Part 2 of 2
Continued from Part 1
Jiresh follows the man through the winding streets, with the walls only sporadically flashing green in the sunlight. They have faded in the seventy years since Caa was taken, and many of the tiles have been removed. She wonders how far away these people have taken our city. How many distant men and women admire their tile of green, perhaps scratched with a word or a cutter's careless tool, with no idea who gathered the emerald from the desert and turned it into a home?
"What's your interest in the fox-women?" her guide asks.
She glares at his back. "Their Saints are here. In a sarcophagus."
"Ah, the sarcophagus. It's the museum's greatest artefact, a perfect example of traditional burial practises and the veneration of important figures—"
"It's been stolen from its proper place," she says—the first thing that falls off her tongue—just to stop him from hearing Iskree's growls.
"There are some who argue that, but I believe this would have otherwise been lost. It's important to retain such artefacts. But I'm the curator's son, so of course I'm biased."
His smile is warm again. Jiresh imagines cutting off his lips and feeding them to him. Iskree thinks more simply of his throat.
They pass through an archway of tarnished silver, embossed with a story that Jiresh yearns to stop and read.
Inside the museum is cool, like the underground passages in Barsime. Barely anyone is visiting. "Do you want a tour," the man—Tulan—says.
"Yes. But I want to see the sarcophagus first. Please." She belatedly remembers being told that a brusque attitude is rude to these people, so richly burdened with the time to adorn their words as prettily as their clothes.
"All right." Yet again that smile.
So Tulan leads her past a collection of minor objects of our people—some that she doesn't even recognise—coins, cloth, crafts, knives, presented alongside paintings and sketches of our cities in their various states, occupied or ruined or remembered. There's a small story-stone. Jiresh runs her fingers over it, tracing words that don't belong in this cool, plain-walled room, with a smiling man in blue. There's a tail, and Jiresh retches at the thought of these people cutting apart a sister for their wall.
"And here it is," Tulan says, with a flourish, oblivious to her hatred. "I'm awed by it every time."
The sarcophagus stands on a pedestal in the middle of a wider room at the end of the corridor. Another man stands on guard, so large that Jiresh could fit herself three times into him. A woman and a child browse the items on the nearest wall.
It is beautiful. It catches Jiresh, so bright a green and covered in the tales of Nishir and Aree, carved in the shapes of stone-stories and tail-stories. Its lid is half off. She steps forward. Inside—she could reach out and touch them—lie the mummified remains of Nishir and Aree.
Jiresh turns and draws her knife, fast as a dust storm, and slashes Tulan so deep across his stomach that his guts fall over his tunic before he can move his hands to the wound. Jump up! Iskree struggles free of the basket's contents. The giant moves, quicker than Jiresh expected. The woman and child scream. Jiresh throws her knife and the giant falls, crashing, and she darts forward to retrieve her knife as Iskree leaps from the basket, growling, teeth bared. Jump up! The woman is sobbing, begging, "Please, please, don't hurt my boy, please."
"Don't stop me."
"I won't, we won't, oh. . ." Her next words are lost in her sobs. The boy hides his face in her clothes.
Jiresh holds her knife between her teeth and reaches into the sarcophagus. Our Saints are stiff, brittle. Shouts, heavy feet—more guards. Iskree waits for them at the room's entrance. Cursing, Jiresh puts the remains of Aree whole into her basket. She needs her hands to fight. She cannot carry Nishir. So she snaps Nishir into pieces. "I hate them, I hate them," she hisses, with tears gathering in her eyes like dew. Saints should not be treated this way.
Iskree barks at the six approaching men.
Voices like rocks falling.
The pieces of Nishir fit into her basket, and she gets the beautiful jacket over them, holding them in place, before the men are grabbing for her. She darts away, while Iskree leaps forward, tearing at their heels through their fine boots. One man cries out and goes down.
"Slow and stupid and fucking thieves!" Jiresh screams, knife back in her hand. Who to strike first? Soon they'll use their little guns. "We won't let you take them from us!"
The leader of the five remaining men raises his gun and Jiresh throws her knife. They both dodge the other's weapons. The bullet shatters something behind her.
