The Memory of Bones

Death waited patiently, a stone at the bottom of the sea. The when did not matter to Os. Only the where. He stared out the window set above the kitchen basin, hands wrist-deep in water he’d drawn from the well and warmed in a kettle. The few dishes he owned soaked in the steaming water, forgotten for the moment. Beyond the window, a green field interweaved with white and yellow waved in a gentle breeze. Heads of baby’s breath and wildflower nodded as if in agreement to the whisper of the wind. Beyond that, rolling hills, the river running to the sea, and cities, cities of wood and stone and now, silence.

He looked down at the water, at his own reflection in broken circles rippling out with the movement of his hands. Craggy features, dark circles under the eyes, hair shorn close. He had never been a handsome man, not that it mattered. But he’d had a family, and that did. They were dead now, like everyone else. He looked down again, and pulled his hands from the water, shaking them off, then drying them on a nearby rag. He gave the plates beneath a scowl. He wasn’t sure why he still did this. No one would visit. No one would peek in through a window and remark to their neighbor on Os’ cleanliness.

Os stared through the open window for a minute more. He listened to his own breathing in the silence. Most days were like that now. A preternatural stillness that cloaked the world like a blanket. On good days, the wind stirred the leaves and the rushes and lent a lifelike ripple around him. On bad, it seemed the quiet crept inside Os, like a wedge in a stump, splitting his skull open from the inside. He’d tried to fill that absence, once. But he could only sing the same songs, talk to himself for so long before he felt it futile. Now, despite the silence, the idea of using his voice frightened him, as if the sound would do the inverse of his fear, and split the outside world.

He took one more deep breath, and with its exhale, made a decision. It was a thought that weighed on him daily, a question without an answer. Another voice in his head, a song he caught only when he turned this way or that. Music from another room. He turned from the open window and walked through the house, fingers lingering on objects as he passed. Luc’s pitcher of dried wildflowers, the petals withered and sere. He heard voices echo in the caverns of time. He smiled at the memory.

“Why?” he’d asked.

“The smells,” Luc had replied.

“What smells?”

Luc gestured in vague circles that took in their home. “The smells. The onion and the sausage and the-” he pointed at Os’ boots. “Those.”

Os held his hands up in a gesture of defeat. “Fine. Fine.”

The memory faded and Os looked down at the pitcher again. He remembered how they’d not kept the stink of rot from his doorstep, and shook his head. He walked past, into the front room. El’s toy, a carved lion, lay on its side on the floor. He knelt and picked it up. In his mind, the light shifted, bright through yellow curtains.

“She needs a toy,” Luc had said.

The child they’d taken in played on the floor, two rocks tied with bright string in her fists, making voices for each that approximated his and Luc’s. Os knelt beside her.

“El.”

She looked up, smiling, and reached for his cheeks. He chuckled and lifted her, cradling her and tickling her ribs. She burst out in laughter that hit the walls and came back to him like a wave of joy.

“Seems she has a toy already,” Os said.

Luc fixed him with his no-budge stare. “A toy, Os. Or I will find her a cat.”

“A cat?” Os made a face.

The sunlight faded, back to the hazy light he’d grown used to. He straightened, leaving the toy on its side. It only cost him a few pennies to commission, but El delighted in it. He stared around the room, at the overstuffed couch, the end tables, the books and the blankets. Os walked to an alcove beside the front door and rummaged around for a minute. His fingers closed on a scabbard, withdrawing the long knife. His chest tightened, and then he tied it to his belt. He knew he wouldn’t need it for but one purpose. He opened the door to the summer day and stepped out.

*

The wind was clean, a small miracle Os found himself grateful for. In the early days after the Chant, bodies rotted in the sun, in their homes, in the fields. The Chant. Os found himself cursing the magi who dreamed it up. An end to war. An end to strife. What they forgot in their working was that life needed to struggle, to fight against entropy, to survive. When they cast it, it broke that will. Men and women, bird and beast simply laid down, and stopped living.

Some, like Os, survived. Either their will overpowered the magic, or they were one of the rare immune. But inevitably, the loneliness caught up to them, and they went the way of friends and family. Blade or poison or rope or the opening of veins, the method mattered not, only the result. Some banded together, survivors clinging to survivors like clotted blood. In the end though, they all fell. Memory and emotion were powerful drugs, and under their influence, even the strongest could break into a shambles.

The path crunched beneath his boots, breaking the silence into mercifully small parcels. Glimpses of white flashed between the grasses, and Os turned his head, facing down the path. Had there still been birds, he imagined his passage would have disturbed their pickings. Instead, bone and cloth bundles lay undisturbed in the long grasses of the fields, tools rusting in fallow soil. The glint of sun on steel drew his gaze, and he flicked a glance over to an abandoned plow, harness and leads drooping. The sight drew out the memory of Onder’s pride in the tool.

“Twice as many acres in half the time,” Onder had said.

“Yeah?” Os replied. “Anneia will be happy to hear that, I expect.”

Onder bobbed his head. He wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead with a rag stained white at the edges with salt. “Aye, she’s been wanting more time.”

Os thought of Luc and El with a twinge of guilt. His pension was plenty for them live on. It kept them fed, kept the roof over their head. Time spent with family was valuable coin, coin he had to spare in those days. He thought it would last, like coffers spilling over with gold. He’d had all he needed. At least, he’d thought. The memory faded, and Os glanced behind him. The roof of his cottage peeked from behind the crest of a hill. Orange tiles reflected the sun like a knife meant for his heart but striking his eyes. He blinked away the glare and the moisture that threatened to spill the cup of his eyelids, then hitched his belt and moved on.

The cottage and the plow disappeared from view as Os made his way down the country road. The grasses grew taller, and by the time his path crossed that of the Imperium Way, they waved above his head like dying arms reaching for the memory of light. Summers past, they never would have been allowed to grow so unruly, the Imperium stoic in its pursuit of order, slow and implacable. The will of man over that of nature. Mow and tame. Mow and tame. He supposed in a way, the engineers would be pleased. Not even the buzz of gnat, cry of crow, or rustle of field mouse marred the summer day.

Os wove his way between carts and wagons littering the road. Great skeletons still wore their harnesses, feet folded neatly beneath them, heads in restful repose. Drivers laid in the grass nearby, whips and crops and reins forgotten on wooden benches. He didn’t stop to look inside, ignored the human tug of curiosity brought on by canvas covering and folded curtain. He knew he’d only see that which already haunted him across the years. The wreckage of stolen lives held as much interest for him as the taste of blood in his mouth. Coppery and slick, like a penny hidden under the tongue.

The frame of a schoolhouse rose to his right, and unbidden, the image of El, sweeping from its doors as the bell in the steeple rang. Luc snapping her up in his long slender arms, spinning, their laughter filling the air. Her smile, bright as a summer tulip, blazed in Os’ mind. His limbs trembled, his legs threatened to spill him to his knees. His vision doubled, and for a moment, he nearly let it happen. The thought of hard gravel digging into his skin, drawing blood, drawing perhaps shame or anger at his loss of control was welcome, if only briefly. He dashed the tears from his eyes with determined fingers, forced himself to move on. If he felt something other than the need to see an end to this, to meet his grief head on instead of at oblique angles, he might find himself in the grass and dirt instead.

Os made good time as he pushed his feelings down, parceling them up on a shelf in his mind. He would open them when ready, a gift he didn’t particularly want, but could not avoid. Ahead, the path diverged. Forward and down, the city in the valley. A necropolis now, but once it teemed with life. Great bazaars once flowed in the streets, living things of men and women, children shouting and running, streamers on sticks flying behind them as they wove between legs like foxes in a forest. Bright bunting and banners flew overhead, the stink of forge and tanner, smells of roast meat and vegetable and savory spice weaving between and infusing cloth like dye. Bread and sweetbreads baking, the aroma like the comfort of a warm blanket. Over it all, the press and swell and crush and scent of humanity, of bodies warm and joyous, sad and broken, bright flowers pushing their way between the cracked flagstones of the city.

It was where Os had taken his commission, to fight for the glory of the empire, though if he was truthful, it was to put food in his mouth and clothes on his back. A first step on a long road paved with blood and bone and sweat. He’d lived by the blade, but with all things, steel remained strong through the slow march of years while flesh faded. He hung up his blade, took his pension. For a while, he was content alone in that cottage in the hills. For a time, the call of cricket and sparrow and the song of wind through the wheat was enough to calm the ceaseless crash of body and metal in his head, to the slow the impetus of horror thrust into his youth like a knife in the ribs.

Then he’d heard Luc’s laughter in a tavern, bright and silver, brown eyes dancing with mirth. Not long after, he’d heard El’s, gold like her hair, heavy and rich, when Luc had coaxed her from an alley with a morsel of food and a coin danced across his knuckles. But even time tarnishes silver and gold, and only the memory of their bright shine remains.

