Ebb Stung By the Flow

Issue #204

We are a train, tonight comprised of eighteen cars. Our shape and size are dictated by the needs of Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade. Sometimes we are smaller, and sometimes we stretch long. Inside, cars can expand for miles, with golden savanna, gray tundra, wildflower meadow; inside, cars can be but a thin metal frame around towering chalk cliffs. Outside, seawater rushes in our wake, and sometimes, arctic snow.

Tonight, because the circus dictates, we dare wander into a world on the edge of war. We skim over slipstream Russian rails by moonlight, ghosting before another train running heavy with war machines. We draw back, allowing the other to surge ahead; if we are lightning, they are thunder. We send a plume of steam into the oily night-dark skies, a low whistle vibrating through metal and wood and back again. The other train has no consciousness nor do I expect one; there is only the rumble of metal and the spit of fire in response to my call. Filthy men feed its coal-black engines; it thrums onward, through the ghost of us.

What remains of the body I was is but a severed hand resting within the steam engine, with a golden cross folded into the palm. I was sworn to Christ as Sister Jerome Grace, but I was always more than that. I was she who wove the people of the world into consciousness and being, she who spun every thread into existence and divided them into singular lives. I was she who sent the immeasurable threads through my sisters’ hands, so they could measure, and in turn, sever.

We do this still—the train goes where I will it, and we are drawn where the world needs us. We are life, we are death; we are that which stands between. We allowed ourselves to be carried away, allowed ourselves to love, to die, and become a train that circles the world entire as the circus dictates. We are four hundred and eighty five tons of glorious metal and wood, our engine wheels paired four, six, six, and four, and there is nowhere we have not been. Nowhen. My sister Lisbeth keeps the jars, fragments of time into which we may slip. My sister Mae measures every second and every breath, and through her, I feel the weight of the artillery shell as the breech locks around it. I taste the metal tang that coats Mae’s tongue; she knows the fragmentary shrapnel vibrating beneath the shell’s sleek metal jacket.

It is nothing I can stop and I cannot warn the other train; there is only scorching, speeding metal. I cannot speak to the workers; they have no affinity for such things. The few passengers, the façade of the train’s true intent, are also beyond my reach, though I can feel them within the train’s speeding cars, most heavy with sleep. They will not be able to flee; Lisbeth’s hands will cut all night.

The weight of the shell in the air is monstrous as it vaults from its barrel and into the night. Only eight pounds—Jackson was bigger when I pulled him from the daffodil box on the foundling hospital’s steps. I count the rounds as they fly from the barrels—four, six, six, two, and empty. A breath. Between the realization that they will fire, they have already launched, destruction approaching at five hundred and seventy one feet per second.

The train in front of us bucks off the tracks, the engine rearing like a spooked horse. The tender whips free from its coupler when the car behind it explodes, star-bright against the night like the entire world has gone up. The tender, full of coal and water, pancakes into the engine, and shrapnel falls like rain, shell and train shattering outward through the night.

We cannot avoid the wreck. They carry three hundred tons of war machines, and they cannot stop.

The fire blossoms inferno bright, the heat yanking me from the slipstream rails. We fist through the other train, through war machines and soldiers and the civilians they meant to hide behind; through rubber melting against metal and into flesh. I believe for one breath that we will make it—that I can guide us free and clear, thread through a flaming needle, and who better with thread than she who spun every thread into conscious actuality? But the explosion has thrown us into the war-torn reality I had hoped to avoid. Jackson wanted only to play along these tracks, and now one train is inside the other; my body inside that of the smoldering train, hand submerged in melting glove.

I reach. The needs of the circus dictate above all else that we do not die, we do not succumb to such mortal destruction, but in this moment it is beyond me, and my cars emerge wholly into this reality, blowing the other train wide open, as we in turn are blown. Fire, ballooning against my back.

We are blown, and I am falling from a great height, a height that is incomprehensible, for I am a train upon tarnished, well-run tracks. But I am falling through the air itself. I feel the air on cheeks and between fingers and it is autumn that fills my senses, autumn, and I’ve not smelled anything but coal in so long. I blink and cough, soot coating my tongue. Trains do not have tongues.

