Prelude: Alla marcia

Kashmai hates the sea. For a long time, she thought it was the only thing she hated.

The seals wake her every morning before sunrise. They nest on the other side of the island, wriggling their slabs of muscle and blubber onto the soot-colored sand around the natural harbor, but their voices carry—their sharp stupid barking, never resolving into anything but noise. She can’t bear it, lying there and listening to their yapping, so she forces herself out of bed even though it makes the days unendurably long. She walks barefoot down to the water, where the sand is green and foul with some plant that thrives in the cold, and breathes in the stink of it, the plant and the salt and the musk of distant seals. Breathes in her hatred and her enemy’s cruel approximation of mercy, this torture disguised as a reprieve.

A kinder President would have killed her—at least, a less selfish one would have. But perhaps it doesn’t matter. She knows, in her own relentless way, that she will die here.

Perhaps she’ll do it herself. Some day soon, she thinks, I will let the sea do what the noose should have done. The thought calms her. She splashes her face and neck with frigid seawater and wipes it away before the salt can dry on her lips.

The President’s men built the cottage for her, low on the beach and barely past the line of the high tide. Its floors are black wood, its walls the dirty white of salt. When she unshutters the windows, the wind tangles itself in blue calico curtains that smell faintly of lye soap. In a small room at the back of the cottage, as far as possible from the surf and the seals’ dumb barking, the President’s men placed a piano. It is Kashmai’s own piano, the white grand from her studio on Zebulon Street. She cannot decide if that was meant to be a kindness or added cruelty.

When she plays, it’s the old songs—not her heavy concertos but brisk two-fingered melodies, folk tunes and old hymns, the first songs her youngest students would master. Every month when the soldiers bring her supply of flour and milk, they also bring waterproofed parcels of manuscript paper and cool bricks of ink. She always refuses them.

One month she asked them to shoot her, but they had been warned to expect it.

The sea is loudest at night. Kashmai lies awake with her face to the gritty white wall, her bedsheets damp with sweat, and listens to it gnawing on the sand. Some nights it is so loud that she can barely hear herself think.

She cannot decide if this is a kindness or added cruelty.

The First Thing about Oracles

An Oracle is like pain. Like pain, she has two meanings: something is growing, or something is about to die. Despite this, the Oracle herself is inevitably content with the world she was born into—its vices and virtues equally comfortable to her, like old cotton against the skin. Some might call this cowardice. Kashmai wouldn’t disagree.

A corollary: every Oracle outlives her era.

 

First Movement: Largamente

Before the President’s men brought Kashmai to the island, they had kept her at the new prison on the marshes of the Varcobis river, three or four miles outside the capitol city. On clear nights, the city’s gas lights skipped across the flat water like coins aimed at her window; she could see, or imagined she could see, the bell-shaped spire of the Parliament hall, the dome of the opera house silhouetted by the stars. Most nights there was fog, and she couldn’t make out anything farther than the marsh wren’s half-finished nests in the brushes some thirty feet below her window. The fat little wren would come by every few days, sputter and bubble his irritating song, then melt back into the mist. No female ever appeared to finish the nests. Then the season turned, and the fog thickened, and Kashmai couldn’t see anything at all.

It was a month or two after her arrest—hard to track time there, harder once she lost the moon—that she noticed one of the guards had taken an interest to her. The realization came slowly, which was strange in itself. In Varcobis, surrounded by colleagues and students, she had assumed that she interested people, that they liked and admired her. Or it was simply that she knew in advance which of her acquaintances would find her interesting, and those were the only ones she bothered to cultivate. Later, in the midst of the coup, she’d been disoriented to find herself brushing shoulders with people who weren’t familiar with her music, who eyed her university pedigree with distrust, who didn’t like her and wouldn’t grow to. And no one had shown her any kindness since she fired at the sergeant in Israfel Square.

It stuck with her, that wounded suspicion, so that she didn’t know at first what to make of the guard’s quick smiles, the little nods when he brought her coffee and bread. He was a thin man, with a closely cropped beard and large eyes that looked almost childish in his hard face. She often saw him pacing the corridor outside her cell, his uniform sleeves rolled above his elbows and one hand in his pocket, humming repetitive melodies. He would have a beautiful singing voice. She wondered if he ever used it, and what he had been before becoming her jailor.

Then one afternoon, as she lay on the floor beneath her window and counted bricks in the wall to distract herself from the sounds of a beating somewhere down the corridor, he let himself into her cell. He carried something long and flat under his arm, which she recognized after a moment as a chessboard.

“What makes you think I play?” she asked, raising herself on one arm. He settled on the foot of her cot and smoothed the undyed blanket, and she watched his fingers as he unfolded the board and began to withdraw the flat wooden pieces from his pockets. He had long fingernails, thick as a guitarist’s but round and clean.

