At dawn the spouts rise into light I slip over the side of the boat — Now they come closer, my face buffeted by swirling wrack I relax I hear the eerie wail of mother and child slowly roll to me wide flukes bending furling — I am weary of walking this land, bitterly breathing air of mountain and wilderness — If I flow through all the seas mingling with the herds as they graze in clouds of plankton will I be washed clean as I was before I lifted myself up in pride out of the grass defiance of gravity stiffening my backbone —
1995 I joined Peace Corps and was sent to teach English at the Lord
Byron School #10 in the city of Gyumri, Armenia. Gyumri is a city
which was devastated in a 1988 earthquake, killing more than 100,000
people in the region. Twenty years later there are still parts that have never been
rebuilt. When I was there I lived and worked with the populace in
improvised metal huts on top of the rubble. The entire city was a
graveyard. Judith Mann, a photographer, traveled to Armenia a year
before I did and recorded the following:
next day we travel north through stony mountains to the city of
Gyumri, devastated by a 12.5 earthquake in 1988. 80% of its buildings
were destroyed. The people who survived now live in small metal
shacks, most without plumbing, all subject to the same energy
shortages that plagues the rest of the country. It is a shock to see
an entire city still in ruins and piles of rubble everywhere; it
looks like 1945 post-World War Europe, as if a vast firebomb had
leveled everything. Our first stop is an orphanage. The masonry
building was deemed unsafe after the earthquake, so the orphans are
crowded into little metal buildings, fifteen cribs to a room, tightly
jammed together. The nurses do not seem to be particularly interested
in them handle them only when necessary. Greek physicians from
‘Doctors Without Borders’ have come to perform an operation on a
girl with a cleft palate. What of the other children who had physical
defects but were otherwise normal? The cheerful little toddler with
foreshortened arms and his sister? What would years of an
institutional life do to them?”
was not expecting to assist in the care of terminally-ill children
when I arrived in the city; however it became apparent that there was
great need in helping the very same state-funded orphanage
Mann had visited and reported on. My job also became one of
care-giving; I washed, fed and played with most of the fifty-odd
infants (ranging in age from “0 to 5” as the Director of
the orphanage joked) and while many of the children were healthy it
was the first time I was exposed to youngsters with terminal diseases
and physical conditions where there was nothing I could do. We had no
medicine, heat or real food. The local doctors refused to come and
treat the “things,” as they referred to my babies. There
are still taboos in Armenia when it comes to dealing with people with
disabilities. But as difficult as it was the nurses I worked with
were in the exact same situation as I was, as everybody in Gyumri, we
lived among the ruins, no one had anything. The miracle was that they
kept going, regardless; these women doing a job that they hadn’t been
paid for in months, compounded with the fact that they all had their
own families, their own children, who were going without as well. It
wasn’t indifference that the nurses were burdened with, it was
During the night a cold mountain rain fell, turning the dusty cobblestones of Atabekyan Street into a long, quaggy blotch, so that when the three-legged dog with the pepper-stump and heavy teats hobbled over to the front gate to meet the young foreigner once he finally staggered out into the chill morning air, skull throbbing with a grievous hang-over his neighbors had good-willingly inflicted upon him the night before, she was already soaked up to her haunches in mud.
Despite the protests of his landlady he had been leaving out dishes of cold cuts bought at the outdoor shuka-market for the dog, for he figured that she must have pups hidden away somewhere in the hollows of the nearby rubble that was all that was left of the neighborhood, house-fronts spilling out into the street in huge piles of pink stones.
“Ah, Mama Shun, dear, stay warm while I’m gone,” he said, bending down to pet her worn nape, hastily brushing away the fleas that rose up in a black mist to coat his hand.
Far down the earthquake-rippled street the local children were out, shrieking, playing some sort of game of tag. He knew most of their names — Mayranush, Little Aram, Jbduhi, Takavor, Arpi, Isahag — and, off to one side, the small twisted girl that the rest of them shunned, Lusine-jan. She wavered in the morning air with her shaven skull and wide, unblinking eyes as the others kicked up spurts of mud in the numerous potholes. Unlike the others, in their summer dresses and raffish vests, Lusine was clothed for the on-coming winter, with heavy tights and a quilted, stained skirt. Like the three-legged dog she moved slowly through the street, weirdly jerkily, her downcast eyes avoiding his eyes as he passed by.
In 1944 a ghost, a mossy gray-green girl once, stood at a village train station, waiting. I’ve heard this story before, how that she will be forever barely sixteen, a volunteer, leaving behind her hand-me-down dresses for a hint of military pantaloons and horsehide ankle-boots, her name stitched inside each new collar. A reflection appearing in the dark glass, unsubtle trying to tell me something as night rolls in.
My world is full of the memories of dead girls, how this one left behind the twisty roads of Mount Hiba, where Izanami, the goddess of creation and death, was buried, how the wind in the red elms over her parent’s house announced a storm, how brown leaves mixed with the elegance of her family’s graves. Are ghost stories maudlin?
I am unshaven, what do I know? Except that ahead of her all of the Pacific is burning, one town after the next will be consumed and finally Hiroshima, a mantra she can’t stop repeating.
Over and over she will practice introducing herself to her new shipmates (Yo-ro-shi-ku o-ne-gai-ita-shi-masu / Please take care of me), she will imagine how they must look, village girls just like her heading to a big city. She will look eagerly out the train window as it pulls into the stations at Osaka and then at Okayama, and then again and again on each of the platforms as they pass by.
Today it is a bullet train, sleek, crammed with office workers and it is impossible to imagine any memory staying alive long enough to ride on it while years before the girl rode out of the mountains and down to the sea and I can feel the rails singing failure, because there will always be children called to war while the sun sets over the mountains with the lights of Hiroshima spread out down below.
The night was gloomy but the breeze that rustled in the vines of the hanging moss forest was humid and soft. It was not against the wind that the Turkish rider, a girl no more than seventeen, hugged her robes closer about herself, pulled her veil tighter around her face and looked about with dread. She slipped down from her saddle, reluctant and slow, and began to walk toward a ruin building that her people called damned and cursed. Once, before the massacres, it had been a small bungalow, a house of her neighbors; but devastation had let in the harsh winter storms among its pink-grey stones, the heavy summer rains had softened the clay that bound them together, so that now the floor of the building was covered in last year’s autumn leaves and the skulls of double-crossed jackdaws. It was almost, the girl thought, as if Allah himself, in all his wisdom, had blasted the very earth in righteous indignation.
