Fall is coming in, and for our September issue we’d like to bring you three meditations on disposability and indispensability; what and who is called waste, and how that matters.
Arkady Martine’s “Nothing Must Be Wasted” weaves a sharp statement on the responsibilities and costs of power on a crippled Mongol generation ship; N.M. Whitley’s “Chatarra” shows one crucial day and night in the lives of two Barcelona scrap collectors; and Chinelo Onwualu’s “Tasting Gomoa” finishes this quarter’s fiction with a gut-wrenching tale of two wives, one house, and the subtleties of objectification.
Our poetry this month, from Claudia Serea, Mary Soon Lee, Alexandra Seidel, and Alexandra de Romen, continue the discussion of war, considerations, and how what we choose to throw away truly matters. And as always, our book reviewers bring us their thoughts on two of this fall’s new releases.
We hope you enjoy this quarter’s issue, and if so, please consider dropping something into our tip jar. Ideomancer relies on reader donations to pay its contributors for their excellent fiction and poetry, and even five dollars makes a big difference.
Enjoy the issue and your autumn, and we’ll see you at the end of the year.
Vol. 13 Issue 3
“Nothing Must Be Wasted” – Arkady Martine
“Chatarra” – N. M. Whitley
“Tasting Gomoa” – Chinelo Onwualu
Three Prose Poems – Claudia Serea
“The Horse Lord” – Mary Soon Lee
“The Glass Men” – Alexandra Seidel
“Unknown Soldier” – Alexandra de Romen
Gemma Files’s We Will All Go Down Together – Claire Humphrey
Antoine Rouaud’s The Path of Anger – Liz Bourke
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.
Today is the day the new wife arrives. I had long known they were going to take a second to me. Old and barren as I am, it was only a matter of time. As I circle the square hole that looks down into the main courtyard, I note their shoes at the doorway to the main room: Shigoram’s heavy army-issue boots, black and shiny in the yellow noon sun. Amah’s large misshapen slippers, stretched out by her girth, and a new pair, small and delicate, stitched with pink flowers and almost new. I reach the heavy front door of polished cedar and begin to descend the stone steps that wind through the dark tunnel to the main house.
At the doorway of the main room, I slip off my battered grey slippers and enter. It is dark and cool inside, a welcome relief from the heat. I feel the sweat between my breasts and thighs begin to dry. The room is only large enough for six or seven, though we rarely have so many visitors at a time. The stone floor is strewn with several colourful rugs, but the carpet that dominates the raised dais at the end of the room was part of my dowry. It is a magnificent thing of red wool covered with intricate Hespian designs picked in gold thread. The leather cushions were also mine and still have the crest of my father’s house stitched upon them. They were a rare gift Amah had once admitted to me, in the days when she had more than curses and orders for me. The walls are decorated with porcelain plates, glazed vases of blue and red, and rich tapestries. Someone has lit sticks of incense and the sweet, spicy smell of myrrh envelopes the space.
Amah and Shigoram are facing the doorway. Amah has leaned her bulk into the pile of cushions, her legs stretched out before her. She has taken off her veil and her grey hair has been scraped back into a bun. Her face is turned towards me but for once her heavy-lidded eyes, which conceal a sharp gaze, are not trained on me. As usual, Shigoram sits straight-backed and uncomfortable, his legs tucked beneath him as if this is not his house. He too has eyes only for the woman in front of him.
As I hang my headscarf and veil on the hook by the entrance, I note the new bride. She is performing a tea ceremony for them, pouring the tea from one pot to another to cool it. I cannot see her face, but I note her back and shoulders. Her dark hair hangs down to her waist in a thousand intricate braids each topped by a tiny coloured glass bead. Her shoulders are as pale as milk and her hips flare wide from a slim waist – what my mother used to call a water jug figure, designed to bear. Her feet, which peek out from under her ample bottom are small and pink.
She finishes the ceremony just as I come to kneel beside her. I help her pass out the tiny cups of fragrant mint tea. Amah takes the cup I offer with a small, triumphant sneer. Perhaps she expects me to be upset that she has married her son a new wife? Ten years in her house and she still does not know me.
“Galim Che,” Amah calls to me. She has not used my blood name in a long time. “Greet our new wife. This is Gomoa; I trust you will treat her as your sister and daughter.”
I turn to the girl, expecting the look of controlled fear one usually sees in young brides. Her face is broad and flat with high cheekbones and large almond-shaped eyes; her small bow lips are curved into a broad grin. She bows formally, head touching the tips of her fingers. I return the bow.
I had vowed not to hate her, this child who had come to take my place, but I did not realise that I would come to love her as I did.
