Issue 114 – March 2016

5920 words, short story

Coyote Invents the Land of the Dead


She was there, that is Dee, and her three sisters, who were Tierce, Chena, and Wren, Dee being a coyote or rather Coyote, and her sisters not unlike in their Being, though only a falcon, a dog, and a wren. So there they stood on the cliff, making their minds how to get down to the night beach, a deep steep dark bitch slither it was, though manageable Dee hoped.

The cliff was a high sandy sharpness, but you, O my darlings, might not remember what it means to pass down that narrow dark, your own life being so past and the dead so quick to forget. Standing on the cliffs what Dee sought was her own ghost-love, named Jace and dead a year but still so recent to her mind that she could sniff her fingers and by a year-gone remembered smell see him long-legged gold-eyed and low-voiced with big hands—and the sisters going along with her because they did not wish to see her do it alone, plus each sought something else that she didn’t explain, not to Dee anyway.

They had no death-permit for climbing down, but there was no law against trying some of the narrow paths the dead might use. They could try to climb straight down the rocks or along the arroyo, or one or two other possibilities that would give them a skinny slight weak chance of finding the beachy sand and all its dead and massy seashells beneath their feet.

Or they could find the beach the faster way: throw themselves down and hit the sand with their permit in hand, as the saying is. And that was what they were discussing on the cliff.

“Well, fuck, and I’ll have to do it the hard way,” Dee said. “I might be just that bit late coming back.” Her quick tumble-voice rippled out from her mouth and plashed against Wren’s pinhole wren ears and Chena’s tufted great dog ears and the fluffed falcon feathers where Tierce’s ears were. All four were what they were, and women also, and more. They were fashioned of myth: that is the way of this story.

“Or never,” Wren said high and sharp as the whistle from a dry teakettle. “The dead say that, and then they go down the cliffs and they never come back”—light on a brokenwood tree sapless and unlifed, and hopping from foot to foot, so angry was she. “It’s the dead down there, sister. Go and you are dead.”

Above and behind them were stars and clouds and the moon sliding skyward, the long long rise of it, but there was no sky over the night beach before them and the strange ocean beyond; the sky/star/moon dayworld ended abruptly above the cliff’s edge, just overhead with a curled lip like poor and unfinished knitting, and beyond that just nothing but what is inside an undreamer’s eyelids. Chena reached a long-fingered paw (or was it a hand) and touched a thread trailing from the sky’s end. A sequining star slipped loose and came resting onto her dark muzzle, leaving tracer-lines when she moved her mouth and low in her throat said, “She is dead already, Wren. It is what Dees do that are Coyote, is die.”

“—And come back:” Dee hoping it was true; ears had heard tales of other Coyotes that made the long climb down that cliff and back too, and brought heaving and snapping up with them fire or jewelling girdles. Or perhaps that was she but not remembering, or it might be a different cliff; Dee did not know.

“You better hope tales are right,” Tierce said all beak-sharp snap. “You’re a fool to long for your lover when he’s on the night beach. But you’ll go anyway. I know you,” and Wren agreed.

Dee was toenails-close to the cliff, and dirt and little rocks scrabbled away from her feet and over the edge making no noise as they fell. The others were farther away; and look-back Dee saw outlines of her sisters black against the star-busy dayworld night sky. Their faces were invisible until she lit a match and then a cigarette and held it carefully between her toes or maybe it was fingers, and then the hawk wren and dog eyes all glowed gold. All their eyes were worried-like and sad too, and they were right to be so. Dee had never long longed for anything lost before this, not even her own mother. Only Jace. And Dee was the center of things; bulls-eye on the target, the tight-binding chord of the arc of everything. Touch Dee and the world shivered.

Turning, Dee: and she stared down. The only light on the beach came from the sky behind them, the cliff’s shadow stretched halfway to the water; plus also fading shifting lines like yarn being rolled, that was surf that went nowhere and not strong; and phosphorescence the color of sodium vapored and trapped inside lamps. Hundreds of feet down or miles or something else? Dee (knowing as all do approaching the night beach) that it would change as she climbed.

