11570 words, novelette
Disaster, betrayal, and the ship already blasting its horn. The family clusters around the packing crates, destitute, stunned. We must go regardless, says their father, this is the last ship, what else can we do? Their mother nods, frowning so as not to cry. The girl and the boy stand expressionless, shoulder to shoulder, gaping at the bedlam of the port.
The family driver is cursing freely. He takes a crowbar to their last packing crate but it is just like the others, the nails loose and the palm fibers discarded, and within is not what they’ve already ceased to hope for, not the silver service or the ten rolled tapestries, not the bank records or their grandmother’s bridal dress, not the nine gold bricks they have always joked about needing one day, not the lead crystal, not the children’s uniforms purchased for a school, which last night they had watched burning like a sacrifice, not the button accordion the boy was struggling to master under his mother’s tutelage, not the etching of the small packet ship from which their ancestors alighted here two centuries ago, not the House Diary, that long black book of their lives. Only sand. Bags of river sand, still wet, cleverly arranged.
In hindsight the theft is no mystery. The girl, Davka, easily follows what the grown-ups are saying: the security checkpoint, that dithering commandant, the tent he marched us into, why weren’t we suspicious, all that delay?
Now they’re ruined. The war within earshot, their future snatched like a purse. Jisan, the boy, will be nine tomorrow. Davka is a tall fifteen.
I still have the tickets, says their mother, and their father nods, the same pensive nod his wife often employs, they have converged like facing mirrors after long years of love. I have the deed, he says, hefting the medical bag. That house is ours no matter how long we’re abroad. The law is perfectly clear.
The house is burning, says Mother.
You don’t know that, Clépha.
The law is burning. I know that.
Father looks at his shoes. Mr. Kijuto will be expecting us, he says feebly. He’ll have my letter in hand. We’re not going to starve.
A second blast from the steamer. The girl and boy exchange a look. This is the face of the monster, this is how exile begins.
What is left to them? A duffle each for the children. Fruit plucked from their own trees at the last possible instant, by lamplight. Mangoes, rose apples, rambutan.
Four white sweaters, purchased yesterday.
Two pounds of tea from the farm behind the mountain.
Their mother’s journal, their father’s bag of scalpels and pills.
In the girl’s pocket, a folding knife with fourteen implements. In the boy’s hands, the morphocular telescope. The last item is rare and curious: Brass body wrapped in sealskin, three cylinders and four thick lenses and a color wheel of transposable filters. Difficult to operate, dizzying to use. An ancient thing, and beautiful. Their father had scolded the boy for playing with it in secret while a hundred other treasures were sealed in the crates. Now the morphocular is all they have.
Jisan feels his sister’s stare: Davka is beckoning at the scope. Give, she whispers. Hurry.
Jisan shakes his head.
She snatches. He jumps out of reach. I’m better at it than you, she whispers.
It is an old habit, that whisper, for between them the morphocular is a kind of secret, a pact. What can you see with it? they’d asked their mother, years ago. Nothing much with that substitute eyepiece, she’d lamented. It’s just a spyglass now. Priceless, but a toy.
And with the original eyepiece?
Oh, the original! Ships at fifty miles, sea serpents, the rainbows locked in storm clouds, the deep veins in your flesh. But Mother will never touch the morphocular herself, never demonstrate, and Father says he lacks the gift.
The children do not press. For in fact they see all their mother’s recollected wonders and more through the device, new eyepiece notwithstanding. Somehow they know better than to speak of it.
Davka snatches again. Jisan turns his shoulder, moves away. It is not like him to defy his sister, but Davka has been angry for a week, and especially sharp this morning. Get dressed, stop sniveling, do you think the world’s turning for you?
In fact all she wants is to hold him. Not his fault. Last week Jisan had slept like an angel through their parents’ midnight coffee with the solicitor, that round lisping man with eyes like raisins on a pie who kept saying Jithan, leave it all to Jithan, every lasht thing you own.
We might not be going anywhere, Father had protested. We’ve not lost hope.
Hope as you pleash, doctor, but leave the boy your eshtate.
Davka had listened through the signing, the stamping, the handshake at the door. When would they decide that he was old enough to know? All yours one day and not a scrap for your sister, take care of her maybe, there’s a decent young man.
Now of course it is a tasteless joke. One day little Jisan will inherit—nothing. Old clothes and a medical bag. A worthless deed to a ruin across the sea.
Mother’s composure breaks when the driver tries to return his pay. She embraces him, Father pumps his hand, not on your life my dear fellow, only spend it, spend it, tomorrow it might not buy a thing.
Jisan, at a distance, aims the morphocular back the way they have come. The road unspools: there is the checkpoint, the muddy river, the churchyard where his parents married, the yard of slate stones where their ancestors sleep, the gates of the provincial hospital, the somewhat grander gates of their home. A twist of the cylinders: he is through the iron bars. The mango tree is laden, the bats will feast, or the rebels. Or the flames. Davka has left a book in the windowsill, her father has left his garden shoes. Rugged lilacs, turquoise bees, and something falling over everything, black feathers or a dry black snow. Another twist: it is ash that is falling, a silent rain from the not-so-distant front, settling on the whorls of the frangipani, melting on the marble stairs.
The third horn-blast, the crowd is moving, Davka tugs at his arm. Put the scope away, says his mother, but he cannot obey her, cannot turn without a last reclamation. By the side door, his cat sits untroubled in the smutty rain, tail curled about her forepaws, waiting for her morning milk.
2. Focal Plain
The war pursues them out to sea. What they took for a matter of local jealousies and a few contested hills turns out to be part of a cataclysm, one square on the game board where faceless giants squabble over the world. Jisan busies himself with games of his own when talk turns to fleets and supply lines, trenches, bayonets. Davka worries about his sanity, deeply and with little reason, perhaps this is all her purpose, perhaps this is what elder sisters are for. They share a bunk in the tidy cabin. There are nights when he suddenly gasps and clutches her, eyes open but still asleep, and she is chilled to imagine where his mind has gone, some refracted world, some weird, distorted kingdom that entrances and appalls.
Then dawn breaks and life crumbles into prose. The world is one, war is everywhere. The tinned milk is rationed, Mother drinks her tea black. The ship’s company divides along bewildering fault lines, the bearded westerners refused to eat with those from the clean-shaven east, the business passengers despise the captain, the captain mutters his suspicions of the engine crew. Yet they all bring their ailments to her father, paying for treatment with extra soap, extra drinking water, blankets against the cold. War doesn’t matter, Father tells the children, the land we’re making for is neutral, enlightened, you will come to love it, Mr. Kijuto is the kindest man I’ve ever known.
Davka tries to be comforted. She lets a cabin boy teach her to fish, and to use the scaler on her folding knife. In ports of call she mingles with the villagers who come aboard hawking anything and everything, cane liquor and palm nuts, ruby geckos and hyacinth macaws, sea urchins, spiny lobsters, speckled eggs pilfered from the shorebirds’ nests. She counts dolphins, keeps a journal. One evening, blushing and stammering, the boy gives her a pearl.
