‘No Chimeras’, Ranylt Richildis

Illustrations © 2014 Lisa Grabenstetter

He was a thistle on the wall, a bane with voice and spear. No longer hooved, but stronger for the warriors by his side, stern Osheen rose, and roared, and picked up shield, and called his throng to city’s gate and city’s end. We came and dyed the streets. For us he shed his brindle half and reinscribed long war, for as a man he clutched truth, a thistle on the wall.

 [ Mountain, © 2014 Lisa Grabenstetter ]

This is the song that will never be sung. Osheen will not shed, and he waits to advise others against their own plans. He waits on one point of a mountain range that goes by eleven different names. His mountainside has a downy green pelt pricked with red flowers some bard once called bloodlets. Above and before him is a sloe sky difficult to look at but magnetic all the same. It looks as if it might eat the great city that spreads across the valley below. Osheen wishes it would. But however delicate the mist that cloaks Rose City, Rose City is firm—irreducible. Behind that soft violet corona are iron and stone and law.

Just where imagination leaves off and vision begins, a form flickers in the distance, towards the base of the hill. It climbs the mountainside, parting the hill’s green skin. It’s too far below to define, and it will be more than an hour before the visitor arrives for Osheen’s services.

This one moves strangely—a slow trudge and a gliding hop and a slow trudge again. A bird with a tattered wing. Osheen shields his eyes with his hands and studies the newcomer, curious. He crushes bloodlets under four hooves as he steps to the lip of his ledge. Too far down to tell, yes, but interesting.

Osheen turns and disappears into his cave to prepare for the client. Passing through a keyhole-shaped adit, he feels his sable hair lift in his home’s fetid air. He feels his brindle coat warmed by the glow of the crystals that illuminate his den. The formations—dozens of them, standing tall as a shedded man—cast more than coloured light against the stone. Were he to graze one with his fingers, he would catch the lore they keep in their red, or green, or yellow, or blue vitric shards. They tempt him, always. He spends his days in interplay with them, a librarian in his archive, but this day comes a visitor, so he resists.

Instead, he uses the crystals’ light to ready the map he unfurls, the wine he decants, and the white wire he will need to prompt his client’s shedding. He readies a simple robe since, depending on the chimera’s make, clothes it might lack when it arrives, and clothes it will need when it departs. Osheen weaves these robes with his own broad hands from the grasses given to him by the mountainside, but they must be replaced by their receivers once back in the valley again. The robes would undo the chimmies at the gates of Rose City—they have been marked by the Decider’s men.

Osheen steps outside once more to check the visitor’s progress. The plum sky is a weight on the chimera’s head, keeping it pressed to the mountainside despite its attempts to float rather than walk up the peak. Osheen can wait. He faces out, patient, and settles into his surveying stance.

Between his ledge and Rose City lie fields of varying degrees of fertility, cots, sloughs, and depressed villages. The Edict brought all the land’s economy into the Capital proper, leaving few hands to tend roofs and roods, so the countryside rots. Half-hearted vegetables are pulled from the ground by half-hearted hands—never paws, beaks, talons, or pincers, but hands attached to all-bodies, or to shedded chimmies who pass for all-bodies now.

Eventually the visitor is near enough to make its species manifest. It’s a powderer, probably male, cradling a book against his chest with his left arm—his right arm and wings hang useless and twisted. His antennae droop, and so does his head, and Osheen waits to see if the chimera will succumb to instinct, turn away from the cave, and return to hiding somewhere in the ravening valley. Many do—many more are deterred from shedding by Osheen’s words once they stand or coil or hover in the mountain cave, wary of the white wire, of the map, of odds.

Yes, male. The powderer is tall and spare. He is mostly man but for his broad moth-wings and bristling yellow antennae and strange soft eyes, and he arrives clad in thin auburn pants that guard his modesty. His hair is cut before it meets his shoulders, like the hair of all powderers, to keep it from sloughing the dust from his wings. He’s indeed wounded—he is curd-faced with pain—and by the time he nears Osheen’s ledge, he’s abandoned the idea of flight. Now all hope, it seems, lies in the book he presses to his breast.

He brings a fat, chest-sized volume to Osheen, who stretches over the lip of his ledge, intrigued. These books the chimeras donate are not payment for services—not outright, for Osheen’s function is twofold: transformation of bodies and safe storage of booklore. His clients expect they will live and overcome and get their books back, if not their truest forms.

The powderer is near enough that Osheen hears his breath as bare white feet grip the trail to the ledge. Grass is caught between the bare white toes. He sweats, so his dust is contained, but that will change quickly enough. The host extends a hand, and the guest gratefully passes off the enormous book he’s hauled up from the valley.

