We, As One, Trailing Embers

Issue #147

We two live as one, but also as two when we are able. When night deepens and the park grounds grow quiet, we can let everything else fall away. When night deepens, we each close our eyes and pretend the same thing: we are a single being, we are alone in our body, we make every choice on our own, for our singular self. We pretend there is but one torso rising from this pelvis, only one head and only one heart. There is not another arm or wing to find our selves entangled in, nor another set of our eyes staring at us. In the darkness, there is only one.

With eyes closed, there is a singular heartbeat, a solitary pulse, and when we stretch, there is no we. We becomes a miraculous “I,” and I drift in this place, alone but not lonely. I don’t know what lonely is or could be; it is not a thing we—it is not a thing I know. There is always another, but for here in the quiet dark. Still, I must be careful; if I stretch the wrong way or try to turn over, I am instantly drawn back into the “we” that I actually am. I never sleep on my side, on my belly.

If I wake first, I keep quiet. I listen to the soft breathing at my side and try to match it. Breath for breath, I can hide and pretend the we is still an I. Still a me. But soon enough this illusion is broken; there is a deeper breath, a waking breath, a breath that says “I am back and we are us once more.”

Hazel eyes look upon hazel eyes, and that mouth with its morning-dry lips curls in a smile of good morning. Sleep-warm arms and wings tangle together and we cannot help but burrow closer. Morning was once awful, returning from wherever sleep carried us, coming back to the knowledge of this body, this world. We spend these first moments entangled; it will be all right, no matter what, say these slow caresses. We bend mouths to chests, to foreheads, echoing kisses dropped elsewhere.

These soft touches lead to harder and we come together every time; we share everything from the navel down, there is no way to not share such intimacies. We still marvel at it, two minds sharing an identical physical sensation at the exact same instant; two minds momentarily obliterated by the most intense thing we have known. Until—

There is a man—Mister Hoyt—who would cut us apart.

Mister Hoyt has created the finest freaks within the walls of Dreamland, but we who travel with Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade are new to him, made by means other than his hands. We have been on display in the carnival park the entire spring, a limited engagement before our circus train moves on again. Mister Hoyt comes once every week, to study us . He wears a suit of wool no matter the weather, one fine-fingered hand clasped above his heart. Of his other hand, there is no sign; this suit sleeve hangs empty.  He watches us with glassy eyes that narrow with unfulfilled interest. He studies us because we are not a thing that has been made by any human hand.

We are displayed on an elevated turntable, in broad daylight. Long have visitors to the carnival claimed there is trickery involved, especially when we were displayed within a tent at night, but these assertions were put to quick death when Jackson moved us outside; even Mister Hoyt stopped saying we had been sewn together—he can not stop looking at us, longing for us. No one seems to mind the heat of the sun or the stench of tar and the buzz of saws against lengths of lumber from renovations deeper in the park; they brave most anything to look at us.

The turntable is three feet around, enough to hold us and whatever Jackson means to display us with. Once he assembled a collection of taxidermied two-faced cats at our feet, mounded so high they constantly spilled over the edge; once it was a school of Fiji mermaids dangling on silver wires. They moved as we moved, nauseating in effect. Usually, as now, it is the frame of a cheval glass, within which we stand. Beneath the table, well-muscled dwarfs walk in countless circles to turn us about.

Smoke and mirrors is what they said early on, encouraged by Mister Hoyt, so that others would come see Hoyt’s creations rather than Jackson’s. Now, Jackson plays up the notion of mirrors, because at first glance, one cannot help but think we are a reflection. Today, flawless Beauty’s reflection is that of Beast, while withered Beast gazes upon Beauty with an endless hunger. Only we and Jackson know the truth of it: we are each Beauty and we are each Beast. Only by taking turns can we find the space to breathe and live.

They watch, captivated. Park visitors pay their coin and gather around our turning base, and watch as we rotate through the afternoon. It is summer now and the unbroken sunshine turns our wings to silver and gold. If you know where to look, you can see where we are shaded blue with quiet blood and sometimes the orange of a rousing blush. These hues are secret to most; had by others for another coin.

