There are parts around here where the mercury hot springs absorb a goodly amount of background radiation and, being metal and all, ‘vaporate straight away into the air. Those places make for some mighty toxic microcosmic weather systems, hot metallic rain falling all on you.
The fallout in the dry areas has no rivers or cricks to pool into so it concentrates in the very alkaline sodium crystal groundwater of the hills, just under the surface, ’til a trickle of some rain washes away the topsoils and reveals the color below. That’s how these painted lady hills got their name, as whored up as Easter Eggs.
The Three Sisters is a favorite tavern of mine, so that’s what I took to calling my children even though there are four of them and some of them mighta been boys. There is you there, that other child, and the one who likes the spiky club. You there is milky-white and bone-and-skin thin, just like her momma, and always tryin’ to get skinnier. Oh yeah, there’s that other one, too. I’m always forgetting about him or her.
“My littlest ‘un is dying. Got the scabs.”
“Which scabs?” says Fat Boy. “Red scabs, black scabs, shingle scabs, or oozing scabs?”
Fat Boy’s claim in this life is that he’s got what he says is a camel but is really a horse with a lump in its spine that’ll kill it soon. I remember as hard as I can and say, “She got the disintegration scabs, little bits and pieces of her on the floor in the morning.” Been trading her teeth for tobacco, the good hydroponic kind, not the Mad Hatter cigarettes that pull up trace elements by the roots.
“So how much you asking?” says Fat Boy.
“Twelve dollars, and she’s all yours.”
I gotta wait a few minutes as Fat Boy calculates what the recyclers are paying these days, and then says, “Sold. Bring her around.” But then, when I do, he looks at her and says, “That’s not your littlest.”
“Sure it is.”
“No, Cy, this one’s at least eight years old. Your youngest is a little cherub still with all the baby fat on it.” He reaches out to pinch this sister but she squirms away, shedding thick dandruff flakes of skin.
“Oh yeah?” I look at her again and say, “Oh yeah. Well, shit.”
“I can’t get nothing for something like that. She’s not worth anything.”
The Mormon locusts are screaming and swirling in a giant whirlwind and I say to the child, “Go on and catch some bugs for lunch. Twenty or thirty, if you can.” She nods and brushes the strings of her hair out of her face and scampers away. Soon as she’s gone I hiss to Fat Boy, “Well what am I supposed to do with her now?”
He shrugs and says, “Find a medicine man, ‘chacho.” We don’t have one in this town, but I figger that Judge Tom is most likely to know a thing like that.
“No shitting. You don’t say,” I say. “A man with three eyes?” That’d be a queer ‘un.
“Most likely the eye is vestigial, like tails we’re born with,” says Judge Tom. “An evolutionary throwback to an earlier form of man brought on by our proclivity for mutatin’.”
A whole race of three-eyed men! But Judge Tom describes their land and I recognize it cuz it’s through the worst of the badlands, even worse than the Painted Ladies, a place where no one I know has ever come out of, where no one I know remembers anyone coming out of, and no one remembers anyone who remembers anyone coming out of. So when I tell the child’s mother, ‘course she says no. “Hell y’all not going anywhere near that place.”
“Look, Devorah, I know it’s a dangerous place for a little ‘un, but she either rots here or she returns to the dust trying to scrape by out there, and that’s the right kind of legacy I want to teach my daughters.”
The child is outside, with a nail-headed Louisville Slugger, methodically pounding on something too small to be seen from here, probably a scrub lobster for dinner, ’cause the little fucker just won’t stop eating. “I couldn’t care a fart about the child,” says Devorah, “but you got summa the only viable sperm in town, and these two babies you gimmen me aren’t going to be passing on any kinda legacy, not with those wilted genitals of theirs.”
Two childs? Oh right. I’d almost missed that other one there, hiding in the corner, because even my good eye isn’t all that good anymore these days. The sick sister comes in with a brace of scrub lobster, good-sized ones ’bout as big as jackrabbit hares, holding them by the stingers, keeping well away from their foreclaws. “I’m taking the kid, we’re finding a medicine man. You want to try for another child, you just wait ’til I get back. Or don’t. Makes little difference to me.”
