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Canst Thou Draw Out the Leviathan

(Content Note for use of racist slur.)

John Wood boarded the Gracie-Ella ahead of the crew. He carried his sea chest on his shoulder. In a satchel slung low on his hip were his tools and the three things most precious to him: a lock of his grandmother’s hair, a shaving from the first cabinet he had built as a boy, and his freedom papers. No light but the moon, but John could walk the length of the Gracie-Ella’s decks eyes closed and barefoot without placing a wrong stop. She was named for the daughters of two men who held her title, and at sea she belonged to the captain, but John reflected that she was his as much as anyone’s; his hands had shaped her and healed her, cosseted her and kept her afloat. He ducked down below decks. In the dark he made his way midship to a space he and the cooper shared. The smell of sawdust and resin was a comfort. A few strikes of a flint and the lantern overhanging his workspace was alight. John set about arranging his tools. The work here was sweet. He ran his hand over words he had carved on the underside of the vice-bench. “I hereby manumit & set free John Wood. He may go wheresoever he pleases.”

The sixth night out from Nantucket, John woke to find William Harker looming over him in the darkness. John sat bolt upright in his hammock. William put a calloused finger to John’s lips. William’s voice was silky. “I’ve been thinking it’s been a mighty long time since I’ve been ashore. Man can develop a thirst.”

John groaned, half in anticipated pleasure, half in exhaustion. “Not even a week yet. Ain’t your wenching last you a fortnight?”

William bent close to his ear. John could smell salt, armpits, ass. William’s breath was hot on his cheek. “T’aint wenches I’m after. I was hoping the ship’s carpenter might lend us some wood.” William put one big, scarred hand on John’s crotch.

John felt himself stir in response. “Captain’ll make you kiss his daughter if I’m too ill-rested to swing my hammer come daybreak.”

William put his other hand on John’s neck. “My harpoon will be all the keener for it, and I can give you practice with your hammer.”

John sighed. “Best get on with it. It’s summer and the night’s nowhere near long enough.” He slid out of his hammock and led the big harpooner by the wrist from steerage towards the foretween decks.

John shoved William against the bulkhead and fumbled with his breeches. For all his talk of rest, John was every bit as eager. In the darkness, he traced William’s form with deft, curious hands. The body was familiar: the taut belly, the ropey scar high on one hip. He found William’s mouth with his own, hungry and biting. They rocked as the ship rocked. John felt the crest of a wave, and in its deep trough heard William cry out. Warm, sticky wetness splashed against his thigh. Slick and sweaty, the two men clung to each other. William whispered, “I’ll make you pretty baubles from the bone of the next whale I kill. I’ll spend my lay to bring you spices and silks. I’ll—”

Light pierced their quiet darkness. John saw the earnestness in William’s eyes, before William shoved him away and pulled up his breeches, slipping back the way he came.

John shaded his eyes. Pip, one of the cabin boys, walked past wide-eyed towards the forecastle with a stinking little lantern and a beaten tin cup. If he took any notice of John near naked and smelling of sweat and spunk, no sign of it shown on his dark, intense face. John laced up his breeches and followed after.

“Hoy there, Pip.”

The boy spooked. “Hoy, sir.”

John laughed. “Ain’t no one never called me sir. And you ain’t ‘bout to start. Name’s John, or John Wood if you have to keep formal. Bought my own freedom, and I won’t let you give me yours.”

The boy gave him an owlish look. “Hoy, John Wood. Never bought my freedom. I suppose I might have stolen it.”

John clapped Pip on the back. He pointed with his chin at the tin cup. “What’s that, boy?”

“Corn meal.” Pip pinched his lips together. “I ain’t steal it. Cookie gave it me.”

“A nobbin-hearted old skinflint like Cookie gave you near a half cup of it? You must got more charm than I know.”

The boy cradled the cup close to his narrow chest. His eyes were wide. “La Sirene knows ways to soften the hearts of men.”

John ruffled the boy’s hair, as coarse and kinky as his own. “What you doing with that this time of night?”

“Watch.”

John watched in the flickering lamplight as the boy wet a finger with his tongue and traced with precision a little boat on the deck. Pip finished his drawing by writing a word strange to John, “Immamou.”

John said, “I learnt my letters soon’s I got my manumission papers, but what’s that word for?”

Pip said, “Protection.”

John laughed. “I don’t know about that. Ain’t no charm against the captain if he catches you sleep on first watch. Get to bed, boy.”

Pip blew out the lantern.

Two more days out and early morning John was dumping wood shavings into the cold furnaces of the try works when he heard a foremast hand’s thin voice cry from the hoops, “She blows! There she blows! A cachalot!”

The Captain roared, “A sperm whale, aye? Where boy, be quick? She alone?”

“Leeward, Captain! One spray. No more’n a league out!”

“To the boats, boys!” The Captain cracked a rare smile. “Mr. Wood! You keep my ship in order.”

John looked among the bodies scrambling over the deck for the other shipkeepers, Cookie, the cooper, the blacksmith, and the steward. He saw they were all awake and above-deck. “Captain sir, all’s ready for your return.”

The Captain beckoned at the Kanakan harpooner named To’afa—whom everyone called Gospel—with measured speed they headed to the first whaleboat, four crewmen in tow.

William ran to the third whaleboat swinging from its davit. His boatkeeper, the portly second mate, close on the lean, blond harpooner’s heels. William looked back at John once and shouted, “I’ve not forgot me words to you.”

The Captain’s boat launched first, and the boat with William soon splashed down after.

John heard the Captain cry out, “Take care, you louts, any of you gally this whale and she sounds, I’ll stripe you with nine lashes.”

Four whaleboats set out leeward after the whale. John stood for a moment at the railing midship watching them row, each boatkeeper urging their crew on faster in low growls. Cookie stood at John’s shoulder. He spat a thick gob of phlegm over the side. Cookie sucked at his gums. “Whale brains the night instead of salt horse.”

The sun was high when John first heard the crew again. Echoing over the waters, rough voices sang obscenely about the ladies of Cuba before the first of the whaleboats came into view. Towed behind them by the fluke was the carcass of a sperm whale nearly half as long as the Gracie-Ella herself.

John yelled for Pip to attend the returning crew. The ship pitched and listed as they lashed the massive beast starboard for the cutting in.

The crew were wet and boisterous, although to John’s eyes, tired and the worse for wear. William’s whaleboat was the first. The second mate’s face was red. “Grog!” He shouted. “Grog for the harpooner!”

Pip ran over with a tin cup full of drink slopping over the edges. William took it from him with both hands and drained it in a single pull. He looked over at John. “That old bull was meaner than my granny, but I keep me promises.”

The Captain supported one of his rowers around the shoulder. John ran to help. Ethan, his name was. John knew him to be a serious, quiet boy from Pennsylvania. His thin, white arm was bent at a ruinous angle. He slumped into John’s arms, his face gray. John thought Ethan would have need of his saw. The boy whimpered. John looked to the Captain. “He well?”

“Struck by the blow of a fluke. Plenty of grog and full barrels of parmacety will help him forget, I reckon. Time he comes to collect his lay he’ll be smiles again.”

John half-carried the boy down into the darkness of the forecastle. He lifted him into his hammock, the boy yelping and shuddering. Ethan’s eyes were large and tearful, but John knew he was needed on deck to erect the cutting stage. He stroked the boy’s hand. “I’ll send the Steward to come look after you.”

The sun was low to water when John, stinking and calloused, hammered the last plank of the cutting stage into place. The hands’ voices hoarse with hours of filthy shanties—Gospel abstaining. The whale was held fast to the Gracie-Ella with great chains. John remembered the injured boy, but knew the Captain would see pulling an able worker away to tend to Ethan as coddling. Every hand was turned to cutting in the whale. The harpooners peeled its skin in spiralling strips known as blankets with long-handled cutting spades. Each blanket piece was so heavy it took John and six others to haul it up. Men already sore and tired with rowing and killing chopped those pieces into smaller sections, to be yet again minced into paper-thin slices known as bible leaves.

William was back in the water with a monkey-rope tied around his waist, passing up buckets full of spermaceti to the two cabin boys, who ran the pearl-colored waxy substance over to barrels, which when full, were hammered shut and sealed under the watch of the cooper. The deck was red and slick with blood. On one of his last passes Pip slipped in the gore and fell on his back. John tossed a horse piece of blubber to the blacksmith and hurried over to the boy. Pip’s eyes fluttered shut as milk-fragrant spermacati from his bucket pooled around his narrow frame. John lifted the boy up and staggered against sudden weight; in an instant Pip felt heavier than one of the blanket pieces. He kneeled under the tremendous burden. Pip’s eyes snapped open. The boy’s expression was hard and made him look far older than his fourteen years. His voice was like thunder. “John Wood. You know me not. But you I know. Your kin called to me for safe passage across my waters.”

John groaned struggling to keep the boy upright. “Pip, this ain’t sensible. You struck your head.”

The boy’s look was pitying. “Pip? No. I am the storm and the wind hard behind it. I am the wave and the darkness below. I, the white foam and the shifting sea sand. Do you know me, John Wood?”

John whispered, “Agwe?”

“The blood remembers. Destruction follows your present course. You have until the moon waxes full and wanes again.” Pip shut his eyes. John felt the weight vanish from the boy.

The first mate, a tough, wiry man with a parsimonious mouth and thinning sandy hair stood over them. “You niggers pick a fine time for resting. Work to be done, and that spilled parmacety will come out of your lays, so I swear.”

Pip squealed. “Sir, t’ain’t the Carpenter’s fault. Sir? Mr. Wood was just helping me on account I’m so clumsy.”

“That so? You’ll pay double penalty, then.”

John stared hard at the deck so as not to give the First Mate a reason to call him out for insolence. “Sir, now Pip’s up and about, if I have your leave, I’m needed elsewhere.”

The First Mate scowled. “What are you looking poe-faced for? Back to work!”

That night the fires in the tryworks burned hot. Foul smoke, black as ink, curled up and blotted out the stars. The crew pitched bible leaves into the try pots for rendering. The cutting in had slowed after the sunset, and John turned his hand to the Captain’s whaleboat, which had seen some damage from the flailing whale. It had needed bailing out with a piggin on the way back, but John assessed the boat as being in fine condition, all things considered. He was sanding out a new board to replace one that had been cracked in the hunt, when a shadow distinct from the roiling clouds of smoke fell across him. Without looking up he said, “William, your mama was no glassblower.”

William’s smile seemed to beam in the lantern-light. He was wrapped in a moth-eaten old bear hide and held out two cups full of grog. “Looks like thirsty work there.”

John accepted one of the cups. He took a deep pull, relishing the burn down his throat. He gazed up at William. Shivering cold. Bedraggled. Ridiculous in that bear hide. Reeking of stale blood, salt, and sweat. Beautiful. He said, “You stink. You ain’t think to splash some of that ocean water on you whilst you was splashing around with that big fish?”

William smiled and squatted next to John. “That whole time I was fighting that mean old bastard, thinking what you’d say to me when I came back with a mouth full of teeth to carve into something for you kept me going.” He rested his hand on John’s shoulder.

“Careful. You’ll get old Gospel to come over and give’s a sermon ‘bout the evils of sodomy, and I don’t know about you, but I prefer my sinnin’ in quiet,” John said.

“Be days before a whale this size is barrelled and tucked away, unless the sharks find it first. We won’t have any idle hands for the devil’s tools, I reckon.”

John swatted William’s hand off his shoulder. “The devil! You think I’m old scratch?”

“You are a mighty temptation.” William’s voice turned serious. “That little negro cabin boy? What happened with him? There’s been some whispers that he’s touched.”

“He fell. That’s all. Ain’t none of you hoodoo-fearing whaler men never fell?”

William pulled John’s hand to his mouth and kissed the knuckles. “I just know you’re fond of him. I wanted to you to beware if things go sour.”

“A great big whale out there in less than a fortnight’s time, and you all are muttering about things going sour?” John laughed, but thought of the word “destruction” and all his mirth drained away.

Three days after the cutting in, John was working at the vice-bench, when Ezekiel, the other cabin boy, rushed in, flustered. John looked up from his work. “What is it, boy?”

“Mr. Wood! Mr. Sherman sent me in to find you he said to bring a saw!”

“Bring a saw? where?”

“The fo’c’sle! Ethan Anderson’s arm’s gone all wrong!”

John nodded, took a moment to select his sharpest and a yard of clean cloth, and followed the boy. The forecastle, never a sweet-smelling place, was rank with the smell of sick and rot. Ethan’s twisted arm had turned black. It wept pus through a poultice. Ethan moaned. His face in the lantern-light was pale. His lips were grey. John pressed gently on the arm near the wound and heard a crackling sound like logs splitting in a fire. John pursed his lips. “Zeke, get the boy whiskey.”

Ethan’s eyes were dull. “Don’t mean to gainsay you, Carpenter, but I dreamt of a black dog. Death’s coming, and I’d rather go into the sea intact.”

“If that arm don’t go, death will surely come. You had a misfortune is all. Don’t mean the end.”

Ethan managed a smile. “My fortune ended the day I signed up to the Gracie-Ella.”

John looked over to Simon Sherman, the Steward, who stood striped by shadows just beyond the dying boy. He wiped a thin hand across an ungenerous mouth and sniffed. “Well, Mr. Wood? You heard the man. Leave him to die in peace. Go find Gospel, he’ll want to say some prayers for his soul, I imagine.”

John put away his saw and found his way to the deck where he saw To’afa looming over the Captain. The harpooner was six and a half feet if he was an inch, and the expression he wore would fit a desert prophet. “Sir, may I have permission to speak plainly?”

The Captain winked at John. He stroked his salt-and-pepper beard. “To’afa, you seem about to burst if I say no. So out with it!”

“Sir, I have served you with the best of my skill. My arm has been yours. Why have you chosen to imperil me with the placement of an unrepentant sinner?”

“Imperil is a strong word.” The Captain beckoned to John. “Mr. Wood, what’s your perception of sin aboard this ship of mine?”

“Seems to me like pumping the bilge and repairing rotten boards occupies my time in a way that I ain’t really considered it, sir.”

To’afa wheeled on him. “This is no matter for sly jests. I have seen how you coddle that little heathen. You ought to talk sense to him!”

“Who ain’t got sense, now?”

“That cabin boy, Pip. I know you feel a fondness for him out of your shared bondage. But he invokes heathen gods! He makes offerings and worships idols. This cannot stand!”

The Captain stood. Even at his more modest height, he struck an imposing figure. His voice was low and calm. “I trust your objection is to my choosing to have Pip crew my whaleboat? Do you have a suitable replacement for Mr. Anderson? Will you perform the laying on of hands to heal his ruined arm? Or would you prefer I take that half-wit moon-calf Ezekiel to row? I would take the devil himself over that weakling and poltroon. If you have any objections to Pip and his savage worship, I suggest that you live up to your moniker and convert him, Gospel.”

To’afa looked thunderstruck. The Captain turned his back on him and walked slow and stately aft.

To’afa looked to John as if he could spit. “Does my faith amuse you, Carpenter?”

John’s voice was soft in reply, “It is your faith that has sent me forth. Ethan Anderson is not long for this world. Mr. Sherman has sent me to ask you to say a few prayers for his soul in the next one.”

To’afa nodded. “I shall collect my Bible.” He looked in the direction of the Captain. “I hope the Old Man does not regret taking no heed of my words on that devil-worshipping boy.”

On the day they buried Ethan at sea, one of the foremast hands caught sign of whales. Right whales this time, two, mother and calf. As the crew made muster again for the whaleboats, William pressed something hard and cool into John’s hand. It was a sperm whale’s tooth, carved into scrimshaw. John recognized his own face carved into the surface, rough edges smoothed away, and surrounded by fanciful flowers. He watched William bound across deck to his whaleboat and smothered a rueful smile.

It was after nautical twilight when the whaleboats returned. The crew sung no work songs, and the slapping of the oars against the ocean struck John as sepulchral. It reminded him of the creaking of a hearse. Once aboard, the Captain’s face was pinched and Gospel walked behind him with his head down, muttering prayers beneath his breath. William found John and embraced him in sight of God and the crew. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

John grabbed William by the chin. “What you sorry for?”

“The boy Pip—he…”

“Where is he?”

“The hunt was good at first. Old Gospel got right into her with his whale iron, she were fastened, and—” Tears and snot streamed down William’s big honest face. “Whale sounded and snapped two lines. The sea churned into froth. All the whaleboats rocked, mine nearly overturned. Pip. He just dove into the ocean after the whale. It must be a fit of madness. We searched until it was half-dark, but he never surfaced.”

“I see,” said John in a cold fury. He looked over at To’afa’s broad back. “You sure he ain’t had any help.”

William shook his head. “Gospel’s a sanctimonious bastard. But he wouldn’t bring no actual harm to a child beyond sermonizing.”

“Ain’t needed for the cutting in, am I? Reckon I have work to do below-deck,” John said.

John was not settled at his vice-bench for more than a moment before William’s shadow fell between him and the lamp. Chisel in hand he said, “Thought I told you I had work.”

“Thought maybe you could use me in grief as you do in joy.” William’s tone was bashful.

“You think that? We sailing together on a ship for two years, but after that I ain’t so sure I’ll sign back on. Seems a short time for you to be studying my grief.”

“Six year we sailed together since I was a green hand and you—”

“Bought myself free from a cabinet maker?”

William’s voice was patient, pleading. “And you came aboard to be this ship’s carpenter, even if you are too skilled by half. What I mean to say is, I don’t see no future for me without you in it, John Wood. I keep my lay by, don’t spend more than necessary. I’ve set aside some money. I could set you up a shop to work your trade, buy land for a house and—”

John sighed. “William, I like you. I likes your body. I likes my body when it is with yours. But future? Ain’t no future for any negro and a white man in the goddammed Union ‘cept as master and slave. I been a slave, I’ll be in my grave before I return to that.” John looked down at his lathe to avoid the hurt he knew was in William’s eyes.

“You’re wrong, John Wood. I love you as any man loves his wife. More. I love you so much that it is the filling up and making of me, and sometimes feel like to shatter when you’re not near.”

John made his expression stony. He crushed down the part of him that wanted to recite to William the Song of Solomon, that wanted to cradle him in his arms and rock him to the rhythm of the boat. “We have sweetness here. Sweetness never lasts. Let it linger on your tongue while it can.”

“Do I mean nothing more to you than the cockroach-ridden molasses you sweeten your coffee with?” William clenched his fists.

John looked at the lathe. “What I mean is, we got two years. Ain’t no point in expecting more.”

“I knew what you meant.” William said. John watched him walk away. When William was out of sight, John pulled out the scrimshaw portrait from under his shirt, where it had dangled on a cord to rest next to his heart.

Restless, late to bed, but too tired to find himself elsewhere, John headed midship where he had his hammock. Across from him the blacksmith snored. Above the blacksmith, William slept. His arms hung down limply, and the careworn look on his face had vanished. John put out the lantern. He settled into his hammock, turning to face away from William. His mind raced darkly, but sleep took him in moments.

He dreamt of the poor lost cabin boy Pip sitting at the right hand of a handsome brown-skinned youth with green eyes and wavy hair. The youth rested indolently on a coral throne. His full-lipped mouth pouted prettily, but the sea green eyes were piercing, knowing. An enormous mirror gauzed over with black crepe rested just beyond the throne. All else was darkness. Pip spoke, but the voice was like the roar of the ocean, and John knew the words belonged to the melancholy youth. “You break bread with thieves. They seek to plunder my seas the same as they have plundered the land before them.” He gestured behind him. John knew without seeing that there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of shuffling figures in that unspeakable darkness. The youth nodded. Pip spoke again. “You feel them. The whales sing to keep them calm, to prevent them from despairing of never seeing Guinea. These the plundered lost in crossing. I have given them homes and solace.”

John felt himself transfixed by those green eyes. Pip spoke in his own voice. “Ain’t right what they done to us. Ain’t right what they do the whales. They’d burn us both up for lamp oil, and then when we’s gone seek to take more.”

The dead, John knew they were the dead with certainty, began to shuffle into almost visible ranks beyond the coral throne. They cried out in languages that were strange to him.

The voice of thunder issued from Pip’s mouth again. “Until the moon is dark.”

John awoke, the visions fresh in his head. He saw that William had already arisen and left his hammock empty. After washing his face with cold seawater, and finding the vision did not fade from memory like most dreams, John resolved to see the Captain.

The Captain had just finished taking breakfast in his cabin with the Mates. The First Mate cast an ugly look at John when he asked if he might have a moment of the Captain’s time, but the Captain agreed and bid John to sit at his table. The Mates cleared out in silence. The Captain was still hale at nearly sixty, but John noticed a sag in his shoulders. He looked at John with something like regard and asked, “What troubles you?”

John put his head in his hands. He knew the Captain to be a man of no great faith in things unseen. “Sir? Would you say I am honest?”

The Captain inclined his head. “I know you to be an honest man. And one who never has shirked from toil.”

John swallowed. “As I am honest, and for the love I bear you as one who has served under your command for six years… I—”

“Out with it, man.”

“Captain, this ship must return to its home port.”

“Are you mad? We’re less than a month out. We had good fortune with that cachalot bull, but the ship’s holds are nearly empty.”

By instinct, John fell back into the flowery speech he knew appealed to white men of rank. “Sir, I swear by my life that death and perdition overhang this ship. My only care is to save the Gracie-Ella and her crew from this fate. And if I be honest—”

“Enough! I had not thought you to be a fool, John Wood. But if I hear that you have repeated this half-cocked notion of curses and witchcraft to any soul aboard, I swear by my life I’ll clap you in irons.” He thumped the table with a short-fingered fist. “Am I clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You may leave.”

Another fortnight before the next whale sighting. It was an ugly, overcast afternoon on choppy seas. John was ill-tempered and worse rested. The night before he had troubling dreams of voices calling out to him in the darkness. He and William had scarcely spoken. But he caught William by the arm as the whaleboats swung on their davits. William’s face was unreadable. All John managed was, “Take care.”

William pulled his arm away. “Take care?”

John felt his cheeks burn hot. “I love you, too.”

William grabbed John then, pulled him close to his chest and kissed him hard and deep and slow. Gospel squawked in protest, and John heard noises of disgust, but his heart thundered in his chest loud enough to drown out the roar of the ocean and he kissed William back.

“I’ll take care,” William said. Then he bounded over to his whaleboat with a joyous whoop.

The moon was a sliver in the sky when the whaleboats returned. John heard the Captain cursing and spouting imprecations across the water. When all the whaleboats were pulled up, John’s heart sank. The Second Mate’s boat had absent both its boatkeeper and its harpooner. William was nowhere to be seen.

He overheard one of the hands from the boat talking to the steward. “Bad hunt. Lost two. The Second Mate and his harpooner. Harpooner got caught in the line, Second Mate went to cut and got carried over. Whale rammed him up against the boat.”

John felt a great shudder of grief. The Captain passed by without meeting his eyes. A choking sound died in his chest, and he ran to the railing and vomited.

To’afa crossed his arms across his chest and surveyed the smashed timber. Without looking John’s direction he said, “The wages of sin.”

Another hand said, “And after all that loss, damn whale sounded before we could bleed its black heart away.”

The next morning a squall came hard out of the west. Waves battered the ship. Its creaks and moans sounded like cracks and wails. Listless but dry-eyed, John made his inspections, filling in leaks with oakum, yelling at Ezekiel to help him pump water out of the bilge. The moon would be dark tonight, he knew. He carried out his tasks diligently with dread growing in his chest like wet rot. He remembered William telling him he saw no future without him and laughed without humor.

That night the storm quieted abruptly. John went above-deck to examine the masts and the yardarm, when in the night’s stillness the ocean roiled. Whales in their multitudes flanked the ship aft and starboard. No foremast hand called out this sighting. The Captain himself was left speechless. Right whales, humpbacks, sperm whales, fin whales, in numbers beyond counting were, a phalanx of the sea. Some hand, not clever enough to be terrified, broke the silence to opine that these whales represented riches beyond the dreams of avarice. It began shortly after. A sperm whale rammed the boat with his large square head. There was a crunch and crackle as wood splintered. The ship, over a hundred foot long from stem to stern rocked and shuddered. The Captain screamed, “Mr. Wood! See that you keep us afloat!”

John ran down below-decks and into the hold. The ship shuddered with repeated assaults. A great fracture ran along the keel, and John knew the situation was hopeless. The hold was taking on water fast, and oakum wouldn’t slow it down. Still, he picked up his hammer and rolled an empty cask over to the worst leak in an attempt to slow it. Another heavy crash and the ship listed hard to port before righting itself. Thunder pealed. John set to breaking apart the barrels in an effort to shore up the ship. The thunder spoke to him. “John Wood,” the voice was Pip’s. “You ain’t gonna save them, but you can save yourself. You bought your freedom once, and I give it back to you now.”

