A woman with the heart of a bird lives in a house that was constructed from the bones of enemies conquered. Under no circumstances are strangers allowed inside. Ivy has been grafted to the walls, bound to cover them completely before long. Leaves almost take flight in the bright breezes of morning.
On the day he came, harbinger birds appeared in the sky. He left his ship’s crew at the port and came singly, almost shyly, bearing a stone. This was no stranger, but a cousin. While they dined, he entertained them with stories of his homeland. He told them of deep lakes and proud mountains, of clothes with long vertical folds, of cities so well peopled that one only needed to listen for a moment to hear the thoughts in one’s head spoken aloud by somebody else. Taking this in, the woman turned lakes into seas and mountains into the jutting prows of ships, clothes into white sails, and felt she was hearing him speak her own thoughts aloud.
She went to his room in the night. She told him that her heart would break if she could not see the places he had described, taste the air of them, precipitate them into her bones.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” he said. “I am in reduced circumstances. I met your cousin in a taverna on a dark canal—in a land east of here, I think it was, a place where they eat the eyes of the fish. He was drunk, and talked a great deal about a rich house half-covered in ivy. I drowned him in the canal and took his namestone.”
“What do I care about my husband’s cousin?” she asked, darting about the room in excitement. “Don’t they say that what’s done is done? I control this family’s purse, and you shall have it not by graft, but by my own hand. I want to see all of the places you’ve seen. I want to eat the eyes of the fish.”
They emptied the house of every stone and ring and bit of gold. The woman left behind her books and her windows. She left behind her clothing, for elsewhere were dresses with long vertical folds. The few necessities she bound and carried with her.
His ship took them at first tide. All aboard were eager to be off, and leave the deeds of the night behind. The woman tossed her family’s namestone into the sea. She linked her arm in his and gazed without squinting into the bright and the east.
The sea reflected the bright prospects of things soon to pass. His stories fed her anticipation, the boring ones taking on an impressive weight due to their unfamiliarity and the trifling ones rising to importance because they described things that she might encounter in the future, but had not encountered yet. Salt in the air enhanced every flavour.
At ports along the coast, they ate birds in wine sauce, beef in pepper sauce. The cities each provided a face, with fairs and markets and teahouses, that visitors could glance off without becoming mired in the more cyclic concerns of daily life, therefore without seeing the ways in which all the cities were the same. In one, they took milk baths. In another, their skin was rubbed with pumice until it shone.
Bound for his homeland, skies darkened. This storm would sink other ships, or send them limping to long recuperations, but to the woman’s experience it would only add zest, and the memory of clinging to wet hemp ropes, her back bowed in and pounded by drops of rain as exhilaration flooded the deck. Afterward, her cold hands sought warmth in his beard, and they both laughed when she said that her fingers were too numb to feel it scratch.
The storm had blown them off course. He glowered, talking only of navigational matters. They made their way along a barren coast of dolomite cliffs, and all she had to read were the patterns in moss. The air grew cold, and the salt began to bite. With sharper words, he made no bones.
One day he said, “Tomorrow.” And she shivered in nervous excitement, arranging trophies from the cities they had visited: her necklaces and hats and a vase to hold fresh cuts. “Tell me one more story,” she said, “before it’s all real. I am a willing graft from far away, but I need to long for it.” “It is real already,” he answered. Cares gathered on his brow, now that he was coming to the things he had to deal with at the end of his journey.
She stood and watched the sailors carrying her wealth down the gangplank on their backs. She turned her head for a moment at a hustler’s come-on, and when she looked back it had all been taken away somewhere. The black stone disappeared beneath the moving shells on the hustler’s table. For the first time, she felt that the change in her circumstances was permanent.
His apartment was over a public kitchen a few streets away from the docks. Out of the bedroom window, facing north, the woman could see the rest of the city and a rough idea of distant mountains. Out of the livingroom window to the south was visible the area set aside for sailors and transients and those who catered to them: warehouses, whorehouses, carnivals, markets. Circumstances dictated that she go down her steps and turn south, where she was allowed to be anonymous. To the north, the city demanded to know her.
At night she served food to the men he brought around. They had dirt on the toes of their boots and in the creases of their hands, and their laughter was bright but alarming. Because they spoke the language of the land, she never knew what they were laughing about.
Long vertical folds left no room for pockets. She tried to graft one onto a dress, but found that the effect of the drape was ruined if she put something in it heavier than a lovestone.
The woman learned the phrases needed to buy bread and fish. She wandered the dockside markets to the south and visited the great library to the north, never doing more than running her hands over the spines of books and the wax caps of scrolls. After existing all day in anonymous spaces, she set out the crumbs of her bread and the frames of her fish at both windows and welcomed scavenging seabirds by name.
Early the next year she began to use her fish bones to make stock. She had met a woman in the market who made an effort to speak to her, and taught her cooking techniques. Economies were necessary; what they had lived on was running out. He went north when the trees began to flower, giving her vague assurances.
Reflecting on her drab life, the woman decided that tangibility had warped things. Dreams and impressions that were pleasurable lost their attractive shapes when exposed to reality. She ran her fingers over the hide-bound library books and saw them as backwards: starting with such solid items as skin, needle, thread, and ink, they provided a set of instructions from which a reader could create something intangible and only semi-defined. At the house under the ivy she had mistaken him for a man. In fact, she thought, he’d had more in common with a good book.
He came bounding over the threshold one afternoon in late summer, crowing about new opportunities. They packed their clothing and her necklaces and hats and stones, leaving the apartment almost as bare as when she had first arrived. Leaving the city to the north, the woman felt as though she had cleared a hurdle. Beyond the library, the place was surprisingly sparse. It faded to untended fields crisscrossed by dirt paths, and there were some others with carts and packbeasts who were also leaving.
They came to a deep lake. Despite rocks that left cuts on her feet, the woman stood in frigid water to her ankles and remembered the storm. She remembered his descriptions of lakes and felt numbed to the circumstances that had brought her to one. The place both created and soothed her cuts.
They came to proud mountains and she determined that the closer they got, the less interesting the contours were. Not the prows of seafaring vessels or other romantic things but random juts. Compound fractures, bone of the world. Had they wanted to break through, she wondered, or had they been thrust? Perhaps they had been lured by a sky with clouds that like mountains take on romantic shapes when seen from far away.
They came to a city where people were crushed together in narrow streets.
“Smells like shit.”
“Get off me.”
It was hard to think except in clipped phrases. If she tried to conjure anything longer, she was cut off by a familiar word, hissed or exclaimed by someone around her, and lost the rest. Thought disintegrated in bright physicality. After a while all she wanted was to keep up with the current.
They came to a gate decorated with birds of paradise in gilded bronze. He sent a stone through and they were admitted. The city’s private streets breathed. The woman regained sense of herself slowly, and their journey ended in a courtyard. The season they had travelled seemed fully contained in the courtyard: the lake was nothing but this tiled fountain, the mountains a puff of smoke from the pipe of an old man, the city the row of servants holding out palms to greet them.
They came again the next day and he talked business while she sat. The rooms off the courtyard seemed to exist in an endless dance, stairs up and half down and up again as they bowed to each other. Each day she picked a different room in which to sit. She grafted herself to velvet, sateen, polished wood. One day she found a bookshelf, upon which there was a volume in her own language. Thereafter, she revisited all the rooms and read the book in each of them.
At parties she became the centrepiece. As he pushed her to mention certain things—her family name, exotic goods they had seen during their tour of coastal cities, the trading customs of her old homeland—she suspected more graft. Her smile became like a razor. People staggered and spun through soft lamplight, spice and liquor sent out with each throwaway laugh. In the book she had read so many times, once in each of the rooms in which the parties were held,
the youngest daughter of a king was bound by law to marry the poorest beggar in the kingdom, thereby lifting the lowliest out of poverty. On the appointed day, hundreds of men lined up and made their argument as to being the poorest among seas of poor. One ranted for two days straight. One, having only three teeth and no tongue, simply opened his mouth.
