PodCastle 732: Fire in His Eyes, Blood on His Teeth
Fire In His Eyes, Blood On His Teeth
By R.S.A. Garcia
He comes to me with fire in his eyes and blood on his teeth. Sometimes the blood is his enemies’. Sometimes it’s mine. Eventually, it’s mine. Always.
He is different today, striding across the sandy soil toward my home with scuffed, much-mended boots. Often, he’s charming and beautiful, like the first time I met him. Smooth brown skin and white smiles, smelling of freshly scraped coconuts. Sometimes he is fierce and tall and smells of the salty sea, with a glorious shining beard braided around the fuses he hides beneath his battered hat. His teeth are longer, yellow, and his skin burned from the sun. They call him a pirate then, and men on land and sea tremble to speak his name. He has harsh words, but there are no teeth for me yet. They come later.
They come with the fire and a shadow on the sun.
He has seen much. Done much. He forgets, and then the hunger comes and the call to be free and he wrenches himself from me. Tears us apart with fists and teeth and hate for all my kind. What used to be my kind.
( . . . what is my kind? Women? Women like me? Human? I no longer know. I no longer care . . . )
He wears purple today. A royal colour. His colour. The waistcoat is battered, the once-gold buttons faded, the shirt beneath grimed as his patched pants. But the purple is bright: bright as he becomes when the shadow is on the sun.
The daylight is beginning to shift; the time is drawing near. I had no real hope of staying hidden. I left our home, but not the islands. There are many of them here, scattered like broken pieces of jade across the Caribbean Sea. I found one with water, one with food, and I built my own place. Sometimes my hands bled from the work, but at least it was my blood shed for me.
A shadow falls on the village, but I can’t see the cause. There are clouds, but the sky is blue and clear above the forest clearing. I hear a strange wind, but feel no breeze. People run and scream. We feel fear, but we don’t know why. There is nothing to see. Then he lands, with a crash of wings and broken trees, and belches fire, and I drop my bucket of water from the river and run too.
We all hide in the forest for days before we go back in small groups. When I do, he’s in my undamaged hut, alone and naked and smiling, smelling of faraway places. He holds out his arms and I go straight into them without a thought. He whispers honey in my ears and I’m lost and found, awake and aware. I see the world with new eyes and he is the beauty in it. We sneak out of the village that night. He’s dressed in the clothes I stole for him. I carry what food I have. I never go back. I have a new home now.
His skin is black as night now. His head is tied with a faded red cloth and there are gold loops in his nose and ears. Rings crowd fingers and chains rest on a sweaty neck. His stomach is barrel-round beneath the purple waistcoat, his bare arms corded with muscle. He has a knife in his belt. It’s all he needs.
He smiles. “Beloved,” he says, and though he is still to reach me, it’s as if his hands have grasped my shoulders. I can feel their warmth, and calluses scrape my skin. Orange light dances in dark eyes but his teeth are still white and too many for his mouth.
Beloved is what he calls me. I call him my heart. I give him everything. Body, soul. He is mine and I am his. I’m young then. I do whatever he wants. I leave my people behind for him and his sweet words. I have nowhere to turn after that, of course. He wants that too.
He is not like other men. He changes when he pleases, leaves without a word. But he always comes back and I always know him. Wherever he leaves me, I wait. I have no choice. He has my heart and I can’t go without it.
We walk for long days, through Cockpit Country and past towns and plantations. We never see people. He knows when they are coming and we go the other way. When we reach the sea, the salt smells like life. This is him. Too vast to contain, too wild to resist. He settles me between his thighs, sand sliding beneath my skirts, and pulls me back against his chest. He’s oven-hot, his arms silky-smooth and strong as metal bands.
“My beloved,” he says. “My treasure.”
When the moon rises above us and I see its glowing, colour-shifting beauty — see its true splendour for the first time between swaying palm leaves — I am distracted.
It’s then that he reaches down and pulls my heart from my chest.
I look up, but the sun is still there. The shadow is not yet on it. And I am blessedly clear of mind as the sky is clear of clouds. I’ve been waiting here by the river for days, knowing he would come. Feeling it.