After dinner she hides it among her underthings, tied it up in a kerchief, but somehow without so much as glancing at her, Jisan knows, crouching in a corner, wearing that grin that meant he was wise to you and might wield your secret like an axe. Oh, but she hates him, the small smelly gargoyle, turning the color wheel on the morphocular with an insolent click-snap, click-snap, click until Mother cannot take it, rises from her chair, and confiscates the telescope, and delivers her favorite a rare rebuke.
God in heaven, Jisan. You’re old enough not to treat this like a toy.
Davka sniggers. A moment’s carelessness, a little swallowed snort, it means nothing and changes everything, six decades later the echo will not have died.
I think, Father says genially from behind his month-old newspaper, We should cease to play with the morphocular. Worth more than I am, at the moment. What if you break that pretty glass? What will you tell your own children, hmm?
That Mother broke it, Davka blurts.
Mother has the grace to laugh, but her eyes are troubled. I did break it. The eyepiece it came with was special, something to do with cedar oil, without it that scope won’t ever be right.
Now dear, the replacement’s perfectly—
You don’t know, Davka snaps at her father. You never use it at all.
The paper lowers. Father’s face is benevolent and thoughtful, it never changes, Davka could scream.
Do you know what’s extraordinary about glass?
Oh God, Papa. No, and I don’t want—
Glass is an illusion, says the man of science. A trick played on our poor sense of time. We think it’s a solid, but in fact it’s in motion, constantly flowing, the very windows in a cathedral will one day stand empty, their glazing puddled on the floor.
You’re showing off because you’re jealous, says Davka. Jisan’s not much good with the scope, but you’re hopeless, you can’t make it do a thing.
Three heads turn to Mother, whose hands are shaking in her lap. Davka’s ears are ringing. She cannot recall the last time Mother shouted.
In her sleep that night the girl strays into a hall of mirrors, everywhere she turns there are beckoning forms, loved ones infinitely repeated and dwindling with distance, eyes accusing, why won’t she step forward, why won’t she come back? She’s in tears, they cannot ask this, how can anyone be expected to move both forward and back?
When Davka awakes the ship is silent, the engines cut. This happens sometimes on the calmest seas: maintenance, perhaps, or the malice of perfidious engineers. She slides from the bunk and into her father’s coat, lifts the morphocular from her mother’s nightstand, slips out of the cabin and across the deck. It is late. The few sailors move like phantoms, the starry spine of the heavens reaches down to the sea. Davka crouches by the rail and waits for sunrise. But the boy arrives first, roused by some mate sympathetic or amused by his crush, too frightened to approach her, too smitten to retreat. They share a stillness, they share the pipe-organ boom of a whale’s breath as it passes, when she sneezes he whispers a word she does not understand.
She could vanish with him. There will be more ports of call. But what a terrible thought! It would be frightful, she doesn’t want such a thing—but why not see it, why not know what could have been? When the dawn breaks the boy finds her standing, looking at him through a curious instrument, the lips that have held him spellbound gaping open in surprise. Is she blushing? Can that thing pierce his clothes?
No, it’s worse, she has devoured him, all it pierces is his heart. He stumbles away and the girl stands there stricken, his life from infancy to old age thrust upon her, never to marry, never to prosper, barefoot now and barefoot at seventy, what a heartless world, and how much worse the hall of mirrors when there are no other figures, when you walk it alone. Davka trembles, men are staring, she has sinned.
What refuge does she have but the morphocular? She hides behind it, aims it north at no one, and as always it coughs up a world. Landfall, their destination, a city of icy buildings, interchangeable streets. A frowning city imprisoned in a horseshoe bay, stark ruins on one headland, on the other a blue lamp that pulses in the fog. A waterfront, long piers like snaggletoothed combs, this very ship moored and the people disembarking.
But their ship’s gangway is a blur. She is perplexed: why that one spot alone? Then she realizes that the blur is spreading with the passengers as they file landward along the pier. In sudden fright she refocuses, spins the color wheel, twists the replacement eyepiece. No use: over the faces of the passengers there is only a smudge, as of something erased.
3. Aperture Stop
The city changes with the moon, says Mr. Kijuto, their father’s friend, from the shadows of the carriage seat across from the children. Right now you see black doorways and broken windows, emaciated street dogs, men adrift. But there is also the city of festivals and feast days, libraries, amphitheaters, magnolias lining the market square, swans in the Park of the Evangels, black and regal. Every year the swans return, splashing down in the reflecting pool, fighting, feeding, choosing mates, nesting in the corner reserved for them, nothing is hopeless while such cycles endure.
The faces of the children—depleted, blank—appear and vanish with the street lamps. Kijuto clears his throat.
My little niece is frightened of the swans. They can be quite aggressive. But she always begs to go and see them. I’ll introduce you. She’s the same age as you, Jisan.
They thank him, in unison. Kijuto gives them a helpless smile. They can’t really hear him yet. The doctor and his wife have taught them courtesy, and that is something to cling to, something of their own. But courtesy is also a mask. What can they be thinking? What part of them can feel?
Jisan holds the morphocular propped on his knee, upright like a club. Suddenly he twists around to kneel on the carriage seat: the rear window is leaded glass, and through its mud-flecked oval he has a final glimpse of the steamer, once hated as the instrument of exile, now cherished as a last link with home. See that ship? That’s the proof. My world existed. We may be here in this roaring darkness, but we were also there, all of us, we had orchids and ginger flowers, a cat that dozed in the garden, lazy-eyed lizards, a clock that told the seasons and the shape of the moon, and parents, and a kettle always wailing on the stove top.
The carriage turns, the ship is gone. The Kijuto man is watching him in silence, rugged hands gripping his knees. It was fortunate, this gray-templed scientist finding them so swiftly, but then they must have been eye-catching, two children marooned on the quay beside a sea chest, the girl clutching a medical bag and the boy a curious spyglass, more numb than fearful, newly orphaned by the typhus that struck late in the voyage and carried off eighty-seven souls.
When his parents died Jisan had not felt it correctly, his mind went wandering, he ached, but a part of him floated free about the vessel, uncaring, a heartless little ghost. He might never have returned to himself but for the ceremony on the top deck, the white forms lined up on planks, hints of knees and breasts and noses under the bedsheets, the captain’s prayer and the last salute, a bullet fired at God for every death. The planks tipped and the sheets gave up the bodies, no argument, they called it burial at sea. Then he did cry, soundless, furious, this is why Mother quit using the telescope, this is the serpent she glimpsed.
After the deaths they had more room in the cabin, the man assigned to watch over them slept in the passage for fear of the disease, his sister cried day and night, but the boy just stared at the ceiling, and though the room was stuffy he ached with cold, nothing could warm him, it was as though he were naked or the windows shattered, or a wall peeled back, or his skin.
The carriage stops. Dumplings for dinner, says Kijuto. These are the best in the city, wait here and I’ll fetch them, do you like chicken or pork?
We like all sorts of dumplings, sir, says Davka. The boy nods slowly. Kijuto ducks out of the carriage and is swallowed by the night.
Jisan looks at his sister. He could kick her sometimes. He’s not sure what dumplings are, but he knows they’ve never had any, chicken or pork or potting soil, in their lives.
What are you doing? asks Davka, for he is reaching across her for the carriage door.
Fresh air, he says.
She cracks the door open but keeps a grip on the handle. She has caught him out, heard the twitchy something in his voice.
