It was a palace of whiteness, and... what are those things? Rectangles... I had never seen a rectangle before. Everything made out of straight lines... another universe, and it all belonged to him. In the courtyard there was a kind of water that did as it was told... a chahār bāgh, with peach trees and Persian roses, and I couldn't look at them and smell them at the same time. I just stared and stared and couldn't speak."
"A runner had gone ahead to let them know we were coming, and all the women of the house came pouring into the garden... Uighur, Russian, Rajastani, Greek, local girls, all in their best clothes so that they looked... like birds had married flowers... with gold and silver on their necks and arms, and bells tied in their hair, and they smelled of everything wonderful... champa and cinnamon and attar. And they were doing this strange thing with their mouths...” Sachiin pulled up the corners of his own into the shape of a smile with two fingers. “They were happy to see him. Sobh bexeyr, Kala'amātya.” he intoned, recalling the lilting, knowing fondness of their greeting. “Before that, I could have counted the number of people who'd been pleased to see my brother on two fingers, but there they were, smiling at him like he was the sun in winter, bringing us water and asking who I was. Their hands were warm, and every woman was a different shape and colour, which was so strange to me... even their voices were a hundred kinds of gold, the words tied like a necklace, with empty spaces in between.
They took me into the house and fed me fruit and honey, brought new clothes and washed my feet and laughed and called me bakareh... virgin... because I was so modest and stupid. All I could do was stare at them, but I decided then and there that exile was the life for me, and eating dirt at twenty thousand feet could go straight to fucking hell for all I cared.”
“I bet it could...” Susan laughed, but the colours of the image darkened with his silence while she drew another mouthful from the bottle. “How long before it started going bad?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember everything.”
“Yes you do.”
“It took about a year. We stayed with Kala'amātya, and he lived large. Every summer he would put a corps together and go off fighting, then hit the silk route caravans when that slowed down... all of that paid out, and he was gone for half the year. Rana stayed in her room at first and kept threatening to go home, but I could feel it changing... I could see, every time I tried to talk to her, that something was going wrong inside her head, I think because in her heart, she couldn’t leave the mountains. It was like watching a wound turn bad. I knew what was coming, but I didn’t know how to stop it.
In summer most of the women did their own thing, the witches heading up into the mountains to study, some riding with my brother or with their own crews... hoes heading west to work the Caspian boats... but with Kala'amātya gone so long, the girls who stayed home started looking at me a certain way. I didn’t think that Rana cared or even knew... stupid, I know, but I was stupid... I had no idea that people went crazy over that sort of thing.
One day she came to me and said ‘Sachiin... did you know that you may kill these creatures, merely by striking them?’ And I walked out into the garden and found that she had beaten one of the kitchen girls to death. In autumn, when Kala'amātya came home, he threw her out into the street. I tried to talk him round but he threw me out and told me... a'ma sa'anae sahai'is siith nala elaiinae... come back when you've had enough.
Living alone with Rana was... hellish, really, in ways I had never imagined, but if I ran to his house she would follow me and beat his slaves. After a while, when I left she would just walk into the bazar and kill whoever she got hold of... twist their arms and legs off. That would go on until I came back. One year Avi'ashān arrived, from nowhere, and then Nyāti, looking for him... everything was coming apart in the mountains, with Ana'siām'ilye disgraced... people were leaving every day and going into the sea, but we didn't know until they told us. For a while, Nyāti handled Rana better than I could, but it didn’t last. Losing the mountains was the final straw for her. Kala'amātya would ask me... nala siith i’nala elaiinae... have you had enough, Sachiin? But I could never say yes, because I knew once I did, everything he'd do to make her go into the sea would be on my head. When I looked at her mad face, I knew I was too weak and vain to think of myself as the one who had wished death on her." The snow slowed in the darkness until each mote seemed shed in bitter accord with his account. "If I hadn’t been that way, who knows how many people would have lived another day... Kala'amātya might have had the time he needed with Helaine. Her death wasn’t even Rana’s fault.” he admitted, his voice so quiet that she closed her eyes to hear it. “It was mine.” He brushed the snow from his hair. “His never saying it is hard... I wish he'd grab me by the throat and dangle me off forty storeys... but he won't.”
