The dragon stood on the shore.
“For every day, I will consume one of your desires,” she told them. “You will not know which. You will not know whose. This is my tribute. Do you agree to its terms?”
“Then it is done.” Hissing, the dragon arched her spines toward the sky, their nimbus peaks dissolving into vapor. Her foggy belly followed. Last she drew up her claws, their tips thinning to a sting of spray that whipped the villagers as it passed.
They shivered in the wind raised by her departure, numb hands longing for the fireplaces that lay behind them in the low houses of their fishing town. Andromache signaled that they should return home. The little group turned, heads hidden like sheep being driven up a mountain. It was suppertime, and they were all very hungry, except one.
Dragons had happened to other villages. They were as unpredictably regular as weather and sprung of the same source, bubbling muddily out of the wet earth, sizzling down from a lightning cloud, or coalescing in the dark space between raindrops. They were voracious but not picky: dragons could be bargained with. Which is why, during the meeting to prepare for its arrival — you could tell by certain cloud formations when a dragon was imminent — one villager had suggested the idea.
“Dragons eat anything. Maidens, moods, wallpaper. Why don’t we convince the dragon to eat something we don’t need?”
After much deliberation, and after eliminating eggshells, envy, fishheads, shit, rot, and ennui as either too dear to lose or too rare to satisfy the dragon’s appetite, they decided on wants.
“I want gold,” said one fisherman. “Why imagine what would happen if the dragon ate that! Piles of gold around me, as much as I wanted!”
“Which you’d share,” said his neighbor.
“…of course,” said the fisherman.
They chose Andromache to deliver the message, because she was one of the few literate people in the village and because no one could quite bury the suspicion that the dragon might respond better to a maiden.
“I’m a widow,” she had protested. “That’s not the same thing.”
The dragon wouldn’t know the difference, they assured her.
“And besides, don’t dragons eat maidens, not talk to them?”
No, they assured her, because she was not really a maiden.
“Oi,” she said, and went.
The persuasion was not difficult. One morning, a wet gulf opened in the hard packed sand that bordered the dunes. As Andromache dashed from her house, the ruins of coral webbing the depression filled with water. Each tiny arch swelled to become a silver shield. The shields became scales, and the dragon raised her head over the dunes.
“I am very empty,” she hissed toward the town.
Andromache stood at the top of the dunes, her hair damp with the dragon’s steam. She gave the ritual answer: “We have what will fill you.”
The dragon’s eyes boiled. “Are you the sacrifice?”
Andromache said, “I come to offer you a bargain. If you agree, you will never be empty again. We will give you tribute, and there will always be more. Our supply is inexhaustible.” She paused. “If I were a dragon, I would take this deal.”
The boiling quickened, and bubbles spat between the curls of the dragon’s teeth. Andromache realized she was laughing. “What do you know about dragons, human?”
“I don’t know anything about dragons,” she said. “But I do know about emptiness.” She tried to steady her gaze on swirl of burning water before her. “It consumes you. It makes you desperate.”
“You see me as desperate?” asked the dragon. “I could eat you right now.”
“You could,” Andromache said, “but I am not the tribute. You only want what you lack. Desire has rules.” Swallowing hard, she met the dragon’s eyes. “Would you never hunger again? Then take our offer.”
The boil slowed to a simmer. “Tell me,” said the dragon.
Andromache was there for the first tribute, and all the rest. Dragons are not untrustworthy, but they can be excessive. Besides, the villagers had said, as a widow Andromache had nothing better to do. She scowled, thinking of the villagers’ children, who she tutored in letters every day. But she swallowed her complaint. Dragons could not take long.
When she arrived at the beach on the third morning, a nearby clump of scrub-brush was already bowing, its dry twigs creaking as they stretched and swelled. The dragon appeared, a skeleton of branches hatched on the air. One pliant shoot curled from her mouth like a tongue, sniffing.
“Why are you still here, human?” she asked, looking sideways at Andromache. “We have made our pact.”
“I’m interested,” said Andromache.
“Hrm,” the dragon replied. Her long tongue flickered higher. With a crackle, her splintery jaws widened and her throat undulated with swallowing. The dragon finished her first mouthful, and the sour brown of her scale-leaves seemed to soften. A sated sigh rippled the branches cradling her belly.
Andromache stepped forward so she was in the dragon’s line of sight. “What do desires taste like?” she asked.
The dragon’s eye, a single gleaming berry, turned towards her. “You see,” she continued, “we — I — only feel wants. I can only know what I desire and desire it. I have no sense for its flavors, its complexities. But you will taste all of ours.” The eye did not turn. “I am curious about the difference.”
Dragons do not smile, but the thicket of that massive body flared its twigs for a moment. The dragon lowered her head to reveal a second berry of deep sea green.
“What do you want, human?”
“I — ”
With a dart like a sparrow, the dragon’s tongue flicked out and danced over the crown of Andromache’s head.
“Your need tastes like emptiness,” she rumbled, “like the crumbled soil in the hole where a tree has been uprooted, or the ache of a missing limb.” Her eyes glowed. “Do you know this need, human?”
Andromache stared back. The old loss rose through her limbs like blood, and her shoulders straightened as they always did, with almost the same vigor as she had felt when her husband had held them, a long time ago. “I know it,” she said quietly.
Raising her head, the dragon rustled her body in approval, each slim twig quaking with what Andromache guessed was laughter.
“You do!” she said. “How unusual. You are a step ahead of your fellows. They do not know what they want, and so they do not know when I have taken it.”
“That can’t be true.”
“I spoke with one yesterday,” Andromache continued, “and the child she will bear has made her happier than anything ever could.”
The dragon laughed again, rustling. “Not all desires are so simple,” she said. “Even if your friend’s child had been that day’s tribute.”
“Then what — ”
But the dragon’s tongue had flicked up again, and her jaw’s branches were unlacing. As she lifted her nose, the lattice of her chest bellied outwards, and her pliant throat undulated. She seemed to drink — not one sip this time, but long full draughts. A tender green blushed the dry leaves of her scales. Andromache watched in silence as the drab, parched fingers of the scrub brush plumped with a satiety they had never known. The bare branches of the dragon’s ribs clouded with leaves; her tail and muzzle flashed in flowers that curled immediately into berries. On the grey beach washed with grey waves she stood on the sand, a hymn of light and color, a singing forest, complete unto herself.
After the final draught, the dragon turned again to Andromache. Her head hung with eyes. “I am full,” she said in a voice of leaves and water. “Will you come again, human?”
For a long moment, Andromache stared at her many shining eyes. Then she said, “I will.”
Every day the dragon condensed on the shore; every day her form differed. She accrued like the tide-line, inevitably but much swifter, blossoming into graceful sculptures of sand, grass, sun, and air. On one memorable morning she slithered out of high tide, a flashing boil of minnows and water; on another, she unfurled as a fierce wind that feathered itself in the gummy, discarded plumage of the gulls. On countless others she burbled slimily from the deep, her green muck studded brilliantly with the luminescent inhabitants of the depths. Andromache had not known there were so many creatures on earth or in heaven. As she sat with her tutees in their dark houses, rehearsing lines of verse by candlelight, she often found her eyes straying towards the shore.
One morning she arrived on the beach to find the dragon already there waiting. She had not eaten yet. Today her body was a white mat of filaments, a thick mesh lashed to the sand by countless tiny threads. The deflated bodies of mushrooms hung here and there like limp scales from the gossamer. The dragon was spun, Andromache realized, from the diaphanous fungal roots that spread silently within all decay.
With a wormy shudder the dragon’s head unrooted itself. “I did not think you would come today,” she said.
“Sorry,” Andromache said, catching her breath. She had run. “The boy I am tutoring had not done his reading, so I had to stay and explain it to him. The parents of these children always expect me to stay longer. They think I have nothing else important to do,” she added bitterly. The dragon’s eyes widened in a manner Andromache had come to associate with confusion. “Don’t mind me,” she sighed. “I am just grumpy because I don’t feel appreciated.”
“Yes. It is a little silly. I’m old and widowed, and I should not expect thanks.”
The pale head drifted closer. “What is ‘appreciated’?” asked the dragon.
“Oh!” said Andromache. “It is a little difficult to explain. Appreciation is when — when you are glad something is there. Imagine you came to the beach one morning and there was nothing for you to eat. You would feel the absence, yes?”
“Yes,” the dragon said.
“Now contrast that with how you feel when you arrive and the air is full of desires.” Saturated was how the dragon had described the town on a holiday morning. “You miss them when they are not there, and you appreciate them when they are.” The grey eyes watched her intently. “Now imagine those desires miss you, too. When you return, they are happy because you are there. Humans are like that, sometimes. We appreciate one another.”
The dragon lay her head down on the sand. Her gossamer eyes flickered thoughtfully. “This is strange,” she said. “It is like wanting, but the want is to be wanted.”
“Humans are strange,” Andromache said. She watched the dragon’s mouth, which still made no motion towards eating. “Have you tasted that desire, that wanting to be wanted? What does it taste like?” she asked.
“I have not,” the dragon replied. “I cannot choose my meals.” Then she continued, slowly, “If I do, I will describe its taste to you. You will — appreciate that.”
The withered mushrooms hanging from the dragon’s body seemed faintly to freshen. Watching, Andromache felt strange. She bent forward to lay the fingertips of one hand on the sand, so that they just pressed the edge of the dragon’s mycelial mat. “I will!” she said. “Thank you. That is what humans say when they feel appreciated.”