Os found himself on the left-hand path. Already he had climbed halfway as memory played through his head. For a time, he listened to the wind brush against the slope of the rock like an insistent lover. He imagined he heard whispered promises in the susurrus, and shook his head to clear it. He’d heard the Chant described that way once, a whisper of a song, the tease of a memory of something better, brighter than this life of mud and misery. Briefly he wondered if he heard it now. Would he know? Did it matter?

He crested the rise and stepped to the edge of the promontory of rock. Below, a still world. A lover holding its breath. A wave poised at its crest. He saw to the reaches of the land. Tall grasses of the plains, a sparkling rill of silver cutting through green and gold like a steel ribbon. The skeletons of airships furrowed the grass like rocks thrown by a petulant child, their magics stilled, their crew silent. Beyond that, the forest, the wolves voiceless, and beyond the forest, something between both until the land ran to the sea, a sliver of blue that snapped at the horizon like a hungry dog.

Os used to bring them here, Luc standing fearlessly at the edge, El behind his legs, clutching at the fabric. The wind blew, tousling hair and clothing, and Os lifted El so she could spread her arms, pretend she was flying, eyes bright with fear and joy at the prospect of soaring into a great blue nothing like the ships that drifted above.

An illusion. In the end, no one had flown. The Chant had taken them some time ago, leaving only bones in their place. Bones that had forgotten the trick of speech, the sound of laughter, forgotten the spell of flesh and warmth. Bones hold memories, but only for the living, Os thought.

He unbuckled the knife, drew it from the scabbard. The steel shone in the afternoon light. He pressed the blade into a fissure in the rock, letting it stand upright like a standard. In the end, steel always outlived flesh. He stepped to the edge and stood on tiptoes, then spread his arms as El once had. With a sigh that spoke of an exhaustion borne of a burden he had been given but never bought, he closed his eyes. The wind sang to him, and for a moment, he heard the bright chime of silver and gold.

Death, Ink, and the End of the World

Two things happened the day I turned 29. My grandfather died, and the world ended. I’ll get to the apocalypse. Not that it’s not important, but the death of a loved one can feel the same. The sudden cessation of life that’s marked a significant portion of your time on earth is similar to snuffing a candle. A little breath, a wisp of smoke, and the light goes out.

We’d gathered from across the country, flying in from snow, swamp, and sand, from stands of brackish water and white beaches, from homes bracketed by tall pines. We huddled in a small room smelling of antiseptic and blood and that vague sick smell that the old and infirm carry around with them like satchels of incense. The shine from white tile and fluorescents irritated the iris. The type of glare that digs into your brain, makes it impossible to get comfortable. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for the person in the bed.

That person, my grandfather, lay beneath a thin white cotton blanket. Blue stripes ran horizontal in groups of three at the head and foot. Tubes and wires snaked from him, as if they’d built a human still, the medicines distilling his essence, his reality down to this tiny moment in time. A life of sixty-some years and here he lay, condensed into a single final drop of story.

Tattoos swirled up from his elbows, down to his wrists. They appeared as black whorls and lines in smudged relief through the thin hospital gown, half-seen representations of a life lived. They crawled down from his covered hips to his exposed ankles, black ink turned green with age and time; the lines raised scars beside varicose veins.

I looked to my grandmother, thin and frail, skin competing with the light for pale brittleness. My mother, hair just turning white in small threads of the black tapestry of her hair. My sister, young and strong, though sad around the eyes. Each held an object. Grandmother, a rag marked black by the years of wiping fresh tattoos, and a small pair of scissors. The blades glinted under the fluorescents. My mother, a pot of ink and a razor. The bottle of pigment sat dark and quiescent in her palm. My sister, Rea, a small needle gun like a kingfisher in her fist. They looked to me and smiled, each sad, each intense.

My grandfather, small in the bed. I remembered him a big man. Lean, with hard slabs of muscle beneath his thin work shirts. He kept a package of spearmint in the breast pocket, and he’d lean in when we came to him, pull it out, hand us a piece. We’d sit at his knee, the sun reaching jealous fingers through slits in the blinds, trying to anesthetize us with its warmth on a lazy Sunday.

We’d unwrap the gum, powder between the foil and the stick dusting fingertips, and pop it between our lips. That first bite, sweet and cool, waking us, filling our mouths with saliva. Then he’d speak. Stories of his tattoos, where they’d come from, what they meant. Different every time.

This one, a port in Malaysia. A beautiful woman from Kuala Lumpur had hammered it into him with a needle and a stick. Or was it in Maui, a man named Keno with a pin? That one, South Africa. He’d gotten drunk with a footballer. Two weeks later, a woman in Nebraska had talked him into it. Grandmother coughed politely at that story, and he switched tacks. This one, Boston. A Navy man by the name of Franklin gave it to him in the engine room of the U.S.S Anzio. No, wait. It was a child by the name of Dario in Italy.

Each a lie. Each superbly told.

I pulled a chair across the floor, the legs scraping the tile. I flopped into it, feet tired from the flight, from the long stand of vigil. My grandfather snorted in his sleep, opened bleary eyes. He looked around from bloodshot sclera, gaze flitting to each of us like a bee searching for pollen. They landed on me, and his lips, pale quivering things, lifted in recognition. He reached out a hand, so like a bird’s, the bones thin and frail, the skin parchment. He squeezed, and I returned it gently.

“How was the trip?” he asked.

“Fine,” I lied.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

I looked again to my family. They arrayed themselves around me, knelt on the floor, sister first, then mother. Grandmother to the left of Rea. They rolled the leg of my jeans up, and I heard the buzz of the needle begin, the coolness of a blade passed along the hair, the sharp ice of evaporating alcohol.

“It will hurt,” he said.

Would it hurt worse than this? Pulling a thread you’d thought woven so deeply into your life to undo one meant undoing all the tapestry.

I pushed the thoughts back and nodded.

Rea set needle to flesh, and I felt the burn begin.

*

Images poured into my head, a flash flood of names and horror sliding through my mind like a scalpel through tendon.

Mi-go, the Formless. First upon the void. Theirs was the name first spoken in the thick jungles that covered the earth. Once, they slithered and burbled across the face of the water, then through thick undergrowth that seethed with life. Where they touched, they devoured, and what they devoured, they left barren.

Blood and sweat trickled down my thigh as the ink rose close to my groin. My grandmother cut the fabric away as the needle climbed to speed the process, mother following with the razor. I watched the keen edge scrape hair away as easily a scythe harvests grain. Grandmother’s rag wiped my leg, fresh black making the fabric glisten, fresh oil making my skin shine.

The monitoring equipment jittered out a series of beeps, and for a moment, my grandfather’s grip slackened. Anxiety rose in my chest, flittered across the inside of my fingers. Outside, the clouds darkened, and far away, a crack sounded like a thousand trees snapping under their own weight. Then Rea lifted the needle, and it steadied, the alarms quieting. I glanced over at the old man, who had resumed his grip on my hand. His left leg lay clear, the skin unblemished. He breathed hard, pigeon chest rising like a small bellows. A small groan escaped his lips. My heart sent up a bright ache, like the lights above, a silver note of pain. I thought of him surrounded by sawdust and gnarled wood, the thing in his hands once rough, like the skin of his knuckles. He’d turn it over, and work another piece, and bit by bit it took shape. The patience of a stone, a gentle smile on his lips. Small moments of serenity, limned in sunlight.

Rea dipped the needle into the ink, a slight tremble between her hand and my mother’s. Then the gun buzzed again.

*

Yoth, the Cold. When the glaciers slid across the face of the world, she stalked as a wolf. Taller than even the redwoods that mark the west coast, where she walked, she left lakes. The men in those days, small and mean with the depredations of survival, gave up to her the lives of their weak. They took in her ways, and tasted the flesh of fellow men.

The gun buzzed across a kneecap, and I jumped. Beyond the horizon, a howl that sent needles of fear into my guts rippled across the sky. Cold sleet hammered into the panes, leaving an afterbirth of slush in the steel frame. My grandfather pursed his lips and squeezed my hand with a strength borne of pure will, eyes wide. He shook his head ever so slightly. The veins in his temples stood in stark contrast. I wondered if that’s how all life ended, in pain and fear. Feeling small as a child, spending a life building yourself into someone you knew the way water knows the earth, and watching the foundation wash away.

His lips turned up. A flicker of a smile, a reassurance, and I wondered at the strength in that gesture. I remembered hands weathered by decades of work, tough callouses from tilling field and splitting wood, and my wonder passed. The quiet patience as his family split, as time brought troubles. Scars on his hand, plain in the light. Here, a jagged line where a tractor had nearly taken his finger. There, a small nick on his palm where he’d caught himself with a kitchen knife. Scars on the heart, hidden in the dark. Those he never spoke of. Never once a complaint. I forced myself to relax as Rea’s work continued. If he could do this, under the black cloud of agony, wracked by time, so could I. Over the knee, into the tender places of the thigh. Bleed and wipe and sweat. And then that too ended. I saw the other ankle on the old man free of ink.

They cut the shirt from me, my pale skinny chest exposed. We had no fear of nurses or doctors entering. In the small hours between dark and dawn, even the hospital must sleep. The old man smiled again, reached out and patted my cheek. He took my hand.