When he looked up and saw her watching him, he smiled—a real smile, white and handsome, but with a sureness that turned her stomach.

“I don’t want your pity,” she said warily.

“It isn’t pity.” His voice was as deep as his humming. “I knew about you, before. The genius of Zebulon Street. You could say I’m an admirer.”

“You and the President. I’ve been badly served by my admirers.”

The smile flitted away like the marsh wren abandoning his stalk. He studied her more closely, eyes wide and wounded—realizing, perhaps, that he had misjudged her loneliness.

“He’ll make me disappear,” she said. Brutal honesty: that was a handle that rested comfortably in her hand. “He admires me now, but one day he’ll make it so that the genius of Zebulon Street never existed. Strike me from the textbooks and the lecture rolls. Melt me down with the wax cylinders. What do you think of that?”

The guard hesitated. Then he began to arrange the pieces again; he was preparing the white side for her, centering each disk in its grid, as though such precision mattered. “He’ll find it harder than he expects, changing the past,” he said.

Kashmai scoffed, pushing herself to her feet. Almost immediately she was overcome with vertigo. A roaring filled her ears, then withdrew, then advanced again. She steadied herself with one hand against the wall, blinking away the cloud of prescience that had settled across her vision like the marsh fog.

She looked at the cot. The guard looked back at her with childish uncomprehending eyes. It was a miracle, she thought, that he couldn’t feel his own significance hanging like a weight around his neck.

“Only the future is immutable,” she said through gritted teeth.

Of course, now that she is dying, the future has nothing to say to her. And like a bankrupt widow whose horses have been auctioned off, like a bachelor whose songbirds have slipped their cages, Kashmai realizes how much she had counted on its presence to fill her days.

She had never been bored or lonesome in Varcobis. Indeed, she prided herself on her self-sufficiency—the way she moved through students and lovers and friends like some violent harmony, overturning settled lives and routines but demanding little in return. Now that the Oracle is quiet, she knows what it’s like to have little demanded of her.

It is remarkably lonely.

On the island, lulled by the waves’ hungry complaining, her brain makes patchwork companions for her. Her dreams stitch the guard from the prison with some of the men who were her students; she loved all of them in her way, all the young people with their clumsy fingers and tense forearms, their heavy footsteps clumping up the stairs to her studio in the theatre district. Zebulon Street housed a row of cafés that served absinthe at eight in the morning and coffee until well after midnight. There, she would stake out a table for days at a time, putting the finishing touches on a program or lecture series, or flirting with the actresses who came by to nurse a hangover and run lines, or watching the ships on the river. At night, when she was composing, she’d open the windows above her bed—a wide set, through which they’d had to lift her piano with a crane—and let the varied rush of human voices, breaking glass, music, carriage wheels, someone’s sobbing, weave through her work.

But in the dreams, the dreams about the guard who is somehow a student and somehow one of those devotees whose admiration she had instantly known to expect, the windows in her studio open onto black sand and barking seals. The man kneels on her bed, a violin curving its shadow over his bare shoulder, playing an unfamiliar song. The wind dries in his hair and leaves it crusted with salt.

Then the seals wake her and all of it is gone—the young people, the studio, the river, the cafés. She sees them swallowed up by bloodied water and boarded windows, bullets in dark alleys, fires lit on cold afternoons. The ships, she remembers, had burned long into the night.

She knows her disappearance has already begun. By now, the professors at the university where she used to lecture will have started to speak of her as though she is dead. She was known, they’ll be saying, for this or that, a common theme, a signature, all of it bookended between two dates: the day she came to Varcobis, and that day in Israfel Square. The past tense makes everything tidy. They wouldn’t know what to make of her otherwise, a radical and would-be assassin whose music the President adores. They’ll stop playing her work at the university, or if they must, they’ll tap out only a bar or two on the ancient classroom pianos.

The students won’t be listening anyway. They’ll be watching the sky, the smoke above the river, or worrying about lost ration cards, or contemplating missing friends. Or sketching plans in their notebooks, quick maps and equations in the margins, and their friends will be contemplating them in a week or two.

Life will go on in the capitol, but thinner.

Kashmai wonders if the President can feel it in his stately house on Lancaster Street, far enough from the boarded cafés and the stink of ash on the water. Stupid, shallow thing that he is, he thinks he can kill her city, slaughter her students and imprison her on the sea, and still expect new music from her—as though the cottage, the piano, the weekly deliveries of paper and ink, the guards who have been warned not to kill her, are a gift and not a torment.

Some mornings, as she washes her face in the sea and lifts her eyes to the horizon, she finds herself daring him to cross it. For she does have a gift for him, the only one she has ever had. But she knows, in her way, he isn’t brave enough to collect it.

