by J.M. McDermott
North, I keep on, but there’s no way to know how far I walked before I stopped to rest on this lump of sand instead of that one. I need to rest to keep walking with these old, uncertain bones. When I’m ready to move again, I crawl a little, and wait for my legs to work right below me. When I can’t walk anymore, I drink my own blood from my boots and joints. I was not put together well, nor will I ever be again.
I do not know how many days there were before this, but it has only been a few days while I walked, and then it was night, and I slept sometimes during the night. Then it was day again and I kept on, where my hand still leads me.
My old right hand is still mine. It was my first trade.
My legs are shorter than I remember and it is hard to walk on them when they are this worn down. The sand slips through the cracks of very old boots. I’m bleeding somewhere in there, but most of it stays in my boots and I can sip it later when I rest. It’s all I have to drink.
Let this body be numb and unknown to me. There was little I could do about it in the middle of a desert. I licked what I could reach of my blisters and sores and ill-fashioned joints, drinking back my own fluids. It hurt, but it had to be done.
At night, the sand still held the heat from the long afternoon. My bare chest shivered in the frigid desert wind. My feet cooked inside of my boots. I walked and walked licking the blood from my chin.
A wound from a sand lizard.
• • •
I couldn’t tell the three men apart and I didn’t know what to think about that. I thought she was beautiful, and I thought quite a lot about that. Maybe she was like them, but better at trading, or maybe she had never traded for anything in her life and that’s how she was so beautiful. It’s hard to tell with people of the north when you haven’t been around them all your life.
At the time, I picked grapes during the day and slipped back into the vineyards after dark when no one was around. I sold the night grapes to other travelers before shuffling off, exhausted, to sleep at the edge of the fields until the overseer whipped me awake. I was saving up for passage to the mountains I had seen on a map halfway across the world. I was going north, halfway home, to the mountains.
I had heard tales of cities carved from ice and marble in the north all the days of my life. I had only ever known the salt marsh and swamps and rocky hills above the lakes, where I had grown up almost completely alone but for my mother and an old sailor.
I had high hopes when I saw the four newcomers. I followed them to a sailor’s tavern, and after a while found a place to be with her alone, and I mentioned it to her in the tavern, that I wanted to go north to the mountains halfway home, as soon as I could work up enough and save.
“I know a few people that might help you over the mountains,” she had said. Her eyes creased beyond my shoulder.
I turned and saw a dead rat, smashed into the floor. I hadn’t noticed it before. She whispered a prayer to a god or goddess I did not know to aid the rat that I would have killed if I’d seen it first.
“You wish to escape this filthy place,” she said. “We should all see Great Valion’s Gates before we die. It’s such a beautiful city, cut from white marble and ice by master carvers and there’s so many winter roses growing in the ice. You can travel together with my friends,” she said. “We’re parting ways here.”
I frowned at that. “What about you?”
“I’ve been there before,” she said, as if that was some kind of answer to the question I was asking.
I felt the north star even indoors and drunk. I knew exactly where it was above my head. I knew where north was in a hand that I had traded with an old sailor.
• • •
A large lizard lounged on my chest like a lover. It had yellow eyes with the expressionless languor of a lizard. As good a friend as any I had met lately, I thought. We stared at each other with faces unreadable to each other.
Then, for the reasons known only to lizards, it had been waiting for me to look at it before its feast began. It finally opened its mouth. The long tongue stretched over my face, licking at the salt of my boils and blisters. The gnarled head turned sideways, and it chose the nearest flesh. The lizard took slow bites of my chin.
I couldn’t feel the pain, yet, or move away.
I saw the bloody teeth. The lizard’s casual prongs upon my flesh were of a lazy, summer lunch, just before a siesta. The forks came down and poked the sides of beef. The diner was alone on his sunswept balcony, and ate with a methodical quiet of purpose. The meat didn’t feel, and didn’t scream, but the meat wanted to very much jump and scream and fight back.
I had drunk too much and it had been drugged. My body was numb and had taken so long to wake up for me because much of it was new to me. My right hand was not new. The chewing was a distant pain, like feeling something noxious on the breeze. It should hurt more. Everything should hurt more. It would when the body woke up to itself in full.
