Three women cold like Fates huddled into the cobblestone corner, beneath melting amber lamps that shone sweet upon a light dusting of snow. Seven soldiers strode past them. Each held a spear made from water, liquid held taut and sharpened by the hand of a mystic. The lances were made from the river, where babies deemed too weak for the world were cast. The mystics wove blood and brine together into the spearheads of the city guard, and the three women whispered amongst themselves as they passed, perhaps lusting after the soldiers, perhaps thinking of how to cut their throats. Their eyes darted back and forth madly, like a globe set in a steel rim, the rotation always the same. These Fates, these whores, were treated as if they were nothing. So the soldiers smirked at them, especially the shortest of their formation, who had black hair and wore a face of disdain for the cold women, and perhaps in his innermost heart, he wished he could touch them. In truth, he saw Fates in his mother, left to rot as an unwanted hag. His mother was poor. It was more than possible that she could become a leper. So he averted his eyes. He thought cruel things about them, and the women fell silent in their whisperings, as they understood how alien they really looked, and how the soldiers despised them.
I watched them all from across the street, where my scarf fell upon my waist, long like an unfurling of dark hair. There were lice embedded in it, white stars, an outbreak upon the black hide of outer space. I’d had them for years before I stayed at this inn, before whose doors I stood, watching this curious scene with the Fates as they assessed the troop that marched by. Perhaps I project intentions upon others, or perhaps I see the innermost pieces of their soul. Either way, what I told you is what I noticed in them, and in these soldiers. I saw the whole cornucopia of emotions roll through their darkened hearts, where a great feast sat untouched by the outdoors, and slowly fell rotten, as the passing of season after season with a crooked nose made them untouchable to the world, and they grew bitter, and called themselves witches.
I’m hardly an ivory-carved angel myself, so perhaps I empathize with them, though I know the judgement of other women is the harshest. I try not to cast my superstitions upon them, but as I turn to walk down the street, my scarlet boots crunching upon the dark, I notice one of the witches dashes forth with her cloak in hand, kept suspended over the damp snow, to pursue me.
“Are you going to the festival?” she asks.
I didn’t want to turn. But I did, and I stopped my pace, and looked at her scarred and ugly skin, like the surface of a planet that had seen too many impactions, a place where comet dust ran past her lip, and like glitter it ran to her eyes, where blue paint as pure and faithful as the sea suspended in small waves around those big, sunken eyes.
“I am not,” I lied.
“Please,” she said, reaching toward my hand. I withdrew it immediately. She stared in my eyes, and I saw a flicker of contempt strike across her own, like a match brought to life. She knew too that I had seen the anger in her. So I turned to continue walking, and knowing that she had only a second to make me stay, she gave voice to her deepest intuition, or most precise projection:
“You are neither a man nor a woman, are you?” she asked.
My heart began beating much faster. Whenever that question arose, I tried as hard as I could to make it hide. It was not a subject I cared to discuss, let alone with these ugly women. Especially now, she had worn my patience thin, and I trotted forth in the snow, through the small deserted alleyway, leaving her in my breach.
I felt for my thin sword. Perhaps it is a mark of shame, a disrespect for the whole people of the world, that I reached then for my sword. But I did, because I have known lepers to attack once they have been denied. I have known a leper once who grabbed the face of my own cousin, a girl of nine, and now her face rots off like yellow sewage into a bucket, that she sits in front with drooping eyes all day, wishing she were dead, her face falling out from her skin’s outline.
I wish that fate on nobody, least of all myself. I listened for her footsteps after mine, but they did not come. I relaxed my hand, taking it out from under my jacket, and letting it sway freely by my side. The lamplight hung above like stars amongst the snowflakes, and I felt at once again like a girl, innocent, untarred by the need to have a sword. It was a disgusting compromise, as I have always agreed, with the cathedral. But those who live by the cathedral die by the cathedral, same as I will one day be run through with a stranger’s sword. They see no difference in outcome, these saints, merely a difference in stamina and will. I have resolved to make my will stronger than theirs, who one day will find their ranks consumed by lepers, all the dregs of the world they have refused to cut down. They will lay their hands all over the lips of the holy and they will spit and push the masses away, scrambling for myrrh, scrambling for incense, only to find that they have failed in their most serious command: “Bring thy sword, for the world is one mighty blade against your neck.”
