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Heart Shine

For Anna-Marie McLemore, a true lantern heart

 

June in Buffalo was Komal’s favorite time, particularly early June after twilight. The gloaming, she’d read once, a fancy word for the mysterious time when day merged with night. That was when the fireflies came out.

Late one such evening when she was thirteen, she sneaked downstairs, leaving the silver lotus charm she’d been assembling from kitchen foil and scraps of green cotton, and opened the front door to check the lawn one more time. Still nothing, even when she stepped outside onto the concrete footpath. “Night-lights! Oh, night-lights! Where areeee youuuu?” she whisper-sang, trying not to disturb the hush.

Something rubbed against her ankles, a kitten so little it was really more of a ball of black fluff with ears. It stared up at her, the glint in its jewellike eyes suggesting it knew what she was looking for. She bent down to stroke its fur, but it dashed out of reach, mewling. Come on, Komal imagined it saying. An adventure!

“I can’t,” she said, striving to sound like she meant it. She started back up the walkway, and the kitten padded after her. Giggling, she knelt beside it to search for a collar. There wasn’t one. “Wait, are you lost?”

Keys jingled before her mother appeared in the doorway, dressed for a shift at the hospital. “Go to bed, jaan,” she said, balancing a pair of sneakers and her phone. “You know you can’t be out here this late.”

“Mom, look!” Komal said. But her mother frowned at her phone screen instead.

“I’ll see you in the morning.” She strode past Komal, heading for the car in the driveway, and suddenly she was zooming down the street.

Komal felt so small that she almost gave up and went inside. Mom didn’t notice anything—not how their yellow sedan could be the sun’s chariot racing between the clouds or how an acorn was a puzzle box you solved by planting it. She couldn’t even get how two sewing needles crossed was the mice version of swords. And it wasn’t only Mom; nobody except Komal ever saw those things.

But the kitten was watching her, its gaze oddly aware, and it mewled its invitation once more. Won’t you come?

No one was around to stop Komal, so this time she accepted, chasing the kitten around corners and over grassy knolls and eventually slinking toward the abandoned community playground.

The kitten paused at the rotting, graffitied boards nailed over the entrance to the drooping chain-link fence and glanced over its shoulder, plainly asking her permission to continue. Komal took in the fading sign—no trespassing—and quickly high-stepped over the half-collapsed wire.

They hurried by shards of beer bottles like jagged confetti, discarded potato chip bags as resistant to degradation as alien spacesuits, and a tattered umbrella that might as easily have been a grasping skeletal hand. Across the playground, Komal glimpsed a huddle of the bullies from school, who’d splashed coffee into her locker and posted memes of her as a barking dog. The hair on her arms bristled. She shouldn’t be here. It was so dark, and she was all alone.

Ahead, her fluffy guide—because this was an adventure, and Komal knew it—swerved under a rusty swing set and pounced into a partially concealed thicket. Relieved, she scrambled after it. But she’d been a beat too slow. The kitten had melted into the gloom, as if it were one of the myriad shadows hulking everywhere.

Komal, though, didn’t mind. The bushes were close enough to create a chamber, and thanks to the kitten, she’d stumbled upon the most delicious secret inside them.

There in the thicket, a sea of floating peridots performed a wordless opera, each note scored in gentle flashes of glowing yellow-green. No, she realized, awe sweeping through her, not peridots but fireflies. Enchantment saturated the air, dense yet drifting like mist in time with the silent symphony. Her heart thrummed in response; it knew this song. Magic. Real and true magic.

She crouched in the bushes for hours, fighting off sleep to soak up every last ounce of the fireflies’ gift, before reluctantly heading home.

It was her secret, and only hers. Not for the kids at school who looked straight through her, or the ones who treated the playground like their personal trash can while completely missing what scintillated right below their noses. Not for her parents, who had no time for anything but their hectic careers. Hers, to be sipped and savored like the best cookies-and-cream milkshake.

Every night for the rest of that summer and the one after that, Komal returned to the same hidden spot, praying and praying for an encore.

When it didn’t come, she spent her days in search of answers, turning from biology websites to tomes of older, more slippery truths.

She pored over folklore and spellcraft from all over the world—India, Scotland, the Caribbean—through interlibrary loan and public-domain rare book archives, until at last, when she was fifteen, she discovered the strange little incantation, sandwiched between a chant to charm an apsara and another to repel an aswang.

Bewinged lanterns, the folklore text had called the fireflies. Lighting the dark. They could, if invoked correctly, even light the way into those ever-elusive shifting and interlocking lands collectively labeled as Faerie. Yield up all you were and all you are, and hold your gaze steady; the cost to touch the numinous is no less than the known world.

The yellowed, silverfish-nibbled volume had cautioned her over and over that she would cease to be Komal within the boundaries of Faerie, that she’d be no better than a blank slate, someone with no history, no opinions to call her own. Untarnished as the day she was born. Komal knew that was supposed to scare her off. It didn’t.

After all, she’d never been anybody. The world had spelled that out in cosmic Sharpie. Sometimes it even felt stamped on her skin.

On the summer solstice, when the night had lifted its lace sheath to reveal the first shining rays of dawn, and the film separating the realms grew gossamer, Komal fled her house on a wave of yearning, invisible wings at her back. She raced across the playground, through the garbage blowing around, to the very brink of Faerie, and grazed its outskirts with her bare feet. The shadow kitten, just as tiny as when she’d first seen it, waited there, its head tilted in a question.

Thorns of roses the color of sapphires pierced her hands as she threw herself before the vine-clothed gates. “I have it,” she whispered, triumphant, her breath giddy and shallow as if she’d already crossed over.

Fifteen years of recollections, of attitudes and observations and experiences, all painstakingly and agonizingly excavated from her spirit and her cells, then bound together. She was ready to trade everything she’d known, especially her pointless daydreams about making magical art people couldn’t help but love, for the chance to disappear into the lands of myth and all they held.

Even though the sun was up, a cloud of fireflies emerged from beneath leaves and branches to blink at her. Do you truly desire this?

Yes, she thought, and cast the spell. All that remained was to offer up her essence, consigning it to obscurity. Her sacrifice would transform, bright as a firefly’s flame, and like a door responding to the turn of its key, the gates would swing open.

She flung the contents of her heart free of her chest.

They found her then, the jerks from school. An offhand taunt as they stalked past—“Nah, man, too ugly for me. Even I’ve got standards”—accompanied by barks and snickers right as a halo of chartreuse illuminated the gates, and Komal startled, her head whipping toward the bullies’ already-receding figures.

When she looked back at the gates, they were gone. Just another chain-link fence surrounding the deserted playground, blue roses switched out for rings of barbed wire. The fireflies, the kitten, even the vicious bullies had left her behind.

“No,” she begged the magic, her knees buckling. “Wait!”

Komal sobbed and pleaded and banged on the fence, but aside from the growl of a car engine in the distance, all was quiet. At last, she slumped to the ground, throat hoarse with shouting, knees clutched to her chest.

She’d given over everything, only to have the reward ripped from her. The book hadn’t said what would happen if the offering had been accepted but the spell disrupted. Komal knew, anyway: she’d wasted her chance, and she could still remember all of it.

The morning gave way to day, and day to evening. At dusk, Komal surrendered and returned to her lonely life, the one she’d thought she’d escaped. Where else was there to go?

A year had passed, and Komal had long since quit searching for the fireflies. She’d quit reading her books and crafting, too. She’d been fooling herself, and she knew it. Anything she ever made was childish and stupid.

She crept through the world like the ghost other people acted like she was, their eyes sliding right over her unless they needed to borrow a pen or tell her to fold the laundry. Not even the bullies bothered with her now, too busy cruising through town in their cars and making out in the cemetery.

That piece of her—had she really thought it would get her into Faerie? Why would magic want her when nobody else did?

But at sunset on the solstice, out of habit as much as boredom, she followed the memory of the opera into the desolate playground.

A boy she hadn’t seen before sat in one of the rusty swings, his feet kicking at the dirt.

Komal stiffened. She hadn’t expected anyone else to be around.

A corona of fireflies hovered over the boy’s head, blinking a language Komal couldn’t speak. Their light wreathed him, transforming the dilapidated swing set into an ivory throne and him into its ethereal monarch. He seemed amused at their message, answering in words she strained to hear.

When he caught sight of her, a luminous smile spread over his face. He hopped off the swing, delicate, filmy wings unfurling behind him. Something brilliant and yellow-green, like firefly flame, flared in his chest.

A peridot.

He was stunning, she realized, too stunning, like he’d fallen out of a fairy tale about rajas and apsaras. Suspicion made her eyebrows draw together. “Who are you?”

“A name?” The boy considered, then broke into a wicked grin. “You may call me Roshan.”

Roshan, Komal knew, meant “light.” She stared pointedly at his lambent chest. “Is that supposed to be a joke?”

“I waited for you beyond the gates,” he said, “but you failed to come through.”

Her own heart lit up. His eerie beauty, the fireflies’ doting attention, the impulsively picked name. A prince of the lampyrids, here to escort her to her real home. “The spell—”

“Was corrupted, and is no more.”

The hope, newly woken, winked out. “You talk to them?” she asked, because she had to think about something else, anything else, before the pain crushed her all over again.

His grin widened. “I do.”

Curious, she edged closer. “What do you talk about?”

“They report all the scandals. Which of the fawns is the biggest mama’s boy. Which hare ate the other hare’s lettuce when his back was turned. Such drama in the forest!”

“No, they don’t!” she blurted, suppressing a laugh. “Really?” The idea of her magical little night-lights gossiping was so ridiculous.

Roshan held up his hands, and his crown of fireflies twinkled like a constellation. “All right, all right; you found me out. The fireflies of your world do serve as our scouts, but they tell us tales of marvels such as electric carriages and machines that spit out treats in exchange for a coin. Naturally, I had to come see for myself. And”—he turned a thoughtful brown gaze on her—“meet you.”

“Me?” Komal longed so badly to believe him, but it made no sense. Why would he possibly care about meeting her?

“You think you’re nothing.” Anger tinged his melodious voice. “But it is always the outsiders who see more clearly.”

Komal eyed him, then his peridot heart, confused. He spoke in riddles, and she’d never been very good at those.

Roshan’s mouth curved up, and he offered her his arm. “I believe you have things to show me?”

The last thing Komal wanted was to leave the playground without her impossible firefly prince, but she explained that she couldn’t just bring a strange boy home at night. While her parents might generally be oblivious, they did have their rules.

“Is that all?” Roshan said, and laughed. He morphed into a firefly and flew next to her ear. When he blinked, she could understand him, her heart pinging and swelling with the recognition of magic, exactly as it had the night of the opera.

They wandered home through the dark, trailed by Roshan’s dazzling companions, who chased away the menacing silhouettes like steadfast sentries. From all her research, Komal knew not to count on that loyalty; the fey often twisted the truth to trick mortals out of their dearest qualities and possessions, leaving them brimming with regret for what they’d lost. But she was willing to take that risk. After all, she’d asked for magic.

She unlocked her front door with the stealth she’d perfected over many nights of sneaking out and slipped up the stairs, washed in Roshan’s subtle glow.

In her room, Roshan became a beautiful boy again. Having him there should have been scary and thrilling, and it was—but in a mesmerizing way, not a romantic one. Roshan wasn’t like the boys at school. For one thing, even folded, his wings glimmered in the light of her lamp. His ornate kurta had been woven from grass and threaded with gold, and his matching gold dupatta rippled as if in a breeze. He demanded to know everything about her phone and her laptop and asked her to play a movie for him. “Fascinating,” he said, his peridot heart smoldering as she scrolled through the options.

It had been a long time since she’d thought like that, but watching him investigate the power strip that plugged into an outlet on the wall, something most people wrote off as mundane, she could almost remember how it felt.

Close to dawn, when Komal couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer, Roshan resumed his firefly shape and nestled on the windowsill. She tried hard not to sleep, sure that when she woke up, he wouldn’t be there.

But she did sleep, and when she emerged from her dreams of blue roses, he was sitting in the chair, reading a novel from her bookshelf. He closed the book, marking his page with a finger, and smiled. “Mortal imagination is its own kind of portal. How did you sleep?”

“Fine. Don’t go anywhere,” she ordered, and he flipped open his book. She brought up frozen waffles with berries and syrup and mismatched glasses of orange-pineapple juice. Roshan marveled at each of them in turn.

Mostly, though, Komal noted, he studied her. Assessed, as if there was anything special about her. It made her flush, and it made her mad. She wasn’t special, but going to Faerie would have fixed that.

Once he’d assured her that both his peridot flame and his wings would remain invisible to most people, Roshan reminded her that he’d come here to play. He began to make requests—first, a visit to a grocery store. Komal protested; she couldn’t think of anywhere more tedious, but he insisted.

The aisles and aisles of processed food and waxy produce, the harsh fluorescent bulbs, and the self-checkout counters all astounded him, as did the shoppers on their phones while pushing their carts. “This is the most peculiar market I have ever come across. I cannot decide whether I find it wondrous or horrific!”

“Horrific, obviously,” Komal told him.

“Perhaps,” he said, his expression mischievous. “Or perhaps wonder and horror are not so far apart.”

“What does that mean?” she asked, wary, but he busied himself examining a candy bar.

Another afternoon, they walked past the high school, keeping the concrete monstrosity at a safe distance. Komal made a face. “This is my school.”

“Ah, a center of knowledge! Is that where you learned of us?” Roshan asked. He’d been weaving her an elegant circlet of daisies and violets to go with her silver lotus charm after he’d found it shoved in the closet along with her other former projects. Burning with shame at his discovery—they were so painfully clumsy—she’d changed the subject, but she hadn’t been able to stop him from claiming the charm for his own.

“Yeah, right. I hate this place,” Komal confided. “I hate it here. I hate this town.” She gestured to the circlet. “If I wore that here, I’d never hear the end of it.”

Roshan frowned but said nothing.

Another day still, they took a bus to a nearby theme park and rode all the rides until they got dizzy. “There’s hardly any real risk of falling,” Roshan grumbled, “given that I can save us with my wings, and I see no good reason to wait in such long lines for the privilege of feigning otherwise.”

But before they left, he asked Komal to buy him a souvenir from the gift shop, an enamel pin of a gleeful, pink-furred fox with a purple tail. To her chagrin, when he touched it, the fox leaped clear of the backing and darted away before they could catch it.

“Free,” Roshan observed, visibly pleased with himself.

“Hey!” said Komal, much less enthused. “Not free. That cost me twenty-one bucks!”

For two weeks, they played complicated video games and cooked pouches of broccoli-cheddar macaroni and cheese for picnics in the forest with the fireflies and traded stories while drinking icy bottles of cherry Coke. “This tastes nothing like a true cherry,” Roshan announced, but he gulped his soda down, anyway, and then stole hers.

Komal knew this couldn’t last—she’d been incredibly lucky that he’d sought her out to begin with, despite the spell having failed. School would resume soon, and her parents, mostly absent as they were, had been wondering why the food in the fridge and pantry kept dwindling so fast and why she was rarely home anymore. But with Roshan at her side, everything about her life felt better. Like someone had taken a paintbrush and dabbed on a much-needed coat of gloss.

Best of all, he’d only asked to have adventures. As he’d put it, to play. So far, he’d never tried to flirt, never pushed for anything else. All she had to do was enjoy the fact that, for once, she wasn’t alone.

“Why are you sad?” Roshan asked one evening, interrupting his own story about a yaksha and a selkie. From his descriptions so far, it seemed to Komal that humans had gotten some details about the mythic lands right and invented the rest. “You cast the spell because you’re sad. Tell me why.”

He’d taken her off guard, and the familiar pain gushed forth. “What is there to tell? I don’t belong anywhere. I used to be stupid enough to tell people I believe in magic, and they laughed at me. Now they all ignore me. Even my mom and dad have more friends than I do.” She sucked in a huge breath and added, “I’m a capital-L loser, and everyone knows it. Happy?”

For a moment, she hated Roshan for making her admit how pathetic she was. Then it turned to panic. Now that he knew, he’d leave, too. Her magic prince. Her—if she was honest with herself—only friend.

His gemstone heart coruscating with its firefly flame, Roshan rose from his spot on the floor and sat down next to her on the bed. She braced for a lecture, something along the lines of don’t feel sorry for yourself when so many people have it worse, but he only held out his arms. When she nodded, he pulled her close and stroked her hair.

“Everybody else knows how to get along, you know?” she went on, laying her head on his shoulder. “I’m the weirdo. The freak. How am I supposed to live my whole life like this?”

Roshan hugged her tighter, his wings enveloping them both like a blanket.

“I know my parents love me,” she babbled, because she did know and because she didn’t want to seem ungrateful. “I know their jobs are really important. But do they really have to be so busy all the time? Shouldn’t I be important, too?”

Foil crinkled as he wove the lotus charm into a lock of her hair.

“I thought . . . I thought people might love my art, at least. But they don’t. I don’t matter. It hurts.”

“There is a sort of alchemy possible in liminal spaces, the kind outsiders inhabit,” he said, but one of her tears dripped onto his shoulder, and he stopped talking and just let her cry.

A few nights later, as the weather slid into the languid heat of mid-July, Roshan asked if they could go back to the swing set where she’d first stumbled upon him.

Komal felt uneasy, but she agreed.

Hand in hand, not caring how it looked or who might notice, they strolled through the streets and into the playground. Roshan’s presence made everything feel like the borderland to Faerie, even the garbage and graffiti. Overhead, the stars sparkled like a cool imitation of the fireflies and their flame, and the moon silvered her steps.

She’d been satisfied, Komal finally conceded, even happy. Having her own firefly prince had changed everything.

They reached the other side of the playground, stopping short of the chain-link fence with its curls of barbed wire. “This is far enough,” Roshan said.

“Far enough for what?” Komal asked, though she didn’t think she’d like the answer.

Roshan grew fainter, his shape vaguely translucent. “What if I told you I didn’t come here merely to play?”

There it was, the trick all the folklore had warned her about. The price of their unspoken bargain. He wanted something from her. The tension Komal had been holding for weeks relaxed, only for her body to steel itself against whatever he was about to say next.

Roshan smiled as if from behind frosted glass. But nothing could dull the jewel in his chest, which glowed like an enchanted ember. It didn’t matter that only Komal could see it; it was more real than any other part of him.

She dropped her head. Seeing him this way hurt too much. “You want to go back, don’t you?”

“Fireflies don’t live long in your world.”

“I know,” she said miserably. “A couple of weeks.” He nodded, cupping her chin so she had to meet his attentive eyes. “But you’re not just a firefly!”

Sympathy flickered from his peridot heart, its sheen reflected in his face. “No, I am not.”

“Take me with you,” Komal begged. “I did the spell.” She didn’t know how she was supposed to live what was left of her life in this boring world if she couldn’t at least have the balm of magic.

“I cannot. The spell was—”

“Corrupted. I know. But my offering was accepted!”

“Komal,” Roshan said sternly, “hear me now, and hear me well. It was not accepted.”

The word struck her like a cudgel. “Of course it was. I saw it.”

“It was transmuted, then held in trust for the day it could be restored to you.” The peridot blazed fiercely, a living gem calling to her. “You never passed through the gates, so the offering was incomplete. I came to give it back to you.”

Somewhere deep inside, Komal had nursed the thought that if Faerie had her essence, there was still a chance. That Roshan had come to find her for that reason, and he’d put off telling her so. But if even her gift hadn’t been good enough?

She sagged, the old loneliness too heavy to bear. “Nobody wants me, not even you.”

“You misunderstand. We chose you.” Roshan’s heart flashed, so warm and captivating. “I’m returning your wonder. Your vitality. Both things far too precious to discard so heedlessly, as you would have done.”

Chose her? As what, his princess? Komal didn’t understand.

“Let me show you,” he murmured.

He was so close, and his mouth looked soft. She leaned forward in spite of herself, eager to know what he had to share. Their lips brushed with the slightest of flutters, as if he’d already dissipated, and she was kissing a zephyr. Light circulated between them, the diffuse yellow-green radiance staining Komal’s vision.

When Roshan stepped back, his fading chest was dark. Now Komal was the one with a lamp for a heart, chartreuse and softly blinking like she’d swallowed one of her beloved night-lights. Its luminescence, the core of her she’d tried so hard to erase, flowed swiftly, a gleaming river with tributaries throughout her body.

Roshan beamed at her. “This was always yours. I was only keeping it for you.”

A veil had been removed from her eyes, or maybe added back: she could see the shimmer of the shadows and hear the sigh of a moth. She felt so many things, mostly sorrow. So many S words; was this sacrifice or suffering? “If this is wonder, I’m not interested. Not if it means you’re leaving.”

“The others will watch over wherever you are in the world,” he said. “You bear the key now; with it, you can open the gates.”

“I just can’t go through. Great.” But she laughed a little to offset the bitterness.

These gates will not open to you again—but one day, another pair will. When you are done here.”

The illumination in her chest was so sweet Komal was afraid to breathe. “Why do I have to wait?” she whined, hating how petulant she sounded. “What’s here for me?”

Roshan gestured to her heart. “Faerie marked you as an ambassador. You’ll be a night-light to others who need help through the darkness, and when your work is done, should you still wish it, you will find a place among us.”

She tipped her chin down, taking in her peridot heart. It was her, so strong and vivid.

Roshan circled around and tapped her shoulder blades. The wings she’d always longed for, the wings she’d always been certain were there, but pinioned so deep she’d never be able to reach them, unfurled and began to beat. Over her shoulder, she could glimpse their iridescent veining.

“No one will ever see them,” she mumbled, overcome. “Will they?”

“Those with lantern hearts like yours will, those also in search of the gates. How you view the world,” he whispered, his form less than an outline now, “that’s the key. You know how to seek the magic, and as long as you look, it will always be revealed to you, through all the fluorescent lights and misunderstandings and alienation. Your duty will then be to remind others.”

Out of words, Komal nodded. She had wings. She had a peridot heart. Faerie had chosen her after all.

A perfume a nagini queen might wear wafted through the night. The silver lotus charm materialized in Komal’s grip, its aluminum foil softened into the silky petals of her vision, its stalk no longer cotton but alive. Maybe no one else could perceive the difference, but she did.

“You are not invisible,” Roshan said, an instant before he vanished altogether. “Those who matter will always see you. I do.”

As though to underscore that, the shadow kitten twined itself around her ankles and purred.

And as Komal gazed around the forgotten playground, the fireflies soaring above like miniature comets, her own lantern heart igniting the darkness, she knew he was right.

 

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

River, Clap Your Hands

Night

All night long, the weary sound of water dripped from the roof into the bucket below, eroding her dreams. Ava woke from a sleep which bore her like an ocean, her mind still filled with the raindrop drum. The moon had veiled its face so that the stars could not see her cry. She woke and saw the street alive. She remembered when the neighborhood was submerged. She remembered when she was ruined by waters, ruined and resurrected by waters that bore spent seeds, the corpses of trees, and times that would never come again. Neither born nor named, time swam lifeless inside her and the lifeless tides swam with her. Ava touched damp garments that clung to her skin, close as guilt.

Watching the early morning walkers with their dogs at their sides, Ava was reminded that she lived among a people who believed in seasons. She lived among those who believed in the story and the song, among people who believed in prayer. Yet she knew nothing but the language of loss in a landscape she no longer recognized.

Ava rubbed her palm across the empty bowl of her stomach. Now she longed for the days when she felt full, when the nausea filled her and all she could taste was the salt from the stale crackers she nibbled on. Longing gnawed at her brain, consumed her waking thoughts. She never had the chance to hold it.

 

Rain

Rain made her anxious. The river swelling outside beyond the bluff filled Ava with dread. The rain fell faster, harder than it had last night. Outside, the walkers had long since scattered. Only the hardcore remained, refused to retreat. All was a sheet of gray steel. Inside, her mind was pitch black, except the brief flashes of light that stung the sky of memory. The couple who came for her, flashlights in hand, the beams reflecting off the violent waters that careened outside her door. Paralyzed, her body was caught in between. Trapped between a birth and a transformation. The old house had become a ship, tossed along the siren’s song. Long after, terror filled her, even on the brightest days, flashbacks of all that she had lost. She was weary, tired of losing what she’d never had.

“Maybe it’s a blessing,” Grandmama said. “Maybe the Lord didn’t want you to have that child. Birthing in the middle of all that strife. The Lord spared him.” Grandmama was convinced the child was a boy.

“You carrying that baby mighty low,” she had said. But that was then, before the first gills came.

“Sometimes, I wish He had spared me.”

Grandmama sucked in air, a tone to freeze eardrums. Her eyes were cool water.

 

Wine

She had loved him. Most nights Ava told herself she had. She missed the way his fingers traced her flesh, the way his eyes widened, marveling at her smooth palms and their missing lifelines. She remembered him tracing the curve of throat, him lingering there until she could not breathe, the simple pleasure before his tongue found the gills. He had drawn away as if her touch had stung him. She never would forget his fear staring back at her, pupils dilated in widening circles, receding like the ripples in the river, him pulling away like the tide of the sea.

That night she drank red merlot, glass after cheap glass, and listened to Aretha, feeling like everything but a natural woman. That night her mind was all rivulets and rock pools. She spent the evening ruminating, returning to the same eye of water. Ava added three teardrops of pokeroot to her glass, and felt her throat constrict and release. Grandmama’s rootwork. She always had a recipe but nothing could fix this, heartbreak. The flesh had grown raw and itchy inside, a wound that would not heal. Suddenly a soul in the lost and found didn’t sound so unnatural to her. She had felt more than good inside, more possible with him. Now she felt undone, in flux. She was turned inside out. It was some time after the third or fourth glass, when the wine dribbled down her chin like ruby drops of blood, that she realized it was not his absence she mourned. It was the willful blindness that his presence helped her hide. Now how would she hide from herself?

 

Bridges

When Ava was a child her mother recited poems to her. Fierce poems of fault lines, of rivers turned, of a great tortoise whose back was as wide as the river’s hips, of ancient paths lost and regained. They would emerge from beneath the Old Bridge. Together they dried themselves on the river’s shore and watched the two trains running overhead. The air stung. It would take hours for Ava to perfect the rhythm of breathing. Sometimes drifters would leave piles of driftwood, old bottles, used cans. Her mother would make a fire and with a stick she would carve old signs and symbols in the soil. On those cool, mosquito-filled nights, Ava swatted flies and was warmed by her mother’s company. Comforted by her mother’s voice, her gills receded into her flesh, disappeared with the wind.

Mama kept her secrets close. Tight as water skins. “The Old Bridge is not the first bridge. Another lies in the water below,” Mama had said, motioning with her hand. The thin membrane of webbing had finally dried and dropped away. It lay in scaly piles in the sand. “The first bridge was the river’s spine, the Great Turtle. Our people swam across it, drifting finally into these waters. The first people we met lived up there, high on the hills.” The high bluffs of the quiet river city were Ava’s first glimpse of what would later become her home. Mama kept her secrets close. Ava learned this when she woke and discovered that she was alone. Mama had left her sleeping on the river’s bank.

 

Hunger

When the river came alive, it hungered. It grew teeth and rose from its banks, swallowed the parks, the bending paths, the abandoned cars, the empty lots filled with broken glass, and encircled the bone yard, and the house. Ava woke to the sound of water running, like a faucet left on, and at first she thought it was a dream. She often dreamed of the river, the banks where her mother left her all those years ago, before the tall fishing man discovered her weeping by the still smoldering fire, before he took her home where she met Grandmama. But when Ava opened her eyes she realized the water had joined her, and that if she did not rise it would cover her and all the room. Then the cramps came, thunder deep below her chest. The baby, it was coming too soon. The water had awakened it. The water called to them both. Ava felt the gills open on her neck, the skin lengthen and stretch between her fingers. She needed to get out of the water, she needed to resist its call. Trapped between the birth and her own transformation, she climbed onto the top of the desk, then took a breath, plunged into the water’s oily depths, swam out the door, in search of Grandmama.

 

Hearts

It was the blame in their eyes that made Ava shun their company. The silent accusation made her huddle in the staging area on her own. People wanted to know why, couldn’t understand how. The mayor said to go. Staying wasn’t part of anyone’s plan. “Why?” was the question that rested on everyone’s lips. Why did Ava and so many others decide to ride out the storm? How could they not know the storm would ride them?

Grandmama once told Ava that her husband’s heart had just stopped. “It knew Amp wasn’t gon’ never quit working, so his heart just revolted against itself.” She said she found him lying on the floor. He had lain down himself. “He came from a people who always used their hands. Sometimes,” she said, “against themselves. But not my Amp. He built this house when we married, built it before your daddy was even born. I guess it’s good he didn’t know his boy wasn’t gon’ live long as him. In his way your daddy’s heart revolted, too. Sometimes it ain’t good to love so much in this world.” For Ava and Grandmama, the house and its memories were all that they had left.

To keep the house when her husband died, Grandmama cleaned cracked china and porcelain bowls, shined broken mirrors and windows that stayed closed. Her hands cooked meals for dinners she was never invited to, graced tables with straightback chairs where she could not sit. Where she worked she heard haints in the halls and would return in time to make Ava’s late-night dinners, telling her stories that left her amused, enthralled. She complained that there was nothing truly alive in some of those other grander houses, the walls had veins with no blood in them. Grandmama said a house has got to breathe, got to have some soul and a little laughter to make its foundation stay strong, said not every house, not every family can carry the weight. She said what Ava and she shared made their home more beautiful, more sacred than the fanciest castle. Ava believed her, too, right up until the water came and took her past and future, her home and her baby.