The dragon repeated, “Thank you.” The tendrils of her muzzle spread further outward, coiling beneath Andromache’s fingers. They felt soft and warm, and through them ran a low pulse like a cat’s purr. Her lacework body sunk placidly on the sand.
Time passed. Andromache said, “You should probably eat.”
“Yes,” said the dragon. “Thank you.”
In the town, things were very different, though no one could quite say how. Everyone knew the dragon had something to do with it, but only a few people could point to a specific instance of a desire that had been lost. And even then, there was no way of knowing whether the dragon was responsible. Some, like the fisherman who no longer wanted gold, chose to think that they had matured beyond such material concerns. Others preferred to blame god, or the neighbors. One fisherwoman who had not eaten for two weeks rebuffed her husband faintly: “I’m not hungry.” A dyer with four daughters opted to believe the town’s sudden interest in his wares was due to their belated appreciation of his taste, not his unuttered worry for his children.
There was no single means whereby their wants disappeared. One villager had pined for a wife and received twelve cats, with whom he was perfectly happy. Another stopped bathing after she found no real compulsion to remain clean.
Still another, a baby, died quietly in her mother’s arms. She no longer wished to live.
All in all, the villagers were satisfied with the arrangement. They had to be. As for the dragon, she was filled anew every day, as promised.
“How many emptinesses you have,” she murmured to Andromache as they sat together on the shore.
One morning, perhaps three weeks later, the dragon rose out of the surf as a fluorescent cliff of seasnails. Andromache was already waiting. As the dragon coalesced, she shaded her eyes from the light scattered by the dragon’s body. Each bright snail was encased in a glassy shell, a thousand miniature prisms whose facets poured back sunlight as the dragon moved. Two fronds of seaweed served as eyes, dark streaks on the dragon’s face that gave the impression of weeping.
Before tasting the air, the dragon greeted Andromache, as she did each day now.
Andromache could barely focus on the dragon’s form, which gleamed like a kaleidoscope. Marveling at the fierce whorl of color, she asked a question she had wondered about for a while now: “Why is your body always made of something else?”
The dragon’s kelp eyes shivered. “I am not sure I can explain it to you,” she said.
The dragon lay her great head down, so that the pile of seasnails and their weeping eyes were parallel to Andromache’s face. “Think about your — husband,” she began, struggling to recall the word.
Puzzled, Andromache obeyed. She did not often recall him actively. His memory was always with her, a deep marrow of pain and gratitude, and sometimes if she let herself grow still, in those moments she felt their past’s quiet circulation. He had died many years ago. But his death was like the submerging of a spring where water still flowed, invisible and vital.
“Ah,” said the dragon. Her tongue, a slim antenna, was tasting the space before Andromache’s eyes. “You feel this emptiness, and it pains you. But you are human, so you collect around it. Your desire centers you. It is need, but it is also life.”
The tongue licked backwards. “Dragons are different. We have no center, only want.” Her wet eyes seemed to tremble. “Perhaps that is because we are only want. My body is always multiple because my desires are. I have no center.”
Though dragons do not feel sadness, Andromache had the sudden urge to stroke the glistening mass of sea creatures. Reaching out, she laid her hand on the dragon’s knobby cheek, just below where the kelp eyes wept softly down.
But at her touch, the dragon jerked her head away from the sand. A few tiny seasnails chipped from her jaw and fell to the ground, writhing as their crystal shells snapped. Her tongue lifted towards the town. “I am very empty today,” she burbled, as if in apology. More seasnails shattered as her mouth stretched open; today it was less like a muzzle and more like a sinkhole whose muddy sides had collapsed.
“Eat,” Andromache urged. “I’m sorry. I will not try to touch you again.”
The dragon’s jaws pulsed like a wound. “No. It is not — ” A shudder passed up her glassy body. “Will you come tomorrow, Andromache?”
The dragon’s head swayed. Sunlight splashed through its many prisms and then fell away again, charged with color. She was very hollow, Andromache thought, and very beautiful. “Please,” she said, “Eat.”
“Thank you,” said the dragon.
Some time later, Andromache found herself alone on the beach. Beside her, a slick of steaming sand ran like a scar back towards the water. She was unable to recall precisely why she had lingered there. Shaking her head, she returned to town.
A young boy who had been out gathering clams further down the beach claims he saw the dragon’s departure. She looked, he said, like no dragon he had ever seen: a sleek, solid coil of lizard scales and fire, hooked wings beating the shallows to fury as she rose, howling, into the sky. Nature had no part of her; sea and sand recoiled from her touch. In the town, the villagers heard her scream and trembled.
Here is what it tasted like.
It tasted like dependence, the fixture of roots in a riverbank whose vulnerability twines them together. It tasted like affirmation, the shout of metal as it finds its magnet. It tasted like apocalypse, the collapse of life’s clamor into a pattern clear and sharp as music. Savoring that day’s anonymous desire, the dragon was surprised to find herself within, like an image suspended in a mirror. With gratitude and recognition, she drank deeply of her own reflection. She tasted what it was to be wanted.
It was utterly satisfying and unspeakably painful.
The next day, Andromache did not go down to the shore. Nor did she return the following day, nor the next, nor any of those afterwards.
The villagers said nothing, but they were quietly relieved. Despite their mistrust of the dragon, they had grown more suspicious still of Andromache’s intimacy with her. It was unnatural, they said, for a single woman to be so long away from company. Didn’t she have better things to do? What did she and the beast talk about for all those idle hours? It was unseemly, they agreed, for a widow to spend so much time in company — especially the company of a dragon.
Andromache fielded their complaints with mild unconcern. She did not know why she had decided to stop visiting the dragon. It simply no longer pleased her. She did not feel she owed anyone an explanation. Each morning, after her teaching was finished, instead of walking to the shore she went wandering in the hills, sitting for long, still hours beside the streams’ dark music. She thought often of her husband. By most standards, she was content. And if her serenity was not precisely complete, she could never name the source of her unease.
The dragon left a week later. The first few mornings after Andromache’s absence she had appeared on the beach, crashing down in scaled glory to alight on sand her heat turned instantly to glass. After a few minutes of waiting she left again, keening. She did not feed. Eventually she stopped coming, and the glass slick she left behind turned its perfect mirror to an empty sky.
The villagers were delighted. No dragon had ever abandoned a town before. They felt, proudly, that they had defeated this one. A town mythology slowly developed claiming collective responsibility for their singular triumph. Andromache’s name was not mentioned, though afterwards the parents of her tutees were no longer quite as insistent in their demands on her time.
Like the dragon herself, the consumed desires never returned. The dyer’s children prospered, and the fisherwoman died peacefully of starvation. New petty jealousies arose to replace those that had been taken. The town returned to business as usual. They watched the clouds for more dragons.
Once in a while they heard tales of distant towns razed by a terrifying serpent, a monstrous reject of nature — winged, fire-breathing, and ruthless, crazed with insatiable hunger. But it never came to their village.
This story comes out of a conversation I had with my partner, and is dedicated to him. We were wondering how to define when something is alive. One of my favorite answers — a very old answer, not mine — is that life is desire.
“The Dragon Who Kept Watch”, by Cecile Walton (1920), is in the public domain.
I am 15 when my boyfriend starts acting oddly.
We sit on the edge of a browned oval, watching the other boys kick a tattered football between them. His eyes follow it like liquid. I know that he wants to play, but he doesn’t want to be politely included and silently excluded at the same time. I link my fingers with his and grip hard, turning the skin under his nails white. He drops his gaze from the ball and smiles at me like he always does, like I’m some sort of miracle.
I look down at our entwined hands and know that we are.
I get sick often. On the bad mornings, my mother tells me that I look a hundred years old. She boils chicken soup and braids bells into my hair to ward away evil spirits. I laugh at her for her old superstitions, but I keep them in because I like the music when I turn my head. Malik comes to visit me. We kill time until I get better, playing computer games, telling stories on my bed. He tells the hardest stories.
One evening we lie in a circle on my coverlet, foreheads and toes touching. He tells me, dry-eyed, of the time he was on his way to visit his uncle. He feels the shock tremor of the drone strike one street away. People stumble and curse, a basket of grapes crashes to the ground and liquid spheres roll in the dust. He runs, expecting to find bodies, but finds only fragments. The only survivor is the baby. He finds her bawling underneath a slab of wall, one that would have crushed her if it hadn’t been for the sturdy cot built with dead hands.
The world always seems different after his stories. I don’t notice other boys slipping notes in my locker any more, or the feeling of not belonging when I glance in the mirror. I notice other things instead, like the way my shoulders curve as if they’re bearing new weight. I remember selling chocolates as a kid, piling up the empty boxes, so proud of the three hundred dollars that my mother counted out for me and then magically converted into a slip of paper. I think of myself then and shudder at my naiveté, at how many weapons three hundred dollars can buy.
I write letters now, with the heavy metallic pen my mother gave me for graduating primary school. I keep writing even when my eczema gets so bad that my skin splits and bubbles. I don’t know if the words are more substantial than hitting ’Sign’, or clicking ‘Like’, but at least they can’t kill anyone. I think.
These are the normal things.
This is the slipped note, the sudden sharp, the discordance. One morning I don’t see him at all, and then the next thing I know he’s waiting for me outside mathematics. Deep bags hollow his eyes. “Laura,” he says abruptly. “I’ve been reading stories again.”
I can’t imagine reading in a different language. I never have. Small wings flutter against my throat, as delicate as pride. “That’s amazing, well done!”
