"Never mind him," my mother says, placing a warm hand on my shoulder and turning me away from the tall, pale man in the black leather jacket. "He's nobody."
He was staring at me -- and probably still is. His eyes are on my back, cold and gray, but not icy. More like concrete in the shade.
Aunt Ditty -- one of the few people here that I actually recognize -- is watching us. She shakes her head at what my mother's doing, smiling at me with eyes the color of the water in Daddy's Olympic-sized swimming pool. Aunt Ditty has always been understanding about stuff like this, of course. I give her my "Well, what can I do?" shrug and she winks at me.
I see him again, and almost run away. When my mother tells me to do something, or not to do something, it's like I don't have any choice -- what she says goes. I hate that feeling, like not being separate from my mom, like I'm an extra arm or leg that always does what she wants.
So I decide, this one time, I'm going to do what I want, and I look up. And I stare. He's moving through the crowd of my aunts and uncles and cousins -- these family reunions are always a zoo, even if Daddy's mistresses aren't here for him to show off to -- and he breezes by them like he's made of wind. Their hair and clothes even ruffle, but there's no break in the conversation.
He's moving towards me, and I feel, somehow, as if I'm calling him over, drawing him to me. Strong jaw, strong shoulders, strong hands. Exhilaration rushes over my skin like the wind that seems to surround him -- cold and sharp. But my cheeks burn and my palms sweat, and he's getting closer. My breath shudders in my chest.
Don't look away, I think, and my eyes remain defiantly on him, my gaze pulling him towards me. Almost right in front of me, he juts his chin out in greeting, starts to say something, and--
My mother steps between us. I can still smell him, though -- swanky cologne, cold leather, smoke. He smiles at me over my mother's head, not showing any teeth. But when he speaks, it's to her.
"Good day, my sister, Giver of Life," he says. My family's formal speech, full of silly titles and epithets that no one usually uses anymore. I learned them all when I was little, but never even once called my half-sister "Gray-Eyed." I hardly call her anything, really. She's always kind of scared me.
My mother answers, her voice as cold as it can get. "Good day, my brother, Keeper of Death."
So I stand here, probably looking stupid, fingers numb, mouth dry, still staring at him -- my uncle. The uncle I've never seen, the uncle my father doesn't even talk about. He's standing right in front of me, and his presence ripples right through me. Cold, liquid. Familiar.
My mother is still standing between us, but Aunt Ditty comes along and leans her head towards her, whispering.
I catch some of their words -- "the way it has to be," "not again," "you know better" -- and then Aunt Ditty leads my mother away and winks at me.
And now there's nothing between me and my uncle but air.
Tiny cyclones at his feet stir up the leaves on Daddy's patio. I could swear he's touching me when the wind slides over my skin, lifting the hem of the stupid sundress my mother made me wear. I push it down and hold it there, hands on thighs.
He smiles. His teeth show this time, small points on his canines. "You wanna take a ride?" he says.
I glance over my shoulder. Aunt Ditty shoots me a zinger of a look and motions me off with a wave of her hand. Giddy and graceful. Once I told my mother, who looks a bit drab next to Aunt Ditty -- but, then, who doesn't? -- how much I'd like to be like Ditty, and this moment of utter anguish crossed my mother's face before she said, calmly, warmly, "Ditty just is, honey. She doesn't have to try. You're either like her or you're not."
My mother wants me to be like her: sensible, responsible, capable -- lots of words that end in "-ble." My mother's like that -- all wheat and corn and green beans. And why she expects me -- me with my rose garden and pots of violets -- to be like that, as if that's what I'm supposed to be, I'll never understand. "We're all supposed to be something, Mom," I tell her, "and it's pretty obvious I'm not supposed to be you." But my mother isn't here now.
So I smile back at my uncle and say, "Sure, why not."
He offers his arm to me. I take it, worn leather like snakeskin under my fingers.
"Let's get the hell out of here," he says.
My uncle drives a sleek black sports car, shiny as a beetle's shell. He drives fast, shifts gears hard, makes the engine roar.
"Where are we going?" I ask him.
"My place," he says. He's got the window open, his left elbow resting on the door, the air whipping past him, carrying the scent of wind along with his cold and smoke. "I don't know what your dad's thinking, living in that monstrosity."
I think of Daddy's house, the pink marbled floors, the white columns, the cream-colored Italian leather sofas, my stepmother's rooms with the vases full of peacock feathers. Every day, a maid has to remove each feather, dust it, and put it back into the vase exactly as it was.
My uncle laughs as if he's reading my mind. "It's all about conspicuous consumption," he says. "It's our family's defining trait."