The daughter, who did not wish to be trapped by marriage, saw a bedraggled seabird that had been blown inland. Its wing was injured. It was pecking miserably at a pile of stones near one corner of the royal house, turning them over with its beak. When the last beggar had spoken, the daughter pointed to the wretched creature. She and the bird were wed the same day. Thereafter, the bird was kept in a cage and pampered, and the daughter did whatever she pleased, not feeling guilty for even a moment for having used it.
The rest of the book dealt with the circumstances surrounding a revolt of the common people against the royal house, for uplifting an animal rather than one of their own. The daughter herself suffered no consequences, but many members of her family were killed.
The woman thought about the violence in the book as she flashed bright at their hosts who were already rich enough to buy the right to their own private thoughts in the tiered, crowded city. She assured them that trade with her homeland would make them even richer, though she doubted more money could improve the quality of the thoughts they enjoyed. The deal was concluded. Smoke from the old man’s pipe blew away.
She said, “I have precipitated you into my bones. I have heard all of your stories, and find that repetition tires me. There is nothing left of you that I want.” He was leaving anyway, his funds refreshed, on a trade mission that had yet to be mismanaged or sunk by weather.
She felt strength in her bones as she left the city. She wandered the skirts of the mountains as autumn blew away, making soup out of roots and the remnants of fish given to her by other sympathetic women.
A small fishing community on the lake took her in for the winter. The people were as deep and numb as the lake itself, and she wore furs instead of vertical folds and fished with them through holes in the ice and was as cold as she had ever been. The lake, which she had once dismissed as a place to see and pass through, grafted itself to her. The numb people spoke to her in short sentences. As she began to understand their language, they thawed and ran on and on.
Seasons followed in their order, lake bright and choppy, slow and placid, frozen and thawed. The woman fished and cooked and listened to the stories of the other lake people. When those became repetitive, she began to sit at the edge of town and listen to the passing traders, coming to realize that this was a much more efficient method of collecting stories than travelling more herself. She wrote them down in both of the languages she knew. She bartered for material.
Bound books and wax-capped scrolls sat on shelves in the lake town’s library. The woman ran her fingertips over them, knew the contents of each and every one, the type of longing represented in each and every one. It was summer, slow and placid, the season of reflection. As her thoughts skipped from one language to another, rippling into themselves and amplifying, she realized that her very brain had been set in new channels that branched far and wide. She ran out to them even as they fed her: a branch for each of her experiences, a branch for each city she had seen, a branch for each person she had known, a branch for her small lake house and dock and her creaking rowboat. A branch for him, too.
She had heard tall tales about him over the years, how he had made a great fortune and lost it, and then made another. But his circumstances were no longer tied to her own. She put him in the library with the rest of the books.
When even the new stories brought to her by travellers from far-flung places began to repeat themselves, the woman trained a new librarian. She left her lake and went back by widened, paved roads to the port city, seabirds gradually appearing in the sky. One old stone bought her passage on a steamer. Perhaps, she thought, she could look on her homeland with her faded eyes and her brain of branches.
With bright steps she boards the ship. Her heart bounds over the waves, almost faltering. It will be difficult to graft new circumstances onto her aging body. But she will suck all the life she can out of it, until she has bones that are as hollow as those of a bird.
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Story copyright © 2019 by Alexandra Munck
Artwork copyright © 2019 by Pear Nuallak
Alexandra Munck has filleted walleye on an island in Canada, hiked down a gorge in Greece, and gotten lost in a car park in Nottingham. She lives in Illinois and dreams of writing fantasy that is alive with robust constructed languages. This is her speculative fiction debut.
Pear Nuallak 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 Future Fire.