A Screech of Gulls

Issue #168

Tutti loves only three things in this world, and he loves them well: his birds, his liquor, and Gemma, the junkmonger who keeps the stall next to his barrel.

First are his gulls, soot grey and always squabbling:

“Snailshell, Bottlemouth, Driftwood.” Each one is named for a bit of flotsam he keeps looped at the end of its lead. That way, when he sells one and catches another to take its place, it’s as though he never lost it.

“Pipestem, Thimble, Button.” Each morning when he wakes in his little niche under the docks, he names them. Names them again as he climbs topside and heads to the wharf market. Naming is easier than counting when they’re all making a fuss straining against the ratty leads of twine tied about their knobby legs and pecking at Tutti, each other, and any burleyman unfortunate enough to be carrying food.

“Rattle, Milkring, Caul.” The names are all remnants from a time before Tutti lived under the docks, before he sold caught birds at Benechiaro’s merport to indebted sailors on shore leave, and to the whores who serviced them, and to the thieves who shadowed them.

“Geartooth, Lampkey, Copper-rose.” He arrives at his spot, climbs up on his barrel. The wood is mostly rotted, but tar and salt have hardened it forever into place. The birds settle, and Copper-rose lands at his feet. She’s grown fat and almost docile, thanks to Piero, the fishmonger on the other side of Tutti’s barrel, who lets the birds eat whatever no one else will.

Copper-rose is Tutti’s favorite, and he holds her until last on the few days when it looks like he might sell all his birds. He sleeps with her tucked under his arm, a warm, plump and only sometimes restless pillow.

He used to have other birds. Fancier birds: Goldring and Tippet, Crystalmoon and Lacecap, but they’re all gone, the birds and their namesakes both, sold for home-distilled rapacci sweetened with teled liqueur.

“Snailshell, Bottlemouth, Driftwood—”

“They’re all still there, you toothless sot.” A heel of bread catches Tutti in the forehead. Crumbs fall in his eyes. He snatches it up before Copper-rose or one of the others can get at it. Even then, he has to bat his birds back from pecking at the hearth-blackened heel.

He grins his thanks at Gemma, his third love. “And some beer to soften it?”

She hands him a clay mug before he’s finished asking. Poorly fired. He can taste the earth in it still. He dunks the heel and leaves it to soak so it will be soft enough for gumming.

“I want that one this time.” She points at the dirty cloud of birds that have been set to flight by his waving about. He doesn’t look up. Looking up is a dangerous prospect when you’ve a flock of birds leashed to your belt. He doesn’t have to look. What other bird would she point to except the plump Copper-rose?

“If I sell all the others.” An empty promise, that. On bad days, he sells nothing, and she gets Snailshell for her bread crusts and beer. Even on his best days, when the storms delay the merships from Al Azshar and the aeroships crossing the Altimar, Gemma only gets Caul or Geartooth.

“That’s what you always say.”

“We’ll see. We’ll see.” Tutti settles on his barrel, tests his bread to see if it’s soft enough yet for eating. Gemma might have argued, but a man sidles up to her stall wearing the cap and arm badge of a bo’sun and asking after the worn sextants she has spent so many hours piecing back together. Tutti watches Gemma’s round face grow redder as the aquan tests each instrument and finds it wanting. She simpers and tries to cozen him, but Gemma’s only real beauty is youth, the kind of beauty that only the old can appreciate.

She flicks her thumb at the bo’sun’s back when he leaves for other parts of the Piazza without buying. A lost sale is a poor way to start the day.

“I’ll trade you Copper-rose for one of those fine sex-things.”

“Sextants, you old lecher. And no deal. As if Mercha Renata would let me accept one of your nasty birds in place of coin.” But Gemma’s frown curves into a smile, and when the sun is high she gives him a softer bit of bread from the middle of her loaf.

And so the day goes. Gemma ignores Tutti when there are customers and throws amiable insults at him when the market slows in the midday heat. The birds take flight and strain against their leads whenever a buyer wanders too close. They shit on Tutti, and the sun bakes the shit into his layers of stained linen and wool. When it dries, he flicks it off. Piero the fishmonger dumps a bucket of offal too far gone to save even with lye, and Tutti’s birds feast and shit some more.

One by one, he sells them. Snailshell goes to a handful of grubby children in exchange for a half-sack of bitter wine. The oldest is not even as tall as Tutti’s barrel, but they’re smart enough to know the early birds go the cheapest. Bottlemouth and Driftwood are taken by the wife who runs one of the dockside brothels. A common customer, she pays with teled liqueur instead of coin, and Tutti passes the afternoon in a haze of goodwill and pleasant visions. He can’t bring himself to care who takes Pipestem, Thimble, or Button. When he sobers he finds a few corroded ramiras in his pocket that weren’t there before, so he must have driven a bargain despite being lost in the teled.

The sun is setting across the bay and the market is closing before the sailors on shore leave can get drunk enough to cause trouble. Tutti picks out Rattle’s lead and goes looking for the lovely Gemma.

She is in the shadows at the back of her stall, brow to brow with a strange man, whispering. Tutti catches a glimpse of the bluesheen glow of terrazzi scars buried under the skin of the man’s forearm, but before he can escape, Rattle squawks and Gemma notices him.

So does the man. “Who’s this?”

Tutti backs up a step at that growl. The man’s eyes are black pupil and little else. When he turns, Tutti can see more blue glowing scars on his cheek and neck, fresher than the ones scoring his arms. A few drops of teled liqueur can make a hard day pleasantly hazy, but raw teled rubbed into scored flesh as the terrazzi liked to do, that brought ongoing madness. Tutti retreats another step, the birds on their leads taking wing, tugging him to flee.

“It’s nobody, Nico. Just an old beggar.” Gemma claws at the man’s arm, trying to regain his attention.

“He heard us.”

“No, he didn’t.”

“I didn’t hear nothing,” Tutti says, holding his place like he would with a mad dog. “I just came to give Gemma her bird.”

Rattle squawks again and struggles against Tutti’s grip. Perhaps Tutti could throw Rattle at the man, but the bird is still on its lead, and no matter how spry Tutti is, he’s no match for an angry ‘razzo.

The man leans against the post that supports the stall’s canvas shade and crosses his arms. “Well, give it to her, then.”

“Nico, leave him alone. Tutti, go away.”

The man—Nico—grabs Gemma’s wrist. The scars on his arms are so depleted that they’re more ropes of skin than glow. “Gemma, don’t you want your bird?”

Tutti traps the restless Rattle under his arm and fumbles with the lead. The surly gull nips at his side, but Tutti hardly feels it through his layers. He wraps the lead around his waist with the other empty ones, tucking the worn gourd rattle in place, and holds the bird out for Gemma.

Nico snatches it. Tutti had been expecting that. But then he wrenches the gull’s neck, cutting it off mid-squawk. The bird goes limp and the rest of the flock goes wild, straining hard at their leashes. Tutti stands unmoved.

He knows what people do with his gulls, but that’s away and elsewhere. As long as he doesn’t see it, he can pretend.

Gemma hiccups on a sob. “Nico, you didn’t have to—”

“Shut up. You were going to kill it and eat it. I’ve saved you the trouble.” He throws the carcass at her, and she flinches. He grabs her chin. The press of his fingers distorts her face. “Why tears for a feathered rat? Why, and none for your dear Nico and his problems? Now give me the lamp keys, all the ones you’ve got, and I’ll be on my way.”

“I can’t. Mercha Renata checks all the inventories. She’ll notice even one key missing. For all of them, she’ll have me transported to the mines.”

“I’ll make you wish for the mines if you don’t get that lamp open for me. There’s a fortune of teled locked up inside.”

“There’s no guarantee any of the keys will open it.”

“Then I’ll... I’ll smash the thing.”

Hardly likely. The teled lamps throughout Benechiaro are made to withstand looting. Nico must know this. Must have tried. Everyone has at least once. His nails dig further into Gemma’s cheek. She twists away as far as his grip will let her. Whimpers stick in her throat, sounding like Tutti’s gulls when he first catches them.

“I can open it,” Tutti says, because he hates hearing those helpless sounds from Gemma.

Nico’s grip relaxes. “What’s an old birdman know about the lamp mechanisms?”

Tutti wishes his birds wouldn’t make such a ruckus. Fresh shit drips in a mottled stream off his shoulder. He straightens and tries to look legitimate. “M’wife. She was a Maestra. Just a repair engineer, but I helped her in the shop. Learned a thing or two. I could open a lamp.”

“Wife? What woman would take you, shitman?”

Tutti flinches. He’s never understood it either, but that had been Marija’s way. She never saw broken things. Only things waiting to be fixed.

