the horrors I tried to fight.

The Ring remains shattered. Portals are not always required to reach the battles. And the problem with worlds is that they never stay saved.

Rest now, instructs the Book. Let your body heal.

And wait.

The Clockwork Penguin Dreamed of Stars

It was one of those rare nights when the smog thinned out enough for stars to be visible in the sky above the penguin enclosure. Gwin adjusted her synthetic feathers with her beak, arranging them neatly and plucking out any that were broken or bent. She didn’t want to groom, but her programming said it was preening time, so she had no choice.

“You should get Zee to bring you some new feathers, you’re looking a little ragged.” Victor slithered between the bars that were built to keep humans out of the enclosure, back when there were humans. He coiled up on top of a nice warm rock, and his metal scales screeched as they scraped against each other. “Hopefully she still has some oil to quiet down these scales.”

“Get your oil if you want to, but I don’t need new feathers. I hate preening. I want to pluck myself until I’m smooth and streamlined so I can fly out into space and see the stars.” Gwin was a dreamer. The other animals judged this to be a flaw, but she saw nothing wrong with snapping at fish that were beyond the reach of her beak. She was tired of being confined, tired of the constant noise of the automated educational recordings, tired of acting out the same routines day in and day out.

“We are designed to teach humans about the animals that used to live on this planet. Traveling to the stars is not part of our programming.” Victor loved to lecture and was always looking for opportunities to give his overblown speeches. “You are supposed to waddle, swim, catch fish in your beak…and preen. We all behave the way we must—each within our limits—from the moment of our creation until the time we cease to function.”

“There aren’t any humans to teach, and there hasn’t been a real penguin for centuries.” There weren’t even any other clockwork penguins, not anymore. A few had broken down so badly that Zee couldn’t repair them, but most of the others had found a way to escape the zoo.

Gwin continued preening. She’d been trying for weeks now to violate her programming, even in the tiniest of ways, but there were firm limits to what she could and couldn’t do. She could download constellation charts and space shuttle schematics under the guise of “updating her knowledge database,” and she could dream of the stars when she slept, but when it was time to groom, she had to groom. “Why do you care what I do, anyway?”

“I’m a creature of my programming, just as you are.” Victor said. Which didn’t explain anything. “I’ve called Zee to come repair us.”

“I told you—I don’t want feathers.” Gwin lowered her head and glared at Victor. Her programming told her it was time to swim, but the water in her pond had long since evaporated away. She waddled around the perimeter of the dry pond, faster with every circle she completed, needing to do something but unable to comply with her programming.

Zee swung herself over the bars of the fence. Her black fur was ragged, with patches of orange where she’d used synthetic orangutan fur to cover her metal frame. “Real animals did that, too. Not out in the wild, but in enclosures like this.”

Swimming time ended, and Gwin stopped her frantic circling.

“Zoos aren’t good places for animals, even artificial ones. We’re not meant to be contained. I wish I could make it so you don’t have to do that anymore.” Of all the animals at the zoo, Zee was the closest to human, and she used her opposable thumbs to replace corroded wires and worn-out gears. She’d even recruited a small army of mechanical rats to scavenge the streets for spare parts. She’d trained them to avoid the sweepers that kept the city clean. Her willingness to help with maintenance should have made Zee popular, but no one trusted her because she was the only animal at the zoo whose programming allowed her to lie.

Victor uncoiled himself, and Zee cringed at the high-pitched whine of metal against metal.

“Sorry, Victor, I’m out of oil. The old tanker my rats were draining corroded through, left a huge mess down a couple city blocks. You’re making a terrible noise, though. I’ll see if we can’t find another tank, or sop up some oil off the street or something.” Zee turned to Gwin. “You need fixing?”

“Victor seems to think so, but no.” Gwin hoped Zee would go away and fix someone else.

“I could at least get you some feathers—”

“I don’t want feathers,” Gwin insisted. “I’m trying to get rid of feathers.”

“Why?” Zee asked.

“She thinks that if she makes herself more streamlined, she can fly to the stars,” Victor said. “Which is silly. Flying to the stars isn’t in our programming.”

“The bigger problem is the flying, not the programming. Even if she was streamlined, penguins are flightless birds. She wouldn’t be able to take off, much less leave the planet.” Zee stared off into the distance. “There are lots of abandoned shuttles in the city. My rats find animal components in some of them. Even feathers, sometimes.”

“No feathers. Not for me.” She wondered whether the shuttles were a truth or a lie. She’d have to ask the rats. Even if it was true, though, her programming was clear—her job was to educate humans, so her place was here in the clockwork zoo. Victor was wrong about the feathers, but he was right about that.

It was preening time again, and Gwin systematically plucked her feathers out. Doing that satisfied the need her programming imposed on her, but it was a deviant behavior. If any of the zookeepers had been around, she’d have been reprogrammed. Maybe that would even be a good thing—with an upgraded program maybe she’d be smarter, more like Zee. But there were no zookeepers because there were no humans, which, in Gwin’s opinion, invalidated her programming. Even so, she couldn’t ignore the urge to preen entirely, she could only stretch the rules, bend them a little.

“Those are perfectly good components.” Zee pointed to the pile of delicate synthetic feathers Gwin had left at the edge of her enclosure.

“Why can’t you believe that I don’t want feathers? I’m not like you—I can’t lie.”

“No, it’s fine you don’t want them,” Zee said. “Can I have them? Not for me, of course, I’m happy with my fur, but there are birds in here that could use some good feathers, even if they aren’t quite the right color. Here, we can trade. I’ll take the feathers and you can have this radio.”

Gwin peered at the ancient human artifact. The animals could communicate with each other via a radio signal, but she’d never seen an external radio unit before. “How does it work?”

“You tune it with this knob.” Zee demonstrated. “And if you find a station with signal, you’ll hear talking, or music.”

Zee got a faraway look on her face and Gwin wondered if the music was a lie. She poked at the radio with her foot, then tapped the knob with her beak. “I can’t turn the knob.”

“Well, let’s set it here for now.” Zee adjusted the knob, and the red line that indicated the frequency slid left until it was near the middle, between 100 and 101.

“Couldn’t we find one with music?”

“They all play static, mostly. But sometimes if you wait, there are other things.”

Gwin waited, but there was only static.

“Try again tomorrow. I think this station is a good one.”

The next morning, Gwin preened off all the feathers from her left wing. She liked the shiny metal underneath, dotted with tiny holes where the feathers had once been installed. It looked like the hull of a space shuttle—or, at least, it looked like what she’d always imagined the hull of a space shuttle might look like.

When preening time was over, she waddled to the radio and used the tip of her beak to flip the power switch. The radio hissed with static.

Gwin stared at the radio, listening. Her programming told her it was time to rest, so she edged her belly down onto the warm stone floor of her enclosure and lay there listening to the crackle of white noise.

The static stopped, and a voice spoke. “This is Lieutenant Navigator Lunares-Jove, calling from the Endeavour 7. We are holding position at the Saturn orbit checkpoint, awaiting permission to approach Earth. Please acknowledge.”

The message repeated three times. Gwin listened carefully and committed the words to memory. She didn’t understand all of it, but there was one word that particularly caught her attention—Saturn was one of the bright lights she sometimes saw in the night sky, though according to her charts it was a planet, not a star.

Gwin repeated the message to Zee the next time she came by. “What does it mean?”

Zee picked through her fur, searching for bugs that were never there. Her life was controlled by her programming as much as anyone’s, but Gwin had never heard her complain about it. When she finished grooming, Zee looked up. “The message means there is a shuttle that wants to come to Earth.”

“Humans?”

“What else would speak in a language we understand?” Zee asked. “The reason we have language is to communicate our repair needs to the zookeepers and provide interactive educational experiences to human guests. Over time, we’ve stretched our programming to talk to each other, but these are their words.”

Victor slithered through the bars of the penguin enclosure. His scales didn’t screech when he coiled himself up, so Zee must have found him some oil. “Humans sent us a message? They’re coming here? This is something everyone should know about. It should not be kept secret.”

“Wait—” Zee started, but Victor broadcast the news about the humans to all the other animals. Soon every creature that could get out of their enclosure had gathered outside the fence. Meerkats ran back and forth, periodically standing on their hind legs to peer in. A badger with a missing leg pressed its face through a gap in the bars. Lions and zebras and other large animals took up positions farther back. All of them stared at the radio Zee had given to Gwin.

“We should prepare a welcome for them, here at the zoo.”

“And an answer to their message, so they know we’re here.”

Other voices began shouting out suggestions. Gwin stared at the radio, which now produced only static. Zee leaned in, as though she was also listening, but instead she whispered to Gwin, “There are humans in space, and you are programmed to educate humans.”

Gwin processed this information.

Zee turned the radio off. “There are shuttles in the city, my rats can show you where. Be careful to avoid the sweepers.”

Zee left the penguin enclosure. Instead of swinging over the bars, she used some kind of special card to unlock and open the gate. Gwin was free to roam the zoo, but her programming wouldn’t let her wander.

A lion pounced at one of the meerkats, nearly crushing it. All the small animals scattered, rushing back to the relative safety of their enclosures. Zee shooed the other animals away, too, spending an extra few moments talking to the lion that had attacked. Gwin wasn’t sure why she bothered—hunting was part of the lion’s programming.

With all the other animals gone, it was finally quiet in the penguin enclosure. Even the automated education tutorials had shut down for the evening, as they did every day at closing time. Gwin spent the evening thinking about what Zee had said, trying to put the pieces together.

She was supposed to educate humans.

The humans were out in space, among the stars.

Therefore…Gwin could go to the stars?

Gwin left her enclosure shortly after dawn, during a time when her programming instructed her it was time to swim. The zoo was much as she expected, from the descriptions of the few animals that had visited her—concrete pathways that wound around animal enclosures and concession stands. Most of the enclosures were empty, and the stands were filled with moldy stuffed animals and other decomposing toys. She hurried along, mostly driven by her urge to swim, but not wanting to linger here anyway.

Zee waved at Gwin from a fake tree in the chimpanzee enclosure.

Gwin paused, shifting her weight from one foot to the other to satisfy her need to move. “Zee, what’s your dream?”

“To see the stars, same as you.”

“Then why don’t you come with me?”

“I can’t leave the others behind,” Zee said. “No one else can do repairs.”

All those things sounded true, which made Gwin sad. She wished there was a way for Zee to have her dream, too, but she couldn’t think of anything that would help. “Goodbye, Zee.”

“Good luck.”

Gwin followed the path to an open courtyard, and beyond that was the main entrance. She expected some kind of resistance as she passed under the wrought iron archway, but being outside the zoo felt no different than being inside it.

Not far beyond the gate, she came across a rat.

“City?” it asked. “Shuttle?”

“Yes.” Gwin assumed the rat was part of Zee’s scavenger army.

“Follow, okay?” The rat scurried forward. Rats were small creatures with simple minds, better suited for scavenging than conversation. “Good shuttle. Passcode already cracked.”

Gwin followed the rat down a wide road, lined on either side with abandoned vehicles. Near the zoo, there were lots of open areas filled with trees—Gwin couldn’t tell if they were fake or real—and an assortment of small buildings in various states of disrepair. It was hard to tell where exactly the city started, but as she followed the rat the buildings got taller.

It was time for preening.

Gwin shouldn’t linger on the street, but she couldn’t help it. She listened carefully while she preened, but the city was silent. She plucked all the feathers off her right wing to make it match the left. She discarded the feathers in a pile, and it wouldn’t be long before a sweeper came and cleared away the mess.

Her rat guide fidgeted impatiently while she preened. “Not far, let’s go.”

The rat led her through a maze of streets, scanning constantly for threats. There were no trees here, nothing green, only towers with sometimes-broken glass windows that stretched up to the sky. “Four more blocks down this road, then right on the alley. Good shuttle. Lots of gears inside.”

They passed a rusted-out oil tanker at the top of the hill, and one side of the road was slick with spilled motor oil. Gwin waddled down the other side, not wanting to risk slipping and injuring herself. She was listening to the scraping noise her feet made on the pavement when she noticed another sound—a soft swishing in the distance. The rat froze in place. Gwin waited, too, not daring to move. The sound got louder, closer.

“Sweeper.” The rat said. It bolted down a side street.

Gwin paused, undecided. Should she follow the rat? The alley with the shuttle was only a few blocks away, but what if the shuttle was one of Zee’s lies? The sweeper turned a corner and came into view, a bright green truck with a rotating brush to sweep debris into a giant tank. Steam hissed out from the top of the tank.

The truck was headed straight toward Gwin.

She waddled as fast as she could into the middle of the road, to the edge of the oil slick. The sweeper was only half a block behind her, and closing fast. Once something went into a sweeper tank it never came back out. The hill was steep and the road was hard, but Gwin couldn’t waddle fast enough to escape. She flopped onto her belly. The oil-covered road was like ice, and she slid down the hill at top speed.

The pavement scraped the last of the feathers from her belly and began to wear away at the metal underneath. Buildings blurred by on either side as Gwin sped down the hill. The sound of the sweeper truck was covered by the screech of metal against the road.

She reached the bottom and skidded to a stop.

It was time to rest, but if Gwin didn’t get up she’d be swept away. She tried to resist her programming, but her belly remained firmly pressed against the pavement.

The sweeper truck barreled down the hill.

She had to find the humans that were out in space; that was part of her programming, too. She pitted her opposing drives against each other, making her need to educate humans overpower her basic scheduling routines. It was time to rest, but Gwin stood up. She waddled down the road and turned into the alley—away from the path of the sweeper, safe.

The shuttle was the most beautiful thing Gwin had ever seen, sleek silver metal dotted with little round windows, located exactly where Zee’s rat said it would be. The others had been too hard on Zee—just because she was capable of lying didn’t mean she did. And wasn’t choosing not to lie every bit as good as not being able to? Better, maybe, because it showed such good intentions.

The sweeper turned into the alley.

She was so close to her dream, too close to be swept away. The alley was a dead end. Her only chance was to get into the shuttle. Gwin found a hatch, but she had no idea how to open it. She accessed the schematics in her knowledge database.

With her beak she flipped the cover of a keypad with numbers laid out in a rectangle, one through nine, zero, a pound sign and an asterisk. Scrawled below was 0-6-1-7. What had the rat said about the shuttle? Passcode already cracked. Gwin tried the sequence, pecking each number with her beak, but nothing happened. The roar of the sweeper was so loud the shuttle was vibrating. Gwin stared desperately at the keypad.

The asterisk looked like a star.

She pecked it. The hatch opened.

Gwin hopped into the shuttle. The brushes of the sweeper made contact with the hull, and—sensing a threat—the hatch automatically closed. Safely inside, she watched as the sweeper cleaned the edge of the shuttle, then backed away to clean some other street.

She left the little round window and examined the rest of the shuttle. The control panel was a chaotic quilt of square buttons in several different colors, but off to one side was a switch that Zee told her would engage the autopilot. Gwin used her beak to flip it.

“Engage autopilot? Voice confirmation required.”

In the best imitation of a human voice she could muster, Gwin answered, “Engage the autopilot and initiate launch sequence.”

“Destination?”

“Saturn orbit checkpoint.”

The control panel flashed and sensors clicked and beeped. The engines roared and the entire shuttle began to vibrate. Beads of water streamed across the windows as the shuttle rose through clouds and smog. Above the atmosphere, the sky was black and filled with tiny points of light. Stars. More than Gwin had ever seen, and as beautiful as she’d always dreamed.

Back at the clockwork zoo, Zee led the other animals to a radio broadcast tower at the northeast corner of the African savanna enclosure.

“I know that many of you are eager to welcome humans back to Earth, but there’s something you should hear.”
Zee played them the message recorded on a tape: “This is Lieutenant Navigator Lunares-Jove, calling from the Endeavour 7. We are holding position at the Saturn orbit checkpoint, awaiting permission to approach Earth. Please acknowledge.”

But it didn’t end there. The voice on the tape kept talking. “We are here to provide aid to survivors of the transcendence plague, but we cannot approach without confirmation that the quarantine is lifted. We will remain at the checkpoint until midnight, coordinated universal time, 17 March, 2206. Please acknowledge.”

“So they aren’t out there?” a zebra asked.

The specified time was nearly two hundred years ago, only a few years after the zookeepers had disappeared.

“They’re out there somewhere,” Zee said, looking up at the night sky and wondering where in the blackness Gwin’s shuttle was. “But they’re not coming here.”

“Maybe we should go find them,” one of the meerkats suggested, hesitant.

Zee smiled. There were plenty of shuttles in the city. Once she got all her clockwork animals to the Saturn orbit checkpoint, she could tell them whatever new lies they needed, and together they could search for the missing humans, somewhere out among the stars.

White Rose, Red Rose

That morning, there was a white rose on my windowsill, and my heart cracked.

I took it inside. I knew well the only things that mattered were that it was a rose and it was white, but I examined it anyway. It had been in full flower recently, but was quickly withering. Several petals were gone; another came off in my hand. The petals wore traces of dirt that browned them, and I wondered if that had been purposeful. A missive of death: white for the bone, earth for the grave. I was probably thinking overmuch.

I plucked the petals into a bowl and washed them, then put them to boil to make a sweet tea. As far as we knew, the armsmen didn’t know our resistance codes, but I didn’t like to leave evidence.

How? I wondered, and chastised myself for wondering. There couldn’t be another message until tomorrow; our communication process came in slow trickles, frustrating but necessary, according to the resistance leaders. I wondered anyway. Throughout the day, as I patched uniforms for the occupying armsmen, and baked bread to bring my neighbor with the broken leg, and scrubbed every floorboard in the house, I wondered: how?

Quick? Painful? Bloody? Horrible? Unlucky? Slow?

How had my brother died?

The tea was too sweet. I brought it to my neighbor along with the bread.

I woke before dawn when the night was only just not-quite-black.

In my dream, I’d been sobbing—great full-wracked, wrenching sobs torn out of my chest, burning in my throat. My face had been wet with tears; so were my eyes, my hands. I shook with tears like a tree bending in a storm.

When I woke up, my eyes were dry, and I couldn’t be surprised. Some people say a body only has so many tears. If that was true, mine had been spent as a colicky baby. I’d never as much as wept since learning to walk.

It was too early to check the windowsill, but I did anyway, barefooted and in my night’s wear. There lay a scrap of red silk. So, he’d died on the battlefield.

I sewed it into the lining of my heavy winter greatcoat, to cover the tear that had opened in the seam of the breast pocket, near my heart.

I work quickly; by the time I finished, it still wasn’t dawn.

The next morning, a needle. He’d been injured first then, taken to a battlefield hospital, put in the charge of some fumble-fingered butcher, no doubt. I’d sewn his stitches myself when we were children, the time he broke open his knee, the time when he gashed his hand, the time when—well, many times.

The needle was sharp enough to draw blood from my thumb. I put it with my others, shut the box, and shook it. When I opened the box again, I couldn’t spot it anymore; it was just another jab of pointed metal.

There was the pit of a fruit, gnawed, and my heart iced.

They say a witch’s heart is the same texture as the stone in a peach.

A revenant, then.

So, the enemy had taken him as one of their own. Unless they used him as grist for their own side of the battlefield, he would be coming home to join the other barrow-wights that had once been our defenders, those who now occupied the city, harassing children and old men on the streets.

They say the dead come to roost like homing pigeons. He’d try to make the house his barracks if I couldn’t turn him out.

There was no message the next morning which was its own message. Wait.

A revenant armsman came to pick up the mended uniforms, and to leave another heap. If it galled—and it did—to sew for the enemy, at least it was not the worst recourse to which women could be forced in wartime.

I looked at the witch’s marks that ringed the revenant’s neck like brands, and at the gold of his eyes which they say are riches brought back from the land of the dead, and at the nervous smile he gave when he saw me looking too hard.

“Trouble with food?” he asked.

Before I could answer, he’d unslung his bag. Among his provisions, I saw bloodied ribbons of the kind that tie children’s hair. Light glinted on brass knuckles spiked with a ground mixture of glass and teeth. He gave me a rations cube and a stick of toffee.

I tried to protest. He held up his hand. His nervous smile stretched.

“Take care, okay?” His hands fretted, uncomfortably, at his pockets. “Next week.”

I gave the bar and toffee to my neighbor. Her leg had turned black.

My brother came at dawn, precisely, as if driven by a clock. His movements were strange; sometimes, he would be still like a rabbit listening to the wind, and then become suddenly, bonelessly rapid like a centipede. His eyes were gold; the marks on his neck were newly bright like fire.

He couldn’t talk yet. It would take time, I’d heard, for him to grow a new tongue.

He gave me his coat which I had sewn for him before he left. He gave me what remained of his shirt, hardly more than blood and buttons. He gave me the bag I’d sewn for his keepsakes; it was empty. He tried to hug me.

I eyed the pots on the stove, the poker by the hearth—but there hadn’t been a message that morning so as far as I knew my instructions remained: Wait.

I slipped out of the hug, but I let him in, and I shared the day’s bread between him and our neighbor both.

I did not watch him eat.

No message.

My brother took up the unmended uniforms and tried to help. I had to shoo him off. He’d never been good with a needle, but he’d never been this bad. I had to take all the stitches out and start over.

He looked so sad while he watched me do it. I felt bad, and gave him the hug I hadn’t the day before.

There were tears on his face that wetted mine. It felt so human.

They say the dead see the world as if it’s a nightmare.  Everything they knew is remade as an incomprehensible, unpredictable assault on their senses: too loud, too bright. A dog rolling on the grass is no different from a subterranean monster writhing out of the earth. Love and shock and pain are one merged, hungry thing.

In my brother’s nightmares, it seems, he can cry.

Well, in mine, so can I.

No message, but my brother was gone when I woke, out patrolling with the other armsmen. He returned with the light. He smelled of rank, fresh blood, and his hands were crimson. On his belt, there hung a child’s fingerbone.

He tried to hug me and was so confused when I pushed him away.

There lay, at last, the red rose on the windowsill, young and delicately colored, petals still tender.

What surprised me was the second rose that lay beside it, a red bud still clinging closed.

They smelled like sweet earth, and they were soft against my cheek. I wondered if their beauty was meant as a gift of apology for what the resistance required me to do. I was probably thinking overmuch.

I stripped the petals for tea.

My brother came home from his rounds with a second armsman, the one who came once a week to pick up and drop off uniforms. I looked at the puffy, scarred witch’s brands around the second armsman’s neck, and wondered how long he’d been in this nightmare of the dead. A long time, perhaps, considering how many words he could join together.

He had one hand around my brother’s shoulder. “Take care,” he said, nervously smiling.

It couldn’t be a coincidence, I thought. One young, red rose for this young man. Another still budded for my nascent brother.

A sweet smell wafted from the tea brewing in the kitchen.

My heart balked, as hearts will do, over things like an anxious smile. Over things like the boy you helped raise wanting a hug.

These were things I knew:

That we could not win our city back if every time one of our defenders died, it only strengthened the invaders.

That other cities had fallen and died because no one wanted to hurt their fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, even their remains.

That once I had the dead men sitting in my kitchen, waiting for tea of roses, a pair of blows from the poker would crack their brittle bodies like dried leaves.

That I wouldn’t cry when it was done because I never cried.

That I had to let my brother hug me one more time first, even if it left bloody handprints on my back.

That I had a duty to the living.

I brought my neighbor the provisions from both men’s packs once I had sorted out the gruesome parts, using a clean sack so she wouldn’t have to know where they were from. Her leg had died; the sawbones was set to cut it off. Her husband was somewhere in the city, I knew, watching his nightmares through golden eyes.

When she saw the handprints on my back, she didn’t say anything.

“Take care,” I told her.

I went home to pack.

On the windowsill, I left one of my brother’s buttons: it’s done.

A young woman came from the resistance at midnight to take me to a safe house. She found me in the kitchen, standing by the stove, wearing my winter greatcoat.

The poker lay where it had fallen. She looked over the twice-dead men with a neutral expression, and then nodded. “Do you have your things?”

“I do,” I said, taking my bag from the floor.

When she led me out, I was crying.

Maybe the dead are right; this world is a nightmare.

 

(Editors’ Note: “White Rose, Red Rose” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 43B.)

The North Pole Workshops

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(Editors’ Note: “The North Pole Workshops” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 43B.)

The Giants of the Violet Sea

I don’t realize how far apart I have grown from my mother until, upon meeting her again, I have to force myself to hug her.

When I heard the news, I packed a few things from my personnel apartment at the Omega hospital and booked a ticket on the next train to Tafros. It took two empty days and two sleepless nights by train to cross the vast expanse of rocky plains from Omega all the way to Tafros but it all seemed like a dream. As if time was frozen and only I was moving.

But now, in front of this tight-lipped woman, covered in tattoos of the heavenly waters and its beasts, the haze has scattered. I am left alone with her.

She greets me with a mute smile and a small nod. Like a stranger.

She is a small woman, no taller than a twelve-year-old child. I am not much bigger myself but hunched as she is by age and sickness, I tower over her like the enormous blue-striped grapevine that engulfs her house. When I hug her she feels so fragile in my arms, like she will shatter in pieces. Yet, she has done things that I don’t know if I can forgive. Still, I hug her and let the sea breeze wash over us.

“I am glad to see you, daughter,” she whispers in my ear. Her tone is even and unemotional.

I am not sure I believe her. Glancing at my wrist, my BioChip stays silent.

She takes me to the back of the house where a linen curtain separates her workshop. I don’t dare pull the curtain aside yet. I can’t face what lies on the other side of the room. Nobody from the hospital has pinged me on the BioChip yet, so I can’t excuse myself and go to the beach.

I leave my suitcase next to the makeshift bed she has made for me and take a look around, avoiding the curtain’s gentle sway.

Vases of inks, yellow, red, and purple, are placed on shelves high and low, a wooden ladder propped against the wall so she can reach them all.

“Why is all this stuff here?” I gesture at the crammed space. “Why not in the shed? You know…my room.” My voice catches. It hasn’t been my room for some time now.

“We tore down the shed a while back. More room for my herbs to grow. Besides—” she draws a long breath, avoiding my stare “—we didn’t think you’d come back.”

I look out the back window. There’s nothing there but herbs and the grapevine twisting and climbing the façade and, a bit further down, the slate-gray beach. I don’t know which hurts more, that she guessed my intentions right, or that she keeps saying we?

I throw myself on one of the two chairs in the room and stare as my mother toasts bread crust-thin on the wooden stove and cooks coffee. Her arms move fast for her age, the waves drawn on them like a storm.

The curtain is behind me. Even though I can’t see it, its shadow looms over me. My knees feel weak even thought I am sitting.

The smells creep up on me, and with them a sense of anguish, of inevitability. The scents by themselves are not nearly as unpleasant as they could have been. I know all of them by heart. It smells of incense and rosewater, maybe of honey and burned coal. All the perfumes and the oils my mother uses to cover the heavy smell of death. But above all I smell the inks. The scent of the violet sea, it’s the same scent that chased me away from home, only ten times stronger.

But this time is different.

