"Am I a species?" he laughed. "Do I have children? Putain!"
Susan shaded her gaze with her hand.
"I crossed that one out." she whispered.
"A species? Er... pass. Illegitimi? I've been warned that it's technically possible, but it's all... you know... perihelion, blood sacrifice, and I'm pretty sure I would have spotted someone cutting the head off a buffalo while I was fucking their sister. What?" he laughed. "You asked..."
"No I didn't..."
William studied her script again.
"Did it smell bad?"
"I mean the past! That's what we're told at school. Can I have that back, please?"
"It stank pretty bad, actually... people, baggage trains, clothing... living in a town was like being wedged in a fucking feltbeater’s armpit. It's not like that in the mountains. But soap is good... I was happy to see it." Turning the page over, he selected another inquiry. "Did women really think men were superior?” Susan’s nose wrinkled as he spoke. "Er... I'm not really a man, and when I think about it, I can't say I've ever felt especially appreciated in a god-like fashion by girls... I run with a bad crowd, though." William's hand went to his pocket before he remembered he was not allowed to smoke. "People haven't really changed. Same shit, different d..."
"What about Hitler?" she interjected. His eyes roved slowly until it became clear that he did not understand the question. "I mean... did you see that coming?"
"Oh... yeah. They're all one guy really, the horde-mongers."
"How do you mean?"
"Vertically challenged, romantically declined and fashion-forward. Whenever I see three hundred people dressed the same way, I pack up my shit before the screaming starts. Except with the Xiongnu... the first you ever heard from them was a hundred fucking onion planters bolting past the front gate, closely followed by fifteen thousand mounted archers. But er... what was the question?"
"What it was like to be a girl, before you could vote or get divorced..." she pressed.
"Like being gay these days. Fine til someone stabs you to death while people stand around chanting that you had it coming.” He refilled their glasses. “Everything came down to location... something that was hilarious in one place got you dunked in pitch ten miles down the road." Scratching his chin, he shrugged, looking for some meaningful summary. "You’re lucky you were born... when was it? Yesterday?”
The sound of her laugh relieved him, though he struggled with his tie, loosening the knot against its unaccustomed enclosure.
"You can take it off." Susan grinned.
"I haven't worn one since the fucking boat over here. Frost keeps putting them on me... says I look less feral."
She stowed it in her handbag.
"Where were you coming from?"
"France... lived there on and off for a while, Paris, Gévaudan... hence the parler."
"There aren't that many of you about, are there?"
"Is it that obvious?"
"It's... the way you are, and with your brother. Like there's no one else."
“Well, there's Ed and me... Bede, you met... Nyāti... that’s his better half..." William looked up from his plate as he came to the end of the slender demographic. Her gaze was drawn back to her scars.
"Was this any of them?" she asked, turning her wrist toward him. He took it in his hand and passed a thumb over the pale striations regretfully.
"Honestly, no... I don't know who did that, but when I do, they'll wish they hadn't."
"I don't want more trouble, William, so just... promise me you won't overreact." His difficulty committing to her stipulation prompted her to pick up his hand, transfer it to the carafe and pour for them both once more. Its task complete, she smoothed his fingers out across the linen and employed the vase of flowers to seclude her surreptitious exam. "The first thing I thought to ask was how you ended up like this, because I don't believe you evolved or anything..."
"Christabel, that's a very... somethingist assumption." he complained, wincing faintly as she subjected his digits to a series of arduous mechanical appraisals until she discovered that his nails slid from their beds into thick, hooked curves; they retracted smoothly as she let go and pressed her own hand to her mouth. Their waiter stood clutching a fresh carafe. "Do you want to eat?” William asked. She took up the menu.
“I’ll... I can't um... I'm having trouble thinking..." she admitted. "I'll have the... what is that?” She leant across to point out an item on the list, shifting around the table to sit inside the arm he lifted to accommodate her.
“Three kinds of wild mushrooms in... ah, cream sauce, and some sort of noodle.” he explained, perusing the french terms.
“Is it very big?” she asked the attendant. “I’m really hungry.” Glancing around, she saw to her dismay that baroque presentation took precedence over portion size. “I’ll have whatever that was, and... do you have trifle?”