 

Loss

Long after they lost their house in the flood, after they moved to another river city, Grandmama stood in line with hollow-faced folks. Worried and weary, she waited like the others to get her pills. The churches collected toothpaste and brushes, brought clothing and prayers. The kindness made the loss less sharp. The city’s humid heat made them feel less naked. “But feeling clean don’t help me sleep,” Grandmama said. The water haunted her dreams, too. So she waited and swallowed pills she knew by color, tried to muster up an appetite to eat. Grandmama missed her garden and her homemade cha cha. Ava missed her baby.

 

Pain

When Ava found Grandmama, she was upstairs still asleep in her bed. The look on her face was pure disbelief. She refused to leave the house without getting herself dressed.

“I’m not going with all my business hanging out,” she cried. “If the Lord gonna take me, I am at least going to have on my good dress.” The pain in Ava’s face made her stop.

“What’s the matter, child?”

“The baby,” Ava managed. “It’s coming, I can’t stop it.”

“Stop calling that boy ‘it,’ and come help me pull down this ladder.” The water was rising up the steps. Framed photos, dishes, and books floated just below them. It took all Ava’s strength to help her Grandmama up into the attic. The pains came so strong, she wanted to lie down in the murky water and let the flood carry her wherever it willed. “Come on, Ava,” her Grandmama said, reaching for her. They waited in the attic, darkness all around them. “We in God’s hands now.”

 

Air

While the water rose and their lone flashlight faded, Grandmama hummed and sang. She began with the stories Ava heard as a child, the ones that told of a people who came from water, who lived and breathed it, the way the others swallowed air. The infant Ava had loved and feared rested in a worn sheet between them. Its skin felt smooth and warm to Ava’s touch, but she knew when Grandmama first held it, that there was something wrong. The child, a boy, never took its first breath.

It was Grandmama who heard the people screaming below. She called back, thankful already though they had not yet been delivered. Racked with pain so deep it seemed to sear her belly, Ava managed to rise from grief, the blood slick and running down her knees. She took the flashlight and knocked out a hole in the roof. With each strike, the rain came faster, her tears harder.

“We’re here,” Grandmama shouted. Ava did not wait for the reply below. As Grandmama stood up, widening the hole with her shoulders and waving to the couple in the boat, Ava took the silent child, caressed its little winged limbs and released it into the water and the night. It was dark, later they would need a flashlight just to see the food they ate, but then, hovering in the house that was once her shelter, all Ava wanted was to see her child’s face. For a moment Ava thought she saw the tiny body shudder as the water covered it. Inside she felt her heart revolt. He came from a people who always used their hands. Sometimes against themselves. Ava turned away, her face full of tears.

“What did you do?” Grandmama cried. Her eyes were fetid floodwaters, her voice cold enough to stop a heart.

 

Silence

The house they loved was a waterlogged corpse, but the city was not all they left behind. Something had changed. The water between them had darkened and risen like the river and the flood. They spoke in clipped sentences. Grandmama slept as much as she could, while Ava dreamed awake. She replayed each second of memory, trying to recall if she had imagined the infant wriggling, picturing if and how the child might have lived.

 

Thirst

The night rain came and invaded her sleep as stealthily as the night of the hurricane, Ava woke with a hangover and one question on her mind. She flung the coverlet back, placed one bare foot on the hardwood floor. Stood in the open door, wearing her good slip, wrinkled and wine-stained. She took a deep breath, inhaled the rain and the sunshower air. Grandmama had answered her call on the first ring.

Now, after making their way to the river’s bank, Ava slipped out of her shoes, stepped into the muddy water. The river whispered around her ankles and her feet.

“Listen,” Grandmama said, the weeds and trees swayed behind her. “The river is trying to tell you something: move, change. If your mama hadn’t gotten lost, if she had stuck to another plan, she never would have met your father.” Grandmama bent and picked up the shoes, shook loose soil from the soles. “Here, at the riverside, is where they began. When she left the last time, she knew your daddy would return to the same place where he first met her. She knew he would never stop searching, never stop remembering. Sometimes it’s dangerous to love that much.”

Ava had peeled off her dress and stood in the open air, the wind brushing her nipples, still plump with mother’s milk. Her daddy had said she had her mother’s face, strong bones, wide nose, wider forehead. Moon-marked, Grandmama had said, so she kept her in the sun. The closer Ava got to the river, the less air her lungs needed to breathe. She felt dizzy, her skin tingled and writhed with thirst. “Being lost helped us find you, Ava. You always thought the river took something from you, took your mama away, broke your daddy’s heart, but maybe the river gave you something more.”

Skin that was once dark and burnished now took on a copper-like sheen. Scales that were barely detectible appeared more pronounced. Ava began to walk into the waters, not far from the strip of sand where her mother had once told her lies and read her poems.

“I’m not mad, Grandmama, not anymore,” Ava said. She unraveled the thick French braids she wore. Her hair puffed around her shoulders in a dark, wavy cloud. “I just need to try to find him. I know what I saw, know what I felt. I think he’s alive.”

Grandmama waved away a witch doctor who hovered near her ear. “If you’re going, you need to listen to the river when you can’t hear me. She ain’t going to tell you nothing wrong. Listen to her now. She is telling you that there ain’t no shame in changing. Baby, you are what you are. You come from this here water, but you also are part of this land. All them years I tried to keep you safe from this,” Grandmama pointed at the Mississippi, “but when I wasn’t looking, the river come to take you back anyway. So find what you love most from both of those things that make you, and then you go on out in this world and make yourself.”

Ava walked deeper into the shallow water, felt the river whispering, pulling all around her. Grandmama clutched the blue sandals, crushed the sundress to her chest. “You don’t want to listen to me, then go ahead, listen to the river. It’s been calling you since you were born. The water is wise. When you feel there ain’t no other way, do like this river do and bend.”

Grandmama stood away from the water, heels planted in the sandbar, as if she was afraid the river would rise and take her, too. Unwilling to leave on bad terms, but unable to stay now that they were good, Ava rushed out of the water to give her Grandmama one final hug.

And then, as if the sky had waited for this moment, the rain stopped. The only echo was Grandmama’s whispered “Be good, girl. I hope to be here when you come back,” and the hush of the river wind. Ava took a deep breath, inhaled the last of the sunshower air. Humidity wrapped around her ankles, pulled her closer to the bank.

Sunlight shimmered

on the brown river’s surface

the gold mermaid smiled

 

They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass

It’s noon, the middle of wheat harvest, and Tris is standing on the edge of the field while Bill and Harris and I drive three ancient combine threshers across the grain. It’s dangerous to stand so close and Tris knows it. Tris knows better than to get in the way during harvest, too. Not a good idea if she wants to survive the winter. Fifteen days ago a cluster bomb dropped on the east field, so no combines there. No harvest. Just a feast for the crows.

Tris wrote the signs (with pictures for the ones who don’t read) warning the kids to stay off the grass, stay out of the fields, don’t pick up the bright-colored glass jewels. So I raise my hand, wave my straw hat in the sun—it’s hot as hell out here, we could use a break, no problem—and the deafening noise of eighty-year-old engines forced unwillingly into service chokes, gasps, falls silent.

Bill stands and cups his hands over his mouth. “Something wrong with Meshach, Libby?”

I shake my head, realize he can’t see, and holler, “The old man’s doing fine. It’s just hot. Give me ten?”

Harris, closer to me, takes a long drink from his bottle and climbs off Abednego. I don’t mind his silence. This is the sort of sticky day that makes it hard to move, let alone bring in a harvest, and this sun is hot enough to burn darker skin than his.

It’s enough to burn Tris, standing without a hat and wearing a skinny strappy dress of faded red that stands out against the wheat’s dusty gold. I hop off Meshach, check to make sure he’s not leaking oil, and head over to my sister. I’m a little worried. Tris wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important. Another cluster bomb? But I haven’t heard the whining drone of any reapers. The sky is clear. But even though I’m too far to read her expression, I can tell Tris is worried. That way she has of balancing on one leg, a red stork in a wheat marsh. I hurry as I get closer, though my overalls stick to the slick sweat on my thighs and I have to hitch them up like a skirt to move quickly.

“Is it Dad?” I ask, when I’m close.

She frowns and shakes her head. “Told me this morning he’s going fishing again.”

“And you let him?”

She shrugs. “What do you want me to do, take away his cane? He’s old, Libs. A few toxic fish won’t kill him any faster.”

“They might,” I grumble, but this is an old argument, one I’m not winning, and besides, that’s not why Tris is here. “So what is it?”

She smiles, but it shakes at the edges. She’s scared and I wonder if that makes her look old or just reminds me of our age. Dad is eighty, but I’m forty-two, and we had a funeral for an eight-year-old last week. Every night since I was ten I’ve gone to sleep thinking I might not wake up the next morning. I don’t know how you get to forty-two doing that.

Tris is thirty-eight, but she looks twenty-five—at least, when she isn’t scanning the skies for reapers, or walking behind a tiny coffin in a funeral procession.

“Walk with me,” she says, her voice low, as though Harris can hear us from under that magnolia tree twenty feet away. I sigh and roll my eyes and mutter under my breath, but she’s my baby sister and she knows I’ll follow her anywhere. We climb to the top of the hill, so I can see the muddy creek that irrigates the little postage stamp of our cornfield, and the big hill just north of town, with its wood tower and reassuring white flag. Yolanda usually takes the morning shift, spending her hours watching the sky for that subtle disturbance, too smooth for a bird, too fast for a cloud. Reapers. If she rings the bell, some of us might get to cover in time.

Sometimes I don’t like to look at the sky, so I sprawl belly-down on the ground, drink half of the warm water from my bottle and offer the rest to Tris. She finishes it and grimaces.

“Don’t know how you stand it,” she says. “Aren’t you hot?”

“You won’t complain when you’re eating cornbread tonight.”

“You made some?”

“Who does everything around here, bookworm?” I nudge her in the ribs and she laughs reluctantly and smiles at me with our smile. I remember learning to comb her hair after Mom got sick; the careful part I would make while she squirmed and hollered at me, the two hair balls I would twist and fasten to each side of her head. I would make the bottom of her hair immaculate: brushed and gelled and fastened into glossy, thick homogeneity. But on top it would sprout like a bunch of curly kale, straight up and out and olive-oil shiny. She would parade around the house in this flouncy slip she thought was a dress and pose for photos with her hand on her hip. I’m in a few of those pictures, usually in overalls or a smock. I look awkward and drab as an old sock next to her, but maybe it doesn’t matter, because we have the same slightly bucked front teeth, the same fat cheeks, the same wide eyes going wider. We have a nice smile, Tris and I.

Tris doesn’t wear afro-puffs any more. She keeps her hair in a bun and I keep mine short.

“Libs, oh Libs, things aren’t so bad, are they?”

I look up at Tris, startled. She’s sitting in the grass with her hands beneath her thighs and tears are dripping off the tip of her nose. I was lulled by her laugh—we don’t often talk about the shit we can’t control. Our lives, for instance.

I think about the field that we’re going to leave for crows so no one gets blown up for touching one of a thousand beautiful multi-colored jewels. I think about funerals and Dad killing himself faster just so he can eat catfish with bellies full of white phosphorus.

“It’s not that great, Tris.”

“You think it’s shit.”

“No, not shit—”

“Close. You think it’s close.”

I sigh. “Some days. Tris. I have to get back to Meshach in a minute. What is going on?”

“I’m pregnant,” she says.

I make myself meet her eyes, and see she’s scared; almost as scared as I am.

“How do you know?”

“I suspected for a while. Yolanda finally got some test kits last night from a river trader.”

Yolanda has done her best as the town midwife since she was drafted into service five years ago, when a glassman raid killed our last one. I’m surprised Tris managed to get a test at all.

“What are you going to do? Will you. . .” I can’t even bring myself to say “keep it.” But could Yolanda help her do anything else?

She reaches out, hugs me, buries her head in my shirt and sobs like a baby. Her muffled words sound like “Christ” and “Jesus” and “God,” which ought to be funny since Tris is a capital-A atheist, but it isn’t.

“No,” she’s saying, “Christ, no. I have to…someone has to…I need an abortion, Libby.”

Relief like the first snow melt, like surviving another winter. Not someone else to worry about, to love, to feed.

But an abortion? There hasn’t been a real doctor in this town since I was twelve.

Bill’s mom used to be a registered nurse before the occupation, and she took care of everyone in town as best she could until glassman robots raided her house and called in reapers to bomb it five years ago. Bill left town after that. We never thought we’d see him again, but then two planting seasons ago, there he was with this green giant, a forty-year-old Deere combine—Shadrach, he called it, because it would make the third with our two older, smaller machines. He brought engine parts with him, too, and oil and enough seed for a poppy field. He had a bullet scar in his forearm and three strange, triangular burns on the back of his neck. You could see them because he’d been shaved bald and his hair was only starting to grow back, a patchy gray peach-fuzz.

He’d been in prison, that much was obvious. Whether the glassmen let him go or he escaped, he never said and we never asked. We harvested twice as much wheat from the field that season, and the money from the poppy paid for a new generator. If the bell on lookout hill rang more often than normal, if surveillance drones whirred through the grass and the water more than they used to, well, who was to say what the glassmen were doing? Killing us, that’s all we knew, and Bill was one of our own.

So I ask Bill if his mother left anything behind that might help us—like a pill, or instructions for a procedure. He frowns. “Aren’t you a little old, Libby?” he says, and I tell him to fuck off. He puts a hand on my shoulder—conciliatory, regretful—and looks over to where Tris is trudging back home. “You saw what the reapers did to my mom’s house. I couldn’t even find all of her teeth.”

I’m not often on that side of town, but I can picture the ruin exactly. There’s still a crater on Mill Street. I shuffle backward, contrite. “God, Bill. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

He shrugs. “Sorry, Libs. Ask Yolanda, if you got to do something like that.” I don’t like the way he frowns at me; I can hear his judgment even when all he does is turn and climb back inside Shadrach.

“Fucking hot out here,” I say, and walk back over to Meshach. I wish Bill wasn’t so goddamn judgmental. I wish Tris hadn’t messed up with whichever of her men provided the sperm donation. I wish we hadn’t lost the east field to another cluster bomb.

But I can wish or I can drive, and the old man’s engine coughs loud enough to drown even my thoughts.

Tris pukes right after dinner. That was some of my best cornbread, but I don’t say anything. I just clean it up.

“How far along are you?” I ask. I feel like vomit entitles me to this much.

She pinches her lips together and I hope she isn’t about to do it again. Instead, she stands up and walks out of the kitchen. I think that’s her answer, but she returns a moment later with a box about the size of my hand. It’s got a hole on one side and a dial like a gas gauge on the other. The gauge is marked with large glassman writing and regular letters in tiny print: “Fetal Progression,” it reads, then on the far left “Not Pregnant,” running through “Nine Months” on the far right. I can’t imagine what the point of that last would be, but Tris’s dial is still barely on the left-hand side, settled neatly between three and four. A little late for morning sickness, but maybe it’s terror as much as the baby that makes her queasy.

“There’s a note on the side. It says ‘All pregnant women will receive free rehabilitative healthcare in regional facilities.’” She says the last like she’s spent a long day memorizing tiny print.

“Glassmen won’t do abortions, Tris.”

No one knows what they really look like. They only interact with us through their remote-controlled robots. Maybe they’re made of glass themselves—they give us pregnancy kits, but won’t bother with burn dressings. Dad says the glassmen are alien scientists studying our behavior, like a human would smash an anthill to see how they scatter. Reverend Beale always points to the pipeline a hundred miles west of us. They’re just men stealing our resources, he says, like the white man stole the Africans’, though even he can’t say what those resources might be. It’s a pipeline from nowhere, to nothing, as far as any of us know.

Tris leans against the exposed brick of our kitchen wall. “All fetuses are to be carried to full term,” she whispers, and I turn the box over and see her words printed in plain English, in larger type than anything else on the box. Only one woman in our town ever took the glassmen up on their offer. I don’t know how it went for her; she never came home.

“Three months!” I say, though I don’t mean to.

Tris rubs her knuckles beneath her eyes, though she isn’t crying. She looks fierce, daring me to ask her how the hell she waited this long. But I don’t, because I know. Wishful thinking is a powerful curse, almost as bad as storytelling.

I don’t go to church much these days, not after our old pastor died and Beale moved into town to take his place. Reverend Beale likes his fire and brimstone, week after week of too much punishment and too little brotherhood. I felt exhausted listening to him rant in that high collar, sweat pouring down his temples. But he’s popular, and I wait on an old bench outside the redbrick church for the congregation to let out. Main Street is quiet except for the faint echoes of the reverend’s sonorous preaching. Mostly I hear the cicadas, the water lapping against a few old fishing boats and the long stretch of rotting pier. There used to be dozens of sailboats here, gleaming creations of white fiberglass and heavy canvas sails with names like Bay Princess and Prospero’s Dream. I know because Dad has pictures. Main Street was longer then, a stretch of brightly painted Tudors and Victorians with little shops and restaurants on the bottom floors and rooms above. A lot of those old buildings are boarded up now, and those that aren’t look as patched-over and jury-rigged as our thresher combines. The church has held up the best of any of the town’s buildings. Time has hardly worn its stately red brick and shingled steeples. It used to be Methodist, I think, but we don’t have enough people to be overly concerned about denominations these days. I’ve heard of some towns where they make everyone go Baptist, or Lutheran, but we’re lucky that no one’s thought to do anything like that here. Though I’m sure Beale would try if he could get away with it. Maybe Tris was right to leave the whole thing behind. Now she sits with the children while their parents go to church.

The sun tips past its zenith when the doors finally open and my neighbors walk out of the church in twos and threes. Beale shakes parishioners’ hands as they leave, mopping his face with a handkerchief. His smile looks more like a grimace to me; three years in town and he still looks uncomfortable anywhere but behind a pulpit. Men like him think the glassmen are right to require “full gestation.” Men like him think Tris is a damned sinner, just because she has a few men and won’t settle down with one. He hates the glassmen as much as the rest of us, but his views help them just the same.

Bill comes out with Pam. The bones in her neck stand out like twigs, but she looks a hell of a lot better than the last time I saw her, at Georgia’s funeral. Pam fainted when we laid her daughter in the earth, and Bill had to take her home before the ceremony ended. Pam is Bill’s cousin, and Georgia was her only child—blown to bits after riding her bicycle over a hidden jewel in the fields outside town. To my surprise, Bill gives me a tired smile before walking Pam down the street.

Bill and I used to dig clams from the mud at low tide in the summers. We were in our twenties and my mother had just died of a cancer the glassmen could have cured if they gave a damn. Sometimes we would build fires of cedar and pine and whatever other tinder lay around and roast the clams right there by the water. We talked about anything in the world other than glassmen and dead friends while the moon arced above. We planned the cornfield eating those clams, and plotted all the ways we might get the threshers for the job. The cow dairy, the chicken coop, the extra garden plots—we schemed and dreamt of ways to help our town hurt a little less each winter. Bill had a girlfriend then, though she vanished not long after; we never did more than touch.

That was a long time ago, but I remember the taste of cedar ash and sea salt as I look at the back of him. I never once thought those moments would last forever, and yet here I am, regretful and old.

Yolanda is one of the last to leave, stately and elegant with her braided white hair and black church hat with netting. I catch up with her as she heads down the steps.

“Can we talk?” I ask.

Her shoulders slump a little when I ask, but she bids the reverend farewell and walks with me until we are out of earshot.

“Tris needs an abortion,” I say.

Yolanda nods up and down like a seabird, while she takes deep breaths. She became our midwife because she’d helped Bill’s mother with some births, but I don’t think she wants the job. There’s just no one else.

“Libby, the glassmen don’t like abortions.”

“If the glassmen are paying us enough attention to notice, we have bigger problems.”

“I don’t have the proper equipment for a procedure. Even if I did, I couldn’t.”

“Don’t tell me you agree with Beale.”

She draws herself up and glares at me. “I don’t know how, Libby! Do you want me to kill Tris to get rid of her baby? They say the midwife in Toddville can do them if it’s early enough. How far along is she?”

I see the needle in my mind, far too close to the center line for comfort. “Three and a half months,” I say.

She looks away, but she puts her arm around my shoulders. “I understand why she would, I do. But it’s too late. We’ll all help her.”

Raise the child, she means. I know Yolanda is making sense, but I don’t want to hear her. I don’t want to think about Tris carrying a child she doesn’t want to term. I don’t want to think about that test kit needle pointing inexorably at too fucking late. So I thank Yolanda and head off in the other direction, down the cracked tarmac as familiar as a scar, to Pam’s house. She lives in a small cottage Victorian with peeling gray paint that used to be blue. Sure enough, Bill sits in an old rocking chair on the porch, thumbing through a book. I loved to see him like that in our clam-digging days, just sitting and listening. I would dream of him after he disappeared.

“Libs?” he says. He leans forward.

“Help her, Bill. You’ve been outside, you know people. Help her find a doctor, someone who can do this after three months.”

He sighs and the book thumps on the floor. “I’ll see.”

Three days later, Bill comes over after dinner.

“There’s rumors of something closer to Annapolis,” he says. “I couldn’t find out more than that. None of my…I mean, I only know some dudes, Libby. And whoever runs this place only talks to women.”

“Your mother didn’t know?” Tris asks, braver than me.

Bill rubs the back of his head. “If she did, she sure didn’t tell me.”

“You’ve got to have more than that,” she says. “Does this place even have a name? How near Annapolis? What do you want us to do, sail into the city and ask the nearest glassman which way to the abortion clinic?”

“What do I want you to do? Maybe I want you to count your goddamn blessings and not risk your life to murder a child. It’s a sin, Tris, not like you’d care about that, but I’d’ve thought Libby would.”

“God I know,” I say, “but I’ve never had much use for sin. Now why don’t you get your nose out of our business?”

“You invited me in, Libby.”

“For help—”

He shakes his head. “If you could see what Pam’s going through right now…”

Bill has dealt with as much grief as any of us. I can understand why he’s moralizing in our kitchen, but that doesn’t mean I have to tolerate it.

But Tris doesn’t even give me time. She stands and shakes a wooden spatula under his nose. Bill’s a big man, but he flinches. “So I should have this baby just so I can watch it get blown up later, is that it? Don’t put Pam’s grief on me, Bill. I’m sorrier than I can say about Georgia. I taught that girl to read! And I can’t. I just can’t.”

Bill breathes ragged. His dark hands twist his muddy flannel shirt, his grip so tight his veins are stark against sun-baked skin. Tris is still holding that spatula.

Bill turns his head abruptly, stalks back to the kitchen door with a “Fuck,” and he wipes his eyes. Tris leans against the sink. “Esther,” he says quietly, his back to us. “The name of a person, the name of a place, I don’t know. But you ask for that, my buddy says you should find what you’re after.”

I follow him outside, barefoot and confused that I’d bother when he’s so clearly had enough of us. I call his name, then start jogging and catch his elbow. He turns around. “What, Libby?”

He’s so angry. His hair didn’t grow in very long or thick after he came back. He looks like someone mashed him up, stretched him out and then did a hasty job of putting him back together. Maybe I look like that, too.

“Thanks,” I say. We don’t touch.

“Don’t die, Libs.”

The air is thick with crickets chirping and fireflies glowing and the swampy, seaweed-and-salt air from the Chesapeake. He turns to walk away. I don’t stop him.

We take Dad’s boat. There’s not enough gas left to visit Bishop’s Head, the mouth of our estuary, let alone Annapolis. So we bring oars, along with enough supplies to keep the old dinghy low in the water.

“I hope we don’t hit a storm,” Tris says, squinting at the clear, indigo sky as though thunderheads might be hiding behind the stars.

“We’re all right for now. Feel the air? Humidity’s dropped at least 20 percent.”

Tris has the right oar and I have the left. I don’t want to use the gas unless we absolutely have to, and I’m hoping the low-tech approach will make us less noticeable to any patrolling glassmen. It’s tough work, even in the relatively cool night air, and I check the stars to make sure we’re heading in more or less the right direction. None of the towns on our estuary keep lights on at night. I only know when we pass Toddville because of the old lighthouse silhouetted against the stars. I lost sight of our home within five minutes of setting out, and God, how a part of me wanted to turn the dinghy right around and go back. The rest of the world isn’t safe. Home isn’t either, but it’s familiar.

Dad gave us a nautical chart of the Chesapeake Bay, with markers for towns long destroyed, lighthouses long abandoned, by people long dead. He marked our town and told us to get back safe. We promised him we would and we hugged like we might never see each other again.

“What if we hit a jewel?” Tris asks. In the dark, I can’t tell if it’s fear or exertion that aspirates her words. I’ve had that thought myself, but what can we do? The glassmen make sure their cluster bombs spread gifts everywhere.

“They don’t detonate that well in water,” I offer.

A shift in the dark; Tris rests her oar in the boat and stretches her arms. “Well enough to kill you slowly.”

I’m not as tired, but I take the break. “We’ve got a gun. It ought to do the trick, if it comes to that.”

“Promise?”

“To what? Mercy-kill you?”

“Sure.”

“Aren’t you being a little melodramatic?”

“And we’re just out here to do a little night fishing.”

I laugh, though my belly aches like she’s punched me.

“Christ, Tris.” I lean back in the boat, the canvas of our food sack rough and comforting on my slick skin, like Mom’s gloves when she first taught me to plant seeds.

“Libs?”

“Yeah?”

“You really don’t care who the father is?”

I snort. “If it were important, I’m sure you would have told me.”

I look up at the sky: there’s the Milky Way, the North Star, Orion’s Belt. I remember when I was six, before the occupation. There was so much light on the bay you could hardly see the moon.

“Reckon we’ll get to Ohio, Jim?” Tris asks in a fake Southern drawl.

I grin. “Reckon we might. If ’n we can figure out just how you got yerself pregnant, Huck.”

Tris leans over the side of the boat, and a spray of brackish water hits my open mouth. I shriek and dump two handfuls on her head, and she splutters and grabs me from behind so I can’t do more than wiggle in her embrace.

“Promise,” she says, breathing hard, still laughing.

The bay tastes like home to me, like everything I’ve ever loved. “Christ, Tris,” I say, and I guess that’s enough.

We round Bishop’s Head at dawn. Tris is nearly asleep on her oar, though she hasn’t complained. I’m worried about her, and it’s dangerous to travel during the day until we can be sure the water is clear. We pull into Hopkins Cove, an Edenic horseshoe of brown sand and forest. It doesn’t look like a human foot has touched this place since the invasion, which reassures me. Drones don’t do much exploring. They care about people.

Tris falls asleep as soon as we pull the boat onto the sand. I wonder if I should feed her more—does she need extra for the baby? Then I wonder if that’s irrational, since we’re going all this way to kill it. But for now, at least, the fetus is part of her, which means we have to take it into consideration. I think about Bill with his big, dumb eyes and patchy bald head telling me that it’s a sin, as though that has anything to do with your sister crying like her insides have been torn out.

I eat some cornbread and a peach, though I’m not hungry. I sit on the shore with my feet in the water and watch for other boats or drones or reapers overhead. I don’t see anything but seagulls and ospreys and minnows that tickle my toes.

“Ain’t nothing here, Libs,” I say, in my mother’s best imitation of her mother’s voice. I never knew my grandmother, but Mom said she looked just like Tris, so I loved her on principle. She and Tris even share a name: Leatrice. I told Mom that I’d name my daughter Tamar, after her. I’d always sort of planned to, but when my monthlies stopped a year ago, I figured it was just as well. Stupid Bill, and his stupid patchy hair, I think.

I dream of giant combines made from black chrome and crystal, with headlights of wide, unblinking eyes. I take them to the fields, but something is wrong with the thresher. There’s bonemeal dust on the wheat berries.

“Now, Libby,” Bill says, but I can’t hear the rest of what he’s saying because the earth starts shaking and—

I scramble to my feet, kicking up sand with the dream still in my eyes. There’s lights in the afternoon sky and this awful thunder, like a thousand lightning bolts are striking the earth at once.

“Oh, Christ,” I say. A murder of reapers swarms to the north, and even with the sun in the sky their bombs light the ground beneath like hellfire. It’s easier to see reapers from far away, because they paint their underbellies light blue to blend with the sky.

Tris stands beside me and grips my wrist. “That’s not…it has to be Toddville, right? Or Cedar Creek? They’re not far enough away for home, right?”

I don’t say anything. I don’t know. I can only look.

Bill’s hair is patchy because the glassmen arrested him and they tortured him. Bill asked his outside contacts if they knew anything about a place to get an illegal abortion. Bill brought back a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of farm equipment and scars from wounds that would have killed someone without access to a doctor. But what kind of prisoner has access to a real doctor? Why did the glassmen arrest him? What if his contacts are exactly the type of men the glassmen like to bomb with their reapers? What if Bill is?

But I know it isn’t that simple. No one knows why the glassmen bomb us. No one really knows the reason for the whole damn mess, their reapers and their drones and their arcane rules you’re shot for not following.

“Should we go back?”

She says it like she’s declared war on a cardinal direction, like she really will get on that boat and walk into a reaper wasteland and salvage what’s left of our lives and have that baby.

I squeeze her hand. “It’s too close,” I say. “Toddville, I think you’re right. Let’s get going, though. Probably not safe here.”

She nods. She doesn’t look me in the eye. We paddle through the choppy water until the sun sets. And then, without saying anything, we ship the oars and I turn on the engine.