Hearing the truth of this, John reached inside his shirt for the piece of scrimshaw, and clutching it abandoned his task, tearing out of the hold and onto the deck. For a mad moment, John thought to go back, grab his satchel with his grandmother’s hair, and his freedom papers, run his hand over the words on the vice bench. Then the whales struck again, and the deck listed, causing John to slide into the mast, where he clung for dear life. There was a scream, and he saw the First Mate tumble overboard into the churning water. The Captain kept his footing, and shouted for whale irons. The last John saw of him, he thrust a harpoon into the air and vowed to the heavens that he would fight and kill every last fish in the ocean.

When the ship righted, John scrambled over splintering wood and dodged falling debris. Crab-walking midship on the port side, he tucked himself into a spare whaleboat, cut it loose from the davit, and trusted fate during the long drop into the night-dark water. A bull sperm whale, black as obsidian but with green eyes, breached nearby, and the force of his splashdown pushed the whaleboat away from the doomed Gracie-Ella as she sank out of sight.

He was adrift for two days and a night before a merchant vessel came across him. With kindness and care they rescued him from the leaking whaleboat and brought him aboard their ship, The Lady Elise. After he was given fresh water to drink and wrapped in warm blankets, The captain, a young, amiable-looking man with freckles, asked him to tell his story. John did, with some careful omissions. The Lady Elise’s captain furrowed his brow. “We picked up another castaway form your ship two nights gone. You must have the devil’s own luck.”

He saw him then, wrapped in an Indian blanket. Staring up at the star-shattered sky was William.

John fell to the deck. “How can this be?”

William hobbled towards him, his movement slow and aided by a cane. He said, “Leg’s seen better days, and I’ve been pummeled all about like a sack of rotten fruit, but I live.” William winced. He dropped the blanket. A red welt the breadth of a thumb was raised around his neck. “Nearly strangled to death and dragged into the sea. But when I was down in the briny cold I heard a voice tell it weren’t yet time, that I were given a second chance. Queerest thing, sounded the near exact twin of that poor lost little cabin boy.”

John rose to his feet and closed the space between them. When William took his hand, John was still clutching the piece of scrimshaw carved with his image.

Corpse Soldier

Everything started here:

A broad plain of yellow grass, the stalks crushed and smeared with blood, and the sounds of dying men—yes, all men—sobbing and praying to the rusty pink sky. The high grass hid their forms and faces. They were bodiless voices, as if ghosts already, rising above the field like ashes to heaven.

Nev had his fist in his own wound, pressing hard to staunch blood that flowed free as a spring rill, pumping across his breast with every heartbeat. He used his other hand to claw himself towards the sounds of the dying men. Not to save them—no—not to help them—no—but because he hoped they were not quite as doomed as he. He hoped they carried six more breaths instead of his two. He wanted to become them, to steal the last of their conscious moments, to take harbor within their mangled, broken bodies and mend them with the fire of his corpse-jumping soul. He had to find a form that would house his soul for another day, another hour, another breath, until he could jump again, and again, into his promised immortality.

But for now, in this moment—Nev needed just one more breath.

And he did not have it.

That’s when he heard the little girl singing.

Nev’s life after that day in that bloody field, after the war, after he fled the guild that once protected his immortal soul from superstitious mind clerics and osteomancers, was no easier. No matter how far he ran, or how many times he changed his face, Nev could not escape his past, and the sound of the little girl singing while he bled out. His old masters would inevitably find him and remind him of his obligations to the Body Mercenary Guild. They knew what sort of person he really was. They knew what had happened on the field that day.

They knew about the girl.

And what he had given her.

“Name and occupation?”

“Nevarius Plum,” Nev said, and not for the first time, he felt the urge to say he was a scribe, or perhaps a tax clerk, because it seemed so fitting to the current name he used. Body mercenaries like him should have had names that inspired fear and awe in the presence of the foes whose faces they would soon wear. But names didn’t always make a person, however much weight they gave on first impression. He had once known a man in the guild called Torgenson Bold. Torg perished on the field during his first skirmish, screaming and blubbering like a colicky newborn babe.

It wasn’t about the name—it was about the soul. Nev chose names that reflected the soul he wanted to show the world. The soul he aspired to.

“And occupation?” the squat woman repeated, sweating heavily behind the smooth wooden counter of the mud brick toll gate that flanked the main road into the city of Avarise. The tattered coil of fabric above her did not give much shade in the muggy heat, and the sun was high and hot. Most of the toll booth operators at the gates to the city were men. He considered asking her if she knew of an open position among them, grasping for an alternative to the summons from his guild masters, then shuddered at the idea of touching and speaking to so many people every day.

Too much temptation.

He could have said, “I’m a member of the Body Mercenary Guild,” but his kind were hated everywhere, here more than most; here they were routed out and run down. He had not been in contact with anyone from the guild since that day in the field, some seventy years ago, though he could still feel them, pursuing.

It’s why he needed to make this trip.

“I am a simple trader,” he said, “with goods to take to market.”

“Doesn’t mean you get in for free. You are showing very little respect.”

He bowed. “I apologize. Please, examine my wares and let us agree on a fee.”

Nev had learned that apologies and passive subservience cost him nothing in exchanges with those who fed on the power afforded their own little fiefdom. No doubt this woman enjoyed making visitors like him wait outside the gates indefinitely if they crossed her. Petty, counter-productive… but human beings were not rational. A hard lesson. Logic did not convince people to come over to one’s position. One had to appeal to their emotions, egos, and desires. That had taken Nev many bodies’ worth of lives to learn properly.

He brought his lop-eared alpaca forward and divulged the contents of her plump saddle bags. Hunks of volcanic glass shimmered. Nev gingerly picked up a chunk and offered it to the woman.

She took six pieces for herself, and one of the bronze bands he wore on his fingers for just such a bribe. Her ego assuaged, he passed into the city without further issue.

Avarise hugged the riverbank of the crushing gray wash of the River Monesi, a bloated, fast-moving breadth of water prone to lose its banks each year and overtake the stilted homes in the flood valley on the other side. The city proper loomed above the great river, tucked securely on a hill dug by thousands of hands for just this purpose. It afforded citizens not only a view of potential trouble, but safety from the river’s wrath.

Nev climbed up the narrow cobbled streets. Flat pavers at the center of the way were for the carts; the knobby pebbled paths on either side were for hoofed creatures who would have found the flatter way far more treacherous. The alpaca, with her soft padded feet, was content to tread next to him, though as he glanced at her two-toed feet he made a note that her nails needed trimming.

He consulted the little map in his pocket several times. Like many cities formed in the early days of the last empire, the streets were a hodgepodge of dead-ends and narrow alleys that sometimes opened briefly into airy plazas, then closed and pinched again, running down and down to some sewer grate or back up and up again only to bring him to the battered calcified door of some private residence.

After several bad turns, he finally came to the residence he sought, a pleasant little first-floor apartment with the family name “Clovanis” set in tile next to the threshold. Bursts of lovely pink flowers sprouted from window pots. Potted palms and heart-shaped snaking vines grew in the small yard just to the right of the door, a rare, narrow band of open space. An old woman sat out there, lean and regal, slightly hunched over a swath of fabric. At the rear of the garden, an unfinished canvas lay dashed in spots of color meant to mimic the flower boxes.

Nev came to the little courtyard gate. “Pardon, matron,” he said, “Are you Matild Clovanis?”

“I am.”

“Nev Plum,” he said. “I’ve brought the volcanic glass from Magoransa.”

“Of course, please, come. I didn’t expect you to be so young! What a journey you must have had.”

She rose, smiling. Her white hair was nested into an intricate knot of strands bound in multicolored ribbon. She did not walk with a cane; she moved swiftly, for all her years, and the sun-hardened lines of her face.

“I don’t have many visitors from so far away. Let me get you tea. We have clover tea! And biscuits.”

“You are very kind.”

Matild bustled into her home, though he noted she did not invite him in. Nev knotted the alpaca’s lead at the table and began to unload his stones.

When Matild returned, she chatted absently about the weather, then asked about his journey.

“Uneventful,” he said, but he shared details he supposed she would enjoy, about the people, the scenery, a scrappy young dog who ran off with the last of his jerky, a child with a voice like a bell, and news of a small settlement lost to a storm said to strike from a clear sky.

Matild exclaimed over the volcanic glass. “I have so many more buyers,” she said, which he already knew, because he had posed as one of them not long back. “But alas, not as much coin as I’d hoped in exchange.”

“I’m sure there are other bits and bobs I could settle for.” Nev pretended to give a longer look at the surroundings, the hanging vegetation, blooming purple flowers up on the roof, aged brick walls; the bird poking its vibrant orange head from a nest snugged tightly in the mouth of a tentacled nightmare meant to cover the otherwise inelegant appearance of a drain.

Nev drew a broken trinket from his pocket and placed it on the table between them. A blue stone shot through with green glass. “Have you ever come across a stone like this one? I’d be very keen to find one intact. I collect them.”

The woman brushed the bits of stone with her fingertips. “I had something like it, a very long time ago.”

“And now?”

“I’m afraid I don’t have it anymore.”

“You sold it?”

“I simply don’t have it.”

“I suppose that’s best. Those who carry intact stones can be in danger. Some… bad people are looking for intact stones.”

“But you aren’t one of the bad ones?”

“I don’t like to think I am.”

She leaned back in her seat. “I’m an old woman. There’s very little you or they can do to me. I’ve seen the world and lived a good life.”

Nev’s stomach twisted. He did not like to use fear, but in this instance, the tactic was warranted, and terribly true. “Perhaps you could tell me what happened to it. If I can have something to go on, I’m even happy to leave extra with your religious order. Whichever you subscribe to.”

“My mother sold it, a very long time ago.”

“You know where?”

“A company creditor, I imagine. She made a living in the ironworks. I was twelve or thirteen, then. Fifty-three years on, now. In the summer. I remember the sound of the cicadas.”

“Could I speak—” Nev stopped himself. He knew better than to ask, but it slipped out sometimes, his assumption that everyone lived forever.

“She passed some years ago.” The woman’s attention shifted. She seemed to re-evaluate him.

I’ve shown my hand, he thought. She knows.

“You should speak with my granddaughter,” she said, flicking her gaze up to the squawking bird in the drain. “She is very good at finding things.”

“It’s all right, I—”

“Nice young man like you. This is a very dangerous place, you understand? She could help you. You may not look foreign, but your accent is archaic, and you are… odd.”

“Perhaps I’m not as nice as I look.”

“I very much doubt that.”

Nev stood. He unloaded a few more stones from the alpaca’s saddle bag. “Thank you for your help.”

“Give me your map,” she said. “I can show you where my granddaughter is.” She peered at the angle of the sun. “Yes, this time of day I know where she’ll be.”

“That’s kind,” he said, “but I really do prefer to work alone.”

The old woman tugged at the map, though, pulling it from the table before he could snatch it up. She traced a section of the city about a half a mile back down the other side of the city, right up along the riverfront. “The Wandering Eye,” she said, and chuckled. “That’s where she’ll be. Ask for Mezelda.”

“Thank you.” Nev tucked the map back into his pocket. He hurried away, dropping his gaze, not wanting to look back.

But she spoke again, a line from a very old tune, one he had had long ago tried to banish from his memory:

Come little Jini in your flying machine
Come across the waves with me
Those golden waves, Jini
Those golden waves.

Nev glanced back, just the once. Met her look. Tipped his hat, and then he and the alpaca were back in the square, drifting among the other residents, trudging deeper and deeper through the maze, the map forgotten, wanting only to disappear into the twisting labyrinth of Avarise forever.

Nev went down to the ironworks first. The pawnbroker there was young; he asked after the former proprietor, and celebrated his luck when the girl trotted into the back and came out with her mother. When he presented the stone, the old woman did not recall it, but her records went back a hundred years, she said, and for a few bronze rings, she put her daughter to work combing through the records from fifty-three years prior, in the summer months.

The girl brought out the big book and after reading a dozen pages, found the entry he sought.

“Oh yes, this family,” the old woman said. “The wizards. I didn’t realize that stone sat here so long. Bad buy, bad buy. Fifty years to turn around a trinket! Terrible.”

“Wizards?”

“Yes. I remember her, Bafasa Mundi. She came looking for a good luck stone. The green crystal soothed her. It was for her son. I recall her because they left the city a few months ago, after their youngest passed the wizard trials, and well… he was chosen for temple work. And you know what happens to children, especially boy children, chosen for such a fate.”

Nev did not. “Do you know where they went?”

“No, no. I’m sure no one does. They left in the middle of the night. The fewer they told, the better their chances of escape. A shame, really.”

Nev thanked them for the help and wrote Bafasa Mundi on the back of his map. As he did, his gaze went to the tavern along the waterfront. The Wandering Eye. It was true that he did not know these people, and they had no reason to trust him. He was also almost out of volcanic glass and bronze rings. Too much more of this and he would be broke, and no closer to the stone than when he started.

He reasoned that if it was difficult for him to find the stone, it would be equally difficult for the Body Mercenary Guild. Perhaps he was being overly anxious. Overly cautious. But it was this extra care that had ensured his freedom and survival over these many long decades. To turn away now…

Nev sighed and patted his alpaca. “Long way to come for nothing, right?”

The alpaca hummed.

They began the long way down to the water.

The wharf smelled of copper and death, a combination that Nev had not yet encountered. The churning gray waters carried detritus from upstream; broken trees, dead animals, silt runoff, but from the smell, less sewage than he would have suspected. Avarise lay close enough to the headwaters that it was the first major city on the river’s wending path.

The Wandering Eye lay furthest upstream, closest to the boat docks.

Nev’s body was not terribly tall, but he had to stoop to enter the low doorway. He removed his hat. Inside; darkness, and the cloying stink of old sweat and cheap spilled beer. Beneath that, the whiff of aged cedar and hardened leather. Outside was hot; inside was much hotter, almost unbearable.

Three women collected at a table in the back. A barkeep spoke in low tones to a patron at the smooth cedar plank of the bar. Sounds of raucous laughing in the back could have been the cook staff or a gambling den.

Nev kept his head down and went to the bar, asked the beefy bar keep, “Excuse me? I’m looking for Mezelda?”

The barkeep rolled her eyes. Jerked her thumb at the hefty, heavy-lidded woman she spoke to. The woman bent over a gravy-soaked potato dish and what remained of a thick, frothy black beer.

“Good to know you have my back if the dock patrol comes calling,” the woman said, wiping her face on her sleeve. Her voice was rich and smoky; it put Nev in mind of another mercenary he once knew, long dead on the same field that had nearly claimed him.

“He’s definitely not dock patrol,” the bar keep said, and laughed. The table in the back called for another round. She went to the tap to satisfy them.

“Mezelda, I’m Nev. Your grandmother said you find people. Things.” Nev guessed Mezelda was in her late thirties, maybe early forties. He had found it difficult to judge the ages of those from cultures he was not yet accustomed to. It wasn’t so much that the age markers differed, it was that the way bodies aged was so intrinsically tied to their lineage, their daily work, their habits, and above all, their environments.

“Mez,” she said. “Nobody calls me Mezelda but Grandma. You have money?”

“I have some volcanic glass, a few bronze—”

Mez help up her hand. “Forget it.”

“Surely there’s some other—”

Mez nodded at the noise from the back. “Tell you what. Beat me at a game of cards, I’ll hear your sob story. I win, I clean you out.”

“This… does not seem like a deal a sane man would take. Thank you for your time.”

Nev put his hat back on and trudged to the door.

“Who you looking for?” Mez called.

“A boy. A wizard. His family left here some time ago. He has something I’m looking for. Your grandmother had it at one time, but her mother pawned it away. She said you could help.”

“Why ask for my help? Do you not like wizards?

“They’re fine.”

“So you don’t like children?”

When pressed, he always preferred honesty. Fewer things to remember. “I’m never certain how to treat them. Many parents take offense if I speak to a child as I would an adult. Should I treat a child as half human? Part animal? Does the percentage of their humanity change based on age? Is there a sliding scale?”

“I find children amusing.” Mez gulped her beer. “I once told my nephew that griffins weren’t extinct, just nocturnal. He loudly proclaimed this fact to his professor. It delighted me to no end.”

“You must have lost his trust.”

“I taught him critical thinking. He was, like, four.”

“You taught him adults are liars.”

“Is that untrue? Now he asks for a second opinion when I tell him anything. How many kids just believe whatever nonsense their Aunt Edna spouted off after she heard it from a grocer? The world would be a better place if we all questioned our elders more.”

“You advocate for disrespect?”

“Who do you think I am? A priest?”

“I… need to find someone else. You aren’t the right person for this.”

She chomped a hunk of potato; a bit of gravy leaked out the side of her mouth. “Figured,” she mumbled around the potato. “Grandma sends me particular kinds of people.” Her gaze narrowed; black eyes, long lashes. Like her grandmother, she seemed to see through him. I’m being paranoid, Nev thought.

“I’m not keen on games,” Nev said.

“And I’m not keen on working with someone I don’t know.”

“I prefer my independence as well.”

“Independence rarely gets me paid. Come out back.”

Her followed her to a scuffed table out on the patio. Here, it was cooler; a blessed breeze came in off the boiling river below. Mez set out a deck of cards; already a bad sign. Playing with her own deck meant it was likely marked. Did he look so young that she thought he would fall for that? Young, a foreigner… maybe so.

But he sat across from her anyhow. Placed his hat on his knee.

“Tell me about yourself,” she said, dealing out the cards. The deck was familiar. The game, he suspected, was Five-Card Shot. When she placed a single card face up between them, it confirmed his guess, but he demurred.

“What are we playing?” he said. “I admit I don’t have a head for cards. I’ll need the rules.”

She told him the basic rules in a breezy tone, deftly dealing the cards. He knew to lose his first hand. He won the second two.

“You’re not from here,” she said, leaning back in her seat, hands behind her head as he lay his winning hand face up.

“Just luck.”

“You are a poor liar.”

“Am I?”

“Kid’s name?”

“The mother is Bafasa Mundi. But it’s less a person I’m looking for and more of a thing. Is that all right?

“Same.”

“But—”

“Things are generally either carried, lost, or hidden by people. It’s one and the same. Lots of trophies taken during the war. I’m wondering—we looking for something that got stolen from you, or for a trophy you stole from someone else?”

“…yes?”

“You from Moronov?”

“Yes.”

“And all you got outside is that alpaca with the rocks?”

That impressed him. He assumed she had not seen the alpaca, let alone had the time to see what he carried. But if she knew he carried the glass, she would know he was from Moronov. And of course—her grandmother had wanted the glass. Mez would have known that.

“Are you a wizard?” he said.

She collected her cards.

“I just wonder what kind of person walks five hundred miles from Moronov carrying just a few bronze rings, some rocks, and maybe a local script for a bank? You better have a script for a bank.”

“What kind of person gets into retrieving people?”

“Are we going to go visit this kid wizard or what?”

“Don’t you have to find him first?”

“I know where the Mundis are.”

Nev crossed his arms. Of course. “So you just thought I’d be an easy mark for cards? An easy day’s pay for you.”

“Not really,” she said. “They’re dead.”

That eerie yellow field of his youth, smeared in red. Blood always looked more watery than Nev expected. And there, again—the girl’s voice. High and melodic, surreal in its perfection because she was clearly so young.

He raised his head from the prickly pillow of grass, knowing this was among his last breaths, terrified to consider how many more he would see. Saw two small brown feet, toes curled in the bloody field. She was only four or five year old.

She wore a tattered blue shift. Her hair was coiled back from her head in braids coming loose now at the ends. She was unharmed. Unblemished. Smooth, perfect skin. All her fingers and toes. Bright, glassy eyes.

Five years old. The age he had been when he found out what he was. He had worn a tattered shift just like this, already begging his mother for men’s pants and wearing his brother’s hats into town. They told him he was a fool, back then, told him he was a she, that being born into that body came with its privileges, and he should be happy with his place in the world. He knew. But it never sat well with him.

And here, again—a young girl. A new, fresh body. A new start. As if the universe were offering her to him, as if he could start again.

He lay gasping like a fish as he bled out, reaching for the girl. He rasped, “Help me. Please. Please help me.”

All he needed to do was get his hands around her throat. End her life cleanly, swiftly, before his expired, and then move his soul from his body to hers. And then he would be free. He could get far, in her form. No one would notice another dirty, tattered child in the streets of the big cities, some refugee from the country, fleeing the war. He would be vulnerable for a time, perhaps, until he found another form, but he would take any body now, for one more breath. No matter the price.

The logical thing to do was to kill the child and inhabit her body. It’s what the guild had taught him to do. We all die. Few were so privileged to see their bodies inhabited again once their spirits had passed over. He was going to do her a favor, truly.

“Are you dying?” the little girl said.

“Yes.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Yes. What are you called?”

She leaned closer.

He snatched her wrist. Dragged her to the bloody field beside him. Her face was so close he felt the heat of it; her dark eyes went so wide he felt he would fall into them.

Take her. Wring her neck. Steal her body. Do it, Nev. You have done it a thousand times before. You will do it a thousand times again.

Nev walked a step behind Mez, leading his alpaca. The way to the graves of the Mundi family was a day’s walk, and Mez had insisted on loading the alpaca with beer, musty blocks of cheese, and a fried meat product of some kind that she called jerky.

The family had been killed just outside the next town, a little hamlet called Fortezia. Nev knew the name from his map, but had never been there. The road turned quickly from paving stones to dirt, but at least the rutted way was dry. Mez insisted on taking side paths several times, muttering darkly about bandits. He had encountered none since crossing the border into this country, but he did not argue.

“You have a name for it?” she asked as they came over a wooded ridge and back onto the proper road.

“Hm? The alpaca? I call her… Alpaca.”

“How can you call her the same name as any other alpaca?”

“She answers to it.”

“Hardly creative.”

“Creativity doesn’t improve the experience in any way. A woman called Mag is no different if she is called Magoransa. Same woman.”

“I’d disagree, obviously. Good dig, though. You wouldn’t just call her, hey… Human!”

“Not if she preferred another name, no. That would be rude. Would it not, Mez?”

“But alpaca—”

“She hasn’t told me her name. I would be happy to use it if she had. Do you know it?”

“Now you are being didactic.”

“Only honest.”

They huffed along awhile longer. Mez clearly struggled a little more than he did. He suspected she was spending most of her time sitting around playing cards in taverns and a lot less doing the leg work required to find people. Perhaps she had people for that. Despite her imposing form, he suspected he could outrun her easily. Wit and speed and his peculiar talent had always been his most effective weapons.

“You said your nephew.”

“What?” She narrowed her eyes.

“The child,” Nev said. “The one you lied to. Do you not have any children?”

“No. And you must not either. Well, not any you actually hang out with.”

“I don’t think I do,” he said. “It’s been—” and he had to close his mouth, because though his face was that of a man who might have been in his mid-twenties, he could not clearly remember the last time he’d had sex. Four decades ago? Six? Before the war, certainly. He had spent long stretches of peaceful time in cities before, a year here, a year there. They were pleasant enough times while they lasted. But as time went on he found his was more comfortable traveling alone. Fewer questions. Fewer emotions.

Mez crooked her mouth. “Don’t tell me you can’t remember?”

“Perhaps I can’t.”

“Remind me to give you a drink. See if that kicks anything loose.”

They spent the night at a way house. He insisted on sleeping outside, but she offered to share a room. “For the trickery on my part,” she said. “This is a favor more than a job. Though you’re still paying me what’s left of that volcanic glass.”

Nev liked to think he was good at reading people after all this time. It’s why when she offered him a beer he pretended to drink it, and when she began pulling at him to dance with her and sing bawdy songs, he said he needed to find an outhouse and instead went to the barn, untethered his alpaca, and drifted back onto the road. He didn’t mind her company, but he had yet to relish it, and it was always a good idea to move quickly before one transformed into the other.

The stars were out; the night was blessedly clear. The great gory constellations and massive swirling nebulas gave him enough light to get by. He abruptly turned off the road at the first path he found and continued on, despite his alpaca’s annoyed humming.

“She’s drunk,” he said, thumping the alpaca’s cream-colored neck. “One turn enough will deceive her.” He was uncertain if that was true, but it sounded well enough there in the dark. It sounded so good that when the alpaca stopped, twitching her ears, he thought there must be some predator in the dark; it certainly couldn’t be Mez.

He was mostly right.

The thump in his chest knocked him back a step. Nev had a moment to wonder at the feathered shaft jutting from his chest before the pain hit him, a purl of fire that uncoiled across his whole left side.

How terrible. He had loved this body.

The second arrow took him in the left side, a little lower. He let himself fall because he knew they would keep shooting until he did. He loathed to let go of alpaca’s lead, but did so, yelling for her to run. She kicked up her toes and took off into the darkness.

Nev lay on the still-warm ground. He slipped his fingers behind him, took hold of the small utility knife he kept in a discrete sheath tucked into the inside of his belt. The burning pain of his wounds threatened to cloud his mind, but he breathed through it, as he has been trained to do.

