Helaine stumbled to a halt in the narrow midst of the way, shoulders laboured by her panting breath, a stream of urine running unheeded down her legs and puddling between her feet. Agathé kicked dirt over it in her mistress’s wake; the latter had disappeared when she looked up, diving eastward through the huts and into the verge of nettles and saplings pressed up to their walls. She stepped back for Edward, who preceded her, pressing down the boscage to allow the girl to follow without undue discomfort, but when he saw that Helaine’s trail headed down instead of across the lowering, fern-dressed slope, he abandoned nicety and leapt the fallen bole that she had already scrabbled over, running in pursuit of her.
A shred of her shift hung from the stub of a dead branch; he caught sight of the garment as he emerged onto the soft ground cleared in spate by the river snaking through Helaine’s estates, thick with summer-baked mud and flattened reeds. She crouched amongst them, midway between the poplars and the stream, and as he came on her he saw that she had turned to face the trees, her cracked white lips belching a rattling snarl while her broken nails worked at her throat, scratching back the skin as though determined to release something trapped behind it. Throwing down what he carried, he circled around her through the clattering reeds and dropped to press her to the stiff, caked ground, reaching with both arms to pin hers against her heaving sides. Even more dreadful was the sound that birthed inside her body, rumbling and chuckling at first like stone wheels upon a paved way, and then dragged up through a nauseous, whining scale until it sang like iron shrieking and sparking against itself, coursing through them both; her body shook beneath him with such duress that he relinquished her, fearing the effect of his weight. Helaine writhed as though beheaded in its absence, curled tightly, and rose onto her hands and knees, still screaming with the voice that turned his face from her and brought his fists against his ears. Three wrenching contractions of her chest sucked out the air from it, and as they lapsed, she fell, onto her face in the reeds, hands upturned beside her.
A drowsy roost of starlings was flushed suddenly from the poplars, clattering into the sky as one in a black ribbon shape against the dusk. They swooped in a great arc over the river bank and then plunged with the same terrible unison into the slack, lead-skinned water, the violence of their immersion cutting both air and liquid like a rasping flight of arrows, leaving no trace until their dark bodies, still hopelessly buoyant, began to bob slowly to the surface downstream, and were drawn away by the flow. As they did so, Helaine lifted her head from the silt, rolling over onto her back. Agathé struggled through the reeds toward them, dragging the cloak that Edward had abandoned.
“I saw two great places...” the witch whispered, her voice failing at first, gazing up at him as he lifted her hair from the blood on her neck and assured himself the wounds would not emperil her. “Ghost mountains, like the teeth of the world, and the honey forests... white cranes pass over the place of your birth, floating south, into the wind.” Though the price exacted began to awaken in the body that had suffered such rough service as a vehicle, in her eyes the surpassing joy of revelation replaced the black lustre of the unknown passenger. “You are the colour of the last snow before summer, where it lies about the lakes...” she told him, letting her head rest on the reeds. With a muddy hand she reached toward Agathé, who drew a thick fold of paper from her dress and handed it to her with a stick of waxy charcoal, its point tapered in readiness. Helaine pulled herself up onto one arm. “This devil told to me the names of others, older still, and of your land...” she added, scowling in discomfort as she committed them, slowly and laboriously, to the paper.
“You were ridden two days, and it would not let you drink.” he explained as he passed the skin of water to her, in anticipation of the thirst that rose like smoke inside her throat. “In my land there are shaitan who will not let you breathe.”
She gasped at the sweet taste of it in her fouled mouth, and let it run from her lips, lifting a strange, half-buried smile to his caution.
“I would trade it gladly.” Helaine sighed, closing her eyes. “Wisdom may ask whatever price it pleases."
William wore a faint, unconscious grimace as he listened at his brother's door, then knocked, pushing it open slowly. Lilian lay on her hip on one side of the bed in a low black bra and underwear, a cigarette between her lips, while Edward stood by the other. Between them on the mattress lay a dozen piles of banknotes of varying denominations, a small battery-operated counting machine, a slab-like crystal ashtray and the two pistols that he had cleaned and reloaded. They looked up from their reckoning, and William shook his head.
"Never mind." he told them, retreating back into the hallway.
"This is everything in cash." Edward affirmed, gathering up the currency and effecting a roughly equal division while she put out her cigarette.
"Lamb, what the fuck did I say? You can't carry my ass like this." she sighed. He dropped his own allocation into a briefcase and set the locks, sliding it under the bed without responding to her complaint, though she shook her head and muttered to it. Returning her gun to her handbag, Edward walked out onto the balcony with a sheave of papers and bottle of wine.
Distant frogs and persistent invertebrates offered their songs to a moon that was a half-spent token waning between idling clouds. In the mild, permissive calm the elms dropped twigs of dead wood and leaves into the grass as though some scrupulous hand moved through their boughs, thinning out the canopy. He sat in the carver with the documents resting on his knees and studied the dense complex of judgements germane to his own legal situation. In such silence his least sublunary elements could feel the slow tilt of the earth upon its axis, sweeping by indifferent stars, onward always toward the inexorable plights and obstacles that awaited only the renascent sun. Lilian let herself down into the slung curve of an adjacent steamer chair, arms falling into the hollows alongside her body in an attitude of repose, if not serenity.