Three nights later, we see lights on the shore. It’s a glassmen military installation. Dad marked it on the map, but still I’m surprised by its size, its brightness, the brazen way it sits on the coastline, as though daring to attract attention.

“I’d never thought a building could be so…”

“Angry?” Tris says.

“Violent.”

“It’s like a giant middle finger up the ass of the Chesapeake.”

I laugh despite myself. “You’re ridiculous.”

We’re whispering, though we’re on the far side of the bay and the water is smooth and quiet. After that reaper drone attack, I’m remembering more than I like of my childhood terror of the glassmen. Dad and Mom had to talk to security drones a few times after the occupation, and I remember the oddly modulated voices, distinctly male, and the bright unblinking eyes behind the glass masks of their robot heads. I don’t know anyone who has met a real glassman, instead of one of their remote robots. It’s a retaliatory offense to harm a drone because the connection between the drone and the glassman on the other side of the world (or up in some space station) is so tight that sudden violence can cause brain damage. I wonder how they can square potential brain damage with dead children, but I guess I’m not a glassman.

So we row carefully, but fast as we can, hoping to distance our little fishing boat from the towering building complex. Its lights pulse so brightly they leave spots behind my eyes.

And then, above us, we hear the chopping whirr of blades cutting the air, the whine of unmanned machinery readying for deployment. I look up and shade my eyes: a reaper.

Tris drops her oar. It slides straight into the bay, but neither of us bother to catch it. If we don’t get away now, a lost oar won’t matter anyway. She lunges into our supply bag, brings out a bag of apples. The noise of the reaper is close, almost deafening. I can’t hear what she yells at me before she jumps into the bay. I hesitate in the boat, afraid to leave our supplies and afraid to be blown to pieces by a reaper. I look back up and see a panel slide open on its bright blue belly. The panel reveals dark glass; behind it, a single, unblinking eye.

I jump into the water, but my foot catches on the remaining oar. The boat rocks behind me, but panic won’t let me think—I tug and tug until the boat capsizes and suddenly ten pounds of supplies are falling on my head, dragging me deeper into the dark water. I try to kick out, but my leg is tangled with the drawstring of a canvas bag, and I can’t make myself focus enough to get it loose. All I can think of is that big glass eye waiting to kill me. My chest burns and my ears fill to bursting with pressure. I’d always thought I would die in fire, but water isn’t much better. I don’t even know if Tris made it, or if the eye caught her, too.

I try to look up, but I’m too deep; it’s too dark to even know which way that is. God, I think, save her. Let her get back home. It’s rude to demand things of God, but I figure dying ought to excuse the presumption.

Something tickles my back. I gasp and the water flows in, drowning my lungs, flooding out what air I had left. But the thing in the water with me has a light on its head and strange, shiny legs and it’s using them to get under my arms and drag me up until we reach the surface and I cough and retch and breathe, thank you, God. The thing takes me to shore, where Tris is waiting to hug me and kiss my forehead like I’m the little sister.

“Jesus,” she says, and I wonder if God really does take kindly to demands until I turn my head and understand: my savior is a drone.

“I will feed you,” the glassman says. He looks like a spider with an oversized glassman head: eight chrome legs and two glass eyes. “The pregnant one should eat. Her daughter is growing.”

I wonder if some glassman technology is translating his words into English. If in his language, whatever it is, the pregnant one is a kind of respectful address. Or maybe they taught him to speak to us that way.

I’m too busy appreciating the bounty of air in my lungs to notice the other thing he said.

“Daughter?” Tris says.

The glassman nods. “Yes. I have been equipped with a body-safe sonic scanning device. Your baby has not been harmed by your ordeal. I am here to help and reassure you.”

Tris looks at me carefully. I sit up. “You said something about food?”

“Yes!” It’s hard to tell, his voice is so strange, but he sounds happy. As though rescuing two women threatened by one of his reaper fellows is the best piece of luck he’s had all day. “I will be back,” he says, and scuttles away, into the forest.

Tris hands me one of her rescued apples. “What the hell?” Her voice is low, but I’m afraid the glassman can hear us anyway.

“A trap?” I whisper, barely vocalizing into her left ear. She shakes her head. “He seems awfully…”

“Eager?”

“Young.”

The glassman comes back a minute later, walking on six legs and holding two boxes in the others. His robot must be a new model; the others I’ve seen look more human. “I have meals! A nearby convoy has provided them for you,” he says, and places the boxes carefully in front of us. “The one with a red ribbon is for the pregnant one. It has nutrients.”

Tris’s hands shake as she opens it. The food doesn’t look dangerous, though it resembles the strange pictures in Tris’s old magazines more than the stuff I make at home. A perfectly rectangular steak, peas, corn mash. Mine is the same, except I have regular corn. We eat silently, while the glassman gives every impression of smiling upon us benevolently.

“Good news,” he pipes, when I’m nearly done forcing the bland food down my raw throat. “I have been authorized to escort you both to a safe hospital facility.”

“Hospital?” Tris asks, in a way that makes me sit up and put my arm around her.

“Yes,” the glassman says. “To ensure the safe delivery of your daughter.”

The next morning, the glassman takes us to an old highway a mile from the water’s edge. A convoy waits for us, four armored tanks and two platform trucks. One of the platform beds is filled with mechanical supplies, including two dozen glass-and-chrome heads. The faces are blank, the heads unattached to any robot body, but the effect makes me nauseous. Tris digs her nails into my forearm. The other platform bed is mostly empty except for a few boxes and one man tied to the guardrails. He lies prone on the floor and doesn’t move when we climb in after our glassman. At first I’m afraid that he’s dead, but then he twitches and groans before falling silent again.

“Who is he?” Tris asks.

“Non-state actor,” our glassman says, and pulls up the grate behind us.

“What?”

The convoy engines whirr to life—quiet compared to the three old men, but the noise shocks me after our days of silence on the bay.

The glassman swivels his head, his wide unblinking eyes fully focused on my sister. I’m afraid she’s set him off and they’ll tie us to the railings like that poor man. Instead, he clicks his two front legs together for no reason that I can see except maybe it gives him something to do.

“Terrorist,” he says quietly.

Tris looks at me and I widen my eyes: don’t you dare say another word. She nods.

“The convoy will be moving now. You should sit for your safety.”

He clacks away before we can respond. He hooks his hind legs through the side rail opposite us and settles down, looking like nothing so much as a contented cat.

The armored tanks get into formation around us and then we lurch forward, rattling over the broken road. Tris makes it for half an hour before she pukes over the side.

For two days, Tris and I barely speak. The other man in our truck wakes up about once every ten hours, just in time for one of the two-legged glassmen from the armored tanks to clomp over and give us all some food and water. The man gets less than we do, though none of it is very good. He eats in such perfect silence that I wonder if the glassmen have cut out his tongue. As soon as he finishes, one of the tank glassmen presses a glowing metal bar to the back of his neck. The mark it leaves is a perfect triangle, raw and red like a fresh burn. The prisoner doesn’t struggle when the giant articulated metal hand grips his shoulders, he only stares, and soon after he slumps against the railing. I have lots of time to wonder about those marks; hour after slow hour with a rattling truck bruising my tailbone and regrets settling into my joints like dried tears. Sometimes Tris massages knots from my neck, and sometimes they come right back while I knead hers. I can’t see any way to escape, so I try not to think about it. But there’s no helping the sick, desperate knowledge that every hour we’re closer to locking Tris in a hospital for six months so the glassmen can force her to have a baby.

During the third wake-up and feeding of the bound man, our glassman shakes out his legs and clacks over to the edge of the truck bed. The robots who drive the tanks are at least eight feet tall, with oversized arms and legs equipped with artillery rifles. They would be terrifying even if we weren’t completely at their mercy. The two glassmen stare at each other, eerily silent and still.

The bound man, I’d guess Indian from his thick, straight hair and dark skin, strains as far forward as he can. He nods at us.

“They’re talking,” he says. His words are slow and painstakingly formed. We crawl closer to hear him better. “In their real bodies.”

I look back up, wondering how he knows. They’re so still, but then glassmen are always uncanny.

Tris leans forward, so her lips are at my ear. “Their eyes,” she whispers.

Glassman robot eyes never blink. But their pupils dilate and contract just like ours do. Only now both robots’ eyes are pupil-blasted black despite the glaring noon sun. Talking in their real bodies? That must mean they’ve stopped paying us any attention.

“Could we leave?” I whisper. No one has tied us up. I think our glassman is under the impression he’s doing us a favor.

Tris buries her face in the back of my short nappy hair and wraps her arms around me. I know it’s a ploy, but it comforts me all the same. “The rest of the convoy.”

Even as I nod, the two glassmen step away from each other, and our convoy is soon enough on its way. This time, though, the prisoner gets to pass his time awake and silent. No one tells us to move away from him.

“I have convinced the field soldier to allow me to watch the operative,” our glassman says proudly.

“That’s very nice,” Tris says. She’s hardly touched her food.

“I am glad you appreciate my efforts! It is my job to assess mission parameter achievables. Would you mind if I asked you questions?”

I frown at him and quickly look away. Tris, unfortunately, has decided she’d rather play with fire than her food.

“Of course,” she says.

We spend the next few hours subjected to a tireless onslaught of questions. Things like, “How would you rate our society-building efforts in the Tidewater Region?” and “What issue would you most like to see addressed in the upcoming Societal Health Meeting?” and “Are you mostly satisfied or somewhat dissatisfied with the cleanliness of the estuary?”

“The fish are toxic,” I say to this last question. My first honest answer. It seems to startle him. At least, that’s how I interpret the way he clicks his front two legs together.

Tris pinches my arm, but I ignore her.

“Well,” says the glassman, “that is potentially true. We have been monitoring the unusually high levels of radiation and heavy metal toxicity. But you can rest assured that we are addressing the problem and its potential harmful side-effects on Beneficial Societal Development.”

“Like dying of mercury poisoning?” Tris pinches me again, but she smiles for the first time in days.

“I do not recommend it for the pregnant one! I have been serving you both nutritious foods well within the regulatory limits.”

I have no idea what those regulatory limits might be, but I don’t ask.

“In any case,” he says, “aside from that issue, the estuary is very clean.”

“Thank you,” Tris says, before I can respond.

“You’re very welcome. We are here to help you.”

“How far away is the hospital?” she asks.

I feel like a giant broom has swept the air from the convoy, like our glassman has tossed me back into the bay to drown. I knew Tris was desperate; I didn’t realize how much.

“Oh,” he says, and his pupils go very wide. I could kiss the prisoner for telling us what that means: no one’s at home.

The man now leans toward us, noticing the same thing. “You pregnant?” he asks Tris.

She nods.

He whistles through a gap between his front teeth. “Some rotten luck,” he says. “I never seen a baby leave one of their clinics. Fuck knows what they do to them.”

“And the mothers?” I ask.

He doesn’t answer, just lowers his eyes and looks sidelong at our dormant glassman. “Depends,” he whispers, “on who they think you are.”

That’s all we have time for; the glassman’s eyes contract again and his head tilts like a bird’s. “There is a rehabilitative facility in the military installation to which we are bound. Twenty-three hours ETA.”

“A prison?” Tris asks.

“A hospital,” the glassman says firmly.

When we reach the pipeline, I know we’re close. The truck bounces over fewer potholes and cracks; we even meet a convoy heading in the other direction. The pipeline is a perfect clear tube about sixteen feet high. It looks empty to me, a giant hollow tube that distorts the landscape on the other side like warped glass. It doesn’t run near the bay, and no one from home knows enough to plot it on a map. Maybe this is the reason the glassmen are here. I wonder what could be so valuable in that hollow tube that Tris has to give birth in a cage, that little Georgia has to die, that a cluster bomb has to destroy half our wheat crop. What’s so valuable that looks like nothing at all?

The man spends long hours staring out the railing of the truck, as though he’s never seen anything more beautiful or more terrifying. Sometimes he talks to us, small nothings, pointing out a crane overhead or a derelict road with a speed limit sign—55 miles per hour, it says, radar enforced.

At first our glassman noses around these conversations, but he decides they’re innocuous enough. He tells the man to “refrain from exerting a corrupting influence,” and resumes his perch on the other side of the truck bed. The prisoner’s name is Simon, he tells us, and he’s on watch. For what, I wonder, but know well enough not to ask.

“What’s in it?” I say instead, pointing to the towering pipeline.

“I heard it’s a wormhole.” He rests his chin on his hands, a gesture that draws careful, casual attention to the fact that his left hand has loosened the knots. He catches my eye for a blink and then looks away. My breath catches—is he trying to escape? Do we dare?

“A wormhole? Like, in space?” Tris says, oblivious. Or maybe not. Looking at her, I realize she might just be a better actor.

I don’t know what Tris means, but Simon nods. “A passage through space, that’s what I heard.”

“That is incorrect!”

The three of us snap our heads around, startled to see the glassman so close. His eyes whirr with excitement. “The Designated Area Project is not what you refer to as a wormhole, which are in fact impractical as transportation devices.”

Simon shivers and looks down at his feet. My lips feel swollen with regret—what if he thinks we’re corrupted? What if he notices Simon’s left hand? But Tris raises her chin, stubborn and defiant at the worst possible time—I guess the threat of that glassman hospital is making her too crazy to feel anything as reasonable as fear.

“Then what is it?” she asks, so plainly that Simon’s mouth opens, just a little.

Our glassman stutters forward on his delicate metallic legs. “I am not authorized to tell you,” he says, clipped.

“Why not? It’s the whole goddamned reason all your glassman reapers and drones and robots are swarming all over the place, isn’t it? We don’t even get to know what the hell it’s all for?”

“Societal redevelopment is one of our highest mission priorities,” he says, a little desperately.

I lean forward and grab Tris’s hand as she takes a sharp, angry breath. “Honey,” I say, “Tris, please.”

She pulls away from me, hard as a slap, but she stops talking. The glassman says nothing; just quietly urges us a few yards away from Simon. No more corruption on his watch.

Night falls, revealing artificial lights gleaming on the horizon. Our glassman doesn’t sleep. Not even in his own place, I suppose, because whenever I check with a question his eyes stay the same and he answers without hesitation. Maybe they have drugs to keep themselves awake for a week at a time. Maybe he’s not human. I don’t ask—I’m still a little afraid he might shoot me for saying the wrong thing, and more afraid that he’ll start talking about Ideal Societal Redevelopment.

At the first hint of dawn, Simon coughs and leans back against the railing, catching my eye. Tris is dozing on my shoulder, drool slowly soaking my shirt. Simon flexes his hands, now free. He can’t speak, but our glassman isn’t looking at him. He points to the floor of the truckbed, then lays himself out with his hands over his head. There’s something urgent in his face. Something knowledgeable. To the glassmen he’s a terrorist, but what does that make him to us? I shake Tris awake.

“Libs?”

“Glassman,” I say, “I have a question about societal redevelopment deliverables.”

Tris sits straight up.

“I would be pleased to hear it!” the glassman says.

“I would like to know what you plan to do with my sister’s baby.”

“Oh,” the glassman says. The movement of his pupils is hardly discernible in this low light, but I’ve been looking. I grab Tris by her shoulder and we scramble over to Simon.

“Duck!” he says. Tris goes down before I do, so only I can see the explosion light up the front of the convoy. Sparks and embers fly through the air like a starfall. The pipeline glows pink and purple and orange. Even the strafe of bullets seems beautiful until it blows out the tires of our truck. We crash and tumble. Tris holds onto me, because I’ve forgotten how to hold onto myself.

The glassmen are frozen. Some have tumbled from the over- turned trucks, their glass and metal arms halfway to their guns. Their eyes don’t move, not even when three men in muddy camouflage lob sticky black balls into the heart of the burning convoy.

Tris hauls me to my feet. Simon shouts something at one of the other men, who turns out to be a woman.

“What the hell was that?” I ask.

“EMP,” Simon says. “Knocks them out for a minute or two. We have to haul ass.”

The woman gives Simon a hard stare. “They’re clean?”

“They were prisoners, too,” he says.

The woman—light skinned, close-cropped hair—hoists an extra gun, unconvinced. Tris straightens up. “I’m pregnant,” she says. “And ain’t nothing going to convince me to stay here.”

“Fair enough,” the woman says, and hands Tris a gun. “We have ninety seconds. Just enough time to detonate.”

Our glassman lies on his back, legs curled in the air. One of those sticky black balls has lodged a foot away from his blank glass face. It’s a retaliatory offense to harm a drone. I remember what they say about brain damage when the glassmen are connected. Is he connected? Will this hurt him? I don’t like the kid, but he’s so young. Not unredeemable. He saved my life. I don’t know why I do it, but while Tris and the others are distracted, I use a broken piece of the guard rail to knock off the black ball. I watch it roll under the truck, yards away. I don’t want to hurt him; I just want my sister and me safe and away.

“Libs!” It’s Tris, looking too much like a terrorist with her big black gun. Dad taught us both to use them, but the difference between us is I wish that I didn’t know how, and Tris is glad.

I run to catch up. A man idles a pickup ten yards down the road from the convoy.

“They’re coming back on,” he says.

“Detonating!” The woman’s voice is a birdcall, a swoop from high to low. She presses a sequence of buttons on a remote and suddenly the light ahead is fiercer than the sun and it smells like gasoline and woodsmoke and tar. I’ve seen plenty enough bomb wreckage in my life; I feel like when it’s ours it should look different. Better. It doesn’t.

Tris pulls me into the back of the pickup and we’re bouncing away before we can even shut the back door. We turn off the highway and drive down a long dirt road through the woods. I watch the back of the woman’s head through the rear window. She has four triangular scars at the base of her neck, the same as Bill’s.

Something breaks out of the underbrush on the side of the road. Something that moves unnaturally fast, even on the six legs he has left. Something that calls out, in that stupid, naive, inhuman voice:

“Stop the vehicle! Pregnant one, do not worry, I will—”

“Fuck!” Tris’s terror cuts off the last of the speech. The car swerves, tossing me against the door. I must not have latched it properly, because next thing I know I’m tumbling to the dirt with a thud that jars my teeth. The glassman scrambles on top of me without any regard for the pricking pain of his long, metallic limbs.

“Kill that thing!” It’s a man, I’m not sure who. I can’t look, pinioned as I am.

“Pregnant one, step down from the terrorist vehicle and I will lead you to safety. There is a Reaper Support Flyer on its way.”

He grips me between two metallic arms and hauls me up with surprising strength. The woman and Simon have guns trained on the glassman, but they hesitate—if they shoot him, they have to shoot me. Tris has her gun up as well, but she’s shaking so hard she can’t even get her finger on the trigger.

“Let go of me,” I say to him. He presses his legs more firmly into my side.

“I will save the pregnant one,” he repeats, as though to reassure both of us. He’s young, but he’s still a glassman. He knows enough to use me as a human shield.

Tris lowers the gun to her side. She slides from the truck bed and walks forward.

“Don’t you dare, Tris!” I yell, but she just shakes her head. My sister, giving herself to a glassman? What would Dad say? I can’t even free a hand to wipe my eyes. I hate this boy behind the glass face. I hate him because he’s too young and ignorant to even understand what he’s doing wrong. Evil is good to a glassman. Wrong is right. The pregnant one has to be saved.

I pray to God, then. I say, God, please let her not be a fool. Please let her escape.

And I guess God heard, because when she’s just a couple of feet away she looks straight at me and smiles like she’s about to cry. “I’m sorry, Libs,” she whispers. “I love you. I just can’t let him take me again.”

“Pregnant one! Please drop your weapon and we will—” And then she raises her gun and shoots.

My arm hurts. Goddamn, it hurts, like there’s some small, toothy animal burrowing inside. I groan and feel my sister’s hands, cool on my forehead.

“They know the doctor,” she says. “That Esther that Bill told us about, remember? She’s a regular doctor, too, not just abortions. You’ll be fine.”

I squint up at her. The sun has moved since she shot me; I can hardly see her face for the light behind it. But even at the edges I can see her grief. Her tears drip on my hairline and down my forehead.

“I don’t care,” I say, with some effort. “I wanted you to do it.”

“I was so afraid, Libs.”

“I know.”

“We’ll get home now, won’t we?”

“Sure,” I say. If it’s there.

The terrorists take us to a town fifty miles from Annapolis. Even though it’s close to the city, the glassmen mostly leave it alone. It’s far enough out from the pipeline, and there’s not much here, otherwise: just a postage stamp of a barley field, thirty or so houses and one of those large, old, whitewashed barn-door churches. At night, the town is ghost empty.

Tris helps me down from the truck. Even that’s an effort. My head feels half-filled with syrup. Simon and the others say their goodbyes and head out quickly. It’s too dangerous for fighters to stay this close to the city. Depending on how much the glassmen know about Tris and me, it isn’t safe for us either. But between a baby and a bullet, we don’t have much choice.

Alone, now, we read the church’s name above the door:

Esther Zion Congregation Church, Methodist.

Tris and I look at each other. “Oh, Christ,” she says. “Did Bill lie, Libby? Is he really so hung up on that sin bullshit that he sent me all the way out here, to a church

I lean against her and wonder how he ever survived to come back to us. It feels like a gift, now, with my life half bled out along the road behind. “Bill wouldn’t lie, Tris. Maybe he got it wrong. But he wouldn’t lie.”

The pews are old but well-kept. The prayer books look like someone’s been using them. The only person inside is a white lady, sweeping the altar.

“Simon and Sybil sent you,” she says, not a question. Sybil—we never even asked the woman’s name.

“My sister,” we both say, and then, improbably, laugh.

A month later, Tris and I round Bishop’s Head and face north. At the mouth of our estuary, we aren’t close enough to see Toddville, let alone our home, but we can’t see any drones either. The weather is chillier this time around, the water harder to navigate with the small boat. Tris looks healthy and happy; older and younger. No one will mistake her for twenty-five again, but there’s nothing wrong with wisdom.

The doctor fixed up my arm and found us an old, leaky rowboat when it was clear we were determined to go back. Tris has had to do most of the work; her arms are starting to look like they belong to someone who doesn’t spend all her time reading. I think about the harvest and hope the bombs didn’t reap the grain before we could. If anyone could manage those fields without me, Bill can. We won’t starve this winter, assuming reapers didn’t destroy everything. Libby ships the oars and lets us float, staring at the deep gray sky and its reflection on the water that seems to stretch endlessly before us.

“Bill will have brought the harvest in just fine,” I say.

“You love him, don’t you?”

I think about his short, patchy hair. That giant green monster he brought back like a dowry. “He’s good with the old engines. Better than me.”

“I think he loves you. Maybe one of you could get around to doing something about it?”

“Maybe so.”

Tris and I sit like that for a long time. The boat drifts toward shore, and neither of us stop it. A fish jumps in the water to my left; a heron circles overhead.

“Dad’s probably out fishing,” she says, maneuvering us around. “We might catch him on the way in.”

“That’ll be a surprise! Though he won’t be happy about his boat.”

“He might let it slide. Libby?”

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry—”

“You aren’t sorry if you’d do it again,” I say. “And I’m not sorry if I’d let you.”

She holds my gaze. “Do you know how much I love you?” We have the same smile, my sister and I. It’s a nice smile, even when it’s scared and a little sad.

Eighteen Days of Barbareek

Barbareek’s head perches on the hilltop, watching the battle for the throne of Hastinapur unfold before him. His hands—several miles away—itch to pick up his bow and join the fray.

Elephants trumpet, horses snort, swords clash against shields, and arrows whiz through the air. The biggest battle of all their lives, and he—the strongest warrior in Bharat—is a bodiless spectator.

There are many things he feels in that moment: rage, shame, humiliation, relief. Mostly, he misses his torso. And his mother.

At night, when funeral pyres speckle the field and the groans of the wounded rend the air, the five Pandavas come to visit.

“Grandson.” Bhimasen lays a heavy, battle-scarred hand upon Barbareek’s luxurious curls. “How are you?”

Still decapitated, thanks for asking, Barbareek nearly says.

But his current state is not his grandfather’s fault. Bhimasen may have been the one who lovingly placed Barbareek’s head on this tree stump, but he wasn’t the one who removed it from Barbareek’s body.

No, that was Barbareek himself. And that is so messed up, Barbareek refuses to think about it.

“I am fine, Grandfather,” he says mendaciously. “I have a nice view of the battlefield from here.”

“Are you thirsty?” asks Yudhishthira, the eldest. “We brought water.”

Where do you think the water would go? His head would look like it was peeing. “No, thank you, Great-Uncle,” says Barbareek with heroic self-restraint.

They make small talk for a bit, discussing the day’s fighting. All five Pandavas are exhausted; they have suffered bitter losses on the first day of the war with their evil cousins, the Kauravas. Yet, they have made the effort to visit Barbareek. He knows he should feel grateful; the fact that he doesn’t is just one more thorn in the heart he can remember having.

“Your name will go down in history, my boy,” Arjun tells him before they leave.

Barbareek has no doubt about that. How many fools have been manipulated into chopping off their own heads? He is the first, and he will surely be the last. He is a lesson to be learned, an object of pity, a tale of caution. As for history, he’s witnessing it right now. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

The second day of fighting is as grisly as the first. Tens of thousands die, hearts pierced by arrows, limbs chopped off by swords, heads crushed by maces. Barbareek chafes at the losses suffered by the Pandavas. He should have been with them, fighting by their side. With his divine bow and arrows, he could have ended this war in one minute—theoretically speaking.

In practice, it would have been much more messy. He didn’t realize how messy until Krishna explained it to him.

But thinking of Krishna, as always, gives him a throbbing headache. And when a head is all you have, you take care of it. Barbareek turns his attention back to the battlefield and is heartened to see his grandfather tearing through Kaurava forces like a scythe through blades of grass. Only the arrival of Bhishma Pitamah, the formidable old commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army, saves it from annihilation.

Bhishma has the boon of self-willed death; he is invincible, undefeatable, a white-clad mountain of fury that drives back the Pandava armies like ants before a storm—until one of the Pandava commanders shoots and kills his charioteer.

Bhishma’s horses bolt, dragging his chariot away from the battlefield. In vain, Bhishma tries to control them. His forces scatter, and Barbareek grins in relief. The sun sets, ending the day’s fighting.

That night, it is the venerable Bhishma Pitamah who climbs Barbareek’s hill—the oldest warrior of the Kuru clan, visiting the youngest.

“Barbareek, dear child,” says Bhishma in his gravelly voice, “how are you?”

Why does everyone ask him this?

“I am ashamed, Pitamah, that I cannot bow to you,” says Barbareek, half-sincere, half-sarcastic.

“My child, you bow to no one,” says Bhishma. “The world bows to you.”

To Barbareek’s discomfiture, Bhishma proceeds to press his palms together and bow to him. It’s like watching a tree bend in half.

“Do you regret your vow?” Barbareek blurts out.

Bhishma’s aged eyes glint. “Do you?”

It is an unfair comparison. Both their vows are equally stupid, but Barbareek had little choice in the matter. His guru Vijay asked him to make the vow as his gurudakshina—the sacred payment due to a guru for all the learning he has bestowed on his pupil. You must only fight for the weaker side, he had thundered. Promise me, Barbareek! How could Barbareek have refused?

Bhishma sees his expression and relents. “I live in a poisonous sea of regret. Every moment of every day, I drown in that sea, and yet I do not die. Do you have your answer?”

He turns and walks away, his back ramrod straight, as inflexible as his vow.

There is a good side and a bad side. But as the days pass, it becomes more difficult for Barbareek to distinguish between the two. All he sees are bodies, hacked by blades, a ground drenched with blood, and the air, choked with dust. The screams of animals mingle with the screams of men until they become one horrible sound of death and desolation.

On the third day, Barbareek’s father Ghatotkach joins the battle, tilting it in the Pandavas’ favor. Half-human, half-rakshasa, he flies over the Kaurava army, dropping fireballs on the luckless soldiers. Barbareek swells with pride and worry. Stay safe, Papa, he prays.

A fool’s prayer. There is no safety in a battlefield.

On the sixth night, Barbareek’s mother Maurvi toils up the hill, bearing a large basket. Barbareek regards her with dismay. She oughtn’t to be here. He’s hardly a suitable sight for maternal eyes.

Predictably, Maurvi starts wailing as soon as she arrives.

“Hai hai!” She sets down the basket and beats her chest. “I’ve been robbed!”

“Stop it, Ma,” Barbareek mutters, embarrassed. “Someone will hear.”

“Let them hear!” she screams. “A mother has been robbed of her son!”

If Barbareek had hands, he would close his ears. “Please, Ma,” he begs. “I’m fine.”

“Fine? FINE?” she hollers. “You call this fine? Where’s the other ninety percent of you?”

Barbareek sighs. He really doesn’t know. “Why are you here?” he asks.

Maurvi picks up her basket and flicks away the cover “To take you home, of course.”

What? The basket is meant to be his transport? He’d been thinking she’d brought snacks for him. “I’m going to stay here until the war ends,” he says firmly.

Tears make sooty kajal tracks down her cheeks. “Why should you stay here all alone, with no one to look after you?”

“I am a witness to the Kurukshetra War,” he says. “It is a great honor.”

“Honor? Honor? Is it an honor to have one’s head chopped off?” Maurvi’s face swells until he thinks it will burst. “Who did this to you? Tell me, so I can tear their limbs off and bash their heads in.”

She’s certainly capable of it. She’s the daughter of a daitya, after all, and a fearsome warrior in her own right. No wonder the Pandavas haven’t told her what happened. That unpleasant task falls to him.