“Well, this is me, then. I’m going,” she said, and dropped her furl-ashed cigarette and started down. The path was a narrow bitter winding of rocks and dirt crushed to dust. She slipped and fell, away through sour thorn-prickling brush, until she slammed against a rock that left her unbreath’d for a while and then she realized she wasn’t breathing anyway. Mist rose from her muzzle but did not in-and-out, only slid steadily free, collecting into a shape at first indefinable; only, she walked down and down and its form clarified and grew more complete, and it was a Coyote like her, curled as though mother-scruffed, hovering a few feet from the cliff at eye-height.

Dee not a thinker, thus not wondering what this shadow-Coyote meant, whether ghost ka lost soul or child unborn. “The fuck do you want?” Dee said not wanting the answer, and it said nothing and turned and advanced ahead, soundless and then invisible and gone maybe so that she was relieved and worried both, though not the worrying sort.

Of a sudden, a great light started up behind Dee on the cliff, a surprising blaze of a bonfire, set by her sisters she figured but arcbright as welding or lighthouses, and it warmed her just to see its bright casting across the scree’d cliff. Dee was not the only one with gifts and Being, and Tierce could use the sharp of talon and eye, and set great fires. But Tierce would lose some vision from this: love costs for anyone, hawks and all.

Twisting-back Dee’s long foot touched a rock and it cascading took its fellows lavanching along and Dee falling too. The path: a startle-start, and a slip-stumble long middle, and then a dead-end; just like life.

The night beach where Dee landed was of sand. It and foam-stain water hissed and whispered together; Dee folded her ears back to block the sound but it came through anyway, seeping in through the cracks of her. The wet cold air felt thin, though she was at sea level for the lowest sea of all—if air there was; no telling without lungs’ in-and-out. Her shadow was a severalled blur-thing that did not have her shape, cut out by the light of Tierce’s eyes and the half-moon in the half-sky behind, cut now where it had risen to the dayworld’s ceasing, and sloppy with dangling glowing threads.

The sand around her was heaped everywhere with mounded massy dark shells, pyramided into black piles as high as her waist, and over the sand/water-whisper the piles chirked when a crawling wave touched them. Dee kneeling saw they looked just like dayworld shells, shaped like ears or trumpets or vulvas, but they had no light nor sheen to their curves and they felt colder than they ought. Dee pushed the shells aside with her feet as she walked, and they chunkled against one another.

A sudden falling crash off a short distance: a small blur-shadowed thing heaved upright and shook itself, and said with Wren’s voice, “The air stopped carrying me.” She sounded indignant, betrayed by her natural element and peevish in any case because of Dee’s as she saw it stupidity. But here she was: love costs a price, as she knew as well, and she was hoping this would not in this case be true but suspected that it would. “I was flying down and it just gave up.”

“You weren’t supposed to follow,” Dee said. “This is mine to do. Not yours.”

“Since when do you say what is what for me?” Wren hopped to Dee’s side, and stopped being a blurred shadow and became herself, drab grey and brown but her eyes bright precise points.

“At least Chena’s not coming down, is she?” Dee glanced up at the cliff, to the fire Tierce had set. Pushed by the wind, it gusted and vanished and rose again in sheets of flame the colors of brass, of gold bronze copper and blue sapphires.

Wren opened her mouth and then shut it, not saying anything.

Dee closed her eyes for a moment. “Fuck.” Now that she looked, she could see a sturdy dark shape down-scrabbling the cliff. Instead of picking out the safe path, Chena was running straight down in a great tumbling of noise and rocks and torn bushes: which ended in Chena landing with a sound that might have been a yelp or might have been a laugh. She loped toward them, kicking shells aside with chirping skrankles of sound.

“That was fun:” Chena smiling, her tongue hanging out. “I wouldn’t want to go back up, though.”

“You can’t,” Dee angry said. “And now we’re all dead.”

“Not yet,” Chena said.

“Tell me Tierce isn’t coming down.”

Shaking-head Chena, as Wren, “When did you become the grown-up?” asked.

Dee thinking When I lost Jace and it stabbed through her again like losing a leg, and every time waking jumping up maybe to run somewhere, and being reminded again when she fell: no leg. Jace, who had been laughing air in her lungs, long-storying tale-making lover of Dee; and all the sun there was, for her.