It was a day’s climb. The powderer flutters his wings to ease his strain—the whole ones stretch wide while the tattered ones sway with little life. He’s as many hands high as Osheen and a tenth of Osheen’s weight. Together they walk across the ledge, into the cave. The guest is courteous and says nothing about the outrageous odour that lives in Osheen’s home.

“I am Gãne,” the powderer offers when they come to rest, standing, at Osheen’s table, the map, wine, and wire between them. Osheen has no chairs.

“How did you hide this book?” Osheen asks. This is always his first question.

“Well, buried, of course. In tarp and grass.”

“Good storage,” Osheen approves, assessing the book’s tidy folds. The Dust-Songs. Not the only edition of the oldest of powderer cycles, but the best-preserved, with clever appendices full of history and theory and scansion.

The powderer’s antennae prick up for a moment, proud. Then they droop once more, as lank as his colourless hair and wings. The crystals’ lights thoroughly dye him. Gãne has no hue of his own to fend them off. His left side turns red and his right side turns blue, while around him the air turns violet. His dust is beginning to rise as his body cools, and soon enough he is shrouded in a tentative, static mist that absorbs the glow of Osheen’s shards. His wings, whole and tattered, become radiant.

“Have you no fear, ally?” Osheen asks the other, setting down the book. He won’t file it in the presence of company—he’s the only one who knows where the booklore is secreted. If some chimmies guess, so be it, but Osheen won’t confirm. He won’t allow his gaze to land on the crystals that blazon his cave.

“I fear being a fraud,” Gãne admits, and lifts his unhurt shoulder.

“And being a land-bound thing?” Osheen checks.

“I am already,” Gãne points out, rotating his chin towards his ruined wings. There is a pinch in his words.

“So you are,” Osheen nods. “And you have travelled a long day and a longer climb with a head full of ideals, only to submit to my speech.”

Gãne waits.

“It’s man you want, not moth?” Osheen verifies, though this has already been made clear. The choice is a red one—it must be sure.

The other nods.

“Is sentience better than flight?”

“I would have both,” Gãne admits, “but my wings are lame, and this law is untenable. Let me fight.”

“If you were all moth you would not recall—”

“Let me do my duty,” Gãne pleads. “I want admittance to the City.”

Osheen lets the ringing of Gãne’s voice sink to the cavern floor and die off. The powderer presents strongly so far, however frail his form.

“The network you wish to join is faltering,” Osheen warns his client, doing what he feels is his own stark duty. “The Decider’s eyes are everywhere.”

“This I know.”

“They look for chimeric traces in all-bodies.”

“My dust will wane,” Gãne assures Osheen, who knows as much—he’s shed several powderers already.

“But your weight will never increase—they snap the finger-bones of lean men, to test.”

“I’ll grow and dye my hair—pad my clothes.”

They all do, Osheen knows, but it’s enough that Gãne is aware of the risk. He’s heard, as Osheen has heard, of shedded powderers who still generate the merest of dust; shedded harpies who never outgrow their tart telltale scent; shedded griffs whose voices trill in their throats when they speak; shedded fauns with wrongly glinting eyes; shedded nixies with unquenchable, flaking skin; shedded bullfolk with cutaneous brows concealed by hair or hat. The white wire can only do so much.

“This duty you chase—”

“It seeks me,” Gãne insists.

“—has skinned my own brother alive. They severed and boiled his hooves as he watched from the block.”

Gãne is sympathetic but steadfast. His great soft eyes are hard.

“He was meat and glue by day’s end. Nor is there protection after shedding,” Osheen follows up, in the throes, now, of oration. “You know their methods. Not even chimmies can be trusted since Edict IV. Your own body betrays, and your own kind. They will chew you to gum if they catch you past the City’s gate. They will run their tongues over your flesh, bleed you, split you, teethe your bones, roll you about sordid palates ‘til they’ve released the flavour of your fancies, your ideals—’til your hopes grease their mouths. They are fattened on those hopes, my friend.”

Gãne resists his host’s manikins. His wings are still, his eyes constant. The glow of red and blue crystals armours him. Their hum shaves the curlicues off his host’s magniloquent tone.

“Let me tell you about the manticore,” Osheen chants. “She came full of rage and grit, radical, resourceful. She bounded up this hill, a trail of divots scarring her path. She was eager to shed her power though few could match her. From lion to lamb,” Osheen regrets, gesturing at the white wire that curls between them on the table. “After I shed her, she came aware with a start and could not recognize herself—her species—her contorted human length. Perhaps my brother’s end was neater, in a sense: she lost her mind halfway through the act of sitting up. I could not help her negotiate her flimsy body let alone her jolted senses. She rejected what was left of herself and pitched herself from that ledge. You are not all men and women inside.”