I regained my hands slowly. I lifted the numb clubs with sleepy fingers and I pushed at the beast upon my chest. Then, my fingers could hold on a little. Then they could hold on very strong. I could sit up slowly with this slowly wriggling beast in my powerful arms.
I choked the lizard.
My little friend wiggled and kicked and scratched at me but not for very long. I watched the golden light in his eyes fade to numb.
I poked at my shredded chin and thought about bandaging myself with a shirt. I picked up the lizard’s cadaver instead.
At the very least I had something to eat out here, and something else to think about while I walked and drank. Blood would be my only water for a long time in these long, hot dunes.
I took my shirt off. I once had good leather worker’s clothes that fit me like a glove after so long in the vineyards, but now all I had was a white shirt and burlap leggings. I wrapped the shirt over my skull to keep the worst of the sun from striking my head. I couldn’t remember if I had hair as I was traveling with the three men or not. I don’t think I did. I didn’t have it now.
I held the corpse of the lizard by the tail. I slung it across my back like a small sack, and ate it slowly over a long day from the face to the skull. The bones were inedible and I left them behind me for the sand to devour.
When the sun fell to my left, I sat down and prayed to the gods of the north I did not know.
Nothing happened. The moon rose was all. Maybe that was a miracle tonight.
I looked up at the white crescent like a goddess’ eye closing to me.
The hot sand still burned through my boots when I walked at night. At least the night air cooled my body. I had never been to a desert before. I had heard stories. I didn’t know which desert was beneath my feet, but there were many made new after the god had pushed the continents together.
My back wearied of the dead weight of my food so I ate much of my lizard raw, even though I did not hunger for it. Whosever stomach this was, it kept the rancid flesh down. I’d rather eat the meat raw than cook it. I didn’t want to lose any liquid that could be considered wet enough to drink. The wetter an organ was, the better it was, no matter how awful it tasted.
I walked all night, always north.
When the peeking light of the sun appeared on the far side of the sand dunes, I sat down. My skin had bubbled like cooked meat, then fell into strips of frayed, thin, dry leather. I was covered with a thick layer of sweat-congealed sand. At least the sand helped keep the skin from bleeding more.
On my back, I tried to cover as much of my body as I could against the sunlight with the shirt, but it wasn’t long enough to protect both my head and my body. I tried rolling in sand to get it to clump on me. I closed my eyes. I dreamed of Tavis, and the sound of the ocean water crashing into the mighty cutter ships that docked there, looking for grapes and wine.
I grew up near a salt lake beach south of Tavis, where the marsh is thick and every building collapsed into the marsh. The sailors that came told half-witted stories about cursed ships, never allowed to return to land. They talked about their glorious journey to Galesberg before the shift like a myth. They talked of the great god of the continents, who had pulled the lands together on a whim — perhaps, to impress a mortal woman, or to answer a pious prayer of a sick child who wished to visit Galesberg. The story varied, but this was universally known: The continents came together one day in a terrible earthquake everywhere in the world, and everyone says the god that did it was running over the land, smiling and pushing the rocks together like a luminescent giant.
My eyes bulged wide at their tales of storms and monstrous currents, and horrific serpents that had once scraped the sides of the salt-eaten cutter ships when the shift came and everyone and everything had to adjust. People died that day in the thousands, and in the days afterward. But, the god had done no more re-arranging after that, and we all had to do our best to move on. The maps were re-drawn. The people all prayed for things to hold still a little while more this time.
And I lived on this long beach at Tavis in the quiet afternoons after studying in the temple all morning. I sat with the old sailor. He wore the same sun-drenched red vest and woolen pants every day of his life. He stank of coarse sea salt from the lake where he fished during the day with spears and nets, wading out into fishkills and trapweirs.
And there I learned the north star.
He pointed up at the sunlit sky through an all-day drunk. “See that up there,” he said, “Do you see that?”
I looked up where he pointed. I saw only blue. “What?” I said.