The girl, Hamiyet, stopped, for now there now came from a broken window the flicker of firelight. At the sound of the horse’s shod hooves on the gravel outside a figure came to the door and an elderly woman’s voice called out faintly, “Who’s there?”
Hamiyet called out, nervously in her native Turkish, “I have come for the Qrmuhin.”
“Then return home, girl,” the figure in the doorway replied, “for the Qrmuhin cannot come.”
“Not come …?”
As if by a click of a switch Hamiyet’s fear suddenly turned into impatience. There was sickness in the land, ever since the Sultan’s troops had entered the valley. Now many were dead. The last few surviving Qrmuhini were being kept busy caring for the sins of the righteous dead. Hamiyet drew closer, the horse’s reins looped over her arm.
“The Qrmuhini must come! I’ve been searching for her for three days. I can’t find anyone else. The Qrmuhin from Morratsum is ill, the one at Dzhokhk died yesterday …”
“Died?” the old woman echoed. “I did not know,” and the Turkish girl thought she heard in the Dhimmi’s voice the faint signs of despair.
Hamiyet rolled her eyes. “Of course you don’t know. Anyone living so far away and isolated like this … ”
The old woman interrupted the Turkish girl bitterly. “Of course the Qrmuhini live like lepers! Our daughters take your sins upon their souls and for that you call us Dhimmi and cast us out.”
The girl shrugged. The metaphysics of adults, regardless of their caste, was boring. For her it was simply doing what the Quran instructed: mortals can either accept the teachings of Mohammad or not, it really was that simple. “We will pay you. Plus … there is … food.”
The meal. It was a long-standing joke that for the worse True Believer then the better would be the feast that would be offered to the Dhimmi. No one could remember when this bizarre tradition started, but for years the pious who lived in this small corner of the Ottoman empire spread out food upon their dead’s body so that the starving would gobble down not just the meal but the dead’s sins along with it. The dead, made innocent again, went directly to paradise, Jannah; while the death-priestesses, the Qrmuhini, were feared and exiled from their own village, to live in wretched poverty until the villagers had need of the outcast once more. “Nevertheless,” said the old woman, turning back to the doorway, “my daughter is sick, she can’t come.”
Hamiyet dared not go back without a Qrmuhin. “I can get no one else. The time is passing. My father must be buried tomorrow. My mother is distraught in case he goes to the grave with his sins still upon his chest.” The seventeen year-old insisted: “is your daughter so very sick?”
The ivy, covering the ruined walls, in parts almost tumbled to the ground, seemed to listen. Somewhere off an owl, unnervingly hooting, called out “Hyek! Hyek!” while all about them dried brown leaves rustled and whispered, driven by the warm night wind. The old woman stopped in the doorway. She repeated, “Nobody else?”
“Who else could I get now? They must bury my father by tomorrow.”
The old woman considered a long time. She said at last: “where are you from?”
“I come from Dzhokhk. You know where it is, we’re not too far away.”
“How do you know what’s ‘too far’?” the woman asked. She looked past the girl at the rough little, stout mountain horse. “If … and I only say ‘if’ … if she comes with you then she must ride your horse.”
The teenage girl laughed. “What? … I walk, while a Dhimmi rides my horse?” But then Hamiyet sobered; what if the girl really was too weak to walk?
“Very well,” Hamiyet mumbled, trying to sound generous. “I will let her ride.”
“Both ways,” the old woman demanded. “You will bring her back again?”
“Evet, evet,” the girl said. “We’ll go both ways.”
Once the Armenian had done her work, Hamiyet thought, her kinfolk could decide what to do with her. There was a heap of stones near the door and the Turkish girl went and sat down upon one, cautiously, hugging her robes about her, watching the light glimmering inside the ruins, faint as a pale moonstone.
“Go, büyükanne, and tell your daughter to make haste,” Hamiyet declared regally. “I can’t wait all night.”
“I’ll fetch her,” was the reply, but then the old woman paused: “both ways?”
“Evet! Both ways, both ways,” Hamiyet promised once more, impatiently. She frowned, “what afflicts your daughter?”
“She is hungry,” said the woman simply, disappearing into the bungalow.
Moments later, in the fire’s glow, stood a girl … an ancient girl; from her gaunt, gangling body with her foolish, gentle face, she seemed old beyond years. Even the girl’s hair, a wild ashy thatch that hung almost to her ass, so bleached as to seem to be the white hair of old age, shook this way and that as the Qrmuhin glanced towards the open door, questioning.
Her mother stood silently for a long moment.
The girl finally shrugged hopelessly. She wrapped a thin arm was across her flat belly, her face was streaked with tears. “Mama-jan … it’s terrible to feel this way. My father lies sick in your bed and all I can think of is that I’m hungry.”
“If you do what I tell you,” with a sigh her mother took her daughter’s hand in hers, “we all shall have enough to eat.”
“Eat, Mama-jan?” There had been neither sin nor food in the house for well over a month.
The mother gestured to the distant figure sitting outside on the heap of stones. “This young lady has come for the Qrmuhin.”
“But mother, the Qrmuhin is … ”
The old woman looked into her daughter’s face. She tried to look intent, compassionate, yet fiercely resolute, but only ended up appearing irritated. “Shahani-jan,” she said, “you must go with the young lady.”
The girl was terrified, panic-stricken, freeing herself from her mother’s grasp. She began to beat the air like a child deprived of her toy.
“I couldn’t! I couldn’t! To eat a Turk’s sins …”
Her mother tried to get possession of her daughter’s flailing hands. “Hush now child, hush! Listen! Aren’t you are hungry?”
“But to eat off a dead man’s chest? I know what these people have done, their food will poison me.”
“Shahani-jan, they pay you, they will give you money.”
The girl only struggled and whimpered. “I’d rather starve … I’d rather starve!”
They were all starving. The massacres had left their little community devastated. Her husband had been ill for many weeks; the old woman dared not leave him long enough to try to earn or beg in the villages, the nearest town was eight miles away. Her daughter was too shell-shocked to send on such a task, ever since the Hamidiye had ridden into town; and with her own increasing illness the old woman had lost the will to try.
“If not for yourself, Shahani, for all of us. For your father.”
The poor girl’s vague eyes, unfocused, came at last to rest, looking wretchedly back, into her mother’s. “If he has no food … will he die?”
The old woman turned away her head from her daughter’s gaze. She knew that her husband must die, as all mortal things will eventually. But she simply answered, “yes, daughter, yes.”
“You said … that they will pay me?” The girl pressed her lips together, shivering. “To eat off the chest of a corpse! To take their sins!”
“Shahani-jan … this is what I am trying to say to you.” The old woman caught her daughter’s hands up, urgently whispering. “To get money for your father you must take their sins into your body, you must eat from their body. But listen, listen! You don’t really need to eat the food they present to you, you can bring it away …”
“Bring it away?”
“Eat nothing they give you, Shahani. Not one scrap, not one crumb! Say their queer prayers. Tell the people to let you alone with the body while you eat. But don’t eat anything they lay out for you. Bring all the food back with you.”
“Mother, I don’t understand. You want me to say the prayers but not eat what they give me? I am so hungry and all I’m to do is say prayers?”
“But … to see a dead body covered in food … and to say the prayers, to wail and scream! Mother! Must I?”
The old woman bent all her strength to uphold her will against her girl’s, “Yes, child. You must go.”
“Bring the food back? Bring it here?” It was dreadful to see the bewildered face lose its purity, the dawn of what her mother was asking of her creeping upon her. “So the food is for father? Isn’t that what you are telling me?”
“The food?” The girl’s thin arms hugged the aching emptiness of her belly.
“The food is not for me,” her mother replied. “I shall not touch one crumb of it, not one crumb.”
That was, of course, the truth of the matter.
Shahani went with the Turkish girl, trembling. Her mother had thrown a rough shawl about her head and shoulders so Hamiyet only saw the old-young face, hooded with wild white hair. The Widow, though, meeting them at the farmhouse door, held her lantern aloft and cried out, “What is this wretch that you’ve brought me? This is no Qrmuhin, fool, this is a Dhimmi girl!”
“She can eat as well as another, mother,” said the girl. But Hamiyet was mortified at having been deceived by an elderly Armenian woman, so she sought to recover herself. “She is better, perhaps. You know that girls are strong and born to bear the burden of their parents’ sins.”
“Do you call this strong?” The older woman said, pushing the Armenian girl before her into the lighted kitchen, turning the thin, dazed face to hers. You could see her heart sink within her. “As for young … is this wretched child to take on the evil of a grown man, a True Believer, in a whole day?”
“She is a Qrmuhin,” said the girl, shrugging. “Let her eat what she can.” Hamiyet threw herself down on the high-backed oak settle at the open hearth where, despite the oppressive heat of the night, a fire sputtered and sparked. “At any rate, there’s no other. I have searched three days; and, as it is, I had to walk all this way while your Qrmuhin rode upon my horse. I spent most of the time holding her to keep her from tumbling off the saddle.”
“She is weak,” said the older woman, looking at the girl with a mix of irritation and pity.
“I am hungry,” Shahani, her face slack with pan, finally announced.
The corpse was laid out in the little parlor where candlelight glowed from the tall dresser reflected in a dozen mirrors. A white sheet was pulled up to the bearded chin, a Greek dish balanced upon the dead chest, heaped with food — thick slices of ham, blue and glistening cheese, aromatic with herbs, eggs boiled and shelled, raw garlic sliced across, fresh-baked lavish, spread thinly with the butter, great wedges of iced cake, sticky slabs of Australian vegemite … Shahani stood looking amazed at it all.
The family, hastily summoned, crowded in after the girl and stood with heads bent around the table; the naked flesh of the patriarch, now rotting, now useless in his pride … the young children of the family shying away like frightened foals in the firelight that flickered into the hideous shadows so that, beneath the dead man’s shroud, the corpse seemed to move. The Turks waited for the Armenian girl to speak and cast their sins away.
Shahani could not speak. Her heart was like shush-winter water flowing deep within her breasts at the sight of the food. An old grandmother said at last, “Shall we begin?”
The Widow had protected the girl from her hurry-scurry ancestor’s scrutiny, keeping the unbeliever in the shadows, muffling her old-young face into her Kurdish shawl the way one does with a horse to blind it from what it is about to charge into. Too late now to find another priestess willing to play along with this game; Hamiyet’s mother had done her best … she wanted no argument from her kinfolk. She prompted the Armenian girl, mouthing, fearful, the opening words of what she knew was the Qrmuhin’s terrible prayer for their sinful dead.
Shahani had heard her father rehearsing what she had to say often enough … the burbling nonsense in Turkish, the pauses while the food was gobbled down, bit by ceremonious bit, the climax of prayer, the storming of Allah’s paradise, the shriek of horror as the prayer at last was answered, the sins transmitted into worthless flesh, the hasty flight of the Dhimmi, eerily sobbing like the Wailing Wall, staying only to pick up the money, by custom flung after the pariah cast out of the True Believer’s household. But the words … the howl of the Ottoman beast all girls had heard but could not imitate … so she made the cry of the She-Wolf that she knew would cry back to her, made the hoot of the Sevan Owl, the scream of the Cinereous Vulture, but these sounds had no words; she knew no words … Shahani began to mumble desperately … imitating a meaningless babel of Turkish words, like the tower collapsing upon itself. The family of the dead man shifted uneasily their thick feet … only half listening, only half watching the damned girl, afraid of the moment that had to come, giving the heathen girl, deliberately, only a divided part of their attention; yet conscious, with a growing consciousness, that all was not as it should be. The Widow made small, urgent, hidden gesture towards the body of her husband.
Shahani blanched. The time had come to eat.
The butter was foul in the candlelight, gleaming yellow-white among the moldy batch four-day old loaves; inside the girl’s mouth her cheeks seemed to sweat saliva. She stretched out a shaking hand towards the food. But her mother’s voice hissed in her ear: “Not one scrap, not one crumb!”
Shahani’s hand dropped back, her bony fists crumpling the sides of her dress.
The old woman had counselled her daughter, feverishly coaching her in the part that she must play, knowing Shahani was not capable of ad-libbing. Now, obedient by a distant summons, Shahani stumbled through the simple sentences. “You must all go. I am the Qrmuhin who must eat alone.”
