This story is part of our 2016 fund drive bonus issue! Read more about Strange Horizons' funding model, or donate, here.
This page contains:
- Disregard for personal autonomy
- Body transformation
- Drug use
Act I: The Curse, Such As It Stands
Dido walks through her slumbering city like an old memory: tired, but with a determined stride. It’s dawn, the most forgiving time of day, when sleepy shadows still dull the world’s harsh lines and grime. In the soft unassuming light of morning, the gods’ curse always feels a little more bearable.
The street she’s walking down is long, and the bag slung over her shoulder is impossibly heavy. But she moves forward, slipping past closed shops with graffiti-covered grilles, past balconied apartments with untamed gardens, past so many sleeping lovers in their beds. She alone is awake, aware and carefully searching, watching, feeling her city.
It’s only at the end of the road, a moment before she reaches the corner of the sidewalk, that Dido feels the barest of chills caress her cheek. She inhales sharply and turns.
Across the street, between two buildings, there’s a narrow alley she's never noticed before. The faint, icy breeze brushes against her again.
Four quick strides and Dido is across the road and between the buildings, despite—or rather, in spite of the bag she's carrying. From there, it’s only a few more steps until the alley gives way to a tiny courtyard. And sprawled in the middle of the pavement, Dido finds what she’s been hunting.
The crack in the ground is half-hidden by stray rubbish and forgotten underwear, fallen from the clotheslines above. It's two handspans long and infinitely deep, and from within the fissure a cold, pitiless light rises up and illuminates the courtyard with unforgiving clarity. And Dido shivers, despite the morning's warmth.
She knows no one has set foot in this courtyard for years. She knows people can sense the brokenness, the fracture, though they can’t see the crack or the light or feel the chilly air touch the napes of their necks. Dido knows this because she’s the only one in the city who can.
Because this is her curse.
She lets a hand drift above the crack. The light spilling out of it reveals millions of creases crisscrossing her skin like ripples in the sand. Reveals the hand of a much older woman.
This is her punishment for defying the gods' fate, for throwing their story back at them all those years ago.
Pinpricks of pain creep across her fingertips. Dido scowls as she rubs her frozen hand against her pants. Then, with swift precision, she sets down her heavy bag, unhooks a bucket filled with tools from her belt, and lays its contents out on the ground. She taps the empty bucket four times with her fourth finger and a moment later, it’s brimming with water.
Dido smiles. That little drop of magic was a gift from her mother.
She begins to shovel the mixture of sand and cement from the bag into the water, stirring as she goes. The concrete thickens quickly and with a well-practiced motion, she pours it into the crack.
The crack swallows it greedily, but still the light flickers on.
Shovel, mix, pour. Over and over, bucket after bucket, her bag of sand and cement constantly refilling itself as she works, as persistent as the crack's bottomless thirst. But Dido’s exasperated mother always said her stubbornness could outlast anything. Her mother was right.
This is her curse and she will outlast it.
By the time the crack is sated, the sun is high and strong. Dido smears and scrapes the last of the concrete into a uniform seam and rises to her feet. There's only a faint outline now, an easily-ignored scar in the pavement. The light that shows things as they are is no longer seeping out and the warmth is returning to the air. It's almost like the crack never existed. Dido wipes her hands with a rag, nods at her work, satisfied.
Maybe now someone will wander down from the apartments above to pick up the trash and retrieve the lost clothes. Or the next time a ball strays into the courtyard, children won't hesitate to retrieve it. The dread that once lived here is gone.
As always, Dido feels the gaze of one of the gods’ watchers on the back of her neck as she gathers up her things. Another cursed victim sent to make sure she doesn't stray from her work. Dido looks up and spots a small face with bright eyes peering down from one of the balconies above. She lifts a hand in acknowledgement, but the face disappears behind the leaves of a stunted fig tree before she can finish raising her fingers. Dido shrugs, not particularly offended. She can't change others' decisions—she knows that now. But she always hopes that one day Bright Eyes will come say hello. After all, they're stuck in this curse together, and Dido has been wandering this city for a long time.
But perhaps the next crack she mends will be her last and she can finally go home to her beloved island where the smell of the ocean is always present and not just a faint whiff on the city's breeze. She's not Dido, not really. Unlike the real Dido, the Dido of the stories, when the time had come, she hadn't died for the hero.
With a grunt, Dido hoists up her bag. It’s just as heavy, just as full as before.
But she’s wearing a smile anyway, despite it all. She’s healing the wounds of this city. Her city. A city without a hero—full of paralyzing cracks, many of which Dido made herself all those years ago. Many, but not all.
So, like a memory, she starts down the street again, in search, and before the sun sets, there are two fewer cracks in her city.
Act II: The Hero’s Story, More or Less
"What brings you to C______?"
This time, the question is asked by a short, burly man with thinning hair and kind eyes. He sits a few tables away from her, a plate of half-eaten olives and cheese in front of him, a glass of vermouth in hand. The eatery is no more than a hole-in-the-wall, dimly lit and badly decorated. The whole place smells of meat and fat and smoke. But the food’s good and generous, the price modest.
Her city doesn’t court many travelers—no hero had saved it in the end—so the man's question is a common one. Her eyes, her hair, and her accent betray that she was once a foreigner, though she’s wandered these streets longer than most natives.
Dido takes a slow, deliberate bite of her chicken. She and the man are the only ones in the restaurant—except, of course, for a shadowy woman in the corner, another of the gods’ watchers. Dido can’t make out more than the watcher’s silhouette. Like Bright Eyes, this woman has been following her for years.
"Staying here long?" the man asks, trying again. Dido can’t help smiling. He has no idea.
Normally, for simplicity's sake, she says that she’s a temporary worker, that home is only a few more paychecks away. She prefers her lies.
But that’s not the tale the watcher in the corner wants to hear.
"Do you like stories?" Dido asks, and before the man can respond, she gathers herself up like a proper storyteller, as her aunts taught her, and says: "Once there was a woman who was drenched in magic and was queen of her own small island. Once there was a man who sailed across the sea, searching for a home."
The words are stiff and old and stale, but Dido's lonely and reluctant to lose the shadowy woman, the closest thing she's had in all these long years to a friend. So she presses on.
"When they first met, they did not fall in love on sight, as the stories say, but rather their love grew like an oak. Slowly, but strong and with deep-running roots. And at night, when they lay together, tangled in each other's limbs, they would whisper that they would remain like this forever."
From the corner of her eye, Dido sees the woman shift uneasily. If she can keep her listening until the end of the story . . .
"But the gods told the man that he was fated to rule a city he'd never seen. They had written it in the stars. The lovers tried to reason with the gods, to plead, to argue. They tried to flee. But who can outrun the stars? So, with tears in his eyes and vows of eternal love on his lips, the man hoisted the sails of his lonely ship and left without looking behind."
Most of the heartache in telling this story is gone, like a jagged shell on the beach sanded down with time. And yet, Dido can feel the watcher's contempt for her like a fresh cut.
"And the woman: the gods intended her to succumb to a broken heart, as her mother and grandmother had done. They expected her to die an honorable death at her own hand."
She can almost see the shadowy woman smirking at the edge of her vision. And Dido relaxes a little. Now, she knows her audience will stay to the end.
"But the woman was angry, angrier than her pain and her grief, angry like a storm that had spent too long at sea. She gathered all the drops of magic she learned from her mother and her aunts and sisters and methodically, she laid siege to a city she'd never seen, creating cracks in its foundations so deep, so crippling, that no one could ever hope to rule it."
This is the game she and the woman in the shadows play again and again. Dido tells the story and the shadowy woman stays and listens if she tells it exactly so. She doesn't know why the watcher only remains for this tale—she's tried telling other stories, other variations in the past. But the watcher seems cursed to hear this story over and over and Dido has no idea why.
"And the woman looked at her work and smiled, certain that her lover would return to her and they would face the gods' wrath together."
Dido keeps repeating this story to strangers because the watcher always lingers for a moment at the end of the tale, as if she's going to say something. And Dido hopes.
"But the woman was wrong, so damnably wrong. At first, she did not believe the news that came whispering on the waves, though the sea had never lied to her before. But when days passed and her lover did not return to her, she knew it was true. The man had just sailed on to the next city and met his destiny there instead. Because for the gods and their fate, it's not the city that's important. Only the hero is."
Dido steals another glance at the watcher, ready to rush after her if needed, but her audience makes no indication of leaving.
"And the woman?" the man asks. Dido gives him a startled look. She'd forgotten he was there.
"She refused to die—an act of spite more than bravery. So, she became a different type of martyr. The gods made certain of that."
Dido takes another bite of chicken, refusing to make eye contact with either member of her audience. The man is staring at her as if seeing her for the first time; her stained clothes, dirty boots, and the bag at her feet. Realization blooms across his face.
"You," he stammers, "You can't be . . ."
In the corner, the shadowy woman stands slowly, deliberately. With care, Dido wipes her chin with a napkin and with the thumb of her other hand, traces a circle twice over her pocket. A moment later, it's filled with a familiar weight and she withdraws a small handful of bills and coins, leaving them next to the remains of her meal.
That drop of magic was taught to her mother by her grandmother.
"Please, what is your name?" the man asks.
"Dido," she says with a hint of sarcasm. The shadowy woman gives a soft laugh and Dido smiles. It's an old joke.
"Can you at least tell me the hero's name?" he says, moving to stand, hand outstretched as if to stop her from leaving. Dido shakes her head once, coldly, severely, making the man halt and drop his hand.
She never speaks her lover's name, not even in a whisper. Despite what the gods think, names have power. They are more than just symbols of who they represented.
Without warning, the shadowy woman hurries to the door and steps out into the city. Swearing, Dido grabs her bag and hurries out after her. But, as usual, she's too slow. By the time she reaches the threshold, the watcher has disappeared down the city's streets.
She swears again, then sighs, slinging her bag over her shoulder. She starts walking towards the setting sun, following the breeze that smells distantly of the sea. One day she'll catch up with the woman. Whoever she is.
Gods, how she loathes telling that story. How compelled she is to tell it anyway, in exchange for a drop or two of hope.
She isn't the cold heartless woman; her cracks never killed or maimed anyone. They just show the cold unappealing truth of things, bringing the faults and injustices of the gods' plans to light, questioning the glory of their fate.
But it's true, she'd once been angry like a tempest and when she'd first come here, she hated this city. She despised its winding, erratic streets, its high walls and stone towers, the way it reminded her some days of how very close it was to the sea. But the city is also a victim and without its hero, it has been discarded.
Since then, she's learned to be subtle, using only a few drops of magic here and there. The first time was to help a young family displaced by a crack. The second was to repel a party of disguised invaders at the gates, with their suits and contracts and bulldozers, coming to prey on the weak.
Now she knows the streets better than most and even though she's not this city's hero, there's beauty in being its silent guardian.
Sometimes Dido looks up at the sky and laughs. Despite her curse and cracks, she's protecting the city better than a hero ever could. Unlike her lover, she doesn't ask for an army, she doesn't need glory.
But on days when the wind blows just right and she can smell the ocean, she longs for her island. Fiercely, terribly, like a missing heart. On those days, she sees reminders of her lover, of her mother, of her grandmother who she's never met, in every stranger's face.
Today is one of those days.
Dido shifts her bag on her shoulder. Perhaps there's still enough sunlight left to find one more crack.
Act III: Rebellion. Reclamation.
Dido never knows where she'll find fractures in the pavement. Even after all these years, her city is mysterious, shyly unfolding its secrets to her when it chooses to and never before.
Tonight, her city keeps its secrets close and she finds nothing.
With a sigh, Dido begins walking back towards the old watchman’s tower, now a sad little museum that no one remembers to lock at night. It's one of her favorite places, its tall steeples rising high above the city walls.
She moves down the narrow, crowded street, past the lonely people, their pleas haunting her steps. Please, they call, Please stay. They don't upset her in the way they used to; she knows they can't help it. Wanderers and misfits fall in love with sorceresses because it's expected of them. But she's wiser now and their words clatter meaninglessly around her feet.
She passes through the city's main square, her eyes trained on the cobblestone ground, though she doesn't expect to find anything here. But then a flicker catches her eye, a cold breeze caresses her check, and there, by all the gods, she finds it: the crack, tucked brazenly between the stones, mere strides from the fountain, in one of the city’s busiest areas.