“When the sun sets, that’s where the north star comes out.” He dropped his hand on me like an anchor dropping. His voice rose with the repetition of his myth of youth. “We went all the way to Galesberg because I could find that damned little candle-point even on the sunniest, cloudiest, ugliest, prettiest day and night. I sleep, and my hand just points.” He lifted his hand and shoved it into my face. “It just points!”
I said nothing to him.
He stared at his hand a moment. He took a drink.
He lifted his hand again, towards me. “You can take my hand with you!” he said, “Then you can sail the sea anywhere and find that stinking star.”
“Will you tell me a story about the lost sailor, and give me some of your wine? I replied, in my sweetest boy voice.
“Take my hand,” he shouted, “I’ll trade you yours for it!”
He took out a sharpened white whale-bone.
“I like my hand,” I said, “Yours is too old. Mother says I’m too young.”
He shook his head at me and swayed back and forth. “But my hand has experience. You’ll still live forever. We both will, if we are wise traders, and get better than we lose,” he said, “but think of this: You’ll always be able to find the north star. And I will get a hand that I can finally teach something new. I want to do new things. I don’t want to think about Valion anymore. He lifted his blade. “If your mother yells we can trade back. It’s a crime you don’t know what it feels like to have a homeland.”
“Mother will yell,” I said. “Tell me about Valion, and maybe I’ll feel it anyway.”
“Valion is a jewel in a blighted world, but you’ll never know!”
We did trade one day, after mother walked on beyond her own, tired skin. I stayed with him a while afterward, and we traded then. It was my first trade, with the only other northerner I had ever known. He never wanted more than that.
• • •
I tried to pray. I couldn’t. My head was swollen in the daylight heat, and cluttered up the ancient words. My tongue felt like a dry mushroom in my mouth, and refused to speak at all. My chin gnawed on my exposed nerves like the lizard’s angry ghost. I squinted my eyes. My deep red skin cracked and screamed at me. White continents of peeling skin cracked and fell off my body and became sand.
Did I fall asleep again? I don’t know. If I did, I dreamed in pink. My eyelids draped over my eyes, and I saw only the color of my skin in the sun. I saw only pink. I thought of nothing. I dreamed of nothing. I felt everything.
When I didn’t see any more pink, I saw black. I opened my eyes, and my hand pointed at the sky. I dragged my tired bones together and discovered my feet again, beneath me.
I sat back down.
I drew letters in the sand with my pointing hand, the one I had only traded once. I wrote these lines out for someone to read, whoever listens. The wind comes and blows the little valleys of my words into a smooth dune surface again. I write and I pray. I pray and I write. And the sand peels away my skin, my voice, my words.
What else to write before my sinews crackle and snap with thirst, oh quiet Gods?
My hand writes. It writes well. Here it is before you: my miraculous message from the sands.
I do not need the north star. I need a different miracle from my hands. I need help. Please, hands, bring me water. Please, grant me the gift of water. Let a rainstorm come. I will lie down and open my mouth and let the cool drops pour over my naked body.
I will write the words.
Water. Water. Water.
Hills and valleys full of lazy streams and fat rivers.
Yet, I have the voice of wind, and no merciful God or Goddess hears this sand and wind.
In Tavis, the gorgeous woman whispered to her Goddess more than she ever spoke to me. She whispered with the throaty rapture of the pigeons, and she was praying for nothings. She prayed for the soul of a dead rat, mashed into the corner of a tavern. She touched a beggar and prayed for rain to clean his face. She prayed for a good hair day in her morning hand-mirror. I listened, and lounged in her bed. I had never known a woman from the north countries before, and wondered if it was supposed to be different or better or worse than the port women of the south. I wanted to know. She seemed willing to show me.
A firestorm rolled in from the marsh, harmless and hot. Tongues of tiny flames threaded out from the sky, fizzling like baby sparks where they fell into the damp ground. She prayed that no sparks would land on a dry rot plank and burn a house down, but they rarely did that. They came with the rainstorms, in the summer.
“The gods ignore us in a firestorm. It is a devil’s reply to prayers,” I said, because I was looking for anything to say at all.