That night, I wake with a start. I sit up on the straw-stuffed pallet and look around. The room is pitch black, still and cold. Faint moonlight peeps in from under the door. Even through the thick stone walls I can hear Amah snoring softly in the room next to mine. I am the only one in the room, yet I could have sworn I had felt someone tug at my leg. Shivering, I ball myself up into a foetal position and burrow deeper under my wool quilt.
I fall immediately into the dream, as if it has been waiting for me.
I am lying on my back, naked. The lamp at the foot of the bed casts a soft golden glow and I can feel its faint warmth at the soles of my feet. Shigoram kneels above me, hands on either side of my head, naked as well. His long wavy hair is unbound and falls about his shoulders. His face has the same look I remember from our wedding night: Hungry and apprehensive. I reach up and stroke his beard, something I have never done in life, feeling the coarse hair underneath my hands. He closes his eyes as if savouring my touch. I run my hands along his body, skimming the soft down on his chest and stomach until I grasp his penis. He dips his head down to kiss my neck and a jolt runs through me. His kisses fall soft across my throat and down, down until he reaches my breasts. He takes my right nipple in his mouth, sucking and teasing with his wet tongue until the pleasure is too much to bear. As I reach down to bury my hands in his hair, I take a moment to note that this body is not my own. My own breasts have never been so small, so pert. But then he is sliding himself into me and I part, wet and yielding to allow him entrance. He is filling me, his breath a warm moan against my ear. Together, we move in rhythm; I thrusting up to meet him, him plunging down into me…
I awake trembling with pleasure, my sex slick. It has been many years since Shigoram called me to his bed. I had forgotten what desire felt like and in forgetting I was able to endure. I fear this spark now ignited will grow to a conflagration. A true wife would turn away; gird herself for the sake of the family. But I am weak and it has been so long… Blinking back tears of shame, I shove my hand down between my legs and, knowing the dream still waits for me, I will myself to fall asleep again.
The next day I am awake before dawn, as is my custom. I begin my chores by sweeping the fallen leaves under the ancient olive trees at each corner the round courtyard with a broom of soft straw bound to a short handle. The sound echoes against the rock walls and I imagine that it floats up out of the depression and into the desert above. The house was once home to ten families, generations of Shigoram’s people who occupied each of the rooms. Now it is only us. Though it allows us many rooms for storage and gives each of us our own bedroom, I often find it lonely.
As I sweep past the door to Shigoram’s room, I pause to listen. They already consummated the marriage at the wedding ceremony at her father’s home – which I was not invited to – but I am sure he must have called his new bride to him last night. Imagining them together, I am taken back to my dream and my heart begins to race, a rhythmic pounding matched in my temples and between my legs.
The door to the room opens suddenly and I almost stumble into Shigoram’s arms. He closes the door swiftly, but not before I catch a glimpse of her, naked and sated, lying on her stomach with one leg dangling off the bed. He is wearing his faded purple morning robe cinched at the waist with a fraying belt. His dark hooded eyes are red and puffy from fatigue but he has taken the time to brush his dark hair back and braid it into its long queue.
“Good morning, husband,” I greet him. I bow quickly to hide my embarrassment. He nods at me, but he does not answer. Shigoram has never been a man of many words at the best of times but since his deployment to the front lines, he has had even less to say. He hurries to the toilet and bath rooms on the other side of the courtyard. I watch his long legs flash from beneath the robe as he moves, all golden skin and taut muscle. My sex clenches. I redouble my sweeping.
By the time I return with the extra firewood, the new bride, Gomoa, is with Amah in the kitchen. I can hear Amah’s voice as I drop the bundle of wood by the kitchen door. She is showing Gomoa how to prepare Shigoram’s breakfast the way he likes it. He has only been given leave from the army for a moon – and only so long because he was getting married. He will be returning to the battlefield this afternoon and Amah is determined that her only son be well-fed before then. It does not matter that I know all his tastes and preferences, my time has passed and it is the new bride’s turn to care for him.
I am fetching water from the well in the centre of the courtyard when the new bride passes by with a covered tray carrying Shigoram’s breakfast. Dressed in a loose blouse of blue and white stripes with a full matching skirt knotted under her breasts, her hair is uncovered and she is lovely in the dappled morning light. She greets me cheerfully and I see that she is not much older than I was when I married – fourteen at the most. Slipping her feet out of her tiny slippers, she pushes in the door with one hand and disappears into Shigoram’s room.
She does not emerge until it is time for Shigoram to leave us once again.
Standing at the door to the main entrance we bid him goodbye. Amah is tearful as she performs the prayers for his safe journey and return. This time, it is the new bride, Gomoa, who holds the small gold tray with the sacred flame burning in its tiny brass brazier. As she paints his forehead with ash and red ochre, chanting softly, my mind goes to the last night Shigoram and I shared together.