“Almost,” he said.

Another dip of the gun into the ink. The buzzing, and my chest burned. Another flood of images.

*

Azatoth, the Liar. He’d been in the first men, lurking behind thoughts of food and lust and murder. Behind the walls of the mind, entrenched like a seedling taking root. He guided the hands of Cain and Pilate. The men who poisoned Alexander. The death of Caesar. He’d engineered the Fall, and in the dark, promised young mothers and brutal men the things they most desired. Lies are the black lattice of life–small and insidious. I’m fine. This will be fine. Nothing to worry about. Of course you’re beautiful. I love you. If only they did one thing, they could climb that lattice toward the light. A small untruth, a little unkindness.

More sweat. I felt light-headed, and wondered how much water a man could lose. I squeezed my grandfather’s hand, but he’d fallen asleep. No, not asleep. An alarm sounded from somewhere. I forced myself to concentrate, to look. My family with their heads down, lips moving. I wondered at what litany must pass their lips in the cold hours of the morning, what things they prayed for, who they made promises to. The buzz buzz buzz of the gun. Or had a fly entered the room? An alarm, shrill and insistent.

“Almost, almost,” Rea said.

“Almost, almost,” my family repeated.

“Almost, almost,” a voice in my head echoed.

A deep ache in my chest as the needle passed over, and the muscle twitched, traitor to my will. Rea’s hand slipped. The alarm continued to wail, soon joined by something outside. Sirens?

“Almost,” Rea said.

The buzzing rose to a wail, and I thought my mind would split with it. Across my chest, over shoulder and trapezius, down bicep and forearm. I felt the bones in my wrists grind as I tensed, the ache in my jaw. My teeth felt loose, jangling coins someone had pressed into the bone with no intention of affixing them there. Then it finished.

Done, and the silence nearly deafened me.

“How do you feel?”

Beside me, my grandfather cooled in his bed. A bundle of sticks and bones, the skin of his skull too close to his cheeks, his eyes like clouded marbles. His flesh paled at the end, lips that had spun stories and smelled of spearmint tinted blue. I looked to his throat, where the butterfly pulse of his heart fluttered no more. Where once I’d pressed my face as a child and felt warm stubble scratch my cheek.  His arms lay bare, marked with blue veins, but clear of ink. His fingers splayed open, clutching at nothing, that thin skein of life the fates allow us slipped from his grasp. Beneath the sheet, a smudge of ink. A single line beside a puckered nipple. His memory a nervous bird, perched on the branches of my mind, trembling with anticipation of fright. I held it as tightly as I could, cajoled it to stay.

“How do you feel?” they asked again.

Their voices choked on tears half-swallowed. This was important. More important than antiseptic and empty husks, more important than cold white sheets and the insistent alarm. More important than the legion of men and women who would soon enter the room in white coats and blue scrubs with cold latex on their hands. More important than machines still trying to feed him medicine, pumping cold saline and warm narcotics into a body that had no more use for them than another’s touch. The cold logic of science ignorant of the passing of spirit.

Mourning could come later. This was important. Important as the wail of siren. Important as fire that lit the horizon. Important as the bend of trees in a hot wind. This was the end of the world, or not.

“Fine,” I lied.

In the Machines, Our Bodies

The salesman slapped the top of the car. “200 miles a soul. Seats four, leather seats, cruise, XM Radio.”

“Yeah, but what about the tires?” Joe kicked one, and I rolled my eyes.

They fell to nattering, feature this, warranty that. I let my eyes roam the dealership. It was filled with gleaming chassis the colors of autumn–reds and golds and browns–the cars sleek, the salesmen sleeker. It wasn’t that I didn’t know anything about cars, it was just that I didn’t care enough to deal with the spiel. I knew what we needed. I wished it was anything but one of these. The Nox Spirit.

Climate change had been a thing, once. Then someone had found proof. Proof of the dead, that they lingered on in what seemed to us desperate ways, replaying events and days and emotion over and over and over. The church told us it was a sign of God. The atheists told us it was a sign that if God ever existed, he didn’t care, otherwise, why leave so many of the dead roaming? The politicians told us both, progressives lobbying for personhood for the dead, for citizenship; fundamentalists hammering Bibles and screaming for regulatory protections and immigration law. How could we know the ghost of a terrorist wouldn’t possess a fine American boy and make him blow up the White House? How did we know revolutionaries didn’t lurk among the restless dead? And that said everything, didn’t it? A dog-whistle even the living could hear.

Then a man, Evan Nox, did some math. It’s never the ones with the slide rules and the algorithms you expect, is it? He figured out the weight of a soul, the energy to mass ratio. He figured out a way to convert spirit to energy. And then the corporations got involved, and the politicians got quiet. Even the churches, shepherds to the dead, silenced their protest and assertions as legislation was passed–we only burn the bad ones. That was all right, wasn’t it? Just the bad ones? It always weighed on me, though. Who decided that?

Joe put his hand on my shoulder, caught my attention. “This is the one. Are you okay with this one?”

I stared at the car. Was I? No. Did I have a choice? Someone was going to buy it, right? No more gas cars, no more oil and carbon and greenhouse effect burning the world down. Someone needed to buy it, to take the kids to school, to take the groceries home, to take themselves to the bar to drink the things that weighed on them away. I nodded, noncommittal, and he disappeared into the office with the glass windows and the bland pictures of dogs hunting.

I stood on the sales floor, waiting, hand resting on the car. How many souls, I wondered? Whose mother, grandmother, brother, would burn for convenience? I thought of my own grandmother, of the verses she’d sing when I was small and nestled in her lap, and imagined her soul crisping and blowing away like leaves. Tears blurred my vision, and I turned my head, catching Joe coming from the sales office. I wiped my face, pretending I was rubbing the sleep from my eyes, then put on a smile. The things we do for the men in our lives. The things they do to the rest of us.

*

The car was quiet. I remembered the big station wagon my parents had, the way it was cold in the back on fall mornings, the way the steel creaked as it rolled down the road. The smells of gasoline and exhaust, the gentle cough-rumble of the V8 as it idled. This was better, right?

Joe turned to me, hand on my thigh. “You okay?”

I nodded, watched the country slip by. Power lines chased us down the road, and I wondered at the great furnaces that broke the souls down, burned them until they turned the turbines, spun the wheels of the world.

He pressed a button on the steering wheel and the console flickered to life. For a moment, before the XM logo appeared, I saw a face, pressed against the screen, then it was gone. Nothing more than a flicker as the opening strains to Everlong began to play.

“Better?” John asked. He never could read a room. But which men can?

*

I woke with an itch in my throat, and crawled out of bed, padding to the kitchen. The water was cool, calming. I tried not to think of whose mother had to burn to pump it to the surface. The thought scratched at the back of my brain, a rat in the walls, and I set the glass down, walked to the garage.

My breath steamed in the air, and it smelled of old sawdust. The car sat in its berth, quiet. I opened the door, the overhead light flickering on, then sat, the leather creaking beneath my thighs. I ran a finger over the stitching on the wheel, the buttons on the console. Hesitated for a moment over the stereo, then pressed it in with a wince of trepidation. It moaned, a low sound, like a body in pain, and I jabbed it off, leaping from the seat, and slamming the door. I didn’t stop moving until I was in the bedroom, Joe’s weight against my hip.

*

What do you say to the dead when they come to you? Sorry, it’s for the planet. Sorry, you were people once, and your autonomy doesn’t matter anymore. For some of them, did it ever?

They came, dressed in finery and rags, cloaked in flame, naked and wearing rage. They came pleading, hands outstretched, bodies blowing away into ash. They came cradling children, they came for succor, and we burned them.

I woke from the nightmare, sheets pooled around my legs, clutching at sweat-slick thighs, and wondered–who else dreamt these things? Did Nox see them, the man that invented the torch that burned them? Did the pastors and preachers, the demagogues? Did the men on the hill in Washington? Maybe they did, but I suspected they had grown cold enough to ignore them, or could afford the pharmaceutical aides to forget them, to dream of only a black field under a black sky.

I wandered the house and touched the things we owned, each time pressing a power button, flicking a switch. Lights flared, radios hummed, cell phones buzzed. I watched a crowd of the dead cluster and press against the flat screen of our 42-inch LCD, heard them whisper through across the FM bands. I sat amid the quiet cacophony and wondered if this was the price we’d paid for waiting so long to change our lives. Was it worth it? Burning our past to ensure our future? I still wondered what would have happened had we adopted renewable energy, if the men obsessed with burning the world hadn’t simply turned to another thing to burn. But that’s the thing, with regret, with hindsight. You learn your lessons only after the scars are healed.

I heard something cry out in the garage, heard the weeping. When I entered, the radio was on in the Spirit, a lullaby echoing from the radio.

One for sorrow,

Two for joy,

Three for a girl,

Four for a boy,

Five for silver,

Six for gold,

Seven for a secret,

Never to be told.

Eight for a wish,

Nine for a kiss,

Ten for a bird,

You must not miss.

The song faded, my grandmother’s voice slipping into static. I sat heavily in the seat and pressed the power button on the radio. I wept for a while. I wished the world was different.

*

Joe left in the morning, a fishing trip, a boys’ weekend. I thanked whatever inattentive God that would listen for good timing. I stood outside the house, a steel can in my hand. It had cost a good chunk of my savings, a good chunk that Joe was going to freak out about. But men don’t really understand. They don’t understand the weight of privilege. The responsibility of it.

I set the can down and lit the match. It flared, the autumn breeze bringing the scent of gasoline to me. I thought about the things we can do, the things we should do, and the things we owe each other, in this life and the next, and I watched the train of souls rise into the sky as I burned it down.

The Goblin King

Here’s a story I played with a bit, and sent on submission to feel out the waters. I did a couple of things I never do here, which was play with purple prose and perspective. It didn’t find a home, but I enjoyed writing it since I had Jareth in my head after just having watched Labyrinth.

 

The Goblin King

 

The goblin king sat atop an outcrop of stone perched on a hill, his narrow blade planted point-first in the earth between his booted feet, the edge dripping crimson. Carrion birds wheeled and called above him, a cacophony of misery echoing from ribbed throats, an eyeball pierced on the end of a gore-encrusted beak, its optic nerve fluttering in the breeze with the flap of ebon wings. Arrayed around him, the remains of a once-grand army as though a whirlwind had swept through their ranks, bodies broken, severed, exsanguinated.

He held his head as one who has suffered a loss, as one who has come to the end of a long road of exhaustion, and there, found only more road. He did not weep though the ground doubled and trebled before him and the carmine drops on his blade blurred to the point of blossoming into petals.

And yet, and yet, the sound of footfalls, of a light step avoiding rigid steel and limp flesh. Of breath held to keep out the scents of offal and shit and the coppery tang of blood spilled by the liter, by the gallon, by the barrel. The rasp of breath sucked in, the stifled cry as vision met the cloudy eyes of the dead and saw only the uncertainty of an eternity not promised. Then, the end of the approach. A stillness in the air, the screaming quiet of anticipation as the visitor screwed up his courage to speak.

“Speak,” the king commanded, for command was his province, the land he had always known.

The voice atop the blackened boots, boots that had seen summers and winters in the ash of many a hearth, perhaps with quill and parchment, perhaps while tending a pot, spoke, low and hesitant, a thing from the underbrush that fears the sun.

“H… How?”

The goblin king gestured to a stone similar to the one he sat on, and the stranger settled, not comfortably, but as comfortably as one can afford when perched on granite and faced with an embodied force of nature. When he had settled, the king looked up and regarded the man. Plain face, a dusting of whiskers across a straight jaw. Thick nose, bright eyes that shone with, if not intelligence, curiosity.

“I would ask you the same,” the king replied. “How is it you’ve survived…” he gestured to the surrounding carnage. An indication. An indictment.

The man shrugged. “I wasn’t here. I saw it though. The light. Heard it. The sound.”

The goblin king nodded and shifted on his stone. “Then, let me ask – are you mad?”

“How do you mean?”

“You saw what happened here and decided to investigate?”

“I’m a curious sort. Besides, it seemed to be over.” He looked around, though not at the dead. Instead his gaze sought the abstract. The silence in the aftermath. “Was I wrong?”

The king shook his head and looked up, past the avian storm that gathered. The sun still stood high, a vast unblinking eye. He addressed the man.

“I have time.”

“For?”

“Questions. You have curiosity, no? Let me sate it.”

“And then?”

The king shrugged. “We shall see.”

The man nodded and pulled a case from his side, unrolling a sheaf of parchment, tipping free an inkpot and a quill. He looked around, and with a demeanor that practically vibrated with unease, pulled a board shield from under a dead man, the body squelching with movement. He grimaced, and then moved quicker, needing to distance himself. He stretched the parchment out and laid it across the board, then dipped the quill and glanced up at the king.

“Tell me a story.”

“What kind of story?”

“Yours.”

“Why?”

“People will want to read it. To know you. To know this.”

The king sighed and tilted his head back, trying to remember. Memory floated at the edge, vagaries, a chiaroscuro of thought. He tilted his head back, gaze rolling down his nose at the scribe like water off a hill. Quizzical, concerned. The emotions roiled and mingled, dripping from his lips.

“Do you remember your mother?”

The scribe blinked, confusion writ on his face plain as the ink on his fingertips. “Yes, a stout woman. Severe at times. Then, who wouldn’t be, with muddy boots on rushes, six children, and a gruff husband. She was a wonderful cook. Sweetbreads, stew…” he trailed off.

“Interesting. I remember nothing. Well, not nothing. Perhaps… I don’t know that she was ever there in the traditional sense. Nor that she was stern. But I have mementos of her. The scent of bog peat in the summer. The whine of gnats in heat. The green throat of bull rushes pulling toward one another, reeds rubbing, chirping a symphony to the creak and croak of toad and frog.”

The scribe frowned even as his quill nib scratched against the parchment. Scritch scritch scritch. The utterance of print, the lexicon of language, each moment measured in quarts and distance. He thought about that thought, and decided if he had tried to write something worse, he couldn’t. This was it. Purple prose shitting itself against the wall, letting the words drip down like fly-ridden effluvia. He grunted once and scribbled, letting the ink blot out the words, obliterate the ephemeral bullshit. He could do better. He began again.

His mother was a swamp.

Fuck no. Another blot. This one nearly tearing the paper. He looked up apologetically, then motioned for the king to continue.

“My father? Very well. My father. Dry. Distant. Harsh. Hot. Rough. A hundred, a thousand adjectives, all too small or too large to fit him. Too wrong, and yet almost right.”

Better, the scribe thought. Filter out the frippery. He thought back to the beginning, thinking he would need to revise. He kept writing, the quill a small blur. He raised his free hand and spun his fingers, insisting the king go on, insisting on the continuance of story, the uninterrupted flow of idea.

“My childhood?” The king harrumphed, a sound of discontent. “What of yours?”

The scribe looked up, blinked. “I spent the majority of my early days weeding plots and cutting thatch. Sometimes, when the harvest finished, grain stacked and milled, and it was too soon to hang meat to dry, I played with the farm dogs, sometimes ran to the market and spent what few coins I had on paper and charcoal. My father nearly took my head off when he found them. He’d taught us letters, but not that they were much use beyond knowing how to read the proclamations and keep our heads down. He was determined to have more thatchers, more herds, more row workers. I was not.”

The king nodded, the great white mane of his hair bobbing. “I played. In caves and trees, in stone labyrinth and mossed battlefield. It wasn’t for lack of work, but lack of guidance. It was there I learned my first scraps of sorcery – how to bleed a man from his pores, how to twist his bones so he looked like a dog when viewed in the right light. How to chase the small dragonflies when they came near, and the way their thoraxes crunched under your molars.”

He leaned closer, the hilt of his blade tipping to one side, coming to rest against his thigh. “Do you wonder, dear man, how you and I diverged so?”

The scribe shrugged. “The fae are what they are.”

The king waved it away. “A useless tautology. I assumed a man of words would know better. We diverged because we wished it so. Would you have the strength to survive in my world? A wildling even among wild things? I would have withered in your world. Survived, yes, but never lived. You make your own reality, scribe.”

“You’re suggesting I wanted to be… normal?”

The king shrugged. “I’m suggesting you survived. Whether you lived or not is of your own mind to make up.”

“Interesting.” The scribe took a breath and frowned at the words he’d written. Clearer, cleaner. The king’s words stuck with him. Had he lived? Would he have touched magic and brought it into his breast in lieu of meat or love? He shrugged, muscle playing with its own landscape, and put quill to parchment.

“How did you become king?”

“How does anyone become king? Deceit, divine right, and inbreeding.”

The scribe raised an eyebrow, giving the king a look that said perhaps you’ve shared too much. For his part, he had moved on, head tilted toward the sun, perhaps gauging the time, perhaps trying to remember something once important, but now relegated to insignificance in the face of time.

“We have little time left. You may ask me one more,” he said.

The look in his eyes was predatory, the glint of light in the pupils like that of a hawk ready to strike, anticipation a hooked talon. The scribe screwed up his face, chewed on the tip of the quill. It had to be good. Lachlan’s press would pay by the word for the account of the stranger who had laid waste to Renfen’s entire army.

The scribe looked around, at the bodies that had begun to bloat in the sun, fat toadstools of flesh putrefying, ready to spill their red and glistening spoor. His gorge rose, a thick tide of boiled oats and greasy sausage, and he choked it back, looking away. How does someone do this? He glanced again, just from the corner of his eye, the look of a man who has seen a dangerous thought, and wonders if he looks at it full, would it cut his mind? Would it hollow his thoughts and lay him out in the sun with all these others, gibbering, until the grave-diggers came and found him playing with himself in the blood-dewed grass?

His eyes flicked back to the king, to the perfectly coiffed hair, the perfect vest and leggings, the codpiece that exaggerated more than just words. The king quirked a smile at the scribe as he caught him looking, and the scribe blushed. How?

No, the voice in his head answered, that part that when looking over the words later, corrected the incorrect, no. Why?

“Why?” The scribe echoed the word, letting it tumble from his lips in place of the vomit, and the king smiled this time.

“Finally, the heart of the matter. The marrow of the bone. Why.” He sat back, and the blade slipped to the ground, unnoticed. “Because. Because I can.”

“Surely there’s more?”

“Does there have to be?”

“For a sane man, for a man who wants to make sense of the words written here, of the world he describe, yes.”

“Then write this: there was a girl. Or maybe a boy. A promise. A lie. There was a death, and vengeance. There was a love unrequited. There was a dragon, and a sorcerer, and a crone. There was a fairy and a goblin, one pure, one corrupt. There was a labyrinth and a child. There was a battle. A kingdom lost, and an empire found. I was a king. I am a king. And I will do what I gods. Damn. Well. Please.”

While he spoke, dread wormed its way into the scribe’s heart, moving deeper and deeper until it sat entrenched like a barbed arrow. His eyes darted to the goblin king’s blade, and as every dismissal dripped from his lips, he forgot to write, forgot to put down the truth he saw. These were the words of a tyrant. He leaned forward, the king seemingly forgetting him in his rant. His fingers trembled, his arm ached, and then, the sword was in his hand, the grip both cool and gritty with dried blood and sand.

He raised the blade, intending to stab it into the king’s heart, to end the coming horror. Words tumbled from his lips, a short squall in the blazing heat of the king’s conviction.

“You’re mad. Madder than any who came before. A coming terror.”

And then the king stood above him, hand outstretched, and he saw the truth. Reality is what you make it, and the king had made his own. No simple warrior stood before the scribe, but a being that encompassed all things and rejected his. Neither and both. Terrible and frightening, powerful and irresistible. The scribe trembled, and the tip of the blade faltered, dipped, dipped… and ended in the dirt. The king took the blade from him, not ungently. He knelt next to the scribe, whose eyes had filled with tears. He spoke soft, his voice honeyed mead in the scribe’s ears.

“You can call me mad, a terror. I suppose those are true things in a way. Mercy for those who need it may seem like madness from the outside to those who do not desire succor. But I have sat to the side for so, so many years while men ground others to dirt, while they subjugated others at a whim, for money, for the color of their skin, for the way they speak, or the things they worship. You have letters and fine food and the strength of conviction. You have absolute conviction that what you do in the now is right, and yet cannot see past the horizon.

And yes, I provide mercy. I feel the question trembling on your lips. I relieve you of your burdens, of your convictions. I bring you the clarity of freedom.

You can write this, then, if it eases your heart: I do this for love. Love drives us all, and even love led these men to this field. Love led you here, did it not?”

The scribe, turning the words over in his head, nodded in agreement. He loved few things as he loved words. It had led him down paths both bright and dim, from under his family’s sheltering arms, from the beds of others who would have him as his own. He wandered still, searching for a specific love, and in wandering, found it – a country where rivers of ink flowed across a vellum landscape.

He picked up the scribe’s quill and pressed it into his hand. “Love will make or break a man. Love may shatter hearts and mend souls. Love can raise a people up or cast them into the gutter. Nothing worth doing is worth doing without it. I do this because I love.”

He leaned in and kissed the scribe just behind the ear, his lips soft and warm, and his breath smelling of clover. Then he straightened and sauntered away, leaving the scribe alone. He listened to the buzz of flies on the dead, a symphony of one-string violins, and then crumpled the paper, tossing it to the side, where it came to rest in a pool of clotting blood, the parchment pulling in the red until it blossomed like carnations across the rumpled surface. He watched it bloom, and then pulled a new sheet from his case, dipped his quill, and wrote:

The goblin king sat atop an outcrop of stone perched on a hill, his heart full of love.

Gray Mother

Her paws were cold, and her feet crunched in the snow as she walked, the crust under her claws unreliable, sometimes holding her weight, sometimes punching through and sending her into an uneven gait that caused her to sink into powder as high as her chest. When it happened, she would blow it away from her face with a snort, the ends of her whiskers tingling as ice crystals brushed against them, and dig in, her back legs kicking until she was on top again. It would tire her, and she’d stop when she reached a solid point, panting gently, stopping to lap at the powder until enough melted in her mouth, and she could ease the aching itch in her throat.

Wind stirred the powder, sending it swirling and spiraling in whorls and eddies, and shaking the boughs above her. Fat clods of snow fell from the branches and hit the ground with thick plopping sounds. Above her, a black bird shifted on its branch and fluttered its wings, trying to settle. It sighed.

“Will you not rest, Old Mother?”

It was the birds’ name for her, though she had been known by many. Waabishki-ma’iingan by the tall hunters in the summers, Long Fang by her packmates, and Ingashi by her litter, though they were long grown and in packs of their own these days. To the moon she had always simply been Grey, sister and daughter; mother, maiden, and crone. She craned her neck, catching the scents of deer and rabbit on the wind, and stared at the bird. She knew him only as Ebon.

“Over this next rise. We need to make better time. Maybe if you fly ahead. You can see if the pack is there.”

Ebon sighed again and fluttered his wings, then launched himself from the branch, sending more snow pattering to the ground. For a moment, the flap of his wings was loud in the clearing, and then they were gone. Grey settled on her haunches, watching the moon filter through the boughs overhead, sending skeletal fingers reaching into the white, a chiaroscuro sketch of murky futures. She lifted her head and sniffed, thinking maybe she would smell the dry dusting of Ebon’s feathers, or the carrion scent that clung to the hook of his beak, the points of his talons.

Too soon, she thought. Age and hunting had taught her patience in most things, but never in her need to be near family. Her mind drifted a little – it did that more these days, time unmooring and sending her down faded paths.

Blue-Eye had appeared in the spring grain, full of chest and tall, his withers wide and his teeth sharp. She had set her paws in the mud, green shoots tickling the pads, and lowered her head, her mouth set, her legs wide. She let a low rumble escape her chest, the sound like rocks tumbling in a stream. He paused and turned his head, one blue eye shining over his thick muzzle, the other a circle of fur bounded by a thick seam of scar. He turned his head and opened his mouth, tongue lolling out, as though he thought her challenge amusing.

Grey bounded forward, intending to teach him that she had little to do with joking, and more to do with keeping intruders from her pack. She leapt, and he stepped out of the way, banging his head into her ribs, and bringing his paws onto her side. She coughed out a surprised bark as she landed on her back in the mud, and he nipped her throat – not enough to draw blood, but a message nonetheless. She lay still, waiting, and he licked her face once, then tore off through the high grass. A fierce sort of something rose in her, and she found her feet and gave chase, wheat whipping by to either side, his musk in her nose, his hard breath ahead of her.

And then – and then there he was, waiting, and she rolled him this time, catching his throat in her jaws, a playful growl escaping her. After a moment, she let up, and he bounced to his feet. They stared at one another, that striking blue eye honest, and came together.

The memory faded, and Grey looked to the sky. Stars, unseen before, peeked through cracks in the clouds. There was a story her people told themselves sometimes, after a hunt, when the elders would lie in warm circles, and the pups wrestled among the pines. It was the story of Amarok. They said when the world was all forest, before the tall hunters, it was full of prey. Others abided there, the bear and the hawk, and darker – the wendigo and the alakwis. They said that when Amarok was just a pup, the wendigo took his father and gave him a hunger that could only be sated with his own people’s flesh. Wild and alone, Amarok’s father – Rust – fled to the wood, fearful that he should swallow his family and devour his pups.

In time, he was all but forgotten as the pack moved on, though it was said they could hear him moving behind them always, his paws scrabbling on the rough bark shed by ancient trees, claws clicking on stony hillsides. They whispered they could hear his rough growl behind the gorse and heather, and glimpse his shadow, hunched by hunger behind the thick maples. So, they moved, always moving, not letting He Who Lurks catch their throats.

Then, they began to fall. First, the old and infirm. Packmates rendered slow by the river of time, hobbled by nature, or sick with any number of things that could creep up and take the honorable in a dishonorable way. No one said more than was necessary. No one slowed their pace. It was the Way. The Way said you moved on. And on. And those who fell were left behind. Not forgotten, not discarded. Their time had come, and it was up to the Mother to reclaim them. There was no dishonor in death, for it came for all.

But Amarok knew better. He saw better. He saw how when the weak fell, a shadow fell over them. He saw jaws, dark and red, reach from the dark places between boles and snatch a leg, tear a tendon. And still he ran with the pack.

It was a clear night when his father came among them, sleeping in their groups. He stalked among the kits and whelplings, and his head would dip, coming back up with jaws working. He had grown lean in the intervening years. His ribs stood out in stark relief, his spine bristling. Rust’s eyes held a yellowish sheen, his teeth stained brown, and his saliva ran in rivulets from half-open jaws. Madness had settled in him like a thorn in flesh, and as his head swiveled side to side, he saw only prey – an entire world for the eating.

Amarok stood, and approached, head down, teeth bared. His father, if he recognized his son, slavered and snapped, and opened his jaws wide, a maw that reeked of black death and rot. Seeing his chance, Amarok dove in, for his father was huge – the largest wolf that had lived until that point – and Amarok fit between his teeth easily. He traveled down his father’s slick throat, into the furnace of his stomach. Once there, he ripped and tore, he rent and bled his father among the corpses of his litter-mates, and with a final howl, tore free of the beast’s stomach, rebirthed in savagery.

When the other wolves saw what he had done, they voiced their joy to the moon, the Mother, and she took notice. For each thing that Rust had devoured, she placed their souls in the sky and set them to burn so that all would know the good Amarok had done.

“Amarok. It is a good story.”

The wolf that stood apart from her was black, his eyes the green of the forest in summer. He settled to his haunches in the shadow between two great oaks. Grey watched him warily. She was not startled, though she hadn’t heard him approach, and was not surprised, though he seemed to know her thoughts. Grey had lived long enough to know that things worked that way in the world. There were certainly more things beneath the stars and between the shadows of the trees than could be accounted for, even in her long life.

“I am waiting for my friend,” she replied, as if that explained everything.

The black wolf looked out toward the rolling hills in the distance, trees clinging to them like bristling hairs. Snow had begun to drift down again in lazy see-saws.

“It may be a while.”

Grey sniffed the air again, and smelled only ice on the wind and the hours-old passage of prey. “My pack…” she began.

“Will be fine without you for a while.” It was the black wolf’s turn to raise his head and sniff slightly at the air.

“Tell me, Old Mother, aren’t you tired?”

The question rankled her. It was not their way to complain. Of the heat, or of the snow. Of the scarcity of the hunt, or the ache from old wounds. It was not their way to give voice to doubt or pain, or to whisper even to the wind of the way their joints ached with age, the way their paws no longer gripped tight to rocky land, or the way their vision sometimes blurred when something moved too fast before them. Despite that, all those things were true, and she kept her silence.

Instead, she turned her thoughts to Blue-Eye. She thought of his humor and his strength, his ferocity. She thought of the time they cornered a bear who had been harassing the fringes of the pack, snapping and snarling, pushing it back despite its size. And Blue-Eye, stupid, brave, funny Blue-Eye, had grown bold. He moved too close, lunging at the beast’s midsection, and it swatted him. It hammered him back like a tail would swat a fly, and – red fell, carmine and bloody in its fierceness. When they found her, she was bleeding, her ribs ached, and her leg would not support her weight. And beside her, the bear, its throat a ruin. Despite the pain, she stood over Blue-Eye, stood until she could no more, and when darkness fell, laid her head on the still-soft mat of his fur, resting until his soul burned among the stars.

Her thoughts turned to her cubs, loyal to pack and family, strong and good. They led packs of their own now – Sharp-Tooth and Little Bear and Red Sister. She thought of the days they frolicked in the long grass, and through crisp castoff leaves in autumn. She thought of the times she had brought down countless deer and rabbit, moving aside to share the kill, of the times she could only find squirrel or vole, and went hungry herself that they might be full and warm a night.

“Your love, your children. Where would they be without you?” He stood and began to pace a slow circle around her, passing into light and shadow, light and shadow. “Would things have gone differently? Have you only spared them what fate might have allowed given time?”

She growled then and bared her fangs. They were still sharp, despite age, her jaws still strong.

“Rest, Old Mother, rest and let time do its work. You need not worry. Time and age and the wind bring change to all things. Surely, you are tired?”

Even as he spoke, she felt the ache of years in her hips, the weight of a paunch gained from children, the soreness of teats that had never seemed to heal all the way after whelping. She felt them, and ignored them, and pushed herself to her feet, bracing against the shooting pain from the scars above her ribs.

“Yet you stand.” The sound that followed was a sigh. “Come then, Old Mother. Come and test your teeth against my throat.”

She moved, fast, but he was faster, and her jaws only scraped him while he snapped in and opened a wound in her leg. Crimson spattered white snow, steaming slightly in the chill night. She limped to the side and let him come at her, his head low, wide like a viper’s. She let him bull in, teeth opening a new wound on her scars, and she twisted, lowering her jaws, closing them tight around his throat. He yelped, and tried to pull away, but she held on tight despite his claws raking at her, front and back, making a red ruin of her fur. Grey shook her head, a mixture of snarl and whimper escaping her lips. Still, the black wolf fought her, opening wound upon wound as he struggled from her jaws.

For his part, it was useless. These were jaws that had felled countless prey, that had torn the throat from the beast who took her lover. They were jaws that had protected and killed for her cubs. She shook her head one last time, the action sending a ripple of pain up her spine, and with a final crack, the other wolf went limp. He ceased to struggle, and she dropped the limp bundle of fur.

Grey paced a few steps, and sagged to the snow, not caring that beneath her it grew warm and sticky, thick with her blood. She looked up, to the stars, and one among them winked blue. She chuffed out a soft greeting. Somewhere distant, drawing closer, like a chinook through the trees, came the sound of wings. After a moment, Ebon landed near.

“My pack?”

He cocked his head, taking in the scene. He seemed to process it, and then take it in stride. “Further, just beyond the hills.”

“Thank you.” She pushed herself to her feet, her body aching. She thought of the pack, alone in the night, and began to walk, the raven close behind.

Her War Heart

She had seven hearts, each in a velvet lined box of hardwood stained the color of clotted blood. She walked among them, fingers tracing the carved lids, and wondered which she would need today. She thought of the witch in the woods, the gnarled crone she had met when she was a little girl, and her sharp knife and promises.

“You will be different. You will be strong. The men will not dare lay their hands on your flesh, or speak promises only to be broken as soon as they are soft.”

The knife glittered in the dark, then slipped between her ribs, opening her like a puzzle box, bone sliding aside, breastbone opening as a lock under a key. Curiously, it did not hurt, and she only watched in dispassion as the old woman took her first heart – her true heart – and lifted it, glistening in the firelight. She placed it in a sack and told Agnes to bury it in the thick peat between the roots of a cypress tree, and when she was finished, to guard its secret well. After, she was to return once a year, for the old woman to give her a new heart, each a distillation of those things that made life worth living.

Seven years, seven hearts, and this year she returned. She never asked the old witch what she wanted in return. Agnes knew already. When she would visit, she would tidy the cabin, brush the old woman’s long hair, still shining a deep gold, and rub the calluses on her feet. She would prepare dinner, and they would sup together, and when they were finished, the old witch – Greta – would disappear into her bedroom while crepuscular light crept in through the windows. She would rummage around for a bit, and when she returned, a new box would be in her hands, the wood stained and polished to a shine.

Now, it was nearly another year, and she had laid out her dress, a light thing printed with flowers, and tall boots, for Greta lived in the forest past the fields, and the mud could creep up your ankles and into your shoes, and if it had been a wet spring, sometimes it climbed to your knees, sucking at your legs like a drunk sucks at a bone, trying to pull the meat and marrow from you.

Agnes wondered which heart to wear – joy, for the laughter she shared with the witch, or stoicism to accept that time was passing, and soon enough even Greta’s time would come to an end. It was something Agnes hadn’t considered when she was younger. The witch of the woods had always seemed immortal, especially when Agnes had been young, Great had still been very old. But the fact was that time crept on, and even the very old and powerful weren’t immune to its ravages.

Maybe sorrow, then? She shook her head. Too much. Too painful. Outside, someone was ringing the warning bell in the square, drawing her from her thoughts. A rabble of voices drifted on the wind, and Agnes peeked her head from a shutter to see what the stir was about. The sky had turned the orange red of a summer storm, and the wind had the tang of ozone. In the square below, someone had gathered a large crowd, and Agnes squinted to see who it was.

Gunter, the town constable, was standing on the platform usually used for mayoral announcements, his bald pate shining in the still sunny day, wisps from the salt and pepper fringe blowing around his scalp. His face was red – redder than the normal flush from drink – and he clutched a burlap sack in one gloved hand. Most of the town was gathered around, summer dress fluttering in the warm zephyr, men with shirts unlaced and hats in hand, some still holding pitchforks and hoes. Agnes frowned. This must have been called in a hurry.

Gunter raised his voice to a stentorian bellow. “There is an abomination in our midst!”

The crowd muttered and shuffled their feet. They’d heard this before, two summers ago when Gunter had been appointed constable, and he was eager to hunt out evil in a town of less than a hundred people. He’d insisted there was a witch in the woods, and that she lured in unsuspecting children, then devoured them whole. Agnes had laughed at the pronouncement, as had most of the village, though her reasons were different. The thought of Greta, a woman who subsisted on bread and roots, eating a lamb shank, let alone a child, was ridiculous.

Gunter had turned a deep red at the scoffing, throwing an accusatory finger in their faces. “You’ll see! When your crops wither and your children grow wan, you’ll see!”

