| “shoot it down in a tangle of broken planks
and brackets, twisted with string and sailcloth
knock it from the air
no child of Daedalus rigged this up
and from the balcony
a stallion rearing bronze about to leap from the pedestal
the terrified massing below conspicuously absent
returning to the workshop to capture the flight
porcupine-bristling with pikes and bolts for brushes
WC Roberts lives in a mobile home up on Bixby Hill, on land that was once the county dump. The only window looks out on a ragged scarecrow standing in a field of straw and dressed in his own discarded clothes. WC dreams of the desert, of finally getting his first television set, and of ravens. Above all, he writes.
Moths came and went in whispers, a steady stream of them, following the same path through our house as though someone had given them a map, blueprints, a detailed architectural analysis. They came with a job to do, though it seemed that they were kind. Their wings against my face were kind. “What are they looking for?” I asked Kyro.
We were listening to Kyro’s music while he made dinner. Kyro had walls full of records. They were here when I came to this house, they kept us company in the dark. We loved Kyro’s music so much that sometimes we couldn’t help it, we had to get up in the middle of the night to push down the needle on our old record player, so the music crackled up like fire. There was no fire. Midnight, Kyro and I danced in our elegant night-shirts over the living room carpet, silently, waking no one.
“Light,” Kyro said. “They’re looking for light. Someone must have told them we have some, and they want to find it.”
“But there’s no light,” I said.
“I know.” He spread fat in the pan so it spat up hard and hot. Kyro’s face is rarely clear, but when it is, the clearest thing is the constellation of Aquila the Eagle pockmarked in white scar tissue over his cheekbone. It makes him look firm, just, logical, wise, though he is none of those things, he is only careless with hot fat.
“Where did the light go?” I asked him in a whisper.
Kyro cooked the fat black. “O far-sighted Cassandra,” he said.
“I am not far-sighted Cassandra.”
“Then what is your name?”
I turned away from him. I could not bring myself to tell him that my name was gone, lost with the light. Kyro shouted my name once, very loud, and it slammed against the window and the window shattered and it flew out like a sightless bird and now I have no name. But I did not want to upset him. Kyro is mostly a considerate housemate.
For dinner we ate dumplings made of flour and fat. They stuck in our throats like tears, but were the only things we could cook, since the light left. The light took other, more important things with it when it disappeared: plants and flowers, creatures for slaughter and sacrifice, all the blood of the world.
“We could build a moth-trap,” Kyro said, slicing his dumpling neatly with a fork and knife. “We could build tripwires and slipknots and have the whole kitchen rigged in a day, and then we could use their wings to light our fires again, we could have fires. Wouldn’t you like that? To have light?”
I looked away from him, out at the walls of our house, which, being invisible, were irrelevant; the dark let us live in a cathedral, in a loop of night sky, buried within one another’s rib cages. “You can’t kill the moths,” I said.
“Because,” I said, and closed my eyes, and even with my eyes shut I saw the dull outline of Kyro’s pockmark scars. “Because the moths never hurt you,” I said. It was a lie. A long time ago, or very recently, a moth crept into Kyro’s mouth while he slept and Kyro would have died, if I hadn’t heard him choking. The moths knew more than Kyro gave them credit for. They knew exactly what they wanted.
“Why do you hate them?” I asked.
Kyro wiped grease from his mouth with a linen napkin, every movement calm and blank. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, without intonation. “I don’t hate them at all.”
After dinner we danced. We loved Kyro’s music so much that we couldn’t help dancing, and there were crop-circles in the living room carpet where our dancing footsteps lived. Now and again we danced backwards. Then we saw the rain fall up instead of down, and the fat splash back into the pan, and the clock went tock-tick, tock-tick, tock-tick.
Kyro danced on a moth. He cursed at it and we had to stop. It is very rude to stop in the middle of a dance, but we had been too long without light to care about etiquette. I went to the record player and put on Kyro’s record. It is a nameless record, a wheel of songs in a jointless wheel. The first song is called ‘Haidinger’s Brush’. Kyro once told me that if you play this song backwards you will hear the Styx and the Lethe and the Phlegathon and the Acheron and the Cocytus, the rush of that underworld water, though when I turned the record over all I heard was static.
The song played and played, but we didn’t feel like dancing anymore.
In the story, Aquila is the eagle who belonged to Zeus. One time Aquila carried beautiful Ganymede up to the top of Mount Olympus to pour Zeus’s wine. Zeus drank wine made from nectar, sunlight and pollen and the sweet drop inside the honeysuckle flower. Aquila ate the mud of the mountainside. The black mud.
Aquila was not a good bird. The days of his long life spread out like a banquet and Aquila snatched at their red meat. He ate the liver of Prometheus and Prometheus was reborn whole and Aquila ate his liver again, again and again, and it was tender and glossy as a newborn baby, richer than fat and flour, and in a different story Aquila was one of the cruel birds Hercules hunted, one of seven impossible tasks, and Hercules was a man who knew what he wanted.
If Kyro is Zeus, then I could be Ganymede. I’d climb up and down the stairs for him in my deep-green dress, and uncork his wine, and call him ho basileus. I would be the tallest wine glass for his honeysuckle wine. But I am not Ganymede and Kyro is not Zeus, and so I don’t know who we are.
Kyro followed me into my bedroom. He sat on the edge of my bed, and when he tried to kiss me the moths flew up into his face, beating their wings against him. Their great wings washed my face in air. They were heavy as sheet metal. “No, Kyro,” I said.
“My name is not swift-spoken Cassandra.”
Kyro pulled me onto the bed beside him. His touch was a downwards tug and my name was gone already, I was afraid to go down any further without a thread to guide me back, without anyone following. “No, Kyro,” I said again. “You have your own bed to sleep in.”
The moths did not like Kyro, but they loved me. They settled in my hair and on my collarbone, which was the perfect size for them to rest on, as though my shape was carved specifically to be a chair for moths. They rustled like dead flowers.
Kyro looked up at me, in distaste or in hunger. He shut the door on me, my moths, my room, but he left a smudge of mud on my skirt, a clutch of fingerprints, and now I was a crime scene dusted for evidence, now I belonged entirely to his presence. The moths came and licked up Kyro’s dirt with long light tongues. They peered at me, shyly. “Where do you come from?” I asked. The moths said someone had sent them. “Who has sent you?” I asked. The moths said I had known him once, a long time ago; we had been close as earth and roots, and he had too many names for them to possibly remember. “Try,” I ordered, but the moths are nervous when put on the spot. Instead they recited for me their own detailed lineages, all of which began with Far-Sighted Cassandra, Linear Cassandra, Cassandra Disregarded.
I spent the night fashioning bird feeders out of the lightbulbs we no longer used. If there were birds, they could come to swing on lightbulbs full of seeds or nuts or dried bread and they would be living decorations and our house would be the brightest house. There are no birds. The moths tried out the bird feeders, experimentally, but found them too grand and chilly. Downstairs, music played over and over. The second song on Kyro’s record is called ‘Aphrodite’s Fire’. It is the second saddest song in the world, and also the one with the best beat. When the light left I lay on the floor and listened to this song over and over and I thought I knew what it was like to be nothing, an infinite nothing. It was like this.
The moths and I slept finally. We were uneasy about sleep. Our dreams had grown dark, recently, and intricately plotted. But we had each other, the moths and I, and the moths sat in a military row on my collarbone, and we faced our dreams together.
