Listen to this story — read by Steven Bateman
Leaf rustles drowned the slap of our flip-flops. A breathless alto called, “Wait up.” Chorister Urushiol skidded and fell into a walk beside us, shifting a stick, no, an umbrella, under ver arm. Ve hitched trousers up over green rubber boots and shook vis poncho into place. The outfit suited the kid — everything suited dreadlocks, wide brow, startled eyes, high cheekbones, Greek nose, and bee-stung lips.
I turned toward ver and said, “The cook’s aunt claims she saw the God in the sanitary canal.”
We’d been struggling to find a new God since spring, when our incarnation floated to the surface of the temple pool, dead.
“I’m coming too,” said Urushiol, tossing ver dreadlocks.
We followed an old railway embankment north through thickets of staghorn sumac and heaven tree. My heart sank when the swiftian’s purple chimneys hove into view above the greenery. I’d not been up this way since I’d lost Tori. But my duty was to the God. I searched the sky for auguries — signs of things to come. Swirls of swiftians, shot through by crows. Crows meant opportunity. Swiftians — not so much.
Our shelter that night was a ruined bridge. Crows crawked us to sleep.
• • •
Jude said, “You’re the expert.”
“No I’m not,” I said.
“Right.” said Jude. “Pure accidents, all those catfish.”
“I never noodled for a God,” I said.
The kid interrupted, “Noodling?”
“It means sticking your fingers and toes into holes and using them for bait,” said Jude. “Like noodles.”
We stripped near bare in the warm sun, piled T-shirts, flip-flops, hoodies and poncho on the bank, rolled up pants. Jude pulled his bushy hair into a top-knot.
“Boots?” asked Urushiol.
“The canal’s too deep,” I said, “besides, we need your toes for bait.”
Sunlight spangled through branches. The water was tepid as bathwater. I headed upstream. Jude and Urushiol followed, ready to yank me up if anything pulled me down.
I groped, stirring up mud, and released the sweet smell of decay.
“Let me,” said Urushiol.
I stepped back. The kid reached a hand into a hole in the bank, yelped, and withdrew bloody fingers. We ducked as a feathery body the size of a raccoon flew, gape-jawed and needle-teethed, straight toward our faces, yowling like a cat. A swiftian. It left a purple trail on the water. We gagged at the smell and scrambled clear.
“Was that…?” said Jude.
“It was,” I said, snapping my mouth shut and speeding up. I failed to pull past Jude’s voice saying, “Didn’t the swiftians abduct Tori?”
“She wasn’t ‘abducted,’” I said over my shoulder. “That abduction talk was nonsense. She went to ask them a question. For all I know, they’re still answering.”
“I heard you went looking.”
I clamped my lips shut and swept my eyes ahead.
• • •
We kept on. My wandering mind suddenly translated what the swiftian had yowled on its way out of the hole. “Soo-thing-ly I say give it you.” Or, “You asked for it.” Typical. But at least I had understood it. Eventually. I’d not lost the knack entirely.
Jude hollered and went under. Urushiol went after him, and I followed ver. Together, we pulled Jude up, clinging to a leathery tail. We all three heaved, bringing up the rear of a spiky shell. Clawed hind feet flailed. We lifted. Head and forefeet broke water. Massive jaws swung, sideswiping Urushiol. The kid slipped. Jude tripped over the kid and lost his hold. The mossy shell slid out of my grip. I dived, but the God was gone.
Urushiol was bleeding again. We collected our clothes and retreated under the bridge. I could see swiftian silhouettes flying in, out, and around the chimneys. Thankfully the dusk hid their wrinkly, naked heads, made worse by bulging eyes and undershot jaws jammed with needle teeth.
The last time I’d met those eyes I’d yowled in terrible swiftian, “I re-quest, has asking/pykeon woman been seen here just?” They’d swarmed me before I got it all out, dozens and dozens of feathery bodies jostling for a chance to vomit all over me.
• • •
Jude caught me staring at the towers. He raised his eyebrows.
I said, “The Abbot wants the God. He said nothing about swiftians.”
“So true,” said Jude. “He did not prohibit us.”
“They’ll swarm us.”
“You’re the one who packed saleratus.”
“Just another item for the begging bag. Jude, I tried this before.”
“There’re three of us this time.”
“There’s a whole flock of them.”
“Saleratus?” said Urushiol. “That powder the cook uses to raise biscuits?”
