Apologies for the lateness of the May issue — a viral infection of my PC necessitated a complete reinstall — not fun.
We welcome M. Rickert back for her second month as Featured Author with “The Girl Who Ate Butterflies.” Jay Lake brings us another installment of the Calends, Patrick Samphire tells about “A Veil, a Meal, and Dust” while Matthew Cheney takes us to “Prague.”
To round out the issue Lisa Negus and Robert D. Rowntree bring us an extensive interview with David Brin.
The next issue while also be published about this time in the month. Hope you enjoy this month’s issue!
Since 1980, David Brin has published countless novels, short stories, articles, works of non-fiction, and has maintained a public speaking programme that would give most of us nightmares.
His new graphic novel The Life Eaters is drawing critical acclaim. A collection of short fiction, Tomorrow Happens, recently hit the bookshelves, and Kiln People, his latest novel, is drawing favourable attention at the latest round of awards.
Despite all this, and with a young family to boot, we learn that he has also managed to found time to launch a new software company. Maybe David has somehow managed to turn the concept of his novel, Kiln People into a reality and has indeed found a way to replicate himself several times over. We persuaded him, or at least one of him, to take some time out to discuss his work.
Rowntree & Negus: David, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us. We’d like to kick off the interview by asking about your formative years as a writer. Should we have the image of a struggling, penniless author, burning up the wee small hours, or is the truth something else entirely?
David Brin: I suppose one reason that I’m known as an ‘optimistic’ author is that I perceive quite well how much luckier I’ve been than my ancestors (My grandfather had to walk home across Siberia after fighting in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905). Growing up in the lower middle class of Los Angeles in the 1950s was not easy. Horrible smog. Bad dentistry. Constant fear of nuclear annihilation. And nearby reminders of genuine poverty. But they beat the past. And all of those things are better now, of course.
Sure, I had struggles. Family crises. Had to wrestle with my muse at night while working by day. Taught myself the tools of discipline that must accompany inspiration, if it is to thrive.
But really, isn’t the struggling artist kind of a cliché by now? Don’t other people have their problems too? You can count on artists to glorify their travails and minimise how much they benefited from sheer luck — and the decency of others.
All told, I had my share of good luck along with bad. The first work I ever submitted — my novel Sundiver — was accepted right out of the post.
R&N: Do you think that fledgling writers have a harder time of it now? How have standards changed in the relatively short time since you first made your mark in the field?
DB: Progress gives…and it takes away. A more open and educated and richer society can allow ever-larger fractions of the popularity to have hobbies in the arts. Hobbies that enrich lives. But the best hobbyists want more. To move into professional status. As I did in 1980 with my first novel.
Great. Only a flood of bright newcomers cannot help but dilute the attention and rewards given to those entering artistic professions! If I must choose, I prefer a world that opens a myriad opportunities. But everything has a price.
R&N: Any advice for our would-be writers?
DB: I have gathered years of advice at http://www.davidbrin.com/advicearticle.html.
R&N: So, what, in your eyes, makes a worthwhile novel?
DB: Being fair with the reader, delivering on the plot threads that you laid down from the beginning, while still managing to spring the kind of surprises that your customers find most satisfying. Those that were well foreshadowed, but still leave the reader saying — “dang!”
And yes, it helps to use craftsmanship in writing to deliver insights to the human condition. Characters deserve some life. They work hard. Listen to them.
R&N: There’s a trend in the publishing world of trying placing SF authors into a sort of thriller-cross-over niche. For example, Greg Bear’s recent novels, some of Paul McAuley’s material and, to some extent, your own Kiln People (published in Britain with a non-genre cover and having the word thriller emblazoned on the jacket). Is this something you welcome or do you see it as yet another attempt to pigeon SF as ‘geeks’ genre?
DB: Publishers have their reasons. I don’t mind reaching out. The Sci-Fi people know where to find me.
Anyway, you will never see me acting all snooty and denying my roots in SF.
R&N: Your non-fiction book, The Transparent Society, and elements of Kiln People deal with our possible future’s lack of privacy. As a scientist, do you perceive this possibility as something we should be concerned with? Is it an issue that you believe we should be dealing with now,rather than later?
DB: Yes. I have been holding up the banner of accountability. A free people must able to use that tool. We are the only people in all of history that could wield it well enough to sometimes even hold the elite and the mighty accountable.
We can only do that if we see. If most of the people know most of what’s going on, most of the time.
R&N: Kiln People has been highly placed in several major polls and awards, proving that not only your readership but your fellow professionals enjoyed the book too. We believe a sequel is in the works, Kiln Time. Can you tell us something about it? And perhaps when it’s scheduled for release?
DB: Progress is slow. But when I finish this interview it’s back to work. (After taking my son to the orthodontist, that is. Dang I wish I could make copies of myself! 😉
R&N: What came first for you? Was it writing or science?
DB: Writing was not my own first choice of a career. True, I came from a family of writers. It was in my blood. But I wanted something else. Not just a spinner of fables but a discoverer of truths. To be a scientist. And by the fates, I became one.
I also had this hobby though — writing stories — and it provided a lot of satisfaction. I always figured that I’d scribble a few stories a year…maybe a novel now and then…while striving to become the best researcher and teacher I could be. Don’t mistake this for modesty! It’s just that I perceive science — the disciplined pursuit of objective truth — to be a higher calling than spinning imaginative tales, no matter how vivid, innovative, or even deeply moving those tales may turn out to be.
R&N: Many readers of this interview will be more familiar with David Brin the novelist, than with David Brin the scientist. Can you give us a brief insight into your world of science, share a little of what makes it a ‘higher calling’?
DB: I did theoretical studies of comets…and my papers predicted later discoveries spot on! (You always brag about the stuff that gets least attention). I’ve also done studies of SETI and information-related technologies. The latter is one reason I spotted a huge gap in the way people are using the Internet to do real-time communications, or ‘chat.’
R&N: When did you know that you wanted to become a writer? Was there one thing in particular that inspired you, or was it more of a gradual realisation that this is what you wanted to do with your life?
DB: It wasn’t my decision. I am better paid to do this (and interviewed by folks like you) than I ever was to be a seeker-of-scientific-truth. Look, I am grateful to have had two ways to contribute. Civilisation chose one of them to value. Who am I to argue with civilisation?
And if that answer sounds unconventional or weird, fine. Because that is the core thing that entertainers and provocateurs are paid to do. To provoke new thoughts. I am paid for that, too.
R&N: Can you tell us about the first piece you ever wrote?
DB: You mean published? Sundiver is a murder mystery set in the the future. I tell my writing students, no matter what genre you want to work in, start with a murder mystery. It is the form that trains you to craft a basic story well, developing a consistent plot that doesn’t cheat the reader, delivering everything you imply or promise.
People say that aspect of Sundiver seems to work pretty well.
R&N: You say that Sundiver was the first work you submitted,and it was accepted straight away. Had you been writing other material beforehand, which you didn’t submit and now have squirreled away?
DB: I have this great big comedy…a sci-fi ha-ha that I haven’t dared to publish. I read it aloud sometimes and audiences are in stitches. But comedy is scary. It is so hard to do well.
R&N: If science and writing were not an option, what else would you have done with your life?
DB: I was a pretty good teacher. I liked that.
R&N: You’re also very much in demand as public speaker,what part does that play in your life?
DB: It drags me all over the world. Really, gab can be a curse. But the audiences seem to find it entertaining and it can pay pretty well.
R&N: The Uplift novels are possibly the novels you’re best noted for; your fan’s passion for them ensures their continued readership. On your website, you mention that your story “Temptation”, first published in Robert Silverberg’s anthology, Far Horizons, (and reproduced on your website) is the basis for the next Uplift novel. Is that getting close to realisation?
