When there is nothing left in her, when the air boils in her throat and the muscles of her limbs scream and her toes, crushed together unnaturally in thick leather boots, throb with pain: then there is sand, and the sound of the sea.
Too exhausted for relief, she lowers the child from her shoulders and sinks, herself, down. She is on her back. The sand holds her. She claws at her bindings blindly, face-up and drinking in starlight. Her fingers are blocks beating against fabric, and then, and then, the shocking bliss of cool air on her feet, of sea air ruffling the sail-like skin that connects her long delicate dactyls. The flesh is pinched red, the soft lines of scales raw highlights. She weeps tearlessly as she raises her legs, feet forming a fan of flesh above her. The sky is far too alive. Stars show through the translucent film of her toes; galaxies blink between the digits.
The child mewls.
“Umma, I’m hungry.”
Blunt, vestigial claws fumble at her cheek, walking along the flesh to her jawline. She closes her eyes. Instinct directs his hands. As he paws the sack of skin around her gullet, her mouth falls open, and her child pushes his own eagerly into it. She feels the little darting of his forked tongue about the soft flesh of her cheeks, slipping further, sliding longer, and her esophagus spasms, bringing half-digested food up to him.
There is not much. The remains of a small dustrat; the slimed husks of insects. The fires and chemicals destroyed most of the fauna from the grasslands or forced them to flee.
Theirs is a time of running.
When the child has had his fill and slides from her – only then does she swallow the meager remains. Her breath is quick and repulses her: wretched meat.
Impoverished as it is, the organic matter is reviving. She has walked a long way, and on feet that were not made to be bound. The air chills her naked flesh, and she sits up, looking around. She has to blink; the lamp of the moon is dazzling in its brightness, frosting the waves that come in gentle rolls, hushing solace. The sea extends to deep blue horizon and there—there—a yellow light signals the mainland and prayed-for safety.
The channel is not wide for a body of water—and yet it is a sea, and she must cross it, still. Her toes flex, remembering the ache of the boots now discarded upon sand. Her feet must bear the burden of her and her son’s bodies across the water. She will fail without the strength of yajiri, the running wind. But the trancelike state calls for rest, and she is death-weary.
Behind them, away from the sea, the land is a spastic mess of brittle grass and strewn stones that seem to tumble over themselves in an infinite and grim covering. An orange glow, sickening the black night sky, blots the light of stars and reminds her of that which they have fled. A city where she had hoped to raise her son, that now lies smoldering in crackling chemical fire. A monument to a tyrant.
She looks down at her son as he cuddles himself on the sand beside her. Anger coils at the sight of his khudha. The skin and spines that make up the crest running from the top of his brow to the crown of his head are half-burned off, pink and glistening, burnt by the chemical weapons. She turns her head and spits in the direction of the city’s burning.
She, too, folds arms around herself. Shivering, she takes pride in her discomfort, because she has not clothed her flesh in the unnatural garb of the mainland. She is no pretender. The people on the other side of the ocean will accept her as she is—a human being—or...
She shivers again. This time it is not from the cold.
The child is mewling again.
“Umma, where is Baba.”
She lies to her son.
“He is not coming.”
“Why isn’t he coming?”
Because he is a traitor to his people; because he would have us shave our khudha, cover our mutilation with shameful headgear, and bind our feet and beg charity from the mainland, pretending to their vision of humanity. And we will starve and burn by the time we get so much as a scrap of meat from their waste...
She says instead: “because he isn’t coming.”
He pauses, and she exhales in relief. Closes her eyes.
“Umma, where are we going?”
Her eyes flicker open.
“See the lights?” She watches him scan the sea: interested at this new puzzle, fixing on the ghostly yellow glow that smudges the horizon. “We go there. Across the water.”
“But Grand Prime said that—”
She does not let him finish. She strikes him across the cheek with the flat of her palm. The child does not cry. He is shocked into silence.
“I curse Grand Prime. I will not hear you speak of him. I wash your tongue for mentioning his title.”
She scoops up sandy earth and shucks it across his lips: the universal gesture for punishing unclean words. Her child glares at her through tears, recoiling, and begins to cry. Soft, fluting cries that are muted by the shushing of the sea, by the conspiring murmur of the grasses.
The sky flickers orange behind them.
Grand Prime. The Burning King. Sovereign of Charred Corpses.
There is no shelter on this shore, and yet the air is warm (superheated from the weapons, no doubt), and she is too tired to walk any further. She rolls onto her side and flexes her feet. Stretching out her legs, feeling the low humming in her muscles signaling the beginning of yajiri. She focuses on it hungrily and wills her body to draw power from the meager food she has consumed.