“It neutralizes the effect of swiftian body fluids,” said Jude. “Should we happen to encounter any.” He raised his eyebrows at me again. “You can dicker with them.”
“Pykeon patter, that’s all. I tried, and they swarmed. And don’t forget the moon-cattle hanging around the towers. Those pretty crescent horns. We’ll be lucky to bring back the God.”
“At the God’s grace we will catch the God,” said Jude. “Perhaps we need to do a deed before the God consents.”
Urushiol shined great grey eyes on me. Jude and Urushiol gleamed like folks about to do good; I glowered like a person about to be spat on, shat on, and come out worse than he came in. Like a person in love.
“Okay, okay,” I said, “you’ll see, and you’ll be sorry. Urushiol, you’re the one with the voice, can you do this?”
I pursed my lips, whistled, hummed, and made noises like teakettles and yowling cats.
Urushiol mimicked me perfectly. “Does it mean anything?” ve asked.
“Trill for trill? ‘Rigid-ly I tell you, straighten up, fly right ’— Swiftians always make a play on trills when they trill.”
“What?” said Urushiol.
“What those trills mean,” I continued, “Is ‘Behave.’
• • •
Urushiol pulled on ver boots, extracted ver umbrella and climbed the embankment. I followed to take the auguries: rain slackening, no swiftians, and true swallows flying south. Change.
• • •
“First we’ll be gored, then spit-bombed,” I complained. “Our duty is to get the Chelonian to the Temple.”
Jude put a finger in his ear, cleaning it out. “Did you say ‘duty’?”
“You got a problem with that?” I said.
“Just didn’t sound like you,” Jude said. He reared his head and sniffed. He was the elder, maybe 36 to my 26 and Urushiol’s 16. Though these days calendars were shaky; people miscounted — especially orphans like us.
Jude’s face was open, calm, and alert, like a big predator’s. But instead of bloodlust, a deep, dangerous kindness moved him. Now it cornered me. I didn’t know which I feared worse, the swiftian swarms or finding out for sure what they had done to Tori.
The rain petered out. Urushiol furled ver umbrella and danced ahead. Moon-cattle raised their heads and stared, making their decisions. The kid got within a couple meters of their speckled hides before they collected themselves, rose up, and ambled on. Their ambling was like Jude’s calm … they were liable to turn, and there was no outrunning them.
Human decline had freed them to breed their way back to the bull-god, all muscle, sex, and death. There was a sect, not ours, which fought them, slit open their hearts with long knives and stole their heartbones for the courage inside.
But the moon-cattle had cuds to chew and we had swiftians to dicker with. Also liable to turn. It’s a planet full of biters, gorers, spitters, and shitters. And birdies, twittering in the trees. And gods. And Urushiol, dancing.
“Watch out for cowpies,” I said.
The swiftians might spit-bomb me on sight. Jude couldn’t hit the high notes. The next time Urushiol danced by I snagged ver. Time for more language lessons.
Urushiol got this funny look on ver face half-way through. Ve whistled the swiftian for he, she, and it, then kept going.
“Means the same thing,” the kid said. “Why different tone?”
“Pronouns, they’re pronouns,” I said, releasing my inner pedagogue. “Swiftian pronouns cover six sexes and castes.”
“Swiftian for someone like me?” said Urushiol.
I whistled a short, shrill, rising note.
“Hey,” said Urushiol, whistling it back. “Lots like me?”
“They all are,” Jude put in. “At a certain age. Then they change. But for a while they are, yes, they are vers.”
“Cacophonic!” said Urushiol. Ve pirouetted and outstretched ver arms, almost clipping a swiftian coming in for a landing. Jude and I scattered. The kid stood ver ground, yowling, “Greatly, I greet,” bowing deep, spreading ver arms wide and lowering ver head. I gripped the pouch of saleratus, just in case.
The swiftian shrilled, “Whatee waaant,” swinging its marble eyes side to side and swiveling its ears.
Urushiol whistled, almost getting it right, “I repeat, we search for kykeon woman, we search for kykeon woman,” and made a lovely curtsey while holding the furled umbrella.
The sentry swirled off. In minutes, a full he-Mada+ appeared, twice the sentry’s size. Its squashed head came up to my chest. It flashed yellow shoulder patches and needle teeth at me, ignoring the kid. I bowed, keeping my head down and my hand on the saleratus.