He doesn’t react to the compliment, doesn’t duck his head and blush in the way that I adore. His eyes bore into me instead, strange and insistent, and for a moment I think I see the aftermath of an explosion within them. “I need to know something,” he says. “Can fairies steal adults?”
I blink. He has a book in his hands. I crane my neck and consider the title. I worry my lips and think back to childhood. “You mean like… changelings?”
His eyes light and burn like chemical fire. “Yes.”
I know his parents as distant figures in the gravel car park, imagined spirits behind tinted windows and battered panels. We have an unspoken understanding that families are not a part of our relationship, that we’re trying to forge something new and fragile and independent. So something blooms sickly in my chest when he asks me to sneak home with him.
“I don’t know, Malik.” I twist a strand of hair around my fingers, bite at its tip. “We shouldn’t skip school like this.”
“School,” he says flatly. He crosses his arms. “My school was the first to be bombed, back home. We learned off burned textbooks and broken pencils. It’s my father, Laura.”
Shame crawls up my spine. “All right. All right. Let’s go.”
I expect sneaking, stealth, shadows. Instead, Malik grabs my hand and we stride out the front gates like we belong. I sweat underneath my checkered dress.
It isn’t far to the bus stop. We don’t speak for the whole ride. I watch the streets go by instead, pruned gardens and white walls blurring into bricks and shuttered windows. We get off the bus and walk until the streets are dead, lined with broken gates, shattered glass, and carefully tended wildflowers. Laughter and music drift from an open window. We turn away from it and into the house next-door.
Malik pulls me to a stop under the cracked-glass entrance light. In the daytime and the shadows, it looks dull and shadowed. “Before we go in,” he says, “I want to tell you something.”
I nod, feeling the new weight on my shoulders shiver in anticipation. “What is it?”
His hand grips mine. “The only reason we are alive is because of my father,” he says quietly. Each word is low, vehement, a bullet. “No other family I know escaped with everyone. I have my mother, my sister, my grandmother… even my cousin. The only people we lost were his brother’s family.”
I nod again, even though I can’t possibly understand everything. He exhales violently, leans against my shoulder. Automatically, I hug him. He speaks into my dress, muffled. “I just want you to know that he is a strong man.”
“I know,” I say. I feel him shake against me, and I hug him again, and then step back before I lose my nerve. I grip his hand tightly. “Let’s go.”
Malik’s house is a home. As soon as I step inside I feel oddly warm. Even empty, it breathes with family and life, with memories and the present. The scent of mint tea lingers in the air, and there is a pile of colour next to the old sewing-machine in the hallway. I know enough about Malik that I can guess his sister is still at school, his mother at work, and even his grandmother at 70 has gone to help in the small shop and look after the toddler.
His father, however, is right in front of me.
Malik breathes. His lips are tight with worry. “He’s been like this since yesterday.” He seems smaller suddenly, much younger. I forget, often, that he is the same age as me. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have dragged you out here like this. I just didn’t know what to do.”
Neither do I. Malik’s father sits slumped in a chair, facing the front door. His eyes are vacant. One hand dangles limply by his side, outstretched to the floor, and I see a plastic cricket bat caught between the chair legs.
I wipe away the sweat sticking to my scalp. “We need to get him to a hospital, now.”
Malik looks torn. He shakes his head slowly. “No, we can’t…”
I stare at him incredulously. My nerves, frayed already by rule-breaking and knowledge-blanking, snap. “Why the hell not?” I demand. “He obviously needs help! And more than just the two of us! We need to call an ambulance and then…”
I stop suddenly, instinctively. A vacuum roars around my ears and I feel a lurch in my stomach, like I’ve stepped on a landmine.
“No! No! Hospitals are places where you go to die!” The chemical burn is back in his eyes. When he gestures, his skeleton jerks and ripples underneath his skin. Out of the corner of my eye, I see his father watching us war like a broken puppet. I look back and see them mirrored in each other’s faces. Malik’s chest heaves like he’s been running. “I am not losing him now!”
I close my eyes and inhale heat. I shake my head. The bells in my hair chime softly, and the memory comes to me suddenly of being bitten by a frightened dog abandoned in the street. I exhale and try not to speak between clenched teeth. “Then what, exactly, do you want me to do?”
Malik opens his mouth and then stops. He swallows. In the silence, the heat builds. He reaches into his bag, and I see the book that he borrowed from the library.
After twenty minutes of searching through nails and packaging, tools and junk, we head to the kitchen. The cast-iron pan is old but clean. I rinse it in the cracked kitchen sink just to steal more time. The fear tastes like blood at the back of my throat. I have no idea what I’m doing.
My hands are cold and dry when I approach Malik’s father. I glance at Malik and he nods, troubled. I take another breath, step forward, and then gently place the pan against his father’s brow.
I half expect sizzling, shrieking, ash. But nothing happens. I let it rest there for a few moments, as if time will change everything. Finally, feeling stupid, I pull away the pan. Malik’s father stays catatonic, the skin on his forehead unmarked.
But the pan is a different story. Where it touched him, the iron has reddened like blood. Malik and I watch as it pulses, glows, and then slowly turns black again.
We stare at it, and then at each other. The pan weighs heavy in my palm. I switch hands and then slowly, I reach out to touch his father’s forehead…
I drop the pan. It crashes to the ground, inches away from crushing my toes. I don’t care. My fingers are blistering. I look up through tears of pain. “Malik, he’s burning!”
Malik’s hands twitch forward compulsively as if to touch, but he wisely pulls back. He runs to the kitchen. I clutch my wrist and suck on my burned fingers, and the idea comes to me like a light-storm.
When Malik returns with ice and water and apologies, I ask him to get my phone from my bag. He reaches for the buckle and then stiffens. I stare at him blankly, and then sigh through my teeth. “I’m not going to call the ambulance,” I say impatiently. “I need to look something up.”
We go over my data plan. Neither of us care. As we wait for the sites to load after our various searches, I fire questions at him. “What else? Where else? When else?”
Malik blinks. He looks rattled, hollowed out. I know how he feels. “Uh… Assyria,” he says. “Babylon.” A question mark. “Sumeria?”
Still, there’s hope beneath the bewilderment. After all, there are no changelings in Iraqi lore. But there are gods.
We compile a list. We stand in front of Malik’s father and read them out like prayers. “Gibil!” Malik cries. “Gerra!”
“Nusku!” I try, “Nuska!”
On the last syllable, Malik’s father jerks. His body straightens like cords, his eyes widen and turn golden. Malik’s hand tightens on mine and slowly grows hot. I turn and see his face shining like the sun.
“Nuska,” he repeats. His voice goes hollow, is echoed by ten, a hundred, tens of thousands more. The voice of a civilisation. “Patron, Mediator, Protector of families.”
Each invocation fires the light. I half-close my eyes against the glare as father and son face each other, transfixed in the unearthly glow. “God of our people,” Malik whispers. “We are safe now. You can leave.” His voice trembles like water. “Thank you for guiding us home.”
Heat spills across the room in waves, like sunlight. For a moment I see nothing but the purest white, the combined brilliance of every star. And then I’m blinking away dancing spots as the light fades, as the shadow of the real world returns.
Malik’s father stirs. He looks at his empty hands, dazed, and then up at his son. For a moment, it’s as if I’m watching from outside a thick glass window.
Malik’s hand unfolds from mine. “Papa,” he says. His voice trembles. They reach toward each other like a lifeline. I look from one to the other, pick up my bag, and make my escape.
After about ten minutes, Malik meets me outside. I’d planned to go back to school, really. But I made it less than ten metres. Three steps past Malik’s gate and the sound of laughter and music hits me like a slap. Back in the real world my legs root into the ground, heavy with mortality. I find myself frozen, trembling, listening to the laughter. A young girl, I think, deciphering the pitched squeals of delight and the clatter of feet on wooden boards. Dancing.
Time passes. Warm arms enfold me from behind, and my body melts. I turn and clutch him fiercely. He still smells like the sun.
“Is he okay?” I ask into his shirt. “Are you okay?”
Malik pulls gently away from me. He cradles my hands. I can feel the tenderness leaking from him, touched with guilt and relief. “Yes,” he says. “And yes. Thank you.”
Our foreheads meet. He speaks softly, intensely, like he might break something. “I owe you another story,” he murmurs. And before I can stop him, he’s breathing it into me.
“The day I went to visit my uncle, we were meant to get out. My father sent me to collect him and his family while he made preparations.”
He pauses. I feel his skin against mine, purified.
“I didn’t know that he went to pray,” he says. “I didn’t notice that he seemed different when I came back. I thought it was because everyone was dead. But he was so strong.”
I think of dusty streets under a merciless sun, of the burden of a family and a new baby and the terrifying journey across the sea. For a moment, my shoulders struggle, and then I remember that they’re all here, they’re all safe, finally. And then I stand straighter. Lighter.
I breathe back my own truth. “It’s not your fault,” I tell him. “And you did notice, today. You brought him back.”
Malik pulls away. For a moment, I miss the warmth, and then he kisses my hair. The bells ring. “You’re magic,” he whispers.
The memory of the light glowing from him and the reverence in his voice fills me with heat. Blood pools in my cheeks. Smiling, I look down at our clasped hands and my burned fingers. Funny. Both my hands are aching now, where I gripped the cast-iron pan. A familiar rash peeks at me from underneath my sleeve.
I stare at it for a moment, and then I blink. The realisation spreads through me like sunlight. My smile widens.