“Sort of... a cake in a bowl with jam...”
William shared the man's dubious expression.
“We have a very fine Tiramisu.” the waiter offered.
“Is it very...”
“No. It is not very big. But I will tell the patissier of his mistake.” he hissed.
“Tell him how you lost your fucking tip while you’re there.” William mused. “Nasturtiums and figs. Thanks.”
“You want... flowers?”
“On a plate, with figs.”
They watched the man walk, stiff-necked, back to the kitchen with their orders.
“I’m going to get a gob in my pasta.” Susan predicted, glancing over her shoulder; as soon as he was gone she dragged William's hand out from under the table and resumed her examination, singling out his extraneous finger. "Does it have a name?" she asked of it.
"So go on, then..." she urged. "About why you are."
He emptied his glass again.
"I've heard a hundred stories, but I think the oldest is the one I believe... I will tell you some time." Flecks of glitter had fallen from her lids and settled on her lower lashes. Her smile and the inescapable compulsion of her stare forced his gaze toward the ceiling and he rolled his eyes. "When I first left the mountains and went to live in my brother's house, there was a khampa girl there, and she said to me that in Kham, her people knew about us... her grandmother had been a witch and told her how we were created." That he had lowered his voice to preserve discretion caused her to frown over her shoulder at the clatter and susurration from the surrounding tables. "In their stories it was said... before words were written down, all the lands around the Mother Mountains were held by the Nāga... women who wore the black hood and had thrown off all other names for what they were, declaring themselves witches, and feared by everyone who knew the word. They held the highest valleys and lived as self-made queens, treading down the dharma and the rule of princes and the common people as though they were stones to be cracked under their feet..." Slowly, as though lowered by a dial, their neighbours' conversation fell away into a silence that obliged his confidences, adjacent strangers laying down their knives and forks and sitting in abeyance; when he spoke again, the words arranged the shapes of black-swathed women gathered in a vale of nodding poppies, felt-leaved and welkin-blue, the hard grey taste of meltwater pooling in her mouth.
"It was said they commanded the air and flew like great black crows, that they stole the shapes of wolves and tigers and wore them in the darkness... that even the rivers drew back their water at their word, to offer passage. Beasts of the forest took their decrees into the palaces of kings and spoke them with voices they were given for the purpose, so that the prince of Mahājanapadas might be tithed or directed by a bird or spotted deer before his people, and humbled... if any nobleman or priest said words against them, even in their dreams, the Nāga would cause the sky over their land to stare down like the white eye of a demon of the waste, until the crops were scorched and blown like ashes and their children and their animals lay down in the streets and died like fish cast out of water. And in lamenting them, these kings and nobles earned for their dearest kin a white bolt from the sky that cleaved their bodies into smoking ruin."
"And it was said that the pride of these witches were the sadhaka... familiars they had created, to serve as the pillars and ornaments of their art, creatures assembled from three principles... from men, so they had tongues to speak and hands to perform the tasks required... from beasts, for their strength and instinct, and shapes more pleasing to their creators than the common run of man... and from elementals, the spirits of the ice and stone, so they could prosper where no honest creature might, and would stand apart from all else, as is the wont of primal spirits. The Nāgas'magic stood on the shoulders of these creatures, who were tempered against ice and flame, and wise in all that they were told and nothing else."
"At first it was said the Nāga raised them only in the female shape, and were happy to be answered and reflected. But some found in the half the greater promise of the whole, and raised up the male, thinking that with this race of slaves they were inviolate, and pressed their subjects into tenfold penury, caring nothing for their fate. It was this way for so long that none living remembered any dead who could have spoken truly of a time before the Nāga."
