The thief’s shade was trying to follow Slyvie back to Elephant Corners. Again. She heard the phantom whine of her motorbike’s engine though it was nowhere to be seen on the street crowded with the bustle of day sellers closing shop and patrons gathering for the night market.
She’d been studying under the elder fortunetellers for weeks. The half-day search on her motorbike to find the four elephant shaped buildings she called home seemed so far away.
“Why did it take me so long to find my way here?” Slyvie had asked, before her daily walk to the market to fetch fresh chicken bones for the divination cups. “We are almost in the center of the city, right in plain sight. For anyone to see or follow.”
“Ganesha is the remover of obstacles,” the fortune woman called Katerina had answered then affectionately patted an elephant figurine that looked much like the sculpted face of the building.
Had it been Ganesha who removed the obstacles preventing her from finding the Fortune Tellers? Ganesha who guided the thief who stole her motorbike? It wasn’t Ganesha following her now. She could feel the thief’s yearning. Not just for her. To find Elephant Corners.
The accident that had claimed him had been meant for her. It involved a blown tire. A refugee from the city of Phiros, an old hero of the Origami circuit. Chickens. A lot of them. And a contraband shipment of vampire vine.
The shade followed her most evenings. And was always thwarted by one fortuitous distraction or another. One time by a raucous trio of escaped chickens. Another by a pretty lady muttering charms under her lacy veil. Yet another by a tiny rainstorm moving almost purposefully through the stairway alleys.
But today was the day of dragon-kites and tombstones, (at least according to the calendar of Sylvie’s ancestral home), the day spirits will rise and walk in flesh of the unwary if given a chance.
The shade slowly but steadily pursued her through the market streets and winding alleys. To Sylvie’s dismay no distractions appeared to hinder it.
Sylvie ducked into a side street hoping to lose it with speed but the egress was blocked by an ostrich caravan. She gulped trying to gather the courage to run back out and past the invisible, menacing presence. The sputter-pop of her lost motorbike was almost upon her.
“Just go away !” she cried, afraid the shade would touch her and ride her body back to Elephant Corners.
The motorbike sounds retreated. The shade had moved to a piece of glow-taffy on the cobblestones. Sylvie spied another piece at the entrance to the next alley. A trail? She was in luck the shade followed and Sylvie ran home.
“Why,” Slyvie asked Katerina once she was safely behind the door-leg of the blue elephant. “How did I escape? Why can no one find Elephant Corners when it is in plain sight?”
“Ganesha protects this place,” she answered. “Today you learned he is also the placer of proper obstacles.”
Sylvie thought about it. The shade had wanted something. From her. From Elephant Corners. The fortune tellers must have had a reason to prevent her death in the bike crash.
Maybe if she continued her studies she’d be able to find the answer in patterns of the past or divine its shape from the ripples it sent into the ever-changing future.
Maddy was asleep, a smile on her face. Cliff slid out of bed and padded, naked, to the hall. Curiosity always got the better of him in a new place, and most girls didn’t seem to mind. He had already seen every room of Maddy’s small apartment except the spare room. Maddy was … perplexing. Tall, dark, her face oddly proportioned, as if she had been made by someone who had had women described to him but who had never seen one. Different in bed too. Earlier he had felt like his entire body were about to explode. Afterwards he had patted himself down, just to make sure he was all there. Her décor…. Her books had never been opened, the TV was dusty. Only the bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen had seen any use at all. He eased open the door of the spare bedroom and slipped inside. The only light came from the hall.
He took a few steps in, waiting for his eyes to adjust. There was not a sound except his own breathing, but he felt as if the room were crowded. This might have been a bad idea. The door closed with a snick and the light came on. Maddy pressed herself against him from behind, pinning his arms with hers. He was staring at a stone idol that almost brushed the ceiling. It sat with legs crossed and arms curved forward as if to catch whoever stood in front of it. Its teeth were large and sharp. Eight eyes, or, rather, empty sockets where they should be, seemed to stare right at him. Masks, censers, diverse weapons, and other paraphernalia lined the room, but he could spare no attention for it. The idol seemed to be flexing its muscles. Maddy was flexing hers too. She whispered in his ear.