Running was never the plan. Not after I met the Queen.
Not after I had her.
I wait for him to come nearer. Near enough to try to take it from me again.
Near enough to fail.
The first time he fed on me was the worst because I didn’t know it was coming. He needed it, he said. He had no choice. He was tired, spent. He had long searched for a special woman like me. Someone who would take the pain and love him for it. Someone who could be with him wholly and feed him as he needed.
I was proud to be her. Scared to be her. But after that first, unimaginable pain it was easier. He called me his girl, and was tender with me until I healed. And we went on. But I was different inside. I needed his warmth to fend off the cold. Needed his will to strengthen my own.
He went away for a while and came back with a fierce beard and a ship of his own. I was glad when he held out rough hands and I put my own in them. It had been unbearable without him. Cold and lonely. Empty and slow. The colours drained from the edges of things. I knew he’d come back when I saw the red of his teeth. But the tiniest bit of fear
( . . . the pain, dear God, the pain . . . )
tingled along my skin in the moments before he reached into my chest. The fear left me when he took my heart, but he knew it was there. Of course he did. After that, he locked my heart in a chest he kept in his cabin and I had no fear at all, no matter what he did to me.
No matter what I did for him.
He smiles and speaks again. Words that enchanted before. Words that told me how beautiful I was. How incomparable I was. How special.
Words that told me how ugly I was. Words that told me how weak and clingy and boring I was. How lucky I was to have him. To have anyone.
Words, words, words.
When we are good together, we seldom speak. We don’t need to. I know what he wants and I do it; he knows what I need and he gives it to me.
Words are love and pain and everything hateful in between.
Now, they’re a prelude to something I no longer need.
“Beloved,” he says.
“No,” I say to him. “I’m not your Beloved. I’ve loved you. You never loved me.”
( . . . not the way I love her. Not the way she deserves . . . )
The sea is our home. The sea is our life.
I scheme with him. Pillage with him. Murder with him. I like the way colours leave people when they die. How they turn grey and small. I like the spill of blood, of gold, of rich cloths and glittering jewels. They are bright and alive in an otherwise drab world. I stab and shoot and laugh and fuck and feel nothing but euphoria. I have no fears and no hopes. No needs but him.
I lose track of how long we stay this way. Of the shapes he takes and forms he makes me wear. Sometimes I’m his first mate, sometimes his love — always his other half, always there. He doesn’t care what others think, and neither do I. All we care about is the treasure we take and the need to feed. It doesn’t happen often, but there is always a time when the moon is full and he forgets he loves me. Then he draws from me the screams and the pain until my heart is full and crimson and beating and he can eat. After, he locks my heart away and I’m something else again.
Perhaps it would have gone on forever, if I hadn’t met the old woman and the one-armed slave.
He’s barely two feet away. Far beyond him is the merest glimmer of the sea between the swaying coconut trees, bluer than the sky. I draw strength from it. From the wide river rushing to its ocean destination beside me. From the darts of light filtered between the windswept palm leaves. From the birdsong that trills out in the forest on my right. Behind the hut I used to pray to Mami in.
Where her Children first came in answer to my prayers, their tiny hooves scraping on the sea-salt and sand-crusted wood of the floor.
It is hot and smelly, like all ports. Noise everywhere, and the clamour of men loading and unloading, ships rising and falling, fish guts and scales and sweat and rot clogging every throat. But it’s been years since I left this land and its treacherous Cockpit Country and I walk away from the ships for a while, into the town, hearing the water slapping the stone piers behind me, no matter how far I go. I have an idea to find a place to drink until he is finished trading for supplies for the men, but I end up walking the damp dirt between a dry goods store and an inn.
When the old woman appears at the end of the path and stares right at me, I know she, not drink, is what I sought. We both stand still and take stock of each other. I don’t know what she sees, what form I wear for her, but I see a small, thin woman. Her skin is dark, and wrinkles kiss her eyes and bracket her mouth. A flowered wrap covers her hair. Cheekbones jut as proudly as she carries herself. Her dark eyes see through me, into me. I know I can deny her nothing. She crooks a finger at me.
