By Sofia Samatar
My love is a river. My love is a brink. My love is the brink of an underground river. My love’s arms ripple like rivers in the moonlight when he unlocks the garden gate. He lifts the great beam and sets it in place. He bows to the Lady’s guests. These are three men, filthy with travel. Each has only one eye.
My love has eyes of brown agate, eyes that flicker like hanging crystal. In the dark they are black, but their brownness glints when he stands beneath the lantern in the garden. My love waits for me beneath the lantern. He waits while I serve wine to the Lady’s guests. On my way to join him, I leave an offering of bracelets at the entrance to the Lady’s corridor.
I pass through the garden. The leaves caress me. They tug at my skirts, my plaits. My fingers tug, too. They tug the plaits apart, letting my hair spring free.
My love waits for me beneath the lantern in the garden. He is gilded like a figure on a shield. When he steps forward to meet me, his eyes fill with darkness like a crystal glass with wine.
My love. His cheek just shadowed with a beard, like the blush upon a plum.
“Did you leave something for her?”
“Good,” he says. He left her his harp and some quill pens tied up with scarlet thread.
“I saw them,” I tell him. I saw the harp and quills there, along with all the other offerings. Candles, cherries, live ducks whiter than cake flour, their beaks wired shut. Although it was my love who insisted we give our most precious things to the Lady, I did not expect that he would surrender his harp. The thought gives me a small pain at the base of my throat. I remember how my bracelets, a gift from my mother, fell among slivered almonds. I wish now that I had left my gifts with his, looped each bracelet around a feathered quill. I take his hand, I weave our fingers together.
The fountain murmurs.
The darkness smells of leaves.
I lift my face.
My love smells of darkness and of leaves. My hand brushes the nape of his neck. The hair there is damp. My love smells bitter, like burning coal. “Wait,” he says.
I draw back.
My love smells of fear.
My love lives with fear. He told me of it the night we met. He told me that he was seventeen years old, that he played the harp to keep from thinking, and that he feared he was not real. I remember that night very clearly. We were splashing one another in the fountain, with all the young people of the palace. A celebration commanded by the Lady, I think. I can think of no other reason for us to be splashing in the fountain.
Water got into my eyes, and when my vision cleared, he was there. He looked forlorn, like a fawn worked in tapestry. And oh his arm, and the vein in his arm, and oh in the water his knee. I pretended to stumble, fell against him and closed my eyes.
We sat on a bench. I wrung out my skirt. We spoke of the palace gossip, and of the moon. I told him my father sells pomegranate juice in the city. I told him my father bears a mole like a grape above one eye. I told him my mother washes sheets in the palace. I told him that my grandfather, my mother’s father, had been a rich lecturer but had lost his position during the Controversy. The house with the jade pillars on the market square was once my grandfather’s house. Sometimes I walk past it; the child who lives there now is training a pet ferret.
My love took his harp from under the bench and unwrapped its silken cover. He sang to me in a heartbreaking, ugly voice like the cry of a young owl. He sang a song of his own composition called “Song of the Controversy.” He told me he would dedicate it to my grandfather.
He tilted his head back to look at the sky. His hair fell away from his face. He told me he felt unreal.
I laughed. “That is only because you are happy. And why should we not be happy? We are young, and our mistress is generous and good.” I did not say: And I love you.
He looked at me strangely. “Is she good?”
The words jarred on my ear. I frowned.
“Forgive me,” he said.
“Of course she is good,” I told him. “She is the Lady.” It was like explaining the world to a little child. My heart softened toward him again. When he played, I sang: “My heart is soft wax in the fingers of my love.”
Now I take his face between my hands. “You are real,” I tell him.
I grip his face harder. “You are real.” I can feel his bones beneath my hands. His lashes droop. Beneath them, a line of tears. I tell him he’s real, I repeat everything he has ever told me about himself. “You keep the gate in the palace gardens. You’re seventeen years old. The scar above your eye was caused by your aunt, who beat you with an iron spoon. You were raised by this aunt and her husband, a blacksmith. Your childhood was one of fear. One night, when the fear was too much, you struck the blacksmith and bloodied his mouth.”
Then you came here, to the palace, where you lift and lower the beam on the garden gate, where you splash in the fountains, and where I love you. You came to this place at the center of the city, where at the end of a long corridor the Lady speaks into the air. Standing among the offerings at the entrance to the corridor one can just see her room, a square of golden light. She kneels on a pillow, upright, gesturing, smiling. We call her the Lady of Love because she is beautiful, and the Lady of Peace because she smiles. We also call her the Lady of Incantations, because she speaks. She is never silent, though we cannot hear her voice. My grandfather believed she spoke to her father, a greater god than she; his opponents claim she speaks to her child, a god who is not yet born.
What is known is that her speaking makes the world. And it is said that if she receives a pleasant offering, she will speak the answer to the giver’s prayer. I believe she will accept our gifts, my love’s offerings and mine, and bless this secret hour among the leaning trees.
“Kiss me,” I whisper.
“You gave them wine,” he says, and his voice is hoarse. “Did they not seem more real to you than I?”
He means the Lady’s guests, the one-eyed travelers. It is his persistent fancy: that others are more real than he. The young adventurers who visit the palace, the unhappy dogs with the eyes of men who haunt the kitchens, even the genial hunchback—all, says my love, are more real.
But no one is more real to me than my love.
I grasp his shirt, I shake him, my eyes on fire. “Stop pretending,” I cry. “The truth is that you don’t love me.”
He touches my face. “I have longed for this hour more than anything in the world.”
He puts his arm about my waist. Then the kiss.
One kiss. I am in this kiss. I feel I am waiting for something.
I sense his hesitation. I hold him close, my arms about his neck.