Put down the morphocular, Jisan.
He shakes his head. We shouldn’t have it. No one should.
They wanted us to have it, says Davka. Besides, it’s the most valuable thing we own.
It killed them, he says.
Jisan! The typhus killed them. Don’t you go crazy on me.
In the other world there was no typhus.
Of course there was, she says. Daddy talked about it, a few cases each year.
Not that world, not home, he says. I mean the world before the morphocular. Don’t you know how it works? We raise it to our eye and twist and focus, but it’s our world that changes, so fast we can’t feel a thing. And the change is forever, we lower the scope and the old world’s gone.
That’s not true.
In the other world they’re still alive, Davka.
Stop it, she says. There’s just this one world, Jiji, we have to live in it now.
Fine, he says. Let’s live. I’m going to smash it in the street.
She bars the door with her body, the fight is on.
Give me the scope if you don’t want it.
Let me out, let me out.
Sit down, don’t be a coward.
You pig, he screams, kicking savagely at her. It’s not right, it could get worse, we haven’t lost everything, I still have you.
4. Objective Lens
What is there to say about summer, about happiness? It is here and gone too swiftly, dewdrops on a web. As Davka climbs the stairs to the ruined temple overlooking the city, Jisan tunes his new accordion behind the amphitheater. Both basking in the light of late afternoon, both eager for the night. Around Davka the cliff swallows are flitting, and the breeze is cool, at her back the city sprawls like a banquet, under her smart leather shoes the blue flagstones flow by like the frames of the moving pictures her lover projects on the garden wall for the local children, blazing images of elsewhere, parades and coronations, elephants, great spotted cats, camel trains vanishing into deserts, a steam engine emerging fearless from the snow.
Like everyone Davka is entranced by this new magic, film, bestower of endless worlds. It hardly compares with the morphocular telescope, for what can film show you but the already-happened, the dead event, a flag thrust cockeyed in the riverbank as the raft sweeps helplessly by? But such flags! Davka believes that she and her lover will capture them all, one day—board the trains, ride the elephants, cheer with the mob when the crown prince ascends to the throne, laugh secretly at her adopted land’s adoration of that figurehead still in his teens, raise their own children, grow old together in a warm wooden house. The sun climbs and Davka climbs, the cracked eggshell of the temple dome looms nearer, that path winds among statues the years have rendered anonymous, is that cherub or chicken, maiden or man, is that torso arched in ecstasy or pain? Oh, let it be ecstasy: the cry released from a thousand lips as Jisan and his fellow players take the stage in the Park of the Evangels, the roar of joy their music incites, the collective need. Survival, pleasure, plenty! Art without suffering, sex without duplicity, children ignorant of war. Davka gains the summit and there is Mr. Kijuto, older now but beaming, waving with the cane he only leans on when he must, arm in arm with beautiful Bilakri, her eyes all mischief as she looks Davka up and down.
I thought you were here to paint, she says, almost rudely.
Sketches, first, says Davka, lofting the pad clenched in her hand. But I’ve made the sketch already; on the first landing, there was this boy in a flannel shirt, I just had to, his eyes—
Look at her, Uncle, Bilakri interrupts. Sweating like a farmhand. Will you ride downwith us at least, you stubborn girl?
Kijuto pads up to her, bends stiffly to kiss her cheek. That scarf, he says, pausing to touch the red sash about her neck. Raw silk. Very beautiful.
It’s from Eriath, says Davka, a little nervously. Eriath is the rival country, their bellicose neighbor across the straits.
Trading with the enemy, says Bilakri, mock severe.
A very civilized enemy, says Kijuto. Your aunt and I thought of moving there, before things grew tense. Davka, won’t you come and eat with us? You can’t just paint all the time.
She tries, says Bilakri. That’s what these artists do, you know. They neglect their basic needs.
Davka looks away, grinning, helpless, Bilakri cannot utter a word without arousing her, they both know it, surely her uncle knows it but wasn’t he ever a master of silence, whenever silence was required?
(He’s all in favor, you know, Bilakri had assured her, weeks before. It surprised him a little, that’s all. He thought I’d end up with your brother, but so what, everyone did, even I did until you sorted me out. And Uncle’s mad about you, besotted, I’d be jealous if I didn’t have you in the palm of my hand. Frequently.)
Davka had turned crimson, how can she say such things, straight-faced, aloud, how is it possible to love anyone as deliriously as she loves this laughing girl? But she is also frightened of Bilakri, the perfection of her cheekbones, her hair, the fall of one curl like a fishhook across her eye, how did it go, that song of their mother’s, love alights on the shoulder but can’t lend us its wings, will you abandon me, will you leave me thirsting for the sky? Jisan plays his own version of the tune, high and wild and forlorn and free, his accordion keening and the fiddler possessed and the broad beautiful singer hurling the lyric to the crowd on her voice of silver, tears of joy in her eyes as she catches Jisan’s own, Where do you find the music, you secretive sly charmer, where do you get the stories and the sounds?
And if the answer is itself a secret, a magic thing that fell into a child’s hands half a world away and serves him still? If he never did smash it but goes to it for vision and courage like a drunkard to the flask? Surely he’ll be pardoned. He has no venal motives, he doesn’t seek the winner of the horse race, the unplundered shipwrecks, veins of gold in the earth. He has mined the world for music, that’s all: music veiled by distance, in the past, in the future, in the heart-truths the scope lays bare. And if it has brought him some comfort, a little adoration even, well surely he has paid for it, you don’t drink from that cup without burning your lips, the memories too sharp and what you’ve lost too enormous, not just parents but a wholeness of heart the exile never recaptures, no matter who he sleeps with, no matter how fast he plays. I’ve swallowed fire, he thinks, I’ve stuck a telescopic straw into this town and drunk its blood, as far above on the hilltop Bilakri squeezes Davka’s hand and old Kijuto turns his failing eyes to the east.
Is it clear today? Can you see the volcano?
The women assure him they can: it’s right there beyond the olive groves and the vineyards, a cone perfect as a child’s drawing, but capped as always with a plume of smoke.
I want to see it erupt, says Bilakri.
No you don’t! cry Davka and Kijuto, suddenly immigrants again.
You’re terribly mean, both of you, Bilakri scolds. You’ve seen earthquakes, warships, revolution. Things have happened to you. Real things, not just notions and make-believe, moving pictures on the wall.
Look at that fog lamp, says Kijuto severely, waving his cane at the cliffs across the horseshoe bay. The blue lamp has yet to be turned on, but neither woman tells him. It’s very pretty, says his niece.
Pretty is not its purpose, he says. The lamp warns boats off the sandbars. When I was nineteen it failed in a late-season squall and a pleasure boat was wrecked. Three couples, four children. We were all called out to search for survivors.
Well, there you are, says Bilakri, triumphant. The real world.
Kijuto shakes his head. They washed ashore when the tide receded, he says. Miles away, the gulls led us to the spot. There’s a memorial stone up near the fog lamp, I used to take my students, for years I could recite the victim’s names. The real world will find you, Billi. Don’t hurry it. You’re still young.
But for how much longer? cries Bilakri, mawkish, only half believing in her woes.
I could arrange to have you kidnapped, says Davka.
What a mistake: Bilakri’s dark eyes lift and melt her, Yes please Davka, and the descent by funicular has never been so slow, nor the drive through the city, crowded with visitors to the music festival, does Kijuto sense how breathless they are, seated across from him, is that her heart or Jisan’s drummer, the racing life, life of the beat that is the heart’s word and the song at once, a cry of thanks to the universe, sweat on Jisan’s brow and blissful pain in his fingers, the accordion drawing racehorse breaths, and the singer’s arms flung wide to embrace it all, voluptuous youth and brilliant sunset, musical flight and the crowd’s adoration, here is Kijuto’s home at last, the jangling keys, the old eyes seeking Davka over his shoulder, You’ll want to shower off that dust, light the boiler for her, Billi, and with the speed of dream Bilakri leads her down the hall and into the bath chamber, Davka closes the door and in the same instant, her eyes, Bilakri’s hands are warm and fearless, this is why the torso arches, a thousand years in this instant, ecstasy and affirmation, life life life.
5. Fresnel Loss
A handbill surrenders its grip on a lamppost and takes to the wind. For a moment it rises, aspiring to the nude arms of the cherry trees, then gravity prevails and the bill crab-scuttles across the plaza, dodging the benches and the frost-withered rose trellis, dampening, darkening, clinging at last in mute supplication to a boot. Lift me, read me. This message is for you.
Jisan knows better. Scarlet words, a stylized arm lofting a gun: political tract. He shakes it from his boot like something filthy, you never know whose eyes are on you, New Order is everywhere, the gendarmes roam the park day and night. Look at those four by the kiosk, sipping tea over their rifles: what if they’ve been watching? He’s just back from abroad, five countries in six weeks, and the last of them Eriath, New Order’s enemy across the straits. They snapped his photo at the airport, and such photos end up in booklets, in the hands of interrogators, in rooms that don’t officially exist.
The breeze is cold off the reflecting pool. He must be normal, a private citizen in a public park. He walks past the kiosk, manages a good-natured grimace, can you believe this wind? They smile in return, young wolfish good looks, the ones in uniform are not the worst of the lot, no, the thugs who come for you in the night, they’re the worst, front and back doors together and extra cars along the street, unmarked cars, unremarkable clothing, if they were after your neighbor you’d hear the door beaten in, if you dared to go on listening you might hear your neighbor’s shout.
But the shouts he hears today make him smile. He turns, spreading his arms, and there are the twins, taller in six weeks, dashing toward him with the cocoa-brown spaniel, faces pink under woolen hats. Nico, Chaz. Boys with Bilakri’s energy, Davka’s thoughtfulness, eyebrows dark and thin like his own. Bilakri trails behind them, struggling with bags and coats.
The boys crash against his legs, shouting with laughter. He has to fight his urge to hush them. What law are they breaking, what directive? Children, surely, may still laugh in a park?
What a greeting, he says. I should tour more often.
That is what they call him: Jisan. Never uncle. Never anything else.
One gift each, this time, I’m sorry, I couldn’t carry—
Gifts? they cry. Who needs them? Come and play, we just wanted you back!
They’ve been coached, the dear little elves.
Bilakri, haggard, damp locks glued to her forehead, offers her cheek and the bags of groceries. He takes them, trying to boost the wattage of his smile. Bilakri has been fragile for years.
Thank God you’re on time. The screeching! Today, today, he comes home today!
Thanks for watching the apartment, he says. It looks better than when I left. You made the orchid bloom.
The spaniel whines, Jisan plucks the ball from its mouth and sends it skittering across the square. From his pockets come the gifts Nico and Chaz won’t admit to craving, a yo-yo that whistles, a snap-together glider. They beam as if he’s showered them in gold.
I’ll just have a chat with your mother. Start without me. Show me what you can do.
When they oblige, his hand goes to his pocket again and withdraws an envelope. Just one? cries Bilakri, snatching the letter and tearing at the seal.
The twins were more composed, he says.
Well they’re not starved for sex, are they?
He doesn’t laugh. His eyes lead her own to the kiosk and she sees the gendarmes and God how she jumps—crushing the letter into her coat pocket, disastrous. This is the Bilakri that scares him. Seven years since the coup and she has not learned the habits of survival, the dissembling, the erasure of affect, of passion in any form. The denial of love, that great hindrance to dictators. Some never master the performance. Others, like his sister, refuse to try.
Bilakri takes his arm and leads him to a bench: she recovers quickly, he must give her that. They sit watching the children, he can’t decide what to say, his four days with Davka have left him shattered, and he wonders if it shows.
It’s her birthday tomorrow, he blurts at last. We celebrated early, but she was missing you and the children. Awfully.
Not enough, though.
Jisan bites his lips. Davka had fled in the regime’s third year, when the purges began. Like so many artists, activists, nonconformists, those with suspect surnames, suspect skin. Like Old Mr. Kijuto, whose departure has rendered the city alien again. Kijuto, wherever he has fled, has taken with him the last living memory of their parents.
Davka herself has gone only as far as Eriath, three hours by ferry—but for a dissident it might as well be another world. For years Bilakri’s professed not to blame her. The escape was harrowing: safe house to safe house, midnight scuttle to the port, a cut fence, a bribed stevedore. Unthinkable with children. Davka had been right to go alone.
But for a year now there have been amnesties. Many hundreds have returned, the generals crow about it: “New Order will meet you halfway.” One need only swear loyalty to the regime, join its list of apologists, discard one’s pride.
Bilakri has not a shred of doubt that his sister will yield, take the pledge, rejoin her and the children. Jisan could cry, the tables turned so cruelly: Bilakri was always the heartbreaker, drop her name and watch the exes go witless, men and women both, it happens to this day. Davka had been lost in an instant, and who could blame her? This woman so proud and rare and naked, a rosewood flute in a cathedral.
Now look at her—smiling, hoping. They should not have met in this park.
Is she healthy? Bilakri asks.
Davka? He nods, swallows. Very, I’d say.
Oh yes, she’s painting.
Seasides, fruit bowls, nudes? Tell me something, damn it!
Murals, says Jisan.
Bilakri turns to face him. He must explain, he can’t slouch like a third sack of vegetables, he finds himself describing the new mural, Davka’s masterwork he’s sure. A trash-strewn lot. A warehouse wall. Peasant girl in the foreground with her headscarf awry, evening light, the girl’s back turned and her unseen eyes taking in the sweep of a meadow, receding hills cloaked in conifers, geese in flight, a church on a lonely summit tiny as a snowdrop, beyond it mountains and farther mountains, and others farther still, and then clouds writhing to infinity, a painting you did not so much see as fall into, vanishing like a shot.
They must love her in Eriath. Bilakri’s voice has gone hollow.
She’s popular, he admits. But it’s not just her gifts. They love her victimhood. They love to hate this regime.
Don’t we all.
Jisan crosses his arms, eyes locked on the children. The silence cannot hold. Bilakri will learn before the night is out. Only not here, not in plain view of—
How about you read it at home, he says brightly, nodding at the letter. I’ll romp with the boys a bit, then I’ll walk you home.
You’re an angel. Nico’s dying to show off his trumpet playing. He’s already better than that fool on State Radio.
That’s my boy, says Jisan.