 

Second Movement: Piu mosso

The Second Thing about Oracles

An Oracle always knows the truth; it is impossible for her to lie to herself. And so hope is a foreign country to her—one she hears of in stories but will never see. The psychologists in the capitol, a dour group prone to dissecting operas and filling the balconies with bitter pipe smoke, say that all happiness is anticipation; the joy is in the planning, not the victory. If this is true, Kashmai supposes she has never been happy.

But some consolation: if it is true, the President has tasted his victory and will never be happy again.

The second time the guard came to her with his board and his pockets full of chessmen, they had played two games in amiable silence. He won easily, as he had before, but seemed not to take any pleasure in the fact. His eyes were never far from whatever part of her was in motion—her hands on the pieces, her feet shifting on the stone floor, her own eyes trailing over his face.

At last, as she folded the board in surrender for the second time that afternoon, he pressed his hands to his chin. “Is it true that you can see the future?” he asked.

Kashmai ran her hand down the side of the board, swirling her fingers around its tarnished hinges. They made her think of instrument cases, the lids protecting ivory or steel or gut.

“You spoke to a former lover,” she guessed. “Or the officer who questioned me about Israfel Square.”

“The latter.” He lowered his voice. It occurred to her that most of her lovers must be dead.

She sat back on her heels. “There’s a question you want to ask me,” she realized. That explained some of it—the opacity of him, the mingled senses of friendliness and threat, which had made it hard to judge his interest in her. “But not about the future. You’re angry about something, not afraid.”

He nodded slowly. “You knew—” Still nodding, he waved one hand, as though clearing the air of smoke. “You knew this was coming. The militia. The coup. This.” Gesturing now at the walls, the rough, sweating stone. “Why didn’t you stop it?”

“A drowning man knows when his lungs are bursting,” she said, “but that’s no use to him if he’s forty feet below the surface. Some things are too big to alter, or too far away. Or too close.”

“So what’s the good of it, then?”

“Does it have to be good?”

The guard scoffed.

Kashmai rested her hands on her knees. The heels of her palms dug into soft flesh, bruising, as she weighed her next words.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I feel like the Oracle is something outside of me. Something that plucks on my brain like an instrument. I think it might exist even if I didn’t—the way my music will exist without me, someday soon.”

“What do you see for yourself?”

“He will make me disappear.” She pronounced each word distinctly, imagined it falling like a pebble into an open grave. “He wants to press a new song out of me and throw away the skin.”

“And before that?”

“Black sand. I see black sand, sometimes.”

A spasm crossed his face—a flare in the narrow nostrils, a tightening of the cheeks above his beard. “There’s an island.” He raised his hand again, as though to gesture at something, then let it fall uselessly into his lap. “North of here, miles and miles off the coast. It’s nothing but sand and wind. Months ago, when they brought you here, they had one of the builders look at the charts—”

Kashmai silenced him with a short, inward laugh.

“I hate the sea.” She shook her head, laughing again, although the sound felt like something rotten clinging to her teeth. “I used to think it was the only thing I hated.”

She has hated the ocean from childhood—a childhood spent far from Varcobis, far from universities and theaters and politics. But not so far, it seems, that the President couldn’t rifle through that rubbish heap and emerge with precisely the bone he needed. Like a cat with a mouse, he plays with history before he devours it. He’s playing with her now, her past and her hate, though to what end, she can hardly imagine.

Or maybe, fool that he is, he doesn’t know he’s playing. Somehow that seems worse.

There must have been Oracles who found beautiful patterns in the shape of past and future, Oracles for whom even tragedy appeared lovely in its completion. Kashmai finds it ugly. Sick jokes played by time and circumstance. How often the worst that can be imagined is precisely what comes to pass.

In a café on Zebulon Street, in the early days of the coup, an actress friend folded herself into Kashmai’s arms, stole sips from her glass of absinthe, and loudly lamented the President’s stupidity and incompetence. Another interjected with complaints about the cost of the army. Both of them were convinced it couldn’t last. And how unlikely it all seemed then—how like a nightmare, a sick farce. This is the part, Kashmai remembers thinking, slipping from the actress’s embrace, when a woman who is not an Oracle would lie to herself.

The vertigo came, the sound like raging and withdrawing waves. She could smell ships burning, could feel the kickback of a fired bullet jolt through her wrist.

After that, she read the newspapers in the café a bit more closely. When the petitions circulated, she signed her name with a flourish. A few days before the soldiers gathered in Israfel Square, she bought a small pistol and taught herself how to fire it.

This too is a consolation: regret is as foreign as hope. She has done what she knew she would do. The past tense makes everything tidy.

 

Third Movement: Rubato

Before dawn, she wakes to the barking of the seals.

The day is bright and damp, the sun like a flame seen through thick glass. Kashmai wraps herself in a shawl of fog-colored wool, washes her face in the ocean, and wipes nightmare away with the salt. When she returns to the cottage, she puts the kettle on the stove and takes the tin tea cannister down from its self. On impulse, she sets out two cups. Today is a delivery day.

