It’s during the rains, the year the breadfruit trees bear unfamiliar seed, that the stranger comes to the drowned city. The year everything changes.
Ebunoluwa draws the basket of fish to the top of the ravaged tower like water from a well. The sky overhead is a cool, clear bowl, the street below submerged several feet. The tides of those streets are awash with scattered seedpods, algae, and coral, grown wild over sunken curb barriers and debris gathering centuries of rust.
The still-standing towers, mostly clustered along long-drowned beachfront developments, are cast a dusky gold in the reflected light of the sun, their glass and steel another sea. The rest of the world below—shops, street vendors, and homes—washed away when the floods hit.
It’s been years since she’s seen another living soul; no drifters have passed through the wreckage below on their way to somewhere else since before her mother’s death. So Ebunoluwa startles at the sight of the stranger on a small boat, a pole clutched in her long, slender arms as they push into the lagoon from the south. The waving hand reaching higher still than the woman’s wild hair is the only thing to tell she’s not one of the ghosts that haunt the city.
It’s a moment before Ebunoluwa waves back, the movement so unfamiliar. The stranger’s smile more foreign still. So unlike the ghosts Ebunoluwa lives with.
They sing to her sometimes, the ghosts of her city, when the sun is low in the sky, washing a burning red soft enough she can stare directly at it before it sinks beneath the earth. Their voices whisper through the breadfruit and mulberry trees her great-grandmother’s great-grandmother’s great-grandmother, Yejide, planted as saplings in deep soil hauled up the tower’s winding stairs; through the rooms of the house Yejide and her wife, Morayo, built there—the house in which Ebunoluwa still lives.
When the ghosts raise their voices to the heavens, their song is the sweet song of cloudstreak, fast-moving. Of wind whispering through high grasses and sparse trees. Of the world alive and awake. A whisper of voices, building until it envelops the curve of the sky and the water below swells as with an oncoming storm. She used to fall asleep to the whisper on long nights, with the moon drifting overhead and her mother teaching her to name the stars. Her mother taught her to name the dead too—to tell the ghosts of family apart from the ghosts of the city: all those who cannot leave in death, tied down when fire rose and the earth tore itself apart; in the days when mountains in the shape of women walked and the worms of the earth slipped free from the cracks in the world.
The ghosts still sing. But Ebunoluwa no longer speaks her mother’s name.
Instead, she thinks on those towering women—the colossi—as the stranger climbs the pulley rope hand over hand—more limber than any woman Ebunoluwa’s ever seen, muscles stronger than her own. Ebunoluwa is still strong, still healthy and proud of the fat that girds her muscles, but her long hair is greyed with age where the stranger’s is a shock of untamed tangle dark as a storm cloud’s belly.
The stranger reminds Ebunoluwa of the women from her visions. The women who walked as mountains: Hewn sharp and angled from black stone, earth shaking as they strode. The colossi were asleep again long before Ebunoluwa’s time; the only titan she’s ever seen is the one whose slumbering back juts hundreds of feet up from the waters of the lagoon—huddled where the colossus laid itself to rest, the tatters of the worm she slew still coiled around her arms, its rent stone coils looped around the titan’s back. The titan bent over its prey, curled tight toward the water and the lagoon-bed as if to bind the last vestige of its foe. The titan’s head hovering just above the water—its broad, sharply defined face reflected in the surface of the lagoon as an island unto itself.
Ebunoluwa’s swum underneath those girding arms and around those pillar legs, crumbling slowly into the water as the waves erode her. She’s climbed to rest atop low outcroppings of rock and coral buildup on the surface of the water like pontoons along the titan’s body. Sometimes she thinks she can still hear the titan breathing, when the water laps at its sides with the wind gone still.
She only ever dares climb higher to walk among or harvest what she needs from the trees her foremothers planted across the titan’s lower reaches. Trees whose shapes and names her mother taught her long ago: Strong mulberry, high and thick with its straight trunk and wide leaves. Broad breadfruit, with its sun-soaked leaves and swollen yield. Bent-trunked shea trees with their honey-cluster leaves and kernel fruit. Mahogany with reaching, dusky trunks and profuse plumes. And dozens more. The seeds to plant them rescued in the first days after the upheaval, from storehouses and homes spread throughout the city’s winding, wind-wavering towers and sprawling streets, by Morayo, who tended their planting. Yejide had no gift for making things grow. Though she gave birth to their first child, after that change came too.