It spoke plain English. Squeaky, yes, but not patter. “Pykeon man, what give for pykeon woman?”
“What do you ask?” I said.
“You,” said the he-Mada+, “distill pykeon.”
“Let me see pykeon woman.”
“Distill pykeon. Then see.”
He flashed yellow wing patches and flew.
• • •
“Jude, she’s gone,” I said.
“You don’t know that,” he said.
Urushiol’s eyes swiveled between us.
“If she was still there, the swiftians wouldn’t need me to distill anything.” I swatted a fly with a narrow-gauge waist and a turquoise blue abdomen. A swiftian pest: I remembered one clinging to a strand of Tori’s curly hair, caught, glimmering on the still. The last sign I’d seen of her.
“Are they aliens?” said Urushiol.
I snorted, “No more than you or me. Just more freaks from the great poisoning. We’re all mutants now.”
• • •
She was so sure of herself, not listening when I said that the swiftian flock was indifferent at best, hostile in general, and lethal at worst. If I thought any more about it, I’d get riled. I kicked at a concrete walk. It ended at a hole. All paths led to holes these days. From where I stood, I could see the dark hollow of Tori’s last known whereabouts, at the base of a swiftian chimney.
The cattle bawled, belched, stirred up bugs and left manure behind. Swiftians swooped, ate the bugs, dropped dung; the grass grew rank and lush; the cattle browsed and grew strong. If swiftians felt threatened, they stampeded the cattle, and the herds flattened everything in their path. It worked out nicely for both of them. I swatted.
As night came on, we rolled out blankets. Urushiol opened ver umbrella and stuck it in the bushes over ver head.
I couldn’t sleep. I waited until Jude’s snorts and Urushiol’s even breathing assured me that they slept. Swiftians would be in their roosts inside their chimneys, the cattle hunkered down in brushy places. I crept out into the prairie. Swiftian towers clawed at the starless sky. I set my toes down first, rolling the soles of my feet slowly to the rough earth, breathing softly through my nose.
A rustle dogged me. No prairie lion or wolf would make such a racket. I knew who it was before I felt the breath on my neck.
“Wait up,” whispered Urushiol.
“Go back,” I hissed. Urushiol ignored me. When we’d almost made it to the towers, Urushiol rustled one last time and tripped, catching verself with ver umbrella. Nothing stirred.
I tripped on a root and sprawled into Urushiol. Ve dropped ver umbrella. It clattered. In seconds, a yowl went up and we were surrounded by a scrum of swiftians.
Urushiol regained ver umbrella, stood, bowed and whistled, ver skin a pale shimmer in the dark. The swiftians closed in, shoving us into a hollow at the base of a tower. Dander from their feathers got up my nose; I couldn’t protest — I couldn’t stop sneezing — as the swiftians spit rubbery cords and sealed us in. One whiff, and I knew exactly where we were. There’s nothing like the bitter sassafras smell of pykeon.
“Rest up,” I said to Urushiol, removing my hoodie and lying down on it. “Morning’s liable to get complicated.” After bouncing off spit cords a few times, ve settled.
• • •
Through gaps in the translucent spit cords I could make out swiftians shooting from the chimneys and swooping in squadrons — until a he-Mada+ blocked my view. Maybe the same one: I wasn’t any good at telling them apart. Not that it mattered much with swiftians.
“Distill,” it whistled. “Happily we say we are overjoyed that you make pykeon.”
I whistled back, “Unhappily I say I cannot without pykeon woman.”
“Solitarily I mention, she did without pykeon man.”
“Singularly I say, I cannot do without her.”
The he-Mada+ took off. Sentries dawdled outside, ornate ears flicking. The sight of Tori’s precise handwriting on labels and lists made my heart clench. Where was she?
Urushiol leaned on the barrier, practicing swiftian whistles while I searched through spit strips, casks of water, vats of fermenting spit, and production notes. Tori had kept meticulous notes. They ended abruptly a few weeks back.
Seven times a he-Mada+ came back to demand I distill, and seven times I refused to do anything without Tori.
Urushiol called, “They say she’s coming.”
The he-Mada+, or a he-Mada+, returned. “You distill, you see pykeon woman,” it said.
No harm in starting a fire under the pot-still. Maybe Jude would see or smell the smoke.
No harm in cooking fermented spit and turning it to low wine. A little low wine would do me good.
A reflection flickered on the side of the pot-still. Sentries yowled.
Tori tumbled into the cave hissing, “Stop cooking!”
The sentries drooled the spit barrier tight as I caught her in my arms.
Last I’d held her, she’d been bouncy with muscle and sparkly with plans. Now I held a starveling, skin stained with bruises, latticed by scrapes, hair matted, and eyes sunken — but nervy as ever. She murmured, “Don’t do it. They’ll never let you go if they find out you can…”
I felt like I had a heartbone and it had risen and was sticking in my gullet.
“I was trying to get home … but when I stopped making pykeon they threw me into a pit. Who’s she?” she asked, letting go, staring at the kid.
“Ve followed me here,” I said.
“What, like a puppy?”
“Ve’s a chorister at the Chelonian Temple: you remember the Temple. Ve came along with me and Brother Jude.”
“You’re messing with the Chelonians?”
“A little,” I admitted.
“You’re a brother, aren’t you? You’ve taken the hoodie…” Tori sighed and shook her head. She nodded toward the still. “Did you get as far as low wine?”
I fetched her some. “Not bad,” she said, sipping. “You haven’t forgot how.” She offered the beaker to me. I drank and the sweetness loosened my throat.
“The Chelonians — they’re not forever, necessarily,” I said. “I just needed to pull myself together.”
“You hid in the Temple?”
“I said I was coming back.”
“I tried. Did you even look?”
With every word we moved closer, circling like wolves or dancers.
“I tried. Before the Chelonian, I tried.”
“How did it go?”
“And for you?”
“As you see. For a while, I thought — I thought I was going to solve everything for us.”
Tori reached for my face. I enfolded her, rags and bones and all, and cried.
Urushiol looked away.
No one I’d lost had ever returned. Not father, mother, sister, brother, friend. I stroked her hair in disbelief.
• • •
Before I could move, whistling sentries ripped into the cave, yanked out Urushiol, voided over the coals, and sealed the entrance. Ve was gone before I could shout ver name.
I shouted it anyway.
Tori put a hand on my shoulder. “Their nests burn like pykeon.”
“They permitted the still…”
“I told them that since the fire was inside, there was no danger.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Well, there isn’t, if you know what you’re doing.”
“What’ll they do to ver?”
“Nothing good. Ver?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Ver. You didn’t notice?”
“I should have seen it, ve’s so beautiful … Hey, don’t worry. They won’t do anything until morning. And I had a lot of time to plan down in that pit…” Shadows moved on the spit cords. Swiftian ears swiveled. Tori stopped talking. She made strangling motions with her hands and jutted her chin toward the outlet piping.
I widened my eyes. “Might get even stuffier in here,” I said. As sparkly with plans as ever…
• • •
I caught my breath. Low wine was spit liquefied by fermentation. But even if the wine dissolved the cords, the sentries remained.
Tori set about shifting kegs. “A lot of time to plan,” she said.
I had done the dickering, but she’d always run the still. Her skinny arms moved like pistons. So sure. The last time she’d been so sure, I’d ended up with the Chelonians and she’d ended up in a pit.
I joined her keg piling. We worked well together, we always had. But when Tori blocked the outlet pipe, my hand hesitated over the coal scuttle. She couldn’t be sure.
Through the spit cords I could make out one swiftian sentry, naked head huddled into downy shoulders.
I could think of no other way. I shook coals onto the fire. Flames licked the copper, turning it black and gold. I opened the draft and poured pykeon on the coals.
Tori grabbed Urushiol’s umbrella. We crouched against the far wall, behind a pile of kegs, hands over our ears.
• • •
• • •
The morning light picked out split kegs and dimmed the licking flames. The wind reeked of pykeon. I lurched forward. In a lone oak, crows spun like whirligigs. Anything, anything could happen.
Little grass-fires stuttered: the disordered swiftians voided over them. Buzzards dropped from the sky on black wings, primaries extended like blind men’s fingers. They pulled flesh off a dark mound with sharp beaks. Flies swarmed. I smelled blood. It reminded me of my mother and my newborn brother. Their wails catching and failing.
When Tori told me she wanted kids, I’d ranted — It was Breed propaganda, I said, or her female nature betraying her. It was a swiftian world now. Why be stupid, like a salmon, heading upstream. And she had retorted, “A salmon dies whether or not it heads upstream.”
“How do you know?” I said. “Maybe there’s 100-year-old salmon swimming around down there…”
The world was awash in orphans. Organizations like the Chelonians and the Hard-shelled Hyper-Calvinists collected them. Me, Tori, Jude, Urushiol. No one lived long enough to raise their kids. And a lot of women died having them. Like my Mom.
I told Tori, “No more orphans.”
“Of course,” she agreed. When she left me, she’d added, “I’m making sure our children will not be orphans.”
And now I’d lost her again. I breathed deliberately. The pykeon fumes burned away. A voice called. A ringing, carrying, chorister’s voice. Oh shit. Another orphan. No more orphans. I staggered toward it.
Swiftians whistled. A vibration ran up my spine and turned to thunder. Dust blew in my face. My body understood before I did, and pulled me up a tree. A torrent of moon-cattle flowed beneath. The herd tossed a pale ball on their horns. Green rubber boots and hands protruded from it. It sang. Dreadlocks flew like a comet’s tail. I blinked, but the ball persisted.
On the far side of the torrent a bearlike shape rose out of the dust. A hood fell off a bushy topknot of hair as Brother Jude stood and called to the ball, a piercing whistle that penetrated the thunder, and the ball screamed back “I’m coming,” bouncing itself across the cattle. Jude raised his big paws and caught it. He fell backward, and sank into the grass. The herd slowed, broke up, and turned to grazing as if nothing had happened.
I blinked again. A long black shadow pointed straight at my tree. It led to a grimy foot, jutting knee and arm akimbo, slanted body and crooked grin. Tori’s eyes followed the swiftians lurching across the sky. “I think we’ve cured them of wanting pykeon,” she said. She looked worse than ever under Urushiol’s scorched umbrella, and I had never seen anyone so beautiful.
• • •
White flakes blew over a bush. A fluting voice said, “Hey, cacophonic! There’s my umbrella!” We pushed through the shrubs and ran up against the wall of Jude’s back. Jude spun and let out a roar, lifting me off the ground in a hug. He looked up, but no swiftians came.
“They probably mistook you for a bawling cow,” I said from inside the hug.
“Ha,” said Jude, letting go. “No worse than those screeching swiftians, the night you and the kid took off. Jolted me right awake, the Chelonian be thanked.”
“I was just having a look around. Then Urushiol followed me…”
“…I wasn’t following you,” said Urushiol. “I was making sure nothing happened to you.” Though ve stood in a heap of peelings, most of ver was still encased in spit.
“Hi, Tori,” ve waved.
Jude roared, “You got her!” and hugged me again, harder. “Praise the Chelonian!”
“The swiftians brought us together,” said Tori. “Praise the swiftians. But not too much.”
“Give me a hand,” Jude said, “so we can get this stuff off Urushiol and go.”
Tori and I sprinkled saleratus and peeled. Jude talked. “I snuck up to the chimneys, hid out, watched Tori come, Urushiol go. I followed ver, thinking you two weren’t going anywhere. The swiftians encased ver in a spit wad and glued ver to the side of a tower. By then it was near sunup, not a cloud, and then this roar, like a landslide, and clouds of dust. The tower shook, Urushiol fell, and then more thunder, the earth shook, and thank the Chelonian, when the kid fell, the herd was underneath; they tossed ver, ve bounced, and I was ready.”
• • •
“Ouch,” said Urushiol. Ve grabbed for something underwater and was pulled under. Jude and I pulled ver up, and ve held the leathery tail of the God. We heaved the Chelonian up onto the bank, grinning like fools, except for Tori. She glowered.
“You know, the swiftians didn’t care either way about me,” she said. “They just wanted pykeon. Like you don’t care about this turtle. You just want a God. But I remember the Chelonian God bumping around that tiny pool. We got free. So thank the Chelonian.”
I looked for auguries. Sunset; crows to their roosts, and swiftians to their towers. The strongest augury was the look in Tori’s eyes.
The canal water rippled, braiding and unbraiding, carrying little rafts of sticks and feathers, hair, charred wood, and flies.
Jude looked from Tori to me and back, and nodded, “The God has blessed us — how else to explain it? Let us, in turn, bless the God. If the God wants to accompany us, she will give us a sign.” He lifted his hands from the front of the shell. I let go the rear, Urushiol released the tail.
The God froze.
Urushiol held up ver umbrella and whistled.
The God raised its head and pushed off, sliding into the water. Jude said, “The God has blessed us, but clearly, we have more deeds to do.”
© 2015 Vicki Saunders, all rights reserved