DB: Not super close. I have been so busy with non-fiction works, inventions, speaking…plus that incredible graphic novel project for DC, The Life Eaters.
I suppose that’s one reason I wrote Kiln People…out of a wish I could split up and be in two places at once!
R&N: Do you see the series as an on-going work? Something that you’ll often return to?
DB: I love the Uplift Universe, but I can’t do just one thing. I do hope to get back to Tom & Creideiki and other Uplift adventures, but first some other projects. There are a couple of gifts for Uplift fans along the way — as you mention —downloadable at http://www.davidbrin.com
R&N: With the mystery of the Streaker’s discovery resolved, will you take the Uplift universe in a different direction?
R&N: Any other plans to diversify?
DB: Argh. Aren’t I diversified enough? I just started my own software company! (Looking for investors, too! ;-))
R&N: A software company? Wow, impressive stuff. With all of this going on, and with a family to raise, what do you do to relax?
DB:I grant interviews.
R&N: Fair enough. In the past, you’ve mentioned that some readers just want the same types of novel that they’ve read before and are reluctant to experience different material.
DB: Those aren’t my readers. Mine say, “Take me someplace I’ve never been before!”
R&N: Which piece of your own work means the most to you, and why?
DB: I cannot pick one of my children above others. But that metaphor does let me brag about their strong points.
Earth is my intellectual child, earnest and thoughtful about the planet and our near future.
Glory Season is my bold daughter, who takes on adventures, penetrates mysteries and cannot be kept down.
The Postman is my son who won’t give up on hope.
Kiln People is the smart-aleck kid who is always ready with a pun, and willing to take on the strangest of the strange….
…and so on. My real kids don’t seem to mind these comparisons,by the way. They are all working on black belts. Confident little whipper-snappers. Put up with Dad.
R&N: Nice analogy. So what about the other side of the coin? Is there something you’ve written which with hindsight could have been better?
DB: Always! My aphorism — the basic philosophy underlying both my fiction and non-fiction – is CITOKATE: “Criticism is the Only Known Antidote to Error.”
Look at the back of every book. At least 40 names of pre-readers who helped me notice/catch stupidities before the book was set in type. Few authors continue this habit after they gain status. But I figure, why stop doing the very thing that brought me to the party? It’s called quality control.
And yet I keep a file of glitches that people later find…grrrr.
R&N: What about other people’s work? Is there any particular piece of writing that you’ve found enriching?
DB: Goldman’s The Princess Bride is one of those stories you can read aloud to your kids. I admire that. Aldous Huxley was underrated even in his own time. Non-fiction like Melvin Konner’s The Tangled Wing can make you feel for the predicament of human beings…essentially jumped-up apes who can destroy the world, but who also have ambitions to become like angels.
R&N: We’ve briefly touched on the publication of your two graphic novels (The Life Eaters and Forgiveness). With these, you’ve taken a step into a totally ‘new’ genre. What prompted you to enter this arena? When you look at them against the traditional novel, what merits do you think they display?
DB: Writing a big graphic novel is like directing a little movie! The script is similar, and then you deal with artists, designers, and technicians. I really feel that I have had an apprenticeship in cinema.
R&N: Changes in lifestyle, advancements in technology, and accessibility to the Internet has given rise to a new generation of publishing, where quality can seem to take second place to quantity. It has suddenly become very easy, very cheap, and ultimately very accessible. As a futurist, what do you foresee for the written word?
DB: I foresee technology liberating guys like me, to not only write fiction but to direct more complex efforts.
Think about it. In a few years, it will be trivial for a very small team of maybe five people to create a feature length animated film. The one aspect that cannot be technologically simplified is the actual writing. If this happens before I get wheeled into the Home, it should be an absurdly fun time!
R&N: As well as writing, science, public speaking and granting the occasional interview, you’re also well known for your articles, in which you seem to enjoy putting a controversial view forward, arguing your case with passion, clarity, and humour. You have on occasion upset fans of both Star Wars and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings by delving into their symbolism and social orientation. Do you enjoy the debate these broadsides create? Or is it more of a stand for quality, logic and better understanding that drives your desire to write these essays?
DB: Punditry and public speaking have been a fun and lucrative sideline. And some of the things I have said in defence of much-maligned modernism have long needed saying, in the face of the knee-jerk impulse to knock our decent civilisation. But I need to remember that nobody will be reading that stuff 100 years from now. I need to stay focused on novels, not interviews and …such…dang, I did it again.
R&N: Do your opinions ever land you in deep water? Or should the question really be: How deep is the water that your opinions have landed you in?
DB: Feh. A few people holler. A couple of Hollywood types have declared a ban on dealings with me. That’s persecution? Talk to my ancestors. Talk to Giordano Bruno, a guy a lot like me, who was burned at the stake exactly 400 years ago. Naw. The dopiest people around are those who indignantly yell persecution when they are having the time of their lives sticking it to the Man.
By all means stick it to him! The Man deserves it. All power centres need accountability.
Just keep your sense of humour. Notice the progress that you are an essential part of.
R&N: We visited our local branch of Waterstones recently and couldn’t help but notice that two whole shelves were dedicated solely to the novels of David Brin. With such an eminent body of work behind you, what drives you to continue?
DB: Novelty. Fun. A chance to help pay back a world that’s been pretty good to me.
That theme of gratitude — plus fear that it might all go away — is inherent in much of my work. The artists and film directors I despise most are those who have had favoured, lucky lives, benefited from a wonderful civilisation, then turn around and express nothing but contempt for the people who have been so good to them.
R&N: One final question (hoping that the answer isn’t ‘bothersome interviewers’), what annoys you?
DB: Ingratitude. People who are supposedly ‘of the people’, but who hold nothing but contempt for the people. I mean, look around. Things are working so well…the water is potable and the traffic lights work. People wave each other ahead at stop signs. Almost nobody steals. Stand on a street corner and notice how many things work, quietly, as sophisticated and educated people co-operate in a zillion little ways.
Face it. Your neighbours simply cannot be as stupid as they look.
Grow up a little. Be a member of a civilisation. Enjoy.
R&N:We would like to thank David Brin very much indeed for his time. His latest novel, Kiln People is available from Tor SF, ISBN0-765-34261-8 and is available from all usual retailers, including www.amazon.com. For a wealth of information on David Brin and his work, it is well worth a visit to his website at www.davidbrin.com.
I have never been to Prague,” my son says.
“I’m your mother,” I say. “Don’t lie to me.”
He has lied to me ever since childhood, since infancy, in fact, when he crawled, bloody and blind, out from my womb six months late and said, “I love you. I never want to leave you.”
Five years after that birth, he built a model of the Eiffel Tower with corn stalks and said, “I dream of other worlds, and I love you, mother.”
The next year, he got his first car and his first girlfriend and he drove like lightning and made love like a rabbit — his terms, which he claimed to have thought of himself.
I am old now. He sits beside my bed. “Remember Prague?” I asked him. His father had called it the Sepia City, the land of all that is lost, the place where we went for our honeymoon and lived for the rest of our lives in dreams that resembled tattered street maps.
“You have never been to Prague, either,” he says.
His father invented the Dream Machine and sallied forth on a tour of lands near the sky. He lived in the basement of the old farmhouse we’d bought together when we were young, and for the last twenty years he didn’t come upstairs. I trekked down into the darkness a few times, but the journey wasn’t worth it, because each time I saw him hooked up to his machine, his skin grown black where the wires dug into him, his eyes glassy with the onslaught of what he imagined, my stomach churned and my head ached. Each night I prayed to a God I’d forgotten to believe in, prayed for my husband to return to me, because the fields had grown wild and the animals were dead in the barn and our son had run off to Prague.