“The gods always listen,” she replied, “I don’t know. I keep praying. We should always pray because the spiritual lack inside of us defines us no matter what we wear. Pray because the emptiness is what remains when everything else can be made new.”
I touched her hand, and prayed for her love. I listened to her speak about her religion because I was looking for an opportunity to close the space between our faces.
Red firelight drifted all around her pale skin. It died upon our bodies like tiny chigger bites.
We pressed close in evening twilight. The bees buzzed through the fields of thickened grapes after the firestorm passed. They drifted through the open window of our room, and landed upon our naked skin. We watched, allowing them to soak up the sweetness from her body, for they meant no harm to us.
She stared off behind me somewhere. I had my eyes half-closed so I could live in the bottled-flower smell of her long neck. I heard her soft whispers, and I knew they weren’t for me.
“What are you praying for?” I said.
“The bees,” she said, “The poor, ignorant bees that lick my perfume.”
“I think the bees are smarter than we are,” I said.
“I know they’re not. Look at them,” she said, “when you come here tomorrow morning to pick the grapes, they will sting at your hand.” She tapped my shoulder and pulled back from me. “And you! You will strike at the bees because you are ignorant, too.”
“I am?” I said.
“Your hands pick the grapes,” she said, “and the bees do not see that without men to pick grapes, there would be no vines at all.”
“The bees are the worst part of it,” I said, “them and the sun. I hate the sun.” I look past her golden hair to the grapes in the twilight. “I wish we could work at night, but the overseer thinks we steal his grapes.”
“You have admitted to me that you do steal grapes. Without the bees, there would be no grapes,” she said, “so you strike your own livelihood.”
“There are always more bees,” I said, “but there aren’t always enough hands.”
“Take mine,” she said.
“What?” I pulled back from her. My hands drifted away from her white, linen dress like wind over drapes.
“I will trade with you,” she said. She took my wrists, and lifted my hands up. “My hands won’t strike the bees. I will take yours somewhere else. Then the poor bees will be safe at least from you.”
“You have the hands of a woman,” I said, “and if I took them, they’d whither under the heat of the workman’s sun.” I pulled my hands away. I stepped back from her. “These hands I have would swing like pendulums at the end of your arms. You would no longer be beautiful.”
“Then,” she said, “just for a little while?”
“Please?” She cocked her head and her eyes sparkled in the angle of the fading sun. “For the poor bees,” she said, “and just for a while.”
“People in this land do not trade hands,” I said.
“It will just be for a little while,” she said.
I felt the pull of my withered hand, to the north. Always north.
People in the southern country try to stay together for weeks, months, and years after spending a long evening in a tavern room. It was not the way of the northerners. It was not our way. She told me I should go or stay, but not to expect anything if I wouldn’t trade with her.
“But you’re so beautiful,” I said.
“Beauty is for the young,” she said. “I’ve had enough of beauty.”
Maybe she was the daughter of one of the three men. Maybe that is why they would not trade with her. My mother said that trade was never done between the flesh of a family, or those who know you when you’re young. Trading is an act for equals.
In the morning the men had heard that I wanted to go to the old cities of the north, to Valion beyond the mountain of Petronus. I had to choose between her, indifferent to me and eating grapes that I had stolen at great personal risk, and these three hard men who could take me to the city I had heard about all the days of my life.
Three tall men whom she hugged like brothers when we left her in Tavis, and me whom she kissed on the nose and told me I had a beautiful nose and maybe when I returned she would take it from me.
Over a campfire, the men looked exactly the same.
I asked them if they were brothers.
“No,” said one of them, “we just traded too much together. We all look the same because we traded too much.”
“Do any of you have a name?” I said.
Another one frowned. “I think I used to be called Claret,” he said, “Somebody called me that once. After a while it’s hard to remember. Mirrors don’t work for us. Fortunetellers won t even talk to us to try and figure it out.”
“No,” said the first, “I was Claret. You tore my face off once and I turned into a monster and that woman from Valion called me Claret because I chewed off her first leg.” He touched his nose, and pointed across the fire at his companion’s face. “You and I traded noses and I got my face back and I felt human again. I’m Claret. You are someone else entirely.”
