For Toby, a sky
The sun is guttering, the wind harps moan, and in the rising breeze Talizander hears Shirrem calling. Seven years and all over the Archipelago he’s set up the harps and chimes, nets to catch Shirrem’s words in, if she’s not beyond words now. If she is, Talizander doesn’t know what he’s summoned. But fear and desire look much the same to him now, and one way or another, this is his last night on Far Lees.
He turns away from the fitful sea, a dark-skinned, compact man, every inch a beachnik in his dustcoat and shorts. He wears his hair rat-tailed and tied back, and on a chain around his neck are two rings of seaglass and silver. Dune-foxes nose around his tent, small grey beasts that often visit him. He’s shunned human contact for months now, but welcomes the foxes. In return for a dish of cockroaches or lizards’ tails they endure his petting and conversation, listening without judgment or not at all.
The tent contains a quilt and stove; his guitar, theremin, and harmonica; a book, Faces for the Wind: Notes on the Skirl; and a kite. This last, a shooting star in peacock colours, is beyond flight, ragged, its frame warped. Its owner would have turned her nose up at it.
But the being Talizander still calls Shirrem flies solo now.
Long before we met, you loved the wind. I wasn’t jealous, not then. I was wed to music.
I wrote songs for your kites to dance to, remember? You flew them on twenty worlds. Really it was always you up there, splayed upon the thermals. You had yourself tattooed, a motley of weathers. Cyclones and rainbows, frosted moons, clouds mild or storm-pricked. But it wasn’t enough to be a map. (If there had been the surgeries for it, you’d have made a kite of yourself. Hollowed bones and skin stretched out to meet the wind.)
This was always your destination. Zephrence, where humans are granted land and sea and the Skirl own the air. My book describes the Skirl: “seen only as wind is seen on water or grass, carving dunes and clouds. But they are hardly silent, having all the voices of air to draw upon.” They let shuttles through to the spaceport, nothing bigger. Humanity’s allowed only toy wings—remote-controlled planes, little blimps. And kites. So the Archipelago flies: some in worship, like Shanter, where at midwinter a thousand fire balloons are launched from the cliffs; some in sport—the flyers of the Southern Isles duet or duel with the Skirl, who come, playful, flirtatious, casually savage. To me it looked like courtship (and you, Shirrem, were a keen suitor).
We travelled. I tried to learn the island songs, paid for them with music from Lost Earth. You learned new moves: swoops, feints, heart-clenching dives—had the names of winds inked on your thighs. In bed, I whispered them and got them wrong. You laughed at me. I worked them into a song I never played you.
Talizander fries screwfish and sings a patchwork song stitched from every world he ever visited. His voice is ragged so he salves it with mead. The fish is too oily, the foxes get most of it. A young vixen licks grease from his fingers.
“You’re not much of an audience,” he chides her.
The wind comes from every compass point. The tent billows and creaks. He goes out, the fox in his arms sniffing at his meat-stained shirt, and looks down the beach. Braids whip across his dark face. Sand smokes off the dunes, eddies against a dim sky: twists.
Something falls around him: not a hush, for he can hear the sea breathing. Not a stillness, for the sand-plumes coil below him. Something is coming.
The vixen’s ears prick up. She yips, stiffens under his gentling hands, then bolts across the dunes. Air pressures shift and settle.
Something is here.
The wind harps drone his worn-down name. Tall-is-anner. Nothing like her voice, but how could it be?
The dust-devils spin like lazy tops, softly keening: Tallisanner.
“That’s it,” he says, crying, “go on, say more. Do you remember what you were? Remember us? Me? Go on. Please.”
It was never the same after you burned your kites. (I kept this one, a flyer from your childhood.) “They’re just intermediaries,” you said. “They’ve had their day. Next time I touch the sky, I won’t do it with silk and string. It’ll be all of me.”
And still I followed you—how could I do otherwise? But I never learned what you did.
It ended on Culthart in the north. People tried to settle here, where the Skirl swarm. It didn’t last long. There was a battle here. Hard to tell ruins from crags, all blurred with moss. Life clung on in twisted thorns, bitter grasses.
They sent squalls against us. I tasted rain, then blood: it was only brine. The sky was fat with unshed storms. You led me through a maze of gales, and all I could hear was them. Shrieks. Whistles. Baying. But you answered them, you howled back, like a wolf, a magus. I don’t know what you said, only that I was afraid.