“Yes,” I say simply, and kiss him back.
Lee S. Hawke attempts to write misshapen and thought-provoking fantasy, science-fiction, and poetry. Lee is also in the process of building a treasure trove of awesome writing links and documenting the bumpy ride towards becoming a writer at leeshawke.com. If you’re on Twitter, get in touch and say hello @LeeSHawke! She says:
When I was a child, my sister and I wrote to refugees locked in Australian detention centers. More importantly, they wrote back. As an adult, I am now constantly fascinated by the gap between reality and the way that culture, race, and asylum seekers are portrayed. This piece came from me trying to explore and bridge that gap through fantasy.
From the siege of Tyros, Eurydike of Makedonia sent home cloaks of shell-purple and pearls as ruddy as an ocean at sunset, one for each wife and a third for her husband. It was nearly summer and the remains of Palaityros were an army camp instead of a charcoal waste of alleys, its cisterns full again and its shoreline strewn only with the rubble she had asked for, each fallen building another foothold on the sea. Morning and dusk, she walked the earthworks that the beach had become and stared out at the walls of Tyros, limestone cliffs rising like a reef against the boat’s-eye blue of the sky. Aphrodite’s star burned at her shoulder, keeping pace with her soldier’s stride.
She was not a tall woman; she was broad-shouldered for her height, deep-chested from crying to be heard above the clamor of battle, her breasts and ribs were scarred pale under their linen and bronze and her hair was the carven red of carnelian. She had outlived five of her father’s wives and two of her half-siblings and when she was fourteen she had killed a queen of her mother’s people, knee to knee in the tall grasses with her horse all but foundering under her, someone else’s blood sticking the spear in her hand and her braid soaked black with sweat. Her father had drunk her victory in raw wine and cried her as good as a son, but her mother had only smiled when the girl she had trained in wrestling and swordplay returned from campaign a blooded soldier. Her hair was fairer than her daughter’s, twisting like the bronze of the torc she still wore against her throat; she had not laid it aside with her marriage, like her name. We lead our own armies, Birkenna’s granddaughter. We make our own campaigns. Her father’s death had started Eurydike fighting; she had not ceased in the years since. And the army followed her, as they might have followed her mother once from the hills around Lynkesta. At Tyros they broke like the sea around the city’s rock, but a daughter of two warriors knew there was more to war than bodies hurled onto blades, arrows hissing the sky dark, the screaming of horses and men. She studied the strain of rope, the heave of blocks, the fittings of burst foundations and blackened walls. Her engineers worked tirelessly and so did she, lamp-smoking nights and sea-flaming days.
After the first month, she began to dream.
She was used to the dreams of battle; sometimes she still woke herself screaming, though no man from Makedonia called her coward for it and none of the women who had come from her mother’s country, either. Now she dreamed of a woman with breasts the color of fired clay and hair blacker than siege-pitch, a collar of lotus flowers — beaten gold and lily-blue — chiming about her throat. She was naked and the hair of her body was an owl’s feathers, softly armoring her groin, but her feet were hidden in a whiteness of breaking foam, as if she cut through waves like the prow of a ship. Out of her upraised palm shone an eight-pointed star, like the sun of the Argeadai. A good omen, Eurydike thought at first, but then she was no longer sure. The woman said nothing, did nothing except watch from her dark, luminous eyes, like the night at the back of the moon. Her free hand held odd things, small as the illusion of mountains or cities seen far off — the horned curve of the moon, a sleeping dove, a horse-headed warship with three banks of oars. A shadow flattened against the tent wall behind her, lion-prowling, sphinx-couched. Eurydike woke to the smell of old, drifting smoke and the noises of soldiers at exercise and walked out to view her causeway, slowly etching her name across the sea.
Letters came, from Barsine at Ekbatana, from Roxšana at Baxlo, from Kleitos at Pella, the black-eyed father of her child. She answered them all with love and impatience; she had never stopped wishing she could take her consorts on campaign with her, like generals, instead of leaving them behind as governors. Even her first, political marriage, to the only man she trusted not to unseat her in her absence — half-Illyrian like herself, half-wild the court said; she had seen only that he was ambitious and trusted the same in her where the rest of the Companions saw a barbarian in trousers, horse-tailed and headstrong as her black, bucking mount — had warmed to fondness, especially when he wrote of young Philip’s progress. A sweet boy and a quick one, for all that she had not seen him since his first months of life, unafraid of horses and men’s loud voices talking. She had expected a daughter, to breed true like her mother, but perhaps there would be time when she returned from farther Asia, when she had seen how far the world reached and whether she would ever touch its limits. World-encircling Okeanos, the dawn-burnt lands of Eos. Her gods had always been Makedonia’s, Zeus with his eagle and Artemis Kynago, the maiden hunter. For her mother, she offered to the Rider, with his short flying cloak and his boots that never touched ground. Someday she would chase the sun until it burned to the earth of a land she had never seen and be happy; until then she wrote to her Persian wife of the claimants after Dareios and her Baktrian wife of the security of the Rock and her Makedonian husband of the health of their son and the care of her sisters. The Tyrians sent fire-ships. She wrote to the kings of Arados and Sidon and Kypros, sailors all.
The siege was nearing its crisis when the dream changed. Again she saw the woman with a star in her hand and the sea at her feet, but now she smiled at Eurydike and came forward from the wall as if she stepped down from a great height; tonight she held a lioness in her palm, small as a clay charm, curled in sleep. Her voice was friendly, as conversationally Makedonian as the broadest hill tribe Eurydike had ever hunted boar with. She said, without honorific or greeting, “Kynnane.”
It was not that no one called her by that name anymore; it was the name she had married her husband under, fast-moving and vicious in the struggle that followed Philip’s assassination, and she had told it to each of her wives in turn, more of a gift on their wedding night than a ring of amethyst or chalcedony. It was an Illyrian name and she held to it as dearly as Audate, Birkenna, Etuta. No one since her mother had said it so plainly, as if she had never taken a regnal name and sealed it, like a true queen of both her countries, with blood. She said without surprise, knowing now who she had been seeing all these sea-lashed, stone-breaking months, “Astarte.”
There was more of a hiss and a hush in the name when the goddess repeated it: ‘Aštart, Ištar, tide-swell and sting of sand. “So you would take my city. You would take Ṣur as well as Ṣidon, Arvad, Gebal. You would take the sea from it.”
“Your city holds the throat of the sea. I have no surety of Persia so long as it is not mine — so long as it fights me, at least. Sidon and Byblos knew not to.”
“So much more your loss.” If the goddess were a human woman, Eurydike would have said the look she gave then was the first move in a seduction: not the shyness that invited pursuit, but a frank meeting, appraising and approving. She had met few women of such directness. Two of them she had married. “I know you, Kynnane, Audate’s daughter, how you will deal with my city. I know what became of your brothers.”
She had never flinched when reminded, but she could still see them sometimes in dreams, curiously and facelessly, the dark hair and the bronze-bright. “Then you know the danger of rivals. Even a man half-witted from poison can be propped up in front of a crowd who will acclaim him over better contenders because his name is right. Even a city whose empire has collapsed around it will shine like a beacon to those who would fight for its memory.”
Swift as a sword-cut, the goddess said, “And do you want always to be fighting for memories?”
Beyond their lamps and embroidered hangings, the walls of the tent were filled with shadows. Eurydike could see her life moving among them, from the silhouette of a thin girl with a bow on the back of a colt to the ringing sword of Olympias’ murder attempt to the strange trampling charge of some great beast or war machine, blotted out in a moment by the serpentine sweep of a shore curving away to the rising sun. The goddess whose name in her own cities was ‘Aštart was shorter than Eurydike as a woman stood, but there was no looking away from her as she met the other’s eyes. Her smell was the heat of lions and the watery cool of lotuses, sweet sea air and burning juniper, salt-sweat musk, and blood. Karchedonian Tanit, Eurydike thought dizzily, was a goddess of sacrifice: child-bones, ash in clay vessels. For all the Phoinix-red in the Middle Sea, she would not hand over her son. She wanted to reach for her sword-belt and rip out the goddess’ throat, with her hands, with her teeth if she had to. If she turned into stars for it, like the ill-fated lovers of Zeus, she wanted to fuck.
“I will not give you Ṣur,” the goddess said, somewhere distant beyond the pounding of Eurydike’s blood. “You will have to take it, but you will not take it stone from stone like Ušu, nor will you throw down its people in chains and the cries of the dying. You will take your armies eastward and I will not go with you, but you will meet enemies worth the joining of battle and lovers worth the joining of bodies and you will never hold all the land that passes beneath your Daryllos’ hooves, but you will see it as far as the Eastern Sea. All that lies under the morning and the evening star is my domain. When you turn back, it will not be for loss.”
Even half-deafened with desire, her mouth dry and her skin flicking like a fly-plagued mare’s, Eurydike felt her mouth tighten in her war-smile, the moment when calculation abandoned itself to the chase. “And what must I give you in return? Take you as my third wife, leave you here to govern Tyros? It was difficult enough for my generals to accept Roxšana at first, and they could see and hear her.”
“No.” The goddess’ own smile was a lioness’, without cruelty or pity. The star’s eight points glimmered and ran like water in her hand. “You, Kynnane. You love men and women; you love contending and war. You are fertile as a flood-river and restless as a wind across the Axšaina. You have mothered and murdered. You are the lover I want from this war.”