“It’s me or the god,” she said. “Join me, worship him, or join him a different way.” She turned him around and stared into his eyes. “Choose.”
“You’re freaking me out.” He pulled back and she let him go.
“Goodbye Cliff,” she said sadly.
“Wait.” He licked his lips. Rough hands seized his shoulders. The nails were sharp and long.
Sometimes when the wind picks up I miss my hometown. It’s the way the windchimes clatter and ring; they sound like the drowned bells of my home. I think then about how I never noticed the taste of salt until it was gone from my mouth.
Air is all right. I manage—there’s a way to still your gills with spells. Feet and tails aren’t so different; it’s easy to change from one to the other. And love, while not a simple matter, is still reason enough to remain. I gave up mermaidhood for her.
Her drunk friends at the palace on the shore dared her to go down to the water and call for a lover. They were all at her engagement party, stealing bottles of wine while their parents celebrated the coming union of Princess Madeline, 16, to Prince Bertram, 21. She’d never met him. He’d sent his portrait, and the original was traveling by slow nuptial progress through the kingdom. He was six carriage-stops away by the time she was two bottles in, stumbling down the rocky path ahead of their shouts.
She took off her shoes halfway down, I remember that. I watched from a rock out from shore, ignoring the songs and shouts bubbling up through the waves.
“Go on, Dauphine,” my friends had said, “Go to the rock and call for a lover. You don’t want that old prince anyway—he’s probably got a tail like a trout.”
I worried that she would cut her feet on the rocks, before I remembered that she had climbed down this cliff hundreds of times. I had seen her before. Maybe she had seen me. She came to lip of the water and pressed her toes into the foam.
I watched her for a while, while she stared out across the water. When I swam up she didn’t look the least afraid.
“I haven’t called yet,” she said, as if we already knew each other.
“I know,” I said. “My name is Princess Dauphine.”
I swam along the shore in the breakers; she ran along the shining edge; we went round the point of the bay; we went on and on; after many stories we wound up here, in our shack on the inland road, with wind chimes, a simple life, the occasional argument, plums from the orchard. Air is not so hard.
The autumn wind was coming down the valley from China, but, to Javad Azaizeh, it felt as chilly as if it were pouring south from Siberia. He should be inside on a night like this, but insomnia always left him feeling lonely, and Khabarovsk’s night market seemed like the perfect remedy.
Vermillion in the shadows of the next row of kiosks caught his eye, and he walked closer. In the narrow aisle between a noodle stall and one that sold prepaid viewpads for the municipal space, a stocky man in an apron swept his bare forearm up and down, back and forth. Red flashed with every movement. The noodle-seller — he hadn’t even put down his long chopsticks — paused, and the diodes in the skin of his forearm winked out. He was looking over Javad’s head, and Javad turned.
Up on a rooftop overlooking the market square, a woman waved in response. Her arm, too, traced red on the night, a series of symbols that hung on the air through persistence of vision.
Javad smiled in recognition — he knew those symbols. Forty years ago, touring with Cheba Alia’s orchestra when he was just a city kid who’d never been more than ten kilometers out of Paris, he’d seen the same alphabet on hand-lettered signs in towns on the edge of the Sahara. They’d seemed then like the most exotic thing in the world. He’d never learned how to read them, and what a noodle-seller in a Korean market in a Russian city was using them to say, he couldn’t guess.
Javad turned back to see the noodle-seller resume his side of the conversation, his arm a blur. There must be some sophisticated on-the-fly processing behind the simple arm-waving — the quick-fading scarlet lines were crisp.
Javad’s admiration was tempered by hunger — the smell of fish and spices reminded him he hadn’t eaten since midday.
“Pardon, but when you have a moment…” he said.
The noodle-seller’s arm continued flaring letters on the twilight, his gaze remained fixed on his distant companion, and Javad had no idea if the man had even heard him.