‘Snakes, Thorns, August’, Kayla Bashe

Illustrations © 2015 Lisa Grabenstetter

 [ Aleppo, © 2015, Lisa Grabenstetter ] Aleppo was the most skilled musician in three countries, which was a gift—and the most beautiful youth in as many leagues, which was a curse. She was perfect in the manner of ancient marble statues of gods’ beloveds, all sharp-boned androgyny and cool sainted eyes. She would walk along the sandstone walls by the sea and play her violin and sing dreams and mysteries into the warm night air. Melodies were leagues more important than beauty, but people mattered more than both.

Aleppo loved her family as much as her music, loved them with all the furious fondness she could muster up. She loved her mother’s sea-roughened hands, her grandmother’s crow-like laughter and duck soup. She loved it when one of her aunts would remember a story and then they would all try to talk at once. They were four generations crowded into one ramshackle villa, and as much as they papered over the fact with frenetic cheerfulness, they were desperately poor.

One hot winter, a conjurer came to their little town by the sea. He wore jeweled rings on every finger and a heat-pressed suit of hand-sewn purple linen. As Aleppo played and sang and danced, his eyes stayed on her face.

“An entertainment like you would drive important citizens to my gatherings. As you advance my career, I’ll do all required for yours.”

“Will my family be cared for?” That was all Aleppo asked, and he said yes.

The conjurer was very wealthy. At his parties, he served giraffe meat marinated in pickled basil, free-range baby goat, and opalescent fried snails. His workers festooned a grand hall with ornamental handcuffs and burgundy streamers. His guests were money-movers, trading scions, fresco critics, people who had never worked a day in their lives. Everyone wanted to see the conjurer’s new acquisition from the mountains, the youth as startling as a knife. Aleppo danced barefoot on a raised marble pavilion, seeing nothing except her violin’s song.

She played watching her sister cough the hours of red dawn, and the conjurer and his friends heard their own superficial sorrow at not having her. They scrawled free verse about how beautiful and sad she was. How they could feel the emptiness of her ruby cunt under the naked green lights. Sometimes she played dancing in moonlight circles around the orange tree with her grandmothers. Admiration for an imagined goddess or her own fierce wildness. It made the men feel strange inside. Like they were small thresher mice in a huge starry field. In their humbled awe they would see her as human by accident. When she descended the stage, they would speak earnestly to her about politics and theory, ask her if she needed anything. Once a woman offered to carry gifts and messages to Aleppo’s family. Another time Aleppo put bow to strings and conjured a song tame as ocean lightning about two girls who fled their husbands to be with each other. The music wove around her in stained-glass tessellating helixes of rainbow light. She was a prophetess, a catalyst. Everyone clapped. She sang a reprise.

The conjurer realized that Aleppo’s joy and freedom would turn his city traitorous. To grasp at power, he would need to silence and control her voice. Aleppo’s one vulnerability, if it could even be called that, was her world-embracing openness. She would sit beside a stranger merchant on the clockwork trains and listen to his life for hours. She knelt to stroke wild dogs, and they gentled under her deft hands. No one had ever taught her fear.

One day he invited her up to his quarters to marvel at the lapis lazuli mosaics and speak of city politics. He served rich, spiced drink in tiny crystal glasses. Sips singed her throat like motor oil. Perhaps it was how he nodded encouragement at every statement, but the more she drank, the thirstier she felt. Aleppo toppled into sleep on those silken pillows, still clutching her violin like a child.

Aleppo woke in an unfamiliar bed to a less familiar rustling, and instantly snapped into alertness. The glassblower’s daughter? No, not her own room by the sea, either. How could she have enticed him? Her brain jolted back, scanning hurriedly through memories. Mere politeness from musician to patron. Surely nothing more. Still, though her limbs felt lamb-wobbly, she pulled back in a way that she was sure could leave no room for misinterpretation. Words hurried out. “I have heard what a man may do to a woman; I fear I would glean no pleasure from the act.”

“Then it is just as well, word-warrior, that it is not your pleasure I want.” Candlelight gleamed in his eyes, and his many rings shone. He would remove none of them for the indignities that followed, not even the ceremonial thumb-signet with its hidden poison spike.

Rage shivered through her. She wanted to believe it was more than a mask for fear. “Then when you lie atop me, I will crush your windpipe with a single tensing of my hand.”

“Oh, Aleppo, sweet youthful fool. Think of your grandmother, who walks alone from the market with a basket of oysters. Your younger sister with her rippling hair who even now unrolls her pallet at the temple school.”

“But you will be dead.” Still her voice was uncertain.

“Darling,” he whispered. “There are other men like me.” His fingers moved across her hairline, gentle as a spider’s stroll.

Aleppo had often been hurt, climbing scrapes and cook-pot burns. But there was one part of her that had never been injured, only soothed at. As this place ripped, Aleppo dug her teeth into her wrist and smothered her face into the pillow and stifled a low groan of despairing ache.

“Will you play tonight, ministrel?” the girl who came to change her bedcovers asked.

Songs had always come to Aleppo. They floated through the air she breathed like the very scent of orange trees. She knew harmony the way she knew the uneven stones of her own plaza—blindfolded, by footstep alone. Closing her eyes, she reached out with steady fingers. Which shook and dropped. The air was ship-killing stillness, breathless, becalmed. When she so much as breathed, the blankets scraped against her welts, warning discordiance. She could hear nothing else. On the nightstand, her golden violin shone like oils of sweaty skin.

She pulled the dovedown comforter over her head. “I’m very tired.”

Eventually the girl went away. I used to be the sort of person who remembered servants’ names.