Lost in thought, I nearly missed the boulevard where the black stone led out of Yagibara, and into Lawton Square. I saw a wise tower, made from long and thin beams, suspended upon it was a great clock. It glimmered like an oily insect’s shell, when in golden summer their chants fill the skies. A sheet of long glass was the wall of the tower, where a blue ambiance rested inside, like a ghost in a bottle. I knew the bus would come soon, in a handful of moments.
The clock struck its chord, and I noticed a turtle upon the inside of the street, along the inner curvature, where the sidewalk rose above the street’s lowered elevation. It was a dark turtle. Its skin was black like some humans I have once seen, who I have done business with, and respected, as though they were of my own race. If you are an efficient businessperson, I will not malign you. If you are a decent fighter, I will not try to cut your ligaments, and prevent you from ever standing again. I distract myself with thoughts of good sportsmanship. I thought rather quickly how this dark turtle was doomed to die.
Feeling a rare impulse toward charity, I fell to my right knee and picked the thing up by its shell, where its reptilian, dinosaur legs shook and trembled, and its long eel neck receded inside its pouch of shoulder-chest skin. I set it upon the sidewalk, and left it alone. I returned now to my stance, overseeing the road, and within thirty seconds the bus came.
It was ornate orange, lines like reindeer antlers carved from bronze lining the body of the three-story machine. Chandeliers hung from each of its three rooves, and I watched its wheels as they traced the road, where they certainly would have crushed the turtle beneath their monstrous weight. I felt a pang of joy for it, and along with joy came the resounding reflection, guilt, the pit of regret for abandoning that woman to the street corner, with no hope of witnessing the festival, for perhaps the thousandth year. I know not how long lepers live. But I squashed both thoughts in my mind, as neither had a place in me if it meant accepting the other, and I boarded the illuminated bus, where a great party of wine and instruments awaited.
The express buses ran along the arched red bridge above the river, which ran with infant’s blood most often in the spring, when those doomed winter pregnancies came to fruition. Sometimes women would invite the genetically broken into their wombs, those men who are not men, who come from different stars and imbue them with impossible births. I do not know what strange conversations are had between two people’s genetics, let alone the incommensurate ones, which produce offspring with twisted skulls, and eyes half hanging from their heads. I am a product of eugenics, so I should know what it is to look upon a failed body who could have been my own. But what can I do? I won’t be able to save them.
The bus raced along the bridge, overlooking the hooked towers and the great scarlet Ferris wheel of the coast, on the edge of the dark reservoir. Snow and starlight intermingled in the grand plaza ahead, which I looked up from my salted glass to see, the great open path of the city of Tokyo, and the trees who bled with ink dark like the moon, hanging on either side of the entrance lane, those sad will-o-wisps who would have in their day been full willows, with leaves as bright as some of the pink comets who from time to time are visible from the city’s planetariums.
The bus joined a long line of others, filled with foreign dignitaries, soldiers of fortune, financial rapscallions and courtesan reptiles. They stood erudite in their buses, as I saw them through my own windshield, standing in the transparent walls before me, their arms tucked behind their backs, as if to indicate their harmlessness. These people, of course, had dealt as much harm to the city as the worst of gangsters. But bringing up that fact only endears one to a life of misery. As many heads as have rolled down that river, every few centuries, so a thousand more crooked heads crop up the next, hailed as the patricians who will save the stone beneath their feet. But these patricians are nothing but ghosts, unworthy of action.