“He down?”

“He’s down. Where’s the fucking camel?”

“I can track it.”

“Let’s search him first.”

Nev closed his eyes and listened to them approach. Two voices. More importantly, two clearly separate gaits, not three or six or eight. Two was difficult, but not impossible.

He had really loved this body. Youth was wasted on the young.

Their hands on him. A rough kick at his wounded side.

Nev rolled and lunged, stabbing the nearest man in the throat. Blood gushed. The man gurgled. Behind him, a younger woman, little more than a girl, shrieked. She fumbled with her bow, dropped it, thinking better of the distance, and went for a knife.

But by then the man was bleeding out. Nev pulled him close, so close he smelled the terror of his breath and felt the tinkling of the man’s curly black beard. Nev pressed his palm to the back of the man’s neck, skin on skin, as if they would share a kiss, while the man’s hot blood soaked them both. The man’s body sagged.

Nev huffed out a breath.

Felt the distant stabbing in his side. The girl with the knife.

Too late, though, too late.

He jumped.

The girl in his grasp. The yellow field. Easy to take her. Face to face. Breath to breath.

But as his fingers closed over her throat she murmured,

Come little Jini in your flying machine
Come across the waves with me
Those golden waves, Jini
Those golden waves.

Nev released her. Lay back. Huffing. “Bring help,” he said. He stuffed his fist in his wound. He wouldn’t make it. It would take too long. If they knew who—what—he was, maybe a line commander would send a body. But how…?

He grabbed the chain at his neck. Yanked at it, too weak to fumble with the clasp. On the end of the chain dangled a stone of green glass and silver, etched with his name and rank within the guild. It contained something far more important than that, though.

“Get this stone to a soldier,” he said. “Command. Send…help.”

The little girl took the stone into her palm. Wiped at the blood. “I’m Matild Clovanis,” she said, “from Avarise. What is your name? I can’t help a stranger.”

“Nevarius. Now run! Go! Before I change my mind!” he snarled.

She leapt away, a startled deer.

He lay where she left him. Tears clouded his vision, or maybe the darkness was coming. He wasn’t sure which—or both. More the fool, him. A soft heart. Corpse soldiers with soft hearts wouldn’t last a decade, let alone a century. He would die on this field with all the others, because he did not have the heart to kill a little girl.

Nev rolled on top of his own fist, using the pressure of his body to further quell the blood from the worst wound. From this vantage he could just see the outstretched hand of a corpse, one half buried in mud churned up by some elemental wizard.

Nev clawed his way forward. An inch. Two. A hand’s breadth. Gagging, making bloody bubbles, sick with pain, he crept forward. Again. Again.

The darkness. Death. The long night. He felt it, comforting, like a warm bath after a long, agonizing day punishing his body to the brink of its endurance. How wonderful would it be to just…stop?

He stopped. How far to go?

Nev reached for the fingers of the corpse ahead of him as the darkness took him.

I should have been a better soldier, he thought.

It was the last thought he had in that body.

Nev was not the first to escape the Body Mercenary Guild; he certainly would not have been the last. There was no public record of rogue Body Mercenaries; it would inspire panic and pogroms if the public knew exactly how many people like him walked among them. His records, such as they were, would be closely guarded things. He liked to imagine that perhaps he had been officially declared dead. After all, there was no physical way to know he was still alive outside summoning his soul into another body.

And only one with the stone could do that. The stone he had given Matild that day. Matild from Avarise. He would never be free, truly free, until he destroyed that stone.

The guild loved to make its members’ lives more difficult; to make all lives more difficult. The more difficult the lives, the better it felt it was doing its job. It believed itself the arbiter of whose lives counted, and whose did not. In all his living years, decades, he had never thought who got to be human a political position. It was a moral and religious position. But in most of the countries and city-states he lived, there was no line between government morality and religious morality. Right and wrong were beliefs, as were religions. Intrinsically tied, for better or worse.

His own existence had come down to his military usefulness. What greater fear could an army invoke than unleashing a wave of undead against the enemy, undead who could take on the face of those they killed? Shock. Horror. Awe. Fear. He had seen all of it.

Nev came sputtering back into consciousness. He lay on the ground next to a pock-marked young man with two arrows jutting out of his torso. From this vantage, the young body Nev had worn looked foolish, foppish, the mussed hair, the terrible complexion, the knobby knees and elbows.

He bent over in his new, shaggy body and vomited. Black bile. A little blood. He reached reflexively for the wound he had inflicted while in his other body. It had already closed. His tunic was heavy with his own blood.

Nev gazed into his big, calloused hands. Coarse black hair studded the knuckles.

Across from him, the girl was on her knees, eyes glistening in the starlight. “Papa?” she said, choking on her tears. “Papa, are you all right?”

Nev’s guts churned. He stumbled off the path and yanked down his pants. A wet sea of shit left his body. He braced himself against a heavy tree trunk and vomited again.

Gasping, spitting, he yelled, “Stay away!” He did not even know her name. They tried to kill you, he thought, here you are, soft again. But he had made his own terrible choices often. He understood.

“Papa, I—”

Nev heard the crashing before she did. Whether it was his heightened senses after the body jump, or her fear and grief that disguised it, he did not know.

A figure smashed into the girl, knocking her flat.

Nev cleaned himself up as best he could and slogged toward the ruckus.

Mez tussled on the ground with the girl. Popped her nose. Just as he got hold of Mez’s collar, she locked the girl into a neck hold.

Nev heard the snap.

He let Mez go. The girl’s body dropped like a marionette, the neck broken.

“Mez, I—”

She punched him in the face.

Nev reeled back, stunned, but he could feel the second wind coming, the massive surge in adrenaline that he got after every body hop. His senses became heightened. The pain vanished all together.

Mez hit him again. He snagged her arm and twisted it behind her.

“It’s Nev! Mez!”

She snapped at him, nearly taking off his ear. He pushed her and held her down, relying on this new body’s brute strength and the adrenaline that still coursed through his healing body.

“Mez! I’m Nev. The alpaca named Alpaca. We played cards.”

She head-butted him. His nose burst. Tears welled. He spit. He was aware of the injury, of the pressure, but no pain. Not yet, not until the rush wore off. Already, the blood gushing from his nose stopped. He would have a few more impervious minutes for her to flail at him.

“Your nephew believed griffins were nocturnal. You have no children. You tried to serve me a beer and dance. You remember that part at least? I do.”

She tensed. Arms tight, still pushing him away. But her look was different. She eyed him like a terrified animal caught in a snare. Maybe that’s what he had done.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Can I let you up? Mez, if you kill me I’ll have to kill you and take your body. You understand? There’s no reason to attack me. Don’t make me do that.”

Her body softened, almost imperceptibly.

“All right?” he said.

One nod; a spastic jerk.

He eased his grip, but did not let up his guard. “You understand?” he said. He jerked his head at the young body filled with arrows. “That was me. Now I’m here.”

She mouthed something at him. A curse?

“What?” he said.

“Corpse soldier.” Soft and smoky. Not fearful. Factual.

His mouth twisted, even after all that time. “We prefer to be called body mercenaries.”

“Thought you were all dead. My grandmother—”

“I gave her the stone that can summon my soul.”

“Why?”

“I thought I was dying. If she got it back to the guild, they could summon my soul from the darkness. Bring me back. It’s where my soul goes if I can’t find a body to house me.”

“You’re already dead.”

“I’ve been dead many times, yes.” He saw her swallow; the starlight made her eyes seem luminous. “I’m going to let you go,” he said.

“You said that.”

“I said there was no reason to attack me.”

“All right.”

He released her. Took two long steps back. In this body, he was much larger than her; he stood a head and shoulders above her, and outweighed her by eighty pounds. He tried to give her space.

Mez sat in the dirt. Gazed up at him. Then at the body. She got up and went to his old body. Knelt beside it. Pushed the hair from the face, noted the wounds. Then Mez began to methodically remove all of the bronze rings Nev had kept on those skinny little fingers.

“Your remorse is touching,” Nev said.

“About as polite as you running off in the middle of the night. You fucking idiot.”

“I know about women like you.”

“Women like me? Like me?”

“It didn’t seem wise to stay.”

“I was being polite. You have a massive stick up your fucking ass.”

“I have been around a long time.”

“No doubt.” She snorted. Pocketed the rings. Leaned back on her heels. “You just kill people when you’re attacked? Just like that? No wonder we hunted you all until you were dead. Really dead. After the war. How did you live?”

“Not every country believed the genocide of people like me was humane.”

“You mean not every country wanted to give up their tactical advantage.”

“I don’t fight on purpose. The bodies I take… most are as this was. Defense. Or those already dead.”

“Stealing the dead is better?”

“They are dead. What do they care? You certainly didn’t care about the dead when you took those rings just now.”

“I can’t believe I fell for this.”

“For what? I’ve told you nothing untrue. If someone has that stone, someone alive, they are in danger. Because yes, you are right. People like me are being hunted. If they find someone with that stone—”

“If they find someone with that stone, it leads them back to you. I wasn’t born on a slow boat. You’re worried about your own guts.”

Nev shifted from foot to foot. The adrenaline was draining from his body now, leaving him feeling exhausted, hungry. “I need to find Alpaca. Keep the rings.” He bent and took the dead girl’s heavy knife. He felt a coin purse knotted against his own shin. He would have money enough, provided it was coin in there and not something more nefarious. It was horrifying, some days, to realize what sorts of bodies one had jumped into. Who they had been.

He headed down the way he had seen the alpaca go, humming softly for her. It was not long before he heard Mez crashing around behind him. She was nimble as a bear, that one.

“What?” he said without turning. “You want to knife me in the back? You’ll need to creep better than that.”

“Why didn’t you kill my grandmother? You gave her that stone and hoped someone brought you back, but why not just kill her? Then you’d know you’re coming back for sure.”

Nev lifted his gaze to the crowns of the trees. Little blossoms fell from the canopy, collecting around his feet like dying stars. “It was not necessary,” he said.

She grunted.

He waited.

“I take you to the gravesite,” she said. “That’s it. That’s what I agreed to.”

He nodded, already turning his attention to the flash of creamy white in the distance.

The site of the massacre was mundane. All such sites were, in the end. He remembered a war from some time ago, when they buried all the dead beneath birch trees. For two decades after, he had avoided birch trees, made uneasy and anxious by their breezy forms.

The place where the little child wizard’s family had been killed was a tall field of grass, a clearing overlooking the little settlement they had hoped to settle, Fortezia. How terrible, to get so far, to be within sight of salvation, and to be cut down.

“Who killed them?” Nev said. Beside him, the alpaca hummed. Her saddle bags were empty. She had either lost, or someone had stolen, all of Mez’s beer and musty cheese and jerky. Of all the things that had happened the night before, Mez seemed angriest at the loss of the beer.

“Temple people,” she said. “You know what they do to those kid wizards in the temple.”

“Matild said that too… but no, I don’t know what they do.”

“Oh.” She shrugged. “Bad things. They think you have to hurt kids to make them powerful. Make them mean. You know, toughen them up.”

Nev knew all about that.

He found the fresher, humped ground over the graves. “They buried them?” he said. “Didn’t burn them?”

“You don’t burn wizards. Does bad things to the air. Miasmas.”

“Let’s dig,” Nev said.

They spent two hours digging. Brought up the corpses. A man and a woman, only a few months in the ground. Mez did not gag or complain, but searched the corpses thoroughly with him.

“Where’s the boy? Did we miss him?” Nev said.

“Maybe they didn’t get the boy.”

“Where did you hear about these deaths anyway?”

“The tavern. Old soldier I know from some jobs last year. He was in the party sent out after them.”

“And he said they got all three?”

“Maybe they were supposed to, so that’s what he said. Word gets around. He’s old enough not to yak in a tavern that he didn’t kill someone he was supposed to.”

Nev came up empty; the pockets and pouches held some old snuff and a decomposing map. As he dropped the map he noted the cord around the female body’s neck. He tugged it. It came up with a little bronze pendant. Nothing.

“Her hand,” Mez said.

Another cord trailed from the woman’s hand, filthy like the rest of her. He uncoiled her rotting fingers and slid the cord free.

A blue stone shot through with green glass gleamed from the end of the cord. As it dangled there, shimmering in the light, Nev remembered what Matild had said about the woman buying it as a good luck charm for her son.

He imagined this scene as it had played out here, some desperate family trying to save their child from harm. The soldiers drawing the boy away, the father dying, or already dead, the mother wounded, clutching at her boy, her fingers tangling in the pendant hanging from his neck. The soldiers yanking the boy away, and the pendant, there, curled up in her palm, all she could save of her child.

“Nev?”

He let out his breath. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding it.

“That it?” Mez said.

“Yes. Thank you.” He knotted the broken cord and hung the stone around his own neck. It felt warm against his skin. It had been so many decades since he parted from it; he expected to feel some jolt of power, a tingling of recognition. But there was nothing. It was just a stone. Until it was needed.

“Well, let’s cover them back up.” Mez rolled the woman back into the shallow grave and began heaping dirt over her again.

After a moment more, Nev helped her. In half an hour, the bodies were covered again, leaving Nev and Mez filthy and breathless, sweat pouring down their bodies.

“Guess that’s it,” Mez said.

“I guess so.”

“What’ll you do next? Go creep back to a hole somewhere?”

He pressed his fingers to the stone beneath his tunic. As long as the stone existed, they could come back for him. He could live, yes, it was true. But he would be theirs. Always theirs. What was he really, now that the war was over and he’d fled the guild that had once shielded him and his kind from the obliteration of their immortal souls? What was he, but a corpse soldier running away from the same fate that dogged them all, mothers and children. He closed his eyes, and remembered Matild’s singing.

Nev took the stone from his neck and dug into the alpaca’s saddle bags. He had kept a few chunks of volcanic glass there, sewn into the bottom, just in case. Now he took them out and lay a flat piece on the ground. Put his soul stone on top of it.

“What are you doing?” Mez said.

“Making sure they never find me. Making sure they never use me again.”

He brought down the hunk of glass in his hand. Smashed the soul stone.

It shattered into half a dozen fragments. They scattered, bits and pieces lost in the uneven terrain of the field.

“Shit!” Mez said. “Are you…wait, you’re still alive?”

“Yes.” He smeared the dust of the stone between his fingers. “But there’s nowhere my soul can go but a body now. No stone. No other way to bring me back.”

She shivered. “Yeah, well, if you get sick, don’t come near me. I’m not some extra body.”

He met her look. Nodded. Stood. Nev took the alpaca’s lead and started down into Fortezia.

“Where you going?” Mez stood outlined in the afternoon light, her black silhouette large and beautiful in the heat.

“I’m going to find the boy,” Nev said. “I’m going to bring him back.”

“He could be dead.”

“No. He’s useful to them. They will keep him alive as long as possible.”

“That could take you far from here! The wizard conclave is a thousand miles south of here. You know it gets cold down there! What will I tell my grandmother?”

“You fulfilled your part.”

Mez came down after him, huffing. She came up to the alpaca’s other side, put her hand on the alpaca’s neck. “Hey, listen, you hired me to find a thing and a person. I’ll go with you.”

“We’ve established I work better alone.”

“So do I. But what else am I going to do, just go back to that tavern and get drunk?”

“You have exactly one life,” he said. “You spend it any way you please.”

“I’m going with you.”

He shrugged, and did not look at her. To look would be to remember how she came after him after he left her. To look would be to think how much she looked like Matild. To look would be to know what she would look like when she was old. To look would be to imagine how she would look when he put her body into the ground or under the torch. The little smirk. The long lashes.

“You must give her a name,” Mez said as they walked down and down into the widening valley. The alpaca hummed, as if in agreement.

“Now you outnumber me,” he said.

Mez scratched at the alpaca’s ears. “See? Listen to her. She has a great little voice. Call her Matild.”

Matild, Nev thought, the little girl who saved me.

“All right,” he said, “but don’t tell your grandmother that.”

“Lips are sealed,” Mez said, and whooped.

Nev kept his gaze on the blue, blue sky ahead.

Before the World Crumbles Away

The lakeside painter is lying, but no one seems to care.

It’s a beautiful lie, even Elodie will admit that. There are two lovers on the pier with the painter, sitting for their portrait, and she’s honest about the way the light of the setting sun catches their hair, the way the breeze ripples their clothes, how they lean into each other. She gets so many details right that even Elodie doesn’t notice what’s missing at first.

The painter has left the lovers’ faces blank. She’s glossed over the tension in their shoulders. She’s included the families in the distance, trying to have a carefree night by the lake, but she didn’t include the long cracks in the ground.

Or the uprooted plants. Or the fallen lamp posts.

The painting is idyllic and a lie, but that doesn’t stop the lovers from squealing in delight when they see the finished product. They either don’t notice their blank faces, the missing details, or they don’t care—which is even worse by Elodie’s standards. The painter cracks a joke and all three of them laugh. They don’t notice Elodie watching them at the end of the pier and Elodie feels a pang of jealousy at the painter’s ease at making other people happy. As if happiness was as simple as buying a painting in a ruined park.

The lovers pay in cash.

After they leave, carrying the drying painting like a holy relic between them, the lakeside painter retwists her long black hair into a bun, unaware of the streaks of paint she’s leaving between the strands.

The last moments of the sunset are in caught her hair, Elodie thinks. The thought makes her incredibly sad, so she pushes it away. She should really head home.

Then, the painter turns around, spotting Elodie on the end of the pier. She smiles and Elodie can’t help but stare back. The painter’s eyes are stunning—a network of implants and gray, reconstructed pupils. The future of bioengineering by the lake, in the flesh.

“Hey there,” the painter says, and Elodie opens her mouth to respond.

Before she can say anything, the ground starts to rumble.

After the earthquake passes, Marina picks herself up off the pier, soaked. Waves keep thrashing against the damp wood and there are still faint tremors. It wasn’t a bad earthquake, but it was enough to ruin the evening. All around the lake, people are shaking and picking each other up, leaving the park in small clumps of twos and fours. Marina sighs and looks at her scattered brushes and canvases. She didn’t earn nearly as much as she was hoping to tonight. But from experience, she knows that no one will be in the mood to support the arts now.

The woman who’d been watching her paint at the edge of the pier is suddenly beside her, helping Marina pick up her wet supplies.

“Thanks,” says Marina.

“Don’t mention it.”

Marina studies the woman from the corner of her eye. She has bright pink hair and vibrant clothes to match. Eyebrow piercings and a tattoo of an android on her arm. A hard person to miss in a crowd and Marina instantly loves her for it. Then she notices the woman’s hands are shaking.

“You okay?” Marina asks.

“Not really.” The woman clenches her jaw.

“Fair enough,” Marina says and picks up the last of her soaked sketches. It was a silly question. Earthquakes are conversation-killers anyway. “Thanks again for your help.”

But the pink-haired woman lingers awkwardly.

“Why didn’t you paint the cracks in the ground?” she asks.

“What does the tattoo on your arm mean?” replies Marina.

“I asked first.”

“But my question is more interesting.” Marina tries to keep a straight face, but her eyes ache and she still feels the trembles of the earthquake in her femurs. So she smiles, even though none of this is particularly funny. She’s surprised when the other woman grins back.

“I’m Elodie,” the woman says.

“Marina.”

They shake and Elodie’s hand is strong, warm, and calloused. Not the hands of an idle person. Marina likes that. Elodie is still staring, though.

“Sorry, I’ve never seen someone with optical implants before,” she says. “Bioengineering is sort of an interest of mine.”

Marina nods. She’s used to people doing double takes or trying to steal discreet glances and failing. She’s learned to appreciate a good excuse. “I was legally blind before I got these. Used a cane and everything.”

“And now?”

“Now, I have twenty-twenty vision. Most of the time.” Marina picks up the last of her brushes.

“They’re beautiful. Your eyes.” For a moment, Marina wonders if that’s supposed to be a joke, but Elodie’s voice sounded sincere and her expression matches.

Marina has no idea what to say. It’s been a while since anyone called her beautiful. “Um, I didn’t paint all the damage because I wanted to capture a moment when things get better,” she says, changing the topic

“Do you think they will?”

Again, there’s no sarcasm. Only earnest curiousness in Elodie’s voice. Marina shrugs. “Probably not, but people need some hope to keep moving forward.”

Elodie tilts her head, considering. “What about the blank faces, then?”

“Turns out I’m terrible at remembering faces. Like, I barely recognize my own in the mirror. I don’t really want my work to erase that, if that makes sense?”

“Oh.” Elodie blushes. It’s surprisingly cute.

Marina smiles. “Actually, I find it kinda funny. Maybe give me a call sometime, and I’ll tell you about it?” She pulls out her receipt book from her back pocket, writes her number on an empty ticket.

Elodie’s blush deepens, but she folds the receipt carefully and slides it into the pocket of her pants. “Okay, that’ll be cool.”

Elodie gives her a small, unsure wave and begins to walk away. But at the end of the pier, she stops and turns. “My tattoo doesn’t mean anything,” she says, with a cockeyed grin. “Androids are just awesome.”

Marina is still soaked, but she’s elated when she leaves the park, with her supplies tucked under her arms. She doesn’t stop smiling until three blocks out and her hand brushes the pocket with her wallet. Then she remembers. It’s too thin. Too empty. A bad sales night on a week where Marina can’t afford to have bad sales nights.

Today is not a loss, she tells herself. This is worth it. She doesn’t quite believe herself though as she walks through the city, towards home.

Her eyes are aching and she still feels the aftershocks of the earthquake under her feet.

Elodie is furious with herself the whole trek back to her house. She shouldn’t have been so nosy, so blunt with the painter. With Marina, rather. She should have thought of something witty to say.

It’s not like you get asked out every day, she thinks.

Four blocks away from home, there’s a man on the corner with handwritten signs and a three-day beard. He looks like he hasn’t slept for days.

“The world is ending,” he says, tiredly.

“No shit, dude,” Elodie mutters. The man glares at her, but she keeps walking.

Maybe Taylor’s right, maybe she needs to work on her people skills. Which is hilarious coming from a roommate who’d rather explore every inch of every Final Fantasy game than face the unstable world.

Elodie, on the other hand, would rather leave something useful behind.

When she reaches her house, she doesn’t go inside. She briefly considers sending a text to Marina, but she can never think of anything clever when she’s nervous. So, she opens the garage and flips on the light.

There’s an android sitting in the middle of the room. Its smooth aluminum body is folded neatly on a chair in front of her tool chest. She’s pleased to see the earthquake hasn’t upset it and that there aren’t any new cracks in the ceiling. A game of Candy Land, though, is scattered on the floor with the folding card table lying on its side.

Upstairs, Elodie hears the familiar video game music at full volume and is surprised when it’s turned down.

“How was your head-clearing walk?” Taylor calls down from his permanent seat on the family room couch.

“Full of earthquakes,” Elodie shouts up. “How are the Chocobos?”

“Steady,” Taylor replies, which is as close as Elodie has ever heard him acknowledge a natural disaster.

“Hey, I met this…” she calls up. Too late. Taylor has turned the game back up to full volume.

Elodie sighs. She uprights the table, gathers up the scattered board and cards, sets up a new game of Candy Land in front of the android.

“I met a painter today,” she tells it. “She had the coolest eyes.”

She grabs her laptop from her bench in the corner and scrolls through the code she wrote that afternoon. She wonders what Marina’s doing right now. She should probably text her and tell her it was nice to meet her.

Elodie turns on the android instead.

“Why would someone so optimistic want to spend time with me?” she asks the android as it finishes its boot-up cycle. “I’m just asking for future heartbreak, aren’t I?”

“Hi, Elodie,” the android says, looking at her and then at the board on the table. “Do you want to play Candy Land with me?”

Elodie runs a hand through her hair. “Yeah. Okay, let’s see which bugs I managed to fix.”

For the rest of the night, she and the android take turns drawing cards, moving pieces across the board racing to make it to Candy Land. Elodie makes a list of any errors or halting movements to debug. She also makes a list of reasons why she shouldn’t get her hopes up about Marina. It’s a long list.

When she’s finished testing the android that night, she takes the receipt with Marina’s number from her pocket, carefully unfolds it, and sticks it in the top drawer of her tool chest. Out of sight.

Marina’s landlady meets her halfway up the stairs to her apartment. She recognizes that curly, red hair anywhere. “I was worried about you,” Silva says, softly.

“I’m fine. There were only few big waves at the lake. Everything okay here?”

Silva starts to nod, but stops abruptly. They both look up toward the fourth floor apartment and Marina’s heart sinks.

“He never left, did he?” she asks.

Silva puts a hand on her shoulder. “Maybe tomorrow.” But her voice is a mixture of doubt and sympathy.

“Oh, I have this for you.” Marina pulls out her earnings. She presses the crumpled bills into the other woman’s hand. “I’ll get the rest to you soon.”

