Issue 135 – December 2017

5170 words, short story

Darkness, Our Mother


I’m one of my mother’s kind. Numbers speak to us in whispers and screams. We weave the world in complex mathematics and the world weaves us back, keeping our sky above and our earth below, keeping our organs inside our bodies, keeping us here, keeping us together.

The yarn of quaternions and octonions unravels; it makes a trail inside the Womb. The Asenai men think I’m using it to find our way back and, of course, I let them believe it. But let me tell you a secret, my brother: the yarn is a sliver of the Womb itself. A simple, one-dimensional blood vessel I tore out of my favorite place, out of your prison which I came to love because, to me, its corridors and its deep darkness are brimming with the salty smell of freedom. The Womb is holding the hypercomplex function-manifestation together, woven number by number, written stitch by stitch inside my yarn skein.

I’m calm, I’m still, as the Asenai battle creatures of my own secret numerical craft. I’m a still spot in the storm, a spider weaving; the function-manifestation must not be disturbed and I must command it fully. It’s almost entrancing, this drawing of strength from the Womb itself. I can hear its pulse; I’m vulnerable, exposed. A tingle of excitement mars the perfect stillness inside me. My brother, I’m on my way.

First unroll, then roll back into a ball. First cast the prince’s skin off, then weave it over my brother’s. My plan is perfect and I know it. I was born for this. I’ve been preparing all my life.

The yarn unravels.

King Uthar’s court is the stuff of dreams, people say. Cemar is where gods spend luxurious summers, estivating in the dim glory of faience and niello palaces of Iasso and Zachor, their divine reveries conjuring winged griffons and monkeys the color of palaeo-blue—creatures that wander forever on the walls of shaded porticoes rowed in vermillion columns with ebony tops, creatures that look at me with dead eyes, that speak to me in tongues other mortals can’t hear.

Well, I’m King Uthar’s daughter and I know better. My earliest memories paint him in the distance and my mother at the center—opulent, buxom, a golden vest curving around her exposed, full breasts. Like living bracelets, the sacred snakes of the Goddess coiled around her tanned arms in obedience, deliciously inebriated by the oils of Cemari dittany and frankincense. She was the spitting image of all the frescoes and idols that Uthar wanted to destroy, the frescoes I’ve only seen clandestinely. She wore the visage of her own mother and grandmother—all Queens, all High Priestesses, all using the language of numbers to harness a physical reality that would otherwise run rampant and crush us with its wild, cruel infinity. The visage I, too, should incarnate after her death if only it weren’t for her husband’s greed. That was my mother, a vision so distant I now wonder if it was ever true and not a mere childhood fancy, a reflection of my hope to see her—to see myself—powerful and luminous.

The mother I truly knew lived in the prison called the Queen’s Quarters, where I also grew up under the gaze of sleepy dolphins and lapis lazuli doves and other delightful decorations that turned grotesque each evening when the sunlight faded, with their pointy beaks and black-rimmed eyes. My mother sat transfixed on her throne, long black curls flowing down her shoulders, and wouldn’t speak to anyone. She had a little tame dice snake—the only one she was allowed to keep after her husband killed all the sacred beasts—to whom she’d whisper number sequences from time to time, while looking at the world only in side stares. Often, I was handed bowls of lentils with fragrant coriander and honey to give her, or escargots stuffed with rosemary and thyme which was, they said, her favorite. Although I trembled as I left the tray next to her, she wouldn’t even deign to look at me. And I was thankful; when she did, her tawny gaze pierced holes into my heart.

Like my mother, like all women of our bloodline, I had numbers running in my veins, making my blood bloom with mystical flowers inside me. When our ancestors first arrived in Cemar, a planet so dangerous and strange, numbers became the bridge that took us over boiling lava to a safe shore and saved us. Mathematics was—and is—the only way humanity could deal with the chaos of the universe, the only common language between ourselves and the galaxies. Medee was our first High Priestess, the one who found a way to speak stories in numbers, materialize them and cause changes. She was the one who gave us the plants of her homeland—olive trees and vines, basil and crab apples—the animals—snakes and bulls, the first algebraic creatures she conjured, our sacred beasts—and the fertile land. She is the one who turned Cemar from prison to paradise, truly an avatar of the Goddess. The only one to have invented the magic of numbers that was grafted into her mitochondrial genetic code and, to this day, can be passed to her female progeny only.