There are many stars in the constellation Aquila, but only three with names. Their names are Altair, Alshain, Tarazed. Altair means the flying one. Alshain means falcon. Tarazed means punica granatum, it means far-sighted Cassandra, it means when the light left. In the long history of the sky these stars are children. They have lost their mother. She was carried across the river of the Milky Way, or swept off by a current, or she picked up her skirt and her dancing shoes and ran.
By morning the moths were gone. They knew the hours of the day, even the lightless hours. That morning Kyro came down to breakfast in his masquerade costume. “Take it off,” I said. “You’ll set fire to your feathers on the stove.” Kyro took off the costume. It sat beside us at the dining room table, watching me through the empty eyeholes over its beak. The record was stuck on the third song, the song that plays when you take your toaster into the bath, and it would be unwise of me to say its name. I lifted the needle to stop it skipping.
“Why are you wearing that dress,” Kyro asked, “dark-hearted Cassandra?”
I stood over him, and my hands in their gloves recalled his hands at my neck. “My name is not dark-hearted Cassandra,” I said quietly. “And you should not say it is. You should never say something like that. Why,” I said, “why would you say that?”
Kyro pressed himself back in his chair, and his eyes were big and black. “I thought-–”
“You didn’t think.”
Kyro ate his breakfast in silence, bent over his plate. For a moment I felt wild and savage and my hands knotted into fists and I dreamed of something nameless and terribly, unspeakably sweet, but then the song called ‘Prisoner’s Cinema’ played like a ballet and Kyro and I laughed and kissed and made up. He does not mean to hurt me, I said to the sightless walls. He is only confused. All this dark would confuse anyone.
A long time ago Kyro and I slept in the same bed at night and he guarded me in all the unsafe hours and our names were long and regal. I owned my skin and my epithets, and my lineage was a thousand thousand years long. Back then there was light for our windows and there was fire for our coal and I had a job to do. No dark ever trapped us like a winding tunnel back then.
After breakfast Kyro went into his room to work. He never told me what he was working on, but all day I heard him hammer and saw. I swept mud from the floor and the walls and the cupboards. My gloves moved quietly over soil. And deep, deep in the back of the cupboard, my gloves found something hard and round. I pulled it out and polished it on my dress. “It seems to be an onion,” I said, and although there was no one to hear me it did seem to be an onion, wrinkled and yellow, the shape of a heart instead of a circle. I said, “I believe onions to be very piquant, do you agree?” The moths flew from the darkness to my shoulder, and they agreed, despite their caution. “I am so hungry,” I whispered. I wrapped the onion in a piece of newspaper. I hid it in my skirt.
Aquila the Eagle was a dangerous bird. He was a broken-clawed bird, a golden-eyed bird, a dark-winged bird, a dark-hearted bird. Hercules, the immeasurable army of him, killed Aquila for a reason. Each story murders Aquila over and over. The eagle took only what he wanted and he was never cruel, he fought like a hunter. But some things need to be killed now and then, no matter their intentions. A cull for balance. That’s just the way the world works. When Aquila died the gods set him in the stars with Cygnus the Swan and Lyra the Vulture. They did not converse. Birds have their own detailed hierarchies. The gods ordered Aquila to pull the seasons in the grasp of his beak. Knotted in his fierce grip, the sky spins over the earth, and so it is Aquila who brings the dark, in the dark time of year.
We ate dinner in our evening finery: cravats, kid gloves, coattails, petticoats, jewelled dog collars and jesses. Our silver cutlery against the plates sounded like cruel wit. Kyro frowned down at his exquisite cufflinks. “You might have informed me,” he said, motioning to the rows of moths settled on my shoulders, “that we were to expect company.”
“It was a thoughtless mistake.”
“Yes,” I said. “You’re right. I’m sorry, Kyro.”
Kyro murmured something, and then he said a name, but it wasn’t my name, it was wild-eyed Cassandra. “That’s not my name,” I said. Kyro didn’t hear. He had tilted his head towards the living room, where the music still played on a terrible loop. There was a song on the record called ‘Crying the Neck’, and I believe this to be the song that halts oceans in their paths until they dry to shelves of rock and salt. I believed myself to be tired of the endless night and stasis and the dirt of Kyro’s fingerprints over my best dresses. “When I am queen we will listen to my music,” I told Kyro one night. He had smiled at me. “That’s why you will never be queen,” he said. A door slamming shut.
We danced. Kyro pressed his hands to the bend of my back and he said we needed no one but each other, we didn’t need anyone. He ate my bright liver over and over. I said, “When I’m queen –” but Kyro pushed me away. The expression on his face was natural disaster.
“You will never be queen,” he said.
The grandfather clock in the living room measured our dance steps like a metronome. Clocks lived everywhere in Kyro’s house, thousands of them, great sweeping halls of them, all the clocks in the world. He built them himself, from dust and particles, welding our discarded selves in his workshop so that they could come back, reformed, and keep our footsteps steady. I stepped out of the dance. Kyro gasped, shocked, but I walked to the grandfather clock and snatched the pendulum up in my fist. The pendulum had a round white face. Its two eyes, sad as orphans, blinked up at me slowly, and the down-turned mouth whispered a word that might have been my name. I tore the pendulum from the skeleton of the grandfather clock. Kyro watched me go.
In my room, I sat on the tilted bed. I smoothed my dress. “One must never leave a dance half-danced,” I told the moths, and they nodded their many jewelled heads, for they were well-acquainted with the conventions of the ballroom. “But there are more important things,” I said.
The pendulum’s pale shape fit in my hands like a heart, my own. It sighed and murmured. “Who are you?” I asked it. “Why are you keeping time for us in Kyro’s living room?”
It smiled at me, kindly, but did not speak. The moths pooled around the rim of its face, peering down into it as though they wanted to drink from its milky depths.
“How long have you been kept here?” I asked.
The pendulum said nothing.
“What is my name?” I whispered.
The pendulum opened its coin-round mouth. “Fennel,” it said.
I considered. I was not a serpent-eared Cassandra, nor a nut-hollow Cassandra, but nor was I a Fennel. “You are thinking of someone else,” I said politely.
The pendulum laughed, a tickle in the palm of my hand. “I did not mean you,” it said.
The moths nosed aside the skirts of my long evening dress, to where I had hidden the onion from the cupboard, fastened with twine around my thigh to hide it from Kyro. Up close, it did look like an onion, after all. “Do you think it’s poisonous?” I asked the moths. The moths had nothing to say to me, and I was hungry, I had left dinner unsatisfied, so I peeled the fennel bulb’s brown skin and ate it like an apple, delicious, liquorice-scented. The moths fluttered over my mouth to steal a taste. Their small sighs kissed my lips.
The door slammed against the wall, scattering plaster. Kyro slid into my room. He carried his wood saw in one hand, his hammer in the other, and his mouth was a vicious arc. “What have you done?” he demanded.
“What have you done, you storm-minded Cassandra?”
“My name is not storm-minded Cassandra.”
“What terrible thing have you done?” he shouted. His voice cracked into a shriek.
The moths sat in luminary rows on my wrists and my collarbone. Their gaze was inscrutable, a wall of nuance, slight and watchful; their breath spoke the many angles of my name, and I could almost hear it. Lying face-up on my bed, the pendulum hummed softly to itself.
“I ate the light,” I said.
Kyro dropped his hammer, but did not seem to realise. Light swarmed and rang inside of me. I opened my mouth, and it washed shape and colour over everything, turning the moths into stained-glass windows. The pendulum, murmuring nonsense words, opened its mouth and swallowed a mouthful of light. “Spring,” it said. “Summer. Autumn. Winter.”
I licked the last of the fennel’s juice from my fingers. “Your names?”
“Not mine. My name is Moon.”
Moon, the moths whispered. This was something I remembered, a curious word that belonged to my own vocabulary. “Moon,” I repeated.
Kyro reached for me. “We were together,” he said desperately, harshly, “all I wanted was for us to be together.”
“You don’t even know my name.”
“Please,” he breathed. His fingers hooked into talons.
The last song on Kyro’s record is called ‘The Staff of Hermes’. It is in a foreign language, and so is a mystery, like all the best songs; but upon reflection I believe it is a song about time’s return to a seasonless world, a song about fields and flowers, sacrifice and foresight, light cupped in the black bowls of fireplaces and light high over forests and oceans. It is a song meant for both day and night. A road outstretched. A linear kingdom for a returning queen.
I moved towards Kyro. Every pendulum in the house arched to me in longing, every hour hand, every minute hand, an ecstasy of time, and it was mine, it was my name. Kyro beat his wings against the door frame. The moths, bright as constellations, descended on his fallen feathers and devoured them. Kyro’s scream rose to the ceiling beams.
“Run,” I told him.
Becca De La Rosa lives in Dublin, Ireland, and is currently studying Ancient Greek at university. Her stories have been published in Strange Horizons, The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Sybil’s Garage, and Clarkesworld, among other places. You can find her online at www.beccadelarosa.com. She says:
This story was inspired by a number of Greek myths and mythological characters, and by an article in a science magazine about time and the telling of time, and by living in a house that fills up with moths every summer, all summer long.
When I was dead, they called me Harold Half-Helm, for a variety of reasons. Someone wrote a cycle of songs about it once, and they’d sing it in the evenings when I was very drunk. The silver goblets would spill and usually there would be a bit of blood before it was all over. That’s not what I’m writing about now though. I’m writing about the tree, how it died, and what we did with it.
I wouldn’t normally have picked up a quill and written all this. I had held the pen long enough when I was alive, and it hadn’t done me much good then. Here there was much more to do with a good broadsword or spear, so when Andronicus brought me this parchment and a quill and asked me to write, I had hoped my glare would be his answer.
When he lingered I growled, “You’re the poet. You write it.”
He shook his head and said something about not everyone being able to write every story.
“Well I don’t want to write this one.”
But he left the parchment and the horn of ink and the quill, and before I knew it I had notched the quill with my dagger and dipped it in the ink, which was dark like wine.
Andronicus wanted me to write about the tree. The poets called it Aegiros, and the gods had a name the rest of us couldn’t pronounce. We had our own name for it, having to do with the fact that it was a good place to take a woman. I had, more than a few times, and I’m sure the others had as well.
It’s dead now. I’m not sure I’ve written that yet. Apparently Andronicus thinks I have something to say about it.
I guess I do.
The tree was up in the hills that overlook the halls of the gods. From up there you could see everything—all the meadows and forests that sloped down to where the sea sat at the horizon like a blue finger.
It was huge, which you know if you’ve been here. The young dead don’t raise their eyes much, but occasionally you’ll see a new one stagger out of the foam and scan the beaches as if they’re looking for someone. No one comes, and eventually, when their eyes get strong enough, they’ll look up into the hills and see the ivory columns of the gods’ houses. Then above and behind those all, at the foot of the mountains, the grey-green column of the tree itself—or at least they used to.
The gods said it was the first sight of the tree that convinces those on the beaches they’re dead. No tree from before could have been so big. The mahoganies I had spent weeks in the canopies of would have been weeds beside it. Sometimes it seemed that the sight of it was the only thing that got the new dead off the sands and up into the hills. Now that it’s gone they wander like ghosts on the beaches.
This quill wants to write of the tree’s leaves: wide as Spanner’s shield, blue and silver like the sea. When the breezes off the mountains blew through them it was like a cloud was whispering secrets the gods didn’t know anything about. It was tall enough that when the sun passed overhead it left a trail of curled leaves as it wound through the branches, and one evening when I was there with Helga of the Ivory Tower we heard the branches creaking because the moon had gotten caught. We both had to climb up and free it, and if you think a woman’s skin looks fine by moonlight when she’s on the ground, wait and take a look when she’s standing on a silver branch with her arms halfway around the moon.
That was a good night.
But the tree is gone now, as this quill of Andronicus’ keeps reminding me.
Besides being big, it was supposed to be old. There are things here you think are old—the stone table the gods sit around, for instance, or the well that Jarred Slimfist had dug and lined with bricks so he could throw a stone down into hell. You think those things are old, but the gods built them themselves. The tree though, if you believe what they say, was growing when there weren’t any gods at all.
That was the tree.
But all those things about it—about those silver-blue leaves that never changed with the seasons—was why everyone that day in the hall stopped and stared, even the high gods at their table of stone, when Sugarfoot shuffled in through the golden doors holding one of the leaves, withered and brown as old parchment.
I was sitting near the door. This wasn’t because I knew what was coming. I want to get that straight. I had known trees before, but the trees here were different. The ones in the valleys with the bark of human skin or the ones that would come down in the evenings and dance with you like they were half wind and half woman—they didn’t follow the same rules as those from before. I couldn’t tally them, and I couldn’t watch as they were all slowly felled around me. (Not that anyone here would have been so stupid to try.) So whatever I could or could not do before didn’t matter. I had no idea the tree was dying, and I still don’t know why it did.
I was sitting near the door when Sugarfoot limped in because I had had an argument with one of the minor gods earlier that morning. It seemed prudent to sit far from their table. It also meant I saw the dead leaf clearly.
“I thought it was the pages of Old Doom’s book,” Sugarfoot muttered. He was supposed to be the oldest of the old gods and had a face dark and wrinkled as the soil. “I thought he was finally throwing them out one by one.”
He blinked and stared around the hall.
“But it was a leaf from the tree,” he barked, brandishing the thing, “so maybe just as bad as Old Doom and his book.”
No one in gods’ memory had seen the tree drop a leaf. There wasn’t autumn here, and when leaves went red it was usually because someone had bled on them. It was like a story I remembered from before of a bird that had a piece of the sky fall on her head. It was blue and silvered, like glass, and she carried the shard around in her beak warning other animals until she finally met a fox who killed her and used the sky-shard to make a knife. I remembered the story because it was that idea, something as unthinkable as a falling sky, that was what we felt when we saw the wilted leaf. Had Sugarfoot walked in holding a dead, bloated star, I don’t think we would have been any more shocked.
Things don’t often surprise you when you’re dead.
He passed slowly through the hall with the leaf, down to where Ogden himself sat in his silver throne. All the high gods and heroes clustered around him. The rest of us in the hall watched them speak together for a while, and none of us said anything. Then they called over some of the poets and some of the learned dead. There was more talk. Finally Ogden stood and took down the golden spear that hung from the back of his chair. It was the spear that, when held, allowed only truth spoken.
“The tree is dying,” he said.
Then he sat down.
The silence deepened. Things didn’t die in the land of the dead. Sure, things got killed often enough. It wouldn’t have been a very interesting place otherwise. I myself had broken blades on the backs of more than a few warriors, but that was simply the way of things. Come nightfall the mead would flow and everyone, whichever side of the blade they had been on, would wander back into the hall and drink again.
Things got killed, but things didn’t die.
I notched my quill again after I had written that last, and it bucked in my hands like one of Fyoden’s minded blades. Andronicus has not returned, and the shadows have wandered from the forests outside the hall to lay across the lawns with their heads pillowed in the grasses. I wonder what those who pass through the hall must think of me sitting here. I am sure I look ridiculous, hunched over these scraps of parchment and hands smeared with ink like sap.
