There is a trapdoor in the floor of the basement.
Don’t open it, the adults say, with their faces the color of weathered stone
but I did
and I went
d o w n.
Below I found a world made out of stone and glass, with flowers that sang about sunlight they had only heard about in legend
further still was a princess whose name had been stolen by the wind.
If I got it back for her she would give me a great treasure and tell me a great secret.
I am not fond of treasure, but I like secrets.
So I went.
First I met a man who cried tears of fire. I listened to his story. I gave him my handkerchief. He gave me one of his tears.
Second I met a man who cried tears of ice. I listened to his story. I gave him my locket. He gave me one of his tears.
Last I met a woman who was met of stone and wood, who danced with the wind while remaining rooted in the earth. I told her my story. She gave me a kiss and said it would carry me far.
And at the very bottom I found a cottage.
Inside was a person who was barely an outline, but whose small heart was filled with glowing silver light. Wrapped around it was the name of the princess.
I asked for it back. The wind covered its heart and shook its head. Down here it is too dark, too quiet, and even the earth itself has begun to forget. A name is precious, even if it wasn’t really yours.
I took out the tear of fire and I gave it to the wind.
I took out the tear of ice and I gave it to the wind.
I hesitated, but I took the kiss of stone and wood and I gave it to the wind.
Each of these things turned bright and silver and for a moment I saw its face, and it was the same as the princess’s.
There was a tremendous flash, and I saw nothing.
When I awoke I was on the floor of the basement again. In one hand I had a smear of silver dust and in the other a rose that crumbled to dust when I opened my fingers.
Was one the treasure? Was one the secret? I wanted to know.
But the next time I went down to the basement
the trapdoor was gone.
There is a trapdoor in the floor of the basement.
The dress is lovely and delicate, all airy folds and white lace. The neckline dips coyly but not too far; the waist tapers in and the skirts flare out. The sleeves taper. It is the sort of thing that was made for a princess, sewn by fairies with light fingers and clever eyes. It is the sort of thing that would make a plain woman pretty, a pretty woman beautiful, and a beautiful woman ethereal.
This will be my wedding-gown the princess says: of course. A present from her godmothers, who otherwise would have nothing to do with the palace. It was made for her, and surely the sun himself would pale in envy on her wedding-day.
Would. Would have. Would never.
A dress like this is difficult to put on with no help. There are small buttons in the back and laces that must be tightened, all cleverly concealed by froth and frills. Fairy magic does not work like and does not like hers; there is hiss and recoil and hooks digging into her flesh. She catches a brief glance of herself in the mirror as she leaves. It looks like cobwebs and feels like stone.
Upstairs someone is knocking. The princess had her room at the top of the tallest tower but the fairies liked to work in the cool underground, where things are softer and harder and the light is kinder by being absent.
She ascends the stairs. The skirts foam around her legs like breaking waves, forward and back. The smell of dust is heavy in the air: there was no time even for decay, as if a hundred years passed in a single heartbeat. Everything is silent except for her feet upon the stone, but she has been to enough weddings in her life to know the song that plays as the bride walks alone. Was there supposed to be a parent on her arm?
But there was no one left. This is not her wedding-day, after all.
Upstairs someone is knocking, and she goes, and she opens the door wide.
On Thursday they went to war, and on Thursday they returned from war, marching shoulder to shoulder as streamers exploded from their wrappings and confetti rained down upon them like rainbow rain. There was music and cheerful chaos in the streets, and their dark uniforms were soon covered in bits of sparkling tinsel, carried as proudly as the medals on their chests. It was a parade of people alone, from one end of the city to the other, under a flock of waving flags.
On Thursday they went to war, and on Thursday they returned from war, solemn-faced but still smiling as the crowds thronged to meet them, shrieking their approval and their love. Pretty boys and pretty girls pushed their way to the forefront of the audience crowds, blushing and smiling, each dressed in their holiday best. Some were bold enough to reach out to touch the sleeve or shoulder of a passing soldier. They whispered among themselves and watched with their jewel-bright eyes as the procession marched past them, and there were few that went home lonely that night.
On Thursday they went to war, and on Thursday they returned from war.
On Friday the hearings began.
There was one soldier who was named Daisuke who had been at the head of his squadron and was considered a hero by those who knew him. He had singlehandedly saved the lives of fifty men, all by risking his own, crawling belly-down in the dirt with a knife in his teeth and a prayer in his heart. He crawled through poison gas clouds and thick quicksand and would find a wounded ally on the field and drag that person back to safety. Through gunfire and shell explosions and worse, he never faltered. Each time the story was told it became more elaborate. He had the power to kill someone simply by looking at them; he could tell just by the sound of a person’s footsteps alone whether they were friend or foe. He was the first to step up to the podium, under the harsh spotlight, and he kept his shoulders bowed and his head lowered. He was soft spoken and never lifted his eyes from his feet.
On Thursday he went to war and on Saturday he was hung, his legs swinging uselessly in the wind.
There was a soldier named Keiko whose eye was as keen as a hawk’s and whose hand was swift as a striking snake. She was never someone who went out into the battlefield proper except in the direst of situations, when most of her squad was dead and there was no one else left to carry out their mission. She had small knifeblades embedded under her fingernails, so thin that they were invisible just upon a casual glance. She wore glasses low on her nose but never seemed to need them even when there was a rifle on her shoulder and an enemy in her crosshairs. She was graceful with a weapon in her hands that she was not otherwise; she walked with a shuffle except when under attack, when she was as graceful as any dancer, and just as deadly effective. On the podium she stared in the distance and never seemed to focus on anyone. Her voice was airy and echoey and it seemed as if a good strong wind would simply blow her away, leaving nothing but the faint impression of footprints in the dirt.
On Thursday she went to war and on Sunday she was hung, her feet nearly brushing the ground as her long legs twitched their last.
There were many others with other names. Each one stepped up to the spotlight and each one stepped down to the hangman’s noose. The confetti that was piled up on the streets was swept away, first by city workers, and then by the wind, blowing through the emptied streets. The banners and streamers that had been left behind after the celebration began to wear out and tear, until they were no longer legible, carrying the ghost of words to crackle and fade under the noonday sun. Pretty boys and pretty girls grouped together outside of the courthouse, watching with their bright eyes as the sentenced walked past them. Some of the bolder ones would reach out and brush light fingertips over a passing sleeve, but never reached out any further than that.
On Thursday the war was over, and on Thursday the clean-up was done. The gallows were full of huddled bodies, gathered together as if to protect each other from the coming cold. Crows lingered at the edges of the gallows-field and croaked to each other, as if to share the secrets that the soldiers had carried with them, sputtered and whispered in the last desperate seconds as air faded and the world went dark. No one was listening any more.
On Thursday they went to war, and on Thursday they returned from war, and on Thursday they were all gone again.
There are a thousand roads to Paradise, and each one is more complicated than the last. For each there are rituals to observe, steps to take, and signs to beware of, and each one claims to be as true as the heartbeat in your living chest.
Of course, the easiest way is to live a quiet and virtuous life, never straying from the narrow path that leads from birth to death. When the weight of your sins is pitted against the graces of your life, if the latter cancels out the former, then the road will appear before you, and you may walk fearlessly to the land of eternal peace and happiness.
For those who wish to reach Paradise while still alive, of course, the path becomes far more convoluted. It’s said that the only true path may be found in the courtroom of the Faceless Judges, and to find _that_ is always at least half the effort. Some claim that by snatching the last breath of a dying human, the same age as yourself, and holding it in your lungs until they burn before carrying it to a church-yard to blow out an altar candle, you will open the door and find yourself in that hidden courtroom. Others claim that by allowing yourself to simply brush against Death’s cold cloak without taking hir cold hand, you may find yourself opening your eyes before the Faceless Judges. Whether you can sneak away before they notice and condemn you for your continued life — that is the other part of the trick.
There are those who claim that one’s life riches may be offered, that the Faceless Judges may be bribed by the accumulated wealth of your lifetime, whether you appear before them dead or still alive. Gold, other currencies, jewels — all of this and more may be laid at the feet of the Judges, in the hopes that their greed will cause them to look away as you sneak to the road of Paradise yourself. Others say, however, that the Judges have little use for pathetic material wealth; they are part of the fabric that created the universe and what will one day unmake it in turn. A few coins tumbled among bolts of silk will not turn their heads nor inspire them to pity. There are still others that claim the blood of a newborn infant will buy you passage, some that say instead the fresh heart of a criminal that was never brought to justice; others ask for various animal parts until an entire zoo could be depopulated and still not provide enough for the whims of the Faceless Judges.
There are a thousand roads to Paradise, and each of these roads have a thousand variations, with dozens more born every minute of every day of every month of the year.
Maybe someday, one of them will loop around to being true.
“Going my way?” the old man asks. He has bad knees and worse teeth, which are yellow and chipped. His breath is the worst, though; it smells like things have died in his mouth. Maybe they have. He has a nice smile, though, wide and friendly, though it is badly matched with his teeth and his squinting eyes. He’s learned to live with them. “You can have a ride as far as the city. After that, s’the end for you.”
The boy hugs his small bag to his chest. He’s not sure what the right answer is. His master warned him about things like this, how there were those who would love to welcome children into their embrace and then they’re never seen or heard from again. They like to suck on young bones, his master had said, one eye serious through plumes of cigarette smoke. They crack them open for the marrow and use blood for a sauce, and because children are small, they are always hungry. They are always looking for something else to eat. Be careful.
But the boy’s feet hurt. He’s been walking all day and most of the previous night, nearly nonstop. The shoes he has are tattered, falling apart around his feet; he can feel the texture of the dirt against his toes. The man’s cart is rickety, but it seems at least mostly-solid, and the donkey pulling it is old, but not so old that it looks about to keel over. It’s not a very large cart, but there is enough space for a handsbreadth between a small boy and an old man. He licks his lips and looks mutely at the man’s face.
“If you’re not, say so,” the old man says. He shifts and scratches himself, digging heavy sausagelike fingers into his armpit. He sucks his teeth loudly a few times. “I’ve got errands to run, and I’ve got a home to go back to. Either you’re on, or you’re not, but don’t waste my time for my generosity.”
The boy still says nothing. “Suit yourself,” the man says, and clucks to the donkey, who takes two steps, before the boy yelps wait! and forces his aching feet to propel him forward, stumbling a little as the cart comes to a halt again. He tucks his bag into the crook of one arm and uses the other to hoist himself up, swinging himself into place. As soon as he sits down, huddled against the far end of the cart, he nearly cries out in pain: relieved of his weight, his feet are throbbing and aching. He shifts his heel gingerly and hisses; it feels damp. He suspects he’ll find blood, if he dares to check later tonight.
“Sorry,” he mumbles to the old man. “Thanks. Uh. Just to the city is fine.”
“As you like,” the old man says, and again he makes a clucking noise to his donkey, which grunts and begins its slow plodding place to the city. There is silence between the two human travelers, and the boy is grateful for that. He watches the old man closely in the fading sunlight. Nothing about him appears threatening, though he’s seen enough to know how deceptive appearances can be. He wonders if those broken yellow teeth could grow suddenly long and sharp—he wonders if those solid heavy fingers could crush open his bones, and how easily. He hugs his knees to his chest and tries to rub some of the pain out of his feet.
Ahead of them is the city, the capitol whose name the boy has never learned. Its walls are gleaming and white, rising above a squat heavy wall, and more beautiful than anything else the boy’s ever seen. For a moment he’s distracted from his benefactor, and that’s when the old man speaks.
“She’ll break your heart, boy,” he says. The boy whips his head around to look. There is a soft fond look on the old man’s face, like he’s not seeing the city itself, but something from long ago. “She’ll take you in and break you apart and your heart will be broken. And you’ll never want it any other way.”
He is an old man when she is a little girl, with the beginnings of liver spots on the back of his hands and the skin bunching up loose and wrinkled. His hair is still relatively full, but his scalp can be seen in several places. She wears her hair in pigtails, upswept high on the top of her head, held in place by large yellow plastic barettes. Her dress is white and the skirt cuts off at her knees, fluffed out by several layers of starchy petticoats. There is a smiling yellow sun on the belly of her dress, accompanied by two equally cheerful puffy clouds.
He is sitting on a park bench when she comes up to him. There is a red balloon tied to her wrist, bobbing along after her because she walks so fast she almost leaves it behind. He sees the balloon first. When he lifts his head, she is standing in front of him, her dark eyes wide and solemn, her mouth pursed into a neat little bow.
“Hello again,” she says.
He is a young man when she is an old woman, broad-shouldered and tall, muscled and confident with the strength of youth. He has more energy than he sometimes knows what to do with. Late at night when he is restless and his roommate has gone to bed, he leaves the apartment rather than pace the creaky floors (they’ve already had complaints from the downstairs neighbor several times in the past month). On a warm summer night he goes walking with his hands in his pockets, with the easy confident gait of someone who has never feared anything and is ready and willing to take on the whole world if necessary.
She is standing under a blooming apple tree one evening. Her hair is white and wispy, tied up into a neat little bun low on the back of her head and fastened in place by black bobby pins that stand out starkly once he’s close enough. Her face is still pretty, but there are heavy crows feet at the corners of her eyes and the corners of her mouth are spiderwebbed. The flesh under her eyes is dipping just a little. She wears a white sun dress that cuts off at the knees. When he approaches she looks at him, though his feet are fairly silent.
“Hello again,” he says.
When he is a child she is also a child. They meet on the first day of class. He is wearing all blue because his father is the traditional sort and his mother is agreeable. She is wearing a white dress that cuts off at the knees. Her hair is down and spreads loosely at her shoulders, silky and black; his hair is buzzcut short, barely more than a warm brown fuzz over the curve of his skull. There is a bandaid on his knee from when he climbed a tree and fell before he made it very far; her fingers are already callused from her piano lessons.
He sees her across the room and knows she sees him in turn. They cross towards each other, and when they meet in the center of the room, surrounded by fellow students and parents fussing over last minute details, she holds out her hand to him. He takes it, and finds that it is neither too big nor too small for his. He looks at their hands and then at her face; she’s smiling.
They say nothing, but they walk together.
Hold out both arms as wide as you can, like you did when you were a child and thought that just by running fast enough, you’d be able to take off and fly. Hold them until your chest aches with the effort and you don’t know if you can hold on any longer, any wider. Count each breath that struggles in and out of your lungs and don’t look down.
Don’t look down.
Sometimes you think if you closed your eyes before you let yourself tumble forward, maybe you would fly: you would fall forever without hitting the ground, and that’s close enough to count. There’s no running for it, there’s just tipping yourself into the freefall and never opening your eyes. It’s only when you open your eyes that the ground rushes up to greet you, and there’s broken bones and broken skin and broken dreams there. The ground is what holds all the problems of the world, and if you could only escape that, you think you could be fine. Breathe, because breathing is important.
Never open your eyes.
It’s been a long time, caught somewhere you don’t really belong, a place you don’t really fit in. You moved six months ago and things aren’t better yet. They should be. Your parents made concerned faces and frowned at how you still hold yourself like a wounded animal, stiff-limbed and awkward around the others in your classes. They say, Have you made any friends yet? and you just let silence stretch out as your answer. This isn’t where you’re supposed to be, and you know that you can’t find it as long as you’re stuck here. You can’t see the end of the tunnel, so you don’t know if you can believe that it’s coming.
I’m going to get out of here, you say, but there’s no one who answers you. Hold your arms open, look at the sky. There is emptiness in it that echoes you: there aren’t even clouds today.
When did you find the cliff? You’re not sure, but you were walking and suddenly you were there, staring down at the town that is now your family lives. Your staying-place. Your not-home. The old place wasn’t really home either, but it had the edges worn down through blunt familiarity, the same faces and the same people. Nothing was sharp enough to cut you there, whereas here, you don’t know yet where all the corners are.
They’re sharp enough to make you bleed.
There is wind here and it is in your hair. You tip your head back and you open your arms. It’s not unlike embracing the entirety of the sky, like you could fold it into yourself, and with its emptiness fill your own. Two negatives into a positive, like in math.
If you breathe in, the air tastes like cold water. Sometimes when you were little, you thought you could sip the entire sky like a glass, and each cloud was a piece of ice that sometimes slipped past your lips and lingered on your tongue. If you breathed in enough, if you drank enough, maybe you’d also become light. Maybe you could also fly away, maybe if you held your arms open and tipped yourself forward, if you let yourself fall with your eyes closed, you’d be all right. There was enough lightness in you to carry you away. You could drift on the next breeze to a different staying-place, and maybe eventually you’d find somewhere that felt right. Maybe you’d find a place that has just enough space to fit you, awkward and angled and a little strange, just for you.
You’re so tired. You’re so tired.
Take in a deep breath and hold it, and count your heartbeats. The moment won’t pass, but it’ll dull, and eventually you’ll be able to move again.
One more time.
He got his glasses the summer between middle school and high school. It was just a slight astigmatism in both eyes, but it was enough that his parents insisted, so two weeks after graduation, he found himself stuck with a pair: heavy black rims that felt too heavy and awkward on his face and threw the whole balance of it off.
You need to be able to see in order to do well, his mother scolded, when he complained. Seitokoh isn’t an easy school! What do you think will happen if you’re too careless with your grades? You can’t rely on Sion-kun to help you out every time.
Why not, he wanted to argue, but his father cut him off with a small cuff to the back of his head before he could, proposing Chinese for dinner, and that was the end of the argument.
Still, he tried to avoid the glasses as much as he could. They just felt uncomfortable, too much pressure behind his ears and against his temples, and they slid whenever he moved any faster than a slow walk. The first time he tried to play basketball with them was a disaster: the way they slid and slipped, he had a harder time seeing than without them entirely. Annoyed, he preferred to stuff them in his pocket whenever he could. It wasn’t as if his eyes were _that_ bad, after all. Maybe he could exercise them the same way he worked out, and then he wouldn’t need them any more.
And then, a month later, Sion’s family returned from their vacation from — whatever tropical paradise sort of place that the ridiculously rich visited when they were directed to spend their stupid amounts of money. Gara received the text shortly before midnight. All it said was: I’m back.
He snapped his book shut and tossed it aside on his bed and went to his window. In a moment he had it open and was climbing his way down: their apartment was only on the third floor, and there were enough ledges and a fire escape staircase that made it relatively easy — easier than going through the front and risking waking his father. The old man wasn’t unbearable, but he had the sort of temper that could turn something small into a big fight, and he wasn’t terribly interested in shifting through that.
Once on the ground, he stuffed his hands into his pockets and ambled towards the nearby park. It wasn’t “their” place — that sort of thing was stupid, more for childhood sweethearts than just old friends — but as he expected, he could see a pale-haired figure seated on one of the swings.
“Yo,” he called, lifting a hand in greeting. “Took you long enough. How sunburned are you?”
“Unlike you, I have mastered the concept of sunscreen,” Sion said. “And Mother insisted that I wear a hat.”
“Seriously? I would’ve paid money to see that.”
“And this is why you’re always broke.” Sion’s tone was long-suffering. He turned, then he frowned. “What on earth–?”
It took him a moment to realize, and then he thought: shit, the glasses. He’d been reading, and the text was blurry enough to give him a headache without them, so he hadn’t even thought about it … with a sigh, he rubbed the back of his neck.
“The old lady insisted,” he said. “Apparently thinks I really need ’em or something.”
Sion pressed his lips together, thoughtful. “Your eyes were really that bad?”
“Don’t say that like you noticed all along …”
“You weren’t exactly subtle about it.”
“Bastard, are you trying to make fun of me?!”
“If it’s the truth, there’s no changing that.” Sion sighed and rose up from the swings. “… They don’t look too bad.”
The retort died on his lips. He paused and automatically adjusted them up his nose. “–Uh?”
“They almost make you look civilized.” It was hard to tell exactly, but he knew too well what it was like when Sion was laughing: there was a slight tightening at the edges of his eyes and the corners of his mouth, and his voice sped up just a fraction. Someone who didn’t know him wouldn’t have even noticed, but he was too familiar with the bastard to live in that sort of blissful ignorance. “Maybe even stylish?”
“Ugh.” He covered his face with one hand. “In that case, I’m definitely getting rid of them as soon as possible.”
“That would be too bad,” Sion said. “What would you do when classes started?”
“Don’t say things like that, you sound like my ma.”
Sion leaned forward just a little, and this time he was the one who adjusted the glasses, settling them so they actually seemed to fit, like they were slotting finally into their proper place. “I like them,” he said, simply.
He ended up keeping them after all.
In a certain village in a certain area, there was a legend: once upon a time, the village had a tradition of choosing two children from every generation, the last two born in a given year, a boy and a girl, who were designated as cursed children. Those born in the winter only had the weakest chances of survival; those who would come late after the harvest were clearly not even human — they must be demons, sent to bedevil and trouble the village by draining resources and leaving their mothers weakened and unable to work. These cursed children were forced to bear the burdens of the village’s evil karma, and with their bodies repay the price of the human lives they had stolen as demons, before their unfortunate rebirth.
This is a story that grandfathers tell and grandmothers whisper; this is a story that remains even today.
“Hide and don’t say a word.”
He looked up and had to squint against the brightness of the setting sun. Even when he closed his eyes, everything was red as blood. He made a questioning noise, trying to reach out. Small hands caught his and squeezed them so hard that his fingers ached for a moment.
“It’s all right. I won’t let them find you.”
Those hands slipped away from his, and he opened his eyes. He could see the other child’s disappearing back as she ran, small and pale among the dark trunks of the trees. He tried to get to his feet, but his knees failed him, buckling and sending him back to the ground. He braced both of his hands in the soft earth and took huge grasping handfuls of it, digging his fingers through grass and tangled roots. He wanted to call out after her, but all that came out was a labored echoing groan.
I didn’t want this, he thinks, and he drags himself forward hand over hand. I didn’t want this! Where are you going, why are you going? What are you doing? What’s happened?
Somewhere in the forest was a loud cracking noise. A flock of birds took to flight, chattering their fear. He tilted his head up to watch them, even when the sunlight burned his eyes. His mouth opened but he still could only bleat weakly before his arms gave out as well and he crumpled completely. His face pressed into the grass, which smelled hot and green and tickled his cheeks. His stomach churned, but he couldn’t summon the strength to do anything but cough a few times, the sound muffled by the earth.
I don’t want to be here, he thinks; I don’t want to be left behind. I wish I were still inside.
He closed his eyes and breathed in deep. With an enormous shove, he pushed himself up again, then staggered his way to his feet, swaying. His entire body ached, but he couldn’t make himself stop. Step after step, his arms outstretched in an attempt to keep his balance, he made his way into the forest, following her path. Every now and then he stumbled, catching himself on a tree, but he always always continued walking. Something was beating in his throat so hard and fast that it was hard to breathe around it.
Eventually he found her. She was lying in a bush with her arms outstretched. Her eyes were closed and her white dress was red on the shoulder. He stumbled to kneel beside her and took one of her hand in both of his.
Her eyes opened. She smiled.
“You’re very bad at this,” she said. “Hide and seek.”
He pressed her hand to his cheek. She laughed a little; the sound was pained.
“I wanted to play more. I thought maybe I was fast enough … I think I was wrong.”
He squeezed her hand hard and felt her fingers tighten for a moment in answer. They were weaker than before.
“I’m sorry. Maybe we should have stayed inside. But …” She looked up then, towards the sky, where the red sunset was fading into the deep violet blue of evening. There was a single bright light that wasn’t the sun or the moon, but he didn’t know what it was. It made her smile wider, though, her eyes half-closed. “But I’m glad. I had fun today.”
He made a low noise that wasn’t a name or even a word. She turned her head towards his and smiled.
“Let’s stay out here forever,” she said. “I would like that. Far away from everyone and everything … where no one could find us. It’d just be you and me and we’d be happy. I know we would.”
I know too, he wanted to say. I would be happy if you were there. But you’re already leaving me.
“That cell was always so cold,” she said. Her tone was soft, vague, barely more than a breath now. “I’m cold now. I wonder if I’ll wake up there again.” She blinked, and finally tears slipped from her eyes, sliding down her cheeks. “I don’t want that. I want to stay out here.”
He pressed her cool knuckles to his mouth clumsily. She blinked again, her eyes going wider for a moment. “–Oh. But you’re here too …”
I’m here, he thought, and pressed his mouth harder to her fingers.
“Then that’s fine. I’m glad. Thank you.”
She closed her eyes. He waited until her chest stopped moving, then closed his as well.
Tonight her name is Columbine and she is wearing black and red, with a line of diamonds of descending size painted under her left eye. Her gloves have no fingers tonight and her nails are painted alternating red and black. She has applied little stickers for the four card suits, but her thumbs are blank. She sits at the table closest to the door, shuffling her battered pack of cards. There are gold ribbons in her hair, like a little girl’s, and she is barefoot. Tonight she is smiling and friendly to the clients who wander into the Bar, talking easily and openly, occasionally doing a neat little sleight of hand to keep them interested. From behind the bar, the Bartender watches and doesn’t say a word; he doesn’t need to. His gaze is a weighty enough thing.
“Would you like a game?” she asks to the man who enters the bar around midnight. His name is Louis and he is recently heartbroken; his job has been taken from him and his girlfriend has vanished with it. His eyes are heavy and he already smells strongly of alcohol, his suit and tie pulled into disarray long ago. He squints at the girl Columbine and he sneers, his lips pulling back from yellowed teeth.
“A game? A _game_? Everything is a game! I’m sick of those things! That’s the last thing I want. I need a drink.”
With the declaration he stumbles for the bar and leaves her. Columbine simply hums under her breath and goes back to shuffling her cards, but this seems to provoke some small piece of Louis’ brain. He turns and he narrows his bloodshot eyes.
“You know what? Why don’t we have a game. I’m sick of it. Let’s do it.”
Columbine smiles. She begins to deal, her movements smooth and fast. “Poker, sir?”
“What the hell ever.” He lumbers and drops into the chair across from her. He leans forward and braces one elbow against the table. “You’d better not cheat.”
“Sir, I never cheat. That’d be disrespectful to the cards.”
“To the cards? Hah! You can’t fool me.” He leans further forward and jabs a finger at her. It comes just short of touching her. “I know your kind. I know all of this is just a setup! But I’m nice. I’ll give it a shot, because you asked. I can’t say nice to a pretty girl, right?”
“You’re always free to say no,” she says. She sets her cards down and turns her hands over. “Shall we?”
Louis doesn’t pick up his cards, though; he remains leaning forward, squinting at her face. “You’re just humoring me.”
“I think maybe it’s the other way around, sir. I did ask you for a game.”
Louis throws himself back a little in his chair, hard enough that it skids half an inch against the floor. “And I told you, I can’t say no to a pretty girl. Aren’t I generous? You should praise me.” He picks up his hand and squints at it, then scowls. He tosses it back onto the table, careless, letting the cards flutter as they fall. Some land face-up; some don’t. There is the King of Clubs and the Two of Hearts. “Never mind. I can’t do this.”
Columbine tsks and begins to gather her cards up again. “You shouldn’t say yes if you don’t mean to follow through on things,” she says. “That’s going to make you unpopular. Even if you think it’s nice to never say no.”
“It _is_ nice,” Louis declares. He slumps further in his chair, until his chin is nearly resting on his chest. He scrubs both hands through his fine black hair, leaving it on end in strange tufted clumps. “I’m nice. That’s why I’m failing. I can’t get any farther if I’m so nice. That’s what they told me. That’s what she told me. That’s what my life’s become. I was raised to be a good person, and that’s where it’s taken me. What shit.”
She neatly stacks her desk, then puts both of her elbows on the table, resting her chin on her hands. Her fingers are stretched against her cheeks, spread to show off her nails. She swings her legs and tilts her head and gives him a wide-eyed look. “Has it really been that difficult?”
“Are you stupid? That’s what I’ve been saying from the beginning.”
“Not everyone thinks the same things are difficult.”
“Oh god.” He rubs a hand over his face. “I don’t need this. I need a drink. Something strong. The strongest there is. I don’t care how much money it costs. It’s not like I’ve got anywhere else to spend it right now.”
Columbine gets to her feet. She skirts around the table and stays just out of reach, though Louis watches her through the gaps in his fingers. He takes the tip of his tongue between his teeth, lips parted. He watches the long thin line of her legs, and how they reach up into her short skirt and then flare gently out to her hips. She goes to the bar and the Bartender puts down a cup for her. The contents of the glass are a livid green in color, swirled around two perfectly square cubes of ice. Columbine brings this back to the table and sets it down in front of Louis, again staying just out of reach. He stretches out an arm to test it, but she has judged the distance well. His fingers brush against a fold of her skirt before his arm falls to the table. “What’s this?”
“Something to drink,” she says. “Something strong.”
He eyes it. “It looks like plant shit.”
“It’s the strongest thing we’ve got,” she says. “It’s on the house. You’ll forget everything if you drink that.”
“Will I? That’s rich.” He hauls himself to a more upright position, a rough staccatto of laughs rattling deep in his throat. “I don’t believe you.” He takes the cup in both hands and pulls it close, as if it was in danger of being snatched away. “I don’t believe any of it.”
In the morning, Louis’ girlfriend, remorseful over their fight, goes to his apartment. She knocks on the door and calls his name, but there’s no answer. Later she gets the landlord, who unlocks the door and finds the apartment empty, stripped bare and clean. There is an empty glass in the center of the room, and under it is the Joker card. There is no sign of Louis anywhere.
In the Undercity there is a bar that has a broken neon sign with only two letters still intact and glowing. The rest of the letters have been long since removed, carried off by enterprising thieves during the daytime, but the “L” and the “R” remain, opaque hints to what the bar’s name might have once been. The man who works behind the counter is the same one who has been there for twenty years, and his name is just as unknown; those who pass in and out simply call him “Bartender,” reassigning his title without second thought. He is a tall thin man, bulked out by his heavy black coat, which he always wears even during the hottest days of summer. His hair is red and shot through with thick streaks of gray, always pulled back in a low tail at the nape of his neck. He wears an eyepatch over his left eye on Sundays, and over his right eye every other day of the week.
There are no other workers in the bar except the girl, whose name changes every night. Sometimes she is Nightingale; sometimes she is Cherry; sometimes she is just Lady. She is small with an interesting face, one might say; there is heavy scarring all along the right side of her face, to the point where the eye is lost in a knotted mass of old thick skin. She wears her pale hair pulled over that in a front-facing braid, heavily pinned with paper and cloth flowers. Her dress is sleeveless and low-cut but there is little cleavage to show off; one could easily mistake her for being a boy from a distance. Like Bartender, she always wears thin white gloves that stretch all the way to her knobby elbows. The girl doesn’t serve drinks to patrons, but sometimes she will pull out a battered deck of cards and challenge people to a friendly game. If no one takes her up on the offer immediately, she will start a game of solitaire with herself, and sometimes she will make sly comments as she plays — insults that are designed to jab and prod the pride of inebriated men until they see her as a threat.
No one has ever beaten the girl. No matter what the game, she never loses. If she cheats, no one has yet caught her, and her reputation is powerful enough in the Undercity that there are those who deliberately attempt to trip her up. There are those who come ready and primed to cheat, but even with a deck of fifty-two aces, the girl still pulls a victory without any apparent effort.
During the day, the bar is left open, but Bartender and the girl are nowhere to be found. No money is in the til, and no one ever tries to ransack it, despite its unlocked doors. As soon as night falls, though, the odd pair returns. No one ever sees them leave, no one ever sees them return, but come nightfall, there they are.
Sometimes you hear a voice weeping in the darkness—she only appears in dark areas, where there are few cars and no lights at night. Her time isn’t midnight, but 2 a.m., when things are quiet and still and the sound of her voice carries for miles. She sounds like a girl sobbing like her heart has just been broken, just on the verge of hysteria. It’s the kind of crying that hurts to listen to, reaching through your chest to grab your heart and twist.
If she calls your name, don’t answer her. If you answer her, she’ll know how and where to find you, and then you’ll have no peace. She’ll follow you everywhere, even into the unforgiving light of day: you’ll hear her weeping wherever you go, whatever you do—you’ll see long dark hair out of the corner of one eye and turn, and she won’t be there, but her voice is in your ear, never stopping. Her courtship lasts one lunar cycle: on the next new moon, she comes to take you home.
Listen. She’s crying.
Luke was lefthanded and enjoyed things that were particularly sour or bitter in taste. He was a quiet boy who did nothing to stand out, though his grades were good and he was polite enough to the other students. He didn’t really have friends as much as he had people he was friendly with, and who thought decently well of him, and during lunch he usually sat with a few other boys and listened to them talk as he dissected his sandwich into separate components of bread and cheese and deli meat (usually ham, though occasionally his mother would use roast beef instead). During recess he would play kickball with the same boys he ate lunch with, and wandered in at the bell without any grumbling or protest. Math and music were his best subjects, though he was never quite so good that he caught the attention of others as impromptu tutor. Sometimes he would deliberately wait to turn in a test until the very end, knobby elbows akimbo as he wrote each number with careful deliberation.
Once upon a time, he’d been two people, or so his grandmother told him, but something had happened and then he was only one lefthanded person.
“It means you were born under a shadow,” the old woman said, squinting her beady dark eyes from under the wide brim of a straw hat. “Whatever your life would have been, it was changed before you were born. You absorbed someone else’s destiny from them.” And she would never hug him or touch him like a grandmother was supposed to, or like they did in stories—she would just sit back in her chair and stare at him, never blinking. His mother complained about this to his father, Your mother is always telling Luke horrible things, would it kill her to just treat him like her grandson? and his father would protest, That’s just how she is, she’s my mother, like I can change her, what do you want from me?
Luke didn’t mind very much, though. He did not like very much to be touched, and avoided even hugs or hairpets from his mother, who tried her hardest to take care of him. She really did, and he thought that if anyone were to suggest otherwise at any time, he would actually fight back. He loved his mother: she had done her best.
When he was older, he would spend more time in the library than he would in the lunchroom. He would eat fast and then slip away when his companions turned the topic to girls and to cars and sports, all those glittery untouchable things for boys that were barely teenagers. He liked the dark cool quiet of the library more than the bustling noise of the lunchroom, so stuffed full with people that it was hazardous to walk if you didn’t pay attention to the movement of elbows and bodies. Luke preferred to go and sit to read, tucked in one of the hardbacked chairs and hardly minding, and he would read.
One thing he read: that a person who was lefthanded had once been a twin, but had murdered his brother or her sister in the womb, and thus was marked. He thought about that and the things his grandmother had said to him, her distrust, and he held out his left hand and looked at it, like there was something in the lines and patterns of his skin that would tell him the story of death and worse. Fratricide. Sororicide. Was there such thing? Did it count when you were still inside of your mother and were technically still part of her, could it be like white blood cells coming to cut out the infection of the bad and harmful parts of yourself? Was that what he could call himself?
Luke, the lefthanded white blood cell. It wasn’t such a bad thought.
Tom died when he turned fifteen.
It was a spectacular death, if he did say so himself: practicing for his learner’s permit, with his father in the seat next to him, coaching him, they hit a slippery patch in the road and spun out. He remembered that it had felt a little like the split second before a drop on a roller coaster: the moment of feeling utterly weightless and the way his stomach felt like it was spinning inside of him—and then they _were_ spinning, hard and fast, and then there was a tremendous crashing noise and blackness.
Tom was proud of his death. He liked the way that it had left a mark, black skid marks on the street and the crumbled safety railing; the way that the front and side of the car had been completely crunched in, like wet paper instead of steel and plastic. How often could you say you went out _that_ dramatically? Most accidents kids his age had were fenderbenders or running into the mailbox, or maybe scraping up the side of the car because they misjudged how close the other car or building or wall actually was. Tom, however, had managed to completely destroy the car, pulp his entire midsection, and kill his father at the same time.
His father was less impressed, of course, but the old man had already long since moved on, so Tom no longer had to listen to his angry lectures or his yelling—or worse still, deal with his terrible silences. It was a relief, really, to be free from that.
Tom died when he was fifteen and now he spent his days perched on the railing where he’d been killed. It was difficult to tell from a distance the damage that had been done, but since he was so close, he could see the exact place where older metal fused into newer sheets. He could point to the fading grooves in the road and say that that was where it happened; that was the place where I lost control and then my life ended.
For a while people used to bring flowers. Someone had even left a marker with a photo of him and a small teddy bear. It was Lizzy, who sat behind him in English and occasionally asked him questions about the work. He hadn’t known she’d liked him, and sometimes he drifted over to her house to see how she was doing. (Pretty well, though of course she was a little broken up. Tom didn’t blame her. Dying was always easiest on the dead.) He always came back to the scene of his death, though, watching cars buzz past like it was no big deal. He wondered if any of them even knew what had happened here, that they were driving over the places where his blood had spilled out in a dramatic wave. Little bits and particles of it still had to exist in the material of the road itself, he knew, so all those cars that were driving over this spot—they were taking small pieces of him away. There were parts of him that had probably made it as far as Oregon, or Washington, maybe even Canada.
He’d never been to Canada when he was alive.
Because he was pretty sure no one actually realized what had happened in this spot, Tom liked to sometimes call out to people when they drove past, especially the ones that kept their windows down. He would holler as loudly as he can, HEY SOMEONE DIED HERE! and watch as the drivers and their passengers went pale and shivery and uneasy, though they looked around and could see nothing. Tom was just there; it didn’t mean he was visible. Sometimes they swerved a little, but as of yet, no one had managed to crash into the railing or join him.
That really suited Tom just fine, though. This place was his, and it was his blood that marked it. He didn’t really want to share it with anyone else. (Which was another reason why he was glad his father had finally let go and moved on. He was older, anyway, he probably had boring adult things to worry about, being dead. Tom, though, Tom still liked to watch people go and wonder if they would die young too, or maybe wait until they were old and gray.)
Those kinds of deaths seemed like they’d be terribly boring, to him.
The one thing Tom never did, though, was go home.
He thought about it once, fairly soon after he’d died, when his father was still around. He had a mother who was still alive, and a brother who was four years younger than him. He thought about seeing them, and had ultimately decided that it would be too weird to even try.
So he had not.
A long time ago, before the Sun-Queen and the Moon-King went their separate ways, the world was a very different place. Magic ran deep and steady through the veins of the world, and they spread so far that even those places barely touched by the light of the heavens could be wellsprings of strange events. This was a time when there was no delineation of things such as “day” or “night.” The Queen and the King walked together through the heavenly roads, each bearing their jeweled lanterns, and darkness was left in their wake until their journey brought them around again.
During this time, in a small cottage deep within a nameless forest, there lived an old man and an old woman. They were not siblings, nor were they lovers; they had both simply been travelers who had come to this place together, and together they remained. The old woman was named Spring and the old man was named Autumn. They both worked to create small toys to be sold in the market: Spring made little pinwheel flowers of many pale colors, and Autumn fashioned balancing toys made out of acorns and twigs and bold red leaves. Once a week they would walk through the forest to the nearest village, and they would spend the day at the market before they walked home together again. The village they walked to was different every time, and the road was changed each morning, but still they made their way to market, carrying a large basket between them, forever and always without fail.
This continued for many years, but even in that long-ago time, where one could go to sleep as an elder and awaken again as an infant, there was a limit to how much magic could extend a person’s life. Spring woke to darkness and felt something cold clutch at her heart, and knew that she would soon be leaving this cottage that she’d made her home for so many years. When Autumn awoke, she told him of her dreams:
I was in a dark cold place, where there was neither sun nor moon. Not even the stars were visible. I was entirely alone. Though I walked endlessly, I couldn’t find my way out. At the end, I fell to my knees and I wept, and that was when I woke.
Autumn listened to her words and nodded, and he too was troubled by their omen. Spring was a good and steady companion to him, and he knew well how empty a place could be without a lifelong companion to fill its spaces. That day, they did not work on their normal crafts, but sat together in their small cottage, drinking tea and saying nothing.
The next night, though, Spring woke with a light heart and bright eyes. Again when Autumn awoke, she told him her dream:
I was kneeling still in that dark place, unable to find my way forward, or even the strength to lift myself to my feet. But at that time, I felt something warm upon my face, and I looked up to see a beautiful woman standing before me. She was dressed in white with a dozen yellow jewels woven into her hair, and in one hand she carried a large gold lantern. She said to me that I was meant to continue on, and that I could not simply allow myself to despair in this place. There was a greater place waiting for me. The darkness faded, and I saw flowers everywhere.
Autumn listened to her words and nodded, and he too was relieved, though he was still lonely with the knowledge. It had been many years since he and Spring had begun living in this little cottage together, and he could easily picture the loneliness her absence would bring.
That night, however, Autumn was the one who dreamed, and in the morning, it was he who told Spring this:
I too saw a beautiful woman carrying a golden lantern. She said to me that she had long admired our work, the two of us together, and our consistency. It was not just you, and it was not just I, but in a world where things are never the same, constancy is still something to be admired. In time, there will be something grander waiting for us both.
Spring listened to his words and took his hands, and she smiled, for she too had been worried at leaving her old friend behind.
In time the world did change; the travels of the Sun-Queen and Moon-King took them higher and farther away from the world and from each other, until their paths were in entirely opposite directions. The strange things of the world became solid and consistent, and the deep veins of magic slowly drained to trickles and whispers.
And twice a year, from a small cottage deep in a nameless forest, an old woman and an old man step out together, carrying a large basket between them. Sometimes they leave flowers; sometimes they leave bright leaves and acorns.
But they are steady and they are patient, and as always, they are together.