My father kept an eye on me from an early age. Our art and magic and science weren’t needed anymore, he said, the world was stable. We were more dangerous than useful, he said, our gift way too powerful and easy to abuse. He had already gone too far—snatching the throne from the High Priestess, killing the sacred snakes—and everyone knew that the gods punish the blasphemous, so he didn’t dare touch me or my mother lest he met his ruin. My older brothers, my lady companions in the court, none of them ever truly befriended me as they all were my father’s spies. Fear kept everyone at a distance, yet I found it soothing if not somewhat lonely. We’re strangers with all my siblings—all except Erion.

Erion was born in captivity. My father had already imprisoned my mother by then and hoped to prevent her from continuing her mathematical weaving. Pious men and women warned him that this would endanger Cemar, yet he didn’t listen. Then my brother came, his devious form a sign of profound instability in the world. My father, in his unbridled paranoia, proclaimed him one of my mother’s mistakes, another instance of her dangerous meddling with the world. He locked him up in a lightless laboratory—the remains of Medee’s spaceship, the one that brought her here, the one we called the Womb. He had all of his scientists and mathematicians study him for years until he gave up and left him alone, conveniently out of sight, a poor lifetime prisoner just like my mother. No one could come in or out of this prison; its entrances were a cryptographic secret.

No one except myself, of course. Oh, how I love the Womb, how I enjoy its musty smell, its comforting darkness. Even though it is his prison, in there we are alone, just us and the deep magic of endless, twirling walls. Darkness has always been my friend. I taught myself to walk the Womb with eyes closed, guided only by the numbers that run in my veins. It led me to its center, to Erion. A head too large for his shoulders, a bullish snout and two horns—and eyes so shiny and eager and happy to meet me. We spent hours playing hide and seek in those vast corridors, our giggles echoing, our footsteps reverberating.

“I brought you honey cakes,” I’d say—his favorites—and he’d stuff his face with their sweetness, squinting happily at the sumptuous aroma like any other boy his age. As we ate, I shared news from the court. I spun tales of the bull leapers in the yearly festival—once, a festival for the Goddess—how they danced on bulls’ backs as if they were creatures of the air, fearless. Erion watched me in wide-eyed fascination, his mind running wild with things he’d never see. All he ever knew was the dark cocoon of the Womb.

My brother had the heart of an artist, I soon discovered. Once, I brought him seashells I had gathered from the deep violet shore nearby Iasso palace, to decorate his lonely lair. Next time I was there, Erion had carved one of them with a tiny chisel he’d made himself out of eating utensils. In the light of the torches, I watched the bull leapers unfolding in front of my eyes in perfect detail, as if Erion had been there at the festival with me. I ran my finger over the miniature’s prickly pattern, admiring it as tears stung my eyes.

“Father doesn’t want me to go out much,” I told him one day. “He wants me to stay with mother, to keep her company.” Day by day, the Queen’s Quarters became my own prison. Escaping through my secret door was my hope, the Womb my sanctuary.

“Is mother ill, Sadne?” Erion asked in his attentive manner, always worrying about a mother he had never met. His eyes shone in the torches’ flame, hungry for love and recognition, a well he could never fill. For a long time, he had known his mother only through my eyes and my narrations; I was his link to a world that had been denied to him.

“She won’t leave her chambers . . . doesn’t talk, only stares into the distance. They say numbers drive us all mad one day, but I’m not so sure it’s just mathematics that claimed her mind. Oh, you’re not missing out on much, really. I get bored there. It’s so much better to come here and see you.” By the end of my words my cheeks were burning, my voice had gone raspy. Emotion I had learned to suppress suddenly found its way up, provoking me to say things I didn’t want to. Although I was uttering the truth, I could tell Erion was still jealous. He sulked, lowering his bullish head so deep his shoulder blades protruded—so white, so soft, I noticed. I wondered how healthy he could stay in such confinement.

“Will she ever want to see a monster like me?” he whispered, voice shaking. My heart sank at his words.

“Dearest, I think mother understands how you are,” I said softly and not without honesty. “She is like me, remember? We can see things that aren’t there to mortal eyes. Your symmetry is perfect. She knows it, but is simply too ill to tell you. I know she loves you.”

I reached out and touched his hand. When I looked down at our feet, all I saw was a little boy’s thin legs, feet wrapped in tattered sandals. Yet his head too, was his own, as much Erion as his human parts. I touched his cheek, lowered his bovine skull gently onto my shoulder, its horns still too small to poke me. A perfect topology; his functions a poem. How could others not see it? He accepted the touch quietly. We sat there for a long time, the darkness our mother.

“One day, we’ll run away,” I promised, my muscles tensing suddenly, old anger rising inside me again.

Erion was silent.

The yarn unravels. The first time we found a dead body it was still fresh and warm.

I tripped on it in the darkness and upon feeling the emaciated flesh under my fingers I gasped in panic. A soft whiff of putrid smell carried the first signs of decay. Something of my mother visited me that day.

“What is it?” Erion asked and, before I could say anything to protect him, he cast the torch’s light over my shoulders. His pupils contracted, the way animal eyes shrink in fear. I held his hand and refused to turn away. That was my father’s doing and I wanted to bear witness to it.

In his long war with the Asenai, Uthar employed dirty, cruel intimidation tactics. I never knew about the high-ranking prisoners—sons of ministers and nobles—that he locked up in the Womb and let wander until they reached either madness or death. I learned of it that very day. The Womb, Medee’s beautiful ship, the ruins we’ve loved, had become a synonym to heartless torture.

We made a purpose of finding those bodies before someone collected them and shipped them back to Asenai defiled, in blatant mockery and disrespect. I offered them a last kindness—a rudimentary passing ritual of honey and wine libations, to give their souls rest. At those times I wondered why my mother was the mad one when my father found such things acceptable—when we all did. Anger had been a small, spiteful animal growing inside me for years.

Escape was what I dreamed of in those days. Escape, more than claiming my rightful throne. Erion hopelessly tried to convince me otherwise.

“You will be a great queen and you’ll be kind to me too. The world needs your weaving or more accidents, more . . . more things like me will happen.” He was begging me.

“You’re not a mistake, Erion. You’re perfect,” I insisted, furious at his self-hate. “Let this world crumble, let bull boys and snake girls be born everywhere!”

Hesitating for a second, he gulped and said, “You must. I can help you. If father must die, I’ll do it. I’m a monster anyway. No need for you to be the patricide. I know you will be a merciful queen to me, so I don’t mind.”

By then, his voice, his shoulders were shaking. Even the thought of murder chilled his blood, yet he was willing to try it. My brother, with the heart of an artist, becoming a killer!

“No, sweet brother, no. Don’t say such things. You’re not a monster!” I cupped his hands in mine. The thought of patricide didn’t scare me as much as it should have. I knew the gods were merciless in their hunt of killers and I knew my father feared them too—why else keep my mother and myself alive if not for fear of divine punishment? But I didn’t care. All I wanted was freedom and my father could rot on his alabaster throne and this whole wretched palace could collapse on his shoulders—I simply didn’t care. “We’ll both escape. I have a plan.”

I tried to smile, but Erion wore his familiar sulk. He didn’t like thoughts of escape; they scared him. He had never experienced freedom, not once in his life, so how could it not terrify him? Clinging onto a dream where I’m queen—I, his only ally in the world—was the only future he could imagine for himself that wasn’t as bleak as the Womb’s darkest corners.

“Do you think death will be a release?” was all he said. It came so easily to him to think of death as the only path to freedom. That moment, I couldn’t say anything. “I think mother is waiting for death,” he continued, darkly. “It’s the only place for her now.”

“You have a place with me, Erion,” was all I managed to say. How I regret my words now. Oh, how I could have done things differently.

His beady animal eyes smiled to me. “I know.”

The yarn stops rolling. That’s when the Asenai boy arrived.

Coming all the way from the other side of the solar system, his chest wide and sculpted, eyes sparkling with self-assurance, the otherworldly prince stood taller than the rest of us, us little dark-skinned Cemari, descendants of refugee ships, us little barbarians worshipping snake goddesses, little fools ruled by wonderful King Uthar and his terrible fleet. His spaceships—ugly, rusty beasts so unlike ours—stirred and crushed the wheat of our fields on the very first day of the temporary armistice—one the prince intended to break, of course. I ran to meet him. By then, I had grown into a woman, Erion into a young man. Teseo’s eyes stopped lasciviously over my bare breasts, which I covered immediately. I know Asenai women dress head to toe and stay indoors, so Asenai men think women who show their breasts must be everyone’s women.

“What a beautiful daughter King Uthar has,” he said in a slurred accent, evidently not uninterested to bed me. The moment I saw him I set my mind on my plan, so I led him on, made him believe I was so infatuated with him that I’d betray all of my people’s secrets to him. You see, I disliked him instantly and yet with my antipathy came the spark of opportunity: he had ships that could carry us all the way to Asenai. I’m not a woman who will wait for a man to rescue her, but in the kind of prison I live one ought to make most of everything.

“The mutant that lives in the Womb killed your brothers. Avenge them and save me from my father’s tyranny.” Oh, Erion. The lies I’ve told. I offered him the goblet that was forged in moonlight, filled with wine I had bathed in dark rituals of smoke, sap, torn flesh, and the macabre juices of nightmares. “Drink honeyed wine, my lord, to make you strong against the bull-faced monster.” So the foolish prince drank along, thinking I really was a witch and I was giving him power.

The moment he tried to make a move towards me he fell, face on the floor, snoring loudly. Once all of his mates were sleeping soundly, I ran. I had only moments before sunrise, moments to tell Erion of my plan. I entered the Womb like a stalking cat, following the familiar trail with eyes closed. Erion was awake, waiting for me, tense and nervous.

“My brother, prepare. Tonight we free ourselves.”

He didn’t move. Still nervous, he shifted in his seat, as if the wine flask I offered him was cursed. “What is your plan, Sadne?” I sensed his careful inflection at that moment, his silent disapproval. I dismissed it as fear and cowardice.

“I have woven a thread of hypercomplex numbers that can copy the prince’s likeness,” I began explaining my craft. “But I can’t create a topological vector from him and directly onto you—I have only created the vessel for this. So it must be passed from the prince to you, cover you like a blanket.” I showed him the weapon, an antique double axe of no worth, lined with a verdigris patina of rust. “The function is in here. When he strikes you, the vector will mirror your actions and he will die while you’ll don his appearance like a fresh shirt. Then we’ll sail on his starship to freedom.”

He looked at me incredulously, then at the bronze double axe. “Will we succeed?”

“Trust me, my brother.” I touched his hand, spoke in my best older sister’s voice. “I have a one-dimensional yarn of manifold space, a simple line that goes on and on. As I unroll it, it will take the Womb’s power in it. All parts of the function-manifestation shall be stored in there and I’m strong enough to hold it, so fear not. Soon we’ll be away from Cemar, away from father. There are so many planets where they will receive a High Priestess like myself with honors and accolades. Surely, they won’t turn you away, my own brother.”

He stirred, his eyes showing some sudden courage still laden with doubt. “What if father has word of where we are? They say he discovered that old scientist hiding in the outer colonies and punished him for running away.”

“Well, if he comes after us you might have your chance to be a patricide,” I said, my patience suddenly snapping. I saw the wound I opened only at the very last moment. I touched his hands again, the delicate yet callused fingers of an artist. “I’m sorry, my brother. Will you trust me now? Follow me in this plan until we get on the Asenai ship to freedom?”

My own voice shook at that moment. Eventually it broke and tears filled my eyes. The big sister turned into a frightened girl. Something about Erion changed just then. At my weakened state, he found the strength he lacked. He nodded silently, a single tear tracing his cheek. I wiped it and kissed the bristle hair of his skin.

“I have a gift for you,” he said and presented me with a pendant he had crafted—a pale nautilus, the smallest I’ve ever seen, carved in great detail. In the soothing symmetry of its iridescent spirals, I clearly saw myself, Erion, the Womb; us eating honey cakes, watching the bull leaping festival, playing chess. And in a small corner I saw a miniature of our mother, sitting on her throne, snake around her arm, exactly as I had described her. On her face I think I saw a smile, but the carving was too small so I couldn’t tell.