She pulls her son to her, enfolding him in her limbs. He grasps at her gratefully and his fear is forgotten. The stubble of his ruined khudha plays under her chin. She whispers one more curse to the Grand Prime, and a prayer to the Prophet, and yajiri swells with the last syllable of the orison. Her limbs tingle with energy. Adrenaline amplifies the beating of her heart. Blood quickens within her, swelling her muscles, muffling her hearing as it roars in her head.
The trance is disrupted by the sounds of braying. Animal sounds: chattering, high. Warbling murder.
She is on her feet. She strains to listen.
Her body is half-stunned by the sudden chaos of impressions her heightened senses collect and, for a moment, she does not know which way to turn. Every sound is a threat.
The water is at her back, and there are figures cresting the dome of the beach. Humanshapes, undoubtedly men. Four of them. They spot her instantly. She knows one of them is her husband. She cannot but recognize the shape of the body that has been so dear to her for so long.
There are three other shapes: writhing, snakelike things, furred mammals, weasels the size of small cattle.
He has brought fa’ar.
They strain at the leashes that hold them—and then they, too, see her. They fall into a bobbing run, heads whipping up and down in nightmare agility, dragging their human handlers behind them.
He has brought fa’ar to hunt us.
He has actually brought fa’ar to hunt his own wife and child.
The creatures and their controllers alike will be upon them in moments.
She hears her name being called on the wind and looks to her son.
She snatches him from the sand and scans the sea. He is a warm ball of sacred flesh in her arms, mumbling protest. The waters are flat and forgiving and promise mercy. Bones groan within her limbs, the skin of her feet pinches tenderly. She is not yet ready—the trance has not yet taken full possession of her – and yet she has no choice. She secures her son to her front and pushes the folds of the blanket into the spaces between them, praying that it will hold him, praying that it will keep him warm.
“Now listen my son. Umma has to run now. You must hold on around my neck, see? Lock your arms around my neck and do not let go. Do not let go.“
Yajiri is jittering her muscles, souring her stomach sick with anticipation. It is like peering over the cliff’s edge before the fall, courted by gravity.
“Umma... is that Baba?”
She hoists him to her front and runs for the edge of the water. Her feet are broad umbrellas of flesh, her hips swinging like a pendulum with each bounding, slapping step.
It is the waterwalk, and yajiri has her.
Her husband’s voice calls out.
“Alissha! Alissha! Bring back our son.”
She hesitates in the shallows. The tidal slime is cold as it plays about her toes: colder than she had anticipated. The far shoreline is a darkened haze on the horizon; fear, and her husband’s voice, curls fingers around her.
The men pause meters from her, straining to control their fa’ar. She faces them, clutching her son. She bares her fangs and raises her khudha high in warning.
Her husband’s three companions hold the fa’ar from frayed leather leashes, angling their lithe bodies backwards to keep the beasts from falling upon the mother and child. The fa’ar snarl and whine. Their eyes fix on the child held in her arms.
“How could you do this, Ibliss? How?”
“Hand over the child, Alissha.” There is no remorse in his voice. There is nothing at all.
The child wriggles in her arms—and she clutches the back of his head and pushes his face into her shoulder. The man does not deserve to look upon the face of his son.
“You will not take our child back there. Look at this, Ibliss! Look!“
She gestures to the burned crest on their son’s head and hisses her shame at the men. She takes a step backward, deeper into freezing seawater.
“Not this way, Alissha. Not this way. The world is watching this. They will help us! Any day now they will send their boats for us. We will be saved.” He is pleading now.
“Boats!” She laughs bitterly. “You think they will send boats?”
The men shout at her, all at once. Words that sicken her. Humanity. Patience. Respectability. Below the words, the fa’ar whine their hunger.
“Alissha. Stop this foolishness,” the man who was once her husband pleads. “If you run to their country like... like this, savage with yajiri, a foreigner with your khudha bared, you will shame our people. I forbid it! You must bind your feet and cover your head and show them that we are civilized. That we are their equal.”
“Civilized?” she bellows. Her child begins to cry. “You shear off your khudha, mutilate yourselves, bind your feet in those, those things, and you think they will respect you? You think they will come and help you then? Do not tell me that I have shamed our people by remaining true to our ways. This is who we are!”
Khudha flaring, she holds the child out in her arms. All four men—their own khudha encased in headgear—fall silent. Shame threads them. Their boots scuff sand. The fa’ar hiss, flattening themselves against the ground. Readying for the leap.
“This is what will happen,” she replies with difficulty. Yajiri has thickened her tongue. “I will take my son to them. They will see the reality of this—and they will help us. And you—you will go back to the burning city, and you will cut your khudha and crush your feet and still boil in your flesh while you wait for help.”