"Not everyone's," I answer, thinking of the house where my mother and I live, a cottage compared to Daddy's place, with its vegetable garden and flower garden, honeysuckle crawling along the roof of the porch.
"I didn't say it was a flaw," he says. "Just a trait." And he pushes the car past ninety, flying around the curves in the road.
We're descending, down from the hill where Daddy's house is, where our cottage is, into the valley. The silver ribbon of the river winds below us. I know where we're going. And I don't care.
"Free will," I say.
My uncle turns, glances at me, the sun from behind the clouds casting lights and darks across his lean face -- sharp cheekbones, high forehead. "What?"
"We can't really believe in it, can we?" I say. "Only people can. And then only people who don't believe in us."
"And that's just about everyone, these days," he says. He pulls a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, offers one to me before pulling one out and lighting it -- all with his left hand. I watch his right hand as if he's a conjuror who's trying to divert my attention from what he's really doing. He takes a puff, and grins, sardonic and something else. Tired. World-weary.
I smile back, watching the lines in his face, the flat gray of his eyes. And then I feel the cold of his hand as it brushes my knee. His touch lingers, even after his hand is back on the stick shift. I close my eyes.
"Magic tricks," I say. And this time when he asks "What?" I don't answer.
I don't know what it is about this place. The valley is something I've only ever looked at from the hill -- but now, up close, the gray-green grass along the banks of the river, dotted with red poppies, seems like a place I've been a hundred -- a million -- times before.
Poppies. Petals blood red, centers blacker than my uncle's leather jacket, as black and soft as velvet. I stare at them as we pass, and I try to say something, but all that comes out is "How?"
With a smooth, deft movement, my uncle swings the car to the side of the road and stops. He smiles at me, stabs his cigarette out in the ashtray. "Come on," he says.
The heels of his boots crush the grass, but he steps over the poppies. They brush against my ankles as I follow him to the river, and I can feel their whispers. Mine, is what the voice in my head says before it says, That's impossible.
My uncle turns to me, offers his hand. His fingernails are pale blue, the bones under his skin like steel. My insides turn cold and liquid -- I look at the river and I think of my veins full of silver water instead of blood, winding around in my body the way the river winds through the valley.
He leans toward me and his hand slides along my arm. I shiver and feel my mouth forming a stupid, shaky smile. A squeaky sound starts in my throat, but before I can open my mouth to say anything, his is pressed against it and I hear the creaking of leather, feel his hand on the back of my neck. The air smells of ice and crushed grass. I put my hand under his jacket, where the coldness of his body gathers, and we sink into the grass at the edge of the river.
We part to breathe, and the cold has gone all through me, my skin chilled with goose bumps, my mouth dry. I look at the silver water of the river. His eyes follow mine, and he leans into me, icy breath on my neck as he whispers.
"If you drink from the river," he says, "you'll forget your life. You'll forget everything but me. You'll rule over the dead with me. The living deny your father's existence or have forgotten about him altogether, but the dead have no choice but to believe in me. And if you drink from the river, in you, too."
I'm closer to it now. I see my face, a white reflection in the water.
"The shades in my realm will crawl on their knees to touch the heels of your shoes. They'll call you their queen and adore you."
He touches my cheek, cups it in his hand. "You'll grow pale, but you'll be happy. For a third of the year, you'll be happy. And then your father will drag you back to the land of the living. You'll drink from the river again and forget everything. They'll give you back your old life, give you old, eternal memories -- memories of everything but me, everything but this.
"But next year, you'll meet me again, and I'll take you to this same place and make this same speech. It has happened before, thousands of times over."
I close my eyes and fall into the rhythm of his voice, my breath in time with his words, my body pulsing with his words. I think of my mother trying to keep me from him, and for a moment my cheeks flare white-hot, melting the cold trance. Who is she to try to keep me from what I'm supposed to be?
She is what she is, I know. I picture the years, thousands of years; she faces every one with a role to play. As does Aunt Ditty. As does my uncle. As do I.
I plunge my hands into the water, desperate, and fling it on my face, press my hands to my face -- numbness where the water touches, cold and silent peace. And then, more slowly, I reach into the river with cupped hands, draw out the glistening water, and, closing my eyes, I drink.
Copyright © 2004 Jennifer de Guzman
Jennifer de Guzman is a literature student, comic book editor, and speculator from the San Francisco Bay Area. When she isn't searching for the lost city of El Dorado, she is usually reading, writing, and moping about on the floor. Her fiction and poetry have previously appeared in Strange Horizons. For more on her work, see her website.