His words make them both flinch. My boys, all right. Except that they’re not and never will be. For what claim could he assert? The biological fact of it? Hell no. That’s a coin he must never try to spend.
The memory is sweet, and lacerating. A meal in his back garden, scallops and mussels and far too much wine, the coup a month old and not yet the horror it would become, more an embarrassment, an inconvenience, If only the women kept saying we’d found a kid before the coup. New Order was prudish, prejudiced, would never let them adopt.
And what if one of you gets pregnant? he asked.
Davka snapped a mussel shell.
The regime wouldn’t give a damn, if that’s what you mean, said Bilakri. A man has his fun, disappears, leaves the mother holding the nappies—that’s just the way of things, isn’t it? Let her deal with the brat. They don’t care. Single mothers all over this town.
So then you could—
No, said Davka. We don’t go with men.
And I don’t buy milk at the Army Exchange, says Bilakri, but if it was the only shop for a hundred miles—
I’d skip the milk, said Davka.
Bilakri had turned to him, beseeching. Talk to her, Jisan. I know you’re on my side.
I don’t have a side, he said.
Because he’s never had to take one, said Davka. My brother Jisan, lord of the estate.
At that Jisan had lowered his eyes. Cheap shot. Their country had died even as they boarded that ship, the fire groping for the mansion, what did it matter, that old deed moldering in a strongbox? Why couldn’t she leave it alone?
If only you could think, said Bilakri, rubbing Davka’s shoulders. A man’s the obvious solution. Less trouble than getting someone in here to fix the stove.
I’m not a stove, said Davka.
You’re an ass, said Bilakri, and brayed.
They laughed, drank. When dinner was over they shared the last pre-coup joint in Jisan’s stash and Bilakri tried again.
We’d choose him together, of course.
Forget it, Davka begged.
A nice clean boy with fine features, said Bilakri. Help me, Jisan. You must know someone.
But when he named specific friends both women recoiled, Oh no, fuck no, those ears, God forbid.
Weeks slid by. Jisan avoided the subject, but the women could not, it plagued them like a rash. On his birthday that autumn they were together again, the women’s flat, cake and brandy. The argument grew bitter, Davka said something about nostalgia for penises, Bilakri called her a paint-dabber hiding from the world, Jisan begged for calm, both women looked at him in rage.
Some family, said Bilakri. The brother who never commits to anything, not a lover, not even an opinion. What am I doing with you two? Turning in circles, year after year, because this one’s afraid of a ten-minute inconvenience.
Davka laughed, You little fool, nothing bad’s ever happened to you so you think nothing can, ten minutes in bed could mean ten years fighting that man, It’s my child, I’m the normal one, I should have that kid, give her to me. What if he takes us to court, idiot? The courts packed with New Order stooges? What if the judge doesn’t like our kind?
An awful silence. Jisan was abashed to realize he’d never considered such a turn of events. Their wounded glances are still with him today, six years later, here on this bench watching the children, those gorgeous improbable creatures who exist because no silence ever holds.
What if, what if, Bilakri had grumbled at last. There’s no need for your what ifs. You have this magic between you, although Davka pretends it’s dried up. Do me a favor and go get it, Jisan. Use the morphocular. Point it at my womb.
Davka hurled her glass into the fireplace.
Jisan, horrified, rose and told them he wanted no part of this, that he had to get home. But Bilakri’s gaze had followed him across the chamber, unblinking as he snatched at keys and boots and jacket, and all that night he waited, sleepless, silent, until with the first light of dawn a hand tapped at his window, and her voice spoke his name.
He looks at her now, huddled beside him on the bench. She’s put her free hand in the pocket with Davka’s letter, just touching it, proving it exists. They had avoided his bed because this was a favor and not a sacrament, and so the kitchen, the dusty rug, chaste kisses and then a frenzy, her hands tight on his ass Don’t pull out fool, that’s the whole fucking point, his tears for the joy of it, and the misery, what if I’ve just lost my sister, what if I’ve just lost them both.
Have you hurt yourself? he asks, for she is leaning oddly into the bench.
Bilakri shakes her head, clutches at her ribs, and Jisan is suddenly afraid she has been beaten.
You haven’t started back—
Organizing? Fighting the bastards? No, Jiji, I’ve stayed at home like a docile mother, you’d be proud.
We all hate them, he says. But right now, while you’re alone with the boys—
I’ve done nothing. I’m a perfect coward. You satisfied?
He puts an arm around her, draws her close. Of course the approval she craves has never been his own.
What’s wrong with your side, then?
Not a thing. Here, take it.
From inside her coat she produces the morphocular, still tied up in his mother’s shawl as he had left it on his departure. All at once he is rigid from head to toe. What the hell is she doing? He is afraid to turn his head.
I need to know what’s coming, says Bilakri. For the boys’ sake. I need to know what I should do.
You’re doing it, he tells her. You’re feeding them, raising them.
Not enough. You should see their textbooks. Their New Order textbooks. You should hear what they come home spouting from that school.
Bilakri—his voice is a whisper—we’re going to outlive these shits. Just keep it together, you’ll see.
Nico and Chaz are drinking poison, she says. Hate the foreigner. Masturbate to the flag. I’m afraid each day when they come home. I fight it, I tell them to love and be skeptical, but what if the bastards stay in power? What will they be like in a few years?
You’re overexcited, he says, hating himself. She presses the scope into his unwilling hands.
Find them a future, Jisan. Look at our boys.
You’ve never understood the morphocular, he says. Maybe it’s the bad eyepiece, maybe it’s me. But it doesn’t answer your questions. It increases them, doubles them over and over until you drown.
Shut up and do it, will you? You know I don’t like to beg.
He sets the device on the bench between them, gets to his feet.
You’re a selfish prick, says Bilakri.Happy to use it for your own precious career, aren’t you? Davka told me all about it. Your gift was never really your own.
He shuts his eyes. Of course Davka had told her: in the early years they’d kept no secrets. What Davka cannot have told her is that that since the coup he has not touched the device. Hasn’t dared. The very thought of it fills him with dread.
You’re supposed to drown in music, is all he manages to say. It’s safe. Art is safe.
I’ve always envied you, Jisan. Your priorities are so clear.
Stop, he pleads. That fucking thing’s too dangerous. Some things you just can’t ask.
She turns away. Trembling, he goes to play with the children, who have not even glanced at them. Nico flings the glider in an access of joy. Chaz struggles with the yo-yo, his face serene and perfect and Jisan is suddenly seeing his own father as a child, a commissioned portrait in a spare room in their lost home across the sea, twenty years since he’s thought of that, sometimes memory’s ambush requires no tricks.
Priorities. In those first giddy years with the scope, he had stockpiled music, seeing it as a slide of light, a luminous image, a breaking open of this dropped glove, that whisky jar, that mossy grave. But never a person. Never what Bilakri is asking, what Davka did at sea. The violation that brought total disaster, shuffled the deck of the universe, ended lives.
Look at our boys. Could anything compel him to such an act? No, never: unless it was to save these elves and their mothers, both their mothers or either, unless it was the only—
Jisan’s head snaps up. It is nothing—Nico’s glider has landed in the fountain, he will have to be a little stern with them, explain the notion of crying wolf, pretend for a moment that they’re his sons.