“There is enough man here—I know my legs, at least,” Gãne offers, a trace of timid wit in his manner. His resolution doesn’t flag.

“Yes, well, sometimes there are messes,” Osheen concludes. “Your ideals are more natural than a shedded body—embrace them, I say, for what they are. Enjoy them in your breast where they do you good, untested—little peas of hope to nourish a dreary life. Stay safe in form and stay far from that city.”

Gãne waits some more, sensing that his host is nearly spent.

Osheen spreads enormous hands and nods. “On the table, then,” he instructs, and shifts his tools to make room for Gãne’s negligible frame.

The powderer doesn’t hesitate. He lies on his stomach, crosses his arms, and presses his head in their crook as if to sleep. His frond-like antennae and four great wings shrink in anticipation, but Osheen isn’t ready to begin his wire-work. First he tips wine into a cup and sees that Gãne lifts his head and sips. Manticores succumb in minutes to the nostrum—lightsome powderers sleep before the cup has left their bottom lip. Gãne goes out, a flattened thread upon the table. He has known the last of his wings.

Osheen sets down the cup, picks up his wire, and begins.

 [ Unchanged, © 2014 Lisa Grabenstetter ] There are the wings to attend to, and the antennae, but there are also the lepidopteran eyes in Gãne’s head, which can’t simply be excised. The crystals hum, the cave walls glow, and the powderer sleeps as the wire weaves scars and pain and limitation—and advantage of a novel sort. It circles nubs and joints, contracts, furls across dusted skin, works wonders with the chimera’s eyes. Its hissing is inaudible beneath the crystals’ drone—or perhaps Osheen has grown used to the sound of his enchanted tool, and forgotten it.

It takes hours to carve the man out of the moth, yet Gãne sleeps. After the work is done, he is rolled onto his new back, the lightest of creatures in Osheen’s hands. He knows nothing of the cool cloth that dabs away the last of his true-form dust—there’s no longer enough of it to snow the air around him. He is all-bodied now, remarkable only in his leanness, his pallor, and his subtly silty skin. He is land-bound. His eyes are human, but they will strike others as over-large and arresting. His porous bones will never fill in. Osheen wonders how such chimmies contribute to the cause, too delicate for scrums—bloodless.

Towards evening Gãne opens his modified eyes. He stiffens, asea. Osheen lays a land on his client’s brow to ease him. It is an adjustment. How tight the world must feel to him now, how dim its objects. How weighted his body must seem, prised to the earth—how vulnerable. Gãne’s narrow jaw clenches and his new eyes are dismayed. They are four times smaller than they were this afternoon, defined by lashes, lightened by sclera, and dotted with grey-brown irises that sweep back and forth as Gãne struggles to rise off the table. Osheen’s champion hand holds the new man firm.

Only when Gãne relaxes does Osheen help him rise. He wraps his client in a robe and feeds him warm carrots and oatmeal and a different wine—this one fortifying. Gãne, marooned on the table, swallows what he’s given, and Osheen walks about his cave, avoiding crystals and plotting more words.

These are the words Gãne travelled up the mountain to hear, and Osheen, in sympathy, won’t deprive. He guides all chimeras to the best of his ability—though chimmies fall to the Decider’s men, they fall in smaller numbers thanks to his instructions. It’s not just booklore he keeps, and Gãne knows this, and rocks in his robe, and blinks his estranged eyes, and drinks his watered wine, and waits, still, habituated to his host’s rhythms.

Osheen moves towards the map, which sits undisturbed on the table to the left of Gãne. His client edges over to read and to catch every word. Osheen lays a thick finger towards the top of the miniature city before them. “This is the Mill District,” Osheen begins. He dots his finger about the icons that scatter the zone he describes—not just mills but foundries and workshops and smitheries of every type. They are small, city-strained industries that are nothing next to the sprawling, dying mills beyond the walls of Rose City, but they are busy and purposeful.

“I have heard of it,” Gãne nods in a voice that is still the voice he arrived with, hours ago.

“Seek the glazier. Seek Solo. She’s your first point, and will guide you through your training. It goes without saying that you must indicate to her that Osheen sent you, but still she can’t easily trust. You understand. This month’s password is quasit. If you fail to find her before nineteen days have elapsed, you must return to me for the latest word. But nineteen days…”

“Yes,” Gãne agrees. That is more than ample time.