The quill wants to speak more of the silence that descended in the hall after Ogden spoke, silence so thick you could see its wings in the rafters, but I’ve bit off the nub and notched it again. I’m not sure from what flock of half-charmed and ill-mannered fowl Andronicus gets these things, but this one keeps twitching against my grasp.
I was sitting in the silence of the hall with the other dead thinking about what Ogden had said when Bromin of the Heavy Hand came to sit beside me and spoke quietly. His brows were furrowed.
“What do you make of this, Half-Helm?” he asked.
Bromin had small eyes and a voice that made you hunch your shoulders against it.
I shrugged. “It’s the concern of the gods.”
“Nothing you can do for a dying tree?”
In the past they say that Andronicus would give flesh to his books and let them walk about in the lands across the sea. If that is still the case, you may hear this story before you come here, and you may eventually understand why my hand tightened on the hilt of my blade when Bromin spoke thus to me. There were certain things that were not spoken of here, and the first among these was anything of what had happened before.
“Nothing,” I said evenly. I forced my grip on the blade’s hilt to relax.
He looked at me for a while, then echoed my shrug and moved away.
That next morning the gods called everyone back to the Great Hall. Runners went through the gardens, and the silver trumpets were sounded on the gates. When I took my place about halfway out along the ring of greater and lesser heroes that poured into the chamber and filled the space around Ogden’s throne, the hall was filled with faces like foam on the sea.
“The tree is dying,” Ogden said when the legions of gods and men had gathered. “We have stood beneath its crown and seen the signs of death. This is not the way of things in the lands of the gods.”
From the outside of the Great Hall one could throw a spear along perhaps a third of the length of its walls. From within though, it stretched away in all directions until it was large enough to hold the countless thousands that were gathered. These thousands now voiced their assent to Ogden’s words, and it was as though the faces were indeed a sea, beating against a shore of stone.
“We will not sit idly and watch this death,” Ogden went on. On his tunic there was a silver tree, which I had always thought to be an image of the Tree itself, and this silver tree shifted as he raised his spear. “Thus we have decreed: while the tree is yet whole, Hammerfast will fell it. We will use its wood to craft a gift for those who still dwell across the sea.”
When Ogden spoke those words, Hammerfast (who has many names in many places) raised his huge axe. That the flesh of the tree should be shaped into something of use was not unexpected; that it would be a gift for those beyond the sea only slightly more so. It was true the ships no longer passed that way and few of the bridges that spanned that sea were still whole (and those that were gave no passage to men). This though did not mean the gods had no thought for those who remained.
Again I found that Bromin stood beside me.
“They can do nothing to save it?” he whispered.
I shook my head. “They came over the sea as we did. They don’t have the power they had once. You know this.”
“Or the knowledge?”
Again I shrugged and turned away.
I think I realized then he was baiting me, though I was not sure why. As I wrote before, the trees I knew then were not like the trees here. Those had died all around me, and then like now I had been able to do nothing.
After that the voices swelled even louder, for once Ogden had said that the wood of the tree would be used to fashion something, the gods and heroes argued about what form the gift should take. The old soldiers shouted for a forest of spears as long as Fyngard is tall, but Fyngard himself called for shafts to birth a cloud of ten thousand arrows.
A god whose name I couldn’t remember pulled himself up near a pillar and held his hands for silence. He tried to explain that men no longer warred and instead would be better served by staves to lean upon in their travels. I remember that some of the old gods nodded at this, though it seemed strange to the rest of us.
Someone else called for a ship so that men could again sail the sea and perhaps beyond—for surely the wood from the tree would be fit to fashion a ship to pass beyond the sky. Again some of the gods and heroes nodded, but the hall was vast and soon other voices were added to the tumult.
It continued like this for some time.
The light had begun to fade, and sylvan forms lit lanterns on the pillars and in the gardens, and the horns of mead were passed, before Sugarfoot himself slowly made his way to where the gods took council at the center of the hall. He did indeed in that moment seem as old as they say he is, a form of stone ground down to dark earth by the march of countless years. When he spoke his voice carried through the growing darkness.
“The sons of man are tired,” he said. “They don’t need boats or beams and they sure as shit don’t need spears.”
The gods listened silently.
“They need chairs. Solid chairs beside a hearth or on a porch. They need a place to sit.”
At this there was again silence in the hall, and outside I could hear the first of the glowflies singing in the fields. I waited for the voices to rise again in argument, but they never came. Finally Ogden nodded very slowly, took up his great golden spear, and said, “It shall be done.”
I left the hall then, and when I walked outside and up the long rise beyond the houses of the gods, the tree was visible as a darkness rearing up before the mountains. In the night no signs of death could be seen. The tree stretched upward, boughs branching and re-branching like veins beneath skin, like they were roots working their way up into a soil of blackness where the stars were flecks of brilliant stone.
I was not alone.
“But you shall raid the whole land through,” someone spoke at my back, “and never a tree shall talk to you, though every leaf is a tongue taught true and the forest full of eyes.”
“Chesterton,” I said, turning to find Bromin of the Heavy Hand. “Don’t let him catch you quoting him. I tried that once, and he nearly ran me through with that damned stick of his.”
We looked up at the tree together in silence for a while.
“You think you’d be used to this,” he finally said. “You must be like the patron saint of dying trees.”
I shook my head.
“It was single species.” He muttered. “A single fucking species, and you acted like every last tree on earth was dying.”
I was quiet for a long time.
“Three,” I finally said, rubbing the bridge of my nose where glasses had not perched for perhaps a hundred years. “There were three distinct species of cottonwood, and they were all affected by the blight.”
“And you could never isolate it,” he went on. “Do you remember the first one we saw go, the one at the edge of the lake behind the lodge?”
“Why are you doing this?”
There are those here who argue that what you did across the sea has a bearing on whether you end up here or elsewhere. I don’t know about that. What I do know though—and what everyone who drinks mead under the rafters in the gods’ halls knows—is what I said earlier: here one does not speak of what had happened before. You—you who may hear this across the sea—will not understand, because you think you know now what your life now is.
Bromin knew this as well as any.
“You came in with a dead branch, and no one cared. They sawed it down and made some benches for the lodge porch. Do you remember? And then when they were going everywhere you kept those endless journals of the blight’s progress. No one else gave a damn some weedy trees along the creeks were dying out.” He laughed. “My wife had allergies. She was thrilled to see them go.”
I looked up where the branches of the tree arched far above us, but for a moment I could not see them stretched like beams between stars. Instead I saw the silver-green leaves of those others, shivering in the slightest breeze. The light below them was fluid with snowy seeds falling like dust in a quiet room.
“I kissed a girl for the first time in the branches of that tree,” I said, finding a memory so washed by time it was as smooth as stone. “It was the biggest cottonwood I had ever seen.”
“By the time you left they were nearly all gone,” Bromin was saying.
“Were there any left at all when you finally died?”
“There was a stand in eastern Missouri,” I said. I wasn’t sure at that point that I was still talking to him. I felt I was answering a voiceless question from the leaves above.
“Do you think it mattered? You gave your entire career to saving them, but no one will miss them. By our time they had already forgotten the elms.” He went on, speaking the words of challenge.
The young dead find battles like the one we fought then foolish, perhaps. I’ve walked among them on the beaches though, and their pale faces and dim eyes will never meet my own. They know nothing of the battles higher up and the blood that is spilled on stone or grass. They don’t know the codes of honor or why certain words must always be followed by the drawing of a sword. They linger by the shore and could not understand that last battle fought under the crown of that first tree.