After a party without music, the sorcerer came to her bed again. Always she whispered, “One day I will kill you in your sleep.”

Always he warned her, “There are other men like me.”

Aleppo wore five inches of golden chainmail and two artistically draped silk handkerchiefs. She walked on stage, head bowed shyly, in shoes like gem-encrusted stilts. She arranged her long legs over a low bar stool; she no longer danced. Once a young girl with a flute came up to her and asked her what had changed. She answered only with a bitter laugh.

She sang whatever was placed in front of her. Stories of daughters who downed teacups of belladonna after losing their chastity. Outspoken harridans who went frothingly mad. And when not explaining the death of women, she crafted empty melodies about the love of men. Life was as dangerous as truth.

The conjurer brought home red velvet rope and bound her hands and feet with it before excreting narcissistic rage in making bruises bloom on her splayed frame. One midnight Aleppo had curled her strong golden body in on its restless self, trying to find a position that would keep weight off her aches. He reached over, easily as crushing a firefly, and wrapped the rope twice around her neck. He did not pull it taut. She stayed very still, knowing that he could.

“Wouldn’t you look glorious wearing this while I took your front hole from behind? A collar for a wolf-bitch-dog.” He laughed and tossed the rope away and went to prepare himself another drink.

Only when he had left the room did Aleppo take in ragged breaths. She had gotten good at sneaking into slumber past the barbed-wire fence of pain. But tonight caution stopped her at the border. All night she laid awake, staring at that snakelike coil of scarlet rope.

He will choke the life and the breath out of me. Not just my voice.

Always Aleppo’s body had spoken to her. Now it whispered a tight icicle warning: if you stay here, you will die.

At the next party, she perched sparkling on the conjurer’s knee. Even her fingernails dripped with tiny jeweled bows.”Oh, yes! Exactly!” she exclaimed, and “Silly me, I never thought of it that way!” She had never spoken words of less substance, and everyone whispered into the sorcerer’s ear: how beautiful she was when she stopped dressing like a warrior-maiden from the ocean groves and started dressing like a proper wife, how clever he was to find such a sweet girl.

As the conjurer lectured, she fed him stuffed olives laced with sparrow-meat and sleeping draught. Before sunset he was yawning. “It seems I’ve overexterted myself in educating this crowd. Come, Aleppo. You will rejuvenate my tired flesh.”

But he was snoring the moment his bald head hit silk. Aleppo yanked the stained-glass window open and took deep breaths of spice-smoke air, relief from drowning in jasmine perfume. No more golden birdcage. Even for a women alone and friendless on the streets, she thought, stuffing her least ostentatious tunics into a pillowcase bundle, anything had to be better than this.

She glanced towards her violin on the nightstand. Chords no longer called to her; no cadences thrummed in her fingers. But if I stay silent forever, then that means he’s won. I won’t let him beat art out of me.

Maybe somewhere a hundred leagues away, the faintest strains of a tune would call to her. Maybe when she was forty-seven and fat and happy, something sudden as scent would jolt into her head. Or it would happen slowly, one note humming an undercurrent each day for seasons, like her bloodstream singing to herself. Somewhere music would look for her again. It would be like standing under a waterfall in winter, so pure and cold that you wanted to both scream and laugh. It would be like the homecoming of birds.

She broke the window from the outside, nimble on knotted bedsheets. Teeth gritted, she pushed the glass into her arm to feign a kidnapping’s blood. That hurt even less than she’d expected. She unmade her rope and climbed deftly down brickwork studded with amethysts like sparrow’s eggs and pebbles of emerald.

She gripped the rope even harder with her injured hand. I will be a fallen nun scourging myself for unchaste sins, thought Aleppo. I will bring pain on myself before any man gets the chance. I will say when and where and how much blood.

Night shuttered the city. The lightless eyes of empty buildings watched her run past.

Dawn tugged people onto the streets. They all had a shop to hurry to, a class to doze in, supervisors to placate. Where could she go?

As Aleppo turned in a slow circle, scouring her mind for options, a laborer on the steps of a nearby building called out to her.

“Beautiful woman, how are you? Sit down and talk—let that pretty face smile!”

Like a wild goat hearing the hunter’s footstep, Aleppo bolted. Each time her sandals slapped stone, the world coalesced a little more. By the time she collapsed against the ivy-cracked pillars of some forgotten temple, she had a plan.

Beautiful was her problem. She was a vulnerable creature; the world had doomed her as soon as she was born. She wanted to be something spiky and swaggering, something at which no man could leer.

Aleppo knew about magic. She needed a sorcerer, a shape-changer. Someone with eyes like alembics and a surgeon’s hands.

“Give me your grandmother’s lace wedding veil,” the sorcerer told her. “Strip the gold from your violin and the pink from your cheeks. I will make you flat enough to slip through the spaces between people’s eyes.”

Aleppo bowed her head in thanks.

The sorcerer gave her use of the little bed beneath his attic eaves. Six times a day, she drank a slushy green soup made from evergreen bark, wild yams, and goat hair. She washed herself just as often; after the first two days, she was so dizzy she had to bathe sitting down. One day after swallowing triangular yellow pills, her breasts began to seep blood onto her white linen shift, a parody of birth and fertility both that made her eyes cross to look at it. She staggered downstairs to the sorcerer. When she tried to explain what was happening, only a dry heave lurched out.

“Do you wish to shed your inconvenient frame?”

With a warlike effort of will, she stood up straight. “Yes.”

He undid the drawstrings of her shift and placed clever masculine hands over her shoulders. Over her hips. She would have taken a wood saw to their roundness if her vision ceased doubling.