I go, stand quietly as she looks me over, runs hands along my arms. Power trails in the wake of her fingers, pebbling my skin. Out of the corner of my left eye, I see two men approach, cutlasses at their waist. One of them is short and dark and carrying two sacks; the other, tall and brown with one arm. I look at the tall one directly and he stops dead as the other walks on.
“Who that?” he asks in patois. His deep voice prickles my nape.
“A slave,” the old woman says, and her voice is strong and kind. I meet her eyes again. She smiles and there is just us in all the world.
Girl, she says in my mind, how long ju like this?
It is perfectly natural for me to answer the same way. I don’t know.
Him tek ju, or ju tek him?
I don’t know.
She sighs. The one-armed man is next to us now. The other looks confused.
“We must go, Queen Nanny,” the one-armed man says in English. “We stay here too long, they will find us.”
I’ve heard this name before. She’s Queen Nanny of the Maroons. She’s led slaves against the planters and won.
She nods at me, never breaking eye contact. “Una wait.”
I don’t know what she does next. Fire flashes over me, under my skin. The coldness flees before it. Suddenly, I am warm again. I breathe again. The breath I take shudders in my throat and there is coolness on my cheeks.
What have I done? I think. What have I done?
“Nutting,” she says in a fierce whisper. “Him the ‘wan do it. Tek it back, gal. Go tek it back.”
“I don’t know how,” I say and for the first time in a long time I have thoughts. Thoughts of my own that I cannot escape from. Questions and fear and so much else. I’m free, I sense, but only halfway. I can leave, but he will find me.
The one-armed slave is more than he seems. I sense him the way I sense Queen Nanny. He draws closer now, and dark eyes narrow at me. He mutters under his breath in a language I don’t know and Nanny answers him. He shakes his head and says to me, “That one is strong. You cannot do this alone. What of your Gods?” he asks.
“I never knew them,” I say. “My people were taken.”
He sighs. “We were all taken. But some of us remember the old Gods. Know the old ways.” He and Queen Nanny look at each other. She nods at him. He pulls a tiny wooden figurine from the pocket of his battered pants and presses it into my palm.
“She is of my people. I ask her to free me from my British master. He bring me here from Barbados. Now I am with Queen Nanny. Pray to her. Give her loyalty. Give her something precious. She will give you what you need most.”
I look at the faded red carving. It’s a woman with the tail of a fish. I know her name from other peoples who were taken from the motherland, like my people. “Mami Wata can do this?” I ask. “She can free me?”
Queen Nanny chuckles briefly. “Ju free already, mi done say it true.”
She’s right. I can feel it. Queen Nanny has freed me, as she has so many others. I am myself.
And, I become aware, something more. Deep within me is another rhythm. Another heart.
One he doesn’t have.
One I can never let him have.
She nods, eyes bright and unsmiling as I place my hand over my stomach.
“Tek it back,” she says and walks away.
I never see any of them again.
Sometimes, even when we do not know it, we pray. And if we are desperate and forsaken enough, sometimes the Gods choose to hear us.
I remember when I prayed. When the pain was so great, I called out to something bigger than myself. Anything larger than the never-ending waves and the power of his shadow.
No flash of lightning told me I was heard. No voice boomed from above. Gods almost never do their own work.
And it wasn’t the God he hates and fears that heard me anyway. The God of the planters who they say helps those that help themselves.
She’s older — from the place Before. Before we were shipped in our own filth across a cruel ocean to unimaginable horrors.
She lives in the old woman and the one-armed man.
In the small carving burning in my pocket.
She’s with me as I stand in his cabin, the broken door tapping lightly against the wall behind me. I drop the axe and stretch out my hand to the small, worn box I’ve taken from his smashed desk.
A shadow hovers over it, wrapping it lovingly in a miasma that makes me hesitate before I reach for the clasp.