Dido stares, wondering how in all her years of wandering she's missed this, this crack hidden in plain view. She rushes towards it.
"This is the last crack in the city."
Dido nearly drops her things in surprise. She turns to see a young woman and an even younger girl sitting on the edge of the fountain, looking at her.
The watchers who have been haunting her steps.
The wind picks up, dancing among her hair, and Dido catches the scent of the ocean, stronger than she's smelled in years. Home is close, so close now.
"Aren't you happy?" the shadowy woman asks, though she's no longer in the shadows and Dido sees that she's in fact rather pretty. Her voice is bitter and sharp and she has the same gray eyes as Dido’s lover, deftly hidden beneath her bangs and her scowls.
"How do you know?" Dido whispers.
"Because the gods cursed us with the knowledge of the number of cracks," says Bright Eyes. She has the same hands as Dido’s mother, smooth, delicate, and able. "We've been counting for a long time."
And Dido sees it's true. The cruel light rising from the crack shows the wrinkles in their skin and the tiredness in their eyes. They are older, much older than they appear. Just like her.
"Who were . . . are you?" Dido asks quietly.
"I was going to be the bride," says the woman, "of the man who was fated to rule this city."
"And I was the oracle, who'd tell them their son’s destiny," says the girl. "Like his father, he was going to journey far and rule a city of his own."
"But why were you cursed?"
"Because we refused to fade away when our fates did," the oracle says, and then looks away, "We might have created a few cracks too."
"But not as many as you. You destroyed everything," the bride says, spitting out the words, "What has this city ever done to you?"
Dido's hands clench around her bag, but they still shake with anger. Damn it. Damn all the gods. Her curse should have been hers alone. But she bites her lip and does not try to argue with the bride. Her past choices won't appear kind in any light.
"I know some magic too," the bride continues, "I can create more cracks, one for each stone in this city."
The oracle twists her hands in her lap and Dido, who has been collecting magic since before she could smile, knows it's a lie. Perhaps this woman has a few drops of magic, but she doesn't have Dido’s tidal pool of wealth.
"But you don’t," Dido says, "You don’t harm my . . . this place."
"No," says the oracle, "This is our city too." She nods at the crack in the pavement. "You should finish."
Out of habit, Dido places a hand over the crack, letting her fingers linger in the light of its cold truth. "What will happen when I do?" she asks.
The oracle and the bride exchange glances. "Fate," says the bride, quietly.
They don't elaborate. They don't need to. Dido feels her old, treacherous anger well up under her skin. She was a damn fool to think the gods would let her live out the rest of her small life in peace. Even after all this time, she's still expected to die for the hero.
"These cracks . . ."
Dido feels the biting cold work its way up her wrist as she realizes her terrible mistake. By cursing her to fill the cracks, these symbols of defiance, by compelling her to tell her story as the villain over and over again, the gods have ensured that one day everything she tried to do, tried to prove, would be erased too.
In the end, only the hero's story will remain.
"No," Dido says. And she drops her bag, the sand and cement spilling out around their feet. "No, I will not be forgotten and let this fate be repeated with some other woman foolish enough to let a hero fall in love with her. We are more than castaways in the gods' stories."
The oracle stares wide-eyed and frightened. "But what about our curses?"
"There's still a crack. We're still stuck here," Dido replies.
The oracle stammers a protest but the bride smirks. "What about the citizens?" she asks. "This doesn't only affect us."
Dido turns and studies the people in the square: the musicians and drinkers traveling in packs, the lovers hand in hand, the beggars with outstretched palms. All avoiding the place where the three women stand. All not quite knowing why.
"We should tell them our story. Let them see the truth on occasion," Dido says as she steps across the crack to join the other cursed women. "We're not nameless. Or villains. Or powerless. We can protect this city too."
"The gods will notice eventually," the oracle says, but there is a smile creeping onto her lips.
"They made this fate. If they don't like it, they can change it," Dido replies. The wind picks up again, carrying the reminder of the sea, but Dido turns her back to it. "This is our home," she says to the other, almost-forgotten women. "This is our story now."