Chena shaking her head in any case: “Tierce keeps the fire for us. Have you found your Jace yet? I just see this”—pointing with one clawed toe that may for purposes of this story and your own comfort be seen as a woman’s hand, if it seems she must be either woman or beast but cannot be both; which shows your folly, O my dears.

Dee looked down at the shells all everywhere, the cerith/whelk/natica coils of them. Some were smaller than her toenail, others broad as her cradling hands. She picked one up, cell-phone-size and black and smoothly curved like a tulip, and held it to her ear. But nothing inside it, not even the sound of her own pounding blood echoing back, though maybe that was no surprise if her pulse were as gone as her breath.

Chena picked one up too, the size of clasped hands and scrolled tight as a flemished rope, and absent-eyed held the tiny opening to her ear: listening to her own lack of pulse, Dee reckoned though maybe not, so intent was she; and then dropped it chirking. “These are the dead.”

Dee’s Coyote-self knowing, saying: “Yes,” and seeing it was true as the word slid from her mouth.

Chena: “He’s a shell. Still you want him?”

And Dee nodded.

Wren added, practical she: “Good thing it’s forever-night, because it will take all night to find him, huh.”

Uncertain they stood looking this and that way: shells everywhere and the ravel-lorn waves, and all beyond Tierce’s light, dark as a cave. Wren speaking at last, quick-eyed as all birds: “There;” and they looked a way along down the beach beneath the cliff, and there were rocks pinnacled even higher than the shells. “A tide-pool.”

“Is there tide here?” Chena asked knowing No. No moon, so no tide.

On the night beach, distance was mutable or even irrelevant. Still, crossing took time and they walked for a while and a second while and more whiles still, to the rocky place Wren saw, the un-tided pinnacled pool.

Waning light from Tierce’s fire, as they shuffled through the shells of the chirpling, chinkering dead, speaking perhaps to one another though not to Dee as she leaned low and listened; nor to Wren, tipping her head close to the largest she saw, a whelk the size of a sleeping hound, and hearing nothing, no thing at all. Yet would not step inside the shell’s curling lip: no fool Wren.

It was hard to see the pillaring rocks clearly, scarce-lit to one side by the strange ocean’s glow, and to the other by Tierce’s fire and the half of the sky that still held stars: the dayworld’s moon long gone by now.

Wren could not fly but she was smaller than the others and not so careful with stepping on the shells, and so Wren sandpipering down to the water: “No tide,” she said. “The water just moves, doesn’t go anywhere, is all.”

Dee slower followed, for she kept picking up shells and listening for Jace, and Chena slowest of all though she listened only once: and lifted a cowrie folded pretty as a cunt, to which she harked for a time and then shook her head and replaced it carefully, and thereafter would not step upon even the smallest but pushed them aside as she passed.

Wren walking: “This is all they can do, the dead? Heap up like this?”

Dee thought of Jace alive run-running along a sun-crusted canyon, laughing and his black eyes agleam, and the bright taste of flesh and blood and the matings and the sleeping together coiled, and roiling about in a fight and the all all all of it. Hated being bored Jace, when he was alive.

And why was Jace so special, my dears, O my darlings? What man, what walker on legs and laugher at jokes, is worth all this? And Jace is not, of course, nor any man, all flesh and imperfect unminding; or rather say all men are, and all women. And Chena, who longed for her own sweet Linnel, which is her secret reason for being on the night beach; and Wren and her vast chattering family, aunts and sisters and brothers and bickering uncles back in the day-lands; and also Tierce now forever behind them, squinting through wearying eyes into the skyless dark above the night beach, but thinking of her nestlings asleep.

After all the whiles they walked, they came at last to the rocks.

Wren always with questions: “What exactly are we looking for?”

“Fuck if I know,” Dee said, tired for once and realizing suddenly that she was cold and getting colder. The breath not coming from her mouth (she noticing this again) scared her a little. “Just anything,” and they split up a bit.

Hard walking, or scribscrabbling rather, among rocks rough as new lava, pockmarked as Dee felt through her long fingers and toes, and the holes each filled with water. Stepped forward and sank to her knee. Bent-head she tasted and got salt, but sterile: no flesh-shred shit microlife broth. In a pool, she saw a small fringing glowness and touched it, and it snapped shut anemone-quick, only there was no life to it, she could tell from the touch, just cold light and this movement. Jace, she thought. What can he chase and what does he eat when a shell? And where in this ocean of shells?

