Sunny abandoned her house the day after she buried Anna and struck out for the western metropolis of Palotl. She gathered up all her practical effects in no time at all: a sharp knife, matches, a map, and a pair of good blankets—one from her childhood, one from Anna’s.
Anna’s blanket was a mess of Evenki winter scenes: the Old Witch’s Comb, a strutting rooster and the gaping grey jaws of wolves.
Sunny sniffed. It still smelled like her.
Her own blanket was decorated with Quetzal mosaics in bright reds and greens: the Flower Goddess bringing life to the desert, Mixcoatl the Hunter casting his net through the stars, headless Night Axe terrorizing travelers.
Sunny rolled up the blankets along with a bedroll and stuffed them into her backpack.
She packed a sensible amount of food (turkey and dog sausages, tortillas, a few ears of corn and as much water as she could fit), strapped on her boots, and stomped to her front door for the last time.
Sunny didn’t so much as glance at the home where Anna had breathed her last and their adopted daughters had grown up— a pair of chattering dandelions. Red had settled in the Final Carnival in Palotl while Nissa headed north to glacial Vasirland. Sunny didn’t spare a glance at the tapestries and portraits she’d weaved and sketched of her family. It would do about as much good as praying, which is to say, no good at all.
Katzin yawned in amusement from his customary sunbathing perch on the windowsill.
Sunny gathered up her heavy yew cane, shawl, and knitting supplies last. The cane was a joking gift from Anna for her sixtieth birthday. She propped open the front door with a foot.
“Katzin,” Sunny called, securing her knitting needles in her bun—a practical choice and a sentimental gesture. Anna had given her the scrimshawed needles during their courtship, all those years ago, so they held a special place in Sunny’s heart—and in her follicles.
“We’re leaving.” Sunny announced, adjusting the cloth around her hair to lessen the heavy beating of the sun. She didn’t know why she said it—certainly there was nobody without fur to hear the words. They stepped out of the bungalow, Sunny tossing the key to one side. Let someone unburdened by memories have it.
Katzin drifted towards the west—Sunny followed him, heading towards the trade-road to Palotl. Sunny walked, ignoring the chirping of doubts in the back of her skull.
She didn’t wave to the neighboring bungalows, clay and glass and wood eyes set low in the desert soil. Most of their inhabitants had commuted to work in the city-center some twenty miles distant—transported on synchronized cyclones, carpooling on block-sized behemoths or riding into the office on feral bolts of lightning.
Such methods might be swift, but Sunny had always trusted her feet more than sorcery, applied zoology, and weather systems.
Sunny was alone but for Katzin, the desert wind and her thoughts.
Katzin ambled after her, taking his time to swat at offending butterflies, mosquitos and tardy kangaroo mice.
Sunny trudged forward, disturbing dust. It would take a few days to reach Palotl on foot. If she had been thinking ahead, she would have sent a message to Red to expect her one remaining mother.
Sunny passed the fountain that had been recently dedicated to the Flower Goddess—Xochiquetzal—ornamented with fire-bright garlands that refused to wilt under the desert sun. This was the last permanent structure before the great road to the west began in earnest.
Sunny hawked and spat into the fountain.
Nightfall found Sunny in the lee of a mesa, enjoying a fire while the stars slowly came into view. Katzin was hunting locusts, swatting them down and crunching them between his teeth.
Sunny was now the proud owner of a burgeoning camp fire. The desert was colder at night than she would have expected—it had been years since she’d slept outside, not since Anna and she had dragged Nissa and Red out camping. That trip had been over a decade ago, but Sunny could still recall visiting the forests near the Evenki border for Anna to paint the local fauna. She had always been a great one for painting. Anna could sit still for hours at a time, waiting for something beautiful to stray into her light: magnificent deer, furtive skulks, and once a young forest god, moving soundlessly across the mossy floor. When Anna could find nothing to take inspiration from, she would make up fantastical creatures in elaborate wheels of color and whirls of motion.
Katzin wandered off beyond the fire’s scope, tail moving back and forth like a rudder.
Sunny ate a brief supper—two turkey sausages and an ear of corn. She kept close to the fire, listening to the sounds of the desert: locusts, coyotes, night-callers flapping after chittering bats. Wrapped in Anna’s blanket, she watched the stars come to prominence in the night sky.
Katzin staggered back into camp, dragging a bloody mass of feathers twice his size.
“Tsk, tsk,” admonished Sunny as Katzin tucked into the chapolin, its hook-claws still twitching in death. “One of these days you’re going pick a fight with something meaner than you. And I’m not looking forward to it.”
Katzin purred, his mouth full of feathers and flesh.