Susan leant over her lap and assured herself of his attention before speaking to his admission.
“When my parents died they were on their way to pick me up from my aunt’s house." she sighed. "I was supposed to stay the weekend but she’d found some cigarettes and I don’t know... condoms, I think it was... in my handbag, something completely stupid and we’d had this horrible fight, so I wanted to go home. I had to go and live with her after the accident. I asked her once if she blamed me, and she said yes... she blamed me, my parents, the car, the other driver, the weather... herself… but she said that's just what you do when you’ve lost someone. I was shocked at first, then I thought, god, I actually blame her, so I understood. That's just... normal.” When he opened his mouth she shook her head. “That’s not my point, though. Your brother isn’t normal, and I don't think he blames you. Mostly he’s just glad to have you... you're lucky to have each other. And I am glad to have you..." she smiled. "You don't miss her, do you?"
"Rana? No... it feels like something that was biting my arm has gone away. After everything she did, it's just... peaceful."
The dowager moon breathed her last into the clouds, her glow borne earthwards in the silver cells of every frozen element, as though the air were haunted by expiring spectres, their light extinguished as they met the ground.
"I wonder if they knew when they first saw him..." she murmured. "The priestesses... did they know he was the end of them, or did they make him Kala'amātya?"
"I've never known. Helaine once told me we all take our own lives, one way or another, and I like to think Ana'siām'ilye was cutting her own throat with those blackthorn branches. That would be..."
"Poetic." Susan smiled. "You're very zen about the strangest things."
"What can you do? I'm not the sharpest apple in the bucket."
She spluttered liquor and wiped it from her chin.
"Well, we're probably made for each other, then. Priestesses never get it right."
Susan shuffled on her knees toward the window with the sleeping bag, grinning at his wary face then lifting the bottle to his lips, its contents prompting him to shudder at the flash of bitter fruit and ethanol.
"Mmm... génial..." he coughed. "Merde, c'est bordelique." He turned his head from the kiss she bestowed in remediation. "Cloudcheeks, I'm too cold..."
"I don't care." she insisted, taking his face in her hands. His mouth was perfumed by the hueless liquor, tasting of distant apple and anise, and of the newborn winter descending behind him, the season that had settled in his skin and drawn his pupils into snake-like straits. She pressed her lips to his left lid, chuckling as their warmth reversed the transformation, if only unilaterally. "Is this you, when you're at home?" The cover cosseted their voices as she pulled it over their heads. He nodded, and she kissed him again, taking his hands and drawing them beneath her jersey so that they closed upon her waist, their breathtaking differential sliding slowly into novel, delicious inverse on her skin.
"You're making me feel like an enigma wrapped in a something else." he whispered.
"I know there'll always be some monsterism, but most of you is five-star." Susan admitted. He sighed softly against her neck.
"That kind of talk just won you a super-deluxe trip downtown."
"Speak more French..." she urged, grasping his neck as he hoisted them both out of the window and dumped her down onto the pine needles.
"Je ne peux pas le faire... pour le principe... c'est pour ton bien..." he murmured while she dragged his shirt over his head and struggled to assist in the removal of her trousers, stifling the laughter prompted by discombobulation. "I do miss parts of summer, if I'm honest... the only thing standing between me and la petit gâteau was half a foot of fresh air, or knicker elastic that was suicidal anyway..." He paused to suck the cache of freckles on the face of her thigh.
"I miss mattresses. Missionary with a mattress... it always feels like I'm going to hell for it with you. I don't know how you manage it." She closed her eyes as her legs were persuaded into dissociation.
"Whatever you're doing has to stay under the blanket, and en francais."
"Ça va sans dire."
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce