preview chapter #3 of The Golden City

Here is the third chapter of the book. I’m pleased with how it’s coming along, and have been talking to a graphic designer friend about getting a cover designed for it. 


Chapter Three

Later Sephir would look back at those first weeks spent in the red cube in the desert with some bemusement. The twins and Elabel had been so sure it was just a matter of finding the right map, the right traveler’s account, and then they would know what direction to walk and how far and then they would be home.

Sephir did not think she had ever been so sure, but then, it had been easy to be swept up in their blithe optimism.

She would come to wonder, too, how Elabel, who knew every corner and hallway and light pipe on both sides of the city, could not have comprehended the true nature of the desert and the journey back. Even decades later, she was not sure how much Elabel had not understood of her new guests, how much she understood but withheld, and how much she simply didn’t realize was unknown to anyone but herself.

But in those days, all Sephir could think of was the water that flowed freely every morning through the carved runnels and miniature aqueducts of the garden; of the fruit that fell from hundreds of trees, free for the taking; of the liberty to walk in the empty city; of her own room where she could close the door and sit on the windowsill and be entirely alone with her own breath and her own thoughts.

Elabel (whose gender Graneja had questioned somewhat rudely that first evening, though the androgynous woman had not seemed particularly put out) first made up beds for them from rugs and spare clothes, but in the first week she appeared at the doorway to their house with the pieces for folding cots, more woven blankets, jars of dried and pickled food, new clothes for each of them, and — unfortunately — new shoes. The twins, who thought the idea of ornamenting one’s feet perfectly amusing, simply wore them into the gardens and lost them; Sephir set them on her window ledge as an oddity and hope Elabel did not inquire.

All of the new things Elabel brought came out of a huge, odd-smelling canvas bag, still damp when she appeared in the morning on the patio and unrolled the top. Sometimes the jars or wooden furniture or new rugs, too, would be beaded with water, and had to be set on the windowsills in the brittle air to dry before they could be brought inside.

In the early mornings, after the red-haired woman had vanished for a day or two and then reappeared carrying her gray bag, encrusted with unidentifiable grime, over her back (the bag was big enough to tuck a child or two inside its great cylindrical heft, so enormous that Elabel herself could have climbed inside and knelt down and not have been seen,) when Sephir took objects one by one from Elabel’s hands into her own (a glass beaker of green flame-color, cold water pooling in the bowl; a heavy-bound book double-wrapped in layers of waxed fabric; a tin box of flour with a pattern pressed in the metal, also cool and beading water,) and turned them over and over, enjoying their heft and textures against her fingers and thinking only of the pleasure of having — for some value of having — her own things again:

Those mornings stayed in her mind long after too. Why hadn’t she wondered where all these objects had come from? Why hadn’t she puzzled over their curious dampness in a city fourteen days’ march into the heart of the desert? Why hadn’t she followed Elabel to discover where she went when she disappeared from the small terrace house? It wasn’t as though the other woman was resistant to questions; she simply gave incomprehensible answers.

But Sephir had quickly grown used to not looking at the red-haired woman’s mouth when she talked. By the time she had forgotten the sick fear of unreality (witchcraft, a part of her mind murmured up from childhood, to speak in tongues is the work of a ) that accompanied the disconnect between what she said and what Sephir heard, Elabel had, true to her word, learned enough of their language to make convincing mouth-shapes to go with her meaning. And — just as easily — Sephir grew accustomed to not asking questions, not even thinking them.

She had been afraid, Sephir realized later: more afraid to know than to not know, afraid that the truth would propel them back out into the desert, fleeing from something she could not understand. So she did not try to understand at all.

At first Elabel dug through the books already accumulated in drifts around her bed, her table, her sitting chair, and her potted plants. These were not written in a text that Sephir had ever seen — the script of her captors curved and looped like a wave on the ocean; this was hard and angular, each sign separated from the next by a thin cushion of space.

First came an enormous book that filled the entire kitchen table when it fell open. It was illuminated in a bewildering array of colors: translucent greens, chalky reds, velvety purples, sparkling whites, all traced over in a spiderweb of black and blue lines, marking roads, cities, rivers. Each new page revealed a complicated pattern of these things intersecting each other; but even more remarkably, each facing page carried drawings of people, cities, animals, plants.

“It’s the atlas Mumma gave me when I was small,” Elabel said cheerfully, though her fingers lingered on the frayed binding before she passed it to the twins. “I thought it might be better because it has pictures — there are pictures of the people from each land — as well as the Node Cities next to each map — so if you can recognize one of them you know you’ve got the right one.”

Sephir didn’t know what the Node Cities were, and nor could she recognize any of the pictures in Elabel’s atlas. The places that looked like those she knew — grasslands, deserts, seaside cities — were inhabited by strange people; the people who looked like people she knew — people with broad noses and brown skin as she had, or hooked noses and olive skin as the masters of the caravan did — inhabited strange cities.

She spent many evenings on her own small patio with the enormous book across her lap, slowly turning its pages and trying to make sense of its images, yet another mystery in a city full of them. One page showed roiling hills of sand, the edges of a cresting dune picked out in gold foil, but the people shown crossing the sands had orange and black stripes on their faces like lizards, and wore turbans and close-fitting garments of blue, not at all like the voluminous white robes of the slave drivers. Her eyes traced the drawing of a dozen adults and a child gathered around a fire under a sky of deepest purple and wondered: Where are their houses? Why are they out in the open? There were no cities marked upon the map opposite, not even the one they stood in.

She flipped later to another drawing of a young man, who looked so much like her father’s brother that she had to quickly close the book and set it aside so she could rub the heels of her palms fiercely into her eyes. No water dripped onto the book. His dark eyes turned up slightly at the corners; his full lips parted in a smile; his jaw was square, stern and out of place in his laughing countenance. She had not seen him in three — no, wasn’t it nearly four years now?

After Sephir had wiped her hands on her baggy new tunic she warily picked the atlas up and paged through it again, half-afraid the young man would have vanished from its pages. But there. There he looked out of the pages, as though her heart had conjured him up.

But the illuminations around his image were bizarre, and the map corresponding to this page of people made her heart sink further. The other pictures showed men and women paddling through a maze of streams or ditches lined in gray stone, stepping out from their crafts into tall masonry buildings built up to the edges of the water. More people looked out from banks upon banks of narrow glass windows and fished from second-story balconies or tiny bridges. They wore strange clothes too: pantaloons tight around the calves and short robes laced up the front or studded with buttons and loops of fabric.

Sephir asked Elabel to show her the map that had their own red cube on it. The other woman flipped to the very first pair of plates and pointed. Sephir’s heart sank.

“Elabel, what does that green pattern mean?” she asked, brushing the squares that filled the ground around the crimson square with a fingertip.

“They are fields,” Elabel said.

“We are in the middle of a desert,” Sephir said.

“Yes.”

“What does the blue line here signify?” asked Sephir.

“It is a river than runs by the city,” Elabel answered.

“We are in the middle of the desert.

“Yes.”

Sephir told the twins to stop looking for their home in that atlas.

***

Elabel started to come back with more and smaller books stacked in her dirty bag. These she read out loud to the twins in short bursts — as she read ahead silently, translated in her head, and then repeated the same in their language. Sephir wondered how much she was leaving out. Elabel asked the children to stop her if anything sounded familiar.

These books bore titles like The Twelfth Emperor’s Journey to the Outermost Rim, Madame Peliquat Takes a Holiday Sail to the Far Reaches of Abozia, and Bris Tagar: Merchant Journal, Year of the Eighty-Seventh Emperor Four Through Twenty-Nine. None of them spoke of lands that sounded familiar. The twins, who missed storytellers and a mother who cared for their education, insisted that they did and begged Elabel to keep reading.

They passed several months like this — Elabel disappearing every week and reappearing with more books, each reading followed by long sessions of furiously flipping through a dozen more books and note-taking on her part, and the days while she was gone occupied by made-up games and walks and searching the rooftop gardens for new plants to eat. (This last was more a hobby than anything, as Elabel had filled their kitchen cupboards with tinned and jarred foods. But Sephir could not shake the fear that someday the red-haired woman would stop returning, and they would need to look after themselves again.) As she lost her fear of their odd host, Sephir’s exasperation with her increased. Much of what she had taken for grave reserve or mysteriousness was clarified as a sort of mental confusion. Elabel struggled to meet their eyes, even those of the children. When no one was watching, she took up a piece of fabric or paper and folded it compulsively as she read or ate or stared pensively at the wall. When she read aloud to them, often she started in the wrong place or in the wrong book, and it took her some minutes to realize that the thought that had led her to a particular passage perhaps wasn’t relevant to the concerns of her guests.

Worst of all, in Sephir’s opinion, was the red-haired woman’s peculiar habit of pausing in arbitrary spots around the houses or patios or nearby gardens and standing there for minutes or even an hour, unmoving, her eyes fixed on an imperceptible point. Words did not reach her in this fugue state, and even the lightest of taps on her shoulder elicited such panic as she tumbled back into herself that Sephir ordered the twins never to touch her at all.

Sephir often wanted to snap: Didn’t your mother ever tell you to keep your wits about you? Didn’t your uncle ever clap his hands at you for dawdling? But she wasn’t sure that Elabel had ever had a mother or a family.

After the fourth month (or fifth? it was as hard to keep track of time in here as it had been in the desert, though the days grew hotter and then cooled again,) Elasha and Graneja no longer fixed Elabel’s bag with ferociously hungry eyes when she let it clunk to the table, nor did they harass her to start reading immediately. She had brought them amusements, ropes to skip with, wooden puzzle boxes, chalk to draw with, even a tiny palette of cosmetics and a mirror the size of a palm (this last embarrassed her so much that she could not even say a full sentence about it. “Some women — some girls — I have heard –” “Yes, thank you,” said Sephir, feeling kindly.) She taught the two children to read the strange, angular script of her books. But it soon became evident that the language she did not speak with them was stranger and more difficult than they could have imagined. Graneja, who had more of knack for it, was nevertheless reduced to tears by trying to read the merchant journal of Bris Tagar. “It doesn’t make any sense!” she wailed at Elabel.

“That one’s a bit difficult,” the woman said diplomatically. “What if I got you some other books to practice on?”

So Elabel started bringing other books, books of adventures and romances, written in a style for children, with large margins and straightforward grammar and illustrative pictures. Sephir, who had totally lost interest in the travel accounts, was yet amazed by these volumes: who put so much money and time into creating an object only for children? But when Elasha read aloud she enjoyed the stories as well. Elabel’s language seemed to be seeping in at their pores.

And so they lost the thread of leaving the city a week at a time. Elabel brought fewer books and more living-things (combs, sweet-smelling soaps, pans to cook in.) She took the twins deep into the city on explorations, which thrilled their small wild hearts and itchy feet. Often she gave them a charcoal rubbing or a sketch of a carving, and asked them to find one that matched it for her. These tasks were of varying difficulty; sometimes she gave them a hallway or a room to start in, and sometimes she wouldn’t (or couldn’t.) Sephir, feeling lofty and old, disdained to accompany them on these quests. But the twins brought back tales of the depths of the city: Golden ceilings lit up by Elabel’s lantern, hidden doors behind cupboards that rolled away from the wall, rooms filled entirely with images carved into the stone, a subterranean lake (Sephir did not really believe this last.) While she could not quite bear for the red-haired woman to see her curiosity, she too went out into the city during Elabel’s absences, trying to find her own treasures. But Sephir by herself never had the luck of the twins; it seemed she could go no more than hour’s walk into the cube before she found herself turned around and heading back to the terrace houses.

When she brought this lack of navigational ability up with Elabel, the other woman’s eyes unfocused as if she were listening to something far away. “The city doesn’t want you to feel ill at ease,” she said at last. “It’s trying to help you . . . get back to yourself.”

This did not reassure Sephir at all.

At some point it occurred to her that instead of wandering aimlessly over the roof in search of edible plants, she could start a garden of her own. There was a patch of roof, on top of a wide, flat house, that had been entirely taken over by wildflowers and weedy-looking grasses that she would not feel bad about ripping out. It wasn’t visible from her patio or Elabel’s where it stood, about fifteen minutes’ walk past the olive terraces. Seedpods from plants she had tasted in her wanderings started to catch her eye and find their way into her pockets. The thought of how long this meant she intended to stay in the city was put aside, like all her other questions. She did not ask Elabel for tools, but instead repurposed the broken pieces of a pot that Graneja had knocked down for digging and hoeing up the weedy bed. How did one garden in a place with no rainy season? Water would come through the irrigation channels in the morning and reach her small project. Did she need to make beds, then, since the water couldn’t wash the seeds away, or should she plant in rows?

A corner of the garden, five paces long by seven paces wide, had been dug up and planted when Sephir realized that Elabel was watching her cultivate from the stairway up to the next house’s roof.

“What do you want?” she called snappishly, rubbing dirt from her hands onto her tunic.

Elabel wordlessly presented her with a little bag and a flat metal tool fitted into a handle. Sephir resisted the urge to deck her with it and throw the little bag off the roof. The bag contained dried seeds: Beans, spices, grain, gourds, melons. That night when she retired she poured each over her fingers, feeling their shapes and thinking half-formed thoughts of her mother’s garden. After several days of irritated silence, Sephir grudgingly thanked her host over breakfast. Elabel, as always, did not meet her eyes, but she breathed very hard through her nose and nodded, before hastily rising from the table, bread still on her plate, and disappearing out the door.

The garden grew quickly and bloomed. Sephir had a suspicion that Elabel was tending it during the night, possibly bringing animal dung in her giant bag to poke into the dirt. The bag smelled bad enough.

The next week Elabel brought a flat board with a pattern of squares carved into its surface and laid out a number of pieces of different shapes and colors. She set this out on the stone bench on the patio and offered to teach the girls how to play the game. It was apparently complicated, and the children quickly grew bored. Sephir caught Elabel staring very hard at the door of their house when she returned from her garden, and her arrival made the other woman start and fling one of the pieces into a nearby urn, where she had to spend thirty minutes scrabbling amongst the flowering vines to pull it out.

***

A year and a day after they had arrived in the red cube in the desert, Sephir woke in the middle of the night. Moonlight of a frighteningly familiar hue and angle hit the floor of her room, dangerous pools rippling over the layered rugs and mats they had unrolled together over the stone. The desert wind, which usually could not be heard from inside the city, whistled and cried in the darkness, whipping against the carved shutters. This was the night they had arrived, when they had wandered from their own world into quite another one.

A brief terror seized her, as she stumbled from bed, rubbing her face and wrapping herself in a robe and then a shawl and then a scarf. She thought about the cold stone in the hallways and shoved her feet into the shoes that sat forlorn on her windowsill. The image of the man from the caravan who had chased them into the hallways of the city burned in the backs of her eyes. Her brain transformed him: his bones now bleached among a few white rags left from his robes, skull tumbled over ribs over femurs into a mess just outside the great, sealed door.

She had not left the city in a year. How had it gone so quickly?

Out the door; around the gallery; down the stairs; across the front room and the front patio; down the path that ran through the angrily rushing lavender and the quivering olive trees. She found a stair (or it was found for her) and began to descend. It was not until she pushed open a door to enter the interior maze of the city that she realized she had brought no lantern.

But as had happened the night of their arrival, someone (Elabel? the city itself?) had left a trail of lights for her, opened skywindows and cracked doors showing light pipes glimmering at the far ends of passages and cavernous rooms. She went down a staircase, crossed a hall, opened another door, went down another stair and another and another. She had never been this deep in the city without being turned back to the terraces above. She had enough wits to hope the city was not going to throw her out into the sand again; but then her wits were gone, used for navigating this, that, the other passage by touch and the barest hints of dim light. As she got lower (surely she was underground by now?) the passages became narrower, and the light pipes became fewer. Finally she was navigating only by her fingers, extended on either side of her to feel the grit of the hewn stone pressing in on her.

The passage began to curve. On a whim she reached overhead and found that she could touch the ceiling without standing on her toes. The force leading her on allowed her a claustrophobic shudder before pushing her through. The passage bit back on itself, weaving inward, a sort of half-spiral or half-labyrinth. And what was at the center?

Her fingers found wood, smooth, polished, a relief to her raw hands, and pushed forward. Silver light — not the white of the moon, but truly silver, glimmering like coins in a purse — outlined the door, showing it to be perfectly circular. Sephir stepped inside.

Several things struck her at once: one, the room was a narrow half-circle, its walls shining black rock, with a concentric half-circle of perfectly smooth water set into the floor at the base of the uncurved wall; two, the silver light emanated from the ceiling, which was so far overhead it could not be seen; three, Elabel slumped in perfect dejection on the shining floor in front of the pool. Her two hands braced her forehead as though her skull were filled with lead. Water dripped from all her clothes, silver pools forming on all sides of her. Her bag was nowhere in sight.

Whatever had been leading Sephir let go. She dropped abruptly to her knees next to Elabel.

Elabel did not move or speak for some minutes.

“Are you all right,” Sephir said finally, touching her shoulder lightly.

Elabel jolted as though she had been struck, and lifted a tear-stained face to look at Sephir. Just as quickly she jerked her gaze away and turned it back to her hands. Sephir knew she should feel exasperated and waited for the feeling to come, but it did not.

“No, I don’t suppose I am,” Elabel said, her voice choked.

Sephir looked at her own hands and folded them in her lap. “Something — I think something brought me down here,” she said. “Something was pulling me. I remember that you said, the city wants things, it calls to things –”

Elabel’s head spun back toward her, mouth open in a despairing gape. “The city — but — no — I — I didn’t mean to — ”

Sephir lost her balance and tipped forward, her hands slapping against the stone, as smooth as glass. Or water. “You? You woke me in the middle of the night? You brought me down here? How could — “ She’s a , came the murmur from her own brain. She’s lured you here, and you trusted her — Sephir took a deep, angry breath, her stomach quaking. “How.”

The water at the base of the wall rippled, as though disturbed by a finger. Elabel’s eyes slid to the corners to peek over at Sephir. Slowly, she spoke. “The city hears me more than it hears most people — well, more than all people — and it — it may have brought you — when — it knew — it knew something was wrong –” She gestured at her face.

You brought me here. Sephir pushed herself to her feet. “You must not do that ever again,” she said fiercely, her fists clenched low against her sides. “I am not your plaything to be yanked around. Neither are Graneja or Elasha. We are your guests.” Her heart sped and skittered. What did it mean if Elabel could compel her to move without even being in the same room? She found herself talking without knowing what she was saying. “This is not my home, and I have never forgotten it, but I have trusted you. I know that was stupid,” she said. “I know it. But I was desperate and I trusted you. And now you owe us the honor of your respect, because we have nowhere else to go.” She caught her breath, closed her eyes, and felt tears spilling down over her cheeks. She opened them and stared fiercely down at the silver-lit tangle of red hair.

“I am sorry,” Elabel said finally. “I will be try — I will try to be more careful.”

A huge rush of relief pressed on Sephir’s breastbone. How was it that Elabel did not realize that she held all the power here? Why was she willing to listen to a crazed ex-slave scream at her when she apparently had the power to push bodies through the air and pull minds through the night? “I don’t understand at all what you mean,” she said. “I never understand what you mean.” She held up a hand when Elabel opened her mouth. “I don’t know that I want to, either. I think you are hip-deep into strangeness, and I –” I am afraid of witches, she did not say. “ — I am a simple person,” she said finally. “The mysteries of the desert are not for me. I just want to be left alone.”

“I have tried,” Elabel said quietly, tentatively, “to leave you alone, as much as I might.”

“You have,” Sephir said, suddenly feeling deeply tired. “You have tried.” She knelt again, taking care to tuck her tunic beneath her knees. “And, for whatever it’s worth, I’m sorry for the weight of whatever it is you’re carrying.”

Elabel nodded.

They sat together in the silver light until Elabel’s teeth started to chatter audibly, and Sephir tugged at her hair until she got to her hands and knees and then stood, leading the way out of the round door and back up the stairs to the terrace. Unnervingly, what Sephir took first for the lingering light-imprint of the well room in her eyes did not fade from her vision, but continued on ahead of her as a softly-glowing human-shape: Elabel. Elabel was shining, shining a soft gold, from her hair and skin. Sephir closed her eyes and sighed.

***

At the beginning of the second year, the twins went through a growth spurt, their curly heads stretching up past Sephir’s shoulders and staying there. Bewilderingly, Elabel also seemed to be growing. When they had arrived, Sephir’s eyes were on level with her chin; now, the top of her head met with Elabel’s collarbone.

“Is this is a — a city thing?” Sephir asked her sharply one evening, when the weather was unexpectedly cold. She had made soup on the ceramic stove in their kitchen, which burned armfuls of debris from the gardens that Elabel brought back in bundles every fortnight. Graneja had lit the clay lamps (Elabel brought them oil in tall glass bottles) and light flickered over the carvings in the walls.

Sephir gestured with the ladle to the top of Elabel’s head, which she was rubbing ruefully. She had been talking to Elasha and looking in her bag, and completely forgotten to duck as she came through the door.

Elabel blinked slowly, once, twice, at Sephir’s euphemism for her witchcraft. “City thing? What?”

“You’re taller than you were. Is this some –” Some part of you being a , she didn’t continue.

“No. I’m just growing.”

“It isn’t natural for a full-grown woman to just keep getting taller,” Sephir said severely.

“I want some soup,” Graneja said. “Do you have any of the bread from last week left?”

“No, because you ate it, greedy guts,” Sephir said, poking her in the belly. Graneja shrieked and she flinched. The twins took bowls from shelves, spilling soup on the floor as they slopped it over with the ladle.

“I don’t think I’m full-grown,” said Elabel unexpectedly.

“You are,” Sephir said, rolling her eyes. “Women don’t keep growing past twenty –”

“I’m not twenty,” Elabel said.

Sephir stared at her. “Then how old are you?”

“I will be sixteen on Gelt’s Day,” Elabel announced, standing up from the table and nearly hitting her head again on a bit of molding projecting from the wall.

“When is Gelt’s Day?” Sephir snapped, feeling very stupid. It had never occurred to her that Elabel was not an adult either.

“In eight months,” Elabel, sticking her finger directly in the soup.

Sephir closed her eyes. “You’re nearly a year younger than me, did you realize that?” she said in strangled tones.

Elabel shook her hand when the soup turned out to be hotter than she expected, sending droplets across the wall and the tabletop. Sephir snarled and grabbed her hand with a cloth. “Don’t! You’re making a mess!”

The next day it snowed in the desert, leaving a fine layer of white powder over all the olives and the lavender bushes that disappeared by mid-morning. Elabel said that in all the years she had been in the city, it had never snowed on this side.

But that was only sixteen years, Sephir reminded herself, drawing her fingers through the mysterious dusty substance, packing the snow into tubes in the crevasses of her palm. It might have snowed seventeen years ago, or twenty. (It did not snow in her mother’s village or anywhere near her mother’s house, though some of the men who had gone on journeys up into the western mountains had spoken of the white stuff.)

“You can eat it,” Elabel said helpfully. “It’s just little bits of frozen water.”

Elasha and Graneja immediately put balls of snow on their tongues, and shrieked with the cold.

When the high summer came, when the twins told her they had been born, Elabel appeared with fruit-flavored ices, wrapped in waxed paper, wrapped in pouches full of sawdust, and Sephir thought of the snow cupped in hundreds of shining olive leaves, tiny mountain ranges on hundreds of waxy stems. The twins were ten. She would be seventeen sometime after the worst of the heat broke. The second year her garden progressed much farther than the first, and she was able to grow a small patch of millet on the roof of another house very near to the outermost parapet. The twins liked the flavor of the flour that Elabel brought in tins, but to her it tasted of captivity; she wanted the grain her mother grew.

She could barely bring herself to look over into the sands. What if there was another slave caravan? What if the same caravan passed this way again, and they saw her there, the girl who had stolen two children and disappeared? But when she leaned a ladder against the wall and pushed her head above the edge, she never saw anyone: only endless dust and transmogrifying dunes.

Elasha and Graneja both grew again in a rush. Both had become darker, though not as dark as Sephir. Elasha’s hair sprang out from her head in minute curls, the sun highlighting the colors of olive wood in each strand. She was broader of face and shoulder than Graneja, with square hands and a round jaw. Graneja’s hair was closer to pure black, her cheeks slightly hollowed under the high cheekbones she shared with her sister, her chin pointed and usually thrust forward, her hands long and fine. Both of them had fine golden lights in their eyes, and when Sephir was feeling particularly morbid she wondered if the city was somehow changing them, rooting in them to make them its own.

She tried to braid their hair like her mother had braided her own, in hundreds of strands, each no thicker than a finger. The twins had limited patience for this, though they were all too happy to admire the elegant drape of the braids in the mirror.

They would be a lovely pair when they were women, Sephir thought, feeling odd and old. Not that it would do them any good here, as they were hardly likely to meet a man in the empty city in the empty desert. (Nor was she, but this she was not sure she was sad about.)

Elabel still looked like a large, red-haired crow.

For her own part, Sephir used a pair of sewing scissors that she had taken from Elabel’s apartment to keep her hair trimmed close to her skull. She sometimes picked up the hand-mirror and the box of cosmetics and smeared colors on her face, but she couldn’t decide if the effect was pretty or absurd.

***

On a day very late in the summer, Elabel approached her in the millet field near the wall. She was holding a large box and looking apologetic (though she usually looked apologetic.)

“I know you don’t care for — city things,” she said. “But one of the things I have the charge of must be done today, and it must be done here; and it may be — alarming, to you.”

Sephir thought of leaving, of going to work in the other garden or perhaps take a nap on her patio, but curiosity kept her feet planted. “It’s all right,” she said (hoping the lie wasn’t too extravagant.) “I will watch.”

Elabel set down her box next to the outer wall and slid the top slats off. From inside she drew a white rope which shimmered oddly and a pair of tongs (also shimmering.)

Sephir fought the desire to run.

The red-haired woman reached out a hand, seemingly at random, and caught something out of the air. The gold in her eyes and her hair flashed, and gold tendrils writhed briefly under her skin. A fiery thread stretched through her hand, a filament which shone tautly on either side of her fist before fading away into invisibility above and below. She reached out again and caught another thread — again — another thread — again — and here was not just a thread but a rope of a hundred threads, twisted together and gleaming so brightly where it contacted Elabel’s skin that Sephir had to cover her eyes. Elabel smiled and unlooped a short length of the white rope, with which she knotted the golden threads to her wrist. Then she was searching through the air again, plucking for strings like she was playing an invisible harp. Another shining cord materialized, and she added it to the bouquet of threads blossoming up from the opposite wrist.

“What are you — “ Sephir could not keep her mouth closed a minute longer, but Elabel slid the rope off her wrist and slid the knot higher, well above her tall head. The threads disappeared again as she let go of them, and the knot seemed to float in mid-air two arms’-spans off the ground.