“I’ll keep it close to my heart,” I thanked him and lowered it over my head. Erion looked pleased for a moment, eyes blinking with satisfaction.

First unroll, then roll back into a ball. First cast Teseo’s skin off, then weave it over my brother’s, like a serpentine ecdysis. No companions will be left by then—my own horrors inside the Womb shall take care of them.

My plan was perfect and I knew it. I was born for this, I’ve been preparing all my life. I went to bid my mother goodbye—my mother, whom I barely knew, yet whom I strangely pitied in her wide-eyed, shocked silence, because she was like me, trapped, mystical, because she was who I might become and I resented her for this. I kissed her cheek in a moment of wild impulse and she let me. I think she even reacted a little bit, a tiny smile forming on her lips, just like the one she had on Erion’s carved nautilus. Her skin was soft and plump and suddenly I craved for more. I touched her hand, cool like morning dew, tissue still firm like a young girl’s. My mother, my beautiful mother, locked away, lost in the whispers of algebraic gods. Maybe it was too much to take and she went mad. I would never know. All I knew was that I couldn’t let myself become her. All I knew was that tonight, I was running away.

“Goodbye, my mother,” I whispered and let go of her hand. She didn’t respond but I cared little. Tonight, I was running away, and my plan was perfect.

I kicked the ball of yarn.

Only a little of the yarn is left. I tug it snugly as we enter Erion’s chamber.

All has gone to plan. Teseo is alone—all his companions dead—breathing heavily under sweat and sticky blood. He squints at me suspiciously, at the Cemari witch with the cat’s eyes, the eyes that seek my brother. I hope for a menacing growl, a powerful glimpse of the fearful monster yielding a double-edged axe, the axe that will unstitch the bodies then stitch them back in different order. At last, I find him, but he is just sitting there, crafting his wooden toys, no blade in his hand, only a craftsman’s carving tool. What are you doing, dear brother? What are you doing?

He hasn’t seen him yet, hasn’t seen my brother’s slouched shoulders and lissom figure and I wonder what the tall, sinewy man will think of this pale boy with the bull’s head he’s about to challenge to battle. He swings his sword. “Beast, come face me! I challenge you to battle! I, Teseo, the Prince of Asenai, the planet that you’ve terrorized and disgraced all these years, eating up our sons and daughters alive!”

The Asenai boy’s grandiloquence makes me sick but I have no time for him; my stomach is tied into a knot as I watch Erion slowly rising in the darkness, then stepping into the light unarmed. Instinctively, I put my body between his and the man’s who wishes to kill him. Teseo pauses; waits to see what sort of magic spell I’ve prepared to help him, but I have nothing, nothing but tears that are slowly filling my eyes, having nowhere to go.

“Sadne, please stand aside.”

I don’t understand (oh, but I do). Erion, why? I wish to ask (but, oh, I know the answer). My brother looks at me with his two eyes, the eyes of a bull, the eyes of a child, so full of sadness and pity for the world, for himself. In them I see a spark of hope, but it is so unlike my own. Oh, but I do know the answer. All the times I dreamed of running away Erion dreamed of death and how its silence must feel like the Womb. Erion, why? Why?

“Sadne, save yourself.”

I’m still standing between them, a wave of tension coming from Teseo, a serene acceptance emanating from Erion.

Possibilities spread their constellations in front of my eyes. I have a choice, yet it’s not a choice I want because Erion has already made his. The constellations that shine more brightly inside my corneas are these:

One. I can let the prince kill my brother, then run away with the killer.

Two. I can kill the prince—because Erion won’t do it—and let both of us live.

But this is no choice at all.

Surely, you must know what I’d choose, if I could. Erion, you surely do know, because you trapped me.

I look at the yarn. The function it’s holding quivers so strongly that I’ve borrowed the Womb’s very essence to maintain it. If I let go of it now, the yarn so deeply unraveled, there won’t be a way to neatly roll it back. It will tangle like an abandoned vineyard, a clot into the Womb’s bloodstream, making the tunnels collapse on us. We will all die. Sadne, save yourself.

Gods, there’s nothing I can do.