“Most excellent.” From an urn he drew a string of small maggotlike snakes, each clutching another’s banded tail. The snake-rope braided itself in his hands. Aleppo stood still, like a soldier facing a firing squad, as the creatures touched her skin. Around and around they slithered, compressing into acceptability each inch of flesh. She would be invulnerable, glorious, all angles and lines. Her breasts were as small as a child’s. Her stomach was perfectly flat. If she stretched and held her breath, she could see her ribs; it was easier than ever to keep from breathing, the space between inhalations pressure-extended.

From an inlaid basket, the sorcerer retrieved a thorn-studded vine. One wilted rose petal still clung stubbornly; he shredded it off. Aleppo fixed her gaze upon the audience to her transformation: a marble globe, a stuffed crocodile. One last brush of hands and then no one will ever touch me again. The globe wobbled on its axis, and the crocodile smiled back.

Don’t do this, said Aleppo’s body. It spoke not in words now, but in creaks and tightenings. She closed the hatches of her heart.

“Do it,” she said.

With practiced movements, the sorcerer circled the thorns around her hips and under her thighs, reduction and harness both. Each point prickled needle-like into her flesh. Then he took a silver dagger from a velvet bag and attached it very carefully at the joining of her legs, the blade dangling downward. Numbness and cold passed through skin that hardly seemed hers.

“Now you’re perfect.” He helped her dress.

It was difficult to breathe beneath the snakes, but she agreed. Never mind the silence from her body, as if shocked by some betrayal. No one would hurt her. She was sharp.

The sorcerer gave Aleppo a bag of potions and sent her out into the world. She learned that if she walked with her legs too close together, her thighs bled. She imagined those trickles erasing every smudge where hands had gripped. Under her tunic, snakes suckled at her breasts. Her skin took on a parchment tone; her already-short hair drifted out in the brush.

Under the city, there were people whose bodies ached as much as hers. She would accompany their fury in a minor key.

Far outside the city camped the Wild Women. In the fifty-first year of their fire-building magicking drum-pounding path, their priestess was August Moon Johnson, and she was tired fit to die.

August was a big, strong woman with arms that could lift a table or offer an embrace of sisterly forgiveness. Stretch marks dappled her stomach like streaks of sunlight through leaves, and dirt made a home under her fingernails. She was youthful for a priestess—yet sun and wind had aged her features, exhaustion her soul.

All priestesses taught and guarded new recruits, but August took on the largest share of responsibility. She organized the migrations, distributed handscrawled work-shift lists, bartered for supplies. And there were always more sisters seeking liberation—or shying from its wild light. Tender, timid girls who asked for dominion over their own bodies like an apology. Women strangling beneath jeweled necklaces who raised hands of porcelain lace and named their slave markings war paint so fervently it made them weep. They were a generation of uncertain rebellion, suspicious of their grandmothers and of themselves.

An emptiness followed August. At night it breathed in her ear like a lover and fed from her strength. Its foggy not-self twined around her neck like sleek dark fur. When she lead songs around the campfire it sat on her lap. Its weight pressed against her thighs, hips, chest. Her eyes let go of the sparks they had collected and grew red from wood smoke, her public name for tears. At night emptiness unrolled its bedroll next to hers. It whispered in her ear like the opposite of a lover: the world isn’t messed up, you’re just angry because daddy smacked you around once in a while. You’re not very pretty, you’re not very smart—and devoured her strength.

August healed, August guided. August sang out the wild woods. Lately she explained freedom and her voice grew hoarse. There was always a sister cowering behind a locked door or caged in a corset. She couldn’t stop. If people were not constantly asking her for help, pressing her hand with grateful kisses, did she really exist? A decade out of daughter-servitude and so often those instincts still overwhelmed her.

“Sit down and rest a while, I’ll get it.”

“No, don’t trouble yourself.”

“Is there anything I can do to lighten your load?”

The more she drew from her inner self, the larger emptiness swelled. Since her investment, it had expanded from the dimensions of a kitten to those of a slavering hunting hound. Months earlier August had sat cross-legged in her tent to reweave the patterns of memory. Her guts clenched at remembered blows, closed eyelids stiffening. Away from the pain, then, and towards how it shaped me—

But the images broke apart each time she reached for them, threads of brittle white light. Now the whispering was constant, and she could no longer stand to be alone with her thoughts. Even sitting during kitchen shift provoked a discontented ache.

Many years ago, when she still thought of herself as runaway stepdaughter rather than junior priestess, she’d heard a woman playing the violin. Appreciation bubbled inside her soul and turned to applause. This is what life should be like. Her melodies forging a country of women, her words tree roots that ripped through walls. The whole crowd danced togetherness.

She remembered the singer, a girl with golden skin and fledgling-short black hair. Her unbridled vitality had brought August back to life. But slowly the infusion faded from her limbs; the emptiness caught up to her, clung closer still. Now, years later, she took the underground clockwork rumble-train back to the city of silver towers.

In the pockets of her men’s work pants August carried beautiful rowan-wood arrows wrapped in bright thread. They were love tokens with rounded points of aura quartz. In the breast pocket of her men’s work shirt August carried a miniature chocolate goddess with raspberry cordial filling. She would give these to her fierce fiddler, her fey rhymer-warrior, after the show. But she wasn’t there. Identical dull-eyed glamour girls mouthed bitch-and-ho songs before returning their life-sized wrapped boxes. Something in August fell and broke. The chocolate turned to blood and melted a great swath down the front of her shirt.

