Advertisement

To Budapest, with Love

I am seventeen. I am in Budapest, and it is the Communist era. At the airport, there were Russian soldiers with Kalashnikovs patrolling the runways. Only one airline flew to Budapest, the national airline Malév. There were few passengers. I stopped at passport control and showed my American passport. It contains a photograph of me next to my American name. I also have a Hungarian name, but I have not used it for a long time, since my mother changed our names so we could be more American. The passport control officer looked at me suspiciously. For a moment I couldn’t breathe. I felt a tightness in my chest, as though my lungs were being squeezed by a giant hand, like the beginning of a panic attack. Then I reminded myself, he probably looks that way at everyone.

That day, my grandparents, whom I am visiting, let me leave the apartment by myself for the first time. When my mother was seventeen, teenage girls did not walk around the city alone, but I am bored and restless. After all, I’ve been walking myself home from school and letting myself in the front door, then making myself Campbell’s tomato or cream of mushroom soup from concentrate, since I was twelve. So I am allowed to descend two flights of stairs to the ground floor, and cross the street, and walk in the park around the Nemzeti Múzeum. As I walk under the linden trees, I smell something I’ve smelled before: the linden flowers. And I remember holding someone’s hand, and then a swing set, and then flying high in the air, and a song that starts with the words hinta–palinta.

But I also want to walk in the streets, to see more of Budapest, so I do. Just a block because I don’t want to get lost in this strange city, where no one speaks the only language I understand. The apartment buildings around the park are covered with soot from Trabants and Yugos.

There, walking down the street, I feel something for the first time that I will feel again many times in my life. Suddenly, it’s as though I am in a spaceship high above the city, looking down on it from above. I can see myself walking along the street: I am so small, inconsequential on this planet spinning through space. It makes sense that I should be in a spaceship looking down, because I only recently became an America citizen. Before that, I was an alien. A legal one, but still.

Looking down at myself walking along the city street, I think, that poor girl. She doesn’t belong anywhere.

This is a love story, but not a happy one, and I don’t know how it ends.

It begins when I am a child, the one swinging into the sky under the linden trees.

For a long time, I had a green card, which meant I was not yet American.

But I was no longer Hungarian either. I had lost my ability to speak the language. I went to an American elementary school. After school I watched He–Man and Johnny Quest cartoons. At home, my mother did not insist on Hungarian because how was I going to assimilate unless I spoke in English? So we spoke in English.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, assimilate means to “make like” or “cause to resemble.” I needed to be made like an American child. I needed to at least resemble one. But the word also has a secondary meaning, to “absorb and incorporate.” It was not enough to change me on the outside. I must be changed inside as well. I must become American.

Years later, I watch Star Trek on television. The Borg Queen says, “You will be assimilated,” and I think, yes. That’s exactly how it happens. It will take me a long time to realize that, ironically, the Borg are supposed to represent Communism.

When I was eleven, I started reading science fiction. I read about aliens, but not like me. These were science fictional aliens, from other planets. They invaded Earth or they were invaded by Earth. Sometimes they enslaved human beings, sometimes it was the other way around.  They wore either spacesuits or primitive clothes that looked like speedos and bikinis, but you know, gold. They were sometimes green, and sometimes resembled cats. Giant space cats. Sometimes they had the cure for all of Earth’s diseases. Sometimes they brought diseases that devastated humanity.

They never came to Earth and worked in hotels or opened restaurants, although that would have been more realistic.

There is one constant in alien stories. The alien and human are always in opposition to each other.

What does that make me, I wonder.

I started understanding Hungarian again the day I realized it was the opposite of English. Whatever I wanted to say in English, in Hungarian I had to say the opposite. Trying to reason from English to Hungarian always got me into trouble.

In Hungarian, tegnap is yesterday, not tomorrow.

Bor is wine, not beer.

Nyolc is eight, not nine.

In Hungarian, át does not mean at, but across or through.

Subject–verb–object, I tell my American university students. That is the basic structure of an English sentence.

But in Hungarian, it’s object–verb, and the subject is often implied. If I am in Budapest, Budapesten vagyok. I exist only in a case ending.

I am thirteen. My best friend Amy and I are swinging on the apartment complex swing set. She does not feel human either. Years later, she will write from college to tell me she is in love with another woman, that at some level she has always known she is gay. Marriage equality will still be many years in the future. That day, we talk about how a ship will come down from the sky to take us home. Our home planet is much more exciting than Earth. There, we are princesses. We fly genetically–engineered dragons. We save entire civilizations. We wear clothes of silver mesh, with boots that come up to our thighs. We fight sky pirates.

Then we kick our legs higher and higher, so we can feel as though we are flying.

She writes her name Aimée because it’s more exciting. I am still legally Dóra but I write my name Dora because it’s more American. That’s how I’ve been told to write it.

I continue to not feel human. I am, in fact, not feeling human now, as I sit here looking out the window at the trees in the park around the Nemzeti Múzeum. There is a bird somewhere, making a sound like castanets. At first I thought it was some sort of machine.

I am forty–seven years old, and I have been back many times. I still do not feel at home here, but then I do not feel at home anywhere else either. This is as close to home as I think I’m going to get. Unless a spaceship comes for me, of course.

Don’t laugh. It could happen.

When I am twenty–five, I go back to Hungary for the first time since the Berlin Wall fell. Now there are no longer Yugos and Trabants on the road. Now there are Mercedes Benzes parked outside Russian casinos, and beggars sleeping on the streets. Budapest has become a frontier town in the get–rich–quick dreams of the West.

The last time I saw her, my city was dressed in sackcloth and ashes. Now she parades topless beside the Danube in a show called Girls Sexx Girls. I don’t know what to think of her.

We have not talked for a long time, and she has become so different. This is called alienation of affection, I think. Someone has taken her away from me, tempted her with money and fame.

“What happened to you?” I ask.

Girls Sexx Girls, she answers in neon light.

The OED tells me that alienation has several meanings. First, it is the “state of being estranged.” I have become a stranger to Budapest, and she has become a stranger to me, even though I was born here. I know because it’s the only thing I can read on my birth certificate.

It also tells me that in Marxist theory, alienation means the “condition of workers in a capitalist economy, resulting from a lack of identity with the products of their labour and a sense of being controlled or exploited.” Do aliens feel that way, I wonder. Do the Borg ever lament their alienation from the methods of production? They mostly seem to run around shouting “Resistance is futile!”

What about the alien in Alien? Does she feel discontented? Does she want something better for herself? For her children? Is the entire movie really a metaphor for the revolution, about how if the proletariat don’t get what they want, they will find their way inside the power structure and burst out of its chest? Or am I overthinking this?

A year after Alien appears in theaters, Ronald Reagan will be elected president. He will call on the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall. Once the wall is down, aliens will start invading Western Europe. I don’t know, the timing seems significant.

When I return from Hungary, I ask my mother why she brought me to America. After all, I’ve lost my city, my country, even my grandparents, who are once again behind the Iron Curtain. When I send them letters, I have to be careful what I write, because my letters will be opened by the police.

She says, “To give you opportunities you could not have had there.”

So maybe it’s more like Kara Zor–El’s mother putting her in a spaceship and sending her to earth, where she can become Supergirl. Except I don’t have any superpowers. I can’t fly, and I’m certainly not bulletproof. I’m not even proof against the ordinary teasing and gossip of high school girls. I don’t think I’ll be defeating supervillains anytime soon. I mean, I barely survived calculus.

Each time I come back, Budapest is different. By the time I am forty–five, she has returned to her old self––a courtesan whose best days may be behind her, still beautiful despite her wrinkles and age spots, basking in the sun beside the Danube.

“Vienna is richer than you are,” I tell her.

“You don’t care about Vienna,” she answers, smiling. “You come back, over and over again. You don’t care if I’m dirty or poor. The air here is the only air you can breathe without effort. Everywhere else, you have to wear an invisible mask, a filtration system. You can’t adjust to the atmosphere. Here, the sunlight is the right color. Here, food tastes the way it should.”

“I’ll leave you and never come back,” I say.

She answers only, “I’d like to see you try.”

In Hungarian, when you are in a country or city, you are either –ban or –ben. Amerikában. Bostonban. But you are on Hungary, Magyarországon: the suffix is –on or –en. That’s because to the Magyars, Hungary was the world, and they rode their short, sturdy horses across it, from one horizon to the other.  It’s the same for Budapest. When I am there, I am Budapesten. I am standing on Budapest, and from here I can see everything.

By the time I am thirty–three, I’ve become a hyphenated American. This is a new century. Multiculturalism is an important topic at my university, and suddenly we are all hybrid, interstitial. I am Hungarian–American, but what does that actually mean? If I’m not fully American, but I’m not fully Hungarian either, where do I fit? Not on either side of the hyphen. Then perhaps I am the hyphen?

I imagine inhabiting a two–dimensional planet, an immigrant Flatland where I have no substance or shadow. I exist only on a straight line between.

As I write this, which is neither a story nor an essay, perhaps a hyphenated story–essay, I am in Budapest, and the birds that perch on the roof are clicking like castanets. I am leaving in the morning. Great Britain has just voted to leave the European Union, and I’m suddenly afraid that time will go backward, and soot will descent on the buildings, and there will be Yugos in the streets again.

I thought the future was going to be like Star Trek, with all of us living together as one human family. We got our communicators, right? Later I will call my daughter and talk to her, just waking up in the morning, six hours behind me. I will see her face, with the confident grin of a typical American teenager, on the small screen of my cell phone. “See you tonight,” I’ll say, and then I’ll fly across the ocean to have dinner with her in Boston. Surely it’s not that far from here to the Enterprise.

But today the future feels as though it’s turning into something by William Gibson. Neuromancer, maybe. Except that novel’s most famous metaphor is already out of date. Most of my students can’t imagine a sky like a television tuned to a dead channel. They’ve never seen a dead channel. They watch television on their cell phones. Someday, I suspect, cell phones will be implanted in them directly, and they will simply have to close their eyes. They will have become cyborgs. That’s another way of being assimilated, but also alienated. In that future, we will all be aliens, right here on Earth.

When I am seven, I see America for the first time through an airplane window. It looks like stars, far below me in the darkness. I am told those stars are the lights of New York City.

It’s difficult becoming American. I must learn to eat new foods. Will I be able to survive in this strange place on Wonder Bread, which you can scrunch up into a ball and bounce on the kitchen table? Campbell’s soup from concentrate? Captain Crunch? The atmosphere here is different, heavier than on my home planet. The sun is not as bright. This planet must be farther from its sun.

I watch The Brady Bunch. Perhaps if I become like Marsha Brady, the inhabitants of this strange place will accept me as one of them.

When I am twenty–one, I watch Alien on my boyfriend’s VHS player. I sympathize with the alien. She’s a mother, after all. She’s only trying to protect her children. Find a better life for them, one with more opportunities. What mother would do less?

Imagine what it’s going to be like for those little aliens, growing up in a world inhabited by human beings. They’ll probably need to disguise themselves as human, learn how to eat human food, how to speak English. They might try to look like Marsha Brady. In fact, the entire Brady Bunch may be a family of aliens trying to pass as human. That would explain a lot.

Nevertheless, they’ll probably be teased in school. It’s not easy being a creature from outer space. Trust me, I know.

If I am at home anywhere, it is here, in Budapest speaking a language I only fitfully understand, in a city I will probably never inhabit.

The Hungarian language is not related to any other language in Europe. Finnish, maybe, but even that is a tenuous connection. I once saw a chart on which the languages of Europe were represented as a tree. Hungarian was off by itself, a branch growing from the trunk, unconnected to any other branches. I wondered if it was lonely.

It sounds like something made up for a television show, like Klingon. Except I think Klingon is probably easier to learn.

It sounds like something spoken by an alien species. Perhaps it was taught to the Hungarians by the same aliens who built Stonehenge, and Machu Picchu, and the Egyptian pyramids. Or perhaps Hungarians are aliens. That would account for the prevalence of high cheekbones.

On a SwissAir flight over the Atlantic, I watch John Carter of Mars on the small screen on the back of the seat in front of me. It’s in English, but somehow I’ve managed to turn on the Chinese subtitles, and I don’t know how to turn them off. I decide the movie is actually better with Chinese subtitles. It adds a sense of dislocation that seems entirely appropriate.

During World War II, a group of Hungarian scientists emigrated to the United States. They were Jews fleeting the Nazi occupation of Hungary and when they arrived, they joined the Allied war effort. Among other things, they helped to develop the atomic bomb. Because of their religion and strange accents, they were not immediately accepted into American society. One of them, the physicist Leó Szilárd, jokingly referred to them as “the Martians.” The name stuck, and the group is still known by that name. If you don’t believe me, go on, look it up on your communicator.

When asked about the possibility of alien life, Szilárd responded, “They are already here among us: they just call themselves Hungarians.” See, what did I tell you?

When the plane took off, I remember thinking, hinta–palinta.

When I am a fifteen, I realize with satisfaction that “alienation” can be written “alien–nation.” I come from an alien nation.

Like a typical teenager, I hate everyone, including myself. I am alien–nated. Does that “nated” come from the same root as native, nativity, natal? Does it mean I am alien born?

Well then, I am an alien born.

The OED says that “alien” comes from the Latin alienus, which means, among other things, “of or belonging to others, unnatural, unusual, unconnected, separate, of another country, foreign, unrelated, of a different variety or species, unfamiliar, strange, unfriendly, unsympathetic, unfavourable, inappropriate, incompatible, distasteful, repugnant.” Repugnant? That’s a bit much.

In its fourth definition of the word, the OED mentions its use in science fiction: “of, belonging to, or relating to an (intelligent) being or beings from another planet; designating such a being; extraterrestrial.” I’ll take intelligent over repugnant, thank you. Even in parentheses.

In the Budapest airport bookstore, I find a copy of The Little Prince in Hungarian.

Back in Boston, everything seems wrong. I’ve flown from one ancient city bisected by a river to another, but that river is the wrong color, and the sky looks like a television tuned to a dead channel in the 1980s. I can’t taste the food: it’s as though I’m chewing on cardboard. My stomach hurts. I have a perpetual headache. Somehow, I seem to have wandered into an alternate reality, the one in which time travelers failed to stop World War II.

Every morning, to practice my Hungarian, I read a chapter of The Little Prince, or more accurately, A Kis Herceg. It’s exciting to recognize words I know. Bolygó: planet.  Repülőgép: airplane. Róka: fox. Rósza: rose. Óriáskígyó: boa constrictor. I learned that one at the Budapest zoo. The little prince comes from egy kisbolygó, a small planet, as I come from a small country. He’s also searching for home, answers, the cure for a broken heart. We’ve both felt the sting of a fickle rose, although mine is an entire city.

Maybe I can find a friendly fox. Or, you know, aviator.

It occurs to me that I will be leaving Budapest for the rest of my life. As though we are in one of those movies with Richard Gere or Diane Lane where two people meet for a month each summer until they are old and one of them dies. I will die before Budapest, which is reassuring.

What will happen to her? In a future I won’t see, will she grow into a city of steel and glass? Will spaceships from Mars and beyond dock at her towers? Will aliens from other worlds eat gulyásleves and somlói galuska in her restaurants? Will they sit in her bars drinking palinka, speaking alien languages, like a scene out of Star Wars? Will they go shopping on Váci utca?

Or will she drown when global warming raises the Danube? Will her buildings, crumbling by then, be flooded by jade–green water? Will her inhabitants develop gills and live beneath its murky surface?

Or will she be bombed again in World War III, as she was the last two times? Will her buildings and bridges burn? Please, I think, let me not see that happen.

When I am fifty–three, when I am seventy–five, when I am ninety–one I will return, assuming I’m still around. Who knows, by then I might be half machine, or half green gill–woman in a gold bikini. I will go back and stand in the park around the Nemzeti Múzeum and think, this is me spinning through space, but it does not matter, because for now, for a little while, I am Magyarországon, Budapesten. At least I am standing on my own ground.

I can smell the linden flowers…

Someone asks me why I write stories about space aliens, alternate histories, dystopian futures. Stories that could be classified as science fiction. I answer, because I’m a realist.

(Editors’ Note: “To Budapest, with Love” is read by Amal El–Mohtar and Theodora Goss is interviewed by Julia Rios on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 14B.)

The Unknown God

Aworo, Lord of Horses, god of the Western plains, walked into the marketplace in Kalub in the third hour of the morning. It was early summer, and at this hour the sun was warm and comfortable. Pens of livestock and slaves, rickety stalls, rows of fish staring blankly, baskets of fruit, orange and red and purple, clay jars of wine and beer, surrounded a fountain twenty feet across. The water came from the Nalendar, the river a short walk to the east, the supreme god of the city, the one being Aworo didn’t want to meet right now.

Down the street was the gilded roof of the temple of the god Smerdis, who Aworo did want to meet. But he was tired, and hungry and thirsty.

Perched on the lip of the fountain was a wide, shallow bowl and in it sat a large, gray–green frog. “Aworo!” the frog croaked. “You bastard! I thought you’d gone back to the plains! Does the Nalendar know you’re here?” Aworo shrugged, and the frog asked, “Where have you been? You look awful, and you smell worse.”

“Out in the hills, to the west.” Aworo scooped up water and drank from his hands, and then, “With atheists,” he confessed.

“Atheists!” The frog gaped. “You?”

“I didn’t say I was an atheist. I’ve just been living with them.” He leaned against the stone edge. “Do you know what they believe?”

“All sorts of things,” the frog said, “some of them less sane than others. I had one tell me right to my face that I wasn’t real.”

“These particular atheists,” said Aworo, “believe that this world is a fake. A copy of the real one. They say the real one is pure mind and perfect, incapable of change. Which is how they know the difference.”

“Oh,” croaked the frog. “And that’s why they camp in the hills, eating grass and never bathing?”

“They don’t eat grass. They meditate on Truth.” Truth was changeless, single, distant from this world. Above the noise and clamor of the market, past it, the roof of the temple of Smerdis shone in the sunlight. When he’d last been in Kalub, a year before, he’d paid no attention to Smerdis’ cult.

“Meditate, eh?” asked the frog. “Not the most reliable way to determine the truth, in my experience. How’s it been working for you?”

“I don’t know yet.” The frog honked derisively. “Look,” Aworo said, determined to change the subject. “I want some cash, but I don’t want to ask the Nalendar for it.”

“I wouldn’t either, if I were you,” said the frog. “You’ve got some nerve just setting foot in Kalub. You seduced one of her best fraud investigators!”

Aworo had thought he was master of himself, until he’d met Saest. He’d never felt such an exquisite, breath–catching feeling before. Marry me, he’d said to her that night on the river’s edge, and why not? He was living a man’s life. There was no reason he shouldn’t marry.

He was incredulous at her refusal, and then furious. Can’t leave the Nalendar? Have it your way! Turn away from the river and die! And he’d felt it go out of him, the power that would make his words the truth, and horrified at himself, he’d turned and run, and left Saest to her fate.

Even a year later he didn’t want to think about it. He pulled his seal up out of his dirty tunic. “Do you know who’ll take a voucher? Without tossing me out the door?”

“Not me,” said the frog. “I can’t afford to make the river angry at me.”

A year ago the frog had made a small but sufficient living fishing lost objects out of wells and ponds in exchange for prayers, but it hadn’t had any money. “You? Got a new line of work?”

The frog puffed proudly. “Have I! I remove wrinkles and moisturize skin. It’s very minor work, really, just a little tweaking of muscles and skin cells. I don’t know why more gods aren’t doing it, it keeps me in prayers. And sacrifices! I never got many sacrifices before.”

“Where does the money come from?”

“I have a boy,” said the frog. “He makes up a sort of lotion and sells it. And look here.” The frog leaned aside. On the bottom of the bowl were several coins. “People just toss them in now and then! I’m telling you, I should have thought of this years ago. I have an account at the temple of the Nalendar. I’m saving up, going to have a little shrine built if I can get enough together.”

Aworo eyed the coins, calculating. “If you’ve got a tablet, I can seal a draft for the coppers you’ve got there. I’ve got enough in my account to cover it.”

“I’m sure you do,” said the frog, “but like I said, I’m not going to risk angering the Nalendar. Unless you’ve come to clear up the mess you’ve made.”

“How can I?” Aworo asked, bitter. “Some things can’t be undone.”

“Well, it’s not like she’s dead!” exclaimed the frog, and then it croaked in surprise. “Did you think she was dead?”

A strange feeling fluttered in Aworo’s stomach. He was afraid to try to name it. “Yes.”

“Oho! So now the whole atheist business makes sense. You thought you’d killed her. But she’s not dead yet. The Nalendar took her to an island in the river. Didn’t think of that, did you? But if that’s not why you’re back, what are you doing here?”

Aworo was suddenly embarrassed. “It’s… haven’t you ever wondered? If there was… more?” He didn’t mention the temple of Smerdis.

“More?” asked the frog. “You mean like the perfect universe of your atheists? Or are you asking about what happens to humans after they die, or gods who tell big enough lies? Easy enough to find out, isn’t it? Just make a statement out loud, you’ll know soon enough if it’s not true!” It chuffed and rumbled a bit, amused at itself.

The witticism was an old one. Aworo ignored it. “Sometimes, out in the hills, meditating, I’ve felt… something.”

“The right sort of head injury will do that,” said the frog.

It took Aworo a few moments to organize his thoughts, to be sure he didn’t say anything regrettable. “I notice you’re not saying straight out that there’s no such thing as fate, or a higher power, or an afterlife.”

“That’s because I’m not an idiot,” said the frog. “Whatever my private suspicions, I don’t like gambling with those stakes. And neither do you, or you’d have tried it yourself by now. But enough of this. You’re scaring customers away. And I’ll only help you if it’s worth my while.” It puffed thoughtfully. “I’m not above currying favor with the river. I’ll give you cash in return for your draft if you say, right here and now, that you’ll remove the curse you put on Saest.”

Aworo blinked. The strange feeling was back. He opened his mouth to say I don’t know if I can but his attention was arrested by the sound of his own name.

Slightly around the circumference of the fountain, a man in a long green coat held the reins of a nicely groomed, spavined black horse. “Sired by one of the sacred stallions of Aworo, on the plains,” he was saying to another man. “But as you can see, these white markings here disqualified him—the stallions of Aworo must be without flaw! Which is how I got him so cheap.” That horse had never been sired by one of Aworo’s own, Aworo was certain. The other man, examining the horse, nodded sagely, impressed.

Aworo narrowed his eyes, drew a breath to speak.

“Temper!” warned the frog.

“I need to raise the money right away,” the green–coated man was saying, “or I’d never part with him, let alone at this price.”

The frog was right. Whatever Aworo said would be made true—or Aworo would regret it. Like all gods, he was circumspect from habit, but sometimes… Aworo took another breath. “He’s cheating you,” he said, loud enough for the green–coated man’s customer to hear. “That’s not one of Aworo’s horses, and it’s half–lame already.”

The green–coated man gave Aworo a dubious look, took in the dirty tunic, the bare feet. “How do you know that, sir?”

“I’m Aworo.”

The customer gaped, and the green–coated man laughed. “Of course you are.” He caught his prospective buyer’s eye and made a gesture towards his forehead. The two men and the horse moved away from the fountain.

“You,” Aworo began. A few words would strike the man dead, but Aworo wanted something more satisfying.

“Lord of Horses!” croaked the frog, quietly. “Don’t say a word.”

“He’s using my name.”

“It’s not a good idea to speak without thinking, Aworo!” The frog scrabbled at the bottom of its bowl, agitated. “Look here, take the coppers, pay me back later. Get a bath and some clothes and finish your business with Saest!”

A bath and a shave, and a visit to a second–hand clothes stall, made Aworo presentable enough to get a room in a decent guesthouse on the strength of his seal. After rolling it across a clay tablet and agreeing to the charges for room and food and drink, he sat down in the house’s common room to a bowl of fish stew and a stack of flat bread, and didn’t look up for a full twenty minutes.

When he’d finished he saw that the room was more crowded. The woman who’d brought his bowl was fetching cups and pitchers, and he stopped her as she passed, her arms full of crockery, and asked her for beer. It came sooner than he expected, and he sat drinking, watching the people around him.

Saest was alive. He had cursed himself for his cowardice and now he was even more disgusted with himself, both for not thinking of the obvious solution that the Nalendar had seen immediately, and for abandoning a woman he loved. He’d spent the last year wondering if what some humans said was true, that something survived after death. If somehow he could tell Saest he was sorry, get her forgiveness. And now he found she was alive after all and he sat here afraid to actually face her, dreading that moment.

“Mind if I join you?” The speaker was a short, stocky man with a neatly trimmed beard and an expensive–looking dark blue coat. Aworo made a gesture of assent, and the man pulled out a stool and sat. “Crowded today!” Aworo agreed that it was. “I’m Nes Imosa.” His accent said he was from the northern Nalendar valley.

“I’m Aworo.”

Nes Imosa’s eyes widened. “Distinguished name! I suppose your parents hoped you’d be good with horses.” Aworo opened his mouth to say something noncommittal, but the other man kept talking. “I came down yesterday with a boatload of grain. I love Kalub at this time of year, and there’s nothing like the baths! I mean, a man can get a hot bath at home, but there’s something special about the hot springs. Not to mention the pretty serving girls at the bath houses.” He winked.

“You left your wife at home, then?”

Nes Imosa laughed as though Aworo had told a tremendously amusing joke. “Ah! Ha ha! I did. Though the wife likes a soak when she can get it, too. And,” his expression was suddenly earnest. “I don’t give her reason to complain. Take my advice, and never give your wife reason to complain! It makes it much easier to take the waters at Kalub every now and then.” He winked again. “Married yourself?”

“No.”

“Oh, I know that look,” said Nes Imosa. “She left you?”

“She wouldn’t marry me to begin with.” Aworo looked around for the serving woman, hoping for more beer.

“Hah! When a woman says no, it wasn’t meant to be, it’s better that way.”

“I’m convinced you’re right,” said Aworo.

“I am, I am! So, what are you here for? You’re not from Kalub, not with that name and that accent.”

Aworo thought of the frog, skeptical by the side of the well. “I’m curious,” he said. “I’ve been hearing a lot about this god, Smerdis… ”

“Smerdis!” Nes Imosa said, surprised. “Smerdis. Yes, I’ve heard of him. The One, the Supreme, his followers call him, but I’ve never heard that he’s done much for anyone. Well, there’s Smerdis’ bull—pure white, they say, with gilded horns.”