But not this moment. He sits on the fountain’s marble rim and scoops water and the glider inches near, the boys hopping beside him, Brace my legs you two, that’s it, they are laughing and cheering, and he has almost reached the glider when a dark thought pounces, and he turns.
Bilakri is reading Davka’s letter. He pulls away from the boys and runs to her. She is livid, worse than livid. Much worse.
Yanelle? she shouts.
Yanelle, Jisan? A jarhead? Sergeant fucking Yanelle?
It’s a fling, he says. Let her have it, you can’t stop her anyway, she’ll tire of him before you—
Bilakri, Bilakri, don’t go jumping—
When did you sister start liking dicks?
It is not a thing one can shout in a public park. Not after the coup, not with the gendarme close at hand and clearly watching, witnessing her collapse.
The boys have turned to stone. Jisan tries to embrace her and takes an elbow to the jaw.
Yanelle, she’s howling. Sergeant Yanelle from across the water, a soldier with sperm.
Her face so beautiful, her mouth a cave from which a moaning comes, ancient, he cannot silence it, his lip is bloody, she won’t let him hold her, the gendarme close in and pull him away and pound Bilakri with their voices, Wanton behavior, produce your citizen’s card, vulgarity before children, produce that card, are you married to this man?
A fist cuffs Jisan, a warning, for a hideous moment he thinks they will drag her off then and there. Bilakri herself smells the danger: she grows quiet, produces the card, begs forgiveness, bows her head.
When they back off a few steps she leaps for her children, hugs them against her coat. Her meekness before the soldiers does not transfer to Jisan, she stares at him with hatred over their hats.
Bilakri, she made me swear on our mother and father—
How fucking long I said.
How could I know that? They didn’t tell me, I had four days with them, I didn’t search their apartment—
He freezes. Their apartment. If only words could be clawed back from the air.
When she lunges again the gendarme are too slow to stop her. She slaps him hard, catches the hands of the twins, and stalks off toward the park gate, the frightened spaniel at her heels. Jisan’s boys twist their necks to look back at him. Bilakri does not.
The gendarmes hold a muttered conference. One follows Bilakri and the children, notebook in hand, the others make for the park’s opposite gate, where the tomb-like edifice of the Civil Security Complex looms over the street.
Jisan is alone with his panic. The grocery bags wait on the bench, the morphocular beside them, still wrapped in the shawl. He is plunged in ice water, unable to breathe. The man following Bilakri will note down her address. They have already taken her name. She will be marked. The children will be marked. Late at night anything could happen.
Look at our boys.
He cannot. He will not. Bilakri does not know what he lives with, the shame and the horror, he knew the night they came to this city that he should destroy it, but he did not destroy it, he turned the scope on the city itself and found his music, wealth, fame, illustrious friends, women competing for the chance to undress him, and then one morning he lowered the scope from the window and there were tanks in the street.
No, no, no, he’d mumbled. The stranger he had brought home the night before looked out the window and began to cry.
Not possible, he’d muttered.
At that she’d recoiled. Of course it’s possible! Where have you been?
Then he’d understood. Not just possible but inevitable. This was the world he’d spun into being. His old world had slipped away down the barrel of the scope.
His sleeve is wet from the fountain. He turns in a bewildered circle. Find them a future, Jisan.
It is as if he has already done it, used the scope again, knocked the world out of true. No black swans in the Park of the Evangels. No blue sky, no warmth in the wind. Nico’s glider has vanished from the fountain—but no, there it is, borne away across the square in small wet fingers, another child has taken it for his own.
Pavement, says Davka. How long has there been pavement here? And what’s that, what am I seeing? Shops?
Just the one boutique, says Arjuna. And the café, thank God. The cliffs themselves are protected. Rare birds, I think.
The girl corners dizzyingly into the parking lot, a huge shimmering slab where there were sheep and rabbits once. Davka winces. All this asphalt.
Are there so many visitors, then?
Oh sure, says Arjuna. Hundreds, on the weekends. I never come weekends. They should widen the road.
She slaps a button, releases the wheel. Checks her makeup as the car parks itself, bleating and blinking and chattering with mindless cheer. You’re still in motion. Please wait for the green light on the dash. Outdoor air quality is acceptable and visibility is good. Davka, less passenger than cargo, feels an idiotic anger, this damned automation, perhaps in a few years they’ll dispense with passengers, only the cars will congregate here, rubbing shoulders, admiring the view.
Davka struggles with the seat belt latch, smiles her dopey septuagenarian smile as Arjuna leans in to help. Then the greater struggle to stand: Infuriating, comical. She’s still clawing at the doorframe when Arjuna rounds the car and takes her elbow.
You’re so strong.
Arjuna pulls her to standing. You’re the one with the iron grip, Gramma.
Davka smiles. Yes, they said that about her once. Strong grip, rugged forearms. The murals, of course. Whole days on ladders in the sun.
They set out across the parking lot. The wind is fierce—that at least has not changed. She anchors herself on this athletic granddaughter, Chaz’s youngest, this alien creature she loves.
They’ll turn on the fog lamp any minute, says Arjuna. Could you see it, Gramma? I mean from Eriath, from exile?
Sometimes, says Davka. On a dark bit of beach. I thought about the light more than I saw it—the light, and the pretty round stone. Where is it, anyway? The memorial for the drowned.
That thing? says Arjuna. Gone for years. I thought you knew.
I’m just a week back in the country, says Davka. I don’t know a bloody thing.
For some reason, the girl whips out her phone. Flicks it with impatient fingers. Reads.
“The descendants of the pleasure boat disaster included opponents of the New Order regime. The vindictive generals smashed the memorial and flung the pieces in the sea.”
The generals smashed quite a lot to pieces, Davka says.
You want coffee, Gramma?
Maybe a sandwich? Or some sugar? They have these great macaroons.
Nothing, love. Let’s just go to the cliffs.
Arjuna is scrolling, hypnotized, effectively elsewhere.
And you, creature: do you love me back? With a flash of spite, Davka thinks that Arjuna’s only true love is for the little screens in her life. If Gramma fell and shattered her hip, if she pulled a gun and stormed the café demanding great macaroons, if she sprouted wings and flew home across the ocean in search of a lost pile of cinders, this girl would carry on fondling that phone.
Of course it’s not as bad as that. We age, we stiffen, we resist the new when no resistance is necessary, how can the constant presence of friends in one’s pocket be anything but good? Davka the artist has a ready answer to that question, but Davka the grandmother is in no mood to indulge. The world’s moved on. It does not care, nor ought to care, about her morbid fear of change.
Besides, not even the pile of cinders had ever belonged to her. All to Jithan, every lasht thing you own.
So—she clears her throat—we’re the first to arrive.
Arjuna looks up sharply.
Ah, says Davka. The first and only, then? No one else confirmed?
I don’t, I never—I mean we didn’t exactly—
Davka pats her arm. Just the two of us. I’m glad. We’ll have a real chance to talk.
Arjuna smiles, but Davka knows she feels terrible, what is a reunion, a reconciliation, if no one cares enough to reconcile? Jisan takes drugs and Bilakri is happily married, and the twins have surely just tired of Davka, their long-absent self-important Other Mum. No one is coming, and the wasteland of Davka’s choices sprawls about her like this endless macadam, black and neat and lifeless, what did they ever matter, her civic wrath and noble convictions, the outward gaze of her art? Why should anyone spare them a glance, an afterthought, those products of a soul that neglected love?