My time on the bus, spent silent among drunkards, among lovers and other’s friends, people who I may have recognized, had I cared to inquire about a mutual acquaintance, came to a silent halt on the banks of the festival proper. It was a rising dark wave that crested above us, held at bay only by sea magic. I trust you know nothing of sea magic, but it was invented by a fallen age, a time when the oceans rose to put an end to sick societies, who had outgrown their bodies, and required a swift death. Their mystics at the time sealed the seas using forgotten technology, but it was recovered centuries ago, and it tamed the waters at the barricade, allowing for a new city district to exist upon the edges of the land, where our expectations swirled in the wind and sought to test the sea.
Soldiers stood all along the embankment, soldiers with red robes and spears of liquid, held taut by the same blessing. As the bus came to a halt, the royalty began to descend into the bright orange streets beside the waves, and I followed with them, but to a different destination.
Imagine your city, but built perpetually upon the wall of a cresting tide, which never wavers, only suspends, dangling sharks and octopi and other beasts a skyscraper’s height above you, imprisoned in their watery wall, picked off and served for food as its own industry, a mere street’s length across from the electronic billboards and the digital superblue waves buried in the city’s darkened heart, the illuminated walls of electric Akikibahi, broadcasting pornography and sloth to a generation of thoughtless ingrates.
The spectacle is unreal, if only it were actually unreal. In practice it is no different than living beside a simulation, which many cities have absorbed into their urban planning. I know that a city of ten-million in China, to this day without a name, is half-virtual, massive districts cordoned off into other ages, a city lost in time, without identity. Half of its citizens believe they are living in virgin America, before Columbus arrived and severed the ear of the people from the Earth. They go back to this primitive fantasy under the illusion that our monstrous cities would not still somehow emerge. In that simulation, ironically, time proceeds forward from that point. In a handful of generations, they too will face the modern again, and have to recreate their paradise, like twisting back the dial of a wristwatch, as if such a cheap trick could fool the cosmic father.
I ducked into an underground mall in search of lice removal. It was a small cavern tucked between a noodle shop and a magazine vending machine, a set of stairs descending beneath orange lanterns, thin enough so that I had to press against the wall, making myself narrow, when young couples came up from the other side. After going down a full flight of stairs, the underground opened before me, an entire continent swirled with steam and dark vapors, a city beneath itself.
The mall was dark like a Halloween stroll through amber lanterns, crisp fall in the air, swathes of frost touching my lips as frozen skulls were dragged by in cartloads beside me. Frozen skulls were the mark of Halloween in Nuevo Tokyo. They sold to the aristocrats, covered in white crystals, and to ordinary people, only slightly cooled, heated by the gloved hands of workers that tossed them from factory to family.
The lanterns dripped with light fire, lines like spider’s silk stretching through the dark, illuminating all the robed and dark people around her, stopping from stall to stall and buying what they needed. The whole mall stood upon dirt floor. It was, in the city, the last authentic place that could be said to belong to the Earth. The rest was a scaffold aimed at the heart of Jupiter, a long arc trapped in the rings of Saturn, revolving eternally in gear-locked orbit around these Goliath planets, these ruthless Titans who spew hatred into the deep, at last we understand their tongues, and find that they have been cursing us for years.
I chanced upon a white pharmacy, with an automatic sliding door, an entry into the future from the dirt-cart streets. The pharmacy was illuminated by white bulbs, casting an unnatural light on my face. The pharmacist, a young Asian woman with a purple sash over her mouth, turned toward me and cringed. I could tell by her eyes that she found me appalling, as she stopped shelving pills and instead pointed toward the bugs in my hair.
“Are those lycanthropes?” she asked.
She bit her lip. An older Asian man stood behind the counter, with square glasses and a wide, shaven chin. His wrinkled eyes gazed at me as if I were some intruder. The woman, perhaps his daughter, was thinking.
“I can take you into the storehouse in five minutes,” she said. “We have something there. But I need to finish with another customer first.”
I nodded, deftly seating myself beside the window in a pale chair. I watched her work, as she finished placing a pile of boxed hamstrings onto a suspended shelf and moved now to a man whose face was profoundly red, ushering past her father and moving behind the counter.
