Ess sang he found me in the reeds in the heat of summer, my mother a crow lying dead.
I was too young to know my first shape. He sang I pissed and shit and cried all the time, and he thought more than once about leaving me for the bears to raise. But the bears are all dead, which I didn’t learn until I was old enough to hunt on my own. There is another world, Ess used to sing, between the paths of these ruin-woods, kept from us—and that’s where you come from, little kit. The shrinelands, the black hills, the old warrens. This is the curse you inherited from your mother: to live out your days in the bones of the lost witch city Gea, to keep the books, as I did. But then Ess was gone—taught me there are no shrinelands the same way there are no bears.
Taught me how the wind prowls and pines for you if you dare to get lost in the pathways.
Then: Roo, my sister. Her disappearance happens in the spring; she turns the wrong corner under the shadows of the black spires and disappears, eaten by the wind. That’s how I imagine it happens. Sometimes the paths will play tricks, north turns south, could be east, might be west, but Roo could always find our way. I search for her as careful as I can, for days, for three moons, taking care not to get lost, taking care to mind all the corners of the ruins. Then by the river that cuts the heart of the crumbling spires, too afraid to get lost, too afraid to search all the places I’ve never been, afraid of the wind that might undo me—on a hot afternoon in late summer, I stop on the steps of a crooked path and I let myself cry. Ess found Roo in the winter after my tenth summer, young and scared, wolf fur as white as the snow and paws cut with ice between each of her toes. She wouldn’t speak. Never spoke. But she was kind, she was clever. She was brave. And then I’m done, and she’s gone, and so I stop looking. I rarely leave my den.
Until Ess, our singing had no written language, so he taught me the languages of books instead, called common, and a scrap amount of a language he called witcher—the yarns and a handful of crude phrases, most of them akin to fuck the bitch queen and would you like to suck my big prick?, and I am guilty of nothing and yes, that is a gutty challenge, pretty boy and I will eat you to spare your mistress a sorry rut. He didn’t like conversing it aloud. But before he lost himself—he showed me letters he created for our words, and he put a feather in my hand, and he told me to write all his songs about our great patrons during the time of the Raven as he sang them, and I was so glad to do this, so awed by his wits to find symbols in our singing, I didn’t hear their sorrow until long after he disappeared. They’re the only thing left to remember him by.
One begins: In a time before time, something attacked something else, and there was life.
I go hunting, but I make traps, something about the thrill of a catch less rewarding without Roo. The common weasel struggles, the snare caught around its chest and neck chewing deeper through its skin. When it catches sight of me, it pants little squeaks, its eyes bulging. Blood stains the breeze from the strangle of wire. I shape human, take off the curve of sharpened antler from the leather string I use to carry it around my neck. I coo, “Thank you, goodbye.” Catch it by the throat, dig the sharp of the antler hard until it spasms. I work undoing the snare. Undo the wire, reset the catch. I wipe the antler in the grass, place it around my neck against the sling of worn leather where my map fits snug. But when I’m about to shape, I stop, going still.
There! she appears through the seam of a telling, on the breeze. From a different path of direction, no easy one. A woman, like Roo. She wades through the tall grass. Makes pleading sounds at me like she’d been looking for me all this time, trips until she is only crawling. Decorated strange. Far, far away on some other string of paths, there’s a nest of angry howls and cries rising above the ruin-woods—cut short, like the slamming of a gate. She comes so close, hand outstretched as if to touch me. My instincts catch. I startle, shape fox. Her eyes widen before they roll back into her head. She goes limp. Ratshit on this afternoon, for leaving my den.
Ess sang once, just before he disappeared, that he heard voices hiding in the eaves of trees, in the shimmer of the pines. The fabric of this place is thin, he’d sing, the magic is dying. Then Roo drew once she saw a man running, not me, on the deer paths, skidding out of sight, unwound by the wind. I thought they were batshit. This woman is far from Ess and she is not Roo—I take the weasel from my trap and I mean to leave her, but then she’s awake, and she’s making strange sounds and going on and on and rubbing at her eyes. Her hair is the shortest I’ve ever seen, half of it down to the scalp, the rest a mess of curls, the color pale, blond—speckled by blood. I can smell it. She smells all wrong, like rust and a tangle of other things I can’t place, like scabs and rot, maybe. I think she might kill me and I should hide, but fear stabs me in place.
The woman digs in a pocket of her strange decoration. Boots, shirt, pants, a whole outfit I wouldn’t know what to make of, only Ess would collect things like that from the ruins. Forgotten things, clothing, cups, toys, coins, bottles, buttons. The books usually told him what they were, what they meant or used to be—what to make of them even though he couldn’t read very many. They’re forgotten, too, as forgotten as most of their languages—the many not in Ess’s common.