In the sunshine, only silver and gold, only Beauty and Beast. (Jackson once twined us inside rose vines sharp with thorns; there was a single rose, dark as heart’s blood, held in the cleft of our waist, this for visitors to discover as we turned and turned.) We lift our hands—two without flaw, two withering down to bone—to the heat of the sun, allowing beaded sweat to run down our adjoined torsos. Within that hollow, sweat collects, then rivers down shared belly, shared legs. Some ladies cannot bear the sight—it is reflection only, one man reassures his wife as she turns her face away; she peeks from the safety of his shoulder, but she sees. In her eyes, we see that she understands.

She knows that this is one body, imperfectly and improperly made. She cannot tell if we are male or female, cannot know the flesh that lurks beneath the strip of silk that wraps our waist. She cannot judge by the fall of straight ginger hair, or the four hazel eyes which evenly regard her in return. But she can believe that in the making of us someone made a terrible error. We should have come from the womb separate, yet did not. Our mother, merely flesh and bone they say, was cut open so that we might live. But we think we came from the heavens. We remember a space without space, a world without end. Amen.

Later, this woman comes to our tent, this lady who could not look at us under the clear daylight. In the tent, the air is warm and occluded by the haze of cigars, cigarettes. Men have come, looked, gone, but the lady, she lingers, and without her husband she eyes us with more interest. We bow our heads and say nothing. Here, we cannot yet speak.

Jackson who owns the circus is quick to slither up to her, to stroke a rough hand over the fall of our ginger hair and tell the lady she can have us. Anything here might be had, enjoyed, consumed. We watch her with a kind of hunger, saliva on a tongue, ready to dissolve that pink mouth should it come near enough. Jackson makes his deal, a whisper of paper money between palms, and we guide the lady deeper into the tent. The things we do are not for others’ eyes.

Here, the air feels cooler, the striped canvas covered in the fragmented shade of a tree outside. Here, we lead the lady into a room, where she sits upon a chair of padded velvet; she’s surprised at this chair, this small piece of civilization amid the freaks. Nervous laughter accompanies this word; she d­oesn’t apologize. She smooths her sweaty hands over her dress, over thighs and silken stockings. We watch these hands and her face in the same instant; she radiates want and curiosity, no longer the shame and fear she displayed outside.

We come to stand before her, nudging her knees open with ours. This bold approach surprises her; she sits straighter, drawing her spine in, her breasts out. Where her stockings end, we see the marks upon her, the scars of cigarettes pressed into skin. When we study these, there comes a sharp intake of breath from her. She paid for us, but her touch is slow to come, tentative. She touches a wrinkled arm and our eyes close. The world reduces to a pinprick; in the dark, I am singular, solitary. There is only she and me, the stutter of her damp fingers down my bare arm and then across our belly. This shared sensation is agony, pleasure and pain both because it is not wholly mine, yet within in this communal knowledge there is a doubling of want, of need.

“Which of you is Idalmis?” she asks. Her breath is a warm flutter above the silk that still wraps our waist.

“We are,” we say together, two separate voices that are of a melody together; contralto and baritone.

The woman doesn’t know what to do with this information; that while we have two torsos, we have but one name between us. She looks from one to the other, and it’s not confusion that crosses her features but determination.

Always give them what they pay for, Jackson has told us. They pay for our time, our attention, for the feel of four hands upon flesh. She has touched us, so now we touch her, fingers withered and not plucking at her cotton dress the way she plucks at the silk which hides our secrets away. And then, this silk comes away, and she sees how we are made, and she slides from that civilized velvet chair and takes our soft flesh into her pink mouth, and the world washes away.