A thing flashed by her face, and herself automatic in her hunting she caught it, felt muscle and quick coilings thrown over her hand, a sensation from the desert she knew well from snakes, but boneless this time and beaky, biting her palm without effect. She held the thing up and its wet surface gleamed under Tierce’s soft fading flare of a flame.

It was an octopus, so small that its head fit her cupped hand but it writhing rippled down, hydrostat legs yearning toward the pool until she caught the small beak and pinched it in her fingers and then the creature stopped. “Where is he?” she asked and shook it. “Jace.”

Tentacled her ankle now: another octopus roiling itself up her leg, and suckers this time like cold angry kisses, so she dropped the little one. Was a splash.

The new one was bigger, its head like her head and clearly too big for the pool. So many legs meant many things held, and it clutched her and also the rock, and also a whelk with an unfurling lip and a hole broken through. What’s inside? Dee wondered, and then chilled as she thought it: Nothing. In the dayworld, living-sea cephalopods drilled through shells and sucked their insides to inside themselves: food, and nothing left over but a hollowed-out hush.

So, here: there was death and that was nothing, a shell on a shore; but even that could be taken by these night-beach monsters, and then there was nothinger nothing.

Raging Dee did not bite at wrapping legs; but she called out and in a flash, Chena with her, they tore at the suckered coils—without effect, until Wren.

One copper nail pounded poisons a tree is the story, and maybe as well a many-branched beast. There were no nails but Wren gave it a penny she had carried onto the beach for no reason except that she had it, and perhaps had heard tales. The octopus brought it with the tip of a tendrilling leg to its beak and then everything loosed and was lost beneath the pool’s surface, the whelk and Dee freed.

She grabbed at the shell as it sank. As she listened this time, a flute-shrill whistling of the unbreathing breeze through the hole. Dead, and then deader than dead. But not Jace. She hoped. He was somewhere here still, lost and bored—and someday bored out. Unless she could find him.

“Let’s not do that again,” Chena said. Blood on her leg collecting where she had torn it on rock but not flowing, not here where the heart drove no pulse.

On a pumicey pillar beside, Wren: “We can’t find him, and then this. What now, Dee?”

“Fuck,” said Dee. “We’ll have to do a thing.”

Suspicious Chena, closest sister to Dee and thus knowing the ways of Coyotes too well for her own comfort: “Do what? This is the night beach, the end of all evers.

“But beyond that?” and Dee pointed across the phorescent, fluorescing sea.

Nodding, Chena: “One shore means another.”

“But no boat to get there,” Wren said. “And how will going there, if There is—how will this change things, Dee? Jace is dead.”

“Is dead gone?” Dee said. “I’ll cross and find out if There is, and come back with an answer, maybe.”

“Or not.” Wren, tart. “Shells are dead and then deader than dead, and no coming back. So. There’s a night beach and maybe a beach nighter than night, and maybe no coming back from there, either—not even to here.”

Chena sighing: “It’s what Dees do that are Coyotes, is do. Foolish or not. Wren, can you stop her?”

“I am not the thing that stops Dees. But no boat . . . ? That will,” Wren said.

Dee said, “We will swim.”

Chena: “The thither there is, is maybe too far. We will drown.”

“Why would we drown?” Wren, askance. “We do not breathe here; why would unbreathing be a thing?”

“We will find out about drowning, I guess,” said Dee.

But. Back on the cliff in the dayworld, and the sun rising at last though invisible from the night beach: fading, fire-eyed Tierce. She stood and looked down, and the light of her eyes still shone on cliff ocean and shells. And she saw the pinnacled rocks and the tentacled things; and dark Dee and bright Chena and the flicker of Wren. Read their lips from so high-distant a place; and knew they were gone, gone and lost; and blinked her eyes shut.

The water was black, thick as oil, and viscid it slid up their legs as they walked into the untided surf. The dirty pale seafoam clung to their hands like the ropes of saliva from a sunburnt dog’s mouth, and smelled not unlike. Wren fastidious turned her face away, and then, “Oh!” said she, smallest: lost her footing and came resting on the water’s face, unbreaking the surface tension. Dee and Chena could not float, slipped beneath.