My love is a river; he slips through my arms like a river. He steps away, gasping, his face wild. “I don’t feel anything,” he whispers.
I stretch my arms toward him. My hands are cold as silver. “You’re afraid,” I tell him. “Come back.”
But I, too, have begun to be afraid.
He embraces me again. When our lips touch, I feel a numbness. My lips are lead.
I press him closer. I bite. He groans. He bites me, too. There is no pain between us. No pain, and no pleasure. He backs away from me. Blood streaks his mouth, like embroidery on a glove.
My love stands tall. He is fearless, although he has always been afraid. His face is pale. His eyes are black and open, staring; his spirit is closed. “It is she who has done this to us,” he says. “Your Lady. Her thoughts are elsewhere. She meant for me to open the gate, but not to love. And you, she meant you to serve wine to her guests, but not to love.”
He turns. He grasps the branch of a tree, he swings himself up into the branches. He climbs high, high above the plashing fountain. The iron railing about the bowl of the fountain gleams in the moonlight.
“I gave her my harp,” my love shouts from the tree, “and she would not think of me even for a moment. You gave her your mother’s bracelets, and she would not think of you.” Then he sings, in his poor, cracked voice, the last lines of the “Song of the Controversy”: I will not be a plaything/ Not even for a god.
My love is a river. My love is a fountain. My love is a fountain of blood. My love is a shower of blood when he falls on the spike of the railing. My love is a fool, a child of seventeen. My love is a dying child. My love is a pale child dying in a garden.
I run to him. I seize his body. He is lighter than I had expected; still, it is difficult to take him from the spike. My own body seems lighter than usual, too, thinner, less trustworthy, more transparent. I clasp him in my arms and fall down to the grass.
I lie my love on the grass. I remove my outer garment and press it to his chest.
His eyes are open, and he is smiling. “Look,” he says.
I turn my head. A winged man is flying across the sky, carrying a sleeping youth in his arms.
“How real they are,” my love whispers. “How real.”
Something is wrong with his voice. I look at him again. I cry out.
My love has withered. This is not loss of blood: he is old. My love has grown old in the space between two heartbeats.
Pressing the cloth to his chest, I see that my own hands, too, are old, yellow and old. They have grown sere, like a pair of leaves.
All through the garden, the leaves grow sere. Now they begin to fall. They fall on my hair. I glimpse one of my curls: it is white.
My love, old and beautiful, smiles at me. His blood stains my fingers through the cloth. “Look,” he says. “It’s the end of the world.”
I stand. I wipe my hands on my skirt. I am wearing only this skirt and my flimsy inner blouse: half-naked, ragged-haired, a fierce old woman.
“Where are you going?” asks my love.
“I am going to see the Lady,” I tell him, “and ask her for your life.”
I think he calls after me. I do not care. I walk through the garden, scattering leaves. Whole bushes fall to powder at my touch. All the fountains have ceased to play; the rails are gnawed by rust. The air, stricken with leprosy, grows pale.
From inside the palace, sounds of lamentation.
The palace has aged. Its walls sag. Only the Lady’s corridor remains the same. A long, dark hall with a golden square at the end. The offerings are refuse now. I stop to loop some tarnished bracelets about a set of broken quills.
It is said that to step into the corridor means death.
It is said that to address the Lady means eternal torment.
It is said that the glance of her eye is a comet. No soul can withstand it. My grandfather told me that another god, a beast-god, terrible, dwells in the room with her.
I walk down the corridor, touching the wall. My body is slow to obey. I walk with pain.
I am coming into the light.
My foot is upon the carpet of a god.
The Lady turns. Her glance is not a comet. Her eyes are swollen and tired.
They widen when she sees me. “Who are you?”
“I am a serving-maid,” I tell her, “and my love keeps your garden gate. I have come to beg you for his life. He lies bleeding in your garden, because you would not let him love me, and he despaired.”
The Lady stares. Then she smiles. Her face is still tired, overwhelmingly tired. “Child,” she says, “it is too late for saving now.”
“Then what he said is true, and the world is ending, and this is death.”
“Death!” she exclaims. “No. Only dawn.”
A moment later, I found myself back in the garden beside my love, whose agate eyes are closed now in the lightening air. I took a ring from my finger, and with the edge of this ring I began to carve these words upon the bowl of the silent fountain. The carving is easy, even for an old woman. The marble of the fountain is as delicate as soap. Cracks appear, splintering my words which, were they engraved with a needle at the corner of an eye, would be a lesson for those who would consider.
My love is a river. My love is a river of ice.
My love is a brink: the brink of the River of Terror, or the brink of the River of Truth. If it is terror only, then we shall return tomorrow to read this message. If it is truth, then we shall not come here again.
If it is truth, we were never here at all.
If it is truth, then our offerings to the Lady are useless. If it is truth, then the Lady does not love us. Then the Lady is not good. Then the god with her, born or unborn, is merely Chance.
For this unknown god, my grandfather lost everything. His enemies hounded him from the gates of the university. He ran through the market, stumbling, his shoes in his hands. He wrote his memoirs. The book molders in our house, under my mother’s mattress. I cannot read it.
Alas, my love, for this foolish old woman. It is as if I sit here winnowing a basket of pale grief. My tears are chaff.
We were real. We had history. My mother washed sheets. My love sang like an owl.
Over the ruined wall, waving its banners, comes the sun.
Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press, 2013). Her poetry, short fiction and reviews have appeared in a number of places, including Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld Magazine, Stone Telling and Goblin Fruit. She is Nonfiction and Poetry Editor for Interfictions: A Journal of Interstitial Arts, and blogs at sofiasamatar.blogspot.com. She’s also completing a PhD in African Languages and Literature, specializing in Egyptian and Sudanese fiction. She’s a great fan of A Thousand and One Nights, with a particular fondness for the minor characters.