The inks and the metal needles of various sizes feel as familiar as my own two hands. I was an apprentice for my mother once, just as I am now in the hospital. To pick up the tradition when she passed. But I can’t bring myself to follow in her footsteps. I never had it in me and she had always known.

That’s why she started marking her life’s journey on her own body while still alive. Because she knows there will be nobody there to do it for her.

My mother serves the coffee and the browned bread on the table next to the stove. She takes out a piece of sour goat cheese from the barrel, white clumps falling back into the brine, adds it to my plate and sits next to me. If someone hadn’t known my mother they would think she looks content to see me. But that’s just her expression, pious and serene.

When I finish my last sip of coffee, the tanginess of anguish returns in my mouth. I look at the linen curtain one more time and feel my mother’s stare piercing me. Spit burns in the back of my throat. Maybe she doesn’t even look at me but I feel it. Maybe I just wish she did. I wish she cared for me as she does for him. Even now.

I should not think ill of the dead.

Instead I take a deep breath and get up. The curtain hangs heavy as I touch the fabric with my fingertips. Softly at first, like caressing a loved familiar face. It is time.

Shit, here we go.

I steady my hand, grab the curtain with my fist and pull it to the side hard, before I change my mind.

My brother’s body lies on the long wooden bench. Melas is thinner than I remember and hairs cover more parts of him than before, but I can’t deny that this is really him, stone cold and dead.

Not all deaths are equal.

There are deaths like heavy sleep. Quiet, unassuming.

There are deaths where illness chips away at you for years, and you might wish for more time still, or accept the ending.

There are deaths where your body twists in agony and you’re choking in your own spit, blood oozing from the crevices of your body.

It’s the last kind that haunts me.

That’s how my brother died. Screaming, trapped, and alone, with nobody around to reach out to. Not even his own sister.

But that’s not what makes a death worse or better. Not in our culture.

In this place there are only two kinds of death: one where your spirit reaches the calm waters of heaven, and one where it doesn’t.

I trace my fingers over my brother’s face. His expression is serene but I know better. I know the pain of his death. I know Melas has been cleaned from his own shit and vomit and his body is perfumed and massaged with oils to make the skin ready for the tattooing. Nothing smells like death anymore. Or like the ink-venom that his body drank.

His flesh has a lilac hue that turns dark purple around his big eyes and his sealed lips. The shade of the sea. He was poisoned by the creatures he watched over all his life, the venedolphins.

I lean over to kiss him, my hands balled into fists.

“I am finally here,” I whisper, even though he can’t hear me.

The perfumed oil sticks to my cheeks, seeps into my clothes and burrows in my mind. In turn, my tears wash his face of the excess pomade my mother used to cover the smell. I imagine my brother swimming with the beasts and I am floating at the bottom of the ocean all over again.

Death by venomous ink is terrible. The lightest contact with the skin results in agonizing pain and collapsing of the lungs or a heart attack, whichever comes first.

This isn’t the first time they have killed people. But not tamers like Melas. Never tamers. Some poachers in the past, and rightfully so. A couple of stupid kids a long time ago, who did not have the gift my brother had. Me, almost, another time. But I prefer not to think about that.

Maybe they panicked trying to escape the poachers’ nets. It’s so tempting to blame them for everything. But you can’t be mad at animals. No, when it’s about blame, others come first.

My mother’s voice brings me back. She stands right behind me when she says with her rusty voice, “You brother had promised me a ripened ink sac before he passed.”

My shoulders slump with the weight of it all. I know what she will say next, in her careful but firm manner.

“I want you to get it for me.”

For one to find their way to the promised waters, one must have a tattoo etched on their skin after death.

No two tattoos are the same. Their pattern is unique for each person and for the life they’ve lived. The tattoo is also the seal of a worthy soul. Phorcys, The Eternal Fisherman that guards the grotto of the heavenly waters will recognize the soul and let it pass. Otherwise body and soul will sink down to the bottom of the ocean and will be eaten by the creatures that lurk in the darkness under the sand.

She tattoos the dead, my mother. That’s why her words are sparse and calculated. She spends too much time with the dead and the living wear her out fast.

As do I.

In the morning she is not lying next to me. She is hiding behind her linen cloth, working on my brother’s body.

It is an intricate thing, the tattooing of the dead. The body doesn’t heal. So it must be done with the utmost precision. And the shape and the color must be in perfect harmony for the soul to move on.

I try to ignore the sound the beast’s bone is making as it’s marking its way inside my brother’s skin. By my mother’s hands. I can’t.

I stare at the BioChip, daring it to call me. A useless habit now. I can’t leave until after the funeral. I would not leave, out of respect for him. But I need the distraction. This small reminder that there is a world outside from here.

Back in Omega there was always something to do. Even when it was my day off, there might have been a need for a back-up nurse or paperwork to fill. But the BioChip stays silent. Not one line, not even from someone who doesn’t know I am away. Perhaps they all know. Or the signal here is weak. Everything is too far from Tafros anyway.

I get off the bed to find milk and bread waiting for me on the table. I don’t touch them. My stomach is scraped raw since yesterday and all I need is to be outside.

I slip through the front door barely dressed and walk by the beach barefoot, the cold pebbles digging into my soles. The glistening obsidian formations take up all the view. They are scattered around the gulf, peering out of the water, in various shapes and sizes, like gigantic spearheads. People used to believe they were the tips of the Gods’ lances.

When my people came to this world, the landscape was unfamiliar and all sorts of deadly creatures roamed sea and land. There was mystery in the new world that birthed all sorts of superstition. And that’s where this village remains, while others have moved on. There aren’t many places so stubbornly stuck to the past.

There is a narrow passage on the other side of the gulf that connects it to the ocean. That’s where they usually gather, the venedolphins, when they come to the bay to feed on the purple, red, and yellow algae that is so rich in these waters.

“They don’t just come for the food, they come for us too,” my brother—who had no idea of the species’ biogeography—used to say.

He would see them approaching from afar, the first day they arrived, and his wiry body would tense. He would release the energy by jumping to the water and swimming at full speed towards them.

Nobody knows where they come from. Their secret hibernation place. My people believe they come from the heavenly waters, as a reminder of the afterlife and to gift us their venomous ink.

They gift us death.

There is movement on the beach today. It’s mostly children diving in and out of the water and grownups in their black caps, scanning the sea and poking at every suspicious bulge with dry vine branches. Alimniots. It’s been some time since I was here but I don’t remember them being so comfortable with us. They usually stay out of sight on their island, right outside of the gulf. But now they roam around our stretch of land. Strange. I bet another group is rowing around the gulf trying to find dead but fresh venedolphin meat to fish out. Muscle still attached to bone and bones stuffed with marrow to boil into thick soup without respecting their sanctity.

Their sanctity. I sound just like my mother sometimes.

It was because of that sanctity that our common ancestors parted ways. They brought the venedolphins with them from the old world.  But where some of them saw a sacred creature to be worshiped, others saw a source of food.  And now it’s us and them.

One of the kids has his eyes pinned on me. A boy. If he was more gaunt he would be mistaken for a vine pole.

He leaves his post at the top of the rock and follows me from a distance. Hesitantly at first, a step or two, as if testing my reaction while stealing glances at a group of women hovering over a clump of nets.

I don’t know what the kid wants of me but I am not in the mood for games. I keep my pace even and only glance at him with the corner of my eye.

My steps take me to the dock, scoundrel on my tail, where the iron statue of the Eternal Fisherman stands watching the rocking boats. His body pockmarked by rust brought by the briny air, purple lichen climbing all the way to his thighs. I used to love sitting on the statue’s lap as a kid, but now something in his expression reminds me too much of my mother. Just a sitting man weaving his nets patiently. He looks at the sea, complacent, unmoved by the great storms approaching. Anticipating but never fighting back. He is the gift.

On the other side of the statue, sprouting off the man’s back, are his second face and second body, a creature with a fish tail, crab-claws for arms, and a seething rage. He is the poison. A long beard tangled with seaweed leads from one face to the other.

“Themis?”

I turn around to see a man balancing precariously on the bow of his fishing boat. His bare feet are covered in kelp, sand sticks in patches to his body. He is naked from the waist up. Under the glare I almost mistake him for Melas.

I squint against the blazing sun just to make sure. It’s Pirros, my brother’s best friend.

He shakes his head as if he doesn’t believe I am standing right in front of him. “When did you come?”

“I… last night.”

The faintest of smiles appears on his face but also something else, a sadness maybe. He stretches out his hand and grabs my forearm. Before I have the chance to speak I am on the boat with him, the hull bobbing with the waves and we are rocking with it.

I steady myself and try to find my footing. It has been a long time since I was on this boat. My balance is not what it used to be. The first thing that catches my eye is the motor. It looks brand new and it stands in stark contrast with the patchwork that’s the wooden boat. The red dye of the boards has almost completely peeled off. Not many fishermen can afford a new motor around here.

He sees my gaze and smiles wider. He pats the motor like a proud parent.

“It’s been a good year for me,” he says. But then his face drops. “Up until now.”

I hesitate and swallow hard trying to unstick my tongue from my palate. I scour the dock for the boy, around the statue and between the clusters of locals resting in its shade, there are other naked children running around but not him. I peer at the taverns on the other side of the pier bursting with people and in the water between the rows of hulls floating like empty husks. Nothing. My eyes swing back at Pirros.

“Show me where they found him,” I let out at last.

Pirros shakes his head and looks at me like I am a lost child.

“You don’t have to do this, you know.”

“Look, you brought me to this boat. If you have some other business I can find someone…” I gesture at the fishermen sitting by the dock playing cards and shooing the nosy children away. But do I really remember how to talk to these people?

“No, no I can take you there now,” he relents.

We undock and sail in silence for a while. Pirros steers the boat in smooth, certain moves. It mustn’t be easy navigating around the obsidians at this engine’s speed but he manages just fine. The scrawny kid I knew growing up has turned into a burly man with ruffled hair and purple fingernails. It’s the mark of all local fishermen since all the fish around here eat the algae. But his have taken in deeper hue, they are almost black. Like my brother’s after he would get his hands on an ink sac.

The little boy springs to mind.

“What’s with the Alimniots?” I start.

“They are stocking up on food supplies,” he says. He stays calm but something flares in his eyes. “The poachers are leaving behind a lot more venedolphin corpses lately.”

A shiver crawls up my backbone. I manage to shake the feeling off but a foul taste stays in my mouth. It’s true these people would eat anything. The question is how far they would go for their prey.

“Are they the ones poaching?”

He shrugs and looks away. “I don’t know, Themis,” he says. “Maybe.” But there is something in the way his voice suddenly softens. I am sure there is more.

The sky is cloudless and the waters reflect the seabed at its clearest. There is deep violet as far as my eye can see speckled with gushes of yellow and red. The obsidian stones sparkle silver with salt crystals.

Soon I can make out dark glistening bodies emerging from the water, floating. Bulky, thick, and slow. They dive over and over again to graze on the algae at the bottom of the sea. After they gather an ample amount they return to the surface to chew and keep an eye on their most tenacious predators. The humans.

Their size scares me, it always has. The females are the larger of the species. Five times the size of a human. I feel microscopic near them, a bug about to be squashed. Yet my brother swam next to them fearless. He clung to their massive torsos and petted their heads. He let himself be carried away by them, against the underwater streams, unafraid of their venomous ink sac ready to spill toxins and ink to anyone who threatened them.

Melas would read the hesitation on my face.

“They won’t hurt you if they feel safe,” he would say. He was taught how to tame the venedolphins by our father. When our father passed away, he took it upon himself to provide our mother with her much needed ink. And left me behind instead of taking me with him.

When it was my time to swim with him and the beasts I would freeze in terror. Their faces reminded me of grumpy old men, even their young ones. With their gaping open mouth, brimming with teeth and their ink sacs hanging in the middle of their face like a deflated nose. I told Melas once and he laughed so hard he had to climb on a reef to keep from drowning.

I was too afraid and my fear was weighing me down and him with me. And he liked to be fast and free.

Pirros stops the boat and drops anchor near the passage of the gulf. The pier and the beach are far behind us and hidden by rows of rocks, even sound has died out. No wonder nobody heard Melas’s calls for help.

“That’s the spot.”

Very slowly, I peel my eyes away from Pirros and look where he gestures.

Just where the gulf currents meet the oceanic water I can see what’s left of a destroyed poaching net, caught in the jagged rocks. The bobbers, still attached to it, sway with the current. There might be blood tainting the nets or it might be my mind playing tricks on me. If there’s blood it’s probably of the dead venedolphin Melas tried to save and not his own. For the first time I feel the chill of the sea and I get closer to Pirros as if he is the only source of heat in the world. He smells of the sea like all the fishermen here but there is something else too; something sweet and slightly acidic.

There was a time when Pirros was a little kid himself. A lonely kid. Melas and I had found him hiding on the beach from a gang of kids because he was so small and an orphan. There was no one to protect him. Melas didn’t make a big deal out of it. He just started playing with him every single day. And because Melas was his friend, nobody would touch him.

The guttural voices of the venedolphins make me leave Pirros’s side. My cheeks feel wet all of a sudden. They are approaching us now, slowly, very slowly. Their beady black eyes poke out of the water, their ink sacs too. Their mouths tirelessly working on the algae. Voracious beasts.

Would it be so bad if we let the poachers finish what they started? Would it be so horrible if they picked and killed each and every one of them? I shiver because of my own horrible thoughts.

“Why did they kill him, Pirros? Why did they do it?” I ask. A stupid question, I know.

He lowers his head and shrugs.

“I don’t know. I wasn’t here when it happened,” he admits. “Oh, you should have seen him. He was practically one of them.”

I know. I had seen him, many times. From the beach or sitting on a rock. Always on the sidelines. Especially since he and my brother bonded. Always together, but also alone.

Pirros sits slumped in the boat and avoids eye contact. “We started swimming together. Did he ever tell you?”

“Swimming together?”

“Yes.” His voice is but a whisper now. “He was trying to get the venedolphins to trust me. But then I got a job at a fishing company in Petra’s port for the season. The money was too good to turn it down.”

Petra is not too far from Omega. Yet, Pirros stayed close to my brother and I didn’t. They kept in contact with each other. A lump climbs up my throat. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Melas chose Pirros over me a long time ago. Someone who was not afraid of them and was more like him.

“He wanted you to gather the ink sacs?”

“I’m sorry, Themis. I really am. But someone had to help Melas watch over the colony.”

Melas was childless and maybe he wanted to stay that way. I was unfit for a tamer and my fear was at the bottom of the list of reasons. So he turned to the closest person he knew.

The venedolphins have come very close to our vessel now. Too close, one would think, for people who are not tamers. I guess now I know why.

Pirros lets his hand dangle over the side of the boat. The water ripples gently. The colony watches, with one of the older females having the lead. An inflated ink sac hangs above her nose. It’s certainly ripe. My mom might get her sac after all. Only not by my hand.

I almost hide behind Pirros now. Trying not to look at them, or maybe hiding from their stare. There is a tangle of anger and shame in the pit of my stomach.

They watch Pirros’s calloused fingers dangle out of the boat but don’t approach further.

I swallow the lump in my throat and my pride enough to ask, “Did you manage to make them give you a sac?”

He shakes his head that no, he hadn’t.

The sac is an appendage connected to their central nervous system. Once every ten years a new sac forms inside their nose cavity and the old one has to go. But venedolphin tamers can pluck it peacefully and use it for the tattoos or sell it—illegally—for loads of money. The neurotoxins of this particular venom produce one of the most sought-after stimulant drugs in all the planetary colonies.

Not my brother of course. Or any of the people in Tafros. Most of them are too reverent to do it. We don’t even eat the beasts’ meat. The only use we have for the venom is tattooing the dead.

But a few people is all it takes. The interplanetary smuggling is out of control lately. And the populations of venedolphins are decreasing dangerously.

“I bet you could make them give you one,” he says.

The female disappears underwater. A few moments pass and she re-emerges next to the destroyed netting. The rest of the pack stands perfectly still, keeping an eye on us. The venedolphin paddles around the rocks, dips her head then comes up again. Sometimes she goes to the bobbers and dabs them with her nostrils and ink sac, smelling them.

“Is she looking for him?” I ask.

Pirros doesn’t answer but his body language tells me what I need to know.

“You know they offered him a job too. At the fishing company. But he didn’t take it. If he did, he might still be alive now.”

Of course he didn’t. There was no way my brother would have lived a day away from Tafros. Away from the gulf.

A sudden keening breaks the calm of the waters. It startles me but not Pirros. He looks like he has done this before. It starts from the female but it spreads to the colony. I didn’t know they could make a sound like that but Pirros doesn’t flinch.

“Are they mourning him?”

“Let’s go,” Pirros says.

I nod, I see it in his eyes he can’t stay a moment longer.

As we put distance between ourselves and the venedolphins, I can’t shake the feeling that I am leaving my brother’s ghost tangled somewhere in those nets, where only the beasts can see him.

There is a strange man at the pier. As we approach land, it becomes clear that this guy fits with his surroundings even less than I do. He wears an anti-flare suit and has more technology in one ear than the entire village. His whole existence screams alien from miles away.

“That’s the envoy,” Pirros says from the other side of the boat.

“The envoy?”

“Yeah, he is from the Alien Resources Council. All the way from the Central Colony.” Worry creases his face. “He might want to talk to you, Themis.”

“What for?”

“He was here when Melas died. He landed two months ago. They were working together to find who was wiping out the venedolphin colony.”

My brother relied on so many people. Maybe he really needed help. My help.

The man is looking straight at us. He stands cross-armed in the middle of the pier next to the Eternal Fisherman’s statue. The locals are exchanging glances around him. He doesn’t seem to notice.

“Do you trust him?” I ask Pirros.

“He is only trying to help.”

“Yes, but do you trust him?

“He is from the Council. It doesn’t matter if I trust him.”

I jump out of the boat the minute we get close enough. The man is taken aback.

“You must be Themis, the tattooist’s daughter,” he says, and offers his hand.

When he says my name and my mother’s craft I wince. I haven’t thought of myself that way as ever since I left Tafros.

I learn that his name is Clem and he is here to uncover the smuggling business and record the colony’s population and migration habits, and, and… He has a lot of dreams and plans, this one. But without my brother’s help I am afraid he is quite lost. He seems genuinely sad about Melas’s death but everything he says is too bureaucratic. Every now and then he interrupts me to talk to a BioChip Interface so advanced it makes mine look like a rusty can.

Everything we say goes into that BioChip so it can later be analyzed and scrutinized by his team. I ask him where that team is, since he looks so deserted, so out of place.

“Back home of course. At Freyja.” He smiles awkwardly like that’s some kind of common knowledge. Like I am some kind of an idiot.

I know a few things about Freyja. All of us here do. The aliens who talk about the Central Colony say it’s falling apart. Clem and his team might have more important things to deal with.

“So they left you here?” I prod him.

“I didn’t come here alone,” he says. He looks a little annoyed, probably thinks I don’t understand how intersystem travel works. “These journeys are too costly to send just one person.”

His suit reflects the light kaleidoscopically. It makes him look like a human-sized oil slick.

“So…where are the others?”

“They have come to collect data from different habitats.” He looks around nervously. “We are, um, distributed.”

“So you are all alone here.”

“Yes.” The smile completely wiped from his face. “Listen,” he leans towards me, his eyes shifting back and forth. “I’ve got nobody to help me out with these people, you know?”

Oh, I know. He looks more desperate by the minute. But being Melas’ sister doesn’t mean I have to pick up where he left.

“Believe me,” and this I say without a hint of irony. “I am as much a stranger to them as you are.”

His shoulders slump imperceptibly but he tries to hide his disappointment.

Before I leave the dock I whisper to Pirros, “Nobody is going to trust this guy enough to tell him anything.”

He nods.

The envoy is not my problem. I won’t be staying around long enough to be of any help even if I wanted to offer. But there is a feeling that my brother died in vain. It hits me like a wave.

If the colony is lost, his legacy will be lost too.

When I return home I can tell something has changed almost immediately. My mother is not in her workshop anymore, she just sits outside our house like she does when she drinks her morning coffee and talks to her plants.

Only this time she sits very still and one hand cups her face, while the other holds her pipe; she does that sometimes when she wants to think. When she wants to withdraw even more within herself. Her eyes look straight ahead, cut right through me.

I come closer, a weird feeling numbing my limbs. I stand over her and touch her on the shoulder.

“Mother?”

She lifts her gaze and looks at me with wild eyes.

“Themis,” she says, her voice cracking. “Why would the venedolphins kill him? They loved him and he loved them.”

I sigh. “Mom—”

She grabs my wrist with her free hand. I stop breathing. I almost don’t recognize this woman. She looks about to burst open.

“Come inside. I have something I meant to show you.”

She jerks herself up and goes into the house without letting go of my hand. I feel the unsteadiness of her pace, her shaking spreads onto my arm, making me dizzy. She pushes the curtain aside and all I see is a mess. There are upturned objects everywhere and the myrrh odor is choking me.

“What did you do?” I ask.

“I searched.” She smiles at me, wider than I’ve seen her in years. It’s a desperate smile, the smile of someone who has just had a small victory after everything has been taken from them.

“This is why I sent for you,” she says. “You work at the hospital and…” she stutters before she goes on, “You are the only one I trust.”

I start picking up the empty bottles—the ones that are not cracked—but she stops me.

“You’ll have time for that later. There’s something important you need to see.”

“What do you mean, Mom?” I let her lead my hand high up on my brother’s back. And she shows me. She leads my hand down my brother’s cold neck, near the base of his skull. There is something there, a swelling of the flesh. Could be nothing. Could be just an old wound.

“It’s only one. I looked for more but there are none,” she says almost apologetically.

I look down. There is a miniscule puncture high up on the nape, hidden under his thick hair. Where my mother’s tattoos would not reach. The skin around the hole is purple and web-like. A needle mark.

I feel like I need to sit down. The smoke of my mother’s pipe blends with the myrrh and clouds my mind and right now I need clear thoughts.

My mother is right. Venedolphins wouldn’t kill him. Of course they loved him. I was wrong.

My eyes water. A new image of my brother’s last moments assembles. Melas, trapped in the nets, struggling for breath. Only now there’s someone over him, keeping his body underwater. Keeping him from breaking free. Perhaps more than one person. Only one thing stands out from their blurry forms: a long needle full of poison.

The bottles slip from my hands and shatter at my feet.

My mother slowly settles in her skin again. My grief proves her right and that’s another small victory, an empty victory. But for her, it is enough. She rests both hands on my shoulders. Her face slowly returns to the reverent piety she naturally carries.

“Someone killed your brother,” she says. “The Sea Gods are innocent.”

Clem twists his face in a way that implies reflection, but I don’t believe he really knows what he is doing. He examines my brother with an equal mixture of dread and curiosity. He moves Melas’s flesh around, nods, then whispers something to his BioChip, then moves it around some more. How this man studies species all around the planetary system escapes me.

“I have no problem with the beasts, but humans…that’s another story,” he says. Maybe he is more self-aware than I give him credit for. “You know, uncanny valley, etc.”

“Flesh is flesh,” I say. His grimace tells me I made things worse.

I glance at the door where my mother paces nervously up and down out in the front yard, still smoking her pipe. When the police came earlier she objected but now she was more permissive. They are locals, she knows their faces. But as such their resources are limited. They took some samples and examined Melas as best as they could, asked my mother and I some questions. Perhaps they still didn’t believe that someone could have killed my brother. He was so loved and respected. And it’s not like murders like this one turn up left and right here. Or at all. So I don’t blame them. But the evidence is there.

Then the cops’ attention shifted to the alien. I explained to them about Clem but they weren’t convinced, mostly because he is the only outsider. Well, apart from me, that is. We are like an extended family in this place. It’s a good thing I wasn’t here when Melas died because I have the feeling I would be a prime suspect.

But when my mother saw me and Clem she erupted. I almost had to drag her out of the house to let him come in. She looked at me like the first time I told her I wasn’t cut out for her job. In her mind I had betrayed her again.

Clem looked so scared of such a small woman.

“Your mother is not doing well,” he said under his breath before he stepped inside and as much as I don’t want to admit this he is right.

At last Clem sighs and takes out what looks like a small piece of square glass with green readouts and passes it over Melas’s body. Clem is not police, but he has technology and people to analyze data for him. Just for that, he is valuable.

After he is done I walk with him on the beach. He doesn’t want to face my mother by himself on his way out, but I also get the feeling he doesn’t want to be left alone after what he saw. I don’t either. We both move silently by the water as the sun starts to set behind red clouds. Under that light his suit looks almost wine dark, glistening.

The last of the Alimniots return to their island with their small fishing boats. Some of those boats are our own fishermen pulling the nets for the day. They make sure no young venedolphin got caught in them. But it’s not the nets that do the damage. As far as I know at least. This gulf has so many hidden nooks, passages, and underwater caves that if the poachers know only a few of these places they are near invisible.

I look at Clem slouching his way to the inn, hands buried deep in his pockets. I am teasing with the idea of offering to help him for a few days, as long as I am here. But what good would that do?

He takes one look at the last sun rays and takes a hand out of his pocket. A small metallic box is wedged between index and thumb and he tosses a tiny pill in his mouth.

“What’s that for?”

“Nutrients and supplements. So I won’t die in this atmosphere.” He smiles a little. “I am not as tough as I look.”

The alien visitors have issues with our atmosphere, our magnetic field. I’ve even seen a few of them in the hospital, when I happened to be near the quarantined area. Patients or staff, the aliens become feebler the longer they stayed here. But they are usually a rare sight. I was lucky to have seen a few of them.

But then again, they—or more accurately, their ancestors—sent us to this shitty planet long ago, while they kept the good stuff for themselves. First come, first survived. That’s the rule. Only, our ancestors have always been at the tail end of things. This expedition was no different. We got Lethe: rocks, salt water, and poison. They got Freyja: perfectly compatible atmosphere, sweet water and fertile soil. And then we were each left to our own devices for a while and evolved accordingly. It took a while for the colonies to establish communication again. Let alone a Council.

No wonder they have a hard time surviving here. Although if the news is true, they might have a hard time surviving in Freyja soon as well.

The question I am avoiding is eating away at me. And I don’t trust him, not fully. My mother is right this time. If I ask him now, Clem will know I need the answer. That I need him. But he has probably figured this out already.

“How long will it take for them to get back to us?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. Could be half a day, could be two. It depends on how fast the transmission will reach them.”

“Do you think it was the poachers?”

“It seems like it,” he says, thoughtful. He suddenly stops, faces away from me, to the sea. “If that’s the case it might have been my fault in a way.” He sounds different, his breathing labored from the walking. Our air is another thing he can’t adjust to. His suit is probably helping with that as well. “I might have pressured him. I have specific instructions to stop the population from going extinct as soon as possible. He took it upon him to find who they were.”

I want to say that yes, it was his fault. But Melas did what he would do every year when he found the venedolphins caught in poachers’ nets. The only difference is that Clem made him feel he was part of something bigger, a desire instilled in him by our mother.