“But who?” he said, “What are our real names now?”
“Who cares,” said the third, “all I know is I still have one hand left that has always been mine. This right hand is all mine.”
“Can it find the north star?” I said. I took another long drink from the skein of wine.
“Sometimes, it can find anything,” said the third. He took the wine from me, and sipped. “Anything, I want, it can find sometimes. Just not always when I want it. It’s good to hold on to yourself as long as you can.”
We drank too much. I drank too much and listened. They talked. We passed around the same skein of wine. I drank and drank. They sipped. Maybe they didn’t drink too much. They talked of trading their souls for new souls like it was as easy as trading cloaks. There was a theological debate in Valion. They had disagreed with the woman. This is why they separated.
Our eyes swirled with the same secrets from the same skein. But I drank too long each time. I took more than my share. I was not an even trader. I got greedy. I talked to learn the limits of things, and didn’t know what I had never been taught by my mother and the other northerner in Tavis. I fell asleep, and then I woke up with a lizard on my chest under a desert sun.
• • •
My right hand returns to the dirt and writes.
I wonder what else they took from me. I should sit with them at their fire again, if I meet them. “My name is Lanval,” I should say, “I still remember my name when my mother gave it to me. Now tell me what pieces of me you have taken that are mine. I do not begrudge them to you, for I was not a good traveling companion, but I would still like to know.” Instead of killing them while they sleep, I will write my name on all the things they took in magic ink that never fades. Then, I will let them live, with my name wherever they look and that will be worse than death, because they will all lose what is left of their old selves.
My right hand writes in the dirt, and I have no hand-mirror to look upon the face that looks back that is not mine. I cannot pray, either, except for this.
• • •
She told me I had gold-flecked blue eyes like solar eclipses. She kissed my eyebrows.
I pulled back from her kisses. “Where are you from, exactly? What city?”
“I am from Valion.” She tried to kiss my eyebrows again.
“I didn’t know that,” I said. “I just thought you had visited it, once.”
“You are from Valion, too,” she said, “and that’s another thing I like about your face.” She kissed me on my nose.
“No, I’m from Tavis,” I said, “Tavis born and raised. My mother might have been from Valion, or maybe my father, whoever he was.” My eyebrows creased. I pulled away from her kisses again. “And what does that have to do with my face?”
“Lanval is the name of an ugly bird, who sings all the songs of all the birds with a beautiful voice,” she said. “It is a good name for one of us in a country that is not ours. You are from Valion and you are lying to me.”
“Do you think I’m ugly? Do you think I’m an ugly bird?”
She winked. “I am either from Valion or Cape Brink, out upon the ice. It is my hair that gives me away, and your eyes that reveal your homeland to me in Valion. You would know these things if you had been raised among us.”
“Lies,” I said, “All of them lies.”
“All right,” she said, “Where do you think I am from? Where do you think you are from? Do you think we just wandered out of the ground like this?”
“I think you are in fact an old man, who traded his body with some pretty young girls piece by piece. And I think you are from the beautiful girls of the whole world, all the prettiest ones.”
“No,” she said. “I really am from Valion.”
“Do you ever think of going back there? Do you think my mother’s family might really be from there or Cape Brink?”
She smiled. “You have beautiful eyes, like solar eclipses: a black iris in a dark blue sky. These are Valion eyes. They are more valuable than diamonds. Do not trade them for anything.” She leaned down and kissed me on the bridge of my nose.
“You can have them,” I said.
“I don’t want your eyes,” she said, “I could never see them like this if they were mine. You cannot see your own eyes.”
“You could in a mirror.”
“Then I would only remember you in them, and that is not the way of our people. We do not know the eyes of our fathers, if we even have them.”
I touched her body, all of it, and felt the places where it could fall apart with a sharp knife and come together again. I had known women, but I hated that she had known men. I hated that I was not the first one to discover this amazing miracle that was her curved lines, her beautiful hair and flower perfume skin.