The family was astonished, protesting. “Yok! The Qrmuhin must eat before the True Believers! That is the whole point!”
The girl repeated, “I am one that must eat alone.”
“Witnesses must be present to see that the sin leaving the body and enters a Dhimmi!”
“You shall hear it when it happens,” the girl replied.
That was the whole point of the ceremony, wasn’t it? The shriek of mortal terror, the terrible wailing …
“If we stand in the next room,” urged the Widow, aiding to the girl’ request, “then we shall hear when the sin passes.”
This Qrmuhin was not like any other Dhimmi sin-eater they had ever seen; in her heart the Widow doubted the girl’s worth but the damned creature was the best that they could do; her husband must be buried the next day. The Widow prayed again for no argument from amongst her ill-tempered kinfolk, True Believers were such a pain in the ass. So, uneasy but resolute, she drove them all into the kitchen next door.
With ears pressed against the balsa, the toothless hoard listened with bated breath to the wild babel that they assumed must be Armenian. Shahani, obedient, stuffed her threadbare pockets with all the food; menemen and börek disappeared into the lining of her torn skirt; simit and kaymak hidden against her naked thighs all the goat fat fit to burst found a home against the green-white hue of her flesh; the glossy fat of calf meat mushed against her hard rib-cage. All the while Shahani set up a shrill chant, incoherently the way men wild with drink do; perhaps it was Dog-Greek and Pig-Latin; the sort of mumbo-jumbo that only amazes those who haven’t gotten beyond 3rd grade.
“When we hear the Dhimmi scream,” one Turkish grandmother said, passionately, “it will be when the sin passes.”
The chanting suddenly ceased. Within the little room Shahani attempted to nerve herself for the screaming bit; yet there is nothing for her to scream about. May Tsovinar bless us all. What divine goddess would ever want one of these daughters scream to? In a corner a German grandfather clock, looking like a great, long, red-legged scissorman, ticked away the minutes. Silently, beneath the shroud, pale against the gloom of old Mormon silver, the Turkish corpse seemed to shift slightly, as if coming awake.
Shahani’s mouth opened, dragging up from her laboring lungs a deep gasp. The girl lurched forward like Frankenstein’s Monster, sick and trembling with this one chance to keep her father alive, this one chance that will, of course, fail, since the villagers know that the Monster and the Monster’s Creator must both die if the unbeliever, the Dhimmi, could not for them what they believed must happen.
Then an odd thing happened.
The metal dish, once heavy with food, resting on the corpse’s chest, began to move. Now emptied of food Shahani saw the beginning of the slow slide. She flung out a hand to stop it and one finger brushed the rim as she leaned over the corpse, crushing the food even more so; but, slick and greasy with bacon fat, the dish continued and a moment later crashed with a metallic bang onto the scrubbed stones of the floor.
Shahani let out one startled shriek as the door burst open. The family stood gaping as the screaming Qrmuhin pushed her way through and dashed outside. Out into the night air, under the stars, fleeing down the mountain-side to the place she called her home. If the Widow flung gold after her, if Hamiyet recollected her promise to bring the girl back home, Shahani waited for neither. After the long panic of the night, terror held her fast. Faint with starvation the girl rushed blindly on and on, stumbling through the hanging, moss-covered forest pungent with tarmac, across the squelchy marshland with its hideous cadaver-hunting night-birds, plunging through the river Pekolot, through scrub and thorn again and so at last, collapsing, bawling, Shahani found herself outside her ruined house, clutching blindly at her mother’s feet.
The old woman could not wait even to comfort or assist her daughter. Instead she burst out, “have you brought the food?”
Shahani dragged herself painfully to her feet. Her old-young face was raw and there was blood around her nostrils. Her long white hair was tangled and dirty. As if in a dream she began to take off items of her clothing, to extract from the hiding places on her body all the poor, battered remnants of a dead man’s feast … the crushed hard-boiled eggs, the börek gone limp and greasy now from long contact with the sweating body, the kaymak and the menemen. Her mother took it all from her, silently, piece by piece, scraped with a cupped palm the melting butter from between the hollow of her daughter’s breasts, gathered it all onto a crust of flat bread, lavash. It was only when her daughter stood before her naked that the old woman at last asked, “are you sure this is all of it?”
It was everything. Shahani had eaten nothing, had carried everything back home. As her mother stood the girl’s heart rose with her … she had saved her father, temptation had been resisted. But even at this realization Shahani could tell something wrong was happening.
“Where are you taking it? It’s for father, you promised!” Ravenous, shattered, Shahani began to drag herself after her mother, crying, “You’re not going to eat it yourself? Why aren’t you giving it to father …?”
The sins of a Turk, what were they? The massacre had swept through the land and he had done nothing to stop it. The Sultan, the “Sick Man of Europe,” had issued orders and he had excitedly carried them out. He had coveted and then watched his neighbor’s house burn and lifted not a single finger to help. They were bad … but the sins of the Qrmuhin were far worse; the long accumulation of sin upon sin, all unshriven and unforgiven, the sins of a True Believer who could only enter paradise if a monster ate them. There was no one who would take on the sins of a Qrmuhin.
The old woman had known, all along, that her husband, Shahani’s father, was in the gray-lands of death; there was nothing that could be done about that, priestess or no priestess. Now Shahani’s mother took her naked daughter by the hand and led her into the ruined house where her husband lay and spread out all the food upon his naked chest.
The dead are always talking; it is the living, in every age of gizmos and thingamabobs, who have forgotten how to listen.
“I died like this …”
Contrary to what you might believe these stories are told to anyone who can hear, regardless of kinship curse, haunting or vague homicidal family blood ties. Why is it that those who worship ancestors the most turn a deaf ear to their own tribe, let alone the tribe of their neighbors? That is a darkening of the soul. That is something the dead will not abide.
“… far out in a desert, a wasteland of salt, in the heat and stink of what the Turks call Der ez Zor …”
If you can hear stars sing you can listen to the dead. It is simple, for the dead are always talking with red adder’s tongue and the blessed silver owl light. A kiss in your mouth that leaves sparks. Sparks. If you can rub amber’s essence between your fingers you can listen to anything.