Our fingers were bloody, lichen under the nails, when we reached the island’s summit. Churning sea, curdled sky wheeled about us. You kissed me: deep, hungry, eyes shining, but that lust was not for me. You stepped away, pulled off your stupid summer dress and trainers, and cast them to the winds.
You screamed something—“Here I am,” maybe—half-words I knew as runes on your skin. The Skirl paused in their swarming. What drew them? Was it your attempt to speak their tongue? How you stood there, dressed only in ink, a semblance of their country? The sky stooped to take a better look. Chill intimate draughts nosed between your legs, lifted your hair, mapping every inch. You gasped and chuckled, while I crouched on the hillside, miserable, jealous, and awed.
The clouds puckered, and a long thin tornado funnelled down. You threw your head back, mouth wide open to receive it. I came up and held you as it happened. I could do that much. Your back arched so much I thought it would snap. They drank you, your body shook a little and went limp: simple as that. The twister rose, and the sky stilled to blue, but I didn’t see that. It was calm when I screamed at it.
I don’t remember how many days I was there, Shirrem. There’s a cairn over your old body, a rough thing. I’m no builder. My supplies ran out. I drank rain, ate the berries I found on the thorns, till a boat came. I refused to die there—after all, you hadn’t. Though I pretended at first you were utterly gone, or taken by force, anything to deny it was your choice. I made one, too. I said I would find you again.
Shirrem hasn’t spoken in a while. Rather than admit his name might be the last shred of her identity (or worse still, his own imagination), Talizander shows her mementoes. A tattered kite. Their rings. He talks about their life together, his alone. He doesn’t mention the women and men who came after, who tried to lift the pall from him. (Everywhere he travelled, he spawned tales: in some he was a murderer, in others Shirrem had become some creature of flesh, silk, and wire, and already some worshipped her. He stopped trying to tell anybody what had happened.) He talks about all the ways he sought to call Shirrem. Failing at the winds’ words. Imploring letters folded into paper planes, sent into storms. Haunting neglected shorelines, playing songs she once liked. He hasn’t spoken this much in years. He sounds pathetic.
The Skirl hover and hum, gyring about and through each other, bored or amused or unaware of him. For all he knows, it’s a mating dance. Fuck this, he thinks, fuck it all. I’ve got nothing left, and walks back to the tent. The dunes blush with the last of the sun. He’ll drink himself to sleep, and in the morning fold up the tent, try to find something to do with what time remains to him. He never considered life past this point, and still can’t, if you could call that life.
The certainties: Shirrem is lost. The Skirl are unknowable. Mead and screwfish don’t mix. And someone is crooning his old song Blue Shift down on the beach, an approximation of it—more like the years-lost echo of his theremin than a voice. It drops or adds notes as it sees fit. He turns slowly, his skin trying to creep the other way.
It’s hard to see in the dusk, but the Skirl seem to meld, and like clay on a potter’s wheel they make a new shape, which rolls and glides up the dune path towards him. A thing part-whirlwind, part-woman, spindrift snatched to make a pennant of hair. A face and a swirling gown of sand, ever dissolving and reforming.
He stands dumbstruck, and Shirrem halts a few yards from him, laughing. Oh, your face, she says. Her voice is a dry whisper. Sometimes it comes from the edge of the world. Then it nestles in Talizander’s ear.
“What about yours?” It’s not a good likeness, a smeared sketch. Pointed features, tilted eyes mere holes that frame the early stars.
Is this how I looked, then? Shirrem’s face hollows. Or this? She looms over Talizander, just as abruptly dwindles. It’s not forgetting, exactly, but thoughts and memories scatter. Your face on one wind, my childhood on another. Hard to gather it all together. Shirrem is close enough that her frothing hair peppers Talizander’s face. Involuntarily he steps back.
He thinks of green-shot eyes, tilted like wings; skin, pierced and painted; brittle hair that changed colour at a whim. “No,” he says at last. “You didn’t look much like that.”
You’ve changed too.
Talizander looks at his hands, weathered and crabbed, as the rest of him must be. He’s not vain, much, but she called him handsome in another life. “It’s called aging, Shirrem. You went away nine bloody years ago.”
Is that so long? A coquettish breeze strokes his cheek. He shivers for so many reasons. And yet we still haunt each other. I found little echoes of you everywhere, Tal. All those messages! I never said farewell, did I? I suppose I owe you that.
“And then another parting?” Talizander is bitter. “Once was enough.”
And what will you do? Chain me to flesh again? She roils, losing her face, rears over him like a cobra. Do you have that power? I will not be owned!
