My room’s been ransacked, and it’s covered in pigeon poop and tiny feathers. They took the mattress but not the leather straps under it, and that’s where I’m headed.
When I wake, the sun’s in the western sky, pigeons are flying in and out my open window, the room smells of their poop, and my coat stinks like a corpse.
The ransackers took everything but the cot – which was nailed down – and a few sticks of firewood. But they didn’t find my hidden spot in the wall, or the typewriter inside.
I wash the coat first and make a surprising discovery: gold. One inside pocket holds a fistful of fat gold coins, speckled with the organic gunk from the temple basement.
“Tellerhorn, you greedy bastard, you glorious, greedy bastard.” I say, grinning at the glittering pile next to my typewriter. “That’s not nothing. That’s not nothing at all.” It’s not nothing to the tune of about five pounds or so. I’m no broker but I know it’s 14 troy ounces to the pound and $35 to the troy ounce, so I can estimate I’ve just gotten richer by about $2500, or twice the yearly income of your average shopkeeper. It’s fun to see so much money all the same place, but when I pinch the gold to put a thumbnail mark in it, memory of the place it came from pinches back. The gold still smells of mold and bones.
Wind penetrating the broken window whistles a desolate tune. The homeless under the overpass laugh at an unheard joke. I wonder what would have happened if the shining one had gotten away?
My typewriter has a fine layer of dust. I set about cleaning it.
When I’m done, I clean the room. Then I clean the windows, the pigeon poop, and the feathers. I even clean the ashes from the back of my little stove.
Then I clean myself. The hot water hits me like a baptism, a cold beer, and a cup of coffee all at once.
Exhausted, invigorated, and smelling faintly of pipe rust I draw on the damp coat– which is all the clothing I own now – sit on my windowsill, and roll a sheet of blank paper into the machine.
I’m halfway down the first page when the angle of shadows from the evening sun tells me it’s time to go.
The padlock on the weathered door to #43 North Zeigmere hangs loose. Rusted hinges groan open. The door bottom adds new streaks to the half-circle already drawn in the dust.
The interior smells of cobwebs, old wood, and rust. The setting sun makes windows, translucent with dirt, glow gold. Sepia light spills across a wide room. Wood beams pillar the space, empty except for piles of roof tar dripped from the ceiling, spots of bat poop and a couple of broken crates. Against the wall by the door a wide board with planks nailed to it makeshifts a set of stairs up to a platform suspended from the roof. Half of that second floor is walled off as an office, but the other half is an open floor without any railing. The layer of dust suggests the building hasn’t seen use since the market crashed, but there are fresh footprints in it.
Feet tap little avalanches from between the boards of the second-floor platform and then Jenny appears at the ramp-top holding a broom. She’s wearing a grey sack-cloth smock belted with leather and her hair’s up under a blue beret.
“Hey,” she says.
“Hey,” I answer.
“You’re late,” she says, and throws the broom at me like a big dart.
I catch it and dust explodes from the bound wicker end. As I cough and wave my hand to disperse the cloud, I ask: “What are we doing?”
“Cleaning,” Jenny says, as Sylvia walks up beside her. “We’re staking a claim.”
“We are?” I turn the broom around.
Sylvia wears brown wool trousers and suspenders, with a grey blouse already dust-stained and her hair tied up. Leather work gloves cover her hands but her feet are bare. Her eyes focus at opaque distances.
I say, “Why are we cleaning an empty warehouse?”
The sisters exchange glances. Jenny smirks. “I know more than you.”
“Yeah that’s been true almost all the time.” I start up the plank stairs.
When I get to the top she catches my hand and gives it a squeeze.
Sylvia points at the tip of the broom-handle, which has been cut off. When I notice, she turns her pointing finger to the tracks I’ve left in the dust, and the spot where I stood when I caught the broom. The top six inches of the handle lay there, severed cleanly.
“Did you notice?” she asks. “Did you mean to break it?”
I let go of Jenny’s hand. She looks at her fingers and then the broom, chewing her lip.
“No I didn’t notice,” I say. “I wasn’t even looking for a mar.”
Sylvia’s blue eyes are rimmed red, with half circles under them as dark as bruises. She shrugs her shoulders as if to work out a stiff muscle.
“Maya put a power into your blood. That power fades. Gone when the moon rises.”
A shiver runs through me and my guts clench. “I was hoping I’d felt the last of that,” I tell her. The edge of the platform seems too close. The light in the windows might be fading, or maybe that’s a cloud passing in front of the sun.
“A decision not easily escaped.” Sylvia whispers, as if reciting something she’d prepared in advance. “I will try to help you. It won’t be what Maya could have done.”
