Published in Issue 16 of Visionary Tongue, 2002.
He burst from the shadows of the alleyway, laughing and shouting, nursing his twisted ankle as he flung his arms high above his head and tripped along the uneven cobblestones. Malicki merged with the pressing mass of masked and costumed revelers, lost in a sea of brightly colored ribbons, silk and feathers. As his lungs filled up with heady scents of sharp incense and perfumes, he narrowed his pale eyes, squinting through the waves of people for a sign of recognition. Luck was with him tonight; no one had observed his stolen entrance. Despite losing his gear and turning his ankle on his ungraceful landing, stealing over the walls and into the walled city of New Gehenna had been virtually uneventful.
Malicki cast his wide gaze skyward, catching the sun as it dipped below the horizon, realizing how close he had come to not making it inside. Tonight was The Eve of Souls. Every specter, spirit and demon from the lands above to the six realms below would be roaming above ground from sundown till The Waking Time three nights hence. It was the start of the Spirit Nights and only the exiled or insane went without refuge. The lucky ones barricaded themselves in great walled cities. The less fortunate fought for their souls and lives, their scattered stories of courage and defeat playing out across the desolate badlands.
On this eve of horrors, New Gehenna celebrated. Malicki stumbled through the bodies, seeking shore along the narrow twisting streets, desperate not to get swept up in the undertow of grasping and groping hands. Round and round he spun, dizzy and overcome. He shut his eyes tight as the wave surged forward and dragged him below, his feet swept out from underneath him. Malicki plunged forward and was pulled up and into the thick folds of crimson robes and strong arms, his feet dangling uselessly beneath him.
“A stone jack…” the liquor tainted voice licked over him. “I found a stone jack, I shall hang you high…” He sang tunelessly. “A beautiful one at that.” The man cackled, lifting the struggling boy high above his red horned mask. Malicki pummeled the broad shoulders with his fists, twisting like a snake in the man’s firm hold.
“I’m not a stone jack!” His voice cracked and was drowned out by the surrounding cheers and wails and laughter. “I’m not!” Malicki grasped the leering mask by the horns and ripped it from his captors shocked face. With trembling hands he flung the demon mask deep into the crowd.
The bewildered boy gasped as he hit the ground, his drunken assailant more interested in the retrieval of his mask then of pursuing his prey any further. Malicki struggled to stand. He had no idea what the drunken man had been raving about. He didn’t know what a stone jack was, but he knew he should be wary. As the hulking red beast loped back into the crowds more arms pulled Malicki to his feet, ushering him along. Shielding his head with his arms, he staggered and stumbled, passing from one embrace to the next, his feet leaving the ground more than they touched the cold stones.
The mob traveled and overlapped, surging and ebbing in a tide of color and flesh. Girls clad in iridescent feathers and jeweled bird masks swam across the ocean of hands. Horned boys with leggings of soft brown fur, and heads crowned with wreaths of leaves leapt and twirled, twisting into impossible position as they drank from long hollowed horns.
From ribbon and garland wrapped balconies, beautiful and horrible creatures draped precariously over edges. Dangling daringly by their ankles they arched their backs and threw their arms towards the night’s sky before tumbling into the cheering mob below. As the crowd surged forward, their arms outstretched and grasping at the flying beasts, Malicki slammed up against the wall and tumbled back into darkness.
The wall had been a door, unlocked and open thankfully. Malicki kicked the door shut and dropped back onto the floor. Gasping and dazed, he lay still in the darkness and waited for the world to stop spinning. He had imagined the streets of New Gehenna to be barren this night. Imagined families safe behind locked doors and closed shutters, the wind touched streets whispering with soft echoes. The dusky street boys he had met in the walled city of Kasha had told him that the Spirit Nights were a time of meditation and reflection. Obviously not all cities followed the same traditions.