Bromin and I understood. By then I had found his name, dragged up from memories of the days before I found myself washed up these beaches. I really don’t know—and neither does this damned quill, though it quivers like it has a secret—why he issued the challenge beneath the tree. Perhaps it was a way for him of finding redemption for the thousand small betrayals from before. There are still some here who seek such things, though if he was one of those he is more foolish than I thought. Regardless of his reasons, I’d like to think the poets will sing of the battle of Bromin of the Heavy Hand and Harold Half-Helm beneath the tree for perhaps as long again as the tree stood.
When his blade was finally broken and my own had found a home between his ribs, he laughed and said he hoped the tree drank blood. Then he died.
A few nights later, when the mead flowed again, he stood beside me in the hall. I shook my head at his unvoiced question.
“I did all I knew,” I told him then. “I took your damn measurements—even a soil sample and a boring. The gods laughed. You know things don’t work like that here.”
He shrugged and said nothing.
Now the light has died here in the hall where I write, and were I to venture out under the dome of stars I know that I would see many of those whom I feasted with at midday taking their places among the constellations.
Someone has brought me a lantern, and I suddenly have sympathy for the scribes who they say labor in caverns under the mountains. The words seem to dash first one way and then another in the flickering light of the flame.
I should write now what happened to the wood of the tree, how it was felled and carved into Sugarfoot’s chairs, though I can do no more than simply say it. Andronicus came back a moment ago, and I showed him what I had written and thought that he would take it. He shook his head though and told me to finish.
“I wrote about the fight,” I said. “I thought you wanted me to write this damn thing because I was the last to draw a blade in the tree’s shadow.”
“Bromin could have just as well written that,” he said.
“Bromin’s an ass.”
He waited, and for an instant I felt like a kid again with a teacher standing over me and waiting for an answer or assignment I didn’t understand. The quill fluttered on the table.
“Was Plato right?” I finally asked. “Did they all die before because their true form was up here dying all along? Is that why you made me write this bullshit?”
Andronicus reached across the table and grasped the quill. In his hand I somehow saw it for what it was, a single feather from a bird that had roosted for a time in the branches of that tree.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Someone explained it to me once, but I didn’t write it down.”
That was his answer. That was his fucking answer.
I stared at his back as he walked away and then stared for a long time at the door he went through out into the night. He had placed the quill back on the table. When I got tired of staring at the door I stared down at it, wondering if it could explain.
And now it’s in my hand again.
The morning after the battle, after someone had taken Bromin’s body away, wood shavings from the tree soaked up his blood. Hammerfast hewed at its trunk all morning and evening and halfway into the next day, his blows making the branches of the tree tremble and the leaves whisper like an approaching storm. No one could watch, and the men and gods all stood facing the sea.
When it finally fell it fell for a day. Its highest branches lay beyond the mountains of the gods, and the bulk of its trunk stretched to the horizon like a giant’s corpse. Hammerfast took his awl and began to shave away the bark and shape the wood.
“It’s soft,” he said. “It takes to the blade well.”
There was enough wood for seven chairs. As large as the tree had been I thought there would have been enough for an army, but that’s not how things work here. When Hammerfest was done there were seven chairs grained with every shade of gold and brown and a pile of shavings, bark, and branches, which we burned. The highest branches had fallen beyond the mountains, and because we couldn’t stand the thought of the leaves slowly wilting, we lit arrows and launched them over the mountains to burn those as well. The sparks rose upward all night and thickened the sky with unfamiliar stars that never fell or faded.
When dawn found us, we were sitting on the hill where the tree had been, with the absence of the tree filling the sky at our backs, and the gods were muttering about who would send the chairs across the sea.
“The envoys no longer pass between our lands,” the gods said. “Those across the sea expect no word from the lands of the gods, and thus it will be difficult to send this gift.”
Thor Thunderfist wanted to simply throw them across, while Aedan of the Unheard Song said she could carry them across by night. A young god wanted to summon a fleet of porpoises and maiden-fish to ferry the chairs. The gods considered all but shook their heads. The seas were stormy, they said, the nights of the cities of men were no longer still enough for song, and bad things seemed to happen whenever Thor threw things.
There was silence on the hill.
Finally Sugarfoot spoke. “There’s no crossing the sea with them,” he said, leaning against his staff. “But it gets colder every year. I feel it, and the tree felt it too. Soon the sea will be frozen.”
He paused and stretched, and his joints popped like stones.
“You use what’s left of this wood, and you carve a couple good sledges to fasten to each. Then, when the seas have frozen, you have one of these young dead pull them across the sea. That’s when the sons of men will need them anyway.”
The gods were quiet for a while after this, quiet for so long that I thought they had not heard him. We waited, and the hills turned silently beneath us.
Then Ogden nodded, and Hammerfast reached for his awl, and it was done. He fashioned fourteen sledges, curved like the line of a bow, and attached a pair to each of the chairs. The gods carried them to a rise that overlooked the sea and sat them in a row where they slowly rocked back and forth in the breeze.
That’s it, and I’ve wiped this quill on my trousers for the last time and blown on the parchment to dry the ink. If, when Andronicus comes, he doesn’t take this feather with him, I’m going to fletch the damn thing to the end of an arrow and shoot it into the sun.
One more thing, it’s saying. One more thing.
The great stump of the First Tree is still there, rising up like a broken hill or maybe a golden table where the tree once stood. It’s still a good place and maybe I shouldn’t say it and maybe it doesn’t mean anything, but when Julia Half-Moon and I lay there on its soft wood one afternoon I noticed that it had sent up a few shoots from where the wood met the bark. They were tiny things with leaves barely larger than the ends of my fingers, but Julia smiled.
Like I said though, I don’t know much of what it all means. I drink my mead with the gods and heroes in the evening, and sometimes I walk to where Sugarfoot sits in one of the chairs, looking out over the sea toward the cities of men. He says the warmth of the wood warms his bones.
“It’s ending,” he told me once when I stood beside him, facing the blown foam of the sea. “It’s all changing.”
I looked back at where the tree had been and at all the cold marble houses the gods had built for themselves and at the beaches where the new dead still washed up like bones. From this distance the houses of the gods looked like mausoleums dotting the hills. The wind picked up and the chairs rocked back and forth, and the old god hunched his shoulders against the chill.
Trees have for me a significance I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on. They know something we don’t.
Here in the northern hemisphere, it’s the dark of the year and getting cold fast. Our December 2010 issue’s a solstice one: stories about, and for, the end of the year and the end — and beginning — of the world.
Becca de la Rosa’s “When the Light Left” is a purest solstice story, about darkness and light and dancing. Nadia Bulkin’s “Lucky You” breaks the world and then draws us through to the other side; and Stephen Case’s “What I Wrote for Andronicus” goes even farther, into death and the afterlife and the end of an afterlife, and through that, into spring.
Our poets this month — Kelly Rose Pflug-Back, WC Roberts, and Liz Bourke — round out the issue with a trio of night flights.
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.
Happy longest night, and we’ll see you in the new year!
Vol. 9 Issue 4
“When the Light Left” – Becca de la Rosa
“Lucky You” – Nadia Bulkin
“What I Wrote for Andronicus” – Stephen Case
“My Bones’ Cracked Abacus” – Kelly Rose Pflug-Back
“No Son of Daedalus” – WC Roberts
“Pinion” – Liz Bourke
Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven – Liz Bourke
Craig Davidson’s Sarah Court – Claire Humphrey
Javier’s first child was born before he became immortal. He was thirty-three and lying in bed, noticing that he got winded quicker than he used to, when Zelda returned from her morning walk through downtown Concord with her hands pressed against the waistband of her sweat shorts.
