Ivory Darts, Golden Arrows by Maria Dahvana Headley
Editors’ Note: Please enjoy a special weird Valentine’s Day gift for Uncanny‘s readers by Maria Dahvana Headley
It was a headcold of a February day, a day for hiding in the dark, but the postmistress was out in it nonetheless, bundled but for her fingertips, moving with her cart.
She came from a long line of mail deliverers: her mother, and before her mother, other mothers. They weren’t pony expressers, but they were close. Horse and carriage. Stage coachers. They’d done it all, over the years, and now they were represented by Miss Kisseal.
Her last name was like another last name, Licksticker, and maybe that had been the original and maybe it had not. Maybe a great grandmother had gotten it changed with a bribe. It was all slang for what one did with envelopes, when one was herself enveloping nothing. By choice.
As far as the postmistress was concerned, every word used in the mail trade was another word for empty. An envelope was nothing without a letter and postcards were out of fashion. No one sent the contents of their hearts uncovered for anyone to enjoy anymore. It was all manifestos. She delivered them. It was her business, but she doubted the state of affairs.
Miss Kisseal was the postmistress of Fley, a little village wedged between two mountains, each mountain in the custody of a rival band. Fley was the neutral zone, but the mail went back and forth between, all of it through the Fley office, which was small with a rounded roof. It was an attractive office, and had been made, long ago, of a tremendous striated shell donated by one of the first postmistresses of Fley, a great-great grandmother of Miss Kisseal.
Working inside it, looking through the translucent walls, Miss Kisseal thought of her great-great, who’d delivered the mail during one of the wars between the residents of the two mountains, ducking to avoid arrows and spears, and she felt part of a grand tradition. She had been born to this, and it was her calling.
Miss Kisseal knew the secrets of both sides, at least those they printed. She knew about the mail order grooms, who’d come to tend the horses, and the mail order bridges, which were installed a board at a time over gaps in the roads, connecting places that weren’t meant to connect. She knew about excessive alcohol and questionable groceries, about longstanding hatreds between siblings, about the women who lived in the town on the highest tip of the eastern peak, and didn’t come down at all. She didn’t blame them. She went to them instead, pulleying her cart up the high road with a series of hooks and ropes.
They received a shocking quantity of mail, these women at the top of the peak, for women who wore black and spent their days sorting saints. They were in charge of waking the dead twice a year, walking between the two upper peak churches on a tightrope, ringing bells. This was enough employment that they were left alone the rest of the time. Each January and June the villages on the rival mountains festivaled a goodbye to those who’d died, and then the women from the peak went back to their normal business. Miss Kisseal brought them their mail: small packages of sweets, needles, pistols, thread, bullets, poisons, and lottery tickets. They tipped her, and gave her tea or whiskey before her descent, and she didn’t mind it. They were pleasant enough.
Lower down the western peak there were worse things, a settlement of grooms without horses, who lamented all day, weaving mourning bracelets of horsetails, calling for the mares they were denied. Miss Kisseal had little patience for them. Their mail was all mane and tail, and the grooms whined for lack of love. It was her opinion that no one had any business whining about that. Love was not a right. Love was luck, and plenty of people didn’t get lucky. Miss Kisseal, for example, was single, and had always been, but she was not lonely. She was surrounded by shipments and open hands waiting for letters. How could one be lonely when words flew around her every day, all day long?
On the eastern mountain there was a colony of children who sent away for prizes, and she delivered them in sacks, heavy shipments of tiny monsters, X-ray glasses, and skipping ropes that could, when properly used, render the skipper capable of skipping time and space. Miss Kisseal worried a bit about those children. Occasionally one would disappear and months later come walking back into the village, skinny and covered in paint or dirt. They had no parents, and maybe never had, as certainly no one on the peaks was minded toward love, but they called for their mail nonetheless. They seemed to live on shipments of cereal.
Miss Kisseal put on her sensible boots, freezing even in her double woolens. She wished for a stagecoach, but there was none. There wasn’t even a donkey. Things were sliding in Fley. There’d been three avalanches, and her post office had a new roof of snow.
She tugged her coat over her shoulders. Her nose felt blue. February was meant to be solitary, and instead it was full of deliveries.
Miss Kisseal wrapped her head in a shearling hat with flaps, and made her way up the east mountain, hauling the sack. She pulled her retractable mittentips over her fingers, and kept her mouth closed so that her tongue wouldn’t freeze.