Ebunoluwa’s own body is long past child-bearing age. The shame of it still echoing decades later in her mother’s last words to her: how Ebunoluwa’s empty body had failed their line.
It’s times like those Ebunoluwa touches the skin of her gut and stares off into the distance, remembering.
But now there is another woman before her. Warm and alive.
“Welcome, traveller,” Ebunoluwa greets her, and the stranger smiles, bright-eyed, too thin and too tall, her shadow whipping out behind her like a sheet torn in unseen wind.
Ebunoluwa smiles with her. That motion unfamiliar, too.
They sit together in the shelter of Ebunoluwa’s house, the clear sky having given way to a downpour too thick to see through. The rain pounds heavy on the packed earth and clay of her roof, the rain barrels full and the condensation sheeting rolled up, not to be taken out until the end of the season. “You have seen the titan who watches over this place?” Ebunoluwa asks the stranger, stirring a pot of fish pepper soup boiling in a three-legged pot over an open fire, a plate of pounded yam cooling beside her.
“Yes, on my way north toward the lagoon. She’s beautiful.”
“You came from the open ocean in that small boat?”
“No, east along the coastline. Before that, from across the sea. Though not always in a boat that small.” The stranger declines to answer further, leaning in to smell the stew instead. Her eyes close in bliss as she inhales. “Months since I’ve smelled anything but the sea and fish. This can’t all be wild. Do you grow your own food?” The stranger opens her eyes to stare intently at Ebunoluwa.
Ebunoluwa’s skin flushes a noticeably deeper brown. Attention a distant memory, and always fleeting. Time spent in the arms of a traveller measured in days, if not hours. “I tend what I can grow up here, and harvest the rest from what grows on the colossus.”
“Industrious of you. You’re on your own?”
“Yes,” answers Ebunoluwa, serving out two portions and offering one to the gangly stranger. She tries not to think on how good it feels as the woman’s fingers brush her own when the traveller takes the cup. “For a long time. But you,” she says, collecting herself. “You must be here with a purpose.”
The stranger rolls the soup around in her cup, but doesn’t eat. “Following the dead.”
Ebunoluwa chokes on a mouthful of soup-soaked yam. “Sorry?”
“They’re everywhere here.” The stranger looks out the front window of Ebunoluwa’s house, as if she, too, can see the parade of dead wandering the flooded byways of the city below.
“Are there no ghosts across the sea?” Ebunoluwa’s heard the tales of the fall of the world to the west. Tales of fire and flood and titanic women fighting the worms of the earth, tales brought by travellers crossing east to build new lives in unruined lands.
“Not anymore,” answers the traveller, eyes gone hollow and her shadow dancing to a rhythm of its own in the firelight.
Neither of them speak as Ebunoluwa continues eating. The silence grows long and uncomfortable, until Ebunoluwa offers her guest a bed for the night in the spare room.
It only occurs to her later, when she’s bid the strange woman goodnight and performed her nightly ablutions, that she still doesn’t know the woman’s name.
The stranger comes to her in the night, the unbearable heat broken only by the scent of rain in the distance. Ebunoluwa lies awake on her back atop a bed built low to the ground, plaited hair piled up beneath her head as a pillow. No moon lights the blank walls of her barren room: the darkness outside deep, lit only by pale stars.
Ebunoluwa doesn’t hear the traveller breathing. Just feels the weight of her, surprisingly heavy for someone so bone-thin, crawl into bed with her. Hands brushing skin she’d long forgotten the sense of. Lips on hers. Then careful, patient hands. Ebunoluwa falls into them with a hunger she has not let herself feel in years, and entangles herself in the stranger’s embrace.