“Everything is going to hell,” she whispered. “I was watching the nature channel at the techno park. Or maybe it was the news. Ninety-seven pilot whales beached down in Tasmania.”
Pilot whales, sperm whales, beaked whales. Tasmania, the Bahamas, Iceland. He counted enough variables at work. “Can we not talk about suicide cults today?”
“You know how hard it is for a whale to find another whale? I wonder if any of them had babies before they died.” She scratched her dirty-blonde hair, wiped her eyes, and eventually came back to bed and drummed on his kneecaps. Leaned over, leaned down. She felt ashen and wet from the fumes of the Gilgamesh Steamstack. “I want something to survive, Jav.”
June, short for Juniper, was born full-term at Mercy Hospital–second-lowest mortality rate in the city, the “biggest bang for your buck”–two weeks after a blackout. The doctor chopped off her placenta and returned her to Zelda’s folded body, and everyone was happy for a little while. Javier stayed happier for longer; June had his dark features, his mad laugh.
“You see?” he said to Zelda as they sat on their damp porch on Reagan Road, watching June build castles of mud. “She’s our future. She’ll take care of us when we’re old.”
Zelda sighed. “She can’t fight deforestation,” she said. “She can’t fight acid rain.”
Two winters later, the EPA found potassium permanganate in the city water supply, and Zelda did not come home from one of her morning walks. A neighbor said he’d seen her at the edge of the estuary, staring at the silt that passed for water. Apparently Zelda hadn’t answered the neighbor’s calls. “I thought maybe she was drunk,” the neighbor said. “I thought I’d better leave her be.” The years that followed the muted funeral slipped on past like water, because while silt was flooding Zelda’s lungs, Javier had stopped aging.
One day June was standing in the kitchen, fifteen years old and chopping onions, and said to her father that he looked so much younger than her friends’ dads. “I think Brianna has a crush on you,” she said, laughing. Javier was so haggard from all the numbers he’d counted that he hadn’t noticed, but when he looked at himself in the steel refrigerator he saw that June was right. He still looked thirty-five. “Guess I have good genes,” he joked. “Lucky you.”
Except June got older and older, and her father did not. She had children and grandchildren but they didn’t seem worth the effort, not the way their faces blurred together. June could only stand the sight of him after she’d had a martini. She had asked him more than once if he had killed her real father and stolen his skin. “It would explain a lot,” she’d say.
His little junebug; nobody at her funeral had known who he was. The news outlets had been reporting it for years, but only after he watched his own progeny descend back into the planet did Javier realize how severely the world had changed.
Javier’s second child was accidental. Before the days started to drag like a rake against the barren world, he would have predicted that such calamities would leave him sitting in graveyards, sobbing. In practice, his body wouldn’t calcify. Instead he wandered through the skeleton of Concord, vertebrae by vertebrae. He burned his house down with his daughter’s Polaroids inside. He slept inside the data farm’s parabolic antenna, climbed the Gilgamesh Steamstack. From this height he saw a billboard for one Petrified Forest State Park: breathtaking scenery and family fun only 5 miles north of Concord! The people on the billboard were missing their faces–wind erosion, maybe. Several weeks later he ran out of bones to examine in Concord, and so left on a northbound county road. Only after he lost himself in the stalled trees did he realize that he’d probably taken that tall girl-child of his to the Forest once upon a time.
He spent most of his time sleeping in a field of mummified wood. For years he didn’t speak, until one day he woke up so fantastically lonely that he began to follow around a family of mice. They reproduced with such incredible efficiency that attachment to individual balls of fur was impossible. There would always be a family of mice in the woodchips, and to this ever-changing, everlasting family of his, he spoke. He performed monologues, pitched advertisements. He taught them history as he remembered it, recited the alphabet as best he could. He asked them questions he knew they could not answer. By the time the Spoonfellows came marching under the dilapidated welcome gates, banging pots and cans, he’d reacquainted himself with the concept of other people.
The Spoonfellows called themselves nomads. Their patriarch was a scarecrow of a man they called Old Budger, and Old Budger was devoted to a mountain god named Craikaton. “We walked all the way from the Gulf to see him,” said Old Budger, pointing at the slate-gray peaks. Javier had grown up in the shadow of those mountains and didn’t remember hearing about any Craikaton, but the existence of such a being would not have surprised him. The mountains had been growing since people had diminished. There was no reason why they shouldn’t have grown themselves a well and proper god.
He joined the Spoonfellows in their Rite of Adoration on the night of the first snowfall. They danced around a hissing fire, drunk on moonshine, calling in vain for the woodland animals of the state park–“Brother Weasel!” “Sister Crow!”–to join in their worship. At some deep hour of the night, Old Budger married Javier to his daughter Georgia. Javier remembered holding hands with Georgia and jumping over the fire, then falling in. He remembered the smell of Georgia’s skirt burning and a galling sensation of pain–the other Spoonfellows hopping over him with bare and blackened feet.
The burn on his leg gave him a more human way to measure time. He checked on its progress twice a day. It had become a numb, pink mesa when cherry-cheeked Georgia came up to him and told him she was pregnant.
“Feel,” she said with a huge smile, forcing his fingers upon her belly.
The Spoonfellows wanted to keep him in the tribe. They tried everything, from “the marital bond is sacred” to “new life must be tended” to assaults with cast iron cookware. These parlor tricks were nothing to an immortal, and Javier left the Petrified Forest feeling renewed disgust for the human race. Whether that child survived to commune with Craikaton, he did not know and did not care.
The county road was gone when he finished picking his way out of the woods. Months of crusted snow had buried the yellow lane markers and rumble strips in tundra. The Gilgamesh Steamstack did not leer over the horizon because it had fallen, because Concord was dead. Shivering little brown deer dug for frozen vegetation in the open expanse, and Javier went the other way.
Javier’s third child was born in apathy. His parents named him B.P., after the gas station where he was born. B.P.’s mother didn’t understand the purpose of gasoline, but the camp where she’d grown up had at least taught her how to read. The camp ministers had also given her a name, but she didn’t like it, so she never told Javier what it was. “I ran away,” she said, “because I was bored.” Clambering over the chain link fence and running through the witch-hazel was all right, she said, “but after I got free, sweet Mary, I was so alone.”
He ran across her in the heartland, where the grass grew tall and rough and corn-colored. She was headed east on Route 6 with a knapsack and a spear; he was slogging westward. They met at a burning junk pile. He had reached a phase in his grotesquely elongated life where he thought he no longer cared about loss, so he decided he liked the cut of her skirt and swore not to care about anything else.
“I had another baby,” she said, wiping bile off her mouth. There was pollen in her hair. “But it didn’t make it. I gave it to a coyote.”
“Why not? I wasn’t going to eat it.”
Both of them vowed not to care about B.P., to protect themselves. But of course it didn’t work that way; no matter how many times Javier pushed the squirming little thing away, it would come a-crawling, making animalistic sounds. They kept B.P. from drinking cleaning fluid for no reason they could articulate other than “I like having it around,” but when B.P. got lost in the prairie grass, his mother’s voice flared like a siren. They searched for him all night and Javier finally found him fighting off a sand crane that was nipping at his face. The urge to snap the creature’s ungainly neck bubbled up in his throat–unfamiliar, hot, something he’d forgotten how to feel. But B.P.’s mother called him home and the crane fluttered away with a glittering insect in its beak.
Eventually she got bored of waiting for the prairie to overtake the gas station, and they resumed walking Route 6. For the first time that he could remember, Javier worried. He got cold sweats when he heard hymns, or saw red-orange lights through dust clouds on the horizon. Sometimes B.P.’s mother sang “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” with her loud and trumpeting voice, and Javier always tried to shut her up. They argued about faith and vigilance–what kind of a life is this, she’d start–but once the herds moved through with scythes, calling, “Who’s that writin’? John the Revelator,” she always conceded the point. Marauders never used to scare Javier–he’d fought a few, gotten stabbed once. He’d live through anything. B.P. and his mother would not.
Javier’s fourth child was born in a ditch off Route 6, and they named him Daniel after a story that his mother had been told at camp. He had been born into a den of lions, she said, but he would be delivered. They took aching care of the baby, but two weeks into life he succumbed to an anonymous airborne germ. This one, the child’s mother didn’t feed to a coyote. “Danny was sick,” she explained, sniffling. She looked like a rusted flagpole with her bandanna flapping in the wind. “I wouldn’t want to spread that around.”
It took her a while to notice that he wasn’t getting older beneath the layers of dirt and corrosion. “Lucky you,” she said, when they washed themselves at an old water pump. “You know this means you take over hunting and gathering.” Javier ate out of comfort, not necessity, and he had learned how to catch the best quarry from all his years of being thirty-five in a world without markets. He taught their son how to hunt rabbits under rain shadows, so he could stay under a poncho with the woman he loved and cradle her shivering, withering body.
After she died, the world’s stretch was no longer room to travel in. It was a tomb. B.P. had become a young man with wild hair, but Javier saw a skull beneath his cheeks–even as the kid slept, that vacant skull he carried would stare at Javier. Sometimes it even made sounds, like the howl of wind crossing the mouth of an empty cave.
He led B.P. back the way they had come. This time he didn’t notice the way the loons’ melancholy calls or the way the wind moved the prairie. Past the gas station where B.P. had been born, the climate began to cool. “Why are we going this way?” B.P. asked.
“I’m going to find whatever made me like this, so I can give it to you too.”
B.P. looked doubtful. “How?”
“I’ll just retrace my steps.”
It sounded simpler than it was. His memory lagged, but he knew that he had first discovered his immortality in that town whose name had stuck because it was the name of other important encyclopedic things: Concord. They used grimy gas station maps to find it.
Squatters lived in the flattened ruins of the city. They worshipped the Stone God Craikaton and wore cutlery for jewelry. They were suspicious of the unadorned and even more baffled when Javier pointed at the remains of Reagan Road. “That’s ashland,” they said, waving their hands. “That’s blow-away land. You will be swept up.” But there were no tornadoes on the horizon, so Javier and his son took their chances and sifted through Javier’s charred house. They did not know what they were looking for. Something shiny, something bottled? Everything was burned. Javier rubbed ashes on B.P.’s face and fed him water from the sour estuary. Little good that would do.
“Damn it,” said Javier. B.P.’s hair was getting grayer by the second.
“Maybe it happened somewhere else,” said B.P. “Did you go anywhere special when you turned thirty-five?”
It took him a few weeks to remember. He had to draw letters and numbers in the soil to dredge it up, but he had indeed gone on a brief vacation. It had been with that woman and that girl-child, the ones whose names he could not bring himself to recall. They had gone to Rio.
B.P. became very sorry to have suggested anything. The trek to Rio was coarser and bloodier than any of the walks they had taken when he was a child. It was also much, much longer. Javier plunged ahead through volcanic lakes and wild boars, while B.P. trudged through his father’s debris. Every now and then they were sidelined by febrile diseases. Bacteria crippled B.P., but within a few days his father would be back on his feet, demanding they get moving, saying time was running out. By the time they scaled the last of the rocky overhangs, taunted by macaws, B.P. was forty, and his father thirty-five.
The last time Javier roamed the acres formerly known as Rio, the jungle had been beaten back with chainsaws, kowtowed by urban planners. It had since overrun the city. Javier could find neither the hotel they’d stayed at nor the restaurants they ate at. There were only gibbon communes and a one-eyed jaguar that lived in what looked to have been a city fountain with a host of hissing, scratching young. Javier suspected there might have been a few people living in the canopy–he heard them crossing overhead–but they never showed their faces. He had no time for them, besides. B.P.’s wrinkles were getting deeper.
What Javier finally found was a well, but the water was too shallow. B.P. sat watching his father tie half a hollowed-out coconut to a vine and said, “Dad. This is ridiculous. I don’t think that water’s going to do anything.”
Javier shook his head and dropped the coconut bowl into the well–a flock of distraught birds burst out of the dark. “You never know,” said Javier. “This might be the one.”
“You want me to stay five years older than you? So we can pretend we’re brothers?”
“You’ll still be my son, no matter how old you are.”
“And no matter if I die, too, right?”
Javier carefully pulled up the vine. “Is that what you want? You want to die?”
B.P. didn’t respond. Javier assumed he was sulking because he knew that his father was right. He retrieved the coconut and sniffed the water sloshing inside. He decided it might be magical and passed it on to his son, who was resting his sagging chin on his sunburned arms.
“I don’t want to be stuck here forever just because you want company,” said B.P.
Javier nearly threw the water at him. “Is that why you think I’m doing this? I don’t want you to have to die! What your mother went through, you want to go through that?”
“Mother wouldn’t have wanted to live forever.”
“Just drink it. Drink it before it goes bad.”
“If you don’t want to be alone then why don’t you just kill yourself?”
“Drink it. Now.”
B.P. drank from the coconut, but Javier guessed he did so only because he did not believe in the water’s power. Then Javier turned away, because looking into B.P.’s eyes was like looking into his own.
They began a rough journey home. Progress was slow. Javier’s burning drive had subsided; only time would tell if the water had worked, and he had run out of places to go. They came to a pause when B.P. got laid up with another equatorial disease, this time one with a lot of vomiting. He said he’d been feeling sick since Rio–he just didn’t want to say anything.
“I didn’t want to depress you,” B.P. said, curled in a fetal position.
Javier was mashing fruit for him. “Why would it depress me? You’re just sick.”
“Because that water tasted off.”
And then there was no home.
Javier’s fifth child was engineered.
He had spent years walking rough terrain, obsessing over what he considered to be his now nameless son’s parting gift: the idea of suicide. He used to consider suicide a waste of his immortality, but at this time in his life and that of the quiet Earth’s, he decided he was done.
The waterfalls were still running full power but even the jungles were tumbling open, falling apart at the seams. He was sure the planet was on borrowed time because the days were so short and he encountered so few people. And the animals, the animals were mutating. He was beginning to fear that when Earth did end, he would continue to float in outer space with no need for oxygen until the end of time–if indeed there was such a thing. Just the thought of this made his muscles want to atrophy. He decided to try jumping from a waterfall. To his delight, falling enlivened his blood, re-awakened fear. He felt human again and smiled before he hit the rocks, thinking he’d made himself mortal.
Not so. When he regained consciousness he was floating face-up in a gentle stream. Though he was surrounded by large carnivorous catfish, they did not gnaw at him because all his wounds had clotted. But Javier didn’t give up. He pulled himself onto the bank and walked to his next attempt spot, which turned out to be a canyon–he wanted to make sure there would be no water to cushion the blow this time. It looked like the kind of place for vultures too, even though the desert was so silent that he found himself remembering the strangest things from centuries past: the time the government recalled milk, and the time everyone was sure aliens had landed at the South Pole and were coming in on a derelict ocean liner. How excited people had been! They took to the beaches in droves.