I’ve never been to Prague, myself, only looked at the postcard my husband sent me, a black and white picture of a young soldier embracing a beautiful lady, her arm cast behind her like a folded sail.
“Your father loved you,” I whisper, the tube in my nose clenching my breath.
“Yes, of course,” my son says, lying again. I watch him turn away to the shadow behind him, I see him speak but hear no words. He stands and says he has to go, he has things he must do, he has duties, life.
The Dream Machine waits for him in the basement, I know. It calls to him like an echo, like smoke. He’ll be back to visit tomorrow, he says. But I know where he’s going, and I know the fields will forever be ruined … the animals rotting … the sky a blister of memories … the city streets a lure for the young, who will wander and revel and dream, an occasional postcard the only memento of all that is lost.
The room is grey now, and the shadows wear white. They circle me and embrace me, they balm my skin and wash my hair, they feed me porridge and water, they refuse to read me bedtime stories, and they tell me I am not in Prague, but I know better. I’ve always been able to tell when people lie to me.
“I have never been to Prague,” he said.
“Then what is this?” I held her postcard in my hand.
“It was all so long ago. A dream, that’s all.”
They come to me and tell me I have been crying in my sleep. They offer tea and more pills, they offer to call him for me, but I say there’s no way to reach him now, it was all so long ago, and he’s gone where the dreams build streets and castles, where my son should have been born, but was not.
Night stumbles across me. I hadn’t recognized it at first. Tomorrow I will ask him to take me out of here, to get me some fresh air, to let me see the farm again and let me–
If I plead, he will forget me. He will say he will come back, but I know his ways. Instead, I will entrap him. I’ll let him think I can forgive him, and I will hold the rusty butcher knife behind me. He will come closer. He will give me a farewell kiss. It will, indeed, be farewell.
They are knocking on my head now, tinkering with my teeth, moving my jaw across the room where I cannot reach it and where it sits on the cabinet calling to me, whispering smoke and drooling ash.
The city was so beautiful in spring.
My eyes roll down my cheeks and plant themselves in the shuddering blanket. Armies of priests plunge bayonets into my knees. My veins seek revenge, wrapping themselves around flagpoles and raining on parades.
Morning sighs and the man with the silver hole in his chest says, “Do you feel better now?”
I climb out of the cornfield and try to look him in the eye, but his eyes twist themselves into mirrors to blind me.
“Can you hear me?” he says, calling up from the basement.
“Your son is here,” he says. I laugh.
“Mother,” he says, and I reach toward him, but my arms have folded into themselves.
“Bring both flags to my funeral,” I say.
Are those tears in his eyes? He has much to be sorry for. Triumph courses through me, but I scold myself: I don’t wish to gloat.
He shivers in the sunlight and spreads himself across the room. The corn blows gently in the wind. The postcard lolls in my hand. I found it in the basement, where he keeps things from me.
Since he left, wind blows through the cracks in the house and coyotes howl at the horizon. I lie down in the dirt and let my tears summon mud. I lock the door and hope they never find him where I left him with the dreams.
“Bury me in Prague,” I say. “Under the shadow of the castle, in a place where children come and go. I want to hear their voices.”
I am grateful that he doesn’t speak this time. When he doesn’t speak, he doesn’t lie. It’s better now that we’ve learned to live in silence with each other.
The days have grown so short! I see the evening gathering itself, and I hear the coyotes in the distance, getting closer, moving with the moon on a moonless night.
He leans down and kisses me on the forehead.
“I love you,” he says, closing my eyes.
It is not a lie.
The time had come for the Catechist of Yeratet to choose a new spouse. The final candidates knelt at three corners of a blanket, heads bowed, while the priest kneeling at the fourth corner recited the ritual questioning of God. Ivory pillars, inlaid with gold and jade, reached to the high domed ceiling of the Catechilis. Outside, sand whispered against the thick stone walls. The air tasted dry and smelled of dust.
Parteeka Ren Sussu took the opportunity to size up the other two candidates. The man on her left was tall and solid, with skin the colour of slate dust. Scars seamed his arms and neck like zippers, and one very old scar crossed his nose and his left cheek, just below the eye.
The supreme leader of Yeratet would never choose this scarred thug as his spouse. He had chosen but two men in seventy-two spouses. Parteeka struggled not to show her contempt. She must not underestimate the thug. He had made it this far through the selection. And showing the wrong emotion at the wrong time could undermine her entire carefully designed strategy.
The young woman on Parteeka’s right presented a more serious challenge. She was dressed cheaply but was small, with long brown hair, a tough body, and taut, tanned skin. This Catechist was known to like tough women. Indeed, his last wife, Turana, had been very similar to this girl. Well, Parteeka thought, there were more ways of being tough than having a hard body.
There had been a thousand candidates at the first round of selection; now there were only three. Parteeka had spent most of her fortune and called in favours gained over twenty years to get her this far, but here her influence had ended. The Catechist could not be bought. Still, if all went well, she would soon be the Catechist’s new wife.
The priest finished the ritual and drew out a cloth bag. “In this place you will speak only the truth.” He offered the bag to the young woman, who reached in and brought out her fist with something clutched inside. The bag passed to Parteeka, and she too reached in. There were two smooth balls. She ran her fingers over them, trying to feel a difference between them, then selected one at random and pulled it out. The scarred man took the last ball.
The priest folded the bag into his robe. “In this place, God and the Catechist hear all, see all, know all. Do not lie, for no one may lie in this place and live. Speak true, speak well, and you will become the spouse of the Catechist.” He stood, and strode from the Catechilis.
Parteeka looked down at the small black ball clutched in her hand. Two.
The scarred man rose. Tinted light from the stained-glass windows high above fell on his black skin. Muscles tensed beneath his clothes as he spoke. “Dorat has number one.” Parteeka did not recognise his accent. “Dorat tells you how he saw the Catechist of Yeratet and fell in love.
“In Serinda, on the other side of the world, the flame-spike trees flower for fourteen months a year, and the blossom is as thick as oil in the air. At dusk, the sky is filled with silver bats flickering among the towers. Some have said that it is the most beautiful city in the world. Perhaps they are right. It did not seem so to Dorat.
“Those who say it was beautiful have not seen the hanging square where crowds gathered to cheer the death of their neighbours, nor the way Serinda treated those who seemed different. There was beauty, yes, in the flowing water and the trees and the flowers and the golden temples, in the syrupy smell of figs and the dry spices, but a homeless child cannot appreciate that beauty when the militia are hunting him down.”
Tears began to flow down the man’s cheeks. Parteeka smiled to herself. This man was weak. The Catechist would not choose a weak spouse.
“Dorat does not recall his parents. He thinks they must have died when he was too young to remember, although they may have abandoned him. He imagines they were like him, for that is the way of such things, but he cannot know. He did not see any others like himself in Serinda, so maybe he was a freak of nature.
“Serinda was a beautiful city, they say, and a homeless boy did not look beautiful. His childhood was a fearful fusion of thievery, pursuit, and beatings. When he was hungry he would sometimes climb the flame-spike trees and gather their bitter, unripe fruits to sell at the market for a few pennies. It was poor work, and the thick pollen of the trees choked him and made his skin erupt and his eyes run tears. To Dorat, this was life.
“Come Septimaltide one year, Dorat made a mistake. Maybe you do not know, because in this part of the world it has fallen from use, but Septimaltide was a great feast in Serinda. On that day no man worked, and the Catechist arrived to celebrate with his people. Dorat believed that on this day, too, the militia would celebrate, so Dorat joined the crowds. He saw the Catechist’s glistening silvery ships descend from the sky, saw the flight-fields snap off, and the ramps descend. Saw the Catechist in his purple veil walk out in front of the crowds. And felt a hand clamp his arm, jerk him back, and turn him around. He looked up into the face of a militiaman.