"I hate you!"
Iskree is too quick to be kicked. Jiresh reaches over her shoulder and grabs corn, throws it, confusing them, and she runs to a wall where she pulls away a knife with small emeralds embedded in its blade. Another man screams as his heel is torn open. His blood runs over Iskree's teeth and she runs at the next. The little guns are making noise. Jiresh feels one, two, three bullets strike the basket as she leaps for cover behind the pedestal.
They are blocking the way into the corridor—until Iskree tears at shins, breaking their attention. Jiresh runs at them, slashing with the knife. One of the men grabs her arm and yanks away the knife, growls, "Hold still, little bitch."
She bites his hand and he cries out, lets go, and the others don't have time to stop her from running past.
More bullets strike the basket. Something fire-hot grazes her thigh, but she keeps going. Iskree follows, heart beating fast at the sight of blood on Jiresh's leg.
Jiresh shouts wordlessly with triumph, even though she knows there is a whole city to escape.
Another gunshot. Agony. Iskree screams.
No. And another. "No!"
Jiresh turns and the man fires again. A bullet slams into her shoulder. She sees Iskree lying on the floor, bleeding too fast, lying in a growing pool of red like that woman's bone-covered mat. "No, no, no. . ." She crumples to her knees, tears like a flash flood. Iskree is already dead. Not even a final bark.
The men are reloading their guns. Soon they will kill her, as they have killed Iskree.
"No." The basket is heavy on her shoulders, full of Saints. Either she can die avenging Iskree or she can take Nishir and Aree from this vile place, the task Iskree died trying to complete. She wants to do both. She wants to tear out every throat in this city. "I will avenge you."
She is quick enough to dart forward, grab Iskree's body—twitching, death's last movements—and clutch her sister to her chest, and then she runs from the museum, so full of hate.
The sight of a woman bleeding, weeping, holding something small and furred and dead is so strange that it is watched by hundreds. A few reach forward, as if to grab, and Jiresh dodges them. She runs until she's back in the desert, back among the labyrinthine rocks outside the city, far from a path this time, and there she hides, weeping.
Even when her chest and throat hurt as much as the wound in her shoulder, she weeps.
In Barsime, she leaves Iskree on the empty pedestal.
In Barsime, almost blind with tears, unable to climb those stairs and leave Iskree, she is not quite blind enough to read a story inscribed on the wall of the Saints' chamber. It sets her jagged, broken thoughts ablaze.
"Feed me the bones of our Saints."
We stare at Jiresh, our skinny, blood-stained, foxless sister with bones and flaps of skin in her arms.
"They will kill us like they killed Iskree. Every year their weapons are stronger, every year we are hungrier. They will kill us all, and we will be completely forgotten. Our rocks will be scoured by the sand-heavy winds until future historians can only sigh into their notes and say that some old culture lived here, but too much is lost now to say who we were. How brave and strong we were. Jump up." She speaks our battle cry, and it is raw as a wound. "Jump up. Let me tell you a story I found in Barsime. We have forgotten what we carved into stone only fifty years ago. Let me tell you about bones."
Some of us, old enough to remember the construction of that subterranean chamber, know this story, and begin to grieve, knowing that we cannot stop this; and some begin to imagine a victory.
Jiresh stands with those bones in her shaking arms and says, "Once, over five hundred years ago, when two more sisters were born every time the suns' paths crossed, there was fighting. We and another people competed for a great region of gold, where even the most pitiful bushes were said to shine with the brightness of it in the soil, and two of our sisters were especially honoured for their skill in combat, and were agreed to be Saints. Eventually they were killed, in one of the bloodiest battles of all. Their lovers feared that their bodies would fall into the hands of the enemies, and so consumed them entirely, hiding in a gully. When the lovers returned to the field, they felt the weight of the suns like a heavy knife in its sheath upon their backs. They wielded it, and that is how we won the fields of gold, to build the first of our cities that was stolen in this century."
Some of us know that she did not finish the story. Did not say, And the destruction so horrified them that it became one of the great sins of our history. No one has ever used this power since.