She limped down the street. Beside her, homeless beggars dreamt of comfort and smiled in their sleep. Underground, rats petrified by clockwork wheels dashed to miraculous escapes. And when August returned to the Wildwoods, baby rabbits would let children pet them, and mosquitoes would skitter away. She always had enough energy for everyone except herself.

Someday she imagined a girl would come into her tent. She would find only the emptiness crouched like a wildcat over dead oak leaves.

Now August knew that time was close.

Aleppo climbed down to the dance-catacombs filled with youths the sorcerer had helped. In a room tiled with purple-flamed lanterns she spun with boys who wore only spiderwebs and gemstones and coughed out a thin trail of white eggs when they opened their mouths, whose throats were filled with windchimes and their soft eyes with starlight and secret grief. One boy had two mouths tattooed beneath his shirt. They seemed cartoonish, but they opened, whispered, ate. Perhaps they were what kept him alive; he had long ago transcended the need for solid food, making him somewhat of a celebrity among the catacombs.

“What do they eat?” Aleppo asked. Everyone else was gathered around an octopus samovar, where they drank from long enameled tubes of blue smoke and coughed it out.

“Stale oyster meat. Bushels of slick green leaves. And compliments. And lesbians. They’ve bankrupted me.”

“I can’t help you,” Aleppo retorted arrow-quick, twisting away from his shaking hands. “I’m not a flabby, furry lesbian. Use your political manners. I’m the sharp intelligence of snakes and thorns.” She grabbed her fabric totes full of half-finished bottles and ran deeper into the illuminated darkness.

Singing was unthinkable to Aleppo; the very idea felt like being naked on a battlefield. But music was still her most fluent language, and she wrote songs for a coterie of scraggly-haired ministrels called Burning Lifeboats.

Once she composed a song of blue June skies and pink sandals. Cottages on quiet streets with flourishing gardens and inquisitive cats. Living with someone for so long that you forgot which tunics were yours.

“Boring! Sing something realistic.”

“Yeah, they’d never let us live like that.”

So she crafted what comfort she could: slow ballads of the next drink, the next lover, the next place to sleep.

Others wanted her to echo their anger.

Someday the prisons of our bodies will let us out on parole. Someday we will be wild beasts and no one asks a shark to show their wounds. We will have sonnets instead of names. We will be made of dandelion seeds and spiderwebs.

Everyone we have ever loved will welcome us with open legs and everyone who hates us will die in a fire.

She knew what they wanted, these heart-naked firebrands whose pain pointed outward.

Corker was a tough girl with a military crop, her muscular back tattooed with pictures of her dead lovers. She wept quietly whenever Aleppo dared to murmur chords of hope. She puked up ginger-rosewater vodka and was always pinching at the skin on her stomach, saying: God, I look like I’m pregnant.

One day Aleppo saw her high-stepping on a table as wine sprayed from her belly button.

No, Aleppo realized, moving closer. Not dancing, writhing, though her expression mocked a smile. And not wine. Blood.

She was taking a saw to herself and hacking off pieces of her hips. The arch of her dancer’s feet, a big chunk of her nose. “There’s been too much of me,” she called out, half-singing. “I’m going to stick with this. I’m going to be clean.”

Blood sprayed across the laughing crowds. Aleppo ran to her side. “You’re going to die if you keep doing this.”

“If you don’t let me finish, my stomach will burst. Open-eyed drowning in sick chocolate frosting bile.”

“Don’t do this,” Aleppo shouted. She tried to pry a dagger from a boy’s hand as the crowd joined in wild cardio revelry, but he just elbowed her in the face. “Maybe we’re not making anything better by hurting ourselves.”

Angry kids sneered pierced lips in her face. Their past carried them into confusion; at a remembering word, they could no longer distinguish between enemy and friend.

“You’ll never understand.”

“Get out!”

“Get out!”

They chased Aleppo up into cold night.

Rain splattered sandstone walls; a horse clattered hurriedly past. Its footsteps heaved muck onto Aleppo’s cloak, wetting her as if with intestinal blood. Looking down, she saw her face in a puddle: cheekbones starvation-harsh, once-golden skin pale as any cavedweller. Her grey eyes held metallic bitterness. Her bald scalp was a mass of swords. Aleppo sneered down at the wreck of herself and dispersed the mirror with a kick. Freezing water soaked into her boot. Damn them, it wasn’t as if she’d disagreed, only asked to staunch the blood! And she did believe the sorcerer. Her new form was a better shield than any weapon. If she fled far enough, that, too, would safeguard her wounds.

She gathered her violin close and scanned the town. Would a hamlet this provincial even provide shelter for vagabonds? But they’d house her with men—or, worse, with women. Beyond the last row of buildings, dark storm-tossed trees loomed. Some thicket of branches would staunch her shivering. Or she’d time her laughter to the thunder, and open her arms to lightning when it was lured to strike her down.

August, preparing herself to rest under emptiness, heard something. A ballad en tremolo on a single violin cut a sparkling path through sleep. A woman attending her own funeral, August thought, would weep in this key. Who could play something so exquisite, yet so deluged with pain? She left the Wild Women’s camp and wandered between the restless trees, seeking the singer, peering owlish into the night. A curl of wind tossed music one way, then the other. Before long she could barely catch the melody over her yawns, and bold stars twinkled overhead. It was all she could do to navigate back to her tent, but she slept easier than she had in years. Her chest felt lighter when she breathed.

A creature of void approached Aleppo while she played to the rain.

What were you supposed to ask its kind? Potion-addled, she did the best she could. “What are you from?”

The emptiness looked up at her with big round eyes. “Play for me,” it demanded in its child’s growl.