Sephir closed her eyes and took a deep, steadying breath, and so she did not see Elabel’s jump. When she opened them Elabel, too, appeared to be floating about a foot above the tallest millet plant — or rather hanging from her grip on an invisible rope in the sky, her hands clenched just above the knot she had tied. Elabel let one hand loose and slid the knot upward, then grabbed the collected golden threads above it once again. Like this she slowed inched into the sky, her drooping feet moving away from the ground hand’s-span by hand’s-span.

Sephir put her hands on her hips and backed up a few steps to get a better view.

When Elabel was twice her own height from the ground, she started to swing back and forth. Sephir put her hands over her eyes, her stomach swinging in sympathy, before peeking through her fingers. The swinging brought Elabel’s whole body over the edge of the outer wall, where she hung briefly, suspended for a split second over the drop to the sand below, before dropping back toward the millet.

Elabel’s feet contacted something in the air that briefly flared with a light — a whole tree trunk of golden tendrils which hung in the air directly outside of the wall. She swung back and forth a few more times before letting go.

Sephir gasped, and her stomach tried to jump into her throat. Elabel reached for the trunk and caught it with both arms. It flared under her grasp but did not stretch and bend as the other golden strands had done. A coil of white rope stretched back to the cluster of threads she had pulled together, and Sephir realized the other end was tied around Elabel’s waist.

The woman shimmied upward, until her head audibly thocked against something above it. Now she was the height of three men and a child on each other’s shoulders above the millet field, the height of two men above the parapet, and who knew how high above the desert floor. She grabbed an edge above her head; for a minute she was bent backwards, scrambling and dragging herself up, and then she was sitting on something invisible high in the sky above the wall. She drew out the pair of tongs and set to work, apparently untangling a giant knot.

Twenty minutes later, a noise filled the air, like the snapping-back of a hundred bowstrings all at once. Sephir jumped, expecting something to strike her, but felt nothing. Elabel let out a little cheer and — terrifyingly — jumped from her perch in the sky, holding the white rope in both hands and swinging downward like a monkey on a vine. She pulled herself up again to release the knot, then slid down in a rush, crushing a millet plant beneath her foot.

“Sorry,” she said meekly. She bent to the ground and extracted something from beneath her foot, then stood and held a sprig of seeds out to Sephir.

“What did you — what was — how did you — what is –” Sephir started. She felt like she had run several circuits of the parapets; her stomach clenched and unclenched and clenched again.

The gold eyes moved over her face without meeting her own. “I could explain — some of it — maybe,” she said. “There was a disturbance on the other side just inside this wall — the threads were pulling oddly, and the water wasn’t running up from the well and the light wasn’t running down through the surrounding pipes — and I realized it was on this side. There was a knot above one of the anchors.” She pointed to the perch where she had sat with the tongs. “So I climbed up and untangled it.”

Sephir squatted down to get her head closer to the ground. “I don’t understand,” she said very quietly. “I don’t need to understand. I just don’t . . . understand.” This will go on the list of things I am not asking questions about — “Have you been climbing all over the city, all this time, finding — knots — and — untangling them?”

“Usually it’s not so difficult,” Elabel said. “Most of them happen on the other side, and the threads – they just – they move – they move more easily. And even when it’s on this side – usually the knots happen lower down. A lot of times I can feel them on the other side, and then the twins help me find them in the walls or the floors.” Sephir’s mind flashed to the charcoal rubbings of carved faces and words. But Elabel was continuing, shyly, almost sadly, “And there are . . . more of them, now, than there were before. My mother kept them in order, but they’ve begun to be tangled again, because I can’t speak . . . directly . . . to them, as she could.”

“Why won’t she do it anymore?” Sephir asked. Her stomach did not feel steady enough to get to her feet yet, so she crossed her legs and sat.

“She died,” Elabel said in a still voice. “Four years ago. The year before you came.”

“I’m sorry.”

Elabel nodded, her head slowly dipping to her chest. “Someday — I will — be who my mother was,” she said slowly. She took a deep breath and looked into Sephir’s eyes. She knew this was a warning, though she could only guess at what it meant.

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