Eyes floating in unfocused half-sleep drift ashore on an out of place shape; a woman stands at the foot of my bed.
Cool air pulses from the open window, swaying the curtain and her briar-patch of hair on the same slow pendulum frequency. She’s a deeper patch in the dark, and I feel rather than see her movement as she steps onto my ankle, then groin, then chest.
My arms won’t rise from the itchy mattress, my legs won’t kick. The pain of her weight forces a wheeze from my lips that sounds like a sleep sigh. No air returns to my lungs; her feet press them flat.
She crouches. Her breath on my face stinks of opium smoke and rotting meat. I pour all my will into moving my hands, but they lay like dead snails.
A fist’s width to my left Jenny’s undisturbed sleep, her easy breathing, mock me.
The pulse of cold air from the window brushes fetid hair against my face. Something with many legs falls on my forehead, wriggles into my eye, rights itself, and then scurries down my cheek. Her toes on my chest writhe like worms in salt.
Looking into her dark outline, I see a tunnel, like she’s an open door.
Deep beyond that shadowed way burns a single star, blazing transparent light I can’t see, but feel as an ache in my bones and a shiver on my skin.
My chest sears like meat on a stove, and my mouth fills with salt.
Splintered boards make a box about me. Light comes in at the cracks, but it’s so dark I can’t see my own hands where they’re clutched against my chest. I wear some kind of loose, unfamiliar dress far too thin to keep out the pricking splinters. The dress was made to keep out summer heat, not sharp things.
There’s not enough room to unbend my knees. The ache of wanting to grows and grows.
I pick at splinters to try to make a hole, but they make my fingers bleed. I pick at the split between the boards, hoping for more light, but all I see between them are moving green and shadows.
I don’t cry. This surprises me. I’m proud of it.
I hold to something: a book. Mine. They didn’t take it. They won’t. I won’t let them.
The box becomes a room. Bamboo bars make one wall and yellow blocks of stone without mortar form the other three. The floor is stone too, strewn with narrow leaves long dead and sharp as paper. I cover myself in the leaves, waiting for my fate unknown, pretending the dead things can hide me from it.
The dress fades from cherry to the same pale pink as my hands. I had a bow in my hair. I use it to bind my bleeding fingertips when the nails come off from scratching at the base of the pole that holds the door shut.
Beyond the cage waits another closed door, this one of solid wood. Beside it, a tiny window throws a beam of moonlight across the chaos of leaves and my rag-wrapped body. A tiny bird perches in that window, singing a song about summer, but it’s always cold here.
The bird flies away.
They didn’t take the book. Its pages brim over with the actions of heroes who will not save me. I bury it among the leaves like I’m planting a seed.
I wait for the lock to click. When hunger has weakened me, it does. I wait for the door to open. When I lay curled and defeated, it does. I count those who enter: they are two, a woman and a man, both full grown, both full muscled, both naked except for cloth around their waists and knives at their hips.
The woman speaks in my language, saying that her master has ordered them to release me, telling me I can be clean now, and eat, and that I will be honored by the master, welcomed, loved if I’m worthy.
I wait, counting my breaths.
The boy enters the cage. He crouches and smiles. He offers his hand.
I bite it and taste his blood.
His smile vanishes. He grabs my hair and smashes my head against the floor. The woman holds me down while the boy tears the red dress. He goes to the door, pressing my dress to his bleeding hand.
And the door is opened.
I take her knife off her belt. I cut her three times: rib, hand, and face. She backs away but I follow. Blood flows into her eyes. She kicks me to the floor. A pain in my chest is like what a lightbulb must feel when it breaks. She tries to catch my hair again, but I put the knife into her foot. She falls. Her yell startles birds from the roof.
Many faces fill the doorway. I hurtle myself at them with nothing but my sweat, underwear, and a sharp blade. The knife flashes in moonlight. They fall back.
I chase. They circle.
We dance on a platform green with moss – a huge foundation to a building long gone. On it a dozen houses like the one I escaped make a line pointing to a pagoda three stories tall. All around the pagoda jungle trees and monkeys stand among ruined stones. White moonlight twinkles from a river’s wide meandering, and rushes through waves of almost glowing flowers along its bank and around the ruined foundation so it seems an island in a many-colored sea.
Men and woman circle me. Their laughter sounds like war bells. They are many. I am one.