Pain and images sear into my brain. What I’ve done, who I’ve killed, the fear I’ve felt and the fear I’ve given to others.
I snatch my hand back and fall to my knees, too hurt to scream. My body spasms with the full knowledge of all I’ve wrought and all I’ve endured as I fall onto my back.
No wonder he doesn’t lock the box. He knows to touch it I would have to face it all.
It’s too much. Far too much.
I lie there and tears slip from me as I cradle my hand against my chest.
I lie there until the pain recedes enough for me to breathe again. To feel the tiny, steady beat deep inside myself. A faint pulse of life that isn’t tainted. That isn’t part of the past and the world we’ve made.
It belongs here, in this land, the way he does not.
I hear voices shouting and I know the crew has heard the crashing and I have only moments to decide. Moments to choose between a life without pain, and one filled with knowledge and regret and only a tiny spark of hope I carry inside.
It’s no contest in the end.
My fingers are sliced to the bone as I reach through my own darkness to touch the clasp. My head swells with agony as I flip the lid back on a scream. But I close bloody palms around the fetid lump inside as Mami burns against my thigh. A good burn that reminds me not all pain is death.
Pain also reminds us we are still here. Still alive. Still fighting what would bury us beneath the violence and the hate and the blood.
All Gods, it seems, like to help those that help themselves.
“You’ve never loved me,” I repeat.
The flames in his eyes dance and I know that expression well. The “you know you don’t mean this” curve of his lips.
I mean it as I meant it the day I walked back to the ship, Mami in my hand, and broke into his cabin. I took my battered, shrivelled heart and I left without looking back.
I did it for her. Because she couldn’t be me.
I wouldn’t let her.
The whole time I knew he would come. He would have to feed, sooner or later.
And she was between us. A thread, ever tightening, leading him to us. So I prayed and I prayed and one day, when the feeding time drew near, I sacrificed the only thing I had left. My only real treasure.
And Mami answered.
She heard and she answered, and she sent her Children.
“We are done,” I say to him now.
His head slips sideways and he looks at me as if from one eye. He sucks air between his teeth. “Stop playing, woman. I’ve had a long journey and there are many lives yet to take.”
“You have a longer one ahead of you. Back to the hell you came from.”
The air around us tightens. A shadow spreads above. I watch him carefully, wondering if he understands yet, but his eyes are still glowing embers, his smile undefeated. He still thinks he has power, and he does. But not over me. His power flows around me, but it does not touch me. Nothing he has will touch me ever again.
Especially not his teeth.
“You’re mine. My treasure,” he says, his voice like rum, warm and fiery. “You both belong to me. The time draws near and a wife needs her husband. A girl needs her father.”
I laugh. “We have no need of you. You’re the one with needs. You have no treasure here.”
The light dims as a cloud passes over the sun. There is a movement on the river, the sound of something leaping from it, and the fairymaid is behind him, long, dark hair tangled to her waist, the delicate hoof of her one deer leg clattering on the riverbank stones.
He spins and recoils but it’s too late. She grins at him and holds up a large, wriggling mass, black as night, insubstantial as smoke.
Finally, finally, his smile fades. He looks smaller in the glare of the fairymaid’s inner light, but the truth of him struggles in her slender fingers.
His shadow is winged and torn, light from her fingers renting it in places.
The fairymaid, river-daughter to Mami Wata, leaps back into the rushing green waters, and his hands close on air as he snatches after her.
He snarls, upper lip lifted, and I see pink gums . . . and something else.
For the first time, I smile.
“Mami Wata heard me. She hears her people, even when we are far from her. And she makes us strong.”
His eyes are nothing but fire now. His voice hisses like steam from flames. “Strong? What do you know of it? You are food and drink. Meat and wine.”
“That’s what you wished me to believe. That’s not who I am,” I say.
He is less solid now. I can see the trees through his royal waistcoat. The sun comes out and the ground behind him welcomes its light, with only the shadow of the trees above to disturb it.
Silvery laughter rises from the swirling river beside us. A dark shape ripples beneath the waves, violent and twisting, caught in its watery binding.
“I am myself. Mami Wata’s servant. My daughter’s mother. I am my own treasure. And I don’t need you. We don’t need you.”
I advance on him as the river roils and he takes a step backward, his eyes the scorching craters of volcanoes. I see the moment he knows it’s true. The moment he turns his gaze to the water and watches the darkness in it wash away, toward the sea. His roar shakes the ground.
“It waits for you,” I say gently. “In the fires you were born to. You have no place in this world anymore.”
His broad nostrils flare as he scents me. Scents what’s missing — what he expected to find after I stole it back.
What’s no longer there.
“Your heart . . . ”
“It was damaged and withered, but Mami accepted it,” I say. “A worthy sacrifice for my daughter’s future. And your destruction.”
The river is placid again and the thing I once loved stumbles and then rights himself. He’s a shade now, grey and colourless. I look up and see the first dark edge of a disc touch the sun.
It’s time. His time.
And it’s too late for him to feed.
He bares rotted teeth.
“My daughter . . . ”
“She is my daughter,” I say, and my voice is fierce. Fierce as the sea.
“She will grow safe and happy, far from you. She is not yours to feed on. We are not your food. Not your slaves. No one will ever be your slave again.”
And like that, it’s done. The words are said and cannot be unsaid, will never be unsaid. Joy wells within me, pouring out of every part of me, a rush of sparkling river water that washes away the last fading vestiges of him.
The purple waistcoat melts into purple scales, and golden hoops and buttons curve into yellowed claws. Huge damson wings beat the air. He struggles, trying to escape, to fly free. But he’s weak with hunger and the need to feed, and without a shadow — without the dark heart of him — he cannot stay in the mortal realm.
He crumples to the ground and curls in on himself, ash from a fire. The ash takes one breath, two, then collapses in a shower of sparks.
After a while, wind stirs the pile and the ash blows away, toward the sea, dancing embers fading as it goes.
I sit by the river, suddenly too weary to stand, and watch the water flow for what feels like hours.
I meet the dark eyes of the fairymaid as she raises her slick head just above the waterline to stare at me. Her hair drifts around her like seaweed.
I smile. “Thank you.”
She rises fully out of the water, and if I still had my heart it would have hurt for the tiny, cooing child she cradles against her bare pointed breasts.
But I no longer have a heart. Or time to mourn it.
She holds my daughter out to me, and I take her, one last time, pressing a kiss to her warm, wet forehead and laughing as chubby hands pull at my braids.
I feel the world slowing around me, even as her baby sounds float on the air like pollen. I look at the fairymaid.
“Will she be loved?”
The nod is slow and serious.
I sigh. “That’s all that matters.”
I kiss her one more time and whisper my daughter’s name in her ear. “Calypso. My heart. Live well.”
And after she is gone, I lie with my feet borne up in the warm river as I stare up at the blue, blue sky until the glare hurts my eyes and I close them . . . just for a moment . . . to rest.
About the Author
R.S.A. writes speculative fiction, and lives in Trinidad and Tobago with an extended family and too many cats and dogs. Her debut science fiction mystery novel, Lex Talionis, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, the Silver Medal for Best Scifi/Fantasy/Horror Ebook from the Independent Publishers Awards (2015), and became an Amazon Bestseller.
She has published short fiction in international magazines such as Clarkesworld Magazine, Escape Pod and Internazionale Magazine. Her stories have twice been finalists for Clarkesworld Magazine’s yearly Reader’s Poll. She has appeared in several anthologies, including the critically acclaimed The Best of World SF: Volume 1, The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 4, The Apex Book of World SF: Volume 5 and Sunspot Jungle: Volume 2. Her work has been translated into Italian, Spanish and Czech. Learn more at rsagarcia.com.
About the Narrator
Omega Francis, 39 years old, is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago who is a holder of a Bachelor’s degree in Communications and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of the West Indies. Her writing has been published in the STAN magazine, Outlish Magazine, SPED, UWI Today, Harness Magazine, and Intersect Antigua Online.