Sunny was napping—she hadn’t dared risk a full sleep since Anna died— when the noise woke her. It echoed in the desert air. She was reminded of the sound of an axe splitting wood. Anna had always insisted on cutting their own firewood. Katzin managed a small growl, as he slowly stood from his bedding on Sunny’s lap.
The splitting sound persisted, nearly a drum-beat tempo. Too fast for axe-swings. There was something arterial and rhythmic about it, as if a heart’s efforts were magnified by divine hands.
It appeared to be coming from just outside the light of her dwindling fire and getting closer. Sunny didn’t bother squinting or standing. She put a few more twigs on the fire and nudged them into the proper position with her boot.
What did it matter, at this point?
Katzin’s ears pricked forward and a hint of teeth gleamed from under his whiskers. Sunny gave the creature a scratch between its ragged ears, soothing him as best she could.
The chopping sound continued, growing closer—but now there was something else overlaid with the sound of axe against wood—the dry slap of feet against desert stone.
Sunny let her eyes unfocus—there was no point in hysteria.
If she died alone out here, what would be the difference? She looked into the fire, watching the red-tongues dance back and forth, birthing brief new spark-stars as the wood burned. She traced the path of the sparks up into the night sky, into the constellations. They meshed into Mixcoatl’s wide net across the heavens, the angular tilt of the Cherished Twins, Painted With Bells leering down on the desert from her slim lunar prison.
The fire burned lower, so Sunny added fresh wood. The sound stopped and restarted several times, always moving closer but never close enough for her to catch a glimpse. She was nearly used to the sound by now, as mundane as water dripping or a heart pumping. Starlight was a poor lantern for an old woman, but even so, Sunny’s eyes swiveled to the right.A figure stood just outside the firelight.
Katzin remained silent, his green eyes taking in the stranger.
The noise increased.A bare foot broke the ring of firelight. Its owner followed, and Sunny looked up at an image she had only seen in the books she read to Nissa and Red when they were small.
The figure was naked and thin, with dark Quetzal skin, and no head to speak of.
She thought about reaching for her cane—her knife, the needles in her hair.
Sunny kept her hands on Katzin.
For a long time, she said nothing, and Katzin fell back into a doze, completely unconcerned. She waited for something to happen, to conclude this farce. Somewhere in the starry beyond Mixcoatl and the Flower Lord must be giggling themselves sick at her last few days. What is tragedy on earth, she reflected, must be comedy in the heavens.
The figure stood still.
Sunny raised one hand. The figure twitched, as if it could see the movement.
“Well, don’t just stand there,” Sunny told her midnight visitor. It twisted its shoulders as if it heard her, despite lacking a head. There was no wound at the neck or ragged veins—it was simply as if the gods or cruel nature had made a man without a head.
“Take a seat, the fire’s big enough for both of us.”
Katzin stirred—claws twitched in their sheaths, and Sunny scratched behind one ragged ear to pacify him. He subsided, grudgingly, eyes never leaving the stranger, who folded itself into a sitting position on the opposite side of the fire.
The stranger’s vertically split stomach, in the process of pulling itself apart, snapped back together with a crack. Sunny winced, despite herself.
“It’s a long way to morning, and I haven’t talked to anyone since Anna. Well, besides him,” she amended, pointing to Katzin.
The stranger had no lips to reply, but it did have hands, which it waved in a ‘do-go-on’ gesture.
“It was my seventieth birthday today,” Sunny informed the beast. The creature gave a polite clap of its hands as the muscles of its stomach pulled themselves apart again. It gave no indication of discomfort, as if this phenomenon was no more difficult than breathing was for Sunny.
Sunny talked, prevaricated and held forth until dawn and the stranger vanished into the desert. Katzin’s eyes closed and Sunny allowed herself a small grin as she finally dozed into a fitful sleep.
She made a great deal of progress the next day on the western road, setting up a camp within view of a farmstead. She passed signs with numbers on them, counting down to Palotl. Only about two dozen miles to go.
She passed a few trading caravans., Fellow travelers trundled past without a word.
She would have begged for shelter or a roof over her head, but part of her wondered if her previous nocturnal visitor would show up again. Sunny struck up a fire, ate a swift dinner after looking at her new blisters and poking at them gingerly. They were every bit as irritating as she remembered them. The night wind stoked the fire, sending embers dancing across the face of the moon.
The creature re-appeared at full dark with the usual clacking fanfare and took up its position across the fire from her. Katzin gave it a haughty look, but raised no further objections. Somewhere in the distance, a coyote howled its strange, stuttering call.
“I used to tell my children about things like you, as my parents once told me,” Sunny ventured, examining the creature anew. “They thought I was pulling their leg, of course. Active Gods exist, according to them anyway, but a creature without a head and a constantly popping belly was pure fantasy.”
The creature tried to nod. Its belly snapped together, pulled itself apart again. Sunny continued, despite her view of entrails and exposed lungs.
“You’re the patient type, I can tell. Don’t you fret—I know what you’ll do if I run.”
The creature gave a shrug. Knocked its fists together, then spread them apart.
“Part of the job description, I imagine.” Sunny said, slicing off a hunk of dog-sausage with her knife and placing it in the stranger’s gaunt hand. The stranger made the bit of meat dance between its fingers before popping it directly into its open stomach, seconds before the walls snapped shut.
“Interesting,” noted Sunny, tilting her head. The knitting needles in her bun clacked together. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of one of you eating. Have you been doing this long?”
The creature gave another shrug. Spread its hands wide, spread the fingers wide ten times. Its belly gave a confirmatory snap, setting Katzin’s tail to bristling.
There was a pause, as the blind creature flicked its hands over the flames.
“I’m going to see my daughter,” muttered Sunny. “You have any family?”
The creature shook its pointer finger reprovingly, then spread its arms wide.
“Sorry, bit of a thoughtless question—guess I deserved a bit of a cryptic answer.”
“I walked a good ways today,” she said thoughtfully. “I’m tuckered out, so if you don’t mind, I’ll continue this little chat with you tomorrow.”
The creature vanished in two long steps, leaving Sunny with a fading fire and the beginnings of an idea.
Sunny didn’t reach Palotl the next day. She passed more caravans and other travelers, her feet pushing them to the back of her mind. Her eyes spotted monstrous flying beasts—and their nobly attired riders—covering leagues in minutes. She saw her destination splayed before her in the distance. She could see (and smell) the smoke curling from the central temples, a stark contrast to the snaking river that provided most of the metropolis’s trade.
Sunny passed more farmsteads, silos and corrals where feathered serpents hissed and coiled against rough-cut wood. She passed industrial lots, slaughter-houses, city-watch towers manned by unsmiling men and women in full Quetzal regalia. Her feet bled for the first time. Katzin rode in the ever-lighter backpack, sulking and heat sick.
But she didn’t reach Palotl central, with its colossal sloth howdahs and jostling pedestrians. She could have walked down the broad boulevards, made inquiries and found her daughter in a matter of hours. Sunny could have eaten her fill, drunk corn beer and exchanged tears with her daughter over their loss. She could imagine the scene—recriminations, guilt, fear and slowly passing out, knowing that nothing would ever be as bright now that Anna was gone. And then, slowly, she would try to move on with her life.
Instead she deliberately camped just outside the city limits and started a fire in the mid-afternoon. She settled back with Katzin to wait.
The visitor arrived and made itself comfortable across from Sunny at full dark.
“I’m old.” Sunny sighed. “I’m not as sharp as I once was. But I do remember the stories I used to tell my girls when they were small.”
The stranger rubbed its hands together. Its belly clacked. Sunny caught a glimpse of organs—vivid and pulsing, illuminated by firelight.
“Once, so I told them, there was a creature that was fond of testing the courage of men and women. It looked much like you.” said Sunny.
The creature rolled its wrists, urging her on.
Katzin swatted down a passing locust.
Sunny looked into the crackling fire. Took a deep breath.
“I used to tell them if their courage held, they would be rewarded with a boon. A wish.” Sunny fidgeted with her knitting needles, pulling them out of her hair and letting it flow down her back. “Well,” Sunny amended, spitting. “If you could get the heart, that is.” She gently placed the needles in her backpack, her last reminders of Anna.
“I have lost too much not to try everything I can,” she said, standing up. Her legs creaked. Black spots danced before her eyes. The shadow she cast from the fire’s light was a behemoth, a woman to crush mountains to powder and tear out the hearts of clouds.
The creature mimicked her, standing with great care. Its shadow was indescribable—a ropy mass of creatures and eyes that vanished when Sunny looked at them too closely. Between the fire and the shadows, the creature appeared a titan, ever flickering.
“Here goes.” Sunny said, stepping forward. She swallowed, ignored the sweat on her forehead. The dryness in her mouth.
The stomach-jaws of the creature clamped shut, then began pulling themselves apart. When there was enough space for a fist to fit between them, Sunny lunged forward and sunk her open hand into the creature’s belly.
Any creature with a mouth would have screamed. This one had none and didn’t even flinch at the blow.
Sunny fished around the stomach for a second, then drove her hand up and to the right—grasping fiercely for the beating heart that was just out of reach. She was keenly aware of the pulling flesh, priming itself to snap back and take her arm with it but she refused to panic.
Her fingers found bone, arteries, tendons and fat—but no heart. She heard Katzin hiss, and nearly withdrew her arm. To do so would forfeit her potential wish and certainly kill her.
She could feel the pectoral muscles twitching, preparing to close, tensing to deliver the arm-slicing blow. Sunny didn’t doubt that the rest of her body would follow her arm into that stomach if she failed—gobbled down like so much sausage.
There it was! The slick feeling of an organ, pumping away, squirming from her grasp.
Sunny stopped thinking. Her hand contracted into a fist around the heart, slipped, and wrenched as hard as she could, sending her flying backwards onto the ground.
For a horrible moment, Sunny thought she’d only pulled loose a blood clot or a fragment of lung. But no, there in the firelight was the creature’s heart, still glistening and twitching. Her fingernails had pierced a minor vein, and hearts blood trickled down her hand, mixing with the viscera under her nails. She didn’t hear the clap of the creature’s stomach jaws snapping shut.
The creature made a low bow.
The rational part of Sunny, still present over the adrenaline and the fear and the surging rush of being whole—wondered if the creature had a whole stable of hearts on standby in case of such an eventuality. It certainly didn’t seem phased by the ordeal—its body language was that of a proud tutor or parent rather than a cannibalistic monster.
Sunny lay on the ground, looking up at the stars. She wondered if Anna could see her from the heavens, elbow-deep in gore, face covered in unwanted salt water.
She lost track of time—the next thing she knew Katzin was licking her face, cleaning the snot from under her nose with his rough tongue. Despite herself, she managed a laugh—half a bray, half a snort.
Sunny refused to think she had been crying. Anna wouldn’t have wanted that. Probably.
But why speculate when you could be sure?
“I have a wish now,” Sunny said, staggering to her feet. The creature bobbed up and down, long fingers fluttering. Then it stopped.
The creature didn’t move. The fire seemed to fade a little bit.
“I’ve thought very hard about this.” Sunny informed the creature. “Ever since you first showed up.”
Another deep breath.
“I could have you unweave the wrinkles on my body, or give me teeth and scales and wings and lightning for breath. I could wish for the wealth of emperors or the wisdom of the gods. But I don’t want those things.”
Sunny took a deeper breath.
The creature didn’t move. Starlight glittered off its hands.
“Could you bring my beloved back from the grave?”
The creature waved its hands. Without a face, it was impossible to gauge its reaction immediately, but Sunny had been too long alive not to know a ‘no, don’t ask further’ gesture when she saw one. Arms wide, legs bending and dismissing her question.
The stars winked down at them. There was a dizzying moment where other wishes—riches, unspeakable gifts, time unwinding itself, divinity—jostled for her attention. She could all but taste the power in this moment, the thousand skittering spiderwebs with their genesis in her next words.
Sunny felt sick—as the adrenaline faded, the heart grew heavier in her hand, her eyes and hope sagged. The one thing Sunny desired was beyond her reach.
The creature hopped, clapped its hands. Scrawled a glyph in the dirt with a big toe. The sound combined with the image jarred a memory, which displaced a thought, which led to an avalanche of ideas.
Hope, a dull-colored bird at best, fluttered back into view. It dangled something—not what Sunny wanted exactly, but at least something plucked from the jaws of the underworld—a stray bit of consciousness, a living memory, a growing affection from beyond the Lord of the Unfleshed realms.
Sunny made up her mind. Squeezed the heart tight in her hand.
“I wish,” she said, keeping her voice steady, clear and focused—no room for stutters here. “To be permanently reunited, upon my death, with my wife Anna in a peaceful hereafter.” That was as airtight as she could make a wish—if Anna could not be returned to her, at least she could insure that they would meet again in the great beyond, despite the territorial markers of psychopomps and celestial busybodies. If there was an afterlife at all—the gods made no promises regarding a pleasant life-after-death.
What other choice was there?
The creature bowed, snapped its fingers.
Katzin hissed, and curled up against her ankles, fur raised and teeth bared.
There was a sudden breeze—smoke cut at Sunny’s eyes and she blinked. The heart turned to ashes in her hand, blowing away in the night wind, swirling up to join Mixcoatl’s Net.
The creature was nowhere to be seen.
Katzin curled around her ankles, and purred.
Wish granted, presumably.
Sunny picked up the knitting needles she’d placed on her pack. They seemed heavier than before. She sat down, began knitting to calm her nerves. A scarf, about half-way finished. The needles moved more precisely than they had in months—and felt warmer to the touch than she remembered—almost as if there were a pulse generating heat under the bone.
Sunny knit for hours, until she could see the sun peeking up from the horizon and the constellations began their disorderly retreat.
She sniffed. Lay down to sleep, holding Anna’s scrimshawed gifts to her chest, under their combined blankets. As her eyes grew heavy, Sunny thought she felt the faint shadow of a heartbeat in time with her own—in her pre-sleep delirium, she could almost hear Anna’s voice in the cracking of the fire.
Sunny slept soundly.