One day, she thought, she’d organize a pulley for days like this, a system of ropes and canisters, some way to deliver the mail without delivering herself along with it, but today wasn’t that day. There was a new address on an envelope, and the envelope was odd. It was made of a soft, pale leather, and the address was stamped onto it in red ink, rather than written. It didn’t exist, this number, and Miss Kisseal might have, had she been less intrigued, returned it directly to its sender. She knew the houses on the east peak, and this one wasn’t there. Nevertheless.
The ladies had mail too, and she knew by the sound of their shots that they’d killed a boar three days earlier, so there’d be stew at the top of the mountain. They had a parcel of oranges, sent from some admirer in the south. Miss Kisseal had already touched the oranges and smelled their oil on her skin. The post office was fragrant with them, and that was enough to make her deliver the mail to them. It wouldn’t do to let them spoil. Besides, the new address was up there too, above the ladies. That was how she knew it couldn’t possibly be real.
In the kitchen, though, the ladies ladled stew into a bowl, and told her it was true.
“Someone’s moved in up there, they have,” said the eldest sister, and pointed to the peak. Steam rose from her fingertip like she was working a spell. The ladies regularly received contraband cigars. The smoke twirled off in an arrow of judgment, pointing up the mountain, a small path into the rocks, a place that Miss Kisseal had always assumed led only to nests.
“Up where?” said Miss Kisseal. “Where the bats live?”
“Where the bats and the bees and the worst of the birds live,” said the eldest, and shook her head in annoyance. “It’s a filthy thing that’s moved onto the mountain, that’s the truth, and it’s got itself a set of wings.”
Miss Kisseal ate a bite of stew, and considered. She liked nothing about bats, and nothing about birds. She finished her biscuit.
“Whatever it is, it’s got a piece of mail,” she said, and heaved her sack onto her back. Later she’d take the tightrope to the other peak and deliver her way down. It was ill-planned, that. She hated the tightrope on days this cold, but she hated tobogganing on her mail sack more. The tightrope had been left behind by a migratory circus one summer, along with a trapeze and a crotchety old albino elephant named Lemon, which had walked up over the mountains and departed, trumpeting its aggravation all the way.
She fidgeted the fingertips off her mitts, and made her way to the trail.
“Be careful,” said the youngest sister. “It’s an awful dirty thing with an ill temperament what lives up there. Worse than us and worse than the rest on this peak too. All it does is shout lewd enticements.”
“Dirt doesn’t frighten me,” said Miss Kisseal. “Neither does filth.”
She’d once faced down a madman with a machete in the post office in Fley, the man insisting his packet of cocaine had been stolen by the rivals on the other moutain, Miss Kisseal informing him it was only a delay of a dead horse, for heaven’s sake. Miss Kisseal had the manner of a kindly aunt with children, and most adults found her to be peaceful and pleasant, but she had another side. She’d killed three reprobates over the years, and called in the grooms to dispose of them, down the ravine at the backside of the western peak. She saw no point in fuss. She was well-armed, and choosy about companions. If she had ever seen one she’d liked, she would have had them into her house by now.
DO NOT ATTEMPT THE POSTMISTRESS, said the sign in the post office, nicely hand-lettered, but firm. Her location in neutral territory did not mean the things some thought it ought to mean.
Now Miss Kisseal inched along the trail, listening to the crunching of the snow. A feather before her, first a red and then a white. Too large to belong to a bird.
A circus again, perhaps. That first one had hung about for the summer months, fan dancers, contortionists, and toe walkers, their silver sequins signaling falsehoods to planes, their leotards dripping glittery sweat down into the valley from the tightrope.
They’d sent postcards from Fley to everyone they’d ever met, asking for money and adoration, and gotten nothing but the occasional paperclipped bill in return. Boxes full of burlesque paraphernalia had arrived, and Miss Kisseal lugged the mail up the mountain while strongmen and thinmen watched her struggle. She did not relish another circus. Let it migrate to a warmer climate, not be stalled at the top of the peak pissing a hot river into the ice. The last circus had not known enough to dig an outhouse. Fley had been forced to run it out of town on a rail, and it had taken some time, the residents of both mountains collaborating on carrying an entire fence, the troupe straddling it and making a mockery of the entire thing. Lemon the elephant had kicked the post office as he departed, bashing in two safe deposit boxes full of ingots, and leaving a hole in the shell the size of an elephant foot. Patching it had been no minor matter.
There was cooing and whirring ahead, and Miss Kisseal revised her thinking. A cote of something nasty, then. Lovebirds. There’d been a shipment of those too, two years back, someone from one mountain looking out with binoculars, thinking to romance someone from the other. The birds arrived stuporous in a crate, dyed pale pink, and once fully awakened they’d revealed themselves to be cannibals. That hadn’t been a pretty day in Fley. The lovebirds had eaten one another, all over the trees, and then, when they’d finished eating one another, they’d eaten a chihuahua. They’d not been lovebirds at all, it had turned out, but some ferocious variety of tiny falcon. Love and these mountains did not align.
Something zinged past Miss Kisseal’s ear, and she flung herself sideways to avoid it. She turned her head slowly. She wasn’t inclined toward speed, even in emergencies. She liked to get a full picture of a situation, and who would dare to shoot at the postmistress?
Embedded in a tree, though, there was an arrow, and this a hundred years past those first wars. Fletched with a red feather, and bearing a golden tip. She tugged it from the bark and considered it. It was very, very sharp.
“I’m the postmistress!” she shouted. “Don’t shoot!”
Miss Kisseal squinted. “You’ve received a letter down in Fley,” she said. “I’m only trying to deliver it to you. You might try to behave yourself, whoever you are.”
Miss Kisseal took a cautious step. Feathers, yes, a mess of them. White, pink, and red, like those accursed lovebirds. The feather wearer raised its face and smiled. It had eyes the shade of violets, and lips the color of roses. It had been made for loving. She’d never seen anything so beautiful.
“What are you, then?” asked Miss Kisseal, somewhat taken aback.
“A monster stranded by snow,” it said, and quick as that it had somehow shot another arrow, this time hitting Miss Kisseal’s mail sack, no doubt spearing X-ray glasses, or damaging someone’s paper crown. She looked at this arrow. Silver tip. Ostrich plume. The creature was showy if nothing else.
“I’m supposed to be flying from end to end of the world,” said the monster, with a voice that sounded suspiciously like a whine. “I’m supposed to be tending to lovers. My wings are waterlogged.”
Miss Kisseal had no patience for this line of whimpering.
“I’ve met other things lonelier than you. These mountains are populated by isolates. All the people keep to themselves, all the caves are filled with moaning bears, and all the nests are full of eggless sparrows. There was a war a long time ago, and now no one speaks to anyone else. If babies are born, they’re left at the post office, and I mail them off to other places. At least you’ve got someone sending you mail. This looks to be a love letter. I don’t know that you deserve it.” She tossed the envelope at the heap of feathers.
The creature unfolded from its crouch, and stretched. Naked, vast, neither, both, all. It was twice her height, and not from any place she’d been. It had clearly flown in from somewhere else. The creature was more beautiful standing than sitting. The wings were large enough to enfold anyone, and the arms were too. It was a walking missive, an unrolled scroll, and its sleek skin had iridescent scales like the belly of one of the serpents that sometimes wended their bodies into words on one part of the west mountain.
This was not a human, but that didn’t startle Miss Kisseal. She had her own secrets, and who ever saw them? She kept them covered.
The creature took a step toward her, violet eyes blinking. It stretched out its hands, and wrapped them about her waist, as though this was a normal state of affairs, as though it seduced everyone. It had an entire quiver of golden arrows on its back. Perhaps it did.
Another arrow zinged out, this time hitting the lapel of her coat. She felt it slice through the wool and into her breast, a shocking act, an appalling act, and her knees went weak. She found herself sitting on the ground, flummoxed.
“Thank you for bringing my love letter,” said the creature, and leaned over Miss Kisseal, looking mildly at her as she unbuttoned her coat to check herself for damage. She unearthed her wound, through seven layers of woolens. It was small. She touched it, delicately. She felt unspeakably annoyed.
She also felt unspeakably in love. It was the arrow that had done it.
“You sent the love letter to yourself,” she said. “To lure me up here.”
The creature shrugged. “Do I not deserve adoration? Love is my business. Love of all sorts.”
Miss Kisseal unfurled her coat in an attempt to get up. She noticed that her dress was open. She did not care. If the creature before her was naked, she’d be naked, too. What could it do? She was the postmistress. She was well accustomed to those who thought postmistresses were nothing more than letter-sorters.
“Do you know everything about love, then?” she asked the creature. “Love between all creatures? Do you know, for example, about snails?”
“They inch along,” it said proudly, and fluffed its wings, looking desirable, looking like a pornographic letter made flesh. “They are baked in garlic and oil. They sizzle. They are a romantic meal.”
The creature smiled at her.