• • •
“We can’t ride in a saddle,” said one of the men, “because our legs aren’t really even, and nobody has the right saddle for us.”
“Why aren’t your legs even?” I said.
“Some legs wear down faster than others,” said another one. “You’ll see.”
• • •
• • •
When I stole grapes at night, I had to stand out under the stars first, and let my right hand do it. That way, when I was sneaking through the vineyard, I could start at the southern tip and always know my way through to the north edge of the vineyards where I could sneak into the trees.
I felt the north star, all the time.
And the new mountains sat far north of Tavis. Galesberg was north-east, and Valion the beautiful white city of my people was beyond. And there I was, sleeping outside near a vineyard until the overseer whipped me awake for another day of work, looking up at the distant point of light tugging an invisible gossamer thread in my right hand. It lifted me up. I could feel it.
I should never have traded hands with that old drunk.
• • •
“I used to sing songs about mermaids for an old man that had also come from the north,” I said, “He talked of his life like a glorious myth. And it wasn’t much, really. He got on a boat. The boat traveled to Galesberg before the continents came together. It was so glorious for him until the continents were moved. With one wave of a nostril hair, a god brought the continents together and all that glory was squat.”
“I think you’ve had enough,” said the third man, “because you have started to talk about religion with people you do not know well enough to talk to about religion. It is not our way. It is her way, not ours.”
I took one more long drink. “I can’t believe I left her,” I said, “Do you want my hand so I can go home to Tavis?”
“Which one?” said the third man.
“My right one,” I said.
“I already have a hand,” he said, “and it is all I have left of my old self.”
“Me, too,” I said.
“You’ve had enough wine,” he said, “because you are talking about gods and love and torturing yourself over it. She didn’t try to stop you. Don’t forget that. You are going to your home country. You will be welcome there like a brother.”
Why did anyone leave if it is so beautiful, so wonderful?
“Too much beauty is exhausting,” said the second one. “We are not beautiful men.”
“Go to sleep,” said the first one. He smiled, without parting his lips. He had womanly lips that never parted much. He spoke too softly. “Maybe you’ll feel better in the morning.”
“I will trade with you,” I said, “and you can take my mule and my hand.”
“We have already traded with you, but you are too drunk to remember. It is your fault if you are too drunk to trade well, ugly bird.”
Had I traded already? I ran my hands along my body but it was still mine completely. The only thing that wasn’t my old self was my right hand. I shook my head, and drank more wine while the three men laughed at me. They scratched at the sides of their faces like the skin itched where it connected their faces to their scalps. They did not look so monstrous. They looked like friends, to me, with such happy faces, smiling at their camp drunk. I had more wine, and more wine. When I woke up, I was in a desert and a lizard ate part of my chin and nothing I had was of my old self.
They left me the old sailor’s hand.
• • •
Will you take these words and free me from this dry, blistering land?
I will wander always north to Valion. My people are strong, even if the legs wear down. My hand is old and knows the way. I will go north, drinking my own sweat and blood to keep it in my body and when I finally arrive among my people no one will want my ruined skin. No one will want to trade for my worn down legs. I must have already lost my beautiful eyes. I think they took everything from me when I was drugged. They must have. I am all the cast away parts of old men’s pieces, with a chewed upon chin that will always be scarred until it is discarded somewhere upon a dying man’s face when he could not keep himself alive. No one will want to lay with me above a vineyard and watch the bees sip upon our perfumed and salted bodies.
Past the mountains, until the sun falls away from the world, there is a place where I will be one of many, in a city that knows nothing of mermaids.
When I arrive, I will offer everyone I meet this old hand that always knows the north star. I must lose this hand there.
I will tell them of the travelers, and of my mother.
If I am very lucky, I will trade myself away entirely, until I am scattered out into the city, and I no longer have to carry all this pain that I know. Let us all carry it. Let the whole city carry pieces of this traveler’s pain, that they may know what it means to live and die like this, never knowing what it means to live in a place worthy of the name of home.
I sing into the sand.
I pray into it.
I stand up, now.
© 2013 J.M. McDermott, all rights reserved