We both feel that mouth and ride it to its inevitable end. Dead end, cul-de-sac, the place where all curls into a tight ball before it springs loose once more. And then, we’ve our hands in her hair; four hands and her eyes slit shut and she’s riding her own wave, toward another dead end, an end she never sees coming. Beauty, wanting to be kind but unable, slides fingers into the woman’s gaping mouth and pulls against teeth. Beast can only watch as the body comes apart—withered hands are not strong enough for this violence, withered hands cannot satiate this hunger. Fragmenting flesh blooms like flowers and is eaten petal by petal. Beast eats alone, but Beauty knows the pleasure of this moment even if Beauty cannot partake. Later, Beauty will drink cold white milk and steal bananas from the monkeys; Beauty will peel three bananas and lay them upon our thigh, eating each with five precise bites.

When all is done and the woman’s skin is but a husk we toss into a back room, we clean each other in the shaded tent and step back outside to find Jackson with the lady’s husband. He stands so tall in the afternoon sun, his shoulders broad. His hands look as soft as his wife’s. Is he looking for her? Oh, no. He is looking for Idalmis, and after paper money whispers between palms we lead him into our tent. He smells like the cigarettes he once pressed into his wife’s thighs.

Jackson knows our ways and never speaks of them—everyone hungers after all—not until he comes to our room and tells us the complication. The man was of the law, he tells us, and was looking for us, to question us about a body in New York. There will be others, when they realize he is gone.

There is no horror at this revelation—in Santa Fe, we consumed a priest, and there came others seeking to learn what had become of him. Jackson is not alarmed; there is a glint in his eye because he knows if there is trouble, Beast will swallow it away. Jackson’s hands slide over our hair, the lines of our jaws, the bare expanse of our chests. We lean closer to him; he smells like the underbelly of a rotten house and we have no desire to eat him. But the praiseful stroking is pleasant and when he touches our wings with sure fingers, we shudder. He leaves us in our room, warned and ready for those who will come.

We know that in some places, people store food for times of famine. We have been unable to do this, travelling as the circus does on a train. Our time on this eastern coast will be limited—this carnival park is filled with freaks, and we are a special attraction. We are a limited-time offering; a thing glimpsed and then gone. We have no way to keep those who will come for later. Beast must suffer the gluttony.

At night, hundreds of clear lights illuminate the park, burning like miniature suns affixed to immobile poles. At night, we wander. Everyone stares, thinking this attention goes unseen under cover of darkness.

Mister Hoyt shadows us as we make our way; he carries with him a sweet scent that we know all too well, the scent of fresh meat, and we wonder who and what he has cut apart and created today. We look for him, expecting to find our selves reflected yet again in his glassy eyes, but he keeps well to the shadows tonight and we cannot pick his from among them.

Young boys trail more obviously in our wake, attempting to tread upon our wings which, when we want them to, trail upon the ground. Wing-tips flicker just out of foot’s reach, frustrating the boys to no end. They leap closer; the wing tips flick away, saying no and no and in fact never. Eventually, they give up, standing angry in the middle of the paved street between tents, watching as we vanish into the crowds. A harpy, they decide. An angel, whispers a small girl who passes by on bare feet and vanishes much the way we did.

This park has become home, though it is transient. All things are, in the end. We wander without fear, watching the other freaks and ferals as we often watch our selves. Fire, steel, blood, each of these things is consumed the way others would eat fruit, steak, berries. Nothing is surprising—not even the entire building that houses infants in small boxes that are said to grow them into properly sized people—though everything is captivating. Beast is calmed by the idea that there are such things in the world; Beauty clasps her hands together and frets until Beast unhinges them and holds one.

Beauty wants so much to be good, as good as the little girl who sits within a locked cage. Her mouth gleams with a thousand needle teeth, hands more like talons, but how this girl sits! Legs tucked beneath her, crossed at the ankles. Spine straight. There is no sign of the scale which runs a river down her belly and between her legs; a dress of white lace wraps her up perfectly. She folds her hands into her lap and keeps her teeth behind her lips even when she smiles. Beauty wants to be this magical thing, this animal reined in, trained, without flaw.

Beast wants so much to be awful, to unlock the cage and let the little girl tear her dress to shreds. The gleaming teeth should be shown to the world—people should count them and tremble; the talons should be unsheathed and used to tear the world asunder. The scale which brands her skin should be allowed to breathe under open sky; how it must look running with the river’s waters, with the sun’s light. That dress should be trampled in mud, until it is brown, earthen, gone.