He shrugs. Looks at his birds. “I can open it. Leave Gemma alone, and I will.”

“We’ll see.” Nico releases Gemma and pulls a knife. Tutti falls back, but Nico only grabs the leads tied to Tutti’s belt. He saws at the twine.

“What are you—”

“In case we get hungry while you work. Come on, Gemma. Your Inamorato has offered to save you.” Nico ducks out of the stall, dragging the hopping, flapping, shrieking flock behind him.

“Me? But... the stall...”

Nico raises his fist, knife still in hand. “Leave it.”

With another stifled sob, Gemma trails after him. Tutti hurries behind, hoping that Milkring, Caul, Geartooth—all of them—drown Nico in a rain of shit.

Nico leads them through the Piazza della Cosca, where the bordellos and tavernas are only just opening their doors for the evening, and down side streets into the slums of L’Scuro. The flickering yellow glow of fish oil lamps replaces the steady blue sheen of the teled lamps that still light the main piazzas and the heights of the city.

Most of the traffic in L’Scuro is of the scurrying sort—people and rats both. The people make way for the glow-scarred Nico and only cast glances at the soot grey cloud following him like an agitated aerostat. Gemma hugs her arms close about her body and keeps her eyes on her toes. Tutti fusses with the severed ends of twine still tied to his belt, fraying them more with his fretting.

“Where are we going?” He had assumed that whatever lamp Nico wanted was up in the heights, protected by the household guards of the Grandé Familias. A terrazzo, a junkmonger, and a birdman have no business up there. They would be stopped before they ever reached Nico’s prize.

But L’Scuro is home to the worst sorts in the city: terrazzo gangs dealing cut teldesca, drunken Rietto who will slit your throat to drink your blood if they think it has wine in it, and broken Schiavo miners hacking up their deaths in globs of bloody phlegm.

“San Breccia. Their eternal lamp is always lit.”

For all that he might seem sane for a ‘razzo, Nico is clearly lost to the dream. Tutti stops, then hurries along again when Nico doesn’t.

“The Fidei are always on guard. How do you expect me to open the lamp with them about?”

“Guess I’ll just have to make a distraction for you.”

The alleyway opens onto a dank piazza paved with cracked flagstones. It has been swept clean of trash, but the buildings around the square sag on their foundations, with only tattered curtains to cover their windows and doorways.

San Breccia di Argenta seems grand only in comparison to the neighboring buildings. Her once-pale sandstone walls are streaked dark with soot. Rain has pitted her face and the columns of her portico, leaving rust-stained streaks and pocked hollows filled with moss-slime water. A shuffling line of human refuse trails down her steps and into the piazza: desperate miners, feckless Rietto, twitching ‘razzi, all manner of flotsam with no more value to the world than the junk dangling from Tutti’s leads. But at Breccia, such things don’t matter. The line will be fed until the soup and bread runs out. The light of her eternal lamp pierces the gloaming. Tutti stares at it until he sees blue even when he blinks.

“We can’t do this.” He looks to Gemma for help, but she shakes her head and pulls back into the arch of a doorway. “We shouldn’t do this.”

“Clamp your gums, old man. Gemma.” Tutti’s birds are tired. They flap-skip along as Nico drags Gemma out of the shadows and thrusts the leads at her. She takes them, and won’t meet Tutti’s eyes. “Wait til I’m done, then go for the lamp.”

Tutti waits for Nico to disappear into the breadline, casts a glance back at his birds now safe in Gemma’s grasp. He counts to summon courage: Milkring, Caul, Geartooth

Copper-rose launches up and dives at him, interrupting his litany. She passes close enough that her wingtips brush his cheek. He holds his hand against that feather touch. Glances again at Nico insinuating himself among the starving supplicants.

“Let’s run,” Tutti whispers to Gemma. “You have my birds. He’s halfway across the piazza. We can get away now.”

She wraps her hand around the leads, pulling a few of the grounded birds off-balance and setting them all to flapping again. “We can’t. He’ll come find me at the stall, or at home. You have to get him the teled. You said you could get it.”

“It’s the sannos. We can’t steal from the sannos.” Tutti doesn’t so much care about divine retribution, but heresy, the Patriate’s justice, a watery grave tithed to the Mer; any one is reason enough to be afraid.