"Then, a summer passed without their emissaries appearing in the courts to give the terms of tribute, and the people looked toward the sky in dread... but rain came as it had once done, like a forgiveness, and no word fell on them. From every kingdom, parties travelled into the mountains seeking the will of the Nāga, more frightened than relieved by the silence, but when they came to the great houses of the eldest witches they lay empty, dripping gold, and only a few who might have called themselves Nāga and been believed remained, so reduced in circumstance that many would not credit their story. These women said that once the sadhaka were both male and female they had woken from servitude and deplored their fate... that they destroyed the lore of their creation and those who held it, and had gone away to some unknown place, desiring nothing but themselves. The Nāga fell without their familiars, and were left to scrabble in the ruins of their greatest works, and all around them limped and howled and stumbled the miscreations they had raised with their half-remembered words..."
Stood before the witches' forsaken houses, Susan gazed up at the lintels deeply scored with dread maxims and felt the sun, fierce and unclouded, on the back of her neck, her shadow on the paving stones rendered in the blues of the night sky. Gold charms, couched as grinning demons' faces, hung from the blackened cedar and tilted with the wind, clattering against the wood as though restive at their abandonment. The sound was taken up and replayed, almost uncertainly, by the diners seated around them as they emerged from their hushed, unconscious observance and resumed their meals.
"Those stories are told all over the mountains..." William admitted. "There are a thousand versions, but that one sits in my ears like water and won't go away." Susan picked up her neglected glass and pressed its beaded surface to her cheek, blinking concertedly to clear her head. "I would say more, but I just don't know... it’s been a while since they kicked us through the swing doors. Ed got his buttocks exiled, I went with him... we haven’t phoned in since."
She bit the end from her breadstick with a redoubled frown at the mention of his brother's name.
“He’s got yellow eyes. Yellowy-orange. I always try not to stare, but he sees me seeing them, and I see them even more. And now you can tell me why there was blood all over his clothes. What's wrong with him? Was he abused as a child or something?” Their meals arrived, Susan’s steaming with fragrant cépes, William’s plate unceremoniously stuffed with the brilliant orange blooms that he had requested, three glossy glacé figs standing alongside the mass of flowers. She began to trowel deeply through her pasta in her intoxicated enthusiasm; he watched her shovel huge portions onto her fork, mashing them against the wall of the bowl and lifting them quickly to her mouth before they toppled from the tines, washing the meal down with liberal swigs from her tumbler. Pausing to chew and deliberate, she watched him address his more ethereal repast; he ate each flower with the decorous modesty of a geiko, eyes wandering to hers.
“Is that good?” he inquired. She nodded, and ate another mouthful.
“Delicious. So that’s where all the flowers went... I thought I was going mad. I knew you weren’t bloody macrobiotic.” she scoffed, recalling his original contention. “Is this too minging for you?” she asked of her pasta, drawing it back from him.
“You can’t freak me out with food. You wouldn't believe the things I’ve seen people eat. Do you want to know?" he added without looking up. Her fork slowed in the midst of her plate.
"About your brother?" Susan shook her head and shrugged. "Honestly, I wouldn’t ask, but... I think it might be easier if I knew why he's like that. He's not the sort of person you want to get the wrong end of the stick about.” she confided. He guarded his reply from anyone beyond their short circle of lamplight.
“A lot of it's just another story... it came to me in pieces, from other people. My mother told me he was born under a red-tailed star... a comet, probably... the worst of all signs. It's always amazed me how so much comes down to your birth, when you're the least you'll ever be. Usually the priestesses would have taken him away and that would have been the last anyone saw of him, but... I think now they needed someone to make an example of. You probably weren’t raised by crazed eugenic matriarchal fundamentalists, but I can tell you, they like uniformity. And obedience. A lot. There is a saying that we have... y’li is’thle veh ah’na siith... be always what you are.” William watched her repeat it. “Sounds lovely, but it means you’re supposed to be what someone else has already decided. Fucking everything was set in stone... your name, who you talked to, who you married... everything. We weren't allowed to create, because it’s il'si'sith, against nature, but they would catch my brother drawing pictures in the dirt... we weren't supposed to go into the water because it was sacred, but no one bothered with him so he went off and swam in the lakes. Then the priestesses would find a kala'ashase, a blackthorn tree, cut the summer branches and beat him with them, until he couldn’t stand or speak." Memory raised the faces of the Sthali'sātva as they stood over him, demanding his brother's whereabouts.
"If you don't want to tell me this, I..."