…“I was a girl, fey-wristed with curly black hair. I will tell you. I will tell you everything …”
You know some things, but never all. Der ez Zor was a place of suffering during the starving times. During the long walks. During the annihilation. The dead can tell you this because they remember the names. Names for everything. Names that you have been taught to ignore, that you’ve forgotten.
“… we called it Medz Yeghern, the Great Calamity. Remember what I tell you. Remember when the first signs of destruction were blown to us in the wind …”
I tell you about the fourteenth year in the new century. I tell you what I’ve heard because I am nothing and nobody. I can’t speak their language or read from their books. But the dead don’t care about grammar or poor translation or how verbs are conjugated. All they need is a willing audience.
“… when the wild horsemen came and burned down our crops, killing our fathers and husbands and son, telling us that we must go south, to the camps, to follow the relocation orders …”
These are not my kith and kin. These are not my blood soaked lands. Still — Medz Yeghern, the Great Calamity — fills my dreams and will not let me rest. Ever since I returned home from Peace Corps. Ever since I first tasted that strange flat bread that the dead call lavash.
Petals of lust. Stamens of dreams. Nightmare
upon horseback. My heart was ripped open;
moonlight in the dust, trampled without prayer,
without mercy. Mustachioed horseman,
blood-red fez, ghost. You planted the horror,
roots like ass’ legs; you have death-head lilies
in place of eyes. The was once a flower
that I loved, for there is no smut or sleaze
when it comes to Nature. No shame. No sin.
That’s Man’s domain. I don’t want a trampled
flower or a dream that promises lust
but can never deliver. Horror-man,
you rise, with your broken tusk you impaled
my curse, you’ll spawn only decay and rust.
Story contains a touch of graphic violence.
Please read at your own discretion. Cheers!
one more night alone
with all my grotesque passions
tender as the rain.
… she had no eyes in her face, not even the hint of sockets; her elongated skull was smooth to the touch and exquisite to behold. Now, crouching in the underbrush where the trail took a sharp bend, she could smell the man long before she heard him. What he was doing in the forest she couldn’t fathom, for creatures such as these remained bizarre and alien to her. They were dangerous and merciless, bringing death with them wherever they went. There was something, though, tragic and fascinating about them, too, she thought. They were only following their dark natures, which was why they frightened her as much as they did.
Sunlight cast dappled patches across her body, warming her, making her hiss with pleasure. She could smell the greens and golds all around her, breath in the riot of colors. When she concentrated she could distinctly hear each leaf rustling in the forest’s canopy far overhead.
Slowly tensing, she listened as the man stooped to pick fruit fallen to the ground, chewing on each as he went along. She thought about what she was about to do and paused. Of late she had become disturbed, upset even, whenever the necessity of violence appeared before her. She loathed violence, but some seed of self-preservation deep within her soul meant that she had to eat to survive. She said a silent prayer to Xeraxa, Lady of the Hunt, that it would be quick and merciful as she readied herself. Her shoulder blades arched, her segmented tail curled upward. She could smell everything about him now; the fruit digesting in his stomach, the musty cardamon of his clothing, the ancient leather of his wallet, the sour milkish fear his senses were just starting to give off as some primitive part of his brain realized something was lurking in the shadows.
With a blood-curdling screech, she erupted upwards, grace in motion, landing full upon her prey even as he turned.
The man’s eyes widened in shock and panic as he saw her. His arms flew up to try to protect himself even as her claws dug deep into his chest, her teeth burying themselves into the flesh of his neck. Blood spouted against the side of her face and despite her best efforts to remain dispassionate a rumble of satisfaction ran through her. At times she loathed the bestial side of her nature, but when it kicked in there was something deeply satisfying, erotic even, in the chase and capture, the killing and devouring, that she had never truly purged from her psyche, no matter how often or fervently she prayed.
She paused with reddish meat hanging from the sides of her mouth, raised her sightless head and breathed in deeply. Something was coming. She drew in a great breath, tasted every molecule that flooded her lungs, thought hard about what each one said. Someone was coming; a second man had entered the forest, but this creature was unlike anything that she had ever encountered.
The village of Adesuwa lay on the border between Benin and Burkina Faso, sleepy and alone. The nearest city, Tanguieta, was a hard two hours drive, and since the recent assassination of Thomas Sankara, whom the Western press had dubbed, “Africa’s Che Guevara,” it was uncertain who would fill the power vacuum and whether the peace that Adesuwa had enjoyed for over a decade would continue.
The village had a shaman — some called her a healer while others a cursed albino witch, though truth be told Kafoucha Sazu was neither, having written her dissertation on “Traditional Midwives of the Fon people and their impact on Post-Colonial transition,” at the Université des Sciences et Technologies du Bénin back in 1981 — who had once come face to face with the Démoness d’ombres and had walked away unscathed. It was for that reason that Iyabode had tracked her down, begging an hour of the her time and listening to everything that she had to say.
The young man leaned forward as Kafoucha spoke about the bloodthirsty creature that lay in wait in the heart of the Pendjari forest. Iyabode did not believe in superstitions. He believed in poachers, for Pendjari was home to more than three thousand West African elephants and, as his father and grandfather had done before him, the Benin government paid him to track down these ivory thieves and use whatever force necessary to persuade them to find less hazardous careers.
Try as he might to ignore his doubts, though, Iyabode was troubled by the story of a star beast that had fallen from the sky. Occasionally poachers had been known to murder hapless villagers who had witnessed more than they should have; but not like this. Neighbors would simply vanish, their mutilated bodies turning up days later. There was nothing in Pendjari that could inflict the sort of catastrophic violence that was being reported. Iyabode had heard stories of madmen escaping into the hinterlands, living like beasts, but the mad were not clever, they couldn’t hunt and more often than not simply perished in the summer heat before anyone could find them. This, though, whatever it was that dwelt in the shadows, was anything but mad. It left no trail, no trace, nothing the young man could use to follow. It simply struck and disappeared.
Iyabode lay under the sky that night, trying to sleep. The air, warm and muggy, caused the great arm of the Milky Way overhead to blur and dance. The forest had never once unnerved him — he had grown up in it, knew every animal that passed through its borders, could tell the difference between a Swallow-tailed Kite and a Black-rumped Waxbill just by their calls — but tonight everything was different. Somewhere out there, in the dark, lay a puzzle that he could not comprehend. How could he track something that left nothing behind? How could he follow something that simply vanished? Despite the wet heat in the air Iyabode shivered and did not know why, while a dozen feet away, wrapped in dark so tightly that not even the little red termites that crawled upon the forest floor knew that she was there, Xia, as she called herself, watched. She saw his rifle laying near by and the backpack that he used as a pillow and wondered where he had come from. He smelled different somehow … tempting.
Licking her lips, she shook her head and made a noise, kssh, the closest that she would ever come to purring. As Iyabode watched the stars twinkling in the night sky, he heard a weird rumble off in a patch of darkness nearby; darkness that appeared to sway in a different rhythm to the wind-blown grasses all around him. Forehead furrowed in curiosity, the young man raised himself on one elbow and briefly saw moonlight flickering and dancing across a huge shape: obsidian skin, teeth that glowed dully as saliva dripped, a tail like a scorpion that snaked slowly back and forth. Even as he stared, unsure of what he was seeing, the clouds parted and what he mistook to be Kafoucha’s Demoness of the Shadows instead resolved into a small bush, silver-black in the moonlight. Frowning, he laid back down after staring hard at the bush for a long moment.
Sighing, Iyabode finally fell asleep, not knowing what the sunrise would bring.
Iyabode awoke in the pre-dawn, the sky slowly turning from gun-metal blues to pinks and oranges; giving off a humid heat that found its way everywhere. Somewhere out there, hiding in a tree like one of the big cats, or perhaps asleep in one of the numerous caves carved out from the rocky hills, lay his mystery. He was sure it wasn’t a lion or cheetah, none of the obvious answers that sprang to mind; for obvious answers left behind evidence of themselves, spoor and marks, anything that he could follow and track. Iyabode often told himself that he did not believe in the supernatural, but the more he studied the problem the more he had to admit that it felt as if he were chasing a ghost, something that would be caught only if it wanted him to catch it.
Shouldering his backpack Iyabode stepped forward, leaving the rolling lands of the savanna and entering the shadowed world of the Pendjari forest.
Xia dreamed, making small clicking noises of contentment. Xia loved dreaming. It was the only time she didn’t feel absolutely and utterly alone.
Curled around the stump of an old balboa tree she recalled how, long, long ago, she had tumbled down from the heavens. She had only been an egg back then, drifting through the cosmos, until the gravity of a gentle blue-green planet pulled her to it. She had no idea how old she was, really, but after 91,3105 days she officially stopped counting. If Phrace, the Life Giver, or Niss, Queen of the Hive, wanted her to know they would have told her. Sometimes they did visit her while she slept. They were the only ones who ever called her daughter, called her, “my darling love,” let her know that she belonged somewhere, to someone. Nothing in her waking world ever made her feel that way.
Breathing heavily in the heat her tongue darted out to lick the dew off her exoskeleton, her small slit-nostrils twitching. It was then that she smelled him.
Now fully awake, Xia sat up, her long tail twitching. She plucked stray strands of grass from off her thorax and took a deep breath. All around her the world gave off fascinating and terrible scents. She could smell the negative ions of a bank of storm clouds a mile overhead; there was the constant musk of tree rot and mold; plants bursting with chloroplast; the beating heart of a hartebeest far out on the grassland; the pheromones cicadas give off when they are in heat. In the middle of all that, making his way deeper into Pendjari, was the strange hunter. She padded lightly across the glen, her morning dreams forgotten. Slipping up into a tree she looked about and waited, hissing happily to herself.
When the scent seemed to fade away she did her best impression of a frown. Growling in disappointment, she tensed, then bounced high into the air. For a moment it felt like she was flying, until, softly, she landed with ease in another tree. The leaves whispered as the trunk tilted from the force of her impact, causing mottled sunlight to run in crazy circles all over the forest floor.
Xia’s sharp translucent teeth suddenly bared themselves as she tried to make sense of what she was smelling. The race of man couldn’t simply disappear into thin air, not like she could. They always left trails that she could follow. She could hear them breathing before they even entered the forest, could smell their footprints hours after they passed by, could read their moods by the amount of adrenaline running through their blood. Dropping to the forest floor she moved on all fours from shadow to shadow, following the man’s tracks, until she came upon a water hole near a small bubbling creek. Ferns and vines grew in clumps along its bank. It was here that the footsteps simply disappeared.
Xia sat back on her haunches and thought. He wouldn’t have walked into the pond, the mud would have pulled him under. She had seen it happen before when buffaloes came to drink and doubted that even her monstrous strength would be enough to free her if she was foolish enough to venture in. Growling low, she sniffed the ground. She could tell where he stopped at the water’s edge, that was easy. But after that there was nothing. Frowning and hissing, she glared at the shadows here and there, trying to fathom how he had evaded her.
Iyabode nearly screamed when he finally saw what had been tracking him. He had known for a while something was up in the trees, a shadow leaping from trunk to trunk every time he turned his head away. He held the hollow river reed nightly in his mouth, trying to get his heart to stop pounding in his ears as the star beast that Kafoucha had warned him of materialized from out of the forest. It was huge, towering over the edge of the water. There were no eyes in its dark face that it turned this way and that, sniffing the air. Its skeletal arms were folded over naked, mammal-like breasts. He could see a crest behind the deformed, oblong skull. It looked entirely out of place in the warm West African sunlight.
Slowly Iyabode attempted to shift his weight in the heavy mud. For whatever reason the mud and water appeared to render him invisible to the monster. Instead of repositioning himself, though, he floundered. The mud was much stronger than he realized. The act of moving began to suck him down, as if to claim him for itself. Suddenly he was no longer breathing air but pond water as his reed disappeared below the surface. His lungs expanded for their last time and he could feel blood painfully contracting in his ear drums. He opened his mouth to scream and a flood of blackness poured in.
Xia’s head snapped to the left at the first commotion that broke the surface of the mud pond. So he had chanced to hide underwater in the one place that evaded her sense of smell and sound. She couldn’t decide if that had been foolish or brilliant. Standing to her full height she reached out and dragged the half-drowned man out from the mud, holding him aloft like a trophy. She could hear his heart beating and slowly he opened his eyes, the one part of the human body she never really understood, and gazed at her. Hissing softly she pressed her face to his.
It was this gesture, one so unmistakably human, that shocked Iyabode the most. The star beast was even more horrifyingly exotic up close. It? She? held him as if he were a rag doll to play with, a much loved toy. Purring her strange alien purr, she nuzzled his neck, his chest, rubbing herself against him.
