Out of the corner of her scrunched-up eyes, Afarra sees the tribe of Dimmer-dead clustered around her. She’d assumed the dead would be afraid of heights and that she would be safe up in the nest. Evidently, she was mistaken.
In the nest in the dome of the abandoned flying coop in the city’s flood zone, where the stench of mold permeates the dark, ghosts of the worst kind are paying her another visit. The Jim Crow’s Nest is a woven basket the size of a big round table, with barely enough room for Afarra, Elly, and Elly’s unlike-anything-else-in-the-world, bunched-up Secret Hopefuls. Yet somehow, dozens of Dimmers have planted themselves in the nest where Afarra lies with Ji-ji—her Elly. They’ve come to rip Afarra apart—bone from bone, flesh from flesh. She’s seen angryangryANGRY! before, but never like this. Tonight, the tribe of Dimmer-dead want to murder the world.
Only the Dimmers who are freshly dead are recognizable to Afarra as male or female. A few wear tattered clothing with seed symbols over their hearts to designate them as enslaved botanicals from the Homestead Territories. But most of her tormentors are long dead: flaps of rotting flesh dangle from their bones. The freshly dead, the ones who still have eyes, scare her the most. Their fluorescent white irises pulse with rage. Missy Silapu used to say Dimmers’ white-ringed pupils could blind you. But so far, even though she’s stolen glances at them during this horrifying visitation (and during visitations she’s had before as well), Afarra has not been blinded.
More and more Dimmers are lugging their sorrowfulness into the nest. Just in case Missy Silapu was right, Afarra squints at them through half-closed eyelids in hopes that blindness isn’t inevitable if Dimmers don’t know they’re being watched. Once in a while, a Dimmer, clawing its way into the nest, loses its grip and tumbles into the center ring below. Its unearthly shrieks swirl around the flying coop like a swarm of razor blades. Afarra doesn’t know if the fall re-kills them or if they simply collect the shatterings and re-form themselves. If they survive, Afarra supposes they must use rage to glue themselves back together cos Dimmer-dead have got a bunch of rage to spare.
Try as she might, Afarra can’t figure it out. It should be impossible to squeeze a company this large into a space this small, yet dozens of dead are crammed inside the nest. Then she hears Uncle Dreg’s voice (or is it her own?) explaining it to her: “Dimmers don’t occupy space the way we do. You cannot reach out to touch them. You have to reach in. We, the Living, make room for space, but the tribe of Dimmer-dead force space to make room for them.”
Afarra hadn’t understood this when he’d said it. But tonight she sees it’s true. If Dimmers had weight, the nest would detach from its moorings. The whole lot of them would plummet down to the sawdust center ring below. But the dead weigh less than nothing in this world. That is one of their torments: to be without substance in a world that ignores those who don’t have any. Yet in spite of this, Afarra feels their weight pulling on her like Sleepybud—a juvi on Planting 437, who crept into her sleep-shed and pulled on her tits with his grabby hands and fire-mouth.
An outcast herself, Afarra knows what it means to be less than nothing, which is why she is tempted to sweep the pitiful tribe into her arms and rock them past grieving, past resentment, past memory itself. But they have returned angrier than ever this time, and she is too scared to reach out. She cowers in the nest instead and pretends to be fast asleep like Elly.
The wizard’s voice comes to her again. It is so close and his voice is so deep that she feels her own chest vibrate when he talks: “You cannot reach out to touch them. You have to reach in.” Uncle Dreg’s words give her hope. Maybe the old Toteppi wizard has come with them to visit her? Careful not to let them see, Afarra scans the multitude in hopes of finding Uncle Dreg’s beautiful old-person face. Even if he looks as bad as he did when she saw him for the last time (his brains spilling down the side of his shot-to-pieces head—Don’t look! Don’t look!), she will love him still.
She searches for her oldest friend without success. It makes sense. The tribe of Dimmer-dead aren’t like other ghosts—that’s what Toteppi say anyway. They’re on a mission to correct a terrible injustice done to them, which explains why the Tribal wizard isn’t in their company. Uncle Dreg didn’t fret over personal injustice. His only quest was seeking justice for others.
Not wishing to be rude, Afarra tries not to notice the crescent moons of soil embedded in the fingernails of those who still have fingers—proof of their frantic scramble up from the grave. A few (pyred, she suspects) have re-formed themselves from ash, as if no execution, however thorough, can extinguish a Dimmer’s burning desire for vengeance.
All at once, Afarra’s visitors notice her eyes are open. They zip in closer and extend their arms in undulating supplication. The Dimmers NEED!NEED!NEED! and they need it NOW!
Experience has taught her the dead are delicate. In the drafty flying coop, the Dimmers move like ebony candle flames. She tries to convince herself that these creatures who occupy the Nearly-There and the In-Between can’t really harm her. It doesn’t work. Snuggled next to the person she loves most in all the world, Afarra considers waking Elly so she won’t be forced to face their fury alone.
—No! the spirits tell her, wordlessly. Do not wake! Just us! No one else! We KILL you if you do it!
Afarra is accustomed to keeping secrets. No one understands silence-as-survival more than outcasts do. Countless times, the Dead and the Living have demanded she remain silent. Uncle Dreg used to tell her, “Dimmer-dead are not very different from the rest of us. Most of us lose bits of ourselves along the way—a toe lost here, a heart there, a mother, an eye, a tongue, faith, hope, a friend, a mind of our own.” The only person Afarra has known who managed to travel through life without losing anything important was Uncle Dreg himself. Apart from his Death Day, of course, when Cropmaster Herring shot half the wizard’s skull off. But that was the only exception.
The Dimmers screech at her again. Maybe the shrieks were words once, but they left the alphabet behind a long time ago. What remains is a tornado of bone-shattering suffering. It blasts her in the face. She wants to cry out but her tongue—well-suited to cow- and horse-talkings, bird-word and tree-chat—isn’t designed for human or Dimmer speech. Afarra can thinkthinkthink but she struggles to saysaysay—a bridge too far. Although words are coming more easily than they used to, the distance between thought and utterance is still a chasm.
On Planting 437, the hell they left behind three months ago, Afarra had mastered how to fly away in her head and become Not Here, Not Now instead of Cloth-33h/437. But even if a Dimmer decides to plow her here in the nest she can’t pull off that magic trick tonight. Can the dead plow a Serverseed in the City of Dreams? The dead can do anything, the Dimmers’ white eyes tell her.
Afarra forces herself to find refuge. If she closes her eyes and thinks about something else, maybe the Dimmers will vanish like they did before? She thinks of Uncle Dreg again, who knew how to make fear disappear. She pictures his beautiful hair. Like a wiry dandelion too strong to blow away, it crowns his head.
Sometimes, Uncle Dreg’s wizardy voice takes root in her mouth and blossoms there, which is very disconcerting and inconvenient, especially when he leaves behind words like disconcerting and inconvenient, words Afarra would never utter herself. But the Tribal wizard’s usurpation (his word again, not hers) is nothing like the violations she’s endured from others. Uncle Dreg was never about taking, only about giving something back. No male has ever been as kind to her as he was. Every gesture he made, every word he spoke told her how much she mattered.
Missy Ji-Jellybean-Ji-jiSilapu-Elly moans. Afarra’s best friend in the world lies under the blackbird quilt, sleeping peacefully. Elly isn’t as whole as the wizard yet, but Afarra knows that her beloved Elly is gathering up lost things and grafting them onto her body on her journey back from broken.
And Tiro, the other one of Uncle Dreg’s Necessaries? What about him?
Afarra’s not sure about Tiro. Often, when she looks at the fly-boy, she sees someone trying to scratch his way out of a cage. Though she loves him like a brother, his rashness (another wizard word) alarms her. Unlike Afarra herself—and the Dimmer-dead of course, always on the alert for the next ambush—Tiro hates playing defense. He acts first and thinks second when it should be the other way round. If her speech was more cooperative, Afarra would tell Elly it’s very dangerous to love the fly-boy in his present state. He needs more time to gather up the bits of himself he left behind when they escaped from the planting.
Afarra peeks at the Dimmers through her left eye. The rabid dead gyrate around her. One has a sliver of leftover tongue hanging like a worm from its rotting mouth. When the scrap of flesh unbodies itself and darts down to lick her cheek, a maggoty chill burrows into her bones.
She shuts her eyes tight, thinks about how different Dimmers look when she encounters them in her dreams. There, under the cover of sleep, they emerge from the strings of a harp as light-filled spirits. Afarra hadn’t known a harp was birthing them till she described her dreams to Elly.
“The instrument you saw sounds like a harp,” Elly told her. “Angels play it in paintings, perched up in the clouds. Or could be it’s a lyre. Can’t remember.”