In Ebunoluwa’s dream—the same dream she has every night—the sky is a deep bronze lit by blood-streaked clouds and a sun that burns black and hot as a hole in the sky. But the immense garden stretching several dozen feet in every direction from its centre, before which she and her mother stand, is the same as in waking: Several-feet-thick beds of sprouting root vegetables and the waving fronds of fluted pumpkin leaves, bitter leaves, and wild lettuce overflow its loose borders, the garden grown atop the fertilizing weight of her family’s bones. The cemetery garden standing in the lee of the immense house her foremothers built—the high, single-storey dwelling with its gently sloped roof and wide entryways and wider rooms set back against the parapet of the wall farthest from the water. At the opposite end of the roof, a copse of breadfruit and mulberry trees grown up among the ruins of an immense water tower, thick branches waving in the boiling wind of the dry season.
Just beyond the edge of the tower, the raised face of the titan looms above them, its burnished features filling the sky, its shadow cast back across the surface of the lagoon. Impossible shapes swimming in that reflected dark, the water gone deep as ocean bottom with the weight of their coils and their sightless seeking. The walking mountain heaves as it breathes, watching them: Ebunoluwa and her mother arguing atop the tower.
Ebunoluwa’s belly still full with extra folds, thick where the child grew before she lost it. Standing straight as she can manage, still weak from the loss of so much blood when the infant fell apart within her. So few days after, the ruin of her insides still a blinding pain that will not quell. Already, the dead child’s spirit haunts her, wailing for her mother.
In the dream, Ebunoluwa’s mother stands darker than the sun; a gap of negative space more feeling than form—pale eyes like small suns lit with fury in the midst of all that dark. The true sun’s light burning hot along her skin as Ebunoluwa sweats profusely, struggling against exhaustion. Her mother’s voice a lash of fire.
“Is this what we are come to—your belly scraped raw and useless? To each daughter are daughters given. And you, my blessing, my gift from god,” she spits, “cannot carry a daughter. Cannot do your duty by this family and continue the line.”
Ebunoluwa opens her mouth to answer, but there is no sound in her throat, only stones welling within.
Her mother steps closer, heat boiling from her skin, until she and Ebunoluwa are close enough to share breath. “Your ruined belly is our end. I named you wrong, daughter. You are no gift; you are a curse.”
In the dream Ebunoluwa screams past the stones in her throat and lashes out with a rock torn from the earth, as she wishes she had done. Brings it down again and again and again until her mother lies beneath her, head crushed. And still she brings down the stone caked in shadow like blood. The spray of it washed across her face, the taste of it on her lips, thick and vile, as she lets the stone slip from numb fingers. That taste lingers on her tongue and in her throat, working its way down to her gut. She smears the darkness from her lips, painting her cheek, and rises on wobbly legs.
In the dream, she does not have to watch her mother sicken with agonizing slowness over months. Does not have to watch her mother’s disgust and loathing for her daughter consume her, and finally claim her body. There, at least, her mother’s death is quick. If not clean.
In the dream, Ebunoluwa does not have to simmer in the fire of her mother’s hate for those long months. Until, finally, all that’s left is to bury her.
In the dream, she does not have to live with the never-ending screaming of two ghosts.
She wakes drenched in sweat, still wrapped in the stranger’s long arms. A slight pain in her back and a pleasant soreness in her muscles—from being so long out of practice—as she rises. The stranger doesn’t wake as Ebunoluwa creaks fitfully through the house, throws up at the memory of the dream as she does every morning, bathes, and goes to tend her family’s garden.
The traveller doesn’t rise until Ebunoluwa’s picking the yield from the breadfuit trees. Strangely bulbous and heavy in her hand, she peels one open to find small finger bones within. They spill from her hand as she drops the fruit in horror.
“What’s wrong?” asks the stranger from behind her, having come up on her in perfect silence.
“Bones. In the fruit,” whispers Ebunoluwa, afraid to voice it louder. The trees sway in soft wind, fruit rattling as the boughs swing.
“They make a good melody,” says the stranger, watching the trees dance. Long arms held tight across her chest as if she stands cold even in the warmth of the sun. “Lonely. But good.”
Ebunoluwa watches, open-mouthed, as the stranger walks to the root garden beside the house and bends down to sniff the earth, as if she knows what fertilizes that rich ground. Then wipes her hands in the earth and presses it between thumb and middle finger. Satisfied, she rises, and heads back inside.
Ebunoluwa stares at the remains of the fruit in her hand, long after clouds come to cover the sun and a storm rumbles in the distance.
“What are you?” asks Ebunoluwa from the doorway of the stranger’s room, the rain thundering onto the roof, making a blur of the world beyond the windows.
The traveller looks at Ebunoluwa from the edge of the bed. She loosens a drawstring bag on her hip, upsets its contents onto the floor. Tiny bones—fish-light and fowl-hollow and smaller, stranger bones still—spill across the hardened clay. With a wave of her hand the stranger lifts the small assortment from the floor, and Ebunoluwa falls back a step. The stranger wheels her collection through the air and rolls them in place, eyes never leaving the arcing white. Something dark and half-seen slips in their wake.
“I see fragments, sometimes. The sky rent wide: left a deep, glittering black like the skin of a titan. Oceans of black blood and places so deep no light can dream of going there. I remember what it is to tear apart a worm with my bare hands and shake the mountains with my stride.” The stranger stills her hand and the bones fall to the floor with a clatter. She looks to Ebunoluwa. “Or maybe what I see is yet to come. Always I’m adrift. Always there is an emptiness in me.”
The rain pounds harder, more insistent, as Ebunoluwa sits down beside her. “You did not cross the sea by boat.”
“No,” answers the traveller as she bends to pick up the bones from the floor. “Along the coast, yes. But how I crossed the sea….” She shrugs.
“When I lay with you last night, you were a woman. But are you a woman true?”
“I think I was something else once. But now I’m this.”
“You want something from me? Is that why you slept with me?”
“No. Though I like lying with you.” The stranger’s smile is soft and sad. “But your garden.” Ebunoluwa stiffens. “What lies beneath it calls to me.”
Ebunoluwa rises to leave. “They have been there a long time. Only the tilling of the soil disturbs them.”
“They have not all been there as long.” The stranger’s words stop Ebunoluwa at the doorway. “The ones whose ghosts are with you—their pain is not old; it’s too fresh.”
Ebunoluwa shakes her head. “It is old. But like mine: still raw.”
The stranger leans back on her elbows. “Then it is they who’ve been there long enough to seed in your trees. To overflow the borders of the graves you dug for them.”
“And here I thought you brought the change in the fruit.”
“No. Did you think a single garden would be enough to house a line so long? Or a mother whose ghost remains so angry—whose rage sickens the air you breathe? Do you not hear her screaming in the night? And the child—”
“I have stopped listening. To both of them.”
Lightning cracks as if to punctuate her words, and they turn to the flare as one.
Ebunoluwa breaks the silence first. “Will you come to me again tonight?”
“Yes. But tomorrow I quiet the ghosts who haunt you. Then I will go.”
“As is the way of all travellers,” Ebunoluwa throws over her shoulder as she leaves. And then there is only the stranger and her collection of bones.
“The Traveller,” says the tall, gangly woman who is not a woman, eyes on something far in the distance. “I like that.”
In the morning, the scent of the stranger is still on her skin as Ebunoluwa wakes. The storm has passed, the sky bright and clear, the wind warm on her skin as it blows in through the open window.
She lies with her hands running along her skin, listening to her body for the first time in years. Every quiet motion and whisper a benediction of its newness; of the loss of deadened skin and the rawness of the flesh in which she walks.
Through the window, Ebunoluwa can hear the stranger walking through her garden, digging up furrows in the soil. She can’t make out the words the stranger speaks, just the low warmth of her voice, the invitation, and the answering rumble from deep-packed earth.
Ebunoluwa shudders at the sound of burial loam rending, and turns her face from the sudden dark that spreads wide across the window, blotting out the sun. She crushes her face into the pillow against the crunch and tear of bone and the wail of old ghosts, and newer ones too familiar.
She screws her eyes shut tighter still against the thinnest, smallest wail; the ghost of the unborn child whose cry has not stopped ringing in her ears for decades.
The littlest voice the last to be cut short. The silence of its sudden, so-long-hoped-for absence deafening.
She’s not sure how much time has passed when the stranger comes to her. The tall woman’s skin burns hot to the touch as she comes to lie with Ebunoluwa one last time.
The Traveller takes hold of the pulley rope and wraps one long loop of it around her hand as if to use her fist as a rappelling brake. “Will you stay?” she asks Ebunoluwa.
“Should I not? My family built this place. Made it what it is.”
“All that’s left of your family is you.”
“So you think I should go?”
“I think you should make your own decisions.” The Traveller smiles as she jumps off the roof, abseiling swift as a stone. She crashes into the water and laughs as she breaches again, shaking wet weeds and coral bits from her wild hair. She waves goodbye as she climbs into her boat and unmoors it, as she propels her boat swift and sure out into the lagoon.
Ebunoluwa doesn’t wave back.
She stands before the rent garden—the muddied earth peeled up and out in great gouts of formless statuary.
The stranger has not merely taken the ghosts of her mother and her child, but all the ghosts of the women of her line. The cemetery garden swept clean of bone and spirit.
What now is left for her here? Ready food? Shelter? None of it she can even call her own. All of it someone else’s work—a legacy no longer moored by more than memories and oral history. With her family’s ghosts gone, the trees have already begun to wither and the clay of the house to crack. Ebunoluwa’s never known anything but this place. These ghosts. And now she doesn’t even have that.
She’s free. And she’s never been more terrified.
The open pit of her mother’s grave yawns empty before her, roots still interwoven like tendons through where the bones lay. The vague shape of her mother still there in the emptiness, and so much more there than lost bone: The weight of being her mother’s daughter still buried there.
All the love and hate that survived her mother; that never gave Ebunoluwa room to breathe while her mother still lived. And even with the spirits of her family gone she is still her mother’s daughter, and not. Still the hope of the women who bore her, yet the last of their line. Not the failure her mother deemed her, but not yet more.
She’s not entirely sure what she is now. Except alone.
The stranger’s right. This isn’t her place in the world anymore. Just a remnant of other lives, worn loose like a host of second skins.
She looks to the colossus in the lagoon, towering high above even the building on which she stands. When did she stop wanting to climb higher than the groves her foremothers planted atop its broad limbs—along the paths of wild growth that ascend higher than those carefully planned fields?
A swift shadow falls across her, and she follows its passage up and inland—a goshawk dark against pale cloud; both drifting east, toward browned earth and green plains out past the lagoon. Toward the remnants of countries Ebunoluwa’s only ever known in stories. No telling how much of the old world remains now, or what those who went before found. Ebunoluwa’s never been beyond the borders of the drowned city. And now, more than anything, she wants answers to those questions.
She watches the bird until it’s just a dark speck against the horizon. Then she goes inside to pack the few things she owns. She ferries them to her boat below, and sets the house and the garden alight before she leaves. The blaze is high and roaring as she descends the tower for the last time.
When all is ready, Ebunoluwa heads her boat into the interior, following the path the Traveller showed her. She doesn’t look back.
Michael Matheson is a genderfluid graduate of Clarion West (’14). Their work is published or forthcoming in Nightmare, Grendelsong, Ideomancer, and Stone Telling, among others. Their first anthology as editor, The Humanity of Monsters, was released by ChiZine Publications in Autumn 2015. Find more at http://michaelmatheson.wordpress.com.
The Arrival of Other Strangers:
Even in This Skin by A.C. Wise – Mar has been binding her breasts for years by the time she starts visiting Jamie in prison. If the men stare, it’s at her ass; she can live with that. She isn’t packing today, so she doesn’t strut, just tugs her sweatshirt over her wrists before sliding into the seat opposite her brother. Today, she just wants to disappear.
Dustbaby, by Alix E. Harrow – There were signs. There are always signs when the world ends. In the winter of 1929, Imogene Hale found her well-water turned to viscous black oil, which clotted to tar by the following Monday. A year later, my Uncle Emmett’s fields came up in knots of blue-dusted prairie grass rather than the Silver King sweetcorn he seeded. Fresh-paved roads turned pock-marked and dented as the moon. Tractor oil hardened to grit and glitter, like ground glass.
Be Not Unequally Yoked, by Alexis A. Hunter – Things used to be pure inside me. Separated. When I was a boy, I was wholly a boy. When I was a horse, I was wholly a horse. Things used to be simple inside me. I was all one thing or I was all another. And the two only got close when the change was happening.