Xia grinned, an expression that was nearly indistinguishable from her frown. She had finally caught her prize. She leaned down and breathed in all his scents, memorizing the odor of his DNA, her queer tongue with its tiny jaws licking away the mud from his face, his ears, neck and lips, slowly exploring his mouth until her great tongue filled him. A low rumble started in her chest and she pulled his body to hers until he was nearly smothered between her breasts. She didn’t see fear in his expression, only amazement.
Iyabode felt that he was quickly losing grip on reality. He was aroused. How could he be aroused? He shuddered when she continued to lick and rub. Her skin was so soft, her tongue was so different from anything that had ever touched him that it made his blood boil. Moving down his body he felt her claws lightly rake him. She could already smell the blood that had puckered across his chest caused by her long nails.
He wanted to call her something — beast, monster, devil, nightmare — but Iyabode found that he had lost the ability for speech as her impossible tongue wrapped itself around his cock.
His hips jerked and he gasped as her tongue, wet and rough, tasted him, as he grew harder and longer with each touch. Pleased to no end, she turned her eyeless head as if watching his reactions, as her tongue, wrapped around him, dragged his cock into her mouth. She heard him give his own hiss and wondered if it was in pleasure or pain. She hoped both.
Still purring hard, she continued to explore his pleasure centers. She could hear his rapid breathing, his chest heaving up and down. The human body is so easily fooled into thinking death pleasurable. When she tasted the first signs of his oncoming orgasm from the tip of his cock, she continued to lap, hoping for more, loving the cosmic taste. This was what space dust had tasted like when she had been nothing more than an egg, lost in the void.
She had never understood certain parts of her anatomy. Her clit brought her pleasure, that was obvious. But, by Jah and all that was holy, the wet little slit underneath it made no sense. If that was where her eggs came from then she must be barren, for no matter how much she played with it she had never felt a stirring deep within, never had used long forgotten muscles to push the fragile shells out. Perhaps if she had been among her own people she would have been better informed. Perhaps if she could remember her dreams better then her holy mothers would have explained everything to her. Perhaps.
Now, though, she felt powers well up from deep within, the abyssal magic, that she had no possible way to say no to.
Purring hard, she crawled over Iyabode’s inert body, her long tail sweeping down to curl gently around his cock. He groaned as she tightened, holding him in place. Taking a deep breath she lowered herself down onto him.
“Kssh … !”
He groaned with pleasure, his eyes rolling back into his skull. The rumble in her breasts increased as she impaled herself. She was tight, throbbing, radiating. Her tail let go and he slid, glorious inch by inch, into her. A whimpering hiss escaped from her lips, her mouth opened wide in pleasure, her long tongue hung limply, the tiny jaws snapping at the virgin air.
Trilling in bliss, she became accustomed to his size and began to move. So … this was the secret of joy. He gasped and both of his hands dug into the wet pond mud. With her skeletal fingers she lifted each from the ground and placed them on her soft, mammalian breasts. Whimpering and hissing, she grooved and ground her hips slowly down against his, delighting in how his pelvis bone rubbed her at each stroke. She loved the queer, little noises he made in the heat of passion.
Inarticulate noises escaped from his lungs. Iyabode knew that he wouldn’t last long like this. She was well over seven feet in height, weighed possibly twice as much as he did, had muscles that could bend steel if she set her mind to it. None of that mattered. As she rocked against him, letting him fill her at each stroke, he surged up, quickly wrapping his arms around her wide hips, his cock buried to its hilt, pistoning inside her. With a war cry he rolled them both onto their sides.
Xia growled, but Iyabode could hear her moan with passion as well.
His lover now found herself on her back, her tail whipping itself back and forth between their legs, tickling his balls. Breathing hard, he propped himself up on his elbows, allowing her long legs to get a good grip in the mud. Grunting, he drove hard into her and heard her yowl and growl in pleasure. His sweat rolled off his back, causing little rainbow dots to appear all over her exoskeleton wherever they fell. He could feel his orgasm bubbling up: hot, rude and unstoppable. He managed to pant out, “I’m gonna cum.” Words that were lost on Xia.
Iyabode had been taught that it was poor manners to cum on your first date, but at that point he didn’t care. Biological laws of inter-species mating meant nothing. He felt his cock rise and throb even more, if that was possible, shudders running down his spine as he tried to pull out of her. But Xia’s cunt, which she was just now learning how to control, was clenched tight around him. She simply held him tight, using her muscles as if she possessed a vagina dentata, sucking him in deeper and deeper in, over and over and over.
Twisting violently in her embrace Iyabode’s orgasm sprayed his soul deep inside her, triggering Xia’s own tidal wave. As she exploded into stars she felt awe that there now existed another creature in the universe to cause the sort of pleasure that for the last 2500 years only she herself was capable of. She threw her head back, opened her jaws and gave the longest, drawn-out alien shriek that the forests of Pendjari had ever heard. Birds flew in panic into the air; elephants stampeded; the last twelve remaining African painted wolves howled; and Dr. Kafoucha Sazu, midwife and shaman, sat up in bed and smiled to herself.
Xia’s scream came from another world. It was filled with triumph and pleasure and astonishment. It was the cry that comes when the very last of a species realizes that it is no longer alone.
Panting, allowing their mutual earthquake-shivers to pass between them, Iyabode felt like a dead thing in her arms as she arched her back and pressed his lifeless body between her breasts, her thorax, her thick thighs that held his cock deep within her and brought, even for just a moment, peace.
laying in my arms
I’m amazed how your eyes now
hold all the cosmos
“I can’t listen to you. I can’t listen to your voice. It’s as though I’d drunk a bottle of anise and fallen asleep wrapped in a quilt of roses. It pulls me along – and I know I’m drowning – but I go on down.”
― Federico Garcia Lorca, Bodas de sangre.
I love the dead because the living spend so much time worrying about them. Plagues come, plagues go; someone flits like a shadow by your open bedroom door; the child of a broken heart discovers a thousand years later that kissing isn’t immoral, degenerate or likely to spread disease. During all that time — you living, you dull creatures — you either worship or fear all those who have gone before you.