Beast holds Beauty’s hand, and in that heated whisper (please oh please) Beauty hears a thing she cannot deny. Beauty will break open all the things, if only it will silence Beast.

There is no silence. Even in the dark with my eyes closed, I can hear the breath. I breathe in and out and match that rhythm, yet realize what I am doing. There comes a point when I can no longer separate me from the we, and there comes the night when Beauty cannot separate the need to be good from Beast’s need to devour. One seems inherently like the other.

We stand upon our turntable, under the warm sunlight. Today we wear white, not because we feel pure but because we wish we were. There is too much blood between us and Beauty says we must stop. But Beast demands.

Mister Hoyt watches us; we see snatches of our selves within his ceaseless glassy gaze as we turn and turn. His expression is furrowed today; there is a line which runs alongside his nose between his eyes, like a dry river waiting to be filled. We cannot tell if this is a frown, a scar, a line drawn with an ink pencil. We see a similar line beneath his jaw. He becomes a puzzle, fitted together in ways we do not yet understand.

Today we turn amid a thousand paper stars. Beth, who helps keep the circus fed with her sweet marmalades and warm breads, folded them with her clever hands as the train made its journey to this eastern shore. She said this star is what was, this star is what will be, and this star is the future none can know. We cannot have that future, because it’s in the future; we want it now because we are a greedy heart, but it cannot be had. This is why we call it the future; this is why it is always now and never then.

We close our eyes and listen to the rattle of the paper stars as we move through them. Today, we have a mirror made to look like a nebula, painted with whorls of acrylic and oils; these colors begin to run down the white silk we wear, painting patterns of their own accord. We close our eyes and lift our arms and never find our selves entangled within the strings that suspend the stars; we are fluid and like them, distant, removed, something that can be observed but never possessed.

They all want to possess. One man steps past Mister Hoyt and reaches for us, touches the hem of our silk drape. Before he can get closer, before those sausage-fingers can wrap our ankle, he is pushed back into the crowd by our tender. We watch this man; he edges closer again and we bow our heads to get a better look. His eyes are black as pitch; his teeth stained from cigars. His fingers are coarse and stick to the white silk, his head bald and sprinkled with sweat within which we see the globe of the sun, the arc of the sky. There are no clouds.

He wears a gun under his jacket, strapped to him with brown leather. Our fingers long to slide under that leather holster, ease it off and know the tacky feel of his shirt. We suspect within his pocket we would find a badge, and when at last he comes to our tent to solicit our private favors indeed we do find a badge and indeed his shirt is tacky with sweat, with warmth.

“Need to ask you about a man and his wife,” he says, and we don’t know who put him on our trail, because who was there to tell? Someone—Mister Hoyt, ever lurking?—saw the man and his wife, watched them enter our tent and never exit. We make a low sound, something closer to a purr than a hum, and our fingers slide down his shirt buttons, steadily opening each. We cannot say where anyone goes once they leave this place. Beauty wavers. Beast breaks the last button. It flies toward the tent wall, and ricochets off to then furrow into the dirt floor like a bullet. 

“We did not—”

Beast covers Beauty’s mouth with a thin hand. Beauty’s eyes meet Beast’s, and then we look at the man before us. He doesn’t look wary but drugged, like every other who comes to our tent; he is impossibly intrigued at the sight of us, wants to know what lies beneath our paint-stained silk. Wants to know how our breast curves and whether we are concave or convex in all the proper places. His mouth says either is fine, divine, sublime. Whenever anyone looks into our eyes, they fall through the brown and the gold and land in the black.

“We did not.”

These are the only words, lies though they are. Beauty carries a plea with every glance, but Beast cannot obey. Beast must suffer the gluttony

There are but two hands participating in this destruction, weakened yet resolute; Beauty caves inward while Beast gorges. We need to stop; we cannot stop. We need to find another way; for us this is the only way. We need to stop. We cannot stop. Perhaps you need to stop, but you are not you; you are we, and we are starving.

