When I was a girl living in the Hollows, a dog bit me in the leg so deeply that I could see bone through the blood.
My mother brought me to the apothecarist in her arms. I was bleeding heavily, fever already making me thrash and howl. The apothecarist told my mother that my leg would have to be removed before the dog’s filth could corrupt me. The dogs came from somewhere deep down in the Hollows, further than where we refugees lived, and on bad nights they would come out and hunt. Children got bitten every year, but the dogs never made it up to the Turrets, so the King did nothing.
It’s how it is, the apothecarist explained, and then tried to sell her a salve.
If my mother had just cut off my leg, then she’d still be here. But my mother was a surgeon-scholar in Oxos before she became just another refugee in the Castle. So she turned our little apartment into a small hospital. For thirty days and thirty nights she picked apart the poisons in my wound with her fingernails and her scalpels, and when that was done, she sewed me back together.
She needed for her daughter to be whole, after what she’d lost to get me here in the first place.
I dreamed of impossible things during that time. I could hear dogs panting beside me, could sense their terror and their hunger mirroring my own. I saw livid yellow eyes staring back at me from the dark of the Hollows, and I wondered if it was only my reflection. I dreamed I could see in the dark.
When I woke up and I saw the strange thing my mother had made of my leg, I began to cry. My mother, though, was delighted. She looked unrecognizable to me, her hair risen in a wild cloud around her face, new streaks of silver running through. She was too thin, and I learned later that she had spent nearly all our coin on sedative broths from the apothecarist.
“Lazy, prideful man,” she said, as she made me drink another foul brew. “He told me it couldn’t be done, but look. You’ll walk again, on both your legs. This is the way we learned in Oxos.”
“Will you tell me about Oxos?” I asked, hopeful. My mother only rarely spoke of Oxos and my father. I had learned to take every rare opportunity.
“Not today, seashell,” she said, and soon the broth put me to sleep again.
When I was well enough to walk, my mother took me back to the apothecarist, so that she might grin and boast of her success in healing me. The apothecarist lived up in the Turrets, but he made his living selling poorly made poultices and wilting herbs at a high price to desperate refugees in the Hollows. As soon as he saw me, he shot to his feet.
“What have you done, woman?” he hissed.
“Only what I was taught, sir,” said my mother scornfully. “My daughter has need of some remedies to bring up her strength. Will that be within your ability?”
I’d never seen a man more furious. My mother was a short woman standing barely above five feet, but in that moment, she seemed to tower over him.
“You need to learn your place,” he said through gritted teeth. “You may have staved off her fever for now, but the dog’s filth still festers in her.”
My mother was unconcerned. “As you can see with your own eyes, sir, my daughter is cured. Will you sell me the remedies or not?”
At first, I was sure he would order us to leave. But after a moment, his anger appeared to fade. His lips contorted into a smile, and the flash of malice in his eyes chilled me more than his fury had.
He sold my mother what she asked for, though at a far higher price than the remedies were worth. That awful smile stayed fixed to his face.
My mother never said a word to me, but she squeezed my hand as we left, as if telling me to be brave.
Every time I visited the Turrets, I was struck by the abundance of light. In the Hollows, we lived with the Turrets curled over us, keeping us in its shadow. No one knew how deep the Hollows went, just as no one knew how high the King had built the Turrets.
I felt lost in those wide clean streets, and whenever I tried to make out how tall the towers were, I could see no end to them. The tip of the Turrets disappeared into clouds. Only kings and doves went there.
After my injury, my mother found work as a laundry woman in one of the households of the Turrets. When I was strong enough to help, she put me to work. We strung the clotheslines on hooks laid into the glittering white stone of the Turrets, and in the unobstructed sun, the clothes dried smelling sweet and clean. I wished my clothes had ever smelled like that.
One day, I paused in the middle of my scrubbing to stare into the sky. The sun had gone behind the Turrets, throwing a long thin shadow that seemed to stretch forever. Thick clouds wreathed the tip of the spire, and every now and then I caught a flash of lightning, and then the low rumble of distant thunder.
“What’s up there?” I asked my mother.
“The hubris of a wicked man,” she said with a bitter smile. She often said such things about the King where anyone could hear her. My mother always thought that having restraint and humility was beneath her. This only made her enemies, and it was dangerous to have enemies in the Hollows. The King’s knights came through frequently, and they arrested anyone who they argued had disrupted the King’s peace.
