I walk and the wind is in my hair. New York city in January. My blue hair against yellow cabs. It was blue when I was born. The doctors had never seen such a thing.
Some people believe that their their wardrobe is a history. A jacket from that Wall Street job. A pair of shoes from college. That they can take it off—strip down, bare as that day they first stepped into the world.
I meet Julie outside Starbucks. She says she likes my hair. We order mocha’s. She loads hers with sugar. I let her think the salt I bring with me is the same. She says we are as compatible as the internet service said we would be. I try to smile.
People forget the stitching—the thread that hold more than just fabric to fabric. Each garment is sewn to their skin, becomes a layer of the shell. And over that outfit they place another. A mess of cloth and flesh, the constant piercing of self. Our history clings to us.
She comments on my hair again. She tells me it reminds her of the sea. I tell her how a lot of people have said that. She laughs. Her breath smells of fruit. Of places over the sea she has not been. She asks to touch my hair. I let her.
When I see someone so punctured, so tortured by the stitching of their lives, their limbs so tangled, I wonder what would it take to free them? What would it take to sever the stitching of the years?
Her hand grazes the surface at first. Strands tangle between her fingers. I smile and she grows bolder. I twist my head just a little, just for her. Her hand sinks in. And even I can smell the brine, can feel the breeze that blows through the place with the scent of fruit-laden shores. And deep goes her hand, up to the elbow, up to the shoulder, reaching in, reaching for something she cannot name. And what does she feel now? Not hair. Something more than currents. The slipping embrace of someone’s arms. And she sinks deeper. And, yes, everything in there is as it was promised. As she slips beneath the surface. eight tentacular arms reach up to her, and claim her like a lover. And they unseam her.
Carla backed up so she could see the reef better. A tessellation of almost-identical shells, each occupied by something vaguely resembling an octopus, individually as intelligent as a cat, and about half the size of a cryopod. As in a coral, the “animals” were connected, forming one colonial organism. It sounded like the cell right in front of her was the one that had spoken. Last time, the colony had been much smaller, and it had not understood her next question.
“Which one of you spoke?”
I am only one. There is no one else but you.
That was interesting. The first few visits, she had not been sure it recognized her as an independent entity. And the language lessons she’d broadcast from the buoy seemed to have been assimilated. Was it gaining intelligence as it grew? She went through the rest of the questions, recording the answers.
“I’ll be back next year. Your health and prosperity.”
As on her previous visits, it only responded to direct questions.
You have returned. Why?
The reef was huge, extending several meters above sea level and for kilometers along the sand ridge. The base was lost in darkness. She hovered above the waves on the seaward side. As always, it seemed that the polyp directly in front of her was the speaker, though she never could see an organ moving or vibrating. She set up a slow leftward drift of the skimmer, to see if the conversation stayed with the original polyp or moved with her.
“You are my research project,” she said. “I study you, to find out how you grow, how you think, what you do.” The reef was silent for a bit.
Again, why? Small organisms that I eat don’t visit me. Only you visit me, and you are not like anything else I know.
The voice moved with her, transferring seamlessly from one polyp to the next.
“I visit you because my people want to learn about others. Because we are not alone.”
Do you know others like me?
“I don’t,” she said. She and her Thesis Committee had agreed to say nothing about the fossil reefs stranded 100 meters above sea level. The reef spoke again.
I will create a motile form. It will transport my essence as you do for your “people.” There will be more like me. They will speak with you.
Your health and prosperity.
Captain Awamura emerges dripping from the Pacific waves onto the southern California shore. At first, no one looks closely enough at his tattered khaki uniform, the flesh sloughing off his spare frame, the seaweed poorly concealing the hole where half his head had been.
The screaming begins. As more of his fellow soldiers wade from the waves, Awamura pulls his corroded bayonet from his belt and shambles after the retreating sunbathers. He comes upon a sandy mound that proves to be a half-buried man not yet awakened by the hubbub. Awamura kneels and draws his knife across the throat, opening a second mouth that bleeds into the thirsty sand. The man’s eyes open, then film.
Captain Awamura Jiro of the Imperial Japanese Army, in service to his Emperor, stands and turns toward his goal, this nation’s capitol. Its throat. Hand gripping his weapon, he orders his legions on to victory.
At the age of twelve I found a sword that spat lightning and hissed fire. Men came in its pursuit and it danced in my hand, carving them into the history books as my first kills.
It led me on. At thirteen my traveling companions taught me how to take the lightning and fire into myself and push them back out into the world. At fourteen I did battle with chitin-clad hordes, delivering my homeland from evil.
At sixteen my name was revered. By the time manhood was upon me, I had a temple of gold and a hundred concubines. The next year, I had an army, the next, an empire. I read ancient texts and learned to pull force from the ground beneath my feet. I reshaped the known world.
At twenty-five I had seen and done all things. I wandered to the edges of the maps and beyond, into shadows. I battled with a creature made fully of limbs–no head or heart, only hands and feet, elbows and knees–for five days, pulling the land around us to a shred, sitting in a bubble of my own puissance.
On the eve of my twenty-seventh birthday, while my people prayed for my return, I came across a woman in a tower, a great serpent coiled around its base. I swore to rescue her.
In bloody victory I learned my mistake, I learned of the bait and the trap. Weakened from the fight she bested me, easily. But when my strength returned I withered iron chains to weed grass and tore free.
She caught me once more. We battled once more. Years our battle raged. We tore down the world about us. We tore each other into new forms, each more ragged than the last. Down to nubs of flesh and bone, held together only by the power we had gathered to our breasts.
And then I lost.
I was undone. I was nothing more than a scared child gripping a sword as men advanced. And the sword did not dance, and I did not win.
As my adversary stood over me, she said, “Thank you” to me. She blessed me, put her hand on my bloodied cheek, to feel the heat leaving me. And for the first time in my short life, I finally understood power. Finally, I knew magic. And then it was gone.