Silva, the best of landladies, doesn’t count the money in front of her. “I know you will, dear.” She wishes Marina good night and disappears down the steps.

Everyone runs away from me, Marina thinks, but she knows that’s not true. She’s just tired.

Marina stops in front of her apartment. She presses her ear to the door. Nothing, not even the sound of the TV. Panicked, she fumbles with the lock.

Inside, Kelvin is cocooned in blankets on the couch, face down on a pillow. He doesn’t move when Marina enters. Looks like he hasn’t moved all day, except to get some bread and Diet Coke from the kitchen. Crumbs and empty cans line the coffee table. Among the wreckage, his bottle of Ambien.

She rattles the bottle gently, still full, though she wonders what they’re going to do when the prescription runs out and his insomnia returns with a vengeance. But one problem at a time. She puts a pillow under his head and looks at his phone. A text message lights up the screen. “Payment due at the end of the month,” it says.

Marina bites the inside of her check, holds back tears. Her brother paid for the implants, when she was considering them, but they weren’t covered by her insurance. Told her that the cost shouldn’t be a limiting factor. He didn’t tell her how he got the money, though.

She tries to clean the coffee table, but her eyes ache and the migraine she’s been holding off all evening finally breaks like a tidal wave. Her vision blurs; she can’t fight the eyestrain anymore.

So, she puts on the sleep mask she keeps in her bedroom and for a moment, relishes the darkness. At the end of the day, it’s a relief not to see.

She was never totally blind before, but fine details and anything farther than three meters was a blur. But her implants are not the magic bullet most people think they are. They’re only reliable for ten or eleven hours a day before eyestrain starts to kick in.

Marina makes her way to the couch, bumping into the coffee table once, and lies down next to Kelvin. She feels for the remote and from memory, powers on the TV. On the local news, a scared-sounding scientist makes predictions for the next earthquake, the next storm, the next eruption, and when the Big One will finally hit. He’s followed by confident sounding “experts” reassuring everyone that this is temporary and everything will go back to normal soon.

Marina wishes she could believe that. Instead, she listens to Kelvin’s breathing and remembers how hopeful her brother was not so long ago.

Elodie’s been working the overnight shift in the hospital morgue even before the earthquakes started. She likes the quiet, the way she can fit shifts around her grad classes. The pay’s pretty good, too. It’s a simple job: run a retina scan, print out a toe tag, log the bodies that come and leave, and occasionally, lend some muscle. But otherwise, she can study or work on her latest project in peace. Except, she always makes a point of learning the name of the deceased. She might be the last person to ever do so, and it feels like a small and important kindness.

These days though, there’s not much peace in the morgue. Every time there’s an earthquake, there’s a fresh wave of bodies from car accidents and collapsed buildings that weren’t built to code. And suicides.

Some days, they run out of space.

But tonight, work’s been quiet, it’s been a week since the last earthquake. A week since she met Marina by the lake. Actually, Elodie is grinning madly today. After dozens of tests, her Candy Land program ran glitch-free last night. She wasn’t sure if her android program would be ready for the Crisis Innovators’ Competition in time, but she did it. She managed to create something that would make kids happy if there were no adults around. Elodie’s certain the judging panel is going to love it. When the world ends, people are definitely going to need androids to keep them company.

Edward Duncan. Mae Sun. Jeremiah MacArthur. Elodie reads the names of the deceased. But bodies are bodies and today she is victorious. Nothing can bring her down.

Until she sees the dead kids. Four of them. Caught in a house fire when they didn’t realize the gas line was leaking.

And suddenly, Elodie can’t breathe. Her happiness is gone, ruptured like a balloon that floated too high.

Candy Land won’t help anyone, she thinks, squeezing her eyes shut. A stupid game won’t keep anyone safe. Useless, useless, useless.

That night, in her garage, Elodie doesn’t turn on the android. Instead, she pulls out the receipt from the top draw of her toolbox and calls Marina.

Sunset Bar is one of Marina’s favorite places in the universe. She’s been a regular for years, bringing friends and sometimes clients here back when she was a human resource consultant for startups. They have the best nachos in the city and the bartenders were always friendly to the cane-wielding blind woman whether she was with company or alone.

Marina still hasn’t gotten used to being here with full vision. Seeing the vintage photos on the wall, the scratches on the clean but well used tables, the names on the Board of Shame over the bar is weird. But it still smells like stale beer and limes and they still are playing the same rotation of post rock albums. Of course, the prices have tripled in the last year. Natural disasters have a way of driving up the cost—and desire—for some fresh food and a hard drink at the end of the day.

It’s strange to be here with a date. Across the room, the bartenders send her mischievous winks when Elodie isn’t looking

“No offense, but you look like you haven’t been sleeping well,” Marina says. Elodie’s only muttered something about kids’ games, a programing competition, and a useless idea. She’s slumped in her chair. “Don’t tell me you’ve given up on life.”

“Not quite,” Elodie replies. “You?”

Marina shakes her head. “My brother would kill me.”

“You have a brother? What’s he like?”

Unemployed. Depressed. Scared shitless, Marina thinks, but this is a first date, so she says: “He’s the one who helped me get the optical implants, even though they’re still pretty experimental. Financed my unemployed ass for the six months it took me to recover.”

“That’s so cool,” Elodie says. “I’ve always wanted siblings. Especially one that’s loaded.”

Marina smiles around her beer. She doesn’t tell Elodie that she spent the morning dropping off her and Kelvin’s resume at every local business that would take one. Not that there are many job openings with inflation and unemployment being at an all time high. “No one’s fucking investing in the future when no one knows if we’ll even be alive tomorrow,” Kelvin had said. But Elodie is finally starting to talk and Marina isn’t about to ruin the mood with her own problems.

“So, tell me about this competition that’s you’re convinced you’re not going to win,” Marina says, with a smile.

Elodie does, enthusiastically, even though she keeps insisting that’s her entry is not very good, that games won’t help anyone if there’s no running water.

“What if it was also like, a schoolteacher too?” Marina says, thinking out loud. Elodie tilts her head, but doesn’t reply. “Never mind, that’ll probably be way too complicated for a house android.”

When Elodie asks about her projects, Marina tells her about her afternoon by the lake. She had a few eager customers, including a dog, who sat patiently as she painted in exchange for carrots. But mostly she ended up doing a lot of preliminary painting and prep work for her next batch of sunset portraits, her most popular work.

“I want to paint as many sunsets as I can, with as many subjects as I can,” Marina says and taps the corner of her eye. “Before these, they just looked like bright, colorful blurs.”

“No sunrises?” Elodie asks.

“And wake up that early? Like hell.”

It feels good to talk about their creations. It’s a nice break from worrying about the weather, money, or the ground below their feet.

Elodie leans forward with her chin in her hands, pink strands of hair falling over her eyes. “So, how did you learn to paint if you’ve only had the implants for nine months?” she asks.

“I’ve been painting my entire life. My earlier works were just a more… abstract.”

They both giggle and it’s a beautiful sound in the Sunset Bar. Even the bartenders look up. Marina can’t remember the last time she genuinely laughed with someone.

Just then, her phone buzzes. A message from Kelvin.

Won’t extend deadline, it says. Need 2 get $10k in 4 weeks. So dead. Marina bites her lip, a wave of guilt clawing at her insides. She should have never gotten the implants. Being blind was never the end of the world.

“What’s wrong?” Elodie asks and her voice is full of concern. So much so that for an instant, Marina considers telling her everything. But Elodie has dark circles under her eyes and behind the determined posture, Marina senses a deep sadness. No, she won’t ruin the first lovely evening she suspects they’ve both had in ages with all her doubts and fears.

“It’s just my eyes,” Marina says. “They’re starting to bother me.”

She has two weeks until the deadline for the Crisis Innovators’ Competition and Elodie has modified her strategy. The android needs to be able to do more than just play games and ask small talk questions with a kid. She’s only getting about four hours of sleep a night now.

She’d be lying if she said that was just because of the android.

Elodie sees Marina as often as she can. They usually meet by the lake, where Marina is painting for longer hours than normal. The pier where they met finally collapsed in one of the quakes and now she works where the rocky beach meets the lawn.

On free afternoons, Elodie brings homemade peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwiches or cheap, store-bought egg rolls and they talk for hours, while Marina paints. It’s easy to lose time with Marina. But Elodie has never been good at the next step, which is why she’s glad Marina’s bolder than her.

“Are you sure your brother doesn’t mind?” Elodie asked the first time she climbed up the stairs to Marina’s apartment. That was before she met Kelvin and realized he was taking the end of the world harder than her roommate was. Before she saw his bottle of Ambien.

She didn’t realize that Marina wears a sleep mask in the evenings to fend off the migraines. Even completely blind, she’s just as bold.

Elodie gets even less sleep after that.

Three days before the competition, Elodie invites Marina over and runs through her presentation for judges. She demonstrates two of the ten different board games the android knows how to play and some of the conversations.

“Elodie,” it says while moving a checker piece, “Make sure you clean your cuts with alcohol if you have it. I know it stings, but getting an infection is worse.”

“That’s pretty cool,” Marina says, studying the android. “I’ve never seen one up close. Aren’t they supposed to be really expensive?”

“They were, but this is a new mass market model. I just made an app for it. Taught it some useful tricks.”

“Wow. We are really living in a golden age of technology.”

“We were.”

“Stop being such a realist,” Marina says as she picks up the box for Hungry Hungry Hippos. “Oh man, I haven’t played this in years.

Elodie grins. “Want to?”

“You bet your cute ass, I do.”

Turns out, both of them are quite competitive, even when they’re laughing. They make so much noise, that eventually Taylor comes down and introduces himself to Marina shyly. Elodie’s impressed by the way the Marina coaxes him into conversation and he even joins them for a speed round of Chutes and Ladders.

“I think you’re the first person he’s met in months.” Elodie says after he retreats back upstairs.

“Wow, I feel special.”

“You are.”

Marina’s eyes twinkle. “Special enough to stargaze on the lawn with me?”

Laughing, they drag lawn chairs down the driveway and onto the grass. The night is clear and quiet and none of the streetlights are working anymore, so it’s easy to pretend that the city is theirs alone.

“What are you gonna do with the prize money?” Marina asks.

“Travel the world. While I still can.” Elodie is giddy, light, and happier than she’s been in ages. “Hey, want to come with me?”

Marina hesitates. “Well, I—”

This time, they feel the beginning of the earthquake before it hits and they clutch the arms of their chairs, screw their eyes shut. Elodie prays for the ground to go easy on them. She prays for it to stop.

Eventually it does.

When the quake is over, power lines are down and everything is relentlessly dark. Elodie crawls over to where Marina is lying. She slides her arm under her and holds her in the damp grass. She feels Marina shaking against her shoulder.

“I was getting a headache, anyway,” she whispers.

Elodie doesn’t know what to say, so she holds Marina closer.

“How did you imagine your future before this?” Marina asks.

“Bright. You?”

“Clear.” Marina curls her fingers around Elodie’s. “You know, I’d never seen the stars before the implants.”

“We’ll never get the chance to reach them,” Elodie says. The thought makes her both incredibly angry and sad. She feels Marina’s warm tears on her shirt.

“I don’t understand why anyone stops looking up,” she says.

In two weeks, Kelvin’s expected to pay his debt of ten thousand dollars. No, her debt. She’s still six thousand short. Prices keep going up and these days, everyone’s struggling financially. Asking friends or family for a loan would be totally irresponsible. So, Marina paints and paints and paints, earthquakes be damned, only stopping when the migraines get so bad at night that even the dimmest light feels like a cleaver.

She begs Kelvin to follow up on the resumes she dropped off for him.

“Okay, I’ll try,” he promises every morning.

But depression is a bitch, and he rarely steps out of the apartment.

Marina’s sitting by the lake again, this time in the structurally questionable gazebo that has a crack running through it. But it’s raining, so Marina risks it. A woman walking her dog, despite the drizzle, stops to ask why she’s bothering with art these days.

“Because I don’t want to spend my time doing anything else,” she replies, though that’s only part of the answer. Because it’s the only thing people are willing to invest in anymore, she doesn’t say. Because I want people to have something to remember the better times with.

Who knows, maybe the world won’t end and maybe she’ll be able to paint sunsets and rainy days and the stars over the lake for years to come. Or maybe her art will be enough to get her and Kelvin out of this mess.

No, it’ll be enough. She needs to believe that it will.

Elodie’s standing in front of the university building in the only professional outfit she owns, with the android packed in a rolling suitcase besides her and a poster tucked under her arm. There’s the sign that says “Crisis Innovators’ Competition!” hanging over the door.

Water is spilling out of the building.

She’s stunned and so are twenty other people standing on the university lawn with her. There was no warning, no information, nothing from the organizers or her friends in the community. There is nothing except frantic texts from Taylor who just saw the news. Nothing until one of the judges comes over and tells everyone to go home.

“They canceled the competition,” she shouts, later when she meets Marina in the park. All that work and her dreams of helping kids, to travel might never happen. Useless, useless, useless. Elodie puts her head in her hands

“Wait, what? What happened?” Marina asks, tugging gently at Elodie’s hands. Her fingers are smeared with paint.

“A water main broke. Flooded the entire building, possible electric damage. They’re not rescheduling the competition. They said things are too unstable.”

“I’m so sorry, Elodie.”

“What’s the point? What’s the fucking point?” Elodie shouts. She pushes Marina away and turns around. Elodie doesn’t want her to see the tears in her eyes. She hates crying.

Marina comes up behind her and wraps her in a hug. “I’m sorry, babe. But I’m sure there’ll be other opportunities. You’ll get your app out there.”

“Easy for you to say, you make art for fun. Your hopes and dreams don’t depend on your next painting.”

Marina’s arms go stiff around her. “I’m drowning in debts, Elodie,” she says, quietly.

“For what? Art supplies?”

“They’re going to kill my brother,” Marina whispers.

Elodie turns around. “What?

“Maybe take my eyes out too if we don’t come up with the money.”

Elodie stares. She’d thought Marina was doing what she loves because it made her happy. She was the only person Elodie knew that was still hopeful.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Marina shifts uncomfortably. “You were so stressed out about your android, I didn’t want to add to that.”

“So you pretend to be happy just to get laid before the world ends?

Marina bites her lip, hurt. “Is that what you think this is?”

Elodie balls up her fists. “I don’t know what to think. You paint everything rosy,” she says. It comes out harsher than she means.

There’s a cold anger in Marina’s brilliant gray eyes and hurt. “I can’t handle this right now, Elodie”

“Marina, wait—”

But she doesn’t. Marina quickly gathers up her things and within a minute, she’s leaving from the lakeside, refusing to look back.

And Elodie lets her walk away.

Marina avoids Elodie’s phone calls and texts all week. She doesn’t have time for people who’ve given up. Or rather, she only has time for one. To Kelvin’s credit, he has gotten a temp job with the city, on a clean up and repair crew, but his first paycheck won’t come until next week. Every evening she has to convince him that it’s not all pointless. Even as they watch the news and tears slip down his face. It doesn’t help that earthquakes are becoming more frequent, more insistent.

She still makes her way to the park every day, but the infrastructure’s so cracked that not many people are out walking by the lake anymore. She knows she’s been pushing herself too hard, her eyes hurt all the time, but she doesn’t have another option. She feels like she’s standing on a eroding ledge and it’s crumbing away faster than she can back up.

The money is due in two days and Marina has no idea what she’s going to do.

It’s evening by the lake again when Elodie drops the wad of cash on Marina’s lap.

“What the hell, Elodie?”

“It’s my savings,” she says. “It should be enough to cover whatever these people want from you.”

Marina blinks, her expression going from shocked to angry. “I’m not your damn charity case.”

“No, you’re desperate to save that irresponsible brother of yours.”

“You don’t know a damn thing about Kelvin.”

“Except that he’s going to get you killed.”

Marina crosses her arms. “No, Elodie.”

Elodie jams her hands in her pockets. Taylor’s right, she does need to work on her people skills. “Then paint my portrait. Before the sun sets completely.”

They glare at each other, but Elodie holds her ground. Marina might be the bold one, but Elodie knows she’s more stubborn. Still, she’s relieved when Marina relents.

“Sit,” Marina says with a sigh.

With the lake spread out behind her and the breeze tickling her neck, Elodie sits for her first and only portrait. She tries to be the perfect model, tries not to blush as Marina studies her like some glorious puzzle to be solved. She’s never been under such intense scrutiny before, never felt more exposed. Yet Marina’s smiling to herself as she works. Elodie doubts she even realizes she’s doing it, but that smile, it makes Elodie feel like a masterpiece. No wonder her patrons are always so happy.

Marina refuses to show her the painting until she’s perfected every detail. She paints for a long time. When she’s finally satisfied, she turns the canvas around and Elodie’s breath catches.

Her portrait doesn’t have a face, but Marina’s captured every detail that matters. Her bright hair, her posture, the shape of her hands, the hint of her tattoos. Her portrait doesn’t have an expression, but in it, she sees her stubbornness, her determination as the sunset in the background reflects off the water and illuminates her. In it, Elodie is stunning.

“Is this how you see me?” she whispers.

Marina nods. “This isn’t forgiveness, you know,” she says, holding out the drying portrait.

“I know.” Elodie takes it with the utmost care. “Thank you.” In the painting, it looks like everything will be all right with the world.

It’s a pretty lie, but Elodie clings to it.

The money from Elodie’s portrait is enough and the next morning, Marina pays up. Ten minutes at the sketchiest bar Marina’s ever been in and one envelope of cash later and it’s over. The debt is gone and this month’s rent and half of next month’s is covered. Marina practically floats up the steps. She hasn’t felt so worry-free in weeks. She texted Kelvin the good news and now there’s an overpriced bottle of champagne in her bag. She considers texting Elodie, inviting her over, but she’s too emotionally drained right now to figure out what the hell’s going on between them. She’ll call her later.

She knows something’s wrong the moment she walks into the apartment. Kelvin is lying on the couch. A terrible shade of gray.

Marina doesn’t notice the bag falling from her shoulder, doesn’t hear the bottle break, or feel the liquid sizzle and seep through her sneakers.

She calls an ambulance, begs them to hurry. She knows, but she doesn’t want to know. There’s a half written note on the floor, by the couch, and she’d rather face a thousand earthquakes than this. Earthquakes can’t understand the pain they will inflict on loved ones.

It takes the ambulance two hours to get there because the roads are a wreck. Marina watches the paramedics work, unhurried, while tears stream down her face.

Elodie’s right. There’s no point, she thinks. There’s no goddamn point to any of this.

Kelvin is dead.

Elodie finds Marina balled up on the couch, her beautiful eyes puffy and red. She looks up when Elodie opens the door, but doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t say anything when Elodie comes over and sits on the couch besides her. “I’m so sorry, Marina.”

“I tried so hard to save him,” she whispers.

“I know,” Elodie puts her arm around her carefully, worried that Marina will pull away. She doesn’t.

They are silent for a long time. There is nothing to say, nothing either of them can do except inhale and exhale. Kelvin’s half-written goodbye is on the floor beside their feet.

“Taylor rushed me here on his motorbike,” Elodie says, eventually. “First time he’s been out of the house in months. He’s worried about you too.”

“How did you know?” Marina whispers.

“The morgue. I saw Kelvin. I read his name.”

“Oh,” Marina says and that one word, the sadness it holds is enough to make Elodie’s heart break. “What am I going to do?” she says.

Slowly, Elodie untangles herself and gets up from the couch. “Let’s go,” she says. She holds out her hand.

She leads Marina out into the city and down to the lake. The walk is slow and silent, picking their way through the broken roads. By the time they reach the water, the sun is dipping below the horizon and it’s chilly enough that Elodie wishes she brought a sweater. But the evening is spread out before them. The grass is damp and soft around their legs.

“What’s the point?” Marina whispers, looking up at the sky, tears streaming down her face.

Elodie studies the horizon watching as the brightest stars begin to appear against the bruised colored sky. “I’ve never realize how beautiful sunsets were until I met you,” she says. “Maybe things will get better.”

“And if it’s all just an optimistic lie?”

“Well,” Elodie wraps an arm around Marina, putting her face in her hair, holding her as close as she can. “Well, okay.”

A moment later, she feels Marina’s arms slip around her, keeping her steady.

That evening, on the lake, they lean into each other as the ground beneath them begins to shake, crumble.

(Editors’ Note: A. T. Greenblatt is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

Dustdaughter

“What’s your name, girl?”

“Dust.”

“Dust! What kinda people named they child Dust!”

She sat in thought a moment, recalling what her wayfaring aunt she rarely saw told her to say whenever someone questioned her name, if she could remember it all.

“It’s short for Dustdaughter…”

“That’s a heavy name for a child.”

“My daddy said it’s a heavy life.”

“Your daddy ain’t got much hope for the future then. What that say about him when his future in his child.”

The woman had a hard look and a hard voice, but Dust liked the way her hair made a pile of snakes atop her head. The smell of whatever she stirred in the pot on top of the wood stove competed with the scent of an incense stick burning on the small table next to Dust in the living room. It all smelled like outside in the small wood house.

The tall, creek-mud-colored woman stuck the wooden spoon in the pot, turned away from the stove, and sauntered over to the couch, swaying in a way Dust’s mother told her a lady should never move her hips. Hips draw unwanted attention and make men do bad things “coz they knew a bad woman when they saw one.”

But the woman casually stuck the red stick of incense between her teeth and sat down beside Dust. Dust felt like she was being examined like a cow before slaughter. Or maybe just milking. The woman’s face was unreadable, mostly because Dust refused to look at it, taught never to look an adult in the eye along with other things like never climb trees or never sit with her legs open. So unbecoming of a young lady. But maybe her mother had given up on her being a lady, which was why she was here?

“So you’ll be nine tomorrow.” The woman sat back with a heavy sigh like she’d just exhaled the drag of a cigarette, the incense now casually between her thumb and pointer on the right hand relaxed on top of the knee crossed over the other leg. She looked out into a memory Dust could not see. “At least I was 17. They worked hard to protect us as children then, for as long as they could. But life ain’t get no better. I had seventeen years. Then I had to decide. They don’t let a child be a child no more. Tell you it’s a blessing then realize how much it cost. Want the child to pay for being here. Like it’s her fault…”

She drifted further into the memory while Dust waited for her to return. Dust wondered how long she would have to sit with this woman before she found out why she was really here, if she had been sent here because she’d done something bad. It had still been dark outside when her mother woke her, the straightening comb already on the stove like it was time to get ready for school or church. But it wasn’t Sunday and it took Dust a moment to remember that school had already let out for the summer. No, this was some other special occasion that her mother wanted her to look decent for so that she wouldn’t be embarrassed to have such an unkempt child. No matter what she did, she was always “unkempt,” especially if she let anything happen to her carefully pressed hair. Dust frequently eschewed playing with the other kids, afraid to sweat out her hair that would only receive the same treatment the next day no matter the circumstances. Surely didn’t want to end up sweaty and smelly herself as that was unbecoming of a young lady who had to work harder than others to look like a young lady. The woman finally turned back to Dust, bringing them both back to the wooden house.

“They never even told you my name, did they?”

Dust shook her head, eyes down as she often did in the presence of a stranger. But she heard the woman’s light scoff, a puff of air that barely made a laugh, and raised her head just as she extended her left hand, a grown folks’ offering.

“Estrella. You can call me Star like everybody else when you get to know me.”

Dust liked the way Star emphasized her “T’s” at the beginning and ends of her words; not the lazy way her mother rolled over them when she talked to her friends. Star spoke the way her mother told her she should always speak: proper. She met Star’s hand and grasped it gently. It felt rough like the emery boards her mother used to file her nails. Would her hands feel this rough when she was old?

Star’s sudden rumbling cackle startled her. “You think I’m old, girl!”

“No-no-no-no, ma’am,” Dust stuttered, her head bowed as if she had already been caught in the lie.

“Yes, you do. But when you barely nine, 45 seem like an ancient. I used to think so too when I was a girl. Then again, I got to be a girl a lot longer than you. Everybody older than me was old coz I thought I’d never be.”

Star leaned over, resting her elbow on her leg, chin in her palm, incense back between her teeth and painted brown lips. Studied Dust like a child fascinated with her hands for the first time while aromatic smoke wafted between the two of them. As she slowly lifted her head to return Star’s inquisitive gaze, Dust understood her name. Her eyes were brown stars, her mother would call them diamonds, whatever brown diamonds were called. Dust sat mesmerized in Estrella’s stars, visually traced the light lines of her face that created constellations behind the smoky haze. Star had appraised her, not examined. She regretted, felt ashamed, that she ever conceived of this woman as old.

“Don’t worry about it, DeDe,” Star said as she got up from the couch to return to the wood stove. “Ain’t nuthin say you cain’t be old and beautiful. Just like you can be beautiful when you the color of a moonless midnight.”

