Size / / /

This story is part of our 2015 fund drive bonus issue! Read more about Strange Horizons' funding model, or donate, here.

Listen to the podcast:

 


Mahalikah

The First Wife

My husband had wings, so I thought he was an angel.

The sight of wings can do that to fools. They cast shadows thick and reaching, robing you in djellabas that hang off the eaves of your shoulder blades and murmur love songs. They yank the earth beneath you. And you, taken aback by the gusts of wind, believe that you are finally flying.

I first glimpsed my tomb through a veil and saw domes covered in gold foil and conduits of water snaking past a thousand marbled pathways. I smelled the musk of horse stables and spied the silver flank of a dappled mare. I gazed at an orchard bedizened with roses the soft yellow of new butter, sweet lime trees where heavy fruit pressed tree limbs into the ground like lovers pulling each other to bed. Our garden was magic-lush. Spiced charms hung from the white maws of lilies. Vines of lusty, throaty spells grew fat on pergolas of mermaid bone. In our ruined alcoves, creatures with shimmering hides slunk and sparred. Great rocs nestled in the fronded heads of date-trees. Ifrits practiced calligraphy in a grotto of teeth.

But no beast compared to Azhar. My Azhar.

Our first night, I lay stiffly on the silk, legs clamped, throat scraped. I had spent the hour before screaming into pillows so that I would not make a sound. I did not want to frighten. I only wanted to please. When he came to our bed, he wore no wings. His skin was rubbery and crested and shivering to the touch. The sweet fullness of his mouth had tapered into a gnarled snout limned with ivory teeth. Creature eyes drank the moonlight, bright as mirrors. He heaved onto me and his body groaned and creaked. Bits of fur clung to his teeth and he gathered my neck between his jaws, sighing luxuriantly.

"Do not begrudge what I am stealing. Youth does not last anyway, Beloved Wife," he said. He gnawed and I gasped. "Like skin from milk, armor from soldiers, blooms from stems, I will separate you." Azhar's breathing quickened and his saurian eyes frothed with tears. "I need you so that I may live forever. Trust me, love. No one will need you like I do."

He panted and scales shivered into azure fur, melted into feathers of bright blue wax and—for an instant—stretched into scar-furrowed skin. I wanted to scream, but every bit of sound had been spent on dampening the silk.

From then on, pain became a palimpsest, something that was layered and sliced, refigured and refitted until it became as normal as shedding garments. He flayed me lovingly. Sometimes he was winged, sometimes he was clawed, sometimes he wore scales, sometimes he wore silks. Always, he was cruel. He adorned pieces of me in our room, siphoning out my blood, singing ghazals as he guzzled.

Strung up as I am—suspended and segmented—with a thorax of amber and an abdomen full of satin, I am more gristle than girl. I am not alive, but living and the difference lies in the breath of songs and the groan of unmoored planets spinning into splintered stars. I do not want his amends. I do not want his touch. I do not want his visits. I want to be scraped from these walls, gathered and burned, released into the firmament.

That is not my fate.

I am the beginning, the first, a monad of story. Yesterday you wondered about the length of my hair, the furrows of my smile, the scent of my skin. Today your heart aches, your throat tightens, but your mind wanders. Tomorrow you will try to recall my name and scold yourself for not remembering. I know this and I know my part is played. Until infinity, the last bride stands in the hall. Her heartbeat—callow and sparrow-quick—echoes.

But my Azhar got only half his wish.

Here is a secret—what you steal can steal back.


Azhar

My first wife was lovely, but then again, so are all first brides. Her youth was a soft and spangled thing. I fished it out, accreting years like pendants around my neck until I had her first blush, first dream, first heartache. When I had taken all there was to take, I burned her tongue and tamped it out like embers. It was heavier than I expected, she had left so many things unsaid.

And then I dragged her across the floor and let the moon stripe her body silver. She fought me, but even her savagery was delicate.

"Come, come, lovely one. Didn't I say that I needed you? I would never lie to you," I soothed. "I have built you a home, a palace of stone, I have emptied myself into its cracks. For you, I have licked each cobble clean. For you, I have debased myself. Wherever your blood and shadow fall, they will touch my adulation."