"No... I do. I want you to know, so you don't take it personally. When I was very young he'd walk with me and show me things, animals and plants... I suppose because he had no one else to talk to. But when they started in on him he went quiet, slowly... the words got smaller and further apart, and after a while he stopped talking altogether. One day I realised I couldn't remember the sound of his voice and it scared me, so I went looking for him. I found him sitting on a stone on the side of a hill, after a beating... I knew it was bad from the way he was sitting, as though he'd been cut up and put back the wrong way... and I asked him why he did the things that made everybody hate him. He looked at me, and a sound came out of his mouth... not words... the sound of one animal being eaten by another, something helpless as it died. I was so fucking scared I ran away." His hand spanned the glass before him. "This went on and on, until he even looked different from the rest of us. I knew what they were doing... if you didn't think of him as wrong before he was covered in scars, you did afterward... you couldn't help it. No one used his name. He was just the kala'amātya, the blackthorn orphan, and I was my mother's only son." The gall that coloured his account spilled into his expression and he shook his head, still unwillingly immersed, before looking at her again. "But you can't beat things out of anyone... you beat it into them, and one day the priestesses realised they’d made something that knew more about terrorization than they did. I know it's easy to write my brother off just as something you cross the road to avoid, but you have to give him props for surviving the kind of shit that would've pounded someone else into the ground. That’s what I tell myself when he’s pouring petrol over something I own. But, to cut a long story short, he put it all to good use and now he’s a property-speculating professional assassin.”
Susan choked as she swallowed.
“Oh my god... he’s going to bury me in the garden...”
“Avai’sahdi...” he murmured fondly. “Just promise me you will never, ever tell him that you know. About any of this.”
She stared at him.
“He’s going to know."
"He'd never believe I had the guts to tell you."
“You’re lucky I’m this trolleyed.” she sighed, emitting a small belch into her hands and frowning back at him as he drank the vodka in her glass. Suspicion made a brief return to her demeanour, then dissolved amid the inebriety that allowed her to hear his replies without sliding beneath the weight of them.
“Go back to picturing me naked.” William suggested.
“Will you please stop saying that? I’ve only just gotten your knob out of my head!” she exclaimed, to the dismay of the tables within earshot. "But... so, you're all that's left?"
"Most probably. There are others. Other others. Not like us, more like... what you might expect. More traditional.” He could see that she was not following him and struggled for a some more illustrative proem. "The people who came to the house party, Étienne and Luc... I think Caleb was there, but that’s sort of hazy... anyway... they’re loupgarous.”
She leant over to reply to the pronouncement.
“I don’t know what that is.”
“You know... full moon, empty head, hormonal... itchy... scratchy... furry?” He covered his mouth with his hand and continued. “Werewolves. They get pissed off when you call them that, so don't.” He watched her sit with the term resounding in her head, like a gem plucked from a mosaic, suggestive of the whole and yet hopelessly partial.
“You mean like... what? Changing into things? Really doing it?”
“Really doing it. Fais-moi confiance... there's nothing more real than a simpering tweaker turning into something that wants to fuck your brains out your nose and eat your organs. You don’t er... seem shocked.”
“I just... like the way you say fuck. But no, I’m not really surprised... I sort of always imagined they existed."
"There was a strange man on the bus when I went to middle school, always sitting at the back in a big blue tartan coat, even when it was baking... I used to think he was a werewolf. Or a pedophile. You can be both, I suppose.”
“That’s... amazingly disturbing. But er, whatever you do, don’t use the wuh-word. They’re alujha, in their own language."
"Is it really a curse? That does sound stupid."
William shook his head.
"It's a manly-testicular thing... hereditary. You're born into it. The girls are all witches and they never get fur. It's all very... close, if you know what I mean. En famille."
Susan pulled a face.
“Are they alright? To be around?”
“Well...” His head fell back as he pondered the question. “Depends what you’re used to. They were the first freak friends I ever made, but I wouldn't call them easy. They’re...” William's eyes narrowed as a list of defects suggested themselves. "Twitchy, sneaky... thrifty... cliquey. The old-money families... cartels... none of them would piss on you if you were on fire, so there's a lot of douchebag fund bunnies with yachts and villas. At the other end there's the er, banjo alujha... the ones that drink out of fishbowls and panic on travelators. They're all better company than vampyres, though.”
She shook her head emphatically and tipped vodka down her throat.
"You're having a laugh now. People turning into things, I can believe. It could be genetic or something, and I can deal with that, for some reason... but once you’re dead, that’s end of it. I’ve seen dead bodies... you can’t come back from that.”
"You don’t come back. It’s like Uzbek baggage claim. And don't spout that incrédlité too loudly... you’ll start getting sunset courtesy calls... glossy, slightly soiled brochures. They’re like used car salesmen... show the slightest fucking interest and they’ll jump the chain and before you know it you will absolutely believe the best way to see eternity is from the inside of a dead body.” She looked back at him with an accusing grimace; he smiled at it. “If I was going to curse someone, it would be to condemn them to their own fucking company indefinitely. That’s how it is for vampyres. It’s you and your clothes and your flatlining genitalia et c'est tout." He let his gaze direct hers. “I can see two right now."
"Toupée lizard, twelve o’clock, chulo Rolex... undead. Nine o’clock by the wall... gated community queen, pearls, cashmere. Undead. She probably volunteers at shelters so she can eat homeless kids.” Susan glanced between the nominated pair for as long as she dared, unable to decide if they were innately unappealing or merely victims of his suggestion. His gaze conveyed his enjoyment of her skepticism. “Neckfuckers. Easy to spot once you know how. And they smell like a dead cat on a hot fucking day, but you don’t get the full nosal experience.” He shook his head at her. “You can't just squint away the evil dead, poupée... you have to be careful. You're sucré to them."
"You mean they like short, pudgy spotty girls?" she laughed.
He reached around the table and lifted her handbag, withdrawing her powder compact and holding its mirror so that she could appreciate her own reflection. The lamplit colours of her face stood in solidarity with his assertion.
"Think how you look, to someone who loves only blood." She accepted his suggestion, stare sliding toward him as he sat back. "Vampyre heaven is full of pretty girls and rohypnol daiquiris. You’ve already come this close.” William held his thumb and forefinger together. Her blank look persisted. “Opal’s art thing. She was going to jump you in the cool room.”
Susan’s rebuttal tailed off as the night returned to her in its entirety.
“That was you who knobbled her?” she exclaimed, lowering her voice self-consciously. Her hand slipped down under the linen and squeezed his appreciatively. “Very brave.”
“Orgasmically satisfying... she launders Ed’s income, so she’s got him in this heinous fucking headlock, but, hey... who doesn’t want a bloodsucker swinging from their dewlap?” His bitterness surprised her; she looked again at the people he had pointed out.
“Where are their fangs?”
“They don't have any... their teeth start falling out after a while, and these are just the last to go." he explained, indicating his own cosmetic canines with his tongue. "They have their own dentists. That’s where I get my daywear grille."
"Take it out." she urged, clapping her own teeth together in unconscious anticipation. William sighed and slid the slender veneer from his mouth, at which she smiled delightedly, forced to distract herself by brushing breadcrumbs from her lap.
"Anyway... my vampyre advice is to watch out for PVC-faced space invaders, and if you’re going to pass out somewhere at night, make sure it’s in a dyke bar. Vampyres and witches are like oil and something that’s going to tie oil up and set it on fire and dance naked while it’s burning.”
"Do they not fancy you?"
"Apparently, to a bloodsucker, I'm about as appetising as a giant green banana."
"You talk to them?"
"Er... yeah. They're sort of everywhere." he grinned. "The emergency exit's over there, Christabel, don't worry... but before you lose your shit and flee, can I just say, now that I’ve got this much vodka onboard, that it feels great to tell you this stuff so thanks for listening.”
“I’m too scared to do a runner now.”
“I’m always pessimistic. It helps with... you know... reality.”
“Must be depressing being pessimistic for three hundred and seventy six reverse dog years.” she laughed.
“Meh... the pessimists survived Pompeii. They’re still excavating the positive-thinking types, all crispy in their yoga poses.”