I stare at the ruin of a train above me, what was once a roof now blown open, metal peeled back the way one might open an orange. Beyond the metal maw, trees. So many trees, their leaves fluttering gold so that for a moment, I think the sky is made of leaves. But beyond the gold, the blue sky of morning. A cool nose presses against my cheek.

Cold, wet, and a puff of breath that is warm, before a warmer tongue licks me. The sensation is so extraordinary, I shriek and pedal backwards through the debris of the train car. I regard the monkey before me. Soot-coated Ichabod stares, as startled as I am, his chest rising and falling with each vexed breath.

Unbroken, I sit up, but my consciousness that once inhabited the train now inhabits another body. A body of breath and blood, a body I helped raise from youth into adulthood. Jackson’s hands have become my own, gnarled and aching. I should be broken, thrown as I was through the wreckage, but it is only the hands that hurt, each finger having been broken years before.

Ichabod chitters as he climbs into my arms, sits on my shoulder. It is a curious thing to have a shoulder large enough for an animal to rest upon. Ichabod’s tail curls around my neck, the end tickling my chin. I laugh, and the sound startles both of us, bright in the wreck of the train.

I stand on uncertain legs. The memory of skirts swirls through me, strange and new to me and the consciousness that still inhabits this body.

“Jackson?” I ask.

The train groans, metal shifting, as elsewhere in the wreckage other circus animals and performers emerge from our near-doom. Inside me, it feels as if there is someone else moving around, someone who is as surprised as I am that I now inhabit his body. I take a breath and I want to cry at the sensation of lungs expanding. I marvel at the scents of burning oil and spilled blood and crushed trees, and turn in a slow circle, mindful of the debris that blocks my steps but walking even so. I relish the feel of every sharp angle underfoot; the way a piece of glass shatters beneath my weight, the slip of dust beneath the sole of my boot.

Jackson does not prevent me from moving, not even as I touch his body. I place a cautious hand atop my head and it is Jackson’s own, full of thick, dark hair. My hands pat down chest, belly, groin, and when I linger to study the way a body curves and responds to touch, I am satisfied that Jackson cannot stop me. This body has become my own, and the world spreads out before me in ways it has not in so long. I can step off the rails, I can walk with feet and touch with hands.

Within the crumpled doorframe of the train car, my sister Lisbeth appears. Her brown skin is streaked with blacker soot, and blood darkens the hem of her dress. I can feel her heartbeat; her wound is deep, and even though it will heal—we were not made for dying—worry spikes through me. It’s fear that brightens Lisbeth’s eyes; she knows it is not Jackson who stands before her, can sense me within his body.

I scatter from the wreckage of the two trains, me inside Jackson. We move through warm darknesses until at the end of a long corridor, we see a familiar twelve-paned window within the foundling hospital. Once, long ago, it was part of a shrine to Mary, and candlewax clings to the marble sill. Our hands don’t hurt; we are small, and young, and this was almost the beginning.

Jackson’s face peers back at me from the lowest windowpane, and though I still feel his consciousness inside, it’s only me who moves the body, and we run. We have not run with feet and legs for years, and the sensation of pumping heart and lungs is thrilling; we run to our room where we collapse onto the thin-mattressed bed and we do not care about the spring that pokes us; every awareness is glory.

The room is smaller than we remember, a narrow shelf above the bed holding that old daffodil box, which is now crammed full of penny dreadfuls. I cannot help but reach up for them, pulling the box down against my chest the way one might a newborn. The books are not dusty; they are well-read and well-loved, and I press my nose into the spread pages the way one might press into a spread woman; I inhale, instantly intoxicated. Each endpaper is marked with Jackson’s careful script, his name written in a careful hand. But there is a book missing from the collection, taken from him and this sends a spike of anger through me.

Memory propels me back to the corridor. Within Jackson’s young body, the true nature of him tries to slither free. He does not want to admit to this form, has not yet willingly become it. I could force him into it, could open the space and allow this body to give way, but I don’t. Arms and legs and heart and lungs are precious to me, so long having been made of wheels and axles and metal; I revel in the power of flesh as we burst through Timothy’s door, to find him sprawled on his bed.

“Where are they?” we demand.