Moonless midnight. She had never heard it described that way, usually her father making the declaration “At least they won’t see the dirt on her too good.” A teacher using her as an example of what you would look like coming out of the Le Brea Tar Pits—when she became the official playground monster. Her mother not going to the school to raise hell against a teacher becoming her child’s bully. “That’s the way it is for girls like us, Dust. Might as well get used to people treating you this way.”

But moonless midnight felt like part of the sky. Like the universe needed her to exist. Invincible and immortal. Infinite. Like maybe the thing that made her mother drop her off in the middle of nowhere and tell her to find the old lady’s house at the top of the hill and spend the day was not her unsightliness and a power she had no idea how to control. But this lady was barely old and, despite her other-weirdly disposition, quite kind and affable. And the way she gradually let that “proper” out of her voice, the same thing Dust did whenever she got comfortable around someone, unconscious of it until her mother pointed it out, told her not to slip. But Star did it. Her presence did not put off Star. Dust felt welcomed.

“She was hoping that whatever fear you had when I opened the door would stay with you all day while you was here. But she wouldn’t know what we really do. Bet she didn’t even do trial rites, went straight to the relinquishing ceremony.” She sighed wearily, her back to Dust but her sad countenance still showed in profile. “They made us fear our own power, like we had no right to it. Made us believe we were better off without it. That’s how they keep winning. We do it to ourselves, strip away the pieces they don’t like ’til they none left. Then tell us we not whole, so not good enough.”

Dust felt Star’s sadness in her own heart. It happened whenever she was close to someone feeling too much. Her mother’s sadness once gave her a nosebleed. She asked her mother to tell her what was wrong to make the bleeding stop. Her mother denied the sadness; the bleeding worsened. For the first time, her mother looked at her with fear, like she didn’t recognize the child she called hers for six years. But she found no comfort from her mother when the nosebleeds came. The line in the sand became a deep chasm Dust didn’t dare to cross. She didn’t know then that it was only the first sign.

Then Big Gram died. The night before the memorial, her parents argued. Her mother adamantly insisted Dust not be allowed to attend. Her father made no compelling counterargument to change her mind. So the day of the funeral, Dust was taken to the home of a classmate, but she had an immediate escape plan in mind. The funeral home wasn’t far, but for an eight-year-old with short legs it made one adventurous trek, hoping her will to be invisible and not found out before reaching her destination was enough to get her there.

The long black limousine made a grand chariot sitting outside the funeral home. She thought about how she would love to ride in such a car when she was grown. But there was a gauntlet to run first. She felt the grown-folk grief before she opened the door. It grew stronger with every step she took. But as soon as she zeroed in on the casket, she blocked it all. The sounds of grief, the sniffling, the sobbing, the outright weeping and wailing from acceptable mourners, emptied into a vacuum as Dust approached Big Gram’s grand white bed. She realized the room was actually quiet in anticipation by the time she stood in front of the casket. As if a force pulled her in, she climbed on the casket top, closed on the lower half. She pretended to climb a tree, something her mother never allowed. Then Dust reached out and touched Big Gram’s Sunday hat-clad face and her hand while a stray teardrop escaped her eye and landed on the neatly pressed lavender dress.

Big Gram’s sudden intake of breath and opened eyes did not startle her. She expected it.

But the bloodcurdling scream sliced through the peace, signaling the moment Hell should break loose. Yet, Dust seemed oblivious to the chaos of the ensuing escape as she leaned in and listened to Big Gram. Her voice was only a raspy whisper of the rambunctious euphony she remembered in life, but she closed her eyes and smiled. Dust knew keeping her eyes closed rarely extended a moment, so she finally gave in to the mayhem around her. The smile melted at the sight of her mother’s face. That look of terror that haunted her every day since she was six. Intensified. All the tension building between them for almost three years came to Dust’s mother snatching her away from Big Gram’s still cold body and dragging her out of the funeral home, Dust’s one wish to see her grandmother at peace ungranted. Hearing pieces of her mother mumbling about how no child of hers would be some damn freak of nature. “Either you my child or you ain’t!”

So the smile that shone more in Star’s diamond eyes than her mouth relieved her. The gentle squeeze on Dust’s hand told her not all adults hated when children took the initiative to comfort adults. She enjoyed the loud silence between them.

“Guess we need to get to it then. Remember you can say no any time you want. You allowed to change your mind and nobody’ll think harsher of you for it. Only one you gotta make happy is you.”

Dust nodded dutifully, pleased at being grown enough to know what to do.

No sidewalks flanked the paved roads, not like they did at home. Anyone who dared walk the road fought the steep incline of a hillside or the short distance between the road and the ditch. Dust hadn’t been to this countryside since Big Gram took sick and moved to the nursing home. She thought she’d never see the countryside again, not after the way her mother looked at her when the days-dead Big Gram opened her eyes and spoke to her. She had no idea what happened to the house, whether it still stood on that same steep hill she had to climb from where her parents parked the car or if it even still belonged to the family. She could tell neither of her parents that she feared Big Gram’s spirit might get confused about where she needed to go if she still lived in the nursing home when she died. She wanted to ask who took care of the garden and what would happen to Big Gram’s favorite chair if no one was in the house. But when Big Gram finally died, she only heard a lot of “let grown folks handle they business” and “stay out of the way” while they made arrangements. No one had time to answer her questions. So she did as always and went quiet, seen but not heard as all good children should be.

Dust looked out the window of Star’s minivan, enjoying the pleasure of the ride and the view of all her parents tried to escape by moving the family two towns over at the first opportunity. If Dust had had a word for animosity, then she could have explained to herself her mother’s feelings toward the peaceful countryside Big Gram proudly claimed as the only home she needed. “Too many trees equal not enough civilization,” she’d heard her mother say. But she wondered how many people also grew greens and cabbage in the backyard like she had. She saw the herbs in flower pots on Star’s porch, no television or computers inside where she could see them. She’d help put some of those herbs in the back of the minivan before they took off down the cracked and bumpy road further into the countryside.

They stopped at the Ice Cream Lady’s house where Star bought Dust the sweetest cone she’d tasted. A mint-flavored green accented with dark semi-sweet chocolate chips and shavings. Dust practically inhaled the cone, still had it on her mind when they pulled into a heavily wooded area surrounding an unassuming lone wooden building. The trees didn’t have the lush green she’d seen on television, more like the almost barren brown wood that made them look like naked giants rather than elf homes. Kind of like the woods she envisioned Red Riding Hood traveling on her way to grandma’s house. Yet the building seemed perfectly in place in the woods. The fear she felt had nothing to do with a big bad wolf.

She’d heard her mother talk about places such as this, not so much talk as much as whispers to other adults where Dust wasn’t supposed to hear. Only nasty women and nastier men came here. No place for a child. Yet here she sat frozen in the front seat of a minivan while Star unloaded some herbs in the back. She tried to let not even her mind repeat the word she’d heard for places like this. Would they turn her into a nasty woman, too? Surely, her mother did not bring her here for this. Her mother couldn’t have wanted to punish her for disrupting Big Gram’s funeral by making her do bad things.

The door opened and Star plopped a flower pot in her lap. “Come on, girl. They waiting for us inside.”

Dust trailed behind Star to the front porch of the bland brown wooden house. The front door opened as soon as they reached it. Dust peeked from around Star’s hip and looked into kindness. The woman before them smiled with her entire face, lines and all. Dust’s apprehension melted away as the woman’s inner happiness became her own.

“Dahlia, move out the way and let us in. This shit get heavy!”

Dahlia stepped aside to let them pass, announcing, “It looks like our special guest has arrived!”

If she was the special guest, no one went out of her way to make her feel it as Dust stepped from the anteroom to the main room behind Star. Yet the energy in the room as she observed the women around her flowed through her. The excitement was unfamiliar, not like the overlit, stimulating noisiness of a toy store, more like a sense of acceptance and belonging. She felt just as at home here as she had at Big Gram’s. A woman nursed her child, both breasts free of her shirt as the baby suckled greedily, either unaware of or unconcerned with the discomfort to the young mother. Another braided someone’s hair as she sat on the couch, her recipient comfortably resting between her legs on the floor. Another swayed to some music coming from speakers Dust couldn’t locate. Others talked to each other, sipping coffee, lemonade, tea, and other libations she wasn’t allowed to drink. The whole house had life and a story. And Dust felt part of it. But she saw no other children her age.

“They call her Dustdaughter,” Star said as she headed deeper into the house. “But I think we better call her DeDe for now. Some children gotta grow into they names. Don’t worry. She been appraised. Pure untarnished onyx right here. Been climbing uphill all her life though. That passive-aggressive ass mama of hers who wouldn’t even tell this girl—”

Star’s voice trailed off as Dust followed her closely until they reached a kitchen. She realized the house was much bigger than it looked on the outside, with beautiful paintings on the walls and decorative statues and ornaments throughout. She could only imagine what the bedrooms upstairs looked like, perhaps the pink princess beds with the bedposts that had sheer canopies hanging from them, the type of bedroom she wished upon stars for. Probably not the den of sin she’d heard her mother call it. What she imagined Hell itself must be, complete with insufferable fires and scary dancing red men with horns. No place that felt as warm as her Big Gram’s house could hold a den of sinners. And she found nothing nasty about these women in the middle of the woods minding nobody’s business but their own.

The two ladies in the kitchen barely noticed Star and Dust as they entered with their plants. Dust saw one gently brush back a stray coil of black hair from the other’s forehead. She’d seen her father make a similar gesture toward her mother. The good times, those stolen moments she saw on television before a channel was turned or a stream stopped until her parents were certain she had gotten safely into her room and wouldn’t peek. Neither parent would tell her much more about it except to say it had something to do with how she got there. She would find out the rest when she was old enough. Both women threw her a smile before turning their attention back to each other rather than whatever dish they were supposed to prepare but smelled divine nonetheless.

“Guess Dahlia got it set up already,” Star said as she put away the last of the herbs. “We won’t start until you want though. Won’t nuthin happen unless you want it. But might wanna eat first.”

Dust nodded as she took Star by the hand, waiting to be led to the next destination. Another part of this vast house she had yet to see. More mellifluous voices as they came into a large room. The rhythm of their voices reminded Dust of the music she sometimes heard her father listen to after he tucked her in thinking sleep took her as soon as he left her room. Forbidden words she pretended not to know. Grown folks’ words. One of the only times childhood applied, when her parents believed in preserving the innocence of their little black child, when her mother’s voice didn’t grate in chastisement because Dust could do nothing right. But she loved grown folks’ conversations like these even when they made no sense to her.

“Cute little thing, that’s for sure.”

This woman reminded her of her mother. Pretty according to everyone who saw her. Just enough so that her man didn’t feel compelled to beat the pretty off of her so that nobody else would want her, something that men like her father were supposed to do when he got a good woman. She even had the scent of honeydew and cucumber clinging to her black floral dress, but her eyes looked like moon rocks. The woman squatted in front of her and showed her a half-piece coin. She slipped it between her hands and motioned for Dust to choose. Dust tapped the left hand. The woman opened it to reveal an empty palm. Then she opened the right—empty as well.

“That there is an illusion, girl,” she said as she pulled the coin from Dust’s ear and placed it in Dust’s hand to her astonishment. “A trick of the eye. That’s not magic. Magic is real.” She stood again and steered Dust further into the room. “Our magic don’t work like it used to. They changed up the world too much. It’s hard for the universe to recognize it, so we gotta work harder to make it respond.”

“Shael, don’t go scaring that child and she ain’t even got her belly full yet!”

Either the table materialized from nowhere in the vast dining room or Dust had been too distracted to notice it. But the feast that sat before her would have made Big Gram proud. The heavy foods saved for special occasions like Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, occasions Big Gram recognized but didn’t celebrate although she gladly fed the family. The foods Dust’s mother didn’t want her to have except for those occasions because a little girl the color of blacktop couldn’t be fat as well.

The woman called Shael set a pillow in a chair and helped Dust into it so she could see over the table. “Now my mama, she had great magic,” she said as she sat down next to Dust and handed her a cloth napkin. “She specialized in eating nightmares. Came in handy when I was a child. I don’t remember none of them. But I saw her do it once. My cousin Mezzy woke me up in the middle of the night with all her flailing and fighting in her sleep. I went and got Mama right away. She came in and saw what was happening. Didn’t even make me leave the room like grownups usually make you do. She grabbed Mezzy’s hands together and pressed her down by the chest. Mezzy was still wriggling around like she had a demon in her, but Mama started saying something I couldn’t hear. Mezzy started to calm down. Then Mama put her head real close to Mezzy, over her nose and breathed in real hard. It started coming out of her. I swear I saw Mezzy’s grade school teacher in the smoke when it came out of her, so I guess that’s what she dreamed about. Then when that smoke was done coming out of Mezzy, it rose up in the air then flew in Mama’s mouth all at once. She stumbled off the bed like she was drunk, clutching her chest, and went back to her room. Mezzy was still sleep, so I just got back in bed and didn’t think nothing else of it. The next morning, Mama and Uncle Seb was whispering about it when they thought we was still sleep, but I saw him leave the house like he was about to fight the Devil himself. Mezzy’s teacher was gone after that day. A lot of stories about what happened to him, but nobody would say for sure. But Mezzy ain’t think about it no more after that.”

Dust had been so enthralled in Shael’s story that she didn’t notice that Star had fixed her a plate and set it before her. Then the women in the large house encouraged her to get her fill and taught her the meaning of eat, drink, and be merry.

Dust finally had a seat at the grown folks’ table. Not even needing the boost of a pillow to see over it completely took away the honor. Between their mouthfuls of food and drink, they asked Dust about school, her family, whatever nine-year-old girls were into these days or, in her case, almost nine. Their platitudes and wisdom came in more than a command of what she was not to do with her life that she usually heard from her parents.

Perhaps it was the feast, but Dust felt full, satiated in a way she missed at home, even before the blue velvet cake was cut. It had to be more than the food. Must have been what they meant when she heard the womenfolk talk about “the vibe.” Something in her tuned in with the others and the space they shared. They were in tune with the universe, the woods that surrounded them, each other. They were out of place and time but also the only thing that made sense within them.

“People like that always make the mistake of thinking a blood tie is binding.”

The room grew quieter until the faint din gave way to the attention paid to Dahlia, who sat at the head of the table. Even the quiet sounds of chewing and swallowing stopped along with the clinging of forks and spoons hitting plates. She spoke to no one in particular, not even the young woman holding her child who’d been in conversation with her.

“Make such a big deal outta people being related by blood ’til it ain’t convenient. Won’t do a thing to help nobody tryna take care of theirs if they need it though. Same people talk bad about single mothers like they ain’t sayin it takes a village five minutes later. Act like they don’t know all the village ain’t blood tied. We made that village without e’em thinkin about blood then say we what’s wrong with the community. Not a village no more but a community coz that sound better. Like making the name all fancy and formal take away all we done been all this time. Like they was shamed…”

Dahlia looked at Dust as her voice trailed into the air outside that Dust suddenly realized had turned into dusk. Somberness extinguished the joy that filled the room earlier. The time had come.

Star was the first to get up. She headed over to Dust and took an uneasy breath with a polite smile before extending her hand. Dust accepted and allowed herself to be led once again but this time outside into the darkening night. The backyard extended as far as the eye’s vision, but only the first few feet mattered. The logs were arranged in a clearing, away from the house but not near the trees where the woods grew dense. The light of the candle in Star’s hand flickered uneasily as they walked toward the pile of wood. Dust listened to the sound of the footfalls of the others not far behind, carrying their own candles.

Dahlia stepped ahead of them, picking up a large branch just in front of the pile. She thumped at the tip. As her open palm struck it, the tip of the branch ignited in a beautiful blue-flamed torch. She looked at Dust. Star gently nudged her forward. The light of the flame cast a blue light on the figure lying atop the wood pile.

Big Gram.

“We buried an empty box,” Dahlia said. “When you caused that commotion in the funeral home, you gave us the chance to do right by her. To let her rest the way she wanted, not the way your mama thought she should. Would’ve had to dig her later otherwise. But they let us tend to her as pallbearer since nobody else wanted to do it. She wanted you to have something left of her. All of us, her entire coven. It’s up to you, DeDe.”

Dust looked up at Dahlia’s face, finding no clear answer there. The other women held similar blank expressions, half in shadow and half in a shimmering light from their candles. Only Star gave her something, a tight-lipped smile and subtle nod as if to reassure Dust she could make no wrong decision.

She turned back to the wood pile and made herself level with Big Gram, who no longer wore the lavender church dress but a simple white one. This time she took Big Gram’s hand in hers and placed another on her face. Perhaps because the big hat was gone, Big Gram didn’t appear as startled as her eyes slowly opened and her head turned toward Dust. Dust leaned in close to her face like she needed to hear even though Big Gram’s husky voice was loud only in her mind.

Not the same words she heard the day of Big Gram’s funeral. There, she heard Big Gram tell her she was right to come today, that she finally set it all in motion, the power was fully hers. She understood now in the presence of the women her grandmother considered her family. Dust barely got her small hands over both Big Gram’s eyes and slowly closed the lids. She climbed down from the logs and approached Dahlia expectantly. Dahlia handed Dust the torch. Dust clutched the torch with both hands to hold it steady as she turned Big Gram’s bed of logs into a proper funeral pyre. She backed away from the flames that blazed much sooner and higher than she expected. Star took the torch from her trembling hands.

“Dust can have a different meaning than what you been taught,” she said over the crackle of the flames. “Instead of chippings and shavings from rock to be blown over the edge, dust might be what’s left of your ancestors. That’s why they footprints hold so much power. But you can’t believe that meaning if you give up your power—like your mom did.”

The women began to sing, a slow dirge that started as a low hum crescendoing into a mighty rumbling howl. Dust knew the song, the melody, but not the words. She looked up into the vast sky, searching the stars. She saw then that according to the constellations, it was now the day she turned nine.

“When ya mama gave you that name, she had forgot there’s dust in the stars, too. And whether it comes from the earth or the stars, dust got value.”

Shael had said those words as she and the other women took the ashes Big Gram left and spun them into glass. They worked quickly in the torch and candlelight, singing homages to the earth, moon, rivers, trees, stars and sun. And to the dust. As they waited for their creations to cool, Dahlia asked Dust which piece she wanted. Dust chose a round orb, the blue and green swirling like the sky meeting the ocean with the gray ashes like clouds and fog. Once it was cool enough to touch, she picked it up and held it against the light of the torch to watch the colors dance together.

The night had begun to fade as the sun awakened in the east sky on its perpetual journey west. Dust then realized she had not slept the entire night and still had no need for slumber as yet. She drew a new energy from the orb she held in her hands. The songs her new sistren sang during the night as they spun Big Gram’s remains into magical orbs created a glorious melody in her mind’s eye, immortalizing a woman whose only spells Dust knew were smothering kisses and country vegetable soup for colds. Hot cocoa for recovery. That was all the magic she needed for her first nine years, but she knew now there would be more with a few of Big Gram’s ashes now finally spread into the dust of the woods.

“We can take you back home when you’re ready,” Star said as she walked beside Dust. She still held her piece of Big Gram, a heart-shaped glass with pink and red swirls among the ashes, smaller than Dust’s orb. “We’ll hear you through her. No matter how far you go, we keep in touch. The coven is for life. We never let each other go through it alone, especially not with you being so young.” Star crouched in front of Dust, meeting her eye level. Dust read the worry in her brown diamond eyes. “Be a child as long as you can, DeDe. Don’t let nobody ever tell you that you too old to be a child. You can’t take care of yourself yet. They ever tell you you old enough to know, you know where to find us.”

Star stood straight again, stretching her back out, in need of her bed. She reminded Dust of a cat.

“You know why your mama gave it all up? She wanted to be ‘civilized.’ Your grandmama respected her wishes, didn’t force her to be something she ain’t wanna. But she think she living in a better way, concrete instead of trees, no stench of soil in the air. Her mistake was in thinking she could make you the same way. She realized she had to give you a choice like she had. She’s scared of that power, but it’s not going away. But she thinks if you choose your power, to be who you really are, then you reject her. That’s her fear. She thinks you can’t love you and her at the same time. You can be mad with her and love her all at once though. Choosing one don’t mean you done let go of the other altogether. She don’t like to think about that.”

“I hear my mama telling people ‘she ain’t one to climb trees.’ She said I don’t like the effort. But she had already told me, I didn’t need to be taking no unnecessary risks. A risk might could lead to falling or breaking and I couldn’t afford to fall or break. So I stayed low.”

So many trees. She finally understood why her mother tried to keep her away from trees all her life. Why her mother feared too many trees. Feared too many trees would bring out something in her that she wanted desperately to suppress. She didn’t fear Dust would fall from the tree and hurt herself. She feared Dust would find herself there and tap into the power that made her kind dangerous if they so chose. Just as she thought “civilization” had cured her, she thought her daughter would never bear the burden of ancestors. But Dust had too much of her Big Gram in her, and the ancestors came to call.

Dust handed Star her orb. She slowly set off beyond the clearing. The dew on the grass cooled her bare feet. The morning chill bristled her skin as the sun positioned itself on the horizon. She hummed the song of her coven as she headed into the woods to find out which tree belonged to her, the one that would let her finally go as high as she wanted.

Monologue by an unnamed mage, recorded at the brink of the end

I wanted to tell you, in case opportunity absents itself forever, that it doesn’t matter. That your magic is algorithmic, that mine is an abstraction of reality. That yours demands cartographic soliloquies, every verse a phrase and a phase of mathematics and momentum, every word you speak a part of the map, and you build the rules as you recite them. That mine is raw sensation, synesthesic, sinewy as sex, worthless with context, worth everything on the ledge at the end of time.

Hold.

We have to hold the line.

That I can speak through my spells and you can’t. That you have the world tessellated in amber, while nothing of my magic will mark this earth, only a faint lambency, as though of candlelight staining the black-gold kintsugi bowls your mother gave us. That our friends are dying, that the gods are coming, many-bodied and million-eyed, that the fucking door won’t open, although we’ve made it keys of our bodies, keys of bone and breath and broken promises. All of this doesn’t matter.

What matters is the night when I first met you and how cold the air was, and how the ice needled my breath, and how you stood there with your hangdog smile, your hair rough-tangled, and the light in your eyes, sacrosanct in its shyness, was better than anything the heavens could stitch from the suns. What matters is that I asked you to run away with me and you said yes, and that we kept running even after our Orders came hunting for us, seven to a coven, like we meant something, like we were bigger than two people making vows of the salt-silver rain.

That they dragged us back, bound in brambles and bronze, that they made us choose between being separated or being part of the vanguard against the apocalypse, all that is of no importance. That we laughed at their ultimatum, that we said yes, that we held hands as they told us we probably wouldn’t come back, that is what matters.

What matters is that I love you and that I will always love you, and I won’t let them have you, even if I have to husk myself of all that I am and splinter the universe again. You’re mine and I am yours, and what are gods to people who have seen the continents fold up like paper planes?

I made you a promise the first night of our expedition. Do you remember that? Lying on our backs, blankets spread over the brittle grass, a charred skein of stars strung up above us. We laid there, counting the constellations as they vanished into the black, our hands intertwined, your hair still dark. I told you I’d always protect you.

You laughed. Like it was that or crying.

You said you’d keep me safe too.

I remember the Blacksmith and the curls of her long hair, like wedding rings, forever threaded with lilac, and I remember the Bard, the Cook, the Huntress, the Knights who came last, their armor gilded with rust, their Lord’s body held safe between them. There were others too, I remember that. Like the Crossbowmen, their skin mantled with scars. Like the Priest, who wore burgundy at his collar instead of white. But their faces were taken along with the names of our friends, eaten, nothing but grit in the teeth of those numinous bastards.

Don’t falter.

Please.

This is a kind of magic too, you know? The Bard told me this. Resurrection by way of oration, every retelling a species of necromancy, and if some of it fails to be beautiful, if some of it crooks from the truth, that doesn’t matter. Stories are meant to adapt. I used to wonder what was the Bard’s purpose, if she had a purpose, if there was any meaning to putting music to our massacre, if it’d be better to just forget. Easier, safer to bury our dead in the decay and pretend it was always like this.

She asked me one night what then would be the point. If we were just going to forsake what we loved, forget why we fought, forswear that chance we might make it, although the sky is unmade into fractals, why not just let the gods win? Without stories, there is no memory, no trajectory to illuminate what came before and what might come after. Without stories, there can be no hope.

The fact that the gods don’t understand this is what will ensure we’ll find our way home. Because nothing is just fact and though the world is cinders, if enough people believe we’ll make it, there’s still soil to grow miracles.

Yes, I heard that scream too. How could I not? But don’t look back. There’s not our part of the story. Ours is the chapter engrossed with the task of holding our ground. Be careful, beloved. See how they’ve creped the borders of our barriers, their villi seeking cracks, seeking the gaps made by our grief?

Let me help.

There.

I’m going to marry you when we survive this.