“Here is what the militia did to a small, strange boy called Dorat in far Serinda: They took him to the palace. They stripped him, beat him, burned him, electrocuted him, kicked him, cut him, and left him on the cold stones. Dorat remembers all of this. He wishes he did not, but he has no choice.”
So, Parteeka thought, settling back on her heels, this Dorat would try for sympathy. It was an interesting tactic. She had considered it herself then discarded it. The Catechist would not choose from sympathy, her advisors had told her. He wanted ambition, success, influence, and ruthlessness. All of these she could offer.
Dorat was still speaking. “Eventually the lure of drink led his captors away. They thought, perhaps, that Dorat was dead. But he was not. In agony he pulled himself across the stones, up endless steps, and out of the palace. Dorat does not know how he managed this; he could not do it now.
“In the palace grounds he saw flame-spike trees. It seems unlikely that Dorat was thinking clean, but no doubt he recognised these as safety. He decided that if he could just climb one of these the militia would not catch him. He had done such a thing before.
“Dorat could not use one leg, and the fingers of his left hand had been crushed, but he was an agile boy — and so, with tears of effort and pain, he dragged himself into the stinging blossom. The branches were sticky beneath him. It may have been sap. It may have been blood. The ghost wind of evening was rustling the fire-spikes.”
There was something wrong with the man’s story, Parteeka thought. It had been nagging at her for a while. Some detail. Something she once knew. Ah, but she had seen so many cities on so many worlds. What was Serinda among them? But if she could remember, if she could prove he was lying….
“Eventually his eyes cleared and Dorat realised he could see straight into a room in the second storey of the palace. This room was ornamented with gold and silks and glittering stones. A great bed sat in the middle of the floor. As he watched, Dorat saw the Catechist of all Yeratet enter the room. Before Dorat’s frightened eyes the Catechist removed that purple veil. As all men know, as Dorat knew, anyone who sees the face of the Catechist, save his spouse, must die. But Dorat thought then that it was worth the price. Dorat, injured, weak, and bloody, saw the only thing of true beauty that he had ever seen in his short life: the uncovered face of the Catechist of Yeratet. In that moment, Dorat fell in love. There is little more to say except that Dorat never lost his love for that Catechist.
“So Dorat is here.”
The man sat. Love! Now Parteeka did sneer, raising her hand to cover it. Did the fool think that the Catechist required love from his spouse? This was even weaker than the sympathy ploy. The Catechist required power and ambition from his spouse, nothing else. With a quick movement she stood and cast her ball onto the blanket.
“I will speak,” she said.
The man, Dorat, sank slowly back to the blanket. Tears still rolled from his clear blue eyes.
“I think I was about five when I first tasted Jondian wine-truffles,” Parteeka said. “At the time I thought they were the finest food in the world. I was stupidly naïve, of course, but I was young, and the experience was enough to set me on my life’s mission. It was the first time that I truly understood the sacred nature of food, how a taste is more powerful than a gun and more important than life, love, or truth.” She glanced at the others. Neither of them seemed to be paying her any attention. That didn’t matter. She wasn’t speaking for their benefit. “I doubt that is a lesson either of you have learnt.
“I learnt to read in little more than a month to discover more about food. My parents were too ignorant to be able to tell me anything worth hearing, and what they cooked shouldn’t even have been thrown into a pig’s trough. They might have been decent people by other standards, I suppose, but by then I had learned what was truly important.
“In a book that my parents had obviously never opened I found a description of Hadiyan melting cake. The words were plain, but they were great poetry because in my mind I could see the cake, and I could already taste it dissolving on my tongue.
“I searched the city, walking from bakery to bakery, when my parents thought I was at school. It took me five foot-worn weeks to cover them all. At last, in a tiny shop I had walked past several times without noticing, I found the true Hadiyan melting cake. One look, and a hint of the spices in my nose, and I knew I must have it. But there was one problem. The baker wanted a quarter ounce of gold dust for it, and where does a five-year-old child find a quarter ounce of gold?”
The girl on the blanket looked up, frowning, as though Parteeka were addressing the question to her. Parteeka rewarded her with a thin smile.
“She steals it of course. That is not wrong. It is far less of a crime than denying your passion, and passion for food is a true passion: it brings suffering and struggle, pierced with moments of purest light. That is passion.
“I had long known where my parents hid their money. It was easy to steal a quarter ounce of gold dust. No doubt each assumed that the other had taken it, if they noticed at all.
“Over the next four years I searched out every delicacy our city could offer, plundering my parents’ savings when necessary. It was inevitable that one day I would be caught, but I had planned ahead. When, at the age of nine, they found me taking a diamond for a pie of jade-bird kidneys, and they beat me and removed what was left of their savings to somewhere safer, I had already gathered my own little hoard, skimmed off from the money I had stolen over the years. At this age I was already cleverer than my parents.”
Parteeka was striding around the blanket. She didn’t stop herself. Her advisors had told her to let her passion show. The Catechist would be listening, somewhere, judging them. She would show how driven she was. Let the others try to match her.
“In the meantime, my school had discovered my love of food and were trying to teach me cookery. Cookery! As though a true gourmet would cook her own food. I knew I must escape.
“I left home at eleven and never returned. I do not know what became of my parents. I did not care. My fate, my passion was more important.
“It was not difficult to find groups who shared this passion. We travelled the continent, dining on exotic feasts and treats that would cost an emperor his wealth if he tried to buy them. Sometimes we stole, sometimes we dealt, always we pursued the finest foods. We chased down legends and myths. We had many disappointments and wasted trips, but these were more than paid for by the delights we found. It was a golden time for a child, and I still have some gratitude to these people.
“But eventually I grew tired of them, too. Their ambitions were too mundane. They did not understand that there must something more. The dishes we ate were good, maybe even sublime, but they were not perfect. The perfect food should overwhelm the gourmet, not by force, but by seduction of every sense. It should leave her complete, her life over, with no more to experience. I had not yet found this food.
“I took what I could of their money and moved on. Do not misjudge me here. They would have done the same, had their ambition been sufficient.” This was important. The Catechist must understand that she would do anything for an important cause. He would want that in a wife. The Catechist’s wife must be ruthless.
“I began to dig deeper.
“I have eaten eyes from a live Yenus monkey, swan stuffed with a hundred hummingbirds and basted in secret spices, and eggs of the now extinct sighing owl.
“At the age of seventeen I joined the Lænon Mercenaries’ raid on Saphith Tertiary because I had heard that the natives had a unique method of preparing veal, and I wished to taste it before their civilisation was destroyed entirely. Later that year I organised and led an attack on the Gordonian Heretics, on what turned out to be a false rumour of a fragile secret wine. So it went.
“If it was that people died, then it was a price worth paying.” Ruthlessness and dedication again. No one could rule Yeratet’s stagnant empire without it.
“As I penetrated further into the mysteries of food, I started to hear whispers of one dish so astonishing that any who ate it would never be able to eat other food again. At first no one could tell me what it involved, but as I picked up fragments from those who had heard of it in passing, whispered from generation to generation of gourmet, the concept began to form in my mind, until after half-a-dozen years I knew this food. It was based on the liver of a bird so unusual it did not even have a name. I aimed my entire, now considerable resources at finding this bird. I hardly cared to eat, such was my passion. I travelled from continent to continent, and even from world to world to find one. But each time I found either no trace, or merely that the information was so out of date that the birds were long gone. On Gentale I almost reached my goal, only to find that the last bird had been slaughtered the day before and boiled in a common soup. I killed the man who had committed this crime. He deserved worse.