Aworo had heard of devotees who, laying a hand on the bull as it passed, had been granted inner peace and enlightenment. “There’s a procession…”

“Every month. They’d like to do it more often, of course, but they can’t get the permit. Can’t have gods parading around the city whenever they like, we’d never get anything done!”

Aworo nodded. “Do you know when it is?”

“Tomorrow afternoon, I think. Or you can go into the temple, and for a fee you ask a question and the bull nods or stamps or what have you, for an answer. For a slightly larger fee a priest watches it walk round its ring and then produces a few lines of doggerel.” Nes Imosa shook his head. “Supposedly Smerdis so transcends this corrupt world that only the specially trained can receive his messages, and even then they’re garbled. And what good is that, I ask you?”

“I’ve heard,” Aworo ventured, thinking of the perfect world of the atheist’s teachings, “that the benefits he confers are spiritual rather than physical.”

“Yes, yes, I’ve heard that too, and I don’t say I think much of it. My spirits are always in good shape when my body is too!” He laughed again, very amused at himself. “It’s true that some people seem to have… something wrong. And maybe Smerdis helps them. I couldn’t say. I’d rather deal with a god I can get an answer from, one who’s got a track record.”

“I don’t blame you,” said Aworo. The serving woman set down a pitcher on the table, took the old one away.

“Yes, girl, that’s just what we need,” said Nes Imosa, with good–natured enthusiasm.

The woman was broad–shouldered and tall—a good six inches taller than Nes Imosa. She hadn’t been a girl for a few years at least. But she turned and asked, pleasantly enough, “What, sir?”

Nes Imosa grinned up at her. “More beer!”

As the evening progressed, and the serving woman brought more pitchers, Nes Imosa became even more voluble. How he’d learned the rumor and gossip—some of it from across the continent—Aworo wasn’t sure; Nes Imosa never seemed to stop talking long enough to learn a new story. But somehow, in the very early hours of the morning, Aworo was struck with a confessional impulse and found Nes Imosa listening intently, if drunkenly, to his intentionally vague tale of having fallen in love last year, been turned down, and left the woman in trouble.

The words in trouble had a galvanizing effect on Nes Imosa. “You can’t leave a woman in that condition!” He punctuated his exclamation by striking the table with his cup. “Where is she?”

“An island in the…” Before he could finish, Nes Imosa had Aworo by the arm and was pulling him up off his seat. “It’s not that kind of trouble,” Aworo insisted.

“Girl!” cried Nes Imosa, “put it all on my bill!” And next thing Aworo knew they were stumbling down to the river to look for a boat.

The sun was just rising as the boat scraped the shore of the island. “I doubt anyone’s awake,” said the fisherman they’d paid to row them over.

“No worries,” said Nes Imosa and staggered onto the beach. Birds twittered, and somewhere along the shore a heron made its scratching croak. The fisherman shook his head doubtfully and Aworo climbed out. “Hallooo!” called Nes Imosa. “Aworo’s lady!”

Appalled, Aworo listened to the echoes of Nes Imosa’s shout die down. Five minutes later Saest came out of the woods, her dark hair down, a large brown shawl wrapped around her. “You!” she said, striding up to where the two men stood. “You’re drunk!”

“Best way to do this sort of thing,” said Nes Imosa.

“I’m not drunk!” said Aworo, and then staggered and dropped to his knees as the lie hit. A wash of nausea overtook him. “I didn’t think I was,” he said.

“Lady,” said Nes Imosa, with a courtly bow. “I am…”

“I don’t care who you are,” Saest said. “And you.” She turned to Aworo. Her voice had suddenly turned flat. He’d never seen her so angry. “Unless you’ve come to remove the curse you put on me, you can leave right now.”

Aworo looked over his shoulder—carefully, sudden movement was too disquieting. The boat was gone. He looked back to Saest. “I don’t know if I can.”

Nes Imosa pointed. “You! I know who you are! You’re Aworo!”

“I told you I was,” said Aworo, irritably. The sun seemed awfully bright for so early. “The boat left.”

“Swim!” said Saest, and turned and walked back the way she’d come.

Saest lived in a house with two other priestesses of the Nalendar, who tended a beacon at the end of the island. What Saest did wasn’t clear. Perhaps nothing more than tend the garden and feed the chickens, which, Aworo thought, would certainly have contributed to her resentment at being stuck here.

Inside, once the shutters were open, was warm and bright—though not so bright as outside. Food cooked over a low fire at one end of the room. One woman rolled up mats and blankets on the floor, while another took crockery off a shelf. “What exciting work!” said Nes Imosa, digging into a plate of eggs with a chunk of flat bread. “Chasing down swindlers.”

“Yes, it was,” said Saest, with venom. She sat at the end of the table, still wrapped in the shawl, though her hair was now tied up in a blue scarf. A priestess put a plate of eggs in front of Aworo. He waved it away and put his head in his hands.

“Everyone knows who you are now,” said Nes Imosa, blithely. “I’ve always wondered, why doesn’t the Nalendar just say something like everyone who tries to cheat me will die?”

“Too broad,” said the woman who was still holding Aworo’s spurned breakfast.

“She could narrow it down.”

“No,” said Aworo, still looking at the table. It was plain polished wood with a swirling, convoluted grain. “It’s too dangerous.”

“There are hard ways to do things, and easy ways,” said Saest. “The hard ways cost more. If a god makes a general statement, it could easily come true the hardest way possible. And it might have other consequences.”

“The more specific you can be, the more control you have,” said Aworo, not looking up. “For instance, if I knew what caused hangovers.” Saest made a derisive snort. “If I knew how they worked, I might be able to make a statement that would affect a very small thing, something that would ultimately end the hangover. If I were just to say that I didn’t have a hangover anymore—imagine all the conditions under which that might be true. Anything could happen.” He considered for a moment whether it would be worth the risk. He was revered on the plains, prayers and sacrifices were regular and plentiful, he was powerful. But he remembered the blow of the untruth down by the water, and decided he’d taken enough chances for one day. “The more things that would have to happen to make it true, the more power it would take.”

“What causes hangovers?” asked Nes Imosa.

“Drinking too much,” said Saest, acerbic. Nes Imosa laughed.

Aworo winced. “I never made it a study. There are other gods for that. I think it’s a couple of different things.”

“So it’s easier,” said Nes Imosa, “for the Nalendar to send out investigators pretending to be rich young widows.”

“We’re not all undercover,” said Saest, “but yes.”

“I’d be afraid to defraud the Nalendar,” announced Nes Imosa. “Much, much too powerful. Besides, the whole temple deposit system makes it so much easier to do business up and down the river. Very convenient. I would hate to do anything to compromise it.”

“You’d be amazed what people try,” Saest said. “People come in with forged seals every day. Sometimes they’re obvious, but sometimes they’re very well done. Or there’ll be a team—one person will deposit money in Kalub and get a seal for the account, and make a copy. Then a confederate will take the copy to another city, and they’ll both withdraw most of the money on the same day. It takes the messenger with the day’s numbers a while to reach the other temples, and meantime they’ve gotten away with twice the money they started with.”

“Ingenious!” Nes Imosa was clearly impressed. “And you track these people down and catch them in the act.”

“I used to.” She was bitter again.

“Friend Aworo,” said Nes Imosa, his voice scolding. “This won’t do. You’re just going to have to remove that curse.”

“The Nalendar has lots of people working for her,” Aworo said. “It’s not like Saest was the only one.” He couldn’t see Saest’s reaction, but he could imagine it. “Besides, I have to be careful how I do it.”

“You’ve had a year to think about it,” Saest pointed out.

He looked up. The sun shone in the open shutters, making her brown skin glow warmly, and her eyes… His breath caught for a moment, a stomach–turning combination of desire and shame. “I thought you were dead.”

“Ridiculous!” said Nes Imosa. “You should have known better.”

“Thank you,” said Saest. “So what have you been doing for the last year?”

He owed her the unevasive truth, but couldn’t bring himself to say.

“Looking for the mythical Higher Power,” Nes Imosa said. “The god of gods.”

Aworo was struck with horror at how much he’d said, that he’d thought had been vague and equivocating, during last night’s drunken conversation. “I really did think you were dead,” he said. “I wanted… If there was something beyond this world, or someone to forgive me what I’d done…”

“You were looking for justification,” Saest said. “When you decided to be human you went all out, didn’t you.”

Aworo sighed and put his head down on his arms.

He woke stiff and sore, still bent over the table. The sun no longer shone in the unshuttered window, the fire at the end of the room was banked, and he was alone. He pushed himself up, creaky and unsteady, and went outside.

One of the priestesses was throwing grain to the chickens. Without speaking, she gestured down the pathway that led to the shore.

A rowboat rested on the beach. A few yards away, Saest was conferring with Nes Imosa. “Drinking too much indeed,” Nes Imosa was saying as Aworo walked up. “But it seemed like such a good idea at the time.” Saest snorted and Nes Imosa flinched. “I beg you madam. The light, the noise… I can hardly bear it.”

“Saest,” said Aworo.

“I don’t want to hear it,” said Saest, her voice even. “I don’t want your apology, I don’t want you to tell me you love me, or that it was all your fault, or all my fault.”

“But I…”

“You nearly killed me because you loved me?” asked Saest, angry again. “You leave me trapped here for a year because you loved me? You can’t decide whether or not to free me because you loved me?” Nes Imosa winced, and backed away from her, but she ignored him. “I can do without that sort of love!”

“Aworo, don’t say anything more,” begged Nes Imosa. “Just get in the boat.”

Back on shore, they parted ways, Nes Imosa to a bath house and Aworo back to the guesthouse common room. Guests sat at a few tables, and over in a corner a knot of men were throwing dice. Aworo ordered cheese and bread and beer and sat by himself for some time, thinking.

Before he’d tried being human, he’d never thought much about Truth in the abstract. Truth was what was, the way things were. Once he’d been human a while, truth became a slippery concept. Things that seemed true were provably not. Convictions presented themselves to him from nowhere he could trace. He’d thought Saest was dead, believed it utterly, and yet it had been untrue, and Nes Imosa was right, he should have known it.

He was afraid to state his motives for anything aloud, because he could never be sure if what he thought was true, or something his human mind had provided after the fact in some attempt to make order out of its own chaos.

Running away from the river that night, he had first been horrified at what he’d done, and the fact that he was running away. By the next day he began to entertain the idea that it had all been beyond his control, not his fault. The teachings of the atheists he’d spent the fall and winter with had reinforced that idea—this world was broken, corrupt. Nothing went as it should. Living creatures were merely following their natures, and no one was at fault but the power that had brought this flawed world into being. And none of it mattered. The only important thing was to purify oneself so that one could shed one’s imperfections and reach the universal Truth.

Over at the table where the men were dicing a familiar voice cried out. Aworo looked up and recognized the man in the green coat, who the morning before had sold the horse he’d claimed was one of Aworo’s own.

Before Aworo could get up, Nes Imosa sank into the seat across from him. “You’re looking better. Ha ha! Girl! Some bread!” He grimaced. “And a pitcher of water.” When the food came he took a chunk of bread. “I don’t think I’d like being a god. I mean, I’d like the power, who wouldn’t? Girl! Cheese!” He took a swig of water. “Feeling much better now, must be the food. But as I was saying. Can you imagine, never being able to lie?” He laughed. “Oh, ha ha! You can! Well, you can twist words around, but there are some things you just can’t get past. But now.” Nes Imosa looked up as the woman brought the cheese. “Some of those mussels as well, my dear.” He looked around and then lowered his voice. “What are you going to do about this curse? She’s safe as long as she stays on the island, it’s true, but I know I wouldn’t want to be stuck there. Not if I couldn’t leave. Ha ha!”

“The thing is,” Aworo said, and then waited as the dice–players shouted, variously triumphant or disappointed. “The thing is, I didn’t specify how she would die if she turned away from the river. And I don’t know what would be likely to happen right now if she did.”

The mussels arrived in a steaming bowl of broth. “Help yourself,” Nes Imosa invited. “So is it something that’s likely to hurt you really badly?” He picked up an open shell and blew on the meat inside. “If it’s something that big, then it’s going to cost you that much to begin with, right?”

The mussels smelled good. Aworo took one while he tried to make sense of what Nes Imosa was asking. “Are you asking if since I spent a certain amount of power when I made the statement, it should take the same amount of power to take it back?”

“Ha ha. Right.”

“Imagine I’d said that a particular person was dead. And a certain amount of power was to have made that true. How much would it take, for me to take that back?”

“Ah! I see your point,” Nes Imosa said genially, scooping up another mussel. “So. I’m curious. Most gods possess a person or an animal some of the time, but that’s not what you’re doing.”

Aworo sighed. “No.”

“In fact—correct me if I’m wrong—gods hardly ever use humans that way.”

“I wouldn’t say hardly ever.” The dice players shouted again, and the serving woman brought a new pitcher of beer. Aworo reached out to fill his cup again, and then remembered the night before and took some cheese instead. “But not like this, not very often.”

“So, ha ha! Why are you doing it?”

“Because sometimes—not very often, understand, but it happens—humans do something completely unpredictable. You make such careful plans, and you think you know someone—I can know, from the moment a particular human is born, what they’ll look like and mostly how they’ll act when they’re grown. But sometimes…”

“Ah!” said Nes Imosa. “I understand you. All your ideas about humans are one thing, but being one is quite another. So, what have you learned?”

Aworo took another mussel. “Sometimes I think even humans don’t understand why they do what they do.”

Nes Imosa grinned. “Ha ha! Nothing I didn’t know already.”

As Aworo left the guesthouse, he glanced at the green–coated man. But there wasn’t time, not if he wanted to see Smerdis.

At this late afternoon hour the market stalls were empty and shuttered, the street eerily quiet, even with people gathered to watch the procession. As he walked by the fountain, he heard a familiar croak. The frog was still perched in its bowl on the edge of the basin. Next to it sat a young man, pale, almost girlishly pretty, eating something wrapped in bread.

“Aworo!” called the frog. “This is my boy.” The boy nodded perfunctorily, all his attention on his food.

“The one who sells your lotion?” Aworo asked. “What does it do, anyway?”

“It smells very nice,” said the frog.

The boy swallowed. “It moisturizes and refreshes the skin,” he said, his voice surprisingly deep. Aworo couldn’t place the accent.

“Isn’t he wonderful!” said the frog. “I got him from one of the slave pens down the street. He was a scrawny little thing, the dealers didn’t know what they had! Half of what he brings in I spend feeding him, but he sells a lot. Very popular with the women. They love the accent. So where are you off to?”

“I’m here to see Smerdis.”

The frog croaked in surprise. “Smerdis!” It shifted uneasily in its bowl. “Look here, Aworo. I’ve never met Smerdis, and none of the gods I’ve asked have either.” The boy laughed, at what Aworo wasn’t sure. “He doesn’t have an account at the temple of the Nalendar, it’s in the name of the temple itself, as a business entity. The Nalendar refused to open one if he wouldn’t come in person.”

“Then where did he come from?” asked Aworo. “How did he get any worshippers at all?”

“How should I know?” asked the frog. “I could give you a string of theories longer than my tongue, but who knows if any of them would be the truth?”

“What if his followers are right? What if he’s the Supreme? The god of gods?”

The boy snorted and wiped his now–empty hands on the front of his coat. “Smerdis is a fraud,” he declared, and before he could say anything else a long chorus of jingling started, and in the near distance, the procession came out from the temple gates and into the street.

First came a dozen men in conventional dress—the coat and leggings most men in the Nalendar Valley wore—shaking long strings of small bells. Behind them, stepping sedately, came one of the largest, whitest bulls Aworo had ever seen. As Nes Imosa had said, its horns were gilded, and they shone bright in the afternoon sunlight. Behind it came more men, singing. “Is that the bull?” Aworo asked. “The one that answers questions?” Spectators reached out to touch it, and the great bull merely walked, slow and calm, behind the bell–shaking priests as they approached the well. Not what you’d expect from a bull. But definitely what Aworo would expect from a bull that was possessed by a god. His breath caught, and his skin prickled.

The priests and the bull were circling the well, still singing. He moved slowly forward and reached out his hand as it came by. It didn’t react to his touch, just stepped slowly forward, muscle moving and warm under his hand. He looked up at its head, its calm face, its eye…

Aworo dropped his hand and stepped back. Behind him the frog’s boy swore. “Hey, watch where you’re going!”

“Well?” asked the frog. “What do you think?” The bull was still walking sedately around the fountain, its attendants before and behind it.

“That bull,” Aworo said, and then hesitated. But he was sure he was right. “That bull is drugged.”

“How can you tell?” asked the boy.

“Its eyes.” The singing, and the chaotic jingling, continued, but the procession was moving away, back the way it had come. Aworo shook his head.

“It doesn’t necessarily prove Smerdis isn’t the Transcendent One,” the frog said. “But you’d think the Supreme God of Gods wouldn’t have to resort to that sort of thing.”

Aworo looked at the boy, who said, “I’m still hungry, can I buy a cake?”

“Yes, my dear,” said the frog, “and get a basket of crickets too.” The boy ran off into the swirl of dispersing onlookers, and the frog puffed a few times. “So, and what about this business with Saest?”

“I’m thinking about it.”

“Thinking!” The frog considered that for a moment. “Well, maybe that’s best, after all.”

Back at the guesthouse, the dice game was still in session, and Nes Imosa was watching it with great interest. “You’re back!” he cried as Aworo came in the door. “Girl! A drink for my friend here. And everyone else!”

“You seem to be feeling generous,” Aworo said as the woman brought him a cup of beer.

“A salute to Nes Imosa!” called one of the dicers, and Aworo saw that it was the green coated horse salesman. The other dice–players cheered.

Nes Imosa smiled and bowed. “Ha ha! Yes, I come to Kalub to enjoy myself. So how did your errand go? Did you find what you were looking for?” Aworo hesitated, and Nes Imosa suddenly turned serious. “No simple answer, eh?”

“That depends,” said Aworo, surprised, but Nes Imosa’s solemn mood was gone as soon as it had come, and his normal genial expression had returned.

The man in the green coat tossed, and then gave a cry of defeat. “I’m out!”

“Pay up!” said another man. “You’ve been throwing on promises for the last hour.”

“I don’t have anything!” protested the green–coated man. “I meant to win it back. I’ll seal…”

“Cash!”

“I’ll go to the temple of the…”

“You won’t go anywhere!” said the other man, and stood and crossed his arms. “I want the money you owe me.”

The man in the green coat looked over to Nes Imosa. “Friend! Can I seal a draft for some coins?”

Nes Imosa frowned. “I’m not sure how much I have on me… ”

“Nes Imosa, don’t,” said Aworo.

“I have plenty,” said the man in the green coat, “but as you can see, this man—” he gestured to the other man. “Won’t let me leave to get it. I’ll make it out for whatever you can give me, plus fifty gold more.”

“Fifty!” Nes Imosa looked pleased. “That’s a nice profit. Let me see what I have.” He pulled out a purse and poured its contents on a nearby table, a spill of gold and silver coins and a few coppers. “How much do you owe?”

“A hundred ten,” said the threatening man, and the green–coated man nodded.

“Nes Imosa,” Aworo began, “this man…”

Nes Imosa dismissed him with a wave. “Now, friend, please don’t interrupt.” He turned back to the dicers. “So I’ll give you a hundred and ten, and you’ll seal a draft for a hundred and sixty. Your gambling debt will be paid and I’ll be fifty richer! Ha ha!”

“It’ll be worth it,” said the green–coated man, casting a glance at his antagonist.

“I’ll bet it will,” said Nes Imosa, and waved over the serving woman and asked for a tablet. She stood by while the man in the green coat rolled his cylinder seal across the clay, and Nes Imosa handed over the gold.

“Now sir,” said the serving woman then, putting her hand on the green–coated man’s shoulder. “We’ll be off to the temple of the Nalendar.” Before he could move she had a knife at his throat. The other dicer swore, and spun around and ran out the door. “He won’t get far,” said the woman. “There’s half a dozen of the city guard outside.”

“What!” exclaimed Nes Imosa. “What’s this?”

“You’re too trusting, sir.” The green–coated man made as if to struggle and she tightened her hold and pushed her knife just a bit harder against his throat. “Move and you’ll bleed to death.” He stood very, very still. “I’ve had my eye on this one for a while. You’d have presented that draft at the temple and found there was no money to back it up.”

“Look into his horse dealing as well,” Aworo suggested.

The woman shrugged. “Not my area.” She tugged at her captive. “Come on, you.”

As they left Nes Imosa sank into the nearest seat. “Well!” he said, serious again. “That’s that, then. Now, friend Aworo, what are you going to do about lady Saest?”

It was as though Aworo had blinked and his vision had cleared, or as though Nes Imosa had taken off a mask. “Who are you?”

“I’m Nes Imosa,” said Nes Imosa. “A foolish merchant from upriver who came to Kalub to take the waters and have a bit of fun.” No ha ha, only a pleasantly serious expression. “Sometimes—because of my generous nature, you understand—I get swindled.” He smiled, but there was no sign of the expansive, affable Nes Imosa of moments before.

“Did the Nalendar send you?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Why not just say so?”

Nes Imosa lifted his cup, looked at it a moment, and then drank. “You could probably be forced to remove the curse one way or another, but it’s better for everyone if you’re persuaded instead.”

Aworo thought about that for a moment. “Is that a threat?”

Nes Imosa betrayed no surprise or indignation. “Does it sound like one?” When Aworo didn’t answer, he sighed. “Yes, it’s a threat. The island is as much as the Nalendar can do and it’s hardly satisfactory. Saest is unhappy there, and it’s a terrible waste of her abilities.”

“The Nalendar wants me to just take it back?”

“I’ll be frank. You’re a very powerful god. But so is the Nalendar, and she could probably force you to do what she wants.” Nes Imosa picked up a pitcher, looked inside it, looked around for the serving woman, and then shrugged. “But if you were killed, or too badly weakened, someone else would fill your space. There are several candidates, none of whom appeal to the River Nalendar. She likes stability. Stability means peace and prosperity. Open trade routes.” He set the pitcher down again. “You’re powerful enough that taking the curse back would be a temporary inconvenience. At worst it might jeopardize your hold on the body you’re inhabiting.”

“But I haven’t…”

“Haven’t caused enough trouble?”

“Haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

Nes Imosa laughed. “What is it you’re looking for, Lord of Horses? Do other gods worry about things like that?”

Aworo thought about Smerdis’ bull, shining white, groomed and gilded. Drugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t, before I was human.” He caught Nes Imosa’s dubious look. “Does that mean it’s not a valid question?”

Nes Imosa shrugged. “I have no idea. But I do know that the Nalendar has very little patience for your spiritual crisis. And I’ll tell you what I think. I think it suits you to have Saest trapped on that island. When she can go where she wants, she won’t go where you want her to.”

Angry and indignant, Aworo opened his mouth to protest.

“Don’t speak without thinking,” Nes Imosa cautioned. “Being human is a game to you. You can always try it again some time, if you lose this body. But Saest only has this one life.”

Aworo wanted to say it’s not a game to me. But he knew Nes Imosa was right. “Saest won’t die when she turns away from the river,” he said, and was suddenly sick to his stomach, heart pounding, unable to speak. He collapsed forward, head hitting the table, glad he was already sitting.

“I was going to suggest going upstairs and lying down first.” Nes Imosa’s voice came from somewhere distant. “You’re a little impulsive, Aworo.”

When he was well again, Aworo went to the marketplace. The summer was well–advanced by now; the heat rising off the flags wouldn’t dissipate until well after sunset, if even then, and the golden roof of Smerdis’ temple shimmered in the afternoon sun. The street was deserted, except for the frog resting in its bowl, chin on the rim, eyes closed, and the boy leaning nearby, drooping in the heat, perceptibly taller than he had been when Aworo had first seen him. He nodded negligently as Aworo approached.

“I’m going,” Aworo said.

The frog opened one eye, and then closed it. “Where?”

“Home.”

The frog opened both eyes this time and fixed its beady gaze on Aworo. “Saest went downriver.”

“I know,” Aworo said. “I hope she does well.”

“I think she will,” said the frog. They were both of them silent for a few moments.

“Gets hot on the plains,” the boy said. “The sun beats down.” His surprising baritone turned suave and melodious. “It does terrible things to your skin.” He reached into a box at his feet and pulled out a small bottle, black glass wound with a spiral of red.

“Clever boy!” said the frog. “You know, Aworo, you could import this…”

Aworo tossed a coin in the bowl and took the bottle from the boy. “I think it’s better if I just go home.”

The frog puffed thoughtfully. “But what about the god of gods?” it croaked. “Truth through meditation?”

Aworo shrugged. “I can meditate on the plains.”

“I imagine so,” agreed the frog. “But where will you get the drugged cattle?”

The boy snorted, limply in the heat, and Aworo looked at him, eyebrow raised. But he couldn’t summon any real anger. “It’s safer if I go.”

The frog wiggled down further into its bowl of water. “For that body, likely. You barely managed to hold onto it. But do you think you’re going to do something this stupid again?”

“Probably not this particular kind of stupid.” Aworo brought a handful of water out of the well and emptied it into the bowl. “But I’m not making any guarantees.”

The frog croaked its amusement. “Do I detect wisdom at last?”

Aworo thought of the long ride west, the hills that would give way to his own sparsely wooded plains, his home. He had been away too long. “I hope so,” he said. “I hope so.”

A Trump Christmas Carol

Democracy was dead to begin with.

There was no doubt whatsoever about that. The election proclaimed it and the electoral college confirmed it and Trump himself signed off on the note, vaguely annoyed that Clinton had somehow still gotten 2.9 million votes more than he had. Well, they were from California. Everyone knew California didn’t count.

Not that Trump painted out Democracy’s name on the door of the business; it served him well, in that White House, to give the impression that Democracy was alive and — well, if not well, then perhaps just out for a walk, a mere perambulation around the grounds before coming back and sitting back down at its now-vacant desk, shoved into the corner as it was between Trump’s own gaudy, gilt-edged desk, and the desk of their wretched clerk, Mike Pence, to whom Trump had grudgingly given the title of Vice-President. Yes, pretending that Democracy was still alive suited Trump just fine.