Unsure what it wanted, she brought out the warm call of a G.

“Yes. Now play more. Good enough to keep up!”

Its song flickered with memories.

Elders crammed into a smoky kitchen, flinging accusations of laziness like full pots-

My mother died and I took on her chores-

It had no human concept of tempo or key. She jolted overshot through wild reels, quavered precision so drawn-out the joint within her elbow strained.

No room for anything but concentration. With every bit of her being she strained to match the emptiness. The snake-ropes, the thorn-strands—both dropped away from her idea of self. The music would carry her through pine trees and moon.

All this melded into a rush of strange beauty. Suddenly she knew where it would hurt next: solitary scuff-marks in a dust-covered street, the sudden snap of whip-welt rows. Aleppo gave herself to listening, and her song became solidarity.

Unjust liars, traitor-kin, blows sting that never should have struck! I too will yell your innocence. I too will burn with what you know. Cast down the burdens of others. Hug yourself to your own bosom. You’re so damn good it hurts.

And a thought throbbed within her, an undercurrent that might someday roar to life: my story shares a heart with yours.

They finished soft, entwined essences reaching the final note. Aleppo rested her violin on the tree stump and rubbed her eyes. Her heart still tapped a gladiator rhythm; her biceps ached. I missed that, she thought. I missed music. It had been all crammed up inside of her, aching to break loose. Now she felt wrung out… yet almost herself. She knew she could still travel to the mind-world of song which had always been home.

 [ Aleppo, © 2015, Lisa Grabenstetter ] The emptiness leaned against her. “Wrong,” it quavered, more question than condemnation. “I was oversensitive and very wrong.”

Its creator constantly reached out in kindness, fearing only for the well-being of others. Aleppo knew that now, and she adored this small cursed thing. “Hush,” she murmured.

It rested its head in the crook of her wiry arm. Sleeping against her warmth, it steamed and shrank. Unconsciously she curled shelter around it. When she woke, it was as small as a handkerchief. It prodded her nose like a hungry cat. “Home,” it demanded, and thought at her: a sun-streamed meadow somewhere near. The path would take her still further from the city.

Aleppo folded up the emptiness and put it in her pocket. “All right, let’s go.”

Later that day she emerged from the forest into a meadow. She took one step and stopped, barely able to even breathe the scent of anemone blossoms. There were women everywhere. Crafting on hand looms, seated in storytelling circles, sprinting through chase games. A skinny girl drifted a flute melody into open air as younger children clustered around her.

Even the people she’d mistaken for men were women, women with bold jagged features and weather-roughened hands, women with wiry sailor muscles, hard-edged faces, salt and pepper hair, roguish smiles. No one was pretending anything, Aleppo saw. None of them were afraid.

“My place,” the emptiness in her pocket hummed, buzzing with agitation. “My people—have to do for them, can’t just sit here.”

“Hush now,” she whispered back, petting its silky surface. “Do they look like anything’s wrong?”

“No, but—you never know—you can never tell—”

“I think it’s all beautiful, and I’m new to this place. Let me look!”

“What if something goes wrong? Find her warn her keep her moving—”

It popped out of her pocket; on reflex, she caught in in a vice-like grip. “Consider this. What if nothing goes wrong?”

It wriggled, considering. At last it stilled except for little puffs of breath, calm as a kitten. To cement her victory, she improvised an inward song: look at the evening sunlight, the flowers twined in curly hair. Feel the laughter. Feel my strong hands.

She slipped the emptiness-creature back into her cloak, daring herself a hidden smile.

There was a woman standing on a crude wooden platform, a stringed instrument hanging strapped across her body. Something in her pulsed as wild as the forest-tangled raspberry bushes that had sustained Aleppo in her recent wanderings. When she pushed her hair back, Aleppo could see the feral wisdom in her face. She smiled like a pirate queen surveying her ships and began to sing.

“They say women who look like me will always lose women who look like you.
Drowning in the tide of history or healthy common sense
Well, I never read the rumors
Set on paper in past tense…”

Her songs were like sprinting through the woods as the trees flew past, splashing in the bellsong of a deep clear stream. Rebellion over stocking-mending work in farmhouse moonlight; to live as a woman in a world that loved men was to make fireworks of expectation. We burn with the essence of ourselves, here and tonight.

Aleppo could feel the emptiness shudder and relax.

A figure streaked up to the musician as she descended. “August, can you help me show the new women how to store dishes?”

Aleppo saw her expression; compassion fatigued by overstretch. A weariness of wanting to sleep for a hundred years, and the knowledge that she would still shiver alone. Don’t, she thought. You’re worth more than filling yourself with others’ responsibilities. Set just one limit.

She felt the thought pass between them, brown-eyed telepathy and rose-petal breath. The musician turned to the younger girl. “I don’t think you need my help for that. Or—why not ask Valerian? She looks full of energy.”

“But you know everything!”

“If only the knowing was the same as the doing, Basil. I’m afraid I can’t be everywhere at once, but I’m sure someone else will be happy to help.” She patted the other woman on the back and walked away.

Dozens of women queued up for dinner. Aleppo shuffled cautiously to the end of the line. To her surprise, the woman ladling out vegetable stew was the performer from earlier.

“Here. Take as much as you want.”


Her smile came easily. “We’ve cooked plenty. I’m August Moon Johnson, current priestess. I’ll sit with you, if you wish.”

Watching her standing-tall swagger was like sipping a drug. With a wary nod, Aleppo followed her to a wooden table. “What is this place, anyway?”

“Last month it was a meadow. Now it’s the campground of the Wild Women.”