In the waking world, down beyond the cresset-fired shore, Eurydike heard the waves beating against her causeway, the isthmus that had not existed when her army was celebrating the Peritia in rainy winter. She said, “I can take your city without you. It’s mathematics, no more. Pyntagoras of Kypros has sent twenty and a hundred warships.”
“Yes,” said ‘Aštart, “of course,” and nothing more.
It was the month of Loios now, full summer. Cicadas sang from the rocks. By mirror-flashing sunlight, she watched the red and blue sails fill the bay, the bronze beaks of the galleys churn the faience-blue water to streaking foam beneath their painted eyes. By the shadowy lamp-flutter of dreams, she studied the face of a goddess whom she would have begun to love if she were a mortal woman, bargaining for her city with an alliance that was no affliction to either of them. She had never heard, in plays or philosophy, that the immortals were safe to love.
Tonight the animal sleeping in ‘Aštart’s hand was a sphinx — male as in Persia, its mane and beard blue-black. Eurydike said carefully, “Will I cross Asia without you?”
“You have come this far without me.”
“Will I come home from Asia without you?”
“With or without me, a woman lives only so long.”
“Then I will die, whichever choice I make — to raze your city to the sea or let it lie safe in your hand, along with myself.”
“The sea will take you, in the end. The sea of salt or the sea of sand, the sea of forgetfulness and the sea of time.” For a moment the goddess’ eyes were empty as a toppled statue, her palms cracked ochre. The sphinx’s shadow looked like a larnax, lid open, awaiting its bequest of ash. Then the tent walls rippled with a sea-wind; the lapis inlays of the flowers around ‘Aštart’s throat gleamed like phosphorescence on the silky black sea-swell and she looked like a living woman again, or near enough that Eurydike could look at her, potent and perilous as dusk and dawn. “I cannot make you unperishing” — the heroic word, aphthita. “I would see more of you before then.”
“Then, yes,” said the woman who was Kynnane to her lovers and her mother’s shade, Eurydike the third of that name in Makedonia. She thought of the painted walls of Pella, the mosaics of the Persian court, the snow tanging the air of her wedding night with Roxšana, Barsine offering to Anaïtis at her shrine in bronze-belled Damaskos. Tall Kleitos in his bridegroom’s wreath of myrtle, younger than his Amazon of a bride. “Yes.”
Moon-crowned, lion-flanked, the goddess of the Phoinikian sea-cities gazed down from the height of temples and towers; she came to Eurydike’s brows and the nearness of her mouth set fire running beneath the woman’s skin. There was nothing in her voice but truth, more than anything mortal could speak. “I am not kind to my lovers.”
Her lover said without boasting, “I am,” and the goddess ‘Aštart laughed.
When Eurydike of Makedonia took the impregnable island of Tyros, she was bleeding from an arrow in the shoulder and her right hand was numbed to the elbow from a stone-thrower’s glancing shock; her sun-stamped shield was pitted from scalding sand and she had leaped from the siege-tower like Kapaneus over the walls of Thebes, her soldiers were already saying. But she had not burned the city, though there was smoke enough rising in the narrow streets from fire-arrows and naphtha-flares, nor had she let her army, tight-wound as catapults and sick with their seven months’ siege, run loose on the surrendering Tyrians like dogs after the sack of Troy. She was Eurydike who led them from victory to victory, asking of them no risks she would not take herself; they listened to her. Between the shining gold-and-emerald pillars of Melqart’s temple, she offered a ram with fleece as blue-black as a sphinx’s beard to the fire endlessly burning on the altar. For ‘Aštart on her sphinx-winged throne, she performed the same honor, left-handed with the knife; she wrenched the animal’s head back herself all the same.
Afterward she remained on the akropolis, her Makedonian hair wreathed with glittering laurel; still braided for war. The densely built mazework of streets she looked down on was still choked with fallen masonry, stairs and walls splashed with stone-dust and blood. She knew how bitterly the king and his family thanked her for their lives. Once she might have stayed longer among them, to see if a daughter or a son met her eyes frankly, sealing peace with more than swords and stylos. From the scant night before the sea-battle and the breaching of the walls, she had woken with an intaglio of owl’s feathers printed everywhere hands or mouth or thighs could touch, the tastes of sea and salt on her lips. In the clear springs of Palaityros, slender petals unfolded like a hand to the sun, dawn-blue lotus were growing.
Kynnane touched her good hand to her throat, to the leaf-gold torc she had had fashioned after the capture of Pelion. To the darkening sea and its agate-white lines of waves, she said quietly, “We make our own campaigns.” ‘Aštart’s star burned at her shoulder, rising east.
Sonya Taaffe’s short fiction and poetry can be found in the collections Ghost Signs (Aqueduct Press), A Mayse-Bikhl (Papaveria Press), Postcards from the Province of Hyphens (Prime Books), and Singing Innocence and Experience (Prime Books), and in anthologies including Aliens: Recent Encounters, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction, The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry, People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, The Alchemy of Stars: Rhysling Award Winners Showcase, and The Best of Not One of Us. She is currently senior poetry editor at Strange Horizons; she holds master’s degrees in Classics from Brandeis and Yale and once named a Kuiper belt object. She lives in Somerville with her husband and two cats. She says:
I dreamed of reading a classical history in which Tyre was besieged not by Alexander the Great, but by his sister, a world-conqueror in her own right, who identified herself with a warrior goddess instead of Zeus. Awake, I jotted down more or less that sentence for future reference; I thought I could perhaps transpose the concept into flash. It turned out somewhat longer.
The fact is, Alexander had a sister who was trained for war: Kynnane or Kynna, daughter of Philip’s first wife Audate — called Eurydike after her marriage, after Philip’s mother — was half-Illyrian and raised according to the customs of her mother’s people, where women were full participants in politics and war. According to the second-century rhetorician Polyainos, the young Kynnane famously accompanied her father on campaign against the Illyrians and herself killed their queen, Kaeria, before routing their army. Once married to Philip’s nephew Amyntas (later executed by Alexander), she raised her daughter in the same tradition, military training included. Both of them are strange, serious contenders in the Wars of the Successors. Kynnane brought an army with her when she crossed into Asia to find Philip Arrhidaios, Alexander’s half-brother and nominal successor, and marry him to her daughter. That same daughter Adeia — who later took the name Eurydike, positioning herself as the next generation of the dynasty — twice swayed the Macedonian army to her side and only failed the third time because she was facing Olympias, Alexander’s invincible mother. She did marry Arrhidaios. They both ended up dead, but so did pretty much everyone in the Argead dynasty, so the degree to which Kynnane and Adeia succeeded in their bid for empire, especially starting as far from the center of power as they did, is really not small change.
Nonfictionally, the way in which Audate and her descendants — grandmother to granddaughter — retained their Illyrian identity within Macedonian society fascinates me, especially in view of the political freedom it entailed. Authorially, if any sister of Alexander’s had a place in the history I dreamed, it was obviously Kynnane. Alexander the Great had three sisters who lived to adulthood. Only one of them raised an army.
The vultures had colonized the shell of her ship. The largest and bravest perched on Yagmur’s chest, its talons caught in the straps of her pilot’s harness. She watched it unblinking, as if she was already carrion, as it lunged and tore a fleshy strip from her cheek. It swallowed her down in bobbing gulps. Her blood tasted of copper and the last of the chryochem, sluggish as it flooded her mouth.
She was not quite a corpse. Nevertheless, she made a corpse-sound when she tried to shout, a deathrattle croak. The vulture cocked its head at her, one glittering eye bright and intelligent. Yagmur struggled to shift inside the harness, managing a graceless shudder of one arm.
“Not yet,” she said, pawing at the broad sweep of wings. The vulture considered her: desiccated from preservative cryosleep and trickling blood down her jaw, cradled in the scorched remains of her ship like a chick inside the inner-curving cup of its egg. It hopped off. The force of its talons against her pectorals would leave bruises.
Took you long enough, princess, said the leftmost of her ghost-companions, leaning hipshot and translucent against the open bay door.
We were taking bets on whether you were finally joining us, the rightmost added.
They were taking bets, said the smallest, unbuckling her transparent harness from the wreckage of the co-pilot’s seat and clambering out. I was being bored. If you were going to die you’d die somewhere far away from the worldship, just for spite. Her feet, one of them bare, passed through the burst-open metal panels that had previously been the floor of the ship.
Yagmur tongued the hole in her cheek. She had imagined coming back whole, if she came back at all. He hands were numb lumps on the harness buckle. The ghost-companions watched her fumbling with the irritable patience of the deceased.
“How long was I unconscious?” she asked them.
Oh, days and days, said her leftmost companion.
“And no vulture-breeders found me?”
There are no vulture-breeders, said her rightmost companion. Only vultures. The worldship is full of carrion.
Yagmur had not thought she had been travelling long enough for the worldship to be empty – only long enough for her companions to get themselves killed, one after another, in her defense. Yet, after emerging from her ship’s shell she found that the vast and airy chamber of the dead into which she had crashed was too vast and too airy. The worldship-lights were out, and what Yagmur could see by starshine were long rows of the dead, stretching out to the limits of her vision and beyond.
The nearest were correctly prepared: unclothed, disemboweled, and mostly devoured to bones. But no vulture-breeder had come to grind those bones with meal-powder, and further down the line the bodies remained dressed, haphazardly piled on one another. Their stink was dim, unfresh by months or more.
“There are too many dead,” said Yagmur, who had been a prince of the worldship once, when it ranged the wide void unchallenged.
The stars do not move, said her smallest companion.
The engines are quiet, said her leftmost companion.
