“The word?” he asked.
Through the slot in the doorway, I saw the black line, made from soot and ash, across his eyes. The King wanted this feature on all his guards since those men were meant to be nameless and without identity. But even now, as I heard his voice through the small slotted space, I could tell who he was. I had named him Castor because he sounded so much like another guard, one with the same shade of slate-grey eyes that blended into the paint.
“Pandora,” I said.
“Good.” The slot slammed shut. When he opened the gate, he let a smile slip through. “Welcome for tonight.”
“Thank you.” I followed him from behind, staring straight ahead so I could focus on every last detail of his armour and the scars across his body. I recognized the shield marked into the back of his leg, and knew for sure I had met the brother of the other guard, Pollux, before. Voices, like scars, always give people away. The voice is where identity is located—in the trills of someone’s Rs, the sibilants in syllables, their long vowels. Even in the writing, which I was slowly learning to do, I could see the accents. Maia often told me I wrote with an accent. Not like the accent grave over the A or the dots above an O—it wasn’t even the slanted quality of my prose. I wrote with an accent, she told me, because I left out articles. I left out the in-between words, the ones that never matter, but were there nonetheless.
“If they don’t matter, then why should I learn to write them?” I argued with her one night.
“They do, though. All words matter. They have to matter.”
“But if you understand me,” I said, “then why do I need to correct this?”
“I understand you, but I also hear you. When you leave out the words, I hear their spaces. So they’re still important, even in their absence. Like you.”
Like me, I thought now as I walked across the red-and-gold stones into the deeper rooms of the castle. Castor, the guard, was now beside me. He was silent, but I was sure I could hear his accent too. The space between the letters, the silence between words; I could see a whole language emerge from his negative spaces, pauses and ticks.
“How is your brother tonight?”
“My brother?” he asked. He raised an eyebrow, then it fell. His mouth twitched. “How did you know?”
“I hear your voices. I put the rest together.”
Castor’s back straightened. We were walking past the great hall and the lights illuminated both of us. My pale clothing was innocuous, meant to blend in, since women were always supposed to be quiet and smaller. Even as knights and some of the court’s account holders looked up, Castor and I were subsumed by the room, by the floor, by the gold and our silence.
“He is doing all right,” Castor said as we both emerged into a new hallway and were alone again. “Sleeping, after the long day.”
“Well, I hope he has good dreams,” I said. “What is his name?”
Castor shook his head.
“Right, right,” I corrected. “No names, I know.”
His silence spoke disappointment, but he didn’t linger long. He opened up a new set of large doors and waited by the side. This was as far as he would go into the Queen’s quarters. Now it was just me, and Maia waiting at the end of the hallway.
“Thank you for taking me this far,” I told him. “I hope you have some rest soon. Go home and sleep.”
“Maybe,” he said. “When I know the next story.”
I smiled. “I’ll be sure to speak loudly, then, for you to hear. For a time.”
He said thank you with his eyes, then he drew back into a straight posture. I doubted he could really hear a thing through the thick doorway, especially since Maia took such precautions to get me here and get us together. She wouldn’t be so careless as to let the stories we told slip through under the doorjamb and into the air as easily as water or smoke. We had to work to keep our secrets, like Castor and Pollux had to work to keep their silence.
But even in the gaps, Maia had taught me. We formed language. Castor would sit outside the doorway, guarding Maia and my secret meeting, and wonder who Pandora was. He would create stories about this unknown woman, maybe happy stories or maybe sadder ones, depending on how he felt that night. He would wonder and dream without an answer like I had done the night before.
“You,” Maia said and rose from her seating area. Her stool, lined with red fabric and ornate black claw-like legs, sat by candles. The curtains were pulled shut, making the room darker than usual. Maia wore only her long robe, crested with the King’s sigil he had made when he was seven and dreamed of taking over the land. On a night he thought he’d tear in two from hunger, young Luke turned to magic. He made a sigil after meditating on the idea of power, then slipped it under his pillow to dream. When he awoke, his hunger had faded and pages had been torn from his books on the shelf. He had eaten words in his rest, and so, he understood what to do next: he had to devour stories. If he took all of them, absorbed them into his being, and allowed no one else to know what Castor or Pollux or Pandora really did, then he had all the powers of dreaming while the people had none. That was how he would rule, and so far, how he did.
At least, this was how Maia had told the legend to me.
