Reilitas is an old woman. She will turn one-hundred-and-three on the third of next month. Ever since she was a younger and much thinner woman, she has crafted all manner of things from the corpses of beasts that the hunters bring her. She is called “weaver,” though her trade has little to do with weaving. The title is given to all who practice the ancient profession of changing the bodies of beasts into whatever wares the weaver herself, or the hunter, or a client desire.
For decades Reilitas has been famous throughout the desert kingdom for seeing, in each foreign material she is brought, the multitude of new forms it could be made to take. She has changed the ribs of bloated beasts into harps; she has peeled thick hides from the cold bodies of fanged predators and treated them in acids until they are malleable; she has dipped in lacquer distilled from the leaves of hardy desert plants the crystalline eyeballs of monsters made of minerals to be marbles for the children to play with; she has directed the scarred muscular bone cutters as they whittle long sturdy jaws into saw-toothed blades. With the help of young women in flowing white gowns—all of them novice weavers—Reilitas has bound into thick cables the rubbery tentacles of ghoulish leviathans. She sells the goods she has made to merchants who carry them in caravans across the white sand desert that stretches beyond the horizon.
Decade after decade, she has performed this duty for the people of Adamondor, city of marble and alabaster: a thriving metropolis built atop a wide mesa overlooking the white sand desert. Like the governor who dwells in a castle of spacious halls; like the politicians who, in their gleaming spider silk robes, give speeches in the forums, the markets, and the public squares; like the prophetess who sits naked on her marble throne in the temple, making predictions from within a haze of psychedelic smoke; Reilitas heard the terrible earthquake, the thunderous splitting of rock that was the roar of a great chasm opening in the desert.
In the week since the chasm opened, she has heard also the rumors of the titanic snake that is said to have slithered forth from the chasm and that now winds its way between the dunes like a black iridescent river, under the cloudless sky.
Tales of the snake have passed, from caravan to caravan, merchant to merchant, soldier to soldier. Rumors of the Great Destroyer, the snake with lustrous black scales, have entered the bazaars, the barracks, the taverns, the brothels. Even the slaves whisper of the snake, their supposed Great Deliverer, from within their bamboo cages as they are carried on wooden carts across the desert, under the light of the moon.
A month passes as rumors spread across the desert kingdom like fire from the center of a leaf. The merchants in the market—where Reilitas often sits in the shade of the striped awnings—claim that the snake has been seen passing one city after another. Reilitas is skeptical. The merchants sip wine from leather skins and gem-encrusted goblets, and what they spill they wipe with their beards as they talk.
“I am from Claster,” one merchant says as he strokes the lip of his golden cup with a fat, short finger. “I saw the snake myself, beneath the old suspension bridge. Its body filled the canyon.”
Another, fatter merchant claims that the snake has already passed Feandra, the city of his birth. “My sister wrote of it,” he says. “There was once a gleaming lake, full of salt, around which Feandra was built. The lake dried up long before I was born. My sister tells me that the snake was seen curled up in the lake bed, near the monumental broken instrument that once made music from the tides. The snake has since vanished.”
A third merchant, sitting near to the one who has just finished speaking, watches an elegant woman in the dusty crowd; she is wrapped in a fuchsia shawl laced with gold. The merchant waves his hand and says, “The snake will soon be killed. An army of hunters tracks its winding trail in the sand.”
Reilitas listens in silence to these men, these fat, wrinkled, beautifully decorated men, as they discuss how long the snake will survive and how many cities it will swallow before it is killed. It has swallowed none that anyone has heard of. No, it has swallowed not even a village. The merchants agree on this point. Reilitas believes that if the snake does indeed exist, then it will swallow nothing anyone would miss or that anyone desires. She also believes that no hunter will slay it. “Its scales must be hard,” she says, mostly to herself. “Anyway, we should make a poor meal for a snake.” The merchants nod and stroke their beards. They say that the meat on their bones has been salted by the harsh desert winds and is unpalatable. Then they drink and laugh and play dice.
Reilitas is famous even among the great old weavers of the many cities of the desert kingdom. Rumors of her accomplishments can be heard under the traders’ pavilions and in the stalls of the city merchants, where her wares are sold at high prices. Reilitas can change any form into another, these rumors claim. She can work with the hide or bone or oil of any beast at all.
The scarlet fur of the Morath, a jungle cat the size of a horse, is thick and softer than silk. A seasoned merchant in any thronging bazaar will pay for its iron-scented fur with sacks full of gold. The fur acquires its gorgeous scarlet luster from a constant diet of fresh blood. The Morath is known for ripping the limbs from the bodies of its prey before it savors the kill. Seven veteran hunters of the royal court died to bring Reilitas the hide of the most silken, lustrous, blood-thirsty Morath ever seen in the jungle kingdom of Dijiki. From the Morath’s treated skin and its scarlet, blood-scented fur she was commissioned to make alluring lingerie for the princess of Dijiki to wear under her gowns on the day of her marriage to the king of Oleald.
Reilitas used acids to soften the hide; she stitched the skin and lined it with gleaming spider silk. She understood, as she felt the smooth fur of the Morath beneath her palm, that she was treating more than the supple hide of a beast. She was binding together the desires of men; twisting, knotting, stitching them into new, enticing forms. Cutting them to pieces.
She held a seat of honor at the wedding feast. She watched, somewhat uncomfortably, the surviving hunters of the Morath as they ate the wedding feast at less distinguished seats. One man sat awkwardly on his cushion because his leg was missing. Another ate by lowering his face to the plate, like an animal; he had lost both of his arms to the Morath’s fangs. After the feast had ended he laughed drunkenly with his friends, saying that because he had eaten the juicy meat of the Morath, meat made from the meat of his arms—and the legs and eyes and guts of his fellow hunters—he had taken their bodies back from the beast and into himself. “And so I am the predator,” he said before collapsing in a stupor.
The snake has appeared again, first coiled within the comet’s barren crater, then in the marble ruins that fill the delta, and again in the crumbling labyrinth on the plateau. It is a rumor no more. Its black scales are made of impenetrable precious stone, the survivors of its violent attacks say. Spears bounce off its snout. Boulders hurled by catapults shatter on its back. Battalions have left through city gates and never come back. The snake has decimated, with a twitch of its tail and a flick of its black forked tongue, the vanguard of the desert kingdom. The soldiers who relate what has happened—the few—are all who remain. Lately they spend their time in the taverns or sitting by the gutters outside the gates of the barracks.
Reilitas has dreamed of the snake, dreamed of hammering its beautiful onyx scales into ceremonial knives, shields, the faces of clocks. She awakens with images of the snake winding over the horizon vivid in her mind. Inspired and afraid she returns to sleep, listening to crickets chirp in the garden and water trickle from the fountain into a pool dedicated to the two-faced god of change.
The prophetess, in an altered state of mind, has divined that the hunger of the snake is awakening and will only grow. Its desire will become insatiable. It will consume city after city, seeking the perfect meal, until it chokes.
Reilitas remains skeptical. She argues the point in her mind as she slips into the hot, perfumed water of the public baths: no titanic snake would, for a meager meal of humans salted by the desert wind, devour an indigestible metropolis of alabaster or laterite, granite or sandstone.
In time Reilitas realizes that she has misunderstood the snake completely. Everyone has misunderstood the snake. From a royal messenger dispatched to the governor of Adamondor, the citizenry has learned that three days ago the snake devoured the neighboring city of Servidona.
“But the inhabitants were spared,” the messenger says, out of breath. According to survivors, the snake glutted its long, rumbling stomach not on any living flesh but on the buildings: the golden-domed palaces, the spiraling monuments, the clock towers, the ancient crypts of cracked and venous marble. It spat out the bones of these dead, leaving them exposed in the desert like their living descendants.
In Servidona lived a weaver named Orphegen, nearly as skilled as Reilitas. They had been novices together; they knew each other well. Reilitas sits awake all night, deciding that Orphegen must have survived the consumption of her home and then deciding that she must be dead. She shudders at the thought of Orphegen trudging through the empty desert burdened with the knowledge that the snake consumes more cities each day and so, before long, there will be no civilization to which she might flee; there will be no end to the desert.
As the days and weeks pass, reports from the hunters—the few brave enough to follow the snake—claim that its hunger grows. Sometimes it consumes two villages and a harbor in a day. It seeks the capitals, the ancient cities, the monuments built for heroes and for gods. The number of cities in the known world is rapidly diminishing. Reilitas knows it is only a matter of time before the snake appears at the gates of Adamondor, its jaw unhinged to bite off the top of the highest tower—the tower of the bell of the sun god—or to press its fangs through the enormous dome above the ancient rusted orrery.
She regrets what she thought months ago in the bazaar: that the snake would eat nothing that anyone would miss. If she is right and if the snake does consume Adamondor, then she must face a frightening possibility: that nobody had ever cared for this alabaster metropolis, the city of her birth. No one will remember its beauty, its mythic history, when all that remains are fragments of columns, underground pipes, broken-off pinnacles jutting from the pitted sand where once were busy streets.
The Morath gluts itself on blood; the snake that now eats the world gluts itself on history, on memory set in stone.
Even as the number of cities shrinks towards none, when surely the snake will soon appear, Reilitas carries out the chores of her daily life as if the world is not being eaten up around her. She knows no other way to live, and the clients who commissioned her weeks ago have not canceled their orders. Perhaps they have forgotten. Today Reilitas must cleanse a shell peeled from the back of a sluggish isaeib so it can become a politician’s swimming pool. Tomorrow she is scheduled to make a powerful longbow from the tusks of a furry yraso.
In the evening, she sits on her cushion in the workshop and teaches novice weavers her secrets as they slice the hides of giant worms to be wrapped around the hilts of broadswords. The novices are silent these days, silent like the crowds in the bazaar, like the forums and public squares where the politicians once daily campaigned. The silence has become conspicuous. Only the prophetess laughs, in her temple. She refuses to say what she’s seen.
Reilitas has stopped visiting the market because nobody is there. The traders have abandoned their routes; the merchants have lost their stores of goods in the cities that were eaten. Reilitas has taken to reminiscing. Her life is nearly over; she has known this for some time. Now she wonders if the twilight years of her long life will be spent homeless in the desert, as so many people now live. “Like nomads, savages,” she says to the novice weavers, who say nothing in reply because they are going to be homeless too.
Most of the cities in the known world are eaten. The clay brick homes, the mud-spattered stables, and the castles’ fortified walls are swallowed by the snake, but the displaced inhabitants remain. Without the cities’ shapes to define the order of society, citizens begin to forget their distinctions. Barons and vagrants beg together for bread; pimps and priests scavenge the same rubble for pennies. Politicians of opposing ideologies sit under fronds of the same palm tree to keep cool.
Crowds of refugees swell in the streets of Adamondor. These destitute foreigners stare jealously at the nobles, who hide behind sheer curtains in their polished palanquins afraid of the hunger and thirst that now fills old familiar streets.
Food is scarce. The gardens do not produce enough to feed the multitude, and caravans no longer arrive with exotic meats and spices and fruits. Passing an alley lit by a dying fire, Reilitas hears a toothless beggar say to his filthy leprous companion, “If only we could eat bricks like the Great Destroyer.”
The inevitable mob comes soon enough, bearing the inevitable torches and daggers. They drag the nobleman by his beard out of his gilded palace and behead him in his own arcades and his own fountains. They break the nobleman’s cushioned furniture and steal his sacks of gold, his geometric arabesques, his voluptuous daughter, his weathered marble statue. As if these things retain their value in a kingdom without cities. As if they could fill the belly.
Reilitas, leaning over her balcony on a fire-lit night with no moon, clutches tightly her wrought-iron railing as the city guards throttle the thieves and rioters. Throughout city, wherever she looks she finds destroyed the things she has made. The ambassador’s tiled vases are smashed; she had spun them wide to hold his banana trees. The golden automaton in the shrine of the god of prophecy, which she had helped a foreign machinist assemble, has lost all four of its arms, and its topaz eyes have been plucked. A dress that must be her work, woven for a virgin consecrated to the temple, is ripped and fouled in the street.
All at once she realizes that the beautiful things she has made to endure, decade after decade, are ruined and, in the general panic, forgotten. Lost are not only her own works but the works of the revered poets and painters, now burned for warmth; the crafts of ingenious sculptors and blacksmiths, now toppled and used to hold up tents. She weeps over what remains and what is lost.