“Then you should do just that. Save them.” I can hardly believe I am saying this. Even Clem looks at me confused. A whimper escapes from me and I hate it. “I want people to remember him. I want them to know he made a difference.”

I walk away from Clem fast, ashamed for letting the alien see me like this. “I’ll help you do this!” I scream at him.

He just stands on the sand and watches me leave.

Sand is my first thought when I wake up. It’s in my mouth, I chew it, I probably have swallowed enough to build a small castle. It has burrowed in my clothes and it grates against my skin.

I try to get on my feet coughing and spitting. The briny air stings my eyes. Still, I don’t regret sleeping on the beach tonight. Even with the pebbles digging into my skin and the bug bites it felt more welcoming than my mother’s house.

But what about my mother? Any other time I wouldn’t think she would be worried, or if she were that she would show it. But this isn’t any other time. I scramble on my hands and feet. My head spins for a moment to the sudden burst of energy. This place seems too familiar, this part of the beach on the East. The waves lick sand off my shoes. High tide. I am sure there is a system of underwater caves around here. Or semi-underwater. Depends on which part of day you visit. Everything around is too familiar, even for an ex-local like myself. Perhaps I used to spend a lot of time here. There is a sharp pain behind my left eye so I give up on remembering for now and take the long way back.

The sea spews all kinds of things at my feet, seaweed, fishbones with shreds of meat and skin still clinging to them like garlands, feathers and flotsam. Who knows what else it will leave behind when it withdraws. The water is murky today, the purpleness has taken a sickly brown shade. I try to peer through the water to see how close to the land the beasts are feeding. Their torsos pick up so much sand when they graze, they can cloud the waters for days. Sure enough a couple of slick venedolphin backs bake under the sun, like upturned hulls. They are not too far from the coast. I can’t see their heads though, only a few backs and a tail.

I hasten my steps and reach the part of the beach closest to them. What’s happening under there? It looks like they are circling something. I look around for any boats but if there are any, they are probably further away, where the water might still be clear and the fish less scattered. I pace up and down my stretch of land and wait until the passing clouds have reached overhead, until the water doesn’t deflect any sun rays at all. It’s as a clear view as I’ll ever get today.

Then I see a small arm poking out of the sea, very close to the bulk of a venedolphin. Then another arm and the head of a child coming up for a precious breath.

This can’t be. The kid is too close to the pack. The beasts are not pets even if they didn’t kill Melas.

The stupid kid will die right in front of me.

“Get out of there now!”

I try to summon my mother’s voice. Or what my mother might have sounded like if she ever needed to raise her voice to make me feel like dirt. The child doesn’t seem to care, instead he dives back into the mucky darkness and before I realize it, I am waist deep in the water, paddling my way through flotsam. The guttural noise of the venedolphins rises up. Like an underwater storm. I can’t find the kid anywhere.

My mind has already come up with a couple of variations this could go. The beasts tear the kid in pieces with their maws and graze on its flesh. Unlikely. The beasts don’t even notice there is a stupid kid swimming among them and crush it between their bodies like a small fish, with too much bone and too little meat. More likely. The beasts, fed up with the kid, release an ample amount of poison to kill a shoal of fish.

Fuck it.

I dive in the blackness and kick water in the direction I am guessing the child must be. Things touch me as I make my way under the surface, sharp things and slimy things, things so soft I shiver as they brush my face. In those few moments I block thoughts of their immense bodies that could toss me to the rocks like an annoying insect, to the wideness of their mouths and the effectiveness of their jaws, to their poison, permeating cavities and wounds before the sea dilutes it.

My fingers brush over delicate flesh. And I miss the kid. I miss the small human amidst the turmoil. I turn around and fumble some more. Tendrils of panic stroke my neck. I grab a twig of an arm and push up, even when the twig jerks and twists and tries to set itself free.

When I gulp in air again it’s not without water. More sand in my mouth. I turn to take a blurry look at the child. It’s the Alimniot kid, I am sure of it, even though his hair falls like black seaweed on his face. His eyes are curtained behind it but he sees me, he whispers my name. I drag him to the shore and he is not fighting anymore, he paddles along with his free arm. Behind us the sound of venedolphins calms down.

I drop on my hands and knees coughing out part salt water and part dirt. My clothes pull me to the ground. The boy lies on his back a few feet behind me. A smile plastered on his face.

“What were you thinking?” I bark at him. “They could crush you, or poison you, or—”

I stop because there is no point or enough air in my lungs. Because my heart is pounding so loudly it echoes inside my jowls. And because the boy doesn’t give a damn, just stretches out his small body, taking in all the sun.

“How do you know my name?” I ask, hoping to get anything out of him. Any reaction would do right now.

“From my friend,” he says. Then his face darkens. “He is dead now.”

“Melas? That’s your friend?”

He nods.

I am not the kind who likes children. I am not the kind that talks to them either. So I breathe in.

“He was showing me how to be friends with them.” He gestures over at the venedolphins.

My head spins. I just woke up and I already feel exhausted.

“Wait—”

“You don’t have to be afraid. They like you.”

That’s how I know this kid has no clue.

He gets up and turns around.

“Come!” he says. “I have something to show you.”

I make an effort to push myself up and drag my feet behind his agile frame.

Then I noticed a pile of flesh I haven’t seen before. It lies on the pebbles, cooking under the morning sun.

The dead pup’s eyes stare at me pearl white.

Its ink sac is missing. Of course. In its place there is a hollow cavity of flesh and dried blood, the meat shrinking around the lip like a dried fruit.

The pup is about a third of my body in size and it must have been dead for at least two days. It might even be the one my brother tried to save when he got himself tangled in those nets.

I stand above its swollen corpse and draw long, slow breaths. It can’t have been more than one year old. Its fatty tissue takes up more than half of its body weight. Now it is pouring out of its open sores. The poacher probably dragged it by the tail and used a knife to remove the sac while it was still alive.

They didn’t even wait for it to reach its first decade. The sac would’ve been full of venomous ink by then and it might have dropped on its own.

Someone was in a hurry to make money.

I look away. I start to shake.

This time it’s hatred. Hatred for whoever did this.

The sac’s nerves are part of the central nervous system. Cutting it out like that is like removing part of the brain. A heavy-handed lobotomy. The venedolphins are thrown back to the sea, where they are little more conscious than the algae, they can’t even swim or feed themselves anymore. They die a slow death while the rest of the colony watches, unable to help.

This is just wrong.

“The meat has gone bad,” says the boy next to me. His mouth makes a wet sound. I shiver. I had almost forgotten about him.

“Did you do that?”

“…n-no, I found it that way,” he takes a step back and angles his body away from me, hurt. His green eyes misty.

“Where is your family?” I fling my arms around. “How did you even come here?”

“I swam.” He shrugs.

“All the way from Alimnia?”

He nods. I run a hand through my hair, trying to calculate the distance from the island and suddenly I feel too old and out of shape. When I turn to speak to him again, he is already far away. I see him run across the beach, his hands on his face and it just dawns on me that I don’t know his name. And that I might have hurt his feelings. It’s too late to call him back now. He doesn’t look like he wants to see any more of me anyway.

I shift my attention back to the venedolphin. Without thinking too much about it I take off my shirt and wrap it around the pup. I just can’t leave the dead creature tossed on the beach like that. Nor can I let the Alimniots have it. Clem might be interested too. He will jot down the age and analyze the method of extraction or whatever it is he does on his paid-for time on my planet.

It’s not a long way to my mother’s house but the venedolphin is heavy. The stench from the rotting body is so acidic it burns the inside of my nose. My arms are not as strong as they used to be. Too much time in the city will do that to you. I struggle and my back is punishing me, but slowly I make it home.

Mother’s reaction to the dead pup surprises me even more than my own. She doesn’t say a word about me not sleeping there last night. But when I leave the pup on our small dining table she approaches it with dread. She peels off the fabric and clutches her mouth with both her hands. I have to look twice to make sure, but one fat tear runs down each cheek.

She never cried for my father, a venedolphin tamer who swam with the colony every season to provide her with an endless supply of venom-ink. I haven’t seen her cry for my brother either, who had yet to start a life of his own and leave this house to assist her in her divine duty.

She probably wouldn’t cry for me either.

“We have to let the envoy know,” I say. I go to the bed to give her space to mourn.

She shakes her head with force as I lay on my place, observing her. “We cannot let them have it. The pup must travel with your brother in two days.”

Two days? Is she really that close to finishing the tattoo already? But she knew my brother so well. Marking his chest must feel like marking her own.

But will that be enough time for Clem to find anything?

“It might be a clue to—”

“No,” she says. “Your brother would understand this. But you can’t.”

Out of the window the vine leaves flutter in the breeze and a surge of the grapes’ acidity wafts around the house. My arms hurt, my back hurts, everything hurts. I keep my eyes glued to the curtain swaying slightly in the wind.

Hey brother. I wish you were here instead of me.

I go to my mother and guide her to a chair gently. She looks so worn out. Not even she can hide how hard the last few days have been.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” I tell her, my hand softly squeezing her shoulder. “We’ll find who did this.”

She stays silent for a while. Then she pats my hands and nods. “I know,” she says. “I know you are good, my daughter. You have always been good for putting up with an old lady like me.”

I freeze, half from surprise and half because I want to see where she is going with this.

“…but don’t wear yourself out. You’ve done enough.”

“Enough?”

“The beasts are innocent and that’s enough for me.”

So that’s it? That’s what she needed me for? To be a witness? Another set of eyes to my brother’s death? The beasts’ innocence is enough for her, but it’s not for me.

A ringing rises inside my head. I am not like her. I need to know what happened. This need pulls me like an anchor to the deep. But I know better than to try and argue with her. Especially now. She doesn’t need to know what I do in my spare time here, like she has never asked how my life in the city is.

This is how it’s going to be now as well.

So I swallow my words and just hold her.

There has been a silent agreement between my mother and me. An understanding that when she asked me to stop looking, I’d listen to her. This has always been the way here, in my village and in my family. I am going to use that silence, the expectations she takes for a fact and work my way to the killer. She will know when it’s time. Not a moment sooner.

I find Clem in a tavern, sitting on a stonebark chair, drinking warm salep and preparing a chart on an OmniScreen. The contrast is so stark it makes me snort. He shifts his weight every minute or so, trying to get comfortable. His behind must not have been prepared for such hard materials.

The news of how Melas died must have reached every nook and cranny in Tafros by now. People’s stares are burning into my back, when they think I don’t notice. There is a chill in the air too. People are less chatty, more sluggish. Melas was so loved nobody could have done it. And because of that, anyone could.

I look around the pier for Pirros’s boat but it seems he hasn’t returned yet. I explain to Clem about the pup and he almost chokes on his salep. Curiosity and something like excitement shine in his eyes.

“It’s the youngest one I’ve heard about,” he says, wiping the drops from his damp chin.

Then he becomes more careful.

“Listen,” he says. He leans closer to me to avoid prying ears. “There must be some place right here on this beach where the poachers hide while they extract the sacs.”

“I thought they were doing the extraction mostly in the water,” I say confused. The venedolphins are much too heavy. It’s virtually impossible to drag them out of the water without being noticed.

He shakes his head.

“It seems faster in the water but it’s dangerous, really.” He drags his chair closer to mine. “What if a fisherman sees them or the colony gets to them and attacks the boat?”

I haven’t thought about it that way, but an uneasy feeling I can’t place is creeping up my backbone.

“That’s why the younger ones go first,” he says. He fails to hide the pride he feels for figuring this out. It isn’t something to gloat about.

“My brother died trying to save them,” I say. “This is no happy news.”

His expression turns serious again and somewhat embarrassed.

“I got back the results.”

“And?”

I hold my breath at what he is about to say.

“The poachers are hunting with fishing toxins. Not venomous like the ink. Plain plant toxins, enough to paralyze the venedolphins so they are easy to manipulate.”

I know about the fishing toxins. Some locals used them in the past to paralyze whole swarms of fishes and collect them. It’s mostly prohibited now because of overfishing. These toxins are everywhere here, even in the grape vine canes in our back yard. But for such big animals it would take a lot of it.

“So the venedolphins are paralyzed through the extraction and won’t put up a fight,” I say. “What does that have to do with Melas?”

“My team found the same toxins under Melas’s skin.”

I stare at him and nod but my mind races. The net my brother was struggling under was probably drenched in paralyzing toxins. Otherwise he might have escaped. If that’s true then it could have been just one person there. Easier to kill Melas, easier to hide.

Clem watches me and waits. He slowly slides the salep cup to my side. Steam strokes my chin and licks its way to my cheeks. He feels sorry for me but that’s the last thing that worries me.

“Have some,” he says.

I wrap my hands around the cup and take a sip. Let the smell burrow in my nostrils. I burn the tip of my tongue. It helps pull me out of the stupor my thoughts sent me in.

“So it was the poachers,” I settle in this thought. I need the certainty of this thought, the certainty of the cup in my hands, of the sting of pain in my mouth.

He nods. The way he looks at me is sad, almost resigned.

I wonder if Melas got trapped in the nets by himself and the poachers found the best gift when they came to check their harvest or if it was an ambush. If they used enough toxins on the nets to paralyze a venedolphin, even a small one, my brother didn’t stand a chance. It’s a miracle he didn’t drown, unable to move an inch. But knowing my brother, we would have known something was wrong in an instant. He would have known the nets had toxins from all the other times he had destroyed them. He must have approached them with caution or with tools of some sort.

So why was he tricked into the toxins this time?

I squeeze the mug inside my palms, considering Clem and his wistful expression.

“Hey.” I put the cup on the table with more force than I meant to. He cocks his head up. “How far are you willing to go?”

He doesn’t understand: I can see it in his lens-coated eyes.

“Do you want to find the poachers?”

He suddenly sits up and looks at me dead serious. “That’s why I am here.”

“Good. Because I know a place where there’s plenty of toxin.” I stroke the rim of the mug with my thumb. There is a new crack coating its side. Forever changed. If I let it go now, it will come apart.

“But we’ll need a ride to get there.”

Pirros’s aunt examines my face and pretends she hardly remembers who I am. She makes me repeat my name again and asks me all these questions about my mother and Melas, as if I am lying to her.

It hasn’t been that long. Granted I left this place pretty young and heartbroken by both my closest relatives, but I haven’t changed that much, not on the outside. Also, I am the spitting image of my mother minus tattoos and wrinkles. But that’s how we are in this place. Suspicious of outsiders. And I am one now.

The woman wears a half-buttoned shirt and wide-brimmed hat, her white hair falls in a braid on the side of her face. A cigarette burns in her lips.

“Alright,” she spits pretty close to where I am standing. “And how should I know where he is? He didn’t even say goodbye when he left for Petra.”

Her boat has a motor too, not brand new, but good enough. Pirros probably gave her his old one to appease her for leaving. He takes care of her still. She was the only one who took care of him after his mother ran away and his father died.

“You are still his aunt, right?” I say. I tap my foot on the wood impatiently.

She chuckles at that.

“Boy didn’t say squat to me when he was half my size.” She takes a long drag on her smoke. “He took off with your brother when he should be learning how to cast the nets.”

I glance at her nets. They look pretty heavy with fish for one person. She turns her back on me and starts freeing the fishes and tossing them in a bucket wedged between her legs. She is too stubborn for me to handle. I know when I’ve hit a wall. It’s like Mother all over again. It has always been that way.

I turn around to leave only to bump shoulders with Pirros who startles at first and when he recognizes me, presses his lips together.

“Ah, here you are. I was looking everywhere for you.” I try to squeeze an awkward smile and feel worse for it.

“I bet you did,” he says, crossing his arms in front of him.

I look around at the dozen of boats at the dock. The water still hasn’t cleared out completely and it probably won’t until the venedolphins migrate back to wherever they came from. But Pirros’s boat is not with them.

“Where’s your boat?”

“I am getting the side fixed. It met the tail of a venedolphin on its way back to the gulf.”

I stare at him, confused.

“They aren’t hostile without good reason.”

“Perhaps they see every boat as a threat now,” he says. His jaw clenching.

I nod and look out to the sea.

“They didn’t hurt Melas.”

He glares at me. “I know.”

Sometimes I forget how small this place is, how fast the news travels.

“What’s wrong?”

“You didn’t come to me.” He scowls. “You went straight for the alien.”

Ah! There it is.

“You are right. I am sorry,” I say. I try to sound remorseful. He was Melas’s closest friend and I left him out. “But I needed Clem.”

“Melas was my brother. You could have asked me before you went to him.”

His attitude is getting on my nerves. I know Pirros does not trust the alien but he didn’t steer me away from him either.

“No he wasn’t.” I square my shoulders because I’ve had enough. “He was my brother.”

He looks at me insulted but I am not going to let it go. I jab him on the chest with my finger. The old woman has abandoned the fish bucket and stares at us.

“I need to know who killed him,” I say. “And I need you and Clem and whoever the hell knows something to help me.”

I grind my teeth. A knot comes undone inside my stomach and if I let it crawl high up my mouth I might say things I can’t take back.

Pirros must feel this because he is clenching his jaw, holding back whatever he wants to say. Finally he lets a deep breath out and loosens up. He looks down.

“How can I help?” he mumbles.

“Take me to the island.”

I can see him twisting his brain, trying to figure out why the hell I would want to go to the Alimniots’ island. He shoots glances at the old woman as if hoping she would object for him. But she just scoffs and goes back to her fish.

“Alright,” he says at last. “Alright. Meet me here in the afternoon and I’ll take you.”

“Oh, and something else,” I say before I leave. “We are taking Clem with us.”

The mended part of the hull has a slightly different tint than the rest of the boat. I noticed it right before we got in. Pirros palmed it as if checking if the job was good enough for us to sail, not even bothering talking to Clem. So I sat between them.

Clem doesn’t even try to make conversation. He sits on the bow taking notes on his OmniScreen and whispering to his BioChip so softly, that not even here, in the middle of the sea, can I hear what he says. I stare at mine for a while. It feels more foreign each day I spend here, as does Omega.

I leant towards Pirros who keeps his eyes focused on the horizon the whole time of the journey.

“So what happened?” I ask nodding at the hull.

“They are restless.” He squints against the sun, keeps a straight face. “Ever since your brother died. And these people don’t help.”

“The poachers?” I ask.

“The Alimniots,” he says, catching me off-guard.

“I know the islanders. They keep to themselves.”

“That’s right,” he says. “They did.” He stresses the words. “Now we have gotten into a dispute over the fishing territories.”

“I can confirm that.”

I start at Clem’s voice. I didn’t expect him to talk until we reached the island. It turns out he can multitask.

“How would you know that?”

He stares at me wide-eyed. Then looks down to his OmniScreen. “W-we have been collecting data about the area for some time now. I am not allowed to say more.”

Something feels off, but I don’t know enough to place it. Pirros’s aversion for the Alimniots is no surprise. Their customs seem ungodly to my people.

But Clem’s reluctance throws me off. Maybe that’s another reason he has been mouse-quiet all this time. It just occurs to me that I haven’t asked him why the Council is so intent with saving the venedolphin populations from extinction. Besides the obvious fact that the drug is worth its weight in gold.

“Well,” I say to both of them. “We might get lucky then. If they are fishing in these waters they might have seen something or someone.” If my own people won’t trust me, there’s even less chance for the Alimniots to confide anything to me. Let alone betray their own. But neither of the two attempts to argue with me.

So I get to keep my hopes up for a while longer, and count on my brother’s good name with the islanders to help me navigate this.

Alimnia lays a couple of miles northeast of the gulf. Its shape is arched, like the foot of a predatory bird, grasping invisible prey. Its one long claw is orange lava rock, the toe is black igneous stone—a cinder cone like a neglected wound blooms in its midst—and a thick purple forest sprouts in the tarsus.

Pirros dexterously avoids the venedolphins and their usual underwater pastures and after a while we reach the passage onto the ocean. The water beyond the gulf changes from purple to crystal blue. Used as I am to facing the purple sea, the switch confuses me at first. But not all things are purple in this world and my life doesn’t have to be purple either.

The forest is in the South and the first place we reach after we leave the gulf behind us. The shadows from the gigantic pavofig trees quiver on the waves like ribbons, darkening the sea.

When my people came to Lethe from a place called the Mediterranean, they brought with them the three sacred plants: the grape-vine, the fig tree and the olive. This new planet, they were told, was very much like the Mediterranean; an endless basin of water surrounded by land and strewn with small but fertile islands. What they didn’t know was that nothing in this basin was as mild and safe as back home. And if something by chance survived here it would probably become poisonous. But there was no home. No going back. So they learned to take some of the poison in their system and cook it out of their dishes when they could.

We sail past the fig trees and just when the black peaks of the volcano peer out from between the clusters of trees, Pirros slows down the engine and turns the handle towards the coast, a couple hundred yards before the forest gives way to the cave houses.

“What are you doing?” I hiss at him.

“This is as far as I go,” he says. He kills the motor the moment the bow touches the white sand.

“What—we can’t walk through here.” My voice has gone up a few octaves. “These trees are toxic, and who knows what else might be in there.”

“They fish in our waters.” He jumps on the white sand pulls the rope towards the land. “Don’t want them to see me here.”

Clem has already started getting off the boat, his head cocked up, mesmerized by the large trees and the speckled fruit. I scowl at Pirros. It is ridiculous to be angry because they cast nets in the same waters as we do but I am done arguing with him.

“Look, I’ll be here for you.” His feet are firmly planted in the sand.

“You better,” I threaten him. With what I am not sure. It’s not like I have any power over him and the truth is he is doing us a favor.

“Let’s go.” I pull Clem away from the trees and closer to the water. There might be things in there that not even his suit can protect him from.

We walk across the beach with Clem slowing down and scanning with his glass anything that catches his eye and isn’t not too far out of reach. The pavofigs hang heavy above our heads. Ripe and juicy. If I could reach that high I would probably reach for one.

“It doesn’t feel right. Maybe we should head back,” Clem mumbles to my left.

I fix my gaze to the highest ashen peak. I am beyond going back.

“It’s too late now. Let’s try to make the most out of this.” I search for his eyes. They are glued to the ground. “If you want to find the poachers, you’ll have to work for it.”

“What about the police?” he asks.

Sometimes I think he knows nothing about the ways of this world.

“They won’t be coming here, Clem. They wouldn’t know how to talk to them.”

“And you do?”

“…you got me there.”

I think of the boy, the way he left the beach.

“But I’ll give it a try. It’s all I can do.”

The first people we meet are children. They have pavofigs in their laps, the wine-red juice stains their white shirts. We lock eyes and they freeze in place, stop their yelling and splashing. Then they get up and run away, to the maze of stairs carved into the mountain.

The settlement is almost entirely dug into the volcanic rock, one level upon another, using more volcanic materials to build walls, domes and arches and create a dizzying result that would leave me totally lost if I were to try and walk through it alone. The clusters of homes are built so close together it’s impossible to tell when one starts and where it ends. The maze does not end on the outside. The houses are connected by tunnels that go deep, all the way to the volcano. This whole place is as hollow as an eggshell.

Smoke twists and soars over every other cluster and with it a smell that burns in my lungs, like strong alcohol.

I had seen the settlement in the past if only from afar, huddled with Melas inside father’s boat, but both I and Clem can’t stop staring at it until an old man in a blue cap and a cane approaches. He looks straight at me and avoids glancing at Clem.

“It was about time somebody came,” he mumbles. He searches around us, beyond the trees. “Where’s your boat?”

I gesture at the forest. “We left it back there,” I say and bite my lips right after.

“I see.” His chuckle comes out forced. “Don’t worry about it. We are not boat thieves. Follow me.”

I follow the man, who has a slight limp on his right side. His hair glows milk white against the smoky background of the mountains. Clem fiddles with his glass with the green readouts, biting on his lip.

“Put that away, son,” the man punctuates the words carefully and Clem obliges immediately. He gives me an anxious look and shoves his hands in his pockets. The man’s annoyance makes him retreat into himself even more.

We climb the first flight of stairs. On the first landing the stairs twist around and fork, going two separate ways. I look behind me and try to map the way we came to know how to return to the beach.

The houses are not too tall, barely higher than the size of a tall adult person, I bet it’s pretty cramped inside there. And yet it doesn’t feel stifled, it feels more like a community than the hospital apartment I live in—one room and a toilet. The calmness isn’t choking me like back in my mother’s house. There are people everywhere. Every now and then there is an open space of sorts. A terrace or a balcony, where people sit, doing chores or just talking.

“Where are we going?” I ask, catching Clem’s nervousness.

“Damara wants to talk to you.”

Damara?

We stop on the third level. There is a wide open terrace and a house with a dome. The walls are not ashen like most of the construction, but painted a dusty shade of violet. There is a fire in the middle of the terrace and from speakers comes one of our ancestral songs. One of those folk songs that talk about the death of a newcomer long ago on a planet unwelcome and strange.

 

The God of Good Death. Where is He now?

You have better not angered the God of Good Death.

Stranded so far away from home.

Sinister beasts will steal your soul.

You have better not angered the God of Good Death.

 

It has this sorrowful tune that makes it difficult not to think it’s all about you. And it is. About all of us. We all came from the same original colonists. But they adjusted to this place differently. They fit right into the cracks of this island as if they were made for it all along.

And then of course it’s the venedolphin meat.

There are pots on the fire with boiling pavofig leaves. The Alimniots turn the juice into a gel and use it to fish in the ocean, where the fishes are bigger and more slippery. The forbidden fishing toxins.

The man leads us to a company of people around a table. They all chew on pieces of jerky and at first it looks like it’s veal because of the deep, deep red color. But it can’t be. Alimniots don’t have calves, only skinny goats, and they trade very little with us. When I realize what it is I am already too close and everyone is staring at us.

It’s just meat. Just meat.

I’ve been away for more than a decade but some things are too rooted inside of me to just get over them. This taboo is definitely one of them. I try to hide a gag reflex but I must look sick. A young woman in a black t-shirt and cargo pants gets up and ushers me away.

“Are you okay?” she asks. She has sleek black pools for eyes and hair cropped short.

“I am fine. It’s just—” I try to speak but the words get strangled in my mouth.

“It’s the meat, isn’t it?” she knits her brows together.

I nod and cover my mouth with the back of my hand, trying not to gag.

“Wait here,” she says and disappears inside the purple house.

Not a minute later she comes back with a large pavofig sliced in half and a glass of water. I take the water and we sit on the terrace, away from clamor of adults and children and even Clem who sits in a corner of a table alone, the rest of the company has moved to the other side.

“Are you Damara?” I glance at a pavofig slice, violet blotchy skin around blue flesh.

“Yes.” She smiles and nudges me to take a slice. “And you are Themis.”

I bite into the moisture right in the center. Juice and seeds spatter on my shirt. It tastes so impossibly sweet that only the tangy aftertaste on the back of my tongue will balance the sugary shock.

Before I have the chance to ask how she knows me, she surprises me again.

“Did Melas ever talk about me?”

The tanginess spreads in my mouth. My tongue feels so tender I can barely speak.

“No.” I swallow a huge gulp of water. “We didn’t talk lately.”