He takes a deep breath. “Ma, I cut off my own head.”

“What?” Disbelief and horror war in her face. “Why, my darling? Who made you do this terrible thing?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says, feeling put upon.

Fresh tears spill from her eyes. “I should never have let you leave home—a little child like you.”

“I’m nearly fifteen,” he says indignantly. “And I’m the greatest warrior in Bharat.”

She gives him an up-down look, which does not go very far. “Says who?”

“Everyone!”

“Including those who made you cut off your head?” she inquires.

“Yes! Even them.” His eyes sting. He cannot cry in front of her, or all is lost. “Leave me alone,” he says in as cold a voice as he can summon. “I must meditate.”

“Let me take you home,” she pleads, reaching for his head. “I will make your favorite dishes—”

“You think I can eat without a stomach?” he snaps. “No, don’t touch me, Ma, or I swear I’ll, I’ll…”

His voice trails away. What can he do if she picks him up without his permission, except moan and rail against her?

But something in his tone finally gets through to her. She drops her hands and stares at him. He stares back, determined not to betray himself with a single tear.

At last, she turns away. She picks up her basket and trudges down the hill, her shoulders bowed, leaving him feeling like an absolute shit.

The great Bhishma Pitamah falls on the tenth day of battle. Arjun uses the warrior Shikhandi as a shield in front of him to attack his beloved great-uncle. In his previous life, Shikhandi was the Princess Amba. Bhishma sees Amba in Shikhandi, and lays down his arms, refusing to fight a woman. Arjun weeps as he riddles Bhishma’s body with arrows. Bhishma falls to the earth, blood pouring out of a hundred wounds. Yet, he refuses to die until the war is over and Hastinapur is safe.

Barbareek swallows the lump in his throat. You and your stupid vow, he thinks fiercely, but he doesn’t know if he’s talking to Bhishma or himself.

That night, Duryodhan visits him. This is a surprise. The even greater surprise is the distress on Duryodhan’s face. Did the wicked crown prince of Hastinapur actually care for Pitamah? Or did he only lust after Bhishma’s power?

“How are you, Barbareek?” says Duryodhan. Unlike everyone else, Duryodhan does not wait for a response. “This is a dark and terrible night. The cowardly Arjun has felled our beloved Pitamah through deceit and treachery!”

“If I had been there, I could have killed him with my divine arrows,” says Barbareek resentfully. “In my absence, Great-Uncle Arjun had no choice but to resort to trickery.”

“Hah!” sneers Duryodhan. “An idle child’s boast.”

“Is that why you tried to murder me while I was meditating, Great-Uncle?” inquires Barbareek, and is pleased to see him flush. Duryodhan tried to get rid of him before the war started, and was only stopped in the nick of time by his bosom friend Karna, who persuaded him that such a cowardly act was beneath him.

“A moment of weakness I have apologized for,” snaps Duryodhan. “Must you throw it in my face?”

“I’m sorry for reminding you that you tried to kill me while I was defenceless,” says Barbareek. Duryodhan’s flush deepens. “Why are you here, Great-Uncle? Surely your presence is required in the Kaurava camp.”

“I wanted to see you one last time,” says Duryodhan. “Who knows if we will meet again? Anything can happen in the battlefield.” His eyes smolder. “I have hated the Pandavas all my life. I will hate them until my last breath. I want them dead; I want them to burn. I want to crush their skulls in my hands until the bone cracks and the brains spill out.” His expression softens. “But I have never wished you any harm, child. Nor anyone else.”

He turns and strides away.

“You could have fooled me,” says Barbareek when he finds his voice.

But Duryodhan is gone.

After the fall of Bhishma Pitamah, the war’s descent into lawlessness is swift and terrible. All the nice ethical rules laid out at the beginning are forgotten, trampled in the dust and blood of the battlefield.

On the thirteenth day, six warriors gang up on a weaponless Abhimanyu and slaughter him while a seventh—Jayadratha—holds the entire Pandava army at bay, thanks to a boon from Lord Shiva.

Arjun is inconsolable. Abhimanyu was his favorite son and Krishna’s nephew. He vows to kill Jayadratha before sunset the next day or jump into the fire himself.

That night, Krishna visits Barbareek. There is a beatific smile on his blue face, as if he has spent the day meditating under a kadam tree, and not as Arjun’s charioteer in a blood-soaked battlefield. As if Abhimanyu, his sister’s son, was not just killed in the most brutal way imaginable. Inhuman, thinks Barbareek. It does not help that this is quite literally true.

“How are you, Barbareek?” says Krishna.

Barbareek does not say fuck you because one does not speak thusly to a god. But he thinks it.

Krishna’s smile deepens. “Are you enjoying the battle?”

“I wouldn’t say enjoying, exactly,” says Barbareek. “But I have a good view, yes.”

“It is what you wished, is it not?” says Krishna. “To be able to see the Kurukshetra war.”

“Yes, Lord.”

Krishna raises a delicate eyebrow. “Then why so glum?”

Barbareek holds his tongue.

“You wish perhaps that you were a more active participant?”

“It would have been more efficient,” mutters Barbareek.

“It would have been terribly efficient,” says Krishna. “Need I remind you of the thoughtless vow you made to your guru to fight only for the weaker side? If on the first day you fought for the Pandavas, the Kaurava army would have become much weaker. You would have been forced to fight for the Kauravas on the second day, decimating the Pandava forces. On the third day, you would once again have to switch sides. And so on and so forth until you were the only one left alive.”

Barbareek swallows. Put that way, it sounds both evil and ludicrous.

“Always think before making a promise,” says Krishna. His smile fades as he contemplates Barbareek. “But what can I say? Your lineage seems to have a tradition of making absurd vows, starting with your great-great-uncle Bhishma.”

Barbareek silently agrees. Many decades ago, Bhishma Pitamah had vowed celibacy and declared that he would support whoever was on the throne of Hastinapur. He had not stopped to ask himself what would happen if an evil or greedy king came to power, like the current one, Duryodhan’s father. The result was the Kurukshetra war in which he was on the wrong side, fighting his beloved Pandavas.

“And then there’s your great-uncle Arjun,” says Krishna, sounding aggrieved. “Why did he have to announce that he will jump into the fire if he cannot kill Jayadratha by sunset tomorrow?”

“He must avenge the killing of Abhimanyu,” protests Barbareek.

I know. But why make such a vow? All the Kauravas have to do is hide Jayadratha for one day, and it’s the end of Arjun, greatest archer of Bharat!”

“You’ll help him, won’t you?” asks Barbareek anxiously.

Krishna smiles once more, his mask slipping back into place. “What can I do, child? I am but a charioteer. I have vowed not to use any weapons in this war.”

As if you need any, Barbareek does not say.

“Tomorrow will be a hard day,” says Krishna. “Remember that I am with you.” He pats Barbareek’s head before walking away, leaving him confused.

Barbareek would like to hate Krishna. Sometimes, he almost succeeds. Then Krishna says or does something to make him question everything.

The whole chop-your-head-off-and-gift-it-to-me thing, for instance, is beginning to look less like a punishment and more like an evil necessity.

Krishna had tested him first, given him a choice. When he told Krishna of his vow to his guru and demonstrated his infallible arrows, Krishna had said, “Don’t fight in this war, child. Go back home.”

Barbareek had staunchly refused. What Krishna asked was impossible. He was born to fight. No way he was missing out on this, the biggest war of the ages.

Then, and only then, had Krishna said, “I, too, have guided you from time to time. Where is my payment? What of my gurudakshina?”

“Whatever is mine is yours, Lord,” Barbareek had said, his head somewhere in the clouds, dreaming of victory and glory. “Pray tell me what you want.”

“Your head,” Krishna had said, bringing him crashing down to earth.

The rest, as Arjun would say, was history.

The tears Barbareek swallowed in front of his mother fall on the fourteenth day of battle.

All that day, Arjun searches for Jayadratha in vain. At last, in the evening, the wily Krishna uses his godly powers to simulate sunset, bringing Jayadratha out of hiding, like a rat out of his hole. The Kauravas crow, thinking they have won.

Krishna deftly removes his illusion, and the sun peeks out. Arjun revives like a dying man who has been given nectar. He lets fly a divine arrow to deliver Jayadratha’s head to his father’s lap, which Barbareek thinks is a bit much, considering his own circumstances.

But there’s no help for it. Jayadratha’s father had given him the boon that anyone responsible for his head falling to the ground would automatically explode. When his son’s head lands on his lap, he jumps to his feet in shock, dropping the head to the ground, and duly explodes.

Good riddance, thinks Barbareek, trying to unsee the explosion of body parts. Why do the worst people get the best boons?

The sun finally sets for real, but the fighting does not end. When the moon rises, Ghatotkach flies over the Kaurava army, slaughtering thousands of warriors with his fireballs.

“Do something!” Duryodhan screams to Karna. “Save us from this demon!”

Go back, Papa, thinks Barbareek, anxiety seizing his throat, making it difficult to breathe. Karna is a great archer, every bit as skilled as Arjun.

Karna nocks a divine arrow into his bow and takes aim.

No no no no

A silver-blue thunderbolt zigzags through the air and pierces his father’s chest. Ghatotkach roars in pain as blue fire engulfs him.

“Fall on the enemy, my son!” shouts Bhimasen. “Fall on the enemy!”

Ghatotkach increases in size until he is bigger than the biggest building in Bharat. Then he topples over the Kaurava forces, crushing an entire division of soldiers.

Even in death, Barbareek’s father does his duty.

There is no end to the pain of that interminable night. Bhishma Pitamah lies on a bed of arrows, waiting for the fate of Hastinapur to be decided. The Pandavas weep for Abhimanyu and Ghatotkach. Gandhari, the mother of the Kauravas, weeps at the fate of her sons, ninety-eight of whom are already dead at Bhimasen’s relentless hands. Only Duryodhan and his younger brother Dushasana are left, and for how much longer? Bhimasen has sworn to kill them all.

Another vow, Krishna would say. How your family loves them!

Barbareek’s eyes are swollen, and his throat aches with suppressed sobs. His toes itch. He misses his body. He misses his father. In the world there is a Ghatotkach-shaped hole which will never be filled.

No one comes to Barbareek that night. They are all too wrapped up in their own tragedies to consider his.

In the morning, a vulture lands on a rock near him and refuses to budge even though he shouts himself hoarse trying to scare it away.

On the sixteenth day, Bhimasen smashes his mace into Dushasana’s chariot, rips off his right arm, tears open his chest, and drinks his blood. Then he proceeds to do a victory dance around the corpse of his very dead, very mutilated cousin.

Barbareek watches his grandfather, numb. The vulture hops closer, until it is barely a few feet away from him.

“Do you fancy my eyeballs?” asks Barbareek. If the vulture gouges his eyes out, he will no longer have to watch the horror-show this war has become.

The vulture does not respond, but it gazes at him in a contemplative way.

That night, Queen Gandhari visits, guided by a maid. She is blindfolded, a vow—another fucking stupid vow—she made when she married the blind old king of Hastinapur. To share in his darkness, she decided never to see again. What a devoted wife, some would say. Barbareek is not among them. If it was his mother, he’d rather she be able to see him.

“Poor child,” she quavers as she nears Barbareek. “My poor, poor child.”

She could be talking about any one of her ninety-nine dead sons.

“Excuse me,” says Barbareek to the maid. “Can you shoo that vulture away?”

The maid gives him a puzzled look. “What vulture?”

Great. She can’t see it. “Never mind,” says Barbareek. “Great-Aunt, how are you?”

He feels clever, flipping the question around. But not for long.

“How do you think I am?” sobs Gandhari. “Do you know how many of my sons are left alive?” Without waiting for a response, she says, “One. Only my darling Duryodhan is left.”

“I’m sorry,” says Barbareek awkwardly, keenly aware that all the rest have been killed by his own grandfather.

“It’s all his fault,” says Gandhari, sniffling. “You know who I’m talking about, child.”

The wind blows across the battlefield, carrying with it the stench of burning flesh and the moans of dying men. Barbareek tries to summon self-confidence and sincerity. He must prevent her from cursing Bhimasen. The power of her curses is legendary. “Please forgive my grandfather, Great-Aunt. He…he made a vow.”

Gandhari’s mouth falls open. “Bhimasen? I’m not talking of him. He is but an instrument.”

Barbareek licks his lips, longing, for the first time, for water. “Who were you talking about?” he is compelled to ask.

“Krishna,” says Gandhari, venom in her voice. “He could have stopped the war, if he wanted. He could have forced both sides to an agreement. But he didn’t. You know why?”

“Um, no?” This conversation has taken a dangerous turn, and Barbareek wishes it was over.

He wanted my sons dead.” Gandhari draws a deep, shuddering breath. “So I cursed him. His entire clan will go mad and kill each other, just as my clan has done. His city will sink into the sea, his brothers will drown, and he himself will be killed in the most inglorious, ordinary way possible, by a hunter.”

Barbareek shrivels at her words. “But he’s…”

“God?” sneers Gandhari. “Really? With gods like these, do we need demons?” She reaches forward, her hand patting the air until it finds his face. She caresses his head, tangling her fingers in his curls. “We will have our revenge, you and I.”

She turns to leave, the maid guiding her back down the path she came.

“I don’t want revenge,” says Barbareek, but his words are lost in the wind.

This is just as well, because he doesn’t know how true they are.

On the seventeenth day, egged on by Krishna, Arjun kills Karna while he is fixing his chariot wheel, which has sunk into the mud of the battlefield. Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, reveals that Karna was actually her eldest son whom she abandoned as a baby. Arjun has killed his eldest brother, and that too while he was unarmed.

Because that’s the sort of war this is. That’s the sort of family this is. Not the kind you want to be born into. Not the kind you want to marry into.

And they’re not done yet, not by a long shot.

The vulture sits right next to Barbareek, sharing the tree stump. “What are you waiting for?” asks Barbareek in the hoarse whisper which is all he can manage. “Eyeballs are a delicacy among your lot, aren’t they?”

The vulture clicks its beak, but makes no move to sample him. Perhaps, like Bhishma, it is waiting for the end of the war.

On the eighteenth day, Bhima defeats Duryodhan in mace combat. He cheats, hitting Duryodhan below the waist, which is not allowed. But the rules have been broken enough times by both sides that this is not particularly shocking to anyone.

Krishna blows his conch, signalling the end of the war. Duryodhan lies in agony, a few breaths away from death. Only three warriors are left in the Kaurava camp out of the millions that fought. The Pandavas have won.

Now, thinks Barbareek with a weary sort of peace. Now the vulture will attack him.

But it doesn’t. It rubs its beak against his cheek in an overfamiliar way.

“Get lost,” says Barbareek, but he doesn’t mean it, not really.

That night, the three remaining Kaurava warriors sneak into the Pandava camp and slaughter everyone while they’re sleeping. The Pandavas themselves have gone to Hastinapur, but their sons are still at the camp. All of them are murdered, their heads chopped off and presented to the dying Duryodhan as a macabre offering. Here is our revenge, sir. Are you proud of us?

Barbareek’s eyes burn as they witness this crime.

How much, Krishna? How much more?

The sun rises over a grisly scene. The vulture does not move, its presence no longer a source of dread, but of comfort.

The Pandavas mourn their sons. Funeral pyres dot the battlefield. Bhishma breathes his last, satisfied that the throne of Hastinapur is safe. Yudhishthira will be crowned king, Bhimasen and Arjun will protect the borders.

That evening, Krishna climbs the hill for what, Barbareek knows, will be the last time. As he approaches, the vulture flaps its ungainly wings and takes off into the air.

“Wait! Come back!” cries Barbareek.

But the vulture is gone.

Krishna stands in front of him, waiting. There is no smile on his face today. Is this, too, a mask?

Barbareek squashes the questions and grievances rising up within him, determined not to be the one to speak first. The silence stretches between them, acquiring a competitive quality.

At last, Barbareek can’t take it anymore. “Great-Aunt Gandhari cursed you,” he blurts out.

Krishna nods. “I know. She has every right to be angry with me.”

“But what she said—it won’t come to pass, will it?”

Krishna’s lips twitch. “To the one that is born, death is certain. This is the most fundamental truth of life. Yet, humans tend to forget it.”

“It’s difficult to live, knowing you will die,” mutters Barbareek.

“On the contrary,” says Krishna. “It’s impossible to live if there’s no end in sight.”

“What was the vulture?” asks Barbareek, changing tack.

“A metaphor,” says Krishna.

A familiar irritation wells up in Barbareek. “For what?”

“Surely you can figure that out yourself, child. You witnessed it for eighteen days.”

Silence returns to the hilltop. Barbareek replays the ghastly scenes of the last few days and wishes he could forget them.

“What will you do now?” asks Krishna. “Go back home?”

Barbareek gives him a disbelieving glare. “How am I supposed to go anywhere like this?”

“Oh. Sorry.” Krishna snaps his fingers.

Barbareek’s body materializes before him, strong and healthy as ever. It is clad in loose warrior clothing, with a bow in one hand and a quiver on its back. The bow was a gift from Agni, the god of fire. The three arrows were a boon from Lord Shiva. Much use they have been to him.

“Ready?” says Krishna.

Barbareek’s head floats up from the tree stump, drifts to his body, and settles on his neck.

It’s the oddest sensation, having a body again. He flexes his hands, wiggles his toes, and stretches his neck with a wary delight.

“Everything working fine?” asks Krishna.

“I think so.” Barbareek takes a few experimental steps, slinging the bow on his back.

“Your mother will be happy to see you,” Krishna offers. “So will the Pandavas. They have lost all their sons. You are one of the few to survive from the next generation. If you go to Hastinapur, they will welcome you with open arms.”

Barbareek sighs. The bow feels heavy on his back, the quiver doubly so. “I can’t.”

Krishna waits, a picture of patience.

“I think I must leave,” says Barbareek. “Leave…everything.”

Krishna nods. “If you must, then you must. There’s a nice forest five miles west of here, although you’re a bit young to retire.”

Barbareek hesitates. “My mother…”

“I’ll talk to her,” says Krishna.

“Then I guess this is goodbye,” says Barbareek, a lump in his throat. “Will I see you again?”

Krishna’s smile could melt a glacier. “Once.” He does not have to say when.

Barbareek bows and strides downhill, resisting the urge to look behind. When he reaches the bottom, though, he cannot help himself; he turns around.

The sun is setting behind the hill, casting golden rays on the hilltop. There is no sign of Krishna or the tree stump where Barbareek spent the longest eighteen days in the history of mankind.

Far overhead, a vulture soars, its wings black against the dusky sky.

 

Beyond the Doll Forest

Karin Ljusmåne had a dollhouse, but it was an afterthought, not the nursery centerpiece of my previous charges.

What she really had was a doll forest.

The acres of tiny wooden trees dominated her nursery, filling the space where ordinary children rode rocking horses and played blind-man’s-buff. It was remarkably like the forest where I had spent my childhood days, but in miniature. When I saw it, I was at some loss for what I was to do to keep her busy and happy through the long hot hours of a summer afternoon.

I need not have worried.

“Where are the dolls for your dollhouse?” I asked her on the first afternoon, hoping to set her playing some wholesome little game while I caught up on the darning from when she’d been between nannies. The parents liked that, I’d found, when I was keen and caught up quickly.

She shrugged a sturdy little shoulder. “Out in the woods with the wolves and the bears.”

Karin was utterly unconcerned by this fate, but part of me reacted like a child, as though there were real bears putting my young charge’s dolls in real danger. “Should we…try to find them?”

“They’ll turn up,” she said, and picked up a lavishly illustrated book that probably cost a month of my wages, hand-painted in golds and blues.

I knew better than to disturb a quiet, contented child for no reason, so I took the time to settle my things and do the aforementioned darning, dull though it was. My young charge eventually set her book down and peered intently at the doll forest, though she made no attempt that I could see to find or move any tiny figures in its carven depths.

“How many dolls have you in the forest, Karin?” I asked, keeping my voice light and guiding the darning needle steadily.

“Two,” she said, her eyes not moving from it. “Two golden haired girls in cloaks and boots, a family of five bears—”

“Five! I thought the usual number was three.”

Still her level blue gaze did not waver from the tiny spruces. “Mine has five. I don’t know how many wolves or deer—”

“Have you deer also!”

Finally she looked at me. “The bears and wolves must eat, and squirrel and coney alone make light meals for them.”

I could not show myself discomfited on this, my first day with her. She was entirely right, but I had not expected a rich city child to know it, as I had all too vividly at her age. Instead I said, “Well, of course they must eat, and so must you; come and wash your hands and face and let us see what Cook has sent up for your supper.”

That night as I got Karin ready for bed, my eye fell on a gilt-framed daguerreotype of a child—clearly herself—and two young ladies, all with golden hair. She saw me looking at it and said, “That is when I was with my sisters Elin and Albina, on my last birthday but one. We had lingonberries and cream, and Father rowed us in a boat on the river.”

“And very nice too,” I said. Now that she said it, I could see the resemblance. “Are the elder Misses Ljusmåne in residence?”

Karin frowned. “No. They’re not here. They haven’t been here for—why, it’ll be a year and a day come Midsummer. I don’t know where they are.”

“Well, that’s certainly for your Mama to keep track of and not you,” I said briskly. “Into bed, young miss.”

But it gave me a qualm, hearing that her sisters were gone who-knows-where. Karin was quite big enough to puzzle through a story book; she could have read a letter, if the older girls had sent her one, or better still a picture postcard. Surely there was nothing amiss, but I knew what it was to be the forgotten baby, and my heart ached for her.

As I turned down the gas in the main nursery, I thought I saw a flash of yellow among the birches in the doll forest. I leaned over to look closer, and for a moment I felt as though I was surrounded by the smell of fresh leaves, the blooming of spring flowers, evening dew on moss beneath my shoes. I missed it. The darkness did not feel like the darkness of a nursery with the gaslight low, and I was disoriented, caught among reality, dream, and memory; I could not find the window.

I thought I heard a growl, low and distant.

There was another flash of gold.

And then I put my hand down and found a bit of table to steady myself and all was as it ought to be. When I blinked, I couldn’t tell why I had not seen the window, for it was there, and the streetlight beyond it, just lit by the lamplighter, the houses and shops and the mountain looming in the distance.

Karin was a quiet child, easy to care for. She holed her stockings more often than any child I’d ever known, including my own middle brother Karl, but I could not honestly guess how, she was so docile and sweet. Several days into my employment, I began to grow concerned that she was not getting enough activity, though her color was good, so I hustled her out for a walk in the square. It is not well for children to stay inside at all hours; though the city children sometimes have no choice if they are working in a factory, Frøken Karin had no such toils, and so out she would go if I had anything to say of it.

The last chill of spring had left the air, and the common people, my people, were out in the streets about whatever business they had put off in the long cold months. Karin showed no more emotion for them or the lovely day or even the prospect of the park than she had the bears and wolves in her forest. I wondered if I would ever be able to shake an emotion out of her when she suddenly paled and clutched my arm.

“There,” she said, pointing up the mountain.

I looked up its barren peak. “What is it?”

“That house. That’s where the evil sorcerer lives. He puts curses on wicked girls.”

“Who told you that nonsense?”

“It’s not nonsense, it’s true! He could curse anything, the evil sorcerer Blodhuggtand.”

“Who told you that?” I asked again.

Karin shrugged and let go of my arm, and we proceeded on the rest of our promenade in an uncomfortable silence. When we got back to the nursery, she went immediately to the doll forest and whispered intently into the tallest of the spruces.

That night I dreamed of running through the cool, heady nighttime forest, the branches whipping against my face. I heard something pursuing me, not feet but paws. I ran harder. Just before I woke up, I stumbled into a clearing where an ancient red leather book sat open on a stump. I slammed it shut.

When I set the nursery to rights for the day, there was moss growing on the tiny forest floor.

“Karin,” I said, “does one of the maids clean the doll forest, or is that your job?”

She glanced up from her porridge. “It’s mine. The maids know not to touch it, they would never! It was my sisters’ before me.”

Somehow that did not surprise me.

“And my mother’s before her, and my grandmother’s before that, on back through the generations, oh, ever so long.”

That was a trifle more surprising, but I soldiered on. “It’s gotten mossy.”

“Oh, lovely!” she cried, and she wanted to spring up right then and there to look, but I knew my business, I made her finish her porridge and no grumbling.

She spent the morning poking her fingers among the tiny trees, such that I was amazed she didn’t get a splinter. Once or twice I thought she was moving a doll around, but I never saw the doll. It was always clutched carefully into the palm of her hand, tucked where I could not see it. When I asked her to hold out her hands, they were empty. Frustrated, I made her go wash them.

The next night I had my hand wrapped in wolf fur in my dreams. The wolf was not pursuing me but guiding me. There was a key buried in the trunk of an enormous oak tree. I turned it. It turned hard, but I managed, and my friend the wolf stood by me though I heard the snarl of a bear beyond. I thought I caught the glimpse of the golden hair of a girl nearly my own age.

I woke up breathing hard.

Such fanciful dreams were unlike me. I had thought little of such things since I had had to come to the city to earn my keep. It was the influence of the doll forest and my silent little charge, surrounded by her lonely rooms and her strange toy, rather than fresh air and other children.

I tried once more to insist on taking her out into the square, perhaps to a park where we would encounter other children of her class and their nannies and governesses. It was a fine day, they should have been there. But Karin balked at joining them with their hoops and balls.

“The evil sorcerer Blodhuggtand looks down on us all,” she said. “I don’t like to play where he can see, I don’t want to be cursed!”

“Don’t be a naughty girl, then!” I snapped.

She flinched and ran off from me to stand with another child who watched primly rather than playing, and I decided that was good enough for an afternoon. The other child’s governess and I marched them around the thin, manicured ribbon of a pond. When we returned, I noticed that there were tiny leaves on the doll trees that had merely been carven before, little green bits of growth that felt silken soft to my touch.

“Karin, are they supposed to—”

But my young charge was scarlet-faced and sulking. I put a hand to her forehead. She was burning up.

“Off to bed with you, young miss!”

“I told you, I’m cursed! Blodhuggtand the sorcerer has cursed me from his mountain, I told you, I told you!” she cried.

I herded her to her room. It was a house where toys grew of their own volition, so perhaps I should have stopped to find an exorcist, but she was acting exactly like every sick child I’d cared for before, and I had no reason to think it had anything to do with the toy forest or with her feverish rantings about the man on the mountaintop. I left her for only a moment to tell the cook to make broth and toast for her supper, and when I returned she was napping fitfully.

To my great shock, her mother visited the nursery before the toast and broth came.

Some of the parents I had worked for visited my nurseries daily. They came in and kissed their darlings’ heads and sometimes asked questions and looked at messy little paintings and clutched sticky little fingers. Karin’s parents had not done any of this. But when word went through the servants that Karin was ill, Fru Ljusmåne swept in like a thin, blonde thunderstorm.

“My sweet baby,” she murmured. Her fingers swept down like branches into Karin’s bed. Karin woke and clutched them.

“Mama, will I be cursed like Albina?” she whimpered.

“No, no, of course not,” her mother whispered. She peered into Karin’s face and then looked at me.

“She walked quite briskly in the park,” I said. “I believe it to be only a summer cold.”

“And quite right,” said her mother, her voice like a whisper of wind. “Nothing like Albina, nothing, nothing.”

I blinked at her curiously, but she bent to kiss Karin’s forehead, to whisper to her about getting well, and was gone.

She stopped to smile sadly over the doll forest as she went, but not for long enough that I could ask her a question—if I could think of one that would not get me fired for impertinence, or insanity. Nor had I become well enough acquainted with my fellow servants to know how to ask them without it getting back to the mistress.

I could not sleep all that night.

If it had only been the child, I would have been able to put all talk of the curse out of my head. Children came up with games that they threw themselves into wholeheartedly. One of my previous charges, a bright-eyed tyke of four, had made a playmate of the fire tongs, christening them Doktor Klemming and asking their opinion of every entertainment we devised. It did not lead me to wonder, myself, whether a physician inhabited the fire tongs.

But Fru Ljusmåne had not said anything like, “There are no curses,” or, “Albina isn’t cursed.” She had only assured Karin that she would be nothing like Albina. Combined with the strange growth of the doll forest and the dreams I was having, it unsettled me. It made me wonder.

Were the flashes of yellow hair I kept seeing Karin’s sisters?

Could it be that I was breaking their curse, as I closed the book and turned the key?

No, no, it was too ridiculous. I flattered myself—and I a sensible woman too. There was work to do, and encouraging the child in her nonsense would do no one any good. It was the lack of sleep that was making me wonder. But still I yearned for my dreams of the forest.

When I went to wake Karin, she whispered, “I thought it wanted me, but it didn’t want me, it didn’t want me at all.”

“What?” I said stupidly. I had a headache from not sleeping. Karin’s forehead did not feel hot, and I did not look forward to looking after a healthy, energetic child after a day of no sleep, even one as quiet and docile as Karin.

She sat up and hopped out of bed. “Is there breakfast? I feel much better.”

“That’s good to hear,” I said slowly.

She ate her egg without being told, mopping all the yolk up with toast soldiers, and did not go to the doll forest when she was finished. Instead she picked up a book and read quietly. She had not ruined any stockings, and the nursery was in good order. I saw a flash of yellow in the doll forest and thought that finally I had spotted one of the dolls, but when I moved to put it away in the dollhouse, it was a tiny yellow blossom on one of the trees, smaller than the tip of my smallest finger.