He’d stomped off in a blind fury, and Agnes had crept away that night to tell Greta of his speech. The old woman worked a spell that summer, with sea salt and bread, with bone and earth, that strengthened the crops and made the children hale. When the village saw the opposite of what Gunter claimed, they mocked him in the street, calling him ‘Old Man Wind’, a reference to the storms he would blow but never break.

Now he stood in the town square, and the burlap sack in his hand writhed, and a pit of dread sat in Agnes’s stomach, because she could see the mud on his boots and the scratches on his arms. He glared around at the muttering and reached into the bag, and her stomach clenched even tighter. With a triumphant sound, he pulled his prize free, the crimson muscle still beating in the sunlight. Agnes gasped, echoing the townspeople.

“A witch, I told you! A heartless witch, and if she is bold enough to walk among us with no heart, what must she be planning for your children? Hannah? Your Ruth, is she well? Martin, your Jon, has he not been ill? Look among you!”

They began to glance at one another.

“Who among you is missing? Who among you would not deign to show her face for the good of the village?”

All eyes turned to Agnes’ home, and she blanched, pulling her head back into the room and slamming the shutter closed. Too late though – she knew they had seen her, and now she wondered what was to be next. Outside, the muttering had risen to a clamor, and she bolted downstairs with a jolt of fear, managing to slam the bar across her door as the first stone hit it.

They came in a flurry, a rainstorm of stones slamming into her door, breaking slats from the shutters and rattling against the roof and cupboard. There were shouts for her to come out, for her to make their children well, for her to end her life. She ran upstairs and threw her tiny closet open, looking at each heart in turn. Which could she use? Innocence? They’d never believe it. Joy? She’d appear a lunatic. Sorrow? They’d think her being contrite a false face, and after all, what did she have to be contrite about? Living? She’d never brought them harm.

Smoke trickled between the floorboards, and panic seized her limbs. Leaving the hearts behind, Agnes barreled down the stairs, seeing that the front door had been lit, the walls now smoking too as the townspeople piled brush and lumber against them. She banged on the door and shouted.

“You know me! Harold – I taught your children! Jane – who nursed your little ones when you had the pox?”

No response came, and she tried to kick the door down, to flee, but they had nailed it tight. The fire was under the house now, and the floorboards smoked and spat as the flames took them. She fled up the stairs, thinking to jump from a window, but when she threw the shutter, saw that the townsfolk had surrounded her house, some with their bows, and watched as it burned.

Weeping, she sat on the floor and curled up into a ball. Surely they would relent. Surely they would spare her. This was just a lesson. She had harmed no one. She had done nothi-

The floor collapsed, spilling her into the fire.

*

She had been in the forest. She couldn’t remember why. Her mother had died? Her father? They were both gone now, gone and away, and she was alone, and there was no one to tell her not to play there, so she did. When she found the path, neat and winding between the boles of ancient oaks and maples, she took it, feet crunching on leaves shed the season before. Past another turn, the third in the path, she saw a tidy cottage, small and cozy, smoke rising from the chimney. Being neither warned nor afraid of such things, she knocked. The woman who answered the door was dressed in black, her hair gold, her hands wizened. She smiled, and let the girl in.

“Do I know you?” The woman asked.

Agnes shook her head.

“Would I like to?” The woman asked.

Agnes nodded.

“What is your name, little one?”

“Agnes, but my mother always called me Aggie.”

“Well, then Aggie, come in and sit with an old woman. I am Greta.”

“What will we do?”

“Sup, and talk, and in the end, if you’re very good, I’ll show you a bit of magic.”

Agnes thought she would like that very much, and stepped into the cottage, the door closing behind her.

*

Somehow, she survived. Though, she was burned badly, her skin scorched down to muscle – that didn’t hurt as much – cold numbed those parts of her. In others, great blisters had risen, and her hair had been burned down to stubble. She wept a little when she woke. Part from the pain, part from the loss. She had lost her home, her friends, her hearts. When she was done, she crawled through the rubble until she could see the field behind her house, and beyond that, the forest. She listened, though it was a rest day, and no one toiled in the fields, or walked the streets, and she breathed a sigh of relief. When night fell, she crawled further, into the mud of the field, into the long grasses and stinging insects which stung a little less in comparison to the great ache in her body, and over hard stone, each movement causing her to gasp and writhe. Finally, she made it to the forest, and collapsed under the shade of a massive oak, its branches spread wide.

She lay there, cool leaves and earth pressing into her back, and stared at the stars between the boughs. She wondered if their fire was as hot as the one that had burned her, and found she was glad they were distant. A shadow moved into her line of sight, blocking them, and after a moment, cawed gently at her. She stared at it until it cawed again, fluttered its wings, and hopped to a nearby tree, another soft caw escaping it. I hopped from one foot to another and looked at her expectantly.

With a sigh and a painful heave, Agnes rolled over and crawled along the ground, not trusting her legs yet. She made way in slow movements that drug her skin across broken twigs and raspy leaves until she was under the tree. The bird moved on, waiting. She followed. They did this for some time, night passing into dawn as Agnes moved inch by agonizing inch along the forest floor. Finally, the sun broke the horizon, and she found herself clutching the bottom of Greta’s door. With what strength she had left, she scratched at the wood, hoping the old woman would hear. Then, she went to sleep, satisfied she had come as far as she could, and the night would bear out the rest.

*

When she woke, she was ensconced in Greta’s soft goose down bed, the mattress like a cloud. She looked around the room and saw that it was much like her own. A bed, dresser, nightstand, and a small closet. She wondered at the contents, considered asking now that she was in the woman’s room, but then Greta came in bearing a steaming bowl, and she let it drop. The other woman propped her head up and spooned broth between her lips. It was good, filling, and left a trickle of warmth that grew into a comfortable blanket when she was finished. Her eyelids grew heavy.

“I should have seen this coming,” Greta was saying.

Agnes shook her head weakly. “Not their fault.”

Greta waved that away. “Bah. People are dumb and panicky, and cruel when they believe lies. Sleep now, for a little longer. I have a gift for you.”

Agnes let the lassitude wash over her.

*

When she woke, it was alone. She felt stronger, enough to sit up and look around. In the bed was a box, the top carved with a flame. A note sat beside it.

“This is your war heart,” it read. “It is time you took your own back.”

Agnes opened the box, and inside was a heart the color of fire. It glowed gently, not a peaceful white like joy, or blue like sorrow, but a deep angry red, and when she held it in her hands, it was hot to the touch. It frightened her a little. Still, she opened her chest and placed it within, and when it began to beat, she felt strength flood her limbs, her pain dissipating. She threw off her covers, and opened Greta’s closet. Inside was a cloak and a blade, and she took both. The cloak was black and felt light as shadow, the blade white and bright as the moon. She stalked out of the hut and into the night.

*

She stood at the edge of the village and cried out for Gunter. He came on the third try, his face red, his hair disheveled. In one hand, he held his cutlass. In the other, the burlap sack. He stared at her, recognition not lighting his face. A crowd had begun to gather behind him, and when she swept the hood of the cloak back, they gasped. He stepped back and raised his sword, leaving the heart in the dirt.

“My heart, please.” Moonlight glimmered on her blade.

“Witch!” He spat.

Gunter lunged, his face alight with fanaticism, a fever that refused to break. She stepped out of the way and the war heart surged. Her limbs moved like clockwork, and she swept his head from his shoulders. His corpse tumbled to the ground.

“My heart, please.” She repeated it. A bold farmer, thick with ropy muscle, tried what the older man couldn’t, taking up his blade. Agnes ended him as well, and someone cried out.

“My heart. Please!” It was no longer a request, but a command, and yet no one moved to obey the woman cloaked in shadow.

“My heart!” Rage surged through her. The war heart whispered to her. She was born to kill. She was born to end. She would burn the world. She raised the blade and took a single step forward. The crowd shrank back, and she silently cursed them for cowards.

A voice, small and curious cracked the surface of her rage. “This heart?”

A child, no older than she had been when she’d met Greta held out her heart. Agnes nodded and knelt. From somewhere in the crowd, the girl’s mother wept, but Agnes had no time for her. She took her heart and stood, then leaned in, speaking in the girl’s ear.

“If you need, find me in the woods.”

With that, she stood and left the village in somber silence. Behind her, a choked sob escaped, or a muttered curse, but none reached her ears. She traveled light, and when she entered the tree line, disappeared altogether.

*

In the cabin, she placed her war heart in a chest, and sat beside the old woman who had given it to her, her body still cooling in her chair. She brushed her hair and rubbed her feet, then wrapped her in linens and buried her between the roots of the cypress trees. When she returned to the cabin, she put her old heart in her chest, and her new in the tiny closet, and waited. In time, she would have enough joy and sorrow, love and hate, and all the other things that make life worth living, and she would give them to a young woman to learn their lessons.