She looks at me angry and says, “And I bet you ‘xpect to stay here for supper, don’t you, before you run off to do what you want?”
But I say no and, “Come on, child,” leaving Devorah with the lobsters. Chances are, mood she’s in, she’d feed me those poison sacs along with the meat just to keep me from getting away. Me’n the one with the spiky club pack our things; she takes only her spiky club, I get a bottle of seed from the icebox and my mater baster, lock the other bottles in Judge Tom’s vault in case Devorah tries to get sneaky in my absence. Make sure I’ve got my repeater and the whiz-bang, shells for both, everything loaded up in a shopping cart with four good wheels. I weigh saying goodbye to my other two wives, but they’re both older than Devorah and got a kid each, and they don’t need to be concerned with this business.
“What’s your name, anyway?” She’s helping me push the cart because the scars on my left side keep me from steering it in a straight line.
She shrugs and shakes her head.
“All right, then, what’s your momma call you?”
“Little animal, mostly.”
We can hardly see where we’re going at first, with the lights of the town blocked by the Painted Ladies. “That’s no good for a name. What would you want to be called, if you could pick yourself a name? Go on, any name at all.” Another shrug. The path is a little clearer now with the heavy isotopes glowing in the dark. “I’ll call you Annie, yeah? That’s a little like animal.”
“No. I don’t like that name.”
“No? Well tough shit, you had your chance.” The junk train is one of the slowest forms of transportation ever accidentally invented by man, but it doesn’t cost you nothing. When I spot it, it’s a good mile’n a half long and wending its way through soapstone. I push my shopping cart close to the rails ’til the magnets pick up and attach us to the tail end of the train, then settle in to enjoy the ride. Somewhere ahead of us, sight unseen, is a great big locomotive that is putting out a positively wasteful amount of electrical energy. The electromagnetic properties of this here locomotive attract most everything metal that falls by the trackside—derelict cars, tanker trucks, oil drums, whatnot—and string them out behind it. At the end of its round trip, the dumb robotic engine will bring back to its owners quite a haul.
Then Annie shakes my shoulder and says, “Wake up!” in a real scared-like voice even though I insist I wasn’t asleep, I was looking up at the sky, wondering if the moon is brighter because it, too, is radiated or if ’cause the bombs blew away enough layers of the atmosphere to clear away the fuzz. But I had been staring up at it for quite a while, perhaps not saying anything for some time, too long, just long enough for the things in my head to become indistinguishable from the landscape around me, which is the only way I know how to dream.
“What the damn hell, child?” She points at the shadows alongside the track, which are turning silver-liquid and flowing down the hillsides towards us. Standing up and looking at us. The train is only apace so that a man at a flat sprint can catch up and grab hold, which these shadows do, summa them leaping onboard from the higher slopes. I rise to my feet, unsteady in the wire basket, and rack the repeater once where they can see it clearly. Something odd about these bandits, odd about their skin, which crawls with a life of its own as they move about along the train cars, stretches of skin being pulled off in big, looping Lorentz tangles. When they come close to our end of it I don’t know if’n they got any interest or intentions in us but I fire one shot over their heads, intending to warn them off. The bullet curves off on its own magnetic track. I couldn’t hit a single thing I wanted to. The bandits, all dozen or so, face me and Annie, cornered in the caboose. I rack the repeater again, but it doesn’t hold enough to deal with all of them, even if I could afford that many cartridges in the first place.
Up ahead, somebody does some wrenching to the first coupling and I nearly topple over as the train decelerates. The engine, freed of its heavy burden, goes screaming off alone into the night, leaving us pretty well in the dark, surrounded. More bandits come out of the hills behind us, and the ones on the train don’t seem concerned by my rifle. Their skin has stopped crawling. Its metallic, like they’re all wearing armor. The child doesn’t say anything, doesn’t whimper or cling to my arm, just hops out of the cart, stands there with the Slugger. She might just beat the scabs that way, good old grit.
It seems destined to go down in a bad way, but then just as they step close enough to do damage, the light reflecting off their shiny bodies shows me their faces and shows them mine, and we all go rigid. The frontman pushes his face real close to mine, to take a good long look at my scarred left socket using the third eye that sits square in the middle of his forehead.
The bandits have a caravan of trucks, carriages, anything with flatbed space to haul away the bigger pieces of the junk train. They take my repeater and Annie’s Slugger, and my knife which was one of my favorites, but miss the hidden whiz-bang. Put us in the back of one truck and take us to their village of Pueblo cliff homes far enough away from the track that it’s mid-afternoon by the time we get there. Everyone we see in the village has got the three eyes and their fleshes look metallic to some degree—some got just traceries of discoloration in their veins and capillaries, others got jewelry embedded or burned into their bodies, and the full-on priest warriors are coated neck-to-toe in silver or gold bodypaint. The smell of a smeltworks, from a rock smokestack sticking outta the ground.
“You a railroad bull?” says one man I hadn’t seen before. He keeps his middle eye closed while he examines me. They’re watching to see if I flinch, so I take my time looking this new feller over, up-and-down. He must be head honcho, ’cause his metal coating goes all the way up over the top of him, covering his face like a mask. His is a dull chrome, signifying something I dunno what in some kinda hierarchy I dunno which, but there are a lot of other full-body elders or chiefs behind him muttering to themselves and casting the kinda looks over at Annie that make me real uncomfortable, so I oughta get on this fella’s good side right quick.
“Was just hitching a ride. We’re looking for a medicine man, heard there could be one out this way.”
“Can’t nobody do anything about that eye of yours, no miracle or medicine man, not for all the scars. Can’t cure blindness.”
“I’m not blind,” I say stiffly, though it’s near enough true to not matter. “Besides, it’s not for me, it’s for my little ‘un.”
He looks at her two blues and says, “Can’t do nothing for her missing eye, either.”
“Nothing wrong with her eyes, but lookit the rest of her. Falling to pieces. I’ll take anything you got that can patch her back up.”
He says, “I’m Reverend Alloy. I had a vision last month. I saw the Father and the Son appear before us, asking which of us would feed those who were hungry, clothe those who were naked, and heal those who were sick. There are certain healings we can perform. The power of spiritual healing often will have a positive effect on the physical body.” Reverend Alloy and his deacons separate me from Annie, I say hey, it goes ignored, she’s being taken by some women up a ladder into a clay Pueblo house and the men lead me toward the smokestack. They’re holding their hands out, for payment.
“Well you already got my gun’n my knife,” I grouse.
“That’s pay enough to get you safe passage to our settlement,” says Alloy, “but no further down the path.” So I give them, grudgingly, half the cigarettes I bought with the child’s teeth, and they let me belowground where the smelters are. The chamber is tiny, hardly large enough for the half dozen of us and the cluster of crucibles in the center. I watch as the deacons break down my repeater and throw its metals into each smelter of matching metal, mostly steel, a little iron, trace radium from the sights. Brass cartridges into another pot. Lead into another. The wooden stock is stacked aside to be burned later.
Despite the blower leading up the chimney, the room is blast furnace hot, and filled with fumes. Vapors of different metals rise from each crucible, and Reverend Alloy brings me close to them, to breathe deeply. The deacons chant in a language I don’t know, but that could be nearly anything ’cause I don’t know much of any language, not even this one. Their two normal eyes are closed, but they stare at me with their third eye, all of them, chanting until my vision goes blurry and my hands start to shaking.
“What for?!” I demand them. “You said this couldn’t heal me.”
The Reverend says, “We must feed those who are hungry. Your spirit is thin, wasting away. You hunger and yearn for something to fill a hole within you.”
I almost fall over from the vapors. “Get me out of here. Get me over to her.” I push through their arms, as if I could break away if they didn’t allow me, and stumble back out into the clear air. “Where is she?”
She is being led back down the ladder, wearing a plain but spotless shift. Most probly the cleanest thing she’s ever wore in her whole life. “There she is, sir. Come with us and you can watch her be clothed.” There’s quite a gathering leading us through the little village down to the pools, these glistening pools of quicksilver. There are others, mostly children, dressed in these white clothes, holdin’ hands, skipping down the road. What are they so goddamn cheerful about, the pools are hardly more’n puddles, not much enough to splash around in.
They’re melting some more metal near the side of the largest pool and the kids form an orderly line, Annie near the back. Reverend Alloy dips one hand into the mercury at his feet and moves down the line to bless each one by drawing a silver cross on their foreheads with his finger, high up on their heads, above their weird old mutant eyes. Then, with a few whispered words, Reverend Alloy baptizes them in the quicksilver, starting with a boy not much older’n Annie. The boy’s entire body drips silver when he comes back up, and he’d kept his third eye open throughout—it blinks liquid metal tears as he stumbles back to firm ground. “Next, come here, quickly my child, don’t dawdle.” Alloy and his deacons keep the holy assembly line moving smoothly. Annie can’t see what’s up ahead, and she looks bored, but I’m not near enough to tell her to keep her eyes closed when she goes under. The baptized kids are stacking up on the side, shivering penguin-like as the mercury floods their eyeballs and gives them first-hand visions of the saints.
“How do any you all make it to breeding age?”
Reverend Alloy eyes all a my scars and says, “How did you?”
An older boy, late teens, warrior hunter muscled, approaches the dunking pools but goes instead to the bubbling pot of molten lead and takes off his shirt. His head is shorn completely bald, and the reverend ladles water over the top of it, over and over.
“Brother Anvil is doing his Leidenfrost baptism.” The congregation murmurs its praises. The teen holds his hands up in prayer and, without further hesitation, dunks face-first into the cauldron, dipping his full head in for the briefest second. As he comes back up, the metal slides off his skin without injury or other bothering. The boy looks serene. Alloy says, “Lead is the first Leidenfrost baptism. Next he will do copper, or bronze, and if he survives that, he can take electroplating communion and become one with the metal.”
I look at Alloy’s graying skin. “That what you done?”
“Yes.” Lookit him, all puffy with pride. “I bear the scars. Now I eat silver, as I wait for the congregation to mine enough for my baptism in that metal.”
“That’s an expensive faith.”
“What earthly treasure compares to these visions of heaven? And I have had visions,” he says, looking at Annie. She is next in line at the mercury pool, watching it lap over her toes. “Of her, being immersed in gold and rising up without impurity. No one has ever been baptized in gold yet, but I believe in her. I believe she may very well be the first of the new high priests, our nino de oro, able to stand before the Elephant’s Foot in the Holy-of-Holies.”
I look at where he is pointing, at the the cement cylinder of a half-hidden temple further down the canyon, its defunct cooling stack starting to crumble in the scabland weather. I freeze. Tense. “You actually send people into there?”
“Used to, but no one has yet been able to survive being in the divine presence.” He licks his lips. “We’ll get her metal-plated really good, though. I believe in her.”
Annie squawks when I nab her. I have her by my left arm, which means I can’t pick her up complete-like, so she kicks her legs to help as I drag her out of the puddle and away from the Baptists. We get a few yards out’n look back. None of them have made a move, jes waiting to see what the plan is ’cause I’ve got my back up against the canyon wall with a large group of frowning Baptists between me and the carriages. I draw the whiz-bang from its hiding spot, tell Annie to run for the cars, and fire it.
It’s a fat double-barreled Derringer. The first barrel shoots a tin cartridge of aluminum chaff right into the middle of the group and puffs, filling the air with tinsel. The bottom barrel fires a sparkling red flare into the metal cloud and bursts. Fuel-air bomb. The Baptists are simply gone, the blast zone ringed with fire. I wonder how well their metallic skin can protect them. Annie’s running, outrunning me cuz I just limp along, and she runs straight to the little tool shed where the Baptists’d stashed her Slugger. I point the whiz-bang at the mechanic working the motor pool and scream, “Keys!” at her until she throws ‘em and points at a truck.
“You know how to drive this thing?” I ask the little ‘un. I’ve never driven. Together we wrest the gear lever and the whole thing lurches forward. I toss the empty whiz-bang out the window as bait, giving us just enough margin to squeeze the truck through the canyon mouth onto the open road. Annie sits backwards in her seat to watch for pursuit, but after a few miles it’s clear that we’re all alone, with only the great dunes of chat and the smell of burning sunflower oil around us. I check the tank—it’s very nearly full.
“What’s an elephant’s foot?”
I didn’t know she’d heard that. I say, “Corium.”
Annie turns forward and asks, “Where we going, Pap?” but I don’t rightly know. The Baptists had us in the back of a truck on the way out here, and the road has been washed away several times, now just a fainter line against the pale ground. Later she says, “I’m real hungry. Stop so I can catch something.”
I say, “We have to keep moving.” Several layers of her skin flutter out the window and mix with the white sands. The sun, hidden behind debris clouds, provides no help in steering. These are permanent winter deserts. Annie shivers in her thin dress. She looks up at the clouds and points out a contrail.
“Angel wings,” she says.
“Those ain’t angels.”
“Mam said they are, said they brought God’s wrath with fiery swords and burned up all the wicked cities.”
“Well your momma is a fool.” Those rocket-plane contrails cross the country, going from the coast to who-knows-where. They never come here, but the girl got one thing right—they did burn all the cities. She sleeps, wakes when the tank is half-empty, still complaining for food and I snap that I still ain’t got nothing, snappy cuz I’m hungry too.
She points up at the sky again. “Why don’t we eat those?”
“Cuz those are birds, and we’re on the ground, child.”
All she says is, “Nests,” so I turn off the faint trail to follow the black birds. The truck’s balloon tires roll easily over dry gulches and into a wilting field of weeds and highflowers. “Can we eat these?” she asks.
“Don’t ever eat anything that grows outta scablands.” Then I tell her the story of Jenny Sunflowerseed, who walked among the ruins, planting field after field to ‘quester live isotopes. Maybe she still walks these parts—there’s not much sense of history anymore. Something shows up on the horizon, a structure surrounded by a thicket of birds, and I cuss.
“What is that thing? What are those things?”
“Grackles and gibbets,” I say, and she looks blank at me. “What, your momma told you angel stories but never taught you that nursery rhyme? It’s a warning for travelers to stay away.” The roasting seed oil smell begins to harsh more towards burning as the diesel tank gets emptier.
“Stay away from what?”
I’m scanning the distance, looking for the gleam of something. “There’s a city ’round here. We should head away from it.” The truck kicks up dust, a plume that’s probably visible for miles, and we start to see other people in the fields, sifting handfuls of chat into burlap sacks. Peasant prospectors, gathering pounds of sand in the hope of filtering out even a few specks of atomic-impact nanodiamonds. The truck gets up a low hill and I ‘spect we’re getting closer to some ground zero when I see Geiger prospectors sweeping for still-hot particles of fallout, which they can sell to keep the coast towns warm and powered. I nudge Annie. “See there? One a them glass cities.” The skyline is barely visible, transparent skeletal remains.
“Why we gotta go around it?” She’s grown up hearing all ’bout the big cities, but never been to the coast and never seen any inland ruins before now. “Do people still live there?”
“Treasure hunters, mostly.” The glass city passes by, all its silica fused together from the firestorms. I see her eyes light up a little at the mention of treasure, so I tell her the legends—scavengers goin’ in finding full human skeletons turned to glass by the hellfire. The theory that somewhere, in some certain circumstance, there is one pile of bones that were compressed into diamond when the bombs went off.
“Have you ever been in one?” Remaining pug nose pressed to the window.
“Not in a glass city, but I useta live in Siam Angeles, on the coast, before I met yer mom and you were born.” Back when I had two eyes and four working limbs. Ripping yourself away from city life, you always leave something behind.
When the truck finally runs out of fuel, I steer it into a little gully and hide it with brittle brush best we can. No idea where we are, or where the scabland ends. I think the faint spot in the sky is the sun, so I think that direction is west. If we ever eventually hit an ocean, least I’ll know where we are then.
Child keeps up at first, then uses her bat for a crutch, then finally I have to pick up and carry her. I stick to the soft dust on the shoulder of the road so that’ll be easier to bury her if and once she dies in my arms.
Almost stagger right past the mission, thinking it’s an abandoned illusion, its crumbling stucco blending in with the rocks, until someone beckons from the shadow insides. Nuns take Annie from me, give me water and some sorta sea tack that’s so hard I have to soak it first. They’ve got astronaut rations somewhere, too—I can smell the foil packs—but they aren’t sharing none. An icon of Jesusa Crucifex hangs on the wall, watching me eat. Bearded Jesusa has hair ’bout as long as mine and the little ‘un’s, bare-breasted, wearing only a blood-stained loincloth.
The mission’s matron comes to me and welcomes. “Your child?” she asks. The nuns have stripped away Annie’s clothes and bathe her sores with something that smells like vinegar. I nod, far as I know. Annie’s at least inherited my pandrogyny. The matron is older than any of them, but hard to tell how much with half her face covered. Some of them don’t even have their beards yet, but the matron’s looks soft.
“Your god?” I ask.
“Yes. We pray to the Jesusa who was pierced by the centurion’s... spear in her hymen. Thus, all the bearded maidens bear the stigmata once a month.” She points at the bloodstain. “Normally we couldn’t allow your child to stay within our walls, because he hasn’t and never will display the sign.” She leans closer to me, and smiles. “But you could, couldn’t you? So the both of you are welcome to recover here.”
“I could, but not for a long time, Matron. You have healers? Medicines? The child’s in a bad way and I don’t think she’ll make it without some nursing.”
The matron says, “No, we are not healers. We can cleanse—air, water, blood—but we are as helpless as you in the face of sickness.”
“Whatcha do when you get sick? Just pray?”
“There are healers in the scablands, just not here in the mission.”
“Those Baptists? Not interested in poisoning my girl, thank you much.”
She plays with her rosary of oyster pearls. “Why are you interested in your child? This is an extraordinary effort to flower a dead branch of the genetic tree.”
The pearls tell me she has been to the coast before. She has seen what life is like in those cities, what it’s like to sink in with someone so completely that your flesh meshes together, your skins become one, your thoughts are his thoughts. And then, when you rip yourself away from him, taking as much of his genetics as you can, it can cost you half your own body. Flee the city life as fast as you can limp, naked and poor, owning nothing but a little bit of someone else’s DNA. Each vial of ersatz stem cell semen costs good money. “If I can get her healed up enough, she can get a job, work in someone’s home. Always income for a set of little fingers.”
She weighs my reason for a moment, reads my scars. “There is another group who can help you. The cult of the Hottentotsgot. They are reformationists, but try not to hold that against them if you really want your child to live. In the morning, perhaps, you can be on your way.”
Annie sleeps with the novices in the bunkroom, but they clean out a private cell for me, with not much more than a cot and an oil lamp that doesn’t have any oil. It gets dark fast. When the rest of the mission falls silent, my door opens and in comes the matron with a single candle. She shuts the door and disrobes slowly. “Shouldn’t,” I say.
“I’m going to take something from you, and then I’ll give you something back.” She kneels on the end of the cot and tells me to get ready. Opens my shirt and tugs down my trousers while I fumble with my mater baster, loading it.
“I’m married. You’re chaste.” Against my skin, hers looks clean and fresh, unmarked by the harsh winds.
She fits the rubber bulb up between my legs and straddles my waist. “You need to decide right now if you truly want to help that child. Is the life of a child worth what you can give to me?” She lowers herself onto the baster. As she bobs up and down, I steady her hips to keep her from getting hurt on it. It’s not quite like the organic way of doing things. “Do you even love him?”
Love? I know the book meaning of the word, but her question doesn’t trigger any feeling deep in my gut. Maybe felt it once, in a previous life, back in Siam. Remember having felt love, but can’t remember what that felt like. The matron presses her breasts against the shiny flat scars where I’d lost my left one leaving the city and my right one to an unshrinkable tumor. Her face tickles my stomach as she kisses it. I turn my face away from the candlelight. My right eye presses into the pillow so I see nothing, just feel the machine-pump work of her thighs. When she sounds ready, my inside muscles squeeze the rubber bulb and give her the dribble of clean genes she wants.
She dresses. I lay where I am, half-naked, and ask, “What if it’s a boy?”
The matron takes the candle. “We raise him until he’s old enough to father with some of our maidens, then we apprentice him to a traveler. Or he goes into the world to do as he pleases.”
In the morning, she gives me something back, asking, “Can you read?”
“Can read a map.”
“Good.” She draws me one. “The reformationists are a day-and-a-half from here, on foot, maybe longer with the child’s pace. In the chiming pines.”
I take it, and the dried fruit the nuns offer, and say, “How ’bout a gun?”
Probably too much to hope for. Still got the girl’s Louisville Slugger, dragging over the rocky ground, so’s she can supplement our rations with fresh snake meat. Camping out in the open is tough, but we make it through the next night without needing a fire, and hear the chiming pines long before we see them. These trees’ve pulled up so much trace metal from the soil that they’ve become petrified where they stand. Their brittle needles stir in the wind like bells. The wind blows through knotholes like organ pipes. “Pap,” says Annie, “am I gonna ever see a sea city?”
Can’t see the edge of the woods behind us anymore, and the trees are almost too loud to converse over, so I pull her along tight beside me. “Well, little child, that all depends on what this Hottentotsgot can do for us.” And he better do something, ’cause after this I’m fresh out of ideas. The map hooks us around a couple a landmarks’n then we see them, a pair of hunched figures standing at the mouth of a dark cave. Damp smell of under-earth comes breathing out of it.
Annie clutches my hand and says, “I do not want to go in there.”
“Come on, then. There’s nothing else we ken do.” The sentinels have boyish faces but thick scabrous bodies like beetle shells, and their arms are ‘ticulated all wrong. They watch us pass between them, making no move to help or hinder. One a ‘em chitters. The other buzzes like a bee. The dark inside of the cave takes some getting used to, but there’s light from the ceiling and when I look up I see it covered in glowworms. The rocks are sticky with silk.
The far end of the cave is even brighter, a tall person silhouetted over there. It says, “Stop. Prepare yourself for the presence of the Hottentotsgot.”
“What do we do?” Annie whispers.
We don’t have to do anything. A sudden flurry in the air around us as we’re engulfed in a cloud of moths. I can hear their mouths, the munching, their wings in my ears, their legs in my nose. Child and I stay perfectly still, and when it’s over, the moths have eaten away all of our clothes and all the hair on our bodies. I blink my eyes. Even the lashes are gone. “Come closer,” says that voice, deep and thrumming in my chest.
There are other beetle sentinels in the cave, but we’re staring at the tall creature in the middle of them, and he’s lookin’ right back with two bulging compound eyes out the side of his triangular head and three simple eyes stuck in between them. His skin is green but everything from the neck down seems pretty normal. He’s wearing a broadcloth shirt and a sportcoat.
His mouth is like a snapping turtle’s, and it doesn’t open when he speaks. “Where have you come from?” in that multi-tone voice that shivers from the spiracles beneath his clothes. There is a viscous pool of cloudy liquid at his feet, like the baptism puddles of Reverend Alloy. His head scans Annie from forehead to groin. “Ah. Another lad from the bearded maidens perhaps. Then you must be his escort nun?”
“The mission told us about you,” I admit. “Tol’ us you can heal.” I feel a stirring breeze on my naked back, skin crawling, goosebumps where I’d had hair, because there are suddenly hunnerds of them roach boys filling the chamber behind us. And me without my whiz-bang or no other hidden aces this time.
The Hottentotsgot beckons a beetle-backed boy to his side and hums, “Yes, we can heal here. We can heal anything just this side of death. But the process is resource intensive.” His right arm unfolds somehow in too many joints to reach out and take the roach boy’s hand. The Hottentotsgot uses the sharp pinch of his pincer to draw a frowny face on each of the boy’s fingertips—eyes and mouth appear in blood-red, a nuclear family of five.
“Heal anything?” I point to the child. “Even the scabs? How?”
He dips his foot into the pool between us. “Enzymes.” I trace the runnels to it—the cloudy liquid is running down the walls, dripping on our heads from the ceiling. Dripping from the open mouths of the glowworms and collecting drop-by-drop into the healing pool. “A silkworm will turn itself into liquid, into its base genetic components, and rearrange itself into a new creature. Immerse a sick body into it and they come out a different person.” The Hottentotsgot shows no emotion, though his antennae twitch as his mandibles open, sharp beak edges closing over the sad face on the roach boy’s pinkie. The mouth clips off the fingertip cleanly, moves on to the ring finger, and bites that. One by one, he eats all the heads off the little family.
I see their faces as they disappear into the jaws—the face of you there, that other one, Devorah. My face, Annie’s face. I check to see how frightened the child is right now, but she’s reaching out to touch one a the glowworms and licks her finger to see how it tastes. Never looking beyond her next meal. Probly not even aware of the pure animal menace around us. Does she understand what it means to be losing all that body mass in the form of dried scabs along the side of the road that led us here?
“And what if,” I say slowly, “a person who’s not dying dips into that pool? What happens to that body?”
“The evidence is all around you.” Pointing at the roaches. “The boys come to me, seeking a form that is acceptable to their mothers and sisters. They want to be welcomed back into the convent.”
“So you turn them into bugs?”
“The change is driven by one’s own mind. You hold the image of the body you wish to have in your head until the physical form crystallizes around it. The boys go into the wishing pool thinking of the wrong things—they wish for strength, for survivability, for acceptance bordering on hive unity. And this is what they get. A child goes in, there’s little telling what goes on in their minds, and what comes out of it. You, though, you could have any body you like. Most likely already have a very clear picture of what that is, don’t you? A desirable body, one that corrects all the mistakes of birth and genetics, smooths the scars, a form that your society will finally accept.”
I’m trembling. It’s just the cold, I tell myself.
“I am a businessman,” says the Hottentotsgot. “You can use this pool, if you pay for the privilege.”
“Name your price, then.” I have nothing but my battered skin.
“There is only enough in the pool to transform one person. It takes months, even years to refill it, and while it refills I must feed the worms, the roach boys, and of course myself. So, you give one of your bodies to the pool, and you give the other body to me.”
I think about it, what it could mean. It could mean no more mater baster. No more damaged offspring who rot on the family tree. Finally, a clean genetic line to pass along to the future. Seeing the future with the clarity of perfect, undamaged binocular vision. I can do this, I think. I think I can do this. I can keep Annie from starving for the six months it’ll take to fill the pool back up enough to cover her diminishing frame. I know she can live on bugs.
I take one last look at the mantis-headed Hottentotsgot and move to the lip of the pool. He’s buzzing with the anticipation, and the roach boys cluster around to take Annie’s arms. Only then is she starting to panic. “Pap!” she says. “What are they doing? Help me, Pap!” Right at the edge, I hesitate and close my eyes. I am helping her, but I can’t say that out loud. I’m imagining who I’m going to be. Something evolved specifically to overturn rocks and feed off the things that live under there. Something bird-headed, I imagine.
The water laps at my feet.