There were no shells under the water, but a steady long shelf of sand the color of a deer dead beside a road. Chena curled her lip in distaste. It was not dark beneath the water, no more than above. There being no moon nor stars nor glass-cased hot-flaming filament meant that no place was lighter than any other, but also no darker.

Wren was right that they did not drown. Still, there was no satisfaction in this; the water crawled everywhere thick and cold along all their inches as they shoved through it. For a time, Chena could reach up and touch Wren’s feet above before she went too deep; but Dee paid no mind, only walked forward and on, the broken whelk in her hand.

For a while and then another while, Dee felt small coilings along the black ocean’s floor as she walked. She knew them for the tentacled things that killed the shells of the dead. One wrapped around her ankle, but she bent down and tore it free, and that was the last of them.

A third while: eels with hands and no eyes.

There were other things, and clouded bitter cold blood stained the sea. For a time.

I say to you, O my darlings, for a time, as though time was. The steps collected infinite until the sea’s floor shelved up again and for a time ended, and they came free of the sucking surface, and found Wren landed already and scraping her beak on the shore.

“That was exciting,” Chena said when the cold salt sea had drained from her mouth. “I saw a thing like a ray, and a forest of black kelp, and a car that wept, and a shark. What did you see?” she asked Wren; but what Wren saw or had done as she swam the surface between unsea and unsky, and what it was that she scraped so carefully from her beak, she said nothing about, then or ever.

Dee dropped the holed hollowed-out whelk to the ground: looking-‘round Dee. And this was the other shore. Sand. Behind them the ocean, water rocking but not crawling up/down. Ahead ramping dunes of pale sand-drift, and past that tufty grass and harsh-husked hollow sedges, and a hissing that would have been wind if wind would have been. And beyond that rising, the horizon’s notched plant-fringed ridge where dunes slanted into grass and unberried bushes. And after that the dun unsky only.

No life, of course. No footprints or pawprints or clawprints or shells, save the whelk.

They looked back (breathless no longer a surprise except remembering that it once had been different); and back past the slipping thick slippery ocean, the beach, and the cliff, nearly beyond sight was the ravel-halved world of the bright-breathing alive. But no fire nor Tierce. She had watched them walk deep and then deeper, as they sank her scorched eyes salt-soaked for a time. Then they opened again, and reduced but alive she turned and returned to the living, light-winging her way to her children her nest her mate and the taste of mice bright on her tongue. Home. For a time. Her story ends here for you, unless someday as fringed murex or peaked conch she tells it herself.

I do not know what secrets the shells of the dead share among themselves. I listen and hear hissing; but it is enough.

“Well,” said Wren when her beak was scrubbed clean. “Now we’re here. Where is here?”

Chena loped up to the ridge and back down. “There’s nothing. Beyond the ridge? More hills and grass is all, and maybe for all ways.”

Dee kicked at the untoed untouched and rippleless sand. “No shells on this side. But no octopus either.” Pausing she: “They would be safe here, all the shells.”

Cunning Coyote-Dee, and clever sister Dog-Chena as well, and Wren Queen of the Birds sharp enough though attending only half what was said, and always her eyes scanning the unsky. They thought it all through: the long sloping sand-floored ocean; but no waves moving shells, no tide making waves, no moon making tides.

“So we need a moon,” said Chena. “A moon to bring the shells.”

Headtipping Wren: “Let me see what I can do.”

“This is mine to do,” Dee said. “For Jace.”

Practical Wren: “Can you fly?”

Dee, shaking head.

“Then it’s not.”

The rules for the unliving lands are not what you thought when you walked under sunlight, my dears. There was no more thickness of air on this side of the ocean—and yet Wren up feather-light flew. The unsky was a flat textured hard curve like the inside of an eggshell, but fluttering Wren seeing a scuff in the surface no deeper than gravel-scratched shoe-leather, for long flitting whiles picked at the flaw. Flakes of nonshell curled free and fell, and dissolved into brass-tasting mist on the upturned faces of Dee and Chena. The scuff became a dent, a pocket, a niche—and now Wren hover-clung to its lip as she worked—and at last made a Wren-sized hollow. She came down, and with her a drift of bitter drab skyscrape that made Chena cough. “There’s that.”