My hands are tied. Tears fill my eyes and there’s nothing I can do. Last night I set a trap for myself. Oh Goddess, I set up a bigger prison and locked myself in.

I have no choice at all.

“Why?” I stammer at last. I can feel Teseo hesitating slightly, taken aback by the strange exchange between me and the beast.

“I’m not a killer, Sadne,” he says calmly. “You taught me that.”

The world spins around me, the yarn pulses like an animal’s heart between my hands.

“Let’s run,” I whisper and if Teseo hears me he probably thinks I’m talking to him, suddenly afraid in front of the Womb’s beast. My brother shakes his head calmly and meets my eyes again in silent understanding. There’s a smile on his bullish snout and I know he is not crying because he cried alone, when I wasn’t there.

“I can’t leave. I will only be but danger to you, to both of us. To me, the whole world is a prison. I think I finally understand our mother, Sadne. I belong here.”

I wish to say something to him, to take his hand just like I took my mother’s hand before I left her. Even that small thing, he won’t let me do. Kindly, he touches my shoulders—I can feel Teseo flinch—and with a brisk movement pushes me aside before the young prince strikes. The blade comes out scarlet; Erion is on the floor. Thank you, I can hear, my senses heightened by all the world-changing numbers I’m floating in. Thank you, for being my sister.

A surge of anger and sadness fills me and I can feel the function-manifestation—the useless function—shaking in my hands. Why not let go of it and let it bury us in the Womb forever? But something keeps me from doing it, that self-preservation instinct I’ve had since I was young, the one Erion never developed.

My brother, all you wanted was to escape, just like I did. But no place on earth would take you. So you led me on, as I led on the Asenai prince, to help me run away, because you knew I’d never do it without you.

Now I understand.

The yarn rolls back into a ball. As I pick up the thread, time has no meaning anymore. I can see the future, clear and sharp like a piece of glass.

I’ll follow Teseo onto his ship, get him drunk to unconsciousness every night so that I won’t have to suffer the touch of his dirty fingers on my skin.

When we reach our first starport I’ll leave him and find those who will recognize my power, those who will revere the kiss of the Goddess on my forehead.

I will grow strong.

The thread splits in two.

Maybe I’ll follow Teseo onto his ship and won’t escape his advances. “I know you want it,” he’ll say and his mates too will take turns with me, laughing at the naïve Cemari girl.

Maybe when we reach our first port he’ll abandon me and I will roam hungry and cold until someone who recognizes the kiss of the Goddess on my forehead offers me shelter.

The threads twine in one again.

I will grow strong.

I’ll be human no more; I’ll be one of my mother’s kind. The woman who turned into numbers and became the world.

The yarn rolls back into a ball. In there, I put my memories of when I was still a woman: a single thread mapping a linear, mortal life. For now I will grow so much, like a centenarian olive taking deeper root inside earth’s bowels; I will lose so much—my kin, myself, my memories. Time won’t matter. Time won’t be a ball of yarn anymore, unraveling moment after moment, but a nautilus making spirals, where you can cut across and be in different moments at the same time.

The yarn has now rolled back into a ball. Now the sea shall live in me and I shall wield its power in waves and motions, the salt between my lips, my fingers growing fins. I’ll be the revenge I seek; I’m coming, father. This time, I won’t avoid you. This time I’m coming to claim back my land.

But I’m not a woman anymore. I’m the earth, I’m the ocean. I’m coming, father, and I’m lava glowing red like jewels, I’m rock-cracking earthquake, I’m all-silencing wave. My heart is a volcano and soon it shall wake. For centuries thereafter they will speak of the disaster that befell you, the earth that split in two and the wave that crushed you—I’m that disaster.

I’m coming to end you, to end me, to end this place. To let this planet live again and to remember the tale of faience and niello palaces, of frescoes of dark-skinned boys and black-haired girls, to remember the tale told by the yarn—the tale of the bull boy, who had a sister that truly loved him.

Author profile

Eleanna Castroianni is a writer, poet and oral storyteller from Greece. A cultural geographer by training, Eleanna tells stories from the margins of history and the far futures of the Anthropocene. Their written work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Podcastle, The Stinging Fly, and elsewhere. They live in Athens, Greece, with a growing number of string instruments.

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