Via Dolorosa

Pain can blot out the world, make the details go missing like a cataract occluding vision. Right then, Maria was missing the smell of trash stacked almost waist-high in the alley, the taint of sewage clinging to a brick wall where the grates had belched up steam, and the ripple-rustle sound of rats scurrying through black plastic, their claws opening holes in the bags and spilling milk rings and coffee grounds, apple rinds and eggshells. Instead, she winced and braced herself against a wall that was clear of trash but tagged with paint that had dripped and run, layer on layer marking and demarking ownership, like a map redrawn by a mad cartographer.

There was something wrong with her, something in her guts writhing and drawing her life, feeding on joy and normalcy the way children suckle on mother’s milk. It wasn’t the C-word. Cancer. That’s how she thought of it every time it came up, every time it intruded on memory, a guest waving a cleaver at a tea party. The C-word had taken her mother. It had touched her father near the end, when he had finally decided to give up the cigarillos and the rotgut. Every now and then, she would smell those things – smoke and whiskey – drifting by on a breeze, and she’d think no. No. He was gone, and the specter of the thing that had taken him wouldn’t haunt her for longer than it took to walk away from the scent and think of happier things.

And still the specter lurked. So she had gone to the doctor, with the C-word on her lips, and suffered with patience the seemingly-infinite pinpricks and bone punctures and machines that irradiated you in hopes of finding what it was that was killing you. And it wasn’t. It wasn’t the C-word, and the doctors said it wasn’t killing her, but of course it was. Of course it was. Inch by inch, in tightening bands in her stomach and back that crawled under her skin like a python in her guts. Of course it was.

They’d told her she had other options. They sent her to a pain specialist, and there were pills and electro therapy and physical therapy. But it didn’t matter. The pain ignored it, laughed at it the way you laugh at the blows of an angry child. She had tried homeopathy and naturopathy and acupuncture. Chiropractic therapy and massage. She had seen brujas and witches, Romani women with high cheekbones and dark eyes, Wiccans and Christian Scientists. In the end, the pain remained, and her money didn’t.

She moved from her house to an apartment, and then from the apartment to a rental motel, her belongings piled to the sides of the single room and in the back of her beat-up car like the trash in the alley. She had sold the things she could, and bartered what she couldn’t, and soon even those would be gone as the money went from scarce to extinct, the last wheeze of a desperate life. Work was hard to come by – no one wanted a broken woman who could only make it five, six hours before the pain settled in and took control, forcing her to a halt as she huddled in her threadbare chair and made fists that left her palms sore. She scavenged, finding things in cast-offs from far wealthier homes, and in back alleys like this one, and chuckled when the words Reduce, Reuse, Recycle flitted through her head.

And then she’d found it. Scribbled on the wall of a restroom in a Denny’s. Two words. Brother Pain. She’d sat the toilet, her eyes trying to unfocus with the ache in her guts, and stared. Brother Pain. It seemed like a taunt. Like a promise. She found a pen in her purse, and scribbled beside it Who, then went home and sat in front of the small TV the motel provided, and watched Seinfeld reruns until her eyes grew heavy and her breathing steady.

*

  She found five dollars in her purse the next morning. Enough for a coffee, and she drove to Denny’s, her stomach in turns aching and shivering. She ordered the coffee and sat until the waitress stared, then left the cup and went to the stalls. She opened the door and held her breath, anticipation like a wire under her flesh. She looked. There, beneath Who, were the words the alleys. Disappointment flashed through her, then curiosity. What alleys? Where? She left the stall, and sat in her car for a time. Florence + The Machine played a dirge on the radio. She started the car and drove.

*

That first week was like a scavenger hunt. She would find traces of him on brownstone walls hidden from the sun, on dumpsters scummed over with grease and worse, slicker things. Always but a word or two, always just a glimpse.

NOT HERE

CLOSER

GO BACK

This last scribbled on a rest stop mirror in lipstick once red, now the color of clotted blood. In a stall beneath flickering lights someone shuffled, and she heard the sound of steel on steel. She’d fled into the night and looked elsewhere.

Maria had stumbled through alleys choked with refuse, both garbage and human. Some shouted at her, some groped, gnarled hands digging into flesh, bruising her private self, leaving her skin crawling hours afterward. She dodged a man wielding a broken bottle, an emaciated pitbull at his side. The dog looked at her with sad eyes, as if to say This is where pain ends, this is where pain leads, and she looked away, moving from the man’s small hovel of scrap pressed against the side of a building that looked as if the cost of the fixtures alone could have fed a small army.

And now here, it was the last. It was the last she would – could – check, the pain having moved, grown, staking its claim like a rogue nation annexing its neighbors. It was in her knees, in her shoulders. It stabbed her with unseen claws just below the breastbone. She was ravaged, emaciated. She was cold and aching, and her thoughts flitted from one thing to the next, as though landing on any one topic would give the pain purchase. She gasped, taking her breath back for a moment, and pulled her hand away from the wall. Over all the layers of paint and grime, one word had been scrawled, the hand hard, frantic.

HERE

Her heart skipped a beat, and she held still, fearful that this was the last step. She would find her Brother Pain, and drop at his feet. She swayed, then steadied, and with a gentle sigh, stepped further into the dark.

*

The alley became a chapel. Not in the literal sense. Maria felt the atmosphere clear, a bucolic summer day in winter. The trash that had sculpted the walls of the space into a defile of decay thinned, and then disappeared. Here, men and women still slept or leaned against cool walls, but they seemed content. They nodded as she passed, raised a hand in greeting. And there, at the end, a simple shack built between the buildings, corrugated tin propped against one another into standing walls and a roof, the opening between them draped with a bedsheet that had been printed in crimson and gold paisley. A man stood before it, hands clasped before him.

“A supplicant approaches!” he echoed across the brick, and Maria cringed. The people in the alley echoed. “Be she worthy!”

The man before the door swept the curtain to the side, indicating she was to enter. Maria paused while the pain intensified, as though it knew this place was the last stop, the last terminal on the Underground. A whimper escaped her lips. No one moved to help. This was a test, she knew. Could she meet Brother Pain on her own two feet? Would she be worthy? The pain passed, and she crept toward the door, the man beside it smiling. Gray whiskers lined his cheeks, wiry in the light. He smiled, brown teeth a testament to his vice. She wondered if it had been the C-word for him. What the Brother had done for his grizzled guts. He nodded, and she stepped into the chapel.

Darkness engulfed her for a moment as her eyes adjusted. It crept back in stages – here, a small wooden table, a Coleman lamp sputtering out light. There, a chair draped with a comforter. Here, a bedroll made neat, a ratty pillow at its head. There, a man, sitting, his skin the color of wet earth. He was wrapped in an old army jacket over a gray hooded sweatshirt. He gestured at the chair covered by the comforter, and she sat. He smiled, his eyes rheumy, and reached a hand out, placing it on hers. His skin was nearly feverish, though his touch was dry.

“And at last, you have come. What do you offer?”

Her mind skirled in panic. She stammered. “I- I have nothing.”

He shook his head. “All things in balance, and all things true. You have more than you know.”

She forced her mind to settle, forced herself to take steady, even breaths until the pain dulled to a low roar. She had given her money. She had given her time. She had given her home and her things. She seized upon something.

“I have a car.”

He shook his head.

“I have-“ she rummaged in her purse, came up with ten dollars and a pin her father had given her for her sixteenth birthday. It was a gold hummingbird, tiny rubies for the eyes. They glinted in the light, and she remembered how small it looked in his hands as he held it out for a gift. The last thing he had given her before his blood turned thick, before his eyes yellowed and his breath came in ragged gasps. Tears blurred her vision for a moment. “I have this.”

He shook his head again, and frustration rose in Maria. Of all the things she had given, that was her most precious. Even when she had been forced to wait beside restaurant dumpsters for cast-off food, she hadn’t entertained the idea of parting with it. She opened her mouth to ask him what he wanted, anger making her tongue bitter. He stopped her by touching her stomach, once.

“What can you trade?”

Realization lit her thoughts. “My pain.”

He nodded, and pressed his hand against her stomach. It swirled and growled, and the pain rose, rose, rose to a crescendo, the crashing of a tsunami against her soul. Maria cried out, and her vision doubled, trebled. Brother Pain was saying something, but she just wanted it to end. She wanted it out. She took the pin in her hand and opened it, intending for a single thrust. She raised her hand, and-

It was done.

She lowered the pin, and took a breath. No pain lanced her. No ache tormented her. She looked across at the man in the chair, his eyes closed. A smile trickled across his lips. After a moment, he raised a hand.

“This is a good trade.”

She stood, and made her way from the shack on legs unsteady from newfound relief. She stood in the half-light outside, the men and women in the alley smiling at her. The man beside the door raised a hand.

“Via dolorosa!” he shouted.

“Via dolorosa!” they replied.

Maria found herself repeating it. She stood for another minute, until they brought her a bedroll and a hunk of bread and water. She bedded down as close to the chapel as she could get. The light faded from the day, and she sat alone in the dark for a while. She had given all she could, but would give a little more. She had earned her reprieve, but felt the balance uneven. When she finally drifted to sleep, sweet untroubled sleep, it was with his words on her lips.

“This is a good trade.”