Size / / /

I am never the first to know the demons have returned.

This time, I am at Ukaya's house, trimming the hooves of her goats, because her joints are too swollen and stiff to wield a knife. The morning sun prickles my back and rough goat hair prickles my belly as I whittle off thin curls of hoof.

Ukaya tells me stories about my late father, who climbed a mountain at fifteen, and went on to sail foreign ships, dive for pearls, slay monsters, and rout a nest of bandits just to bring my mother back her wedding jewelry, all before I was born. At least, I think to myself, someone in our family made himself remarkable before he died.

Ukaya sucks air, as if she's about to sneeze, but instead, the story stops abruptly, just before my father meets the bandit king. I cannot see Ukaya's face; from this angle, as I carve away at the rubbery edge of the hoof, all I can see are her gnarled toes curling in distress. But I know why. There are very few things that can prevent Ukaya's mouth from moving.

"You see one," I say. My stomach hurts as if the goat had butted it with her knobby skull.

Ukaya is silent for a moment, and then, "On your back, down by your right hip. You should go."

I shake my head. "It's not going to crawl out before I finish your goats, Ukaya-nabi. Finish the story, please." I hug the next goat tightly, clinging to the familiarity of her musky scent and fast breaths. I'm now less afraid that she will stomp sideways and bruise my toes with her hooves. After all, the demon is so much worse: it will either burrow down into my organs and eat me from the inside out, or it will try to break free of my skin, erupting from my flesh like a bloody volcano.

I try to sense the intruder, try to know it's there, but my body still feels like my body. Especially when I bend over, shouldn't it bulge, or ache, or at the very least feel cold? But it's only me, doing chores and ignoring an adventure story I asked to hear.

As I stare at my obsidian knife slicing through the hooves, I try not to think about my own flesh, about the only way we know to excise a demon from the body of a man.

"It would be easier if it would stay in one place," Muki says. There are cracks in his weathered brown face where his skin would bend if he smiled, but I no more expect cheer from him than I do from the mountain that looms over the village.

Demons are supposed to come from that very mountain. My father dared too much the day he climbed it, they say, and he was infected when he reached the smoking heights. Maybe other people who suffer demons climbed where they shouldn't. Maybe, like me, they are simply unlucky enough to be the sons of adventurous men. Privately, I wonder if demons come from the mountain at all.

Muki's fingers are cold where they march across my hot flesh. I have no fever, not yet, but I trekked here from Ukaya's under the mid-morning sun. I am still wet with sweat and reek of goat, but our devoted doctor finds these odors as irrelevant as I do. He is a solid man, a man who cares about me as a working part of the body that is our village—not just as a scared young father with a deadly affliction.

He prods the demon, and this time, I feel something. The twitch of a muscle, the fleeting caress of a ghost. It's suddenly real to me, and I think I might vomit on Muki's rug. Terror tastes like bile.

"It's still in its ethereal state, so it will be difficult to cut it out," Muki says. "I don't know if I can properly immobilize it. But when your purification ends, I will try." His unsaid words are as loud to me as my own heartbeat: if the demon achieves a solid state, nothing can save me. I pick at the edge of my loincloth to occupy my trembling hands.

"I accept your wisdom, Muki-aki," I reply, even as I try not to imagine the skewers going in. My old scars ache. "Thank you."

The words are hollow, would grind to dust like pumice if someone tested their strength, because I don't feel grateful.

This is the third time. I should be confident, at least, because I have survived twice already. I fix this in my mind, willing myself to remember the relief, the joy, the itchiness of scars healing over a blessedly empty wound.

On my way home, I practice smiling, because I want to be strong for my wife. Tiji already has our child to mind, and our goats, and the orchard. My father planted it with seeds from the land where the sun is born; the trees grow here, but only if we are diligent in removing pests and offering water and potash. We need more of the latter, I think, and I decide I will talk about this first, before mentioning there is a new demon.

I push aside the red-brown beads in our doorway, the ones that are carved with our family's names like black scars on healthy skin.

Tiji's cowrie necklaces gently swing between her breasts as she cuts vegetables on the table my father brought back from the bandits. It is scarred where drunk men dug their knives into it, but it is solid. In the corner, where sunlight streams in through the window, my mother plays face games with my daughter. As I watch, they touch noses, and even though my daughter is no larger than a gourd, she laughs along with my mother.

Some part of me is already dead, watching this. I can see how life will go on without me. My daughter will earn jewelry, and wrap her hips in a colored cloth, and marry and have daughters of her own. But she will never know my face—only the beads that spell my name, and the stories that the adults tell her. They won't be nearly as inspiring as the ones folk tell about my father.

Tiji's knife thunks into the table. When I meet her eyes, I know she has seen everything in my face. Her eyes drop, searching my body for the parasite.