“The what?”

“We wander all through the known lands, trading treasures, foraging, singing. Our herbs grow in clay pots that we load onto carts. Our children grow on horseback and lyre-string. Women from all over flee homes and marriages to join us, or stray from their mending to listen and learn, then return home to speak their fight. I’m the head priestess… the leader.” She explained a little about their current project, instructing servant girls how to teach each other to read.

The figure under the cloak listened, her breathing deep and intent. She was a paragon of dark-wrapped stillness; August could feel her mind begin to change. “It’s a beautiful idea,” she murmured at last. Regret curled at the edges of her tone, but admiration streaked brighter than bitterness. She listened to everything, and she didn’t tell August that she could be doing more for the revolution, or change the subject mid-sentence, or remind her that men could suffer from the world as well. Instead she reached under her tattered dark cloak and pulled out—“I may have something that belongs to you.”

August watched the emptiness flutter back and forth on the picnic bench. At first she’d taken it for a scrap of cloth; now she saw it glance between old mistress and new companion.

She lifted the clot of emptiness in cupped hands and passed it to August. Their fingers touched; hers were unexpectedly warm. The sensation ran through August, a shiver of sun. That’s not mine, she wanted to call out. But it was already too late. The emptiness had leaped nimbly onto her thighs, and from there to perch atop her shoulder, leaning against her neck. Its weight didn’t drive the breath from her lungs as usual. Instead it was only the weight of a pocketwatch, more inconvenience than crippling doubt. She could still treasure beauty. Ripples of orange cream clouds glowed through the sunset as a wind stirred the grass.

The creature’s memories seeped into her. She held me so gently, it whispered. She felt each image; those musician-calloused hands that smelled like pine and fresh earth rubbing and holding, encircling her. Droplets of lemon juice drying on a golden collarbone, highlighting a tang to the sweetness of skin. The steady pressure of her arms. I told her our doubts, the emptiness whispered.

August blanched. You told her what?

Again that sense of drawing from a sister-soldier’s strength, solemn attention blending into unconditional comfort.

“This is yours, isn’t it?” Aleppo asked.

Doubt flared up as the emptiness curled into a more comfortable perch. “Would you still be here if it was?”

“I think you’re brave,” she said quietly. ”And I’ve seen what you do here—it’s incredible. I never knew that we could be… that women could be allowed to do something like that.”

“I heard those rules once,” August admitted.

“What did you do?”

“Sang loud as I could until I couldn’t hear anything but music.”

Aleppo, hiding the softest echo of a smile, poured wooden goblets of sweet peach wine for them both.

Sunset ebbed into night over their quick talk and laughter.

“If you don’t wish to travel onward, you can rest in my tent,” August said after storytelling.

At the thought of sharing a sleep-space with someone, Aleppo’s knees snapped together under the picnic table. The knife’s edges bit deep. A pained cry rocketed up her throat; she drowned it with a swig of wine. “I’ve been traveling a while. Sleeping rough comes second nature.”

Why? What’s your problem with me? Do I look untrustworthy? That’s what she expected to hear. Instead August quirked a smile. “I’ll lend you a blanket. The mist is cool at night.”

No one screaming from the sharp crack of a recreational whip. No one grunting her awake; no hard footsteps and shouted exchanges of threats. Aleppo coughed into her pillow. The snakes, forced to loosen, hissed—but that was commonplace by now. Then she slept better than she had in months.

“Would you consider staying with us until you’re well enough to travel again?” asked August the next morning. “You’re welcome amongst the Wild Women as long as you contribute.”

Women and weak burst together once again in Aleppo’s mind, two waves crashing far from shore. “This place is just for women, isn’t it? Because I’m a tornado, a sword wrapped in skin. You wouldn’t even recognize what you’d find under here.”

“You’re welcome to our hospitality,” August repeated.

Aleppo searched August’s face for a trace of anything but gentleness. She wanted to believe that August was as she seemed, deep-down generosity wrapped in stubbornness and freckles, a woman whose worst fear was letting down the cause. She wanted even more to believe that the world would allow a woman like that to survive. “Then I’ll see what I can do to help.”

For a few nights, Aleppo slept outdoors. She leaned against the slats of packing crates and stared at constellations with unseeing eyes. A pounding spring rain drove her to seek shelter in the manner of a feral cat.

August was folding a just-shed tunic when the tent-flap burst open to the rhythm of thunder. Priestesses laughed at modesty, but she still tripped over an urge to cover the spill of breasts and belly from Aleppo’s coal-dark gaze.

“It’s cold out,” Aleppo muttered, as if fending off an attack that hadn’t been made.

August rolled up her trousers. “Will you stay?”

Her sharp face flickered. “What do I owe you?”

August felt like a terracotta teacup shoved onto a hard-packed floor, a fish slid between campfire embers. Words pushed and jostled to come out: my icicle, my clever-palmed, who dared to hurt you? Where are you from? But “Nothing,” she said at once. Maybe it bounced off the cloth walls a little too loud, but Aleppo understood. Sprawling on the extra pallet, she flung off her hood and wrung out the wet tangle of her hair.

She sang in her sleep, August noticed later that night, fragments of fractured melody.

Bereft of its usual spot, emptiness paced and grumbled, eventually settling at a spot near her feet. It still whispered, but she heard it much less clearly. After many nights, Aleppo shifted towards the other woman in her sleep, seeking out warmth. If even a fingertip touched her, she jolted away and, still unconscious, shivered in the night air. August slept curled and motionless, secretly grateful for the violinist’s solid strength.

August knew the cloak concealed raw lacerations of body and spirit. Yet at the same time she could no longer tell which of them was the tree and which the vine.

Aleppo gave her an excuse to turn down responsibilities: “I have an idea how you could end the bridge of that ballad, do you perchance have your guitar with you?” From behind her heavy cloak she peered calculatingly at everyone. She never talked about herself, but people sought her out as a listener. Seerlike, she shared that knowledge with August. “Willow knows where all the repair supplies are stored. Have you considered putting her in charge of that?” or “I recall you saying you weren’t sure who’d perform tonight—may I make a suggestion? Eli practices in secret, but she’s developed a masterful tumbling act …”

If only she stopped holding her shoulders like shields, thought August, I would rest my head on them as I’ve rested my burdens.

One day, when a young girl came crying for help with something August knew she could manage, she shoved the emptiness away and said so. “I know you rely on me. Part of me needed the wanting, but now I’m trying to do better. I know how powerful you are, and priestess doesn’t make me queen. Teach the new girls sans my aid, Skylark. I swear you’ll thrive.”


Aleppo was looking in her direction, her dark, steady gaze devoid of judgement.

Strength hummed in August’s bones. “Yes,” she said decidedly.

“That means so much—that you have so much faith in me. Thank you so much! I’ll do my best!” She darted off, eager.

“Do you feel all right?” Aleppo asked, drawing near.

August closed her eyes and breathed communication with herself. The emptiness gnawed at her neck, whispering look what a lazy slut we are. But it was just an itch, a buzz. She could lounge steadfast in the sunlight. There was always more work to be done, but not all of it had to be hers. She opened her eyes. “I think I am.”

August was the least angry person Aleppo had ever met. It was gluttonously intoxicating to be around people who loved and fed themselves, who sought to heal each other instead of exhorting special brokenness. She scanned bodies for signs of a sorcerer’s touch, but noticed none.

Surely it was too late for her. If they saw how she’d paid for her escape with pain, they’d turn away from her, cast her out just like the people of the catacombs had done. They’d light torches and chase her to the edge of the meadow and through the woods.

Still, it gave her a secret smile to know of a place where people believed a girl-child could grow up without fear.

Aleppo still wore her enveloping cloak and drank the potions in little green glass bottles that tasted like wheatgrass and turmeric. But because she’d carried a battered violin strapped to her back all the way from the entowered city, because she could catch any pitch or interval from embedded memory, musicians gathered close to her. She demonstrated flourishes and fingerings, solved the harmonic resolution of a six-part illustrative maze. Secret satisfaction hummed in Aleppo. Her expertise had survived, if not her hope. Before long she had volunteered to teach three classes. I may not live in peace, she thought, but I can guide its flourishing, a distant song.

“I’m damn proud of you,” August said, shoving a thick slice of bread into her soup. “Have I mentioned that?” August, befuddling in her clarion purity, always asked permission before braiding her hair. She had a worker’s thick-skinned hands. As they stirred soup together, each sharing the day’s tasks and adventures, her laugh could shake boulders.

Sometimes, in the tent’s soft darkness, Aleppo rolled carefully onto her side. She looked at August’s expansive body, the way peace buoyed her breath. If my skin and I were not at war, I might—She never dared to finish the thought. Not even in daytime when she and August were walking through the campgrounds, shoulders nearly touching, running through the great list of plans to be made for their departure.

A complicated jig drifted over the breeze. The tune stirred up a memory of playing for the fishermen, calling in their catch. “That fingering… that ought to be Coriander on the lyre,” Aleppo murmured. And, realization dawning, “I taught her that!”

“You must be as good a teacher as you were a performer, then.”

My songs spoke much more eloquently sans interpreter. Jealousy shivered through her, tangled with the need to create. “I like to think I’m decent,” she said, ambiguous.

“More than just decent, special. Go sit by her and listen, if you wish. I’m more than restored enough to handle the rest of these chores on my own.”

She could never be truly happy, not with her body disintegrating upon itself, her magic all but lost—but sometimes the deepest artistry lay in pretending. Pretending you could dash through the long grasses and ride bareback, that you could still climb up the olive tree without your bones twinging and laugh without a hidden lie.

If pretending woke August’s crooked grin—

She tossed August a smile and dashed through the hills. Beyond the main campground, the land seemed to open up; she heard nothing but birdsong, saw nothing but the distant pines.

A hand grabbed her arm; startled, she whirled.

“Aleppo. Come here. Is it really you?” It was the conjurer, dressed for the summer in oil-slick silk.

I’ll die rather than let you take me back, was her first reflex. Then: no, you’ll die at my hands. She snatched a kindling log and threw herself towards him. Already she could envision his skull crumbling under the blow, his body folding up forever.

The snakes around her chest pulled taut. Agony crushed through her ribs like iron spikes. The improvised weapons spilled from her hands. Still she struggled to stay standing, unwilling to be robbed of dignity. His hands cupped the air in an elegant swirl. The thorn-suspended knife flipped around to stab her joining. It was a piece of hot coal pressed down by a burly hand. A knot of pure acid. She was kneeling, screaming. Her hands dug at the grass. She wrenched what she could of her body back under control and forced agony down into an inward shudder.

“How did you… Why …” She tried to pry off the snakes, but they cut into her fingers like tightening bandages. Anger came out in a wet cough.

“The shape-changing sorcerer? Of course I’m familiar with his handiwork. I love to see women cut themselves down to size.” He snapped his fingers. The snakes and thorns harnessed her up, a biting yank. “You’ll come home and play my songs. You’ll tell everyone how happy the knife makes you, how women’s worst enemies are their own solid flesh. And despite your wounds, I love you still.” He made her take the first step, but after that she moved her own feet.