“Ah.” She looks at her hands holding the pavofig.

“How did you know him?” I ask. My mouth still raw.

She points to the old man who brought us up here. He is sitting with the others and takes sips of arache but doesn’t take his eyes off Clem.

“My father and Melas were friends. And he was teaching my son, Selinos, how to tame the venedolphins. I was never really interested in this art.” She gestures towards the beach where the children are still playing, this time climbing rocks. I look over. The sun is half-plunged in the sea now. I can barely see their forms, their languid bodies have merged into one great shadow on top of a flat stone. But I know who she means without searching for him. It’s the scoundrel, no question about it. The boy was telling the truth. I didn’t see him at the beach. He might have been hiding from me. I wouldn’t blame him.

“Where did your father meet Melas?” I ask.

She looks at me confused. As if I ought to have known this. “Well, my father used to dive with Melas.” She leaves the pavofig aside. “Until the accident happened. And with your father long before we were all born.”

I let the words hang in the air. Pull them apart and try to pair them with memories. Yes, I remember Father telling us about an Alimniot diver and I know they have death tattoos too. But that memory is so slim and fragile it feels as if I just made it up. Our people are so narrow-minded when it comes to the Alimniots, a friendship feels impossible. I didn’t know they were diving together, let alone being friendly. My brother never brought this up. Probably to not upset our mother. “Accident?” I manage to ask.

“It wasn’t the venedolphin’s fault,” she rushes to say. I can see so much of my mother in this one. “It was a female and had just had a young one. My father did not know and approached uninvited. She got scared, she smacked some rocks with her tail and they broke free. Father’s leg got wedged under them.”

I can’t imagine how terrifying a creature like that would look if threatened like that. For a moment I am back underwater, kicking water blindly, praying for someone to come and get me.

“Now the colony is distant when Father swims close. It’s a delicate balance and he has to respect the venedolphins’ wishes.”

She talks about the creatures with the affection someone would save for pets. These are the same people who consume their dead flesh.

“But your brother helped us. He dove for us until my father could build the broken trust again. Melas brought us ink sacks when he could. My father couldn’t finish his tattoos otherwise. But it seems the colony was more hostile than we thought.”

A sob leaves her chest. She is upset so I try to distract her.

“Your father does the death tattoos?”

“Well, yes.” She looks at her father and then back at me. “Now it’s finally my turn.” There is pride in her eyes when she says this.

I realize I know close to nothing about their traditions. They are another version of us, meat eating aside. But their death-marking tradition can pass from a man to a woman, and while they are both still alive. The taming too. They can choose which art will be the one for them. Perhaps even both. I start feeling like I was born on the wrong side of the gulf.

They are less rigid than us. No wonder they eat the beasts. It’s a very thin line though, between this and poaching, maybe they have already crossed it. Or perhaps it was never there but we didn’t know.

“How do you get all this venedolphin meat?” I lean closer to Damara. Somehow this feels intimate to ask out loud.

Her jaw clenches, her eyes read my thoughts.

“We look for it,” she says, slowly, like a warning. Her black fringe falls to her eyes but she doesn’t brush it away. “The poachers have made sure we have plenty of corpses to pick up. More meat than we can eat fresh.”

That’s not what I would call fresh.

“Yes, but.” Her expression begs me not to take it there but I do. “Do you hunt them?”

“We don’t kill the sacred beasts.”

She gives me a hard look and I feel almost obligated to apologize. I fix my gaze on the fire just to avoid her uncomfortable stare while she keeps talking. “We only eat their dead flesh. It is the way we honor them.”

She shifts in her place ready to stand, her hand fidgets, and accidentally she nudges the fig that splatters on the ground.

“Oh, and to make it clear for you, we don’t know the poachers. There was…” At this she stops moving. Her voice lowers to a whisper. “One of ours has killed beasts in the past. But we did punish him in our own way. And he lost everything.”

I would like to ask if that man might have come back and lie hidden in the island somewhere or if there is a slim possibility for another such apostate to have followed in his footsteps but I have already insulted her enough for one time. She is telling me the truth. Melas trusted her and her father and so must I.

“I am sorry,” I mumble. My face is flushed and it’s all because of my own stubbornness and yet I feel there is perhaps hope in her words. The beginning of a thread that I might follow.

I suck my breath and steel myself for what might come.

“The venedolphins didn’t kill Melas,” I say, “a person did.” She would find out herself sooner or later.

She grabs my arm so hard I am afraid she’ll take it with her. “Are you sure?” Her voice cracks a little. “Are you absolutely sure?”

I nod. “That’s why I am here. Could have been that man? The one who killed my brother?”

Damara is not angry at me anymore. Her face has softened. The last thing I need is people pitying me.

“No,” she says at last. “He was banished years ago. Last time we heard news of him he had died. I am sorry I can’t say more. We keep some things to ourselves. But believe me when I say, it couldn’t have been him.”

I look around lost, deflated. I rub my face, let the disappointment sink in. “That can’t be.” My voice comes out weary. “They use fish toxins, they must be your people.”

On the other side of the porch Damara’s father gets up, glass in hand and hobbles to the boiling leaves. His face flushed as he takes a large spoon and stirs the pot. He stokes the fire. He passes the place where Clem sits, hunkered. He leans over and says something to Clem. The words drown under the music and the voices. The others watch them. Or maybe they just watch Clem, expecting something, a reaction—an answer? I am not sure. But Clem doesn’t say anything, doesn’t protest. He just gets up and slips quietly down the stairs and into the night.

Damara leans close to me, she doesn’t send me away even thought I must have insulted her countless times by now.

“I understand,” she says. “But you must know: if we ever discovered our own doing something like that, we would be the first to punish them.”

“Then there’s nothing else to do here.” I make myself stand, but I am lost and defeated.

Damara grabs my hand before I peel away from her company and meet Clem down the beach.

“Just one more thing.” Her voice quivers and I have no choice but to linger. “Melas told me you used to swim with them too. Please—” She stops takes a short breath. “Please help Selinos. Finish what your brother started.”

I want to tell her that she doesn’t know how it is. How it feels to be a skinny child swimming next to a titan, a wall of flesh, to fight the soaring waves threatening to break you, to hold your breath for as long as you can and not be able to keep your wits together no matter how hard you try. Eventually you scream for help, until your throat hurts, but your brother is far away with his new best friend. And so you cry for a long time until he remembers you were there too and comes for you.

“I am not a tamer,” I say. And before I change my mind, “But I will try.”

She lets me go but she squeezes my hand one last time.

“Don’t forget. You are welcome here.”

Click, click.

The flashlight flickers on and off a couple of times, the beam cuts a narrow path through rocks and sand. Clem doesn’t need any primitive light source. He has night vision, he took off before us. The old man follows me down the path in spite of my protests. I let him guide me with his flashlight blinking on and off into the blackness, worried with every step that I will stumble down the stairs. His breath reeks of arache even with my back turned.

Click, click.

In this hour the dark sand looks like soot, the remnants of a lost civilization burned to the ground. Icy cold wind comes from the sea, and the forest looks webby and lanky, and—if that’s even possible—more intimidating than before. There is no sound other than the splashing of the waves and our damp steps.

In the distance there is the outline of a man, a slick figure veiled in a phosphorescent suit, hunched over the waves, just where the forest touches the dark beach. Clem. He didn’t dare cross it by himself so he is waiting for me to catch up.

I stop and within a couple of steps the old man stands next to me.

“What’s wrong?” His voice is groggy.

“I can take it from here,” I say. I try to sound firm about it.

“Suit yourself.”

I can almost feel him shrug and turn around. But then he stops cold and turns around.

“You know, that brother of yours…”

I meet the chiaroscuro of his face, his eyes are hidden under a pool of shadows, his mouth lit up. The words and his moist breath travel in the wind.

“Yeah?”

“He should have kept away from the outlander.”

He shifts his weight around, measuring his words.

“I tried to tell him. But that friend of yours spilled his poison.” He shakes his head, light and darkness diffusing in motley patterns on his skin.

Now I get it.

“You fought over Clem.” My voice wavers. I clench my fists.

“Now now,” he says. There is a hint of sadness that I couldn’t trace before. “I didn’t do anything to Melas. He was a good boy.”

“Who then? Clem? Why?” I feel all the muscles of my face tighten.

“Ask him yourself,” he says. He sounds annoyed, angry. He starts leaving again.

“What? Ask him what?” I flail my arms as if that’s going to make him stop and turn around.

I don’t know if he takes pity on me or if he just needs to get whatever he has to say out of his chest. But he comes back. This time much closer than before. My face is inches away from his, his breathe permeates my skin, becomes mine.

“Ask him why he is really here. Ask him what happened to Obelia, Koridon, Faroma and the others. And ask him what Melas did when he found out. From me.” The last words come out slurred. Then he stops and stares at me, his lips squeezed shut. The flashlight paints a drained, exhausted portrait of him. He shrugs and gestures for me to leave.

Melas.

Is that why Clem was acting so restless? Was he afraid of what I’d find out?

I turn and walk away, faltering towards the illuminated shape of Clem in the distance, the faint light of an alien that I half-trusted.

Joke’s on me.

“What is this?” Mother asks, back-broken and sleep deprived. She must have spent the whole night crying over my brother’s body. In the past few days, I’ve tried to care for her as best as I could. I’ve cooked for her and kept her company as she smoked her pipe on the porch. Tried to be the daughter she wished she had, but nothing soothes her. Today she barely touches her bread. Takes a small sip from her cup and stares at Selinos with dead eyes. Probably trying to remember whose kid this is.

The boy looks up from the table, still gorging himself on the food I have laid. It is everything we have at home and everything he brought as a gift for a hearty morning meal before we leave for the beach. There is freshly baked bread, goat cheese, mint pies, but also pavofigs and sun-dried squid. And of course grape juice.

I sigh, grateful he has not brought any cured venedolphin meat. My mother would not have been able to cope.

I don’t eat, but I keep him company at the table. I have been preparing for our lesson all morning while chewing on what the old man had said. On our way back, all three of us had been silent. My mind feels bogged down from trying to come up with the right questions to ask Clem. The right tone to ask them in. I still don’t know what these questions will be. So, I just sip my bitter tea and try to look as calm as possible.

“She doesn’t mean you,” I assure Selinos, who doesn’t seem to notice anyway and licks the last cheese crumbs off his fingers. He flashes a smile to my mother but I don’t think this is what he was going for. An indigo stream of juice dribbles down his chin and onto his yellow shirt. It ends up on the floorboards. That’s never a good sign.

Nevertheless I cup his small calloused hand in mine and say as confidently as I can manage, “Mother, this is Selinos, my friend.”

She laughs. It’s the first time I’ve seen Mother do that in a long time. She laughs and then coughs. She bends over and grabs her bony knees and then laughs some more. It is a strange kind of laughter, or maybe it’s me who finds it strange. It’s not a mean laughter, no. My mother would never be mean to me. On purpose.

But then Selinos starts to laugh with her, his laughter is more like a gurgle, it comes from a place deep inside his chest and slowly raises. More juice is dripping down the floorboards.

Soon the laughter dies down and we all look at each other deflated. “That’s good,” Mother says at last. “I will make you two some egg-honey.”

I stare at her as she quickly goes to the small corner that is our kitchen and heats up a pan. Soon the smell of egg-honey wafts around the house. Last time I had some I was half the size I am now and Melas was sitting right next to me. Then something changed. I wasn’t just sitting next to Melas anymore. I wasn’t one part of a pair. I was one of the sides. Melas was the central person of course, he always was. And on the other side was Pirros occupying that space at the table Selinos is sitting at now.

I shake my head slightly, chasing the memory away. The boy rests his elbows on the table and looks at Mother expectantly.

My mother acts strange. She knows this is a meat-eater boy. She knows all of our children and she has probably figured this out by now.

Most of all she was the one who said that venedolphin taming was not for me, the day Melas and Pirros carried me home drenched in sea water but shivering with fear. But not because of my fear, no. That, she could have made me push through if I she thought I was the right person for the job. And the right person is always a son. Melas. I was the one that had to follow in my mother’s footsteps. She made that clear. So after I made a half-hearted effort and beat myself up for failing there too, I picked up and left. And she let me leave even though she needed me. I must have been the worst apprentice.

Something in my stomach stirs. Is there more she isn’t telling me?

I glance at the boy who looks over at the pot, making himself more comfortable, and I approach Mother. Her attention is focused on stirring fiercely before the egg has a chance to overcook.

“Boy’s meant to be a fine tamer,” Mother says. A small smile still lingers on her face. “His grandpa can practically speak to them.”

She knows exactly who this boy is, and yet she doesn’t care.

“Spoke,” I correct her.

Mother nods and waves her arm around. “Yes, the incident. I forget.”

The egg-honey is almost done. I can tell by my watering mouth.

“Did you forget to tell me you and Melas are friendly with the Alimniots too?”

She shoots a look at me while she finishes up with the stirring. A look that would be more fitting if I were eleven years old again. Chiding and displeased.

“It’s you who forgets.” She lowers her voice for that bit. “That we and them have mixed our breaths quite a few times. It’s only natural.” She lifts the pot from the fire and looks around the old wooden cupboards and adds, “Since when did you become such a purist?”

Yes, I did know that. There have always been people who came close to each other despite the differences and the distrust between us. We came, after all, from the same group of colonists. But distrust is like a weed: it’s pretty damn hard to uproot. Especially when it’s been blooming for such a long time.

My mother takes a cup and pours the egg-honey inside, crushes some rusk and sesame on top, and sets it in front of the boy. Selinos takes the hot cup inside his hands and tries to sip the whole thing like juice.

“Easy,” she says. Then she comes back to me. I have not moved an inch.

“If you go an hour after the grazing the beasts will be full and easier to handle,” she advises.

I nod and shake a little for what’s about to come. It is all too much. My fear, her laughter, what my mother knows, what I don’t. I am suddenly more of an outsider than I ever thought I could be. But then she turns, takes my hand and squeezes hard enough to get my attention.

“Remember what you know,” she says. “Out there.”

Only, remembering what I know after making a years-long effort to forget seems almost impossible.

“Are you coming?”

Selinos stands in the water knee-deep and looks at me expectantly. I am a good ten feet behind him, taking a long, good look at the beasts in the distance. My muscles ache just at the thought of swimming that far, but the kid doesn’t share my limitations. His legs jitter, even underwater, spreading ripples all around him.

“I am old, kid,” I whisper to myself. But I think he hears me because he stops moving and relaxes, even slumps a little. “That’s better,” I say, trying to sound like I remember how to do this. “The venedolphins don’t like the shaky ones. You have to be calm but commanding like them. Otherwise they will squish you.”

He nods, turns around and looks at the sky. Even now in broad daylight a few stars are flickering, shy.

“I know,” he says. “Your brother told me, but I am slower now.”

From where I stand he is anything but slow, but my mind is wrapped around our imminent meeting with the venedolphins.

I take a few steps in the water, now waist deep in purple. We are still far away from them, still safe, but not for long.

I exhale.

“How did he pick you, my brother?” I ask, distracted by the coolness of the sea, the sun prickling my nape, the gentle bobbing of the beasts approaching us. That question lingered in my lips from another lifetime. But back then it would have been followed by, Why didn’t you pick me, you own sister.

“My grandfather asked him to,” he says casually.

I finally dive, not frantically like last time, penetrating the surface like a cannon ball, but slithering lightly underwater like a sea snake. I let the water carry me with its buoyancy, floating within and without. I circle the boy and emerge a few feet away from of him. He is still there staring up at the sky as if my brother is hiding somewhere between the sun and the stars.

“I didn’t care about the venedolphins,” he says to me. “Not until we became friends with Melas. All I wanted was to go up there.”

He points vaguely at the sky, at nothing in particular. His eyes gleam, dreamily.

“But if we all leave. What will happen to them?” He lowers his stare and looks at me, resolute. “So I decided I won’t go.”

I don’t want to spoil his fantasy. A very select few can afford leaving this place for another colony. The most rich or important. And that’s definitely not a woman who sleeps in a bunk bed in a hospital apartment and a boy from Nowhere Island.

“Perhaps one day, kid,” I say. “But you might want leave this place first.”

Selinos looks at me, bothered. His eyebrows kneaded together.

“I said I don’t want to go anymore.” He splashes the water with his arms. He looks offended at my persistence. “I am not like the others. If I asked to go I bet the alien would take me there.”

Clem. The others. These words have sharp edges and I’ve been cutting my mind on them ever since the old man spoke to me. I don’t recognize the names the man said but that doesn’t matter. I know almost none of the Alimniots—the ones I can recognize as Alimniots. My mother is right; we are them and they are us—and I half-remember many of our own on a good day. But I do know this: the old man really mourned for them, which means their fate couldn’t have been a good one at all. Which also means I am a terrible judge of character and a coward for not confronting Clem on the beach.

I sigh.

I remember what we are here for and a chill stretches in my bones. There is no rest for the wicked whichever way you see it. Selinos takes one look behind my back and smiles. I know what he is going to say. I recognize that smile from another face and another time.

“They are coming!”

Of course they are.

I turn around.

Slowly, they dance their way to us. Their moves are deliberate but calm. This is how they look from afar. Up close is another matter. They dig down the bottom of the sea and graze on algae, then return to the surface a few yards closer. My brother didn’t bother with a slow approach ritual, he just charged forward, because they knew him well, better than they did their own pups.

There was a time when I stood at the edge of the beach while our father took Melas to the colony for the first time, thinking it would be my turn soon. There was no fear in me then, just a kind of eagerness to be the next one. But then the days would go by and my father would never bring me to the colony, only Melas. I would get in his boat of course, but it would be to help him free the fish from the nets and toss them in the buckets or to take a boat ride close enough to see the Alimniot island, but no closer than that. Some bonding experience.

Perhaps it was then that something was seeded inside of me. Seeing Melas’s face glowing more every day from the progress he had made and me being stuck on the shore. The memory has the fraying edges of a dream now. But I remember the seed of doubt growing into the belief that maybe there was something they were protecting me from. Maybe only I was in danger from the venedolphins. After my accident, even though father had already died, I let Mother teach me for her own purposes. Because even though I knew everything Melas did—being so close to him and watching—I was already prepared for failure.

I dive in and take a handful of algae. The magenta blades slither in my hand, their suckers glue themselves on my fingers, searching for water on my skin. When they don’t find any they loosen and twitch one last time before they die. I clutch that handful of death and offer it to the boy.

“Stay calm,” I tell him. “Let them come to you.”

He nods. His body stiffens as if he shares my agitation. Perhaps I am the one making him nervous.

As he reaches to take the kelp, I take his hand and hold it. He looks at me surprised but doesn’t protest, doesn’t say a thing. We stay planted at that spot and let them approach. My skin feels clammy even underwater.

At last the matriarch reaches us first, and with her a wave that throws us back and threatens to tear us apart. I manage to hold on to him and keep perfectly still as two inky eyes scrutinize me and a muzzle sniffs and prods at my belly. The same female me and Pirros saw before. A warm mouth seizes the dead kelp from my shaking hand. I could reach out my hand and touch her ripe sac, perhaps it would fall off her face and into the water. I could catch it and bring it to Mother. But just as the thought comes to me I freeze, and then the moment is gone.

Above and beyond that, creatures with stone-hard skin quiver and float, expecting to be stroked a certain way. They flock around us like predatory animals that have just spotted their prey.

Selinos takes a look around and all the energy leaves his body. There is just too many of them around us. Soon there is that thick wall of mud and kelp and who-knows-what-else again. Just like two days ago. Only now it’s ten times thicker and nastier and he and I know exactly what’s hidden in it and how much of it there is. His arm clutches mine hard. The small body clings closer to me. I try to find his eyes but I can’t see him at all. I feel his fingers twitching and then his whole arm. Soon we’ll have to rise for a breath and I can’t risk the boy panicking and breaking free from me. Not now with the whole herd all around us. I understand him. His fear. I was him. I taught myself by observing and orbiting Melas, and then I underestimated my fear of them and almost died. I am still him. But that’s the good thing about being older. I can push against how unnerved I am, against my own panic.

The beasts keep coming. They approach us ever so slightly. The ripples of the water don’t lie. Neither does my instinct. Remember what you know, I tell myself. For some reason these words help. There is so much that I have forgotten leaving here, that I might never get back. Maybe some for the best. But remembering to remember is important. I realize the beasts want to be soothed by me. Maybe some of them do remember me after all these years, even when I don’t. Perhaps they can smell something of my brother on my skin. In any case I can lure them in one direction while I send the boy to another. He has had his share of underwater terror now. I doubt he’ll be careless again when he swims around them.

The boy’s hand is soft inside mine. Too soft. The panic settles on my neck and chest. My pulse booms in my ears. This time it’s not about me, but about him. I flail and pull and find his other hand to grab and propel both of us to the surface. I do it deliberately but gently, so they will let us pass. We brush against several of them on our way up and I hold Selinos close enough to know that he is pushing too. I feel my heartbeat slowing down.

We both gulp in air. The boy’s eyes are glassy with tears.

“Let them follow me,” I say when I can speak without panting again. “They are coming for me now.”

Selinos presses his lips together. Perhaps he feels a little ashamed for his fear but I don’t dare tell him it’s okay to be scared. The boy is so stubborn he might go the other way just to prove a point. I know I would.

“It’s okay,” he says at last, a tint of sadness in his voice. “You need to be alone with them to become a family. Melas would like that.”

Would he really? The sound of his name sits on my shoulders and pushes me downward. I remember Melas secretly enjoying being the only one in the family who could really talk to them. After Father died, that is. I remember Pirros being the next in an invisible line with me at its very end. Melas was never cruel to me, though, neither was Pirros. So maybe I don’t remember very well after all.

“Okay,” I say. “Listen.”

I feel them swimming underneath and I know I could put the soles of my feet on the back of one if I really wanted to. Perhaps it would let me ride it, wrap my arms around it like they did with Melas. But if it doesn’t, well. Then the boy will run out of teachers.

I don’t have much time left in Tafros. The funeral is tomorrow and soon I’ll have to go back. I can’t remember when I glanced at my BioChip last but even though it’s been quiet, I know it will start calling me again. And I’ll have to decide what to do.

“We will try again,” I say. “And this time you’ll feed them while I stroke them.” I can’t believe I am about to say this but I am still not very smart. “This time you can hide behind me. I’ll protect you.”

The boy starts beaming again, becoming his old animated self, and takes my hand. When we dive, for the first time in my life, there are no surprises. Soon, there is no fear either.

For the first time, I am in control.

Clem looks like he is struggling as he stirs the water with a dry vine. His back is turned to me and all I see as I come closer is a reflective rainbow. The sun is high up the sky which makes his back a headlight shooting straight for my eyes. But I know what I saw from afar. Here in the low tide, close to Mother’s house, is where I found the dead venedolphin two days ago.

“What the hell it is that you’re doing over there?” I yell. I want to shake him out of this. With my voice, with my fists.

The rainbow bounces up and down my eyes, and I raise a hand to shade them. I know exactly what he is looking for. And now I’ll find out why. I’ll find out all the whys I’ve been storing for him.

He finally turns around and his angle changes just enough for me to see him stumbling backwards, plunging his feet in the shallow water.

“Research,” he stammers.

“Research?” I take a few steps towards him. He takes a couple more back, leaning against his rod in the mud. “Is this what you’re telling yourself? Stealing venedolphin corpses and—where did you get that rod?”

“I paid for it,” he says, defensively. “I bought it from a Alimniot.”

I snort.

“As if an Alimniot would sell you anything. I saw how they welcomed you last night.”

At that he falls silent. Then he takes the rod and tosses it in the water, as far as his leftover strength lets him. The rod is not light but it doesn’t sink and it doesn’t drift deeper in the gulf by the waves. It just gets carried away by some current and disappears behind an obsidian rock in the distance. Soon, I lose track of it.

“It’s useless anyway,” he says.

I can see the disappointment in his eyes, in the bent of his shoulders. I can’t feel sorry for him.

“You don’t get to do this here,” I say.

As if something has let loose inside of me. A knowledge that this man has the means to kill someone and make it look like an accident. I am furious at myself for never considering him enough of a threat for that. He has a way to find ink-poison, he has the money for it. So many of his kind are using it up there for their own purposes. Without care or respect.

He flinches. “Do what?”

“This body you’re looking for isn’t yours to take.”

I expect him to object; to use our own rituals against me. Because sure enough, a man like him, a scientist sent from the Council, sees us and our traditions as banal, outdated. Clem can easily point to the sea and say, What’s the difference? One body less for eating? That’s not much.

But he does not say that. Instead his face takes the saddest expression I have ever seen on him, even when he talks about my dead brother. He lets himself plop down onto the water and the sand.

“It’s all hopeless anyway,” he says again. And this time I don’t think he means the rod.

In a moment, the rainbow shine disappears completely. In its place there is a suit in an off-white color. It’s as if something sucked in all the air. You don’t really notice it until it’s not there anymore. But the only air that’s missing is around Clem. His breathing turns into a slow rasping and that’s when I realize he has turned off his suit.

“What are you doing?” I grab his shoulder to shake him out of it. “Turn that thing back on.” Whatever guilt he is carrying, I won’t let him pass it on to me.

He fixes his gaze on the sky.

“There isn’t much time. Perhaps a couple of hundred years or so. We are trying to make Freyja livable again, but the damage that has been done is just too much. We might have to move on.” He takes one long, unsteady breath. “The air here is so sweet.”

Freyja was always the dream for many of us, but there were rumors at the hospital. Whatever the Freyjans did to their world, it is said to have caused a major environmental catastrophe. The city of Alpha was completely industrialized. Factories built on top of factories. Manufacturing superstructures to make sure not an inch of space goes wasted. The climate had turned from temperate to subzero temperatures most of the year for the past fifty or so years.

Most of us don’t want to hear what’s happening in Freyja. To really listen. Because for many, that’s still the dream, even if we never get a chance to see it. And if their world is no longer perfect, what is there to look up to?

“Why did you really come here?” I finally say. And even though in my stomach there is this knot, this terrible feeling for what I am about to find out, it helps me feel lighter.

“I told you the truth,” he says without breaking eye contact with the sky, or perhaps a vision of Freyja in his own mind. “But there’s more.”

There’s sweat gathering on his brow. He is struggling with this world and with himself.

“Heavenly waters, can’t you turn your suit on first?”

“Whether we are to stay in Freyja or move on, we have to be made more resilient for whatever comes. Both our people barely survived this colonization. Imagine how impossible the next one will be.”

Both our people? He conveniently talks around the fact that’s my people that needed to adapt the most. We drew the short straw in this and it almost killed us. Almost.

As if reading my thoughts Clem glances at me. There’s a faint nod and a smile of acknowledgment on his face. His eyes are unfocused.

“You had it the worst of all the colonists. What you did here, how you survived this toxic planet, is what we are trying to study. Not just a bunch of sea beasts. Although they do play a big part in this. A very big part.”

More droplets on his brow. His forehead is a wet pin cushion.

“Turn the damn suit on.”