But then she’s pinning something shiny to her collar, fixing a button inside her ear, and then like it’s no trouble at all, like she’s grown up beside me, the two of us—she’s singing like a shaper, out of breath, pointing at me. “Don’t you dare rutting move, dog-man,” she sings. “I think my ankle’s sprained—ratshit!” She heaves in a great breath, painful, cursing. “Ratshit!”
I drop the weasel out of surprise and I shape human. “Don’t rutting move?” I sing to her.
“Knew it,” she sings, but it’s seething, through teeth. “Now, really! I have seen some real batshit catshit in my day—ancient sea slugs, the insides of a world-eater, I’ve even seen a man turned into a toad—but I’ve never—ever seen a man turn into a dog, then back into a man.” She shakes her head. “But that’s the universe for you, infinite and full of dogshit—hey, you going to help me, or just sit there gawking like I’m the one that’s been running around the woods naked?”
“Help you,” I sing, “eh, why would I do that?” I eye her, wary. “I’m not stupid,” I sing.
She meets my hard look, then pulls off something from her belt, and points it at me. I frown, unsure what it is, other than colored black and red, and maybe dangerous by the way she aims between my eyes. “For dogshit sake,” she squawks, “it’s a gun! Nevermind the make or model, since it doesn’t look like you’ve got less of a clue what plasma, lasers, or bullets mean—”
“I’m not stupid,” I sing.
“I heard about that.”
I shake my head. “Eh, you’re batshit if you think I—”
She laughs mean, takes aim and shoots behind us, into a crumbling archway of ruin. I duck with a whine, covering my ears. The sound scares me more than the light that explodes the rock in a plume of dust and smell of something burning. “Basically,” she sings, “it does that, only it does it to your guts—it turns smart guys like you inside-out. Now—I order you to never again call me batshit, help me up, and take me to like, I don’t know—your place, in this shithole. Then water, seeing as I doubt you’ve got a commlite hooked up to the Interstellar Military Alliance. We might be stuck with each other, come to think of it—but we’ll figure it out. Draw a line in the dirt or something… I haven’t got anything to steal, so—don’t even think about it.”
I scratch up behind my ear, confused. “You’re not from the shrinelands, are you?” I sing.
She sighs. “No,” she chirps, “I’m from up there.” She points up at the blue cloudless sky.
The woman tells me to call her Shar. I don’t tell her what to call me until she prods about it and waves her gun around. Then Kit, I sing, and tell her my shape is not a dog, but she doesn’t listen. Instead she remarks on the curliness of my hair, how tall I am, my tan skin in contrast to her bloody pallor as she called it, then moves on to observing the narrowness of alleyways, the strange obsidian ruins, the spires on the horizon. I quickly learn she is nothing like Roo because she will not shut up. I’m used like a crutch, ordered to stay human—until it turns out her ankle isn’t sprained, and I’m glad to let her go—her smell isn’t what I imagined the sky might smell like. Bloody, like a hunt. Then, by the time I think I should’ve led her off a cliff, or led her into a trap, if I were Roo, smarter—I’ve led her straight to Ess’s den, the folds of damp earth, of books.
I light the lanterns, since there’s no natural light. Try to keep my back from her, until I can’t when I spark the hearth—I’m wound, all tense, knowing she’s watching, still afraid she might kill me, but not as afraid of her as I am of the gnawing wind lurking around the wrong corners. I have the fleeting thought she could be a witch, unable to explain her any other way, and I turn, fully expecting her to have her gun raised, still pointed in warning. But it’s not, and she stands with a furrowed brow in concentration, eyeing the shelves, the stacks, the table, scrolls of parchments, crow feathers, ink pots. She whistles a babble of nonsense, not song.
Then without asking, she picks up the nearest book on a stack near the door and fingers through it, briefly, before letting it go for another, her gun tucked at her belt. My frown turns into a glare. I bawk at her. “Those are mine—be careful, they’re old, aren’t they, eh, can’t you tell—”
“I can’t read any of these,” she sings, like she’s troubled by it, like she should be able to. “I mean, they’re all in different languages, aren’t they?” She crosses the den and sinks into my best chair facing the hearth. “Now I’m starting to get a little spooked, Kit.” She winces, rubs her shoulder. “Exactly what’s this place of yours doing with a shithole full of dead languages, eh?”
“They’re not all dead,” I sing, “I know common, I know witcher. I know shaper, too—”
I fetch her one of the books in common, showing her and taking the chair Roo used to curl up in every winter, nose to bushy tail. Shar lingers on it, seems to become even more troubled. She must read several pages before she speaks, and it comes out in a low song, a flinch. “This is Mandarin. It’s dead, too—or it has been, for a long time. I should know, my parents were some of the last who knew it. But they’re gone…” There’s a pause between both of us, and I think maybe about Ess, about telling her—but then she’s moving on, giving me back the book and forces it out of me, anyway: “Exactly where are the rest of your dog people these days, Kit?”
“Okay,” I sing, “I’m not a dog, also, eh, they are gone, they got lost, the wind ate them.”
“Dog, fox, wolf, whatever,” she chirps, “none of you were actually born here, were you?”
I scratch behind my ear, off-put. “Ess sang no, but Ess might’ve lied. I don’t know—”
“Eh, but what’s the last thing you remember, in the other place, then? Before this one?”
“Eh, maybe don’t interrupt me,” I bawk, glaring. “I was singing I don’t know because it happened when I was only a pup, if it happened at all. It didn’t happen to Roo until later, but she couldn’t sing anymore, and she was still a pup, too. Then Ess. Ess never sang about it. He called this place a witch city, witch ruins, witch curse. He hated witches. He sang they warred with us, they locked him up and threw away the key. He sang we are all from the shrinelands. But maybe, maybe he would’ve sang anything to us—how would we ever know any different—understand?”
Shar rubs at her eyes. “Rutting ratshit,” she whispers, tipping her head down, covering her face. There’s a great shudder that moves through her, a breath gathered, maybe the edge of a sob before she calms. I wonder if I imagined it. “This is a tear,” she mourns, “It’s a waypoint…”
“Eh?” I prod, anxious because of the way she sings it, because of her face, grown grim.
“The last thing I remember, I was on Roi, way out in Andromeda, no joke. You know, we’ve been at war in that rutting galaxy since the moment we showed up, that’s the truth, and I’ve seen it all. I know I don’t look it, but I’m getting on, Kit, like two-thousand-something—centuries kind of melt together. But anyway, I was on Roi, running my rutting rump off from a bunch of rutting—uh, vampires, I guess, is the best thing to call them—one even used to be my rutting girlfriend, the whole thing sucked. So I tried to phaze to my starship, but I must’ve tripped something or, ratshit—I don’t know. It felt like one of them ripped my leg off—I had this gut of pain. Then I ended up here. Exactly what,” she sings, “do you make of a song like mine?”
My skin crawls, a sensation so human I startle, breath catching. I don’t understand half of Shar’s story but I hear the sorrow, the undercurrent in her tune like every song I sang after Roo disappeared. I blink, scratching up behind my ears. I try very hard to understand what Roo might’ve understood. I try hard to think of an answer, a clever one, the right one… But I can’t, and so Shar goes on. Goes on and on with more songs. Songs that come from the sky and stars.
She describes pockets of worlds inside constellations, torn by wars that have lasted ages, ripping the universe at the seams, creating cracks in reality that you can sometimes slip into if your death isn’t careful enough. If it isn’t clean. “I don’t understand,” I chip at her, shaking my head until my chirping turns to growls, until I go back to calling her batshit, crazy in common, lunatic in witcher and worse, because singing isn’t as cruel. She only watches, until I’m finished.
Then she prods: “Look, haven’t you ever heard of ghosts? Spirits? You’ve lived a ghost life here, Kit. You died. Long ago, maybe the moment you were born…” and that’s it. That’s when I tell her she has to go. I tell her I hope she gets lost in corners, that I hope the winds eat her away. “The winds!” she laughs at me. “I’ve been eaten by worse. By space worms and moon wolves, bellies full of iridescent planktons, the prettiest most delicate things you’ve ever seen. I’m not afraid of being eaten by the wind—no rutting way. Don’t you worry, Kit, I plan to get as lost I can here, and really—if you’re actually as smart as you sing you are, you’ll do the same…”
But what does she know of anything, this woman from the sky?
It’s dark by the time she leaves, and I track her, troubled, wary of her songs, her bravery.
I watch her while shaped fox, from the farthest edge I dare go as she disappears under the black shadows of the spires, under the spread of infinity—thinking about Ess, about Roo, about my fear coiled like a ball of snakes underneath my fur. I asked her, before she left the den, I sang: then what will happen, if it’s true, what will happen after you are eaten—what’s on the other side of the corners, what will happen if the wind blows backwards? But Shar just shrugged, and stretched her arms, heading for the dug-out door. “The great mystery,” she sang, “maybe it’s different for all of us. Maybe you’ll find your shrinelands, and maybe I’ll find my parents. I like imagining something sweet and gentle, worth the long journey. But really, it’s anyone’s guess.”
My favorite book holds a song of a warrior who is visited by a fox-spirit. Eventually, they fall in love and leave the warrior’s world for hers. They become partners of the sky. In most witcher yarns the foxes are always tricksters—they lie, or steal, or run away with treasure or hearts of men. But this one is different. There’s no depiction of bloody war, there’s no dead mothers or fathers, but still it unfolds like soft rains split by the sun. I take it with me when I leave my den, following the scents of Shar, the worn leather of her boots, the dried tang of blood. I trot down the familiar ruin-paths, conjuring up Roo’s smarts and Shar’s bravery. I follow the dusty deer trails leading into the roots of the black spires. I carry the book in my sling, hoping that when I greet the wind, I have something to sing to it. Something kind, and glad, and good.