“Thank you,” I tell her with a genuine surge of appreciation, but when I meet her eyes she looks away.
Jenny steps close to my shoulder but doesn’t touch me. The sepia light makes her pale skin like gold and her eyes like pearl. “It’s for me too,” she says. “We’re in this together, whatever it is.”
I smile at her, but my jacket rubs against bug bitten and raw skin scraped in too many places to count. The gunshot wound in my leg has begun to ache, and I didn’t even notice.
Sylvia walks to the edge of the platform and looks down at the empty floor below. The gold light softens the scars in her face so they vanish into her bronze skin, but the shadows under her eyes look deeper. Sweat stains darken her blouse and dust clings to her forearms. Her face seems sad.
It strikes me for the first time that she’s shorter than I am by several inches. She had such a mythic quality when I first saw her, like a character out of a daydream. Now she looks like a woman I don’t know.
“Each day,” she continues, without looking at me, “I will renew the spell to hold back your pain. Until you master it. You and Jenny are something new – Heros put the diamond’s power into you. I will teach you Maya’s ways to contain and control that power. She was part of what made that diamond, so it may be enough.”
“Us,” says Jenny, frowning. “Heros put the prisoner’s power into us, you mean. Right? You’ve had it too.”
Sylvia turns to look over her shoulder, meeting her sister’s gaze. She doesn’t speak.
Jenny plunges on: “I mean you’ve clearly mastered your dose of Heros better than anybody. Agafya got, well he got conquered by whatever the white comes from… I saw that, and Mark went -ah- into a very bad place. It was better than Agafya but… But you’re on top of yours. I’m sure you’ll teach us.”
Sylvia doesn’t move. Her face is a wall.
Finally, I say: “She hasn’t had any Heros, Jenny.”
“Of course she has. I mean it’s a little different for her, it’s different for everybody…”
Sylvia turns around and I see in the set of her hands hanging over her hips, in the sadness in her eyes, that we’ve moved out of her prepared script.
Jenny plants her hands on her hips. “You’re telling me you can do what you do without ever having taken the heros?”
Answering seems to be a struggle. Sylvia stands there like a statue, staring right at her and breathing as seconds tick into the double digits.
Jenny says: “I’m asking for some words. For some truth. It’s not as though my life is on the line.”
“Give her a moment,” I say.
Sylvia turns to the window, still stained with dust. She composes her thoughts for another interminable time. The groan of industry accompanies the silent fall of dust. I’m still holding half a broom.
“I learned…” She starts but doesn’t make it any further. Slowly she begins extracting words one at a time from someplace sticky and gross. “I don’t… I don’t talk. Or teach. I…” She takes a deep breath. “Agafya gave me, no he, he made me become into an understanding. I am Vamacharika.” She holds her deformed hands into the window light as if repulsed by them. “A witch, you would say. I am… I use? I am, I use…” She frowns and looks out the window again, then shrugs with frustration. “Vamachara. Tantra. Left Handed Magic. Maya taught other ways, but they are not what I am.” She shrugs. “Vamachara is stain. I am stain.”
“So,” I say slowly, “in your own words, what was that stone? What are we?”
The look she turns on us has the closes thing to fear in its mix that I’ve seen color her jagged granite face.
“I don’t know,” she says. “The stone was a prison, a spell holding part of the universe away. Its power was great. Very great. Pure prana,” she frowns, “Prana. You know this word?”
“Sure,” I say. “Prana is sort of like breath and sort of like energy and a little bit like a battery for magic but has a lot to do with purity. You get it from space by doing cleansing rituals and it lets you do spiritual stuff like get enlightened.”
Jenny frowns at me but Sylvia tilts her head. “You understand like an earthworm who thinks of the sky.”
I squint and fold my arms. Sylvia stands there staring at me for ten seconds after her flash of mirth has vanished.
“Yes,” She says finally, and then with increased confidence as if back on her prepared script: “The diamond was pure. It aged. It crumbled. It mixed with the power of the prisoner in ways I don’t… I don’t think Maya understood. To have drunk the substance of that mixture…” She closes her eyes and her hand covers her mouth. “You will be running from that choice far after this lifetime has ended.”
I say: “I got that impression from Maya too.”
Sylvia nods. Jenny matches my look with a brave grin. She pinches the fabric at the elbow of my coat.
Sylvia turns away from us and lets her hands hang to her sides.
“Thank you,” I tell her. “I know you meant to leave all your old life behind. I’m sorry that even now you’ll have to keep at it. You’ll have to keep us like you kept that stone.”
“A long time ago,” Sylvia looks down into the empty warehouse, “do you remember? We met. In Bangkok. You gave me a book. There was soup.”