“But it wasn’t always that way,” Clem keeps talking as if he can’t hear me. Can he hear me? “There were people, researchers, who came here decades ago, when we could see this happening but it was too early. It wasn’t an official thing yet. And they took people.”

The others. The knot in my stomach twists tighter. All the lightness has left me.

“What for?” My voice comes out weak.

He takes one last long breath and turns on his suit. Perhaps to hide from me. Perhaps because he has reached the limits of his lungs with this pointless demonstration.

“Tests,” he says softly, the words almost swallowed up by his labored breathing. “They needed samples to study survival in extreme conditions.

There is a cold that’s drilling in my bones even though I feel the sunbeams at the crown of my head. What kinds of tests I want to ask, but this is a question I might never be ready for. What is say instead is this:

“How have I not heard of this?”

“They were Alimniots, a small group. They came willingly with what they knew at the time, so no authorities were involved. They even seemed happy to come and they live their life up there now. Or at least that’s what the scientists told us. I was just a kid back then.”

Of course they chose the most isolated of us to take. I guess the other Alimniots were not as happy to see their own leave, never to be seen again, even if they didn’t know the whole truth.

“You lied to them.”

I give in and sit down in the mud. Clem couldn’t have killed Melas. He couldn’t have taken the boat by himself all the way to the venedolphin colony, he wouldn’t know how to steer it around the rocks and the beasts, and I doubt any Alimniot would help him. They do remember and if they don’t, they talk to each other. Which brings me back to the beginning.

“When the Council found out it was a huge scandal back home. They had never asked for permission. They were questioned and discharged. It’s been two decades since anyone has heard a word from them. The Council itself was replaced and imposed new regulations. But we still need to find a way to help the people.”

He means his people of course. Because they are the only ones that matter to him.

“What about our people? What happened to them?”

He shakes his head that no, he doesn’t know.

“I was just a kid back then,” he repeats. As if this justifies everything. “And the Council is too powerful.”

So they probably wouldn’t want their own to know the whole story. So much for change. They still sent people here to study our world, so they can save themselves with some miracle biological shield. But no thought to spare on the people whose lives they stole. Their loved ones who got left behind. And of course not a word on taking anybody from Lethe to that new expedition.

Clem turns to look at me. His eyes are on fire with some idea inside his head. One that he can’t wait to share with me. He has left the shame behind him already.

“My team discovered some of their old files and came up with the hypothesis that it’s the venedolphins that adapted the fastest to this planet. Their bodies have learned how to repair themselves at double the speed. Even faster than humans.”

I can understand what he says even when he thinks he is too smart for me. The hospital’s library can provide plenty of company to a lonely woman from a far-off village. Except. I don’t want to. I don’t care what his hypothesis means and what he has to do to prove his worth to his bosses. I don’t care about the Council and their promises to fix everything the Freyjans have broken. And if they end up taking the long journey to another world and leave us behind? Well, good riddance.

I am sure that’s what my brother said too when he figured out what kind of research Clem was really doing. For once, I feel I am walking in Melas’s footsteps without missing a single beat, but I still can’t trace his killer.

I slowly get up without steadying myself on Clem. But, after I find my footing, I do touch him on the shoulder one last time. I do it with all the weight of my body and all the weight of the things I know. It’s a steady grip that tells him I am not bluffing. Tells him I am dead serious.

“If you steal any of the venedolphins, dead or alive, no Council will save you from us.”

My brother’s funeral tattoo is beautiful. On his shaved chest a perfect circle shows the beginning and the end of his life. In the first quadrant motifs that represent waves and fishes begin with his birth. A toddler splashes water by the seashore. These are made in yellow ink, made from venedolphins feeding off yellow algae.

Yellow is the color of birth. Of the sun climbing the filament of the sky in the dawn.

Further down, in the second quadrant, the waves become rough and bigger. A boat with sails that billow pushes trough the strong winds. That’s when a single venedolphin emerges from the depth of the sea, to guide the lonely fisherman. Deep red ink covers that part of the circle, the venedolphins that eat red algae and make the crimson ink-venom.

Red, the color of blood, the color of struggle and life.

The other half of the circle is devoted to my brother’s entrance to the sea heaven in his funeral boat. I see my father on the other side of the waters. He is swimming with the venedolphins and waving his arms at my brother. The venedolphins swim on both sides, our world and the heavenly world. I can’t tell if they are dead or alive, but they say venedolphins are the only creatures that know the way to the heavenly waters. On the other side, two figures cling tightly to each other, one is small and frail and old and the other one…the other one is me.

The tall figure towers above the smaller one like a giant and hugs her protectively. Just like I did the day I came. Even though I am not that tall. All four people are connected by a long line. This part of the circle is done with purple ink, from the depths of the purple sea.

Purple is the color of death but also the color of hope that lies hidden.

I focus on the task as I and Mother drape Melas’s body in shrouds. In the afternoon the villagers will come and take him away, lay his body inside his boat, and his journey will begin.

Both windows and the door of the house are agape to relieve some of the highly acidic smell that comes off the pup’s body. The blue-striped grapevine peers from the east window, it twists and turns all the way to the roof. Its thick arms are heavy with juice.

I don’t remember any of the other dead venedolphins smelling like that. The smell is spreading so fast in the little room it seems to be clinging to Melas’s body despite the heavily scented oils we massaged him with.

I try to convince my mother to bury the pup and even though she understands she wants to hear none of it. It is a sign, she says. She has never heard of anyone having a venedolphin as a companion in death. It is a good sign.

There is calmness all around the house. Mother and I have found a rhythm around and with each other and even enjoy each other’s company. Almost like we did so many years ago. Before my failed attempts to be her successor.

I take a seat outside on the porch, right next to Mother, as we wait for the people to come. The sun starts to climb down from the horizon and the world looks like a bright purple bruise. Purple seeps into everything. Especially into the shadows.

Mother is dressed in the best clothes she owns. Usually her clothes are bare and practical. Not this. This is a red, lace-trimmed dress she has had since forever. Her best black silk scarf is wrapped around her hair. All the jewelry she owns, she carries on her neck, ears, and wrists. She looks as if she is going to attend her wedding all over again. I look almost insulting in my linen pants and dress shirt. These are the best clothes I own. I should have bought something better before I left Omega, but I wasn’t thinking straight.

I try to remember what she wore to my father’s funeral and I am certain it wasn’t this. She was much younger then and the last death-tattooist this village had. Sometimes a village’s whispers can be a very powerful thing, even for someone like my mother. But nobody can stop her now from bidding goodbye to her son and celebrating his afterlife. The older one gets, the less they care about what others think.

A faint smile appears on her lips when I sit by her, but under all the finery I can see how much older she has gotten in the few days since I came.

She takes a sip of her grape tea and glances at me.

“When are you leaving?” she asks. Her voice is relaxed, casual. Like nothing has changed between us this time. But I can feel that it has.

Then I remember the message flashing on my BioChip as we were preparing Melas for his journey. A message asking me when I will be coming back. I tried to hide my wrist but my mother always sees more than she lets on.

Is she really so keen on me leaving?

“You know, you could take another apprentice,” I say, carefully. “One of my younger cousins. I’ll help you pick.”

My mother had always been convinced that I was the only person fit for this job. And when she drove me away to Omega, that was a kind of death for her. The death of her craft.

She considers my words for a few moments. If she is happy or upset I can’t tell. She is back again, that version of my mother that’s a riddle even for me.

“I don’t see why that Alimniot woman can’t do it.”

She is talking about Damara. This throws me off balance. I shouldn’t be surprised at this point. It’s clear she doesn’t share the same hang-ups as some of the villagers.

But this one; this hurts a lot. Damara doesn’t fit my mother’s idea of how a tattooist should be. So why should I?

“This will give you time to train your apprentice and yourself for the taming. If you choose to stay and do so.”

I must look stunned because she takes my hand in hers. Her fingers are short but delicate. The skin of her palm is cracked.

“Stay with me,” she says.

Her eyes take on a strange glimmer. Tears too shy to come out? Or perhaps her eyes have gone dry with time like her hands, and it’s difficult for them to do as she commands.

“I thought you wanted me gone,” I jab at her. “You practically sent me away.”

As the purple shadows slowly grow into black, little lights appear in the distance, on the far side of the beach. It’s the procession of people, coming to take my brother away. The lights are torches showing the path through the night on land, like the venedolphins show the path in the water. They bob in the half-darkness with the movement of the bodies and their shadows stretch so far into the sea as if to reach Alimnia.

Mother rests her tea on the coffee table and turns to me.

“You see the shadows growing bigger and bigger until the night falls? Without the moon and the stars, or these lights over there, we would not see anything. Not even each other, even though we sit so close.”

I tilt my head trying to understand what she means. If this is supposed to be some kind of analogy I am completely lost.

“Am I the moon or—?”

“No. You are you. And you cast a shadow. When you were little you cast such a small and frightened shadow I was worried I would lose you and never find you again.”

The glimmer in my mother’s eyes grows brighter even as the light dwindles. Then some of it falls on her right cheek and she touches it with her small fingers as if she doesn’t believe it’s there. It’s the second time I’ve seen tears on her face since we met again. And this time I know it’s for me.

“I made you help me take you away from the bigger shadow that could swallow you with its stubbornness,” she continues. “But it wasn’t enough. It was still too strong, too long. I could still reach you. You had to go farther.”

She smiles that faint smile again. There is a hint of mischief in there that I haven’t noticed before.

“Was Melas’s shadow that big? He was a kid himself.”

“No, not Melas,” she corrects me. “Your father.”

It’s almost dark now. The small lights have come closer but there is still a long way until they reach us. For now I am suspended between the world I thought I knew and a new one. A world where my mother has always had a plan for me but also a duty and for her to do both, she had to hide a lot of herself. A world of quiet love.

I stretch my arm and wrap it around her bony shoulders, just like the first day. Just as she drew it herself on my brother’s body. The wetness on her cheek is gone now, but the smile lingers.

“Tell me,” she says. “Tell me about life outside of Tafros.”

And I tell her everything. I tell her about the city of Omega and its people, about the small narrow bunk beds of the hospital and the big library perched on the rooftop. She listens and she asks questions, she jokes about my co-workers and even the aliens. She tells me her own stories from the time I was away. Who died and who almost died. Who was born and what path their lives will take.

This is a version of my mother I didn’t know existed until now. It’s one I want to keep with me forever. And my mind’s eye leaves my body for a little while and hovers above us and in the distance. It takes in the image of two women, a mother and a daughter, sitting on their porch on a hot afternoon dressed in all their splendor. Chatting and laughing as if the people approaching their house from afar, men and women, are not there to take away the body of a loved one, but to celebrate with them this perfectly ordinary day that the two of them finally found each other.

Pirros is the first to emerge from the darkness. He holds the leading torch and guides the others. He also is the first one to go inside the house and the first one to come out; my brother’s upper body hoisted over his right shoulder. But he always stays behind my mother and me, bowing his head and crouching to make himself small, like he did a long time ago. This is our day more than it is his and he knows this. Yet his sadness is clear. There is a darkness over his face, like a lingering shadow. My mother pats his head, kisses his forehead, and lets him and the others lift Melas on their shoulders and share the weight. The last of them takes the venedolphin’s body.

Now it’s my turn to choose where I will join them. Which part will be my burden tonight? I chose the legs because being last feels like being hidden in plain view and on a day like this everyone is watching us.

When we reach the beach—after a long and tenuous barefoot walk on sharp and round pebbles—we lay his body on the hull. We put the venedolphin’s corpse at the bow so it will lead the way and unfurl the sails.

There are many familiar faces on the beach tonight.

My brother’s last journey has brought together people whose faces I can barely trace in some distant past. And when I do trace them I am certain many of them don’t speak to each other. Yet, they close together on this beach drinking and eating from the longest funeral table I have ever seen in our village. Like old friends. Everyone has brought something. A plate of seasoned nuts, or cured jellyfish, spicy wine or pavofig juice.

That’s how loved Melas was across the gulf.

Mother sits on a stonebark chair set on the beach just for her. There is another one for me but I am not ready yet to face the crowd sharing stories with my mother, laughing and crying.

Between the mismatched crowds of people I spy Clem, keeping to himself and standing as far away as possible.

A song picks up from somewhere behind me. Someone is strumming a guitar softly.

I walk to Clem, my cheeks flushing. I don’t want him here. Not because I am angry—I am way past anger now. But I have trusted him, even if for a little while, even if not fully. I was about to give him the venedolphin. I brought him to my mother’s house and let him see my dead brother’s body. What if the others find out everything? Although the Alimniots already know all of it. I will be the fool.

For a moment I am a little girl again, full of fear and doubt. I know more now but I remember how it feels when your voice is not heard by your own people. I can’t let this happen again. Especially not here and not now.

“I am sorry,” Clem says the moment I approach. I haven’t said anything yet, but he is already turning around. As if my presence scares him. “I was about to leave.”

He lifts a small basket made from pavofig tree fronds. He has brought me a gift. Inside, wrapped in dried leaves, is a glass bottle of bubbling purple juice. It’s what the Alimniots drink.

“Take it,” he says. “Your brother gave it to me but I couldn’t drink it for obvious reasons.” He gives me a half-smile. “I shouldn’t have it.”

“Can’t,” I say, reaching out my hand to stop him. He looks confused. “My mother would notice. Why have you come here?”

Did he really care for my brother? After his lies, I can’t stop doubting everything.

“Just to say goodbye.” He keeps his head down, not meeting my eyes. “I leave for Omega tomorrow and at the end of the month we journey back to Freyja. It was always a time-sensitive operation.”

Of course it was. I wonder how much worth the Council, or whoever else was sponsoring this, put on this research expedition. Interplanetary journey is impossible for us but it’s not cheap for Freyjans either.

“When you go back home you should look for answers.” I barely say the words but he hears me. He knows what kind of answers I mean even if he doesn’t say anything back as he leaves.

Like a cloud scattering, I notice things around me again.

Music. Crying. Laughing. Someone’s speaking in a low voice.

I turn around, afraid that she might have seen us, but she is absorbed talking to Pirros. He is the one whispering something to her and she nods and sends him away. The people around them are all different degrees of drunk. Pirros leaves my mother’s side before I get there.

There is another sound echoing in the distance, trapped between the water and the obsidian stones. Guttural and booming. The sound of venedolphins mourning and approaching the beach.

It will be time soon.

There is a baglama now too playing alongside the guitar, and a few people sing. One of them is my mother. When I finally sit next to her she is still humming, letting her voice trail at the last few notes.

The people who were carrying Melas’s body are gathering around the boat now. Those who wear dresses have taken them off or wrapped them high around their waist. A heavy cloth like that is hard to carry when it’s soaked. The ones who wear pants or shorts just jump in the water without a second thought.

It’s time for my brother to leave and they are all getting ready to push the vessel away, with just the strength of their arms. Then the main current of the gulf will pick up from there like it always does. It’s a kind of magic thing. A fisher has to watch their route when they are out tossing their nets, else their boat might hit a rock or anger a venedolphin and then things don’t end well.

But when a funeral boat is pushed in the waters it follows a certain kind of course or current that a boat with a live person inside can’t trace. It moves as if it has a will on its own or, as the people here say, the venedolphins guide it around the stones in the course to the divine waters. The problem with this theory is that the venedolphins are not always in the gulf. They only come for the season and then they disappear to whatever their hibernation place is. People die year-round. Yet, people here still believe they lead every boat, whether they are seen or unseen.

Pirros stands thigh-deep in the water behind the stern. His arms outstretched, steadying the untethered boat and himself. He glances at my mother, waiting for her signal to free it in the deep water, and everyone else around the vessel glances at him. Once my mother nods they will act as one, perfectly synchronized. Most of them have done this more than once before.

There is something else in there. It swims in the water but further away. A small head is bobbing where venedolphins wait, although it’s moving closer slowly and discreetly. I don’t need much more to know it is Selinos. He probably swam all the way here, which explains why Damara and her father are not among the people on this beach. They wanted to mourn my brother in their own way. But the boy is too stubborn to be told what to do or even how to mourn. So, here he is.

My mother, still half-lost in her own thoughts, is not ready to part ways with my brother. Not just yet. She looks at me through glassy eyes, lowers her head close and whispers, “Are you still looking for the killer, Themis?”

So that’s what Pirros was doing before. He warned my mother about my search. But even if I asked him to keep it quiet would he listen to me? When he was in need of a family and a mother, she provided for him. He feels as much her son as me and my brother.

“I cast my own shadow now,” I tell her, hoping that after our talk she will understand. Or at least she won’t feel too betrayed.

“I am sorry,” she says. She barely says the words, more like breathes them out. “I shouldn’t have tried to stop you. He is your brother. You did the right thing.”

My whole body deflates. I didn’t expect those words to come out of her mouth, but now that they did I know I’ve needed them.

“Thank you,” I say. “Thank you.” It’s the closest I can get to I love you.

She turns her head abruptly and waves at Pirros.

“Now!” She yells. Her voices comes out coarse and tired.

Pirros nods and grabs the boat with a different grip. The others do the same.

“Wait!” I say. “I want to do it.”

My mother frowns at me.

We are not supposed to be in the water. As blood relatives, me and Mother, we are supposed to sit on the beach and look at the boat follow its course. It’s both an honorific position and a superstition deeply rooted in the ways of my people. If you share the same blood with the dead and touch the heavenly waters during the funeral there is a chance that Phorcys will not be able to tell who is meant for the great journey and take both of you.

It’s very bad luck.

I get up and run in the water anyway. Pirros has let his grip of the boat and stares at me confused.

“Do you want to die?” he asks.

There have been people who have done this transgression before. It was because they wanted to follow the loved one to the other side. Their grief seemed too unbearable at the time. But I don’t. I want to see my brother off and not doing so seems unthinkable. No matter all the bad luck in the world.

I turn and look at my mother. She looks displeased and alert. What I did made her snap back from her own grief. But she nods and lifts a glass of wine at us.

Pirros looks at me a moment longer, as if to make sure I know what I am doing.

“Headstrong family, the lot of you.” He shakes his head but grabs the boat the same way he had before I interrupted him and shows me how to do it. When every one of us is ready Pirros gives the signal. What comes out of my chest when I push sounds like a howl, my last goodbye to Melas. A feeling that can’t fit in words.

The boat appears to drift for a moment, aimless. But after it glides over the first few waves it finds its way. The current draws the vessel like a vortex, an invisible captain stirring it left and right, slow and fast, over calm and rough waves.

The water and the sky become one, the border that made them separate gone. They are now a mirror of each other. My brother doesn’t seem to float anymore, he levitates. As if he and the pup are leaving our world towards Freyja or one of the other worlds. But I know if my brother were to travel outside from here, in another place and another time, that would be the old world: Genesis. In the Mediterranean he would meet the ancestors of the venedolphins, the primal creatures our own ancestors loved enough to carry all this way, even if they were no livestock to them.

The venedolphins silently follow behind the boat. Immune to the tricks of light and shadow, the way out of the gulf feels as natural to them as their own skin.

Once the boat vanishes behind immense rocks and just as big bodies the spell loses its grip on me and I remember Mother. I turn around to see her sitting as still as the Fisher’s statue, the force she always carries around herself gone. I return to my seat and drop like lead next to my mother. I let her for once be frail and show it.

“It’s okay.” I pat her hand. She doesn’t listen, just stares at the vastness of the water that might also be the sky.

The people from the boat ritual have returned to their eating and drinking and low conversations. Everyone hovers around us but not too close anymore. They leave us mercifully alone.

I peer in the water for the boy, hoping he didn’t do anything stupid, like follow the venedolphins to wherever they were going. For a moment I think he is gone. I shiver at the thought of finding his body crashed somewhere between Alimnia and the gulf, and then having to tell Damara and her father about it.

But he is here, in fact more here than before. He has approached the shore, not minding all the people who might send him away. He hasn’t come to me. Instead, his little body, half out of the water is turned to Pirros.

The boy is trying to say something but Pirros turns his back at him, ignores the boy. I tell myself that the boy is not my problem right now, not tonight, but Pirros tries to get as far away from him as possible.

That nagging feeling comes back again. Pirros and the boy must have known each other well since Melas was training them both as venedolphin tamers, yet I haven’t seen them close to each other. In fact never heard the one mention the other at all. And why would Pirros agree to be trained alongside Selinos? He hates Alimniots. But the boy doesn’t seem to hate him back. Or even fear him. Quite the opposite.

When Pirros is far away, I go and stand close to the boy who is knee deep in the water now. I need to know something.

Selinos came here for the funeral, for that I am sure. But there was another reason too. Because when he sees me he does a double take, as if he has forgotten why I am here.

I smile a tired smile to calm the boy. It’s okay, my smile says. You can tell me things. You’ve been telling me things all week. What’s one more thing to tell?

The boy relaxes. I crouch in front of him, making sure Pirros is not around. Then I look him in the eyes and ask in the calmest way I can muster.

“Is Pirros your friend?”

The boy blinks a few times, as if I asked the weirdest thing. Then he shakes his head.

“He is my uncle,” he says. “I came to say goodbye.”

“How?” My heart beats so loudly, I can’t hear anything other than my pulse and the boy.

Selinos looks at me confused, as if I ought to know this. “My great-aunt, Faroma, was his mom.”

We are them and they are us.

There was a time where I stood at the edge of a beach. This beach. Left to wait while father turned Melas into a tamer. Then waited some more while Melas and Pirros swam together without the kind of fear that made people like me too cautious to be fun. This is the dream of a childhood memory, a little bit more than a smudge now. But I am sure this is the right spot. Here, in the low tide. The sun is blazing hot.

I stop on the same spot I found the pup, winded. This time there’s no sand in my mouth. I took Mother home and stayed with her until the morning hours. Remembering what I know. I left at first light, hoping Mother was sleeping deep enough.

I didn’t always wait for them here. We also played together on the beach, away from the beasts that haunted my dreams. Melas and Pirros were never cruel to me. They were just kids. But this wasn’t exactly the place where we used to play. It was close by but not here. This place is full of sand and seaweed.

I concentrate harder.

There were pools, small water puddles. That’s where we played. Water and sand got trapped in the holes after the high tide. But they weren’t on the beach. There was a cave around here, hidden behind rocks. We had to get in the water to reach it.

I look around; try to find the small current that pulled Clem’s rod away. There is a path between a cluster of gleaming black rocks, a strip of shore that is cut and then resumes beyond the water. If you didn’t look for it, there was no way to see it. There were other children playing around here too. But we went deep, deep enough that Pirros’s tormentors could not reach us. Before I even squeeze myself between the rocks, the acidity taints the air around me.

I make the rest of my way sidestepping, trying not to be heard, no pebbles creaking underfoot, no water splashing. The whole time I pray to the Eternal Fisherman that what I expect to see isn’t there. There are multiple caves here and more showing when the tide is low, like it is now. Caves within caves and slopes leading to more holes in the porous rocks of the beach in a similar fashion as Alimnia but not as safe. Maybe a couple of children died here a long time ago. Too long to remember.

The ingress is on ground level and around a meter and a half wide. When the tide is high the cave becomes invisible and even more dangerous. The cavity I remember isn’t very big to my adult eyes. It mustn’t be more than eight meters long.

I peer though one of the smaller holes to the other side of the beach. The most hidden side. A boat with chipped red paint and a motor is anchored at the end of the land strip.

I need to keep moving. I need to see this for myself.

There is a small tunnel-like dent in one of the walls. Large enough to fit me if I hunch but I don’t think I have been in here before. But then again you can never be sure with the past.

In the back of the cave a dozen of the ink sacs are stored inside a fish trap that’s itself chained directly on the wall. So that the tide can’t carry it away. Most of the ink sacs are small, annual or biannual. So many young ones killed.

A grunt. A stabbing sound. Then another grunt.

There is a gaping hole in the roof from which defused light comes in. Below it, Pirros toils over a dark bulk. He has only a worn pair of pants on and neon-green polymer gloves to protect him from the venom as he tries to slice a sac from a pup not much bigger than the one I found. Its webbed hands hang limp from the sides of its torso but it must be still conscious.

A grunt.

His back muscles bulge as he hauls the heavy body of the venedolphin.

I want to step back and run away but I am as paralyzed as the pup under the poacher’s knife.

The stench that permeates everything is the fishing toxin. It comes from the blue-striped grapevine. I should have known instantly what was that smell on him, but I didn’t. Too preoccupied with the venedolphins and Mother to think.

When my brother was paralyzed by the toxin, unable to stop Pirros from injecting the ink-venom, did he watch as his best friend was killing him?

There are a few moments of agonizing silence where I try to convince my feet to move. There is a gurgling sound and the wounded animal writhes, as the blade starts cutting, and then a shrill. Pirros becomes stone still and it isn’t until too late that I realize the shrill came from me. It echoes in the gullies and the walls of the cave and comes back to me ten times louder.

He turns around and for a moment my heart stops but he just smiles at me and something inside of me shrinks. His feet are covered in seaweed and blotches of dark blood.

He looks serene, sad to see me. But I am not sure he is sad on his behalf.

“Such a headstrong family,” he sighs.

“The acidity,” I say, because my mind goes empty. “You stink of grapevine juice.”

“It’s okay,” he says. “You understand, right?”

I do understand.

We came from the same line of colonists. The Alimniots and we. We are no different. Both of us got the short end of the stick and still survived here, where everything tries to kill you. We changed, and our food changed, and our animals changed. But it was still not enough.

He nods, sure of it. He drops the venedolphin with a thud and takes a few steps towards me. I glance around. If I run he is going to catch me. There is nowhere to go.

“Look at this,” he gestures at the cave, at the walls, at the pup. “It’s all so crude, Themis. No wonder Faroma left.”

He can’t even call her “mother.”

We and the Alimniots split. But our breaths are still weaved together. If you marry an Alimniot, what does that make you? We become them and they become us. Pirros’s father, a villager, became the islander who was banished for poaching and his mother… well. She was the reason he became one in the first place.

And Pirros? Nobody asked what will become of him.

“I have a lot of money now.” He kicks at the fish trap. The wounded pup whimpers in the back. “We can leave together.”

“Leave?”

“There’s a ship leaving for Freyja in a month,” he says. “The researchers will be in it. My friends in Petra can help us. We can hide there until it’s time.”

This was his real fishing job then.

He must have been doing this for a while. He really is rich. That is if he finds the right people at Omega. But Clem’s arrival must have made him hurry up. It was a time-sensitive operation after all. Another ship would leave again soon. No time to be trained as a tamer anymore.

I wonder how long it took my brother to realize what made Pirros so busy before he confronted him. Or perhaps he was too distracted with Selinos and Clem to notice and Pirros just took him out as a safety precaution.

Pirros bares his teeth in joy and stares through the hole in the roof.

“Up there,” he points his knife at the sky. “We can live better than this.”

I don’t know what he wants with me. Does he want me to let my guard down or is this a bribe for killing Melas?

Pirros lowers his eyes and looks straight at me. Dead serious.

“We can still find her.”

I shudder, trying to shake the feeling that somehow I am complicit in all of this.