The muttering of his private security people alerted Trump that Jared, his son in law, and one of his minor advisors whose advice he definitely didn’t take on everything, had entered the room. “The happiest of holidays to you, Mr. President!” he said, with immense cheer.

“I know you’re a Jew, but say ‘Merry Christmas,’ Jared, damn it!” Trump replied. “We campaigned on it! Bannon says the Social Justice Warriors hate Christmas, so we have to go hard.”

“Sorry, sir,” Jared said. “Merry Christmas.”

“Better,” Trump said. “Now. What do you want?”

“Well, I’ve spoken to the maintenance staff, sir. They’re concerned about some of your plans for the White House.”

“Such as?”

“The one to apply gold leaf to all its visible parts.”

“What’s wrong with it?” Trump growled.

“The staff feels that the building is called ‘The White House’ for a reason.”

“White is crap,” Trump replied. “Gold is classy. Gold is rich. Gold is strong.”

“I like white,” Pence volunteered, from his desk.

Trump snarled at Pence and threw his taco bowl at him. Pence retreated.

“Aside from historical issues, there is also some concern about the – aesthetics,” Jared said.

Trump hated it when Jared used long words. “What about them?”

“Well, Mr. President, covering the White House in gold foil while we’re simultaneously planning to repeal the ACA thus raising the cost of healthcare… it might send mixed signals.”

“Bah! Humbug!” Trump said. “We’re replacing it with something great!”

“And what would that be?”

“I don’t know! That’s Paul Ryan’s thing. The point is, I said I was going to make America great again. The voters expect greatness! And there’s nothing greater than gold.”

“Yes, I suppose so. On that matter, the gold leaf provider has presented us the bill for their services. It’s… quite a significant bill.”

“Stiff ‘em,” Trump said, and went onto Twitter to announce the rebranding of Trump’s Gold House DC.

Later in the evening, Trump sat in his bedroom, a dinner of well-done steak picked at, alone, as Melania was in New York, and Ivanka and Jared had gone home. Saturday Night Live was a rerun, so he couldn’t get worked up about that. Bannon had confiscated his Twitter feed, so he couldn’t even amuse himself harassing journalists. He was considering his options when he heard a dragging, shuffling noise in the hallway.

What the hell? Trump thought to himself. Didn’t he pay his own private security force a modest percentage above minimum wage to protect him?

He was giving serious thought to docking their salaries when a body heaved itself through the door!

It was spectral, and ghastly, and behind it trailed numerous reel-to-reel recording machines, to which the specter was bound by braided quarter-inch recording tape.

Trump squinted at the apparition. “Who are you?” he cried.

“Ask who I was in life,” the specter said, and reached out, something in his hand. “And speak into the microphone. These goddamn ghost recorders aren’t worth shit.”

Trump squinted again. “Richard Nixon?”

“I was!”

“What are you doing here? Now?”

“I have come to save you from my fate!”

“But you were one of the greatest presidents! Top three!”

“Who are the other two?”

“Well, there was Reagan. I mean, of course. Then…” Trump trailed off.

“You can’t name any others, can you?”

“I can name a couple of the Democrats?” Trump said.

Nixon spat. “Quiet! In life, I could have been a great president. I had progressive policies for a Republican! I won re-election in a landslide. But then… the Southern Strategy. Watergate. The Saturday Night Massacre. All that goddamn recording. And for what?”

“Power!” Trump exclaimed.

“Power?!?” Nixon roared. “The true power of the United States is in the common weal! The founding fathers knew it. Well, except the part about the slaves and the women and the men who didn’t own property, but still. It is the common weal I should have tended to, instead of mere power. And now look!”

Nixon pointed to his ropes of recording tape and the heavy reel-to-reel machines. “And note well, Trump, that you’re 40 years down the time stream from me, and you’re a bigger asshole than I ever could have dreamed about being. I mean, shit, man. Muslim registries? A wall down in Mexico? Taking away rights from gay people?”

“That’s Pence’s thing, really,” Trump began.

“SILENCE!” Nixon roared. “You’re going to Hell, Donny boy, if you don’t change your ways. And not the fun Hell, where all the cool people go. Real Hell. Just you and Scott Baio.”

“Terrible apparition!” Trump cried. “What must I do to avoid this cruel fate?”

“Tonight you shall be visited by three ghosts of 2016,” Nixon said. “Expect them with the turn of the hour. These will be really cool ghosts. We’re talking ghosts who wouldn’t have wanted to be seen with you in real life.”

“Everyone wants to be seen with me!” Trump protested.

“Dude, I saw your inaugural,” Nixon said.

“I had the Rockettes!” Trump cried. “And the Mormon Tabernacle Choir!”

“SILENCE!” Nixon roared again. “For your sake, heed their lessons! Expect the first ghost when the clock strikes one! And be careful with her, she’s a ballbreaker”

“She?”

But Nixon had already shuffled through the door, dragging his eternal, infernal recording machines behind him.

 

The clock on the mantelpiece was huge, shiny, probably the best clock ever. Trump found himself transfixed as he waited for the second hand to click towards the hour. But he was tired. His eyelids drooped.

He woke to a point of light that glimmered and shimmered through the velvet hangings of his bed. He leveraged himself out and up and into his slippers hardly having to breathe or strain a muscle. ‘You still got it, Donny Boy,’ he whispered to himself.

The light was so bright that he could not look directly at it, or at the top three tiers of the tree it sat on top of. Look at it, or rather look up at it, because suddenly the tree had grown – and so had his dressing gown so that it pooled about him on the floor and was heavy on his suddenly scrawny shoulders.

A terrible thought struck Trump, and he reached with his right hand inside his gown and into the front of the thin cotton pyjama bottoms he found there.

“They’re still there,” he said, with relief, in a voice that skittered so much between high and low that he would not have been sure if the proof were not in his hand.

The light grew in size and faded at the same time so that she only gleamed a little as she stepped from the tree and strutted towards him on heels that made her tower over him, so that the triangle of diamonds that gleamed between her welcoming breasts still dazzled his eyes as she came closer…

“Dzat’s not very nice, leetle Donald,” said the woman. “Not how you greet a lady friend, dahlink.” She patted the top of his sudden mop of curly hair. What was that accent? Hungarian? Russian? One of those places where the hot chicks came from. But this woman was no piece of ass. This woman was nothing he could control. This woman – she frightened him.

“Scared, leetle boy?” She laughed. “I should take you in hand. But zen I would have to marry you, and you are a little young, a little small, no?”

Trump felt his cheeks burning. “I’ve got a tower,” he said. “A huge tower. In New York.”

She laughed. It tinkled like the breaking of glass balls.

“Ah, darlink. I marry a lot of millionaires…Or someone or several someones who are a little like me only not as perfect as when you walked past me in one of my husband’s hotels.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m all that you always wanted and will never really possess. You could buy the world, but you’d never have me – I am…”

“I know who you are.” Trump said. “You are the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

“Oh no dahlink,” and her laugh was a terrible thing, a thing that sliced right into the part of his heart where all the rejection lived, the shame. “I am the Queen of Outer Space.”

Donald reached out to grab her. He wanted her, he hated her, he wanted to hurt her, make her sorry, sorry for laughing at him – he hated it when people laughed at him. He’d show that bitch. He’d show them all.

But the light was blinding now, brighter than a thousand dressing-room mirrors, brighter than a million camera bulbs, and then –

 

And then it was gone. And so was she.
Trump got to his feet, his heart pounding. He was back in his body, his real, grown, seventy-year-old body, a little extra maybe, but still potent, yeah. He breathed deeply until he was calmer. Everything was going to be good. Better than good, great. He was going to be president. Nobody would laugh at him then.

The door flung open, as if moved by an invisible hand.

‘Who’s there?’

The words came out of him like a Howard Dean scream, but there was nobody there. Not even his secret service guys. Trump was frightened. Still, the afterworld seemed to be laying on a show just for him – that made sense, all the greats probably got this, and wasn’t he great now? – and he ought to make an appearance.

It was strange music, music Trump felt he almost remembered. He stepped into a corridor.

Which wasn’t a corridor anymore. It was utter blackness, spotted with stars.

‘Where am I?”

His mouth made the words, but no sound came out.

“We’re in space, mate,” said a young man’s voice beside him. “In space, no-one can hear your bullshit.”

Trump spun around. There was indeed a young man there, with a flop of red-brown hair, strange mis-matched eyes, and awful British teeth that gave him a feral look, like a cat who had been transformed into a human and hadn’t yet learned to pass.

“You always wanted to be a star, didn’t you?” said the young man, whose voice was as British as his dental work. “I know how that goes. I used to admire people like you, you know. That’s why they sent me. It’s like, you know, imagine like you’re in space and the bad drugs make you feel like a king and you can do anything, but the difference is, mate, the difference is – I can play guitar.’
The young man strummed a chord, and the stars flared like dressing-room bulbs, and the man was changing, growing older and stranger, his face streaked with makeup and glitter, dressed in sequins and rainbows, his hair a shock of red.

“That wasn’t bad,” Trump admitted. “You know how to put on a show.”

“Better than you ever did,” agreed the stranger, “I used to think that was all there was to it. Get up on stage and make love with your ego. It made me lonely. Made me selfish. But, after all that, I was selfish in a way that let other people be kind. I didn’t understand for the longest time. Here, come and see.”

The ghost pushed at the curtain of space and opened a door that hadn’t been there before. “Mate,’ he said, exposing his crooked teeth, ‘come in. Get to know me better. I’m just passing through, but aren’t we all?’

The room was full of music and colour. Trump could see shapes moving in the darkness, strange bodies dancing. Beautiful young men and women circled the room with trays of champagne and perfect lines of the finest powders money couldn’t buy anymore.

“I know where we are!” said Trump. “This is Studio 54! I used to come here all the time in the seventies, back when I only had a few million!”

“And did you have a good time?”

“No,” said Trump. “They laughed at me, that crowd. All my money, and they still laughed. I could never join the fun.”

The ghost handed him a flute of champagne. “Maybe it wasn’t money they were interested in.”

“What, then?

‘Joy,’ said the ghost, sadly, looking out at the dancers. ‘Dreams. Wealth.’

‘I’m a very wealthy man.’

‘No, mate,’ said the ghost, ‘you’re rich. There’s a difference. Don’t touch,’ he said, slapping Trump’s hand away from the shade of a shapely buttock. ‘Honestly, what’s wrong with you?’

‘What, are they politically correct in hell, too?’

‘This isn’t hell, but yeah, we’ve got manners. Dance,’ said the spirit, holding out a hand.

‘What?’

‘When was the last time you danced like you could become someone else? Be generous. Remake yourself. You can do it. Dance with me.’

Trump found that he wanted to dance with the strange man more than he’d ever wanted anything before. Not the fame. Not the women. Not the presidency. Nothing came close to this awful yearning. What would he become, if he took hold of that thin white hand and stepped onto the floor?

He was shaking with desire. And he was terrified. If he danced, they would laugh at him.

‘Fucking fag,’ snarled Trump, spinning on his heel.

The star man laughed. ‘Maybe. Does that scare you?’

‘What, aren’t you afraid?’

‘Only of Americans.’ The strange man was dressed differently now. No more glitter, no ginger wig – he was thinner, paler, older, his voice a gentle growl, as he said –

‘Now, listen. My time here is short, and I’ve got to stop off in Berlin to visit an old pal before morning. So I’m going to play you a song, and you’re going to listen, and you’re going to watch, and for once in your life, you’re going to say nothing.’

‘Hey-‘ Trump opened his mouth to curse, but the strange man caught the words in his two long hands and laughed. Trump could not say anything. He spluttered.

‘Watch,’ whispered the strange man, the lines deepening in his face.

The music changed, became stranger, something from beyond the world. Trump looked again at the dancing young people -men and women and everything in between, black and brown and white and Asian. They were beautiful. They danced with their eyes closed, their heads flung back, glitter in their hair, sweat shining on their skin. But not just sweat.

A blonde woman with two black eyes spun towards him out of the darkness, was gone.

A black girl in a tight vest threw back her head to the beat, and her chest was a welter of bruises.

A man with a neat dark beard danced with a brown boy of no more than twenty. They smiled at each other, at him. There were bullet holes seeping in the centre of their foreheads.

‘Who are they?’ whispered Trump.

‘Prejudice,’ said the strange man, whose skin seemed to be shrinking to his skull. ‘Ignorance. Violence. The consequences of lives like yours.”

“I don’t murder people.”

“You don’t need to, mate. You talk murder talk. You sailed into power on a wave of hate. You knew people would drown in it. You didn’t care.”

Trump stared. A boy in a battered hoodie laughed at him out of the mass of bodies.

‘Why are they still dancing?’

‘Because the music is still playing.’

Trump felt suddenly lonely. Lonelier than he had ever felt in his life. Lonelier than he’d ever thought possible. He thought he might die of it.

‘Make it stop!’

‘It won’t ever stop. You can’t make it stop.’

The strange man’s face had become a skull, now, and there were stars winking where his mismatched eyes had been.

Trump stumbled into the crowd, flailing with his fists. They passed straight through the dancers, who smiled terrible, beautiful smiles at him, and the music went on, got louder. Trump felt like he was drowning.

‘Help me!’ He cried, and turned around to the strange man, but he was already fading, fading to starlight – gone.

The music went on.

‘Shut UP!’ shouted Trump. ‘You’re weak! All of you, you’re weak! I’m strong, stronger than all of you!’ He thumped a tiny fist on the wall.

The music stopped.

Darkness.

Trump was alone, alone with the echo of the strange man’s laughter, and a new, dreadful feeling snagged under his ribs. It felt like – like loss.

He stumbled forward in the darkness, alone, looking for someone to tell him how wonderful he was – Melania, maybe, or that weird little British man who kept hanging around, Norman, he thought, or maybe Nigel, eyes like a drunk frog and clearly queer for the Donald, or maybe that was just the English way of being friendly.

The corridor went on and on. Trump could no longer see in front of his face. Three ghosts, Nixon had told him. Trump didn’t read much, but he could surely count. There was one left.

At the end of the corridor, the lights became brighter, the space opening into a familiar room, where a tall man was standing, all alone.

Trump staggered forward. The man was black, and huge, and he seemed to fill the space around him by sheer force of personality. Trump had never seen a human being stand so straight.

“I’m not a racist,” Trump said, automatically.

He recognised the stark brilliance of the lights now. They were in a TV studio.

Trump started to relax. This was his own ground, not that nonsense of maimed dancers and weird music.

“Nobody accused you of being a racist,” the other man said. He had a surprisingly gentle voice for his size, the soft, formal accent of someone who thinks about every word before they speak it. “You’re very quick to answer an accusation nobody made. Do you have a guilty conscience?”

“No,” Trump said. It came out very loud in the echoing space. He’d never been in a TV studio when it was quite this empty. There was dust on the floor, and even on the banks of cameras.

“I expect some of your best friends are African Americans?”

Before Trump could say he wouldn’t go quite that far, the man went on.

“I expect you know some of the greatest Americans? Americans like me?”

“You?”

“I float like a butterfly, I sting like a bee, when you think about a champion, you’ll always think of me?” He sighed. “I was born Cassius Clay. I became Mohammed Ali.”

“I remember you now,” Trump said. “You became a Muslim. Yeah. Before 9/11, of course, before everyone knew about Muslims. We’d have people like you on a registry these days.”

Ali swung a punch at Trump’s head, and Trump just barely dodged it.

“You want to talk about all the things Christian fanatics have done? You want to talk about how violence taints a whole religion?” he said. “No you don’t, because your Christianity is an even thinner veneer than your decency. It’s not even a fig leaf. You don’t believe in God. Just yourself. Don’t duck and cringe like that. I could flatten you without hardly trying, but I wouldn’t soil my fists on you. It would give me no pleasure to beat you. I am here to show you the future. Christmas Yet To Come.”

He turned, and Trump saw that there were three small monitors behind him.

“Why do you need three?” he asked. “Why don’t you just have one big one?”

“Because this ain’t about dick wagging,” Ali said. He touched the screen on the first monitor, and it sprang to life. Static spurted. He tapped the screen.

“That seems more like the past than the future,” Trump said, trying to sound scornful.

The screen came into focus, and showed some people huddling in ruins, darting glances from side to side. “Aleppo?” Trump sneered. “Pretty obvious.”

“No, this is DC,” Ali said. “You can just about see the glint of your Gold House off in the distance there.”

Trump wanted to question it, wanted to sneer, but he could indeed recognise the formerly White House in the background. The pathetic survivors were tearing up books to start a fire.

“What book is that?” the child asked, brushing his golden hair back from his dirt-streaked face. “It doesn’t look like Great Again.”

“Long ago, before the nuclear war, before democracy died, there were other books,” a woman answered. She was black, but she put her arm around the golden-haired boy as if she were his mother. The camera closed in on the two of them, and Trump could see that she was gorgeous – mid-twenties, the kind of pussy he wouldn’t mind grabbing some of, at least if she were clean.

“Do you remember that?” the kid asked.

“Not really. I was born in 2016.” When she named the year, everyone spat. Some did it ceremoniously, and some automatically, casually. “By the time I was old enough to learn to read, we only had books written by Trump – well, ghostwritten. But my parents told me about it. We lived in Georgetown. My father was a professor. My mother was a lobbyist. We — ”

“Stop telling fairytales,” a man said, a white man with sores on his face. “Don’t go filling the kid up with lies. Fat lot of use reading is when there ain’t nothing to read except fucking Great Again,” he said. “It was useful when we’d find caches of food, but it’s been a long time since we did. Guess I’ll eat you soon.”

The child raised his head and started to wail. “No! Don’t eat Marion!”

“Don’t worry,” the woman said. “Your daddy’s strong. He’ll find plenty of strangers to kill and eat before he gets around to needing to eat me.”

Trump jabbed at the screen, and it reverted to static. “What is this bullshit? Americans eating each other in the ruins of Washington?”

“It’s the world where you started a nuclear war with China,” Ali said.

“I didn’t mean to,” Trump said, hearing the whine in his voice.

“No, you did it in total ignorance. That’s the worst of it.”

“Those people were burning my book.”

“They were spitting when they spoke of 2016,” Ali said. “Not that it doesn’t make me want to spit too.”

“It’s the year I was elected President of the USA, the greatest nation in the world!”

“And the year when I died,” Ali said. “And Marion was born.”

“That black woman in the ruins?”

“The ghosts you’ve seen tonight have all been people who died in 2016. Lots of other people were born. Sebastian. Marion. Yasmina. ArsNik. People whose names will be remembered. If there’s any people to remember.”

“My name –“

“Can it, Trump. You’re no champion. Champions know when to be humble.”

Ali pushed the corner of the second screen. Marion was there, on a nightclub stage, spotlit, just barely covered in sequins, dancing as she crooned into a microphone. Men in the audience were leering, pushing money towards her. Ali clicked it off.

“Christmas Eve. That’s the world where you didn’t start a war. Things got slowly worse in your administration, and in twenty-five years you’re completely forgotten. You’re the punchline to a tired joke. But there are things you’d like. No more political correctness. Sexism is back, and so is Isolationism. The camps you instituted to get rid of the Immigrants are still going, and getting into the US even for a weekend is almost impossible from Canada, never mind Mexico. There’s no health insurance except for the rich, and US life expectancy is lower than Botswana.

“But there’s other things you’d hate. America itself, far from being great, is considered to be a second rate power – like France. And the whole world is grateful to Indonesia for ending Global Warming. There’s a recession in the US, and while nobody is eating each other, it’s pretty rough.”

“And I’m forgotten?”

“Like President Polk.” Ali looked down at Trump. “What did you want when you came into this studio?”

“Want?”

“What were you looking for?”

“Melania…”

“You were looking for somebody who loves you. That’s what you were hoping to find. It’s difficult to get through to you, because you don’t have much of a conscience. You don’t even really hate immigrants and Muslims and queers. You can’t be shaken up by seeing that we’re real. Your appointees really hate us, but you just want — ”

“To be rich.” It didn’t sound like enough, suddenly. “To be powerful. To be safe.”

“To be loved. Your daddy should have given you a goddamn puppy instead of that million dollars. Taught you what it means to care for something. Maybe taught you how to serve rather than be served. Service to others is the rent you pay for your time here on earth, and you, Donny, you’re way overdue.”

“Can you cut the psychobabble and show me the world in the last screen? The one where I’m remembered? Or maybe no, I know – it’s the one where I repent and all the Politically Correct Gamma Rabbits have their way, and bow down to all the minorities and the immigrants and the feminazis and — ”

“You’re foaming at the mouth, Trump. And it doesn’t matter. You can’t even be remembered for being the most evil. Do you know what they call you? Little Orange Hitler.”

“Then I’m not going to get to repent and go off and buy turkey for everyone and give my nephew the day off?”

“Your nephew, sure. Nepotism is on the rise. The people who actually need your help — the disabled, the impoverished, families living below the breadline…” Ali shook his head. “What could you do, after all?”

“I could – I could not repeal Obamacare! I could stop Pence cracking down on the queers! I could fund NASA’s climate stuff. I could stop using the Presidency to make myself rich. I could sack Bannon — ”

Ali held up a hand. “So you do know what’s right. The common weal. The wellbeing of everyone. All Americans. The whole world! But a minute ago you were babbling about Gamma Rabbits. All that power, and you won’t dare do what’s right in case somebody thinks you are one.”

Trump didn’t want to listen to any more of this. He reached forward and tapped the corner of the third monitor. It came up with a set of menus, and all the lights in the studio came on, focused on Trump and Ali.

“What?”

“This is the future where there are options. Choices.”

“It’s not just going to show me that girl again? Marion?”

“Marion? You can see her.” Ali touched one of the menu options and the screen flowered out into Marion’s face, close up, then the camera zoomed out and Trump could see she was sitting at a piano, and wearing what looked like a man’s Armani suit. The sound of Debussy, played very well, rippled from the keys.

Then the tune changed, with a touch of Leonard Cohen for a moment, and then something he didn’t recognise, and she stared out of the screen right into Trump’s eyes and started to sing:

“Fuck your old sonatas and fuck your dead-end dreams

I’m not here to nursemaid you no matter how it seems

Remembering the melody of times that never were

And the girl who never kissed you – well I’m her!

The future doesn’t love you, and we have no fucks to give

About your good intentions or the way you try to live

Keep all our options open and give everyone a voice

And you’ll find the world exploding into choice!

If you want to be remembered then you do the best you can

Respect, expect, extemporise, be a spectrum, have a plan.

If you want to take my hand and dance potential into time

Rise up in diverse energy and find another — ”

Then she stood, and started to dance with the man in makeup whose hand Trump had wanted to take downstairs, young again, young forever, and the music was wild and the dance was strange and dangerous, and again, he trembled, wanting to join in and wanting to denounce them – she was leading! And he was wearing a dress!  And there was something strange about the way they moved, as if gravity was different, as if maybe they were dancing in space, or on the moon. Then she turned her head and looked directly into Trump’s eyes again, and she and the man sang together:

“Time watches from the shadows and coughs as you would kiss*

But remember, it’s the only world there is.”

Then the screen was whirling, and the lights were very bright, and people were asking him impossible questions and Ali was throwing a punch. He dodged again, and found himself naked and soaked in sweat and tangled in blankets. Melania was there. She put the light on, illuminating their huge, luxurious bedroom in Trump Tower.

“It was only a dream!” Trump said, lying back on the pillows with relief.

“What, darling?” Melania asked. She looked away.

“David Bowie, and Mohammed Ali, and that German chick, and Democracy, and they were dead!”

“Well, those people are dead, actually.”

“All a dream! Nobody really calls me Little Orange Hitler.”

“Well — ”

But Melania knew when to keep quiet.

“And I haven’t started yet, there’s still time!”

“It’s 5am, nobody starts Christmas this early except little kids. But look, darling. Ex-President Obama has sent you a Christmas present.”

“What is it?”

The door opened, and something ran onto the bed, something small and yellow and excited.

“It’s a Golden Retriever. He said his girls got a puppy when he became president, and he thought it was kind of a nice tradition.

 

The puppy jumped up onto the coverlet and gazed into Trump’s face with an expression of absolute, unconditional love.

 

There are people you can use, thought Trump, and there are people you can’t use, people you just throw away. Obama wasn’t either kind. That was why he’d always made him uncomfortable. What did he mean by sending this dog?

 

Trump looked into the puppy’s eyes and saw that they were mismatched. One was green, and one was blue.

 

 

*This line only, W.H. Auden, from As I Walked Out One Morning.

 

 

Can’t Beat ‘Em

“Yeah, that’s some clog,” the plumber said. She pulled the metal–and–rubber snake out of the bathroom sink. Marisella wrinkled her nose at the gunk sticking to it. Whatever it had caught on in her drain had warped the metal and torn away bits of the rubber.

Marisella asked, “Can you fix it?” and, more softly, “Will it cost much?”

The plumber smiled at her. “Not a thing, hon. This one is Management’s liability. They’ll pick up the tab.”

Well, that was a relief.

The plumber had a crinkly, friendly grin. And crisp short hair, and broad shoulders. Three of her knuckles were tattooed with the letters “T,” “O,” “Y.” She was definitely Marisella’s kind of girl.

Marisella sat on the lip of the bathtub to watch the plumber work. “I tried three bottles of that drain clearing stuff, but no go.”

The plumber shook her head. “That stuff doesn’t work. Not on what’s in there.” She squatted down and reached into the tool kit at her feet. She pulled out a metal flask, unmarked. “What you wanna do, you see, is induce the new generation of sink throat monster that’s growing too big for its comfy home in your drain there to motivate downwards and out into the larger sewer system; then to the river, and if it wants to go farther, to the ocean.” She stood and unstoppered the flask. A fine thread of silver smoke lifted from it. “You can’t kill these babies,” she said, “but at least this one is still small enough you can encourage it to move along.”

“What’s your name?” Marisella asked, mesmerized by the flexing of the plumber’s forearms as she opened the flask.

“Dot. Slide a few inches farther away, please, hon. Not that I’m not enjoying your company, but the goop in here can dissolve flesh, and I would hate to splash any of it on you.”

“Oh, of course.” Marisella wondered how many teams Dot played for, and if any of them were hers.