“Now I am convinced that these birds are extinct. All save one. I have discovered the last of the species. It is owned by the Catechist of Yeratet. It is the right of the new spouse of the Catechist to demand any dish for her wedding meal. I will marry the man, and I will eat the dish. Then my life will be complete.” It was a calculated risk, that truth. But above all, in this place, truth was essential. By now the Catechist would know her determination and power. That she would risk rejection by telling this truth could only confirm her qualities to him. He would choose her.
Dust swirled in the light. The others seemed deep in thought. Parteeka watched them carefully. The man, Dorat, was staring far away, as though locked in his memories. She wondered if he had even heard her story. She didn’t care. Her passion was stronger, more worthy, than his mere love of the Catechist.
Finally, the young woman sighed and lifted her head. Her gaze flitted around the open space of the Catechilis, like a bird trying to flee.
“I don’t want to tell my story,” she said. “It hurts and I have had enough of pain. It hurts like you cannot imagine.” She fixed Parteeka with a glare. “You know nothing of pain and not all of the words in the world could show it to you.” She stopped for a long while. A smile formed on Parteeka’s lips. The girl was not going to speak. She would lose by default.
Again the girl sighed. “How to tell it? How do we tell any tale? My name is Martia Ponacia Quendente. I guess that doesn’t mean much to you. Why should it? Why should you care?” She ducked her head, her cheeks flushing. A flush of anger not embarrassment, Parteeka thought.
“My people are Gordonian Heretics.” She glared at them, perhaps expecting comment. When none came, she continued. “No doubt you think us evil. We believe that the Catechist of Yeratet is an abomination before God. No man should stand between the people and God. It is for a man to learn through suffering. The Catechist prevents this. Abomination! My people have suffered much and so we have learnt much.” She shook her head, and her long hair shimmered across her back. “Maybe I should thank you for that. You have given us the suffering, but I find I cannot do so. Can I thank you for Prestat’s death? You do not even know who Prestat was, but you killed him. He was my brother. I found him dead on the sands. Do you care yet?”
Martia’s hands balled into fists in her robes. Why should they care? Parteeka wondered. Why should the Catechist care? People died.
“Let me tell you of the Hander Wastes. In the evening, the winds throw dust into the air, and the setting sun turns the sky a heavy red. The storms can strip skin from your face in seconds, and the howling winds force sand into your mouth and nose and fill your lungs with choking dust. It is our place.
“We fled there to escape the Catechist’s persecution, and we made it ours, with its bitter beauty that suits us so well. The ever-present dust is our friend and our enemy. But they — you — followed us even to the desert. For a dozen generations, the Catechist has pursued a campaign against my people in our desert retreat. At first we were unprepared, and his troops drew lines of blood across the sand. We, a peaceful, contemplative people, were faced with the heavily armed soldiers of Yeratet. They were merciless. They killed all they found and swam in heretic blood. We were almost wiped out.
“Eventually, we learned to fight back. If we can learn from suffering, so can you. We swore to make your people suffer, to cut the Catechist at his heart, to make him bleed as we bled. So he would learn. And so we did. We became as dust in the wind, creeping into cracks in your cities and towns. We were everywhere, but uncatchable. We killed and we killed. I myself have cut the throats of the Catechist’s soldiers and bureaucrats and people. I have placed bombs in his cities. Blood for blood. Do you care yet?” Martia glared at them. Her eyes had gained a fire.
“My father was captured by soldiers and burned alive. My mother died when your razorships came across her party on the open sands. My brothers died with guns in their hands. I am proud of them all. I have seen your soldiers murder children, rape women, torture men. The Catechist did this because we challenge his right to rule.
“We live beneath the sands, and in huddles in the rocks. No flame-spike trees and running water and playing children for us.” That was it! The flame-spike trees. Suddenly Parteeka realised what was wrong with Dorat’s story. A smile broke over her face. It enraged Martia. “You think you have suffered, but you do not even understand my words! How can you smile? I have told you how my father died. That means nothing to you. To me it is beyond words, it is pain and longing and despair and you do not even care.” She took a calming breath.
“We have fought for over a hundred years and we have learnt well how to fight. Now your soldiers do not dare to enter the Hander Wastes except in their ships and armoured creepers. Your people cannot rest easy in any city because we can come there and kill you. And we have. And heretic blood has soaked into the wastes.
“In two generations, nothing has changed. You do not advance nor retreat. We bleed each other.
“The stalemate has gone on too long. Our peoples have died and died and died, and the sands are darkened with blown blood. It is time for peace between our peoples. I will bring peace.” Her skin was flushed. She ducked her head. When she spoke her voice was almost a whisper. “I…I will marry the Catechist.”
“And then?” Parteeka asked.
“And then?” Parteeka repeated, her body thrumming with tension.
“And then I will kill him.”
Parteeka laughed. She had won. Already she could taste that perfect meal in her mouth. Her heart thundered beneath her breast. The Catechist would never allow someone who wished to kill him to become his spouse. And as for Dorat, he had made a mistake. This was the place of truth. No one could lie and hope to live. She knew his lie. She faced him, triumphant.
“You lied, Dorat. I have been to Serinda. I have seen it. There are no flame-spike trees, nor golden temples. No running water and flowers. There are only age old ruins, and dust. The Catechist destroyed Serinda a thousand years ago.” The fool had not even been able to get his story straight.
Dorat stood again, and lifted his chin. “I never lie. I saw the flame-spike trees in Serinda bloom. I saw the Catechist of Yeratet remove his veil, and he saw me. And it was a thousand years ago.
“No person can see the Catechist’s face and live, except for his spouse, and this Catechist was only half way through his forty-fourth marriage, so I could not become his spouse. He could have had me killed; he should have. But he did not. Perhaps he was tired. That comes to us all. He chose to step down from his calling and return to the seas of youth. He chose me as his successor.
“I am the Catechist of Yeratet.”
Cold sweat broke from Parteeka’s skin. She heard Martia gasp, then spit and come to her feet.
He was the Catechist. And Parteeka had seen his face. If she did not become his spouse, she would die.
“I am the Catechist, and I am tired. Today I have not come to choose a spouse, but to choose a successor. You are the final candidates.”
Parteeka saw Martia’s hand dart for her belt, as though to draw a weapon that wasn’t there, then drop away. She saw fury and betrayal cross the girl’s face. For a moment, Parteeka thought Martia might attack the Catechist with her bare hands, but then a look of resignation replaced the anger.
“Know this, Martia,” the Catechist said. “Serinda was the original city of the Gordonian Heretics. It was they who tortured and nearly killed the boy Dorat, and when I became Catechist I swore that the first thing I would do was wipe out these people. In that I have failed. It will be up to the next Catechist to decide what to do in this matter.”
He bowed his head.
“I have asked myself for a thousand years how I should choose my successor. What makes a Catechist? They should be strong, supple, determined, brave — both of you are that. They may be just, although that is not so important. They must be a leader. I could find a thousand men and women like that. But they would not be the right person. So, what makes a Catechist?”
He looked at both of them, as though expecting an answer.
Martia trembled with fury beside Parteeka. The girl wouldn’t answer. But Parteeka would. What made a Catechist? What answer did the man expect? She would tell any lie he wanted to hear. No less than her life was at stake. Her story rushed through her mind. Whatever she said must not contradict that. She could not risk being thought a liar.
Or could she contradict herself? Was that the key? The Catechist was waiting for something that wasn’t in either of their stories. She and Martia were both still here. Neither had yet ruled herself out. So what was he waiting for? There could be only one thing. Take the risk.
She cleared her dry throat.
“Is it that a Catechist must compromise?” she said. The Catechist’s blue eyes turned to her. Yes. She was right. “Is it that a Catechist must give up her desires, her beliefs, her previous life to dedicate herself to Yeratet?”