I had come to him unbidden that night. It was his first deployment and he had been gone nearly a year; I had no patience to wait for his summons. I had spent the day before preparing myself – I had gone all the way to my cousin in Aqor town to have my body plucked of all hair and my tresses coiffed high and held in place with ivory combs and pins. I had spent the last of my dowry gold on costly bath oils and perfumes. That night, when the last of the candles had been blown out, I crept into his room. Naked, I slid into his bed. I should have known the night was not with me when he first recoiled at my touch. But I was blind with desire and I pressed on. He lay on his back staring up at the blank stone ceiling, silently enduring my caresses. But no matter what I did, where I kissed, what I stroked or sucked or nuzzled, he did not stir. Finally, in a quiet voice he had asked me to leave. Burning with shame, I slipped on my robe and crept out of the room.
Only then did I allow myself to cry.
The mumbling has stopped and I jolt out of my reverie in time to see the new bride, Gomoa, bowing to Shigoram. I catch the ghost of a smile on his face as he inclines his head in return. He catches sight of me as he turns away and his thick black brows knot in confusion. He starts towards me, then thinks better of it. In the end, he makes do with a nod. Then he turns and walks off towards the road where a neighbour waits in an ox-drawn cart to take him to the city.
Amah begins to wail as soon as he is out of sight and it is Gomoa who comforts her. She looks at me over the old woman’s head and gives me a wry smile. I do my best to return it. I imagine Shigoram kissing those full rosebud lips and I wonder what she tastes like.
I have to find a way to get her alone, but it is impossible. After Shigoram leaves, Gomoa becomes Amah’s pet – as I had been when I first came to the house. She insists on taking the girl everywhere with her. Gomoa accompanies her to the market where she is widely introduced; she acts as Amah’s escort to weddings and is shown off at visits with neighbours. During the day, Amah continues to give her cooking lessons and in the evenings she has Gomoa massage her feet and trim her toenails. I remember how much I had hated this task, but the new bride does it without complaint, joking as she rubs fragrant eucalyptus oil between Amah’s gnarled toes.
In the end, it is she who comes to me.
They had gone out to visit relatives and I had found myself between chores. I pulled out one of my books – I had brought a whole library with me when I married – and settled beneath one of the olive trees to read. I was so engrossed that I did not hear them return.
“Woman!” Amah’s voice was like a whip. “I see you have nothing better to do than idle away with dry paper. If you wish to keep occupied, then give me a grandchild. Otherwise, find something more useful to do with those empty hands of yours.”
But her words lack the sting they once had. She has a new bride now, and the hope of grandchildren blooms in her once more.
I slip the book under my cushion and I rise to relieve her of the goods she has brought from the market. I catch Gomoa’s eye, still fixed on the book’s hiding place.
“Do you know how to read?” I ask her.
“A little,” she says shyly.
“Would you like to learn more? I can teach you.”
“Really?” Gomoa asks breathlessly. Her face lights up with joy.
“Come to my room this night, after Amah sleeps,” I tell her.
She is so happy that she insists on carrying my bags as well as her own. For the rest of the day her steps are lighter and that evening, as she massages Amah’s feet, her laughter is sweet.
She comes to my room after dark, knocking softly on my door. She is dressed like me, in a long tunic with bell sleeves and a low scoop neck. To keep out the cold, she is wrapped in an old quilt – the one thing she could afford to bring from her father’s house. I let her in and allow her to take in my room.
My father had made sure I came to my husband’s house with everything I would ever need for my comfort. Once, thick rugs of the finest make piled my floor from one end of the room to another, now I have a single strip of knitted wool carpet that runs from the foot of my dais to the door. My walls, which were once lined with colourful brocades and silks, boast colourful straw mats instead. Gone also are the brass and copper trays I had once hung above the cloths. And the two cedar boxes against either wall, which once contained the best of my elaborate robes and gold jewellery, are empty. They were sold item by item during those dark times when Shigoram’s army stipend did not arrive in time.
All I have left are my books. It is difficult to build shelves on curved walls, but I managed it. The whole back wall above the raised dais of my bed is filled with books – volumes on history, medicine, folklore and religion. I even have a number of long poems like the Song of Muster and a romance about the doomed lovers Aki and Melota.
I choose the romance for its easy language. It is also beautifully illustrated, which I know she will appreciate. She sits on the edge of the dais, the book in her hands. Though the lantern hangs just above us, she has to bring the volume up to her face to read. I sit behind her, towering over her small frame, to read over her shoulder. We go through her letters. Someone had taught her the basics, but she has had little practice. So I have her read aloud, sounding out the words as she goes along.
“‘Is it in the-thy poh-wer to make me ree-al?’” She reads slowly. Her voice is sweet and musical.
Straddled behind her, I slip a hand down the front of her tunic. Her voice falters.
