Plugs

“Hassan, change your sister back right this minute. I mean it.”

“But Mama,–”

“Hassan Ibn Sina, change your sister back or I will make you sorry you ever came out of the womb, so help me Almighty. Don’t give me that look.”

“But Mama, she likes being a butterfly.”

“I don’t care whether she wants to be a butterfly for the rest of her life. You change her back this instant, do you hear? She can be a butterfly all she wants when she’s old enough to do it herself. For now, she has to be a little girl and eat her supper. And you, you will not get any supper at all if you do not do as I say. What, do you want me to change you too? Because I guarantee you, I’m angry enough right now, I’ll change you into a dog turd in the street.”

Plinio had fallen in love with a statue, and it wasn’t even a pretty one. She, the statue, stood in what had been part of a small piazza but was now a funny, abrupt little alley where a warehouse and the back of a girl’s school touched roofs. She was in corner between the two buildings, where for hours after every rain, water drizzled onto her upraised forehead.
She was no historical figure, just an anonymous seller in the fish market, holding eels in one hand and looking up with an expression of wonder as though the sun had just come out after a storm. She was not a young woman, although she still looked young enough to bear children.
Plinio taught Latin at the girl’s school to girls who didn’t like Latin and weren’t good at it, and he had been driven nearly crazy seeing the statue at the end of the alley every morning and evening, often with old rainwater drizzling onto her face. So he had gotten in the habit of going to her before going home and standing there beside her for a while. It was peaceful to watch the shadows climb the rough gray walls of the warehouse, to listen to the distance-garbled laughter of the girls, sometimes to feel a gentle evening rain gradually weigh down his clothes.
The girl’s school closed during the war, but after a few decades it was thought a good idea to start it up again. The new school did not teach Latin, but did teach sex education, which the girls didn’t like any better.
Sometimes, when they were let out to play in the afternoons, a group of the girls would gather to sit and talk and chew gum by the statues in the little alley behind the school. The statues always made them think of romance, and boys, and how far apart those two things were. It wasn’t that the figures were beautiful, or that they were kissing or anything. It was just that the skinny gentleman was holding his book out over the eel woman’s head so that when it rained and water dripped down from the roofs, she was kept dry. And she, for her part, looked up at him with an expression of wonder.
One of the girls, Antonia, said she thought she was falling in love with him. The other girls laughed with embarrassment and delight.

I stood at the top of Zhezh Mountain. Below me lay the fires of the city, littering the plain like fallen stars, and the Palace the brightest of them all. In there, somewhere, slept the Overlord. I clenched my fist around the hilt of my sky dagger.  The memory of him burned in my heart: asprawl on his throne, his fingers waving dismissively at my master as they dragged him off to meet the axe and then for me, the coal to my left eye. Mercy, he called it.

Beside me the goat gave a low bleat, and I came back. “Tonight,” I whispered.

I led the goat to my makeshift altar, a simple flat rock the length of me. On the goat’s side I painted the constellations with elderberry juice: The Archer. The Dragon. The Dagger. Each of them circled the star-shaped blackness in the white of the goat’s chest. Then I readied the dagger.

If I fled afterwards, they might not catch me, but it would not be enough.

Chanting quietly, I slit the goat’s throat and let the blood pour out on the altar. I drew the forbidden patterns with trembling fingers. Then I flung up my hand with a cry, facing the night for the first time.

The stars wheeled overhead as I waited and despaired. Then I saw it, faint at first, then stronger: the hairy star, the star of ill omen, the falling star, its tail pointing down at the palace like a dagger. All would see and know the Overlord’s end writ large in the stars, and though he might thrash and rage as I did when they took my eye, it would do him no good. Soon he would sleep forever in the crypts.

I sat on the cold ground and waited for them to find me.

“How was your first day?”  says the woman standing in front of him. She’s 50 or so. Middle management. Uncomfortable and avoiding his gaze. He can’t remember her name. Peggy? Pinky? Something with a P.

“Just like every other day,” he says. He shrugs.

She smiles a bit too widely, as if trying to mask her disdain for him – the lowly mailroom clerk – but doing a shitty job. That’s fine, he thinks. She’ll be here herself one day. You can only stay comfortably in the middle for so long. Falling is easiest.

Patty? he thinks. Maybe Polly?

He can’t really remember anyone’s name anymore, even the ones he’s worked with for decades. The long descent from chief executive to mailroom clerk is all he’s got left. The blurry remnants of an enthusiastic start, a somewhat satisfying career, an occasional breakdown. Something in the back of his mind nags at him, tells him things aren’t supposed to be this way. Something’s backward.

But what’s the point of questioning when you’re on your way out?

“Just leaving,” he says. “Getting ready to go.”

“Well,” she says. “This is goodbye, then.”

She waits, as if for a cue that she’s allowed to go. As if she has to ask his permission.

“So long, Pankaja,” he says. Her smile drops away. For a moment it seems as if she may start crying, but then she spins and rushes out the door. Maybe, he thinks, he wasn’t supposed to remember anything after all.

“First day,” he mutters, the words lonely and barely audible. “Or is it the last?” He can’t remember.

The former president cleans off his desk, empties the trash, turns off the mail room lights, and exits.

Everything fades quickly from memory.

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