The Catechist seemed to incline his head, ever so slightly. She smiled. She could tell this lie. She could make him believe it.
“Parteeka Ren Sussu. Would you give up your desires, your beliefs, and your previous life for Yeratet?”
She held his gaze. It was easy. “I would.”
The Catechist turned to Martia.
“Martia Ponacia Quendente. Would you give up your desires, your beliefs, and your previous life for Yeratet?”
Parteeka couldn’t breathe. How well could the little heretic lie? Would she lie at all?
Silence stretched between them.
Parteeka dared not move. The sand was rough against her soft skin. Sweat soaked her shirt.
Then Martia turned her head and spat. “Never.”
Parteeka’s heart leapt. The stupid girl!
She stepped forward, bowing her head. “Catechist. I will always — ”
He cut her off with a raised hand.
“Above all,” Dorat said, “a Catechist must be true to herself.”
He reached inside his robe, pulled out the purple veil of the Catechist, and stepped past her. He placed the veil over Martia’s head, and then whistled sharply. Doors burst open around the Catechilis. Armed soldiers ran in. Martia tensed, then relaxed.
“I lied,” Parteeka said, desperately. “I lied. I would never give up my desires and beliefs. You must believe me. I lied.”
Dorat, the old Catechist, stared past her. The tears that had begun when he told his story still flowed from his blue eyes, but he was smiling, smiling. Parteeka could hear the scratch of every grain of shifting sand.
Then Dorat faced the soldiers.
“We have seen the face of the Catechist,” he said.
——— I ———
Her mother carved angels in the backyard. The largest was six feet tall and had the face of her mother’s first lover, killed in a car accident when they were still in their teens. It took eighteen months to sway the purple and blue webbed stone into wings and skin, to release the wisp of feathers from the metallic clasp. She carved through the seasons, the easy spring, the heat of summer. In autumn she moved closer to the garage and plugged in the space heater, and in winter she wiped the white ash, that was what she called it, from his broad shoulders and unformed brow and in fingerless gloves carved him with a heat that flushed her cheeks and brightened her eyes.
The smallest angel was no larger than Lantanna’s pinky and it was for the memory of an aborted fetus. Lantanna had heard the woman whisper her request through the closed door on a dark and moonless night. “I know I made the right decision,” she said, “but still, I feel empty. I want something to mark the absence. A little angel for the one I sent past. Can you carve it a girl? Can you make her face at peace?” Lantanna stood shivering in the kitchen doorway, unnoticed by her mother who listened with a passive expression to the stranger behind the door. “And one last thing?” whispered the voice. “As you carve will you say a prayer, or whatever, for me. Though I’m sure I made the right choice.”
Lantanna turned and walked back to bed. She shivered into her blankets and wrapped them around herself, tight as a cocoon, and fell asleep again without her mother even noticing she had awakened. In her home, as in her life, Lantanna, like a shadow was rarely noticed.
She was the sort of girl who did not know she was pretty. A pale face with the lightest scattering of freckles on her nose and cheeks. Pale blue eyes the color of dreams. Hair the color of corn.
She wore summer dresses of the nineteen-forties (regardless of the season) thirty years after that time, but unmended and clean as if they had never been worn before. She also wore a slip, which was also not the fashion. The dresses were airy as wings, so thin that the slip straps with paper clip-looking adjusters could be seen through them, as well as the flower at her chest, a squashed tiny pink or white or yellow rose. In the winter she wore little sweaters, the kind with three-quarter length sleeves and pearl buttons, while the other students at Oakdale High were ripping their jeans and rubbing their new sneakers in dirt. She was pretty but not fashionably so. Hardly anyone noticed. Really, only one.
Quetzl lived in Oakdale in the summer with his father who worked in the city and provided little supervision or restraint. A rare, dark-skinned creature in the town of apple-white, he spent the summers playing his guitar and smoking pot. He watched Lantanna from a distance, first as something vaguely noticed, a blur of color in a vision of black and white, then, with more focus, as she took her daily stroll early each morning past his house, always and mysteriously (in that age when most moved in packs) alone. “She’s a space cadet,” his friend Emma told him once when she saw him watching Lantanna. But he watched with growing fascination because in the dull, same-paced world of Oakdale, Lantanna was different, and because he was different too, he recognized her as one of his kind.
The day it began Lantanna went to her mother with blood-stained panties. Her mother looked up from the dusty chiseling to say, “This is the blood of a broken heart all women suffer. It is inevitable. Wounds must bleed.” Then, when Lantanna began to cry, scolded, “You should be happy. This is good. You will have a long, pain-filled life.”
She showed Lantanna the box of tampons and demonstrated how to use them, watching as she did, tapping her fingers to get back to her work. Lantanna inserted the thin white cardboard-sheathed cotton with a stab of discomfort and in a tremulous voice asked if she was still a virgin. Yes, yes, her mother nodded. “Though it doesn’t matter. Time is relative. After all,” she said, “you already have the wound.”
Following her mother’s instructions, Lantanna washed the blood from her fingers and panties with cold water and yellow soap. By the time she left for her morning walk, her mother was back in the yard absorbed with angel and stone. Lantanna walked past in silence, absorbed in her own study of astral realities. What, she wondered, made true angel wings? Were they gossamer and thinner than glass like butterflies’ wings, or were they heavy with flesh and feathers, coursed with veins and blood?
She did not notice Quetzl following her. And he, so absorbed in the swing of her pale pink dress, the arch of her long legs to the drop of short white slip, did not realize Emma followed him, her eyes glinting with fire.
When Lantanna got to the meadow she walked into the tall grass and lay down. Quetzl stopped at the edge of the meadow and lay down too. At some distance, Emma stood in the shadow of trees that bordered the meadow.
Lantanna lay still. Her arms raised. Her hands like little white stars fallen into the grass. He could only see moments of her face. A small butterfly flitted in the bush nearby, but she did not turn her head or move, only lay there as still and disinterested as a flower. More butterflies flitted nearby. A small orange one lit on her wrist. A tiny blue hovered at her lips but he blinked and in that moment it was gone. Passion rose in him like Jesus’ winged heart in the picture over his grandmother’s bed.
From her distance it is as if Emma is suddenly sainted, a person who sees spirits and changes in the soul. Seeing nothing that can be described like this, she knows Quetzl has fallen in love with Lantanna. She feels a particular response in her own chest. An explosion of desire, the way flame swells to explode.
Lantanna, in the meadow, knows nothing of those who watch. Lying in the grass, her white arms extended like stems her hands flower, her little mouth open with one small lilac bloom on her tongue, parched to swallow, dry in the hot sun, her heart beats like the quick wings of the sleepy orange that flits about her and finally lights on her wrist. A small blue hovers at her lips, darts in and out, in a maddening tease before it rests on the lilac bloom. Quickly, she closes her mouth, tastes the fluttering wings. She chews and hears the vaguest crunch of its small body and, treasuring its quick flavor minced with the lilac, swallows. Sighing, she lets her tired arms fall. Eyes closed, she feels the hot sun, the vague itch of meadow grass, hears the insect hum. But the pulse of her heart is the loudest and most vibrant sensation, as if it is filled with all the butterflies she’s swallowed since she was a little girl. Wings beating in a blood cocoon. Bursting to be free.