We saw whales from these cliffs, she says. Jisan and I, that first summer. Just footpaths up here then; Mr. Kijuto had to draw us a map. But the whales! Sixteen splendid monsters, we counted, and those bubble-wakes trailing behind them, and a tiny calf welded to her mother whale, it was too beautiful for words.
Arjuna’s eyes are darting about the blacktop, the scattered vehicles, the sparse crowd by the cliffs. In her car is a basket with sparkling wine and six sturdy glasses. She is embarrassed. She stabs at her phone.
I believe I’ll try one of those things after all, says Davka, opening her purse.
Arjuna looks up, brightening. Macaroons?
Yes, dear, macaroons.
I’ll get them, my pleasure, the place is cash-free anyway, you’ll be all right won’t you Gramma, see you out by the cliffs!
She is gone, a hare sprung from a trap. Davka creeps on. The next time, if there is a next time, she’ll be leaning on a cane.
Cash-free, she says aloud, detesting the bitterness in her voice. She had lived on cash in Eriath, after Sergeant Yanelle disappeared with his bank account. Cash in her sofa cushions. In the laundry basket, under soiled clothes. She had started out as the celebrity exile, the doe-eyed enemy of the generals across the straits. But time passes, celebrities wrinkle, generals evolve into business partners. A morning came when she understood that she was now only an irritant, an inconvenient old crank.
She held out. Nineteen years in the end. Returned only when the generals fell, when return no longer meant cutting her vocal chords, kissing their feet. Tried to pick up the life she’d abandoned. Tried to talk to Jisan, heroin-gaunt, in the halfway house he liked to jokingly downgrade: one-quarter house is nearer the truth.
Tried as well, did silly Davka, to make time with Bilakri. Coaxed and begged for furtive meetings in cafés, bistros, parks. Desperate to believe that Bilakri’s wife was an error, correctable and brief, the mirror of her own fling with Yanelle. One sunless day, mad with loneliness, she scribbled down the name of her hotel and sent it by courier, along with a key.
How dare you? asked Chaz, twenty-two and righteous, in the wreckage of that attempt. Who was she to scoff at Bilakri’s choice? What was she even doing here? Had she come to torture Bilakri? To steal her back from that sweet dull dermatologist who kept her fed and healthy, who had paid for her children’s degrees? Was Davka going to prove—for the second time, Mother, and I’m sorry you make me say it—how much contempt she had for loyalty?
Maybe you should draft an oath for me to sign, Davka had shot back, weeping. Loyalty! Blind and stupid, no questions allowed! Where have I heard that before?
Chaz’s glance was pure ice. I’m sure Bilakri did ask her some questions, he said. Are you committed. Do you plan to stick around.
Nothing to say to that. Nothing to do but turn tail. Over time she and the boys had made up, after a fashion. They had come to see her in Eriath. Jisan too, before the needle became his life. There was forgiveness, there was love of a defeated kind. Calls on her birthday, crayon drawings from baby Arjuna, a card at the death of her cat, brown and black like the one left behind in the old country, most enduring of her relationships by far.
How strangely time has dilated. The boys are forty now. Chaz an international lawyer, Nico an engineer. And her beautiful granddaughter: she writes in code. No: writes code. For these gadgets, these phones and tablets and toys: the way of the future, Nico says. Perhaps her whole life will be like Davka and Jisan’s early years across the sea: free of want, free of violence. If she could ensure that, Davka thinks, she’d gladly cut off both her arms.
She turns her ankle, winces. Old cheap shoes. The fact of the matter is that she will have to ask Arjuna for more than sweets. She will need a loan, if she is to start a life over here, find an apartment, struggle on to the end.
At least the view is familiar. Slate infinity of ocean, tankers squatting on the world’s gray rim, white worms of the breakers below. The gulls are wheeling, laughing, Ha haaaa you old cow, why should brothers or children or anyone else wish to celebrate the return of an old activist crank, foreign-born, withered, a relic from across the sea?
Also familiar: the poor precautions by the cliff. Scandalous really, with all they’ve spent to lure the hordes. Fencing only in the worst of spots, where a stumble means death. In other places a flimsy chain. In others, nothing at all.
You could make a plea for understanding. The risks, the false amnesties, the black-market thyroid drugs she took every day and might never have secured if she returned. You could tell your boys in letters to expect you by springtime, or summer at the latest, or summer next year. You could do that, and let the lie grow inside you like a cyst.
Better if she’d stayed in Eriath, begged her last limping allies there to support her. Better really if she’d never crossed the ocean, run off with that doomed cabin boy or caught the typhus with her parents, two flickers in the morphocular, erased by a twist of the hand.
She is alone at the cliffside, the chain is cold against her knees. They are ghosting her, that’s the hideous new term. I ghost. They ghost. Something more than just declining a summons. A final erasure. An assertion that there is nothing to decline.
This vile city. This noxious bay. Fifty-eight years and counting (yes she’s counting) since she disembarked with little Jisan, dragging their sea chest along the quay. What is left to her here? Frigid justice, the right to ghost and be ghosted, a little practice run for death. Well fuck it, who needs practice, I’m not an amateur thank you very—
A hand on her arm. She turns and there he is, little lord Jisan, a gaunt impoverished junky, sixty-six and gray. His grip tighter than she has ever felt it. Davka’s intentions, she supposes, were all too plain.
She allows him to turn her. Jisan’s car is sideways, steaming, he must have bolted from it, the others are parking, spilling out into the wind. Nico. Nico’s girlfriend. Chaz’s plump second husband, wiping the nose of their son. Chaz himself with his lawyer’s briefcase. Then Bilakri. Then Bilakri’s wife.
You’re as fearless as ever, says Jisan, but I promise you I’m not.
Before Davka can think how to avoid it, they draw her away from death and into their warm exhalations, smells of cough drops and alcohol and cigarettes and mint, the twins kissing her until her cheeks are raw from their three-day stubble, the dermatologist grinning, actually grinning, Bilakri trembling with lowered eyes.
Davka struggles to breathe. What is that hated skin doctor doing now? Embracing, laughing at her, Davka, we’re divorced, it was amiable, we’re best bloody friends.
You’re not divorced, Davka mutters.
Nine months already, says her rival. Where have you been?
Bilakri will not look at anyone, of course she won’t, it’s a lie. Their sick joke, their collective vengeance. Davka is not so easily fooled.
Arjuna rounds the corner of the gift shop, macaroon-less, bereft. She hasn’t noticed them, she’s looking down at her phone. Closed! she shouts over the wind. For a private function, can you beat that? No warning, nothing posted on their—
She sees them, and her face lights up like sunrise. Mother, says Chaz to Davka, I have something to show you.
Not yet, says his husband.
I’m pregnant, Nico’s girlfriend declares.
Hugs, howling, mayhem. Davka is coming unmoored. She and Bilakri move like opposing magnets: one turns her face inward, the other pivots away. Jisan speaks of savings bonds. Arjuna grins and socks her father’s arm: You? You rented this whole goddamn place?