“W-what—”

It takes no strength at all to lift him from the bed. There is a strange satisfaction in the way he tumbles to the floor between wall and bed, the way he cowers and watches us over the edge of the mattress. We rip the blankets and pillows from the bed; we pull the drawers from the side table. It only briefly registers that Timothy owns even less than we do—that what he treasures most seem to be jacks and a rotted rubber ball. And still, we find the books, pressed between mattress and iron headboard. They have been there so long the metal headboard has made an indentation upon the wood-pulp covers.

We leave the books there, our hands coming back to the boy. We haul him up with a strength we should not possess, and the power in my hands is astonishing. I pull this boy out from the gap between bed and wall and down the hall, where he only whimpers, still trying to convince himself he is within a nightmare and not the real world.

The foundling hospital was a strange place after all, and boys always went missing. These were, of course, those children who would not be missed, for no one outside these walls knew they existed. Boys always went missing, and soon others came to take their place.

Timothy had tried, in days prior, to befriend Jackson with candies and fresh socks and though Jackson had allowed this boy into his space, he had quickly discerned the boy’s actual target: the penny dreadfuls. It had been easy to turn the boy’s eagerness back on himself, for everyone wanted something. Jackson lured the boy into a deeper friendship, requesting more of his time, more of his attention, until the boy had only Jackson to turn to when something went wrong. Inevitably, something did go wrong; Jackson ensured it did. I ensured it did?

For here we were, stepping into a room that should not exist, tangling the boy into what appeared to be cobwebs but became ropes, but became Jackson’s arms as his true self slithered beyond even what control I maintained over the body. He held a danger none could entirely understand—not even me who made him into a great titan whose proud head brushed the stars. His boundless winged body was that of a man down to his belly, but from there, he was all viper coils, his strong hands reaching east and west as far as he desired. A fearful dragon with a dark tongue and darker fires.

Folly made him thus. My folly. Revulsion is a new sensation, my mouth sharp with vomit, when I see what we have done to Timothy. Jackson should never have been bound into flesh, but he wanted to know what it was to be a human body, wanted to know every aspect. Who was I to say no. I am she who creates, not she who cuts and denies.

In the darkness, Lisbeth’s scissors blaze and I flee.

Night severs itself from day, to reveal me and my sisters, bloody in bright snow. We pick ourselves from the ground, naked and steaming, never children but newborn nonetheless. I unfold like a flower, petals seeking unseen sun. There is light without warmth, the air a still limbo around us. I reside still within Jackson’s body as I look upon my sisters; I am not sure if they can see me for me as the threads slick down my thighs and into their hands. Mae holds the threads’ weight constantly, bearing that which we cannot; Lisbeth’s hands are sharp, sending to ruin what Mae deems done.

Above us, the skeleton of a dying temple, its cracked ceiling flaking with blue paint that once cradled golden stars. The threads spilling from my body surge up the columns, wrapping them until the threads basketweave themselves into a stained and ancient fabric, into a rippling circus tent where the strongman stands in the thick shadows. He reeks of bile soap, the tang of slaughtered animals never quite extinguished. He smells like Lisbeth; like ever-present death. Is he my guide? Isn’t there always a guide?

“Probably wouldn’t help if you talked.” The voice in my throat is startling; the feel of tongue against teeth and palate.

Jackson does not smoke, but I draw a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. I tap it against my thigh and try to unwrap the cellophane. Jackson’s misshapen fingers are no longer meant for such detail work. I cannot grasp the seam at the pack’s end no matter how I try. The strongman only watches; his hands not meant for such finery either.

Jackson wears a knife at his side and it comes out of its leather sheath easily enough; its hilt is thick, grasped by even these crumpled hands. Its point is razor sharp and moves through the cellophane as if through air. The cellophane curls as it parts, like a body coming undone. I hitch the blade under the gleaming wrap and pull. It crinkles as I slide the knife away and I tap the pack again.

I thumb the lid up and one cigarette slides smoothly out. I haven’t smoked in years—haven’t breathed in years. The cigarette feels nice between my lips, solid, and it smells grand, something to hold onto in the gloom of the train car— No. Not the train, but the circus tent wavers around us and my worry takes hold of me; worry that I will flee this space before I understand it.