Malicki regretted parting ways with the Kashan boys. In his months of travelling from one strange city to the next, the throwaway boys had been the only to welcome him. Dark-eyed and fey, they led him to the underside of their exotic city and shown him pleasures and majicks he had never imagined. The boys had taken Malicki into their makeshift family and the four had become like one. Scowling and serious Omar, playful and ever mischievous Yacir, and silent Siri were his constant companions for the weeks he had lived and played and explored in Kasha. For the first time, the only time in his travels Malikci had contemplated staying still. Yet there had also been rumors of dissent from the outer villages, grown tired of the Kasha’s hoarding of its riches and mysteries. In the end he was forced to do what the other street rats were doing, and left the Kashan walls before they were overrun and the city plundered.
As his breath slowed and his hands stopped trembling, he rolled over onto his stomach. Dim light flickered from the far side of the room, light he hadn’t noticed as he had exploded through the doorway. Now quiet, he began to take in his surroundings. A path of extinguished candles trailed into the darkness, half burned to the floor, their dripping rivulets of wax cooled and hardened, frozen in time.
“Hello?” He called into the darkness. The single flame flickered and danced and his call was left unanswered.
He rose from the floor slowly, silently cursing the dull throbbing in his ankle. The din of sounds from outside made it impossible to hear any soft stirrings that may have been in the shadows. The stale air held a stillness that played with his nerves and sharpened his uncertainty.
“Anyone?” Malicki called again, creeping quietly towards the single candle. As he approached the flame a narrow stairway came into view. An uneven trail of light
illuminated a path upwards. Only a scattering of candles remained alight, enough to show the path, not enough to reveal what lay beyond. “Anything?” His voiced trailed off as he pulled a candle from the step and held it aloft.
The stone stairs were soundless as he ascended, weaving a spiral through the darkness until it faded back into light. Malicki stopped at the threshold, catching his breath as dozens of tiny lights danced in his eyes.
The room was filled with candles, melting on windowsills and shelves, set in corners and along the floor. The trail of light led to the foot of a simple bed. The still form of a woman lay atop the coverlet throwing long shadows across the far wall.
Although she looked as if she was merely sleeping, Malicki knew the woman was dead. He had seen enough death across the badlands to know how subtle its mark could be. He knelt by her side and brushed his fingers across her lips feeling the fleeting traces of warmth. She was only recently dead. He wondered how close their paths had come to crossing.
She had been an old woman, delicately beautiful in her age. Long silver streaked dark hair fanned out across the pillows. Her long thin fingers folded across her stomach, her walking stick at her side. She wore the simple clothes of mourning, a dress made of heavy black wool and sturdy buckled black shoes. Malicki cocked his head to the side as he took her in, wondering what her story had been.
“I apologize for disturbing you.” He bowed his head to the corpse. “I hope you won’t be too upset with me.” He crossed the room, opening the door to the closet. “But if I have to stay in this awful place it seems I have to become something else.”
Malicki pulled through the woman’s belongings, poking through the drab piles of folded black dresses and thick woolen sweaters. He dropped to his knees and rummaged about on all fours, his hands hitting upon something solid in the back. Underneath a pile of crocheted shawls and afghans, his fingers traced over a wooden box, the surface covered with deep curving grooves and swirls. The small trunk was shoved back in the corner, seemingly forgotten or hidden away, Malicki wondered which. He pulled the dark wooden box onto his lap and flipped open the latch.
Folds of shimmering pale filled the chest and spilled over his hands as he held the gown to its full length. Woven waves of silvery gray cobwebs, he thought, the gossamer gauze was so thin and fine. Silver rings and ribbons of pale gray and white filled the bottom of the chest. He dragged his findings to the dead woman’s dressing table and sat down in front of the mirror. He held the spider web gown to his chest and gazed at the reflection of the body on the bed.
He pulled his tattered sweater over his head and tossed it aside. He smelled of two days journey, his boots dirt caked to the knees, his ribs pushing through the tanned skin of his chest. Malicki unbraided his long twig riddled plaits, his thick honey-colored hair spilling in long tangles to his waist. He traced his fingers lightly across the woman’s delicate things, tiny pots of shimmering pigments and oils, opalescent powders and jeweled pins. He closed his hand around the handle of a brittle wooden brush and started the task of cleaning the knots out of his hair.