Everyone inside! Chaz says grandly. But he’s hushed again. Someone is touching Davka’s hand.
It’s the fucking dermatologist. Closing Davka’s fingers around something small and cold. Welcome home, she says.
I’ll write you a check for that, says Jisan, but the dermatologist laughs and shakes her head. Tell me I’m brilliant, that’ll do.
In Davka’s hand is a brass eyepiece. Madam Skin is still talking, From your home country, Davka, a flawless original, one of six ever made.
You’re brilliant, says Davka, ready for death. They’re still lovers, they must be, Bilakri will never let this woman go.
If I’m honest, it was just about plodding on, says the pimple-fighting paladin. You can find anything online these days.
Which brings us back to this. Chaz taps at his briefcase. Mother, you really—
Let’s go in, says Nico, before he opens that case and his surprise blows away on the breeze.
We brought wine, says Bilakri, as if to prove that she can speak.
Oh Davka! shouts the dermatologist. I’m so glad you’re here! I’ve never talked with you properly, I have so many questions, when are you coming for dinner, I’ll make dumplings from scratch.
Davka bursts into tears.
7. Vanishing Point
The surprise in Chaz’s briefcase surpasses all expectations: a notarized letter from the Office of Deeds and Titles in the old country, old issues resolved in the spirit of bilateral harmony, the family house never burned after all and “eligible for ownership review.” Meaning it will be yours, with persistence, Chaz explains. Yours and Jisan’s, to sell or rent or even live in again. But I hope you won’t sail away and leave us.
Right, gulps Bilakri, queen of monosyllables.
The night that follows is endless. A dozen friends of the younger folk are waiting inside. A trio of cooks fry calamari and scallion pancakes. Arjuna flirts with the waiter; Nico and his husband dance. Jisan succumbs to Arjuna’s pleading and takes out his accordion, and Davka watches her brother’s hands change from dead cramped claws into fluid implements of love before her eyes.
What’s the catch? she wants to scream at them. What are you not telling me? What do you think I can’t bear?
Under the table, Bilakri’s foot grazes her calf. Davka cannot speak, she’s too frightened, if she utters a word the spell will snap and she will wake into solitude, her old fanged friend.
Well past midnight she and Jisan don their coats and slip away to the cliffs. Bright stars, artic air, but as she clings to him Davka realizes with a start that her brother is not trembling. The arm she’s clinging to is steady. Jisan, she murmurs, are you clean?
Jisan sniffs. I’ll call myself clean when I don’t feel like stealing, screaming, murdering someone for the drug every week.
You’re better, though? You look better.
Watching her, Jisan takes the morphocular from his bulky coat. She was expecting this: in his eyes there is a glaze of hunger much older than heroin, one she’s glimpsed there since childhood. She hands him the eyepiece, watches him tighten the objective lens. He looks a long time at the city, the ocean, the headlands. Not a sound escapes him, but when he hands the scope to Davka the eyepiece is slippery with tears.
She pulls down her sleeve to dry it, then does not. Tears are yet another filter. Look through them, find out what they reveal.
Davka looks. There it is, the pounce of revelation, the knowledge waiting to swallow her whole. Her hands shake, the image jumps and shudders, over and over a shadow eclipses it—and that of course is the catch, that raven’s wing, that black blade that will grow sharper and blacker each time they use the scope from here to the end of ends. This is the gift they’ve been unwrapping all their lives: knowledge of death, her own death, and his.
Not fair, she whispers.
Jisan sniffs, then chuckles. No worse than wondering, is it? And you have the harder job.
Living longer. What a bitch.
And just like that she is free. His laugh, his offhand vulgarity, have dispelled the guilt and fear and self-reproach, those curses that have torn her like a pack of hounds for fifty-eight years three months and five days, and her hands on the scope are as firm as the granite headland as she bends and sees a younger Jisan fleeing the Park of the Evangels with a decision burning in his chest and bounding up the stairs of his building and out upon the roof and sweeping the morphocular left and right swearing, sobbing, snarling as he flays the city open until it gives up a safe house for Bilakri and the children, and the only price the music he lived for drained from his hands and heart for decades and a wound left gaping that he’d poulticed with heroin, and working the focus Davka tunnels back to Mr. Kijuto, who never fled at all, but was seized and beaten and given shocks to his genitals, yet never betrayed the ones he’d sheltered and so was bundled with others into an army helicopter and tossed alive into the sea, and back she looks through her own tears now at the steamer captain demanding cash from their well-dressed parents, contemptuous when they say they’ve been robbed, threatening to fling them ashore but settling at last for their self-sacrifice in the typhus ward working twenty-hour shifts and inevitably sickened and given at last like Kijuto to the waves, and still Davka probes twisting cylinders, switching color wheels until she is seeing the eventual tumor in the dermatologist’s lung, the cataracts already blooming in Bilakri’s eyes, the vaccine research Arjuna will fund when her code makes her a millionaire, the white rocket Nico’s unborn child will ride into space—
—and beneath the rocket (oh astonishing sight) the planet revolving whole and unified, the white tonsures of the poles and the flung gems of archipelagos, the torn edge of the old country beyond the sea waiting for Davka to claim it, tunneling back the years reversing in a clatter of celluloid frames until she’s through the cast-iron gates and up the porch steps and there in the kitchen with her parents and the lisping solicitor and the words her teenage self never heard The inthurgents are thugs, doctor, medieval thugs who would shred any deed in a woman’s name, and thus her parents had left the house to Jisan not to dispossess their daughter but quite the opposite, and Davka pushes back back free-falling now to an age when all the codes were different, before engines, science, steel, a time when nothing was final nothing decided and great serpents prowled the margins of the vellum map, and the sage placed the morphocular pristine and untouched on a satin pillow before his prince and bowed his forehead to the ground Only your children will unlock its secrets, for the gift takes hold in childhood or not at all, and though the prince was angry, the sage laid his palsied hand upon the map beside them Radiant master the world is writ in lines of fire only a little may we read or else our eyes must be scorched—
She breaks off, reeling. Who is she? When is she? Where has she been?
Easy there. Had enough?
Jisan is supporting her, gripping her shoulders. Davka meets his eye, steadies herself. Jisan removes the eyepiece and slips it into his pocket. She flings her arms about him like a mast, he has never failed her, this thief of music, this baby brother she is doomed to outlive.
They stand there a long time, wordless with knowing, with the feast of life and the certainty of shadow, until Jisan clears his throat and says Come on, love, no point in freezing, the party’s not over yet.
Robert V.S. Redick is the author of the epic fantasy Sidewinders (July 2021), sequel to the critically acclaimed Master Assassins. The latter was a finalist for the Booknest Award for Best Novel and was praised by Patrick Rothfuss as “a book I like so much I wish I could have written it.” He is also the author of the young adult epic fantasy series The Chathrand Voyage Quartet (The Red Wolf Conspiracy and sequels) and has taught fiction writing in the Stonecoast and University of Nevada, Reno, MFA Programs. A former environmental justice researcher and consultant, he has lived and worked in Indonesia (where he wrote Master Assassins), Argentina, Colombia, and many other countries. He lives with his partner, Dr. Kiran Asher, in Western Massachusetts.