We fold his shirt and set the holster atop it when we are done. The shirt is dried of sweat now, crisp, and the gun smells like oil. His skin pools on the ground like empty trousers. We lick the blood from each other, slow like we are waking up and the carnival stands around us in silence. In truth, there is a tremor of sound just beyond the canvas walls. So too there is a small shadow. An eye peering through a tattered hole. Our breaths catch.

The old canvas tears easily beneath our hands, no talons required. Like the girl in her lace, we are unleashed from the tent’s confines, streaking after the small form who flees, who saw too much. Its small feet stutter across the ground behind the tents, but then we have scooped it—her—into our four-arm embrace and she shrieks. This terrible sound vanishes beneath our mouths—Beauty has no hunger but knows that this secret cannot escape. We swallow ragged mouthfuls till we choke, till blood streams our chins, splatters our chests. Everywhere, we are flushed red with terror and anger and so too lust. It is a momentary glimpse of a hunt, a life we perhaps lived before we were bound into this shared flesh.

We destroy, consume, and cough it all back into the grass. When done, there is nothing left that resembles the young child who peered through tattered canvas. Perhaps five strips of skin splay as a hand might have, but no—no, we will not see that. There are only our shaking hands, fluttering wings, and a screech flying from our mouths. What have we done? Not what we must. Beauty pulls, claws, pummels, but cannot escape Beast.

In the warm dark, at last we rest. We do not touch; we lay as still as we are able, arms crossed over chests, wings carefully folded beneath. There is one breath, because one other is held. Lungs flutter still; body waits, poised. And then a hand across a belly. Breath comes once more. Hitched this time, unmatched. Fingers slide down shared belly, between shared legs, and curl. Soft, as if saying come on come on. Beauty wants to go, wants to come undone, and Beast refuses, but in the end, cannot. In the dark, there is a gasp. Ours, as it ever was.

We twist amid a forest made of shining metal willows today, hand-cut by Foster, who always smells of metal, of money and train tracks. Mister Hoyt has returned to watch us. He talks to us today as the crowd is thinner, less interested. His interest never wavers.

It is a simple severing, he says, and he gestures as men of the world do (with prejudice, with agency, with insistence), to the juncture between us, where waist dips into waist. Mister Hoyt wants to break us as he might a cracker, easily in two as if we were never one. We have but two legs, we remind him, and he dismisses this with a wave. One of you shall have the legs, and one of you shall have a construct. This is disagreeable, we tell him, and he gestures to the valley between our legs, eyes narrowing as the silk which wraps us folds and bulges by turn. This is disagreeable, he tells us. This is us, we tell him, and we vanish behind trailing metal leaves to emerge a moment later, wings unfurled. He steps back, cowed. The small crowd murmurs in wonder. Can we fly, they always want to know.

We tried in our distant youth to rocket our selves into the sky. We fell more than once. We tried from the ground, from a cliff, from the very tree tops. We bruised elbows, knees, wings. If I severed you, he tells us as we circle more trees, you could fly. But we would never be whole, we say, and our hands slide down our chests, across metal tree trunks and shining leaves, to make each shimmer. False tree, faux angel, he watches us and wants to break us. When he offers Jackson double for our time, Jackson does not deny him. We are beautiful and beastly and why shouldn’t he receive double every time?

“Jabberwock,” Mister Hoyt calls us when he circles us within our tent, as if he can still figure out how we are made, how we have been joined into one imperfect flesh. The lines upon his face seem eased today, but are there in memory. “Hell needs its angels, too.”

His hands are fine and strong and they slide over our arms, over the braided confines of our hair. His fingers dig into Beauty, to send ginger hair spilling. He doesn’t spill Beast, and later, when Hoyt is bent and broken upon the ground, Beast’s single braid that flips down a bare shoulder gives him a handhold; Hoyt clings, pulls, until his hand spasms and opens, until it goes limp as the rest of him.

“Twas brillig,” we tell him.

We gyre and gimble, streaking the canvas walls with blood in our haste.