“Angels are not playing a liar. Liars take and smash.”
“It’s not spelled that way, Afarra. It’s a different word.”
“They are not playing lies!”
“Okay, okay! Keep your hair on.”
Afarra had her hair on; she patted her head to check. Elly’s laughter, sweet as angel-music.
The Dimmers silent-speak as one: We cannot stay for long up here in the air! We’ve slipped out from beneath the underneath. Agony to crawl under a thick blanket of soil and play dead till we rise again!
From her position on the floor of the nest next to Elly, Afarra does the only thing she can think of to do in response. In spite of the risk, she opens her eyes wide and smiles up at the Dimmers in an effort to let them know she sees their pain. She suspects some of them smile back, though she can’t say for sure because many are lipless, some are jawless, and a few have shown up without their heads.
She remembers something else Uncle Dreg told her about Dimmers: “They are in a state of Flux,” he said. At the time, she’d assumed Flux was a state like the old Commonwealth of Virginia, Tex-Mex, or the Carolinas, or like one of the many states that make up the Eastern and Western SuperStates. She was mistaken. It was much worse. The state of Flux was a desolate region in the In-Between. A place filled with despair, rage, and a murderous desire for vengeance.
It occurs to Afarra that all the Dimmers she’s ever seen have been seeds. It’s not their darker skin color that tells her this, or their hair, or lips, or noses, most of which they don’t have anymore. It’s their desperation, their liberty hunger. She’s pretty sure there are others among them, but most will be transplants like her and Elly, with roots stretching back to the Cradle. She wonders whether any fairskins, apart from the ones steaders demonize (Deviants, witches, scientists, and heretics) are among the tribe of the dead. Here in Dream City, where she and Elly have lived for more than three months, the fairskin Districters don’t usually treat outcasts like dirt, or single out duskies for torment the way fairskins do in the Territories. Fairskin steaders, on the other hand, would be as dangerous in the afterlife as they are in this one. If steaders joined the Dimmers, they would snatch up all the room in the graves for themselves and make Dimmers’ afterlives even more of a living hell.
Afarra nods when her visitors abruptly stop shrieking and ask her if she can help the Dimmer tribe rise for real. She can’t understand how they’ve mistaken her for the Tribal wizard, especially when their rotting faces tell her they know all about her—about the things male steaders and male seeds have left behind for her to deal with, about the beatings Elly’s mam gave her, one of which knocked out two of her teeth. Her own mam never beat her. Not once. At least, that’s what she remembers, though she was a small seedling when they were snatched and parted from each other. Afarra missesmissesmisses her own mam, who hasn’t ever visitationed her, which means she may not be dead after all, or, if she is dead, she may not be a Dimmer. Afarra is almost certain her mother isn’t breathing anymore cos she hasn’t sensed her mam’s aliveness in the world for years. If her mam is dead, could be she doesn’t visitation her cos she knows her offspring would be tempted to trail after her on her journey back to the grave and lie down beside her. Could be her mam is saving her life by not coming to visit. It’s a consolation to Afarra to think of it that way, so she settles on that interpretation.
When she shifts position, Afarra’s hand grazes the clunky wooden beads around her neck, which prompts her to figure out why the Dimmers have mistaken her for the famous wizard. Of course! She’s wearing Uncle Dreg’s necklace of wooden beads, his Seeing Eyes! The painted, wide-open eyes on the beads that enabled the Tribal wizard to see through the Window-of-What’s-to-Come must have confused them. She’s about to explain that the necklace isn’t hers, that it was left by some miracle in her sleep-shed on the planting, when a Dimmer-boy—so much of him still intact she’s certain he’s male—swooshes himself to the front of the crowd. Apart from the areas of decaying flesh and the rope around his broken neck which makes his head loll onto his rotting shoulder, he looks alive.
The Dimmer-boy tears at something furry in his hands. At first, Afarra thinks the boy’s nervousness makes the nest shiver. Then she sees it’s not his nerves. It’s his rage. His silent accusations pummel her. She clutches at the floor of the nest to steady herself.
—It’s hell down there where seeds rot! the lynched boy screams, wordlessly. Save us, Oz!
—But I am not knowing how to save, Afarra doesn’t need to say out loud.
—COWARD! You promised, Angel! With your eyes! At Sylvie Mothertree an’ the other live one!
Solemnly, the Dimmer-boy places the thing in his hands on his head—a pair of furry animule’s ears attached to a crown of barbed wire. The furry ears writhe like chunky serpents. The dead boy presses the crown deeper into his skull. Something akin to blood trickles down his forehead and seeps into his eyes, darkening his blaring white irises to black.
The Dimmer-boy’s mouth is up against her ear. Was he the one with the raggedy tongue before? She doesn’t know. His face is next to hers … yet still he hovers there in front of her. How can he be in two places at once? A blast of frigid air infiltrates her skull, gives her an agonizing headache. The other Dimmers start to sway. In spite of the walkway that anchors it to the cage, and the cables that hold it steady, the nest sways with them. The Dimmer-boy holds something in his other hand. A noose! He slips it over her head. Afarra wants to cry out but the rope is choking her!
Back and forth the nest swings. Something screams, “Caw-caw! Weel a-bout an’ jump, Jimmy!”
It’s the nest! The nest is shrieking too!
—COWARD! the dead boy shrieks without sound. You promised! With your eyes! At Sylvie Mothertree and the other live one! You promised!
The nest convulses. She will be thrown out with Elly! They will fall a hundred feet and smash onto the flying coop’s center ring below! Afarra wants to die. To rush to the rim of the nest and leap into the dark! The lynch rope stops her.… Or is it Uncle Dreg?
With a wizard’s certainty, Afarra shouts above the din: “YES! I WILL HELP! I PROMISE!”
The dead hear her vow and gasp. An acreage of air hurricanes around the coop.
Afarra clamps a hand over her mouth. Too late! Her six words have set themselves Free!
With the force of a Liberty Train, the words hurtle toward the visitors. Desperate Dimmers jostle each other overboard as they attempt to grab the YES! and the I, the WILL, the HELP, the second I, and—most of all—the PROMISE! But the wizard’s words won’t be caged. They change into giant butterflies and soak the coop with color! As the butterflies paint the Dimmer tribe with light, Afarra sheds her fear and cries out in wonder.
In the blink of an eye, the nest quiets itself. The tribe melts into the dark.
Her beloved wakes, grabs her gun from under her pillow. “Has the bastard found us?”
“No, not Lotter. Not the steaders neither. Dimmers. In the nest. They come for a visit.”
Her beloved puts the gun down and levers herself up as best she can. She rests on her elbow and says wearily, “S’okay, Afarra. I won’t let ’em hurt you.”
“They are gone now. See? They are thinking I was Someone. That is the reason why they ask me for it.”
“For everything, Elly.… I promise I will do it.”
“Save ’em. Save ’em all.”
“Guess that’s one way to get rid of ’em.… Go to sleep, Afarra. Only a couple of hours till dawn.”
Ji-ji tries to lie down again but her back refuses to cooperate. She groans in frustration, drapes one of her Secret Hopefuls awkwardly over the rim of the nest again, and lies awkwardly on her side. “Don’t know why you convinced me to do this. It’s nuts sleeping way up here in this wobbly nest. We’re not doing it again, that’s for sure.” Within seconds, she’s fast asleep.
Afarra’s eyes are wide open; she won’t sleep any more tonight. When they discover she’s lied, that she’s not the great wizard and therefore powerless to help them, the Dimmer-dead will make her pay. But at least they’ve gone for now. She is alone with her Elly. Her favorite place to be.
Elly isn’t the only one living inside a strange new body. Last week, in the mirror in the bathroom she and Elly share—a real toilet with a handle-flush that works on and off (they use a bucket to flush when it doesn’t), a genuine shower large enough for two, fed by rain collectors on the roof, and a sink (who cares if it’s cracked?)—Afarra saw the wizard’s wild hair and old-person eyes staring back at her. Ever since, she’s been afraid to look at her reflection.
Coach Mackie will march in soon and shout at them both cos that’s what coaches do. How many times has she told them the wonky old Jimmy Crow’s Nest is off-limits when she’s not there to supervise? Which is why, by the time Coach Mackie arrives for Elly’s flying lesson, they’ll have climbed down from the nest. She’ll find them sitting at the small round table in the kitchen they don’t share with anyone else except a few mice, roaches, and rats too clever for the traps they set.
After Elly’s lesson, Afarra will tell her about the lying mirror in their bathroom—try to anyway, if she can corral her thoughts into words.
Copyright © 2022 Lucinda Roy