When the boat arrives, she is not surprised to find her guard, sleeves rolled to his elbows, humming a low, repetitive melody.

“You expected me?” he asks, nodding at the second cup on the table. He has set the crate of dry goods on the only chair, the sheaf of manuscript paper laid uppermost, slightly damp from the spray.

“I expected something. Why are you here?”

He shrugs at the crate, but that isn’t what she’s asking.

“I want you to write the song,” he says. “I know you’ve refused him, and I think I understand why. But if you’re going to die here, I want something of you to survive.”

“The genius of Zebulon Street.” She wants to mock the sentiment, but it comes out with greater weight than she intends. She pushes her hands through her hair, pointedly staring at his face—his beard grayer, his cheeks, if possible, even more hollow than they were at the prison—staring at anything but the paper he’s come to deliver. “Do they still call me that?”

“No.”

“Pity.”

She lifts the crate with one hand and slings it to a corner of the room. It lands in a puff of sand and dust; a black, spiderlike crab scuttles out of the way. She seizes the paper and, after some rummaging, the block of dry ink, and throws the both of them through the open doorway, into the black sand.

Turning, she gestures for her guest to sit. She pushes a teacup towards him and takes the other for herself.

“It won’t matter,” she says. “Whether I do it or not, he’ll wipe me away. I will never leave this fucking island.”

“Then tell me.” Settling into the chair—heavily, like a man twice his age—he lays one hand on the table, almost reaching for her. Then he presses his fingertips into the wood as though rooting himself in place. “I know the President never asked you; he’s not brave enough. But tell me what’s coming.”

Kashmai takes a slow slip of tea. It’s bitter, and it stinks like the seaplant that washes up on her beach. She wants to tell him that the thing he’s asking is impossible, but the pair of teacups would give away the lie. Yes, it’s still there—a soft buzzing in her ear, so soft it seems to come from outside of herself—some tiny scrap of the Oracle her tired mind has cast off, lost in the constant roar of the sea.

All this time, Kashmai had believed her heart already broken. Or perhaps she thought she had no heart to begin with; never, not as a child spinning thread between calloused fingers, not as a lecturer on the echoing stage or a teacher in her studio, not with her lips on a man’s neck or her hands on an ivory keyboard or her finger on a trigger. Why should this man change that? She sets the tea aside and tightens the shawl around her neck, tugs on it so sharply that the wool creaks. Why should her body ache, why should her eyes prickle as though some lingering seawater has dried on the lashes? What is one more travesty in a list of crimes as long as a war?

What’s one more mouthful of water when you’re miles below the surface?

“The President will die,” she says. “But not for some time. The country will fracture—too many wars on too many fronts, and too many schmeers greedy for what no one can buy or steal. One by one, the people he trusts will betray him. He’ll run at first, but not far enough. In the end, they’ll shoot him in the back.”

The guard nods. He is gazing at her as he’s always gazed at her: not with pity, she sees now, but with trust. “And me, Kashmai?”

“You’ll die before I do.”

He makes a sharp sound in his throat, half laugh, half cry of pain. For the first time since she’s known him, he looks away before she does—past her, out the open door, to the discarded paper and the sand and the cold waves.

She leans against the kitchen wall. Her limbs feel heavy, but her head is clear.

The Oracle, the last of it, is gone.

The Third Thing about Oracles

Sometimes, when a body is dying and knows that it is dying, when pain no longer serves its purpose, the bloodstream floods itself with chemicals to blunt the perception and dull the brain with pleasure. She begins to suspect that this is why she could write such beautiful music. For the rush of bliss and forgetfulness, when knowing doesn’t do any good.

Kashmai knows what she is without the Oracle. A passion in passing. A rage that shook settled lives like some violent storm, then dissipated with the change of seasons. A game of chess, a cup of tea. She’s nothing permanent. Her house is built on sand.

As it has always been.

She has never in her life watched a man as he walked away from her for the last time. She doesn’t now. But after he goes, she retrieves the sheaf of manuscript paper from the sand. Opening it with a bit of driftwood—the men who built her house didn’t trust her with a knife—she shakes the sheets out one by one. They’ve captured the scent of miles between them, all the distance they were transported: dust of dungeons, sulfurous marsh water, the brine of the sea. She hangs the sheets to dry in her windows, clipped between the calico curtains.

All afternoon, Kashmai thinks of the man she will outlive.

And in the end, it’s pity that brings her to the piano.

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Megan Arkenberg's work has appeared in Lightspeed, Asimov's, Shimmer, multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and in Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year. She has edited the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance since 2008. She currently lives in Northern California, where she's pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature. Visit her online at www.meganarkenberg.com.

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