“If it fell out of a lawyer’s ass, I guess you should read it in the dark... fuck up your eyes to go with the rest of you.” she observed, her smirk widening as it was reciprocated. The poignant colours of her naked face seemed all the more ingenuous when framing casual profanity, damask and lilac settled on her by the glowing ceiling in the room beyond. She spoke again with her eyes closed. "You can float me whatever you want, Lamb, but it's just dropping in a hole. I have to work."
"Stay here until the weekend. If no one can find you in town, they'll assume you've left."
"No, they'll assume I'm out here, and as much as it hurts to say this, you can't bury every fucking cop that shows up at the door."
They lapsed once more into silence, Lilian drawing closed his robe about herself and tying it at her waist. The dark linen held nothing of the cedar-like smell of his skin, its absence always prompting her to wonder how such intimate effacement was possible in contrast with the impression he imposed elsewhere. Her innards groaned, the sound curling upward.
“Ice cream... fuck, I can't get it out of my head. Hey... maybe I’m pregnant. Guess we should just call child protective services and get them set up in the driveway.”
"I resent the implication that I would be an alternately punitive and absentee figure in our progeny’s deeply unhappy formative years.” he replied, without looking up.
"Progeny... sounds like you're squirting toads into a freaking pail."
"I prefer offspring and its promise of rapid dissociation." She smiled at him again. "There is kulfi in the red kitchen."
“Who the fuck keeps buying green ice cream?” she complained, and rolled her head once more to stare at him. He relented, setting down the papers, and rose from the chair.
Lilian listened to him descend, reaching down to find the cigarette lighter that had slipped between her leg and the stripes of the canvas, flicking its flint wheel in a habit gleaned from her erstwhile friend. The flame expired beneath the brass lid several times before it was answered in two points of spectral, floating green behind the balustrade, the colour shifting toward silver as the glow died and her hand fell slowly to her lap. She sat still, watching two pale shapes slide up and settle on the railing, a pair of polydactylous hands, their stained claws clicking on the wood. They preceded endless arms that dragged a head and shoulders in their wake, birthing them out of the darkness, the skull crowned with a ragged, partial black thatch of hair and leaves. Elliptical eyes burnt a single shade of swamp fire but for their pupils; Rana's stingray mouth opened and closed as though breathing water, her broken teeth meeting and parting. Her shoulders flexed, their agonising elasticity pouring her over the rail in a movement so sinuous and ductile that she dropped onto the balcony like a python, hands splayed beneath her. Bare feet caught the balustrade and pushed off, flipping her over into an inverted arc from which she righted herself, eyes roving back and forth before finally settling on Lilian. On her hands and feet she came toward her, drawing her scent in hungry breaths when her eyes did not appear to satisfy her, then pausing to glare and emit a single guttural, the sound falling from her mouth like thick, dripping foam.
From this attitude of bestial suspicion she stood up slowly, that portion of her mind awoken by the posture replacing her grimace with a sneer of deep, wary distaste. Something tattooed into her dirty skin ran from the base of her throat over her chest, disappearing beneath her ruined dress; its features had dissolved into blue-black blur, the ancient compositions hopelessly degraded. Lilian’s gaze darkened as it climbed the creature, meeting her eyes and closing the revenant circuit, bending the current born of their conjunction into a circle.
"Speak." she told the dumb intruder, and the latter found she could obey.
“Was there ever a thing more certain than this, that you would wind around each others' flesh, like serpents? If I had dragged you from the ditch and chained your legs together... entombed you in adamant... he would have worn away his fingers in clawing you from it to defile himself once more...” Rana spat the words out as she would have done rotting flesh. “Who but a panting dralna cunt thinks death merely an obstacle to lust?” Lilian's waxing fugue appeared as defiance to her deranged accuser. “Kala'amātya is not for you. He was raised to burn your breed in your tents... he does abide me here, though you knot your cords and figure curses in your own foul blood, and beg him to dispatch me... look, Helaine... if you prevail, then so do I... all your art cannot put me away.”
Edward’s dark shape crossed the bedroom behind the drape, the reality of Rana's presence met by her own dismay at his.
“You are no more surprised than Sachiin...” she muttered, the sickened colour of her eyes burning with the strange and random cruelty of some neglected deity. “It matters not... whatever I may have been before the ocean, I am endless now.” Rana’s body shivered as though with the acquired might of her own fable, though her skin shed its dying surface from her arms and legs, falling into dust around her feet, the cold hue of the waves she had escaped bleeding from cracks clustered at her joints. “Shall I tell this?” she chuckled.
With her judgement made, she gave herself over to the language that she shared with him, though their remaining companion lost nothing to her supposed exclusion.