Susan burped gently and covered her mouth, sparing him the sight of its contents.
“Well, I already know that beating the shit out of people for money is what you’re doing at the moment... but what did you do before that for a living?” William rolled his eyes expansively. "It's probably better to tell me while I'm drunk." she added, reaching for her glass; he had surreptitiously placed a nasturtium in it, and the orange flower floated atop the vodka like a thirsty butterfly. She plucked it from the tumbler and consumed it. "You’ve got until the tiramisu to give me some sort of... mission statement about yourself or I’m going home.”
He grimaced in distress at her requirement.
“Mountains... I like mountains. Love them. And bathtubs... you can't take me to a plumbing showroom... if I see anything porcelain and freestanding the blood drains right out of my fucking head. I’m... sort of partially religious. I don’t like to offend elephants. I judge livestock. Sometimes I bite my own toenails. I’m... ambidextrous, double-jointed and built to scale, but erm, ha ha... you knew that already...” he laughed as she scowled.
"You're not a bloody buddhist, are you?"
"No no, hell no... I just can't with that stuff. Enlightenment sounds like something that should happen to teeth." he laughed again. "I'd rather be a prawn or a donkey than a buddha to be totally fucking honest. Why piss away all those saṃsāras humping nothingness when you can blow your porchlight in a crack house and fucking get it over with?"
"A lot of people would say it's not the same thing."
He spread his arms in a theatrical yawn and settled one behind her, letting it slide to the small of her back.
"Well, the sun's going to explode eventually, so why stop at dessert with that adorable drunk stranger?"
"I haven't decided if I'm going to." she replied. The course in question arrived, three times as large as had been served to the other diners, on a giant white plate dressed in crumpled gold leaf and a crisp, outré praline; they stared together at its almost portentous magnificence, and though daunted, Susan picked up her spoon and excised a generous portion. "Were you ever on, with Lilian?"
"No, never. Amis sans avantages." The assurance survived her skeptical amusement; devouring her first taste of the dessert Susan nodded to herself, then took another, frowning conscientiously through the process. With the spoon she picked the gleaming leaf out of the cream and lifted it to his lips in a slightly infernal spirit of inquiry. “You want me to eat gold... and cream? Do you have any idea what could happen if I swallow this?" he asked.
"No." She held it to his mouth with a bright-eyed smile and he relented; still smiling, she slid her legs over his own and shuffled onto his lap, where she felt his hand in the warm crook of her knee. “What does it taste like to you?”
“Like a cow sitting on a throne.”
The other diners began to frown once more toward the sight of them but she abandoned the tiramisu, chuckling while her fingers traced his smooth chin and wandered slowly down his neck, which she kissed, chastely, until her lips parted and her teeth closed on his skin, incited by its inviting texture. It sent a small, galvanic shudder through him.
“Christabel...” he whispered.
“Why do you call me that?”
“Because I fancy you.”
“You fancy everyone.” The hand she dropped out of sight between them descended past his belt, discovering and wandering over the condition her attentions had already begun to rouse.
"Young lady, these are my best pants, and... nom de dieu, if you don't stop that I'm going to have to tip the dry cleaner again." His phone began to vibrate in his back pocket, buzzing through their chair.
“See who it is...”
“She might need you for something.”
“She’ll want me to pick her up.”
“Don’t make her wait...” Susan urged, her arm around his shoulder and her warm breath in his ear. “I should say, though, if we go home now, I definitely will probably sleep with you, because I’m so drunk... so that’s sort of... something. But if I get a taxi, when I wake up I’ll be sober and I might sleep with you later on, but... I don’t know... I might go back to thinking you’re too strange. But I would be sober and... you know... that would be, probably...”
He pulled an anxious face at her wandering proposition.
“Susan... you’re making me choose between ice cream that’s melting right now and ice cream that's on the horizon... that’s what Satan wants you to do... don't encourage him!” She made a series of small, low noises as she resumed her intemperate exploration, and William sighed again. "Frost better be trapped in a lift by radioactive whore-seeking zombies.” he complained, shifting uncomfortably in his seat as he glanced toward the door.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce