Smokeless black flames burn her skin ice-cold with memory. She sloughs and becomes all muscle and sinew, bone and blood. The fire surrounds her and drifts up her body, engulfing toes, ankles, knees, her waist, her stomach, her heart, her mouth, her eyes, and forehead until the fire and she are one. She opens her arms as if to fly, spreading her hands wide, and darkness leaps from her fingertips. In a flash of pitch-brilliance, she and I experience all that has come before and all that is soon to be. The past, the present, and the future comingle like a coil.
And we see everything …
DAWN, 10 YEARS AGO …
Drifting down down down and spinning as if on a thread in dizzying turns, the invisible strand that connects me delicately unravels as I join with you in your act of becoming. I will share with you in this, your dangerous journey, because I cannot bear to allow you to do this alone. Into your memory we travel together, and of all the strange corners of the world where we could land, we find ourselves in a kitchen.
So many sensations, strange but not unpleasant, envelop us. So much stimuli to delight and intoxicate. Warmth emanates from a cooling stove. The scents of drying leaves that hung along the walls fragrance the air. The aromas of the spices and mint, and the grassy freshness of the herbs growing on the windowsill or neatly labeled and placed on shelves, waft through my incorporeal skin. And yet I also sense unease, a darkness looming from every corner and shadowed crevice. Memories can be like this—ghostly and unsteady, a little bit true, a little bit false disconnected, then joining to create image and form.
You appear out of the ether. Both of you. Mother and child. Deidra and you. Cora, with your soft, puffy body and two small, awkwardly protruding points pushed up against the front of your frock, make a very unlikely harbinger of the days to come. Only your eyes cause one to stop and consider. They are wide and inquisitive, with irises of amber outlined in mahogany, and your stare penetrates, infusing the onlooker with the strong desire to turn away.
All is stillness as I move about the kitchen, then the room morphs into activity. The clinking of dishes. The tender steps of the child clearing the table. The wish-wash of moving water as the mother earnestly washes the dishes. A strange tension lingers in the air. Were they mad at each other? Has the child done something wrong? She seems so timid as she stands behind her mother holding a bowl cupped in both hands while the mother bends over the sink. Moments pass in agonizing lengths as the two remain like this: one standing, quietly beseeching attention, and the other ignoring her presence. For a while I wonder if the mother knows that the child is there. A slight nod of her head and a grunt makes it clear that she knows. The child, finally given permission to approach, carefully places her bowl on the counter.
Mother bemoans, “After a long day of work I still have to do all this.”
“I’ll do them,” Cora says, brightening.
“No, you never do them right,” Mother responds with a sigh.
And then I feel how the girl feels. She thinks her mother doesn’t like her, maybe even hates her. She thinks her mother believes her strange, too wise beyond her years, useless, incapable of doing the simplest things—even something as mundane as washing the dishes. Cora longs for the feel of her mother’s soft skin, cool and scented with lavender. It’s been so long since her mother touched her and Cora doesn’t know why the tenderness ended. Flashes appear of how close they used to be. How they went everywhere together. How Mother strapped Cora to her waist with a cloth with the child’s little head bobbing. She smiled with her two tiny front teeth surrounded by gums. Dark splotches swam across the child’s skin, face, and arms—something left over by what they had done to her. Mother simply covered them with the swaddling clothes and kept prying eyes at a distance. Then the images waver and fade away.
The child is too young to understand that her mother’s recent behavior has little to do with her, and everything to do with her mother’s own discomfort—and maybe anger—that her daughter is turning into a woman. The helplessness in seeing her child grow into not needing her is at times too much to bear. One day Cora may understand this. But not now. Not today.
I follow Cora as she leaves the kitchen and enters her bedroom. The redness of the evening light cascades through her open window, flooding her small room in a burnt sienna blush. The horizon glows a golden yellow shimmer, mocking a rising sun. This view remains, and will always remain, on this tidally locked world where the people live on a narrow perimeter around the center of the sphere, the habitable ring. This half of the ring has been designated as Dawn. The other half, designated as Dusk, has a similar, but some consider, darker view.
The rotting remains of the transport ship that brought her and her mother here—the very last ship to leave Earth—stand in the distance, its metallic frame oranged with rust like the bloody ribs of a skinned animal. Cora and her mother are both a little more than four hundred ET (Earth Time) years old, unchanged by time as they slept in their cryogenic chambers. And yet changed. Their bodies manipulated to “help with their adaptation to the environmental differences” of this world.
Deidra has become a worker of the soil, her hands gifted with abilities with the Seed. Her skills made her invaluable as the hard, unforgiving land struggled to feed the people. But Cora … Cora was turned into something I still don’t quite understand. Knowledge of her alterations has been purposefully taken from me, and I desperately need to remember. Only now, as I reach into her memories, do I begin to glimpse what she is becoming. Cora, lost in concentration, wistfully stares upward, seeing more than only the stars high in the indigo-blue sky. What she gazes upon with those eyes of hers is the reason I am here.
Many who arrived in the transports had similar indications of body manipulations, their irises glittering every color but normal as they awoke from their long sleep. Eventually the iris colors of most (but not all) turned into shades of brown. But Cora’s eyes seemed to have intensified with age, glowing like a cat’s caught in the light.
Cora understood her difference. The manifestations of all that she is to become may not have fully flowered, yet she knew. So why has her mind brought me here? And such odd things to show me, such odd things to remember. These nothing moments, as memories, hold weight for her. I continue my ghostly study, searching for these answers.
Children pass by Cora’s window in groups of twos, then threes, then fours and fives. More still can be seen in the distance, arriving from a variety of directions. All carrying small bundles and heading towards the north. Every evening the children in the Outlands of Dawn walk for miles to the nearest town, seeking shelter for the night from raiding rebel militias who prey upon small villages to steal these little ones to fill their ranks.
Cora hurries to ready herself for her nightly journey, assembling her homework, rolling her bedding, and wrapping her hair in a gonar, the traditional headwrap her mother still insists that she wear. Flashes of girls from the village making fun of Cora appear before my sight, as well as a few of the tense battles she has had with her mother as she begged to be allowed to dress like the others do. The image of her mother remaining stubbornly firm on the matter lingers before me, then fades away.
Cora finishes folding the flap beneath her chin, completing her tentlike attire. She returns to the kitchen, where her mother sits at the table preparing some herbs to be dried. Cora quietly slips past with her arms full of her bundle. Mother doesn’t look up as Cora approaches the door and cracks it open. A slice of dim light from the outside world cuts into the room.
“Good night, Mom,” Cora says.
“Don’t forget to bring in the water when you come home in the morning,” her mother replies, still not looking in her direction.
“I won’t forget,” Cora says as she quietly steps through the door.
And now I see why this memory is so important. These are the last moments this daughter will have with her mother for many, many years …
DUSK, 3 WEEKS AGO …
A long, snaking line of vehicles lay before them, inching forward into the gated enclave high on the terraces that overlooked the city. The brothers knew about areas like this, well away from the prying eyes of those like themselves who lived in or near the Bottoms. Jown, bored and thinking of the oncoming rain, that smelled of twisted strands of gray, watched the oil birds gathering on the branches of the trees. They’re not even birds, he thought. People only called them that because no one really knew what the hell they were. Jown watched them move their “beaks” to silently kaw and flap their “wings,” dripping a dark fluid that formed puddles of mess wherever they went. Those things could be found everywhere, he thought, even here on a rich man’s house. Jown especially hated them because they smelled like nothing. And nothing smelled like nothing to Jown—that is, except oil birds.
The western wind blew in the moist scent of water salted with the bitter taste of ice from the faraway regions of Night. Jown drifted into thoughts of snowcapped mountains and deep crevices and stars blanketing an endless endless open sky of velvet blue. A light drizzle began to fall, and Jown sensed the flavorings of light purple shifting through gray. Pietyr, his twin, nudged him to stop daydreaming as he tried to concentrate on the traffic. Jown’s thoughts were distracting.
How long do you think this will take? Jown thought to his brother.
I don’t know. I’m sick of it already, Pietyr thought-replied, and sped the zepher up and over, charging forward and around the vehicles ahead of them. Then they slipped through the gates and into the front yard of the mansion.
Pietyr maneuvered the zepher to hover and park in the driveway. A gentle hush of air hummed and hissed as it settled to a full stop, startling the oil birds in the trees and making them take flight. For a few moments, the sky filled with an undulating fluidic mass, a murmuration of goo.
Police lights painted scarlet tattoos that fluttered about like elusive butterflies against the clapboard sidings. The brothers sat quiet in their zepher while the expected officer came over and shone a light into the driver’s-side window, spreading a dazzling white onto them, then shifted it suddenly away. Pietyr released the field that acted as the transparent barrier between them.
“You boys in an awful hurry for something?” the officer menacingly asked.
“We have an urgent appointment,” Pietyr said, and handed the officer their identity cards, which the officer then swiped. With their appointment verified, the officer sneered.
“Stay out of trouble,” the officer said, and stepped away. Still, the brothers remained sitting in their vehicle for a time, mentally passing thoughts back and forth.
It was against their better judgment to answer a call from folks they’d spent a lifetime avoiding. Pietyr really didn’t like these kinds of people—the upper class, the perfectly formed, the ones who’d had everything handed to them from birth. Yet the twins had come because regardless of how they felt about them, their kid was gone. It had been several days since the boy went missing and still no note, no message, no reason—nothing, as if the world had opened up and swallowed the child whole. Information about the boy’s abduction was kept off the Lattice because of the prominence of the family. But they needed serious help, as well as discretion. So they’d called on the only men in the city who could provide both. Silently the twins agreed again on their decision to help and opened their respective doors and stepped outside.
The rain fell in earnest, dampening the ground that these two bulky, loose-jointed men strode upon. Their dark overcoats swayed in unison to an unheard rhythm as they walked up the pathway. Each wore a brimmed hat cocked neatly to the side to keep the water out of their eyes—Pietyr’s more to the left and Jown’s to the right.
Homes like these were rarely seen because they should not exist. This kind of wealth and the divisions of class should’ve been left behind on a little-remembered world so far away. Equality supposedly reigned here on Eleusis, as everyone should’ve started out with the exact same amount of nothing when they stepped off those transport ships. But here, before the sight of two of its most unlikely visitors, lay evidence of the great deception in the form of a beautifully landscaped estate with real trees and real grass and the outside of a house made not of refurbished metal but of plaster, brick, and wood. In truth, no one believed the lie anyway.
Jown knocked, and a few moments later a casually dressed female, most likely the housekeeper, opened the door looking a bit terror-struck. They simultaneously removed their hats to reveal that they appeared exactly alike, though Pietyr had a long scar on his forehead that forked in two, with one leg of the fork arching into his eyebrow and the other stretching a bit onto the bridge of his nose. They both wore graying, closely cropped haircuts and had eyes of simmering green, wide mouths, dappled skin reminiscent of snakes, and necks so wide it was hard to tell where they ended and their heads began.
She took a moment to gather herself, and to form the appropriate grimace and judgmental squint, then curtly said, “Can I help you?”
“We’re here to see the Bastias,” Jown said.
With an increased pucker on her already tight lips, she replied, “Wait here,” and slammed the door shut.
Jown breathed in the insult and breathed out calm, while the scar on Pietyr’s forehead twisted like a streak of lightning. Sounds of choked-back laughter among the milling cops behind them in the yard forced a growl to grow in the back of Pietyr’s throat. Jown gently touched his brother’s wrist and passed him a thought of restraint, reminding him of the child. They could absorb a little nonsense like this. The only important thing was to find the kid. Pietyr hesitantly agreed to swallow his pride. Which was a good thing since fingers had been broken for far less than what this woman had just done. (Sometimes Pietyr did the deed, sometimes Jown. Jown may seem calm, but he didn’t take shit any more than his brother.)
Of course, the brothers knew what that was all about. Brown-eyed people, born in the cities, could live in the better neighborhoods, have good jobs, and send their children to good schools. People with eyes like theirs were assumed to be no good, weird, and/or have leanings towards criminality. No one said it outright, but the message came through loud and clear. And the twins didn’t appreciate being treated like criminals, because they weren’t criminals. They were more like criminal activity facilitators. The brothers found people—those who wanted to be found and those who didn’t. They were the best at it, and that’s why these folks had called on them. The twins were these people’s best chance of getting their child back, so they deserved to be treated with some respect. Respect that they obviously would be denied.