Miss Kisseal unbuttoned another button. The arrow had been effective. She was, it was true, full of a golden certainty. There was a love letter in her heart, and she considered it. It was sharp and stinging, but it would melt into honey. She felt herself melting too. It had been years since she’d seen anyone she’d been inclined toward. She’d always had terrible taste in lovers, like everyone in this vicinity. One of her cousins specialized in poisoning those she slept with, and the disposal of bones was something the postmistress was accustomed to. Into the ravine they went.
This one was clearly a terrible creature, but she found she didn’t mind.
The winged one approached her, considering her unbuttoned dress. It traced a finger from her throat to her navel. It was caressing her now, hands on her breasts, mouth on her neck. The arrow, it was true, had made her inclined, and perhaps she would have been anyway. But she did not take orders from anyone. She was the postmistress of Fley, and she was not what she appeared to be, Cupid or no. She was from a long line of the impossible.
She waited for the creature to fold its wings about her shoulders, all red and pink, a bouquet of feathers. She waited like a mailbox for Cupid’s tongue, and when she found it, when her own mouth was open, and her hands were twisted in its wings, she showed it what she’d been hiding.
For Miss Kisseal was not always a Miss. Miss Kisseal was not always, even, a human. A dart flew from her body, long as her arm, pointed ivory, stabbing out from her skirt and into Cupid’s throat. She had a quiver of her own.
The winged one gasped, transforming.
The wings remained, but the body changed. It had been everything at once, as gods were wont to be, but Miss Kisseal’s dart forced a choice.
The god looked down in bewilderment at a body newly equipped with things that had not been there a moment before. Miss Kisseal’s star-shaped dart stuck out of Cupid’s throat, and quivered.
“Do you know what snails do when they fall in love?” Miss Kisseal asked again.
“No,” said Cupid, and looked at her with wide eyes. Gods could not be expected to know the ways of everything, every creature. Gods specialized. This one specialized in order-giving and seduction.
“When it comes time to mate, we choose for one another who bears the children.” She touched the dart. “I’ve chosen.”
“You’re a woman,” said Cupid, in some disbelief. “You’re a postmistress. You’re not a god.”
“I’m everything,” said Miss Kisseal. “You shot me with your arrow. I shot you with mine.”
She stepped forward, and, entranced, Cupid stepped forward too. She was the natural mate of a love-bringer, this letter carrier. She was a deliverer.
Kisseal knelt and pressed postmaster’s lips to the goddess.
An hour later the god fucked the postmistress.
Another hour and it was a tangle of feathers and genders and letters, shells and scales, hands and eyelashes, darts and arrows, mouths and orifices unimagined.
It was that way amongst the lowest and the highest, the divine and those who moved along the ground, and who was to say what was the regular way of things?
When Miss Kisseal made her way back down the mountain to the ladies, they looked at her disheveled garments and shook their heads, but some of them smiled, there amongst their shipment of oranges and contraband cigars.
They were those who woke the dead, and the dead remembered days like this day in February. Miss Kisseal delivered them a sack of loveletters, each tattooed with red ink, each in a soft leather envelope, and the ladies laughed and walked the tightrope as they opened them.
The mail-order grooms looked at the mail-order bridges, and began to lay them from mountain to mountain. The bears woke in their caves and stepped out, baying for mates. The children skipped rope and leapt time and space, wearing their X-ray glasses, seeing through all of it. The babies that had been born between these mountains came walking back home. Far away in the south, an albino elephant named Lemon danced with an elephant named Orange, and five ghosts smoked cigars and sang Cole Porter.
The snow had turned to feathers. The sleet had turned to falling stars.
Cupid went winged and glorious through the sky, bearing a quiver filled with arrows with sharp golden tips and an ivory dart shaped like a star, violet-eyed and rose-lipped, a living loveletter, a beautiful everything, newly pregnant with the daughter of the postmistress of Fley.
Author’s Note: Inspired by everything from Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love) which contains references to the mating rituals of everything from oysters to centipedes, but mysteriously leaves out the love darts of gastropods, to John Donne’s Valentine poem detailing the marriage of a variety of different sorts of birds. There’s a school of thought that believes the mythology of Cupid and his arrows was inspired by the naturalists of ancient Greece observing the mating behaviors of snails, the firing of these quite large, and quite suggestively-shaped love darts–which do not impregnate, but are instead apparently lubricated with gender-assigning hormones(!!!)–into the bodies of their mates. And of course, the gods are frequently casual about matters of gender. I decided to salute all these versions and write a story in which a spinster postmistress gets Cupid pregnant.
Happy Valentine’s Day!