Dot started carefully glugging the stuff in the flask down the drain. It was a viscous purple fluid. It smelled like dried shrimp, and it glowed. Dot said, “Problem is, of course, that getting them out into the open sea only goes so far. Glups—that’s what Management finally decided to call them—keep growing indefinitely. They’re not sure how many of them are lining the ocean and river beds. Probably fewer than they think; it looks like the bigger ones eat the smaller ones.”

That got Marisella’s attention. “What?” She sidled past Dot’s firm waist and luscious behind in its baggy work dungarees. She went and stood in the bathroom door.

“Yeah,” said Dot. “We figure that’s what preserves their immortality; eating a creature that doesn’t die, but that can be eaten, digested, and incorporated into its host.”

“You say Management sent you?”

“That’s right, and you’re lucky they called us when they did.” She took a phial out of the toolbelt slung low around her belly. “When they get too big for the drains, these little devils can sometimes decide to come up instead of down. Wouldn’t want a glup coming at you while you’re sound asleep in your cozy little bed.”

“It’s a king,” Marisella told her absent–mindedly. There was something grainy inside the phial, like ground black pepper. “What happens if they come up instead of going down?”

Dot peered at the grains and gave Marisella a reassuring smile. “Well, you’re never going to find out, are you? I got you.” She uncorked the phial and poured the grains in after the purple goo. She continued, “Our planet’s waters are drying up. Glups drinking it all. That’s what the politicos like to say. Truth is, we aren’t helping, what with our having created global warming and all. We’re just making the cycle go faster. Whoops!”

Marisella yelped. A slim black thread was wriggling out of the drain. It slapped against the inside of the sink basin and started questing around blindly. It reached for Dot’s wrist. Dot shook it off. She bent and pulled something out of her tackle box that looked like the offspring of a plunger and a bottle of holy water. By then, five more fighting threads had wormed their way out of the drain.

Dot said, “All right then, baby. You wouldn’t go down, so I guess it’s out for you.” She enjoined battle. It seemed to involve alternately squirting and plunging with the mystery tool. In between, she huffed at Marisella, “Because it is a cycle, you know? Took Management long enough to figure out that when a planet has been totally consumed by glups until all that’s left is a planet–sized knot of them, their collective heat ignites them. They become a sun. Ah, you little devil, you! Anyway, those particular suns eat other stars. The digested star stuff is pushed to the bottom of the singularity well, where it generates more planets. And so the cycle continues. There’s something in there about the heat death of the universe. Maybe that’s where it all ends. But maybe it’s just the largest glup of all swallowing everything and shitting out new beginnings.”

She’d beaten back all but one of the threads. She yanked with her gloved hands at that one. Slowly, she began pulling whatever was at the end of it out of the drain.

“Don’t worry about splashing. The black stuff neutralizes the purple stuff.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah. Done this a million times. Well, three times, anyway. Management thinks it’s having some success with a project of breeding new forms of tardigrades. Those things are so tiny! Don’t let that fool you, though; they can survive boiling, freezing, and vacuum. We’ve found them on comets arcing in from deepest space.”

“We?”

“Maybe that’s where they came from in the first place. Maybe tardigrades can kill our glups for us. Though I’m not sure it makes sense to kill them.”

Marisella nodded. “Glups are the engine of the universe.”

Dot laughed, joyous and belly–deep. “Exactly. You understand me.”

With a pop and a triumphant, “Ha!” from Dot, the thing from Marisella’s drain came free. “Here we go; okay if I dump it into this toothbrush mug?”

“Um, yeah.”

The glup had curled a thread around Dot’s finger. Marisella had to help her snip the thread. The monster fell wetly into her blue ceramic toothbrush mug. She and Dot contemplated it. It pulsed once, making the mug quiver as though it’d been filled with mercury. Dot said, “It barely looks alive, doesn’t it? Don’t worry; the purple stuff will keep it pacified.”

With two fingers, she peeled the curl of black thread from her glove, popped it into her mouth, and swallowed. Marisella felt her own throat working in response. “What’re you going to do with it?” she asked Dot.

“Ocean. It’s only 45 minutes to the beach. Maybe one of its bigger cousins will take care of it for us. Or vice versa.”

“I can take it there,” Marisella blurted.

“You’re sure? You’d have to do it within a day or two, before the suppressant wears off.”

“I’m sure.” She wasn’t. She just knew she didn’t want to let the glup go right away. Marisella’s head was swimming. She thanked Dot, offered her some cold water. “It’s filtered,” she said. “And it’s from the fridge.”

Dot slugged back a glass of that, no ice. She and Marisella exchanged numbers. “So you can call me,” Dot told her. “You know, in case you need anything.” Marisella just nodded and escorted her out. She’d probably call Dot sooner or later. She just had too much on her mind right now.

Marisella went back into the bathroom. The baby glup lay curled on itself in her toothbrush mug, exhausted.

Such a simple shape it had. Slimy greenish–black, shiny and uncomfortably, organically slug–shaped. It had gone all bumpy and dull, and it seemed to be humming; vague notes almost too low for Marisella to hear. A small, sad eye materialized out of the mass of it and stared glumly at Marisella.

Marisella didn’t care if she were part of a greater plan. Life was too good. There were hot butch plumbers around, and so many new things to try. She didn’t want to die, not ever.

Dot said that whatever consumed an immortal glup became immortal.

She took a deep breath and picked up the mug. It was heavier than she expected.

Raw, or stir–fried with some nice onions, maybe in a cream sauce? Maybe invite Dot to dinner?

She took the glup to the kitchen.

(Editors’ Note: “Can’t Beat ‘Em” is read by Amal El–Mohtar on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 13B.)

Ogres of East Africa

Catalogued by Alibhai M. Moosajee of Mombasa
February 1907

1. Apul Apul
A male ogre of the Great Lakes region. A melancholy character, he eats crickets to sweeten his voice. His house burned down with all of his children inside. His enemy is the Hare.

[My informant, a woman of the highlands who calls herself only “Mary,” adds that Apul Apul can be heard on windy nights, crying for his lost progeny. She claims that he has been sighted far from his native country, even on the coast, and that an Arab trader once shot and wounded him from the battlements of Fort Jesus. It happened in a famine year, the “Year of Fever.” A great deal of research would be required in order to match this year, when, according to Mary, the cattle perished in droves, to one of the Years of Our Lord by which my employer reckons the passage of time; I append this note, therefore, in fine print, and in the margins.

“Always read the fine print, Alibhai!” my employer reminds me, when I draw up his contracts. He is unable to read it himself; his eyes are not good. “The African sun has spoilt them, Alibhai!”

Apul Apul, Mary says, bears a festering sore where the bullet pierced him. He is allergic to lead.]

2. Ba’ati
A grave–dweller from the environs of the ancient capital of Kush. The ba’ati possesses a skeletal figure and a morbid sense of humor. Its great pleasure is to impersonate human beings: if your dearest friend wears a cloak and claims to suffer from a cold, he may be a ba’ati in disguise.

[Mary arrives every day precisely at the second hour after dawn. I am curious about this reserved and encyclopedic woman. It amuses me to write these reflections concerning her in the margins of the catalogue I am composing for my employer. He will think this writing fly–tracks, or smudges from my dirty hands (he persists in his opinion that I am always dirty). As I write I see Mary before me as she presents herself each morning, in her calico dress, seated on an overturned crate.

I believe she is not very old, though she must be several years older than I (but I am very young—“Too young to walk like an old man, Alibhai! Show some spirit! Ha!”). As she talks, she works at a bit of scarlet thread, plaiting something, perhaps a necklace. The tips of her fingers seem permanently stained with color.

“Where did you learn so much about ogres, Mary?”

“Anyone may learn. You need only listen.”

“What is your full name?”

She stops plaiting and looks up. Her eyes drop their veil of calm and flash at me—in annoyance, in warning? “I told you,” she says. “Mary. Only Mary.”]

3. Dhegdheer
A female ogre of Somaliland. Her name means “Long Ear.” She is described as a large, heavy woman, a very fast runner. One of her ears is said to be much longer than the other, in fact so long that it trails upon the ground. With this ear, she can hear her enemies approaching from a great distance. She lives in a ruined hovel with her daughter. The daughter is beautiful and would like to be married. Eventually, she will murder Dhegdheer by filling her ear with boiling water.

[My employer is so pleased with the information we have received from Mary that he has decided to camp here for another week. “Milk her, Alibhai!” he says, leering. “Eh? Squeeze her! Get as much out of her as you can. Ha! Ha!” My employer always shouts, as the report of his gun has made him rather deaf. In the evenings, he invites me into his tent, where, closed in by walls, a roof, and a floor of Willesden canvas, I am afforded a brief respite from the mosquitoes.

A lamp hangs from the central pole, and beneath it my employer sits with his legs stretched out and his red hands crossed on his stomach. “Very good, Alibhai!” he says. “Excellent!” Having shot every type of animal in the Protectorate, he is now determined to try his hand at ogre. I will be required to record his kills, as I keep track of all his accounts. It would be “damn fine,” he opines, to acquire the ear of Dhegdheer.

Mary tells me that one day Dhegdheer’s daughter, wracked with remorse, will walk into the sea and give herself up to the sharks.]

4. Iimũ
Iimũ transports his victims across a vast body of water in a ferry–boat. His country, which lies on the other side, is inaccessible to all creatures save ogres and weaverbirds. If you are trapped there, your only recourse is to beg the weaverbirds for sticks. You will need seven sticks in order to get away. The first two sticks will allow you to turn yourself into a stone, thereby escaping notice. The remaining five sticks enable the following transformations: thorns, a pit, darkness, sand, a river.

[“Stand up straight, Alibhai! Look lively, man!”

My employer is of the opinion that I do not show a young man’s proper spirit. This, he tells me, is a racial defect, and therefore not my fault, but I may improve myself by following his example. My employer thrusts out his chest. “Look, Alibhai!” He says that if I walk about stooped over like a dotard, people will get the impression that I am shiftless and craven, and this will quite naturally make them want to kick me. He himself has kicked me on occasion.

It is true that my back is often stiff, and I find it difficult to extend my limbs to their full length. Perhaps, as my employer suspects, I am growing old before my time.

These nights of full moon are so bright, I can see my shadow on the grass. It writhes like a snake when I make an effort to straighten my back.]

5. Katandabaliko
While most ogres are large, Katandabaliko is small, the size of a child. He arrives with a sound of galloping just as the food is ready. “There is sunshine for you!” he cries. This causes everyone to faint, and Katandabaliko devours the food at his leisure. Katandabaliko cannot himself be cooked: cut up and boiled, he knits himself back together and bounces out of the pot. Those who attempt to cook and eat him may eat their own wives by mistake. When not tormenting human beings, he prefers to dwell among cliffs.

[I myself prefer to dwell in Mombasa, at the back of my uncle’s shop, Moosajee and Co. I cannot pretend to enjoy nights spent in the open, under what my employer calls the splendor of the African sky. Mosquitoes whine, and something, probably a dangerous animal, rustles in the grass. The Somali cook and headman sit up late, exchanging stories, while the Kavirondo porters sleep in a corral constructed of baggage. I am uncomfortable, but at least I am not lonely. My employer is pleased to think that I suffer terribly from loneliness. “It’s no picnic for you, eh, Alibhai?” He thinks me too prejudiced to tolerate the society of the porters, and too frightened to go near the Somalis, who, to his mind, being devout Sunnis, must be plotting the removal of my Shi’a head.

In fact, we all pray together. We are tired and far from home. We are here for money, and when we talk, we talk about money. We can discuss calculations for hours: what we expect to buy, where we expect to invest. Our languages are different but all of us count in Swahili.]

6. Kibugi
A male ogre who haunts the foothills of Mount Kenya. He carries machetes, knives, hoes, and other objects made of metal. If you can manage to make a cut in his little finger, all the people he has devoured will come streaming out.

[Mary has had, I suspect, a mission education. This would explain the name and the calico dress. Such an education is nothing to be ashamed of—why, then, did she stand up in such a rage when I inquired about it? Mary’s rage is cold; she kept her voice low. “I have told you not to ask me these types of questions! I have only come to tell you about ogres! Give me the money!” She held out her hand, and I doled out her daily fee in rupees, although she had not stayed for the agreed amount of time.

She seized the money and secreted it in her dress. Her contempt burned me; my hands trembled as I wrote her fee in my record book. “No questions!” she repeated, seething with anger. “If I went to a mission school, I’d burn it down! I have always been a free woman!”

I was silent, although I might have reminded her that we are both my employer’s servants: like me, she has come here for money. I watched her stride off down the path to the village. At a certain distance, she began to waver gently in the sun.

My face still burns from the sting of her regard.

Before she left, I felt compelled to inform her that, although my father was born at Karachi, I was born at Mombasa. I, too, am an African.

Mary’s mouth twisted. “So is Kibugi,” she said.]

7. Kiptebanguryon
A fearsome yet curiously domestic ogre of the Rift Valley. He collects human skulls, which he once used to decorate his spacious dwelling. He made the skulls so clean, it is said, and arranged them so prettily, that from a distance his house resembled a palace of salt. His human wife bore him two sons: one which looked human like its mother, and one, called Kiptegen, which resembled its father. When the wife was rescued by her human kin, her human–looking child was also saved, but Kiptegen was burnt alive.

[I am pleased to say that Mary returned this morning, perfectly calm and apparently resolved to forget our quarrel.

She tells me that Kiptegen’s brother will never be able to forget the screams of his sibling perishing in the flames. The mother, too, is scarred by the loss. She had to be held back, or she would have dashed into the fire to rescue her ogre–child. This information does not seem appropriate for my employer’s catalogue; still, I find myself adding it in the margins. There is a strange pleasure in this writing and not–writing, these letters that hang between revelation and oblivion.

If my employer discovered these notes, he would call them impudence, cunning, a trick.

What would I say in my defense? “Sir, I was unable to tell you. Sir, I was unable to speak of the weeping mother of Kiptegen.” He would laugh: he believes that all words are found in his language.

I ask myself if there are words contained in Mary’s margins: stories of ogres she cannot tell to me.

Kiptebanguryon, she says, is homeless now. A modern creature, he roams the Protectorate clinging to the undersides of trains.]

8. Kisirimu
Kisirimu dwells on the shores of Lake Albert. Bathed, dressed in barkcloth, carrying his bow and arrows, he glitters like a bridegroom. His purpose is to trick gullible young women. He will be betrayed by song. He will die in a pit, pierced by spears.

[In the evenings, under the light of the lamp, I read the day’s inventory from my record book, informing my employer of precisely what has been spent and eaten. As a representative of Moosajee and Co., Superior Traders, Stevedores and Dubashes, I am responsible for ensuring that nothing has been stolen. My employer stretches, closes his eyes, and smiles as I inform him of the amount of sugar, coffee and tea in his possession. Tinned bacon, tinned milk, oat porridge, salt, ghee. The dates, he reminds me, are strictly for the Somalis, who grow sullen in the absence of this treat.

My employer is full of opinions. Somalis, he tells me, are an excitable nation. “Don’t offend them, Alibhai! Ha, ha!” The Kavirondo, by contrast, are merry and tractable, excellent for manual work. My own people are cowardly, but clever at figures.

There is nothing, he tells me, more odious than a German. However, their women are seductive, and they make the world’s most beautiful music. My employer sings me a German song. He sounds like a buffalo in distress. Afterward, he makes me read to him from the Bible.

He believes I will find this painful: “Heresy, Alibhai! Ha, ha! You’ll have to scrub your mouth out, eh? Extra ablutions?”

Fortunately, God does not share his prejudices.

I read: There were giants in the earth in those days.

I read: For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants; behold, his bedstead was a bedstead of iron.]

9. Konyek
Konyek is a hunter. His bulging eyes can perceive movement far across the plains. Human beings are his prey. He runs with great loping strides, kills, sleeps underneath the boughs of a leafy tree. His favorite question is: “Mother, whose footprints are these?”

[Mary tells me that Konyek passed through her village in the Year of Amber. The whirlwind of his running loosened the roofs. A wise woman had predicted his arrival, and the young men, including Mary’s brother, had set up a net between trees to catch him. But Konyek only laughed and tore down the net and disappeared with a sound of thunder. He is now, Mary believes, in the region of Eldoret. She tells me that her brother and the other young men who devised the trap have not been seen since the disappearance of Konyek.

Mary’s gaze is peculiar. It draws me in. I find it strange that, just a few days ago, I described her as a cold person. When she tells me of her brother she winds her scarlet thread so tightly about her finger I am afraid she will cut it off.]

10. Mbiti
Mbiti hides in the berry bushes. When you reach in, she says: “Oh, don’t pluck my eye out!” She asks you: “Shall I eat you, or shall I make you my child?” You agree to become Mbiti’s child. She pricks you with a needle. She is betrayed by the cowrie shell at the end of her tail.

[“My brother,” Mary says.

She describes the forest. She says we will go there to hunt ogres. Her face is filled with a subdued yet urgent glow. I find myself leaning closer to her. The sounds of the others, their voices, the smack of an axe into wood, recede until they are thin as the buzzing of flies. The world is composed of Mary and myself and the sky about Mary and the trees about Mary. She asks me if I understand what she is saying. She tells me about her brother in the forest. I realize that the glow she exudes comes not from some supernatural power, but from fear.

She speaks to me carefully, as if to a child.

She gives me a bundle of scarlet threads.

She says: “When the child goes into the forest, it wears a red necklace. And when the ogre sees the necklace, it spares the child.” She says: “I think you and my brother are exactly the same age.”

My voice is reduced to a whisper. “What of Mbiti?”

Mary gives me a deep glance, fiercely bright.

She says: “Mbiti is lucky. She has not been caught. Until she is caught, she will be one of the guardians of the forest. Mbiti is always an ogre and always the sister of ogres.”]

11. Ntemelua
Ntemelua, a newborn baby, already has teeth. He sings: “Draw near, little pot, draw near, little spoon!” He replaces the meat in the pot with balls of dried dung. Filthy and clever, he crawls into a cow’s anus to hide in its stomach. Ntemelua is weak and he lives by fear, which is a supernatural power. He rides a hyena. His back will never be quite straight, but this signifies little to him, for he can still stretch his limbs with pleasure. The only way to escape him is to abandon his country.

[Tomorrow we depart.

I am to give the red necklaces only to those I trust. “You know them,” Mary explained, “as I know you.”

“Do you know me?” I asked, moved and surprised.

She smiled. “It is easy to know someone in a week. You need only listen.”

Two paths lie before me now. One leads to the forest; the other leads home.

How easily I might return to Mombasa! I could steal some food and rupees and begin walking. I have a letter of contract affirming that I am employed and not a vagrant. How simple to claim that my employer has dispatched me back to the coast to order supplies, or to Abyssinia to purchase donkeys! But these scarlet threads burn in my pocket. I want to draw nearer to the source of their heat. I want to meet the ogres.

“You were right,” Mary told me before she left. “I did go to a mission school. And I didn’t burn it down.” She smiled, a smile of mingled defiance and shame. One of her eyes shone brighter than the other, kindled by a tear. I wanted to cast myself at her feet and beg her forgiveness. Yes, to beg her forgiveness for having pried into her past, for having stirred up the memory of her humiliation.

Instead I said clumsily: “Even Ntemelua spent some time in a cow’s anus.”

Mary laughed. “Thank you, brother,” she said.

She walked away down the path, sedate and upright, and I do not know if I will ever see her again. I imagine meeting a young man in the forest, a man with a necklace of scarlet thread who stands with Mary’s light bearing and regards me with Mary’s direct and trenchant glance. I look forward to this meeting as if to the sight of a long–lost friend. I imagine clasping the hand of this young man, who is like Mary and like myself. Beneath our joined hands, my employer lies slain. The ogres tear open the tins and enjoy a prodigious feast among the darkling trees.]

12. Rakakabe
Rakakabe, how beautiful he is, Rakakabe! A Malagasy demon, he has been sighted as far north as Kismaayo. He skims the waves, he eats mosquitoes, his face gleams, his hair gleams, his favorite question is: “Are you sleeping?”

Rakakabe of the gleaming tail! No, we are wide awake.

[This morning we depart on our expedition. My employer sings—“Green grow the rushes, o!”—but we, his servants, are even more cheerful. We are prepared to meet the ogres.

We catch one another’s eyes and smile. All of us sport necklaces of red thread: signs that we belong to the party of the ogres, that we are prepared to hide and fight and die with those who live in the forest, those who are dirty and crooked and resolute. “Tell my brother his house is waiting for him,” Mary whispered to me at the end—such an honor, to be the one to deliver her message! While she continues walking, meeting others, passing into other hands the blood–red necklaces by which the ogres are known.

There will be no end to this catalogue. The ogres are everywhere. Number thirteen: Alibhai M. Moosajee of Mombasa.

The porters lift their loads with unaccustomed verve. They set off, singing. “See, Alibhai!” my employer exclaims in delight. “They’re made for it! Natural workers!”

“O, yes sir! Indeed, sir!”

The sky is tranquil, the dust saturated with light. Everything conspires to make me glad.

Soon, I believe, I shall enter into the mansion of the ogres, and stretch my limbs on the doorstep of Rakakabe.]

An Ocean the Color of Bruises

The budget hotel is empty and desolate, the lady behind the check–in counter drained of color. Her eyes are wide and fraught as she looks over our reservation form.

“Two bedrooms with double beds?”

We nod. Rich passes her his credit card.

“Five keys?” We nod again. She hands the keys to Rich with a frown.

“So… I know it’s off–season, but why’s it so empty?” Heinz asks, as we thump down the hallway. Heinz, the Electrical Engineering major, loves questions. He’s got a solid job at IBM. He’s not thrilled about it, because he has to wear a tie every day, but he earns a pretty sweet salary.

“I mean, this isn’t the worst place you could go, but it’s not good by any stretch,” Josie says—tired, possibly hungover. Tired Josie is grumpy Josie. Josie took CW and works for a start–up news site. She’s the artsy–est of us, the most lasingera, capable of downing seven San Migs with room for tequila. We all love Josie and secretly ache for her to love us back, at least as much as she loves her poets. None of us, not even Chino, the sensitive guitar–playing dude, can quote more than a few lines of Neruda or cummings.

“Maybe everyone’s worried about the storm,” Heinz adds, ignoring how Chino pinches his arm in warning.

“The storm’s not supposed to cross here,” Josie snaps.

“Don’t you think that lady was kinda weird?” Nina asks. Nina is the queen of diverting conversation. She always says what’s on her mind. We like that about Nina: it makes her a little more real. She went through an awkward phase in freshman year, and emerged from it gorgeous and swanlike, the unintentional heartbreaker of our college class. She friendzoned at least half the kids with crushes on her; the other half never mustered up the courage to confess. Nina also graduated magna cum laude, but she’s mostly a ditz outside of her report card, which makes everything else about her endearing.

Nina models full–time. There was gossip for a while about her artista leanings, especially when she had that brief fling with that senator’s son, but now most of our peers are content to like her bikini shots on Instagram and Facebook. We’re a little smug about being Nina hipsters. We know the real Nina: the one that’s beautiful sans the beauty.

“Yeah, she was weird,” Chino says. “I mean, the TripAdvisor reviews said the service here isn’t the best. But so far it just doesn’t really feel like we’re in Punta Silenyo. I thought it would be… a little… more lively. Or something.”

“Chill, pares,” Rich says. “We just got here. It’s only, like, ten in the morning. We’re still tired from the flight. It’s going to be awesome, ayt?” Mr. Default Leader, Mr. Shades Even Indoors. Mr. So Cool Until You Get to Know the Kid Deep Down, Plank Enthusiast, Weed–Dealing Wonderboy.

“Well you’re the man with the plan, Mr. Martinez,” Nina says. “I expect much from you.” Rich smiles at her. We’re not sure if she sees, because she’s busy twisting her key in the lock. It turns, then snaps in half. The door swings open. “Oh no,” she says helplessly, but we can’t be mad at her.

The room has two threadbare double beds, a wicker stool, a table, a mirror with an elaborate wooden frame, and a mini–ref with a stained microwave on top. Josie removes her backpack, but Chino puts down his guitar and says, “No, the lock is broken, you girls should take the other room.” Heinz’s arm has slipped down Chino’s shoulders and is now circling his waist.

Grumpy Josie shrugs and says, “I have to pee.” She enters the bathroom and shuts the door. She screams. Heinz, who is closest, grabs the doorknob. Hesitates. Josie bursts out, and Heinz falls on his butt. “There’s a giant cockroach waving its feelers at me from the toilet,” Josie says, in her most controlled voice. “Somebody kill it, please.”

Rich makes a face. “I don’t want to use my slipper.”

Nina hands Rich her slipper. He sighs and enters the bathroom. A loud thwack, a muttered “Shit!”—another thwack, then silence. Nina sticks her head inside. Rich is picking up the cockroach corpse with wadded toilet paper. Nina grabs her slipper from the floor and washes it in the sink. We try not to watch the brown bits drain away.

Several years ago there was a storm in Punta Silenyo. Which, as you probably guessed, is a tiny, exclusive island. We might have read about it in the papers, seen it on TV, discussed it over breakfast. Lashing rain, bent trees, wind pounding everything—typical. Except for the victims. Because it was Beach Week, for all the fresh grads: college and high school kids, blowing their meager savings on this chance to have a story to tell, even if what happens in Punta Silenyo stays in Punta Silenyo. Back then it was already Boracay’s cheaper alternative.

These kids were caught on the sand, in their bikinis and trunks, the rain whipping their bodies. Some reports said it was a wipeout. Others said it was almost like they dove into the water. They partied like it was the end of the world, until the last possible second, dancing and howling in the storm—they never tried to take shelter.

It happened so quickly. Only a handful of bodies were found. You think our government could spare a diving crew? Even with private money funding the rescue missions, it was no use, it was too late.

The reporters interviewed the deceased’s parents in their homes: quaintly sobbing early–fifties Manileños, so poised and refined compared to the crying masses often on the news. Their grief was strange, their pain controlled. Their words anguished just so. Then the news crews went to different campuses, where faculty tried to be consoling and methodical about the tragedy. But we saw through their blinking eyes, the tremors in their voices—of course they were shaken. The students were interviewed last: the ones who were too prudish, lazy, tired, or cheap, who stayed behind. It was hard to tell if they wished they had gone or were glad they stayed. Everyone was guilty and there was nothing anyone could do.

