(Reprinted in Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2012, ed. Paula Guran)
Tomai awoke to whispers. Hundreds of whispers. All whispering at once. A whirlwind of soft sound. Whispers in a dozen different languages. On a thousand subjects. Whispers of dark demands. Of heady passions. Of dread and hope. Whispers of anguish and of ecstasy. Whispers so inconsequential as to be forgotten the moment they were whispered. Tomai rolled over and went back to sleep.
He awoke to silence. Silence, and the sound of Ars Lacuna waking up. Autocarriages growled. Book vendors hawked hardcovers. The city was as it always was, and so was he.
Tomai sat on the edge of his bed. His apartment was small. Ten feet on a side. No windows. Layers of parchment enclosed the room. Walls yellowed and tearing. Ceiling shedding like a lizard. Floor worn through.
Opposite his bead was a door. Next to the door was a wash basin. Above the wash basin was a cracked mirror.
A photo hung from one corner. The photo held a girl. Skin the color of hazelnuts. Purple birthmark staining her left cheek. A circle of dark rouge. She was smiling. Tomai stared.
The sun moved, and he grunted. A tall pile of blank pages served as a bed stand. Tomai grabbed a cigarette from the bed stand. He put the paper roll in his mouth. He used his tongue to roll it around. Across his upper lip. From one side of his mouth to the other. Tomai would do this until the cigarette disintegrated. It was what he did every day.
He opened the door. A small pail of water sat in front of him. Small pails of water sat in front of every door. In every hallway. On every level. He grabbed the pail and washed himself in the basin. Spat out the bitter tobacco grit.
He only had one shirt. One pair of pants. No shoes. He brushed his hand along one wall. The parchment was soft with age. He closed the door, walked down the hall, down the stairs, and into the street.
Parchment Run was four blocks away. Nothing to see in between but beggars. Nothing to hear but rapids running. And logs thunking. And blades screeching.
The pole workers shared a common room, a tent, outside of the pulping section of the Run. Poles twenty feet long. Made of a variety of trees. They took up one wall. Misshaped boxes for valuables took up another. They were always empty.
Tomai walked in through a flap.
“Tomai. Did you hear Tomai? An entire debarking team swam into the termite’s jaws. On purpose Tomai!” Kork said pulling at Tomai’s frayed shirt. Kork stood waist high on his tiptoes.
“I can believe it,” Tomai said. He looked for a pine or birch pole.
“Really Tomai? I can’t. Debarkers have sickle bone arms. They can swim better than any trout Tomai! Who’d want to kill themselves with features like that Tomai?” Kork made wild hand gestures.
“I can believe it.”
“Even if they decided, ‘Okay, let’s do this girls,’ they could have come up with a better way. The autoblades would have made short work of them. The paper sizers down the way too. But being hacked up and digested by a bug the size of a city block though! Really Tomai? Can you believe it Tomai?”
Tomai spotted a curved pine pole under a stack of oak. He grabbed it.
“I can believe it.”
Kork squinted. “I’m not talking to you anymore today.”
Tomai dragged his pole through the inside flap. Into Parchment Run. Where the river exchanged a canopy of sky for corrugated tin. Dozens of pole workers were straightening sawn, debarked logs to enter the jaws of the bug. He took an open spot.
“I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it,” Kork muttered next to him. Kork’s pole was special. The only reserved pole. It was thin. Very thin.
Hours passed. Tomai didn’t miss a log. Kork didn’t miss a log. Kork didn’t miss a moment to speak. Tomai didn’t miss his mind.
Above the corrugated tin that enclosed the Run, the day fled. Darkness replaced the light that trickled through holes in the tin. Tomai hardly noticed. The lamps were working tonight.
A woman approached Tomai with a dozen loaves of stale brown bread. She stood between him and Kork, tearing the loaves into chunks and throwing them at the debarkers.
“Tonight,” she said. “Behind Xerro’s. Bring coin.”
The woman walked back the way she came. Further down the Run. Tomai sighed.
Hours passed. Tomai and Kork dragged their poles into the common room.
“Want to go get a drink? Bleeding Antons are only a brass a’piece tonight.”
Kork left without another word. Tomai was thankful. He walked back into the Run.
Xerro’s was downriver. After the pulpers and shapers and cutters. Before the printers and binders and dealers. It sold stationary.
Tomai saw the woman from earlier. He knew this woman. She had helped him before. Every time, a different disguise. Always the same smell of resin.
Ms. Resin was dressed as a secretary. A Brothers Publishing House secretary. Floor length gray skirt. White blouse. Auburn hair loose to the shoulder.
“Coin?” she asked, holding out her hand.
“Parchment?” he asked, holding out his hand.
They exchanged items. Tomai gave her two square copper pieces. A month’s wages for a pole worker. She gave him a dozen blank pages.
“I’m running out of people parchment. There needs to be a new plague. Don’t you miss the brittle pink skinflakes?” Resin disappeared through a tear in the Run’s tin.
It was dark. Staring down, Tomai couldn’t even make out his bare feet. He tucked the pages under his arm and left.
The way home was similar to the way there, but different. Two moonbeams instead of two sunbeams. A dead cat. Someone eating it.
He opened his door with a key he kept on twine around his neck, and bolted it once inside.
Tomai grabbed a candle and a metal pan from under his mattress. He placed one on the other. With the pages still under his arm, he sat down on the wooden floor, lit the candle, and set it in front of him.
The pages were blank, and they weren’t. Color gradients shifted across each page, from cream to tarnished gold. Small lines, like paper veins, crossed and recrossed. A watermark stained the third page.
The watermark was a light purple. Shaped not entirely unlike a circle.
Tomai shook. “My girl,” he said. “My beautiful girl.”