When Lantanna rises from the meadow grass and turns to walk home, Quetzl follows. But Emma does not follow them. She waits until they are out of sight and then walks to the meadow, which is bright at the edge of summer with wild flowers and butterflies, alive with an energy she can describe with only one metaphor. Emmma stands at the edge of the meadow, at just about the spot, she estimates, Quetzl lay in. Where the grass looks flattened she bends to touch it, as if it is a holy space, as if by placing her palm where he lay she can touch him. She closes her eyes. Yes, she thinks, she can feel his heat. Then, she lies there too, turns her head to see his vision through the grass, the spear of blades at crosshatch, the flitting of colors, wings and petals. Here, she knows, he lay and watched Lantanna. Lantanna! Emma rises quickly when she realizes she has been laying in the meadow just like that space cadet. She forgives Quetzl for this. He is bewitched, it is obvious. Everyone knows Lantanna comes from a family of witches.
Emma comes from a family of fire fighters. Her father was a volunteer fireman for the Oakdale Fire Department before he mysteriously disappeared on his way to work two years ago. Almost exactly two years ago, Emma thinks. She remembers the hot tears, the new pain in her mother’s eyes. She remembers the first realization of the woman’s disappearance that same morning. She wished, for a long time after, that she had paid her more attention. She remembers a vague slash of red lips, dark hair, heavy perfume in church. But she cannot remember more than this. At this point, she can barely remember him.
Emma reaches in her pocket. She pulls out the lighter. She flicks the top with her thumb, expertly. Emma has a secret. She is the girl who loves fire. She used to start fires to make her father come. No matter what time of day or night, how impossible it was for him to be home for supper, how terribly too tired he was for her or her mother, if there was a fire, he was there. Vibrant. Heroic. She used to watch in awe this strange aspect of him, the strength of his stance, the sternness of his face, his power. Now Emma reaches down. With a quick movement she brushes the flame across the grass in front of her. It sizzles, small as a stitch, but she watches it grow in the tangle of grass. She runs quickly to the edge of woods as the smoke and flame rise behind her, like phantom snakes and devils’ tongues.
She runs to the trees at the edge of the meadow and climbs one. The bark scratches her fingers and she tears a pant leg in her rush. But she barely notices such minor pain. Though it has been two years since he left them, it is at moments like these that she feels closest to her father. There is the same rush of excitement, the same heat of anticipation that used to bring him. Now she can relish the feeling. It is almost like having him back again. The meadow burns. A late afternoon breeze pushes it farther. Emma feels the sting of smoke in her eyes. Strains to hear the sound of sirens. Emma climbs higher. She can see the dirt street, the distant houses. Fire snakes through the grass below. Her eyes sting. Her throat tightens. Even the tree is hot. She feels the pores of her skin open and tears weep out. Her hands tighten to hold the limb, her fingers strain like bird claws, the bones pressed against the skin. Smoke fills her lungs with pain. The flames reach for her. She screams. She feels she screams but she hears no sound other than fire.
Suddenly. He is there, in his suspenders and baggy yellow fire pants. He stands at the edge of the limb. Graceful as a star balanced on its point. He is saying her name over and over again. Emma, Emma, Emma. He extends one hand to her; with the other, he parts the sky. She can see just past him a blue and gentle day at the edge of summer. Emma, Emma, he says, Come. She stands. She stretches her hand to touch his. The limb creaks. Come, he says. He parts the smoke and flame with one hand. Reaches for her with the other. She strains to touch him. She hears a sound like a branch breaking and suddenly she is falling. Falling. On fire. Where? In the blur of heat and pain she forms this final thought. Where? Where are you now?
——— II ———
It is a long winter. It snows every day and the air is brittle. When the sun shines, it sharpens the points of ice that hang from the eaves like daggered teeth.
Lantanna’s mother carves a graveyard angel for the girl who died in the fire. She thinks Emma and Lantanna were friends because of the way Lantanna cried and cried. She wept for days and nights. She would eat nothing but tears.
Lantanna’s mother tried to comfort her. “You have to stop crying. You have to make the decision. Death is inevitable,” she said, “joy is not. You have to choose.”
Of course there had been other winters. Long months when the meadow was frozen and the butterflies gone. Lantanna suffered through those other winters but only by counting the full moons until summer. Now, she cannot count, for she does not know when the meadow will be alive again.
Quetzl sends her letters. Many, many letters. He writes of beauty, desire, and loss. He wrote, “The lesson of the fire is that we must accept we all burn. I burn for you. I go to sleep with the memory of your eyes. Do they remember me?”
Only vaguely. She had been surprised when, on that last summer day, he had come up from somewhere behind her on the path and introduced himself. He had begun speaking strangely almost immediately. He told her he had been watching her. Then he said he would make her a light lunch of butterfly pasta.
But of course, it wasn’t butterflies at all, only bow-shaped pasta sprinkled with parmesan and melted butter, and she did not even taste it, because the fire engines screamed past and she looked down the road in the direction they traveled and saw that the sky was a bright orange of fluttering blues and wings and she knew that the meadow was on fire. Of course they wouldn’t let her near it. She heard them talking about a body, whom she later learned was the girl, Emma. Whenever Lantanna tried to picture Emma, even after she saw her face in the newspaper, she could only hold the image for a fleeting moment. It was true, she was haunted. But not by the death of Emma.
At night she dreamt the fluttering of wings brushed her cheeks and teased her lips.
And it was strange, in the way that strange things happen, that just when she was at her worst, suffering the despair of what was lost from her life forever (some things should be certain, an appetite fed, for instance) that, though she had not answered a single letter, Quetzl came to her, knocking at the door in the midst of another winter storm. He found her wan and pale, shivering in her too thin dress. She invited him in and brought him to warm by the fire but he could see that she was suffering, and of course his love sank to the depths of her despair, and he felt it within him, in the place where Emma died, a greater widening of the emptiness. He implored her to eat and removed from his knapsack a bruised peach, a flattened sandwich, a brown spotted banana, but she wanted none of it. In desperation he moved her closer to the flame where he discovered he could see, not just through the thin fabric of her pale yellow dress to the wisp of shape beneath, but through her skin to the blue course of veins and delicate bones.
He found Lantanna’s mother in the garage, huddled near the space heater, carving an angel who looked vaguely familiar. He watched for a long time her intense carving, before he approached, saying, “You give more attention to this statue than you do your own daughter.” At which she did not pause but continued to carve, the scrape of metal against stone shrill to his ears. “Did you hear me?”
“I heard you.”
“Well? What kind of mother are you? Can’t you see what’s happening?” At this the woman laughed. “I see what’s happening,” she said. “You’re happening. And if she can survive you, perhaps she’ll live.”
“Survive me? I love her.”
“You destroy her.”
“I save her,” he said, and then turned on his heels, muttering, “Standing here talking to a crazy old witch,” he walked out of the garage into the storm.
That night he returned with a car and took Lantanna and a suitcase he directed her to pack and drove through the white snow sifting the sky, soft as petals. “Where are we going?” she asked, suddenly aware that she was confused.
She slept. When she woke, it was light. He offered her a hamburger and this she refused but she ate some of the lettuce and the tomato so he was pleased. The stars were white-bright, intense. She slept. When she woke again a hot sun followed them. Her cheeks were wet, and she sniffed at her own scent, salty, musty. He drove with a grim resolve, stopping to piss, to kiss her mouth that she was embarrassed tasted of her own bad breath. “Mexico?” she said and he shrugged his shoulders and nodded as if, yes, it was strange, but somehow inevitable. “Why, we’re driving into summer,” she said. At night they slept in rest stops where she washed her armpits, and feet, and crotch, and wet a comb through her hair, and still she felt wild somehow and could not wash or neaten the feeling away. She’d squint into the dimpled mysterious rest stop mirrors and try to see the change reflected there, the strange strength that grew inside her, and she looked at his face and came to believe she saw it in his profile too. Wild. Free.