He reaches for the leads bunched around Gemma’s fist. She holds them up and away. “The sannos won’t stop Nico from beating us both if you fail. You have to do it, or... or I’ll let them go.” She jerks the leads. The gulls squawk and flounder. “They’ll fly, and you’ll have to get new ones, and new buttons and driftwood and other trash to name them by.”

The hardness of her expression makes her ugly, uglier than Nico’s digging fingers had. Tutti clamps his gums together so hard he tastes blood. He bites down so the tightness gripping his chest and throat won’t escape in a sad wail. He’d hoped to die before he saw her turn ugly. It isn’t fair, how the world shatters everything beautiful and leaves him only with useless bits that he can’t piece back together. He reaches out, trying to fix what has already been broken.

Gemma mistakes him, jerks the leads away from his hand. Copper-rose, his plump Copper-rose, pecks at Gemma’s ankle and earns herself a kick.

“I’ll do it,” Tutti says before Gemma can do more harm. “I just need Lampkey.”

“You don’t need a bird to get the teled.”

“No, you drooling sow. I need the lampkey.” He snatches up the bird and struggles to untie its namesake from the lead, hard to manage when tears blur his vision and his hands are shaking from lack of drink. The lampkey looks no different from a hundred like it, but the Maestri had many lamps to refuel throughout the city. Silly to carry a whole ring when a master key could be made.

A shout erupts from the soup line. One man tackles another and they roll across the stones of the piazza. Fidei in plain woolen robes rush down the steps to quell the fight, but the commotion has already set off the terrazzi in the line. Howls and dream-gibberish echo through the piazza, and then more shouts as desperation and impatience become blows.

“Wait here.” Tutti darts past the fighting, but Gemma ignores him and follows, dragging his weary birds along. He sends them a worried glance. They’ll be crushed if the fighting becomes a riot. He has to open the lamp casement quickly so he can take Copper-rose and Lampkey and the rest and return home to his little squat under the docks.

Up close, the face of San Breccia is as hard and ugly as Gemma’s. The lamp that shines through the gloom is crusted with corrosion where the brass fittings come together.

Already the Fidei are calming the unruly crowd. Their Benedotto has emerged onto the portico. Stern as any disapproving father, he tells them there will be no food for any man or woman with blood on their knuckles. The threat is real enough to stifle the crowd’s unrest. Nico’s distraction hasn’t been much of a distraction at all.

Doesn’t matter. Nobody’s paying attention to a shit-covered birdman. Tutti fits the key to the base of the lamp, jiggles it when it grates against the corrosion inside the keyhole. It won’t go in all the way. He slams his palm against it, and only cuts himself for his effort. It has to go in. Has to. He needs to rescue his birds, and this key is the only key.

“It isn’t working,” Gemma hisses.

“I know.” He grips the key, yanking to remove it, to try again, but his pounding has been enough to make it stick fast, and now his hands are wet with sweat and blood. They are trembling. His whole body is trembling. Useless. So useless. Everything is useless.

“Is it open? Did you get it?” Nico comes up from behind. His scars shine more blue in the light of the lamp. He is trembling as well, and his gaze flicks around, following shadows.

“I... I can’t.” Tutti runs his sleeve over his face, smearing snot and tears and blood along its length. “It’s stuck.”

“Useless old shit.” Nico pounds at the key. He twists it, and with a faint crack, the bow breaks away, leaving the blade stuck in the keyhole. Nico tosses the broken key aside and slams his fist into the lamp with an animal roar.

The key bow skitters across the pavement. Tutti dives after it. His key. Marija’s key. Broken now more than ever, but it’s still a piece of her.

“Here now, what are you about?”

The three conspirators freeze as two of the white-robed Fidei approach. Gemma breaks first, fleeing with a trail of squawking stumbling seabirds fluttering behind her. Tutti snatches up the broken key and races after her, Nico close behind.

They don’t flee far. One of the birds—Milkring—gets tangled up in its own lead, and Gemma pauses to free it.

“Give them to me. Give them all to me.” Tutti grabs the leads, yanks them from Gemma’s grip hard enough to knock her off balance into the refuse lining the alley. He’s got his birds back. Finally. He’s looking around to count them and make sure when Nico snatches up Milkring from its tangle.

“You stupid shit. You stupid, lying shit. You said you could get the teled. Now you’ve made it worse. They’ll call a maestro down to fit it with a new lock. They’ll be on their guard.” He swings Milkring around in an arc above his head and then down. The shrieking bird smashes into the cobbles and goes still.

Nico grabs Geartooth and Caul, one in each hand. Even though Tutti tightens his grip, the leads yank away, leaving a searing heat across his bloody palm.

“No,” he begs. “No.”

Whirl and slam. Both birds go still. “What was that? No? No? I say yes. Yes you did. Waste of blood and breath and bone, you’re no different than these feathered rats of yours. At least they’re good for eating.”

Tutti releases the leads, tries to shoo away the last two birds. Lampkey hops and hops and flies right at Nico. Nico smacks Lampkey down to the cobbles and crushes its head with his boot.

Copper-rose huddles against Tutti’s foot. He scoops her up and holds her with arms that feel too thin and weak for any sort of protection.

“Help,” he whispers to Gemma, but she picks herself up from the gutter and backs away. Giving Tutti a shake of her head, she turns and runs.

“I’ll deal with her.” Nico kicks aside the dead body of a bird. A tiny, gap-toothed cog skitters along the cobbles after it. “But you. You’ve got a sweetheart. Plump little armful. Does Gemma know? I figured she was your Inamorata.”

“I’m sorry. I tried. Just leave us alone.”

“And what? Go beg for food at San Breccia? But you’ve got a meal fit for the Principe, right there in your arms. Come and share with your friend Nico.”

Copper-rose screeches when Nico pulls her from Tutti’s arms, and so does Tutti. He flails for her, but too late. One twist, and she goes limp. Tutti falls to his knees, each breath coming out in a high, toneless keen.

Nico lifts the limp bird, sniffs, and drops her before Tutti with a sneer. “I changed my mind. I’d rather eat garbage.”

He kicks another bird carcass aside and stalks away, leaving Tutti alone amid grey feathered bodies and slack leads.

Gemma isn’t at the market the next day. The stall is closed, the junk taken—by looters, by mercha Renata, Tutti doesn’t know. There is no bread for Tutti, burned or not, and no beer. Piero slops out entrails for the gulls, but Tutti has no gulls. He sits on his barrel, naming his empty lengths of twine according to the scraps of memory knotted into them.

Snailshell, Bottlemouth, Driftwood. Bits of beauty he has found along the shore, under the wharf. Old and broken and salt-worn. The bag-and-bone men passed them by as trash, but not Tutti. Tutti saw their beauty.

Marija would have liked them. Would have woven them into a windchime to hang above the lintel.

Pipestem, Thimble, Button. The wooden stem has a hole worn through it where Tutti chewed and chewed as he worked, back when he had work, and a workshop, and cured redleaf to pack the pipe with. The thimble and the button, he can recall when he had boxes full of them, when rolling tin thimbles were a threat to bare feet and buttons were things to be flicked at Marija to get her attention when his own mending work threatened to send him cross-eyed.

Tutti’s hands shake at the next group. Rattle, Milkring. Caul. He stares out to sea for a long time, letting the sun dry the salt tracks to his cheeks.

Geartooth, Key-bow. Copper-rose. He pauses on the last bit of trash. He keeps the copper polished, but corrosion has crept in between the twisted wires, grey-green edging the worn petals. He can’t recall when he gave the cheap pin to Marija. It isn’t the fanciest piece she ever owned, or her favorite. It’s just the piece he couldn’t sell to pay for debts or drink. The backing pin is long gone, the stem and petals are bent and scratched in places. Tutti looks at the paltry collection tangled in his lap. Junk. It is all junk.

Some broken things can’t be fixed. Some lost things can’t be replaced.

He touches each in turn, naming them. Remembering. It is all he has left.

Gathering up the frayed lengths of twine, Tutti heads down to the shore to catch himself a new screech of gulls.


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Alyc Helms dabbles in corsetry and costuming, dances Scottish Highland and Irish Ceili, and games in all forms of media. She sometimes refers to her work as “critical theory fanfic,” which is a fancy way to say that she is obsessed with liminality, gender identity, and foxes. She’s a freelance RPG writer for Green Ronin, a graduate of Clarion West 2012, and her short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Crossed Genres and will be appearing in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Her first novel, The Dragons of Heaven, will be published by Angry Robot in June 2015. She can be found on Twitter @alychelms or at www.alychelms.com.

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“Transitions of Truth and Tears” by David G. Blake
“Ink of My Bones, Blood of My Hands” by Vylar Kaftan

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