Fifty years ago, we still thought we might survive. We carved our history into that burial chamber and imagined writing about our victory, or our remaining cities becoming more beautiful than ever, or our tentative peace with the enemies—something that was not hunger and death in the open desert.
"We can wield the suns," Jiresh says. "I don't know what it means, exactly, but it's a weapon. It's. . . I think it's an end."
"For whoever wields it, too," Dutash whispers.
Jiresh cannot quite look at Dutash.
The wind gusts between us all, mournfully.
"Will anyone come with me?" Jiresh says. "In case. . ."
In case anyone else wants to watch Caa consumed by fire. In case anyone wants to join this vengeance.
And, hidden in her words: Jiresh doesn't want to die alone.
One of our oldest sisters snarls her disagreement, and another takes up the sound—and another, womanless Koree, jumps at them with her teeth bared. Tounee and many others join her. Dutash looks away, less certain than Tounee. Foxless Lizir stands up and says, "I will come with you."
"I want to."
Voices young and old, human and fox—but this is not a quick argument.
"It will be brutal," an old sister says. "You must know that."
She is laughed at. As if the war hasn't been brutal.
"This is not a battle," she persists, "where two sides are equal. I know that is how this entire war has been waged. I know. I understand. But you must know that are planning to join them in sin. It is not a decision to be made lightly."
"I'm going to do it," Jiresh says softly. "I crossed the desert alone. It took weeks. I carried these bones and I never stopped thinking about it."
"I know, sister." There is nothing more she can say.
We cook our dinner, comb the children's hair and fur, set up tents for the night, murmur lullabies to the single pair of babies—they are so fragile in their early months, so easily killed by the desert—and the argument goes on, too complex to be sewn into the finest enemy jacket.
We touch our Saints' bones, one by one, with snouts and lips.
We cannot all agree.
We decide to separate, permanently, and it pains us more than the fall of every city combined.
Jiresh consumes the bones, pounds them with one story-covered stone onto another, making a plate of a battle tale. "I will make a finer tale than this," she chants. "I will make a finer tale than this." She scoops handfuls of dust and pours it down her throat, and her lips are stained pale. Though she coughs and chokes, she keeps eating it, periodically licking under her fingernails and scraping the stone's incisions and scratches free of powder. She whispers, almost too quiet for anyone to hear, "I didn't think it would taste so horrid."
A whisper for a fox that no longer lives.
She stands, still coughing, and massages her neck with one hand. "We should go," she says. "Gather your weapons."
No tremendous change has overcome her.
"Have faith," she says, with a sly smile that curves her lips like the word for victory.
We make ready.
Jiresh gives the skulls of Nishir and Aree to those of us who will remain in the desert. "Bury them together," she says softly, "with every rite we still possess, with every song. Bury them touching, as if they are just sleeping side-by-side."
We who remain in the desert mourn as they leave.
We cross the desert without any song, with the suns hot on Jiresh's back. Dutash walks with us—the only sister to stop and score our story on rocks, lingering at each one as if she might not have to continue. Tounee's desire convinced her not to stay at the place where Jiresh consumed our Saints. Jiresh's determination drags her, hurts her.
"Jump up," Jiresh says as we grow nearer to the city. "Jump up. Jump up."
She rarely speaks without repeating. Only at night, as we curl together in a far smaller pile of skin and fur than we are used to, does she murmur single sentences, confused and painful, into Dutash's hair or Toree's flank or the sand, cooling against her cheek.
Caa reveals itself, large in its gentle green valley.
We feel the suns, now.
"Jiresh," Dutash says, reaching forward to touch her lover's arm—hotter than silver poured into its mould. Dutash yelps and snatches back her finger, and sucks on it. The suns' heat intensifies. "Jiresh," Dutash says again. "Jiresh."
Jiresh runs fox-fast along the road to the city and takes the suns with her.
Knives in hands, teeth bared, we yell. Jump up! Jump up! You can't forget us! We'll burn you from your homes! We'll set you all ablaze! We'll slide teeth and silver into the last throats! As we run towards the city it bursts into flames, swallowing Jiresh in a flare like a blink.