He dove into the canyon, arms splayed like parasails. He felt himself somersaulting and couldn’t wait.
Then he woke up. A shabby woman was sitting on the other side of a cave. He was not sure if it was the paint or her bone structure, but though he recognized her as a humanoid she did not seem authentically human. Her eyes were awfully large. Her skin looked thicker than his, and when she opened her mouth to speak, prominent canines jutted out from below her gums.
She had a name–Alis Alisa–and she was a soothsayer. He knew some of her words and picked up others, but he could not replicate a few of her vocalizations no matter how much she prodded his throat and squawked at him. Her clientele was a community of canyon-people that crawled in and out of cliff-face crevices like lizards. Even the children scaled rock and hunted vultures; sometimes they dressed in multi-colored robes and space-goggles and played at taking flight.
“How do you know what to tell them?” Javier asked. She had advised two departing siblings that their cousin had survived her trek to the salt flats, but she would need to be met at the plain of Joshua trees because a mountain lion had caught her scent.
Alis turned to him slowly. She’d painted herself with red ochre, and the liquid whites of her bulbous eyes popped against her skin. “I am a witch, and I know the planet’s secrets.”
He had heard wilder claims. “Why didn’t I die when I jumped into this canyon?”
Alis chewed on a blade of prickly vegetation and thought that over for a few minutes, then left the cave to go “up top” and “listen”. Alis was more in the business of knowing when and where and how many, not why–her community made up “why” as they went along. She dropped back into the cave at sundown, and both she and the rocks had turned cardinal red. What she said resembled an answer just like she resembled a human: “Someone cursed you. If you want to know why they cursed you, you need to ask them.”
Javier cringed. “I don’t know who cursed me. Besides, I’m sure they’re dead by now.”
“They can be reborn. If they made a curse this powerful, they left a piece of their soul stuck to yours.” She used a fingernail to coax a shred of pigeon meat out from between her teeth. “A child of yours can be born with that soul, and answer your questions.”
“No, no more children. I’ve had children. They had their own souls. They lived and died and told me nothing.”
“Yes, but I am a witch,” said Alis, leaning forward. “That will help.”
They crafted the child with incantations and candelilla wax, with Alis’s hands dragging the fragment of soul down from his temples, down past his stomach. It was completely dark, as if she had shut off all the final flickering lights of the world, and all he could hear was her humming like a lost engine. The cave smelled of sweat and ochre and very faintly of iron, because she had slit the palm of his hand.
In the morning he saw that she had painted hundreds of stick-figures with his blood. They rained like missiles out of the dirt where his head had laid. He looked at Alis–she was sleeping with her long hands on her stomach. He wanted to touch her but didn’t, and instead sat at the mouth of the cave with his legs dangling, a ledge for dragonflies.
The witch-baby was born in what passed in that age for winter. She had blonde hair–freakish, to the canyon-folk–and her mother’s fangs. Alis said that she would name herself in time, and set her down on a nest of vulture feathers. Even as an infant this child stared at Javier with a silent, submarine calm. Because she did not cry he sometimes woke up in the night thinking she was dead, but there she’d be, watching him: a tiny long-limbed inhuman humanoid who seemed to have lived as long as he had. His secret shadow. His ghost.
Within a few years the child began fashioning a headdress out of the feathers she’d been sleeping on. “What is your name?” Alis asked.
“Zelda,” the child answered. She crowned herself and grinned.
Javier covered his mouth to keep from gagging. He could smell the gray acid of Concord. He could see Zelda, his dead daughter’s mother, huddled on the couch and biting her fingernails. “Sixty-three sperm whales beached in the Bahamas. With all those tourists, can you imagine?” Zelda who walked into the estuary. The estuary that couldn’t save his son.
He barreled straight for the little girl–no, the undead golem-Zelda–and shouted, “Why the hell did you do this to me? What did I do to you, Zelda, what?”
Alis pushed him away with a territorial snarl. Javier spent some time away from the canyon for a while.
When he returned, Zelda was half as tall as her mother, even without the headdress. She seemed to be getting along well in the canyon–better than she ever got along in Concord, anyway. He found her tiptoeing the line between sun and shadow in what many generations past had been a river. She recognized him and waved him over, as if no years had passed since their last meeting. He asked her again, in a calmer voice: “Why did you do this to me?”
That time she had an answer. “Because I wanted something to survive,” she said, squinting at him. The aging sun loomed above them, its blank face irresistibly bright. “Lucky you, huh?”
They walked. Zelda collected and contemplated the smooth gray pebbles of the old riverbed while Javier pondered less visible, less tangible things.
“Are there still whales?” she asked.
He didn’t know. “But there’s still oceans. So there might be whales.”
They asked her mother for permission to leave the canyon. Alis, in a pot-breaking mood, just nudged her eyebrows and said, “It is your life, child. I will see you in the half-light.”
After a few months they found the western ocean. It was frothing vigorously, but was as blue as they remembered. The sun, however, had grown into a big brutal curmudgeon, and sweating, panting creatures took long pilgrimages into the sea, sliding back into the water from which they came. Humanoids, too–at high tide they lounged on inflatable rafts and waved at Javier and Zelda with webbed fingers.
Zelda was stunned. “Jav! Are those people?”
“Are you a person?” He guided her finger toward the fangs she’d been born with, then her airworthy bird bones. The waterfolk hollered at him as she ran her tongue over her teeth. “They think I’m a primitive,” he explained.
They shuffled through the sand, scanning the horizon. Smaller, slicker creatures teased them until the sun began to set–then dark, flat boulders rose from the water, coyly spraying a delicate arabesque of fizz. Zelda cried out and went running after the barnacled plateaus: splashing, losing her balance, bobbing back up. Javier hurried after her and grabbed her little body just before the thrash of a heavy wave, trying to keep the tide from snatching her up by the ankles. Salt water gushed down their throats. They gasped for sunlight but once they found it, the whales had gone to deeper waters. Javier was afraid she’d be disappointed but Zelda was giggling and coughing and wiping her nose.
He dragged them back to shore. The sand seemed to be bubbling because the waves had brought a swarm of tiny crustaceans that scuttled underfoot in air pockets and sand traps. “I just didn’t see how,” Zelda gasped, breathless, “how anything could survive.” She flashed him a sharp, wide smile. “Guess you showed me, Jav.”
Those words chopped his breath in half. A dull pain began to pulse outward from his ribs and when he looked at his aching hand he saw that the skin there had curdled. And then he was the one laughing in excitement, laughing ‘til his lungs strained.
His knees went out; they were the first to go. The child caught him with a grunt and cradled his head under her cold, dripping chin.
“Jav,” she whispered. “You’re old!”
Nadia Bulkin lives in Nebraska with an under-used political science degree. Other stories of hers have appeared in ChiZine, Strange Horizons, and Fantasy Magazine; a full list is available at her website. She spits out her crazed ramblings at her livejournal, A Sense of Joy and Then a Panic. She says:
Twilight got me thinking: why, from a biological perspective, would an immortal bother having children? The rest of this story was derived from my own frustration and anxiety about the future. I wanted to write a post-apocalyptic story with enough long-term perspective to make guesses about what comes after people. My thoughts on the subject can be wrapped up by a quote from asofterworld: “The world isn’t going to end just because we’ve done everything wrong. Though, that would be easier.”