Shock, the inevitable media circus, then things going back to normal. We were in early high school then. It became the kind of thing where you said, “Remember that time…?” but without any real pain, any real sadness. Our parents’ friends, maybe they lost children, but we didn’t know anyone directly. Someone’s kuya. Someone else’s cousin, neighbor. The tragedy wasn’t real to us. Typical Philippines: large swathes of people cleared out in one go, like a giant hand had slapped them off the earth. Everyone thought Punta Silenyo wouldn’t recover, but even if it never regained its former glamour, people came just the same. Even the ghost–hunting tours stopped after awhile. Death is only one other song often played on these islands.

Heinz and Chino pass out on the bed while the rest of us change and complain about the humidity. They’re dating, now, finally, at last—though they’ve never admitted it. We know Heinz got a ton of shit from his conservative Chinese–Filipino family when he came out, but there’s some kind of shaky equilibrium now. Chino got drama too, from the army of admirers he amassed while playing gigs in Katip and Malate through high school and college. Even as he fell in love with Heinz, he kept trying to convince himself he wasn’t into guys.

In senior year things were different. They just looked at each other different. It wasn’t until after graduation they showed up to one dinner holding hands, fiercely blushing. Rich hooted. Josie declared it fate: a nice, simple love story. They groaned, but they were smiling; they were happy.

When we leave the room, Heinz’s arm is splayed across Chino’s chest. They’re curled into each other, mouths open, approximating fishes. We think that’s sweet. That works. Nice to see things going smoothly.

We walk past the lobby. The dead–eyed lady is gone. We can hear the ocean, smell it, and soon see it stretching before us. Rich props his Raybans on his head. We squint, and watch the waves lap the shore. There are people up and down the coast, but not as many as there should be, even for late summer. There’s a cluster of them by a big rock outcropping squatting down, drawing in the sand.

Josie crosses her arms. “Dang, this place is even sadder than I thought it would be.”

“No negativity allowed,” Nina chirps.

“Beach, ladies?” Rich asks. Josie shrugs.

The sand doesn’t burn our feet when we walk across it. The sand looks almost blue. We pass two children building a sandcastle, their heads bent in concentration. We are distracted by the severe pink of the little girl’s bikini bottom. The boy looks up and Nina thinks his eyes look wet, hungry. She’s kind of hungry herself. She smiles at him, but he doesn’t smile back—he just stares awkwardly, so she looks away. We reach the water. Josie sticks one foot in, then the other.

“Is it cold?” Nina asks.

“Not super,” Josie says. The best way to describe it is that tepid warmth after some kid pees in the swimming pool.

Rich stoops as a wave rolls in and flicks water at Nina. She shrieks. The sharp, lilting sound slices the air. Rich yanks his sando over his head and drops it on the ground, and Josie and Nina make faces at each other. Even with abs, Rich isn’t as hot as he thinks.

“I hope I don’t step on a crab,” Nina says as she wades in.

What is it about beaches that make everyone sleepy? We don’t last more than an hour, walking up and down the coast, kicking in the low tide while clouds hang above us. We’re used to that from Manila: sudden downpours. A few clouds don’t scare us. They’re not going to ruin our trip.

But when rain starts falling we decide to stagger back to our rooms, maybe take a nap, have dinner, get up early enough to do something fun: whale watching, sunrise viewing.

Two nights, three days. Two nights and two days, now. It shouldn’t have cost this much, a little trip. With our shitty jobs and their sad paychecks (excluding Heinz), it was a bit much. But we wanted to see each other. We wanted a chance to hang out again—alone, instead of in the newest mall or swanky themed club. Besides, didn’t we earn this? Suffering through sleepless nights, the pain of a B–, the group projects that made us want to choke each other on frappucinos? Didn’t we deserve this after taking our first jobs (except modeling for Nina, because that’s kind of cool), realizing we weren’t hot shit, that the rest of the world wanted to stomp us?

We don’t mean to sound whiny. It’s all right most of the time. Except when it’s really not.

The room isn’t far away but we take our time getting there, because of the wet sand in our slippers—we fucking hate wet sand. We open the door without knocking, and then remember the lock is broken anyway. Heinz and Chino are spooning like good little lovers, and that makes us feel content. But we won’t let them hog all the fun. Anyway, it’s clearly siesta time. Josie squeezes in behind Chino, and Nina and Rich crawl into the other bed, facing opposite directions, heads resting against crooked arms, and we all fall asleep this way.

How did we come together? You already know that Chino and Heinz are in love, that maybe we’re all in love. You should also know that Chino and Josie are second cousins on their mothers’ sides, that Rich and Nina live five streets apart in the same subdivision; that we all had passing knowledge of each other through elementary and high school, because that’s how Manila works, interlocking webs of friends–relatives–acquaintances, piled into the same human stew.

Then we became blockmates in freshman Lit and English. Three times a week in Gonzalez Hall, for two hours, despite our varied majors. Eight AM, which was a pain. We bonded over that pain during lunch break. Walking to the caf, to eat tapsilog or chicken nuggets and gravy over java rice. Lunch was for gossiping and speculating about everything and nothing: what a clusterfuck that midterm was, the coincidence of matching outfits, the future in all its murky glory.

So that’s how friendship happens, sometimes: sitting next to each other, having the same visceral disgust at a prof’s unnecessary freak–out about cheating, the shared dream of backpacking across Europe before we’re twenty–five, the same desire to be reckless–wild–and–free, the same fear we will never be. These things keep us from being alone, so that even now, a year after graduation, we’re comfortable enough to be half–asleep in the same room, dreaming in the same sticky air, breathing each other’s breaths.

The requisite beachside dinner: fried fish. We order, seated at the mint green plastic tables with wobbly legs. The rain has stopped. The candles on the tables don’t keep away the flies. It’s both picturesque and dirty. We grab San Migs from the giant cooler with melted ice and look at each other’s faces, grinning almost shyly.

The fish comes and it’s full of tinik and not very tasty, so we douse it in Knorr and calamansi. The fishes’ fried eyes are turned accusingly towards us. There’s a bonfire crackling in the sand, but no band playing.

“Where’s the music?” Heinz asks, loud enough for the waiter to hear, but he ignores us.

“Where’s everyone else?” Nada. We expected music, the cheesier the better. There’s not even a Magic Sing hooked up to the TV.

Chino says, “I can grab my guitar.” We forgot that he brought it. Nina and Josie order a round of shots. The waiter comes and takes our massacred fishes away. We down the shots. Rich buys another round, just as Chino reappears, guitar in hand.

We get up from the table. We’re not drunk yet, but we don’t want to keep staring at each other’s faces in the candlelight. The sky is dense with clouds, and maybe it’s the tequila but everyone’s features suddenly seem warped, alien. Here we are at the end of things, fearless and free as we’re allowed to be. We move closer to the fire. Chino starts playing and god, his voice, it’s so gorgeous, it’s like butter sliding down our throats:

Now you say you love me, you cried the whole night through…

“You and your senti,” Nina says. “I know you only learned that ‘cause of V for Vendetta.” She gestures like she’s going to swat Chino on the arm, but she doesn’t. Really she’s just sad he’s not doing this for a living. Instead he’s part of IT at Globe and suffering.

Well you can cry me a river, cry me a river, he sings anyway. We’ve always thought Chino’s eyelashes were exceptionally long for a dude’s. They seem to catch the firelight now, glowing as he sings. That’s my fucking boyfriend, we think. Nina and Josie kick off their slippers and dance with each other in a close hold.

“Look at that couple,” Nina whispers in Josie’s ear. Josie squints as we spin around slowly. The couple emerges from the water, snorkeling gear still on, too much seaweed dangling off them. They’re holding hands. In the dark their skin looks pale blue. Foreigners, probably. They walk slowly toward the giant rock.

“Ew, I wouldn’t want to fuck there,” Josie replies, and we giggle.

One of us should have brought some shit to amplify this moment. Usually Rich is the man for those things, but Rich already looks high despite being empty, leaning back on his elbows, drinking in the fire and Chino’s voice telling us we told him love was too plebeian, watching two girls he loves slow–dancing with each other.

There are no fireflies, only flies. But there are times when the only thing to do is sway one’s head and take it in, take it all in. For all our faults we at least know these moments, even if only when we’re already in them.

We get up groggy, our mouths feeling funny, at around ten–thirty. Still too early for a proper sleep–in. None of us are in the mood for breakfast. We walk to the beach and it’s totally empty.

“Well, we can just turn it into a nudist colony,” Josie jokes. Her better mood makes us all happy.

We buy chips and soda from a sari–sari shack and sit on the sand, crunching, until Rich says, “Parasailing. Who’s game?”

The activities dock is on the opposite end. We walk towards it, wary because we haven’t seen anyone doing anything. No one zipping around on banana boats, no foreigners with young wives in tow, trying for romance while surrounded by screaming children. Two manongs are squatting on a small inflatable boat, smoking, when we reach them. One is bald, and the other one is shirtless. Heinz asks, “Kuya, may parasailing ba?”

The bald manong makes a kissy face towards a boat resting against the shore. “Dalawang libo isa,” he says. “Discount na yung pitong libo.” Rich reaches into his pocket, but Heinz protests and says they’ve at least got to split the cost. Bald manong counts out the bills, and stuffs them into his back pocket. Shirtless manong clambers into the boat and pulls out a ladder. When we climb in, he hands each of us a neon life vest. We slip them on, feeling silly as we click the straps into place.

“Puwede ba kaming lima?” Heinz asks. Shirtless manong shakes his head. He pulls out the parasailing contraption from a side panel. There’s room for three. After some shrugging we decide that the guys will fly together and the girls will fly together. Bald manong starts up the motor. We lean over the edge and watch the water churn. For a moment we see faces in the water: of classmates or people we might know, mouthing words that emerge as white foam. They’re expressionless. When we blink they become corals that only look like people. We watch for darting fishes, but it’s difficult to see when we’re moving through the water so quickly.

Shirtless manong gestures for the guys to sit down. He hooks them up to the parasailing contraption, then tugs on their vests to make sure they’re secure. As the boat picks up speed, the parachute fans out behind us, a garish red–white–blue, and we’re slowly pulled away. It’s terrifying, then exhilarating.

Up in the sky, flying over everything, it feels okay that we have no idea where to go. It’s okay that our lives are—kind of shitty right now, and maybe only in the sense that we thought for some reason it’d be better. Life is bluegreen, deep and swallowing. What if the faces beneath the boat are really merpeople, or the dead bodies of those college kids who braved the storm and lost? What if the rope snaps, despite the cables, what if we’re torn away by the wind, what if this fear is enough to overwhelm us, make us beg to pulled back to the boat, to safety?

But even the boat isn’t safe. Nowhere is safe. It’s almost safer to be up here in the sky. What do you talk about, this high in the sky? Why do we need to talk anyway, when we know each other so well, we don’t know each other at all?

Over dinner the waiter is restless, even as we rack up our bill for drinks. He glowers as he brings us greasy calamari. The air feels electric and our arms are tingly, again with the heat from that crappy bonfire. Chino left his guitar in the room, but we’re all thinking tonight is for a different kind of music. We’re all thinking: we go back tomorrow, back to our livesand nothing has changed. It starts to rain, just lightly, but we decide it’s not worth staying on the beach. The waves are a soundtrack none of us want to listen to. It’s too much like ourselves, lost and rolling, in and out and in again.

Still, we drink and wipe our oily fingers on thin paper napkins and keep it together until we reach our rooms. Heinz and Chino crush themselves against the door, mouths fastened. Rich brought some weed after all, he just didn’t bring it out earlier ‘cause he wasn’t sure what we’d think of him still doing this. We’re too drunk to think much of anything. He lights up. It smells like sweat and melons. Chino has his lips on Heinz’s throat. Josie complains about how noisy the rain is, as Rich rolls up a joint for Nina. The moon beyond the open windows is shrouded by clouds.

We stumble into our room to crash on the bed, thinking this isn’t like the movies because this is better, this is real, thinking I don’t care how many girls you’ve fucked after your gigs because you’re here with me and you’re mine, thinking of shame, thinking of family, thinking fuck them.

In the room next door we watch Nina stagger to her bed, giggle, fall asleep. We imagine her going down on someone, for no reason at all. There’s just this image of Nina sucking someone’s cock, and it’s bizarre, it doesn’t suit her at all, we hate ourselves for thinking it. She curls up, already out after one joint and some basi, and Josie reaches down and brushes Nina’s hair away from her face. Rich watches Josie do this with a strange hunger, so powerful he almost throws up his grilled squid. He can’t take his eyes off Josie as she moves to sit next to him.

“Is this why you don’t have a girlfriend, Mr. Martinez?” Josie asks, in her husky, slam–poetry voice. A few strands of hair are in her mouth. “Staring at the girl you love and doing nothing?”
“I only love her like I love the rest of you,” Rich says. Josie nods with satisfaction. She pulls her sundress off, drops it on the floor. Then she lifts her pointer finger and touches his forehead, a stupid little nothing–touch that jolts him anyway. She traces that finger down his nose and over his lips then unfolds her whole hand, sliding down his chest before palming his cock. Rich moans, scattered, angry. He won’t jerk against Josie, doesn’t want to give her that much power, so he says, “Are you thinking of Nina?” and Josie whispers, “Only if you are,” then Rich grabs Josie by her hips and drags her into his lap and bites the skin above her left breast, she gasps, why the hell is she wearing that damned bikini bottom, she throws her head back so that her neck is in sharp relief against the faint light as she lets out a long sigh.

Then a drowned person climbs in through the window and embraces Josie from behind.

We all hear her scream. The drowned person has cold skin and is moaning, maybe because it’s trying to get in on the action, it doesn’t understand that it’s dead. Josie jumps away and it wails sadly. Rich stands, disoriented and aroused. Nina rolls over, asking what’s wrong. Heinz and Chino appear at the door, wearing their boxers, and the drowned person gazes at us in sorrow. We’re frozen in that moment until another drowned person sticks its face through the window.

We run out of our room, into the hallway, down that long forever corridor. We hear the drowned behind us, not running but not staggering either. We run past the lobby and the lady is sitting there. She sighs and shouts after us, “We are not responsible for stolen objects.”

We run out of the hotel, onto the wet, squelchy sand. It feels alive. We’re blinded by the sheets of white rain, until our eyes refocus and we see them. Most are pale blue, but some are pink and raw like they’ve been scraped against corals, like they’re walking wounds. They look eerily familiar: that one resembles our coworker, that one the slacker from Intro to Theo. Some are naked, others are still in their swimming clothes, stuck to their skin so tightly they could be tattooed on. Their eyes are the color of seaweed, of classic Coke bottles: beautiful eyes that flicker between green and blue.

“Fuck!” Rich screams. He sounds more afraid than we’ve ever heard him—our brave, swaggering Rich—and this freaks us out. We should have grabbed things to use as weapons. We should have asked the lobby lady what the fuck to do, because we don’t know, and the drowned are puckering their mouths at us—like they want to eat us, maybe, or kiss us. They’re clustering together, others squatting on the sand, drawing on it despite the rain.

They come towards us, looking doleful, their fish–flapping mouths working rapidly. We can’t hear their words. We don’t want to. Their arms are held out, like they want to embrace us. We’ve stayed in place too long and suddenly a little girl in a bright pink bikini, so blindingly bright in the white lashing rain, latches onto Heinz’s leg and kisses his knee. Part of her skull is showing. He shakes his leg and screeches for her to get off, like she’s a dog instead of a girl, but she clings until Josie hauls her away by the armpits. Josie flings her like a beach ball. The drowned moan in protest. We start running, kicking up sand behind us.

We end up at the rocky outcropping. We know this is a really fucking terrible idea before we even start climbing. Too late. Rich reaches the top first, then Josie, then Nina. She cuts her heel on the jagged surface and her scrunched–up face tears at all of our hearts. Some of the drowned have lumbered after us. They reach the edge of the bluff as Chino is making his way up. They start pulling Heinz, who is still on the sand; he flails as they drag him away.

Chino starts climbing back down and we yell at him don’t, no, it’s useless—fuck, that was the wrong thing to say—we’ll find another way—none of us have any fucking clue what to do—but Chino leaps down and fights through the drowned people to grab Heinz’s hand. It’s like the love they’ve never confessed. The drowned jostle the two away. Nina and Josie shout for Chino and Heinz, their cries turning to gurgles in the rain.

The drowned drag Heinz and Chino through the sand to a pile of seaweed in the middle of the beach. They are forming words with the seaweed—or some kind of shape. “It looks like a heart,” Nina sobs, we think that’s what she sobs. Rich is so scared he forgets himself and spins Nina around, tries to kiss her. She shoves him away. Screams, “Really, right now? Are you out of your fucking mind?” But the words are blurred, and Nina never curses; so maybe she’s saying: I love you too. Josie can’t feel anything anymore, standing there in her soaked bikini, the lukewarm rain battering them everywhere. More drowned appear at the base of the rocky structure: clamoring, pleading, yearning for us. We watch Heinz and Chino get draped with seaweed, arms fastened. Then the drowned people lift them and walk into the sea.

“No,” Josie says, “No no no,” she can’t shout anymore, her throat hurts too much. “No, I’m not just standing here,” and anyway the drowned have started to climb up after us. The fastest one heaves both elbows onto the rock. Rich starts kicking its face but that isn’t going to change anything, so while he’s doing that we look at each other. We come to an understanding. We dash to the rock’s edge, holding hands, and leap off. Because if we can hit the water maybe we can save Heinz and Chino, maybe Rich will stop being afraid and will save us all. The rain will decide we aren’t worth tormenting, the drowned will wake up and they’ll be alive again, they’ll be themselves again and not blue, not hungry, not lonely. Rich screams our names as we fall.

The truth is: even the terror of that night might have been better than the terror of living that loomed over us. We didn’t know where to go, what to do, in the real world. We never believed the beach had answers. But at least for a while, between the sea and the sand, we thought we could find a shape again, instead of being adrift. It wasn’t that the drowned were terrifying. They didn’t even seem bent on killing us. They just wanted their stolen lives back. Maybe they wanted love, to be human again, but they lost that chance. How is that scary? It’s only tragic. But we were afraid, we can’t lie, because the water was bruise–colored and smiling as we sped down towards it.

We always knew that when pushed, Rich would drop the act, stop being Mr. Suave. That for no reason at all he’d be guilty, he’d blame himself, and we’d be fine with it. Still, we don’t expect him to go this far: jumping in after us. Throwing away what would have been a more or less perfect life.

We don’t want to let them take each other. Not even if what’s beyond might be worse. “There’s still so much I want to do,” Nina sputters, and yes, that’s how it feels. We’re just about ready to fight the sinking, we’ve just about had enough. Through the crashing waves we see the lobby lady, the grumpy waiter, the bald and shirtless manongs standing on the shore, arms crossed. They’re looking at the drowned sand art like it means something, like they’re numbed to this.

The water seethes around us, nightmare–deep. We dive down to recover Heinz and Chino. We slap and shove the drowned away from them, Rich taking lead on the offensive until we manage to peel our boys from the group, struggling up to the surface. They’re covered in seaweed, bubbles streaming from their mouths and noses—but they’re alive, still alive. We break the surface, gasping. The drowned below us look extra scary underwater, white and woebegone.

“Let’s swim,” Rich pants. “Let’s get away, we’ll figure everything out later.”

Nina holds Chino and Josie holds Heinz, and Rich holds Nina and Josie, and we start swimming. We feel the drowned people’s hands stroke our shins, arms, shoulders, but they can’t stop us—or they’re not really trying. Maybe they want us to get away. We’re kicking, dog–paddling like crazy. The tide is warm, gritty, holding us in its arms as we try to go somewhere, anywhere, as the waves lash our lips. In our mouths it tastes like beer and salt and the wreckage of our lives, so familiar we could choke on it, and keep choking.

(Editors’ Note: “An Ocean the Color of Bruises” is read by Amal–El Mohtar in the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 11B.)

The Plague Givers

She had retired to the swamp because she liked the color. When the Contagion College came back for her thirty years after she had fled into the swamp’s warm, black embrace, the color was the same, but she was not.

Which brings us here.

The black balm of dusk descended over the roiling muddy face of the six thousand miles of swampland called the Freeman’s Bath. Packs of cannibal swamp dogs waded through the knobby knees of the great cypress trees that snarled up from the russet waters. Dripping nets of moss and tangled limbs gave refuge to massive plesiosaurs. The great feathered giants bobbed their heads as the swamp dogs passed, casual observers in the endless game of hunter and hunted.

Two slim people from the Contagion College, robed all in black muslin, poled their way through a gap in the weeping moss and brought their pirogue to rest at the base of a bowed cypress tree. Light gleamed from openings carved high up in the tree trunk, far too high to give them a view of what lay within. There was no need. This tree had been marked on a map and kept in the jagged towers of the Contagion College in the city for decades, waiting for a day as black as this.

“She’s killed a lot of people,” the smaller figure, Lealez, said, “and she’s been wild out here for a long time. She may be unpredictable.” The poor light softened the contours of Lealez’s pockmarked face. As Lealez turned, the lights of the house set the face in profile, and Lealez took on the countenance of a beaked fisher–bird, the large nose a common draw for childhood bullies and snickering colleagues at the Contagion College who had not cared much for Lealez’s face or arrogance. Lealez suspected it was the arrogance that made it so easy for the masters to assign Lealez this terribly dangerous task, rushing off after some wild woman of legend at the edge of civilization. They were always saying to Lealez how important it was to know one’s place in the order of things. It could be said with certainty that this place was not the place for Lealez.

Lealez’s taller companion, a long–faced, gawky senior called Abrimet, said, “When you kill the greatest sorcerer that ever lived, you can live wild as you like, too.”

Abrimet’s hair was braided against the scalp in a common style particular to Abrimet’s gender, black as Lealez’s but twice as long, dyed with henna at the ends instead of red like Lealez’s. Lealez admired the shoman very much; Abrimet’s older, experienced presence gave Lealez some comfort.

Full dark had fallen across the swamp. Swarms of orange fireflies with great silver beaks rose from the banks, swirling in tremulous living clouds. Far off, something much larger than their boat splashed in the water; Lealez’s brokered mother had been killed by a plesiosaur, and the thought of those snaky–necked monsters sent a bolt of icy fear through Lealez’s gut. But if Lealez turned around now, the Contagion College would strip Lealez of title and what remained of Lealez’s life would be far worse than this.

So Abrimet called, “We have come from the Contagion College. We are of the Order of the Tree of the Gracious Death! You are summoned to speak.”

Inside the tree, well–insulated from the view of the two figures in the boat, a thick, grubby woman raised her head from her work. In one broad hand she held the stuffed skin of an eyeless toy hydra; in the other, a piece of wire strung with a long white matte of hair. An empty brown bottle sat at her elbow, though it took more than a bottle of plague–laced liquor to mute her sense for plague days. She thumbed her spectacles from her nose and onto her head. She placed the half–finished hydra on the table and took her machete from the shelf. The night air wasn’t any cooler than the daytime shade, so she went shirtless. Sweat dripped from her generous body and splattered across the floor as she got to her feet.

Her forty–pound swamp rodent, Mhev, snorted from his place at her feet and rolled onto his doughy legs. She snapped her fingers and pointed to his basket under the stairs. He ignored her, of course, and started grunting happily at the idea of company.

The woman rolled her brown, meaty shoulders and moved up to the left of the door like a woman expecting a fight. She hadn’t had a fight in fifteen years, but her body remembered the drill. She called, “You’re trespassing. Move on.”

The voice replied—young and stupidly confident, maybe two years out of training in the city, based on the accent, “The whole of this territory was claimed by the Imperial Community of the Forked Ash over a decade ago. As representatives of the Community, and scholars of the Contagion College, we are within our rights in this waterway, as we have come to seek your assistance in a matter which you are bound by oath to serve.”

The woman did not like city children, as she knew they were the most dangerous children of all. Yet here they were again, shouting at her door like rude imbeciles.

She pushed open the door, casting light onto the little boat and its slender occupants. They wore the long black robes and neat purple collars of the Order of the Plague Hunters. When she had worn those robes, long ago, they did not seem as ridiculous as they now looked on these skinny young people.

“Elzabet Addisalam?” the tall one said. That one was clearly a shoman, hair twisted into braided rings, ears pierced, brows plucked. The other one could have been anything—man, woman, shoman, pan. In her day, everyone dressed as their correct gender, with the hairstyles and clothing cuts to match, but fashions were changing, and she was out of date. It had become increasingly difficult to tell shoman from pan, man from woman, the longer she stayed up here. Fashion changed quickly. Pans dressed like men these days. Shomans like pans. And on and on. It made her head hurt.

She kept her machete up. “I’m called Bet, out here,” she said. “And what are you? If you’re dressing up as Plague Hunters, I’ll have some identification before you go pontificating all over my porch.”

“Abrimet,” the shoman said, holding up their right hand. The broad sleeve fell back, exposing a dark arm crawling in glowing green tattoos: the double ivy circle of the Order, and three triangles, one for every Plague Hunter the shoman had dispatched. Evidence enough the shoman was what was claimed. “This is Lealez,” the shoman said of the other one.

“Lealez,” Bet said. “You a shoman or a neuter? Can’t tell at this distance, I’m afraid. We used to dress as our gender, in my day.”

The person made a face. “Dress as my gender? The way you do? Shall I call you man, with that hair?” Bet wore nothing but a man’s veshti, sour and damp with sweat, and she had not cut or washed her hair in some time, let alone styled her brows to match her pronouns.

“It is not I knocking about on stranger’s doors, requesting favors,” Bet said. “What am I dealing with?”

“I’m a pan.”

“That’s what I thought I was saying. What, is saying neuter instead of pan a common slur now?”

“It’s archaic.”

“We are in a desperate situation,” Abrimet said, clearly the elder, experienced one here, trying to wrest back control of the dialogue. “The Order sent us to call in your oath.”

“The Order has a very long memory,” Bet said, “I am sure it recalls I am no longer a member. Would you like a stuffed hydra?”

“The world is going to end,” Lealez said.

“The world is always ending for someone,” Bet said, shrugging. “I’ve heard of its demise a dozen times in as many years.”

“From who?” Lealez grumbled. “The plesiosaurs?”

Abrimet said, “Two rogue Plague Givers left the Sanctuary of the Order three days ago. Two of them. That’s more than we’ve had loose at any one time in twenty years.”

“Sounds like a task that will make a Plague Hunter’s name,” Bet said. “Go be that hero.” She began to close the door.

“They left a note addressed to you!” Abrimet said, gesturing at the pan.

“I have it,” Lealez said. “Here.”

Bet held out her hand. Lealez’s soft fingers brushed Bet’s as per put the folded paper into Bet’s thick hands.

Bet recognized the heavy grain of the paper, and the lavender hue. She hadn’t touched paper like that in what felt like half a lifetime, when the letters came to her bursting with love and desire and, eventually, a plague so powerful it nearly killed her. A chill rolled over her body, despite the heat. The last time she saw paper like this, six hundred people died and she broke her vows to the Order in exchange for moonshine and stuffed hydras. She tucked the machete under her arm. Unfolded the paper. Her fingers trembled. She blamed the heat.

The note read: Honored Plague Hunter Elzabet Addisalam, The great sorcerer Hanere Gozene taught us to destroy the world together. You have seven days to save it. Catch us if you can.

The note caught fire in her hands. She dropped it hastily, stepped back. The two in the boat gasped, but Bet only watched it burn to papery ash, the way she had watched the woman with that same handwriting burn to ash decades before.

The game was beginning again, and she feared she was too old to play it any longer.

II.

Thirty years earlier…

The day of the riots, Hanere Gozene leaned over Bet’s vermillion canvas, her dark hair tickling Bet’s chin, and whispered, “Would you die for me, Elzabet?”

Bet’s tongue stuck out from between her lips, brow furrowed in concentration as she tried to capture the sky. For six consecutive evenings she had sat at this window, with its sweeping view over the old, twisted tops of the city’s great living spires, trying to capture the essence of the bloody red sunset that met the misty cypress swamp on the city’s far border, just visible from her seat.

The warm gabbling from the street was a prelude to the coming storm. Tensions had been hot all summer. The cooler fall weather moved people from languid summer unrest to more militant action. Pamphlets littered the streets; the corpses of dogs had been stuffed with them, as protest or warning, and by which side, Bet did not know or care. Not then. Not yet. She cared only about capturing the color of the sky.

Bet was used to Hanere’s flare for the dramatic. Hanere had spent the last year in a production of Tornello, a play about the life and death of the city’s greatest painter. She had a habit of seeking out and exploiting the outrageous in even the most mundane situations.

Hanere twined her fingers into Bet’s apron strings, tugging them loose.

Bet batted Hanere’s hands away with her free one, still intent on the painting. “You want to date a painter because you’re playing one,” Bet said, “I have to give you the full experience. That means I work in this light. Just work, Hanere.”

“Sounds divine,” Hanere said, reaching again for the apron.

“I’m working,” Bet said. “That’s as divine as it gets. Have some cool wine. Read a book.”

“A book? A book!”

Bet would remember Hanere just this way, thirty years hence: the crooked mouth, the spill of dark hair, eyes the color of honey beer widened in mock outrage.

The lover who would soon burn the world.

III.

“Hanere Gozene,” Bet said, waving the two Plague Hunters inside. The name tasted odd on her tongue, like something both grotesquely profane and sacred, just like her memories of that black revolution.

Mhev barked at the hunters from his basket. Bet shushed him, but his warning bark convinced her to look over her young guests a second time. The appearance of Hanere’s letter had shaken her, and she needed to pay attention. Mhev didn’t bark at Plague Hunters, only Plague Givers.

“Neither of us is used to company,” Bet said. When she was younger, she might have forced a smile with it to cover her suspicions, but she had given up pretending she was personable a long time ago.

Abrimet sat across from her at the little table strewn with bits of leather and stuffing from her work on the hydras. The younger one, the pan, stood off to the side, tugging at per violet collar. Bet slumped into her seat opposite. She didn’t offer them anything. She picked up the half–finished hydra and turned it over in her hands. “City people buy these,” she said. “I trade them to a merchant who paddles upriver to sell them. No back country child is foolish enough to buy them and invite that kind of bad luck in, like asking in a couple of Plague Hunters.”

Lealez and Abrimet exchanged a look. Abrimet said, quickly, “We know Hanere left twelve dead Plague Hunters behind her, when she last escaped. If she’s out there mentoring these two rogues—”

“I’m over fifty years old,” Bet said. “What is it you hope I’ll do for you? You’re not here to ask me to hunt. So what do you want?”

Mhev stirred from his basket and snuffled over to Abrimet’s boots. He licked them. Abrimet grimaced and pulled the boots away.

“Did you step through truffled salt?” Bet asked, leaning forward. She used the shift in her position to push her hand closer to the hilt of the machete on the table. They were indeed Givers, not Hunters. She should have known.

Abrimet raised hairless brows. “Why would—”

“It is a common thing,” Bet said, “for Plague Givers to walk through truffled salt to neutralize their last cast, or to combat the plain salt cast of a Plague Hunter, which of course you would realize. It ensures they don’t bring any contagion from that cast with them to the next target. Mhev can smell that salt on you. It’s like sugar, to him. Regular salt, no. Truffled salt? Oh yes.”

“Abrimet is a respected Hunter,” Lealez said, voice rising. “You accuse Abrimet of casting before coming here, like some rogue Giver? Abrimet is a Hunter, as am I.”

“You’re here for the relics,” Bet said, because most of the company who came here wanted the relics, and though these two had a fine cover story and poor ability to hide what they were, they would be no different.

“You did use them, then,” Abrimet said, leaning forward. “To defeat Hanere.”

Mhev nosed under Abrimet’s boot. Abrimet toed at him.

“Not every godnight story is entirely rubbish,” Bet said. She still held the bottle, though it was empty. Flexed her other hand, preparing to snatch the machete. “We went south, to the City by the Crushed Lake where Hanere learned all of her high magic. The relics assisted in her capture, yes.”

“We’ll require the relics to defeat her students,” Abrimet said, “just as you defeated her.”

Mhev, sated by the salt, sat at Abrimet’s boot and barked.

Bet made her choice.

She threw her bottle at Abrimet. It smashed into Abrimet’s head, hard. Bet grabbed her machete and drove the machete through Abrimet’s right eye.

Lealez shrieked. Raised per hands, already halfway into reciting a chant. Mhev’s barking became a staccato.

Bet grabbed one of the finished hydras on the shelf and pegged Lealez in the head with it. A puff of white powder clouded the air. Lealez sneezed and fell back on the floor.

“No spells in here,” Bet said to her. “That’s six ounces of night buzz pollen. You won’t be casting for an hour.”

Bet pulled the machete clear of Abrimet. Abrimet’s face still moved. Eye blinked. Tongue lolled. The body tumbled to the floor. Mhev squeaked and went for the boots.

“How were you going to do it?” she asked Lealez.

“I don’t, I don’t understand—” Lealez sneezed again, wiping at per face.

Bet thrust the bloody machete at per. “I have hunted Plague Givers my whole life. You thought I could not spot one like Abrimet? Did you know they cast a plague before they came here? Why do you think they stepped through truffled salt?”

Lealez considered per position, and the fine line between truth and endangering per mission. Bet’s face was a knotted ruin, as if she had taken endless pummeling for decades. Her twisted black hair bled to white in patches. She was covered in insect bites and splattered blood. The spectacles resting on her head were slightly askew now. She stank terribly. The little rat happily gnawed at Abrimet’s boots. Lealez had a terrible fear that this would all be blamed on per. Cities would die, the Order would be disbanded, because per had been too arrogant, and gotten perself into this horrible assignment. Abrimet, a Plague Giver? Impossible. Wasn’t it? Lealez would have seen it.

“I didn’t know what Abrimet was,” Lealez said. “I just want to make a name for myself the way you did. I was the best of my class. I’ve… I’ve already killed three givers!”

“If that’s true you should have a name already,” Bet said.

“If they find that you killed Abrimet, you will be stung to death for it.”

“A very risky venture, then, to let you go,” Bet said, and was rewarded with a little tremble from Lealez.

Lealez wiped the pollen from per robe. It made per fingers numb. As per straightened per robe, Lealez wondered if Bet knew per was stalling, and if she did, how long she would let per do it before stabbing Lealez, too, with a machete. “I can speak for you before the judges, in the end,” Lealez said. “You’ll need someone to honor you. Another hunter. We can’t hunt alone.”

“A smart little upstart with no talent,” Bet said.

“It’s true I’m an upstart,” Lealez said, “but you can’t legally hunt without another hunter.” Per smirked, knowing that even this old woman could not stand against that law.

Bet lowered her machete. “I’d have guessed the story you sold me was as fake as your friend, but I knew the paper, and I knew the signature. If I find you faked that too, you’ll have more to worry about than just one dead Plague Hunter.”

“It’s very genuine,” Lealez said. “We only have four days. They’ll kill tens of thousands in the capital.”

“The note said seven days.”

“It took us three days to find you.”

“I’ll hide better next time.”

Lealez got to per feet. Lealez found per was trembling, and hated perself for it. A woman like Bet looked for weakness. That was Abrimet’s flaw; their fear made them start to cast a plague, instead of waiting it out. A dangerous tell in front of a woman like this. Lealez needed to seal perself up tight.

Insects whispered across the pier. “Bit of advice,” Bet said. “The Order forgives a great deal if you deliver what it wants.”

“You need me.”

“Like a hole in the head,” Bet said, “But I’ll take you along. For my own reasons.”

“What’s more important than eliminating a threat to the Community?”

“You don’t get it,” Bet said. “The last time I got a note on paper like that, it was from Hanere. It’s not just two rogues you’re dealing with.”

“There must be any number of stationery shops where—”

“That was Hanere’s handwriting.”

“That isn’t possible.”

“I turned Hanere over to the Order three decades ago, and read about her death on all the news sheets and billboards.”

“She was drawn and quartered,” Lealez said.

“And burned up in the searing violet flame of the Joystone Peace,” Bet said. “But here she is. And why do you think that is, little upstart?”

Lealez shook per head.

“Somehow she survived all that, and now she’s back to bite the Community.”

“So where do we start?” Lealez asked.

“We start with the sword,” Bet said. “Then we retrieve the shield. Then we confront Hanere.”

“How will we know where to find her?”

Bet pulled her pack from a very high shelf. “Oh, we won’t need to find her,” she said. “Once the objects of power are released, she’ll find us.”

IV.

The Copse of Screaming Corpses loomed ahead of Bet and Lealez’s little pirogue. Great, knotted fingers, black as coal, tangled with the fog, poking snarling holes in the mist that hinted at the massive shapes hidden within. Sometimes the waves of gray shifted, revealing a glaring eye, a knobby knee, or the gaping mouth of one of the twisted, petrified forest of giants, forever locked in a scream of horror.

The copse was a good day’s paddle from Bet’s refuge. When she told Lealez the name, Lealez thought Bet was making fun.

“That isn’t the real name,” Lealez said. The dense fog muffled per words.

“Oh, it is,” Bet said. “It’s aptly named.”

“Does the name alone scare people off?”

“The smart ones, yes,” Bet said.

Ripples traveled across the bubbling water.

“What are these bubbles?”

“Sinkhole,” Bet said. “They open up under the swamp sometimes. Pull boats under, whole villages. We’re lucky. Probably happened sometime last night.”

“Just a hole in the world?”

“Had one in the capital forty years ago,” Bet said. “Ate the Temple of Saint Torch. Those fancy schools don’t teach that?”

“I guess not,” Lealez said. Per gazed into the great canopy of dripping moss that covered the looming giants above them. Their great, gaping maws were fixed in snarls of pain, or perhaps outrage. Lealez imagined them eating per whole. “Why put it here?” per said. “This place is awful.”

“Would you come here for any other reason but retrieving an object of power?”

“No.”

“You have your answer.”

Bet poled the pirogue up to the edge of a marshy island and jumped out. She tied off the pirogue and pulled a great coil of rope over her shoulder. She headed off into the misty marsh without looking back at Lealez. Lealez scrambled after her, annoyed and a little frightened. Bet’s generous shape was quickly disappearing into the mist.

Lealez yelped as per brushed the knobby tangle of some giant’s pointing finger.

When Lealez caught up with Bet, she was already heaving the large rope over her shoulder. She sucked her teeth as she walked around the half–buried torso of one of the stricken giants. Its hands clawed at the sky, and its face was lost in the fog.

Bet tossed up one end of the rope a couple of times until she succeeded in getting it over the upraised left arm of the giant. She tied one end around her waist and handed Lealez the other end.

Lealez frowned.

“Hold onto it,” Bet said. “Pull up the slack as I go. You never climbed anything before?”

Lealez shook per head.

Bet sighed. “What do they teach you kids these days?” She kicked off her shoes and began to climb. “Don’t touch or eat anything while you’re down here.”

Lealez watched, breathless. Bet seemed too big to climb such a thing, but she found little hand and footholds as she went, jamming her fingers and toes into crevices and deviations in the petrified giant.

Lealez held tight to the other end of the rope, pulling the slack and watching Bet disappear into the fog as she climbed up onto the giant’s shoulder. Lealez glanced around at the fog, feeling very alone.

Above, Bet took her time climbing the monster. She had been a lot younger when she did this the first time, and she was already resenting her younger self. Warbling hoots and cries came from the swampland around her, distorted by the fog. Her breath came hard and her fingers ached, but she reached the top of the giant in due course. 

She knew there was something wrong the moment she hooked herself up around the back of the giant’s head. The head was spongy at the front, as if rotting from within. The whole back of it had been ripped open. Inside the giant’s head was a gory black hole where the sword had been.

She pulled the knife from her hip and hacked into the back of the head, peering deep inside, scraping away bits of calcified brain matter. But it was no use. The head was empty. She traced the edges of the hole carved in the giant’s head. Someone had hacked out the great round piece of the skull that she had mortared back into place with a sticky contagion years ago. Only she and her partner Keleb had known about the contagion. They would be the only two people capable of neutralizing it before removing the relic.

“Briar and piss,” she muttered.

Below, Lealez screamed.

Bet sheathed her knife as she scrambled back down the giant, aware that her rope had gone slack. Foolish pan, what was the point of a rope if Bet cracked her head open on the way down?

Lealez screamed and screamed, horrified by the rippling of per skin. Lealez had tilted per head up to follow Bet’s progress and left per mouth open, and a shard of the great giant’s skin had flaked off and fallen into per mouth.

Lealez gagged on it, but it went down, and now per body was… growing, distending; Lealez thought per would burst into a thousand pieces. But that, alas, did not happen. Instead, Lealez grew and grew. Arms thickened with muscle. Thighs became large around as tree trunks.

When finally Lealez saw Bet sliding down the tree, Lealez’s head was already up past Bet’s position.

Bet swore and leapt the rest of the way down the face of the giant. She took a fistful of salt from the pouch at her hip and threw it in a circle around Lealez’s burgeoning body. Lealez’s clothes had burst, falling in tatters all around per. Bet muttered a chant, half–curse, half–cure, concentrating on the swinging arms above her. Bet pulled a bit of tangled herb from another pouch, already laced with contagion. She breathed the words she had last spoken in a dusty library in the Contagion College and let the plague free.

All around them, biting flies swarmed up from the swampland, drawn by her cast. They ate bits of the contagion and landed onto Lealez’s body, which was now nearing the height of the petrified giants around them. Per skin was beginning to blacken and calcify around per ankles.

The swarm of flies covered Lealez’s body like a second skin. Lealez squealed and swatted at them, per movements increasingly slow. The flies bit Lealez’s flesh again and again while Bet squatted and urinated on the salt circle.

All at once the flies fell off Lealez. The pan’s skin began to flake away where it had been bitten. The body contracted again, until it was half the size it had been, still giant. Then Lealez fell over with a great thump.

Bet ran to Lealez’s side. The skin had turned obsidian black, hard as shale. Bet took her machete from her hip and hacked at the torso until great cracks opened up in the body. Then she pulled the pieces away.

Lealez was curled up inside the husk of per former self, arms crossed over per chest, shivering.

“Get out of there now,” Bet said, offering per an arm.

Lealez tentatively took her hand, and Bet pulled per out. “Dusk is coming soon,” Bet said, “I don’t want to get caught out here.”

It was warm enough that Bet wasn’t too worried about Lealez being naked, but Lealez seemed to mind, and went searching for per pack, which had been ripped from Lealez’s body. It was a stupid search, Bet thought, because the fog was getting denser, and they were losing the light, and Lealez’s things could have gone anywhere.

Finally Lealez found the remains of per haversack, and pulled on a fresh robe. But the rest of per things were scattered, and Bet insisted they move on and not wait.

“The College will be angry,” Lealez said. “My books, my papers—”

“Books and papers? Is that all you can think about? Hurry. Didn’t I tell you not to touch or eat anything?”

“You didn’t say why!”

“I shouldn’t have to say why, you dumb pan. When I was your age I did whatever my mentor said.”

“Are you my mentor now? You aren’t even officially a Hunter. You would never be approved as a mentor by the college.”

“Is everything joyless and literal with you?”

“You don’t know how the college is now,” Lealez said. “Old people like you tell us how things should be, how we should think, but this is a new age. We face a different government, and new penalties after the Plague Wars. We can’t all go rogue or shirk our duties. We’d be kicked out. The college is very strict these days. People like you would never make it to graduation. You would end up working in contagion breweries.”

“I’m sure you’d like to continue on with that fantasy awhile longer,” Bet said.

Once they were in the pirogue and had cast off, Lealez finally roused perself from misery and asked, “What about the artifact?”

“Someone got to it first,” Bet said.

“Hanere?”

“Only one other person knows where these are. I expect they were compelled to get it.”

“Your partner?”

Bet nodded.

“You think they are still alive?”

“No,” Bet said.

At least Lealez said nothing else.

V.

Bet’s partner Keleb, too, had retired, but had chosen a canal that acted as a main trading thoroughfare into the city instead of a hard–to–find retreat like Bet’s. It took a day and a half to reach the shoman’s house, and Bet found herself counting down the time in her head. Lealez, too, reminded her of the ticking chirp of time as they poled downriver. The current was sluggish, and the weather was still and hot.

Despite the stillness, Bet smelled the smoke before she saw it. Lealez sat up in per seat and leaned far over the prow, knuckles gripping the edge of the craft.

The guttered ruin of Keleb’s house came into view as they rounded the bend. The shoman had built the house with Bet’s help, high up on a snarl of land that hardly ever flooded. Now the house was a charred wreck.

Bet tied off the pirogue and climbed up the steep bank. She counted three sets of footprints along the bank and around the house. They had stayed to watch it burn.

Bet poked around the still smoking house and found what was left of Keleb’s body, as charred and ruined as the house.

“Help me here,” Bet said to Lealez.

Lealez came up after her. “What can we do?” Lealez said. “The shoman is dead.”

“Not the body I’m here for,” Bet said. She walked off into the wood and chopped down two long poles from a nearby stand of trees. She handed a pole to Lealez. “Help me get the body rolled back, clear the area here.”

Lealez knit per brows, but did as per was told. They heaved over Keleb’s body to reveal a tattered hemp rug beneath. Bet yanked it away and used the pole to lever open a piece of the floor. Peeling back the wood revealed a long, low compartment. Lealez leaned over to get a better look, but it was clearly empty.

Bet sucked her teeth.

“What was here?” Lealez asked.

“The cloak,” Bet said.

“I thought there were two relics, a sword and a shield.”

“That’s because that’s all we reported,” Bet said. “Because we knew this day would come.” Bet saw the edge of a piece of paper peeking out from the bottom of the cache and picked it up. It was another note, made out to her in Hanere’s handwriting.

“What does it say?” Lealez asked.

Bet traced the words and remembered a day thirty years before, rioting in the streets, a plump painter, and a future she had imagined that looked nothing like this one.

Bet crumpled up the note. “It says she will trade me the objects in return for something I love,” Bet said. “Good thing I don’t love anything.”

Nothing but Hanere, of course. But that was a long time ago. Bet hardly felt anything there in the pit of her belly when she thought of Hanere. It was the time in her life she longed for, not Hanere. That’s what she told herself.

“What a monster,” Lealez said, staring at Keleb’s charred body.

“None of us is a sainted being, touched by some god,” Bet said. “But she’s missing the third relic. She’ll need that before she can end the world.”

Lealez shivered. “We don’t have much time left.”

“There’s a suspension line that runs up the river near here,” Bet said. “Let’s see if we can find you some clothes.”

“There are only shoman’s clothes here,” Lealez said.

“We all have to make sacrifices,” Bet muttered.

They walked away from Keleb’s house; two people, a woman and a pan dressed in shoman’s clothes, the vestments smoky and charred. Bet expected Lealez to talk more, but Lealez kept the peace. Lealez found perself following after Bet in a daze. For years Lealez had wanted nothing more than to prove perself to the Contagion College. It was beginning to dawn on Lealez just what per had to do to achieve the honor per wished for, and it was frightening, far more frightening than it had seemed when Lealez read all the books about Plague Hunters and Plague Givers and how the Hunters tracked down the Givers and saved the world. No one spoke of charred bodies, or what it was like to be cut out of one’s own plague–touched skin.

The great suspension line ran along the Potsdown Peace canal all the way to the Great Dawn harbor that housed the city. Bet sighed and paid their fare to the scrawny little pan who lived in what passed for a gatehouse this far south of the city.

“College better reimburse all this,” Bet said, and laughed, because the idea that she would be alive to get reimbursed in another day was distinctly amusing.

Bet and Lealez climbed the stairs up to the carriage that hung along the suspended line and settled in. Lealez looked a little sick, so Bet asked, “You been up before?”

“I don’t like heights,” Lealez said.

The gatekeeper came up and attached their carriage line to the pulley powered by a guttering steam engine, which the pan swore at several times before the carriage finally stuttered out along the line, swinging away from the gatehouse and over the water.

Lealez shut per eyes.

Bet leaned out over the side of the carriage and admired the long backs of a pod of plesiosaurs moving in the water beneath them.

After a few minutes, Lealez said, “I don’t understand why you didn’t tell the College there were three objects.”

“Of course you do,” Bet said.

“It doesn’t—”

“Don’t pretend you’re some fool,” Bet said. “I haven’t believed a word you’ve said any more than I believed your little friend.”

Lealez stiffened. “Why keep me alive, then?”

“Because I think you can be salvaged,” Bet said. “Your friend couldn’t. Your friend was already a Plague Giver. I think you’re still deciding your own fate.”

They rode in silence after that for nearly an hour. Lealez was startled when Bet finally broke it.

“Keleb and I couldn’t defeat Hanere ourselves,” Bet said. “I’d like to tell you we could. But she’s more powerful. She has a far blacker heart, and a blacker magic. We went south, Keleb and I, and got help from sorcerers and hedge witches. They were the ones who created the objects of power. The sword, the shield, and the cloak.”

“How do they work?” Lealez asked.

“You’ll know soon enough,” Bet said. “Not even Keleb knew where I kept the shield, though.”

“But, the other weapons—”

The carriage shuddered. Lealez gave a little cry.

“Hold on, it’s just—” Bet began, and then the carriage hook sheared clean away, and they plunged into the canal.

VI.

Thirty years earlier…

Hanere had always loved to watch things burn. Bet sat with her on the rooftop while riots overtook the city. They sipped black bourbon and danced and talked about how the world would be different now that the revolutionaries had done more than talk. They were burning it all down.

“If only I could be with them!” Hanere said.

Bet pulled Hanere into her lap. “You are better off here with me. Out there is a world of monsters and mad people.”

Hanere waggled her brows. “Who’s to say I’m not a bit of both? Come with me, we are out of bourbon!” She held up the empty bottle.

“No, no,” Bet said. “Stay in. We’ll sleep up here.”

Bet had gone to sleep while the world burned. But that wasn’t Hanere’s way. While Bet slept, Hanere went out into it.

It was the edge of dawn when Bet finally woke, hung over and covered in cigarette ash, hands smeared in paint from her work earlier in the day. It was not until she sat up and saw the paint smearing the roof that she thought something was amiss. Her gaze followed the trail of paint that was not paint but blood to its origin. Hanere stood at the edge of the rooftop, wearing a long white shift covered in blood.

Bet scrambled up. “Are you hurt? Hanere?”

But as Hanere turned, Bet stopped. Hanere raised her bloody hands to the sky and her face was full of more joy than Bet had ever seen.

“The government is nearly toppled,” Hanere said. “We will be gods, you and I, Bet. There’s no one to stop us. It’s delightful down there. You must come.”

“What did you do, Hanere?”

“I am alive for the first time in my life,” Hanere said. She opened her hands, and salt fell from her fingers. She murmured something, and little blue florets colored the air and passed out over the city.

“Stop it,” Bet said. “What are you doing? You can’t cast in the city outside the College!”

“I cast all night,” Hanere said. “I will cast all I like. Come with me. Bet, come with me, my Elzabet. My love. We can take this whole city. We can burn down the college and those tired old people and repaint the world.”

“No, Hanere. Get down from there.”

The joy left Hanere’s face. “Is that what you wish for us?” she said. She came down from the rooftop and walked over to Bet. She placed her hands on Bet’s stomach. The blood on her hands was still fresh enough to leave stains. “Is that what you wish for our child?”

VII.

Bet sucked in water instead of air, and paddled to the surface, kicking wildly. She popped up in the brown water and took in her surroundings. Lealez was nowhere in sight. She dove again into the water, feeling her way through the muck for Lealez. Opening her eyes was a lost cause; she could see nothing. Her fingers snagged a bit of cloth. She grabbed at it and heaved Lealez to the surface.

Lealez coughed and sputtered. Bet kept per at arm’s length, yelling that all per splashing was going to drown them both.

“Head for the shore,” Bet said.

Lealez shook per head and treaded water using big, sloppy strokes. Bet followed per gaze and saw the hulking shapes of the plesiosaurs circling the carriage.

“They eat plants,” Bet said. “Mostly.”

Bet hooked Lealez under her arm and paddled for the shore. The plesiosaurs kept pace with them, displacing great waves of water that made it more difficult to get to the shore.

Lealez gasped. “They’ll crush us!”