He stands his ground. Shirrem could easily snuff him out, but he has so many fears. He won’t notice one more. Spreading his hands, he murmurs, “How would I hold you? I haven’t the money for a cryopod, and if I had, no knowledge to put you back. That’s your body now. You own yourself. You’re free. Tell me, though. What have you gained up there?”
Oh, there aren’t the words! Frustrated, the Skirl-woman shrugs. This should displace the moon, but it carries on rising. Humans, with your little languages. Your minds caged in bone. How did I cope being one of you? A great sigh ruffles the dunes. Well then. We’re the crucible where weathers are born. We ply hurricane winds on a spindle of sky, and peer through their eyes. Make love to the land and the sea, watch it shudder at our touch, and pass on, leaving it yearning…
“Humans don’t have the words?” Talizander almost laughs. “I’ve got the book you stole that from.”
The book we helped to write? You haven’t seen us when we meet, and swarm. There’s such a dance! Flowing, dissolving into each other, exchanging names—Shirrem bends over and tells him her new name, all fluting and sibilant, nothing Talizander could ever say—and leaves and tiles and feathers, whatever gifts we can sweep from the earth. We rise, and are everywhere. She inspects herself. Who’d be embodied, when you could be any shape, or no shape at all?
Talizander thinks of the dance. Perhaps all winds carry a piece of Shirrem now. He has a longing he tries not to entertain. He’s dreamed of it on certain nights, and it scares him more than the thought of a life spent alone. “There’s music in your world, then.”
Oh we sing, everybody down here knows it. But it’s nothing you could play, old love.
“There are ways.” He looks the Skirl in her hollow eye, begging and bold at once. “You could teach me.”
No. Not in that body.
“Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? Take me, the way they took you.”
The night pauses. There’s no emotion in that whirling face. But still, he’s surprised her.
You don’t know what you’re asking.
“I think I do. I hope. Did you have doubts on the way to Culthart?”
I don’t recall. There are costs, Talizander. You’d lose friends, your songs, life as you understand it. The self doesn’t exist for us in the same way. This body, this voice, it’s a mask you can know me by. I won’t wear it again. If I were to take you, you’d die, in some way. Is love worth that?
“Let me find that out.” He wipes sweat from his eyes. “I wanted to find you, and I did. I’ve already paid for it. I talk to foxes, sea winds, the dead: all my friends are here. Music, well, I’ll sing yours if I can.” He closes his eyes, trying to feel everything: the gooseflesh on his arms, sand between his toes, honey and fish on his tongue. “It fucking scares me. But if I can be with you again in any way, I’ll shed my skin.”
I will not murder you, Shirrem says gently.
“It’s not murder, it’s change. I always chose to follow you, Shirrem. This is still my choice. Kill me or not, the pain’s over either way.”
Old love. That laugh again. Farewell. Or greetings. What shall it be?
“Do it, please.” Tears run down his face. “Don’t bloody play with me. Do it before I lose my nerve.”
Don’t be afraid. I’ll hold you, as you held me.
And Shirrem comes at him like a wall, coiling around him. The embrace is fierce, worse than anything he’s ever known. It sears him, sand and air branding his exposed skin. “O gods,” he says, “stop it now, don’t stop, no” and Shirrem whispers—Hush now, love, close your eyes. But he can’t, and sees the full moon silver that blurred face as it stoops to kiss him. That burns too—Shirrem scouring him from the inside out: flesh, self, name wearing smooth. His blood freckles the air.
Blind now he feels Shirrem groping for the kernel of him. In the last moments he wonders at it all. If he is to become a new-born wind nuzzling the breakers, or just a carrion for foxes. Then she grasps him, and wrenches.
Story copyright © 2015 by Mat Joiner
Artwork copyright © 2015 by P. Emerson Williams
Mat Joiner lives near Birmingham, England, where they absorb tea and second-hand books, watch foxes, and admire crumbling buildings. Their stories and poems have appeared in Not One of Us, Strange Horizons, and Stone Telling. You can find them on Twitter as @damsonfox.
P. Emerson Williams is an artist, musician, actor, and writer who works on a creative continuum that draws upon an interest in the arcane and esoteric. His passion is for embodying the mythic in visual media and melding visual art with narrative form. He has collaborated with writers James Curcio, Nathan Neuharth, and illustrated Bedlam Stories: The Battle of Oz and Wonderland Begins, the first novel in Pearry Teo’s series. As a musician he has worked with SLEEP CHAMBER, Jarboe, Manes, and kkoagulaa among many others.