In four days time, once the dead had gone to ground he would meet his friends again. Where the black waters flow from four to one, Siri had drawled cryptically, they would meet once more. Pretty Yacir had laughed playfully at Malicki’s bewilderment and whispered the translation, “Go east for four days till you see the rivers.”
Malicki sighed softly as he pulled a steady rhythm across his scalp. If only he had chosen to travel west with his friends to Pearl City. If only he hadn’t insisted on stealing a glimpse of New Gehenna. “They don’t respect the dead. The Spirit Nights are a twisted game to them.” Omar had scolded him, and told him that if he chose to go he would be going alone.
Now he was trapped here, clad in the stolen gown of a dead woman, his face powdered pale to match the ghostly pallor of New Gehennan skin. Four ribbon twisted plaits hung to his waist, his fingers bound in silver rings, his ears looped with silver. His pale eyes were kohl ringed and shadowed with silver powder, his lips he had painted a garish black.
Malicki stared into the eyes of a strange wraithlike woman. Willowy and ethereal, her eyes were wide and weary. He smiled and she smiled coyly in return. The road weary gutter boy he had been and hour before, was safely nowhere to be found. He wondered if the Kashan boys had found such strange refuge.
Malicki settled onto the floor by the dead woman’s side, resting his head against the coverlet. His gaze drifted across the room, mesmerized by the dancing candles and the stillness in the air. Muffled sounds seeped through the shuttered windows, strange harmonies swirling and ebbing over the howls and cries of the raging crowd below. He traced his fingers through the woman’s silver tresses. His hand brushing across a folded note beneath her hair, a pale corner barely visible beneath her pillow.
He untangled the paper and settled back against the bed, pulling his knees to his chest. Unfolding the letter quickly he scanned down the lines of scrawled text.
On this first of the three spirit nights, I have ended my life. My life behind the shadowed Gehennan walls has made me weary. I am sick of all the death, of the rituals and traditions we claim will keep the walls strong and our people protected. All we have done is wither away our souls as we soak our walls with innocent blood. You will come into my house on this first night and take my body to the gates to discard me along with the others that will no longer bear our way. When I join the spirits outside the walled city I will revel in the tribute you will give to us and I shall spit it back and do all I will to tear down these blood stained walls. We have brought it upon ourselves. – Ursula
The letter slipped from his fingers. They would come for her body. He would have to leave his brief sanctuary. Malicki snatched up the walking stick and limped down the narrow stairwell, the last candle blowing dark as he brushed past. He sucked in his breath, holding it fast, dragging out one last quiet moment before he slipped back into the madness.
Malicki lost himself in the crowds once again. The woman’s walking stick helped ease the nagging pain as he stumbled along. He closed his eyes, swept up in the frenzy. Women swimming on top waves of hands stopped to drop glittering beads around his slender throat. As he struggled to steady himself, a slender blue mermaid tugged on his braids as she floated above, winking at him as she passed.
The crowd spilled out into the center of town and began to dissipate. The frenzy was taken down, as bodies were no longer pressed upon one another. Malicki found a lone spot against a shuttered storefront and settled to the ground. One by one hopeful young men approached the strange and pale beauty, huddled alone against the cold wall. They offered him beads and trinkets, spoils found from the carts of jewelists and charm makers. Politely Malicki denied them, pulling his knees tighter to his chest and his walking stick closer to his side.
“You should get a better view.” A young man dropped a string of sky blue beads into Malicki’s lap and smiled down at the wide-eyed creature. “The stone jacks are coming, you should be in front if you want to see.”
Malicki shook his head, staring up at the strange young man who seemed to be ignoring his reluctance. The young man offered his arm and his name while curiosity withered Malicki’s small reserve. He let the young man called Mazen help him to his feet and told him he was called Ursula. Arm in arm they moved through the crowd. The wall of people split in half as the town clock chimed nine times, pushing back until a wide path was cleared.