“More worried about the lizards on the shore,” Bet said.

“What?”

Two big alligators lay basking along the shore. Bet made for another hollow a little further on, but they were closer than they should be.

“They only eat at night,” Bet said, reassuring herself as much as Lealez. “Mostly.”

Bet and Lealez crawled up onto the bank and immediately started off into the brush. Bet wanted to put as much distance between her and the lizards as possible. Massive mosquitoes and biting flies plagued them, but Bet knew they were close enough to the city now that they might find a settlement or—if they were lucky—someone’s spare pirogue.

Instead, they found the plague.

The bodies started just twenty minutes into their walk to the shore, and continued for another hour as they grew nearer and nearer the settlement. Soft white fungus grew from the noses and eyes and mouths of the dead; their fingers and toes were blackened. Bet stopped and drew a circle of salt around her and Lealez, and sprinkled some precautionary concoctions over them.

“Do you know which one it is?” Lealez whispered.

“One of Hanere’s,” Bet said. “She likes to leave a mark. She’s expecting us.”

“Is this where you left the shield?”

“Hush now,” Bet said as the swampland opened up into a large clearing. Nothing was burning, which was unlike Hanere.

Bet stopped Lealez from going further and held up a finger to her lips. Two figures stood at the center of the village, heads bent in deep conversation. One wore a long black and purple cloak. The other carried a sword emblazoned with the seal of the Contagion College.

“Stay here,” Bet said to Lealez. She pulled out her machete and stepped into the clearing.

The two figures looked up. Bet might have had to guess at their gender if one of them wasn’t so familiar. She knew that one’s gender because she’d been there during the ceremony where he’d chosen it. It was her and Hanere’s own son, Mekdas. The other was most likely female, based on the hairstyle and clothing, but that didn’t much concern Bet.

A trade for something Bet loved, that’s what Hanere had written.

“So it was you who broke away from the Contagion College,” Bet said.

Mekdas stared at her. He was nearly thirty now, not so much a boy, but he still looked young to her, younger even than Lealez. He had Hanere’s bold nose and Bet’s straight dark hair and Hanere’s full lips and Bet’s stocky build and Hanere’s talent and impatience.

“I left you with the college so you could make something of yourself,” Bet said. “Now here you are disappointing me twice.”

“That’s something Hanere and you never had in common,” Mekdas said. “She was never once disappointed in me.”

Bet searched the ground around them for the shield. If they had gotten this far they must have found that too, no matter that Bet was the only one who was supposed to know where it was. Had Hanere used some kind of black magic to find it?

“Give over the objects,” Bet said, “and we can talk about this.”

“Have you met my lover?” Mekdas asked. “This is Saba.”

Saba was a short waif of a woman, a little older than Mekdas. As much as Bet wanted to blame this all on some older Plague Giver, she knew better. She had done her best with Mekdas, but it was all too late.

Bet held out her hand. “The cloak, Mekdas.”

“You’re an old woman,” Mekdas said. “Completely useless out here. Go back to your swamp. We are remaking the world. You don’t have the stomach for it.”

“You’re right,” Bet said. She didn’t know what to say to him. She had never been good with children, and with Hanere dead, she had wanted even less to do with this particular child. He reminded her too much of Hanere. “I don’t have the stomach for many things, but I know a plague village when I see one. I know where this goes, and I know how it ends. You think you can take this plague all the way to the city?”

Saba raised the sword. “With the relics, we will,” she said, and smirked.

“Hanere tell you how they work, did she?” Bet said. “The trouble is Hanere doesn’t know. There is one person alive who knows, and it’s me.”

“Hanere will show us,” Saba said.

“You shut the seven fucking hells up,” Bet said. “I’m not talking to you. Mekdas—”

“Why are you even here?” he said.

“Because Hanere invited me,” Bet said.

That got a reaction from him. Surprise. Shock, even.

Bet already had a handful of salt ready, but so did they. The shock was all the advantage she had. Bet flicked the salt in their faces and charged toward them. She bowled over Saba and snatched the sword from her. They were Plague Givers, not warriors, and it showed.

Mekdas had the sense to run, but Bet stabbed the sword through his cloak and twisted. He fell hard onto a body, casting spores into the air.

Bet yelled for Lealez.

Lealez bolted across the sea of bodies, hand already raised to cast.

“Circle and hold them,” Bet said.

Lealez’s hands trembled as per made the cast to neutralize the two hunters.

Bet tore the cloak from Mekdas’s shoulders and wrapped it around her own. She dragged the sword in one hand and crossed to the other side of the village. Bet found the tree she had nested her prize in decades before and hacked it open to reveal the shield, now buried in the heart of the tree. Sweat ran down her face so heavily she had to squint to see. She picked up the shield and marched back to where Saba and Mekdas lay prone inside the salt circle.

“Now you’ll see all you wanted to see,” Bet said to Mekdas. “You will see the world can be made as well as unmade, but there are sacrifices.” She raised the sword over her head.

“No!” Lealez said.

“Please!” Mekdas said.

Bet plunged the blade into Saba’s heart and spit the words of power that released the objects’ essence. A cloud of brilliant purple dust burst from Saba’s body and filled the air. Lealez stumbled back, coughing.

Bet quickly removed the cloak and draped it over Saba. All around the village, the bodies began to convulse. White spores exploded from their mouths and noses and spiraled toward the cloak, a great spinning vortex of contagion.

Lealez watched the cloak absorb the great gouts of plague, feeding on it like some hungry beast. A great keening shuddered through the air. It took Lealez a moment to realize it was Saba, screaming. And screaming. Lealez covered per ears.

Then it was over.

Bet stepped away from Saba’s body, but tripped and stumbled back, fell hard on her ass. She heaved a great sigh and rested her forehead on the hilt of the sword.

“What did you do?” Mekdas said. His voice broke. He was weeping.

Bet raised her head.

All around them, the plague–ridden people of the village began to stir. Their blackened flesh warmed to a healthy brown. Their plague–clotted eyes cleared and opened. Soon, their questioning voices could be heard, and Bet got to her feet, because she was not ready for questions.

“They’re alive!” Lealez said, gaping. “You saved them.”

Bet pulled the cloak from Saba’s body. Saba’s face was a bitter rictus, frozen in agony. “They only save life by taking life,” Bet said. “Now you know why I separated them. Why I never kept them together. Yes, they can give life. But they can take it, too. It’s the intent that matters.”

“We have one of them, at least,” Lealez said. “We can take him to the Contagion College.”

“No,” Bet said. She raised her head to the sky. “This is not done.” While the people of the village stirred, the insects in the swampland around them had gone disturbingly quiet.

“What is—” Lealez began.

“Let’s get to the water,” Bet said. “Take Mekdas. We need to get away from the village.”

“But—”

“Listen to me in this, you fool.”

Lealez bound Mekdas with hemp rope rubbed in salt and pushed him out ahead of them. Lealez had to hurry to keep up with Bet. Carrying the objects seemed to have given her some greater strength, or maybe just a sense of purpose. She forged out ahead of them, cutting through swaths of swampland, cutting a way for them all the way back down to the water on the other side of the river.

Lealez stared out at the water and saw two pirogues attached to a cypress tree another hundred steps up the canal. “There!”

“Take my machete,” Bet said. “You’ll take one boat on your own. Follow after Mekdas and I.”

Lealez took the machete. “You’re really going to turn him in?”

Bet glared at per so fiercely Lealez wanted to melt into the water.

“All right,” Lealez said, “I wasn’t sure what I was thinking.” Lealez waded out toward the pirogue. Lealez noticed the ripple in the water out of the corner of per eye and turned.

Bet saw the ripple a half moment before. She yelled and raised her sword, but she was too slow.

A massive alligator snatched Lealez by the leg and dragged per under the water. Bet saw Lealez’s upraised arms, a rush of brown water, and then nothing.

Mekdas ran.

Bet swore and scrambled after him. She fell in along the muddy bank, and then something else came up from the water for her.

Hanere emerged from the depths of the swamp like a creature born there. She head–butted Bet so hard Bet’s nose burst. Pain shattered across her face. Bet fell in the mud.

Muddy water and tangles of watercress streamed off Hanere’s body. Her hair was knotted and tangled, and her beard was shot through with white. She grabbed hold of Bet’s boot and dragged Bet toward her.

Bet held up the sword. “Revenge will get you nothing, Hanere!”

“It got me you,” Hanere said, and wrenched the shield from Bet’s hand and threw it behind her.

“You feel better with me here?” Bet said, gasping.

“A bit, yes.”

“And when your son is dead? If I don’t kill him, someone else will.”

“They were in love, like we were,” Hanere said. “It was easy to convince them to burn down a world that condemned them, and me. Even you. This world cast even you out, after all you did.”

“Not like us. They’re both criminals.”

“You became a criminal when you fucked me, and kept fucking me, even when you told them you were hunting me. You and your soft heart.”

Bet kicked herself further down the bank, holding the sword ahead of her. “I thought you dead,” Bet said. “For thirty years—”

“That’s a bunch of shit,” Hanere said. “You know they’d never kill someone like me. You know what they did to me for thirty years? Put me up in a salt box and tortured me. Me, the greatest sorcerer that ever lived.”

“How did you—”

“Does it matter?” Hanere said, and her tone softened. She crawled toward Bet and took hold of the end of the sword. She pressed it to her chest and said, “Is this what you wanted? To do it yourself? Or did you wait always for this day, when we could take the world together?”

Tears came, unbidden. Bet gritted her teeth in anger. Her own soft heart, betraying her. “You know I can’t.”

“Even now?” Hanere said softly, “after all this time?”

Bet shook her head.

Hanere reached out for Bet’s cheek, and though it was mud on Hanere’s fingers and not blood, the memory of Hanere’s bloody hands was still so strong after all these years that Bet flinched.

“We are done,” Bet said, and pressed the sword into Hanere’s heart.

Hanere did not fight her. Instead, she pulled herself forward along the length of the blade, closer and closer, until she could kiss Bet with her bloody mouth.

“I will die in your arms,” Hanere said, “as I should have done.”

Mekdas screamed, long and high, behind them.

Bet sagged under Hanere’s weight.

Mekdas bolted past her and ran toward the two pirogues.

Bet turned her eyes upward. Soft while clouds moved across the purple–blue sky. She wanted to be a bird, untethered from all this filth and sweat, all these tears. Thirty years she had hid, thirty years she had tried to avoid this day. But here it was. And she had done it, hadn’t she? Done everything she hoped she would not do.

She heard a splashing from the water, and heaved a sigh. The lizard would take her. Gods, let the lizard take her, and the relics, and drown them for all time.

When she opened her eyes, though, it was Lealez who stood above her, dripping water onto her face. The pan was covered in gore, and stank like rotten meat. Lealez held up the machete. “Told you I was the best in my class,” Lealez said.

“Didn’t know you learned how to kill lizards,” Bet said.

Lealez gazed at Hanere’s body. “Is she really dead?”

“I don’t know that I care,” Bet said. “Is that strange?”

Lealez helped her up. “The boy is trying to figure out the pirogue,” Lealez said. “We aren’t done.”

“You take him.”

“He’s your family,” Lealez said.

“My responsibility?”

“I just thought… You would want to take the credit.”

Bet huffed out a laugh. “The credit? The credit.” She heaved herself forward, slogging toward the pirogue.

Mekdas saw her coming and pushed off. As she approached he stood up in the little boat, unsteady already on the water.

Behind him, Bet could just see the lights of the city in the distance. Did they all know what was coming for them? Did any realize that there were Plague Givers out here who wanted to decimate the world and start over? Would they care, or would they be like Hanere, and wish for an end?

“You must kill me to save that city, then, mother,” Mekdas said. “Will you kill me like you did Hanere? You won’t bring me in alive. You must make the—”

Bet threw her sword. It thunked into her son’s belly. He gagged and bowled over.

Lealez gaped.

Bet waded out to the pirogue and pulled it back to shore.

“You killed him,” Lealez said. “I thought—”

“He’s not dead yet,” Bet said, but the words were only temporarily truth. He was gasping his last, drowning in his own blood.

“I’ve heard ultimatums like that before,” Bet said. “Hanere gave me one, and when I hesitated, I lost her. You only make a mistake like that, the heart over reason, once. Then you take yourself away from the world, so you don’t have to make decisions like that again.”

“But—”

“Blood means little when there’s a city at stake,” Bet said. She gazed back out at the city. “Let’s give them to the swamp.”

“But we have to take the bodies back to—”

Bet raised the sword and pointed it at Lealez. It was only then that she realized Lealez was favoring per right leg; the lizard had gotten its teeth in per, and Lealez would get infected badly, soon, if they didn’t get per help in the city.

“We do the bodies my way,” Bet said, “then we get you back to the city.”

When they came back to Hanere’s body, it was encircled by a great mushroom ring. Green spores floated through the air.

“Is she dangerous?” Lealez said.

“Not anymore,” Bet said.

Together, they hauled the body through the undergrowth, avoiding the snapping jaws of swamp dogs and startling a pack of rats as big as Bet’s head. Bet was aware of Hanere’s stinking body, the slightly swelling flesh. When they dumped her into the hill of ants, Bet stood and watched them devour the woman she had spent half her life either chasing or romancing.

“Are you all right?” Lealez said.

“No,” Bet said. “Never have been.”

Mekdas was next.

While they stood watching the ants devour him, Lealez glanced over at Bet and said, “I know this is a hard profession, but there’s honor in it. It does a public good.”

“No, we just murder people.”

“We eliminate threats to—”

“Can you even say it? Can you say, ‘We murder people.’”

“This is a ridiculous conversation.”

“On that, we can agree,” Bet said. She glanced over at Lealez. “Something I noticed back there, in the Copse of Screaming Corpses. You never showed me your credentials.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

Bet grabbed per arm and yanked back per sleeve before Lealez could pull away. There was the double ivy circle of the order, but no triangles.

Bet released her, disgusted. “What happened to being best in your class? Apprehending three Plague Givers? That’s what your duplicitous friend Abrimet said, wasn’t it?”

“I came out here to make a name for myself.”

Bet stared down at the little pan, and though she wanted to hate Lealez more than anything, she had to admit, “I suspect you have indeed done that.”

VIII.

Lealez smoothed per coat and mopped the sweat from per brow. The great Summoning Circle of the Contagion College was stuffed to bursting with fellow Plague Hunters. The map case Lealez carried over per shoulder felt heavier and heavier as the afternoon wore on to dusk. The initial round of questions had worn down into a second and then third round where Lealez felt per was simply repeating perself. Not a single apprentice or hunter with fewer than three triangles was allowed into the space. By that measure, Lealez wouldn’t have been able to come to per own trial just a few days ago. Lealez swallowed hard. In front of per lay the relics per and Bet had spent so much effort retrieving.

Lealez knew it was a betrayal, but per also knew there was no triangle on per arm yet, and this was the only way.

The coven of judges peered down at Lealez from the towering amber dais. The air above them swarmed with various plagues and contagions, all of them meant to counteract any assaults coming from outside the theater. But the swarm still made Lealez’s nose run and eyes water. Lealez felt like a leaky sponge.

“Where are the bodies?” Judge Horven asked, waggling her large mustache.

“We disposed of them,” Lealez said. “Elzabet was… understandably concerned that Hanere Gozene could rise again. As she had risen once before.”

“Then you have no proof,” Judge Horven said.

Lealez gestured expansively to the relics. “I have brought back the relics that Elzabet Addisalam and Keleb Ozdanam used to defeat Hanere Gozene,” Lealez said. “And you have the testimony of the two of us of course.”

Judge Rosteb, the eldest judge, held up their long–fingered hands and barked out a long laugh. “We are former Plague Hunters, all,” they said. “We know that testimony between partners can be… suspect.”

“I stand before you with all I have learned,” Lealez said. “Abrimet was unfortunately lost to us along the way, through no fault of either Elzabet or myself. Their death was necessary to our goal. I regret it. You all know that Abrimet was my mentor. But we did as we were instructed. We stopped Hanere and the other two Plague Givers. I retrieved the relics. Both of those things cannot be contested. Because even if, as you say, you see no body, I can tell you this—you will never see Hanere again upon this soil. That will be proof enough of my accomplishments.”

The judges conferred while Lealez sweated it out below them. Not for the first time, Lealez wished they had let Bet inside, but that was impossible, of course. Bet had murdered Abrimet, and done a hundred other things that were highly unorthodox in the apprehension of a Plague Giver. The judges would already worry that Bet had been a terrible influence on Lealez. Lealez would be lucky to get through this with per own head intact. At least Lealez would die in clean clothes, after a nice cold bath, which was the first thing per had done on entering the city.

Finally, the judges called Lealez forward.

“Hold out your arm,” Judge Rosteb said.

IX.

Bet waited for Lealez outside the great double doors of the theater. Plague Hunters streamed past Bet as they were released from the meeting, all pointedly ignoring her. No one liked a woman who could kill her own family, no matter how great a sorcerer she was. The better she was, the more they hated her.

And there was Lealez. Lealez walked out looking dazed. Bet frowned at per empty hands. Lealez had gone in with the relics to make per case for destroying them, but Bet had a good idea of what had happened to them.

“Let’s see them,” Bet said, and snatched Lealez’s arm. They had tattooed the mark of three successful hunts there. Bet snorted in disgust. “All three, then. You really learned nothing at all, did you? I could kill you too, but there are hundreds, thousands, just like you, crawling all over each other to do the bidding of the City Founders. You’re like a hydra, spitting up three more scaly heads for every one I hack off.”

“You don’t know how difficult it is to rise up through the college now,” Lealez said.

“You kids talk like it was any easier. It wasn’t. We got asked to make the same stupid choices. They wanted the relics when Keleb and I came back, too. But we held out.”

“You were already famous! Your reputation was secured!”

“Shit talk,” Bet said. “You’re just not tough enough to give up your career so young. I get that. But think on this. It’s easy to destroy a country with plague, but how do you save your own from it? You’ll all unleash something in the far empires and think we’re safe, but we aren’t, not with a thousand relics. All killing gets you is more killing. You pick up a machete, kid, and you’ll be picking it up your whole life.”

“None of it matters now,” Lealez said, and sniffed. Lealez pulled a cigarette from a silver case, but for all per insouciance, Bet noted that per hands trembled. “They have the relics. What they do with them now doesn’t concern me.”

“Dumb kid,” Bet said.

Lealez lit per cigarette with a clunky old lighter from per bag, something that would have weighed per down by an extra pound in the swamp. Lealez took a long draw. “I gave them the sword and the shield,” per said, “just so you know.”

“The… sword and shield. That’s what you gave them?”

“Yeah, like I said.” Lealez pulled a leather map case from per shoulder. “Here’s the thing I promised you,” Lealez said.

“I see,” Bet said. She took the case from per. “You know the relics don’t work unless they’re all together?”

“Don’t know about that,” Lealez said. “I’m just a dumb kid, remember?”

“I’m sorry,” Bet said.

Lealez shrugged. “Just get out of here. You aren’t suited to the city.”

Bet tipped her head at Lealez. “I don’t want us to meet again,” Bet said. “No offense meant.”

“None taken,” Lealez said. “If we meet again it means I’m not doing my job. I know how to play this game too, Bet.” Lealez handed Bet the lighter and walked back into the college.

Bet pocketed it and watched per go. Lealez did not look back. When Lealez opened the great door of the College to go back inside, per hand no longer trembled. That pan was going to make a good Hunter someday, like it or not.

Bet shouldered the map case and began her own long walk across the city. It took nearly two hours to cross the dim streets, navigating her way based on which roads had functioning gaslights. She went all the way to the gates of the city and into the damp mud of the swamp before she risked opening the map case.

Inside, the cloak artifact was rolled up dry and tight. Bet rented a skiff upriver and spent the next week trudging home on foot and by whatever craft she could beg a ride up on.

When it came time to do what needed to be done, she wasn’t sure she could do it. What if there was another Hanere? But so long as the relics existed, the world wasn’t safe.

Bet burned the cloak there in the canopy of the cypress trees while swamp dogs snarled and barked in the distance. She watched the smoke coil up through the dense leaves and moss, and let out a breath.

It was decided. For better or worse.

X.

She had retired to the swamp because she liked the color. The color was the same, but she was not.

Bet leaned over the dim light of her firefly lantern, pushing her stuffed hydra into its glow. She eased the big sewing needle through its skin with her rough, thick fingers. On the shelves behind her were dozens of cast–off hydras, each defective in some way that she could not name. The College knew where she was now, and it made her work more difficult to concentrate on in the many long months back at her damp home. She sweated heavily, as the sun had only just set, and the air would keep its heat for a long time yet. She was tired, but no more than the day before, or the day before that. She had made her choices.

Mhev snorted softly in his basket with a litter of four baby swamp rodents, all mewing contentedly out here in the black. She wished she could join them, but her work was not done.

Outside, the insects grew quiet. Bet had been waiting for them. The waiting was the worst part. The rest was much easier. Whether it was child or Hunter or Giver or beast who stilled their call, she had made her choice about how to defend her peace long before, when she first condemned Hanere to death. She had already killed everything they both loved then.

That left her here. 

Bet took hold of the machete at her elbow, the machete she would be taking into her hands for the rest of her life, and opened the door.

The Artificial Bees

Randall lowered one foot on to the surface of green fibers. The organic matter yielded under her weight but seemed to support her. She dared to put a second foot on to the strange, graminoid material—just as Archive came back with a response.

“A lawn,” it told her. “Proceed with operation.” Randall prowled across the lawn and into the light.

As she entered the suspect zone, her sensors met a high–flux bombardment of electromagnetic waves. After all her years in the dark, industrial wasteland, the light blinded her for a moment. “Five–fifty terahertz,” said Archive. Randall blinked away the coloured spots in her eyes, taking in the sight of the world inside the glass.

The wide expanse of lawn was bordered by tall, organic installations. Randall ignored Archive as it listed different classes of tree and shrub, scrolling text listing orders and families. She ignored the small, winged units buzzing round the flowers. She concentrated on the ringing of her own alarm systems.

Archive had detected pungent cis–3–Hexenal in the atmosphere around her; a volatile, aldehyde compound released by the slender leaves of the organic material under her feet. It took a moment to scan ancient source–works and confirm Archive’s hypothesis: the distinctive tang was due to every blade of grass having been recently cropped to a uniform height. Such grooming was not an automatic process, which meant Randall was not alone.

She primed her snub–missiles, then signalled her name and defence capability on a broad range of different wavelengths. Something suddenly responded, from behind a hedge.

“What is that infernal racket?” it spluttered in an archaic form of address Archive swiftly matched. Randall targeted all her missiles on the source of the words as it emerged into the light.

“Oh,” said the small, brown Homo sapiens, scrutinising Randall with its binary optical sensors. “Hello. Are you a robot? Or are you all called something different these days?”

“Designation: Randall,” Randall told it, struggling with the clumsy imprecision of the discontinued language. Her receptors scanned the man over, checking for hidden armaments in the skin and tissue. But the man presented no determined threat. Archive scrolled up details of accent and dialect, and estimated the man’s age. It also flagged a query.

“Why don’t you have any clothes on?” Randall asked.

The man looked down at his naked body as if he hadn’t realised. Then he flexed his shoulders, a manoeuvre Archive classified as a “shrug.”

“Who’s left to care?” he said.

Randall considered the question. “Currently: me.”

“True,” said the man. “I hope the sight doesn’t offend you.”

Randall studied him for a moment, just to be sure. “It doesn’t.”

“Well, there’s progress,” grinned the man. “Oh, time was there would have been objections. When we’d forgotten where we all came from.” He sighed. “Is there anyone else left but you robots?”

Randall masked her surprise that the man didn’t already know. “All animal classes are believed extinct.”

“Good riddance,” said the man, though he didn’t seem to mean it. Archive struggled to provide semantic context. The man shrugged again. “At least the plants survived.”

They surveyed the trees and flowers around them for a while in silence. Notable features added to a high aesthetic mass.

“Did you create this garden?” asked Randall.

“What?” said the man. “Oh, no, of course not. But I tend it best I can. Mow the lawn, prune the roses, keep an eye on the levels of sunlight and rain.” He gestured off across the garden to a bank of environmental controls. Randall quickly scanned the logs, which went back some forty years.

“You tend the garden well,” she said.

“Thank you,” said the man. “It’s not like I’m otherwise occupied. Can’t go outside because of all the charged particles. And there’s not much else to do.”

“You have access to the Archive.”

“You mean the feed? Yeah, I can patch in if I want to. But hearing those voices… It almost makes me miss them. And I get on okay. Happy with my own company.”

Again, the signified meaning did not match the spoken words. Randall sent a complaint to Archive for not supplying her with better cues. She wanted to say something of use. Archive suggested placing her hand gently on the man’s shoulder. Randall did so and the man did not object. They stood there, in the garden, Randall silently scanning the fluid that leaked from around the man’s eyes.

“Watch out,” said the man at length, wiping the salt water on to the back of his hand. Randall turned to see the small, winged units buzzing round flowers nearby. They followed a simple, repetitive program and presented minimal threat. Yet the naked man was wary.

“Apis mellifera,” said Randall.

“No, bees—and they really sting.”

He was right. Archive identified the venom sac and its complex mixture of proteins. The venom would not affect Randall’s own systems but posed a medium–level risk to the man. A targeted scan of his soft tissue showed previous inflammation where the bees had stung him.

“Why are they programmed to sting you?” Randall asked him.

“Makes them more authentic,” he said. “More like real bees.”

Randall flashed an etiquette warning, then realised his sensors were too limited to detect it. “By real, you mean organic,” she said.

“Oh,” said the man, his face colouring. “If I used the wrong word, I apologise. Of course, machines are people, too.”

“There is no purpose in stinging you,” said Randall.

“They’re protecting their nectar. They want the flowers for themselves.”

“But you tend the flowers. You are not a threat.”

“Yeah, but they don’t know that.”

“Whoever made them did,” said Randall. “I could alter their program for you.”

She took a step towards the bees but the man grabbed hold of her arm. Randall’s basic defence field lifted him from the ground and threw him back across the grass. The man lay there, making an unusual noise. A scan showed there had been only minor impairment. Archive suggested the noise indicated submission.

“I apologise,” said Randall. “My defence fields are automated.”