“But no moon,” said Dee.

“Not yet, no. Now’s when you help. I need fur.”

Chena: “For a moon?”

Wren: “Also twigs.”

They looked: sedges ocean grass bushes sand slopes unsky. “No trees and no twigs,” Chena said.

“This is mine to do,” said Dee. “Finally.”

Dee biting bones free from her feet with her long bloodied teeth, slim fine phalanges for clever Wren’s craft—for you forgot, O my darlings, that they are each woman god and creature folded together in skin and desire; but so they are: mysteries nearly as great as yourselves and your once-stories. Chena did not see that the metatarsals of Dee’s feet grew back then or ever. Perhaps that is another way that the dunes beyond the ocean are different from the dayworld and its myths, where Coyotes retrofit rekit and retool, bones and blood renewed on demand as the stories require.

Wren carried each skinny-stick bone to the niche in the unsky, and she wove. It was not the tight basket she would have entwined in the dayworld for gawkish and featherless nestlings, but a shaggy untidy tangle: coyote bones and dog fur, and down plucked from her breast, each feather-shaft tipped in her unwelling blood.

And that nest was the moon of the dead: dun and unshining, but the great gravitational well of untime and unspace.

Then a pause. And nothing.

Wren sighing. “Well, then, there is another thing, I guess:” and she laid an egg and another and a third: air-fathered, Wren-willed, and wind-filled.

And then nothing again.

They three watched, Wren high in her nest, and her sisters on the sand: a whiles-long time.

And a wave and another, then long rolling coils repeating along the sands, each stronger as the new-built moon pulled. With tide comes time, and now static unnumbered whiles became waves and moments and soons and thens.

And now. Chena soft: “Listen.”

The first small shells came in a foaming wave-curl that withdrew and left whisper-light augurs and ceriths and wentletraps chirtling together. A hiss when they burrowed into the wet sand, to leave only holes. And followed by larger shells, the great conchs, the syrinx and the sheening nautilus, and always the waves. Imagine it, O my darlings—or do not, but remember instead if you can—your whispering shell-selves pulled along the sandy floor, past the sights Chena saw, and the long-tendrilled things that Dee had fought off, and all the wonders and terrors they did not meet. Perhaps you did not all make it, but many and many of you did, and found yourselves here.

And among the dragged massy shells at last, Chena heard the thing she was dreaming of: a whisper, a hush. A whelk washed to her feet, as long as her hand and smooth as an egg: rested and did not dig. She caught it up with a sob and pressed it against her ear and heard her name like a breath: Chena. Linnel, her own dear Linnel dead and lost, and now found, in a massy rose-colored calcium twist.

But no Jace. Not then, nor in the thens after, as each shell rolled up and found its own place on the shore, until holes spangled the sand and the water in each reflected the secret-egged moon of Wren’s making. Dee running stumble-foot, bitten-paw clumsy, desperately across the tiny dim stars on sandy dun under-unsky; Chena behind her pleading but cupping in her hand (or paw) her answer, the cradled whorl of Linnel.

The shells rolling in but fewer now and all only newest-dead: each cockle ark augur and bittersweet clam just fallen to the night beach, soon come and soon gone in moon-summoned tiding through oleic oil-thick sea to this shore; and quick digging down into the sand and thus: safe.

Still no Jace. No Jace among all the shells: so, either holed out or holding out on the night beach.

Dee stumbled to a halt: “He’s not here. He’s not coming.”

Chena’s voice like a gentle-soft growl: “Those we love do not come when we will it, but when they do. Death does not change this, just makes it harder.”

“But I loved him.”

Wren snorted. “As though that were enough.”

Startle-sharp face turned up to the moon: Dee, all id and hot eyes on herself, self-tricking trickster surprised by the truth; but despair does not sit long in Coyote-Dees. Lessons are learned. But not the right ones. A snapping nod: “I’ll go back for him. We all will.”

“No,” said Chena; and eyes-rolling Wren: “Try, if you must.”

Dee, a-limp to the shore where the tide swashed: stepped forward and pressed paw (that was hand) to the thick, viscid ocean. She could not break the meniscus, nor skate Wren-light on its surface. Stepped forward and forward. And just nothing: Dee still where she stood, unadvanced. “We cannot go back?”