“Keep reading,” I whisper gently. She starts up again, her voice quavering with uncertainty. I correct her when she stumbles over the longer words.
Her breasts are just as I dreamed them: small and smooth and pert with large rough nipples. I run a thumb across them and feel them harden against my touch. I press my face into her hair, breathing in the clean, fresh smell of her. I cup her left breast and heft it, lightly twirling a thumb and forefinger over the nipple.
She gasps and almost drops the book.
“Continue,” I whisper. She tries to keep reading, but her voice is a low moan as I run my lips over the delicate skin of her neck sucking in small nips. She leans into me and I take the opportunity to hike up her tunic, pulling it up to her thighs, and slip a hand in between her legs.
I find her warm and moist. I part the folds of her and slide a finger against the hard nub there. She shudders and lets out a soft choking sound. Then, I am plunging my fingers into the soft flesh – deeper and deeper – my hand now slick with her wetness. Her breaths grow shallow, become hard pants, and she is sucking at the air as if she cannot draw in enough. Until finally, I feel her quiver, her sex twitching between my fingers, and she lets out a final breath like a long low moan.
I take my hand away and I allow her to stand. She flings the book aside and gathers up her quilt. She is gone almost before I realise it.
Alone, I examine my hand. It is still wet. I put it into my mouth and suck. She tastes like salt, like tears.
Gomoa avoids me after that. Her greetings are perfunctory and there are no more secret smiles between us. Amah notes the change but she believes there is another cause. Her hopes are confirmed when, at month’s end, there is no sign of Gomoa’s moon blood. But it is still another month before Amah pulls me aside.
She is reasonable, almost kind, when she asks me to leave the house. She explains that her sister will be coming to help with the chores while Gomoa’s belly grows and there will be nowhere for me stay. She shows me the letter Shigoram sent after she had sent word to him of Gomoa’s baby. In it, he grants me an honourable divorce; it leaves me without shame and free to marry again – if I can manage it. At four and twenty years old, I am far past my prime.
The day I leave, there is no sign of Gomoa. My cousins from Aqor come to help me move my belongings; I will be living with them until I can either find a trade or a husband. My own possessions fit in a single chest, the rest are books.
Still, I make sure to leave Gomoa the romance. I know she will appreciate it.
I am a writer, editor, journalist and dog person living in Abuja, Nigeria. I am a graduate of the 2014 Clarion West Writers Workshop which I attended as the recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship. My writing has appeared in several places, including the Kalahari Review, Saraba Magazine, Sentinel Nigeria Magazine, Jungle Jim Magazine and the anthologies AfroSF: African Science Fiction by African Writers and Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond. I run a consultancy providing writing, research and editing services to individuals and organisations. For more of my work, check out my now-defunct blog: Chinelo.onwualu.blogspot.com or follow me on twitter via @chineloonwualu.
This story came out of a dream I had – as many of my stories do. I sought to explore the question of what monsters are made of. Do they come out of desires which are not allowed to be acknowledged or fulfilled? Or are we born with them? I believe that we all have monsters inside us – we see them in the dark spaces between dream and sleep – but only when we decide to turn from the light do we make them real.
“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.
Rooms filled with hanged people. Rooms filled with relics and bones. Rooms filled with old photos and artifacts salvaged from fire and bombs. There is hardly a place to sit among memories, so, please, stand. Place your hand over your heart and face the past.
Everyone was stealing everyone else’s hat, and everything else we could: a bag of meat, a can of gas, a truckload of bricks. Just redistributing, we laughed. What is mine is mine. What is yours is still mine. Besides, who would count the beans, the small potatoes, or the pig’s legs?
But we knew we’d be shot on the stadium if caught red-handed. What about magenta-handed, or maroon-handed? We passed by the guards, shook hands with them. Mine were pink; yours were orange; theirs were purple.
The strong wind blew off all the street signs. After the storm, we woke up in a different city: all the streets and avenues, named after famous figures of the past, had new names like The Socialism Victory Boulevard, Steel Workers Street, or People’s Place. The building signs were mixed up as well: the school had a butcher sign; the toy store was full of old shoes; someone’s house was now a kindergarten; and the grocery store was selling nails and screws. Confused, we walked the streets for decades, unable to find our way. We finally got used to the new names, but, one night, the wind came back and changed the street signs again.
Claudia Serea is a Romanian-born poet who immigrated to the U.S. in 1995. Her poems and translations have appeared in New Letters, 5 a.m., Meridian, Word Riot, Apple Valley Review, and many others. A four-time Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, she is the author of Angels & Beasts (Phoenicia Publishing, Canada, 2012), The System (Cold Hub Press, New Zealand, 2012), and A Dirt Road Hangs from the Sky (8th House Publishing, Canada, 2013). More at cserea.tumblr.com.