The fire spreads quicker than a dust storm, covering the entire city in minutes. The air is full of roaring and cracking and screams. People cannot move—they are burnt to their bones, their blackened, broken bones that crunch under our feet. The houses fall.
Jiresh's voice carries through the flames. You took my sister! You! See how your arteries singe off my teeth like hair. We hear her laughter. We hear her screams.
We who remain in the desert hear her, whisper soft, unstoppable as the suns' light, which glows so bright in the Northwest.
Her fire-body is pain, is power. Is everything she dreamed, in that long, lonely walk from Caa to Barsime with Iskree in her arms, to the camp where sisters lived in fear of more deaths to bark at dawn.
You will never forget us! she screams with every part of her body.
We don't die. The fire licks our bodies tenderly as tongues, so that Dutash, following Tounee into the emerald walled—black-walled, wall-less—city-heart thinks the fox could be caressing her.
"Jiresh!" Dutash cries into the fire.
Not every person in Caa is immediately consumed. In the minutes before the fire spread, some fled through the seven open gates. Some of us chase them. We laugh as the fire leaps after them, thrown like knives—Jiresh roars triumph as each one falls—and we finish whoever we find beyond the fire's reach.
We jump back into the flames, cradled by our burning sister.
Dutash's feet crunch over blackened bones, which crumble away like cheek-powder in the wind.
Another sister cries out, "Here, here, there are more of them!"
Our enemies hide in underground chambers and caves, in places where running water keeps them cool. Dutash sees them cowering and thinks: How many times have we done this, hiding in fear? Thinks: Some of them are too young to have ever attacked us. She doesn't want to make this decision. She cuts their throats. None of them survive. None of them will kill us.
She imagines those who lived in the fields, who fled or hid when they first saw women and foxes running along the wide road into Caa, finding these un-burnt bodies amid the wreckage above and knowing how well we learnt not to show mercy.
You will never forget us! You will never look at a fire without remembering Caa! You will never look at emerald or silver without remembering how it all fell into dust and you will never, never take another of my sisters from me!
As blood soaks her feet, she staggers up the rocky steps.
She can't see walls through the flames. She can't see Tounee. She shuts her eyes and runs.
Tounee climbs blackened steps into the streets, where the fire surrounds her like Dutash's arms. Where is her sister? The fight is over.
The suns are getting hotter.
Tounee runs and Dutash runs and there are no sounds of life, only fragmented city-pieces and bones under their feet.
You will remember us!
Jiresh's voice is fainter now. The suns are hurting Dutash, who stumbles. Sisters across the city fall. "Tounee!" Dutash gasps. "Tounee, where are you?" She weeps, and the fire burns away every drop. She longs for the desert and her sister and a time when—she cannot think of a time she wants. But each memory of Caa is an agony. Fire and bones and our enemies' blood running over her hands for the first time in her life.
She wishes she hadn't followed Jiresh. "Tounee." Like her sisters, she falls.
A murmur from the flames: They'll never forget us. Never.
"Never," sisters whisper and bark across the city, as the fire blisters their skin. Some still have the energy to run. Some almost make it to the gates.
Jiresh feels her sisters in the flames and presses against them, finally afraid of her death, seeking comfort.
Tounee, who turned away from the killing to follow her reluctant sister, reaches the place where a great arch once stood, and doors of wood and bronze. Through the flames she sees a horizon. She sees Dutash, fallen on the ground, too fire-blind to see the way out. She barks in joy. Nothing. She bites.
"Tou. . ."
Tounee grabs onto Dutash's elbow and begins dragging her, though the fire is burning her eyes and her body.
An hour after Tounee drags Dutash into one of the streams feebly running between burned, bone-covered fields, the fire dies down. Black dust remains. For months it blows through the desert, and there is no one who does not know its source.
Two sisters walk with the wind at their backs, blind, lost.
We find them. We who went to Caa to find the remains of our sisters bring them slowly back to the place where we have buried Nishir and Aree. As the wind speckles our skin with black, we wait—afraid and determined, angry and grieving.