Because she was my first and because I loved her, I was quick. One cut and a necklace of brilliant rubies bloomed at her throat. I gathered her soul, limp and shining in my arms, still warm with its vernix of filigreed wire, glass beads, and hewn carmine wings. Such lovely ornaments for my wall, my story, my song.

One might call them torture chambers, but to me they are shrines. Here is how I honor you.


Nafisa

The Second Wife

The first night, Azhar entered our room like a secret. An attar of smoke and rose petals bedimmed his edges and burned my eyes.

"A second chance," he said wearily.

I gathered the silk in my fists and steadied my voice. "For what?"

He tilted his head and his stare scalded. Slowly, the edges of his body puckered like drawn breath.

"To live forever," said Azhar.

I frowned. "How?"

"First, you must bend yourself into fables. Then, you must break your own bones, scrub away your thick marrow, and replace it with wonder."

I caught a sharp glint in his eyes and my throat tightened.

"Our world is glutted on tales. We have drunk away all its blood," I said. "There is nothing new to tell."

Azhar let out a terrible sound. I thought it was a groan, a growl. But it was a laugh. He bared his throat and teeth and his mouth stretched into a grin.

"Not this story,” he said and his voice was a purr of magic. He stretched out his hands, patting down his loose-fitting skin like one checking a garment for moth bites. "A new story needs youth. It needs something flexible to change and fit the times. But that's not all. A new story also needs a dram of woe."

Laughter filled the room, first velvety, then silvery . . . delicate. Womanly. Long, fragrant hair unspooled from the form and when Azhar sauntered to the bed, I saw an echo of the girl I once loved. I knew that gaze the way closed eyes sense outside light. I knew that each time they fluttered open, their depth stretched into unfathomable ink-spills and umbra. But the thing before me was not her and never could be.

I knew because I watched her die.

I held her hand when breath rattled in her lungs, smoothed her hair when sweat slicked it to her temples. But I chose to forget. I pretended not to see a splinter of ice in that foreign gaze, that I detected no chill rising from strange skin, that no scent of carrion laced its perfume of roses. Here was a sylph born of sorrow and I would give it my heart.

"I can be like this all the time," said Azhar. "I can be whatever you want."

Lips found mine and the taste was blue.

"Not like this," I tried to say, but the words snagged on my tongue and never passed my lips.

All phantasms are cruel and slippery. Perhaps it is not their fault. Perhaps they do not know any better. Perhaps they need to shift and coil, shuffling through forms because they have left their true skin somewhere and nothing will satisfy its absence. One moment, petal-soft hair rustled beneath my fingers and then—just as quick—corded muscle and animal musk.

"No. Please stay still," I pleaded, waiting with held breath as the narrow-slit gaze shifted into eyes like a chatoyant of hewn gems, eyes like a maimed beast, eyes like a dead dream.

"What will you give me, Wife?"

"What do you want?"

"Your sorrow."

My lost love's ghost danced before me. Hair spilled over my neck, knees pushed apart my legs, and I had offered myself before I knew what I was renouncing. Teeth sank and Azhar lapped me like a fabled libation, some draught of immortality turned sweet. My reverie demanded much—strips of skin for a baldachin, globs of spit to glaze a pit, hairs of night to moor his spite, and always, always blood. What did I receive but kisses that were little more than wet, translucent manacles? What did I cup in my palms but a faint, pulsing blue, a blue that glistened like spent veins and the fringes of dawn, a blue that tasted of sea salt and sundered blossoms, a blue that I rock back and forth while I wait for the last wife.

But narrative cares not for the minutiae of woe. It wants heartbreak in abstract and that is what I bleed into this tale, so you can taste my tears, splinter under my sorrow. A shadow falls over our ruined threshold and I know who it is from the scent. Blue rolls off the last wife in waves of lapis and cream. She does not see—yet—how Azhar twitches to grasp the edges of her soul. But I see. And I am faster.

Azhar may have culled the weight of my sorrow, but here is a secret—an emptied urn can hold a whole tale.


Azhar

My scimitar was for sieving, not for slaughtering. No bismillahs passed my lips. No heaven received my offering. No drop of blood became my sacrament. I worked for my meat. I traded skin for time. I knelt with my forehead pressed to cut skin and let it paint me red and hide the blue of dead tissue.

My second wife knew me better than my first. She was less lovely, which is the nature of these things. I tried to break her neck swiftly, but I had grown clumsy with age, with want, with hunger. For that, I was sorry and so I took her suffering with more grace. I pressed my lips to her sternum and sucked away each heartbeat until the weight of her woe filled my throat and sluiced between my teeth. I hurled the blues of my second bride into the chamber and rinsed my mouth of her pain.

I was not cruel, just ambitious. I never devoured a soul, just held it. Kept it. Culled it. Real magic was in the taking, in the possession. You could never call me an undevoted groom. My vespers were their lost names, my matins were their flesh, my obeisance was their presence.

Alas, one cannot choose the temperament of legacy, for immortality is an unequivocal thing. And I would have it all. I needed to break myself into a new tale to be retold and replenished, restocked on the hiss and whisper of new words putting flesh on old bones.

I don't want a brood of cherub-cheeked children. Give me more. Give me something I can sink my teeth into. Give me a legacy worth telling.


Rabab

The Third Wife

They said the wives of Azhar had died in childbirth and that he had given up hope of an heir. They said his home was sky-blue, so grand its minarets raked the clouds. They said it was the perfect place for an aging spinster with stained teeth and thin hair. There, I could be an empty vessel for a broken man. The wives of Azhar were enigmas—like the igneous bones of phoenixes or the lyrics of sirens. Some said they were beauties, some said they were fools. No one knew their names.

"Curious," said Azhar, one hand at my cheek. "Your wants are different. But it's nothing I cannot handle. Nothing I cannot steal. I am a thief unlike any you have ever encountered. This time, I know what is missing. This time, I will succeed."

His voice was heavy with determination. I stared at him, this thing I would call husband. His teeth were filed to points, his hair oiled and winged at his brow. Despite his unlined face, there was something tired about him, as if what he wore was a thinning membrane, torn in places to reveal an extinct creature's kaleidoscopic pelt.

Before Azhar, I never knew people could exude color as if it were a temperament. Azhar bent the space around him, plucking flecks of light from the ether and sliding his body into a slice of air until blue filled my eyes.

I exude no color. Stories rarely do. We are amorphous, scentless. Blind. Before Azhar, I thought blue was innocent, infinite. But blue is mutable—slinking cobalt into a cat's eye, splashing cerulean into seas, scattering sapphires into midnight. Blue knows your secret desires. It knew my desire was flat-bellied, inscribed on narrow hips, parched bone-dry and milk-sour.

Within moments, Azhar became a child at my knee. Blue ringed his eyes and navy stained his smiling, gap-toothed grin. He was thin-shouldered, a bird of a boy.

"Amma?" he said, holding out a cherub fist to me.

There was something in that clenched hand. I knew that then and now. But he smelled so sweet. His hair was the silk and shimmer of a starling's wing. He clambered into the hollow of my lap as if it had always belonged to him. His skin was a peerless copper and his belly—just-so round and milk-warm—touched his crinkled feet. He sat still, looking at me, hand still raised in offering, eyes wide and hopeful.

So this was what the wives knew. But did I—with nothing to give and nothing to lose—have to refuse this enchantment? What harm was there in indulging a heart's desire? Where was evil in that plaintive child's face? Perhaps this was who he really was, just a blue-bird-boy. I took his palm and pressed it to my lips.

"Habibi," I said, staring into his eyes.

But a child's gaze did not meet mine. I beheld the stare of something ancient and nameless, with night-eyes and a single puncture of white. I tried to yank my hand back, shove the child from my lap, but it had already claimed what it wanted most—form. Every tale needs one. A rhythm, a cadence, bones to pin it into place. I was an emerald toad, balancing Azhar who lay curled into a sea-glass egg. I was a pelican, throat dangling to hush my crying blue babe. I was a panther, jaws clasped around a midnight ocelot kit.

I still shift—beast, bat, and bug. I cannot remember silk beneath my skin or the scent of lotus oil in my hair. I am winged and scaled, fanged and furred. I am a beetle by your arm, a lioness in wait, a hawk with my head beneath a skeletal wing, and the fly on the wall chirruping for the last wife.

Her shadow is still and static, a whisper of rain-dappled blue. Azhar stalks her quietly. The last wife is so close I can feel her shadow against mine and I fit to mold its shape just so. Azhar thinks he tastes triumph on his tongue.

But here is a secret—a stolen form has appetites. And mine will be sated.


Azhar

The future lolls on my tongue, a lodestone of such infinite weight that my bones—flinty sticks wrapped in ossein and songbirds—snap.

I am reaching for her.

I am so close.

I need her.


The Wives

…Sister, touch us,

feel the relics of our life, our spent bones,

washed clean and hanging from the walls,

the ghost of our skin at your cheek,

the length of our arms in supplication…

…Sister, free us, scrape us from these walls

we have grown tired of the dark,

we are beings of regret, fixtures of hate,

we are a cathexis turned sour with age…

…Sister, free us, gather our lost names

place them under your tongue

wear them down to gristle and stubs,

only use them, say them, remember them…

…Sister, avenge us,

free us from the shadow of his story,

help us hew this space anew,

open our door,

forsake our blue bridegroom…

…Sister, we see you,

we have augured your life with our entrails

we can show you futures ripe with life

we can hold this new tale between our teeth,

we can feel its fruit-soft skin and wanting pith,

we can make it ours…

…Sister, we need you

lend us your name, your voice,

let us consign you to silence, to gaps

and we will free you too…

The Last Wife

There is little space between the last wife and the door. She should not be here. Her fingers tremble, but she pushes the door. Something wet and rotten fills her nose and throat. She knows the taste will never leave her tongue. She knows, now, that tragedy has a flavor. She knows that heartbreak has a muddled taste of bitter orange peels and pomegranate pith. Behind her, Azhar's voice roars with glee. He has done it. He has succeeded. He will live forever. There is a scythe in his hand, a shadow in his eye.

"Now they will know me," he says, grinning. "They will remember me." His eyes widen. "You will cement my place and give this tale a spirit. All stories need it."

But the last wife knows this is not his story. It belongs to the wives. It is borne of their blood, grown plump on their secrets. Azhar chases her into the stone room. In the gloaming, she sees what fills his shrine. Bodies and heads, tongues in jars and bones on satin cushions—relics so silent that time stutters around them.

Names crash around her, heavy as sighs and windfall—Mahalikah, Nafisa, Rabab. She lets them fill her until her own name is lost, consigned to cryptic characters and letters with no weight of memory.

She turns to Azhar and when she opens her mouth, no scream passes her lips. Only names and songs, the litanies of lost lives. The souls of the wives rend him, rob him. They cut tendrils in his magic and steal his speech. They cannot alter his story, but they shadow it, loop it into a ring of infinity around them. Not him. Never him.

The last wife knows her role is done. She will carry no blood-stained key in her pocket, only the taste of legend on her lip. A taste like broken stars and sated dreams. A taste of blue.

She does not mind what name she has lost. Perhaps it was never hers to begin with. She watches as her husband writhes at her feet, hands outstretched, clawing at his throat. She listens to her mind shifting around him. She has forgotten his name. All she sees is the strange stain of blue creeping into his skin, tinting his beard a brilliant azure.

The wives' magic stretches back into time and peels the tale anew. In her mind's eye, she sees it now—

A hundred doors swinging open. Somewhere a bride waits with henna on her hands and a stutter in her voice. Somewhere an ifrit drops his quill, splattering ink across a grotto of teeth. Somewhere, a corridor in the house unfurls, shifting its marble weight and cracking open its jaws, making room for a story.




Roshani Chokshi lives in the South but possesses no Southern twang. She likes to spin fairytales into uncomfortable or unfamiliar shapes and sizes with a new set of teeth and an unfamiliar tongue. Her debut Young Adult fantasy, The Star Touched Queen, is forthcoming from St. Martin's Griffin in Spring/Summer 2016. She may be found online at roshanichokshi.com.
%d bloggers like this: