Authors: Jay Lake
This has grown beyond my daughter's story, but this book is still dedicated to her. Her struggle is her own, her triumphs are her own, though I share in them both. I can only hope to wish her strength and love in her life.
This book would not have been possible without the wonderful assistance of people too numerous to fully list here. Nonetheless, I shall try, with apologies to whomever I manage to omit from my thank-yous. Much is owed to Dr. Kevin Billingsley, Kelly Buehler and Daniel Spector, Sarah Bryant, Michael Curry, Dr. Daniel Herzig, Bronwyn Lake, Ambassador Joseph Lake, Shannon Page, Dr. Paul Schipper, Ken Scholes, Jeremy Tolbert, the Umberger family, Dr. Gina Vaccaro, the Omaha Beach Party, Amber Eyes, and, of course, everyone in my blogging and social media communities. To those whom I may have neglected to mention: That omission is my own and does not in any way reflect upon you.
I also want to recognize the Brooklyn Post Office here in Portland, Oregon, as well as the Fat Straw coffeehouse and Lowell's Print-Inn for all their help and support. Likewise, the doctors and nurses of the Knight Cancer Center at Oregon Health Sciences University for keeping me alive so I could write this book. Special thanks go to Jennifer Jackson, Beth Meacham, Melissa Frain, and Terry McGarry for making this book not only possible but real. Also, I want to thank Irene Gallo and Dan Dos Santos for another striking cover that shows Green as she livesâin angry motion.
And of course my brother and his ox. Errors and omissions are entirely my own responsibility.
The High Hills
late autumn-blooming clover amid a sloping grave-meadow and picked at my memories as if they were old scars. Fat, slow, red-bodied bees bumbled about me as they passed through scattered shafts of sunlight limning the damp, chilly air. Their indifferent drone was desultory. Empires would rise and fall, gods pass from bloody birth to fiery death, every woman who ever lived slip quietly into her final sleep, and still bees would find their flowers.
That was a lesson for me. I was certain of it. Sick of lessons, I ignored the thought.
Recollection served my mood little better. As they always have, the people of my life crowded close in these quiet moments. Federo, locked inside the bandit-god-king Choybalsan, that haunted look in his eyes at the last. Septio, the only man I'd then bedded, his neck snapped within the loving circle of my arms. Shar, the desperate woman who'd lived with my father into the final days of his ruination. Mistress Danae, whose addled mind and ravaged body survived as a shadow among the graves. Cities full of flame and despair, knives in the dark, my fear racing faster than even the flying of my feet.
The single word echoed among the silent graves scattered across this empty hillside. Tiny birds whirred up from the long, golden grass into the cerulean bell of the sky. My belly twinged as the child within stirred. She was still so little, this poor god-struck bastard of mine. I placed my hands upon my abdomen and crooned softly. I don't know if the ancient ghosts whose abode this was heard me. Perhaps it didn't matter. My baby returned to sleep and took the bitter sting of memories with her.
In time I emerged from my enclosing song and looked about. Inattention has never been a habit with me, not from my earliest years. Even so, the unquiet dead were no threat, the nearest possible ambush was hundreds of paces away downhill, and this place
of safety. Most of the bees had moved on to other stands of clover on their day's rounds. The pallid northern sun had climbed higher into the patient vault of the heavens. The day was as warm as ever it would be at this time of yearâalmost enough to make me wish for a hood or a hat, rather than simply sitting bareheaded in the wind that carried the first sharp-edged tang of winter. The scent of the clover remained strong, mixed with the dusty-rock odor of the ridgetops.
Even now, I still believe that the High Hills were as timeless a place as I'd ever known, at least since the never-ending summer amid the rice paddies of my earliest youth. No ox stood placid and wise to watch over me. Instead, I watched over myself and my child. These forgotten grave-meadows were safely outside the purview of the several gods who had made themselves so dangerous to me. Nothing here but ghosts, dwindling gently with the slow passage of years as we all must do.
The grave nearest me offered a smidgen of shadow, but Ilona had said the old king who lay there rested uneasy. It was not so good to place myself close under his touch. A shame, too; his grave was pretty enough. The sepulcher had been dug back into the hill, so that only the face stood clear. That visible portion of the monument boasted a cladding of red stone, carven into small pillars and a carved entablature. The elaborate frieze had long since worn to a tale of shapeless heroism among faceless warriors. Brass and bronze banded the pillars, and served as tarnished ornaments to the tiny stoa. The grave was a miniature of a classical Smagadine temple, rendered through the imagination of some Stone Coast mason who'd likely never even sailed as far as Lost Port.
An idea of a memory of someone else's history. Just as with my own life, from my happy beginnings down all the years since. But also as with my life, in a curious manner all the disparate elements and desperate divisions came together to form something greater than could be inferred from the constituent parts. In the case of this grave, the harlequin whole of the architectural truth served to hold a dead man and his unquiet ghost. The mound that rose behind the facing was pretty, a gentle swale of turf dotted with tiny, wound-pink flowers.
But unquiet. So unquiet.
The ghosts whispered when you walked among them if you had ears to listen. Ilona had suggested that as I had been god-touched, my hearing was plenty sharp for what was needful here. I'd certainly had my share of arguments with the divine, from the Lily Goddess to Blackblood to Endurance himself.
god. The one I'd created.
That thought still had the power to stagger me, months later here in my exile.
I wandered along the slopes. Yarrow hissed against my calves. Clover crushed beneath my feet added a sharp rush of bruised green to the already-heavy scent of flowers. Smaller, less forward blossoms peeked eye-bright from among the larger stalks.
And through it all, the graves. Some little more than hummocks of grass, covered in brambles or roses or stranger things, depending on the will of the original mourners and perhaps the sensibilities of the ghost lurking within. Others were more elaborate, such as the final home of the redstone king I'd just left behind. Certain of their fellows were merely collapsed hollowsâdents in the earth where I could lay myself down and walk awhile among the strange dreams of the lords of the dead past.
Each carried a whispering voice. Certain of them spoke like wasps under a distant eave: barely a buzzing whine, hints of meaning concealed within the cycling tonality. More resembled chatter after a temple service. Arguments, bargaining, the rhythm of a joke being recounted; the sense still not quite fully formed to my ear.
A few were awake, aware. Some called my name with voices as forceful as life.
“Come here, girl.”
“You dare too much.”
“You do not risk enough.”
Still, they were merely ghosts. Like so many of life's oppressions, the power of such clinging souls is only that granted by the victim. I had already faced worse than any of these would ever wield against me.
“Sleep,” I called, invoking the formulation that Ilona had taught me. “Sleep, and rest upon your beds of dreams.”
I had no idea if that phrase eased the ghosts, but my use of it seemed to ease Ilona. That was good enough for me. I picked a careful path down toward the stand of dogwoods that marked the lower boundary of this high grave-meadow. These High Hills possessed a view that on a sharp-aired day might contain Copper Downs itself. As ever, I prayed that no one in Copper Downs could see me here.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Ilona's cottage crouched among the untended apple orchards like a rabbit in a cornfield. More of a cabin, in truth, it was a compact structure of sturdy logs caulked with clay and covered in a neutral gray stucco, topped with a slate roof. The first time I'd come here, I'd been half dead in my flight from the war camp of the late Federo. Ilona had nursed me back to health and sent me onward without ever revealing her name, let alone much else. When my business in Copper Downs had concluded as much as it was likely to at the timeâgiven an overabundance of fatalities and a shortage of competent governanceâI'd traveled back to this place in hopes of a welcoming hearth.
Today Ilona met me at the door, wearing the orange dress of hers that I loved so. I never was able to disguise my interest in that dress, and the way she filled it out. This was well enough. We had not become lovers as I had hoped, but we had become very good friends indeed in the five months I'd stayed here with Ilona and her daughter, Corinthia Anastasia. Given my ragged hair and the scars I'd carved into myself to seam my cheeks and notch my ears, I knew that I was not one to tempt a woman close simply for the sake of my beauty. Still, I never stopped hoping that the fires within my heart might light her path toward me.
Perhaps it did not matter in any case. For the first time since my days with Samma in the aspirants' dormitory back in Kalimpura, someone cared to watch over me while I slept. And I felt safe enough to allow it. Such a rare trust at any time in my life then or since, I yet treasure the memory.
Everyone else was afraid of me.
I set that thought aside and accepted Ilona's swift, welcoming embrace. “Where's Corinthia Anastasia?” As I spoke, I let my lips almost brush her pale ear lest she had somehow forgotten my interest.
Ilona's hands tightened on my shoulders. “She's gone down to harvest onions. The stand along the Little Bright Creek has grown in nicely.”
Nothing up here was more dangerous than me; both Ilona and I knew that. The lynxes prowling these woods would not bother the child. The wolves stayed away from Ilona and any who smelled of her, through some old bargain I did not understand. I was fairly certain the ghosts had something to do with that. Even so, any number of things could happen to a girl wandering alone.
Bandits still roamed the lands Federo had for a time controlled in his incarnation as the nascent god Choybalsan. Most of his army had returned to their fields and farms on disbanding. Some had been burned out of their homes, or turned away for misdeeds and old grudges. A few simply preferred to carry on in predatory packs, knife-armed and ruthless. Most were smart enough to stay away from this part of the High Hills, but not everyone got the word. We'd found that out the hard way twice since I'd come here.
The hard way for
, I should say. I burned the two flames to the souls of each dead man, and made them decent graves in a beech grove far enough from the house that we would never be troubled by their unquiet shades.
That word snuck up sometimes. When it did, it frightened the life out of me. “I'll check on her,” I told Ilona, my left hand straying to cradle and protect my belly. Too many children had been stolen in my earliest youth. Starting with me.
“Green.” Ilona put a finger to my lips. “The war is passed.
ended it. If my daughter cannot gather onions for a few hours, then our problems are much larger than we know. Let her roam and let her learn.” The older woman grinned. “Besides, she runs fast, and is a fine hand with the boning knife.”