Her hair was tied sharply into a knot, the purple sash hanging before her mouth, showing little. She spoke through it, trapping the bacteria in her own mouth against its moist fibers. She was helping her patients as much as herself. Her brows were knit like crooked needles, two long poles stirring a pot, until at last she handed the medication to the red faced man, in a small white bag.
I watched her do this six or seven times in a row, until at last the line disappeared, and she beckoned toward me with her white gloved hand. Her father, who I noticed now had gone in the back for a while, returned to the counter. I got up and walked across the pharmacy, as he took the next order and the young woman walked out to greet me, pulling off her gloves and leading me toward a small blue door.
“Mind the smell,” she said before pulling open the knob. She swiveled inside. I followed after her, and I’ll admit once again that my palm flirted with the handle of my blade.
The bronze staircase led through another period of darkness, a Precambrian era of the soul, a place between two levels, that links the future to the past. I walked through the dark, and I saw in the distance others walking down staircases into the black, as if through a one-way glass. The pharmacy led only deeper into the underground mall. The first floor was a front for surface-level illnesses. Pockmarks upon the cosmic hide could not be solved there. Deeper still came the cures for more malevolent infection.
I came to notice the odor of murdered fish, and it was everywhere. It was so repugnant I tried to hold my breath. The pharmacist also held hers.
“Apologies,” she said.
The sash around her mouth must be of great help in this underworld. But the rotten smell still bleeds through, and offends the sinus.
“When’s the last time you split?” asked the pharmacist as we walked.
“A month ago,” I lied. It was just yesterday. And I could tell she knew, by the character of her silence, pregnant with swallowed words.
“If you keep splitting, they’ll keep coming back,” she said.
I said nothing.
“I’m just giving you my opinion.”
I noticed flakes of crisped white crystal falling around us now. We must be close. Like the tender waves of salted autumn, I heard the waves crash against distant shores, and I smelled the amber heat of the lanterns, dotting the oceanside grotto. The crystal flakes began to form cohesive walls, blocking out the shade of the void. It was like a blank TV screen slowly being blanketed in screeching fuzz, pixels blossoming out of nothing and grey flatlines whipping back and forth on the static wave.
The crystal cave formed around us like that, and stairs narrowed to the coarse jeweled sand, the type of sand that hurts to walk barefoot on, littered with broken shells, and the crystal cave was now where we stood, where the waves in the distance emptied out onto the beach, and I heard seals yelp and roar.
I noticed the lycanthropes squirming in the crystal waves. This environment would kill them, in a few hours. It was an interdimensional dumping ground.
“This isn’t free,” said the pharmacist now, in a tone that felt expecting.
“What do you want then?” I asked. I felt in the pit of my liver the answer residing, thick and black.
“I would ask for a sample of your DNA,” she said, staring in my eyes, her hands buried in the white pockets of her flowing uniform. “It’s not often I get to interact with split patients. And besides…it would be worth a lot of money. The medicine we sell here is so expensive, we hardly break even.”
I winced inside. She was justifying herself to me? Trying to make it about her financial situation? How disgusting. It’s her business, it’s up to her to run it. The fact of her debt should make no difference when it comes to the payment I owe. But my own soul?
“Just a slice,” she continued.
I sighed. “Let’s go the beach,” I said. “I want to sit in the water.”
She smiled through the sash on her lips. She knew she had won. And she followed me as I walked from the cave, onto the most brutal shore. This sea was ashen blue, the light pale grey of a bay that has been long abandoned, witnessed only now by space travelers or worse.
I think, long ago, it was part of a kingdom called California. But now it is tethered to the basement of a pharmacy in Japan, where it forever sits listless, and those static waves whip against the sharp, shattered seashells, and seals rest upon dark rocks, the final lords of the sea, their territory their own since time immemorial, the mammalian children.
Some flakes still cascaded down like shattered clouds of a nuclear winter. A still, brisk wind caught in my lungs, and I walked to the watery edge where the last curves of white brine pressed against the farthest imprint of sand. There, I sat down, and relished in the wind as I watched the grey-blue horizon, and the rocks all around me, a pale sun hanging through a veil of misty cloudbank above.
The pharmacist sat down beside me, pressing her knees into the slightly wet sand, which was smooth so close the water. I knew what was coming here. Small talk.
“My name’s Tomoko, by the way,” she said. “What’s yours?”
I said nothing for a few seconds. Long enough to reveal my frustration, but not so long that it became rude. “Armiel.”
“Armiel,” she repeated. “It’s beautiful.”
I had no reaction.
“You’re a member of the split-cell,” she said. “I’ve cured your kind for years.”
“I know,” I said hastily. “How do you think I found this place?”
“Then you don’t need to be so short,” she said. “My family has been loyal to your House for six generations. We are your accomplices.”
“I know,” I said. “But such work doesn’t require intimacy of any kind.”
“Loyalty is most powerful in silence. If we talk, we may find reason to doubt one another.” The waves rushed in my ears. “There is no reason for that.”
She was silent. We both listened to those sickly waves. She had pulled on new gloves. All she had to do was take a strand of my hair.
“You’re cold,” she said. “Colder than the last.”
Congratulations, I thought, now you understand the arc of history. But I said something more ambivalent:
“No you’re not,” she said. She paused. Hands in her lap, she was thinking of something to say that would bother me. “Will you kill someone at the festival?”
I did smile. “Of course I can’t tell you.”
“Can you tell me about your day? Your life?”
I looked at her in total bewilderment. She cast her eyes down, to avoid mine, which burned hard like Jupiter and were uninviting, cruel, morose.
“Well,” I began, taking pity on her. “I woke up just a few hours ago. I was sleeping all day. So I left my inn, and found lice in my hair, which reminded me of my lycanthropy. I met three lepers, who I ignored, and I took a bus to attend the Halloween Festival. I stopped here and now I’m burning away my lycanthropes, and hopefully my lice too. That’s all.”
She paused. “Three lepers?”
I nodded. “They wished to come with me to the festival.”
“And you declined?”
“Of course I did. They would compromise me and probably wind up getting killed. Helping the unfortunate is easier wished than willed.”
I held my breath. Now it was I, who justifying my ways to her.
“But they’re lepers,” she said. “You really couldn’t let them have one good night in their whole lives?”
God damn it. I never should have talked to this girl. Now I’m speaking her language, of social and moral mores, and she cannot possibly understand who I am. I should fall dumb now. I should pretend we have never spoken. Tomoko? I will forget her name. I will write her out of my own brain, the next time I split. I will erase this conversation and her pharmacy from the list of potential respites. I shall find somewhere new in Nuevo Tokyo.
“Look, your morals don’t apply to the cosmos. I know it’s predictable to say at this point, but it’s true. Every time I split, I see new a new universe where I also exist. There are an infinite number of I’s. There are an infinite number of you. It is impossible, simply impossible, to see the value in any decent act when you know that in an infinite number of worlds, the same, worse or nothing at all has happened to those identical people. It all means nothing.”
The pharmacist licked her lips. Like a parasitic bug, she had drawn fresh blood from me. She had gotten me to speak in panicked, emotional tongues. And she relished it. She relished her victory over me.
“That’s nonsense,” she said finally. “You may live a thousand lives, but you only experience one. Just one. You don’t feel the pain of every version of yourself. Just this one. Why would you throw it away, then? When you’re the only you who can feel?”
Those words stung me with their painful observation. The panic roiled in me like a hot fever, as I saw an obscure memory, which may have even been a dream. I sat as a young child in a light lawn behind my grandparents’ house, and cicadas chirped, and I lied there, gazing up at a wide oak tree, seeing the wind and the sun through its leaves, the sun eclipsed by its leaves, then revealed, tracing the light with my eyes and basking in the mellow basin of the wind chimes, their liquid tones underneath my vision, aligning with the sunlight, and producing a sensation I felt hum in my chest as the profound sense of harmony and order.