“The training for rebel life is gruelling, but I daresay your first challenge will be the hardest.”

Gãne lifts a feathery eyebrow.

“The City gate,” Osheen explains.

“Well yes,” Gãne concurs, reminded.

“You’ll see it long before you arrive, even through the mist—big as a hill, that sign: No Chimeras.”

“I have been told.”

“But you haven’t yet seen it,” Osheen points out. “Your last visit to Rose City—like mine—was years ago. A full generation, when our kind still participated.”

Gãne nods.

“So you have not seen that sign. Those who’ve described it to you surely meant to do you service—dissuade. So.”

Gãne lifts his tired head, rolls his disoriented eye. “I am prepared,” he mourns.

“Absence of pain is in itself a reason to live,” Osheen tries—a final volley.

“I am head-to-toe pain, Mentor Osheen,” Gãne corrects, somewhat boldly. His fractured right arm is the least of it. His new scars burn and his eyes run.

“Not for long—not for more than a week or three. You heal already. And this grief you feel—that too will wane. But the boiling pots and chopping blocks and breaking wheels and bastinado whips are not objects one runs towards, even on limping feet. That sign, hung with bits of chimera rotted and fresh, rips all danger from the abstract. There’s a strategy in this. How can you arrive at the checkpoint, having seen that sign—having smelled it—and signal respect with steady hands? How can your eyes not glitter? How can the checkpointers not scent your fright?”

Gãne says nothing. Like most of Osheen’s clients, he’s determined to hope for the best.

“I trust you will take care and mind yourself, ally. That is all I can do.”

“You do much more,” Gãne insists. His new eyes strain to focus on The Dust-Songs, still whole and readable on a nearby shelf.

It remains on its shelf through the night, for by the time Osheen has finished counselling his guest, evening has fallen, and the valley path is too treacherous for a wounded, human-sighted chimmy to negotiate in the dark. Gãne sleeps under his robe, curled on a mound of straw and inured, it seems, to the cave’s hum and stink. He glows yellow in the cast of the nearest shard, camouflaged in his hay. Osheen would—as he looks on from a reddish corner—that this guest remain indefinitely. Here there’s safety, of a sort. Here there’s understanding, and no shortage of lore.

“And you?” Gãne asks Osheen as he readies to leave the next morning. His frame is sheltered under the robe, and his load is much lighter on this trek: a small basket of hill-grown vegetables, a knob of cheese, an oat cake, a cup to dip into rills on the way down the mountainside.

“We both know my place.”

Gãne steps to the rim of the ledge and gazes down on the City’s pink mist. He doesn’t hesitate in his quest—he seeks words, rather, and settles on the merest of them: “Horse or man?” he asks his mentor, a parting request.

“Horse and man ‘til the dirt takes me.”

Gãne nods and the wind lifts his weedy hair, as if to prompt him. He nods again, his gratitude a thing on the ledge between them, and turns towards the path. His step is cautious but unfaltering as he begins his descent to the valley. He could use a walking-stick to help his new balance find true—to help his new eyes discern the way—but none is available on Osheen’s peak, and so he manages, tilting this way and that, as he grows smaller and smaller on the well-worn trail.

“Horse,” Osheen admits to no one as he watches the ex-chimera wobble down the mountainside. Gãne is an hour’s trek below, far too far to hear this reply. He is an absence of colour in the spreading hills, a nil amid all that green. He is the size of a bloodlet. “If I shed, I would be horse, because I am wise.”

Osheen harrumphs. There is a garden to tend, and water to draw, and robes to weave. There is a book to archive. But for a long time Osheen prefers to watch the speck of his last client as it wends its way through the hills, towards a population that does not deserve its sacrifice.

Eventually Osheen turns from the ledge and steps into his cave. The humming shards renew his interest in the light which recalls all lore so that no chimeras need bear that burden. Let the Decider think he erases poetry—rewrites history. Not while Osheen stewards his cave, however much he would prefer to gallop, oblivious, away from the mountain, away from the City at the mountain’s foot.

He collects The Dust-Songs from its shelf and chooses the bouquet of yellow crystals near which Gãne slept. He considers paging through the book’s leaves but Osheen has grown used to efficiency. A word, and Gãne’s tome bursts into light and joins the shards that warm the stony walls.

Osheen rests custodial hands on the crystals before him and closes his eyes. He scrolls through offerings until he connects with The Dust-Songs, newly stored: All science and art can be seen from above / Aloft, like Makers we know all to be found on / The sun-sharpened grasslands where steppes only rise. He is illuminated.

© 2014 Ranylt Richildis

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