They stood on the edge of the parted crowd. Malicki digging his fingers into Mazen’s arm as everyone grew silent. His stomach was fluttered nervously, the silence hanging heavy about his head, more deafening than the raging voices moments before. He knew he would see something horrible. Something the old woman could no longer bear to witness.
He closed his eyes as the first few notes washed over him, recognizing the too familiar song of fear and pain. The voices overlapped each other, a desperate wailing weaving into a terrible harmony. A rumbling murmur emanating from the crowd as the keening grew in pitch and intensity.
Around the corner and into the square the first of the procession came. A parade of flowing and fluttering white robed figures, their faces hidden behind fierce bird masks as they floated over the uneven ground. The center of the procession beheld the source of the horrible sound. Three boys, battered and street worn, their fear distorted faces covered with dirt and blood.
Dark skinned boys, Kashan boys. The three he had left behind. Malicki bit down hard on his lip and staggered, bumping back into Mazen. Mazen wrapped his arms around his frightened companion and whispered into his ear. “Don’t worry Ursula, they can’t hurt you…”
‘Can’t hurt me?’ Malicki’s thoughts raced. ‘Who does he mean?’ He stared at his friends huddling together, clawing gashes into their faces and pulling out their hair in ragged clumps, so lost in fear they were. Malicki turned away, gasping desperately against his suitor’s chest. Mazen held Malicki tighter, smiling down at his feint companion.
“Are you ready Ursula? Do you have your jewel? You’re so gentle hearted. Don’t be afraid…”
The bird-faced men began chanting. Malicki couldn’t make out the words; his eyes reluctantly fixed on his friends, his vision clouded by tears he could no longer control. One by one the cowering boys were wrenched from each other’s arms and pulled to opposite sides of the square. Held aloft between the towering men, their sandals dragging across the cobblestones, as they were forced closer to the crowd. Malicki held his breath, his knuckles white as he turned to face his friends, clutching the walking stick between his hands.
One small group stopped a few steps in front Mazen and his trembling companion. Malicki locked eyes with Yacir as they pulled him forward and held the writhing boy fast. ‘Yacir’ his friend’s name hung on his lips, and as Yacir’s eyes caught his own, he knew his friend saw past the pale creature’s skin he was hiding in.
Robed in somber black, another birdlike creature glided forward and stood beside the shuddering Kashan. In his hands he held aloft a lacquered red box, lowering it as he passed the onlookers, flourishing as he pulled the lid open. Malicki squinted into the shallow depth, into a box filled with glimmering gold.
“I don’t understand.” Malicki whispered.
Mazen smiled down at him. “The birds must set the first stones, then we set our own.”
Yacir bucked and screamed as the ebony one held up a small stone. Tapering to a sharp point, it glittered in the pale moonlight, a tiny star held between white fingertips. He placed his hand on they boy’s shoulders to steady him and pushed the stone through the skin of Yacir’s chest.
Malicki’s hands flew to his mouth; his walking stick clattering to the stones below as the onyx bird stepped aside. In the center of the writhing boy’s chest a glittering gold stone was set deep into his skin. Yacir’s eyes were wide, unblinking, hot tears scoring through the dust and blood that covered his face.
“The spirits will be so pleased with us.” Mazen smiled proudly. “What beautiful stone jacks we will hang from the gates this year.”
Malicki stood fixed and numb as the crowd moved past him, each hand holding a tapered stone, a tiny colored jewel to be set into skin. His eyes still locked onto Yacir as piece by piece his friend disappeared behind sparkling jewels and shining stones, more and more of his beautiful flesh becoming a garish mosaic. As Yacir’s face disappeared beneath blood slick jewels, Malicki tore his gaze from the stone jack, staring down at the street below, weeping silently over the blood of the Kashan boy splattering onto the hems of cloaks and dresses and seeping into the cobblestones.