Park officials notice when Mister Hoyt goes missing—Hoyt was one of their finest fleshcrafters, they say; he would not simply leave without word when he had done such quality work within the carnival park’s walls. The three-legged burlesque dancer; the bearded hippopotamus, the man whose every finger and toe tells the time in a different country, the miniature lady (aged twenty-seven) who can sleep in a teacup!

They question Jackson, ask of his company of freaks. Jackson is all cool denial despite the warmth of the day. The air carries with it the scent of tar; Mister Hoyt’s new exhibit is close to finished, a place where people can ride boats through Hell itself and laugh at having escaped afterward. Hoyt wanted us to be a demon, the officials say; he came for us, they say, and now he cannot be found.

Once they have gone, Jackson comes again. It was never a problem, Beast’s appetite, until we found our selves in this stagnant place, this world within a world, he says. Before, the train would come and go and our performances were fleeting, but now that we are the main attraction that people flock to, our beautifully strange ways are more closely observed. Jackson will never, he says, lose us, let us go, abandon us, leave us behind, kick us out, but here—

he leans in, pulls our mouths close, and kisses us hard, his tongue forked between our lips

—here, he says, we must be more careful. We cannot do what we naturally must. In his eyes, we see all things: we see the train stretching ever out, across this land and others we do not understand; we see Jackson alone and surrounded, we see him bent and broken and young and tall; we see him leaving us (oh he said he would never) and we see our selves flying. You can fly if you show patience, he tells us.

Patience is not our gift.

We go to Mister Hoyt’s Hell Gate because we cannot resist knowing. We walk through the illuminated buildings and into the dense red glow that beckons from the park’s center. These bulbs have been coated in red paint and it throws everything, including us, into a strange glow. This building is larger than we guessed it would be, but then the underworld is large, vast. It must be, to hold all the dead. Its entrance is a yawning arch like a mouth, with a river instead of a tongue within; there are small boats to tightly hold two through Hell’s journey. The air smells heavily of pitch here and the lights sizzle with warmth in the night’s cool air.

Within the mouth of the gate into the underworld, we see the child. The child who watched us through the tent’s canvas. Something lurches inside us, for this is impossible—the dead do not come back, no matter what stories say. Yet here stands this child, reassembled with clumsy hands; her leftover skin shows the trespass of not needle and thread but the imprint of broad, strong fingers. Behind her looms Hoyt, the lady and the lawman, and countless others. These dead have been remade.

Mister Hoyt does not wear his woolen suit tonight but stands before us naked, his skin a riot of lines that mark the passage of hands, blades, magic. Within this body, we see our selves: a being that is not necessarily male or female, a being that has been severed in two—the way he would have done us. A simple severing; we can hear the words echoed as his fine fingers stroke over the line that mars his hip, the line that once dipped into a separate waist. Behind him, we see that there had always been two. Here stands the other Mister Hoyt, the part he cut away, rising from hips and legs that have been constructed of abandoned skins, bones, lashed metal.

Beauty wants so much to be good.

Beast wants so much to be bad.

We dig our feet into the ground, and from our center we pull—we pulled this way in our youth, trying in vain to part our selves. It is no easier nor more possible now. We are a solid flesh, a thing that cannot be parted no matter how we think we wish it. One would have legs and one would have a construct, and this is as disagreeable as the Hoyts who stand before us. We approach him and our feet print the ground; the grass has not grown because of the construction; there is soft dirt and stones and the debris of building this Hell Gate.

The little girl fashioned from her leftover skin bolts at the sight of us. She screams and flees into Hell and the lady with her cigarette-burned thighs follows. The men regard us with even stares, but though dead their eyes have not lost the sheen of lust for whatever it is we are. Angel or demon, perhaps we are not a thing to be named, all desires being equal in the warm dark. Even so, they withdraw, leaving only the Hoyts before us. The mister we have known smiles, mouth slightly crooked from however he has been pressed back together. He extends his hands to us; they are strong still but coated in blood and tattered flesh, the signs of his trade. Sometimes, he says, a thing must be sacrificed so it may properly live.

And who deems proper? we wonder. Mister Hoyt smiles again and lunges. Hell will have its angels—or its demons. Fine lines and distinctions, things we have never drawn but others always do. We turn our shoulder to him and our broad wings catch the brunt of his impact. Though these wings have never carried us into the sky, they are strong and living and bear him backward, toward the river which snakes from the mouth of Hell. His severed twin cannot move quickly at all; this Hoyt mewls pitifully as we stride past. This is what he would make of us? How he would separate and reduce?

We are accustomed to working quickly, within the shadows. We are accustomed to silencing our prey so that none come running, and we are upon Mister Hoyt before he can cry out. But Hoyt has been remade by his own hands—be they his own or his twin’s. His crafted flesh is a thing we do not understand, for it comes apart beneath us. He seems many creatures in one, leftovers bound into a whole; they part, they scamper, they reassemble deeper along the river’s path. We pursue the gleaming trails in the red light, the twin’s mewling growing ever more distant.

Deeper, the halls smell of sulfur and of the hot glow of the glass lights. Mister Hoyt sucks himself back together and flees deeper into Hell’s ever-branching caverns. He keeps to the illuminated river bank, the freshly-sealed channel below ready to be flooded by the Styx.  It is here, when he turns to gauge our distance in pursuit, that his remade body staggers into a row of lighted bulbs.

The glass shatters and there is a brilliant flare as filaments and shards rain into the fresh tar. There need be only a single spark—the tar comes to quick fiery life. The fire is faster than us or Hoyt; his newly crafted skin browns under the heat as though he is made of bread. The fire appreciates the lines which mark him, running like water to fill every empty valley.

The burning Mister Hoyt lurches into our arms, begging. While he pulled himself apart moments before, the fire seems to be fusing his flesh into a solid lump, now incapable of escape. His tongue can barely form words before a snake of fire slides into the open hollow of his mouth. He tries to turn toward the river, to fling himself into its watery salvation but there is no water to be had, nor salvation in Hell.  We hold him even as the flames stretch covetous fingers toward our wings. No, we tell him, and while Beauty sobs, Beast roars.

Bit by bit, we feel our selves becoming ash. Small pieces of us lift into the inferno: skin, wings, a string of freckles once tongue-traced in the early morning quiet. Around us, the fire spreads along every fresh line of tar in the hollow of the river channels, deeper through the caverns  like some far-ranging sea creature that will devour all in its path. These arms of flame surge through the entire park, to ignite buildings, trees, tents. We can hear the screams and they sound so distant, but they are our own as the flames wrap us the way silk once did. They curl around our shoulders, our waist, to lick the cleft between, and tell us that sometimes a thing must die before it can live.

Beauty arches under the heat and tries to pull away. Beast crisps up, ephemeral dough, unable to pull with arms so withered. A simple severing, so simple, yet Beauty grasps a wasted hand that grasps in return, and pulls. Pulls us upward out of Hell and into the ashy air where we, as one trailing embers, fly.


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E. Catherine Tobler knows something about walking tightropes, working as both an editor and writer. Her fiction has appeared in in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including four stories set in her traveling circus universe. In June, The Kraken Sea, a novella set in this circus universe, will be available from Apex Book Company. Follow her on Twitter @ECthetwit or her website, www.ecatherine.com.

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Comments & Scrivenings
6 Comments on “We, As One, Trailing Embers”

6 Responses to “We, As One, Trailing Embers”

  1. Scott H. Andrews says:

    A blog post from the author explaining the genesis of “We, As One, Trailing Embers”:

    http://ecatherine.com/we-as-one-trailing-embers/

  2. […] “We, As One, Trailing Embers“, E. Catherine Tobler […]

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  4. […] Strange Horizons (July): Time is a circle, someone once said. We, As One, Trailing Embers, Beneath Ceaseless Skies: Conjoined twins live a tug-of-war life, one enduring what the other requires. Migratory Patterns […]

  5. […] “We, As One, Trailing Embers“, E. Catherine Tobler […]

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