She crosses the room to cry on my neck, and I forget my plans. The inane conversation, the false confidence. I bend like a tree crumpling away from a hurricane, bury my face in her braids, sob. Wet grief glues us together for so long that the baby starts and stops crying before we are finished.

My mother silently rocks our daughter, more comfortable dealing with life than discussing death.

I am not confident. My father died of his third demon, and he was a strong man. The kind of man who hiked, dove, slew, ran, bartered, built, and everything else I've never done, that I might never do.

I purify myself for three days and nights. I must work, but I eat only yellow rice and drink only dew, which Tiji collects from the flapping kabag leaves at the edges of the jungle. I wear hibiscus in my braid, and I hang an amulet from my right arm to mesmerize the demon, so it doesn't instead seek my beating heart.

In that time, the demon grows in size and density. It's not solid enough yet to break through my skin, but as it explores the cage of my flesh, it now leaves bruises in its wake. It migrates around to my front, as if it enjoys forcing me to look at the dark bruise of its body, so much like the ugly, blurred tattoos the coastal folk stab into their skin. Usually it's coiled to the right of my navel, its blank eyes staring out at a world it cannot reach. Sometimes, though, it stretches out, and its clawed hind feet or the double-prong of its whip-like tail reach all the way across my belly and disappear around the curve of my left side. When it thrashes, I press my palms against it to smother it into submission. I sleep with a bandage on to keep it from writhing too hard.

Tonight, the third and last night, I wind the bandage on while my mother holds the baby for me. The little one is only two months away from earning the first half of her name. Tomorrow, if Muki can release the demon without killing me, and if Tiji agrees, I will call the baby Yom, the eldertongue word for "beacon."

My tired wife has fallen asleep already, stretched on her cushions and draped in the light of a mourning moon. When I take the baby back, my mother adds more citrus peels to the smoldering clay trays on the window sills, to discourage mosquitoes. She stares at the glowing edges, leaving black ash in their wake, and suddenly speaks.

"Your father didn't get the demons from climbing Mount Keppaket."

I can't breathe, because she never talks about my father. Ukaya tells me tales about him, an elderly neighbor stepping in because my own mother cannot bear to relive her loss.

I sift through questions, like black beach sand falling through my fingers. The sand leaves only hard chips of shell, and this is what I need: big questions, the ones that matter, so I don't scare her into silence.

"What made him decide to climb it?"

My mother sighs, and it turns into a creaking laugh. "Your father was in a hurry to do everything in the world."

Ukaya already told me this, but I am quiet, letting my mother's memories flow. Like hot water over my thoughts, too hot, stinging places that weren't ready to know.

"He wasn't like you—Tiji sees you every day. You are dutiful. He was gone as often as he was here, and I sometimes hated him for it, sometimes even suspected him of having died in some faraway land. He wanted me to come with him, but you and I blossomed on the same bush, my son, and I preferred our quiet village. So he brought me gifts—jewels, exotic foods, hunting trophies—anything that reminded him of me. He could tell me the story of every acquisition—everything but the demons."

"Then how did he know they didn't come from climbing Keppaket?" I ask.

"Because the first demon was already in him before he climbed Keppaket," she replies.

Ukaya has never told me this.

I take the-baby-who-may-be-named-Yom to the window and cradle her soft warmth as I look out at the sky, to the north. Tonight, the flat-topped mountain doesn't belch sparks, but it wears a faintly glowing crown of orange against an otherwise blue-black sky. Some people claim to have spotted demons in the jungle at the base of the mountain, but the only ones I've ever seen have been encased in flesh.

"So why climb so far?" I ask again, quieter this time. "What did he think he would find?"

My mother is silent, and when I glance over my shoulder, she shakes her head. Her wet cheeks reflect the moonlight.

It occurs to me that she doesn't know, that I don't know, and that if I just stand here, maybe we never will.

"Hold her," I say, and I put the baby in my mother's arms before walking out the door.

As I stumble up the trail in the dark, I chide myself. The sulfurous fumes of Keppaket—whose name is superfluous, because he is the only angry mountain—roll down with the breeze and sting my nose, a promise that if I intrude far enough, the mountain will punish me for breathing.

Already, it punishes my legs for daring to tread its flesh. My shins and thighs burn, and the path's hidden teeth puncture my feet the way the tame rocks around the village never have. The rustle of many leaves at once signifies the hidden arrival of a large jungle creature, perhaps attracted by the scent of my bloody footprints.

I change the grip on my knife, so if I must use it, I can drive it in deep. If the creature is a panther, I will have only the one chance.

"I will gladly take home a pelt instead of an answer," I say to the bushes. My tone is as sharp as my weapon. The secret beast is silent, and it does not leave, but neither does it follow when I continue along the path.

Trees lie across my route, and in places, tiny streams have eroded the path and replaced it with their own rocky beds. At least the cool water soothes my aching feet. When the path rounds the corner of a steep rock face, it ends abruptly. Vines growing in the cracks of the cliff tease me with how easily they grip what I cannot.

I have bled my way uphill for two hours on the only path I know, and it wasn't even the way to the top of the mountain.

I will make it the way.

The vines creak as I pull on them; some rip away, but others are as stubborn as me, and I grab handfuls to be sure I always have a grip. Furry grey spiders the size of my big toe hop away from me.

My left foot slips, and then the vine under my right foot rips away. When I scrabble for purchase, the demon pulses and writhes across my abdomen.

The thought of falling scares me, but I'm more terrified that the exertion of my climb will tempt the demon into an early birth. I hang for a moment, my face tickled by beads of sweat that roll off into the dark nothing below.

But I still don't regret this the way I should.

I might die tomorrow at noon, a humiliating spectacle for all who pity me enough to watch. When the sun is brightest, Muki will have me lie on a flat rock in the center of the village, surrounded by the bravest of my neighbors, who will dangle amulets from their fists to distract the demon while he immobilizes it and cuts it out of my body. Demons like to leave incubation on their own terms, but they are more violent than Muki. Hopefully, his precise knife strokes will spare me what the demon's chaotic claws would not.

And no matter what happens tomorrow, I will have this in common with my father: I will be a man who climbed a mountain.

My toes dig into the vines, rake them into bunches strong enough to push against, and I feel my way up again. Sweat prickles my armpits and streaks down my sides, soaking into the demon bandage until it slides down into compacted folds. My arms are quivering as I navigate the twisted net of vines, up a flat rock face that separates into large boulders, then a series of shelves of rock, and finally a gentle slope covered in stubby trees sporting thinner, sharper leaves than those of the jungle below. When I look toward the peak, Keppaket's glow is obscured by dark forest.

I can stand upright again, but instead I sit with my back against the trunk of one of the trees. I rest with my hand on my bandage, fearing the demon will wake again. I don't wait long before heading into the dense trees.

When the sky fades to blue, when the moon hangs low, when the prickly trees thin away, I reach the edge of a vista of broken rock.

In some places the moon reflects on deposits of obsidian, as slick and smooth as water; most of it is jagged-edged basalt that scratches at my legs as I stumble through.

In the center, beyond a field of treacherous stone I am not fool enough to cross, glowing orange canyons give off waves of threatening heat. I expected Keppaket to have a gaping mouth and fiery eyes, but his face is closed, as if he sleeps through his own fury.

Even though my mother said my father had the demon before he came here, I cannot help but be afraid. If the demons do originate here, then maybe this is where they return—maybe they lurk and breed in the shadows, maybe even in the searing light of the crevices.

Whether it was the exertion or the rotten-egg stink or the heat baking the soles of my feet, something has convinced the demon it should exit now. It wriggles under the surface of my skin, its scales unpleasantly scraping as it gains corporeal form. If someone were to string me on a rope and play tug-of-war with the ends, it might burn like this. I stumble to my knees, bruising them on the rocks, but unable to remain upright.

It's coming.

I have my dignity here—no one will see me explode, scream, writhe and bleed and try to hold my guts in as I cry myself to death. The same black blade that trimmed goat hooves easily slices through the bandages, and I force myself to look down.

If this is how I die, I will stare until the end. It will be my second adventure. It may not equal those my father had, and maybe no one will be able to recount it to the-baby-who-might-be-called-Yom, but two is better than none.

At first I'm not sure what I'm seeing, and then I realize the demon has poked its face further inside—I can't see its blank eyes or its drooping whiskers. One of its front legs is gone, dug beneath my skin. Without Muki's ritual skewers to trap it near the surface of my flesh, it's going to eat me from the inside out.

I do not want this in common with my father.

I'm a fool. There is never dignity. I will piss myself with terror whether my wife is there or not, and right now, I am all alone. I want to lie on the rock in the village. I want love in their eyes, recognition, warm hands holding mine.

My hand sweats on the knife as I carve open my own stomach, right where the demon's tail bulges.

The pronged end flops out into the moonlight, greasy red-black with my blood. I grab its tail and wind it around my fist. Its scales are sharp like gems, cutting my skin, but I don't care because it's turning solid, and this is my last chance. It's not that deep inside me—just its ugly face and one arm. I tug on it.

It clings, its body tense and trembling. I try not to think about what damage it might be doing as I drag it forth. My teeth creak against one another, and my breath comes fast through my nose. Nothing in my life has ever hurt this much, but I can't stop pulling. I can't.

When one leg comes free of my body, I slice it off so it can't scratch me any more. Obsidian cuts through its juvenile bones as easily as if it were still an ethereal threat. I slice the next hind leg off as well, and I clench my teeth and choke on bile as the demon fights to hold on.

I am stronger.

In a rush, it slips out into the night air. I smash it against the powdery black stone. My free hand instinctively clutches my wound as I repeatedly stab the demon through its blank eyes, snap off my blade in the mess, grind the broken edge through its twitching spine long after it has stopped struggling.

The bandage isn't clean and it requires some extra knots to get it to stay, but the bleeding slows. I stare at what I've done, wonder how a man who has never even gutted a fish could slaughter the demon in his belly.

I get up slowly, both hands cupping the fire in my guts. I don't think I'll make it back down the way I came—if I make it at all—so I spit on the demon's carcass and head toward an outcropping of rock, hoping to spot another way down.

Before me, clouds wreathe the deep green forests of the mountain's feet. I've never seen so much of the world at once. It reminds me of my wedding night, when Tiji unwound the robe of flowers woven for her by her sisters, revealing an expanse of sleek, muscled flesh that curved and dipped and swelled so perfectly that my fingers followed my eye without a thought.

My hands stretch toward the view, the delicate wisps of cloud, the dark fur of the jungle, the glistening white foam where the sea chews at the faraway shore. I understand why my father came here after he discovered the demon, once he knew that he might die.

If I am infected again, perhaps I will plunge to the bottom of the sea in search of tiny white stones in the bellies of jealous oysters. Maybe I will eat roasted spiders like the tattooed men of the coast, or tame a panther. Maybe I'll take my daughter up here some day, to see the world.

There appears to be a better slope west of the village, and I walk toward it through the thin-leaved trees, until I find an animal path that leads me away from Keppaket's dry heat, into the humid caress of more familiar foliage. Wet, sweet jungle scents war with the reeking sulfur smeared into my bloody knees. I savor the soft earth between my toes, the ululating calls of the fist-sized monkeys who disapprove of my passage. This time, if any predators are tempted by the scent of my blood, they're quickly dissuaded by the scent of a crushed demon.

When I sag against Muki's house and shout him awake, his face is still a mountain, but he kisses my cheek once and mutters, "You are worse than your father."

Yom has had her name for three years when Tiji slams her knife into the table again. Her eyes do not meet mine—they fall below it, hot with hate for the part of me that isn't me at all.

"How many times must we do this?" she asks. Her eyes are wet, begging me for an answer that means something.

Sweat prickles my armpits, and I glance down first at my shoulder, where my skin is slightly darker than it should be, and then at the purple scars on my belly, spread out in a star like the glowing cracks at the top of Keppaket.

My teeth meet again, and obsidian and blood and a wet summer moon pass through my mind.

I kneel at the table my father stole from the bandits. I've been using sand and stones to slowly refinish the surface, smoothing away the knife marks made by drunk thieves and my distraught wife. I don't know how to repair a table like this—we're the only people in the village who have one made of solid wood instead of woven stalks—but I'm learning. The new holes Tiji has made will be more practice for me.

Our daughter stands opposite me, eating berries that smear her fat little face in purply-red juice. She tells herself an incoherent story loosely based on those she's heard from Ukaya, while my mother naps in her chair.

"How many times," Tiji echoes, and this time her voice is small, and it's not a question.

"As many times as we must," I say.

I kiss her. I blink back tears as I grab a basket to fill with fruit. A gift for Muki, an apology for the bloody work ahead. Tiji runs her fingers across the table I might not finish, and when she looks up, her despair is drowning under her love.

Cory Skerry

Cory Skerry lives in the Northwest U.S. in a spooky old house that he doesn't like to admit is haunted. When he's not inventing new genres in which to write novels or drawing guerrilla comics, he goes exploring with his sweet, goofy pit bulls. In 2010, he played class clown at Viable Paradise. For more about him and his work, see his website.
Current Issue
18 Jan 2021

Soft Shoulder speaking softly / quick-stop-tongued lanky cur dog / lisping languid in jeans
By: Zach Ozma
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Zach Ozma
In this episode of the Strange Horizons podcast, editor Ciro Faienza presents Zach Ozma's “Soft Shoulder (Excerpt)” with a reading by the poet.
Splinters, old and new. How else can the skin remember the tree? If it hurts, that is the point.
The way I see it, this story is full of symbolic touchstones, visual elements with layers of meaning that are not always obvious, or even accessible, to the reader.
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7 Dec 2020
Strange Horizons is now accepting fiction submissions for the Palestinian Special issue! The issue, edited by Rasha Abdulhadi and Basma Ghalayini will be published at the end of March 2021. We are open for submissions from now until January 31, 2021. Don't wait till the end to send your work!
7 Dec 2020
تقديم الطلبات مفتوح من الان و حتى تاريخ 31 يناير 2021. قدم/ قدمي عملك عاجلا و ليس آجلا!
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