“You have to know, sister,” Juan Ramírez de Lucas said, pale and drawn, “you have to know that no one here will show you disrespect. Say what you wish. But will you not sit down? You look very tired.”
The nun — her fingers still smelling of freshly cut ginger, copper, blood — took the offered chair and fixed her eyes upon the one sitting across from her.
“It is this, senior,” she spoke rapidly, lest her courage should freeze in her throat. “He is unhappy. He is in pain. All night long he hears the brute iron and the cocking of rifles. He smells the foul smoke of burning bodies and the shrieking that hides in the throat. It has awakened my dear little dead one.
“When I guarded him with holy water he heard nothing. Back then the fires of the century held no curiosity for him, since the hearts of the living are based upon greed and corruption and hate.
“But one night he came to me, shaking the nail out of his coffin. I awoke but the deviltry had already been done, he was awake, the dear sleep of eternity was stirring. He thought it was his last trump card and he wondered why he was still in his grave. But we talked together and it was not so bad at the first. But, senior, now he is frantic. He is in hell. O, think, think, senior, what it is to have the long sleep of the grave so rudely disturbed? Love? Yes, love called him back from the sleep that he so patiently endured!”
The nun stopped abruptly and caught her breath. Juan Ramírez had listened without change of expression, convinced that he was facing a madwoman. But the travesty wearied him, and involuntarily he stood up as if to leave the room.
“O, senior, not yet! not yet!” panted the nun. “It is of him that I came to speak. He told me that he wished to lie there and listen to the earth and sky and all the secret’s of the sea; so I stopped sprinkling holy water on his grave. But the dead have needs that the living cannot understand; for he, too, your love, is wretched and horror-stricken, senior. He moans and screams. His unmarked grave can never be found. He cannot break out of it. I have heard his frightful word from his grave tonight, senior; I swear it upon the cross.”
Juan Ramírez de Lucas shook from head to foot, staggered from his chair. He was staring at the nun as if she had become the ghost of his dead lover. “You hear him, too?” he gasped.
“He is not at peace, senior. He moans and shrieks in a terrible, smothering way, as if a bony hand were pressing down upon his chest until his ribs crack.”
The young man suddenly recovered himself and dashed from the room. The nun passed her hand across her fevered forehead, as if a terrible dream still remained in the corners of her memory. She stood, facing the door. The living are all cowards when it comes to the great gray shadow that they blithely call death.
I have searched for Hart Crane among the dice of drowned men’s bones. I have wandered Alfacar looking for the fountain of tears. Federico, your body has yet to be discovered. We call the dead back to us but the living have nothing to say.
Once, on a bright morning in the month of March, with branches of blooming cherry trees framing the world, Kumori, a girl of some fifteen-years, sat on a low gunmetal-gray wall, watching party after party of armed men, retainers, their robes showing the crests of a dozen different local lords, riding up to the castle of the recently widowed Lady Kobayashi.
“I would love to know,” the girl mused to herself, lazily waving a sprig of cherry blossoms in the warm air, “just what ill-wind blows those rough-looking bastards here.”
She wasn’t sure what a ‘rough-looking bastard’ actually was, but she had overheard the phrase used in the wine-house that her mother worked in and was dying to try it out. Sunshine, dappled by the swaying branches above her, dazzled her eyes. The girl frowned, staring up at the white wisps of clouds set against the deep blue silk of a sky.
“Or is this about the sacred pledge, I wonder, that my lady made concerning settling, once and for all, her quarrel with Lord Watanabe? Or could she be intending to sweep the woods clean?”
It was hard being only fifteen and having a mother who worked in a wine-house. Most of her friends were already engaged in the Lady’s service. Soon they would be married off to the sons of local lords who remained faithful to the House of Kobayashi. Kumori, though, was considered too rambunctious a girl to learn the tea ceremony and calligraphy and powder her face each morning before the sun rose. However, just because she excelled on horse-back and could hit anything in the air with a bow and arrow didn’t mean that many of the girls who wore fancy kimonos didn’t have secret crushes on Kumori.
“Ah! here comes lovely Fuyu,” Kumori thought to herself, spotting a jovial-looking girl coming down from the direction of the castle. “She might be able to tell me the meaning of this gathering.”
Leaping to her feet, the girl started off at a brisk walk across the field.
“Ah, Mistress Kumori,” Fuyu said as Kumori stopped in front of her. The hand-maiden couldn’t help blush every time the ragamuffin girl was around, despite the expertly applied white powder, “what brings you so near to the castle? It is not often that you favor us with your presence anymore.”
There was reproach in the girl’s voice, though Kumori pretended not to hear.
“I am happier in the woods, as you well know, and was on my way there but now, when I paused at the sight of all these ruffians flocking in to Kobayashi Castle. What undertaking has Lady Kobayashi started upon now?”
“My lady keeps her own counsel,” said girl, “but I think a shrewd guess might be made at the purpose of a gathering. It was but three days since that her grangers were beaten back by all those rude, ruthless, landless men who call you kin; they caught in the very act of cutting up a juicy, fat buck, or so I am told. As you know, my lady, though easy and well-disposed to every girl who comes into her service, is not fond of vagabonds abusing their forest privileges on her land. Just three days ago she swore that she would clear the forest of these poachers. Or, I do not know, it may be, that this gathering of retainers is for the purpose of falling upon that robber and tyrant, Lord Toshio of Watanabe, who has already begun to harass some of our outlying lands. It is a quarrel which will have to be fought out sooner or later, and for my lady it seems the sooner the better.”
“Arigato, Fuyu-chan,” said Kumori. “I must not stand here gossiping with you. The news you have told me, as you know, touches me deeply, for I would make sure that no harm should befall my kin.”
“I plead with you, Kumori-chan, tell no one that the news came from me, for mild as Lady Kobayashi to those who attend on her at her bath, she would, I think, let me starve in the woods if she knew that I might have given a warning through which the brigands might slip through her fingers.”
“Do not worry, Fuyu-chan; I can be as silent as the rot on a tree when the need arises. Can you tell me when her lady’s forces are likely to set out?”
“Soon,” Fuyu replied. “Those who first arrived I left swilling Kobayashi Castle’s rare sake, devouring rice cake upon rice cake. The cooks of the castle have been hard pressed all day, and from what I hear, this band of ruffians will set forth as soon as dusk falls upon the walls of my lady’s keep.”
[to be cont.]