The strongman never speaks. He only stares from sunken eyes that show me my own reflection. I am Jackson, with misshapen hands and bent body. No matter how Jackson may present himself to the rest of the world—businessman, showman—he is ever this huddled mass. And I within him, to undo what I did?

Can I control where I might go? This body wants to dance. Wants to kiss a willing mouth. Wants to drink water and be drunk in return. I do not want to stand before the strongman and—be judged in silence.

I draw a slow breath and move to the strongman’s side, this man who does not move or speak but simply is. When I move toward him, so too does the circus tent move; fabric melts into metal and the wreck of the trains rises around us. The strongman’s stare becomes the weight of the world upon me; if he is judge, this is his evidence. I have broken something.

I step out of the train, boots crunching over the stones cluttering the shoulder of the tracks. Wreckage is thrown everywhere—how very careless someone has been with this train. I pinch the cigarette between my fingers. Paper crinkles, tobacco rains.

I try to pick familiar shapes from the wreckage and see too many I know. The Ferris wheel arcs dark against the clouded sky, its gondolas scattered. A carousel horse is frozen in mid-leap, a bear smashed on the tracks beneath it. Tent fabric drapes trees and bodies. The dead litter everywhere, and it isn’t only friends but people from the other train. Soldiers melted to their war machines. They have been transformed by fire, the violence smoothed from every sharp line.

And I think, if I had not been the train, had not been severed from my body, had not bound Jackson into mortal flesh, this would not have come to pass. Could I have prevented it? It is not enough to flicker backward with Lisbeth’s jars of preserved time; it is not enough to return to those hospital walls, or the bloody snow field—there is something else. Something that needs doing? Something that needs.

The scent of marmalade hangs in the strange air, and then it is raining marmalade from the trees. Globules of orange and gold patter upon the gray stones, the gleaming rails. Marmalade sizzles as it strikes the train engine, as if she were still warm and breathing but when I slide my hand over the metal, it is cold and empty. The low thrum that once filled the metal husk is gone. Within the belly of the engine, the hand clasping the golden cross remains, blackened and charred by fire, splattered with lemon marmalade.

I close my hands tight despite the pain; I crush the cigarette to dust and bow my head. I do not know what is being asked of me. I will myself away from the wreck, trying to remember what it was to have a body of flesh, a body that had needs and wants. Simple things: air, water, clothes when the world grows cold. Complicated things: touch, communion, the desire to be full of all things, always.

When my severed hand was placed in the hot belly of the speeding dragon—Jackson thought it so, the first time he saw the train on the rails in the rain—I was named anew. Reborn into a machine that would cross the world, would cross time, going where and when she would, carrying those beloved far beyond the existence of their fated threads.

When you give a thing a name, you give it power. I was given an extraordinary name and thus, an extraordinary power. I push away, past. I reach for everything. I root the body in the world it would have known.

The world comes into focus like a stuttering filmstrip, black and white and then on fire with neon and gaslight. Popcorn and cotton candy pervade the air and dragging in a breath leaves me dizzy; somewhere, blood has been spilled, because its fetid layer lingers under everything, keeping everyone warm, filled.

I pay no attention to the reflection of my body in the misshapen mirrors I pass. I am light and unbroken, and even spreading my hands brings no pain. I reach for everything I want. I have never been allowed to want, so I allow the world to flood me.

I caress crones and angels alike; I dance with satyrs and share potions with a man in a black mask that shows me my own face—my face, writhing threads that refuse to be knit into any one feature. The potion steals my breath; the man drinks it down as if it is his own and grows into a huge dragon against the night sky; wings of stars and nebulous breath, and he’s gone, screaming in fire and longing.

This circus fills my veins, delights like the traveling circus never did. We were freaks; homeless and wandering for eternity. Broken from the world, a fragment of glass pressed into a bleeding heel. This circus is life, rooted and fixed into the spine of creation.

The lights drain from the world when I turn a corner; the calliope music grows distant and now there is only the scent of blood and tears. Sweet treats do not exist in these dark lanes. Within the cages that stack the alleys, small black girls have been dressed like daisies, their delicate petals splattered with blood. They are two-headed and three-legged and all watch me pass with silent, black eyes. Even smaller girls reside in jars, their lids spun tight, gifted with single air-holes. Farther on, girls have been crafted into strange and terrible things; bats, cats, rats. It is a broken poem, one that ends in the hideous display of what I know to be a siren; this beautiful creature is part woman, part bird, but here she is only all misery. She is pinned to a board, oil-slick feathers streaked with saliva, blood, ejaculate.

“Agnessa?”

She lifts her head, her familiar gaze defiant. I am struck as if by a fist, straight in my throat, and I run, refusing this nightmare. But I cannot go back, for the lanes have closed themselves away. I go forward into the unending labyrinth that leads me to him.

Of course it’s him. Jackson, on display as he might have always been had it not been for me. Jackson was only ever a misunderstood horror. No longer did he possess any human aspect but was wholly as he had first been made: thick scaled body, slavering fanged mouth, countless tentacles snapping as he tries to escape the cage holding him. He is nearly the color of blood, suffused with fury as every attempt to pry the cage apart fails. He takes no notice of me, which allows me to get to the very edge of the cage where he greets me with violence. One tentacle coils around my throat and shoulders, effortlessly lifting me from the ground.

“I know your face,” he snarls.

His touch gentles, and in my pulse I can hear the click-clack of a train over metal tracks. It never happened here because I, because we never crossed threads. After his creation, we never saw each other again; he never asked me to bind him into a mortal body, and the world has fallen to ruin. I see the scars that mark his body, the evidence of humiliations which must be meager compared to those he has known on the inside. In this place where he cannot even see the sky.

I have no sisters here, no sisters who might help me undo what has been done. In my terror, I reach for them. Across the years and unreal construct of this place—this place never happened, I tell myself. I tell Jackson. In concert we shriek as the world is undone, bodies flayed in a ceaseless, consuming wind. Within its heart, my sister Mae who bears all things; who waits, who holds even my thread and might end this torment.

Jackson’s sleeping compartment is no more lavish than any other on the train, though it is possessed of a single curtain drawn across its entire width for a measure of privacy beyond that which the locked car door provides. Against this black cotton curtain, Mae’s naked body glows and I linger to see her back, am drawn by her breath.

With Jackson’s ruined fingers I pull the burned marmalade spatters from my sister’s skin, from the long line of her neck. She is not burned, though her skin flushes pink every time I peel away another piece of candied marmalade. As I go, her skin smooths back to its ivory, the color of elephant tusk, the color of a dream turned inside out, and there is as always that low sheen, that shimmer that tells me to dip my fingers in and watch the ripples. I stroke a finger down Mae’s arm, starting at the crest of her shoulder, lingering in the concave curve of her elbow. Her pulse thrums hello.

In the gloom that falls between us, I cannot tell the marmalade’s flavor until my tongue is on it. Burnt limes. My mouth works the splatter with a strange fervor; teeth and tongue glance Mae’s skin, lightly marking her, and that is when I feel the slide of her hand into my hair. I expect Mae to pull me away, for it rests with her to say when a thing is finished, but Mae’s hold only tightens. Does she know it’s me, her sister within Jackson’s body? I exhale, teeth closing on flesh and not marmalade, and the low sound that fills the curtained space comes from us both.

The press of tongue becomes too much for the skin to endure. The skin that anchors Mae in this world parts, dissolves, and I fall into the reality of her. More coils of thread; familiar spools and spindles. I look for my own path; each of us must also have a thread. But I never find it, and understand that I never will (that I cannot, for some things are forbidden even us). I look until it’s Mae’s mouth I find—I want to kiss a willing mouth—and I’m kissing her, and she’s kissing me, and she knows me for her sister, for the beginning of all things.

As if she can sense my questions, she licks them from my mouth, carries them away, and for the moment, there is only the blessed tide of her body rushing over mine. No gentle swell but a wave to knock me to my knees. Mae lifts Jackson’s ruined hands, and in her eyes they are whole again, unbroken and if not beautiful then usable. I slide them over breast and belly, fitting fingers into Mae one by one by one, until she breaks.

“This isn’t the end,” Mae says.

She strokes her fingers down the inside of my arm. My skin peels back under the gentle pressure. No muscle, no bone, only the threads wriggling like fish beneath a calm pool, blue until Mae touches them. Her finger is electric inside me. Her fingers plait me into sections for study, for love, for disposal—but the disposal never comes. I ache for it and it never comes.

“Everything ends,” I whisper and the hot, broken metal of the train groans as cold rain pours from the sky.

“Not everything.”

After the rain, fog swallows the world. I emerge from the wreck of the train, into a cottony wall of fog that obscures everything but vague tree limbs above. A skeletal dog trots out of the fog; she’s following the line of the tracks, ignoring the hulk of the train, but draws to a stop when she sees me. Long legged and lean like she hasn’t eaten in—

“Years,” I whisper and my voice sounds large in the dense air. The dog’s ears go up, like small bits of fabric in a sudden breeze. They gleam with wetness; she has been walking in the rain, this dog the color of fog. Everything is familiar.

The dog pads closer, then sinks onto her haunches, watching. Her eyes reflect a shrunken world, though when she blinks, the landscape shifts, vanishes, then slowly returns. I watch her until she yawns, and then I head down the track, along the burned length of trains. The dog follows me as I poke through the rubble.

The survivors do not see me, and when I find Jackson’s body in the rubble, I understand why. Yet, I still occupy this body; the hands I reach with are still his own, if under my control. His body is flattened beside the tracks, his cheek clammy beneath my fingers. Jackson is dead, the train is demolished, and I— Could go anywhere.

This is the choice. It is mine to say, when never it was before—though I am still the point of creation. This: the moment before.

I lift a burned scrap of paper from the ground, a fragment of a poster, and the dog sidles closer. She stretches her neck to take a breath of air around the burned poster and I, moving slow, set the paper before her. She bends her head and the paper sticks to her nose. I pluck it free and fold it into my hand.

“Walk further down with me,” I say. The fog keeps my voice close, and the dog’s ears perk. She watches when I gesture toward the caboose that seems to have turned itself inside out.

The caboose’s contents litter the world. Jars of marmalade exploded under the intense heat, splatters of sweet having adhered themselves to the train, the tracks, the ground. Burned droplets of sugar and fruit drip from the meager canopy of trees. Oil-slick colors have melted into stained glass mockeries the dog licks.

I find one of Lisbeth’s cooking knives in the debris, under a flood of orange marmalade which is burned to an amber lozenge. One of her mixing bowls rests on its side, clouded dreams spilling into the railroad ties; the stars are black now, the mass no longer churning out the starstuff that makes everything and everyone. A bell jar sits where the caboose’s back door used to be, a miniature Ferris wheel captured under its perfect dome. There isn’t a fingerprint on it, nor dust, and even when the fog reaches down, the wheel recoils from the glass. Untouchable.

A marmalade jar rests against a railroad tie, whole and uncracked. I roll the time-heavy jar into my hand, and before me stand my sisters—Mae and Lisbeth and the ground is wet with rain and blood both. The sun is out and it is snowing and I push myself to standing. I offer Lisbeth the knife, Mae the jar. We could leave this place at long last, we three; we could allow the train to keep this broken fate, or we could choose one better. But to take this path, we must be bound as we were.

This is the decision.

Cold fog, the whine of a dog (the whine of a god), and the press of a willing mouth against my own.

We are a train, tonight comprised of forty-seven cars. Our shape and size are dictated by the needs of Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade. Sometimes we are smaller, and sometimes we stretch long—as long as we ever have, tonight! We run slipstream rails alone under moonlight—it’s cold here, but growing warmer, sunrise on the horizon. Within us, cars expand for miles as needed: green with dense jungle, polka-dotted with blue-eyed lakes, deserts tonguing thorned acacia trees. Sometimes, glittering snow rushes in our wake; sometimes, warm seawater, gushing from hidden springs.

I was a body.

I am, once more, a train.


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E. Catherine Tobler knows something about walking tightropes, working as both an editor and writer. Her fiction has appeared in in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including four stories set in her traveling circus universe. In June, The Kraken Sea, a novella set in this circus universe, will be available from Apex Book Company. Follow her on Twitter @ECthetwit or her website, www.ecatherine.com.

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