“Welcome,” she said tonight. She raised her arms to my shoulders, touching the stiff worker’s fabric. I saw the white dress she’d want me to wear later, and I relished its feeling before it touched me. Maia’s hands moved up and down over my chilly arms as her mouth met mine. The kiss didn’t last too long, before she pulled away.
“Take off your clothes,” she said, “and we can begin.”
I did as I was told. She spilled wax on my back moments later, and I hissed at the sudden impact.
“I’m sorry,” Maia said. She blew on my skin, trying to cool it. “Too hot?”
“I’m fine.” But my skin felt scorched, a few degrees hotter than I had ever felt before. I balled my hands into fists and thought of stones that soaked up the sun in the summertime. I thought of the water rushing by us in a small pool to the side.
“It’ll be over soon, I promise.”
But that was the problem. I liked this feeling, because it meant I was marked by her. Soon, the wax pooled between my shoulder blades, no longer liquid but not quite hard.
“It’s perfect now. Stay still. I need to write the name.”
Our name, I thought. The code name would allow me passage back into her Kingdom. She dragged a small twig through the wax and began writing. I lay perfectly flat, breasts on the ground and my mouth shut tight. I was naked, save for her wax and hands on me. And soon enough, words marking my skin. My scar—the one the city branded me with—of flower petals for women who love women was exposed under this light. It was normally covered, except if I took off my shoes. And when people come to talk to the Queen, they must remove their shoes.
That was how she found me. That was how the I in my head became we when I thought and dreamt at night. I was no longer singular and pulled apart by what I loved, but held together by wax and words whenever I was with her.
“Who am I tomorrow?” I asked. Maia had been silent for some time.
“Drats,” she said. “I didn’t write backwards. I have to start again. You’ll need to change.”
I stood and she walked me into the small pond she had by the back room. The space was part of her “library” as she called it, though book covers on the shelves held nothing but scraps of pages, torn from their spines, now shaped like spiky fish bones. Maia shucked the waxy skin off my back and into the water while I watched it float. A fish pecked at the first Hele—, and then it sank to the bottom.
“I have to change the word now, too.”
“Sure, so long as you tell me about H-E-L-E eventually.”
“Of course.” Maia took my hand in hers, and led me back towards her room. As I lay down again, I felt the heat from the candles and her body close to mine as she explored where she could still pour wax without scalding me too deeply. When her hand ran across my thigh, I shuddered.
“Be patient,” she said. “I just need your back to cool, so I’m searching for more space on you.”
I nodded and waited by counting the spines of broken books.
“Why do you stay with him?” I asked her.
“You mean Luke?” But she already knew who I meant, and carried on without saying Yes. “Because I was a librarian. He was going to devour me, or he was going to devour the stories.”
“So you sacrificed yourself? Your happiness?”
“I don’t think I’ve sacrificed much at all. There is a fault in those who think they can control ideas, and I knew how to seek it out,” she said, preparing the wax for me again. I was braced for the heat this time as she poured. “Those people think they can destroy the letters and the sound will disappear. They think they can destroy books and the ideas are suddenly gone. But we made up the stories because we had voices inside of ourselves. We had these warring thoughts and stories that didn’t make sense until we wrote them down. You cannot destroy the characters by getting rid of the paper. The letters, or the words. Because they’re still inside here.”
I heard her tap her temple, then she tapped mine.
“You hear yourself at night?” she asked.
“Yes, I do.” I used to lie awake in my bunk, when they first took me away from home after I had been caught with the stable girl. They made sure they separated me from her, thinking that they could stop the desire. But it never went away. Inside my mind and inside my body, I felt the stable girl as something less tangible—but still present, and begging to come out.
Then, I had seen Maia. She had seen my ankle marking, and she slipped me the first poems from Sappho and told me about Artemis, living alone on an island, away from men. That night in my bunk, I heard my voice inside my head again, speaking words that were Sappho’s but in my own voice. When I heard a new voice emerge, the following night, I didn’t know whose it was yet, but I was no longer afraid. I let the voice stir inside of me, plucking my ribcage like a musical charm.
“Then you know,” Maia said. “The stories do not exist because of the books; books exist because people made them. And people will always make things. Even when they do nothing but sleep. He thinks he can give you work to crush your spirit. Take away your names, take away your stories. But there is still a wandering world we get lost in.”
“How do you get out of the wandering? How do you make it not a labyrinth?” I remembered her telling me of the Minotaur late one night. The fate of the half-man, half-bull creature always seemed so cruel to me. Maia saw my breath hitch just thinking of the story again, and she placed a hand against my face.
“Shhh.” Maia made more noises, sounds that made me think of the waves and the water, and the wax on my back falling to the bottom of the pool. I wanted to know that story too. I wanted to know everything she could tell me, but I could not always find the right voice.
“The old ones,” Maia said, “would remember what they wanted to say by thinking of a landscape. They created signposts to remember all they had to, so they could create a map if they ever became lost. If you took all you now know, my dear, and you laid it all out, you could see a place to live. A room, a house, anything you wanted.”
“I see the castle. I see where you live.”
“And you know how to get here, and how to remember. You will be fine.” She brushed her lips against the back of my neck. “Now, I think your new word is done. But you still need to know about Pandora.”
“I can move?”
She took my hand and guided me to her red cushion, so we could lay together as the wax dried undisturbed. Then she told me about the woman who kept the world in a box. I wondered if Pandora ever got lost too, and if she had to keep some things so tightly wrapped because they could get away.
“Will you remember?” Maia asked me.
I recited Pandora’s story back to her. She nodded, corrected a few details (it’s not all the world, it’s the bad parts of the world) and then touched my back. “But we shall move on now—a new story, new life. Don’t go out into the light,” she warned, her tone serious. “Don’t get too close to the sun.”
“I won’t,” I said. “I know my place. I’m careful.”
She kissed me again. “I know you do. But not everyone does.”
Her hands moved over me next, and played out the same rhythms on my ribcage that I heard inside my chest. When we were done, I heard the subtle shift of footfalls at the door. Castor, I thought, or maybe this is Pollux.
“You better leave,” Maia said.
I slipped back into my worker’s clothing, my back stiff with wax.
“I can’t stand up straight,” I said.
“You’re used to it now, surely. And you will do fine.”
There was a knock three times at the door. Maia sighed at the signal, and gave me one final kiss. When I opened up, I saw Castor and his slate-grey eyes hidden behind the black line. I was sad the night was over, but still happy to see him.
“Did you hear the story?” I asked.
“Oh, all about it. A beautiful woman with long, long hair,” he whispered.
“Exactly,” I agreed. We were quiet after that, having said all we needed.
When I got back to the cabin for the night, I went outside and shifted off the worker’s garb. Under the moon, I stared up and pressed my back into the ground. The word pressed off my back and into the sand and I dressed again as I read it.
“Icarus,” I said aloud. I didn’t know the story, but I liked the sound. The crack of the vowels and consonants, the slurp of the ending. Ick-ahh-rrrus. I rolled my tongue and felt another internal trill inside of me.
Orders barked from the other side of the cabin. I rubbed my fingers in the dirt, destroying the code word before anyone else could see. I heard the trudge of a guard’s footsteps as he moved through the cabin counting up people, and realized he was missing one. When he found me at the backdoor, my clothing was back on my body, but the wax still stuck to me like a shell.
“What are you doing, worker?”
“Nothing.” I looked up into the man’s covered eyes. They were blue. Not Castor or Pollux, but maybe someone like Achilles. I wondered, and wanted to ask him, if he heard the voices inside his head and if he knew they were okay. Not warring against one another, but part of a many-casted story I now held a key to. Maybe you are Icarus, I wanted to tell him. Maybe we could find out what that meant.
But instead, I merely said, “I got too warm. I went for a walk.”
“And the walk is over. Get back inside.”
When I went to bed, I repeated the word on my tongue. Icarus, Icarus, Icarus. I would not forget, I would not forget. I didn’t have time to break the wax on my back apart and bury it amid the tall grasses and dirt, so I slept with it on. I would wear it until I could break it in two.
Then, it would melt under the sunlight, and I could be someone else again.
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Story copyright © 2016 by Evelyn Deshane
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Pear Nuallak
Evelyn Deshane’s work has appeared in Plenitude Magazine, The Rusty Toque, Star*Line, and Tesseracts 19: Superhero Universe. In 2015, The Steel Chisel released Mythology, a poetry chapbook containing Evelyn’s speculative poetry. Evelyn (pron. “Eve-a-lyn”) received an MA from Trent University and is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Waterloo.
Pear Nuallak (artwork) looks to their Thai heritage and the many faces of women to create words and images. They’ve contributed illustrations to The SEA Is Ours and the upcoming issue of The Future Fire.