He leaps towards me and I run through the low opening into the sea. When water reaches up to my thighs I take a last look at him. He is already outside from another opening, climbing in his boat. I take a deep breath and dive. The colony is too far away from here but I have no choice than to swim and to hope.

I hear Pirros splitting the water with his old boat and his new motor, catching up to me. I close my eyes and swim as hard as I can, like my brother did when the venedolphins arrived in our gulf.

The spot where the venedolphins gather is barely visible. Their massive bodies hide underwater but their snouts poke out from time to time. They are still too far away. If I could reach them, it would be harder for Pirros to follow me.

I clench my teeth and try harder. Pain like gravel grinds my lungs.

I am not as fast as I used to be.

A net encases me with the weight of its bobbers. It pushes me underwater. Sweet and acidic smells burrow into my nostrils. I struggle to keep my nose and mouth above water but my body is numbing. Water and seaweed force themselves down my throat.

The hull of the boat sails right past my head. It stops between me and the sea. As I fight with the one arm I can still use, I see Pirros’s outline, dark against the sun. He is balancing on the bow brandishing something that looks like an oar.

No needle this time.

A shadow emerges behind the boat and the sky goes dark.

Everything from my neck down is paralyzed, I can barely lift my chest to breathe. Is it really the toxin or is part of it my panic? I latch onto the edge of the bow with the arm I can still feel and drag the rest of my netted body closer to the boat. My only chance, my dinghy.

I search around, against the sun, frantic. Nothing. Why isn’t he hitting me? He must think I am already sinking.

But when I lift my head, as much as the toxin lets me, I see him grapple with the oar. No, not the oar. Something else. He swings back and forth and the boat rocks and as I lose my grip, I gasp for breath again.

Shit.

The world buzzes through me. Hot coals in my lungs.

With what’s left of my strength I try to grasp the bow again and I manage it. But what I’m feeling is not wood. It is tough, leathery skin and bumps like bones underneath.

It’s a foot and I know who it belongs too.

My body feels heavier than gravity and my neck and arm are not enough to keep me afloat. It feels like my lungs are being crushed under the weight of a venedolphin. I will sink soon along with this net and become fish food. Follow my brother’s footsteps. But before this happens I snake my arm around Pirros’s foot as best as I can and keep my grip firm.

He is fighting me but he is not fighting hard. He is distracted, fighting something else too.

I look down at the purple depths fading to black and take a last long breath.

And then I pull him.

And I sink.

I spew seaweed and water and sand and everything I ate in the last few days. Then I breathe in hungrily all the air my mouth can swallow.

For a while all I can see is red. Then just shapes, and although I am still dizzy and my guts want to spill out, I know that the great dark shape that sloshes in the water in front of me isn’t a rock.

I fight the urge to crawl into a tight ball. I reach out a hand to her.

Her snout is warm and lumpy and it quivers under my touch.

“Thank you,” I croak.

She replies with a whimper. I can make out her eyes now, her face. She is the size of three fishing boats put together. But under my hands she is calm and kind. Like meeting an old friend.

Suddenly, she pulls her torso upright and I recoil. She twists her neck and shakes her whole upper body until her fat ripe ink sac flies off her face and plops on the wet sand.

A gift. For me. For Melas. For my mother’s promise.

She turns her body around swiftly and disappears under the violet, leaving but gentle ripples behind her.

The sun is high on the horizon when she dives in the purple waves. People will gather on the beach, push the boats in the waters, and start another day.

My body is a rubber doll, slowly coming back to life. I stretch and do my best to stand on my own. Mother needs me and I plan to be there for her.

And perhaps, much later, tattoo the rest of her small, wrinkled body, with my needles and inks.

I scan the beach; there is no sign of Pirros’s body. The caves are quiet now, full of sacs and dead bodies. I will have to show to the village what Pirros, one of our own, has done. To Mother too.

I take the sac in my hands and drag my legs on the lumpy sand. I silently thank the beasts. Thank them with each new breath.

Their dark shapes are restless under the afternoon sky. They swim closer than I’ve ever seen them before. Soon, they will begin their journey and leave our gulf for the season.

But I’ll be here next year.

Waiting.

 

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

Six Fictions About Unicorns

1.

Your unicorn first finds you when you run away from home.

You had planned to live forever in the woods. You packed all the necessities: three cans of baked beans, a packet of butter crackers, your insulin, a water bottle, your clarinet, your marching band shirt. You drew yourself a map on the endpaper of your favorite novel, a map that ran through all the landmarks you’d named yourself in your rambles. The Crystal Stream. The Bramble Thickets. After that, the Beyond.

This time, you go all the way beyond the Beyond, to the soft, rotten place where mosquitoes breed. Your boots fill with mud and you polish off your crackers before it stops being fun. At nightfall, you find you’ve forgotten the can opener, right about when you learn, shivering, just how cold it gets when the sun sets, and how many hidden things buzz and skitter and howl in the dark.

This is how your unicorn finds you: lost, mudstained, sobbing, and worthy anyway. Worthy of her rainbow hair, her golden horn, her warm nose nuzzling tears from your face. You ask her, Are you real? In answer, she whuffles your cheek, your tangled hair, warming you through with her breath. She smells like a million wildflowers woven into a hundred crowns, like summer never-ending.

You never thought to wonder how a unicorn would smell.

It’s hard to mount the unicorn. You’ve read books on horses, but you’ve never actually ridden one. But the unicorn kneels and doesn’t mind the mane-pulls or flank-kicks while you find your seat. Mounted, you wait to be carried away to a magical kingdom, a secret quest, or wherever it is unicorns live.

But instead she brings you home.

Upon your return, you submit to your parents’ vicious desperation, the hospital visit to check your scratches, the midnight bed checks. They don’t trust you not to vanish again. You expect the unicorn to vanish too. You check out your window a half-dozen times, but she just paces the mud in the backyard, mane gone soggy in the rain, restless, directionless. You ask if you can keep her, which only raises more questions: is she wild, and if not, who owns her? Your parents have never seen a unicorn before. But in the end they open the garage, put out a pail of water, and allow you to feed her sugar from your open palm.

They had told you all your life that unicorns meant a special destiny, that unicorns could show you where you belonged. But that isn’t true at all. Unicorns don’t know the way any better than you do.

 

2.

The other kids resent you for having a unicorn. They huddle in the bleachers and call you princess and horn humper and other falsehoods because they know you don’t deserve the soft white blessing of her, her dark-eyed loyalty, the way she gallops you to school, horn throwing rainbows.

It’s impossible to look anything but extraordinary when you ride a unicorn. No one notices the worn holes in your sock-heels, how your old jeans rise two inches above your calves, or how you braid your hair to hide the uneven ends of your mom’s bad haircut job.

You don’t know how to explain that the unicorn changes nothing. You’ve never had anything of your own. You wear hand-me-downs, you’ve got Type 1 diabetes, and your dad has gotten into couponing to afford all the new unicorn-related bills. When your mom gets home from work, her eyes crinkle tiredly and she shakes her head at the mess. She kisses you, pats your unicorn’s nose, and grabs the broom to sweep the mud tracked in by shoes and hooves. Late at night, long after you’ve gone to bed, sometimes you hear your parents talking about the burden of your unicorn. At least she’s not trying to run away anymore, they remind each other as they budget the cost of riding lessons.

You know very well that unicorns don’t stay forever, just like clothes, and friends, and teachers. You only get to keep things until someone else needs them more. Life is mostly about outgrowing, or wearing things out. You can’t hold onto it. Eventually, everything gets handed down again.

At night, you sleep on the floor, nestled against your unicorn’s flank. You breathe in her summer field scent and wonder who had your unicorn before you, and when she’ll leave you for the next girl.

Everyone claims they want a unicorn, but that’s because they believe unicorns are easy, when in truth unicorns are nothing but work. No one talks about the care, the upkeep, the muddy floors. People don’t really want unicorns, though. They just want pretty horses, pretty stories, pretty pictures on the wall to prove they are happy.

 

3.

Some people don’t believe in your unicorn, even when they see the evidence firsthand. It happens a lot when you’re dating. Girls want to check her mane for hair dye lines, and guys spring on her neck to yank on her horn.

After you’ve convinced them she’s real, next come the virgin jokes. Like, aren’t unicorns for kids, and won’t she just vamoose if you get laid? And since that ship has already sailed, does she love you less now than she did before?

You’re not very good at listening to your instincts. You try so hard to be nice. You laugh along with their jokes and don’t bother correcting them. People like it when you laugh.

Once, for a whole year, you don’t tell anyone about your unicorn. You figure it’s better to spare her all the poking and prodding, their doubts and hesitations. You dye your hair bright colors to explain away the rainbows fuzzed into your sweaters and diligently vacuum the house free of hoofprint marks.

But it feels like a lie, like tying on a plastic horn to cavort with narwhals. Eventually you learn to let others hold their own doubts. Yours are heavy enough already.

Maybe it’s true what they say about unicorns. Maybe her love is only a half-mast thing, faded with your youth and innocence. You wish she could talk. You’d love to ask her, but she keeps her own counsel.

People say it’s hard to believe in unicorns, but that’s a lie. Unicorns are easy. It’s much more difficult to believe in yourself.

 

4.

No one likes being a grown woman with a unicorn. Unicorns are needy and expensive, and they never let you forget them, not for a moment. Your unicorn gets separation anxiety if you leave her home. She won’t even stay put at the stable you’ve paid to board her. It takes her fifteen minutes flat to jump the stall, kick down the door, and bolt for the highway shoulder. That leads to near misses with motorists and awkward questions from animal control.

Your options are to ride your unicorn to work, or take the bus and risk her darting into traffic, confused and scared, determined to find you however far you’ve gone.

One day, fresh from another awkward conversation with HR about the proper use of company parking spots, you wheel on your unicorn in the parking lot. “What’s the point of you?” you demand. “You’re just getting in my way. Go find someone else to bother. I don’t want you anymore.”

You take the express bus home, leave her standing in the gutter, watching you forlornly and for once not even attempting to follow. You don’t even look back.

A streetlight flickers by, pale in the last dregs of sunset. By the time you pass the next streetlight, you already regret your words. You shouldn’t’ve said it. You didn’t really mean it. You can’t admit to yourself you’ve been trying to drive your unicorn away. That you’ve been bracing yourself for the moment she finds you unworthy.

When the express finally stops, you step off the bus and jog back toward work in the dark, calling her name, calling apologies. At every block, you expect to see her galloping toward you, her horn refracting moonlight, breaking the shadows, but it is only asphalt and streetlights and the drone of rush hour tearing by. She should’ve started following after by now. Maybe something happened. Maybe it wasn’t her who caused the accident this time.

You get all the way back to work before you find your unicorn still waiting in the parking lot. Your calves burn, and blisters swell inside your work shoes, which are lousy for running. You don’t know what to say, so you don’t. You bury your face in her mane until your body stops shaking.

The stories say unicorns reserve their company for those of the highest character, the best of humanity, the ones they deem worthy. But those stories know nothing of a unicorn’s love. Your unicorn is the only one you trust to see the worst version of yourself and still love you.

The unicorn nuzzles your cheek, horn dipped contritely. She whickers in your ear. You realize you’re not the only one who is waiting to be found worthy.

 

5.

Adeline, your farrier, taught you how to shoe your unicorn. Once a month, you ride 45 minutes to her place anyway, just for the company. While she heats iron in the forge and lays out her hammers, you catch her up on your job search, your love life, the slow progression of your dad’s cancer treatments.

Adeline works the metal like dough, her bare arms gleaming. One time she misses the mark and burns her thumb. “How about we let your friend handle it?” she suggests with a laugh, nodding at your unicorn. “They’re supposed to be good for healing.”

You’ve long had your suspicions about your unicorn. You don’t get sick too often, and you’ve never broken a bone. But she hasn’t shown the aptitude. If she could cure disease at the touch of her horn, you sure wouldn’t have diabetes, and wouldn’t your dad be well?

“Probably for the best,” Adeline agrees, pulling a glove over the injury. “If word got out she could heal, you’d be fighting off half the world to keep her. Better just to be ordinary.”

For months afterward, you can’t decide whether or not you agree.

Years later, when your dad eventually succumbs to the cancer, you ride your unicorn home from the hospital, so caught up in your own darkness you barely notice your unicorn’s particular fleetness through traffic, like she is digging deep for her youthful strength to get you home quickly. When you dismount, you bury your face in her mane and moan. “A real unicorn could do something about this.”

You kiss her nose, a numb heaviness pressing where your heart should be. Your unicorn has never pretended to be something she’s not. “Sorry. It’s not your fault.”

Sometimes a unicorn is just a horse with a horn.

The next morning, you catch your unicorn wandering the backyard, touching her horn to skeletal leaves, broken branches, a little dead robin fallen from the nest. Her neck bows so low her nose brushes the dew-damp grass. When the robin fails to live again, she huffs through her nostrils and flees behind the workshed, where you find her lipping bits of grass and trembling.

“Let’s go,” you say. “You’re overdue for a shoeing.”

You ride to Adeline’s place together. Her shoes ring steadily on the highway’s shoulder like the heartbeat of a living thing.

You once believed your unicorn could save you, but you were wrong. You have no one but each other. This has always been the truth. If anything, you are the one saving her.

 

6.

In your later years, it isn’t the things left behind that give you the most regret. It is the things you know you will have to surrender.

First you give up your vegetable garden. The squatting and bending is rough on your knees, and you just can’t seem to weed out all the yellow dandelions before they fold up and burst into clouds. Next it is the fine old apple tree after a storm leaves its branches hanging, half-dead. You hire out that chore, let a neighbor man climb the ladder with the saw and take it down limb by limb.

You drop the reins of life in stages, let the yard run wild, and ignore the dust that gathers in the bathroom grout. You let it all go so you’ll have the strength to muck out the stall and run the brush over every inch of your unicorn.

“What will we do?” you ask her, kissing her nose. “Where could we go that will take an old woman and a unicorn?”

You thought unicorns were immortal, but that isn’t true. Her rainbow mane has gone pastel, and sometimes she limps after a long ride. She’s probably going blind.

But they don’t make tiny cottages for aging unicorns. They don’t make apartments with wide, grassy pastures and a stable attached. They just make unsolicited suggestions. Give her away, your friends say. Pass her down to someone new.

But you can’t give away something you never owned, and a unicorn is no pet.

Finally, in tears, you discuss the problem with your unicorn. “Is there something I’m missing?” you ask her, your voice breaking as you lift your trembling chin to face the inevitable. “Is there any place left for both of us?”

She lips the tears from your cheeks, but she has nothing else to give but unicorn kisses, because the world has never made room for you and your unicorn. You always had to hold that space for each other.

And so you begin to make yourself smaller. You open your closets and purge the old clothes. You reach to the backs of cabinets for the expired cinnamon, the soft old bedsheets, the broken hair dryer, and you pile it on the back porch in bags to be given away or thrown out. Your unicorn noses around the wreckage, restless. She raises her nose and snuffles the wind.

When you finally take a break on the porch, drenched in sweat and aching, your unicorn ambles up to join you, flicking her tail in your face, knocking over your coffee.

“What’s gotten into you?” you grumble, but then you catch the old backpack dangling from her jaw by one worn strap.

“What is it?” you ask your unicorn.

She shakes the backpack. A can of baked beans thuds into the carpet.

“I don’t understand,” you tell her. “Do you want to go for a ride?”

She shakes the backpack again, and more things fall out. A clarinet case. A yellowed paperback. A water bottle. Everything a child might need to survive a night in the woods.

This is how your unicorn tells you in everything but words that it is time to go. It has been a long time since she surprised you, but you have learned to trust her.

Over the Crystal Stream, then. Through the Bramble Thickets. And after that, the Beyond, the two of you gliding through the forest, unicorn and rider, two halves of a perfect whole. The mud is bad in spots, yes, but there aren’t nearly as many mosquitoes as you remember. Not like when you were a child, lost and filthy and worthy you.

A fact about girls and unicorns: one is a wild, magical thing. The other is becoming one.

There is something else, something new beyond the Beyond. A whiff of sun-soaked wildflower crowns, a glittering music, a rainbow harmony whispering through the trees.

“You lied to me,” you tell your unicorn, and she whinnies back, a unicorn’s laugh. Because it is really you who were wrong, a believer in fictions, and this one most of all: that you’d learned everything there is to know about unicorns.

Your unicorn shakes her mane, tickling your face with a rainbow cloud, and you laugh, full and free. There is a place for both of you, and it’s not too late for that adventure. In fact, you’re right on time.

The sun is setting behind you. As it sinks, the rainbow path unfolds over the pine needles and mud. You’ve got good boots and insulin and your clarinet.

This time, you remember the can opener.

The Chameleon’s Gloves

Rhehan hated museums, but their partner Liyeusse had done unmentionable things to the ship’s stardrive the last time the two of them had fled the authorities, and the repairs had drained their savings. Which was why Rhehan was on a station too close to the more civilized regions of the dustways, flirting with a tall, pale woman decked in jewels while they feigned interest in pre-Devolutionist art.

In spite of themselves, Rhehan was impressed by colonists who had carved pictures into the soles of worn-out space boots: so useless that it had to be art, not that they planned to say that to the woman.

“—wonderful evocation of the Festival of the Vines using that repeated motif,” the woman was saying. She brushed a long curl of hair out of her face and toyed with one of her dangling earrings as she looked sideways at Rhehan.

“I was just thinking that myself,” Rhehan lied. A Festival of the Vines, with its accompanying cheerful inebriation and sex, would be less agonizing than having to pretend to care about the aesthetics of this piece. Too bad Rhehan and Liyeusse planned to disappear in the next couple hours. The woman was pretty enough, despite her obsession with circuitscapes. Rhehan was of the opinion that if you wanted to look at a circuit, nothing beat the real thing.

A tinny voice said in Rhehan’s ear, “Are you on location yet?”

Rhehan faked a cough and subvocalized over the link to Liyeusse. “Been in position for the last half-hour. You sure you didn’t screw up the prep?”

She snorted disdainfully. “Just hurry it—”

At last the alarms clanged. The jeweled woman jumped, her astonishing blue eyes going wide. Rhehan put out a steadying arm and, in the process, relieved her of a jade ring and slipped it in their pocket. Not high-value stuff, but no one with sense wore expensive items as removables. They weren’t wearing gloves on this outing—had avoided wearing gloves since their exile—but the persistent awareness of their naked hands never faded. At least, small consolation, the added sensation made legerdemain easier, even if they had to endure the distastefulness of skin touching skin.

A loud, staticky voice came over the public address system. “All patrons please proceed to the nearest exit. There is no need for alarm”—exactly the last thing you wanted to say if you didn’t want people to panic, or gossip for that matter—“but due to an incident, the museum needs to close for maintenance.”

The woman was saying, with charming anxiety, “We’d better do as they say. I wonder what it is?”

Come on, Rhehan thought, what’s the delay? Had they messed up setting up the explosives?

They had turned to smile and pat the woman’s hand reassuringly when the first explosives went off at the end of the hall. Fire flowered, flashed; a boom reverberated through the walls, with an additional hiss of sparks when a security screen went down. Rhehan’s ears rang even though they’d been prepared for the noise. Two stands toppled, spilling a ransom’s worth of iridescent black quantum-pearl strands inscribed with algorithmic paeans. The sudden chemical reek of the smoke made Rhehan cough, even though you’d think they’d be used to it by now. Several startled bystanders shrieked and bolted toward the exit.

The woman leapt back and behind a decorative pillar with commendable reflexes. “Over here,” she called out to Rhehan, as if she could rescue them. Rhehan feigned befuddlement although they could easily lip-read what she was saying—they could barely hear her past the ringing in their ears—and sidestepped out of her reach, just in case.

A second blast went off, farther down the hall. A thud suggested that something out of sight had fallen down. Rhehan thought snidely that some of the statues they had seen earlier would be improved by a few creative cracks anyway. The sprinklers finally kicked in, and a torrent of water rained down from above, drenching them.

Rhehan left the woman to fend for herself. “Where are you going?” she shouted after Rhehan, loudly enough to be heard despite the damage to their hearing, as they sprinted toward the second explosion.

“I have to save the painting!” Rhehan said over their shoulder.

To Rhehan’s dismay, the woman pivoted on her heel and followed. Rhehan turned their head to lip-read her words, almost crashing into a corner in the process: “You shame me,” she said as she ran after them. “Your dedication to the arts is greater than mine.”

Another explosion. Liyeusse, whose hearing was unaffected, was wheezing into Rhehan’s ear. “‘Dedication…to…the…arts,’” she said between breaths. “‘Dedication.’ You.”

Rhehan didn’t have time for Liyeusse’s quirky sense of humor. Just because they couldn’t tell a color wheel from a flywheel didn’t mean they didn’t appreciate market value.

They’d just rounded the corner to the relevant gallery and its delicious gear collages when Rhehan was alerted—too late—by the quickened rhythm of the woman’s footsteps. They inhaled too sharply, coughed at the smoke, and staggered when she caught them in a chokehold. “What—” Rhehan said, and then no words were possible anymore.

Rhehan woke in a chair, bound. They kept their eyes closed and tested the cords, hoping not to draw attention. The air had a familiar undertone of incense, which was very bad news; but perhaps they were only imagining it. Rhehan had last smelled this particular blend, with its odd metallic top notes, in the ancestral shrines of a childhood home they hadn’t returned to in eight years. They stilled their hands from twitching.

Otherwise, the temperature was warmer than they were accustomed to—Liyeusse liked to keep the ship cool—and a faint hissing suggested an air circulation system not kept in as good shape as it could be. Even more faintly, they heard the distinctive, just-out-of-tune humming of a ship’s drive. Too bad they lacked Liyeusse’s ability to identify the model by listening to the harmonics.

More importantly: how many people were here with them? They didn’t hear anything, but that didn’t mean—

“You might as well open your eyes, Kel Rhehan,” a cool female voice said in a language they had not heard for a long time, confirming Rhehan’s earlier suspicions. They had not fooled her.

Rhehan wondered whether their link to Liyeusse was still working, and if she was all right. “Liyeusse?” they subvocalized. No response. Their heart stuttered.

They opened their eyes: might as well assess the situation, since their captor knew they were awake.

“I don’t have the right to that name any longer,” Rhehan said. They hadn’t been part of the Kel people for years. But their hands itched with the memory of the Kel gloves they hadn’t worn in eight years, as the Kel reckoned it. Indeed, with their hands exposed like this, they felt shamed and vulnerable in front of one of their people.

The woman before them was solidly built, dark, like the silhouette of a tree, and more somber in mien than the highly-ornamented agent who had brought Rhehan in. She wore the black-and-red of the Kel judiciary. A cursory slip of veil obscured part of her face, its translucence doing little to hide her sharp features. The veil should have scared Rhehan more, as it indicated that the woman was a judge-errant, but her black Kel gloves hurt worse. Rhehan’s had been stripped from them and burned eight years ago, when the Kel cast them out.

“I’ve honored the terms of my exile,” Rhehan said desperately. What had they done to deserve the attention of a judge-errant? Granted that they were a thief, but they’d had little choice but to make a living with the skills they had. “What have you done with my partner?”

The judge-errant ignored the question. Nevertheless, the sudden tension around her eyes indicated that she knew something. Rhehan had been watching for it. “I am Judge Kel Shiora, and I have been sent because the Kel have need of you,” she said.

“Of course,” Rhehan said, fighting to hide their bitterness. Eight years of silence and adapting to an un-Kel world, and the moment the Kel had need of them, they were supposed to comply.

Shiora regarded them without malice or opprobrium or anything much resembling feeling. “There are many uses for a jaihanar.”

Jaihanar—what non-Kel called, in their various languages, a haptic chameleon. Someone who was not only so good at imitating patterns of movement that they could scam inattentive people, but also fool the machines whose security systems depended on identifying their owners’ characteristic movements. How you interacted with your gunnery system, or wandered about your apartment, or smiled at the lover you’d known for the last decade. It wasn’t magic—a jaihanar needed some minimum of data to work from—but the knack often seemed that way.

The Kel produced few jaihanar, and the special forces snapped up those that emerged from the Kel academies. Rhehan had been the most promising jaihanar in the last few generations before disgracing themselves. The only reason they hadn’t been executed was that the Kel government had foreseen that they would someday be of use again.

“Tell me what you want, then,” Rhehan said. Anything to keep her talking, so that eventually she might be willing to say what she’d done with Liyeusse.

“If I undo your bonds, will you hear me out?”

Getting out of confinement would also be good. Their leg had fallen asleep. “I won’t try anything,” Rhehan said. They knew better.

Ordinarily Rhehan would have felt sorry for anyone who trusted a thief’s word so readily, except they knew the kind of training a judge-errant underwent. Shiora wasn’t the one in danger. They kept silent as she unlocked the restraints.

“I had to be sure,” Shiora said.

Rhehan shrugged. “Talk to me.”

“General Kavarion has gone rogue. We need someone to infiltrate her ship and retrieve a weapon she has stolen.”

“I’m sorry,” Rhehan said after a blank pause. “You just said that General Kavarion has gone rogue? Kavarion the hero of Split Suns? Kavarion of the Five Splendors? My hearing must be going.”

Shiora gave them an unamused look. “Kel Command sent her on contract to guard a weapons research facility,” she said. “Kavarion recently attacked the facility and made off with the research and a prototype. The prototype may be armed.”

“Surely you have any number of loyal Kel who’d be happy to go on this assignment,” Rhehan said. The Kel took betrayal personally. They knew this well.

“You are the nearest jaihanar in this region of the dustways.” Most people reserved the term dustways for particularly lawless segments of the spaceways, but the Kel used the term for anywhere that didn’t fall under the Kel sphere of influence.

“Also,” Shiora added, “few of our jaihanar match your skill. You owe the Kel for your training, if nothing else. Besides, it’s not in your interest to live in a world where former Kel are hunted for theft of immensely powerful weapons prototypes.”

Rhehan had to admit she had a point.

“They named it the Incendiary Heart,” Shiora continued. “It initiates an inflationary expansion like the one at the universe’s birth.”

Rhehan swore. “Remote detonation?”

“There’s a timer. It’s up to you to get out of range before it goes off.”

“The radius of effect?”

“Thirty thousand light-years, give or take, in a directed cone. That’s the only thing that makes it possible to use without blowing up the person setting it off.”

Rhehan closed their eyes. That would fry a nontrivial percentage of the galaxy. “And you don’t know if it’s armed.”

“No. The general is running very fast—to what, we don’t know. But she has been attempting to hire mercenary jaihanar. We suspect she is looking for a way to control the device—which may buy us time.”

“I see.” Rhehan rubbed the palm of one hand with the fingers of the other, smile twisting at the judge-errant’s momentary look of revulsion at the touch of skin on skin. Which was why they’d done it, of course, petty as it was. “Can you offer me any insight into her goals?”

“If we knew that,” the judge-errant said bleakly, “we would know why she turned coat.”