When they got to the border there was a wait of traffic and it was the first time she entered another country and she did not know it would be so much like an amusement park. Tijuana was strange, bright with color and cheap, but he kept driving past chain link fences with holes cut out of them that marked the border, past cardboard-and-tire shacks with the blue light of a TV inside, past the fish stands, and women with babies begging. He stopped only to look at the map and she began to think that this was not love, not love at all, but some sort of obsession and then he said, “We’re here. I think.” But it was dark and so they slept until morning showed them the edge of the jungle and they followed the strange trail she could not object to because it was inevitable until at last they stood at the top of the hill and he waved his hand across the expanse of valley below. “Here,” he said, “I give you this.” She had to squint and not really look at all before she saw that the spotted trees quivered with red and black wings, thousands and thousands, so what could she do but walk into them? They lit on her, in her hair, on her hands. They fluttered against her skin. “Monarchs,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “For you.”
“Monarchs,” she said again.
“Because you love them.”
Monarchs flitted against her skin and hair. Each touch reminded her of the loss.
“Now you see how I love you,” he said. “I left home. I stole the car. I did everything for you. Because I know you miss the butterflies. I would do anything for you. I would die for you.”
“But” She could not continue. She saw the bright light in his eyes and could not cast it out with the venomous truth. He saw the tears in her eyes and mistook them for joy. He broke the distance between them and kissed her with the passion of a thousand wings, of an exile, of an appetite starved.
She returned the kiss with her own pain. Poisonous. All these butterflies, she thought, and not one of them edible. His tongue fluttered in her mouth. She had to concentrate not to bite down. He pressed against her. His hot hands on her thighs, her panties stretched tight as his fingers wiggled inside, eager, one tip, wet, there. She groaned. His other hand pushed the panties down. Yes, why not? she thought. Anything, anything to stop the sound of wings.
“Oh, Lantanna,” he said. “I will love you forever.”
But this she could not believe. Even as she lay on the jungle ground, monarchs fluttering against her skin and brushing her hands, even as she arched to meet the stab of pleasure, even later in the car where it happened again, and at the rest stops, beneath the desert stars, even as he risked arrest to drive her home because she missed her mother, even though she knew he meant to, she also knew he could not love her forever, for he did not love her now, not really. Not knowing her secret, not understanding her appetite, how could she believe he loved her at all?
——— III ———
When they returned to Oakdale, Quetzl was arrested. They talked of arresting Lantanna but Quetzl said she did not know he’d stolen the car. Lantanna did not want to go to prison so she did not argue for truth.
Winter melted. Queetzl wrote to Lantanna every day. Every day she read his mysterious, passionate letters and wept.
Finally, she took the bus and hitchhiked to the county jail.
“How did you get here?”
“I took the bus and hitchhiked.”
“I don’t want you hitchhiking, it’s dangerous.”
“Anyway,” she said to change the subject.
“No. Not anyway. I’ll end this visit,” he said, “if you don’t promise. Promise me you will not hitchhike again.”
“You’re not understanding.”
“What am I not understanding? I love you. I want you safe.”
“No,” Lantanna said. “That’s not what I mean. What you don’t understand is I won’t promise you anything. I am not the one. You need me. Let’s just be clear about this. You need me. And I don’t need you. So don’t make threats that hurt only yourself.”
Quetzl waved for the guard.
Yes. I need you. Beautiful, beautiful girl. I love you. I need you for your beauty. Your love of beauty. Come visit. Tell me you love me. I live to hear you say it. I would do anything for you. I would die for you. But I don’t want you to die for me. I just want you to be safe. Come back to me. I love you. I love you. I love you. Say it.
The second visit.
“How did you get here?”
“I took the bus and hitchhiked.”
“I just want you to be safe.”
“How can you love me,” she says, “if you don’t believe I want the same thing for myself?”
“Lantanna, I love you. Tell me what you want. Tell me what will make you love me.”
“Well,” she says, “that’s a start. Finally, you ask. There are things about me. Things you do not even guess. I have many secrets and there is one that really matters. I’ve never shared it with anyone. I’ve never known anyone who would understand.”
“Yes. Me. I love you. You can tell me anything.”
“This I have to show you.”
“Then show me.”
“I can’t show you here.”
“Will you wait for me?”
“How can I answer? How can I know?”
Several nights later she is awakened. “Quetzl?”
“I escaped,” he says. “But they’ll find me. They’ll come here. We have to go.”
“What?” she says. “Is this your gift to me? I don’t want to go to prison for helping you to escape.”
“No, no. Didn’t I tell you?” He sits beside her on the bed. He grabs her arm and she feels the pulse and weight of his passion. “You never wrote, you only visited twice, and when you came we fought. I have this all planned. You tell them I kidnapped you. If we’re caught you tell them that. See, I have this rope. Let me tie you up.”
“You must think I am really stupid.”
“Lantanna,” he begs. “Trust me. All I’ve ever done is love you. I escaped so you could show me your secret.”
“It’s not here,” Lantanna says. “It’s not in this room.” She sees that he is sweating. She sees fear in his eyes.
It isn’t that she really believes he loves her but because she hopes he does, that she agrees. He ties her wrists to the bedposts. She watches his profile as he does. So serious in his work he does not seem to notice her. With the final knot he kisses her. “I won’t do this, if you don’t want me to,” he says as he lifts her thin nightgown.
When he kisses her, she kisses back. It is wonderful, she thinks, to only lie there. He is hungry. It has been a long time and she knows about appetites. He is touching her everywhere. As if his hands had wings. She closes her eyes and tries to feel only these feelings and forget, for a while, the longing, the empty hunger, her own appetite.
Afterward, he takes the silver scissors shaped like a bird from her dresser and saws through the rope. It dangles on the posts and the loops bracelet her wrists. When they stand up together there is a wet spot exposed on the bed. “That’s good,” he says, “it looks like I raped you.”
It is getting light. They sneak down the stairs together as if Lanatanna lived in a house with the sort of parent who would interfere.
She takes him down the path, past his father’s house, past the burnt trees of last summer’s fire, to the meadow, which is stubby as a bad haircut but sprite with flowers.
“I didn’t know it would grow back so quickly,” he says.
She lies down. She ignores him. He finds this moving, that she has let him in so close now that he can see what she is alone. She picks a bud and puts it in her mouth. He is fascinated. This small gesture he had not seen before. She raises her arms, the knotted rope bracelets her wrists, her hands are like little white stars fallen into the meadow grass. The early morning strengthens with heat. He is restless. But she is still and he has learned patience from her stillness.
Finally, a very small yellow butterfly begins to flit about. It lands on the rope.
He thinks, This beautiful girl.
It flits around her lips.
It lands on the bud in her mouth.
She snaps her mouth shut. Chews. Swallows. She looks at him.
He looks at her.
She covers her face with her hands, like a child, as if by not seeing him she disappears. When she removes them, he is still watching her. She cannot bear what she sees. She closes her eyes.
“Go away,” she says.
“I can help you.”
“No. Go away.”
“But I love you,” he says.
She looks at him.
“Really,” he says.
“And this?” she gestures toward her mouth.
“I’ll help you,” he says. “I’ll stick by you while you work it out.”
“This is not a problem,” she says. “This is my appetite.”
He bends to kiss her, but just above her mouth, hesitates.
“Don’t worry,” she says, “they don’t fly back out.”
She closes her eyes. For a long time the only sound is the scrying of bugs. Then she hears the sound of his feet like a scythe, cutting through the meadow grass.
Now, everything is different. She does what she has never done before. She picks another bud. Places it in her mouth. Today she will eat until she has enough. A small blue flits about. She waits. Waits. Waits. It lands on her tongue. Wings fluttering. She bites. In the distance, she hears sirens. Chews. Yes, everything is different now. Swallows. It even tastes different. It tastes better.