I saw a mad dog once, encircled by a pack of coyotes that chased it up and down the farm road outside my home. With foam at its teeth, it frenzied this way and that, defiant, wild, and untouchable.
I am the dog.
But where I chase, they fall back, and the ones behind me grab. I spin, knife and teeth biting to new directions, but they retreat. I’m small. Smaller by half than the smallest of them. I’m weak. Too young for sturdy muscle. They have knives, but they don’t draw them.
A net catches me. I fall tangled. I’m dragged and jostled, scraped and bruised. I saw at the ropes but one of them catches my hand and another pries the knife from it. They drag me from the net, peel off my smallclothes, and leave me naked.
I kick and bite. I am not afraid. I should be, I know. But instead I feel anger like lightning branching in my body. I feel a cold storm wind howling inside me, frustrated by the closed window that is their physical advantage, but keening to be loosed.
They let me go and stand back.
A huge man approaches from the pagoda. His thick hair flows in a luxurious river over his robe of silk, and his round eyes carry haughty command, but he has a face like a boar and a body like a bear.
His call turns all eyes to him, so I rise. My own hair itches with my sweat and half blocks my sight. My hooked fingers want to claw out his teeth. I try to freeze him with my eyes.
I am not afraid.
He stops where my knife fell to place the white sole of his foot on its hilt.
I straighten hunched shoulders, and in my mind, I imagine my bare skin is shining armor, my sweat a queen’s jewels, and every strand of my hair is a soldier ready to aid me.
I killed the mad dog with my father’s rook rifle. The coyotes scattered. I was young then too, but not too young to be my own hero.
His grin is too wide. His teeth too white. Cold rushes from him. “My name is Agafya,” he says.
“Let me go,” I answer, stern as my storm, “or I will kill you.”
His grin widens. He points at the others who surround me. “Everyone will all go as naked as she is, until you prove yourselves as brave.” He turns his shark’s eyes on me. “When you kill me, you may do as you wish. Until then, you will do as I say.”
He slides the knife across moss covered stones to stop against my toes.
I watch myself as if through a stranger’s eyes as I bend to lift the blade: This child, this girl, with her blue eyes, pale skin, and wild hair, is not me. I am not her. I am only flesh and blood. She lunges forward like a newborn war god, sprung from loose soil and thunderclouds, hungry for blood and sacrifice.
The huge man laughs.
Yet, in the flash of light from her blade and teeth, in the indomitable animus of her charge, comes a gleam of grace. Her flying feet lift her up. The sea of colored flowers sways on the wind from the river.
The pressure on my chest relents. I breathe. She’s gone. She never was. I never was. I am not.
Dreaming. I can only be dreaming.
A cheek rests against my chest. A woman’s cheek. She yawns, then she opens her eyes. Green. This is Jenny. This is the bed we rented in Bangkok. This is the morning we planned for.
“Good morning,” croaks the green eyed girl.
I can’t reply until after she’s moved off me. I lift my hands, marveling at their strength, their muscle, their almost unfamiliar scars.
“Yeah,” I say.
“You don’t make a very good pillow.” Jenny pops her neck, then rolls over to check her purse. The last worming shadows of my dream fade away into the world as the warmth she left against my chest cools into the pre-dawn chill.
“Yeah, that’s not what you pay me for.”
She stands. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to get so friendly.”
“I won’t mind if you don’t.” Though I banter, it seems my dream has darkened the morning shadows. The open window feels like a well, calling me down it. Pale light through the trees carries the chill of the moon.
The establishment owner left a bucket of fresh water outside our door. It’s not much to freshen up with but we’re lucky to have it considering the price point.
Cold water brings a shiver. Drops ripple my reflection in the bucket. My eyes look paler than the brown they’ve always been. The dream left my nerves frayed and jingling with weird feelings I don’t trust, but I try to keep the courage she carried. I’ve never felt so brave and I could do to feel that way again.
“I think I just dreamed I was in your sister’s body.”
“Ew.” Jenny wrinkles her nose. “Here’s the deal: I’ll pretend you never shared that, and you continue to never share that. Ever.”
“Fine.” I’m too shaken to argue.
Jenny’s revolver clicks as she cleans it. A wren lands in the window behind her and watches. When the gun is cleaner than either of us, she nods in satisfaction. Each shell slides soundlessly back into its chamber. She has four; two chambers rest empty.
She looks up with a twinkle in her eye and says: “Alright mister. Whatever happens, lets both stay alive.”