I decided this on the road between here and the ruins of the last elvish capital. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. It never seemed like the right time. But you might as well know now, as opposed to later or never, that I intend to marry you by salt and silver, with the sea as our witness and the mountains as our minister, by the shore at the edge of the world, by the house in which all this began. That I plan to wear white and in my dreams, you wear silk, and though there might be nothing but handfuls of hope to hold in the cup of my palm, I intend to make you a home and a hearth.

That smile of yours, that light in your gaze, the way you look at me even now, while the universe buckles under the weight of its deaths, that is what matters. You are my story, its beginning, its happy conclusion. More than anything else, more than this world, more than this life, you are what matters.

The door is open.

I think someone sold their soul to shatter that lock.

Are you ready? We can do this.

Take my hand—

A House by the Sea

Would you believe me if I told you that they all live together in a house by the sea?

It would only be fair, if they did.

They can’t live in the City, of course. Can you imagine? You’d be walking somewhere, maybe proceeding past the parks and public buildings, perhaps accompanied by a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, perhaps on your way to an orgy or a debate or to watch television, and you’d see one of them, and you’d know (of course you’d know, not that there would be anything different, not anything you could point to specifically, there’d just be something, that look—maybe it’s their shoulders?—that look that people have when they’ve spent their childhood locked in the basement for the sake of a utopia). And once you’d seen one of them, of course you’d spend the whole day thinking about it. You’d think about that one awful field trip you took as a child, seeing them locked in a basement, mewling and promising futilely to be good, and you’d spend the whole rest of the day feeling unreasonable and guilty and ashamed. You would get no joy out of the orgies, or the parades, or the philosophy, or the remarkably good television.

And would that be joyous? Would it be the happy city we live in, the happy life we enjoy?

No. Obviously, they can’t live in the City.

So, if you’ll believe me, they live together in a house by the sea.

It’s not a big house—it’s not a mansion—but it’s big enough for all of them to live in comfortably. Everyone gets their own room, and there are enough bathrooms even if some of them are touchy about sharing (some of them are touchy about sharing). They have a library and a living room and a television that doesn’t get all the channels. Outside, there is a garden, and a little trail down the cliffs to the beach.

Do you believe it? Does it seem unreasonable? It wouldn’t be too much to ask—don’t you think?—for them to have a house to themselves with a garden and a library and a television that doesn’t get all the channels.

What did you think happened to that child in the basement? What did you think happened when that child grew up?

Would it help if I told you there are a surprising lot of them living there, in the house by the sea? If you think about it, there must be. It has to be a child, crying alone in the basement that no one talks about. A baby crying in a basement is just a baby crying. An adult crying in a basement probably did something to deserve it (not that there are any prisons in the City, of course, but still).

There is, in fact, a very narrow range of suitable ages. Three-year-olds are much too young, and by twelve, honestly, how innocent could they be? Four through ten is just about right. Right now, in the house by the sea, there are nine of them, each separated by more or less seven years. The youngest is fourteen years old, the next twenty-two years old, then twenty-seven years old, and so on. The oldest is in her sixties.

Once a day an old woman comes out to tidy up, cook a meal, and stock the freezer with burritos in case someone gets hungry in the middle of the night. It isn’t her job, of course. In the City, no one has a job, except the sort of job that is meaningful and personally fulfilling, like medicine or writing novels. Still, she comes out from the City every day. Who can say why? She is an immigrant; she has her own story.

Each of them has their own routine. One of them wakes up before anyone else, walks the little trail down the cliffs to the beach, and dives into the cold gray morning ocean, alone and without fear. Another one gardens. One is writing his fourth novel. He still finishes them, revises them, sends them off, and every publishing house in the City returns them unread. Two more spend their days in the library, reading the encyclopedia out loud to each other. One watches the news. She remembers back before they had a house, and she has strong opinions about municipal politics. She makes every one of them vote, every year.

Some of them just sleep all day. Sometimes, especially when they’ve just arrived, they don’t even leave their rooms. They cry and spit and punch holes in the walls. Most of them come out eventually, but some don’t, and that’s okay. No one bothers them, except sometimes to offer them a burrito.

They don’t leave, although they could. Why would they?

Do you believe it now? Can this really be how they live out their lives, so close to the City that they can hear the bells clamoring and the processions proceeding? Can they really live together, in a house by the sea? No?

Let me tell you this, then. There used to be a doctor—a nice man with a real white doctor’s coat, who still lives in the City—who came out to their house every Wednesday to check up on them, but that didn’t work out, because he kept feeling uncomfortable and trying to euthanize them. So now, whenever one of them gets sick, a woman comes in on the train from Vallcoris. She doesn’t have a doctor’s coat. She just has a sweater. She doesn’t know about the basement, she doesn’t know about anything, not really. She just takes their pulse and asks them to cough, and leaves them with prescriptions, and no one tries to euthanize anyone.

Is that enough to convince you? Is it still too impossible, that they might just live together in their own house and their own time?

Should I tell you, then, about how they die? You see, it used to be, whenever one of them died, some nice people came out from the City to take the body away. But they were so upset—so apologetic and mumbling as they refused to meet anyone’s eyes—that now no one bothers calling the nice people from the City. Instead, they bury their dead in a small plot behind the garden. They get the old shovels out of the shed, pick a spot in the garden, and begin to dig. Each of them digs, some just a shovelful, some working the whole night, sometimes together, sometimes alone. By the next day, the hole is deep enough to be a grave. They don’t say anything. Not one of them needs instructions on how to mourn.

Can you believe me now? Can you believe that they live their lives and die their deaths in some semblance of peace? Can you believe that their lives are more than the basement we locked them in?

Would you like more? What more would you like? Would you rather imagine them suffering, even away from the City, away from the basement, even in their own house by the sea? Would you like to hear about screams, or nightmares, or the new one, beating herself bloody against the walls? Would you like to imagine that the house needs extra mops because, sometimes, even though they hate mops (and all of them hate mops), they can’t sleep through without a mop or two to be terrified of?

Or is that not it? Are you missing something else altogether?

Would you rather hear about marches, political protests, public shaming and human rights laws? Even though we both know that never happened and we both know that it never could happen, would it comfort you, to imagine them fighting back? Would you rather hear that they all walked away from the City and never came back? Or do you prefer to pretend that they might someday return—returning, not like you did when you were fourteen and walked away and then slunk back two weeks later—not in shame, but in anger, with tank columns and cluster bombs and chains of command and theories of legitimate violence?

Believe those things, if it makes you happy. I, though, will believe that they live alone, together, in a house by the sea.

This Will Not Happen to You

I got sick.

This will not happen to you.

They have an antifungal now. They know how to kill all the little spores when they start to creep into your tissues, your lungs, your eyeballs, your liver.

I didn’t know quite what was happening to me.

This will not happen to you.

All the signs and symptoms are well known. You’ve been educated. Even very young schoolchildren are aware. The weeks of wondering if you should go into the doctor, if you would be dismissed as a hypochondriac. If you were just tired, just achy, just having a cold, just fighting off something. Then the months of going from doctor to doctor, wondering what it was that you had, wondering if it would ever go away. That‘s a thing of the past now.

It turned out not to be reversible by the time they figured it out.

This will not happen to you.

We understand all of it now, and of course you have all the coverage you need, all the care, and you never go outside the reach of doctors, not on vacation, not for work trips, not for family emergencies, not for any reason. The paperwork will never get fouled up. No one will ever decide that you’re an exception. Everything will get delivered on time. Every step of the treatment, all the correct assessments, in the correct order. All of it. Nothing is irreversible any more, because we live in the future. Certainly not anything that happens to your own personal body.

The first set of prosthetics failed.

This will not happen to you.

The places where they reinforced my legs, my fingers, my eyes: the metal collapsed and the synapse connections lost coherence. My legs stopped under me while I was trying to be a good citizen, fetch my own medicines and unguents from the pharmacy after fetching my niece’s birthday present. So her present broke on the dingy off-white tiles of the pharmacy. I had carefully picked out just the right box of plastic building bricks, and it was crushed under me and the bricks spilled out while I twitched and drooled and all the advanced electronics, mapped into my own nervous system, turned on me.

I couldn’t see the bricks, because the places where the prosthetics had mapped into my eyes were shorting out, but I could feel them under the nerves that still worked, in my biceps, in my hip, in my ribs. And I could still hear the startled cries of the other shoppers, the alarm of the pharmacy techs, like a flock of angry birds. Those nerves still worked too. The fungus hadn‘t eaten those. The malfunction hadn‘t taken them.

Definitely won’t happen again, though.

The second set of prosthetics hurt. At every moment, on every day, they hurt.

This will not happen to you.

I dragged myself from one part of my life to another, every second of it pain. A good day was a day when I could focus on my work, which was supposed to be teaching music theory to college students. The pain dragged out my rhythms, changed my mode, made every third beat a dropped one. The prosthetics were supposed to be built to my body, and instead they worked against it. All the places where they were supposed to fit to my damaged nerves, they found the damage.

They have based research off those like me. It’s been peer reviewed. It‘s very reliable. They have learned quite a lot. The odds of a neural mismatch that bad have gone down, and everyone knows that if someone says that it‘s 95% odds, that means no one you know will get it. Because surely you don‘t know twenty people. You are not one in twenty people. Surely.

The final set of prosthetics are cold. At every moment, on every day, they chill me.

This will not happen to you.

Because you have never been sick and you have never been too late and you have never been permanently damaged and you have never been through two prior generations of prosthetics for all the things that the newfangled tech, slipping in along the fungus-damaged neurons, can’t quite do for you. The last set, the set that lets you walk and see and breathe evenly, it will not keep you cold at every moment. You will not have a flask of tea like a lifeline. You will not wear a ski vest in May, a cardigan in July.

The silver shine in your eyes, that your mother swears is so beautiful, will not feel like ice when you look in the mirror. And you will never see the cracked-ice glaze of tears that she tries to hide when she says it, and brings you another blanket at the family picnic in the August heat.

And none of this, definitely none of this, will happen to you.

Unless the spores change again.

Unless the technology changes again.

Unless anything, anything at all changes.

But what are the odds that the world will change in your lifetime?

So this will definitely, totally, completely not happen to you.

(Editors’ Note: Marissa Lingen is interviewed by Sandra Odell in this issue.)

Disconnect

Even in her dreams, Izze always felt pulled in too many directions.

“That’s part of your problem,” Severin said when she called him while drinking the morning’s first cup of coffee. “You sleep wrong.” His voice sounded far away, pinned beneath a screen.

“That’s not the problem. All the tests have said it’s electromagnetic, or the Big Heat of ‘37, or genetics, or all of the above. Or none of the above. One said ‘anxiety,’ but screw that one. None have said ‘sleep.’” Izze stared over her mug at the glowing square where her former mentor’s eyes blinked back at her, younger by the minute. “Besides,” she finally admitted, “I’d prefer not to sleep at all.”

Sleep was when she lost things.

Sleep was when her minor joints—the really painful ones—moved around and went on adventures in ways science couldn’t explain, any more than it could tell Severin why he was youthing and re-aging. Any more than it could give anyone answers, really, after the biowars, and especially not after the Big Heat.

“There’s a woman in this sleep study who says we can dream our own reality,” Severin replied from the elevated bed in his room at University Hospital. A band of sensors crossed his brow.

“I’m not doing the sleep study with you, Severin, no matter what you tell me about it.” Izze’s room was lit by the brightest bulbs she could find. The kind of lights that put shadows in the dumpster.

“They suggested I ask you is all. See if you want to try to work out new methodologies.” Severin smiled at her fondly. “You’re done helping people, then.”

“Yup. For all values of people that mean researchers.” Izze pulled her hair back into a ponytail and took another long sip of coffee. “I’ve tried plenty.” She wiggled her foot, the one toe misshapen but not painful. “And I figure I’ve done more than my share.”

Severin blinked, his head pillowed in the hospital’s linens, the room dark, but his laugh bright. “I suspect that’s fair.”

Ten university health studies. It was kind of fair. A batch of inconclusives. She’d wanted answers. Science was all about answers. She got hypotheticals, all while finishing her doctorate, which was awkward. Once the department ended tenure for new PhDs, Izze had stopped agreeing to the studies. But she still adjunct taught for the University, and she still used University Health equipment.

So far, her things hadn’t gotten much worse. Only her smaller joints and bones went missing—no major ones yet, no major organs either. And University Health hadn’t come to take the equipment back, and hopefully wouldn’t, as long as she kept making the rental payments. Izze almost felt lucky.

She kept herself together and in coffee beans by teaching at three different schools. And sometimes by singing—the resonances were supposed to help her joints. And always by talking to Severin.

They’d spoken most days when he was her mentor in the Physics Department. About office politics. About how solitary academic life could be.

Now? They still talked. Just a little more hurriedly. Izze couldn’t afford to be late to any more of her classes. And they never knew how old Severin was going to be lately, any more than Izze knew where her bones would be when she woke.

Today, he was younger. Sometimes his memory was as young as his cells, and he barely recognized her. Not today, though. Today he was pushing her.

Izze stood up and yanked her work jacket over taped-up joints, leaving the chat window open.

The tape stretched and pulled against her skin. A button popped loose from a sleeve and chimed metal against the Faraday-cage-wrapped wall of her small bedroom. Small because that’s all the University Health studies would allow.

Small because she didn’t need much. Just a net, for holding herself together.

Mostly.

This morning, she’d woken to find that a tiny joint in her right foot had been impossible to retrieve. Best she could tell from her equipment, it was out by Kepler 90b.

Casting a net all that way, around several gas giants, was beyond her range.

Plus, unfortunately, also that morning, Izze had hit snooze twice. She’d been dreaming about gathering her bones with her fingers, pressing them back into place through sheer will; about gathering students for her classes in the same way.

Once escape velocity is achieved, no further impulse need be applied for it to continue in its escape. Izze thought, practicing the opening of today’s lecture for two out of her three schools. Teaching helped keep hold of what she knew, and who she was.

She made another coffee. The machine jammed. “Come on, coffee,” she sang. Everything worked oddly inside the hacked and modified Freer-Faraday cage, but until Izze was fully awake, she didn’t dare leave its confines.

Couldn’t afford to lose anything else.

Including the cage.

The modifications she and Severin had made to the cage weren’t standard, and if University Health ever did take the machine back, Izze knew they would not be happy. There were the regrouping sonics, for one, which helped Izze sense where her joints had gone and pull them back. There were containment resonances too. She and Severin had enjoyed applying their research time to the problem, as well as their imaginations, but she’d been shocked when it had actually worked.

Severin hadn’t, not really. “So many things work differently when superheated,” he said, sagely. As if Izze hadn’t been alive during the Big Heat too. She almost remembered forests.

Still, no telling how long anything would keep working. Everything changed, all the time—Izze, job reliability, Severin—everything. She couldn’t be too safe.

Since everyone now was so convinced her joints were moving because of electromagnetics, the cage felt like a safety net. She was going to keep it as long as she could. And it did seem to be helping some. At least, it was keeping things from getting worse. For the time being.

But now Severin was implying her dreams were part of the problem.

Who the hell knows, really, Izze thought. It didn’t keep her parts from disconnecting while she slept. Fending off sleep, fending off electromagnetism just made it all less frequent.

Finally, with a grinding noise, the coffee machine spun around and spat out an espresso. The scent of burnt beans filled Izze’s small room. She would drink the beverage anyway once it cooled.

“In my case, I think it’s the other way around. Reality affects my dreams.” Izze tried to sip at her coffee. Still too hot. “Reality: no more full professorships. Dream: not having to run all over town trying to hold students’ attention. QED.”

Severin looked away from the screen for a moment and played at his plastic ID band. The embedded bio-chip that monitored his sleep cycles glinted in the gaining morning light. “You’re too frenetic. You can’t be in so many places at once, Izze. It’s not good for you.” The plastic snagged on the cuff of his robe, from which Severin’s thin wrists protruded. The hair on his arms had once been white. Now it was brown. Izze noticed a fresh bruise on the top of Severin’s hand.

You can’t be in so many places at once, Izze.

Didn’t she know it. But how could she possibly control that? “Did they take blood again?” She couldn’t conceal her concern, even though she didn’t really have time to linger, or worry.

Severin nodded. “They wanted to see if my blood was getting younger too.”

Izze winced. “Looks like they took a lot.” Studies. Knowledge was a hungry maw, lined with teeth called studies.

“Maybe I can dream up more blood.” Severin’s smile was sad. He watched Izze through the screen. “Research studies are all I’ve got left, Iz. No one else has answers. Your classes are my entertainment. That and your singing.”

“I know.” This could be me someday, she thought.

“Everyone keeps telling me to relax and enjoy the youth, but I don’t want to run out of time without having done something…” Severin gestured in the air. “Meaningful.”

Izze eyed the bruises on her friend’s hand. “Do you ever want to leave the study?”

Severin nodded. “Sometimes. The more tests they run, the more stress, the younger I get.” He shrugs. “I think they’re seeing how far they can push it. When I’m less stressed, I get older again.”

Like most of her graduate students at the three colleges where she taught, Severin looked twenty-two at the moment. But in reality, the professor was seventy two. He’d lived through all the biowars. After the Big Heat, well into his tenure, he’d started youthing and back again, like a few dozen others who’d been on the front lines of both. At first, when Izze began studying at the University, it had been hard to see. And Severin had been good at hiding things.

But he’d been aging mostly in reverse now for twenty-three years, and it was speeding up.

“So, leave.”

“I signed the forms, Izze. It’s all legal.”

Izze had been three during the Big Heat. Most people had barely noticed the wars, since they moved so slow, until a lot of the big woods had gone, and people started getting sick in strange ways. But Severin was in physics, so he’d been right in the middle of things.

“I get it, I’m just not convinced this study has your best interests at heart.”

“Dr. Rand has great credentials for unusual war and environmental syndromes. He’s exploring sleep variations. The university is fully backing him. He wants to meet you, Iz. And the others participating want to meet you too.” Severin twisted the blanket between his fingers. “I told them how we figured out how to use sonics to guide your joints back. Rand said you’re so young, and you were just an infant during the Heat, you could really make a difference.”

Izze looked at her friend, trying to ignore the irony. “No thank you. I’m not going to be anyone’s lab rat anymore.”

“Not even for science?”

That was a low blow and Severin knew it. As a physics PhD student and now professor, Izze had done so much for science that now, science was all she had. And science had helped her too. Her and Severin’s cage hacks allowed Izze to pull personally resonant objects back from escape trajectories. She could hear her joints groan and twinge when they were nearby, and when they were farther out, they resonated, kind of like stars. Her bones seemed to listen, and she could hear them too. And if you could hear something, you could find it.

And if you could keep something in, or out, you could also reverse purpose and pull things to you, Severin had reasoned. Her joints resonated back to her, as Severin had hypothesized when they made the sonic adjustments to the cage, plus the electromagnetic amplifications and reversals.

Izze’s hearing in the cage was sharp. She could hear her bones, no matter how far away they got.

Once she figured out how to find things, Severin had helped her pioneer several different methods for limb retrieval. “If escape velocity is the speed at which the sum of an object‘s kinetic energy and its gravitational potential energy is equal to zero, then recapture velocity is the reverse. All you need to do is calculate the reversal and inflict that on the object, using the Freer-Faraday cage’s inverse properties.” He’d grinned like a madman when he’d tacked her name onto the tech.

It hadn’t been exactly that easy. Izze had modified a lot of calculations. And the Faraday cage, once she’d gotten out of the university study. She’d added visualizers and grabbers to the electromagnetic nets, and cast them wide, like a fisher, each morning, for parts of herself.

Sometimes this was harder than others.

A week ago, her left talus and calcaneus had made it all the way to the Oort Cloud. So far away that she’d almost missed them, even with all her equipment. Singing the bones out from the tinier rocks and grit had taken a long time, but she hadn’t given up.

Still, singing to your dislocating bones through some kludged equipment in a modified Faraday cage? She’d hate to do that with someone else around. It was too weird.

Izze didn’t know many people besides students, especially after tenure was cancelled. Her mornings sometimes began with a search of nearby planetary orbits and black holes for various joints and limbs. That sort of thing could be dangerous for a partner or a pet, couldn’t it? What if she sent parts of them into orbit? And couldn’t bring them back?

So she lived alone. She had to. Science was all she had.

But now she had to rush coffee with Severin, which she hated to do, in order to get to her first class on time. She’d pull the toe joint in later, or she’d get by.

Severin didn’t miss a beat. “You’re pale. What shifted?”

“Just a toe. Nothing big.”

Severin had come running when both Izze’s hands had tried to make a break for Jupiter. He’d helped catch them with the electromagnetic nets before they got too far. Until Izze learned to work the inputs on her handmade Faraday retrieval rig with her feet.

It didn’t hurt as much now as it used to. The first time one of her shoulder blades disappeared, she’d screamed until her neighbors pounded on the wall. Tape helped. And wine.

But that little toe was still on the loose.

She‘d have to go to work a little wobbly again, that was all.

She grabbed a day-old bagel from the kitchen.

“Bye for now, Doc,” she said, waving.

He waved back. “Maybe I’ll see you in class. Maybe I’ll dream my way there.”

“Sleep well,” Izze said, then bit into the bagel.

When the bagel jarred her jaw so hard that it wound up in the hallway outside her apartment, Izze decided she‘d had enough. Waking up to find parts missing was one thing. Having it happen while she was awake and not being able to get those parts back, plus being later than she could afford, was completely another. She dealt with her jaw and then ran for the bus.

From the bus on the way to her first university, she phoned her doctor. 

“Again?“ Dr. Morgani said and upped both her meds and the experimental Freer-Faraday cage’s power. He knew she’d made adjustments to the cage, but hadn’t told the University. She trusted him. He sent her his bills directly. “You should come in, okay?”

“I have class,” Izze said. “I need to pay my bills.” But she made the appointment.

“When instructors are more than fifteen minutes late, students can leave,” Bob informed her at the door to her classroom. “Especially adjuncts.”

“We’re all adjuncts,” Izze said.

“Sorry.” Bob was a legacy kid. He sang in the a capella choir, got gentleman’s C’s in most things. Tended bar at the Liquid on weekends. Izze suspected he’d only signed up for special studies in Physics because of the cute boy—Severin—attending by robo-view from front row. Robo-Severin had no time for Bob. He was there to keep his memory sharp.

Still, Izze liked Bob, despite the adjuncts crack. “Good thing I’m only fourteen minutes late,” she said. She gestured, “go on then,” with one of her crutches, emblazoned with stars. Back into the classroom he went.

Izze’s ankle cracked like a tambura as she descended into the lecture theater. Stairs. Always stairs. “Who knows what solitons are?” She asked the class.

They all should know. If they’d done the reading. The room was quiet.

Severin, via telepresence raised his hand. No one else. “They’re perfect waves,” he said. “They don’t disperse, they’re balanced so they don’t change shape.”

Izze smiled. Her old professor still had perfect timing.

“What mediums?” she asked. “Someone else besides Severin.”

Twenty students in the class. Nineteen silences. Izze sighed. She reached for her professor voice. “In 2002, a singular disturbance crossed from magnetopause to magnetosphere at 8 kilometers per second. A perfect electronic wave.

One hundred seventy years earlier, a scientist, John Stuart Russell, observed ‘a well-formed heap of water,’ traveling in a singular fashion down a Scottish canal, well after the boat that created it had stopped moving. More than a mile after, to be exact.

Solitons have been observed in optics—traveling thousands of kilometers—and in biological systems.

From space to neurons, these singular waves that do not easily dissipate, appear as if charmed out of the substance that forms them, carry on, and then vanish.

So.”

She said, looking around, “Where do they go when they’re gone?”

No one answered.

“Yes, Bob?”

She’d sort of expected him, after that class. Severin lingered on the teleprompter, waiting for Izze, maybe. Cute.

Bob glanced at the screen, then back at her. “How long can a soliton hold its form?” he asked.

Izze had watched Severin change for years, occasionally his face sloughing, his skin shifting texture. Once, his fingers grew so soft, it hurt to hold a pen. The university had grown concerned. But Severin had no family left, just work. And Izze. So he’d fought to stay on.

And then he’d started getting younger. At some point, he might disappear, if the researchers weren’t careful.

Izze tried to focus on solitons. Severin stayed silent.

“It depends,” she said finally. “It’s something we’re researching.”

Bob left after realizing Severin wasn’t going to talk to him after class, no matter how smart the questions. Izze shuffled her papers together, then looked at the screen.

“They give you time off for good behavior?” Her. “Did you sleep at all?”

“They said they’d let me watch your class if I helped them with a few additional experiments, before and after.”

Izze didn’t like the kind of reward systems University Health did sometimes to get study participants. Employment bonuses. Equipment. “What now?” He looked far younger than he had an hour ago, actually. She mentally flipped through the names of doctors who she might call to get Severin out of anything that was harming him.