Old patrons, guardsmen, and even the novice weavers come to warn her that it will be only so long before rogues arrive at her door to make off with her riches. “And leave you for dead,” they invariably finish. But Reilitas cannot bring herself to leave. To where would she flee? The Great Destroyer has eaten, with the monuments and city-states, any hope for safety.
Reilitas cannot decide what to do during Adamondor’s final days. There is no reason to go on living, now that her contributions to the shape of the city’s order have been demolished. The snake will not eat her, and yet its approach fills her with the dread of death. She cannot decide on her last meal or on the robe she wishes to wear in her coffin. She has not gone to see that the novice weavers are still safe; has not left her home in a week. Wanting to keep busy, she has taken to pacing. She still dreams of the snake and the black iridescent luster of its armor. She dreams of recreating the Great Destroyer, scale by scale, in whatever shape she pleases. No other work would renew her spirit and make up for all that she has lost.
As if knowing the desire she has spoken to no one, a hunter arrives at her door one morning with a wooden case containing a scale of the titanic snake. He tells her that the Great Destroyer, in its terrible hunger for ancient and precious stone, attempted to swallow its own tail and choked to death.
Reilitas feels no happiness at the news. The snake has already taken from her everything she was afraid to lose, and so despair and not the snake has for her become the true Destroyer.
She opens the box and inside sees a scale as large as a soldier’s shield. It is glossy, smooth, reflective. She can see each of the wrinkles of her cheeks in the perfect warped finish of the scale. But this scale is not black. It is dark, to be sure, but it is not the onyx mirror she had envisioned in her dreams and that the soldiers and refugees have described. It is milky gray, the color of the eyes of corpses. Reilitas can see through it, as if through smoked glass. “Was it foggy when you plucked it from the body?” she asks the hunter who has placed the box on her marble table.
He shakes his head. “It was black as the eyes of the beast,” he says. He is looking at the scale, as confused as she is.
Reilitas reaches for the scale. She touches it gently with her finger, and a crack spreads from the point of contact. The crack branches towards the edge. The branches branch again, like a map of winding city roads. Finally the scale crumbles, disintegrating into a powdery dust that fills the air. Reilitas waves her hand, and in the sunlight that comes through her window, she can see the dust swirl.
All she has accomplished in her long life has disintegrated too. All of her works: beautiful, practical, ornate, simple, large, small, dangerous; all that she has crafted and all of her fame swirls with the dust in the air. She is old, she feels as old as the city of Adamondor, which will outlive her because the snake choked before devouring it.
What can she leave behind now, so near to the end of her life? For the first time in all of her one-hundred-and-three years, inspiration has abandoned her. She feels the tedium of old age. When the Destroyer’s scale crumbled to dust so did her final chance to leave behind a monument of her own.
She announces to the surviving novice weavers that she will no longer direct the cutting of bones into swords or the stitching of pelts. She no longer visits the bazaar to which the foreign merchants have only recently returned. She now spends her days sitting on benches in the forum, where she does not listen to the speeches of the politicians who promise to oust the homeless of other cities or to feed them without raising taxes; or she sits on the edge of her bed, though she does not look out her window at the alabaster city. She still has full use of her body, and probably will for several years more, but she hardly moves.
With nothing to leave behind, already her name is being forgotten. The snake is being forgotten too. Its body has turned to dust, vanished in the desert wind.
Reilitas has made an hourglass. It is simple, unadorned, and yet to her it is beautiful. She believes it to be the finest thing she has ever made. It is her final creation—not a monument to the generations but a treasure for her alone. She turns the hourglass over and, watching the powdery gray sand fall, she feels a kinship with the snake once called the Great Destroyer. The snake lived by changing the forms of cities into the form of its body. She has changed the form of its body into the form of the hourglass that will count down the last of the many days of her life.
And so I am the Destroyer, she thinks as she watches the gray sand fall from one end of the hourglass to the other. But what, she wonders, has she destroyed? No, neither she nor the snake has truly destroyed anything. They have caused only the changing of shapes.
The glassy sand is all that remains of the Great Destroyer and all of the memories it consumed. The hourglass that houses the sand is to Reilitas beautiful not only because it is the final desire to which she will ever give shape but also because within the glass is contained one fragment of the ruins of entire cities, of the forms men desired to make from stone. The rest now salts the desert wind.