You really ought to have come back sooner, said her rightmost companion. This is going to take a lot of work.
If Yagmur had returned to the worldship when her rightmost companion had first desired it – approximately one month after her exile – she would have had to beg the khagan for forgiveness on her knees. She would have given up forever the whirling joy of travel unbound amongst the stars. Thus while her rightmost companion lived, she had denied him. Now, realizing that the thousand thudding horsehoof beats of engine-sound did not pulse next to her heart, she wondered if he had been right all along.
Silent, all the worldship seemed to be made of hunger hollow and waiting to be filled. Quietude weighed on Yagmur’s heart like a grounding chain. But her companions were ghosts, and she did not know how to bury ghosts in the blackness of space, and so she had come home.
The chamber of the dead was built like a road on a mountain, a great spiraling funnel that led down into the belly of the worldship, topped with a vault of stars. It kept planet-normative gravity for the sake of the vultures, and spun around the worldship’s core at speeds that Yagmur had memorized once, her head bent over screens at the foot of the khagan’s pilot-chair. Now she and her ghost-companions walked down the spiral, passing the dead as they went. The ghost-companions trod upon them. Yagmur did not, except when it was required.
The bodies near the vault door which led into the rest of the worldship were heaved into a great heap. Some of their faces remained recognizable. Yagmur lifted the head of the nearest by its hair. It was the flesh of her brother-by-adoption, the khagan’s middle son. His flesh had been wrent open at the gut, and his innards lay around him, looping over the shoulders and backs of the flesh of his companions. His blood had been spilled on the ground. Yagmur knew it to be a sacrilege.
Her smallest companion said: He ought to have made better friends.
“Ones that would not rip out his intestines?” Yagmur asked.
Ones who would have gotten up and followed him home, said her leftmost companion. Yagmur had left his body on the bare desert floor of an alien world, gutshot while keeping her safe, and found his ghost waiting for her at the shuttleport. He knew from following. All her companions did.
Ones who know how to open codelocked doors, said her rightmost companion, pointing to the vault door’s control panel with an insubstantial hand. Get over here and press some buttons, princess.
Yagmur did so. Her rightmost companion’s fingers fit over hers exactly, and chilled her hands as if she had stuck them out an airlock. Hers depressed the keypad, her knuckles rising and falling through his palm.
The door irised open with a rush of stale air that buffeted Yagmur’s hair across her face. There were no bodies in the corridor beyond, only flickering lights that ought not have flickered and metal walls that ought not have bent as much as they were bending. Yagmur’s boots clanged on the corridor’s floor. The worldship was not dead yet, but it was rotting. Great patches of the walls were thin and buckling with rust, eaten away. Yagmur could push her hands through them, or her elbows, without much effort.
The scale of required repair baffled her. She did not understand how the worldship had been allowed to arrive at this state.
After the fourth turning, when Yagmur was occupied with hand-over-handing her way down a ladder through an area which had never been subject to artificial gravitiation, her smallest companion inquired with some trepidation, Has the khagan died?
Yagmur grunted, and swung her hips laterally, sliding into the maw of a new corridor and letting the ladder go.
Some khagan we’ve got, if he hasn’t, said her leftmost companion.
Her rightmost companion was silent, in the aggressive fashion which implied he knew the answer and was not going to give Yagmur the chance to get out of saying it herself.
“He isn’t dead yet,” Yagmur said. “There’s still oxygen.” Her rightmost companion shot her a grin, and she considered expending the effort necessary to gesture obscenely toward him, but concluded that he would most likely take it as encouragement, as he always had before. Instead she began to crawl on her knees down the new corridor, which was unrusted but also part of the ventilation system and not more than two feet on a side.
Her smallest companion, who in life had cared little for anything but Yagmur and the void between the stars, and was thus inexperienced with politics, went on: Well, someone ought to do something about that.
She had died of asking similar questions of men and women who did not want to answer them: they had locked her in an airlock and vented the atmosphere, and Yagmur had found her ghost waiting with the others in her ship when she fled that station’s retribution.
We could start by turning the engines back on, said her leftmost companion, pointing down one of the branches of the corridor through which they crawled.
“I did not come here to turn the engines on,” Yagmur said.
Her rightmost companion looked her in the eye with resignation, and said, You did not. Doing so would have required a foresight you refuse to exhibit.
At this, Yagmur felt ashamed.
She took the corridor her leftmost companion had indicated, though it required her to wriggle on her elbows like a snake. Her torn cheek left bloody drips on the metal walls. The shame ate at her stomach and nestled between her floating ribs. She had taken exile as her prize, but what she had left behind her had withered. She would turn the engines on. She could at least do that, before finding some death for her companions more deserved than endless following after her.
The khagan’s notice came in a slow warming of the chamber Yagmur crouched in, the long muscles of her thighs burning. She was wrist-deep in the circuitry of the secondary engine’s control block, shifting wires by the feel of her rightmost companion’s chill guiding fingertips, her eyes shut. Their shoulders and ribcages overlapped, though her was the only one that moved. She was so cold that it took her a long time to notice the life-warm flush of the walls: heat like a womb. The regard of the lord of the worldship.
Her hand slipped. A thin edge of metal sliced into her palm, sipped at the welling droplets that beaded along her flesh.
The voice of the khagan could shake the walls with its thunder, if the khagan chose so. Instead, it resonated in Yagmur’s skull, a bone-conduction sound that chattered her teeth.
“I unprinced you, Yagmur,” it said, “and threw you to the void. Yet you squirm on your belly through my heart, an unhorsed worm. Your ship is bones. Turn back. Come no closer, unprince.”
Yagmur flexed her fingers in the wires. Distant and below by miles, the secondary engine stuttered to life, jittering undirected.
“My companions are dead, my khagan,” she said. “I have brought them home.”
The voice of the khagan said, “How dare you pollute the system of the world? Exile is burial enough for those who belong to the void.”
“What else can I do?” Yagmur said. “The worldship rots. I am alone within it as I was alone outside it. You have stilled us, my khagan, and we were meant to travel the stars forever.” Where it was torn, her cheek hurt from grimacing.
Now he is very angry, said her smallest companion.
Connect the last two wires, here, said her rightmost companion. His chest expanded alongside Yagmur’s in unnecessary solidarity. Quickly.
Yagmur did so. Her hand slid, slick with her blood and a fearstruck sweat, but the wires held, and a current passed from one to the other. The worldship trembled with the power of the unguided engines, both primary and secondary reawakened and hungry.
The voice of the khagan rattled Yagmur’s cervical spine and made her eyes spot with blanknesses. “You are no child of my blood, Yagmur. Crawl no farther! My sons are dead by each other’s hands and none remain to ride across the void with me.” Yagmur felt as if she would shake apart. Pressing her hands to her cheekbones and to the sides of her head helped not at all. The khagan’s voice vibrated in her jaw and through her sternum, as if it arose from within her. “If the worldship is stilled it is stilled for my dead, not yours.”
Yagmur staggered to her feet and stumbled for the hatch in the floor of the engine control chamber, nauseated. Her ghost-companions scattered from her like debris, huddling against the chamber walls. Her leftmost companion was weeping colorless dry tears: in life he had been blood-kin to the khagan, and now in death he was orphaned.
Yagmur scrabbled at the hatch lock. “I will crawl anyway,” she said, and found she was crying as well. She wanted to creep into the heart of the worldship and make her lord command the engines forward again, finished with his willful sloth.
“Crawl and bury nothing,” said the voice of the khagan. The room lit with a thunderclap of electric fire, bright and bluewhite and devouring. It oozed from the open panel of the engine-control tower and caught Yagmur’s rightmost companion in its annihilating grasp, a thin loop of flame around his wrists, viscous ozone spilling from his mouth and eyes and ears. He did not scream. He guttered and went out, like a blown torch.
Scorchmarks covered the wall where he had leaned. Scorchmarks covered Yagmur, too, blistering her shins and forearms and lips, searing the hole in her cheek to cauterization.
It was not at all like he had died before. There was nothing left of him.
In the core of the worldship the jutter of engine-noise dimmed to a pulse. It ran through the thick cables that coated the walls and the floors, lit up their cords and protuberances with electric life, circuits singing to each other the oldest story: motion across the face of the void, forever. Yagmur walked along the central cable, balanced on its back, the great curving sides of it bowing out like the belly of a gravid horse. Her remaining companions followed behind her, tearstreaked. At each moment she feared the power of the khagan: when she had been a prince, the lord of the ship could have vented the oxygen, or sent a swarm of poison microbes to roost in her lungs, or burnt the corridor with radiation’s invisible fire. But no such dangers descended upon her. She approached the pilot’s heart-throne chamber as if she was sneaking up on the burrow of a spider.
Tentatively, Yagmur’s smallest companion said, If the people of the ship are vulture-carrion, then the vultures can feed the ship, and Yagmur will tell the ship to make new people. Won’t you, princess? It was a childish sentiment, but Yagmur understood her smallest companion’s desire, just now, for an easy and circular resurrection.
“A great horde of new people,” she said, and she said it to the khagan, who she knew was listening.
She imagined what her rightmost companions would have said, even though he would never speak to her again: A whole horde? They will eat each other up, and you will have to argue with them about treasures and oxygen allotments and whose job it is to power-wash the rust off the corridors, and it will be very boring for you. You never wished to be a very good prince.
It would have been a true criticism. Yagmur ached to hear it and to refute it with the newness of her bloody-minded determination. But her rightmost companion had gone to light and electric dust.