It was the apothecarist, in the end, who called the knights to our door.
My mother answered when they knocked and spoke to them in the doorway. I heard when they told her that they were taking her away, because she started shrieking obscenities at them. There were two of them, hulking in their glittering armor. They dragged my mother away as she struggled and swore at them, spittle flying from her mouth.
I’d never seen her like this, feral and frail, her pride stripped from her. One of the men struck her across the face with an armored hand. She went quiet, then.
“Amma!” I cried out, and the knights turned to me immediately. I stood frozen in the doorway as one of them came to me and crouched.
“You’re the dog brat, are you?” he said. He seemed to find something about it amusing.
I couldn’t say anything. He repeated himself, this time in Oxosi, which I didn’t understand. Again, I said nothing.
“Leave her,” the other knight said. “We can always come back.” He lifted my mother onto his shoulder, where she hung limply. The knight kneeling in front of me gave me one last smile, then got up to leave.
They took her away, and the Turrets swallowed her up.
Oxos surely was never like this.
My mother almost never spoke of Oxos, and so every detail she shared was precious to me. In Oxos, she said, bougainvillea climbed up all the walls, and that was where the spirits of our grandmothers lived. Oxos had medicine and music. The ocean caught the light and turned it clear and blue, and when my mother and father were young, they sat on the clean sands and let the sunset make tall portraits of their shadows.
They didn’t know yet that the walls of the city would fall. They didn’t know that they would have to flee a war across those waters, a voyage my father wouldn’t survive. My mother brought me to the Castle alone, and now she too had been stolen from me. All I had left of her were stories.
With my mother gone, my fever returned. It boiled in my blood and skin and refused to lift. I spent the next days curled on my mother’s mattress, sweating out the fever, fighting down fury at what the knights had done.
I could feel my bones shifting strangely beneath my skin, like some other shape of me was in there, aching to be set free. I would wake up from these fever dreams with blood beneath my fingernails, gouges torn into the skin of my arms and legs.
Eventually, I had to get up. I lied to the household in the Turrets about my mother’s absence and took over her laundry job. During the day I washed clothes, and at night, my rages would come.
I began to live as if I’d never had a mother at all.
When I passed by his shop, the apothecarist nodded at me. He came out once onto the stoop to ask me how I was, all kind smiles and smug concern. He asked me where my mother was. It was obvious that he knew the answer already. I felt all the bones in my body light up as if they were pressing like coals beneath my skin. There was a moment, a white searing moment, when I almost lunged at him and tore out his throat with my teeth.
I think he saw it in my eyes. Perhaps he saw them flash yellow for just a moment. He flinched, retreating into the doorway, and I hurried away before he could come back and call the knights to me.
My mother’s letter arrived three weeks after she was taken away, tied to the leg of a dove. It was written in Oxosi. I could recognize my name addressed on the first line, and her name signed on the last, but between that was a mystery. My mother had never taught me the old tongue.
I don’t know what broke me first—the grief or the rage.
The family who lived below me heard the howling, heard me clawing at the walls. They thought for certain that I was dead and that a dog had somehow gotten in and eaten me. When they opened the door and found me, my torn clothes, my livid yellow eyes, and the inhuman bend to my spine, I’m sure they wished I was dead after all.
I could hear them debating what to do with me, like I was a rabid animal that had to be put down. In my fever, I had nearly destroyed the entire apartment, smashing furniture and dishes. Somehow, my mother’s letter remained intact.
It was Tamar Auntie who argued that I was a girl, not a dog. She smacked her sons—both of them grown men—on the sides of their heads for daring to raise their voices against her, marched into my apartment, and demanded to know what was wrong with me.
“Amma’s letter,” I told her, through tears. “I can’t read it. I don’t know where she is.”
She snorted. “Is that all? Show it to me.”
I gave her the letter, only because she frightened me. Tamar Auntie read it to herself under her breath first, the letter raised almost right up to her clouded eyes.
“They’re directions to the top of the Turrets,” she said. “Where only kings and doves go.”
I shivered, and Tamar Auntie murmured a prayer against evil. I asked her to translate the letter out loud for me so that I could write it down, and she did, pausing every now and then to cluck with disapproval at my mother’s untidy penmanship.
Past the scaffold on the third ring. One hundred-twenty degrees clockwise. Look for the fountain with eight and a half carved frogs. Climb two stories to the fourth ring. Sixty degrees counterclockwise. Find the unfinished statue of the woman with a spear. Climb her scaffold one story to the fifth ring.