The change of topic surprises me. “I don’t remember that…” I start to reply, but as she looks back at us over her shoulder the memory climbs up my spine and slaps me hard enough to make my head spin. “It smelled like a rose garden. Your father was there – short, broad-shouldered with a lantern jaw. He and my father argued.”
Jenny stares into my face. “Not many people argued with Papa. Not many dared.”
“My father never met anybody he couldn’t argue with. If he met the Almighty, it’d be five minutes before he said: ‘now see here!’”
But Sylvia turns to face us and crosses her arms. “You had bruises.” She touches her cheek and eye. “You hid the book.” She hunches, tucking one hand under her armpit.
“You wore a pink dress like a pastry and had a bowl of tom-yum soup.” I can’t believe how strong the memory is. I can smell the soup. The pink dress. Sylvia in a pink dress seems absurd now. “I gave the book to you because I didn’t want my father to see it.”
“Sweet,” Sylvia’s smile is as old as the dust in the air. “It was yours.”
“Did you like it?” I ask.
Her smile turns wry. “Destroyed. Wrote, scratched, filled it with my memory. They let me. I don’t know why. They didn’t let me keep anything but clothes and weapons. Until the temple.”
“The book in your aura. I saw the book in your aura.” Jenny’s eyes, wide with wonder, are pointed at her sister. She turns them on me with a note of accusation in her voice. “You wrote the book I saw in her aura?”
“My mother wrote it, under the same name she gave me. I’d forgotten.”
“I had not.” Sylvia uncrosses her arms. “I meant to see you when it ended. Return your book.”
Her poise is sculpted – firm and a little cold. Jenny’s trying to watch both our faces at once. She meant to see me when it ended. She came to my- she was at that street corner for a reason. It wasn’t a coincidence.
She was looking for me.
A chilly hand tingles at the base of my spine. I don’t know what to do with this information. I want to put my arms around her, to kiss her forehead and tell her I didn’t really forget, that she’s safe now, it’s all over and she’s safe. The years of struggle have ended. She’s home. We won’t let anything bad ever happen to her again.
“I’m sorry,” I say, for lack of something better. “Point of order though: it was my mother’s book. Summanus was her pen name and her pet name for me. I cashed in on that later, after she died but…”
Sylvia’s eyes wrinkle. “You did not write it?”
“No,” I insist. “Sorry! It wasn’t me!”
“I am sorry,” Sylvia echoes. “Sorry I pulled you in. Killed you. Put heros in your blood. If I hadn’t-”
“Lots of ifs and maybes,” Jenny declares firmly. “It’s what happened. If Mark hadn’t been there I’d have been dead with David, or a dozen other ways, and who knows what Agafya would have ended up doing? We’re here now and together. What matters is what comes next.”
Sylvia’s nod is like the click of a lock as she turns back to the big room full of dust and nothing.
Jenny skips to embrace her sister’s waist. The white of her grin reflects evening light.
“I’ve been scheming of getting you back for so long, I’m not sure what to dream about next. But now I’ve got you, maybe next I’ll spend all my spare time hunting you a good boy to match.”
Sylvia frowns, puzzled. “Why?”
“Good point!” Jenny laughs, “Horses are more interesting. But boys are good for dancing.”
“Is that what worries you?” Sylvia says.
“What do you think about?” I ask Sylvia. “Besides surviving until tomorrow, I mean.”
“Magic,” Sylvia answers, “Fighting. Tactics. Weapons. People I’ve lost or need to kill.”
“Boring,” Jenny teases.
“Besides surviving until tomorrow,” I remind her. “Let’s pretend we’ve found a safe place.”
“You don’t find safe places,” Sylvia whispers. “You make them.”
The distant rumble of industry outside the warehouse walls fills the gap in conversation with a series of bangs. An airplane buzzes somewhere above, and a dangerous rattle in the distance might be either an engine backfiring or a series of gunshots. Despite the sweat stains on the women’s clothes, the cold is hard enough that someone will likely freeze to death in hooverville tonight.
“I had a dream,” Sylvia confides. “A big house in a field of grass. A church up the hill, and a light in the attic window. Family. I am safe there.”
A pigeon coos in the rafters and a car splashes by outside. Sylvia reaches out as if to touch the empty room and Jenny leans away from her to take in her expression.
“I never… I was not safe. No.” The blue eyes burn as clear as a summer sky but her lips make a gargoyle frown. “Never. Not for a moment. Except in this dream of a house.”
“That’s a good dream,” Jenny says and buries her cheek in her sister’s shoulder, “for you. One worth catching.”
End Book I