Her leftmost companion did not speak. He pointed down the corridor to where the vast cable they walked upon joined up with all the other cables and became the door to the heart of the worldship.
It was necessary for Yagmur to turn sideways and press, shoulder-first, into the small space between the cables. They were overgrown from when Yagmur had been a prince, tangled and obstructionary. Their metal caught at her clothing and at her flesh, tearing small pieces of her away for some use of their own. She felt the bruises from the vulture’s talons press anew into her chest, and could not draw in enough air to breathe. She popped through like a squirted seed, landed on her hip and rolled to her knees, and came face-to-face with the khagan.
He lay cushioned in the pilot-throne, a bundle of stickthin limbs under the wide cheeks and hooked nose of all the blood of the khagan’s line. His hands were still on the controls and his eyes, hollow and golden, watched Yagmur where she crouched. The coils and cables had eaten his belly and battened to his skull; they had long ago consumed his genitals and the muscles in his shins and his forearms.
Out of instinct, Yagmur said, “My lord,” and the khagan shook with laughter.
“Poison worm,” he told her, very gently, his unamplified tongue moving dryly in his own mouth, “there is nothing for you here.”
Walking towards him was a fight against the spinning fiction of gravity under his command, dragging her down at three atmospheres or more.
“Go back to your little ship and ride through the black forever,” said the khagan.
Some organ of Yagmur’s, spleen or stomach or lung, stuttered and failed under the rising pressure of the atmospheres, and a bloom of pain filled her up; she stumbled, one dragging step after another, the longest walk of her life.
“The worldship is still,” she said, and also “Where else could I go?”, and then she had her hands about his neck, the cords of it soft and stringy, crepelike with age. The khagan bared his teeth.
Yagmur said, “You have no right to determine the worthiness of my dead.”
All the lights exploded, a shattering fall of overloaded filaments and smoking glass. She squeezed, and squeezed. The gravity squeezed her back. Her remaining companions, fleshless, did nothing to help. She did not know how to stop.
The small bones of her fingers were pulp by the time the gold of the khagan’s eyes had dulled to emptiness. She leaned across his corpse and wished she was also one, as corpseflesh felt no hurt at all.
After some time, her leftmost companion came close, and touched the khagan’s cheeks with his translucent fingertips, dipping them just beneath the surface of his skin. He was quiet for a time. Then he said, All right, princess. Are you going to lay there til you rot?
Yagmur levered herself up with her elbows and put her ruined hands against the controls of the worldship. Her flesh shifted sickeningly. She grasped them mostly with palm and knucklejoint and tried not to vomit up the empty chryochem-laced bile in her stomach. She pushed with the heels of her hands, but the worldship did not open for her, did not turn for her, did not ask her for her name. There was not even an error message to guide her. She was the only living thing within the worldship now, and it did not know her. She thought she might as well lie back down.
You are not the child of the khagan, said her smallest companion.
“All the children of the khagan killed each other,” Yagmur said, between gritted teeth, and kicked the console, once. It did nothing but hurt the instep of her foot.
Worldships are stubborn, said her leftmost companion, and clannish. Had he lived, his blood would have woken the worldship to his hand, despite him merely being a cousin of a cousin of the khagan; he knew this and Yagmur knew he knew it, and was not saying so because there would not really have been a point.
Eventually Yagmur grew tired of waiting to see if she would become a corpse. “All right,” she said. “If it wants the blood of the khagan, it will have the blood of the khagan.” She held out one hand to her smallest companion, who obligingly numbed what was left of it between her calloused and insubstantial palms. Then she took from the remains of her flightsuit a knife, and with her eyes shut against the pain of gripping it, she sliced open the khagan’s belly between the cables and the ports. She kept the cut narrow and deep so that the blood did not well out. Instead she forces the sacks of meat that her fingers had become into the hole she had made and withdrew them coated red.
The worldship shimmered to life when she touched the console. It whispered to her of coordinates and the capacity of the engines and a long list of the names of the dead. It hummed and glowed and asked where, my lord, shall we ride. A hollowed-out keen came from Yagmur’s chest: the worldship lived, as she lived, still.
The khagan’s blood tried, tacky on her fingertips. The console dimmed in slow retreat. She turned back to dip them again, deeper and wetter, up to her wrist, the phalanges nestled between the arcs of his ribcage.
It won’t last, said her smallest companion. Yagmur paused.
You brought him down, said her leftmost companion.
Where her rightmost companion would have been, Yagmur saw and heard only darkness, the silence of the void and an end to all motion.
“It is not what I meant to do,” Yagmur said. “I meant to render you up for the vultures and then go away again.”
Princess, said her companions in chiming unison, and Yagmur looked up unthinkingly in answer.
Vulture, her companions said again, their mouths hollow black holes in their familiar dead faces, the worldship has eaten you already.
It was true.
Yagmur reached up through the cage of the khagan’s ribs, and closed her fist around the muscle of his still heart. She ripped it from its prison, and pulled it into the air. She paused, her eyes closed so as not to see it: she thought, not without regret, of being young, and alone, and leaving everything behind her.
When she bit into the heart of the khagan, tearing a long strip from its side and gulping it down, Yagmur held it over the hole in his belly so none of his blood would spill on the ground; and after she had swallowed, and swallowed, and swallowed, she found she fit precisely into the pilot-throne.
Lying there, she plotted a course.
“Nothing Must Be Wasted” came out of reading an article about modern vulture-breeders and sky burial on the Indian subcontinent. Due to egg-thinning pesticides, vulture populations have severely declined in the past few decades. Bodies left for sky burial are now often undevoured, leading to vast ecological and social consequences, including the development of vulture-breeding as a conservation effort. This story considers the responsibility owed to the dead, and the process of devouring.
“Green Mile Tunnel”, photographed in Ukraine’s “Tunnel of Love” in Rivne, Ukraine by serhei, is used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
In the beginning there was chatarra.
That is what the people call it here. Things they throw away, things that they forget.
First law of chatarra: chatarra cannot be created nor destroyed. Everywhere you go, there it is. Broken microwaves, empty paintcans, tangles of extension cords. Tires and pipes, corroded lengths of rebar. All around you, raw material awaiting transformation.
One by one Subhash stomps the levers that lift the dented grey dumpster lids, releasing the rotten fish smell.
“I’m telling you,” he says. “It’s everywhere.”
His partner Sajid watches with a frown. “Hm,” he says.
They slowly fill their carts with assorted broken things.Sajid finds a rusted broom tube with red paint flaking off but it’s too long to fit in his cart. Subhash takes it from him, bends it over his knee and into the cart it goes.
Second law of the chatarra business: it’s always better to have a partner. Someone to watch over the shopping carts and help haul big finds like washer-dryers and fridges and things like that. Sajid has only been his partner for about a week. He’s young, not yet twenty, recently arrived after a six-month journey by train and by boat from Pakistan. Outwardly he’s serious, dour at times, but seems like a good kid deep down. When he does speak, it’s usually in Urdu.
They meet every day at the end of the Rambla del Raval, under the last palm tree on the right, not far from the ugly bronze statue of the cat. Normally they make their rounds at night, but today they’ve opted for an early start. Subhash’s idea.
“It’s best at night,” he explains as they move down a sidewalk littered with dog turds. “But really any time is a good time.”
Crisp morning air comes just off the sea, as yet unpolluted by the motos and the cars, and the breeze moves the laundry that hangs from narrow balconies overhead. People bustle toward the metro station while deliverymen push handtrucks stacked with tanks of butane, clanging their wrenches on the metal canisters to announce their presence in the barri, each one crying their wares with their own distinctive inflection: “Buuuutano… butaaaano…butanooooo…” Subhash misses the mornings. They remind him of the early days, at his friend’s cousin’s convenience mart. The regular hours and steady pay. Things were better then. Before the store changed hands and Subhash lost his job, before chatarra.
That morning there are some decent finds. They pick up a boxy old TV abandoned by the curb. Within minutes, a heavy-set local man in a football jersey stops Subhash to ask about it.
“The TV, how much?” the man asks in a strong Spanish accent.
Before Subhash can speak Sajid holds up the five fingers of one hand. “Five euros,” he says. “Five euros, no problem.”
Subhash turns to his partner, eyes wide with surprise. It’s the first time he’s seen Sajid speak to a stranger. In English, no less. He rubs the dark stubble on his chin with a smirk and lets the boy handle the transaction.
The man seems unimpressed with Sajid’s offer. “It works, no?” he asks.
“You can make it work,” Sajid says.
The man scratches his head. “Two euro?”
Subhash scoops the TV out of the cart and hands it over. Smiling, he claps Sajid on the shoulder.
“Nicely done,” he says in English.
They follow the narrow sidewalks of the Raval, cross Las Ramblas into the Gothic quarter with its maze of cold grey flagstones and head toward the waterfront, to the Barceloneta, pressed on all sides by flocks of sunburnt tourists in tacky sunglasses.
Subhash gestures sourly at the slow-moving crowd. “You see why it’s better at night?” he says.
They reach the Passeig Maritim, where the Mediterranean horizon hovers to their right. There, two cops intercept them, a man and a woman in blue uniforms with reflective yellow vests. The woman holds a small paper coffee cup.
Sajid looks petrified. “Subhash-ji,” he whispers.
“Don’t worry,” Subhash says. “Leave it to me.”