“S’okay,” said the man as he slowly got back on his feet. “Own stupid fault. But I don’t want you changing the bees.”

“They pose a medium–level risk to you.”

“So do you,” said the man. “I get along all right. They’re meant to be authentic. Warts and tooth and claw.”

“Archive says the flowers would have a lower probability of reproduction without the artificial bees,” said Randall. “That is their designated function.”

“Maybe,” said the man. “But it was always more than that. You said the animals died out.”

“All classes are believed extinct.”

“Right. And people didn’t like it. So they built artificial bees—and fish and bears and tigers. Whatever died out next. Oh, they knew the things weren’t real, that it was much too late. But they could pretend. It made them feel better for a bit.”

Randall nodded. “The stings aid that pretence.”

“The last thing you’re thinking is that they’re not authentic.” Then his facial muscles moved, a non–verbal display of emotion. “So,” said the man. “Are you here to close it all down? Delete it. Reallocate resources. Whatever you call it these days.”

“That would be logical,” said Randall. “But we have no need for the resources currently. And besides.” She considered how to explain her conclusions in a form he would understand, in a language with no facility for references or footnotes.  “It is nice here.”

They watched the bees followed their allotted course from flower to flower. “Do you think,” asked Randall, “that the bees know that they’re not real?”

The man didn’t respond straight away. “I think it’s better if they don’t,” he said.

Randall didn’t answer. Her program was very clear about sharing information freely. But she’d learnt enough of the semantic context to see that the man didn’t know the truth about himself—and wouldn’t want to, either.

All animal classes were long extinct. But, as they watched the artificial bees in the real, organic garden, Randall let herself pretend.

(Editors’ Note: Simon Guerrier is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in this issue.)

The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar

Dearest Maru of house unknown,

I have purchased, these five days ago, a small piece of your glasswork. It fits snugly in my hand, a drop–shaped vial of flame. Desert glass, said the traders, shaped from the desert sand by your fiery magic. It speaks to me. No, more than speaks—it sings—of dawns in saturated orange and lapis lazuli; the notes of it, resonant and flaring, unveil from the palm of my hand outwards when I hold the vial to bounce off the heavy log ceiling of my house. I think the sky must look much different for you. But enough from me now, a stranger out of your never–seen north. I have not written such a letter before in my life, but I am asking our mutual friends, Khana traders of the Bil’ha oreg, to carry it to you, and a small gift of my own shaping. Though it will take this letter six months at least to reach you, I hope it will nevertheless find you well.

In deep appreciation,
Vadrai, house Berevyar,
Stromha

Vadrai,

In deep appreciation—oh, you humor me. That was but a trifle, a shaping out of many that fall, indifferent and callous, from my hand as I stride through the desert—fit to trade for cloth and honey crystal, but no better. I have no idea which one of them you bought. I bid you to let it go into hands lesser than yours, lest my own lack of artistry shame me.

What you sent me is no such trifle. A jewel of deepest blue, a sapphire. Small though it is, it is precious beyond breath, for when I brought it closer to my face I saw shapes, golden and severe, arise from the depths of the stone and travel towards my eye—trees that grew out of deep ground, out of those cold and clear wells of your home I had never before had reason to imagine—luminous trees of light that grow from sapling to youth to a hundred–year majesty; and then they fade again into the nightfall inside the crystal. I will never tire of looking at it.

Oh, I am curious, Vadrai, I am so full of questions. Do you truly live among those trees, surrounded by all this water? Does it ever get cold? Do the trees speak to you, like the sacred tumbleweed that rolls across the desert would speak sometimes to our guardians? What do they say if they speak? I will confess that since our Khana friends arrived with your letter and gift I’ve been staying up late, sometimes forgoing sleep altogether, to watch the tree–shapes from their birth to folding—and I have many more questions—impertinent questions, I’m afraid, if you would entertain them; and if not, I hope they have at least entertained you. I am sending you some jewels I found in my wanderings across the sands: a tourmaline as pink as dawn, and an emerald; do with them as you please.

No longer a stranger, I beseech you.
Maru of the Maiva’at
in the Great Burri Desert

Dearest Maru,

Oh, I am most thoroughly entertained by your questions, even though it took a full year for the Khana traders to return them to me. Yes, the trees speak; it is a tongue of bark and in the winter, frost, with all its intricate and ever–changing patterns. In the autumn, the sun touches the leaves and grooves them with a flame’s exuberance. In any season, the trees speak slowly. I will confess that I go out sometimes and stand beneath the oaks; I stand on one foot, spread my arms to the sky and sway like they do as the stars move slowly between the darkening branches. My sister Gaura often accompanies me on such outings, for she is fierce enough to outglare every would–be jester; but even when I go alone, nobody laughs.

My words become clumsy and I stumble, and so I will write no more, but send the emerald back to you instead. I have never seen a precious stone this large, and am afeared that my imagination is not fit for it. Yet I will let you be the judge.

From too far away,
Vadrai

Oh, Vadrai,

It was so good to see your home, revealed to me in the emerald. I was amused by the strange square shape of it, the pitched triangular roof upon which snow—I believe it is snow—perches so precariously; the intricate carved logs of it, such immense riches of trees. I loved the small, snow–hopping birds and the children running outside, running even though clothed in such enormous garments. It was good, too, to see your shape, however briefly. I assume it is you. I wish to know more, I wish—

I keep turning the emerald in my fingers and the scenes continue to emerge. I have not yet discovered an end to them. Oh, to possess such artistry as yours, to work with shapings so small and so precise! I do not know how you do it. I wish to know the shape of your mind; I will not lie to you, I wish to know. I wish to understand, I wish to possess such art, I wish to be as sure of it as I am sure of my own fingers.

And bones—listen, after your gift reached me, I walked for weeks among the sands as the Bil’ha traders spread their wares to trade with my kin. I walked, and in the rawness of my yearning, the desert revealed itself to me as it hadn’t before. I saw striated bones of forgotten beasts that the wind reveals to those who seek and are true; and ivory combs and great jewels that had been buried by warriors and weavers of millennia past—and sand, always sand, more ancient than people and beasts and their bones. I have shaped for you this offering, a firedrop of desert glass encasing razu ivory—if you turn it just so, you will see the great beast in flight.

With a curious and grateful heart,
Maru

My friend (if I may be so bold), Maru,

The shape of my mind is no secret. I wield the Maker’s Triangle—one, one, and three syllables—which is considered rare in the north. Three–deepname configurations are rare, indeed. Still, Stromha is a land of artisans, small but famous for its arts, and we are trained from birth to take the Making configurations—a three–syllable, or for those who can hold more, the Maker’s Angle (one and three), and finally, the Maker’s Triangle, more prized among us than the more powerful configurations.

Artistry takes many shapes. Deepnames are not necessary for the arts. My sister, a master carpenter, shapes with her hands alone, and carves pinwheels and stars into walnut and blue basine hardwoods—you have admired her work, I believe, in the logs of my house; her art is not poorer for the lack of magic. My neighbor, a pen–maker, shapes their pens and adorns them with abalone using but a single three–syllable. In comparison to many craftsmen and artists here, I am nothing.

And I have nothing to hide. I will reveal to you my work. It is simple. Inside the smallest precious stones there are the deepnames of the stones. One cannot see them with the naked eye, but Stromha artisans have wrought embiggening glasses to aid the eye in its perception. Between these tiny deepnames in the stones are lines of light—the foundational grid that lends the stones their shapes—yes, just like the land, or a mind, which have grids as well. To introduce my shapings, I interweave the existing grid of the stone with my own structure and its own tiny deepnames, so that my shapings exist independently of the stone, yet are bound to it.

It is nothing to speak of, with the exception of the embiggening glass, which I send to you now.

It is winter here again, and I warm my house with fallen logs in the fireplace, even though I could use deepnames—but I crave real fire, dreaming of you and your desert wanderings. It’s hard to believe that a full year has passed since I sent you my letter. Oh, if only I could shorten the distance, for I would trade more words with you. And gifts—oh, gifts. As I write this, the razu beast of air and glass is draped over my chair. It talks to me in a language I do not comprehend. I am not ready yet to reveal this sight to my peers, even those well–versed in translation; but perhaps, come Winterway, I will grow bold enough to show it to my sister.

The razu transforms its glass at will, then shapes it back into itself; I’m awestruck and astounded by this achievement. If you’d reveal the secret of your artistry to me, I’d be most grateful. If not, it is of no concern.

A full year shall pass before I can expect a reply, and yet please know that I hold you in profoundest regard.

Vadrai

Maru,

The Bil’ha traders came back without a word from you. It is clear that I have offended. I offer you my apologies, and will not disturb you further.

V.

Vadrai, my friend,

Your words surprised me. Are you ashamed of your power? Of your craft? Or else do you fear, perhaps, that my gifts are lesser than yours, and worry how I might feel? It is no worry. Even if a power mismatch would matter to me (it does not), know that I, too, wield the one, one, and three, that you call the Maker’s Triangle. We call it the Weaver’s Gift. I like your words for it better, for it is not just for weavers—truly, I am not a weaver and have never taken interest in either thread or loom.

I’ve taken the embiggening glass with me to my walks in the desert. You are right—it is truly a revelation. I perceived—I did not perceive, as I had hoped, a structure of deepnames within each grain of sand. Instead, the sand revealed its dreams to me, of other times and other places. Some sand–grains up close are beehive castles of old desert royals, mud–shaped and intricate, ringing with thousands of tiny bells; others carry shapes of animals—of lizards and snakes and scarabs and scorpions, and other beasts indescribable yet no less real for that; yet other grains of sand are scrolls and tablets full of scripts I cannot parse; yet other grains of sand are creatures of the sea, blue and translucent shells in myriads of shapes. There’d never been a sea here that I know. Maybe the wind had brought it from a time ago, a space away, as the wind is wont to do. I have for months disdained my art for the splendor of these endless discoveries, missed even the Bil’ha traders’ departure, and so my letter will reach you only next year. Please, do not blame yourself for distracting me.

I will, of course, keep no secrets from you. My art is different from yours. When I work with the desert, I use my deepnames to amplify what was given to me by the sands—so, for the razu, I have built a home, a nourishment of glass that it may thrive and live as it likes. The razu have long been extinct here, known only from story and woven vision. It is good for it to live again in this shape, and I am heartened that it chooses you.

I wish to look closer. I wish to know more—your preference, if you have one, and pray my asking of it is not too brash. Perhaps it is; I am brash. But I do not expect an answer, much less a favorable one, and—

My friend, the Bil’ha traders came back even as I was writing this letter. You fear you have offended me? No, my friend, you have not, it is I who was tardy for so many months, wandering the desert with the embiggening glass like a five–year–old with her new mechanical scarab. Forgive me. I have no shaping to send you, because I have not worked at all because—well. It’s luck that I was back on time, not lost for many more months or even years.

I will send this now without a gift, but please trust that a gift will follow.

Yours, ever,
Maru

Oh, Maru. You ask me for my art yet reveal so little of yours. You promise a gift, and yet it never arrives. You ask for my preference and declare your brashness, yet speak nothing of your preference, and send me nothing of your likeness.

What are you afraid of? Me? I am nobody. My craft is popular and I make a living from it, enough to have a home and not to hunger. I send my jewels to be sold at market, and wait for the winter with its gifts of snow and solitude and—come Winterway—the sparkle and songs and laughing children.

My world is small. And though I love the arts of people near and far from me, I’ve never yet reached out to a person unknown to me. Except to you. Truly, Maru, I am shy.

Are you shy? You, who shapes the living glass from the ever–changing, dreamful grains of sand, you, who compels the razu to take shape from its long slumber? I would rather believe you are brash. I would rather believe you are lost in the reverie of the sands, charmed into wandering with your glass; I just hope my gift won’t cause you to hunger as you abandon your craft and send nothing to market.

I have no preference, my friend. I have not cared this deeply for a person. I love my winter pines, and the fireplace logs, and the birches by the frozen river, and the birds; I love my jewels, my deepnames. I love my work, which takes me so deep into the smallest structures, away from gatherings and crowds into a blessed silence. To lo—to feel—this deeply for a person one has never seen, has never spoken to, it is folly—especially for one such as me, who finds people so hard to gauge. Send me this crystal back with your voice, at least.

Vadrai, my precious Vadrai, you who have shaped a ruby to carry your voice to me. You are not a nobody. Most definitely you are not. You are most amazing, incredible—you are—

It takes six months for the Khana traders to travel from me to you. It is too long. Too long.

Listen, I have not shaped my casual glassdrops for these four years I have known you. It feels untrue to make lesser work now. Do not worry. The desert sustains me. I find edible plants in the folds of the dunes, impossibly succulent and flush with moisture. Birds bring me grain. After many months of wanderings I am returning to my craft. There’s not much to say of it. You wish to know more of how it is done, but listen, I don’t know what to say. I open my arms and call to the desert as I engage my deepnames, then I shape—whatever I am moved to shape, as fire moves through me and transforms sand into glass. I wish I could explain more—I wish you could observe—oh, how I wish, and so—and so—

Listen, I too, have no preference. I asked because I know that people have them and that it matters. Not to me. I do not understand people. I speak brashly, they say, strangely—all but the boldest turn away, and I am not attracted to either the mystics or the pitying kind. I lack the artistry to send you my likeness. I’m told that it is ordinary. As for a gift, I made a hundred. None scorched and bared my bones in ways that were needed, and so they weren’t good enough to send.

I do not know what can happen, what will happen. I know that your voice has made every grain of sand bloom when I walk, turning the ruby this way and that in my fingers. The desert blooms, it blooms not with your northern color, but with indigo and weld and madder, the colors of dyed thread, weaving colors; the undulating dunes are covered with these yarns. I wish to show you these treasures, I wish to know what lies beyond these pieces of parchment we send each other, beyond this jewel of voice—if something lies beyond, for us, a shaping never before seen, a twinned heart which is precious and brash and shy of its power.

And so I lift my hands to shape once more, to shape as I have never shaped; I weave of these threads of your voice, and of sand; I shape a great bird of glass, with bones of birds long ago forgotten inside the shaping’s hollow core. It isn’t art. It is simply a messenger.

The glass bird will spread its wings across the far horizon—and then it will rise, it will fly. It will carry your jewel of voice back to you with my message.

Did I say enough now? Please. Tell me, did I say enough?

The bird will carry you back to me, if you wish.

from Vadrai, in the great Burri desert,
to Gaura, house Berevyar

Sister, I send you this topaz with my voice; you need but to turn it in your hand to activate its power, should you wish to send it back to me. I also send you a letter, should the jewel’s activation prove cumbersome. I send both the stone and the letter to you with this bird, a sparrowhawk of desert glass and engraved jewels, to travel fast, faster than the trade routes allow, to bring this word to you, for I know that you are worried.

I saw you, below, running and shouting as the great glass bird spread its wings, but I could not stop. It was now or never, it was touch and go, and I am so easily terrified. Terrified of strangers, of travel, of places unknown to me. Terrified of my own failure, of my limits. Terrified—and here I was, traveling south on a glass bird with nothing more with me but my tools and a big piece of spicecake.

Oh, Gaura, how marvelous it is to blend my heart with another’s, to know at once the sweep of glass wings and the fire that births it, and the small and scrupulous jeweler’s craft that imbues the glass with shapes both intricate and golden! Oh, how little did I know that the work would course through our veins, stronger than rivers, course with a passion that defies sleep and births new shapes from sand and buried bone! Oh, I’m afraid such passion will not last, that dreams birthed in such fire will fade like the vision of flowers in the heat. 

It hasn’t faded yet. It hasn’t. I’m afraid it will.

But if it won’t, I’ll steer the glass bird home next Winterway, to bring both shapers north with it. Oh, the work we will do, the marvelous shapings of ice, the scripts and the dreams we will carve into tree–bark… The stillness of rivers, the rustling of pines in the wind…

Oh, Gaura. I miss home so much. I miss my place, the silence of it, and I know I will miss, while there, the heat and curve of the dunes. So keep me in your thoughts—keep both of us in your thoughts.

from Vadrai, in the glass–Mai’vaat encampment,
to Gaura, house Berevyar

We are coming, dear Gaura. We are coming.

I Seen the Devil

I don’t claim that this story is true, and I don’t care if you believe it. It happened in 1973, when I was ten years old. It’s impossible to verify. But I’m still going to tell it to you.

On this particular hot summer night, I ran through the swamp behind the trailer park as hard as I could, even though the night was dark and moonless. I’d run this same trail many times, so I knew where to turn, when to jump, and how fast it was safe to go in the straightaways. Even if I stepped on a cottonmouth, I’d be gone before it had time to turn and bite me.

I didn’t have a watch, so I had no idea what time it was; it had been 9:30 when I left home, slipping out the narrow window and dropping soundlessly to the ground while my mom yelled after my dad’s car. No one came out of any of the other trailers near us; people no longer paid any attention when my mom yelled at my dad.

At last I reached the old house, but I didn’t run to the door. Instead I went to a flat place in the yard where the untended grass was considerably thinner. I got on my hands and knees and yelled down at the ground.

“Tater! Tater! You in there?”

“I’m down here,” a voice drawled back. “What you want, boy?”

“They caught the devil!”

“Who did?”

“The police!” In my childhood drawl, it came out, “POE–lease.”

The ground rose in front of me, as the plywood sheet covered with sod lifted, allowing a shaft of yellow light to punch out into the steamy darkness. It backlit Tater’s head, so that I couldn’t see his face.

“Boy, it’s awful late for nonsense.”

“It ain’t nonsense! Mr. Moose done called my daddy, and he’s headed down there to look.”

“Mr. Moose,” he repeated with a snort. “Moose” Gimble was the mayor, and probably would be until the town dried up and blew away; it was certain no one else wanted the job. “Well, then, your daddy can tell you all about it when he gets back.”

“He ain’t gonna tell me nothing,” I whined. “You know that. Ain’t you curious?”

He pushed the roof of his little hole up higher; behind him I saw the table, chair and portable black and white TV. He’d even hung a picture of an old man praying over a loaf of bread on the dirt wall. “I ain’t never curious about nonsense.”

“It ain’t nonsense!” I insisted.

“Why you bothering me about it?”

“Because you told me once that you shook the devil’s hand. I figure you’d know if this was the real devil or not!”

He stared at me in a way I couldn’t, at that age, understand. It was the look of a man being reminded of the worst thing he ever did. “Boy,” he said softly, “you better be right about this.”

“I am! Now come on, before they send him to Brushy Mountain or Bolivar!” Brushy Mountain was the state prison, while the small town of Bolivar had become synonymous with the mental hospital just outside its borders.

He turned out the light and climbed out of his hole, using the step ladder he kept for the purpose. He was barefoot, wore overalls, and his long gray hair was tied back in a ponytail. My mom said he’d been in Vietnam, like my big brother, and had done too much acid over there, which is why he lived in a ten–foot–square hole beside his house. But he seemed older than that to me, almost eternally old. Sometimes I thought of him as made out of the same mud and weeds that grew in the swamp all around us.

I followed him eagerly over to his old truck, a Frankenstein vehicle made of various parts welded or bolted together (duct tape hadn’t yet become the go–to repair tool it would in a few years). “Y’all get up on in there and turn the key when I tell you,” he said to me, and raised the hood. I was used to starting my car for my daddy on cold mornings, so I knew what to do, although I had to scoot down awkwardly to reach the clutch. He opened the enormous hood, fiddled with something inside the engine, then hollered, “Turn it over!” I turned the key and it started with a great grinding sound that settled into a rattling vibration that made me squirm on the bench seat. The smell of burning gasoline filled the air.

All this happened in the dark, so when he climbed in and turned on the headlights, it was a huge change. Suddenly all the shadows dashed to either side of those shafts of straight white light, which for an instant looked so clean they might be solid. Then smoke from the engine drifted into them, giving them hard edges, and every bug in the area swarmed into them.

“This ole thing ain’t good for much more,” he muttered mostly to himself. Then he turned the immense steering wheel with a grunt of effort, and the truck groaned as it started down the gravel driveway. It wasn’t noticeably smoother when we hit the blacktop, probably because the old truck had no working suspension. Tater said nothing, but turned on the AM radio, which blared gospel music from its tinny speakers. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and, without taking his eyes from the road, offered one to me. “No, thanks,” I said. He grabbed the end of one with his teeth, pulled it from the pack and pushed the cigarette lighter in until it clicked.

As a choir with perfect diction sang “Almost Persuaded,” we drove the empty highway until we reached town. The lone red light stopped us, and as we waited, we saw the cluster of cars around the city hall, and the group made up entirely of men gathered outside.

“Looks like something is going on there,” Tater muttered.

“See? I told ya!”

“What’s your daddy gonna say when he sees you?”

“I’ll be sneaky.”

Tater laughed. “You better be. I ain’t takin’ a bullet for you.”

At the time I took everything adults said literally, so I wondered why he thought my daddy would shoot at me; I assumed Mom was right, and it was some holdover from Vietnam. I didn’t say anything, though. If Daddy got to drinking with his buddies and there was a gun around, he just might start shooting.

When the light changed, we parked far enough away from the crowd that I could slip in and hide amongst the parked cars. The city hall, with its two–cell jail, was a square brick building with barred windows and little lights that illuminated the sign above the door. Street lights lit up the parking lot. On one side was the post office, and on the other an overgrown vacant lot where the little notions store had burned down two years earlier. A man in a police uniform stood on the city hall steps, chatting with those nearest him. I knew him; he went to our church, and bragged about how many people he beat up.

Tater walked up to the group of men standing outside and said, “So is this bullshit story I hear true? They got the devil locked up in there?”

“Sure enough,” one said. His voice was slurry like my daddy’s when he drank. “Tom Blazer caught him trying to break into his barn.”

“He’s got horns and a damn tail,” someone else said.

Tater laughed. “That a fact. Is he bright red, too?”

“He is,” a third voice confirmed.

“Then sure enough, it must be the devil,” Tater said. I was too young to recognize his sarcasm, so what I took as his certainty bolstered my determination.

I knew the jail cells were at the rear of the building, so I wove my way through the cars until I reached the vacant lot. The weeds came up to my shoulders, so it was no problem sneaking through, avoiding the broken bottles that littered the ground. At last I reached the back, and saw the cell windows.

They were high on the wall, narrow and horizontal, with bars too close together to allow even me to slip through, had I been brave enough. Only one cell had its lights on, and from my position crouched at the edge of the weeds, I could see only the plaster ceiling.

Then a shadow moved across it.

Someone was indeed in the cell.

The shadow stopped. It was in the shape of a human head, except that two small horns, gracefully curved like those of fat Mr. Brasher’s bull, rose from it.

Then suddenly, the head was standing at the window, looking out into the night, looking, I was certain, right at me.

I could see it only from the nose up, and because the light was behind it, I could make out no facial details. But the horns seemed to be jet black, and the hairless head was, in fact, a deep, dark red.

I crouched in the weeds and held my breath.

We’d learned about the devil in Sunday school, but he’d seemed a remote figure then, one who might have once walked the earth but now sat on his throne in hell, directing evil thoughts into people’s minds from a great distance. But if this was the devil, and he was here on earth…

I wasn’t equipped to handle the theology then, so those thoughts trailed off. The horned figure at the window seemed to let out a huff, and I smelled something rancid, like a particularly vile, wet fart. Then it turned away.

As it turned, something whooshed around and struck the bars. It moved like a whip, but it sounded like metal against metal. I realized with horror that it was the tip of his tail.

Just then a firm hand grabbed the back of my shirt collar and yanked me to my feet. I twisted around, expecting to see my daddy, but instead it was the face of Maso, the black farmer who lived down the road from the trailer park. When we went fishing, me and daddy always stopped by his place and dropped off any of the fish we didn’t feel like cleaning, which—depending on how much Daddy snuck from the vodka he kept in his tackle box—could be quite a bit. Maso was always polite and deferential, but then, given the times, he had to be. I wondered what he really thought of us.

He released me and said, “I thought I saw your little tow–headed skull poking up above the grass. Your daddy know you’re here?”

“No, sir.”

“I seen him around front. Should we go tell him?”

“No, sir.”

“What you think you gonna see back here?”

“I did see it! I seen the devil!”

Maso laughed the same way my Daddy did when he thought I was being particularly stupid, but there was no malice in it. “Lemme ask you something, little man: you really think a podunk town like this would be able to catch the devil and put him in jail?”

“But I just seen him!”

“What did you see?”

I looked back up at the window, which was now just an empty view of the cell ceiling. “I seen his horns. And his tail.”

“Want me to lift you up so you can see more?”

I didn’t even think about it. “No!”

“Then you best run on home before your daddy catches you. I ain’t gonna mention it.”

And he didn’t. I ran back along the highway until I knew I could cut through the swamp. At first I was scared to do it, then I remembered the devil was in jail. What could there be in the shadows to scare me? I made it back home, slipped back into my room without waking Mama on the couch, and pulled the sheet over my head. I don’t know if I slept that night; in my memory, I was wide awake the whole time.

The next day, people in the trailer park talked about nothing else. I didn’t dare ask anyone directly about it, since I might give away what I’d done. But as soon as I could, I slipped back over to Tater’s.

“Oh, it weren’t nothing,” he said as he peeked out of his hole. “The county sheriff came to get him about one in the morning, but there weren’t nobody in the cell. Everybody figured it was some kinda joke played by that ol’ fire–and–brimstone pastor down to the Primitive Baptist Church.” Then he chuckled. “That is, everybody with any sense. A bunch of ‘em believed the Devil bribed Chief Blackwell to let him out.

“Did anybody get a good look at him?”

“Chief Blackwell?”

“No! The devil!”

“Nobody I know. Now get on out of here, I’m busy.”

And that was that. I never asked my Daddy about that night, and as I grew older, I accepted that the suggestion hovering in the hot summer air had worked on my child’s brain and conjured what I thought I’d seen.

Except for one thing. About a week afterwards, Tater started driving around a new truck. I mean brand new, a 1975 Chevy Blazer with four–wheel drive and a camper shell. Lots of people asked where he’d gotten the money for it, since otherwise his lifestyle didn’t change. He still spent most of the time in his hole. But I stopped slipping over to see him after that, because for me, the source of the new truck was as plain as day. And the proof?

It was painted red. Devil red.

(Editors’ Note: Alex Bledsoe is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in this issue.)

Advertisement