The letter continued on from there. It was a clever way to give directions to the top of a very tall spire. I would have appreciated it more, perhaps, if I didn’t miss my mother so much.
“Does she say if she’s all right?” I asked.
“She doesn’t. But I believe she wants you to find her.” Tamar Auntie grew thoughtful. “Perhaps when you go, you’ll find my grandson. Perhaps you’ll find my niece. The King took them too.”
It was a common enough story in the Hollows to not surprise me.
“Why does he take them?” I asked. “What does he do with them?”
“How should I know?” said Tamar Auntie with a shrug. “Keeps them somewhere empty and cold. Makes them carve stone from his mines. Makes them build him towers in the Turrets. Feeds their livers to his doves. Throws their bodies into the ocean.”
I could barely breathe. I couldn’t imagine any of these terrible fates for my mother. I couldn’t imagine her body, broken and skeletal, dashed on the rocks of the ocean cliffs.
“But she’s a healer,” I whispered.
Tamar Auntie gave me an assessing look, like she was trying to decide how kind to be with me. “Then she might still be alive,” she said. “I’ve heard the King desires godhood, and that’s why he builds his tower higher. Perhaps he thinks your mother can help.”
“Godhood?” I asked with horror. “That’s what he wants?”
“Your mother,” said Tamar Auntie, “never told you anything about Oxos, did she?”
I could only shake my head, and for a second, rage tried to steal me away before I stamped it down. Tamar Auntie suddenly looked very tired and very old. In a low whisper, she told me what the King did to Oxos.
The walls of Oxos fell to treachery and civil war, she said. But the fires that burned through the city were set by the King’s knights. They marched into Oxos to quell the uprisings, to reinstate peace and order, and to tear down the new People’s Parliament before it could take root.
Each knight held a torch in one hand and a sword in the other.
The King’s knights walked through the ruins of the city, but they ignored any pleas for help. They only seemed interested in rescuing books and artifacts from the fires—fires they had set themselves. This was what Tamar Auntie saw.
In the past, Tamar Auntie told me, the rulers of Oxos had lived for hundreds of years. The legends said the surgeon-scholars found a way to open the heavens and gift godhood onto those chosen. But that knowledge had been hidden away a long time ago, guarded in secret by a select few.
What could the knights be after, Tamar Auntie reasoned, if not the secret of godhood to present to their King? Why else would they concern themselves with the plight of Oxos if not to pillage her treasures?
Tamar Auntie’s house in Oxos had been big enough for her sisters, and their children, and their children’s children. She told me of the old tree in the center courtyard, the leaves broad and wide enough that when they fell, the little ones would use them to sweep up dust and dance in it.
The day the walls came down, the King’s knights came and set the tree on fire, and its burning boughs caught the rest of the house. Tamar Auntie’s daughter had still been inside when the roof fell in.
A man like the King deserved only one fate.
When the King’s knights finally came for me, it was Tamar Auntie who stood in the way of their swords. Her sons, thus obligated into self-sacrifice, jumped in front of her a second later, and this caused such a stir that I was able to sneak away with my mother’s letter in my hands.
It granted me a head start. Nothing more.
I avoided the knights easily enough in the Hollows, taking shortcuts through the tunnels carved into the mountain that they didn’t know about. I made it up the stone steps and ran into the Turrets.
There, I was at a disadvantage. I wasn’t familiar with the streets, and there were more knights all too willing to chase down an Oxosi refugee girl who clearly didn’t belong. They caught me easily, and one of the knights grabbed my wrist, the metal of his gauntlet cutting into my skin. He wrenched me back, and the pain and fear seized my throat.
I broke cleanly in half, both body and soul, and something else slipped through.
The next thing I knew, I had blood in my mouth, all over my clothes, my hands. The street was empty, and I was crouched over three dead knights, their throats spilling out onto the stone. I had killed them.
I stumbled to my feet, my spine unbending as my form shifted back, and I ran. I ran to the house in the Turrets where my mother had worked. I found the hooks set in the stone where we hung the clotheslines. This was what she had set as the start of the path. I stole a clean dress hanging from the lines, and I began to climb.
I climbed for a very long time. Third ring. Fourth ring. Fifth ring.
The higher I climbed, the more apparent it became that the Turrets had been designed by a madman. If I hadn’t had my mother’s letter, I’d have gotten lost in the labyrinth of abandoned courtyards, neglected gardens, and the dense jumble of scaffolding holding it all together. As soon as my body began to ache, my mother’s letter described a place to rest. The ledge by the nymph. The beginnings of a stone stairway. The vine crested archway. Sleep there, seashell.
Eventually, I stopped feeling tired. I stopped feeling hungry. The fever rose in me, giving me an unnatural strength even as it burned the rest of me away—as it hunched my spine and lengthened my teeth.
Amma, what was I becoming?
My mother never taught me Oxosi. I believe this was a source of secret shame for her.
She should have spoken it to me when I was young enough to grasp it myself, but she never did. I found her journals and letters once, the ones she managed to take with her during the fall of the city. I puzzled over the writing; the tangled, unfamiliar script.
She told me the letters were from my father, from when he courted her. Then she made me put them away.
The only story my mother ever told me of the fall of Oxos was how I had been born. My mother liked to repeat this particular story to me when she thought I was misbehaving. She told me about the sea voyage, that grim passage over cold waters, and the storm that drowned my father.
She told me how she went into labor early in her grief and gave birth to me somewhere in the open watery space between two lands. She cut the umbilical cord herself using my father’s belt knife. One of the other refugees dripped honey onto my mother’s fingers, and she pressed her fingertips to my lips to give me my first taste of sweetness. I had no fathers or uncles or grandfathers in attendance, so it was my mother who said the prayers of welcome into my right ear. It was the last time she spoke the old tongue to me.
As I climbed the Turrets, I read my mother’s letter so many times that I began to decode the words. I could understand the sequence of numbers, the pattern of my mother’s instructions, her descriptions of the Turrets. I could mark the words that repeated themselves, and I could see what they meant. In her own way, my mother was finally teaching me how to read Oxosi. She had written me a bridge, and I was meant to follow.
Tenth ring. Eighty degrees counterclockwise. Place your foot in the mouth of the one-eared elephant and climb. Reach the southwest scaffold on the eleventh ring. Twenty degrees clockwise. Climb two stories until the fifth carved rooster. Twelfth ring. Twenty degrees counterclockwise.
My mother’s instructions never steered me wrong. The leg that she had healed never failed me.
On cloudy days, I could see nothing at all through the thick mists, and I only marked my way by the half-painted murals and misshapen statues that kept watch on the way up to the top of the Turrets.
On days with fair weather, I could see all the way down to the Hollows, its tight warren of narrow streets draped in the oppressive shadow of the Turrets. But above, no matter how hard I tried, I could never make out where the Turrets ended and the sky began.
I found the body on the sixteenth ring.
Doves scattered as I got close, their beaks stained with old blood. She was curled up on a ledge, her limbs bent at impossible angles. Her hair was blown across her head, and I didn’t move it back to look at her face. She had fallen, or jumped from somewhere above—I did not know which.
She wasn’t my mother. She was too tall, her hair the wrong color, her skin a shade too dark. Perhaps she was Tamar Auntie’s niece. She was certainly someone’s daughter, someone’s niece, someone’s mother. And here she was, high in the Turrets, so far away from what used to be her home that she was hardly in the same world at all. Just like me.
My mother had written nothing about this body. It had not been here yet when she had come through.
I stayed by her side for as long as I could bear. I could offer her no funeral rites, or say anything to lay her to rest. The only thing I could do was keep the doves off of her for another hour or two.
The longer I had climbed the Turrets, the less human I had become, and now the fever took over for good, turning me into a wild creature identical to the one that had first hunted me in the Hollows. I howled my grief and my rage on that ledge, and perhaps the people in the Turrets heard me. Perhaps the King heard me. Good. Let him hear. Let him know I was coming for him. I would tear out his throat with my teeth before he had any chance at becoming a god.
As I climbed away, the doves descended on her again.
I had almost reached the end of my mother’s instructions when the King’s tower pierced the veil of the sky and let lightning through.
The sound was deafening. Bolts of lightning struck the tower one after another, followed immediately by the roar of thunder. The tower shook and swayed, and I clung to a stone pillar, fearing that all of the Turrets would break into pieces. The sky grew dark, and from my vantage point, I saw the darkness spread out into the horizon, blotting out the day.
Great pieces of the tower broke off from above, magnificent spires and cleaved walls of stone crashing down around me, falling into the Castle below. It seemed the King’s quest for godhood had brought calamity down upon the Castle. I wedged myself between the forepaws of a griffin, its wings still barely carved from the stone, and it kept me safe.
I don’t know how long wrath rained down. I tucked myself up against the griffin, protecting myself from the dazzling flashes of lightning and the shuddering quake of thunder. I kept waiting for the tower to fall, but the Oxosi hands that built it had built it well.
Eventually, it went quiet. Even the wind stopped.
Cautiously, I left the griffin’s protection and surveyed the damage. Lightning had shattered stone and set fire to everything that could burn. I looked up, and for the first time, I could see where the Turrets ended, for the top had been blasted away.
Where was my mother? Was she safe?
I climbed the rest of the way in a blind panic, not even consulting my mother’s instructions. When I reached the top of the tower, I found what remained of the King’s throne room. It was my first time inside the main structure of the Turrets, as my mother’s instructions had sent me skirting the edges, climbing amongst the scaffolding where I wouldn’t be seen. For the first time, I saw the tremendous arches, the carved pillars, the ruby red tiles.
The air was thick with the smell of burnt flesh. The King’s knights all lay dead, their charred remains smoking in their armor. The metal they wore had drawn the lightning to them, and it had set them on fire. The only survivors of the blast were a huddled group of Oxosi captives, all working to free each other from their bonds.
The sky above simmered. There was still more reckoning to be had.
I looked for my mother, and I saw her at the foot of the throne, standing over the King. He was still alive, and he was still only a man. He sat in his seat, sweat pouring from his temples, his eyes wide with fear. My mother spoke to him, and as I watched, the King took off his crown and handed it to her. Without hesitating, my mother flung it from the Turrets. As soon as she did, the sky grew calm.
In all the chaos, that moment went unnoticed. I was the only one watching my mother reason with the King. I wondered what had happened between them in the weeks past. I wondered if my mother would ever tell me, or if this would be just another secret from her life that she would never share.
Blood pounded furiously in my head, filling my vision with red. I could hear myself snarling, my new form clamoring for violence. For days I had climbed the Turrets, and the only thing that had kept me from falling was the thought of the King’s blood spilling. He should pay for it all—for taking my mother, for drowning my father, for keeping us in the Hollows and stealing us one by one.
A child’s life in the Hollows was worth less than a dog’s. So here I was.
I bounded across the throne room, advancing on the King. There were shouts of confusion and fear upon seeing a dog from the Hollows at this highest peak of the Turrets.
My mother spun to face me, my father’s belt knife in her hand. Its curved blade and carved hilt were familiar to me. It was the only belonging of my father’s that we had kept. It was the same knife that my mother had used to first sever my body from hers.
She pointed this knife at me.
As soon as her attention was turned from the King, I saw him reach into his robe. I lunged forward and bit off his hand with my teeth. He screamed in pain and kicked me away. His scream rang out across the ruins of his throne room, and the other captives paused in their panic to watch.
My mother looked down at me. I had come this way for her. I wished she could recognize me. I wished I could tell her what I was. I wished I could speak. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t even ask her to lower her knife.
“Filth,” the King said, clutching his bleeding arm. “Look what spawns from your Oxosi filth. Your people bring nothing but pestilence and barbarity to my Castle.”
“We built your Castle,” said my mother calmly. “You wouldn’t have a throne without us.” She was still looking at me as she spoke, like the King was below her notice.
My mother lowered the knife and knelt by my side, putting her hand on the side of my face. Under her touch, I soothed, some of that red rage dimming. My mother looked into my eyes, and recognition came—along with horror and grief and even awe.
“I know you,” she said. “Daughter. My seashell.”
“This is your daughter?” the King said with a laugh.
A growl gathered in my throat at the sound of his amusement. I could smell his blood in the air, I could taste it in my mouth. I wanted to stop him from laughing, so I snarled and lunged for him.
“No, seashell,” my mother gasped, and she took hold of me so that I couldn’t move. She curled her body over me, covering my eyes and ears so that I could not see or hear the King anymore. All the red vanished from my vision.
“You mustn’t,” my mother said to me, pressing her entire weight on me to keep me cradled in her lap. “Let the heavens make their judgment on him, if they so choose. Let the doves come for him. You and I are together now. Let’s go home.”
I couldn’t stop shaking. I didn’t know if I was changing back, or dying, or both. I found that I knew how to cry again, and so I did, pressing myself into Amma’s embrace.
“Let’s go home,” I said.