There is everything to say for the rational destruction of memory, and everything to say for the sensation of lived harmony, a living symphony, the living string plucked by our own experiences. Even if I were to be mushed into puss tomorrow, it remains clear, so obvious, that my experience still existed, for all that it was, and everything I felt remained, and was true, and was in no way diminished by what happened the following day, or year, or even in another dimension, to another piece of myself, fragmented across the face of a cosmic blackout. I still experienced the triumph of harmony. I still felt order in this chaos. No matter what, that alignment was possible, and that alignment held true.
I turned to the pharmacist, and she suspected I was in thought. I smiled at her. She saw cause to smile back.
“I plucked one of your hairs,” she said, holding it up, the long, thick black strand that could have evolved from the hind of a wolf. “So I’ll leave now, if that comforts you.”
I shrugged with genuine indifference. “You may stay. Does time move more quickly here?”
“Mmn-hmn,” she said. “We’ve been in this place for about an hour, but only twenty minutes aboveground. You’ve been in places like this before?”
“Places similar. Every few months, when I contract lice and gout and disease, I know I have to kill the lycanthropes in my body. But they grow back, it never really ends. I have to keep splitting for my job. And I am myself just a walking split. I have fused with a male and female version of myself, from different universes.
“I am in fact two, and not one. I hold within my breast two souls, one male, and one female. Those souls have sculpted my body. But they tear it apart from within.”
The pharmacist squinted. “So you are not genderless?”
“Far from it. I am the diadems of the soul collected in one shell. I am too much, and so often I am nothing. But really, I’m just a human. I just carry more of myself within me than physically possible by a human birth.”
“That’s beautiful,” she whispered.
“It is, and it isn’t. I will die, soon, perhaps in under five years. But until then I serve my House. Because in every dimension, it is all I have saw fit to do.”
The pharmacist rose to her feet. She could take no more. She wiped beneath her eyes with her white sleeve, and she covered them. Now she was the one hiding, and I the one probing. Realizing this, I receded slowly back into my solitude. But she sniffed, and she returned to me, and she balled her hands into fists.
“I wish I could live like you. I know you’re a monster, and your body is falling apart, but really, I just wish I could travel the universe like you do. I envy you, Armiel, I-I…I envy you like the moon envies the sun.”
I was speechless. I folded into myself. I couldn’t possibly answer her complaints. I couldn’t possibly give her a life of freedom. I turned to the salt sea, where a thousand white lycanthropes, the color of lice, sizzled and squirmed. I realized now that she was keeping me here longer than necessary. That ocean air kills the sickness, but the water itself burns it to the root, leaving only a nub, which in due time grows again to the size of a lung, and the lung’s tendrils branch out with every breath and form the tree of death within me.
I stood as well. And I looked at her, and I looked away. “If you do not mind,” I said. “I’ll step into the ocean, and finish this at once.”
She turned away from me, masking her tears. “S-sure. I’ll wait here.”
So I took off my tunic, my white shirt, and I left them balled up upon the shore. I walked steady, my pants and my boots still on, and I crossed the edge into the salt pool, wading deeper and deeper into the dead sea of dead air and wandering beneath the masked sun, I dropped to my hands and knees and plunged my head beneath the water.
I burned the insects in my scalp, and with them the traces they carried. Most people wouldn’t dip their brains into a radioactive sea. But I can always split, and merge with another version of myself to kill the rapid death, but grow the lycanthrope beneath.
One death or another. I choose. Each day, I choose. The slow death, or the fast. I inhaled saltwater and let it rush down my tongue, where I screamed beneath the liquid wall and Tomoko heard nothing, as I cried, and I choked on stale tears.
Alexander Blum is a fiction writer and essayist. He has written a book called 21st Century Slave.