“The yu-kiang and taninim do speak...” Rana began, looking up into the stars. “But you hear only their whispering from shore, and I heard them roar beneath the waves. The water shudders with their voices... they sing unto their lovers, cry out in their agonies... and be sure the waves burnt my own skin like a fire, and that terror overcame me as I swam out, not knowing why, save that you had cast me cruelly from the land that was more my own than yours... you cannot know such water as you come to, out of sight of land, or the devouring features of the moon, hung close enough to reach for, if I could have raised a hand. Did you imagine it is tranquil to lie upon the sea and drift where it will take you? It is not tranquil... beneath you fly fleet armies of fishes that rise and touch their cold flesh to yours as they pass upon their ways... and monstrous things, with great mouths filled with knives and black eyes, coming to gaze upon you, seeking the lost to feast upon... there was neither shore, nor boat, nor isle, and all around was night, stars meeting the water on all sides.” She observed him as he was dragged after her into that unknown realm. “It finds its own way... after a time, I could not rest, for when I ceased to move my legs became as stone, and I sank into this black and hidden river, the sea rushing all about me, lapping at my face... I grew frightened in this thing that you had done to me... I called out, but there was none to hear my voice, and after a time I began to fall away, thewless as I was, and the waves closed over my head. I took my last breath, and my mouth filled with the accursed taste of death.
"I fell, as you fall in dreams from a great bird’s back, and all around me changed, the colour at first the blue of morning, then green, and then a most terrible blackness. And then I heard the sounds for the first time... there is singing, as I have said to you, passing through your bones, and the baying of other beasts, and stranger sounds with no earthly peer... sirens, weeping, the chatter of the fishes, like rain... but still I fell, with the ocean pressing in upon my mouth and eyes. The water crushed my flesh onto my bones and filled my chest, colder than a winter corpse.”
“And though I fell, I was swept onward toward the east, and wondered... does this water wish me well? Does it seek to cast me at the feet of my own mountains? But when has fate embraced us? I fell still further... into the dead water beneath, where it is as still as the air inside a grave, and the darkness I had known before was light beside this place that was Naraka... night, in the eyes of the damned..."
"All notions were lost to me, until a light appeared... so distant... but I fancied I had begun to rise and neared the blessed air once more... I kicked and swam toward this brightness, but was feeble, as though newborn, and could not hasten my passage. I reached with both hands toward it, believing all the while the Mother had taken pity. But it was this that I discovered... in the abyss, there is a light that is no sister to the sun, and when men say that the depths look back at you, they are wrong, for this place cares for nothing. I found that my hands broke, not into air, but into a strange and hateful substance, a settled mist... and when I moved my arms to keep from being swallowed by it, it flew all about me. You cannot know how slowly you must move under such a weight as all the waters of the sea, but when I had drawn free of this accursed filth, I lay still, while all the glowing beasts of the pit idled in the blackness overhead...”
Her own voice lulled her.
“Stilled as I was, I felt this dust fall onto my face, raining down like ash cast from some flaming mountain... it settled on my body, and then I knew... as the mountains are our life, so this sunken hell becomes our end... that after a time I should become as one with it...” Her unblinking gaze moved again to Lilian. “That is where you will know your last thoughts, Kala'amātya... where your evil will pass away into the water. And for what have you lived on, beyond me? Look at your witch...” Lilian sat with her blackened gaze, as though she no longer heard. “Already rueing you. Do you not remember him, Helaine? He is ever as you knew him... in him you will drown again, as surely as the ocean swallowed me.”
Her voice was choked off by the death of the permission she was granted, withdrawn with a glance by the victim of her scorn; Rana's attention had barely escaped Lilian before Edward fell on her, seizing her face with one hand and striking the stout blade of a tanto across the width of her stained throat, punching it with the same grasp through her dress, between the broad, sleek swathes of armoured bone inside her flank. He felt the guard strike her side and wrenched the handle back toward himself, snapping it through and leaving the steel embedded beyond her reach. Rana staggered back as he released her, clutching her riven throat, her retreat halted against the balustrade; staring wildly as she slid over the rail, she let go and fell away toward the grass.
As her view began to flicker Lilian saw him standing with the orphaned handle in his grasp, then darkly fire-lit and framed by trailing ribbons of palest green, their aimless lengths resolving into willow boughs that dragged their fingers through the river sliding by them, its dark face full of mirrored stars, reeds nodding in the current. The great tree enclosed them both; she heard the creak of something depending from its branches as the black harmonic drew her vision suddenly into the round. They stood divided by an altar stone of graven basalt, long and low, its honed face dressed with a bloody libation that crawled across the polish like something mazed, their bodies naked but for the black cloth knotted at their waists. She looked down on flesh that had become her own, the apparition revealed as but a memory recalled.
Lilian shook as she climbed out of her chair, caught with him between the flightless spiral and the breathless weight of revelation, their violence burning out her eyes. She could feel him staring back at her, but for all his cardinal volition Edward could do nothing as her legs failed, the glassed door swinging backward as she slid against it, crashing her senseless head onto the floorboards.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce