In the desert, all the footprints lead into Oasis, and none lead out again. They come for water, and once they find it, no one returns to the endless sand. The city is a prison with bars of thirst and heat.
Outside the gates the reptiles roam: asps and cobras, great lazing skinks, tortoises who lie down to doze in the heat. Where they go as they pad and swish and claw their way through the sand, no one knows, save the women who look over the walls and feel the deep itching pressure in their bones, the weight of skin in need of sloughing.
Though Hester has sold asp eggs at the night bazaar for five years, she has never become a reptile herself, no matter what she tries.
She takes eggs wherever she finds them. She has eaten those of skinks and geckos. She has tasted sun-warmed iguana eggs. She has traced water-snake paths through Oasis and dug for their nests. She has braved the king cobra’s sway and dart, and devoured its offspring too. Once, she found an alligator egg, and poked a hole in the top and sucked out the insides. But no matter what she tries, Hester has never broken free and escaped the city like the other women do.
She even tried the asp eggs once, the ones that were her livelihood. It was the day after Marick the mango seller asked to take her as his sunside lover. Hester left home and dug asp eggs from the clay by the river. The sun spilled long red tongues across the sand, over the footprints always entering the city, never leaving, and Hester’s skin itched all over, and her flesh grew hot and heavy, and she longed for cool sand sliding against her bare belly.
One, two, three eggs into her mouth, one sharp bite, and the clear, viscous glair ran down her throat. The shells were tougher than she expected. They tasted tart, like spoiled goat’s milk. She waited for the change, but the sun crawled higher and nothing happened.
She has never told anyone about the day with the asp eggs. Not her mother the batik dyer, who spatters linen in hot running wax and crafts her famous purple cloth. Not Marick her sunside lover, who sells indigo cactus flowers and mango slices on a wooden tray. Not Shayna the butcher, her moonside lover, whose honey-gold verses roll from her tongue, smooth and rounded as sand-polished pebbles. Hester hasn’t told them, because they are why she longs to leave.
The night bazaar meets on a different street each week. Each morning before, at sunrise, Hester finds three blue chalk symbols sketched on the doorjamb behind the perfumed jasmine bush. Sometimes she sees a falcon, a crane beneath a full moon, and a viper climbing a triple-columned temple portico. This means We assemble where the Street of Upholsterers intersects the Street of Priests, when the Crane rises. Or it might be a hand holding an eye, a wavy river, and a kneeling woman, which would mean Meet where Oasis runs to mud, and beware the police. Hester memorizes the message and wipes off the chalk with her sleeve.
They meet in secret, because the night bazaar was outlawed when the emperor stepped down from her throne and became a snapping turtle. No one knew if she chose to change, or if a traitor had slipped her the eggs unawares. These days, vendors caught selling such goods moonside are made to drink poison sunside. Even possessing the eggs earns a speedy execution. But in Oasis, women at their wits’ end have always eaten the eggs, and fled.
Hester packs the asp eggs in damp red clay and binds them, in sets of three. Any more would be a waste, and any less, insufficient to cause the change. At the meeting point, booths have already popped up in the dark. Hester drapes her bamboo frame in purple and gold batik, fringed with the shiny onyx hair of some young customer who bought eggs long ago.
She lays out packets in three reed baskets and lights a lamp that burns tallow made from women’s fat. At moonrise, Hester’s chin lifts, and over vendors hawking their wares, she sings:
Eggs of the asp
in the new moon dark
Come, buy, and eat!
cool as desert’s night
against your belly
Come, buy, and eat!
The customers arrive, ghosts cut from darkness by moonlight’s blade. They are no two alike. They are old and young. They are blind and deaf and whole of body. They have hats and sandals, sunburns and calluses. They come singing and weeping and completely silent. The vendors sing to them all, a cacophony and a tapestry. Hester’s bones buzz from the dissonance, her skin as a quivering lizard bolting from rock to rock.
On slow nights, Hester bargains for rare eggs, which she devours on the spot. They never work. A waste of good coin, the merchants say, clucking their tongues, but they take payment anyway. Traders should not eat their wares. Most vendors prosper from the illegal trade, but Hester barely makes ends meet because she spends so much on eggs. Shayna, her moonside lover, often teases her about her bad business sense.
Marick never asks what she does moonside. By this, Hester has come to fear him. He does not ask because he already knows.
Hester has to wait for sundown to pack for the next bazaar, since Marick won’t leave for work before then. People often compliment her attentive sunside lover—how he won’t leave her side until sunset requires it. When they are alone, he keeps his distance. He has not once touched her, not as a lover does. Perhaps he mistakes her distance for demure shyness, the way she lies still in bed, how she curls into herself during the midday nap.
Ever since they met, Hester has a recurring dream where her body is a golden pot with an amethyst lid and she an asp inside it. In the dream, Marick plays the oboe, charming her out with music. She slithers to him, and he grabs her and devours her.
When she wakes, she feels hollow and hungry inside. Her mouth tastes sour, like the eggs that will not change her.
Truthfully, her shoulders relax when Marick leaves for moonside life, and she can go to the night bazaar. Hester wonders if Marick’s moonside lover is any different from her. Perhaps he loves Marick better. Perhaps he likes mangoes. Perhaps Marick touches him. Perhaps he is less afraid than she is.
Hester’s first customer that night wears a priest’s robe tied all wrong, knotted at the shoulder like they do on the Street of Blacksmiths to keep their sleeves from the hot anvil. People often pretend to be another thing when they come to the night bazaar. The woman’s fingers stroke a linen packet, thumb caressing the round bulges.
After payment, the woman unwraps the eggs and eats them. The moon glints on her teeth. Hester cannot hear the eggs burst above the din, but her insides quiver anyway.
The woman falls into a heap before Hester’s booth. Her flesh splits open and she slithers out from her own breastbone, her shining black length cutting crescents in the sand. The newborn asp slithers through the gutter, making westward toward the desert.
Hester drags the blacksmith’s sloughed-off body behind her booth for later processing. There will be more before the night’s end.
They seem so sure when they approach the booth, like they know it will work for them. They often stop to browse the other wares, but their eyes slide until their fingers find the asp eggs. They do not waver. Assurance steadies their voices. She used to ask them why, back when she first started selling. Why the bazaar? Why tonight? Why this shape?
“Because this body has grown too tight around me.”
“Because breathing weighs me down, and I am exhausted.”
“Because each night, I dream of walking into the desert and not returning.”
“Because each morning, I watch the merchants pass into the gates, and I want to scream, ‘Stay away!'”
At the night bazaar, they shed their skin and leave as asps and tortoises and crocodiles. They pass the gates unimpeded. They go out into the desert and erase the footprints leading inward.
The night Hester met Marick, the bazaar assembled where the Street of Cobblers bisected the Street of Zither Players. Someone must have betrayed them. Perhaps a sharp-eyed officer traced the steady stream of determined lizards and serpents and tortoises scampering through the gutters and under the gates and out into the darkness. A cry cut through the selling-songs: Run! Run!
It had happened before. It was why the booths collapsed so easily. Hester grabbed her basket and yanked the batik down. The crowd surged toward the Street of Cobblers, pressed from the rear by police with battering sticks. The cloth sheet tangled in the bamboo bars, and Hester wrestled with it.
“Hester?” It was a young policeman, stick in hand. “The batik dyer’s daughter. I would know you anywhere.” She knew him too: Marick the mango seller. Now moonside, his crooked teeth became a cobra’s fangs. “Wait. I need to speak with you.”
His boot pinned the batik sheet to the cobblestone. Hester yanked harder, heart thudding against her ribs. Poison, she thought. Bloated bodies at the wall. The sheet ripped, and she fled into the crowd.
The next day, Marick arrived at her mother’s shop with six ripe mangoes wrapped in a tattered batik scrap, and a proposition.
To mark her as his sunside lover, he gave Hester a gold earring shaped like a pot set with an amethyst for a lid. It was heavy for its size.
Marick never mentioned that night at the bazaar. What happened moonside wasn’t discussed sunside. She could not tell if the coercion was deliberate or accidental on his part.
It all amounted to the same for Hester. Marick’s love was a prison. His smile tightened when she glanced out the window to check the sun’s position. Test me, and you shall learn my nature, said that tightness. His gaze followed her everywhere. She always checked the doorjamb for the chalk signs before sunrise and erased them. Propriety forced him to stay away until dawn touched the rooftop.
When they were alone together, she mirrored his smile, and the woman who gathered asp eggs curled in on herself, deep down where no one could ever find her sunside. She dreamed and dreamed of being consumed, of escape.
Near moonset, as the crowd thins to a trickle and the reptiles depart, a hand rests on Hester’s shoulder. “Never trust a woman who gathers asp eggs, for she may become one,” Shayna whispers, breath warm and licorice-scented.
“They don’t work for me, I’m afraid.” Hester turns so Shayna’s kiss falls on her cheek.
“You cannot become what you already are,” she jokes. Shayna stops trying to steal kisses and counts the shedded bodies. Eight women lie bisected and cold: a good night. Shayna’s blades flick and twist, opening seams, probing apart joints. The hair goes to the weavers, the bones to the lemon tree growers and to the scribes, and the meat goes to the vulture breeders and the candlemakers.
The two women work quickly, distributing the haul to runners who buy for the sunside merchants. If any time remains, they slip off to Shayna’s bower on the Street of Butchers for a few hours in the dark together before sunrise. Their infant son, too young for a name yet, sleeps in a basket nearby. He has hair like damp sand. “He gets it from his father,” Shayna explains when Hester pets his soft head. Shayna talks about her sunside lover more than anyone Hester has ever met. It was especially tiresome during her pregnancy last year.
Hester rolls over in the hammock in the dark. “Shayna, have you ever wished to leave Oasis?”
Shayna turns, and the hammock sways. “I prefer not dying of thirst and exposure, thank you. I like my life here. I have my family, and business. Why?”
“Sometimes I wonder where the reptiles go. They say there is an ocean out there, beyond the desert.”
Shayna yawns wide. “You spend too much time at the night bazaar. You should start a proper family. When are you going to give me a moonside baby of my own?”
“You sound like my mother.” With Marick and Shayna in her life, it is what everyone expects. Children thrive best with two mothers and a father. Hester only has one mother, though. Perhaps that is why she cannot become a reptile.
“You haven’t answered my question,” Shayna points out, stirring, and the baby wakes and cries.
Hester climbs from the hammock and rocks him until he calms. Outside, the dark sky is gray and heavy. Softly it starts to rain. Too late, she realizes her mistake. “Oh, damnation! It’s morning, Shayna.” She dresses and sprints out the door, through the rain, toward the Street of Dyers.
An oil lamp sits lit on the stoop when Hester gets home, and the door is ajar. Marick, home from his moonside life, curls in bed with his back toward the door. Hester listens to his breathing for ten heartbeats, slow and regular like wind in the olive tree branches. When she is sure he is asleep, she stows her basket of asp eggs beneath the bed and lies down beside him. Marick always smells like incense and cinnamon at dawn, the way Hester smells faintly of butcher’s blood. In this way, they bring their moonside lovers home with them. At sunrise, the scents make a family.
She dreams of Shayna and Marick and the unknown men who love them. Of her mother, alone by sunside, and Hester a child only half-mothered, now half-mother again to the nameless baby with the damp sand hair. If only she had hatched from an egg. Reptiles needed no mothers or father. They birthed themselves and named themselves and no one kept them from the desert.
She is dreaming of the desert when she wakes in the evening, the day’s heat slipping away. Marick isn’t in bed, nor is he in the kitchen cutting up mangoes. It is only then she realizes: in her hurry to return from Shayna’s home, she forgot to erase the chalk from the doorjamb. Marick’s muddy footprints squat below that spot, the jasmine branches forced back, but he is already gone.
So is her bundle of asp eggs.
The moment Hester notices, she ransacks their home, searching for the missing eggs. She strips the bed and shakes out the linen sheets. She dumps the reed baskets piled by the door. She plunges both hands elbow deep into the refuse heap outside the window. Worms ooze around her knuckles.
Never in all this time has she left evidence of the night bazaar. Never so much as a glance toward the doorjamb and its tiny chalk symbols. Her bones quiver inside the bag of her skin. The sky is streaked angry red, and moonrise bears down with vicious weight. Marick could return at any time with the other policemen, with the poison.
Her fingers dig into her palms so hard they draw blood. It is against every rule for him to police her by day: against law, against custom, against decency. But poison makes no such distinctions, and if he found the eggs, she would have no defense. She could beg Shayna to hide her, but how would she explain it without exposing her sunside life?
Hester wraps her head in batik and hurries to the western wall, where the reptiles emerge in a thin, long line across the sands. Above them, bodies swing to and fro over the gates, dry and mummified by weather and time. It was always a major affair when they hung out a new one. Marick took Hester to watch once. He held her hand, and neither smiled.
If she could be that kind of creature. If she could cross the desert. If she could break free of the spidersilk bonds Oasis imposed, the thin invisible obligations tying woman to man to woman to child, a web which caught and snared.
Hester finds herself at home again, standing before the darkened door. Behind the jasmine bush, she finds the chalk symbols: a pot, an oboe, and an egg.
We gather in the alley on the Street of Midwives where the Emperor was born.
She considers going into the house, lying down in the dark, and waiting for Marick, but her feet are already drawing her back toward the night bazaar.
Hester’s money buys her half a dozen crocodile eggs, two cobra eggs, and a large speckled monitor lizard egg still warm to the touch. She swallows them down and will not let her stomach vomit them up, no matter how much her guts twist. Her head buzzes like when she drinks too much palm wine. Her hands tingle as if the poison courses inside her veins already. She hurries from booth to booth, begging for more eggs, but her colleagues only cluck their tongues and offer her rose petal tea, or silken shawls, or cool hands to the forehead.
“I am not sick,” Hester insists. “I need to buy more eggs.” But they will not sell them to her.
At last she hunches behind her booth, shivering in the chill, waiting, hoping yet for transformation. She has no asp eggs to sell, so the customers pass her by, until at last one does not.
Despite his broad-brimmed veiled hat, Hester recognizes Marick, when he sets the missing eggs on the booth’s counter. He smells like incense and cinnamon. “Do not try to run now. Not this time.”
Fear twists her gut hard, and all the raw eggs roil in her stomach. She gags and vomits into the sand behind the booth. The slimy white glair pools with her bile, studded with chunks of undigested shell. Her last hope of transformation, absorbed into the sand. The desert will take even this before it will take her. As her hope dribbles away, so does the fear. Hester laughs a short, sharp hyena bark.
“Everyone pretends to be something different at the night bazaar, Marick. What are you supposed to be?”
He hesitates, then twitches the veil up. Rose-colored moonlight bathes his face, a rare lunar eclipse. He looks small and fragile as a pressed flower, not at all like the man she has feared for five years.
He leans forward, voice low and secret. “I need to know how the eggs work. Is there a spell?”
Hester snorts. “You want our secrets before you betray me. You think you can ask, and I will tell you, as if this is not my bazaar and you are not a customer. As though the price is not my life.”
Marick shakes his head hard. “No, no, you’ve got it all wrong, Hester. Have the police found the night bazaar since we became lovers? Do you think that is a coincidence? Whatever I am, I am no traitor.”
It has the ring of truth to it, though she does not want to trust him. “What do you want from me? You take me for a lover and do not touch me. You follow me here and do not arrest me. You say you’ve been protecting me. What do you want?”
He casts his eyes toward the gutter, which is littered with tiny reptile prints. When he speaks, his voice is not a mango-seller’s cries or a policeman’s growl but trembling and weak, a flute cracked and leaking air. “I am done, trying to live in this body. It doesn’t fit. Not with dayside lovers, or nightside lovers. Touches do not reach me. I wear my own flesh like a cloak, and I am alone inside. It isn’t mine. Maybe I was supposed to be a reptile? A woman? Half a mother to complete some child? I do not know. I only know that if I don’t shed this body, I will suffocate in it. Do you understand?”
He sounds just as sure as every woman who has come before. “You just eat them, Marick. There is no spell. The eggs don’t work for men, though.”
He shrugs, and the corner of his mouth lifts. “I will try, anyway. I don’t know any other way.” Marick unwraps the eggs and rubs off the clay. He cracks them one by one, sucks out their insides, chews and swallows the shells. Around his ankles, women skitter and slither westward on scaled claw and belly.
Hester waits for his disappointment, but instead he collapses before her booth. An asp springs from his breastbone, a fine golden-eyed creature damp from heart’s-blood, and it joins the reptile exodus in the gutter. As she watches him go, a hollow place inside her rips open, as though the last of her hope has also left her and slithered into the desert.
Mechanically she drags his unwanted body behind the booth. It has been many years since this chore unsettled her, since a customer’s discarded eyes fixed upon her face, but Marick was her dayside lover, the only one she had. For the first time since she joined the bazaar, a body becomes a corpse.
When Shayna sees Marick, she steadies her head between her hands. “Oh, Hester, what have you done? The law might turn a blind eye to the night bazaar as long as we’re discreet, but it won’t ignore a dead policeman.”
“He isn’t dead. He became an asp, Shayna!”
The two women slump together behind the booth while Hester confesses everything. “What did he do? Why did it work for him?”
Shayna jerks her chin toward the sky. “Eclipses are strange. Moonside and sunside join hands and pass. Perhaps the desert calls to its own.”
Hester curls up tight and tries not to retch. No eggs for her, because she is already empty inside. She does not say, Why won’t it work for me?
Shayna holds her at arm’s length. “You think I don’t know. You think I don’t pay attention.” She undoes Marick’s earring, holds the matching golden pot to Hester’s ear. “Tell me, lover, what makes you so afraid? Afraid enough to piss away your profit on all those eggs? Scared enough to leave me too?”
“You are so happy here,” Hester manages through hitching breath.
Shayna’s eyebrows pinch together like when she is considering the best way to slice open a ribcage. “Maybe the eggs do not work for you because you do not need them. You’re practically an asp already. You spend enough time among their nests.”
Somehow, the thought comforts her. “And you, Shayna? What are you?”
Shayna’s smile is all teeth. “I am a butcher, of course.”
They drag Marick’s shell into an alley. In the night bazaar’s bustle, no one notices. Hester grabs the booth’s batik fabric and drapes it over the ground. Shayna is a good butcher, well-practiced and quick, skilled at separating muscle from skin and meat from bone. The waxed batik absorbs the blood in brown-bordered swirls.
Shayna cuts, and Hester sorts the pieces. Hester lays Marick’s heart in the pile for the vulture breeders. It is soft and round like a ripe mango on a plate, plum-red as an amethyst, tattered where the asp ripped through the flesh.
As the heart drips onto the batik, Hester sees maybe there is another path to freedom, one she never considered before Marick transformed. How she could leave behind the mass of bodies—the heralds, the upholsterers, the weavers, the potmakers, the herbalists, the papyrus-rollers, the inksetters—all the close, warm mammalian musks, the raised voices, the songs and tambourines. How she could slip beneath the gates, slither into the desert, the sand burning her belly into hard scales; her tongue flickering, testing the air. Some irresistible pull inside knows exactly where lies the ocean she has never seen, beating on a far shore. Her flesh feels heavy and cumbersome, and she thinks she could shake it loose, leave it behind to mummify in the heat and sand.
If this other path will work for her.
Hester saves Marick’s heart carefully, wrapped tight in stained batik until the blood no longer soaks through. They sell the meat and bones to the vendors, but the skin they burn at Shayna’s bower on the Street of Butchers. Its wetness makes the fire smoke and sputter.
“I can hide you for tonight, but you’ll have to leave tomorrow,” Shayna says as they wash up at home. “We can slow down their investigation, but they will find you. There were witnesses. Someone will talk eventually.”
“Yes, of course. I understand.” Hester inhales Shayna’s familiar licorice smell, and longing prickles down her back. If this path works for her, there will be no more sunside or moonside, no lovers to fear and tend to and worry over. There will be no night bazaar, because in the desert, everyone is a reptile. Asps are asps by day or night.
Hester waits until Shayna sleeps before she draws her last gift in chalk on the doorjamb: two stones, a dead woman’s eye, and an asp. Find me at the wall where criminals are made to drink poison, and come alone. Then she kisses her sleeping lover and their moonside baby, and she leaves.
At this hour, the night bazaar must be packing up. A few snakes and lizards skitter through the gutters. Hester follows them to the gouge in the sand where they have dug a hole beneath the wall. They slither and wriggle and just slip through. Overhead, ropes creak as the mummified corpses swing.
Before she can lose her courage, Hester unwraps Marick’s heart, sliced into strips like a mango, her final hope on a wooden tray.
Hearts are eggs, she realized when Shayna slit open Marick’s body and piled his organs on the stained batik. Hester wonders what will hatch from hers.
Hester eats it, piece by piece. If this fails, the police will find her. Her body will swing overhead with the rest, always within sight of the desert but never able to go there.
The heart slides into her belly, easier than glair, and settles in the empty space which once held fear. The quivering in her bones becomes a violent shudder. A change is coming, churning her like a sandstorm. She slips and twists inside her own flesh, full to the brim, a straining wineskin, a sated leech, an egg about to burst.
It does not hurt much, the hatching, the shedding. No worse than picking off a scab. When it is over, she slides free onto her segmented belly, the sand warm, the wind drying her damp newborn back. Her tongue tests the air, and tastes water far to the west, beyond the husk of her old body, through the gouge beneath the wall.
Over the wall the bodies swing and creak on their ropes, but they are only shells, and the poison rests between her teeth now, a gift for those she chooses to kiss. Oasis shrinks toy-like under her unblinking reptilian gaze. It is a nest, a golden pot with an amethyst lid, trapping asps until the music plays, but it cannot hold her anymore. All over the city, people pitch and turn inside themselves, sliding against the smooth walls of their prison, but only a few buck against the shell and break it.
But the desert is a city too, vaster than Oasis, and the reptiles are its people. Hester tastes them on the wind. Blood and incense, jasmine and mango, they call to her, all the ones who went before, the peasants and merchants, the old women and the young, the Emperor and Marick all, now fully themselves, unchanging day or night. Their prints erase the footsteps trailing into Oasis. Their bodies are arrows which point to the sea. They are waiting for her. It is almost time to go.
Hester waits beside her cooling body until sunrise breaks upon the city. Oasis turns over in its old familiar rhythm. Moonside lovers kiss and part. Footsteps hurry from house to house, and chalk symbols are found and read and quickly erased. And then, for the first time sunside, Hester sees her: Shayna the moonside butcher, come to unseam her body.
Hester knows Shayna will sell the parts piece by piece, a last providence for her Oasis family. A family can live for a month on the price a human body would fetch. Her hair will go to the weavers, her bones to feed the lemon tree groves, her fat to fuel the lamps, everything given back to the city that bore her.
Except her heart.
Shayna saves it in the same scrap of bloodstained batik that once held Marick’s. Hester hopes it will be enough.
But now, the part of her that cannot be bought or sold slips beneath the wall, tastes the distant water, and goes to find it.