I glanced over at Karin. She was watching me. When she saw me looking, she crouched over her book with immediate intent. I stifled a smile. “If you’re feeling better,” I said, unsettled by the toy in bloom, “we shall go out for another walk.”

“Well—” said Karin.

“And no dawdling.”

But we were scarcely out the door when the skies clouded over, and I was forced to hustle her back in again as swiftly as I had hustled her out, lest a soaking send her back to bed with a relapse.

Karin spent the afternoon with her nose pressed to the glass, watching the storm as if it was the most exciting pantomime of her young life. The thunder crackled, the lightning raged, and the rain came down in such sheets that at times we could barely see our own wrought-iron railings, much less the houses across the square.

Though the doll forest should have been completely dry inside, the nursery smelled like wet moss and leaves, like a summer rain in the wilderness. It was nearly overpowering. I wanted to open the window to get the city pavement smell in to combat it, but I did not dare.

At the window young Frøken Karin was in the best position in all the world to see when a carriage pulled up outside the house. I could see that it was a carriage of quality, not a tradesman’s wagon, and the lower servants dithered and swarmed to get it safely under the portico. Karin craned her neck and peered at the two slender, pale figures who emerged, wrapped against the rain.

She let out a shriek like a teakettle.

“Karin! Young ladies most certainly do not—”

“Elin! Albina!” she howled, and took off out of the nursery at an extremely unladylike run.

I followed her at an extremely undignified pace, trying to appear as though I was not running while matching her speed as best I could. It was the worst of both worlds. I arrived in the grand hall too late, as my young charge was flinging herself into her elder sisters and nearly knocking them down like ninepins.

I gabbled apologies, tangling my hands in my skirt, terrified of being fired. But no one was looking at me. Elin, the eldest, held both of her sisters upright while Karin wept unashamedly into her skirts. Albina did not have the strength to do anything but sigh and lean into them both.

If Frøken Albina had been cursed, it was a very familiar curse that had taken hundreds of people in the city, and it was called consumption. It needed no evil sorcerer on the mountain, no connection with a doll forest, just ill luck that could befall any of us. I took Karin back to the nursery, limp with happiness. Her sisters promised that they would come and tell her stories about the sanatorium where Elin had recovered her health. No one quite wanted to break it to her that Albina had not.

But my dreams returned that night all the same, more vivid and more extensive than ever. The forest bloomed around me. There were violets and stonecrop, cress and draba, white and yellow and blue and pink flowers everywhere I stepped, and I could see their colors as clearly as if it was high noon through the shining of the moon above me. The wolves sat patiently in a ring.

“What must I do?” I asked them.

They were wolves and did not answer.

“But what is it, how can this be? Are you just toys, are you the ravings of my mind? Have I caught the child’s cold?”

Rabbits and squirrels joined them, and beyond the circle of the flower-strewn clearing I heard the rumble of the bear I had so feared. I had fled the bear. But the young mistress’s sisters were not cursed at all, but stricken with illness. They were home now, and I was dreaming.

I turned and walked toward the bear instead.

The ring of animals parted for me. The moonlight was steady and clear. I picked a handful of flowers as I went. The bear loomed over me, its breath a carnivorous blast. “None of your nonsense, sir,” I said, and wove the flowers into a crown for its head.

The bear reared back and the dream fell away.

I woke up and rubbed the sleep from my eyes like I was a tiny child. The cunning clock that awakened the servants had not sounded. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept until I had enough sleep. The thought unsettled me. I stood, brushing off my nightdress.

I stopped. My skirts were covered with golden pollen, and now my hands were too.

The narrow bed and rickety table provided me in the Ljusmåne servants’ quarters were still there, but perched on a grassy hillock. I had not realized that I was outside because I was sheltered by a grove of poplars, but a breeze rustled their leaves above me. I arose from my bed, the springy turf and stones unfamiliar under my feet. My boots, my trunk, all of my things were gone but the bed and table.

I climbed a higher hill next to my poplar grove and looked out at the city. It was a riot of trees, the ruins of roofs and railings poking out through their branches. Here and there a twist of what had been a wrought-iron railing poked out of a trunk. Just down the hill, the ripped panel of a carriage door lofted high in the branches of a tree.

Up the mountain, the trees stretched far above the point where they had ended, their massive roots crawling like living things to the house that Karin had pointed out to me, the house she had said was the dwelling of the sorcerer Blodhuggtand.

The roots ripped through its walls like claws. I could not imagine a person surviving, not unless they were mighty in magic—and saw the trees coming. Perhaps a mighty sorcerer could do that.

I could not imagine how.

I heard human voices in what had been the streets below, what were now trees upon trees upon trees. The city folk were calling out to each other.

I had been right that there was a curse in Karin Ljusmåne’s nursery, but I was wrong about whose curse it had been. Her sisters, as I had seen, were alive and well. I had broken the curse on the forest. And now it was free.

I laid a hand on the nearest birch trunk, speckled white and brown and peeling a little in the summer sun. I hoped that the forest would think well of me for returning it to its power.

In That Place She Grows a Garden

All the students at Queen Mary Catholic High School knew about Principal Vargas’ death before the first bell.

To Rayven James, it was welcome news.

The entire student body swarmed through the hallways like a many-headed ocean, with straight brown, blond and black hair coloring the seas. An occasional pop of red floated past like flotsam, but one thing as rare as finding a perfectly formed pearl within the tight clasp of an oyster’s shell was any hair that didn’t flow in silky sheets, that didn’t bounce like those no-rhythm-having girls trying to twerk in the restroom, that didn’t accept a fine-toothed comb as readily as a mother’s hand opening for her child’s.

Rayven was that rare pearl.

Her locs, four years in the making, trailed down her back that Tuesday morning, the tips grazing her waistband. A shortage of time had prevented the usual adornment, a green-and-white ribbon to match the green-and-white plaid skirt. No, that morning had been a blur of three snooze alarms, a two-minute shower and a single slice of dry toast snatched out of the toaster as Mama’s horn blatted with impatience from outside.

“Rayven!” had come the call, for the fourth time, right before the high-school junior had bolted out the front door, sure that the neighbors were cursing the early-morning chaos that routinely got them up and moving. Barely had her butt touched the seat before Mama zoomed the car into reverse, shaking her head and flicking a cigarette at the same time, her hold on the steering wheel not extending past two fingers of her left hand.

So there was no time for ribbons that morning.

Rayven tossed her head, the sheet of her locs shifting like a curtain with a curious neighbor behind it before twitching back into place.

“Did you hear about Vargas?”

Rayven glanced to her right, where her friend Sonia Williams matched her step for step, like they were the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall or something. They might not be high-kicking chorus girls, but according to the majority population of Queen Mary, it was hard telling them apart anyway. Although Sonia was several shades lighter than Rayven, wore a completely different hairstyle—short, relaxed bob—and stood two inches taller. And yet, to the white kids they attended school with, these two Black girls had practically shared a womb.

“I heard something,” Rayven said, twirling around the dial on her locker. “Is he really dead?”

“Yep.” Sonia leaned in closer, though any fear of being overhead was unwarranted, considering the loud chatter going on around them. “I heard he shot himself.”

Rayven shrugged. “So?”

“So that’s a grave mortal sin. He can’t go to heaven.” The white around Sonia’s liquid brown pupils seemed to pulse. “You know that, right?”

Rayven nodded, mainly to stem the tide of any religious teachings outside of Theology class. Sonia was, like almost every other student there, Catholic, so she knew all the ins and outs. Sonia also wasn’t on scholarship, like Rayven. Although her friend didn’t live in a three-story mansion like some of their classmates, Sonia’s upper-middle-class background was still quite an upgrade from Rayven’s lot.

“Why would he kill himself, though?” Rayven asked as they walked to first period, hers being English Comp and Sonia’s being World History, across the hall from each other.

“I heard he was having family problems.”

Throughout the rest of the day, rumors and gossip flew through the air like invisible bullets, propelled by little more than breath and boredom. By the time Rayven made it to lunch, the late principal’s death had been attributed to everything from poison, hanging, gunshot, and carbon monoxide in the garage to his mistress’s fury that he wasn’t actually going to leave his wife. To Rayven, that was definitely the best one.

However he met his maker—and Rayven didn’t know which that was—he was definitely dead.

Good riddance.

“You can’t stay mad forever.”

Mama’s words danced in Rayven’s head, one of Cathy James’ mamaisms, as the girl thought of them.

How did she know what Rayven could do?

But Mama had issued that mamaism after Rayven’s father had left to live with his baby’s mama six years ago; after she had grounded Rayven for a week for wearing lipstick when she wasn’t supposed to five years ago; and after Principal Vargas had suspended her for skipping class and therefore preventing her from playing in the girls’ varsity basketball quarter finals last month.

Queen Mary had lost without Rayven’s handles on the court.

Unknown to Mama, Rayven could stay mad and she’d certainly hold onto that rage forever if she could.

Trouble was, her rage was soon to have a brand-new target.

Mrs. McGee replaced the dead Richard Vargas as principal at Queen Mary. The student body reserved opinions publicly, although privately, text messages and DMs had already sized the woman up.

Rayven had no opinion, one way or the other, until one week after McGee’s appearance.

“Mr. Holloway?” The mechanical voice filled the Chemistry classroom. “Can you send Rayven James down to the principal’s office?”

Silence, heavier than noise, pressed on her skin as she made her way to the door. She imagined everyone’s eyes shining in her direction and, once the door clicked behind her, a rush of voices would break out from every corner of the room. Walking down the steps, Rayven wondered what this was about. When she made it to the main office, the principal’s secretary ushered her inside Mrs. McGee’s room.

“Good morning, Rayven.”

“Good morning, Mrs. McGee.”

Thus far, Rayven had only heard the woman speak at the morning assembly where she introduced herself and went into a rambling monologue about her experience, her past positions and what she hoped to bring to Queen Mary. The leather seat sank miserably under Rayven and she glanced at the woman on the other side of the big oak desk—a picture of unflattering bangs and milky blue eyes that just missed the boat of prettiness—before settling her gaze on the potted plant in front of her.

The only other time Rayven had been in this office was before Mr. Vargas had either killed himself or been in a grisly car accident driving home drunk from a late-night poker game, according to the latest rumor passing from mouth to ear.

“I hope your classes are going well. Although, I am aggrieved to come in and replace Mr. Vargas under the circumstances.”

Aggrieved? Rayven’s mind stumbled around in the dark, looking for a light switch. That had been a vocabulary word a few weeks ago, but she’d never heard anyone use it in regular conversation. She nodded, unsure what to say.

“Well, as your new principal, I have reviewed some of the school’s policies.” A clearing of the throat which sounded completely unnecessary. “And one of those policies regarding dress code had been rather lax under your former principal.” Another cough-cough coming through a clear passageway. “It’s about your hair.”

Rayven’s attention, which had been teetering on exiting stage left, made a quick about-face.

“What about my hair?”

Here, Mrs. McGee consulted a paper on her desk. Gone were the uncalled for ahem-ahems as the woman settled into more comfortable territory.

“I’m now enforcing the policy of Queen Mary School that no student sports any extreme or distracting hairstyles, which includes unnatural colors, shaved images or words, or dreadlocks.” Brown eyes locked into blue ones as the bobbed head gave a brief nod. “You’ll have to cut your hair, I’m afraid. You have until Monday.”

Later that night, when Rayven was finally able to think about the day without an excruciating buzz drowning out everything else, she tried to replay the rest of her conversation with the principal. All she recalled were perfunctory words and phrases: if you don’t cut your hair… expulsion… school policy… changes.

“We’re gonna fight this, baby,” Mama had said as soon as Rayven told her. “I’ll call the news station.”

Even as the words left her mother’s mouth, Rayven felt no conviction there. Because if Rayven left Queen Mary, what were their options?

Mama worked two jobs—one as a teacher’s aide in a preschool and the other as an after-hours office maid—to make up the difference that Rayven’s scholarship didn’t cover. It was either that or their neighborhood high school, R.G. Franklin. The “R.G.” stood for Rupert Godfrey, but these days, everyone called it “Riots and Guns Franklin.”

Rayven’s tears stopped long enough for her to speak clearly.

“Mama, I’m almost done with my junior year. I don’t want to go somewhere for just my senior year.”

The truth was, Rayven had no other school to attend. And they both knew it.

It’s just hair. It will grow back. You might like a short ‘do.

Rationalizations tiptoed in before Rayven blasted each of them aside. She spent the entire weekend riding one emotion after another, sometimes one coming so quickly on the heels of the last that processing anything was impossible. Tears—sad ones, angry ones, frustrated ones—each took their turn. With her mother’s emotions mixed in, Rayven wondered how they’d survived.

By the time Sunday night arrived—insistent, swift—Rayven felt like an abandoned water bottle lying on a beach somewhere. Flattened and empty.

“You want me to help you?” Mama’s voice, thin and young all of a sudden.

“No. I’ll do it.”

“I can help you shape it up, a little, if you want.”

“Mama, I’ll be fine, just let me do it.”

The bathroom door clicked, a barrier of wood between them.

Rayven picked up the black-handled scissors and faced herself in the mirror, squaring her shoulders.

On Monday morning, heaviness pressed on Rayven’s eyelids, the weight of unending tears. Mama asked her if she wanted to stay home from school that day, and while the idea had tantalized her, Rayven decided to go.

What was putting it off for another day going to do? She already felt ugly, she may as well share it with everyone.

Quiet hummed in the car ride, tardiness nonexistent.

Mother and daughter stared through the windshield, eyes haunted and hollow.

The whispers were worse than outright insults. She couldn’t tell what the whispers held, the words swirling on the edge of her hearing before breaking into pieces of silence. The not-quiet hung in the hallways, parting for her as she passed.

“Shhh.”

“W.T.F.”

“…glow down for sure.”

Even Sonia’s eyes couldn’t hide the shock and despair, though her friend made a valiant effort. Rayven imagined she could see the lump working its way up Sonia’s throat.

“I hate it,” she hissed as soon as they made their way into the restroom.

“Ray, it’s not that bad. Really.”

Sonia’s hand crept up before falling under the shame. Even she wouldn’t touch it.

Rayven’s reflection scowled back at her.

“It is that bad. And it’s all McGee’s fault. I hate that bitch.”

Anguish had prevented her from doing anything with her locs the night before except place them in a bag. Rayven had no idea what to do with them. She wanted to keep them, memorialize them in some way, but grief had to wane before she could think clearly.

When Rayven entered her bedroom that afternoon, ready to flop onto her bed while her mother made a quick dinner and changed before her night job, her eyes traveled straight to her small desk, where she’d left the bag.

It wasn’t there.

What the?

Under the desk, around the desk, on and under her neatly made bed, in her closet and then a search of the entire three-bedroom house. All twelve-hundred feet of it. Outside to the carport.

No bag. No locs.

“Mama, did you throw that bag away, the one with my locs in it?”

Mama was tying her maid apron behind her and reaching for her car keys.

“What, Ray?”

“Did you throw my locs away?” The shrillness in her voice threatened to crack and break.

“No. Why would I do that? Where’d you leave them?”

“In a bag in my room. They were on the desk when I went to school this morning.”

“Girl, I’m gonna be late if I don’t leave right now. Dinner’s on the stove, so you eat. You’ll find them, you just forgot where you left them.”

“I didn’t!”

In the silence that followed, Rayven could almost feel the charge in the air. Mama’s gaze was level and unflinching, driving Rayven’s down to her shoes. Clearly, her mother sensed her distress and was giving her a break, letting that one white-girl-drama moment fly. But she knew Mama wasn’t going to allow another.

“I’m sorry, Mama.”

“Mm hmm. We’ll talk later, I have to go.”

A moment later, the car’s engine roared before fading away into a diminishing growl.

On the closet floor, pushed behind a spare quilt, sat the bag. Rayven didn’t remember tossing it there, but she must have. In all of the heartache of the night before, she had no memory of most of it.

Except each snip.

That small sound had echoed in the tiny bathroom. After the first one, she couldn’t look any longer—she continued cutting by feel. In the end, a two-inch Afro remained. Shorn and weary. Had she shampooed her hair next? She must have. She must also have rubbed coconut oil throughout it and twirled what small pieces she could in an effort to make it look…different. At some point, Rayven assumed she’d given up on all of that and just gone to bed, where sleep welcomed her into its embrace of forgetfulness.

The bag’s mouth gaped, a stray loc poking out as if to test the air. Rayven pulled it out, then the next, and all the rest. They were so long, she thought. Four years of life resting on her lap.

Gone.

Gathering them into a bouquet, she tied a thick white ribbon around one end to keep them together and snagged a white carnation from the short vase on Mama’s nightstand. The flower peeked out from the ropes, nestled within them. Rayven carried the arrangement, the same way a parent might carry a dead child pulled out of a river, and placed it on her bedroom windowsill.

During the day, the sun would shine on them and at night, the moon would tell them secrets.

One week later, the student body chatter had moved on to a new target, to Rayven’s relief. She’d resigned herself to her short haircut but not actually accepted it. Thin headbands that matched her school uniform did nothing to assuage her ongoing sorrow.

Kids milled around her, some grabbing books out of their lockers, others walking to class. She peeked at her reflection in the small mirror stuck inside her locker door, wondering why she continued to look for something hopeful.

A pop of yellow caught her eye.

Rayven reached up, expecting the worst because it wouldn’t be the first time one of Queen Mary’s finest had snuck an object into her hair—the end of a broken pencil once, a hermit crab shell another time.

“Ow,” she breathed. When she’d pulled on the yellow thing, whatever it was, it stung, as if she pulled her own hair.

Rayven rifled through her bookbag until she found the compact. She held its mirror behind her as she gazed into her locker door reflection.

A yellow flower poked from her ‘fro.

Even the shrill bell went unheard.

She tugged at it and again, felt that sting. Her fingers burrowed deeper, straight to the roots. And indeed, the base of the flower felt like roots. Plant roots. Growing from her head.

“Miss James,” a sharp voice clapped from behind her.

The locker door slammed.

“You’re going to be late, you better get going to class,” Mr. Baxter said.

Rayven looked around and indeed, the hallways were mostly clear, except for one boy racing to get somewhere.

“Yes, sir,” she managed to say. Rayven completed the walk to Chemistry by memory alone, because the odd yellow flower consumed her entire mind.

She pulled Sonia into the restroom at lunch.

“Do you see it?”

“Yeah,” Sonia said.

“It’s growing out of my head.”

Sonia looked at her.

“I’m serious. Dig down in there, you’ll see.”

Sonia’s fingers gently obeyed and after a moment, a small gasp escaped her lips.

“What is that, Ray?”

“Don’t pull it!” Rayven hissed, but it was too late. Sonia jumped back, her hands in the air. “I don’t know what it is.”

“It’s growing there just like it would grow out of the ground. Hang on, I’ll take a picture.”

As Sonia dug around in her bookbag, she described the petals and the small green stem emerging from Rayven’s scalp like the hair around it.

Rayven heard a series of quick shutter clicks.

“Here,” Sonia said, handing over her phone.

In the photo, the small yellow carnation contrasted with Rayven’s dark hair. She zoomed in on it to get a better look. Nothing seemed extraordinary about its curled petals and circular shape, except, of course, where it grew.

The girls looked at one another in the mirror over the sink, wearing matching masks of confusion.

The next day, two more flowers had sprouted in Rayven’s hair. White and pink, their soft petals just poking out against the black coils. She showed them to her mother, who shared her silent puzzlement.

“I’ll take you to the doctor,” Mama finally said.

“But I’m not sick.”

Mama’s mouth worked. “Well, what else are we supposed to do? This ain’t normal, Ray, to have flowers growing out your head.”

“What’s the doctor going to do?” For some reason, she feared him snipping the flowers away. She wouldn’t let him. Her fingers trailed over the petals. They weren’t hurting anything, the flowers. They were just… growing somewhere they weren’t supposed to grow.

Plus, someone at school was sure to say something.

And they did.

“Miss Clarke, can you send Rayven James down to the office?”

Again, those milky blue eyes that Rayven imagined spitting into. The cough-cough through a clear throat.

Just get to the damn point.

Rayven, I can’t help but notice your new hairstyle.”

“Why, thank you.”

The pink lips downturned at the smooth sarcasm, wrinkles standing out against the lipstick, just outside of the lines.

“While hair bows, ribbons and headbands are acceptable for girls, flowers are not.”

“I’m aware, but I don’t exactly have a choice here.”

“Pardon?”

Rayven exhaled. The cat was out now, she may as well send it running down the street. “The flowers are growing out of my head, Mrs. McGee.” After a beat, she continued. “I tried pulling on them and it was just like pulling on my hair. It hurts. So I can’t take them out.”

Disbelief shone in the principal’s eyes. Of course. Why would she believe something so fantastical?

“Let me see.”

Rayven shrugged, standing. What was the old bat going to do? She wouldn’t let her touch her or put her fingers on the flowers. Mrs. McGee came from around the desk and stood beside Rayven, her eyes fixated on the petals. Her hand began to raise.

“Don’t touch my hair,” Rayven warned.

“Now, young lady, I’ve already told you—”

“And I told you that they’re growing out of my head! You can’t just pull them out.”

“Okay.” A change in tone, like a thick coat of honey poured over a slice of lemon. Rayven didn’t trust it. “We’ll have the nurse take a look at you, will that be all right?”

“That’s fine. My mother’s taking me to the doctor to get looked at anyway, but I’ll go to the nurse. You’ll see.”

“Perfect.”

They entered Nurse Bennett’s office a few minutes later. Rayven stood silently as Mrs. McGee went into an explanation that dripped with derision. She may as well call me a liar, Rayven thought. The nurse didn’t ask any questions, as if she saw students every day with odd things growing from their scalps.

“Do you mind if I take a look, Rayven?” she asked.

“No, ma’am.”

Rayven sat in the chair and the nurse slipped into plastic gloves. She felt a gentle prodding across her head.

“Ouch!” she hissed.

“I’m so sorry,” the nurse said, her hand over her mouth. She’d tried to pull one of the flowers away. She turned to the principal and stammered for a moment before getting the words out. “Mrs. McGee, they’re really growing out of her head!”

Each morning, more flowers bloomed in random places. Once, three small morning glories curled behind Rayven’s ear, but otherwise, they showed up in singles: a red snapdragon at the crown, an orange poppy at the nape. Within a few weeks, only half of her hair was visible. The rest of it was a garden of colors. Purple violets, pink meadowsweets and white doll’s eyes nestled next to blue forget-me-nots. On occasion, a single petal or bud fell off on its own, to be found later on a couch back or pillow, its replacement already filling in the gap it left behind.

Her mother had taken her to a doctor, who’d been just as puzzled. He’d wanted to cut one flower away to study it, but Rayven had refused to let him.

What if it was like cutting a piece of her? Would she bleed, feel real pain? She didn’t want to find out.

The doctor suggested a specialist, but for what? What were they going to do? The flowers weren’t harming her, they were just… growing. So that’s what he wrote on a note that she took back to school. Not that it did anything to calm Mrs. McGee down.

The threats started. Expulsion was tossed out. Rayven eavesdropped on the conversation between her mother and the principal one afternoon as Mama dared the woman to expel Rayven.

“It’s a medical condition,” Mama snarled into the phone.

“It’s also a distraction, Mrs. James,” came the voice from the speaker. “Students aren’t getting their work done because everyone is so busy talking about Rayven’s hair and the flowers. We simply can’t allow it.”

“Then maybe you need to teach your students how to focus! You expel my child, you better expect to get sued.”

If Rayven thought her mother’s counterthreats would get her off the hook, they didn’t. The principal seemed to take the entire weird situation as a personal affront, as if Rayven grew the flowers herself.

She didn’t know how she felt about them. On one hand, they drove Mrs. McGee crazy, which was incredibly rewarding. But they also made Rayven stand out in a way she didn’t want. Girls staring at her as she walked down the hall, conversations stopping when she walked into class, even teachers tearing their eyes away. If she could have her original hair back, she’d gladly take it.

Brody Tatlinger wasn’t the brightest student or the nicest or the handsomest, but he was a varsity football player so at Queen Mary—that made him a god.

Prior to Rayven sprouting a flourishing garden from her head, he’d never paid attention to the girl. She was one of the scholarship kids and he didn’t want anything to do with her, her people or her world. But now everyone at the school knew Rayven. Their feelings ranged from wonder to confusion to jealousy. Mostly, however, they kept their distance.

On that Thursday afternoon, when she passed him on her way to World History, he didn’t know why his interest was piqued. He’d seen the flowerhead dozens of times by then. According to school lore, the weirdo really did have plants growing out of her scalp, some kind of strange medical condition.

Rayven passed and without thinking about why he did it, he followed, although his next class lay in the opposite direction.

Rayven stuck to the right side of the halls, though the occasional rulebreaker fought against the flow of traffic and forced the pack to separate briefly before blending back together.

Two things happened almost at the same time: a violent tug at the back of her head and Brody’s loud curse ringing through the hallway.

“Oww—shit!”

All heads turned toward him, including Rayven’s, though her hand went to where the pain hummed.

Brody’s eyes were fixed on his thumb, from where a small black stinger protruded.

Only Rayven saw the bright yellow flower fall from his palm and the dying bee beside his foot, a coil of black hair wrapped around one of its legs.

It had hurt, but it seemed that Brody snatching a flower from her head didn’t leave any lasting damage. There was no bleeding and the spot didn’t feel empty, what with Rayven’s thick hair and remaining foliage. The anger simmered for a while, but at the same time, he’d received his just desserts.

Let that be a lesson to all of them, she thought.

But McGee proved herself to be a hard sell.

Rayven kept her head down and laid low as much as she could. She knew the principal was just waiting on her to slip up, to give her any reason to put Rayven out of the school. To prevent that, Rayven made the honor roll during the third quarter, excelled in Debate Club and participated in class without being obnoxious about it.

So the fourth-period call, “Mr. LaSalle, please send Rayven James to the principal’s office,” came as a complete surprise.

What now? drummed through her mind as she walked downstairs.

The same unpleasant air hung heavily in the room as the two squared off across the desk.

She can say what she wants, Rayven thought, she just better not touch me.

The glint of the scissors caught her eye. Mrs. McGee’s fingers tapped next to them before she picked them up.

“You’ve proven yourself quite formidable, Rayven.”

What? Bewilderment held Rayven’s tongue in place.

“At every turn, you’ve fought against me, even had your mother threaten to sue me. All I’m trying to do is run a school and running a school is a big job, young lady. I want everyone to excel and do well here. After all, we’re preparing young ladies and gentlemen for the next phase of their lives.”

The principal rose out of her seat, scissors hanging from her right hand, the pointed end punctuating the air as she spoke.

“We cannot have major distractions such as yourself when we’re trying to do our jobs. We cannot have one student wreak so much havoc all on her own.”

“I’m not doing that, Mrs. McGee, I have no control over—”

“You may not,” she cut her off, “but I will.”

Rayven rose slowly, her eyes never leaving the scissors, which seemed to float toward her as the principal made her move. A surprising swiftness propelled the woman, more quickness than Rayven had given her credit for. She turned and reached for the doorknob. A hand clamped on her shoulder. The hiss of scissor blades opening rasped in her ear.

No…

Rayven turned back, too focused on making a fist to register the tingling on her scalp and the rush of air over her. If this meant getting expelled, she’d gladly accept it.

A thick wall of bees, wasps, hornets and even hummingbirds hung between her and Mrs. McGee. Their buzzing overwhelmed everything, but Rayven did pick up a weak “Oh my God” underneath it all. The cluster of creatures hovered for a moment, a riot of swirling color, the beat of many wings flapping noisily in the small room. Rayven was too transfixed to feel any satisfaction at the fright pasted all over the principal’s face. The mass of insects and birds—wider than the big desk—rose almost to the ceiling before driving down toward the principal. Mrs. McGee had two options: remain there and be assailed by hundreds of stingers and sharp beaks or flee her own office.

She chose the latter.

The last Rayven saw of the principal was her pumping legs heading away, a huge knot of insects and birds trailing behind.

Queen Mary was cursed.

At least, the principal’s position was, according to the latest school lore. For the remainder of the school year, Vice Principal Lozado acted as interim principal, an unwillingness to accept the top job forcing the school system to begin a search for a replacement.

Soon after, Rayven woke to find several flowers pressed into her pillow. When she reached up, she dislodged a few more and they drifted down onto her bedspread.

Oh no, she thought. Just when she’d more or less accepted that she wasn’t going to have hair like everyone else. If not for the cloud of insects and birds that had driven McGee out of the school, where would Rayven be right now? Of course, her old principal had caused all of this to begin with, but Rayven couldn’t help the conflicting emotions churning inside her now that the flowers were dying off.

It continued over the next couple of weeks. Each morning, more flowers rested on her pillow, fewer growing from her scalp. Her hair filled in the spaces the flowers left and by the beginning of May, her slightly longer Afro showed no hint of the garden.

Sadness mingled with relief, with both tussling for the top position. She wondered what would happen next year, with the new principal. Would that person allow locs?

Rayven decided she’d begin cultivating them over the summer. Without the distraction of the flowers, as long as she did her work and stayed out of trouble, surely they’d leave her alone for her final year.

In the fall, on the first day of her senior year, Rayven sat in the auditorium for a special session. Budding locs sprouted from her head, a green-and-white headband holding them off her face. Absently, she twisted one as the new principal, a Mr. Abbott, introduced himself. Like most other adults Rayven had interacted with at the school, he sat firmly in the camp of The Others, no matter how affable he tried to make himself. She didn’t care about his vision, mission or goals. This was her last year and her sole priority was marching across the graduation stage next summer.

And seeing her locs grow back.

Three days later: “Miss Simmons, can you send Rayven James down to the principal’s office?”

The office was the same, although Mr. Abbott’s demeanor differed from his predecessor’s. He smiled a lot, for one thing, although the mirth didn’t exactly reach his green eyes. He attempted some little jokes and posed a few introductory questions, until time for small talk ended and he finally presented the reason for the summons.

“As you know, Miss James, we have a strict dress code policy here…”

Rayven stared out the window of Sonia’s three-year-old BMW, a recent birthday gift from her parents. She’d told Sonia about the meeting with Mr. Abbott on the drive to her home.

“Well, you can comb them out, right? Since they’re still so new?” Sonia asked, hesitancy dragging out her questions.

“I guess,” Rayven sighed, running a hand over her head. Sure, it wasn’t a four-year commitment, but it was still her hair. One welcome day in her future, no stupid rules and restrictions would dictate how she wore it.

“Thanks for the ride,” Rayven said as she exited the car. “See you tomorrow.”

Before she shut the door behind her, Sonia’s voice pushed out: “Wait, you have something on your shirt.”

Rayven looked down and, seeing nothing, turned her head to her left shoulder.

A spot of pink.

 

 

Cerulean Memories

Content Note: Suicide

 

Blue was her favorite color.

He touched the glass case one last time before returning to the desk, but his handprint lingered on, an ethereal smudge above the backlit, cerulean shadow of her face. No matter how often he tried to write their story, he couldn’t shake free of the lies he had built around them. He suspected that even if he could discover the truth, it would pass him by unrecognized, as ephemeral and false as a balladeer’s concept of love. Love knew you better and could hurt you worse. Where fear faded so did love, and he nurtured a delightful terror, a trembling fascination bred in tales. He wanted to reach her and make her understand, but all he had left was the elusive call of memory.

A decade out of fashion, his pin-striped suit hung well on him. A man of occasion, his father would have called him, with a head full of gray hair, a filigree of wrinkles around his gray eyes. His manicured nails adjusted his tie one final time before his appointment. The door chimed fifteen minutes earlier than expected. If he didn’t have to inspect the merchandise he wouldn’t have bothered. The living offered little except their stories.

“May I help you?” he said.

“You the old dude who buys stuff?” A young boy looked past him with heavy-lidded, half-upturned eyes. His camouflage hoodie, drawn up, shadowed most of his face. He under-enunciated his words.

“I am. I’m also quite busy. I have a one o’clock appointment.”

“Yeah, with me. JaQuon Wilson.”

“I see…JaQuon. Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“I should be a lot of things.” The bulk of the hoodie hid his husky frame and JaQuon allowed his wrinkled clothes to hang from him in calculated slovenliness. His book bag, half-slung over his shoulder, slid into the crook of his elbow before he hitched it back. He avoided eye contact, all the while clutching a skateboard to his chest, protecting it as if it held all the secrets of childhood.

“Is that the item in question?”

“Yeah.” JaQuon gripped the skateboard even tighter.

“It won’t do. I have quite…specific requirements.”

“I know what you want. You think I’d be caught in this creepy joint if I didn’t have what you wanted?” His determined eyes half-pleading with him, JaQuon puffed up his chest and stepped broadly, all bravado and empty swagger.

“Come in.”

The man’s hard-soled shoes sat by the doorway. Walking barefoot into the room, he checked his watch, age spots, like tiny scars, on the back of his hand.

The great thing about wealth was that things mattered less. Not the trappings of power. Not the social jousting of civilized behavior behind smiles like gleaming swords. Money excused eccentricities and only the dreams mattered. That was the last lesson his father had taught him before he went away, leaving behind a blood-splattered envelope—addressed to him in exquisite calligraphy—shaded by the slumping body with the large hole in its head on the couch.

Thigh-high clusters of golden ropes of grass, pallid from lack of water, provided beauty in their dying. Burrs and brambles clung to his pants and socks, scraping his thin skin as he walked without care, a boy with the blush of ruddy peach in his cheeks. Resting in the crook of a low-lying branch, he daydreamed of the castle atop a hill he would one day build for a princess. 

Glass enclosed the porch. He dreamed of tending hydrangeas, lilies, and morning glories. From the patio they would sit and watch the sunsets together. The paint fresh and the wood polished, the furniture stopped short of being inviting, museum pieces meant to be stared at and appreciated, but not for too long. Serviceable rooms held little decoration as not to give too much away. No knickknacks, bric-a-brac, or curios; no pictures, no portraits. Thick curtains didn’t rustle when he moved past them, a ghost in his own home. 

“Your house is bigger on the inside,” JaQuon said.

“Is it? I hadn’t really noticed.” He leaned down and whispered. “It lies, you know. The walls have ears and move to confuse you when you aren’t paying attention.”

“You ain’t right in the head, old man.”

“You’re the one trying to sell me your skateboard,” he said. “Tell me about yourself.”

“Ain’t much to tell. I go to Persons Crossing Elementary. I’m nine years old.”

“What’s that? Fourth grade?”

“Yeah, I stay with my grandparents. My mother doesn’t come around much anymore.”

He thought he’d seen JaQuon before: a latchkey kid, after a fashion, who punched in the code to the garage—probably because he so often lost his key. JaQuon wandered about the sitting room, without shame or pretense, directed by the insatiable curiosity of childhood.

“So what’s your deal anyway?” JaQuon studied an empty curio cabinet.

“My…deal?”

“Word is you buy stuff people died on. That’s the story anyway.”

“Stories take on a life of their own. Voices of the past, grief working itself out in patterns of familiarity. Objects hold memories of a life lived, but the memories of the death outweigh the memories of the life.”

“You talk funny.”

“Do you wish to hear this or not?”

JaQuon nodded.

“It started with the couch my father died on. My mother set it outside to be hauled away, but I had it brought to my study. She never came near my room after that. When I curled up on it, I could still feel his presence. At night I could still smell him, the scent of loneliness and pain.”

“Dang.” JaQuon gave the word an extra syllable for emphasis.

“My collection has grown over the years. That chair over there? A grandmother of seven fell asleep while knitting and watching her soap operas only to never wake up. A man stroked himself out on the toilet, not to put too crass a point on it, straining during his morning sit down. It reminds me that death comes at any time, and there is no place safe from it.”

“You’re making that up,” JaQuon said.

“Like most stories, some parts are real. But they comfort me.”

Death was separation, leaving unchanging echoes of the people they used to be. He was the caretaker of a grove of memories, his and others. He kept them like a scrapbook, taken out and revisited, an echo chamber of death. Grasped onto like a skateboard he couldn’t bear to let go of.

A time of remembrances, of the day, of days past, of summertime dresses and walks along the canal, of hands held. Her leg brushed against his and he still received the same thrill from her presence as the first day he saw her.

A farmhouse had stood on the field when he finally bought it. He covered her blue eyes as he walked her to the spot.

“This will one day be your castle,” he said.

“But it’s such a beautiful farmhouse.”

“We erase history when the memories become unbearable.”

She leaned into him and kissed him on the cheek. She filled his spaces. That was what love did.

“What am I going to do with a skateboard?” he asked.

“What did you do with the couch?” JaQuon said.

“I can sit on the couch.”

“You can skate on the skateboard. You can sit on the motherfucker for all I…”

“Language.”

“What?”

“Watch your language. You have plenty of words to choose from in order to express yourself. Why limit yourself to the basest ones? It’s so…common.”

“You a weird old dude.”

“You haven’t told me the story of the skateboard.”

JaQuon peered at him, his eyes suddenly seeming too large for his face. His legs quavered and he sat down on the couch without thinking. “It was my brother’s. I was the oldest. It was my job to protect him, you know. My mom used to always hover over us. Wouldn’t even let us walk down the two courts to our friends’ house.”

“It’s a mother’s job to overprotect. It’s difficult to let their children rush off into the dangers of the world. As if they can keep you safe by force of will and control.”

“Sometimes it was like she wasn’t happy unless we were rolled up in bubble wrap before going outside. Playing on the lawn, where only she could see us.

“Demarcus really wanted this skateboard. We tag-teamed Mom for weeks, wearing her down. Demarcus was in third grade, so if she let him have a skateboard, she’d have to give me more room to…be. She bought him this board. Plus knee pads. Elbow pads. Mouth guard. Cup. And a helmet. The next two weeks she insisted on watching him learn to board. And we counted down the days until we’d be able to run free. She began to let us go. Just a bit. We could go over to the next court to play. She even stopped driving by…like we wouldn’t notice her car. Though a couple times I swear I saw her peeking over bushes. Eventually, she trusted us to return. ‘Don’t worry about it, Mom, we just ride around on sidewalks and we just sort of push ourselves along.’

“No one wore a helmet. Definitely not our friends. That stuff was for babies.

“Demarcus wasn’t even going that fast. He turned the corner and the wheels stopped when it hit a break in the sidewalk, but he didn’t. It threw him from the board. I watched him fly through the air, his arms flapping like a drunk bird. He landed head first into the sidewalk and I laughed.

“I laughed.

“It was like one of those funniest home videos. But then he didn’t get up. They said it did something to his brain and I had laughed.”

JaQuon didn’t wipe away his tears, probably wasn’t aware that they trailed down his face. “So, you want to take it off my hands?”

The man leaned forward. In this chair a man cheered on his favorite basketball team and had a heart attack. “Five dollars.”

“I can do better than that.”

“I didn’t amass my wealth by throwing good money after bad. I make wise investments. Hold onto it for a while. Offer’s good. Whenever.”

It wasn’t about the money. JaQuon couldn’t bring himself to allow it to go out in the trash. For him to let it go was to begin to let go of his brother and, as painful a reminder as the skateboard was, forgetting his brother was worse.

Death pruned childhood. Sometimes to grow you have to lose something. Sometimes you have to force people to grow and change, shock them back into life, before they become a ghost trapped in a museum.

She found the first stray by the back door, sick and wounded. A large white husky with eyes the color of overripe persimmons. She couldn’t leave it behind: she had already pledged her heart to it. Rivulets of blood streaked when she shifted its matted fur from unseen wounds. Its head lay heavy in her lap, it didn’t move, but simply closed one eye. Its tongue lolled across its lips in pathetic repose. She fed it pieces of torn chicken by hand. Stroking its fur for its pleasure, then for hers, as she nursed it back to full health. 

He bought the dog a mate and they patrolled the grounds, fiercely protective of her.

A cat park had once circled the outer gardens, but she was allergic. He loved cats, but he loved her more. Each cat was buried in a carpeted casket under a brass nameplate. His shoes click-clacked, click-clacked, click-clacked along the plated sidewalk each day.

“Come upstairs. I have something I wish to show you,” he said.

“I ain’t going upstairs with you,” JaQuon said.

“You’ve already come into my house.”

“You could be a pedometer.”

“True. And you are wise to be cautious. I was going to show you her bed.”

“I for damn sure don’t need to go to your bedroom with you.”

“You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking. I get so caught up when I tell the stories. I miss her.”

“Who?”

“Helen. My wife. I was going to show her to you. I’m not going to touch you. I just need someone to know. Someone who’d understand.”

An unspoken knowledge leapt between them. JaQuon nodded. The old man led the way up the stairs without any tiresome soliloquies about the state of his bones or kidneys.

The first time he saw her, she captivated him from the stage of the vaudeville show. She had yellow hair straight out of a fairy tale and eyes the color of a frost-covered pond. Her smile, a melancholy upturn of her lips. She wasn’t the strongest dancer, her steps too pensive and calculated—clunky prose that flowed from the head, not from the heart. 

He wanted a chance to be near her, to watch her up close. Every time you see a beautiful woman alone, someone was tired of being with her. That was the secret men told themselves. He dared asking her for a dance. Hers was an inexhaustible beauty. He feared touching her. She might have consumed him. The difference in their age was nothing, he told himself. 

She loved to swim and spent hours picking out her bathing suit from J.C. Penny’s. He would build the largest pool in Indianapolis. Large enough for a hotel, but just for them. Far away from ogling eyes. The inside painted blue and lit from underneath, its glow leant a bilious tinge to the hillside. They swam in the summer months, often sharing too many glasses of wine. Lost in their moment, an eternity in routine. 

They stopped in front of a set of double doors.

“Is this your bedroom?” JaQuon asked without any nervousness.

“It was her favorite room in the house.” He rested his hand on the door handle attempting to gather the strength to open it again so soon. “When we got married, her father stood up during the reception. He wanted me to take care of his little girl. All of her. They had a tradition of saving everything. He handed me a box. It had all of her baby teeth.”

“That shit is weird.”

“I remembered thinking thank God I didn’t marry their son. I’d have his bronzed foreskin or something in here.”

JaQuon stared at him for a heartbeat then stifled a chuckle.

“Do you know how the Egyptians preserved the dead?”

“They were into mummies and stuff. My mom took us to the Children’s Museum back when…” JaQuon trailed off.

“Their funeral rites were the ritual re-enactment of the acts that raised their god Osiris from the dead. Life, even death, boiled down to ritual. The act of remembrance, more than the process. They took a long hook, shoved it up the nose, and took out the brain. They cut open the side and emptied the abdomen then washed out the cavity with wine then stuffed it with myrrh and frankincense.”

“Ain’t that the stuff they brought baby Jesus?”

“Yes. Then they sewed the body back up and wrapped it with bandages of fine linen cloth smeared with gum to glue it to the body.”

“Like a cloth coffin? Sounds like they were cheap. Wrap someone in a sheet and call it a day.”

“Except that they then put them in coffins. They wrapped each of the organs and put them in Canopic jars. Each one shaped into the form of a head of the four sons of Horus, who was charged to protect them.”

“That sounds cool.”

“You young lot want the scares and blood of it all. Always with the blood—never enough evisceration for your prurient minds. But for us, the old folks, we cling to the hope of contact with the other side. We want some…consolation. Consideration. Something from that place. To let us know it’s okay. That it’s all worth it. But the dead keep their secrets to themselves.”

Their first Christmas together, he spent three weeks in the woods hanging lights. Cobalt lights, purchased from all the stores in the city, strung in the trees surrounding the house. When he turned them on, the shimmer haloed the tree tops for miles around. 

The lights bathed them in sapphire luminescence when they stepped in. JaQuon twirled, wide-eyed, as he took in the room. A bank of shelves lined the wall. Jars, like soldiers at parade rest, awaited inspection. Dark shapes bobbed in clear liquid, like raw meat drained of their color. The serpentine coil of intestines piled in one jar. Kidneys floated in another. Liver. Stomach. Lungs. On and on, a collection of viscera cleaned and preserved. Attending their distant mistress. On a stand next to her glass coffin was her heart.

“They couldn’t get her eyes right. They were the most delicate shade of blue, but they lost something in the process.”

The old man ran his hand along the glass surface, the reliquary of memories, wanting all the things he had left behind. A forgotten pair of glasses here, her favorite pen there. He was afraid to disturb anything. Hoping in vain that it wouldn’t hurt as much tomorrow.

“I never want to know who I am without her.” He left one hand on the glass sarcophagus, a final lingering touch before turning back to JaQuon. “I think I’ll purchase your skateboard, after all. It’s all right to let him go. Five hundred dollars suffice?”

JaQuon nodded absently, his revulsion rooting him to the spot.

“I thought I knew what I was looking for. You know how there’s a word on the tip of your tongue, just out of reach. I’ll know when my collection is complete.” He pressed the bills into JaQuon’s hand then checked the time on his pocket watch which no longer told time, knowing that the time was always theirs. His and Helen’s. “I suppose it’s time for you to go.”

The first time he told her he loved her, she said she didn’t believe him. Trust was a razor, she said, and belief had to be earned. The threat of competition, the possibility of her absence reduced his breath to hollow gasps. 

He couldn’t keep her forever; she had never been his. However, he could watch her sleep, stroke her cool cheek, brush her hair from her face. She would lie, silent and cold, the only time she would let him dote on her. A memory preserved. Her eyes were blue.

He had words to describe his love.

 

 

 

 

[But it was the love written in the margins of journals. His alone.]

The Bottomless Martyr

Content Note: self-harm and suicide

 

The first time Rang died, it stopped a typhoon.

The typhoon raged at the entire Orphan Cousin enclave. Torrents rolled in for hours, swallowing the harbor in foam and brine, dashing fishing trawlers against the shore. Storage houses were dragged into the surf whole, returning split marlins and salted yellowfins and sweet-core mollusks from whence they came, stealing all the people’s sugar and guava like it was a tax. When the waves caved Rang’s roof and crushed her skull, a storm that should have lasted days gave up. In minutes, it was sunny out.

Rang’s stepmother rubbed the bridge of her nose and filled out the paperwork.

The retreating waters carried Rang’s body far out into the bay. When she came to, she had urchins in her hair. Some of the Orphan Cousins found her on a patch of driftwood, and netted her and dragged her to safety. It was Len and Un’s boat, twin sisters who ran much of the Orphan Cousins enclave.

Len spoke with a softness that sounded like a hand about to close. “How’d you get so far out here?”

Un added, “And survive? You’re the healthiest drowned girl I ever saw.”

Dread and guilt shook up into a cocktail in Rang’s guts. She didn’t know what to say, and feared how anything she said would be taken. How could she put impossible things into words?

Then the twins interrupted her silence.

Un said, “So healthy you can probably work. We’ve got a spare fishing rod. That storm left every blacktip out here biting.”

Len said, “Want in? We’ll let you keep twenty percent of what you catch.”

“Twenty?” Rang twisted her hands in her shirt. “Last time I fished for you, it was thirty.”

Len leaned on the prow and said, “We did save your life.”

Un rubbed her thumb and fingers together. “And we’ve got to feed the family, don’t we?”

Len said, “We Orphan Cousins are all family.”

Un said, “You want to help the family out, don’t you? If we don’t give, what good are we?”

Shame could drown a person as easily as a high tide. Rang took a fishing rod and got to casting along with a dozen other Orphan Cousins. Every so often she scratched her forehead, at an oblong scar that nobody seemed to see. She felt it, though.

Rang swore when she found there were no docks to return to. All the fishers slept on the boats while the Orphan Cousins ashore rebuilt their homes, and everyone praised the god Life for sparing them from the storm’s wrath with his miracle. The god Life never showed up to claim his praise.

All the work of fishing and mending nets was good work to hide in. The family needed Rang to keep working and giving. New creatures had come to their waters from the unusual weather. There were blacktip sharks, and a bright green kind of puffer fish, and an enemy flotilla.

The flotilla sailed in on twice as many vessels as the Orphan Cousins had ever owned. These raiders would’ve been wiped out entirely by the typhoon, but by a miracle, they were left untouched. Their ships filled as much of the horizon as the waves had. The raiders introduced themselves with cannon shells, and followed up with an ugly song of rifle fire.

As Rang cupped her mouth to yell for their boat to veer starboard, a bullet flew straight through her heart.

Her stepmother said, “How are you back here already? You’re going to get me fired.”

It was the end of the battle for Rang, and the end for everybody else, too.

Rang floated amid a reef, this time witnessing the tail end of a freak whirlpool sucking the flotilla into the sea’s basements. The invaders went down firing into the surf as though to slay the waters for betraying them.

Rang tried to swim to shore, but Len and Un’s boat overtook her. They picked her up in the same net they’d used for tuna.

The twins touched her where the bullet had pierced her heart. Len said, “Do we have a miracle on our hands?”

Rang touched her hairline again, scratching at a bygone miracle. She didn’t know how to explain this bizarre gift she’d experienced.

Her hesitation earned her two toothless and accusatory looks.

Len said, “We Orphan Cousins are all family. We’re all we’ve got.”

Un said, “You wouldn’t hide something important from your family, would you?”

Len and Un sold her story for booze. The camp danced long past when they ran out of daylight, and they burned things they shouldn’t to keep going. They sang about having miracles in their pockets. Rang kept trying to leave, and people blocked her with drinks so strong their fumes could’ve ignited. They made dolls and effigies of her likeness.

“Looks like you, don’t it?” said Len, waving an effigy at her. It had a hole through its heart. “Going to sell them for a fat price each.”

Un said, “Hold one of them, and show it off. So people see you and it. Come on, it’s for the family.”

They thrust one into her hands, and it sold right quick.

She had to ask the buyer, “What do you want to do with it?”

A man twice her age showed her, hoisting it up and spearing it through the chest. He waved it about like it was the flag of their enclave. Kids clapped their little palms, cheering the impaled effigy. Soon they begged for effigies of their own.

The man asked, “Aren’t you honored?”

Rang didn’t want to answer. Straying away to avoid answering was how she saw the silhouettes. They were funny shapes out in the sea, triangles nested together, bobbing and coming closer. It took her a long stare to recognize the ships, sailing without so much as a match lit to give them away.

There was a big crowd ignoring the pirates in favor of partying, and she ran into them, jumping onto the backs of as many dancers as she could. She yelled, “Get to the boats! The raiders are back!”

“We’ve got this,” said Len.

Len and Un got on either side of Rang, carrying cudgels. Other Orphan Cousins circled her, thicker than tall grass. Some had effigies, and more had pistols.

It was easier to let them do what they thought they had to. They all needed this, they all prayed at her desperately, and they were her family. She thought maybe she wouldn’t feel it.

She did.

The dawn sky was gray already, Old Ma’am Mountain having woken up and reminding everyone that ten generations of sleep didn’t mean she wasn’t still a volcano. That was the miracle this time. Between the tremors and the lava, both sides roasted in a mutually ugly battle. Some Orphan Cousins strayed from the fight, sheltering under thick trees, and calling for her.

Un stood shy of the battle, beating her cudgel against a boulder and screaming, “Rang! Rang, get here now! We need another miracle!”

Rang had a long life ahead of her of being sacrificed again and again, with the Orphan Cousins milking good fortune from her veins.

Part of her wanted to give them every last drop of her miracles. Part of her was ashamed that she hadn’t sacrificed herself sooner. There were so many loud parts of herself.

She ran. She ran from the part of herself that didn’t want to run.

When she finally found another enclave, it was half-empty, and most of the people still there ignored her in favor of playing dominoes. They slept among groves of unpicked citrons. The fruits were all thick and bottom-heavy in ways that made Rang’s tongue dance. She’d work here for food, happily.

A boy came up next to her with a smile like he’d never known hardship. “I wouldn’t pick here. These grounds are tainted, too. One bite’ll do you.”

“I heard that,” she said, trying to sound like she already knew. “You found a place that isn’t tainted?”

“Depends. You ever cut dominoes?”

“I don’t know how.”

“Then my name is Hillhill.” His smile made cracked teeth pretty. “I love to teach.”

Her face got so hot it felt like it’d boil and slide off. She tried to shake his hand, except Hillhill couldn’t move his right hand. He shrugged and laughed her gesture off. He had an unflattering, careless laugh.

He said, “I caught the sickness late, just before people knew to be scared. First you cough. Then you lose your right side. A lot of us got it; it’s in all the fruit.”

He sounded so earnest for someone who was filling her in on things she’d know if she was local. That meant things.

All she had in her pockets was an, “I’m sorry. That’s hard.”

“Could be worse. I could’ve been one of those saps who went raiding south and got eaten by the sea. You get hungry enough, you’ll do anything, I guess.”

And then Rang knew which enclave she’d stumbled into. She tried to hide it from her face.

In exchange for shelter, she taught anybody that wanted the secrets of net fishing, without saying where she’d learned it. Most of the Sea Hornets enclave kept distance from her like she had a disease, or maybe they recognized she was from the Cousins on account of how bushy her eyebrows were. They all had such thin eyebrows. Hillhill’s were the thinnest she’d ever seen.

Hillhill taught her to play dominoes. Sometimes he let her win. Sometimes she won on her own, and each time she hid how proud she was, and wasn’t sure why.

“Don’t do that,” Hillhill said. “Gloat on me.”

When she didn’t stick up for herself, he brought out the materials. They carved more than they played. By watching she figured out how to put artistic flourish into the dots on their faces, sometimes in triangles or pointed cones. You could trade ten sets of quality dominoes for two thirds of a bag of rice, which supposedly didn’t carry the sickness. She could make it a month on two thirds of a bag.

She tried to carve more than he did, and hustle them more than he did. Hillhill was determined, and with his one good hand, he often insisted on carrying both of their bags of dominoes.

The second time he did it, she said, “Give those here.”

He answered, “Who caught breakfast this morning?”

“I did.”

“And who caught dinner last night, and roasted it?”

“Did I cook it wrong?”

“You don’t have to keep giving all the time. Soon you’re going to corner the domino market. Let me do something for you.”

When he carried them, she didn’t know what to do with her hands. When he was talking to customers, she tried to organize the sets, and it wasn’t enough. Her thoughts squirmed. She wanted to kiss him, and every time it felt too selfish. If he tried, she’d let him do it, just like she’d let Len and Un take her life.

One night she wondered if giving could be a curse.

When Hillhill came asking for her, Rang hid under the floorboards. She didn’t know what conversation they needed to have, and was too afraid to choose. She said nothing and hoped he didn’t hear her breathing.

It was such a sunny day that Rang couldn’t look up with unlidded eyes. Smoked yellowfin was in the air, and she was too late.

The day she went to find Hillhill, he was carrying some short, pudgy girl’s sacks of dominoes. The sacks clicked, so she knew the two had been carving. Rang’s chest ached, and she prayed to her absentee father that those dominoes wouldn’t sell. She followed them to market and seethed when a mariner bought ten sets. Their good fortune made her spit at her own feet.

Her only pleasure was when this new girl fell to her knees coughing. Rang stalked them all the way to a squat hovel, and on the stoop, the new girl hacked up a mess and shuddered and winced with one eye in the way that meant that side could soon be paralyzed.

If Rang was fortunate, the girl would be dead in a week.

Rang practiced straining with her bags of dominoes, but it was too theatrical. She never needed him to carry them in the first place. This wouldn’t win him back.

So she practiced conversations:

“What do you think shark tastes like?”

“What if we made a set of dominoes we didn’t sell, that were private to us?”

“Need a date for that new girl’s funeral?”

None of them sounded right. She couldn’t even woo an imaginary lover.

Twice more Hillhill came to visit her, probably wanting solace about this dying other girl. Both times Rang hid, holding her breath rather than facing him.

Twice she went to see him. Both times he was at the short girl’s place, with a prayer candle lit for the god Life. Hillhill was so attentive to the girl’s needs, holding the cup to her lips when she couldn’t. They were so sweet together. The sickness was killing her. It’d take a miracle for her to make it, and they were praying to a god who’d never even answered his own daughter.

Rang told herself they deserved better. She could give them better.

There was a bluff not too far from the Sea Hornets enclave. The fall hurt worse than Rang ever imagined, crumpling her up and leaving her conscious as she rolled into the waters.

She should’ve hated her stepmother; her stepmother had killed her real mother. But as much as Rang enjoyed various strands of pettiness, she knew Stepmother Death had no choice and killed indiscriminately. Her stepmother was just one of The 99 Deaths, each as overworked as the last gatekeeping the afterlife.

All of The 99 Deaths sat along an impossibly vast desk, beyond which no eyes could fathom. Each Death was gargantuan, dwarfing the souls waiting in line, and they all looked similarly exhausted, surviving on tea and spite.

As Rang walked up to the desk, her hundred-foot tall stepmother clucked her tongue. The woman had tattoos that would pass for murals in the living world, so broad and vivid, of fields of hogs chasing something hidden by her stepmother’s jacket.

At least none of the souls waiting in line looked mad at Rang for cutting in line like this. None of them acknowledged her at all, and looking at them was like trying to focus on sun bursts in her eyes after a flash.

Rang put her hands together and asked, “Can you please find my dad for me? If I talk to him, I’m sure I can fix this.”

“Life is a deadbeat,” Stepmother Death said. “I haven’t sniffed him around in two rainy seasons.”

“Is he, like, nervous to see you again? Maybe he doesn’t know what to say.”

“Don’t stand up for people who won’t stand up for you.”

This advice didn’t help Rang’s situation. It just made her resent her own pettiness, and she was clinging to that right now. “I’m trying to…talk to a boy…”

“You can’t romance the dead, fool child. Because of the trust your father set up, you can’t even stay down here.” Stepmother Death drew out a sheet of paper, a fresh form, and began inking the sections for Rang. “You ought to be grateful. It’s the one thing Life left you. More chances, more miracles.”

“Can you fix it so the next miracle helps the sick people? And that girl?”

“I’m afraid I can’t. Those are your burden, little demigod.”

“Living feels impossible.”

“And you want your daddy to come fix it? There’s a way with that.”

Rang gripped the edge of her stepmother’s desk in both hands and peered up at her. “What way?”

“Realize it ain’t gonna happen. If you want to meet someone, you’d better hurry up.”

Stepmother Death stamped the form, and Rang was alive again, her clothes dripping from the sea.

There was gunfire in the distance, and the stink of spent powder closer. All along the river there were dead people strung up in nets.

Without thinking about where her feet were headed, she came to Hillhill’s shack. The door hung open like a slack jaw. Inside sat one person, that meddlesome girl whose name Rang had never gotten, fighting fits of tears. She clutched Hillhill’s carving knife like she was fixing to turn herself into a domino.

Rang fought about it, and lost the fight to herself. She opened the rickety door. “Hey. Is Hillhill around?”

The girl’s eyes were puffed nearly shut, and she looked wearily over at Rang through all that hurt. “Somebody found a load of fresh meat. The holy load. Thought Life sent it himself.”

A miracle of feasts. Why did that miracle sound so bad?

“We were lugging it back when the Orphan Cousins struck. They heard we were sick and easy prey. They took most of the food, and weren’t satisfied there. Hillhill got in the way so I could…He…he should have…”

Rang’s mouth went as dry as an old grain of rice, her tongue threatening to crumble up into dust. She couldn’t make words. She couldn’t apologize for the miracle, for the food that had gotten hungry people dead. The person she wanted to apologize to would never hear it.

The girl asked, “Did you know him?”

There was a hunger in her face, like she was ravenous for more of Hillhill. The look made Rang feel greedy on top of dry.

Rang managed to say, “We were friends for a while. I’m Rang.”

“You’re her? Hillhill asked for you a lot.” The girl looked down at the knife in her hands, and tried to hide it behind her side. “I’m Berry.”

She said her name was Berry, and the sentence was punctuated with bombs exploding in air. The palm trees shuddered over the shack like an artificial storm rolling in. The noise was a demand that rattled in Rang’s chest, threatening to usurp her heartbeat. She wanted to collapse onto Hillhill’s floor and lie where he used to at night. A pile of his old shirts lay there, a collection of holes.

Another bomb went off, and Berry grabbed Rang’s elbow and pulled. Berry said, “Come on.”

Rang asked, “What are you doing?”

Berry said, “We’ve got to take care of each other or else we don’t have anybody.”

The girl dragged Rang into a run. Rang followed. Following was all she could give tonight.

Following Berry was dizzying. She looked like Hillhill—not in appearance, but in how she looked at surroundings. She looked for where others could go without checking whether her own footing was safe.

Under the thickest patches of the trees was an old sulfur mine. Rang and Berry joined the rest of the Sea Hornets as they plunged inside it. It smelled like mineral baths, but they had to look out for where gasses leaked from cracks. Red foxes had dens in the mines, and wherever they lived, the refugees could also hide.

Berry and Rang came upon a pack of clever elderly physicians who were carrying the injured to shelter. Old folks with gnarled hands pressed their palms to open wounds to keep them closed. They all had that same way of looking for others, like Hillhill and Berry. It was like being surrounded by a dead boy.

She had to help them.

Together Rang and Berry grabbed any end of a stretcher that needed hands. They carried crying survivors towards the mines. Berry kept trying to take the heavier end of stretchers from Rang. It was a hurtful kindness. A feeling gnawed in Rang; she wasn’t giving enough.

When another crop of injured people arrived, Rang abandoned the mines. She streaked in the wrong direction, south for the river where the Orphan Cousins’ boats would be. As she went, she hopped and waved her arms. Armed people were happy to give chase.

This time her sacrifice would mean something. Even if this was her last life, it would be worth it to give the people in the caves another minute. Thinking of any other way to help was like trying not to think about suffocating when you were underwater.

They pursued her with nets and guns in the utterly wrong direction. She was actually proud of how far astray she led them before she was split in half.

She screamed at her stepmother, “You stole Hillhill!”

Stepmother Death removed her giant bifocals, dropping them on her desk with a report like an abrupt hurricane. “Firstly, it was another of the Deaths that took him. I don’t even like optimists. Secondly, it’s not my fault you didn’t live your life with him.”

“You said to go find someone if I wanted them, and he was gone. I tried to go back to him as soon as I was alive.”

“Which wasn’t fast enough. It’s almost as if the universe doesn’t wait around for your bullshit.”

“You’re not my real mother.”

“Then why did you bring your problems to me again?”

“Fuck you!”

“I’m sorry you’ve been cursed with perspective,” her stepmother said in a tone so dispassionate it could’ve cracked continents in half. “If you see Life out there, please, tell him to masturbate more often so I get fewer of you on my hands.”

“The miracles don’t do what I want. They’re making things worse. The fighting is getting worse. Hillhill’s dead. His whole village is dying.”

Stepmother Death gestured with her stamp to ninety-eight other busy members of The 99 Deaths. Each was burdened with an infinite line of souls. “I’m aware people are dying. It’s why I’ve got to get back to work.”

“What am I supposed to do? I’m killing myself and it doesn’t help.”

“If you want a chance at anything being better?” Stepmother Death brought her stamp down, hard and soundless. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to live.”

The Sea Hornets found a cache of guns lost a generation ago deep down inside the cave system, all perfectly preserved without a speck of rust or grit anywhere. No one remarked how impossible this was as they rushed by Rang, loading pistols and hoisting tubs of fuel that smelled like rotten vegetables. They raced down the mountainside to take the beach back from the Orphan Cousins.

The first Rang saw of this miracle was a man’s legs being blown off so cleanly that a butcher could’ve done it. His name was Kasp, a local carpenter. Rang dragged him to safety, what safety there was with death flying in both directions overhead. Kasp was delirious, and she kept apologizing to him anyway.

“Berry, come help me! Please!”

Berry slumped next to the mouth of the cave, in an old crack in porous stone. She watched everyone without blinking. Rang couldn’t tell if Berry shook her head no, or was merely shaking.

Lugging an injured person wasn’t so different from lugging a sack of rice with a few rips in it. Rang carried Kasp on her own, making sure nothing spilled. You had to mind the sensitive spots so they didn’t break open. She joined the mobile hospital before she knew one had sprung up around her.

They had more pistols than gauze. Clever elders broke open bullets and used their powder to cauterize wounds. Rang got used to the smell sooner than she would have expected.

Kasp reached for Rang’s left hand and thanked her every time she passed by. He couldn’t move his right arm because he’d caught the plague a year earlier. All he had was his left hand, and all he said was he was alive because of her. She promised to teach him dominoes after the violence ended.

Rang forced herself to be present, beside Berry whenever she could be. They ferried supplies together for an interminable while. People kept handing in jars and canteens of water for the common need, and sanitizing sheets to make bandages.

“Berry, how do you tear sheets in such even strips? Can you teach me?”

Berry didn’t respond. She kept staring at Kasp, and the pain in the creases of her face was almost as scary as when it disappeared back into blankness, her trauma a sinkhole behind her face.

Seeing the mess of a man coming in on the next stretcher, Rang told her, “Sit this one out. Get us some lunch. You can’t give too much.”

Berry handed off a tray of surgical supplies and left. It was only in surgery that Rang noticed the tray was incomplete. It had three of almost everything. It was missing one scalpel.

They saved people that looked dead, and they lost people with the complexions of health. This wasn’t dominoes. She didn’t learn it; she endured it, refusing to give in to the confusion of how the next surgery would turn out. Then Kasp got some new infection and needed his spleen removed, and she held his hand and was sure she’d have to kill herself.

The feeling overtaking her like that meant she had to get out, and she ran from the mobile hospital with eyes too wet to see where she was headed. She couldn’t give like that. The habits were stronger than she was. She tried running away from the habits themselves, and away from the radius of suffering that roused them. She heard a stream gossiping wet little half-truths, and followed them to the source.

A huge chunk of worn granite lay in front of the stream, and she fantasized about climbing up it and yelling, “No!” The height would add to the defiance. She’d yell until her father heard her.

Berry was sitting on the left side of the granite, her legs pressed together like she was trying to fuse them into a tail. She had one sleeve rolled up, inspecting her wrist.

She had a scalpel.

For a moment, Rang was going to threaten herself. She’d run to camp for a scalpel of her own and open her veins if Berry opened hers.

But an ultimatum didn’t feel right. It’d almost guarantee more guilt, more weight on a tree branch that had cracked.

“Hey Berry.”

“Hey Rang.”

That’s all they had in them. It would’ve been humiliating if either of them had the strength left for that emotion. Rang climbed the granite and sat on the other side, scraping the backs of her thighs.

Berry kept her sleeve rolled up. She said, “The same people with the same skill with the same supplies do the same work, and some of the hurt stay, and some of the hurt took.”

“The people that stay alive come from hard work. I don’t know how a doctor does it.”

“It could all go away anytime. Any of it.”

“Does it scare you?”

“I don’t feel scared.”

“What do you feel?”

Berry hunched over herself, like she wanted to revert into an egg. “I couldn’t help Hillhill.”

“That’s not on you.”

“I see those people in there…split open just like me.”

There weren’t any visible cuts on her, not that that meant they were absent. “Berry?”

Berry said, “Split open like Hillhill. They’re split open like him, and it should’ve been me. If I’d carried my weight, it would’ve been me.”

“You didn’t take anybody’s spot. Nobody is dead because you’re alive right now, and people in that hospital are going to live because you lived and worked.” Rang rubbed knuckles into her tear ducts. “You’re so tired you can’t imagine feeling not tired. I’ve been that way for months.”

“It’s a deep tired.”

Rang asked, “Have you ever seen a miracle?”

“No.”

“Yeah, you have.”

Rang pulled off her top and scratched at the scar over her chest where once someone from Berry’s enclave had shot her to death, and a scar across her midriff where she’d been split in two. This had to be more defiant than screaming at an absent god.

“I told myself that when I got hurt, other people got miracles. But ‘miracles’ was a lie. They were catastrophes. They gave us more confusion, and more people in broken pieces. One time I let people club me, thinking some help would come out of it.”

“What did it do?”

“It made me think I was dispensable.”

Berry’s shoulders shook like new bombs were going off overhead.

It was silent. There were no more gunshots. The fighting had paused, and might be over. They hadn’t heard the silence, because the two of them weren’t done. Berry still had her scalpel, the flat of it over the blue shadows of her veins.

“That’s yours,” Rang told her. Rang sat down close, without moving for the blade. She flattened her hands on her knees and said, “I’m too tired to know what to say.”

“I’m too tired for everything…” Berry said, and her eyes closed like she was too tired for vision.

Rang said, “Please, just be tired with me.”

Berry moved slowly, dripping like she was a sculpture of molasses losing her figure in the sun. Gradually, she slumped into Rang’s naked shoulder.

They listened to the stream gossip, and to the stale sounds of peace time, and wished they could fall asleep, but were too tired for that. Sometimes Berry leaned on her, and sometimes she found herself leaning on Berry.

They stayed like that until a surgeon came out looking for them. Kasp had woken up, and wanted to know if they could teach him how to play dominoes.

The City of the Tree

(Content note: hanging.)

The tree dominated everything. The sky above, the sea below, the earth on which it stood, and the city that sheltered beneath its leaves. Its branches stretched out over the streets and houses of Cahuei, rope-twisted as if by wind, but a century of hurricanes would not have been enough to sculpt the wood of this impossible cypress. Temples and shrines clung to its bark, reachable by rope lifts or, for the truly faithful, a seemingly endless staircase that spiraled up its trunk. Each morning the priestesses greeted the sun from its uppermost reaches and each evening they bid it farewell, their voices fading to nothing before they reached the ground below. The tree had been there since before Cahuei was founded, and its people believed it would be there always.

But now it was dying.

They told themselves they had forgotten none of the old forms, even though no one alive remembered a time before those forms had been outlawed.

They called themselves the Sayacha, the ruling council of Cahuei, and they met between the enormous natural walls formed by the roots of the cypress. The actual council chamber of the Sayacha was long gone; in its place stood the fortress the Jenevein had built. The fortress was both a defense—the Jenevein knew the Issli would never dare to attack them so close to the tree—and a deliberate insult, putting the heart of their military power in a place that used to be sacred, and ought to be still.

None of those who called themselves the Sayacha now were willing to meet in the fortress.

Six elders gathered, out of the nine clans that made up the Issli. The Fir were nearly extinct, the Pine had no leader they could agree on, and the elder of the Sequoia refused to come. “The Sayacha,” she said scathingly when they asked. “That’s as dead and gone as the archon of the tree. Call yourselves what you like, but you are not the council of our past. And I am too old to play pretend.”

Her words stung, but not enough to stop them. Cahuei was in disarray, freed at last from Jenevein control, but uncertain what to do with its newfound liberty. And while the city hesitated, the tree continued to die.

“We have to cut it down,” the elder of the Willow said when the opening rituals were complete. People might only half-remember the songs, but Sutsetu knew the traditional role of his clan; they were the ones to propose swift action.

Swift, but not necessarily ideal. “That’s blasphemy,” Chimenil said, and on her heels Nazcuc said, “That’s impossible.”

For the smaller branches, they could do it. But an army of men with axes could not cut through the main limbs: the Jenevein had tried. And even if they succeeded—even if the tree’s slow death now made a swifter one possible—the severed material would only fall as a cataclysm on the city below. A city that had suffered cataclysms enough already.

“Restore the rituals,” Aptachi said. In past times the Cedar had not been the main advocates of orthodoxy, but one could argue that made their elder the ideal person to suggest a return to the old forms. Year by year, Jenevein laws had strangled Issli traditions; now that those traditions were nearly extinct, looking to the past for guidance was nearly the most unorthodox thing the Issli could do.

Simkitsi gave him a pitying look. “The rituals were meant to placate the archon, to keep him asleep. They won’t do any good now that he is gone.”

“Do we know that?” Aptachi challenged her. “We only know that he woke after the rituals stopped. Maybe their purpose was to strengthen the tree, and he woke because it began to weaken.”

“Or the tree began to weaken because he awoke and died—”

They fell to arguing, the elders of the reconstituted and incomplete Sayacha. Which was, in its own way, a tradition as old as the council.

Above them, the tree continued to die.

The danger took some time to manifest. Yes, the archon of the tree was gone, but the tree itself remained, its roots buried deep in the stony headland that guarded the sheltered bay beyond. It had been there forever, and would be there forever; no one gave it a second thought.

Then the leaves began to fall. Their brown, scaly remnants dusted the city’s rooftops and streets, the corners where the wind gathered them in drifts. Looking up, one could see the deep, shadow-bright green fading to a duller shade. But mostly people did not look up. They swept their doorsteps and corners, used some of the material for tinder and kindling and threw the rest out, and never spoke of what was happening.

Cahuei was the City of the Tree. For that to end was inconceivable.

The slow fall of dead leaves went on for weeks before the earth shook. Nothing compared to the stone-shattering quakes that had devastated the city when the archon awoke—just an ordinary tremor, such as the region had seen before—but from above came a sound the people of Cahuei would soon learn to dread: the crack of dry wood.

What fell that first time were only a few small branches, limbs that on an ordinary cypress would have been respectably-sized but were mere twigs to the great tree. A handful of houses suffered damage; one person died. The city had faced worse before, and within recent memory.

But it was a warning of things to come.

A storm rolled in from the sea. In an ordinary winter the rain it brought would have been welcome—but it also brought high winds that snapped more branches free. When the skies cleared, the dulled leaves had not regained their hue, and those who claimed the tree only suffered from drought and would soon recover fell silent.

Drought had never touched it before. The tree drew its life from another source, one that had slept beneath its roots for untold ages.

Now that the source was gone. And unless someone found a solution, Cahuei would be the City of the Tree no more.

If it fell, Cahuei might be no more.

At the base of the tree, the argument continued.

“We could pray—”

“To the gods? They grant rich harvests, fat livestock, thick shoals of fish—not life to trees of impossible size.”

“We cannot afford to wait for a miracle. We have to take action now, before the tree falls and destroys the city.”

“A miracle is the only thing we can hope for. Nothing else will save us.”

“Yes,” Huysiya said. “Only a miracle.”

It was the first time she had spoken since the opening rituals concluded. The elder of the Redwood clan was as small as her clan’s namesake was tall, a little starling of a woman whose painted wrap had to be pinned to her shoulder to keep it in place. She did not even come up to Aptachi’s chin. But she was respected for her wisdom not just by her clan, but by the entire city, and when she spoke, the others fell silent.

Simkitsi was the first to realize what Huysiya meant. True to form, she did not bother to explain to the others, but launched straight into an objection. “We don’t even know how.”

Chimenil stared at Simkitsi, then at Huysiya. Her hands wrapped tight around her ceremonial staff—one of the few originals to survive, carved out of her clan’s redbud and hidden away from the Jenevein conquerors. “Roots of my ancestors. There are stories, a few chants…but even if we manage to piece those together, there’s no guarantee we would get what we need!”

“Then we try again,” Huysiya said, unmoved. “Again and again, as many times as it takes, until we succeed or the tree dies.”

“What are you talking about?” Aptachi demanded. “Try what? How are we supposed to get a miracle?”

A small branch of the cypress, about as large as he was, tumbled from the tree high above. They watched it fall, but could not see where it landed.

Huysiya said, “We must summon a new archon.”

They should have known. Wonders like a cypress tree large enough to overshadow an entire city did not happen naturally, and the traditions of Cahuei were permeated with rituals of offering and placation. But given enough time, anything can fade out of memory. If asked, the average citizen might have said, “There used to be something here, yes, but it is long gone.”

Not gone. Only sleeping. And when the rituals stopped, so did the sleep.

The people of Cahuei blamed the Jenevein, and not without cause…but if the Issli had remembered the full truth, they might have been able to persuade their new imperial masters to let the rituals continue. Or perhaps not: the Jenevein were known for their arrogance, and might have believed they could turn the archon to their own ends.

But he was ancient, full of power—and free. Whatever human had summoned him from the apeiron, whatever purpose he was originally bound to serve, that had all been lost to memory. No force in the world could bind him now, save his true name, which they did not know.

The people of Cahuei, Jenevein and Issli fighting side by side, were barely able to kill him.

The six elders of the Sayacha did not dare ask publicly for information. To do that would have invited questions, protests, open riot. The Jenevein had outlawed the summoning of archai as a way to protect their own power—but after the destruction wrought by the archon of the tree, there were many who felt that law had been wise.

Instead they worked in secret, as swiftly as they could. Nazcuc’s aunt, even older than he was, remembered the chants the people used to sing. Out of nothing, into the world; out of death, out of the space between deaths, into life and breath we call you. Those chants were not the ritual; they were the background, the accompaniment, the way the common people involved themselves when their priests and elders undertook to summon an archon. But they were a start.

Chimenil tracked down a rumor of hidden texts, and found none. Instead she found a story that a certain pattern commonly woven into baskets described the path of the dance once performed as part of the ceremony. In recent years the dances of the Jenevein had become more popular, but there were games the children still played which preserved the old steps and gestures—perhaps.

Sutsetu spoke to members of the Willow who had gone into exile and returned after the Jenevein left. Other lands had not forbidden the summoning of archai: spirits from beyond the mortal world, archetypal tales given flesh. Although the rituals used there were closely-guarded secrets, the exiles had heard a few things. Practices drawn from other traditions, whose underlying principles might be extracted from the chaff.

The members of the Sayacha braided together rumor and guesswork and half-faded recollection, fragments left behind after Jenevein control and approximations of things that had never been recorded because the necessary people knew them, and they hoped it would be enough.

They came together at dawn, in the sheltering embrace of the dying tree. They built an altar of all nine woods and hung over it branches from the cypress, both living and dead, bound into sacred bundles with twine. They played drums and flutes. They sang the chants and danced the figures, and prayed, beseeched, demanded that something come to answer their call.

From dawn until dusk they called, until they were staggering and exhausted beyond speech, because all the Issli remembered this: that only through trials of endurance could wonders be achieved.

And as the darkness drew tight around them, the air changed. Thickened. Cohered into a body.

A figure like a man knelt on the ground, sand-colored in hair and skin.

They had agreed beforehand. The one who proposed the idea should be the one to act. And—though they did not say it—to bear the glory if this should succeed…and the blame if it failed.

Huysiya lurched forward, shaking from head to toe with weariness and fear. In a voice no louder than the rasp of a dead leaf, she said, “I am Huysiya, elder of the Redwood clan of the Issli, and I bind you to this task: to restore the health of our sacred cypress tree.”

The Jenevein used archai all the time. They merely forbade anyone else to do the same.

Their priests knew the art of summoning, as it was practiced in Jeneve. How to call, and how to refine that call, ensuring that whatever came from the apeiron would suit their needs. Not just a warrior, but a defender. Not just a healer, but one with power over plagues. Not just a savant, but a mind that could help them refine the devices they used to maintain their control over conquered lands.

They knew the art of strengthening an archon. When one first emerged from the apeiron, it was invariably weak: lacking in memory, operating on instinct. The Jenevein priests had made a study of how to nurture what they called, observing each archon’s aptitudes and giving them opportunities to pursue those, until their abilities flowered enough to be of use—but not enough to break free of the supernatural chains that bound them to serve their summoners.

And they knew the art of dismissing an archon.

Every child understood that when such a creature died, it returned to the apeiron, the formless realm from which it came, there to remain until summoned again. The priests kept a close watch over those they called. If one grew too strong, its power reshaping the world around it, they killed it before it could become a threat.

Then they summoned another to take its place.

Nameless and naked it came from the apeiron. They called it Omastut—the life found in green things—in the hope that the word would prove prophetic. They gave it masculine clothing, because it had male form, and could pass for human for now.

And they asked him how to heal the tree.

“I don’t know,” Omastut said, laying one hand on the rough, strip-split bark of the cypress.

Aptachi twitched as if he did not know whether to bluster or supplicate. The creature they’d summoned was an archon; he possessed abilities beyond human understanding. But he was also new-summoned, and if Aptachi struck him no one doubted he could knock Omastut down.

“You don’t know yet,” Simkitsi said. “But you will. You do. You must think. Are you a healer? A gardener? Do flowers spring up where you step?”

Her words made them all look reflexively at the ground, even Omastut. The moss beneath his bare feet was unchanged.

Omastut shook his head. “I—I don’t know. Don’t you understand? I don’t remember anything. I should know things and I don’t. I reach inside and there’s nothing there but a hole.”

His voice grew strained, half-panicked with absence. The elders thought of an archon as the devastating creature that had woken from beneath the tree, or the imposing figures that had served the leaders of the Jenevein. Not as this: a man scrabbling after the lost essence of himself. He seemed like a man now, not a font of mysterious power.

Not the savior they had prayed for.

Huysiya laid one hand on his arm, bird-light and soothing. “We called for someone to save the tree, and you came. That means you have some way of doing it. It will come to you in time.”

The elders of the Sayacha did not say, Only if we performed the ritual well enough.

They did not say, We do not have much time.

Huysiya knew those things. And if Omastut failed…

The Jenevein were gone. The death of the tree was their fault, but they were not present to take the blame.

The elder of the Redwood was.

No one truly knew the story of the archon of the tree. When he woke his skin was cracked and brown like bark, his hair a trailing mass of scale-like leaves. There was no guessing what people in what corner of the world had originally told his tale, what myth he sprang from, what he might have been like when he was closer to human. They could only know him by how he shaped everything around him.

Because an archon could not exist in the world without influencing it. If the story was that a woman had three loyal husbands, three men would in time find themselves gravitating toward her, stepping in to play the roles her tale demanded. If the myth said a man dwelt in a dark forest, trees would spring up to provide him with his proper home.

Not quickly, and not right away. Like a wind growing from a whisper to a gale, archai needed to gain in strength before their presence could exert such force. The man of the forest would seek out a suitable wood long before he caused one to grow around him—as long as he had the freedom to do so.

For the archon of the tree, the people of Cahuei knew only this: that like all archai, he had two aspects, seimer and gemer, creative and destructive. When he slept he was seimer, and the tree grew. When he woke he was gemer, and the city nearly fell.

Huysiya took responsibility for Omastut. He could pass for human, and so she lodged him in her home. She fed him the traditional foods of the Issli, even though neither of them was sure if he needed to eat. Frowning as if trying to recall a long-distant memory, he asked if she had foods whose names she did not recognize; when she asked him to describe them, he only shook his head. The words were there, but the knowledge was not.

She took him around Cahuei, from the waterside district of the Reeds to the paved streets built by the Jenevein on the slopes above. She took him around the base of the tree, tracing every gnarled root that gripped the headland like an ancient fist, and the dead branches that littered the ground like bones. She took him up the staircase, ignoring the complaints of her aging joints, around and around the trunk of the tree until they reached the lowest of the mighty branches—and then up farther still, past the shrines the Jenevein had permitted to continue and the ruins of the ones they hadn’t, all the way to the highest reaches of the tree, from which it seemed like a person could see to the ends of the earth.

Everywhere she looked, she saw the tree dying.

“Please,” she said to him as they sat on the topmost branch that would support them. “I know we have asked the impossible of you—but it is the nature of archai to do the impossible. If you cannot help us, I fear nothing can.”

Omastut skimmed his palm along the surface of the branch beneath him. The drying bark peeled up when he tugged at it, a long thin strip, and Huysiya felt like it was a strip of her own skin flayed off.

“Why does this tree matter so much?” he said, measuring the strip between his hands. “It threatens the city below, yes—but that isn’t the whole story, is it?”

Huysiya’s lips pressed into a bloodless line. One hand, trembling, reached inside her patterned wrap and came out with a little glass vial on a thong. She lifted it from around her neck and passed it to Omastut, who studied it without understanding. “What is this?”

“All that remains of our redwood,” she said. “That, and a few other vials like it. The Jenevein burned them all when they decided to break the backs of the clans. Our willow and our oak, our pine and fir and redbud, our cedar, our sequoia, our aspen. And the redwood of my own people.”

The ancestral trees of the clans, from which their ceremonial staves had been carved. Staves the Jenevein had also burned, except for three the elders at the time had managed to hide, providing substitutes taken from ordinary branches. “Those trees were the heart and soul of our clans,” Huysiya said. “Our sacred places, our reminders of who we were.”

“Nine trees,” Omastut said, peeling up another strip of bark. “But not the cypress.”

“The cypress is the tree of the Issli. It belongs to no clan, and to all of them. So long as we have this, we are still one people; the Jenevein have not broken us. If we lose it—”

She could not finish her sentence. Omastut nodded and tore up a third strip of bark. Huysiya reached out to stop him—then stopped herself instead.

He was rolling the strips of bark into a strand. A strand longer and thicker than the bark itself could possibly account for.

“I don’t know how to save your tree,” Omastut said. “But there is one thing I can do.”

In the lands and among the people where the summoning of archai was openly practiced—places such as Jeneve—they understood there were signs by which an archon might be known. They kept lists of those signs, secret texts controlled and fought over, because they could identify who had been called long before the archai themselves remembered.

They could be used to refine the call itself, increasing the precision of the act.

Some of the signs were marks on the body. These took time to develop, like the bark-cracked skin and leafy hair of the archon of the tree. But others the knowledgeable called icons, and they were objects the archai carried: symbols that represented some facet of their nature, like a warrior’s weapon or a ruler’s crown.

The elders of the Sayacha had bound their cypress branches with twine and hung them above the altar when they called. And so Omastut, acting on the instinct of his story, had made a rope.

The tree was beginning to split under its own impossible weight. The wound was still small, but it would grow. The pull of the wind and the tremors of the earth would widen it, until the cypress broke in half and crushed the buildings below.

For now, though, the split formed a gap only a little larger than a man. A little larger than Omastut.

“Seven days,” he said. “I don’t know why seven. Just give me that long.”

“To do what?” Huysiya said, mystified.

His hands were still working at the rope. She could not see what he was doing with it. But then he climbed the trunk—she would have sworn it was impossible—and wrapped one end around a small branch just above the split, binding it with a tight knot.

When he dropped down once more, she saw the other end had been shaped into a noose.

“No!” She lunged forward, frail hands out as if they could stop Omastut. “If you kill yourself—”

He would return to the apeiron. They would have to call him again, and all the understanding and strength he had gained, however small it might be, would be lost.

Omastut stopped her with a gentle hand. “I won’t die. I’m sure of it. This—” He fell silent, frustrated once more with the void in his mind, created by the endless cycles of death and rebirth. “Think of it as a trial. An ordeal. I will get something from it. Knowledge, I think. And that knowledge may help you.”

By hanging on a tree for seven days. It was not a story Huysiya had ever heard—but she had heard stranger ones.

Like a creature that slept beneath the earth for a thousand years, while a cypress large enough to overshadow a city grew above him.

But she was Issli, and she understood that only through trials of endurance could wonders be achieved. And an archon could endure more than any human might hope to.

“Seven days,” she said.

“Then cut me down,” he said. “And I will tell you what I can. I hope it will do some good.”

He took the noose of cypress bark and set it around his neck. As it pulled tight the rope shortened, lifting his body into the air; the split trunk of the tree closed around him until it seemed whole, and only the twist of rope around the branch above showed where he hung.

And the seven days began.

On the first day, the branches stopped falling.

On the second day, the creak of dry wood ceased.

On the third day, dead leaves no longer dusted the city.

On the fourth day, the desiccated green grew shadow-bright once more.

On the fifth day, new leaves began to bud.

On the sixth day, the people of Cahuei breathed freely.

On the seventh day, an impromptu festival filled the streets.

On the eighth day, Huysiya called the elders of the Sayacha together.

“What did you do?” Aptachi demanded, almost laughing in relief. “Where is Omastut? How did he heal the tree?”

“For the safety of the city,” Huysiya said, “I will not tell you.”

Even in joy, Simkitsi was not without her argumentative side. “What? Why not? If he stays here, he’ll start to shape the city around him. We need to protect ourselves against that. We need to—”

“Need to what?” Chimenil said sharply. “Banish him?”

“We cannot,” Huysiya said. “Like the archon before him, it is his continued presence that will keep the cypress safe. The tree is part of his story, and so as long as he lives, it must stay alive to play its role.”