Aleppo moved ahead, her eyes and ears closed to all joy. She was a creature of self-inflicted wounds, her mind a jumble and her skin a vise. Wild women were glorious and free; they’d rather sit in a campfire or drown in a lake than have anything to do with someone like her. Maybe she could finish the potions the sorcerer had gave her, the one that would turn her face into polished marble and her voice into the sound of whispering snakes. Maybe if she drank nothing but cigarette smoke, spoke only in breath, she would fit her bones into a sharp-hipped body of silver and steel; a beautiful object who could look away, sneering, from a woman in pain. She would take a saw to her body and pry away grasping skin until she pulled out the power to be left alone.

As he slipped her arm through hers, she squared her jaw and set a course. The world was simple as a scalpel. Truth would bury her alive.

August had arrived, along with a coterie of fierce Wild Women. Now Aleppo heard her speak. “Leave our sister alone.”

Sister. The word both warmed and singed deep in her belly, and it was too late to figure out how she felt.

“You call that your sister? She’s a zoo.” He grabbed Aleppo by the shoulders and turned her around. “Look at them. Look how perfect and content they are and look at your blood.”

August’s face was a dangerous cliff. “You have an interesting idea of perfection.” At a gesture, the emptiness swelled until fog engulfed her entire body. It wrapped around her like a lover and sucked wetly at her freckled skin. This is what I was like at my worst, her steady gaze said. All I could do was run. When I stopped running I didn’t even know how to get out of bed. Hardly anyone can see it; I hide it well, but sometimes I’m still confused, still hurting.

And I think I’m still loved.

Another woman wiped off her lipstick on her sleeve. Jagged patterns of dots marked lips that had been completely sewn shut, the stitches hurriedly unpicked with broken fingernails.

Aleppo saw a big gray-haired woman with pockmarks on her chest from where thorns, now long removed, had ripped her skin. She saw a wide-lipped mermaid with the desiccated corpses of small yellow snakes twining through her multi-pierced ears. Women with the imprint of five masculine fingers tattooed indigo on their throats, with beige porcelain paint peeling from healthy brown foreheads, or tally marks of people they lost raised and pale on their wrists. They were all alike, Aleppo realized. No one had grown to womanhood completely unscathed. And no one was any less magic or any less strong.

She made it three steps before the bonds yanked tight, but by then she was nearly in August’s arms. “Help me,” she gasped out and “Help her,” August called. The blood-stained fabric of her white tunic fell to the grass. Many hands grasped snake-tails, wiggling the barbs to slide out easy and smooth. August knelt between her legs and eased her fingers under the rope of thorns. “May I—”

Do it and finally and yes, hurry tangled into an indistinct cry of assent.

The swelling harmony of women’s voices caged the conjurer in a prism of night and moonshine edged with saturated rainbow. August guided each thorn from her skin and, in one steady movement, pulled out the knife. There was pleasure itself in the absence of pain, a sense of loss resolving into full, spreading warmth. This time, she didn’t silence herself. She leaned on August’s shoulders, half screaming-half laughing. Her body felt wrung out to a good clean emptiness. Unexpected tears swamped down her cheeks, relief like the end of a fever. “Don’t stop touching me.”

She cupped Aleppo there, a gesture not intended to protect long-shed modesty but to soothe with a pulsing exhalation of healing magic. By tomorrow the wound would be a memory, the blood long dry, and the way August’s thumb stroked against the curve of her hipbone was a gift in itself. A few moments ago she would’ve expected her legs to give out; now her body was electric with new strength, and she stood unafraid as the clouds parted between her and the sorcerer.

These are my wounds; you placed the knife in my hand and told me where to cut.

These are the places you hurt me.

This is my body, and never again will you take it by force.

His sight struggled to accept her newfound majesty.

“Maybe there are more men like you,” Aleppo said quietly, “but there have always been brave women like us.”

Her wild sisters closed in on him. A howling chant of thigh-slaps and sharp laughter tore through bodies, rose like a plume of smoke into the sunset air. Aleppo’s heartbeat whirled into a skin drum. She only watched, feverish inspiration conducting her hands.

When the women drew back, all that remained of the sorcerer was a greasy stain upon the grass.

Aleppo rested her head on August’s sturdy shoulder and breathed until her ragged gasps turned into tears.

Something pressed against her hip. Don’t need that anymore. She lifted her hand and threw the potion bottle away. It described a glittering arc before smashing on a rough grey stone. The shards turned to long-rotted eggshells, its spilled contents to salt.

Later, Aleppo bathed in the priestess’s tent. She noticed the belt of red scars, the way her voice still trembled like pieces of glass.

“You can befriend your body again,” August told her. “I promise on vineyards—your voice will make its own new song.”

“Will I be beautiful?” Aleppo asked suspiciously.

“No one will make you their ornamentation, not when you’re one of us. You will be sweaty and muddy and nature-smudged. You will be dangerous. You will be wild.”

Aleppo stood in the evening darkness of the warm silk tent. She ran careful firm hands over her still-bruised breasts, her healing hips. She forgave her body with each touch; and like a sacred flame, it loved her back. Time, that made the hillside grasses grow again after droughts, would make forgiveness grow too. Someday her body would speak to her again, and she would listen, words of joy.

Seasons later, when the Wild Women once again moved past the city of silver towers, Aleppo would venture underground to the children of the catacombs. With a song of joy and freedom, she would lead them to untroubled air.

© 2015 Kayla Bashe

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