He speaks to the police in his halting Spanish. The woman sips her coffee and listens, then clears her throat and asks to see their papers. For the moment everything’s in order: Sajid has a few weeks left on his temporary stay while his asylum request is processed, and a stamp on his passport to prove it.
“You see, Sajid, it’s not the police you have to worry about. Not now anyway.”
Sajid nods. “Hm,” he says.
“It’s the others. Others like us. Chatarreros. Ones who do not realize there’s enough to go around for everyone. They try to steal your trolley or fight you for it. They’re the ones you have to worry about.”
Call it the third law of chatarra: watch your back.
They make a left and head to the depot in the warehouse district, where the junk is sifted through and sorted. Prices fluctuate. Steel pulls in around 9 cents a kilo. About €1.70 for copper, though they’ve been known to pay up to 4. Same with aluminum. As usual, they have mostly steel, and each cartload fetches a mere handful of euros each.
They go straight back to work. Subhash pushes the cart slowly, mind clouded by fatigue. There are bills to pay, he chides himself. Money to send home. And aren’t you supposed to be saving? The trip to Kashmir isn’t cheap; coming here cost him half a million rupees. But maybe one day soon he can afford it. Or not so soon, maybe. But one day.
As they retrace the route back, Sajid points to a lone dumpster brooding near the corner of two sidestreets in the Poblenou.
“Subhash-ji,” he says. “We missed one.”
“Let me see,” Subhash says.
Subhash walks over, steps on the lever. The lid swings open, wafting the usual fetid smell at him. Subhash gives it the cursory look. Nothing of interest, just a bunch of stinky trash in plastic shopping bags with their handles tied in little bows. He’s about to close the lid when a glimmer inside catches his eye. Something resembling a wide-screen plasma TV lies at the bottom, partly covered with bags. The brand name isn’t showing but it looks like the good kind.
Without a sound the screen flicks on. As if activated by remote control held in an unseen hand. Subhash blinks his eyes in disbelief.
“What?” Sajid asks.
Subhash shushes him with a wave of the hand and blinks again. The screen glows a deep and solid blue, but there’s no signal, no connection, no possible explanation. The image brightens from blue to green, lighting up the inside of the dumpster with its glow. The screen begins to undulate, like waves passing gently over water. All at once the image shatters in myriad varicolored splinters. The splinters kaleidoscope to form a landscape, one that Subhash recognizes: a background of velvet green mountainside, the white façade of the family house, the branches of the chinar trees swaying in the breeze. The Kashmir of his childhood, his home. All framed in a plastic rectangle.
He hears voices. Familiar, far-off voices. Women and men. Children, the elderly. Aunts and uncles, brother and sisters and cousins he left behind. All whispering his name, just his name. So soft, yet somehow so much clearer than a videochat in some squalid cybercafe. They repeat his name, beckoning from thousands of miles away. Inviting him into the dumpster, into the screen.
Subhash turns and lifts his foot from the pedal with a jerk. The lid falls closed and there is silence.
“What is it, Subhash-ji?” Sajid asks.
“Nothing,” he replies. “Let’s go.”
Subhash goes home to the flat he shares with four of his compatriates in Carrer de Sant Ramon, not far from where the prostitutes are always hanging out. He slips off his shoes and stretches out on the bed with his eyes closed. He needs rest, so he can pick up again later that evening.
But the image won’t leave his mind. All afternoon the screen hangs before him, like some portal into a dream, glowing and ephemeral. That screen, and those voices. Hallucinations, surely.
A mirage, he tells himself with something like conviction. Misleading a thirsty man through the desert.
When they meet again at half past nine, Subhash hasn’t slept at all. They head straight for the Poblenou. Not far from the salvage depot, they pick up an entire oven. Subhash squints and inspects it drowsily. It looks nearly new, he thinks. Something must be wrong with it.
They’re stopped a little later by a scrawny old man in an overcoat, walking a tiny lapdog and smoking a cigar. The dog yaps and growls as the old man asks about the oven. Subhash does the talking this time, refusing the old man’s final offer of two euros. Some things are just worth more as scrap.
As the night goes on, Subhash croons softly to himself to stay awake, an old film song whose lyrics he only partly remembers. The cartwheels make a horrible racket as they cross the flower-shaped grooves in the sidewalk tiles. The local metalshops churn out plenty of scrap at closing time, and pickings are good this evening. Hours pass and when the lights go out in the windows they move their carts onto the relatively smooth pavement of the empty street, out of respect for the sleeping neighbors. Around midnight, though, Subhash hears the sound: another set of wheels rattling harshly on the sidewalk.
Two men in baseball caps round the corner up ahead, pushing a cart that’s mostly empty. They shout something in a language Subhash doesn’t recognize. One of them pulls his cart to a stop. He has long straight hair that hangs out the back of his cap and shines in the street lights. He points a thick finger at Sajid’s cart. “The trolley,” he says in Spanish.
“Give it to him,” Subhash says.
When Sajid looks up, his eyes are wide and fearful. His knuckles flex around the handlebar of the shopping cart. With a twist of his waist, he wheels around and runs, pushing the cart down the middle of the street. Subhash shouts at him to stop, but Sajid pays no mind.
The one in the baseball cap runs after him, laughing. He catches up and smacks him round the back of the head. Sajid stumbles. His face smashes audibly on the asphalt as he falls. The shopping cart rolls free, crashes into a signpost and pitches over with a clatter of steel on pavement. The other man coasts downhill with one foot on the back axle of his cart, and stops at the spot where Sajid lies. He holds down the legs while the first man sits on Sajid’s back pinning his arms to the ground with his knees. In seconds they rummage through his pockets and begin picking up the chatarra from Sajid’s cart and tossing it into their own.
“Hey,” Subhash says.
The second man turns around and looks at Subhash with cold grey eyes. In his hand, a butterfly knife flicks back and forth, shining yellow in the street light. Subhash backs off, pulling his cart around the corner and down the cross street. A couple of blocks away he stops and waits.
When he comes back, the men are gone and Sajid has not moved from where they left him. Subhash kneels and takes him gently by the shoulder, rolls him over so that he’s face up. He pats down the boy’s pockets. They’ve taken his wallet, his mobile, his keys, even his passport. “Sajid,” he says.
Sajid’s eyes are closed, his forehead is open and covered in blood. An inch-thick flap of skin hangs loosely from his eyebrow, near the left temple. “Mamaji,” he mumbles.
“Listen to me,” Subhash says. “I’m not your mamaji. It’s me, Subhash.”
“Mamaji,” Sajid says. “I can’t see, where are you?”
Cursing, Subhash stands and looks up and down the street, his mind a blur. Estimating the distance to the nearest hospital, the time an ambulance would take to reach them. The metro? No, closed for the night. No traffic in either direction. He kneels next to Sajid once more, whispers his name. No reaction, eyes still closed. Subhash scoops him up, holds his limp body in his arms, lays him inside the shopping cart full of chatarra.
“Sajid-ji,” he says. “Forgive me.”
Subhash pushes the shopping cart like mad across the blacktop. The occasional car swerves past, honking its horn and shouting. After a few more blocks, Subhash’s shirt is soaked in sweat. He stops to catch his breath.
“Mamaji,” Sajid moans. “Where are you taking me?”
“Sajid,” Subhash says.
Sajid’s head slumps back and to the left, and he lays in the cart, motionless. Ribcage perfectly still. Subhash begins pushing the cart again, slowly this time, eyes closed, singing softly to himself. About fifteen minutes later he reaches the dumpster they’d seen on the corner that morning.
“Sajid,” he says again.
This time there is no reply.
Subhash puts his foot on the lever and presses with all of his weight. The dumpster opens. The plasma-screen is still there. It snaps on same as before: blue at first, then a vibrant moving green that fills the dumpster with light. Awkwardly, with one foot holding the pedal to keep the lid open and the other steadying the shopping cart, Subhash lifts the boy’s body out of the cart and over the rim of the dumpster, and lets it rest upon the piles of trash inside.
Subhash mumbles a little prayer. “You’re going to see Mamaji now,” he says.
Sajid doesn’t respond. Subhash wipes a tear from each eye with the palms of his hands, takes his foot off the lever to close the lid, and steps away from the dumpster. As the lid falls shut he glimpses Sajid’s eyes opening in the soft green light. A smile.
Subhash stomps on the pedal again to lift the lid. When the dumpster opens, his partner is gone. Nothing inside but trash and the screen, dark and silent. He lets the lid fall, lifts it again, and then again, vainly hoping that the door would open, that the light would shine for him. But it’s no use.
Subhash then turns and pushes his cart along the asphalt, cutting through quiet streets on his way back to the Raval. On either side of him the curb is littered with chatarra: microwaves, extension cords, empty cans of paint and lengths of rebar. But Subhash doesn’t stop. Not tonight. He is tired, he is going home.
NM Whitley teaches, writes, and translates in the city of Barcelona. His work has been published or is forthcoming in venues such as Newmyths.com, Stupefying Stories, and the anthology Master Minds, from Third Flatiron Publishing. He says:
The term chatarra in Spanish refers to ‘scrap metal’. For some people, many of them immigrants, it’s also the only available means of making a living. Chatarreros can be seen all over town, at all hours of the day, searching the curbsides and dumpsters. In light of this ‘first-world’ example–and many other, more disturbing examples in other parts of the world– one can’t help but wonder about the value of human labor, of human life itself, in the present-day proto-dystopia that’s become of our global economic and financial system.
“Green Mile Tunnel”, photographed in Ukraine’s “Tunnel of Love” in Rivne, Ukraine by serhei, is used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.