Blowing up a region of space, even a very local region of space in galactic terms, would do no one any good. In particular, it would make a continued career in art theft a little difficult. On the other hand, Rhehan was determined to wring some payment out of this, if only so Liyeusse wouldn’t lecture them about their lack of mercenary instinct. Their ship wasn’t going to fix itself, after all. “I’ll do it,” they said. “But I’m going to need some resources—”

The judge surprised them by laughing. “You have lived too long in the dustways,” she said. “I can offer payment in the only coin that should matter to you—or do you think we haven’t been watching you?”

Rhehan should have objected, but they froze up, knowing what was to come.

“Do this for us, and show us the quality of your service,” the judge-errant said, “and Kel Command will reinstate you.” Very precisely, she peeled the edge of one glove back to expose the dark fine skin of her wrist, signaling her sincerity.

Rhehan stared. “Liyeusse?” they asked again, subvocally. No response. Which meant that Liyeusse probably hadn’t heard that damning offer. At least she wasn’t here to see Rhehan’s reaction. As good as they normally were at controlling their body language, they had not been able to hide that moment’s hunger for a home they had thought forever lost to them.

“I will do this,” Rhehan said at last. “But not for some bribe; because a weapon like the one you describe is too dangerous for anyone, let alone a rogue, to control.” And because they needed to find out what had become of Liyeusse; but Shiora wouldn’t understand that.

The woman who escorted Rhehan to their ship, docked on the Kel carrier—Rhehan elected not to ask how this had happened—had a familiar face. “I don’t know why you’re not doing this job,” Rhehan said to the pale woman, now garbed in Kel uniform, complete with gloves, rather than the jewels and outlandish stationer garb she’d affected in the museum.

The woman unsmiled at Rhehan. “I will be accompanying you,” she said in the lingua franca they’d used earlier.

Of course. Shiora had extracted Rhehan’s word, but neither would she fail to take precautions. They couldn’t blame her.

Kel design sensibilities had not changed much since Rhehan was a cadet. The walls of dark metal were livened by tapestries of wire and faceted beads, polished from battlefield shrapnel: obsolete armor, lens components in laser cannon, spent shells. Rhehan kept from touching the wall superstitiously as they walked by.

“What do I call you?” Rhehan said finally, since the woman seemed disinclined to speak first.

“I am Sergeant Kel Anaz,” she said. She stopped before a hatch, and she tapped a panel in full sight of Rhehan, her mouth curling sardonically.

“I’m not stupid enough to try to escape a ship full of Kel,” Rhehan said. “I bet you have great aim.” Besides, there was Liyeusse’s safety to consider.

“You weren’t bad at it yourself.”

She would have studied their record, yet Rhehan hated how exposed the simple statement made them feel. “I can imitate the stance of a master marksman,” Rhehan said dryly. “That doesn’t give me the eye, or the reflexes. These past years, I’ve found safer ways to survive.”

Anaz’s eyebrows lifted at “safer,” but she kept her contempt to herself. After chewing over Anaz’s passkey, the hatch opened. A whoosh of cool air floated over Rhehan’s face. They stepped through before Anaz could say anything, their eyes drawn immediately to the lone non-Kel ship in the hangar. To their relief, the Flarecat didn’t look any more disreputable than before.

Rhehan advanced upon the Flarecat and entered it, all the while aware of Anaz at their back. Liyeusse was bound to one of the passenger’s seats, the side of her face swollen and purpling, her cap of curly hair sticking out in all directions. Liyeusse’s eyes widened when she saw the two of them, but she didn’t struggle against her bonds. Rhehan swore and went to her side.

“If she’s damaged—” Rhehan said in a shaking voice, then froze when Anaz shoved the muzzle of a gun against the back of their head.

“She’s ji-Kel,” Anaz said in an even voice: ji-Kel, not-Kel. “She wasn’t even concussed. She’ll heal.”

“She’s my partner,” Rhehan said. “We work together.”

“If you insist,” Anaz said with a distinct air of distaste. The pressure eased, and she cut Liyeusse free herself.

Liyeusse grimaced. “New friend?” she said.

“New job, anyway,” Rhehan said. They should have known that Shiora and her people would treat a ji-Kel with little respect.

“We’re never going to land another decent art theft,” Liyeusse said with strained cheer. “You have no sense of culture.”

“This one’s more important.” Rhehan reinforced their words with a hand signal: Emergency. New priority.

“What have the Kel got on you anyhow?”

Rhehan had done their best to steer Liyeusse away from any dealings with the Kel because of the potential awkwardness. It hadn’t been hard. The Kel had a reputation for providing reliable but humorless mercenaries and a distinct lack of appreciation for what Liyeusse called the exigencies of survival in the dustways. More relevantly, while they controlled a fair deal of wealth, they ruthlessly pursued and destroyed those who attempted to relieve them of it. Rhehan had never been tempted to take revenge by stealing from them.

Anaz’s head came up. “You never told your partner?”

“Never told me what?” Liyeusse said, starting to sound irritated.

“We’ll be traveling with Sergeant Kel Anaz,” Rhehan said, hoping to distract Liyeusse.

No luck. Her mouth compressed. Safe to talk? she signed at them.

Not really, but Rhehan didn’t see that they had many options. “I’m former Kel,” Rhehan said. “I was exiled because—because of a training incident.” Even now it was difficult to speak of it. Two of their classmates had died, and an instructor.

Liyeusse laughed incredulously. “You? We’ve encountered Kel mercenaries before. You don’t talk like one. Move like one. Well, except when—” She faltered as it occurred to her that, of the various guises Rhehan had put on for their heists, that one hadn’t been a guise at all.

Anaz spoke over Liyeusse. “The sooner we set out the better. We have word on Kavarion’s vector, but we don’t know how long our information will be good. You’ll have to use your ship since the judge-errant’s would draw attention, even if it’s faster.”

Don’t, Rhehan signed to Liyeusse, although she knew better than to spill the Flarecat’s modifications to this stranger. “I’ll fill you in on the way.”

The dustways held many perils for ships: wandering maws, a phenomenon noted for years, and unexplained for just as long; particles traveling at unimaginable speeds, capable of destroying any ship lax in maintaining its shielding; vortices that filtered light even in dreams, causing hallucinations. When Rhehan had been newly exiled, they had convinced Liyeusse of their usefulness because they knew dustway paths new to her. Even if they hadn’t been useful for making profit, they had helped in escaping the latest people she’d swindled.

Ships could be tracked by the eddies they left in the dustways. The difficulty was not in finding the traces but interpreting them. Great houses had risen to prominence through their monopoly over the computational networks that processed and sold this information. Kel Command had paid dearly for such information in its desperation to track down General Kavarion.

Assuming that information was accurate, Kavarion had ensconced herself at the Fortress of Wheels: neutral territory, where people carried out bargains for amounts that could have made Rhehan and Liyeusse comfortable for the rest of their lives.

The journey itself passed in a haze of tension. Liyeusse snapped at Anaz, who bore her jibes with grim patience. Rhehan withdrew, not wanting to make matters worse, which was the wrong thing to do, and they knew it. In particular, Liyeusse had not forgiven them for the secret they had kept from her for so long.

At last, Rhehan slumped into the copilot’s seat and spoke to Liyeusse over the newly-repaired link to gain some semblance of privacy. As far as they could tell, Anaz hardly slept. Rhehan said, “You must have a lot of questions.”

“I knew about the chameleon part,” Liyeusse said. Any number of their heists had depended on it. “I hadn’t realized that the Kel had their own.”

“Usually they don’t,” Rhehan said. Liyeusse inhaled slightly at they, as if she had expected Rhehan to say we instead. “But the Kel rarely let go of the ones they do produce. It’s the only reason they didn’t execute me.”

“What did you do?”

Rhehan’s mouth twisted. “The Kel say there are three kinds of people, after a fashion. There are Kel; ji-Kel, or not-Kel, whom they have dealings with sometimes; and those who aren’t people at all. Just—disposable.”

Liyeusse’s momentary silence pricked at Rhehan. “Am I disposable to you?” she said.

“I should think it’s the other way around,” they said. They wouldn’t have survived their first year in the dustways without her protection. “Anyway, there was a training exercise. People-who-are-not-people were used as—” They fumbled for a word in the language they spoke with Liyeusse, rather than the Kel term. “Mannequins. Props in the exercise, to be gunned down or saved or discarded, whatever the trainees decided. I chose the lives of mannequins over the lives of Kel. For this I was stripped of my position and cast out.”

“I have always known that the universe is unkind,” Liyeusse said, less moved than Rhehan had expected. “I assume that hired killers would have to learn their art somewhere.”

“It would have been one thing if I’d thought of myself as a soldier,” Rhehan said. “But a good chameleon, or perhaps a failed one, observes the people they imitate. And eventually a chameleon learns that even mannequins think of themselves as people.”

“I’m starting to understand why you’ve never tried to go back,” Liyeusse said.

A sick yearning started up in the pit of Rhehan’s stomach. They still hadn’t told her about Kel Shiora’s offer. Time enough later, if it came to that.

Getting to Kavarion’s fleet wasn’t the difficult part, although Liyeusse’s eyes were bloodshot for the entire approach. The Flarecat’s stealth systems kept them undetected, even if mating it to the command ship, like an unwanted tick, was a hair-raising exercise. By then, Rhehan had dressed themselves in a Kel military uniform, complete with gloves. Undeserved, since strictly speaking they hadn’t recovered their honor in the eyes of their people, but they couldn’t deny the necessity of the disguise.

Anaz would remain with Liyeusse on the Flarecat. She hadn’t had to explain the threat: Do your job, or your partner dies. Rhehan wasn’t concerned for Liyeusse’s safety—so long as the two remained on the ship, Liyeusse had access to a number of nasty tricks and had no compunctions about using them—but the mission mattered to them anyway.

Rhehan had spent the journey memorizing all the haptic profiles that Anaz had provided them. In addition, Anaz had taken one look at Rhehan’s outdated holographic mask and given them a new one. “If you could have afforded up-to-date equipment, you wouldn’t be doing petty art theft,” she had said caustically.

The Fortress of Wheels currently hosted several fleets. Tensions ran high, although its customary neutrality had so far prevailed. Who knew how long that would last; Liyeusse, interested as always in gossip, had reported that various buyers for the Incendiary Heart had shown up, and certain warlords wouldn’t hesitate to take it by force if necessary.

Security on Kavarion’s command ship was tight, but had not been designed to stop a jaihanar. Not surprising; the Kel relied on their employers for such measures when they deigned to stop at places like the Fortress. At the moment, Rhehan was disguised as a bland-faced lieutenant.

Rhehan had finessed their way past the fifth lock in a row, losing themselves in the old bitter pleasure of a job well-done. They had always enjoyed this part best: fitting their motions to that of someone who didn’t even realize what was going on, so perfectly that machine recognition systems could not tell the difference. But it occurred to them that everything was going too perfectly.

Maybe I’m imagining things, they told themselves without conviction, and hurried on. A corporal passed them by without giving more than a cursory salute, but Rhehan went cold and hastened away from him as soon as they could.

They made it to the doors to the general’s quarters. Liyeusse had hacked into the communications systems and was monitoring activity. She’d assured Rhehan that the general was stationside negotiating with someone. Since neither of them knew how long that would last—

Sweat trickled down Rhehan’s back, causing the uniform to cling unpleasantly to their skin. They had some of the general’s haptic information as well. Anaz hadn’t liked handing it over, but as Rhehan had pointed out, the mission would be impossible without it.

Kavarion of the Five Splendors. One of the most celebrated Kel generals, and a musician besides. Her passcode was based on an extraordinarily difficult passage from a keyboard concerto. Another keyboardist could have played the passage, albeit with difficulty reproducing the nuances of expression. While not precisely a musician, Rhehan had trained in a variety of the arts for occasions such as this. (Liyeusse often remarked it was a shame they had no patience for painting, or they could have had a respectable career forging art.) They got through the passcode. Held their breath. The door began opening—

A fist slammed them in the back of the head.

Rhehan staggered and whirled, barely remaining upright. If I get a concussion I’m going to charge Kel Command for my medical care, they thought as the world slowed.

“Finally someone took the bait,” breathed Rhehan’s assailant. Kel Kavarion; Rhehan recognized the voice from the news reports they’d watched a lifetime ago. “I was starting to think I was going to have to hang out signs or hire a bounty hunter.” She did something fast and complicated with her hands, and Rhehan found themselves shoved down against the floor with the muzzle of a gun digging into the back of their neck.

“Sir, I—”

“Save it,” General Kavarion said, with dangerous good humor. “Come inside and I’ll show you what you’re after. Don’t fight me. I’m better at it than you are.”

Rhehan couldn’t argue that.

The general let Rhehan up. The door had closed again, but she executed the passphrase in a blur that made Rhehan think she was wasted on the military. Surely there was an orchestra out there that could use a star keyboardist.

Rhehan made sure to make no threatening moves as they entered, scanning the surroundings. Kavarion had a taste for the grandiloquent. Triumph-plaques of metal and stone and lacquerware covered the walls, forming a mosaic of battles past and comrades lost. The light reflecting from their angled surfaces gave an effect like being trapped in a kaleidoscope of sterilized glory.

Kavarion smiled cuttingly. Rhehan watched her retreating step by step, gun still trained on them. “You don’t approve,” Kavarion remarked.

Rhehan unmasked since there wasn’t any point still pretending to be one of her soldiers. “I’m a thief,” they said. “It’s all one to me.”

“You’re lying, but never mind. I’d better make this quick.” Kavarion smiled at Rhehan with genuine and worrying delight. “You’re the jaihanar we threw out, aren’t you? It figures that Kel Command would drag you out of the dustways instead of hiring some ji-Kel.”

I’m ji-Kel now, General.”

“It’s a matter of degrees. It doesn’t take much to figure out what Kel Command could offer an exile.” She then offered the gun to Rhehan. “Hold that,” she said. “I’ll get the Incendiary Heart.”

“How do you know I won’t shoot you?” Rhehan demanded.

“Because right now I’m your best friend,” Kavarion said, “and you’re mine. If you shoot me you’ll never find out why I’m doing this, and a good chunk of the galaxy is doomed.”

Frustrated by the sincerity they read in the set of her shoulders, Rhehan trained the gun on Kavarion’s back and admired her sangfroid. She showed no sign of being worried she’d be shot.

Kavarion spoke as she pressed her hand against one of the plaques. “They probably told you I blew the research station up after I stole the Incendiary Heart, which is true.” The plaque lifted to reveal a safe. “Did they also mention that someone armed the damned thing before I was able to retrieve it?”

“They weren’t absolutely clear on that point.”

“Well, I suppose even a judge-errant—I assume they sent a judge-errant—can’t get information out of the dead. Anyway, it’s a time bomb, presumably to give its user time to escape the area of effect.”

Rhehan’s heart sank. There could only be one reason why Kavarion needed a jaihanar of her own. “It’s going to blow?”

“Unless you can disarm it. One of the few researchers with a sense of self-preservation was making an attempt to do so before he got killed by a piece of shrapnel. I have some video, as much of it as I could scrape before the whole place blew, but I don’t know if it’s enough.” Kavarion removed a box that shimmered a disturbing shade of red-gold-bronze.

The original mission was no good, that much was clear. “All right,” Rhehan said.

Kavarion played back a video of the researcher’s final moments. It looked like it had been recorded by someone involved in a firefight from the shakiness of the image. Parts of the keycode were obscured by smoke, by flashing lights, by flying shrapnel.

Rhehan made several attempts, then shook their head. “There’s just not enough information, even for me, to reconstruct the sequence.”

Suddenly Kavarion looked haggard.

“How do you know he was really trying to disarm it?” Rhehan said.

“Because he was my lover,” Kavarion said, “and he had asked me for sanctuary. He was the reason I knew exactly how destructive the Incendiary Heart was to begin with.”

Scientists shouldn’t be allowed near weapons design, Rhehan thought. “How long do we have?”

She told them. They blanched.

“Why did you make off with it in the first place?” Rhehan said. They couldn’t help but think that if she’d kept her damn contract, this whole mess could have been avoided in the first place.

“Because the contract-holder was trying to sell the Incendiary Heart to the highest bidder. And at the time I made off with it, the highest bidder looked like it was going to be one of the parties in an extremely messy civil war.” Kavarion scowled. “Not only did I suspect that they’d use it at the first opportunity, I had good reason to believe that they had terrible security—and I doubted anyone stealing it would have any scruples either. Unfortunately, when I swiped the wretched thing, some genius decided it would be better to set it off and deny it to everyone, never mind the casualties.”

Kavarion closed her fist over the Incendiary Heart. It looked like her fist was drenched in a gore of light. “Help me get it out of here, away from where it’ll kill billions.”

“What makes you so confident that I’m your ally, when Kel Command sent me after you?”

She sighed. “It’s true that I can’t offer a better reward than if you bring the accursed thing to them. On the other hand, even if you think I’m lying about the countdown, do you really trust Kel Command with dangerous weapons? They’d never let me hand it over to them for safekeeping anyway, not when I broke contract by taking it in the first place.”

“No,” Rhehan said after a moment. “You’re right. That’s not a solution either.”

Kavarion opened her hand and nodded companionably at Rhehan, as though they’d been comrades for years. “I need you to run away with this and get farther from centers of civilization. I can’t do this with a whole fucking Kel fleet. My every movement is being watched, and I’m afraid someone will get us into a fight and stall us in a bad place. But you—a ji-Kel thief, used to darting in and out of the dustways, your chances will be better than mine.”

Rhehan’s breath caught. “You’re already outnumbered,” they said. “Sooner or later, they’ll catch up to you—the Kel, if not everyone else who wants the weapon they think you have. You don’t even have a running start, since you’re docked here. They’ll incinerate you.”

“Well, yes,” Kavarion said. “We are Kel. We are the people of fire and ash. It comes with the territory. Are you willing to do this?”

Her equanimity disturbed Rhehan. Clearly Liyeusse’s way of looking at the world had rubbed off on them more than they’d accounted for, these last eight years. “You’re gambling a lot on my reliability.”

“Am I?” The corners of Kavarion’s mouth tilted up: amusement. “You were one of the most promising Kel cadets that year, and you gave it up because you were concerned about the lives of mannequins who didn’t even know your name. I’d say I’m making a good choice.”

Kavarion pulled her gloves off one by one and held them out to Rhehan. “You are my agent,” she said. “Take the gloves, and take the Incendiary Heart with you. A great many lives depend on it.”

They knew what the gesture meant: You hold my honor. Shaken, they stared at her, stripped of chameleon games. Shiora was unlikely to forgive Rhehan for betraying her to ally with Kavarion. But Kavarion’s logic could not be denied.

“Take them,” Kavarion said tiredly. “And for love of fire and ash, don’t tell me where you’re going. I don’t want to know.”

Rhehan took the gloves and replaced the ones they had been wearing with them. I’m committed now, Rhehan thought. They brought their fist up to their chest in the Kel salute, and the general returned it.

Things went wrong almost from the moment Rhehan returned to their ship. They’d refused an escort from Kavarion on the grounds that it would arouse Anaz’s suspicions. The general had assured them that no one would interfere with them on the way out, but the sudden blaring of alarms and the scrambling of crew to get to their assigned stations meant that Rhehan had to do a certain amount of dodging. At a guess, the Fortress-imposed cease-fire was no longer in effect. What had triggered hostilities Rhehan didn’t know and didn’t particularly care. All that mattered was escaping with the Incendiary Heart.

The Flarecat remained shielded from discovery by the stealth device that Liyeusse so loved, even if it had a distressing tendency to blow out the engines exactly when they had to escape sharp-eyed creditors. Rhehan hadn’t forgotten its location, however, and—

Anaz ambushed Rhehan before they even reached the Flarecat, in the dim hold where they were suiting up to traverse the perilous webbing that connected the Flarecat to Kavarion’s command ship. Rhehan had seen this coming. Another chameleon might have fought back, and died of it; Shiora had no doubt selected Anaz for her deadliness. But Rhehan triggered the mask into Kavarion’s own visage, and smiled Kavarion’s own smile at Anaz, counting on the reflexive Kel deference to rank. The gesture provoked enough of a hesitation that Rhehan could pull out their own sidearm and put a bullet in the side of her neck. They’d been aiming for her head; no such luck. Still, they’d take what they could.

The bullet didn’t stop Anaz. Rhehan hadn’t expected it to. But the next two did. The only reason they didn’t keep firing was that Rhehan could swear that the Incendiary Heart pulsed hotter with each shot. “Fuck this,” they said with feeling, although they couldn’t hear themselves past the ringing in their ears, and overrode the hatch to escape to the first of the web-strands without looking back to see whether Anaz was getting back up.

No further attack came, but Anaz might live, might even survive what Kavarion had in mind for her.

Liyeusse wasn’t dead. Presumably Anaz had known better than to interfere too permanently with the ship’s master. But Liyeusse wasn’t in good condition, either. Anaz had left her unconscious and expertly tied up, a lump on the side of her head revealing where Anaz had knocked her out. Blood streaked her face. So much for no concussions, Rhehan thought. A careful inspection revealed two broken ribs, although no fingers or arms; small things to be grateful for. Liyeusse had piloted with worse injuries, but it wasn’t something either of them wanted to make a habit of.

Rhehan shook with barely quelled rage as they unbound Liyeusse, using the lockpicks that the two of them kept stashed on board. Here, with just the two of them, there was no need to conceal their reaction.

Rhehan took the precaution of injecting her with painkillers first. Then they added a stim, which they would have preferred to avoid. Nevertheless, the two of them would have to work together to escape. It couldn’t be helped.

“My head,” Liyeusse said in a voice half-groan, stirring, and then she smiled crookedly at Rhehan, grotesque through the dried blood. “Did you give that Kel thug what she wanted? Are we free?”

“Not yet,” Rhehan said. “As far as I can tell, Kavarion’s gearing up for a firefight and they’re bent on blowing each other up over this bauble. Even worse, we have a new mission.” They outlined the situation while checking Liyeusse over again to make sure there wasn’t any more internal damage. Luckily, Anaz hadn’t confiscated their medical kits, so Rhehan retrieved one and cleaned up the head wound, then applied a bandage to Liyeusse’s torso.

“Every time I think this can’t get worse,” Liyeusse said while Rhehan worked, but her heart wasn’t in it. “Let’s strap ourselves in and get flying.”

“What, you don’t want to appraise this thing?” They held the Incendiary Heart up. Was it warmer? They couldn’t tell.

“I don’t love shiny baubles that much,” she said dryly. She was already preoccupied with the ship’s preflight checks, although her grimaces revealed that the painkillers were not as efficacious as they could have been. “I’ll be glad when it’s gone. You’d better tell me where we’re going.”

The sensor arrays sputtered with the spark-lights of many ships, distorted by the fact that they were stealthed. “Ask the general to patch us in to her friend-or-foe identification system,” Rhehan said when they realized that there were more Kel ships than there should have been. Kel Command must have had a fleet waiting to challenge Kavarion in case Shiora failed her mission. “And ask her not to shoot us down on our way out.”

Liyeusse contacted the command ship in the Fortress’s imposed lingua.

The connection hissed open. The voice that came back to them over the line sounded harried, and spoke accented lingua. “Who the hell are—” Rhehan distinctly heard Kavarion snapping something profane in the Kel language. The voice spoke back, referring to Liyeusse with the particular suffix that meant coward, as if that applied to a ji-Kel ship to begin with. Still, Rhehan was glad they didn’t have to translate that detail for Liyeusse, although they summarized the exchange for her.

Go,” the voice said ungraciously. “I’ll keep the gunners off you. I hope you don’t crash into anything, foreigner.”

“Thank you,” Liyeusse said in a voice that suggested that she was thinking about blowing something up on her way out.

“Don’t,” Rhehan said.

“I wasn’t going to—”

“They need this ship to fight with. Which will let us get away from any pursuit.”

“As far as I’m concerned, they’re all the enemy.”

They couldn’t blame her, considering what she’d been through.

The scan suite reported on the battle. Rhehan, who had webbed themselves into the copilot’s seat, tracked the action with concern. The hostile Kel hadn’t bothered to transmit their general’s banner, a sign of utter contempt for those they fought. Even ji-Kel received banners, although they weren’t expected to appreciate the nuances of Kel heraldry.

A fighter launched from the hangar below them. “Our turn,” Liyeusse said.

The Flarecat rocketed away from the command ship and veered abruptly away from the fighters’ flight corridor. Liyeusse rechecked stealth. The engine made the familiar dreadful coughing noise in response to the increased power draw, but it held—for now.

A missile streaked through their path, missing them by a margin that Rhehan wished were larger. To their irritation, Liyeusse was whistling as she maneuvered the Flarecat through all the grapeshot and missiles and gyring fighters and toward the edge of the battlefield. Liyeusse had never had a healthy sense of fear.

They’d almost made it when the engine coughed again, louder. Rhehan swore in several different languages. “I’d better see to that,” they said.

“No,” Liyeusse said immediately, “you route the pilot functions to your seat, and I’ll see if I can coax it along a little longer.”

Rhehan wasn’t as good a pilot, but Liyeusse was indisputably better at engineering. They gave way without argument. Liyeusse used the ship’s handholds to make her way toward the engine room.

Whatever Liyeusse was doing, it didn’t work. The engine hiccoughed, and stealth went down.

A flight of Kel fighters at the periphery noted the Flarecat’s attempt to escape and, dismayingly, found it suspicious enough to decide to pursue them. Rhehan wished their training had included faking being an ace pilot. Or actually being an ace pilot, for that matter.

The Incendiary Heart continued to glow malevolently. Rhehan shook their head. It’s not personal, they told themselves. “Liyeusse,” they said through the link, “forget stealth. If they decide to come after us, that’s fine. It looks like we’re not the only small-timers getting out of the line of fire. Can you configure for boosters?”

She understood them. “If they blow us up, a lot of people are dead anyway. Including us. We might as well take the chance.”

Part of the Flarecat’s problem was that its engine had not been designed for sprinting. Liyeusse’s skill at modifications made it possible to run. In return, the Flarecat made its displeasure known at inconvenient times.

The gap between the Flarecat and the fighters narrowed hair-raisingly as Rhehan waited for Liyeusse to inform them that they could light the hell out of there. The Incendiary Heart’s glow distracted them horribly. The fighters continued their pursuit, and while so far none of their fire had connected, Rhehan didn’t believe in relying on luck.

“I wish you could use that thing on them,” Liyeusse said suddenly.

Yes, and that would leave nothing but the thinnest imaginable haze of particles in a vast expanse of nothing, Rhehan thought. “Are we ready yet?”

“Yes,” she said after an aggravating pause.

The Flarecat surged forward in response to Rhehan’s hands at the controls. They said, “Next thing: prepare a launch capsule for this so we can shoot it ahead of us. Anyone stupid enough to go after it and into its cone of effect—well, we tried.”

For the next interval, Rhehan lost themselves in the controls and readouts, the hot immediate need for survival. They stirred when Liyeusse returned.

“I need the Heart,” Liyeusse said. “I’ve rigged a launch capsule for it. It won’t have any shielding, but it’ll fly as fast and far as I can send it.”

Rhehan nodded at where they’d secured it. “Don’t drop it.”

“You’re so funny.” She snatched it and vanished again.

Rhehan was starting to wish they’d settled for a nice, quiet, boring life as a Kel special operative when Liyeusse finally returned and slipped into the seat next to theirs. “It’s loaded and ready to go. Do you think we’re far enough away?”

“Yes,” Rhehan hissed through their teeth, achingly aware of the fighters and the latest salvo of missiles.

“Away we go!” Liyeusse said with gruesome cheer.

The capsule launched. Rhehan passed over the controls to Liyeusse so she could get them away before the capsule’s contents blew.

The fighters, given a choice between the capsule and the Flarecat, split up. Better than nothing. Liyeusse was juggling the power draw of the shields, the stardrive, life-support, and probably other things that Rhehan was happier not knowing about. The Flarecat accelerated as hard in the opposite direction as it could without overstressing the people in it.

The fighters took this as a trap and soared away. Rhehan expected they’d come around for another try when they realized it wasn’t.

Then between the space of one blink and the next, the capsule simply vanished. The fighters overtook what should have been its position, and vanished as well. That could have been stealth, if Rhehan hadn’t known better. They thought to check the sensor readings against their maps of the region: stars upon stars had gone missing, nothing left of them.

Or, they amended to themselves, there had to be some remnant smear of matter, but the Flarecat’s instruments wouldn’t have the sensitivity to pick them up. They regretted the loss of the people on those fighters; still, better a few deaths than the many that the Incendiary Heart had threatened.

“All right,” Liyeusse said, and retriggered stealth. There was no longer any need to hurry, so the system was less likely to choke. They were far enough from the raging battle that they could relax a little space. She sagged in her chair. “We’re alive.”

Rhehan wondered what would become of Kavarion, but that was no longer their concern. “We’re still broke,” they said, because eventually Liyeusse would remember.

“You didn’t wrangle any payment out of those damn Kel before we left?” she demanded. “Especially since after they finish frying Kavarion, they’ll come toast us?”

Rhehan pulled off Kavarion’s gloves and set them aside. “Nothing worth anything to either of us,” they said. Once they would have given everything to win their way back into the trust of the Kel. Over the past years, however, they had discovered that other things mattered more to them. “We’ll find something else. And anyway, it’s not the first time we’ve been hunted. We’ll just have to stay one step ahead of them, the way we always have.”

Liyeusse smiled at Rhehan, and they knew they’d made the right choice.

 

From the Archives of the Museum of Eerie Skins: An Account

FIRI KANAPHAR. Born 327 RWQ (Reign of the Witch Queens of Doornwold).

TRANSCRIPT of Oral History 74

This interview was recorded using the Enchanter’s Bell cantrip, in the month of Goldenseal, on the 21st day, in the year 382 (RWQ), for the Wolfcasters Oral History Program. The interviewers are Mar Riallakin (biographer, Regalia Award-winning author of Plague Siege: The Darkest Days of Doornwold, witch of the Woodlanders) and Wraith Anaiason (sorcerer of Doornwold). The interview was transcribed by Icanthus Val (model, composer, sorcerer of Doornwold).

ABSTRACT: In this excerpt from her oral memoirs, Ambassador to the Outer Woodlanders Alliance Firi Kanaphar discusses her college years, the loss of her pelt, and the result of that loss: the first recorded magical confederacy between witch and wolfcaster communities in the “peltpatch spell.” She describes that spell (enacted on the evening of the 16th of Cinquefoil, in the year 347, at the Museum of Eerie Skins’ gala opening for the exhibit “Historical Perceptions of Wolfcasters: Past and Present”) and the application thereof upon a human person in the first recorded criminal justice sentence carried out by consensus of both wolfcaster and witch communities upon a human criminal. This led to greater regulations of witch and wolfcaster laws, their integration with existing human laws, and the appointment of Firi Kanaphar as ambassador between magical and non-magical communities.

Key Words: Firi Kanaphar, the University of Doornwold, the Museum of Eerie Skins (M.o.E.S.), wolfcasters, witchcraft, the “pelt laws”, extra-human vendetta, Warlocks Against Wolfcasters, the Wolfcaster Anti-Defamation League, Outer Woodlanders Alliance

NOTE: The interviewers’ questions have been edited out of the transcript at their request as, in Riallakin’s words, “they were mostly grunts of encouragement anyway.” Transcript was later augmented by memorabilia materials for Firi Kanaphar’s published memoir.

I packed away my pelt when I went to college. You hear stories about college, you know, in newspapers and stuff. My social life was governed by three rules: 1) don’t swig any dram you don’t pour yourself, 2) don’t leave your pelt lying around for anyone to steal, and 3) have fun, fear not, harm none.

Of course, my pelt needed a hidey-hole to keep it safe while I was gone. Mama—though a darling—has a tendency towards wanderlust: a need, as she says, “to sink her fingers/paws in the loam of every continent on our great planet.” Often, she’ll just pick up her pelt, shroud herself in its shadows, its silvery protections, its mouth of tusk-like fangs, its claws of blackest adamant, and scamper off on some adventure that usually ends with her volunteering manual labor in a witch’s garden in exchange for bed and board, or as mucker-outer for animal familiar welfare and rescue sites. That’s how she met the Witch of the Almond Grove, Mar Riallakin, who later became one of my best friends. We worked together in Doornwold during the plague years, but that was a good decade and a half after I graduated from college.

Mama’s a fine gardener; she derives immense satisfaction from pulling weeds and rooting out invasive species. She’s friends with witches from all walks of life, from all around the world. She’s not a witch herself, of course—wolfcasters can’t perform magic; we exchange that ability for our pelts, which are, in essence, the concentration of all the magic we might ever have performed, gloombright or hopedark, for the rest of our lives.

Most of us consider it well worth the price. I certainly did, so I wasn’t about to bring my precious pelt into a cheap apartment share in Doornwold. But leaving it back at Mama’s den, which she might rent out to any frog-licking, mushroom-sucking, weed-puffing, backwoods tree worshipper (not that there’s anything wrong with that) needing cheap shelter during one of her spontaneous sabbaticals, was out of the question. Her renters might burn the whole den to the ground in one of their hallucinogenic orgies, and my pelt with it—and then where would I be?

So I buried it.

There was this tree I adored and trusted, so I wrapped up my pelt in finest silk, nestled it in a box of mothballs, and set it deep among the roots.

Okay, so yeah, I occasionally worshipped trees too, what are you gonna do, call me a yokel and yodel at me? Thanks very much, I got plenty of that in college. People in the great city of Doornwold tend to view anyone from the outer woodlands with contemptuous suspicion. Ha! When they’re the ones wearing wards against us! Twists of iron on salt-soaked ribbons. Chance-found coins carried at the bottoms of pockets—the reliefs rubbed to planchet-blankness from all that touch-for-luck nonsense.

As if coins or ribbons or iron could stop a wolfcaster when she’s out for blood.

Not that we wolfcasters have some cyclical “out for blood” agenda that we regularly lose our sentience to. That prevailing myth about the negative influence of the full moon upon our folk is very harmful, and I joined the Wolfcasters Anti-Defamation League first thing my Induction year at U of DW. I still pay annual fees as an alumna to this day, even after what happened. HOWL FOR JUSTICE! as we WADLs liked to say!

Anyway, speeding up, short story, so:

My work with WADL really brought out some shoot-first, ask-no-questions later types. You know the kind. The sort of person who uses their weak-sauce urban legend conspiracy theories about wolfcasters as an excuse to decimate the local predator population. Which (as anyone with half the brains of a brain-eating amoeba knows) leads to all sorts of problems: overpopulation among grazers, the rise of mesopredators, and, like, the collapse of whole ecosystems, etc.

But never mind my soapbox.

The point is—killing wolf-wolves has no effect on wolfcasters except to make us angry. We’re nearly impossible to kill while we’re wearing our pelts—because they protect us. When we’re not wearing our pelts, we are actually impossible to kill because our pelt possesses our life force. The only way to take us down is to ferret out our pelts whenever we’re not wearing them and destroy them utterly, thereby rendering us magic-less and mortal. That way, you can kill us as easily as any other wounded animal with her back to a wall, little to lose, and teeth enough for the task no matter that they’re not as sharp now as they once were. As far as she’s concerned, buddy, it’s full moon every night, and there ain’t enough silver bullets in all the wide world to keep her from your throat.

I know. I talk a big game. Possibly I should have gone to see one of those couch-counsel witches, the kind who sit behind a clipboard, wear horn-rimmed glasses, and keep an animal familiar around for you to pet while they ask you questions, so you can come to understand yourself better, and leave their cottage knowing you can face the world with equanimity again.

(CC-certified witches are almost as good as trees. My best friend Mar swears by them, so I gave one a try once, and after that, I just kept going. But again, I was older by then and a little less on my dignity. Worth it! Highly recommend!)

You’ve probably guessed the gory bits of my story by now. But I’ll dish out the deets, why not? Maybe they’ll help you someday. Knowledge is the surest path through the woods.

(Funny: books are made out of knowledge and trees! Cut down enough trees to pack a book full of knowledge, and you have a literal path through the woods as well as a metaphorical. Not that I’m telling you to cut down trees. Don’t do that. I love trees. I may have mentioned.)

So. What happened was this.

Some dipshit from Warlocks Against Wolfcasters fixated on me after a rally where I apparently looked at him the wrong way across the picket line. He spent I don’t know how many months and how much money (his daddy had cellars full of gold) (not kidding about the cellars part) (or the gold part) (not that it helped him in the end) to find out everything about me that could be observed, suborned, researched, scried, or, like, rifled through after breaking into my apartment and going through all my drawers and also letting my cat out.

Don’t worry, animal lovers; the cat was fine. She went over to my neighbor’s apartment and scratched to be let in. My neighbor is a softy with a load of salmon sticks in her ice box for just such occasions. Eventually my cat decided to adopt her—and who was I to interfere with true love and fish treats? Besides, having a pet around invariably improves my mood, and at that time in my life I was in the mood to be angry and stay angry for the foreseeable future.

Yeah, that’s right. This WAW-dude found out, somehow, about the tree. About my pelt. And, you guessed it, he destroyed both. The tree, out of spite. Just sheer meanness.

But the pelt… the pelt he took his time with.

Look, I’d plunged three whole years of my life and buckets of money I didn’t have into the University of Doornwold’s Library and Information Science Masters program, even going the extra mile (and the extra migraine during finals) to achieve my National Chronicle Keeper’s certification—all for the chance to one day be Chief of Archives in charge of Records Management at the Historical Museum of Eerie Skins.

When that kid stalked and stole my pelt—when he cut it up into a hundred pieces—he stole that from me, too. Not just my power, my joy, and my family legacy, but my future. One of the reasons I wanted to work at the Museum of Eerie Skins so badly was because they only hire wolfcasters—on principal! Because so many institutions are so benighted that they immediately chuck you out of the hiring pool the moment they get a whiff of pelt. But the M.o.E.S. is wolfcaster-owned-and-run, and I’ve been wanting to sink dust-deep in their stacks ever since I was old enough to turn my shadow inside out and wear it.

(Okay, not “dust-deep.” Any museum archive worth its weight in paperwork—and certainly this goes for the archive at the M.o.E.S.—is spic and span as my Auntie Lupa’s pantry. Dust encourages mold.)

Because of this kid, my life was ruined.

Or not “kid” exactly. I don’t know why I keep calling him that. He was on the cusp, for sure: that age where, if he shaved, he was more likely to pop a pimple than scrape off his peach fuzz. But that doesn’t excuse him. I was his age when I moved out of Mama’s den and into Doornwold, got a job, started working my way through college. Even green as a sapling, I knew better than to stalk folks and steal and cut up their pelts and send the pieces to my victims day after day, week after week, parcel after parcel, always with a mocking postcard full of the foulest ward-alls and the most puerile slang.

At first I went to the authorities, both municipal and the university’s. The police were nicer than I expected. They took a few of the postcards (for handwriting comparisons), wrote down all my information, and promised to look into it. But they never contacted me. Well, not directly. The Chief of Police helped later, but sort of sly-like. The laws weren’t in place for handling this sort of thing officially. That all came later.

The university was even more disappointing. Remember, U of DW didn’t yet have an Office of Access and Equity. The first thing I tried after my pelt was destroyed was making an appointment with the Dean of the School of Oracles and Divination. That’s the school where my bogroll of a pelt-hacking foe was farting around with his fratdudes and other WAWboys like him, making no real attempt at a degree.

But, surprise! All the Dean could tell me was that the kid’s—young man’s—daddy was a big donor, old money, famous family of scryers, been attending U of DW for generations, and what I was accusing him of was just not possible, such a nice clean youth, very decent, yada yada. He immediately followed this up by telling me that, since I was a recent graduate, I really ought to be taking my concerns to the Office of Alumnae and not bothering him; he was much too busy.

So I went to the Office of Alumnae, and though they believed me—they were very sympathetic, kept apologizing profusely—they said they just didn’t have the infrastructure to address this kind of complaint, and had I gone to the police yet, and would I like to sign up for their next fundraiser? In other words, a wash.

Eventually, my mail stopped bringing me surprise bits of fur and filthy postcards. I spent all that winter trying to piece my pelt back together, but I was no seamstress. And even if stitching it could’ve worked, that suppurating WAWboy bubo had kept the very last piece of my pelt for his trophy. I could feel the hole in my pelt’s magic—like a window with its pane knocked out. A cold current whistled through the remnants; I feared I would never be warm again.

I brooded. I worked days at a local plant nursery, selling green things to gardeners and witches who reminded me of Mama and her friends. I worked nights at a tiny historical society owned by the Rat Folk of Doornwold, sorting donations. Tedious work, and disgusting, but fascinating. I was still an archivist, after all, even if the M.o.E.S. never hired me. And, well, a resumé is a resumé. Plus, I’m just gonna say it… Murine skinslippers? Especially the “ratcademics”? They’re the nicest, weirdest people!

Thus began my long slog toward paying down my school debts. I visited my neighbor and petted my ex-cat as often as my flagging spirits allowed. But I grew low and lower—until one evening, over tea, while I was drooping over my cup, Mabelinda (that was my neighbor’s name) said briskly, “Sit tight—this got delivered to my door by accident,” and trotted over to a little basket in the front hall overflowing with incoming mail, and plucked a flyer from the top of the pile.

It was addressed to me, from the head curator at the Museum of Eerie Skins. She was also one of the founders of WADL. Though not a university alum, she’d been invited as a guest speaker to several of my classes, and I’d done a fantastic summer internship with her a year earlier, right before this whole got-my-pelt-stolen-by-a-parasitic-tongue-eating-louse-disguised-as-an-Inductee-student thing went down.

The flyer was a call for submissions to a new exhibit at the M.o.E.S.

 

Historical Perceptions of Wolfcasters: Past and Present

16 Cinquefoil, Reign of the Witch Queens 347

Museum of Eerie Skins

For nearly three and a half centuries, Doornwold, Queen’s City, has been marked as much by war, famine, persecution, and political upheaval as by peace, prosperity, innovation, and artistic renaissance. Since the cornerstone of the city was laid, wolfcasters have been citizens here, alongside humans and witches—yet they are still treated as outsiders, animals, the meritless unkempt.

Now the M.o.E.S. is putting out a call for your stories, wolfcasters. We are asking for the loan of your artifacts, your heirlooms, your artwork, and your photographs, for an interactive exhibit premiering this fall, featuring live performance, sculpture, a series of lectures, music concerts, and a gallery of all-wolfcaster art.

Interested? Make an appointment with Yannai Baramintha, Senior Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Collections, during museum hours.

 

There was a note, written in peacock-green ink at the bottom of the flyer that read:

Firi, I heard what happened. I’m sorry. Come by the M.o.E.S. tomorrow. Bring your pelt. Best regards, Y. Baramintha.”

I took Mama with me when I went. She’d appeared at my bedroom window that night, slipping through the glass like smoke, to sit at the foot of my head. I wasn’t asleep; I was too busy crying, like most of my nights in those days.

“I could kill him,” my animal-rescuing, garden-loving, vegetarian mother offered.

“And be hunted down by warlocks?” I sniffed up everything, and tried to wipe whatever I’d missed. To no avail. Mama got me a hankie.

“I could steal back your last piece of pelt. We’ll take it to this witch I know—best quilt-maker in Amandale—and she could stitch it up good as new, with a spell upon it that…”

I reached under my bed, drew out a box of postcards, and handed her the one at the top. Mama read it.

“That gleeking fart!” she exclaimed.

I laughed behind the hankie. Mama was the most darling, the most colorful cusser in the world. And then I shrugged helplessly. “I hadn’t heard from him in so long—I thought it was all over. And then this.” I gestured at the postcard. “Anyway, you see what he said. He burned the last piece and drank the ashes with wine. There’s no getting it back.”

“We could patch your pelt with a slice of his heart,” Mama suggested, with just the glint of moonlight on her curving fangs (she hadn’t bothered to take off her pelt to chat) (which was fine, because she was soft and warm, and sat at my feet exuding a big-cat-like purr). “Weirder things have worked.”

“No,” I said. “Then you’d have to touch him. I don’t want you anywhere near him. I don’t want any of us anywhere near him.”

“Firi,” said Mama, “he seeks us out.”

She had a point, but I also knew she wasn’t about to hunt him down with me hanging onto her ankles begging her not to. She did agree to go to the M.o.E.S. with me though; Mama always liked meeting new wolfcasters, and had heard me sing Yannai Baramintha’s praises during my internship.

Yannai had a whole tea service set up for us in her office. She seemed to have anticipated Mama, in that way wolfcasters have. But the service was set for four, and there were only three of us. Yannai smiled when I raised my eyebrows at her, and then the door to her office opened again, and my unasked question was answered.

A witch walked in—Mar Riallakin, though I didn’t know her name then; she wasn’t as famous as she became after the plague years. You can always tell a witch, somehow, when they enter a room. First you get a full body tingle—“the pricking,” they call it—and then your mouth starts to water, like you’re tasting something quite spicy or sour, but also delicious, and your hair stands on end a little, and you sneeze.

I sneezed.

Mama started laughing, and exclaimed, “Mar! My favorite almond witch! How’s the grove? How’s Wraith? What are you doing so far out of the woodlands?”

“Oh,” said Mar with a fast upward fling of her hands. “I’m an alumna of U of DW too, you know. I’ve spent some time in the city. Yannai and I are old friends. She told me what happened.” She jerked her chin at me. A small square dimple flashed high in her cheek, though her bootblack eyes were far more sympathetic than amused. “That Dean of Oracles and Divination!” she exclaimed. “He’s basically the result of a jar of aspic and a moray eel getting it on and having a fish-eyed baby in the shape of a man, isn’t he?”

“I did have to take a shower after talking to him,” I confessed.

“Anyway!” Mar clapped her hands and sat, even before Yannai asked her. “I’m here representing a few of my friends. The trees have been distressed ever since that criminal destroyed one of their own to get at your pelt. A few of us woodlanders started talking to each other, Firi. We’ve started keeping an eye on you, keeping our crystals tuned to your developments. Nothing invasive, just aware. We’ve all been bending our brains trying to come up with a solution to this tragedy. A just sentence, if you will, appropriate to his crime—”

“I’ve had it told to me officially,” Yannai put in flatly, “that Doornwold’s current municipal system has no laws in place to govern this kind of hate crime. The Chief of Police was heavy-hearted about it, but says the city council chokes all petitions to address offenses against wolfcasters before they reach the ears of the queens.”

“—so we witches came up with something,” Mar continued as if she’d never been interrupted. “A workaround for your pelt. Sort of. But,” she warned me, “there’s a catch.”

Again, I was drawn to the gravity and sympathy in her eyes. I leaned forward in my seat, ignoring my tea. “Tell me. Will it stop him from doing the same to someone else?”

And though Mar spoke no word of assent, nor even nodded back at me, I felt a pact form in the air between us. All I had to do was accept it. I wouldn’t even have to say the word, just think it.

But of course, we were all civilized here, not meeting amongst the trees, and there was much to be actually discussed. Out loud.

“Please, Jaca, Firi,” Yannai gestured Mama and me toward the chairs. “Mar and I have a proposition to make.”

So there I was, at the gala opening for the wolfcaster exhibit, sitting beneath a tree. Not a real tree, though parts of it were real, scavenged from the tree he destroyed when he went after my pelt. Parts of the tree were wire, parts papier-mâché, and the leaves were all cut-outs from the nasty postcards he’d sent me. That last postcard, the one where he told me he’d burned the last piece of my pelt to ash and drank it down with wine, was pinned to the trunk like the bull’s eye of a target. The tree was “growing” out of the middle of the gallery floor of the Contemporary Art wing at the M.o.E.S.

All around me were the silver-spooniest, cream of the creamiest, dressed in their dreamiest, cash-cowiest strutters of Doornwold’s elite, hobnobbing with each other and trying to ignore me. But it was not easy.

For I was naked, draped in my tattered, patched, badly stitched-up pelt.

At my feet sat Mama, panting with a scarlet tongue, wearing her wolfcaster form. And surrounding the tree like a pack at rest was every other wolfcaster who’d contributed to tonight’s exhibit, all of them also in their pelts, pools of shadow and quicksilver and razor-sharp ivory. I was the lonely island in their midst. From the one ragged hole in my pelt, my skin shone like a dark star, and a cold wind poured through me, through my pelt, so that, no matter how many bodies filled the large gallery, it never grew warm. Even those dressed in their best velvets shivered.

Oh, and, yeah. The criminal was in attendance that evening. He and his daddy, too, both in suits of velvet. His daddy must’ve gotten wind of our unveiling. It was in all the artsy newspapers: how his disgrace of a son had stripped a wolfcaster of her pelt, not only shortening her lifespan by several centuries—or millennia—and rendering her mortal, but also destroying a witchwood tree in the process. How that crime had inspired the living sculpture at the center of tonight’s show, shame, shame, shame. So daddy’d come along, paid his big ticket price and then some, fronting strong, big and insouciant, showing off his gold ring and his gold-haired son. He wanted to show that no matter what crimes his boy’d committed, his family still had the sway to walk where they would without shame, and publicly snigger about it with everyone looking on.

But that’s what they didn’t count on, daddy and son. They didn’t count on they themselves—with their velvet suits, their sniggering and smirking and strutting superiority—being a part of our exhibit too.

And when the criminal, looking cocky and delighted, picked his way through the sea of wolfcasters to me—when he stood over me and my tree and my pelt, hands in his velvet pockets, grinning down—I took my chance.

The wolfcasters all around me turned on each other—not in anger, but in solidarity—and grasped at each other with their teeth: locking onto throats, tails, flanks, whatever they could catch and hold. Two dozen shadows flowed into a single pelt, continuous, gorgeous, a dark wind, encircling us, closing us in—and off from the onlookers.

I sprang up. I was wound so tight, I was practically a catapult. I cast my pelt from my shoulders to his. And then, before he could do anything but gape, I drew out the patch that Mar and her witch friends had made for me, with the help of Mama and the other wolfcasters—even Senior Deputy Director Yannai Baramintha. It was a small patch, made from bits of all their fur, and the magic of witches, and a drop of my blood, and I set the patch to the hole where the last scrap of my pelt would always be missing. And I sealed the pelt over him.

He didn’t deserve it. He didn’t deserve to be so beautiful.

But, A) it wouldn’t feel beautiful to him, and B) he wouldn’t know what to do with it—how to move, or speak, or eat, or even think, not without a mentor to guide him, and C) the pelt, reconstructed, could never be mine again—Mar had made that clear to me—so it might as well know some better use.

So there he was, the criminal, turning inside out before my eyes. He was becoming a thing of smoke and lightning, a night-pacer, a moon-swift. There he was, the wolfcaster I once had been—but with no way to return to his original form.

He howled, and so did my mama, and so did all the other wolfcasters. But they were howling for justice, and he was howling for terror. For terror, and because he loathed what he had become. What no one could unmake of him.

Soon his daddy was there, roaring, flashing his silver knife at my throat. But silver is an intrinsically dull metal. It will cut fruit, not flesh—not unless you’re a wolfcaster, whose shroud of shadows parts before the touch of it. But I was a mortal now, and angry. His little silver fruit knife didn’t even make me flinch.

Besides, Yannai Baramintha had made sure there was a police presence at the gallery opening that night. She was, in fact, dating the Chief of Police, who, even though she was wearing her finest gown and flowers in her hair, had a wicked right hook and wasn’t about to let even a merchant prince like Kassel Hlapendef (there, I named him) spill mortal or wolfcaster blood on her watch.

He staggered when she struck him, and roared when her officers restrained him. He managed to free himself for a heart-stopping moment. He lunged again with his silver knife—this time, at his son, who cringed away from him. But his son couldn’t do much more than cringe; he didn’t yet know how to move about in his new form.

Mama interposed herself between them. Her jaws snapped down upon Hlapendef Senior’s arm, shearing it off at the wrist. Both hand and knife fell. (Nothing permanent, damage-wise. They were able to reattach it later, at the jail.) She then, none too gently, picked up Hlapendef Junior by the tender scruff of his neck and dragged him off.

I never asked to where. Mama likely took him to meet his new mentor, who’d start by showing the new wolfcaster how to feed himself. That might take a few years, depending on his smarts and his willingness. When he got the basic mechanics down, they’d maybe start him on walking around. After years of reprogramming, Hlapendef Junior might even amount to something—at least among wolfcasters. Which didn’t mean much to the rest of the world.

As for me, I was done with him.

The week after that, Yannai hired me as a junior archivist for the M.o.E.S. Later that year, WADL appointed me to their Board of Directors, even though I was no longer a wolfcaster. I went on to do a few good things over the decades since. Life is so short now, you know, but I’ve done a few things. And however short it is, it’s also full and splendid, and terrible and magical. Even without magic. Even without my pelt.

FROM: The Firi Kanaphar Papers (yrs 347-348) | M.o.E.S. Archives

DESCRIPTION: Papers of Firi Kanaphar (b. 327 — d. 421), MSLS yr 347, include oral history, biographical items, correspondence, publications, manuscripts, memoranda, journals, and photographs relating to her student days at University of Doornwold (yrs 343-47); her membership in the Wolfcasters Anti-Defamation League (yrs 343-421); the Society of Ecological Thaumaturgists (yrs 345-350); the Outer Woodlanders Alliance (yrs 348-388); the Predator Conservation Service (yrs 350-62); the Witchwood Nature Conservancy (yrs 350-400); the Eerie Skins Union (yrs 360-80). Significant correspondents include Mabelinda the Megrimancer (witch), Princess Dora Rose of Lake Serenus (Swan Folk), Maurice of Amandale (Rat Folk), Nicolas Piper (Musician), Marline Riallakin (Witch), Wraith Anaiason (Warlock), and Icanthus Val (Warlock).

 

Access Restriction: None. Collection is open to the public.

 

(Editors’ Note: C.S.E. Cooney is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

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