The door opened again, this time by a balding, jittery little man with dark circles under his eyes who beheld the brothers with a sadness that overwhelmed his sense of fear.
“Suez sent us,” Jown said.
“Yes, yes. Come in then, come in,” he said, and waved the men inside.
The brothers followed him, scanning as they went. The old merchant-style outer structure and metal-on-metal high beams vaulted the ceiling, causing an echo with every step. Pietyr examined the shadows, mentally passing to Jown the details of what he saw flowing through the walls and of the black clouds echoing around the old-fashioned books sealed in a glass cabinet. Jown, too, mentally passed his impressions to his brother as he sniffed the scents of dust, subtle hints of perfume, sweat, red wine, yellowing paper, and an unidentifiable unpleasant odor similar to putrid sour milk. From birth they’d been like this, images and scents flowed down like water into their minds. Then they shared with each other all that they sensed, and all that was invisible and odorless to others, but to them was as real as the wind. Each room they walked through seemed more like a museum gallery than a home. Not surprisingly, several indications of Builderism lay about, along with expensive vases, rare paintings, and elegantly designed furnishings. Together they analyzed the family and catalogued their associations, their likes and dislikes. In this way, they built a profile of their clients and knew more about them than their clients knew about themselves before asking a single question.
“My name is Arin,” the little man said, “I’m the boy’s uncle.” He continued hurriedly as they walked, “Ordinarily, I would never call on people like you—”
He caught himself and turned to face them, then looked away, rubbing at his balding head. “I simply mean that I found you through some business associates of mine. I would prefer to remain discreet about my dealings with them, you understand.”
“We understand,” the twins said in unison.
“Good, good,” Arin said, and bowed a bit in acknowledgement of the awkward passing moment. He appeared so tired, Jown couldn’t help feeling sorry for the man.
He continued to lead them towards the back of the house. They ended up in a neatly laid-out kitchen where silvery pans and cooking utensils hung from hooks. A kettle steamed on a stove as the members of the household kept vigil. A hush fell in the room as all eyes fixed their gaze on the men who appeared in the doorway. All except for those of one woman, who continued to face down into a cold cup of tea and swayed ever so slightly.
“These are the men I told you about, Neira,” Arin said. “They’re here to help.”
Pietyr sensed something about the room. A coldness, an emptiness—a nothingness—coated everything, the people, the furniture, even the cup of tea, but mostly the woman. As if a wall blocked the shadows from coming through. Pietyr passed his observations to his brother.
The woman slowly lifted her head and peered at the twins with an expression of stunned, helpless dread. She shared her brother’s eyes and the circles beneath them, and also the bulb of her nose. But the angular point of her chin was all her own.
The twins simultaneously and briefly moved their heads up and down at her and said, “We are very sorry for your loss.”
“Don’t speak as if my child is dead.” A visible heat rose to the woman’s face as she glared at them.
“We never meant to—” Pietyr said.
“—imply that, ma’am,” Jown completed.
Neira turned away with an expression of disgust. The housekeeper replaced the cold cup of tea before her with a steaming one and stepped away, staring hard at the twins, again not hiding her disdain for them.
“These men specialize in finding people,” Arin said. “I’ve been told that they can find anyone.”
A plainclothes detective stomped in from the other room, pushing past the twins in a heated rush. Sweat beaded his brow and he bounded straight for Arin, taking him by the arm and pulling him aside. The detective whispered loud enough for all to hear, “I thought we agreed that you wasn’t gonna do this. What the hell are you thinking? Do you know what they are?”
Arin flushed and pulled away from the detective.
“I know that it’s been days and your people haven’t found a thing. You obviously don’t have a clue where my nephew is. Well, do you? Do you? I know you don’t.” Then Arin pointed to his sister. “And she knows you don’t!”
Neira banged her fist on the table. The room silenced, and for a moment it seemed like no one dared to breathe.
Copyright © 2021 by Jennifer Marie Brissett