They shared a couple of physicians at University Hospital. The kind with enough supervisory overlap to gum up a prescription, or an invasive test. Or a study.

The amount of time she’d spent getting tested after the first joints disappeared and she’d found them in the kitchen one morning, then further afield, in the school library another day, wasn’t something Izze wanted her students knowing. Severin knew, of course. He had a time differential that earned him some extra trust. He’d taught her, then mentored her. Now she was teaching him. Sometimes.

Long after the first disconnections, he’d still helped Izze. They’d figured out the singing when four finger bones went to the Kuiper belt. The bones had moved fast. “Good to catch them before they get too far,” Severin had joked. His voice had crackled then, well-sanded with age.

“They roped me into the McKensie study as well as the sleep study,” he said glumly, but with a high pitch and a youthful laugh. “Since I was already there. If I do it, I can keep my emeritus status.” Most Emeritus Professorships had gone away just like tenure.

But Severin had been hanging on to his. Even though right now the professor looked under twenty-one, just.

Izze looked twenty-nine. And was. Most of her. Plus or minus time for certain bones to travel in space notwithstanding.

That one damn toe, which was still out there, would be younger than she was when it returned. That annoyed her.

Still that wouldn’t get her to do the studies. The university had some leverage over her—but not that much. She made a couple grand a semester here. Enough to pay for the equipment they loaned her.

But they had Severin’s pension tied up in the research study now. Izze’s eyes ached thinking about it.

At the top of the lecture hall, Bob coughed. She turned and looked at him. Severin’s robot made a small sound. Bob shrugged and left.

“You should tell him.”

“Tell him what?”

“I don’t know. Something. That you were teaching classes before he was born?” That you’re disappearing and leaving me behind.

“Why?” Severin shrugged, then he grinned. “His fascination is one-sided. I’m not adding to it. Besides, it’s good to have a hobby.” He took a deep breath. His age seemed to shift right before Izze’s eyes.

“About what we were discussing, Severin… the study. I’m worried you shouldn’t have done this one.”

“You may be right? But I signed their papers,” he said.

“That doesn’t mean they own you. Or it shouldn’t. You need to quit it, Severin.” She looked at the clock. She had to be all the way across the city in an hour for her own doctor’s appointment. Impossible to do that if she lingered.

“It’s too late for that. They need data, until they can extrapolate models from doctors’ records. They can make a sideshow case of me for grant money if they want. Hey, I’ll be immortal. You can make a song.” He laughed.

Izze growled under her breath and her wristbones shifted ominously, possibly just from the frustration. Humor, for Severin, was like singing for her. It helped him keep things together. Still, she hated the need for it. Calm, Izze. Stay calm.

None of the studies had helped Izze keep herself together. And now this one was tearing her friend apart too.

“I didn’t know the university sleep study was driving a new grant,” Dr. Morgani said. “I just knew Dr. Rand’s team was getting interesting results.”

Izze sat on the exam table, fully clothed. Morgani didn’t make her change unless he needed to see a specific part. She’d slid her shoes and socks off and laid them carefully on the chair next to the table. She swung her left foot back and forth, impatient.

Morgani looked at Izze’s foot and then helped tape it tight. “I don’t always agree with his methods though.”

Dr. Rand was University Health through and through, Izze knew from talking to Severin. Dr. Morgani wasn’t affiliated with the University. That’s why Izze liked him.

But he was holding back now.

She squinted at him, “You don’t usually have an opinion.”

“I can’t have much of one this time either.” He paused and picked up a vid report, not looking at her. “Rand has powerful friends in the industry. Just be careful, okay?”

He set Izze up with more tape and gel for the pain, extra braces, and an admonishment to try to sleep more carefully. “And maybe try to work fewer places? You’re running yourself ragged.”

“You try to teach these days,” Izze joked. “It’s not me that’s ragged.”

She pulled her shoes and socks back on, her joints clicking like they wanted to disappear. Next gig was uptown. She could walk or take a cab, but the cab was too bumpy, the walk too far.

Izze gave in and took the underground. She loved it down here, everything encased in tile and tunnels. Very deep too, so her ears popped as the train rattled.

She had to be careful: too much shaking loosened everything. But she loved the feeling of speeding away from a central station. Of shooting out into the darkness.

And she loved being on time. She looked at her watch as the underground lights slowed, then stopped beside the train car. Arriving: University Way.

Too bad the elevator at the far end of the station was broken. (It almost always was). Izze struggled with the stairs. She would arrive to class a professional combination of sweating, breathless, and exhausted.

Exhausted and late wasn’t new. That was every day ending in “y” lately.

As she came out of the tunnels, looking up to see the arch of blue sky, and beyond it, plenty of room for objects that can achieve escape velocity, Izze wished she had more coffee.

Her com buzzed.

Two messages from the sleep study, including a personal one from Dr. Rand. One from her Dean. None from Severin. Great.

The second university where she taught had a great view of the river. Wide rooms set in a former warehouse, the city college had taken over more space as students realized physics was their way to the stars. And Izze’s class was a road bump on that trajectory.

Behind her translucent podium, before the large screen, Izze watched the class filter in, students trickling through the rows of seats, sorting themselves into more attentive and more tired.

She knew she had two single parents in the room. And one student working through a healthcare fight—not an illness, a lingering debt from a parent’s illness, which their private insurance had passed on to the heirs. A lot of students who needed the credits, but couldn’t afford the time. They came anyway. She wanted them all to succeed, felt a little bit of how much they were fighting against the gravity of their own lives to be here.

She handed back test results, making sure to make eye contact with each student (all 100 of them) as the rankings went up on the board. There were the usual mutters, but a few (a young mother seated in the second row, nursing her son; a girl all the way in the back; two boys—one an ESL transfer from the community college, and both former students of hers elsewhere who had followed her here)—all made various small happy sounds. It was like a wave that built fast, then fell silent as others groaned.

Izze wondered what these students would make of her soliton question, so she asked it.

One young man in the back raised his hand. “Will we be tested on this?”

It was a valid question. “Would you think about it if it wasn’t on a test?” She shot back before she could stop herself.

This was why her reviews were mixed. She could hear them voting right now.

“It’s a thought problem,” she said. No one responded. “For extra credit.” There, that got their attention.

Same hand shot up again.

Izze imagined it lifting the boy up through the ceiling and into the troposphere, then back down. “Yes?”

“Participation credit too?”

Why not. “Of course. What’s on your mind, Lucas?”

“Maybe solitons are something repeated across medium—the medium DOES matter though. You don’t see them in static objects as much. You see them in fluids, transferences. I bet you could make one with sound.”

The boy deserved all the credit he was milking. Izze grinned and glanced around the room. “Can you all expand on this?”

Several students nodded and then bent to work.

The class was vibrant. The school had tried to run classes remotely for a long time, and video worked pretty well, as long as somewhere along the way, the students connected, and the teacher with them.

But in-person still worked best for retention, this college had decided. The room, once Lucas took the lid off, blossomed into conversation. Izze sat back and listened to the ebb and swell of thesis and counter thesis.

The city college students were sharp as tacks. She made notes for the recruiters again. Hoping to get them interviews. Placement.

When the discussion ended, she dismissed them with, “500 words on solitons across various mediums, by Thursday,” and the groans cascaded.

“No one asks for writing anymore, you can’t scan it,” Lucas said.

“I’m asking. Participation.” She grinned. She wanted to revel in the discussion a bit more. “Plus you have a test on Monday.” More groans. “Remotely,” she added.

A small cheer.

And she packed up her classroom and moved on. One more class today. This one from home.

Izze walked the last leg of the circuit she made across the city. She mentally rehearsed her lecture for the evening. Objects will move away from each other, continually slowing… She didn’t see the cat.

Soon, she was sprawled on the wet sidewalk. Her hand and knees weren’t broken, but parts sure were slipped from their joints. As in, at least one kneecap wasn’t anywhere near her body.

There wasn’t any pain. She’d slipped her knees so often they practically had their own luggage.

Where her pisiform would be was floppy space; one side of her hand hung useless. She pulled a brace from her bag and stuffed her fingers in it.

Pulled the velcro tight. She’d sing her wrists back when she made it home.

Then she grabbed another brace for her right knee. That was all the braces the doctor had thought to put in her bag that morning. She had nothing for her left knee.

“Are you okay? Is something broken?”

“No, just lost. Where’s the cat? I tripped on a cat.” Izze said, hiding as much of the pain as she could from the stranger. Most people thought joint wandering was really scary, and some even thought it was catching. Izze hated those encounters. And because her limbs wandered so much farther than most, she had more of those encounters.

The stranger stayed where she was. When Izze focused on her, she saw the woman held the cat.

And was wearing a medical coat. From the University.

Izze pulled herself to her feet with one good hand on her cane, and hobbled to the nearby bench, shaking off the stranger’s assistance.

“She just scooted out the door,” the young woman said. “I’m Marley.”

Marley had splotchy skin and a weak handshake, which Izze was grateful for. Crusher handshakes were terrible. But she squinted. “I need to get to my class,” she said.

Marley nodded. “I understand, I do. But you should have this looked at.”

“I’ve got my doctor on speed dial. Oh!” Izze raised her com to her ear. “There he is right now.”

There was static on the other end of the phone, which Izze engaged in rousing conversation. “Yes, I know, I should be more careful. Yes, I’ll come back in tomorrow first thing. Yes, I’ll let you know where they went this time.”

She “hung up” and rolled her eyes. “We do this all the time.”

Marley squinted. “You’re Izze Freer. You’re supposed to be in my professor’s study. Dr. Rand.”

Izze coughed. “I decided that I didn’t want to do it.”

Marley’s eyebrows shot up. “But it’s important! You could help everyone else who has something like what you do…” her voice trailed off while Izze just stared at her.

“I said I didn’t want to do it.” She was so angry that she had to keep saying this.

“Okay,” Marley said, cuddling the cat and looking uncomfortable. “Do you want me to call a car for you? You can’t take the subway like this. The elevators are broken.”

“I’m an adjunct. I can’t afford a car.”

Marley laughed. “Me neither. You know the study pays well, right…”

Izze got to her feet and prepared to walk away.

“Wait! I won’t bring it up again. I feel responsible.”

“Call the car.”

Izze got home in time to find her online classroom empty. A second warning from the dean on her email. “Shit,” she said.

She messaged Severin. “Who is this?” came the reply.

“It’s Izze—from the university.”

A long pause. Then: “I don’t know anyone by that name.”

Izze drew a deep breath. “How old are you, Severin?”

“Eight.”

Slowly, and quietly, in the bath, Izze relaxed until it was time to cry.

And very slowly, she took her right wrist in her left hand and twisted until every bone popped, but didn’t escape. For a moment, for a change, she felt in control of something. Even if it was letting go.

Back in class on Tuesday, Izze wasn’t surprised to see that Bob had skipped.

“We all find comfort somewhere, I guess,” the line from a song popped into her head. A line that must have been far out somewhere in the cloud, a standing wave of words.

Izze had no time for comfort. She’d found her wrist bones that morning in the garbage floating around Mars, knocking on the car someone launched into orbit for marketing purposes.

The bones sounded tiny and white. She collected them by singing in the dream she’d been having of space, pushing like a wave, rolling but not breaking apart, until she found the part of herself she’d misplaced, and caught it up, and rolled back. Severin’s suggestion. Something she’d been practicing.

Severin had showed her how to do this. And he was disappearing. Forgetting everything they’d learned together.

But Izze remembered. Maybe it was time to try some of his wilder theo-ries. She could do things in her dreams she didn’t know waking. Severin had said she could reach out and grab her reality. Maybe he was right.

But what she wanted to grab was Severin’s sleeve, to tug him out of the study, out of the hospital. That, he wouldn’t let her do.

Izze closed her eyes and prepared to dream the way her mentor had described.

Inside the modified cage, she tried to picture Severin, picture herself finding him and letting him out of his room. But when she felt her bones starting to shift, she panicked.

Izze jumped out of bed with a gasp. The air in the cage smelled electric, like lightning and panic. She took a deep breath and made some coffee.

Marley was waiting outside Izze’s apartment the next day. She wasn’t wearing her lab coat.

“I’m not doing your study. I’m done with studies.”

“I know.”

“So why are you following me?”

“I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

No one had asked Izze if she was okay since she’d moved to the city. She’d moved here expressly so no one—not relatives, not friends—would ask her if she was okay.

And this… researcher… was crossing into personal territory. But somehow, Marley seemed to mean it.

Izze couldn’t stop herself. “Thanks, but—”

“Nevermind,” Marley said. She turned on her heel and walked back toward her place.

“Wait,” Izze said. She felt weird, like all her bones were stretching apart. Why was she reaching out?

“Why? You said ‘thanks, but.’ I know what that means. I’m the lab coat. Not a person.” Marley stood there, hands in fists, chin up. But she’d stopped walking.

“But I’m fine. I’m always fine.” Izze had found all her parts, she’d pulled herself together for class. She always did. And Marley wasn’t wrong.

But she’d reached out to check in. That was something.

Izze raised her chin too. “I’ve got class at the University. You can walk with me, if you want. Just don’t ask me about the study.” It was an apology, of sorts.

Marley didn’t say anything, just fell into pace beside Izze.

The next class in the lecture hall, Izze prepared for the stairs by wrapping braces on both knees and ankles. Taping both feet. She’d be fine. Her joints had settled and she’d finally found her toe joint, so she didn’t want to risk them getting loose again.

Putting everything put back into place was always a job, even with the home reassembly kits and braces courtesy of University Health. Izze couldn’t do what she did—live, work, walk with a new friend—without that kind of thing. She’d recover the joints, close her eyes and press hard and—somehow without leaving a mark—they’d be back where they belonged. Quantum dislocations, Severin had called it.

Electromagnetic joint dysplasia, the university had written on her equipment rental documents. Periodic reassessment required.

She hated owing someone, but she couldn’t afford to buy her freedom.

So when her messages blinked, and the cage wouldn’t turn on until she answered, she knew it was University Health.

“We just need you to come in for a minute,” a receptionist said. “After your class, for reassessment.”

Great. Izze juggled her office hours in the lecture hall as she waited for her students. She would have scheduled coffee with Severin after the appointment. But he’d stopped answering her at all. “Fine.”

Bob returned to this lecture. Late. Izze had just asked her students to think about possible connections between different study areas—why are solitons a consistent idea—the same form moving through all these fields. He took a seat, already listening and thinking about the problem. In the face of an otherwise silent room, Bob answered. “The medium they travel through isn’t the issue,” he grinned. “It’s the balanced shape of the wave, the perpetuity of it.”

“Very good,” she nodded. Keep it up Bob.

Bob’s classmates took notes. Bob didn’t look at Severin’s empty screen and neither did Izze.

After class, Bob tried to catch her, but Izze didn’t want to be late for the required reassessment. And she didn’t want to answer questions about Severin. She crossed the big university lawn from the academic side of the school to the medical buildings, went through several sets of doors and metal detectors, up an elevator, and into an office. Buildings were kind of like modified cages, she thought as she settled into an overstuffed chair that would be difficult to get out of. It smelled like lemons and patience.

The room seemed to breathe patience. Even the data screen in the waiting room, set to detail all the things that might go wrong with your body and how you could check for them, spoke with a patient tone.

Sometimes it seemed like a larger percentage of hospital space was dedicated to waiting than it was to healing.

While she waited, Izze thought about how, in her dreams, she could reach out and pull back pieces of herself without machinery. Just her. How getting each mislocated part back where it belonged felt so much easier in dreams. In reality, she had to use the university’s system.

When she woke up to pieces shifting or missing? When she had to use the Freer-Faraday cage and the visualizers? That was when Izze felt the grind of being ill. Being different enough that the University kept asking her to come in for studies, like she studied solitons and galaxies and students.

The data-screen’s simulated clock ticked, the announcer spoke calmly about generational Big Heat effects, and Izze got used to the lemon smell of the waiting room chair. No one else came to sit down. She was going to be so late to her next class, but she couldn’t miss a reassessment. She called the second university to find someone to cover her class.

Finally, a nurse took her to a room where she put on a gown and waited some more. In here, the smell was peppermint. Another clock ticked, maddeningly, but Izze couldn’t find where they’d hidden it. Worse than a mosquito buzzing in your ear, Izze thought: the sense someone was taking your time, and you couldn’t see the clock.

She felt her eyes closing. The cushions of the exam room bed looked so comfortable.

“Wait! No.” Everything about this was wrong. She’d been so used to waiting, she hadn’t seen the trap closing.

The reassessments didn’t usually go like this. Usually, a nurse took her diagnostics, asked her about her joints and bones, and then signed off on the rental again.

Izze slid off the bed and shucked her gown. She was buttoning her jeans and tightening her braces when a new doctor pushed the door open without knocking.

“I didn’t realize you were here! You were so quiet! Welcome. I’m Dr. Rand.” He held out a friendly hand, but clutched a clipboard app on his tablet with the other. The clipboard: a universal symbol of a study.

Izze froze. She wanted out. Now. “I’m leaving. I still have that right.” She hadn’t signed anything.

The doctor sat down in the chair with a sigh. “Don’t you want to help advance knowledge? Help others in the future like yourself?”

No. Izze thought. I’ve done so much of that already. “Advance knowledge? Of course. My knowledge. What I understand about me. I’m tired of advancing yours.” Izze realized she’d like to have the same rights as the doctor: To be late. To not have to wait on people. To decide for herself what she got to do. “Severin told me he can’t leave.”

The doctor scrawled on the tablet, didn’t look at Izze. “Once the study is signed, no, you’d have to stay here for the duration.”

“I have too many classes. Maybe after the semester’s over,” she stalled him. “You got me in here unfairly. I’ll file a grievance. I’ll tell your assistant what you did. Turn my equipment back on.” Marley might or might not help in reality when it came to her boss, but she was a useful threat now.

Amazingly, Dr. Rand nodded and tapped the app, then closed it.

“Done. But we’ll talk again, after the semester’s over.” The doctor closed the door hard behind him, letting her hear the latch slide home one more time, but not lock. When Izze tried the door, turning the handle with her braced hand, she felt the latch move within the wood. And then she was free.

As she walked back through the corridor, Izze looked for Severin’s room. Behind glass, a nurse held a young boy’s arm, as the boy let her take another vial of blood.

Izze touched the doorknob. This was what Severin had wanted. Right? To help?

But not like this.

“I’ll find a way to get you out,” Izze whispered to the door. The boy turned to look at her, as if he could hear through the wood.

His eyes looked old, set in such a young face. The taupe walls of his room, the smooth curves of his medical bed, his hairless arms and collarbone. Everything had a sheen of newness, except Severin’s eyes.

“I’ll find a way,” Izze promised.

That night, Izze didn’t drink any coffee. She made one call. “I need a favor—maybe. To help out a friend.”

“I can’t interfere with a study subject,” Marley said.

“I understand.” Then Izze turned off the modified Faraday cage and waited. This was the first time she’d slept without the cage in years. It was risky. The results might be… very disconnected. If she made a mistake, she wouldn’t be able to work for a while.

She’d grabbed a pamphlet on active dreaming from the sleep study. She’d read it several times. Now she just held onto it for luck. “Objects trying to escape,” she whispered.

Without the hum of the cage, she could hear her bones creaking. She tried to fall asleep while thinking of her fingers on the doorknob in the medical building. Of the doors and detectors, and different kinds of cages. Different ways to escape.

Maybe being several places at once was all right. In dreams, at least.

When she fell asleep, she dreamed her hands fled her wrists. Not just the bones. The whole shebang. That was alarming, but she willed herself not to wake up.

She dreamed her hands gripped a doorknob. Felt it turn.

She felt her fingers touch the cool metal bed in Severin’s room. Shook him awake with a gentle touch. She dreamed she heard the door latch click inside the wood as one of her hands unlocked the door. The other hand passed Severin his clothes, which were far too big now. Then the hand slipped the data chipped wristband from his arm.

The boy was very young now. He was not afraid. His old eyes watched Izze’s hands in the dream. “I didn’t know anyone could do that,” he whispered. “So cool. Show me how.”

Izze dreamed her hands rested on her friend’s shoulders as he walked—scampered, really—out of his room and into the night. A ten-year-old boy with the eyes of an octogenarian. Izze felt relieved to see him in there.

Then she began to sing to them—to her hands, to the boy, to the nights where things went missing. She began calling them back to her.

When someone knocked on her door later, Izze woke. It took some doing to get the door open with her foot, but she managed.

Outside, Marley held a boy by the sleeve. “I found him waiting for a bus when my shift ended. Not from the study, or he would have had a wristband. He says he has something of yours.”

Izze stepped back so that both of them could come inside her small apartment.

The boy passed Izze her hands. “How did you think to do it?” He asked. He waited until she’d turned the cage back on with an elbow.

“You told me how, once,” she said, resetting a hand very carefully.

Severin nodded. “I think I remember.”

She watched Marley looking over the Freer-Faraday cage, eyes wide. “We modified it ourselves. Severin and me.”

“Maybe I could help out here, sometimes? If you need a kind of research assistant?” Marley’s fingers brushed the air over the controls.

“Maybe. You’ll need to know how to work the Freer-Faraday cage and the reattachment tools…” Izze paused. She wasn’t sure if she needed the equipment as much. Maybe only in emergencies.

“How do I keep my funding?” Severin asked.

Izze had no answers. “You don’t need your emeritus funding if you stay here. At least for a little bit. And maybe Marley’s right. She can help us out now and then.”

Marley grinned. “I’d like that.”

“No more studies?” Severin sounded almost gleeful. But Izze recognized the look in the boy’s eyes. His memory was older than his body.

“Not now, at least.” Not until you’re better, Doc. “And I’ll go teach. We’ll keep it together, for as long as we can.”

Severin shook his head. “Might not be that long.”

“Might be time enough,” Izze said.

By the time she was ready for class, Severin was asleep on her bed. Inside the cage, he looked slightly older.

“I’ll be back after my next shift,” Marley said. “We can’t all be in three places at once.”

And that gave Izze an idea.

With one hand, she prepared a keyboard and a recorded lecture. “Maybe I can put being scattered to good use.” The rest of her went to the door.

“I’m off to teach—early this time.”

Nails in My Feet

I gotta tell you, as a puppet life sucks. I mean, cartoon characters got it easy. They don’t have to deal with five-fingered monsters crawling all over them or being nailed to the floor. Or dying.

I was talking with old Scoobster the other day. Once you get past the doggy speak, he’s pretty clear. He says the studios cut sweet package deals for cartoons. They get television shows, feature films…

I know, I know; I’ve had my day. I made the majors and got my feature film, ruling the valley time forgot. Only now I’m in the closet time forgot. Whoopee—I’m Closetsaurus Rex, tyrant of the closet.

My big feature was a one-time gig, not like a cartoon character with spin-offs and trading cards and lunch boxes.

As if cartoons didn’t already have immortality staring at them with all those animation cels, thousands of them to hold their lives together. Some of those guys wind up in museums even. Talk about immortality.

Then there’s guys like me. After filming ended? They stuck me on a shelf. Which, I gotta admit, is better than some folks I know who went straight into the garbage.

You should’ve seen me, ripping into the other dinosaurs and dominating the frame while our handlers blurred all around us. I remember the light heating up my skin all the way down to the metal bones inside me. And I was good. I could move one tiny frame at a time and hold that pose. I was the Tyrant King.

Man, what I wouldn’t give to have one more day on stage, but that would kill me faster than anything. Why? They built me out of foam latex! Do you know what the life span on foam is? Five years, if you’re lucky.

I’ve been sitting here for over fifty years. I mean… my foam oxidized years ago. It doesn’t show, and I’m trying to keep it together, but one of these days someone’s going to try to lift me off the shelf and their hands will punch right through to the armature inside me. I’ll crumble to dust before they even finish moving.

Gives me the willies. Scares me. You know the saying, “They broke the mold when they made him.” Yeah. I can’t just get a new body and be ready to go on. I don’t have another cel of animation waiting to take over. If I’m moved, that’s it. Show’s over.

If I were a cartoon character—heck, if I were a real dinosaur, they’d put my armature in a museum. But not me. Not a puppet. There’s no immortality in my future.

Touch me, and I’m dead.

(Editors’ Note: Mary Robinette Kowal is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 23A.)

Everything Under Heaven

“So you’re a chef,” the huntress said, after she’d saved the day, “and you’re out here to hunt and cook a dragon?”

“Yes?” Kee picked leaves off her muddied pants, a futile gesture.

The huntress stared at her with a slight frown. She was compact, shaved hairless, brown-skinned, and wore Easterner boiled leather armour, dotted with bright tassels like the saddle of her horse, a sturdily built Easterner pony, built low to the ground and shaggy. Kee’s donkey, Red Rabbit, eyed everyone with open suspicion. Kee could understand the sentiment.

“Imperial Court chef?”

“No. Heavens no.”

“A dare?”

“No?”

“Just a crazy person then.”

“Some would say that,” Kee said, righting the pot that she’d set over the cooking fire, one that had overturned when the tiger had leapt for her from the undergrowth. Its great paws had scoured gouges in the bedroll she’d tried to fend it off with. “I didn’t know there were tigers this far south in the Cloud Forest.”

“After the Dragon Gate opened on the Kuanyin mountains, the dragons that came out of it have scared a lot of the animals south. You’d see silver deer at the Longshu delta, even.” The huntress dismounted and bowed, without bothering to tie her horse to a tree. “My name’s Sarnai.”

An Easterner name. “I’m Geok Kee. Well have we met.”

Sarnai’s mouth twitched into a wry smile. “Five more minutes and we probably wouldn’t have. You’re lucky the tiger was toying with you.” Sarnai started to help Kee pack the camp. She didn’t touch the jars smashed by the tiger on the dirt, a waste of achar and sambal from the restaurant’s line cooks, lovingly made.

“I’m thankful.”

“You’re still headed for the Dragon Gate? The Emperor’s marked all of Kuanyin off limits for a reason.”

Kee nodded. “That’s the plan.” She was glad that her tone was steady, even as her hands were cold and clammy as she slung the damaged bedroll against Red Rabbit’s saddle, fastening it down.

“I’ll go with you,” Sarnai said. It wasn’t an offer. “I’m also headed for the Gate. We’ll be safer together.”

“What are you looking for at the Gate?”

“I’m tracking a particular dragon. A great flying beast, its wings as long as a paddy field. It was last seen returning towards the Gate.”

“A matter of honour?” Kee asked, as delicately as she could.

Sarnai nodded, turning her face away as she mounted her horse. “A matter of insult and revenge. If it isn’t satisfied, I’ll have to leave the jianghu.”

An Easterner? Part of the jianghu? Kee wasn’t aware that anyone outside the One People could join the fractious morass of infighting and politics that formed the backbone of the One Kingdom’s loosely organised martial world. Yet it made sense. The jianghu was the only true merit-based system in the One Kingdom, for while it was also afflicted by matters of lineage and ruled by powerful families, anyone who was a scholar in the martial arts could rise within it, to form families of their own.

“You must be very good,” Kee said awkwardly, with a nod at Sarnai’s short scimitars and longbow.

This got her a brief, sharp smile. “Good enough. Come, chef. The day isn’t getting younger.”

Red Rabbit was clearly unhappy at having to keep pace with a horse—he didn’t like horses, and tried to bite when Sarnai’s walked too close. The Easterner horse sidestepped with graceful ease, the only sign of its irritation a sharp snap of its tail. “Sorry,” Kee said, flicking Red Rabbit’s ear in reproach.

“You’re not well-equipped for the mountains. Can you use that bow on your saddle?”

“It was my mother’s, and yes. We’re a week away from the nearest village. I’ve survived by myself up until now,” Kee said, as politely as she could.

“A fine bow. Very fine,” Sarnai said, as a conceded apology.

“My mother was jianghu too,” Kee said, then wished she hadn’t admitted that, when Sarnai visibly stiffened.

“But her daughter is not.”

“No.”

Sarnai looked away again. “Good,” she said, and Kee was left wondering at the bitterness in Sarnai’s voice.

Kee liked to tell people that she had a father and no mother: it was easier that way. Her father was a handsome man, a solidly reasonable, practical rice farmer from a family of farmers, his days spent in backbreaking work over paddy fields that Kee grew to know inch by inch, helping during the planting and harvest seasons, wary of snakes.

They ate simply at first, until Kee grew old enough to hold the heavy butcher’s cleaver without her arms aching, then she made the best of what she could from what they could get. She learned how to stew buah keluak from her father’s mother, make chap chye from her aunt, and bake kueh lapis, layer by painstaking layer, from an older cousin. The food of her father’s side of the family was called Nyonya food because it was made by women, its secrets passed only from women to women as the truest way of expressing love. It was love that Kee ground into her spices, that kept tedium at bay as she chiffonaded mountains of herbs for nasi ulam.

Her mother was hardly ever home. She was an irregular ghost during the Lunar New Year, a pale figure in white robes, with her jade sword and her beaded bow, her fine horse. Kee hadn’t even known who she was until she was four, hadn’t known her name until Kee was six. Ming Yan, also known as “Dragon Ming,” had bound her life to far-away conflicts Kee had never heard of. She had rough hands from the pommel of her sword, hands that had never learned how to cook. By the terms of Kee’s world, that meant her mother had never learned how to love.

When Kee was sixteen, Dragon Ming came home to die. They buried her under a peach blossom tree on the outskirts of the village with her jade sword, and sold the fine horse to pay for the wake, the funeral casket, and headstone. Kee had stared at her father during the wake, but he hadn’t looked grieved. Only tired.

“It’s just us now,” her father said, once they were alone by the headstone.

“It’s always been just us,” Kee said, resentful of the days the wake and funeral had torn out of their lives. Of the strange people who had come by the village to attend it, with their own fine weapons and fine horses. She’d had to cook for them all, for people she didn’t know and didn’t love.

“Your mother was a good woman.”

“That’s what I hear.”

For the first time Kee could remember, a flash of anger crossed her father’s face. “Has someone been saying things to you about her?”

“No one has. I don’t even know her. And now I never will.” Kee gestured at the freshly-turned dirt. “Why did you even marry her? She was never here.”

Her father clenched his jaw, even as Kee flushed with shame. The words, ill-spoken, hummed in the air, made ugly by her selfishness. “I’ll tell you someday,” he said stiffly, and never did, not willingly.

“Why a dragon?” Sarnai asked, when they stopped for the night in the shelter of a cave. It was a well-worn spot, with grooves and ashes in a hollow by the entrance, even a hitching post hammered into the ground just outside.

“‘Everything with their backs to Heaven’,” Kee quoted the popular proverb—and joke—for the One People’s famous tendency to eat anything that was remotely edible.

Sarnai laughed. “You’re a good cook, at least.”

“Thank you.” Kee’s grandmother liked to joke that other people cooked with spices, while Nyonya women cooked with Time. She had tried to make do with the spices and pastes she had in her bag for the fish Sarnai had caught from a stream, but she’d missed her kitchens—both the great one in the village and her hearth at home.

“I can’t cook. I’ve tried. Not even simple things,” Sarnai said, a cheerful admission.

“Everyone can cook,” Kee said, then coughed, a little embarrassed. “I mean—”

“Give me some pointers. I’ll trade. How good are you with that bow?”

“Good enough. But I can’t fish.”

“Fishing? Fishing’s easy. Here. I’ll show you now, while the day’s still warm,” Sarnai said, grinning broadly, to Kee’s relief. She couldn’t quite explain to Sarnai why she couldn’t teach a stranger how to cook. Not her family’s recipes.

They took the pots and bowls down to the stream to wash. Sarnai was far more friendly with a full belly, and not for the first time in the day, Kee wondered why she was so far west. She asked Sarnai why she had come to the One Kingdom as Sarnai was showing her how to bait a hook with worms they’d dug up from under a shrub.

“We are a horse people,” Sarnai said, as she inspected Kee’s work. “No, not like that. Like this. Yes. Better. Cast, like this. Now be patient.”

“Horse people?”

“We roam the steppes, following the great herds of the Mother Moon. Everyone who can ride, rides. Beyond that, there are some things men can do that women can’t, and some things women do that men cannot. I disagreed. I heard the barbarians to the west had a different way. Where anyone who was good at war could live however they liked.”

“Not exactly.”

“Close enough. You said your mother was part of the jianghu.”

“And because of that I never really knew her.”

Sarnai nodded. “It is a different life,” she said, diplomatic.

“Did a School take you in?” That would be one way for a foreigner to enter the jianghu.

Sarnai was about to reply, when she stiffened, holding up a palm. In the trees upstream, there was a faint rustle, the evening-deepened shadows mottling over a high-humped form. There was a low hiss, from the throat of some great snake. Frozen, Kee could only clench her hands tight on her fishing rod. They’d left their bows at the cave. Sarnai had a dagger at her belt, but her scimitars were at her pack and—

“Hoi!” Sarnai roared. She grabbed a stone from the bank of the stream and threw it into the shadows. There was a pained yelp, then an angry hiss as Sarnai threw another stone. Kee dropped her rod, scooping up pebbles, throwing them as hard as she could. Something crashed through the bushes, sprinting away with great, heavy strides, a scaly tail flicking momentarily in and out of sight, crested with bright yellow feathers.

Kee sat down, breathing hard. The dragon had been taller than Sarnai by more than a hand’s breadth. And it had nearly gotten into striking distance. On the way back, Sarnai was red with anger. “Careless. I’ve been careless. Haven’t heard of the dragons ranging this far south. Haven’t seen any tracks.”

“I thought the dragons only ranged in one li around the Dragon Gate.”

“Shouldn’t have assumed.” Sarnai muttered something under her breath. “We’ll have to take turns keeping watch tonight.”

“You could’ve taken it,” Kee said. Members of the jianghu were capable of superhuman feats. Everyone knew that. “We could have carved it afterwards.”

Sarnai frowned at her. “This dragon you want to eat. Which one is it?”

“All of them.” How else would she know which was the best? Which were edible, and which were poisonous?

“What? You have a greedy soul, Chef. And you’ll be at the Dragon Gate for a long time. Maybe for the rest of your life.”

Nyonya women cooked with Time. “I know.”

Sarnai shook her head. “What’s the point? Is there a demand for dragon meat that I haven’t heard of? Are you trying to start a trend?”

“It’s a matter of honour,” Kee said, and smiled when Sarnai let out a sharp, startled laugh. It wasn’t however, not really. It was a matter of pride.

Kee’s father died of old age, a gentle death, by all reports. Kee would disagree. Her father’s mind had begun to wander, the year before his death, often recasting him as a boy in an old man’s body, bewildered by strangers. Everyone was a stranger. He ran away often, ranging farther and farther, even after he’d broken an ankle falling into a ditch. “I’m chasing the Dragon,” her father said once, when Kee and her aunts had found him knee-deep in firefly grass, half a li away from the village. “She’s the most beautiful woman in the world, did you know? The most beautiful.”

“She was beautiful? That’s it?” Kee had been furious enough to be venomous. Her father had stared at her with a young man’s bemused surprise. Of course it was enough. Had been. Men loved with their eyes at that age.

Father grew lucid later in the evening, after a dinner of his favourite fish head curry. Kee always made the soupy sauce spicy enough to melt iron, the way her father liked it, the simmered rich broth a masterpiece of hours, and Father had sighed with a belly-deep sigh of contentment, his dull eyes quickening. Later, he had even helped her with the dishes by the rainwater barrel.

“It wasn’t just because she was beautiful,” Father said. His shoulders were hunched, defensive as he scrubbed out the stewing pot.

“Oh?”

“You don’t remember? I guess not. You were fairly young when she… passed. And she was never very good with children. Even her own.” Father stared at the pot he was scouring. There was a memory compressed into the wrinkles cut against his skin, a complicated one. “She walked in the world like an Empress,” Father said eventually, visibly struggling for the right words.

“I’m surprised Grandmother approved.”

“She didn’t,” Father said, with a quick, hard grin.

“You never even told me much about Mother. What School she was in? Which lord did she fight for?”

“She was in no School, and she had no lord,” Father said, with a strange sort of fondness. “She used to say that she was a stray cat.”

“A stray cat that was like an Empress?”

Father didn’t speak for a while, not until the pots were dried and packed away. “To be a farmer’s wife was not in her nature,” he said then.

“But you married her.”

“She married me,” Father said, amused.

“At least she loved you,” Kee said, because that was one of the few things that she remembered of her mother’s visits, of the tender way she would look at Father. Not that it mattered. She never stayed. “She didn’t love me.”

“No,” Father conceded, after a moment’s thought, his amusement fading. “Not the way you wanted her to.”

Kee killed her first dragon three days after the first sighting. It was a small, chicken-sized thing, four-winged, with a beak full of teeth—she had killed it with her bow at twenty paces. They set up camp, Sarnai ranging ahead while Kee plucked the dragon, cleaned it, checked it with tinctures for poison, then marinated it with curry powder and soy sauce from her brace of jars. By the time Sarnai returned, Kee had found root vegetables in the forest, which she stewed with the dragon-meat, with rice cooking in a separate pot.

“Smells good,” Sarnai said, as she hunkered down by the fire.

“It’ll be ready soon. I hope you’re hungry.” Like her grandmother and her aunts before her, Kee always made more than enough. Leaving guests hungry was a matter of shame.

“I took one down near the waterfall.” Sarnai nodded back at where her horse was cropping grass. There was a wrapped package close by in oilcloth. “Strange one in a group of three. Small head, big body, heavy legs, like an elephant’s. Big feathers in three arcs down its flanks. Grass eater. Too big to move, so I just cut chunks from its flanks and thighs.”

“Grass eaters are good. Thanks for the help.” The dragon Kee had killed had been a meat-eater, and the sliver of flesh that Kee had fried for a taste had been gamey, with an ugly scent that she hoped the curry would mask.

“No problem.” Sarnai helped Kee hang up the hunks of meat from the grass-eater. They were good fillet cuts, beautifully clean, and Sarnai chuckled when Kee said so. “Butchery was women’s work.”

“You didn’t like it?”

“Why do you ask?”

“You left the East.”

“Ah-h-h. No, no. It wasn’t butcher-work I didn’t like. Or the weaving, or the midwifing, the healing, the cooking—though I was bad at that. I was bad at all of it. But I would have stayed and tried to learn, if I didn’t have to marry.”

“They… gave you a husband?” Kee had heard all that and worse of Easterners.

“No. No, not at all. But as a Khan’s daughter I was expected to take one.” Sarnai grinned. “So I said I would marry the first man who could outrace me, outshoot me, outfight me, but each man who wanted to try had to first give me a horse. At the end my clan had a hundred new horses and I had no husband.”

“Then why did you leave?”

“Oh, the other clans got angry. So I told them I would marry the first man who could catch me, and rode my best horse west. The Old Kingdom is very big. Besides, no one likes riding this far west.”

“That’s a strange way to get out of taking a husband,” Kee said, though she smiled.

“What about you? Did you take a husband?”

“No.” Until the day she had left, Kee still cooked for love, in the hours she had outside of the restaurant, but she had never felt the least inclination to love and bed a man.

“Your family didn’t care?”

“My parents are past caring, and the rest of my family’s easier to ignore. I was busy—I owned a restaurant. Besides, in this part of the world, men see a successful, single woman and tend to feel intimidated.” She married me, her father had said.

“I wouldn’t be intimidated,” Sarnai said, and grinned mischievously when Kee blushed.

“I don’t think I could outrace you, outshoot you, or outfight you.”

“Ah, but you could probably catch anyone in the world you wanted, if whatever you have cooking over there tastes as good as it smells.”

Kee wasn’t sure what to say to that, which meant letting Sarnai laugh at her as she prepped the rest of dinner. She had no interest in men, but a woman—especially a woman as imperious as Sarnai—perhaps. It was a pity they were who they were. Kee had no interest in repeating her father’s mistakes.

“You never told me why you were chasing a particular dragon,” Kee told Sarnai afterwards, when they were packing up the pots.

Sarnai’s good mood faded, and she fell quiet. Pots packed, Sarnai sat down for the first watch, but as Kee prepared to go back into her tents, she said, “I suppose I owe you the story.”

“You don’t owe me anything.”

“I’ve eaten your food. And we’ve ridden this far together.” Sarnai waited until Kee sat down by the fire, then she twisted her fingers together. “It’s a shameful tale.”

“You don’t have to tell it to me if you don’t want to.”

“I should.” Sarnai exhaled. “When the Dragon Gate first opened, the jianghu assigned us all to villages and towns.”

“Yes.” Even Kee’s small village had received “guests,” albeit people Kee had seen before. At her mother’s wake.

“I was sent to protect a fishing village. I didn’t like having to be there, and the village didn’t like me. We were far enough from the Dragon Gate—or so we thought—that my presence was a formality anyway.”

“Then a dragon came.”

“A huge dragon. Bigger than paddy fields. I don’t even know how it could fly.” Sarnai stared hard at her feet. “I froze.”

“You wouldn’t have seen dragons before.”

“I was a coward. And in that moment of cowardice a child was killed. It was so fast. I should have left the jianghu right there and then, but the child’s mother made me promise I would get revenge. That I would bring her the head of that dragon.”

“We’re all cowards,” Kee said, with a wry twist to her mouth. “Sometimes Fate just happens to be cruel enough to give us the chance to prove otherwise.”

“What about you?” Sarnai asked, raising her eyes. “Why are you really hunting dragons?’

“To eat memories that I do not have,” Kee said. Nyonya food laboured to make memories out of love, family memories, with spice and heat and sour and sweet. As the daughter of the Dragon, in the wake of all that she and her mother had wasted between them, this was the closest approximation Kee could get. A reconciliation, of sorts, years late.

“Who taught you how to shoot?”

Kee whirled around, and fumbled her bow in surprise. Her mother was watching from the path down to the river bank, her robes dusty from travel, her beaded bow at her back and her blade at her hip, her fine horse nowhere to be seen. “Mother. You’re early.” The reunion dinner for the Lunar New Year was not for a week, and her mother usually only showed up on the day itself, if at all.

Mother made her graceful way down the path, every step carefully considered. She wore her black hair bunned tightly, with a pale hairpin of white gold, wrought in the shape of a rising dragon. Every year Mother defied Time Herself, somehow: age might wear down and crumple other people, but with each year Mother somehow only looked more beautiful. Kee resented that as much as the rest of her mother. She had inherited her father’s stolid brows and strong jaw, with none of her mother’s grace. The only thing they shared, according to Father, were their eyes.

“Who taught you?” Mother repeated, once she was by Kee’s side. Her fierce dark eyes were steely, and as before, Kee could not meet her stare—she dropped her gaze, sullen.

“Uncle Ryen.”

“A hunter?”

“Sometimes.”

“It shows.” Mother said. Kee started to sputter, and Mother gestured at Kee’s reddened arm. “You’re holding the bow badly. That’s why the bowstring thumps your arm and hurts you. Again. Draw your bow.”

“Why should I have to listen to you? Most of the time, you’re never even here.”

Mother stiffened. For a moment she grew so still that Kee took a step away, anticipating a cuff to her ears, but the movement startled Mother out of her stillness, replacing it with a grief so visible and sudden that Kee stifled a gasp. “Stand straight. Legs apart. Your arms should form a straight line when you draw the bow,” she said, after a long moment, and turned, striding back up the path. Ashamed, Kee nearly called her back, but bit her lip and swallowed the words. At ten years of age, she told herself that she didn’t care. She drew the bow instead, notching an arrow.

It took a few attempts for Kee to figure out what Mother was talking about, and more to hit the target she had set up against the poplar tree. As Kee spun, with a whoop of joy, she thought she saw a flash of white against the trees by the path, but as she paused, squinting, hoping, she knew she was alone.

“There! Over there.” Sarnai stood in her stirrups, pointing at the horizon. Something big and far away wheeled in the sky in a slow circle, drifting against the clouds, angling out of sight towards the distant peaks of the Kuanyin Range.

“Are you sure?” Kee gathered her blankets closer over her shoulders, her nose buried in scarves. It was a dizzyingly cold day.

“Those red feathers. That great beak. Yes. Yes.” Sarnai’s face wore a fierce glow. “I’ll get it this time.”

“Once we close in on the Kuanyin we’ll be out of the Cloud Forest. Would it be safe being in the Kuanyin when night falls?” It was already late afternoon.

“Probably not.” Sarnai didn’t bother hiding her disappointment. “We’ll find a place to set up camp and leave for the Kuanyin in the morning.”

They unpacked at a clearing by a dense thicket of trees. Sarnai helped her set up the tents and start a fire, then mounted back up and rode away into the forest. Tethering Red Rabbit at the periphery of the camp, Kee took the waterskins full of pre-soaked black buah keluak seeds from the saddlebags and drained out the water. She cracked the shells, setting them aside, and marinated the meat of the nuts in lemon juice and brown sugar. Digging out her mortar and pestle, she began to pound the marinated meat into a paste.

The work calmed her with its rhythm, with the satisfying thump! Thump! Of grinding the meat into paste, smoothing out the bumps. She breathed in its scent and the scent of the forest. After this she’d have to stuff the paste back into the shells, then prepare the rempah—

Crack. Red Rabbit snorted, his ears pricking. Kee set down the mortar and pestle. Her bow—her bow was still at the saddle. She had her shelling knife and her cleaver. She clenched her right hand around the handle of the cleaver, shifting the knife to her left, scanning the tree line.

Crack. And now a low, familiar hiss. Kee crouched down, backing away towards a braying, snorting Red Rabbit, even as the dragon stepped out from the shadow of the trees.

It was magnificent. Taller than Kee, sleek and two-legged, spiked with bright yellow feathers against a leathery green hide. It had a snakelike neck and a long muzzle bristling with sharp teeth, and it cocked its head at Kee in a birdlike manner, its small, feathered front limbs twitching. It took another step, its powerful thighs tensing as it crouched.

“Hoi!” Kee tried to imitate Sarnai’s roar. She threw the shelling knife at it, darting to Red Rabbit’s side. The knife bounced off the dragon’s muzzle, and it hissed loudly, lunging with eye-watering speed.

Red Rabbit was faster. He kicked out with both hind legs, catching the dragon in the throat and flank. The dragon let out a shocked keening sound, knocked back and off its feet, scratching at the ground and thrashing its tail against the dirt, shrieking. Kee grabbed her mother’s bow and quiver from the saddle, fumbling the first arrow from her quiver with trembling fingers. She notched the second, drawing badly, and yelped as the bowstring slapped against her wrist, the arrow burying itself high on a tree trunk.

A third arrow. This time the arrow sank into the dragon’s chest as it scrambled to its feet. It shrilled, staggering back, clawing at the arrow, gouging bloody furrows in its own pelt.

Above, the sound of thunder. A shadow waded over the clearing, and the great dragon landed, talons first. It snapped the back of the two-legged dragon with a sharp crack, its vast leathery wings outstretched, its great beaked head as long as Kee was tall, spiked with teeth. It stabbed the beak into the eye of the thrashing two-legged dragon, and twisted cruelly. The body shook with grotesque death-spasms.

Kee backed away. The great dragon shook itself, ripping at the feathered hide of the yellow and green dragon, then tearing out steaming chunks, which it ate with birdlike gulps. Its serpentine neck was naked and scaly, its head crested with red feathers, its body nested with black plumes. It stank with a powerful carrion stench, and as it eyed her and hissed, its foul breath made Kee stumble back and gag.

Sarnai charged out of the trees. She twisted astride the saddle, notching and loosing an arrow in a single smooth motion. Her arrow caught the great dragon in its throat, the next in its shoulder. The dragon shrieked and stabbed forward with its sharp beak, but Sarnai’s horse sprang clear at some hidden signal, back into the tree line.

Kee breathed. She notched her fourth arrow, drawing clean lines from arrowhead to arms. The arrow took the dragon high on its chest, the next deflecting off its beak. It lurched towards her with surprising speed, the claws notched into its wing joints digging into the dirt as it swarmed forward. Its beak snapped forward, catching Kee high on her shoulder even as she tried to run, punching her into the air, though it didn’t breach her winter clothes. She landed hard against a tree, the breath knocked out of her.

Another charge, and a war cry. Sarnai leaped from the saddle of her horse and onto the dragon’s back. She stabbed down with both scimitars, holding on grimly as the dragon shrieked and stumbled back, trying to shake her off. Gritting her teeth, Kee somehow managed to get to her feet. Drawing her mother’s bow felt like she was trying to break her arm off at the shoulder. Somehow she did it anyway. Her next arrow found the dragon’s throat, the next high in its chest. The dragon reared with a scream. Sarnai was thrown free, fetching hard against a tree root with a cry of pain. For a moment Kee thought the dragon would turn, stab down with its great beak, but it shrilled at them instead, shaking itself, clawing back up into the air.

Once Kee was sure that the dragon was gone, she walked cautiously back into the clearing, patting a trembling Red Rabbit until the donkey calmed down. Sarnai was sitting up, rubbing her temple, rueful. “So close,” she said.

“It’s wounded. It might not have gone far.”

“You’d be surprised.” Sarnai looked around, at the dead yellow dragon on the grass, at the overturned pots, the stuffed buah keluak shells scattered in the grass. “I was afraid I wouldn’t come back in time.”

“I knew the risks.”

“And you handled them too. Better than some in the jianghu would have.” Sarnai smiled warmly.

Kee ducked her head. She bent, starting to pick up stuffed shells, those that could be salvaged. There was still enough that she could make a variant of the black-nut stew for dinner, one that every Nyonya woman knew, often the first dish that Nyonya women taught their daughters. She would make it with dragon-meat and Time. Perhaps one day, for Sarnai, with something more. “Rest. Dinner will be in a few hours.”

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

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