Silence fell. Now it held only the cry of seabirds and the rush of the wind on which they flew, rather than the slow death cries of the tree. Sutsetu knew Huysiya the best of them all, and knew that within that kindly, delicate body beat a heart that would do anything to protect the Issli.

He said quietly, “Explain.”

Huysiya folded her knobbled hands. “He did something to seek out answers—but he could not promise me that when it was done, he would have what we needed. He is young, after all, and not very powerful. But so long as he continues seeking, that part of his story will not end. So I left him where he is.”

As one, they looked upward. At the towering, twisted branches of the cypress, the one thing the Jenevein couldn’t destroy. The tree that belonged to all the Issli equally, and bound them together as one people.

At the price of an archon imprisoned forever.

Huysiya said, “But you are right, Simkitsi. He will shape the city around him, whether he knows it or not. And we do not know what he will shape it into. The only answer, I think, is a counter-balance.”

“More archai,” Nazcuc breathed.

Conflicting stories, all competing for control of the city. They might have small effects in their immediate vicinity, but none of them would be able to dominate.

Chimenil’s voice was cold. “Are we to become the Jenevein, then? Calling them, using them, and killing them when we grow to fear what they’ve become?”

“No,” Huysiya said. “There are free archai in the world. Those who have escaped their bindings, or been released by their summoners. They will know their stories well enough for us to understand what their presence would mean.”

A city of free archai. There were places where summoning was permitted, and places where it was forbidden, but none of the elders had heard of a place, past or present, where archai were invited to come and dwell.

A city of free archai…and one who was not.

Huysiya said, “If any of you have another solution, I will gladly hear it.”

They had lost so much to the Jenevein. Their history, their traditions, and the sacred trees of their ancestors.

They could not lose the cypress.

“Until we find a better answer,” Simkitsi said at last. One by one the others echoed her. It had the sound of an oath.

In ancient times the Issli had executed traitors and criminals by hurling them from the headland to the rock-strewn sea below.

Huysiya’s body washed up on shore the next morning. She left no message, but the elders of the Sayacha understood. She had passed sentence on herself for her monstrous act—and made certain they would never find where the archon of the tree hung.

The Nine Scents of Sorrow

  1. Sillage de la Reine: A bright top note of orange blossom, intertwined heart notes of rose and jasmine, and a trio of warm base notes of sandalwood, iris, and cedar. Laughter in the gardens of Versailles.

“Astound me, Monsieur Fargeon,” the queen says. She laughs, showing all of her pretty teeth.

She is not wearing the robe a la française, as she did at their brief introduction, but something light and filmy, with ruffles around her shoulders and forearms. The ostrich feathers in her hat bob as she bends down, her white arms extended. Her curls tumble over her bare shoulders. Sorrow wants to look up at her face but is afraid.

Sorrow kneels on a gravel path in the gardens of Versailles. The stones dig into their knees through their velvet breeches. Roses bob their heads in the sunlight. Somewhere, a fountain plays.

The day is hot, and the wig that hides Sorrow’s hair feels heavy and cumbersome. They were told to wear oranges and orange blossoms, for the queen. Instead they have worn roses. Green vines and pink blossoms climb the front of their frock coat.

Sorrow holds up the tiny bottle of scent. Sunlight winks on the glass. The liquid inside is the color of amber, priceless.

This perfume is the most complex they have ever created. They have labored over it in their Paris workshop for twenty-seven nights, adding extracts a drop at a time, until finally they achieved the right balance.

Sorrow uncorks the bottle with a flourish of their lace cuffs.

The scents of orange blossom and rose and jasmine curl through the air. The queen catches her breath.

She is wearing roses too, tucked into her hair. Sorrow counts their heartbeats as they wait for the queen to speak.

“So it is true what they say,” the queen says, and her voice is no longer teasing. “The fragrances of the heart,” she quotes from the society papers. “How do you do it, Monsieur Fargeon?”

Sorrow looks up, into the queen’s face. The queen’s eyes are the grey of the sea on a stormy day. Her mouth is a pink bud. She is younger than Sorrow herself, for all that she has now been married for seven years.

She is not looking at Sorrow at all, but away, past the rose bushes and the orange trees, past the fountain that plays invisibly in the background. Sorrow knows that she is lost in a memory. They can even guess what that memory is.

A garden in Austria, perhaps. A giggling sister in a blue dress. Yipping dogs.

Running. Running with their arms entwined, through the dew and the wet flowers, their feet bare in the cool grass, their legs light and fast and free.

Running as she never will again.

Sorrow’s chest aches for her. “That is one of my secrets, Madame,” they say, and they do not bother to lower their voice.

The queen looks at them.

Some perfumers say the hardest scents to balance are musk, or citrus, or myrrh. That for them, these scents overwhelm all else, and must be used only in small quantities, with caution.

For Sorrow, the most difficult scent has always been that of the rose.

  1. la Mère de Tristesse: A dark green top note of tomato leaves, a heart note of night-blooming jasmine, base notes of rosewood with a hint of spicy patchouli. Blood spilled in the night.

Sorrow’s mother is a pistol, mahogany wood chased with silver, left by one of their father’s clients to settle a long-standing debt.

Sorrow’s mother is a woman, who died with her babe in childbirth nearly a month before Sorrow came into the world. The red stain is still there, on the floor of the apartment above the workshop.

Sorrow’s mother is their father’s perfumery, le Vase d’Or, The Golden Vase, in Montpellier. The wilting roses on the windowsill. The curls of cinnamon bark and anise pods rolling across the wooden counter. The chunks of ambergris in the brass scale.

When Sorrow’s father cannot bear the loss of his wife any longer, he uses some of his earnings to secretly purchase a pinch of powder and a single ball of shot. He locks himself in his workshop, with the pistol that he may or may not be forbidden to own. Moonlight spills through the small front windows and pools on the stone floor.

He puts the gun to his head.

When he pulls the trigger and the hammer strikes, releasing a small puff of smoke, what comes out of the end of the gun is Sorrow—a child of six or seven, fully formed. Their feet hit the cool floor.

They catch at their father’s jacket, to steady themself.

They have little dark eyes like anise seeds. Their skin is mottled, here light, here dark, with swirls like ambergris. Their hair is all silver curls, like the chasings of a pistol, like smoke. Between their legs is a rosebud.

With a flower in place of the requisite part, their father decides they are a girl, and so largely useless. But he brings them upstairs and tucks them into his own bed just the same, making himself a pallet on the floor where he lies awake throughout the night.

It is perhaps for the best that he will never recover the pistol. It is gone forever, like the flowers in the golden vase, and the ingredients he’d left out on the counter.

Their father tells Sorrow that their mother was a woman who wore perfume scented with jasmine and had long dark hair, but Sorrow is born old enough that they remember.

When they ask their father for the recipe of their mother’s scent, he refuses to tell.

  1. l’Odeur de Versailles: Citrus top notes of oranges and orange blossom, a sweet lily heart note, and spicy base notes of nutmeg and clove, like a pomander. The close-pressed crowds of the glittering court.

The queen installs Sorrow in a little workshop in Versailles, near to the queen’s own apartments. As M. Fargeon, Sorrow takes the title of Parfumeur de la Reine, and is awarded the rank of a chevalier. They miss the freedom and independence of their grand workshop in Paris, and on some days the receipt of these cramped silken and velvet rooms seems like a poor trade indeed.

The courtiers have given them a title of their own. “It’s le Nez,” they whisper, their fans beating at their faces, as Sorrow passes through the crowded halls. The queen’s nose.

At first, the queen visits Sorrow in their workshop nearly every week. Each time she wears a different dress, and each time she smells of orange blossoms and jasmine and roses. They sip champagne, or tea from China and Japan, and the queen gossips about court life. Later, she will follow Sorrow around the room, bending her face to Sorrow’s hands as Sorrow holds up exotic ingredients for her to smell.

Sorrow is developing a new fragrance, one completely unlike the scent that the queen wears now. A fragrance to represent the woman that the queen will become, and not the girl whom she has been.

So far, they have decided on vanilla and tonka bean, perhaps with a thread of incense. Sorrow suspects the queen has chosen these more because of the extravagant expense than for how they smell.

  1. le Vase d’Or: A fresh lemon top note, earthy heart notes of lavender and sage, and golden base notes of cedar and seagrass. Sunlight on crumbling stone.

Montpellier is a city of sunlight and pale stone. Bits of the Mediterranean Sea flash like blue jewels between the close-set houses, whose ancient stone faces are already crumbling into memory.

The shop at the sign of le Vase d’Or is small but respectable, the room above in which Sorrow and their father sleep spare but comfortable. Sorrow’s father is a master craftsman, as his father was a master craftsman, but the cost of materials and the fees paid to the crown are so high as to take away much of his profit. And that is when his customers pay him.

When Sorrow closes their eyes in their father’s workshop it’s as if all of the scents are speaking to them—the dry forests of cinnamon bark and patchouli, sandalwood and cedar; the local lemons and lavender and tuberose; the musk pods from dark English forests; the rare shipments of myrrh and frankincense from the East.

Each carries their own memory, like a little soul.

These souls are kept in tiny drawers which line their father’s workshop, reaching all the way to the ceiling. Their father wears the silver key on a faded ribbon around his neck. An old brass still, for making extracts, clanks and steams behind the counter.

Sorrow’s first toys are empty musk pods that they roll across the stone floor, tiny dolls fashioned from curls of cinnamon. Their first lessons are that the still is hot, my darling, my Tristesse, and that for girls the drawers are locked, always locked.

When Sorrow is three years old—or nine, or ten—a man comes to the shop.

He wears a wig whose raven curls tumble nearly to his corpulent waist. A slashed cape is thrown over his shoulder, and his stockings are held up by bows as wide as Sorrow’s two hands. Sorrow’s father recognizes him as a local baron, home for a brief while to survey his holdings and visit his wife.

“It’s good to find a bastion of civilization out here in the wilds,” the baron says. But he takes inventory of the shabby—to him—shop with some dismay.

Sorrow is working behind the counter, packaging orders with their head down, so their silver curls hide their unusual face. Their father is all smiles and obsequiousness. He holds up each of the usual samples of eau de cologne for the baron to sniff, but at each the man shakes his head.

“These are far too pedestrian,” he says. “At Versailles, a man must have something unique.” He turns as if to leave.

Sorrow’s father follows him. “I could create a blend—”

The baron glances at the endless rows of drawers that line the workshop’s walls. “If those were your finest specimens, I doubt you could have anything in those drawers to tempt me.” But his eyes shine, as if he truly does wonder.

Sorrow feels a tug of recognition in their heart, if they have one. They step out from behind the counter. Their leather slippers whisper against the stone floor. When they look up, into the baron’s dark eyes, he does not look away.

It is then that Sorrow first wonders if there are others like them.

In Paris. In Versailles.

“You are a hunter, are you not, Monsieur?” they ask.

“Of course.” An indulgent smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. Behind the man’s back, Sorrow’s father waves his hands at them, horrified.

Privately, Sorrow imagines it has been several years since the baron was young and trim enough to sit a horse. Yet when they look into his eyes they can see it—the horse’s breath steaming in the cool morning of the park at Versailles. They can see, too, a glimpse of the baron’s childhood—a little boy running through the forest, his shoes slipping on mossy stones.

Sorrow closes their eyes, sorting through the scents of their father’s workshop. “Pine and cedar, perhaps, for the top notes,” they say. They open their eyes and cross the room to the correct drawers. Sorrow touches the silver keyholes and realizes that they do not have and never have had the key. “Father?”

The baron turns, one eyebrow raised.

“Of course,” their father says smoothly, as if it is normal that he takes orders from his daughter. When the drawers are unlocked, Sorrow holds up the extracts for the man to sniff.

“Heart notes, I think, of oakmoss and musk.” The baron bends his nose to the prickly pod that Sorrow holds up in their hand. He nods. He is not amused, not anymore.

“And for the base,” something pretentious, Sorrow thinks. “Myrrh.” The man sniffs appreciatively.

He closes his eyes, as if he is lost in some powerful memory. Sorrow’s father looks back and forth between the baron and his daughter, a look on his face like a man whose dog has stood up and begun to speak. Sorrow holds their breath.

The baron opens his eyes.

“How soon will it be ready?” he asks.

With the baron’s order, Sorrow’s apprenticeship begins. Without a son, or the funds to hire an apprentice or journeyman, Sorrow’s father had assumed his family’s line of masters would die with him.

Now he is not so sure.

He teaches Sorrow all he knows—the best merchants and shipping companies from which to source ingredients, three separate methods of extraction, the recipes of his samples. Also, simple addition and subtraction. How to read.

The baron’s order, he uses to introduce his daughter to the excruciating art of creating a new perfume.

There is much more to blending scents, Sorrow learns, than sniffing out a person’s memories. Even with their unique ability and the souls of the shop to guide them, they struggle at first.

There are fragrances which should blend harmoniously but do not, others so strong they consume an entire recipe. Every time Sorrow adds rose to a scent, for instance, it is all they can smell, until they are sick with it.

And the proportions! The tiniest drop can throw a whole perfume off. It is a long time indeed before the baron’s cologne is ready.

At night, Sorrow creeps down into the darkened workshop and sits alone on the cool floor. They listen to the rustling of the memories in the workshop’s drawers.

It is like being in their mother’s womb.

  1. Jardin Secret: Bitter top notes of cardamom and bergamot. Perfectly balanced jasmine and rose heart notes, with a bright center of amber. Base notes of warm vanilla, sandalwood, tonka bean, patchouli, and incense. Childhood and motherhood. Love and pain.

“I must have a child,” the queen says.

It’s autumn, and yellow leaves and dying rose petals drift in through the open windows of Sorrow’s workshop in Versailles. A counter runs around three walls of the small room, and as the queen speaks she trails her long fingers over it, touching the brass scales and the glass jars and the pipettes.

“It’s a disgrace,” the queen says, “To have been married eight years without a babe.” She idly turns the soft pages of Sorrow’s book of recipes.

Sorrow wonders if the queen can read. They wonder how they feel about the queen’s hands touching their private things.

Today the queen wears a golden yellow gown of embroidered silk that matches the falling leaves outside Sorrow’s window. Lace drifts around her forearms like cobwebs. She looks shyly up at Sorrow, from under her towering hair.

Understanding flushes Sorrow’s skin.

The queen laughs, misreading the look on Sorrow’s face. “Monsieur Fargeon, haven’t you learned? Versailles is a court of pretend. While I do not have a child, they pretend it is my fault, and if I were to have one, they would pretend it was his.”

The queen’s husband is made of clockwork. Everyone knows, even le Nez. When the king’s parents despaired of ever producing an heir in the usual way, they turned to other methods.

A lock sits where his heart should be, its vast inner workings a maze of tumblers. Without the requisite part, Sorrow imagines, it must have served the old king and queen best to call him a boy. Now the king cannot slip off the construct of manhood that was foisted upon him, any more than he can the cumbersome robes of state.

Sorrow looks into the queen’s grey eyes, trying to see the child she so longs for. To call up the scents of its being. But it is hard.

Sorrow has always only dealt in the past.

“What makes you think I can give you this?” they ask. The queen has had several lovers, but none have succeeded where the king has failed.

“Well,” the queen smiles, “Clearly you are not made of clockwork.” She touches Sorrow’s face with her wandering fingertips.

Sorrow undresses for the queen, because secrets or not, one does not deny royalty. When they are finished, the queen covers her mouth with her hand and laughs.

“I must be cursed,” the queen says.

Sorrow has never developed beyond the figure of their girlhood. Their mottled chest is still smooth. The petals between their legs are still those of a rose. They cover themself with their hands.

If they loved the queen moments ago, that love is now nearly dead.

“Oh, redress, Monsieur,” the queen snaps, waving her hand. Her eyes turn calculating. “I must find another way.”

“Cardamom,” Sorrow says.

Pardon?”

“Cardamom.” As the queen watched them undress, Sorrow caught a glimpse of her childhood they hadn’t seen before.

A girl eating bite after bite of her favorite crisp pastries, until she has a stomachache. The shame afterwards, when her mother finds out.

A hidden act. Desire and shame twined together like the colors of Sorrow’s skin.

“A top note, to your new scent.”

The queen nods thoughtfully, staring out of the open windows into the dying garden beyond. “And we’ll need a touch of orange, of course. What are those bitter ones? The ones shriveled up and unlovely, like a barren womb?”

“Bergamot,” Sorrow says.

The queen turns to face them. “You understand what I am asking of you?”

“Of course,” Sorrow says. “The fragrances of the heart.”

That winter in Versailles is the harshest in memory. The fountain freezes. Ice coats the rosebushes. The gardeners wrap the orange trees in wool and despair.

Sorrow huddles at the counter of their workshop, testing blends for the queen’s new perfume. A little brazier is lit, over which they sometimes stop to warm their stiff hands. Their breath fogs in the air.

To the base notes of vanilla, tonka bean, and incense, Sorrow has added a touch of spicy patchouli and a thread of gentle sandalwood. The heart notes they keep simple. Finicky rose, still threatening to consume everything else, for the queen. Jasmine, for Sorrow themself. And something warm. Something vibrant. A bright beating heart.

Amber, Sorrow decides.

Discarded glass vials of oils litter the counter, marked “Attempt 21” and “Attempt 18.” Nearly half of Sorrow’s notebook is scribbled black from edge to edge.

They have never used so many fragrances in a single recipe before. But will it be enough? Can the right scent produce a future as easily as it can recall the past?

They lift their pipette, shake a single drop of oil into the waiting vial.

Attempt 28. Attempt 34.

The queen comes to them in the spring. Birds sing in the rose bushes. The gardens of Versailles flush green.

The queen is wearing a loose pink dress, her blonde curls au naturel. Beneath her powder, there are spots of color on her cheeks.

“Well?” she says. “Where is he?” She looks around, as if she thinks Sorrow has hidden her child among the discarded vials and pipettes.

Sorrow bows. Their silver curls stand out in a nimbus around their head like a cloud. Their silk waistcoat is buttoned crookedly. There are dark circles under their eyes.

Their hand shakes as they hand the queen the final glass vial.

Attempt 98.

In their lifetime, Sorrow has created countless custom scents. Seven that they are truly proud of. But this one—this is their masterpiece.

The queen turns the vial over in her hands, her eyebrows drawn together. The amber liquid glows in the thin sunlight.

“This is what you’ve made with all of my funds?” she asks. Her face falls. “Just another bottle of scent.”

Sorrow rises, horrified. “Madame?” The queen has misunderstood.

Sorrow is not an alchemist, to conjure a child of alcohols and oils. Sorrow deals in scents, and a scent sealed in a vial is a dead thing. To come alive, a scent must be worn; in this case, by the woman for whose body it was designed to react with as no one else’s.

The queen’s soft gown does not hide the fact that she is nearly as gaunt as Sorrow themself. The bones stand out in her wrists. “Nine years without a child,” she says, “And this is what you would give me for my pains?”

“Madame–” Sorrow tries again.

“When you speak,” the queen snaps, “You will address me as Majesté.” She draws her shoulders back, sweeping up her skirts as elegantly as if they are the richest gown. And then she casts the glass vial against the floor.

It shatters.

Sorrow gasps.

Every new birth requires a little violence.

  1. la Naissance: A fresh narcissus top note, floral heart notes of lily and rose, and dusky base notes of sandalwood and musk. The first blush of a rosy dawn.

When Sorrow is nine years old—or 15, or 16, flat as a windswept beach and mottled as—well as ambergris, a wasting fever sweeps through Montpellier, and takes their father with it.

Before he is buried, Sorrow takes the key from around his neck and unlocks every drawer in his workshop. In the bottom of one, near the ceiling, beneath a few stray seeds and a curl of cinnamon bark, they find his book of accounts. They sit down with it at the counter to puzzle it out, their head in their hands.

Their father is in debt, yes. But not so much as his clients.

At the back of the book they find a loose piece of paper. It is their father’s will, written in his shaky, slanted handwriting.

“I leave everything—my business and my house, my knowledge and my trade, my profits and my debts—to my son,” he writes, “Chagrin Fargeon.”

Sorrow holds the piece of paper closer to their candle, unsure if they have read correctly. Their hand trembles.

It is not “my daughter,” not “Tristesse.” Girls cannot inherit, any more than they can become master craftsmen.

“Chagrin,” he’s written. My son.

Sorrow tells no one in town of their father’s deception. After his burial they take his book and go around to each of his creditors, begging them to settle their accounts.

They are but a poor girl, they say, left alone in the world with no way to support themself. They want only to pay off their father’s debts and set themself up somewhere safe. Perhaps they will become a nun. To each house they bring a small sample of a new custom scent.

“A bit of what my father was working on, before he died. A gift of good faith,” Sorrow says.

It is amazing what people will scrounge up, when they are driven by guilt.

Sorrow does pay off their father’s debts. Only that part is not a lie. They could not bear to sell the workshop, even if it meant a new life for themself. With a portion of their profit they buy themself a new suite of clothes, and the rest they set aside.

Armed with a fashionable frock coat and a cabinet of oils and extracts from their father’s stores, Mademoiselle Tristesse is reborn as Monsieur Chagrin Fargeon into the world of Paris.

They spend their first two years in Paris as a street peddler, their cabinet strapped to their back. They sleep in stables and alleyways and cheap inns, until they have added enough coin to their profits to pay the guild fees and take on their father’s status of master craftsman.

As a master, they can open their own workshop, and so they rent a small shop in a somewhat fashionable part of town, and they sleep on the floor behind their counter to save their coin.

Even in this dingy room, smaller than le Vase d’Or back in Montpellier, Sorrow does well. How could they not, when every person’s eyes tell them the secret scents of their life? Their years on the streets and in their dark shop make up the rest of Sorrow’s broken apprenticeship.

Which perfumes will sell well, and which won’t. Which memories people want to relive and which ones they’d rather forget. The rapidly changing whims of fashion. The current of goods and coin that runs hand to hand through the city, from the lowest debtor to the king.

Sorrow tracks this current down like a bloodhound. Soon they have created a network of suppliers and customers, and their reputation, at least among Paris’s bourgeoise, begins to rise.

They have been in their little shop for over a year when they first meet another person like them.

“I’m looking for a special gift,” he says, “For my amore.” He is dressed like an artist, in brightly-colored loose clothing. His skin is dark as worn wood. His hair stands up, stiff as the bristles of a brush. His eyes are as liquid as oil; yellow, like linseed.

It is all Sorrow can do not to wipe the powder from their face, to rip open their linen shirt and cry “Look!”

They look into his eyes, back and back—to the crack of a paintbrush, to a jar of oil shattered against the floor. A half-finished painting that disappears overnight. When Sorrow takes him to bed they can trace the brushstrokes of it across his skin.

It is not so unusual, Sorrow learns. Not here in the wide world.

Not here in Paris.

It is another two years before they have saved enough to open the workshop that will make them famous, on rue de Roule, not far from the palais Louvre.

They call it la Naissance, the birth. Their sign shows a hammered bronze sun rising from silver clouds.

The interior of the shop is lined from floor to ceiling in drawers. Sorrow wears the little brass key on a velvet ribbon around their neck. The counter is white veined marble, and a Persian rug covers much of the floor. Gold velvet curtains hang in the wide, sparkling windows. Twin Louis XV chairs sit by the door.

Sorrow’s apartment, upstairs, contains a bedroom and a parlor, the walls covered in watered blue silk. Sometimes, they invite their finest patrons to chat and sip chocolate with them there.

  1. les Miroirs de Paris: An overpowering orange top note mellows into heart notes of vanilla, spicy cinnamon, and cardamom, with a lingering base note of anise. Candlelight through glass.

The young prince has eyes the warm gold of amber. When he laughs, it’s like petals of rose and jasmine falling, in a hidden garden in the middle of winter. Tight green curls cover his head, like the bergamots that grow in the orangerie. His skin is nearly translucent, fragile as glass. He cannot run and tumble through the corridors of Versailles, not like other children can.

Sorrow watches him grow in snatches between projects for other nobles at court. Now that the queen has what she wants, she is happy to share her parfumeur, her nez, with the rest of the palais.

Sorrow sometimes dreams of opening a new workshop in Paris, or of going back to le Vase d’Or, but they cannot bring themself to leave their child. Not even when life grows dangerous and strange in Versailles.

Starvation has swept through the city and become a mob. The Bastille falls, and then even Versailles is besieged. The nobles shut themselves up in the palace and barricade the windows and doors, but nothing can keep hunger out for long. Families begin to disappear overnight, fleeing to estates in the countryside.

The queen comes to Sorrow’s workshop for the first time in years and years. The hallways are dark, and servants and courtiers alike walk up and down with candles in their hands, weeping with fear.

The queen wears a dark rose robe a la française. There are jewels around her neck. Her blonde hair is swept up under a white wig. “You must smuggle him out of the palace,” she says. Only her grey eyes are panicked.

“We are very noticeable, he and I,” Sorrow says.

“You can disguise yourselves. A servant woman and her child, perhaps.” The queen drops to her knees. She clutches at the hem of Sorrow’s coat. “You will have help, getting out of the palace. A carriage. Someone I trust.”

“What makes you think I would do this for you?” Sorrow asks.

“He is your child too,” the queen says.

“You have never said so before.” Sorrow thrusts away her hands. They realize then they are afraid, as afraid as those weeping in the halls.

But they cannot deny their own child.

As they pass through the Hall of Mirrors they see that every glass is shattered, reflecting a thousand broken images of their powdered face.

The prince stands alone in the middle of his darkened nursery, abandoned by his maids. He clutches a toy soldier in one hand. Sorrow can see straight through his thumb, to the painted wood beneath.

He was born a toddler, and now he is seven, or eight. Perhaps nine. Sorrow feels faint when they realize they aren’t certain of his age.

“Who are you?” he asks.

“I am your father,” Sorrow says. “You must come with me, and fast.”

“My father is made of clockwork,” the child says. He frowns. “He is the king. His left eye-jewel is chipped in the corner, and his favorite food is marzipan. If you were my father, I would know it. Who are you?” he asks.

Sorrow’s heart pounds, if they have one. “I am your mother,” they say.

“No, no!” he cries, “You are not!” He stamps his feet. “My mother wears dresses like a shepherdess, and she smells of roses and champagne. You do not. Who are you?” he asks.

“I am a gun,” Sorrow says.

They remove their wig.

“I am a woman who wore the scent of jasmine in her long, dark hair. I am a workshop filled with drawers, and every one of them are locked.” They rub the powder from their face. “I am a nose and a perfumer and a chevaliar. I am a daughter and a son.”

“Who are you?” Sorrow asks.

  1. l’Or des Fous: Exotic top notes of cinnamon and patchouli; rich, golden heart notes of amber, incense, and myrrh; and a lingering base note of sandalwood. A forbidden kiss.

Sorrow’s greatest patron at la Naissance is the Comte de la Motte. He is a rogue, rumored to have stolen even his title, and Sorrow never inquires too closely into the origin of the gold and jewels with which he pays.

“You must come with me to Versailles,” he says one day—for, oh, the fifteenth or twentieth time. He sips from his silver cup, his legs crossed effeminately. They sit upstairs in Sorrow’s blue parlor, the chocolate service on a small table between them.

“You would be as much a sensation there as you are here, I assure you.” His dark eyes sparkle as he straightens the lapels of his embroidered frock coat.

Like the artist, la Motte knows one of Sorrow’s secrets. They have since wondered how wise it was, to reveal so much of themself to such a man.

“Your patronage does me honor, as ever,” Sorrow murmurs. They sip their bitter chocolate. “But I fear Versailles would not be right for one such as me.” They have long moved past that girlhood dream.

Sorrow once created a special fragrance for the comte: an exotic blend of spices and incense they privately call Fool’s Gold. When he leans towards them they catch a whiff of it.

“Nonsense,” the comte says. “Versailles was made for one such as you. Why do you always put me off?”

“Your friends would miss me, I fear.” Sorrow smiles inside their well-tailored coat, their silk breeches, their powdered wig. Over the years, the comte has brought many wealthy and titled men and women to Sorrow’s workshop, each seeking their own custom scent.

“Besides,” Sorrow laughs, “What would I do with this?” They sweep a hand around the room.

“Sell it.” The comte’s eyes flash. “Imagine the profit.” La Motte’s eyes are better than a storybook. Sword fights and secret assignations. Balloons and sailing ships. Ballrooms and boudoirs. It’s no wonder he was drawn to Sorrow from the moment he first stepped into la Naissance.

The comte loves a good disguise.

“Sell my business? My beloved workshop? Comte, you are mad.”

La Motte leans back in his chair, looks Sorrow up and down. “I know what will draw you out of your den,” he says. “I’ll introduce you to the queen.”

  1. le Monde Futur: A top note of bright lemon, heart notes of wet narcissus, lavender, and sharp balsam, base notes of juniper and cedar. The sea, clear as sunlight through glass.

In Montpellier, a crumbling stone house sits beneath the gilded sign of le Vase d’Or, in view of the Mediterranean. Inside, a mother and her son craft scents so exquisite, they say they can recall to you your dreams.

The citizens of Montpellier whisper that the mother is old M. Fargeon’s daughter, back with her bastard son. Others say that no, M. Fargeon never had a daughter, but a son—Chagrin Fargeon, the celebrated perfumer from Paris—and that these must be his émigré wife and child.

They look askance at the woman’s mottled face, the way the light shines through her son’s hands as he works the brass scales.

But they keep coming back.

When they want to remember the France that has been, or imagine the possibilities of the France that will be, they knock on her door with a few of the new francs in their hand, and they beg for a scent.

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