The mice come when Vyozhka calls them, her breath whistling through shattered teeth, brittle fingers tap-tapping on the temple floor. A storm-blown teak juts over the rubble of an outer wall: the mice scamper in along its ridged bark to patter across rain-slicked flagstone. Oily vines dangle through cracks splintering across the vaulted ceiling, and from them dip globular pods that pulse amber, making the mice’s shadows flicker and dart.
When the first brush of whiskers tickles her palm, Vyozhka peels loose lids from the twin ruins of her eyes. The ichor pooled at the bottoms of her sockets spills over the bronze curves of her cheeks, thick as honey; the mice lap at it with tiny pink tongues.
Leaving broken trails of damp across her skin, the mice climb the dark matted ropes of her hair, their fur the same magnolia white as the spell-struck thread that stitches shut her lips. They gnaw at the creepers binding her wrists and ankles and throat, nuzzle into the hollow of her collarbone, and chirp to her in the gloaming:
they will come again
when the brightsky breaks
to hew your limbs
to mine your bones for silver
Vyozhka struggles to inflate her punctured lungs. Her sternum buckles outward, jagged edges jutting from the flayed skin of her breasts. (Whenever the bone knits itself together, her captors crack it again to monitor the progress of her heart.) It hasn’t been long since the last harvest, and the nascent organ, small as a rosebud, sways in the cavity of her chest with every labored breath.
She stands and nearly collapses in on herself, her spine bowing beneath the weight of her upper torso. Her belly gapes between ribs and pelvis, the meat and muscle long since carved out and parceled. She packs the space with mice, filling in the absences of kidneys, bladder, spleen. Bracing herself against the wall, she slides one tentative foot in front of the other.
Then Vyozhka staggers from the sepulchral monument that, in gladder times, rang with paeans to her holy name.
The second sun has already begun its descent when Hedran maneuvers his coracle around the partially submerged wreck of a larger craft, mindful as he does of the massive upturned tortoise shell lashed to the side of his vessel.
He skims the surface of the water with his net and dumps another clump of pale blue algae, brimming with soft light, into the shell. Later, his village will trade the best algae in the city and bottle the rest to illuminate the bridges that connect their stilt homes.
The boat lists, and Hedran peers through the murk in time to glimpse a pale shape pass beneath the hull, twice as long as Hedran is tall. He swallows and paddles gamely on.
Each year, Hedran has to venture farther into uncharted waters to find healthy blooms of algae. He doesn’t mind the solitude, but the creatures out here, too bold by half, unsettle him. Long-legged birds with blunt beaks and bone crests stalk through the water, almost close enough to touch. On land, something grunts and chuckles loudly, hidden by dense foliage.
After a time, Hedran steers toward the bank. He secures his vessel to the protruding roots of a mangrove tree with a tether of braided creepers. Beneath his seat is the meal that his kin packed for him; he unwraps banana leaves from a stack of flatbread and flavored mashes, fried lungfish, and roasted cassavas. A seedpod lightly sealed with resin and coconut oil splits open to reveal yogurt mixed with water and mango pulp.
His molars thrum, and the fine hairs on his arms stand on end. He looks up as ripples spread across the water, and starts.
A young woman, small and dark, watches him from within the cage of roots to which he’s tied his boat.
He speaks gently, as though to a frightened animal. “Wellmet. My name is Hedran. Are you lost?” But her eyes when he meets them are not afraid. Their irises flicker and glow, like the ghost-fires that dance through the marsh some nights, when weather allows. The rest of her face is dappled with shadows.
His mouth goes dry, but she is alone, and decorum compels Hedran to share his meal.
Leaning closer, Hedran holds out a hunk of bread dipped in groundnut paste. As the young woman moves toward him, Hedran becomes aware of a low, resonant sound that might be her humming.
A cloud of iridescent dragonflies bursts from the root system of the mangrove, glittering in the sunlight. Their flight slows abruptly, as though the air has thickened. Hedran’s breath stutters in his throat as the insects float motionless around them, pierced on invisible hooks.
From above, a long, trilling bird cry reaches them and distorts, single notes detaching from one another to punch an eerie staccato into the humid air. His skull strains against the confines of his scalp, vision wavering at the edges.
Still humming, the young woman closes her fingers over the rim of his boat, and Hedran sees that her mouth is sewn shut.
Vyozhka recognizes neither line nor garb of the stranger in the little round vessel. His form is long and lean, sinewy from labor, with a sharp jaw shaven smooth. The stubble of his scalp is fair, and through it the markings that fan from the curve of each ear show darkly. He speaks nonsense, a foreign tongue, but his arm extends in oblation.
It is the first offering that has been made to her in a long, long time.
At her approach, the stranger blanches, gaze fixed on her half-healed belly. Vyozhka snatches the bread before he can draw it from her reach, and her hand convulses around it. She yanks hard on the edge of the young man’s boat so that he tumbles against her.
She takes him then, plunging her fingers into his skull, into the complex mechanism it houses; they slide in as bloodlessly as through water. There are still some things for which she needs no words. Vyozhka presses her lips to his forehead, and the shining white thread burns cold between them.
He is screaming.
She flexes her hands.
He does not stop.
Hedran wakes gradually to frog song. He sits up to find himself on the ground some distance from the water’s edge, on a fragrant bed of crushed algae.
The young woman sits in lotus position beside him. She sifts through the algae, watching the play of her fingers against the soft light.
Hers is a dark and terrible beauty, he thinks, but the thought does not sound like his.
Then an impression of meaning blooms inside his mind, at the core of an aching hollow that was not there before. Words unfurl between his ears like night ferns spreading their leaves under starlight.
Wellmet, they say in what is not so much a voice as it is a chorus of low chimes. I am Vyozhka.
He casts about, bewildered. The young woman tilts her head.
You are not of the First Dominion, beloved of my kind, she muses, nor are you kinsman to those who butchered them and mutilated their gods. How long have I lain weakened in the ruins of my own house?
“What did you do to me? How…” He coughs and tries again: “I can hear you in my head.”
I have conferred my grace upon you.
“I don’t know what that means.”
It means that I have claimed you as my priest, that your ears will not rupture when we converse. It means we may converse. She looks pleased.
Hedran debates the merits of confessing that he has never been a religious man.
She tells him, Words of power deform all being. Spoken aloud, they can make true what was once untrue, or unravel that which makes a man. All of creation was given form through song. Did you know?
He shakes his head.
I will hunt the butchers and feed the wind their ashes. I will seize their fell instruments and cut the thread that binds me. And then, First of my Followers, I will show you what words can do.
Hedran searches himself for fear and finds nothing. “What are you?”
Her face twists with sorrow and fury, and Hedran’s chest tightens with echoes of the same. She says, I am a reckoning, and rises smoothly, turning toward the ghost-fires bobbing over the water. There is a word of power that means Let This Thing Be Destroyed. Do you know what it is?
“No,” he whispers.
She gazes down at him, her eyes as bright and hard and pitiless as the suns. I do.
Vyozhka offers him her hand. The gesture concedes no refusal.
He lets her lead him from the swamp. With each step, the hollow in his mind grows wider, deeper. In time, he suspects, there will be room in him only for Her.