“And what will you do, Alissha?” Ibliss asks. His voice is flat, beyond grief, for he knows she has made her decision and his family is already lost. “Will you make a martyr of yourself? Of our child? Will you sacrifice him for your pride?”
“No-one will be sacrificed this day.”
“Alissha,” he tries, one last time. “you are my wife.”
Bending down, she scoops up sand with one hand and scatters it at them; the wind takes it obligingly, dusting the men.
“No longer,” she says. “No longer.”
The man next to Ibliss releases his fa’ar.
The creature is nerve-fast, a blur of fur and fang.
She is faster.
She feels yajiri take her legs. The muscles of her body harden, and she leaps as the fa’ar reaches her, leaps up and across the surf, launching herself onto the surface of the water. The webs of her feet catch air and flap themselves open.
Teeth close on nothing.
She careens below sky (do not betray me, do not betray me) and she is on the water, and above it, her hips rotating to make step after slapping step on the liquid’s surface. The first impact is perfect. She has to be fast; she picks up speed with every smack of foot upon the film of the ocean’s surface. The impacts buoy her and become rhythm. Air bubbles catch beneath her toes, and she springs from them as if shocked, leaping across the water. Down, side, back, down side back: faster, faster, faster. Speed sustains it.
She trills something like triumph, something like a goodbye to the life darkening on the shore behind her. Wind echoes her call against the surface of her skin. Behind her the men roar, forgotten. The fa’ar spiral and snap in the shallows, for the creatures cannot swim, and the men will not run.
The city and the men and the burning become memories flung to the winds, foul smoke cleared away in the rush of running. Now the water is endless around them. Mother and son. Her legs hum with strength, her arms grasp her child to her with an energy that seems limitless. Yajiri moves her and she is running like the foremothers: creatures of wind, creatures of water. It is effortless.
To run like this forever!
To run, and run, on cooling water, where no fire falls.
Sky dissolves into the colors of dawn above them. Clean light, sun-light, illuminates the harried shapes of clouds.
Her feet begin to sting. The sensation comes slowly, growing with each beat.
Then it is pain.
The water seems to slap harder, hitting her rather than propelling her.
She pumps her legs harder, lifts higher. Slapping back. Strike, strike, strike. She cannot slow. She must not sink, stone-skipping on webbed feet. On and on and ever on. Her arms burn with the effort of bearing her child.
How could one not run like this forever?
How could one ever stop?
Is the shore closer?
Is there noise ahead, above? Something flying or watching or waiting in the awakened clouds?
Lightening around her: daybreak. No welcome in these clouds. Rows of black figures, shadow-people, on a shore that is still distant before her and that is not her home. Mist plays around the meeting of stone and sand and sea.
She does not look at the webs of her feet. She does not dare to see what she feels. Her steps are slower, less efficient, minimizing the frequency of impacts to spare her tender flesh the agony. Yajiri is draining out of her yet she cannot stop. She will go forward or she will go down, dragging her son to a death in ocean depths. The thought of the limitless expanse beneath them chills her.
Do not think.
She feels the top of her son’s head, ruffs his khudha. The child moans and shifts against her. His claws grasp at the flesh of her throat but there is no more food left. There is nothing left. She is perforated with pain.
Puttering sounds pepper the air around her. Water splashes in minute clusters, spraying the sides of her legs, and she thinks for a moment that it is rain.
Then she realizes.
The line of figures on the shore are dressed in black and helmeted. They are short; squat silhouettes. Searchlights cleave the groggy daybreak. Myriad bursting flares, like winking eyes, glitter along the line of soldiers.
They are shooting at her.
Crying out, almost breaking the surface of the water, she throws her body sideways – into the line of fire. Shielding her son.
She tries to holler to him to hold on, unsure in her terror if her words vocalize.
She turns and runs, parallel to the shoreline. Her only hope now is to find acceptance further along the grey roil of its expanse.
She cannot go much further. They will drown.
Pain bursts across her shoulder. Adrenaline salves it, yajiri floods her with the last of its bewitchment. Wetness soaks her chest and neck and she cannot but run, her feet pulsing over the vastness of ocean beneath them.
The cliffs vanish behind them, as do the soldiers—and there is the open sea to her left and rocky shore to her right. Her feet find the miles: over and over. Down, back up. Down, back up. She cannot stop until she is sure.
But she is tiring.
Her vision lightens. Her son sags in her arms, the muscles of her limbs almost spent. Her back burns with the effort of keeping itself absolutely rigid; if it sags, if her weight displaces, they will sink like boulders. They are separated from Death only by the skin of the sea.
More voices on the wind: people. Again.
Humming above: vehicles of some kind.
If they shoot, they shoot. I have tried. We will die on unbound feet that tried to find freedom.
She turns and runs toward the shore once more. Her body glistens with water and something that is not water and that she will not look at.
Her feet hit bottom and she collapses onto blessed earth. The sand rustles against her cheeks as if in welcome; she lies on her front, arcing her body over her swaddled child.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Pink faces loom over her. The sea is shockingly liquid after her flight and no longer buoys her; the surf pools around her cruelly, back and forth, threatening to drag her back out.
Slipping into unconsciousness, she babbles words. She tries to speak to the people, still unbelieving that she has finally found safety among these foreigners.
“My son... my...“
Hands haul her upright. The weight of her son is no longer on her. She turns, stumbling against smooth-skinned strangers (her legs cannot support her, the webbing of her feet is shredded, the bones are broken), and she sees in her blood-clouded vision the form of him still in the dark blanket, unmoving on sand. His mouth and eyes are open. Seawater rushes up, fills them, withdraws. As it leaves him it whorls a brilliant scarlet. Bubbles collect around his mouth and nostrils.
Blinking, looking from one face to the other, she is met with a crowd of strangers, smooth-fleshed and soft-looking, fragile. Hands reach out to brush the knobs of her scaled skin and the ruff of her khudha. She has no energy to protest it.
“On behalf of the Council of the Humanitarian Faction,” proclaims a smart-suited young man, sunlight gleaming on the dome of his hairless head, “we welcome you into our country! Look—you see the tyranny of our enemies’ leaders? This woman, this human, just like us (here he runs a smooth hand against the flaccid spines of her khudha, flat against her head, and she cringes beneath his shockingly warm touch) has travelled countless miles, her son murdered for the whims of a tyrant...”
White noise and grey fog fill her mouth and eyes and ears. She sees the fingers of her son twitch.
He is alive. He is still alive.
Air whistles within her gullet. It does not make words. Miraculously, hideously, she is rendered mute. The hands about her shoulders give her a vigorous shake; she feels the bones move in her body.
“...the weapons they have used! On their own people!”
Roaring, roaring. Pious protest deafens her.
The sounds pin her neatly, from the crown of her head to her ruined feet.
She tries to protest, tries to tell them no, no, it is not too late...
The orator reaches his conclusion to thunderous applause. She is shaken, mouth open, unseeing. Smooth hot arms pull her deep into the center of the crowd; countless faces, the one indistinguishable from the other. Drones jostle for position above her; hot-white lights blind her, flashing red dots blink.
She is tugged in every direction. Her ruined feet stumble on rocks that rear like daggers.
My son, my son, my son...
—but there are no words left, there is nothing left, and she is locked within people and pulled away by the crowd, imprisoned in arms and erased within a sea of humanity.
The shoreline is quiet now, the sea hushing. Stones and pebbles tumble in marches. Retreating and withdrawing.
The child looks like any other boulder in the muddy boundary between sand and surf. Dark in fabric, he is a humped shape in the tide. Blood streaks water around him. A man and woman, having broken away from the crowd, stand over the child.
The woman’s face opens in wonder, tears shining in her eyes.
“My God. Look at how expressive the little face was. So full of soul.”
“The woman’s son. She was carrying him across the water.” The man chews once. He looks thoughtful.
“These people are so beautiful. Look at this skin! Doesn’t it remind you of little jewels? The poor thing!” The woman cries, reaching for her companion’s shoulder. Her fist clenches. “Why is the world so stupid?” The man and woman embrace, holding their faces close and sharing sorrow.
“The bastards shot him.” The man pulls away and thumbs tears from his eyes. “The Inheritor Faction. They patrol the shoreborders.”
“Disgusting,” the woman hisses. “I, for one, will not be voting for their representative next month.” She grits her teeth, truly meaning it. The man grunts in agreement.
Tide plucks the covering away from the child’s body. His eyes are wide open now: a luminous green, and unseeing. The soft spines of his khudha splay across the soaking sand.
“We need a record of this,” the woman says.
“Something to make people feel it. Really feel it.”
The man drops to his haunches and pulls out a knife. The woman pushes her fist into her mouth. She does not look away.
“Such a shame,” the man says as he shears the burned crest from the child’s head. “These people are so resilient. Feel how tough the skin is! Even on the crest... it’s a wonder that bullets could end his life.” Standing, he exhales and shakes blood from his fingers.
“We can use this in the next campaign poster: the price of freedom. I can see it now.”
The woman nods solemnly. “What a world we live in,” she offers, finally. The last syllables devolve into a gaping-mouthed yawn, and she stretches her hands up to the greying sky.
“Yes.” The man crouches again and washes his hands and the blade of his knife in the tide of the sea that returns, withdraws, and returns, persisting.