“No:” Wren and Chena together.

And Dee, eyes turned for the first time to others, and knowing at last: “I’ve killed you.”

Again, “No,” Chena said. “We are here for you, but not just for you.” And she smiled, the Linnel-whelk in her hand-that-is-paw. “We had our own reasons, as well.”

“You said nothing,” said Dee.

“When was there space?” Wren said. “Your needs always fill you. Where was there room for Chena to long for Linnel—or for me?”

Dee said, “What is your reason, then?”

“I was curious, that’s all.”

This was a lie. Wren’s heart is her own, and her wishes too; Wren if she chooses may speak somewhile of her reasons, my chirkling dears; but they are not mine to share, any more than are yours.

Coyotes or rather Coyote must always be doing. Dee waited for Jace, until she didn’t: light-minded, still longing but restless. She paced the other shore, and then the long sandy hills, and peeked over the ridge’s edge. And at last: “I can see a way out of this. I can save you.”

“We don’t want saving,” Wren said; but Dee unheeding as ever: “That’s trees, that dark line along the horizon. And if there are trees there are more trees, and maybe something past them. We can’t go back but maybe we can go forward, and maybe on the back side of nothing is all. Dayworld sun and insects hazing the sky at dusk, the taste of sweet water. Think of it: home.”

Wren chirping sharp: “This is home. See my nest? See my eggs?” And Chena held Linnel close, and looked down at you, dear ones, all her shells.

“Well fuck,” said Dee; “and I’ll have to do this alone.” Dee silent a moment, then: “I am sorry.” And this was the first time she said that word, to any. And perhaps only.

And she left. She has not returned, though Wren thinks she cannot in any case, but she goes on and on. Perhaps there is a way back to the dayworld and around and through that place, and thus down to the night beach again, and that she will return across or under the sand-floored sea. Or not.

And so you are here, O my darlings, and this is to the credit of Dee and of Wren and of Chena. Here you are dead on the beach-grassy shore beneath a nest-moon and bird-stars, but at least you are not deader than dead. There is for you no way back to the dayworld lands or the night beach; but there never was, and here are no beaked and tentacled things.

There are always more of you, always new shells, massy and dark on the night beach, and some come here sooner, and later some: lingering shells on that night-beach shore waiting for their own loves Dee-like and like Chena to come searching for them—only none do. No one makes the tumble to the beach of her own will; or only a few.

Over us is Wren’s tight-woven moon and her dark-winged fledglings, that have scattered like stars across the dun sky; and who is the father of them I may guess. Do the dead overlap? I do not know: only that she is content enough, and as thens have collected, so have the shells of her vast chattering family, aunts and sisters and brothers and bickering uncles.

Jace remains lost but tides bring shells with each wave. Some scallop or slipper may contain him or may not. For Dee’s sake I ask them all if they have seen him, but their chirtle and skankling speech is all for each other, and they do not answer. If he is found in the hard lacy curl of a murex, I will tell him that Dee has gone on; and he will follow or not: he has other kin here, other loves. Love is no one-thing but many. We are never alone.

Or perhaps he is deader than dead. That is a way that things are, too.

Dee did what Coyotes do that are creator and creature: rush and long and drag a train of chaos behind them and then leave others behind to build what they can from whatever remains. But I that am Chena am dog, god, and girl, and what Chenas that are dogs do, is love and watch over—and here I am not alone, with Wren singing above, and the whorl of whelk-Linnel in my hand to murmur in my ear. And you all, O my darlings, to tell this tale to—so perhaps you are not so dead after all. What is life but stories, and love?

This is the why of the Land of the Dead.

Author profile

Kij Johnson is the author of several novels, including The Fox Woman and Fudoki, and a short story collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees. She is a three-time winner of the Nebula Award, and has also won the Hugo, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, and Crawford Awards. In the past she has worked in publishing, edited cryptic crosswords, waitressed in a strip bar, identified Napa cabernets by winery and year while blindfolded, and climbed an occasional V-5. These days, she teaches at the University of Kansas, where she is associate director for the Center for the Study of Science Fiction.

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