“Your mother lives in a swamp?”
“Then why are we here?”
“My mother is the swamp,” Peregrine said. He leaned towards the mire’s trees, heaped as dark and snarled as bull kelp on a beach. His movement was drunken—he swayed forward, and back, then stumbled in.
Ebb hesitated. Peregrine had given him the kind of answer he expected: nonsensical. The man wore a leather jacket lined with wolf’s fur and branded with a skunk-cabbage motif. Some days he hated sushi, other days it was all he’d eat. He was stubborn, he was subservient; he was abusive and he hated sex except for when he didn’t. His words were always unpredictable; the only thing you could expect from him was anything.
Ebb reached out to touch the swamp’s air, thick enough to feel, thick enough to clog your lungs and drown you.
“Your mother’s a swamp, yes, of course she is,” he murmured. “Is that what the dreams told you?” he called, still motionless, hand outstretched. It closed on air.
Three months ago, Peregrine had started sleepwalking. He said his night’s mind was always full of abandoned taxidermy shops, and tea brewed from obsidian dust and anise and silkworms. But his waking mind was full of these things, too, so they hadn’t worried Ebb. It was something else—other—that was making him anxious. After a month of the sleepwalking, he’d started to wonder what Peregrine wasn’t saying. He could tell when his lover was holding back; it was their nature to know each other. When he realized Peregrine was keeping something he couldn’t have, Ebb knew it had to be wrong. Invasive.
“Peregrine?” he called.
No answer. All he could hear was the swamp sucking at his lover’s feet.
Ebb followed Peregrine’s footprints. The swamp had receded recently; lilies were strewn across the mud and tangled around cypress knees. He didn’t like it here. He didn’t like the smell—it wasn’t salty enough—and the sticky air made him feel the mire was trying to pull him deeper and shove him out all at once. Why did Peregrine feel so drawn to this place? How was that possible? How could he like something and Ebb not understand it?
Peregrine was waiting for him just beyond a spiderweb. A large orb-weaver sat at its center, near his face. Ebb hesitated, looking for a way around, but Peregrine hooted laughter and jumped through the web, pulled him close, murmuring something Ebb didn’t hear because he’d ripped away, rending his skin and face and clothing. He tore off his shirt and kicked it into the mud, scraped frantically at his neck and flanks, stumbling through the branch-tangle until he fell limp, shoulders stooped, arms hanging. There were scrapes against the softness of his belly, down his arms. A cut stung on his nose.
Peregrine was still laughing.
“The dreams don’t tell me anything. They just call me,” he said, tossing his head and continuing on. Ebb was still standing there, shirtless and jumpy as his lover walked away.
Coolness trickled in between Ebb’s boot laces. He looked down. Water.
Together, they waded through the creeping ooze. Peregrine walked backwards, facing Ebb the whole time.
Peregrine’s hair was so heavy it was motionless, a strange, leaden specimen of old man’s beard: dark, thick, and oiled. His eyes were grey-pink. Sometimes they shifted like grubs exposed to fresh air and sunlight.
Ebb had met him at a lecture on the physics of black holes, had been with him ever since. Peregrine was tall, wide-shouldered and had big, graceful hands. He had natural poise and muscle, though his favorite things were reading and pinning moths and butterflies into shadow boxes. He used to collect moss and make miniature terrariums. Ebb had no idea how he maintained his perfect physique. Mostly Peregrine just sat inside, especially those few weeks before the dreams had started.
Ebb was the one who worked (gathering seaweeds off the northeast coast), bought their food and cooked it. He’d almost been relieved when Peregrine started sleepwalking; at least something was getting him outside. Fearful and sensitive in the day, at night he sleep-staggered to the boundaries where forest wormed into city slum. He’d come home and make slow, slow love to Ebb, hold him fast against his chest before falling asleep. In the morning, Peregrine would beg him to forget work for the day, for every day. But Ebb always pulled on his rain jacket and rain boots over his wet suit, kissed him and left for the sea.
Then, a week ago, Peregrine said it was time. Time for what? Ebb had asked. Time for you to meet my mother.
Peregrine’s movements through the swamp had become heavy, silken; his intoxicated sway was gone. Ebb felt like the drunk now, slipping in mud, brushing away feathery cycads with erratic swats, expecting spider webs. He shook off the clacking shudder that threatened to wrack his spine. Sand fleas, crabs, and bloodworms he could handle, but spiders.
“Was that really necessary?” he said. “Back there? Dragging me—”
“I wanted to hold you,” Peregrine interrupted. “I couldn’t be bothered wasting time with spiders.”
Ebb shuddered, but accepted his answer. It was exactly what he’d wanted to hear.
“Is this place an old haunt of yours?” he asked. Five years with the man and he knew so little of his past. Peregrine always said he hadn’t lived before they’d met and Ebb always rolled his eyes and said, yeah, I certainly haven’t heard that one before.
Peregrine stopped beside a sinkhole, a pit full of mud like wet ash, and gave his answer.
“In a way,” he said, “it’s the eldest of my haunts. I was born here.” He pointed to the hole. “She pushed me out and I surfaced with the decomposed bodies of her former children clinging to my face. I wish you had been there. I was beautiful, Ebb. More than I am now. My skin was blue and my eyes were rainbow like a beetle’s exoskeleton.”
“You’re beautiful now. Impossibly so,” Ebb muttered, with complete, gut-deep honesty. He’d never met anyone who engrossed him like Peregrine. Yet the man always spoke of how beautiful he’d once been. “Anyway, what sort of woman gives birth in a swamp, in the remains of her dead children?” he asked. He reached forward and grabbed a handful of his partner’s mane. What sort of man jokes about being born in the leftovers of his rotted siblings? Peregrine, of course. What sort of man stays with a lover who likes to gag him with a raw eel when they fuck? I do, of course.
“What sort of mother?” Peregrine asked, then answered himself: “Mine.” He jerked his head and the fistful of hair Ebb held came away in his hand. Ebb stared at it, breath shallow.
Peregrine pulled up his hood. “I told you,” he said, bitterly. “I’m not like I once was.” He took Ebb’s wrist and drew him close. With no spider between them, Ebb came willingly.
“Are you okay?” Ebb whispered, cheek pressed against his lover’s jaw. “You’re sick, aren’t you? How did I miss it, I—” He could feel the fever hot along Peregrine’s skin, the frantic pulse of his blood.
“Shush,” Peregrine said, pulling out the tie holding back Ebb’s hair and running his hands through the loose yellow. “Damn it,” he said, after a moment.
“What?” Ebb asked, drawing back, sickness rising to his throat.
“Nothing,” Peregrine said, but held up his hands. His fingernails were gone. His thumbnail clung by a thread of cuticle. No blood, just flaking skin. “They just…fell off,” he said, half-smiling.
“No,” Ebb said faintly.
“Don’t worry,” Peregrine crooned, putting an arm around Ebb’s waist. He bit the skin behind Ebb’s ear. “I need you,” he said.
Ebb’s scalp and the back of his neck tightened, but not in fear. It was that feeling of slow, hot sand poured down his spine; lovely, warm. “Not now,” he told Peregrine, told himself.
“I told you, I need you.” His lover’s voice was raw and thick, like his throat was full of mud. Ebb struggled as Peregrine released his waist and jerked at his belt, but the air went out of him as they backed into a tree. He worried about bugs and spiders falling on his head, but he didn’t want to fight. Not with Peregrine’s musk-smell of sweet, fresh butter and mead, and his mouth there and his tongue there and his hands there, there, there. Why so weak? Ebb asked himself. But it wasn’t weakness. It was lust. Incineration. This was how he liked to be touched, aroused—with power, desperation. Before Peregrine, he spent years selling his body to get through school and life, giving himself up to desires seemingly strange and discrete, but all hunger and loneliness and home-searching at their core. That yearning became his world. It ate him up and spat him out, ready and willing, at Peregrine’s feet.
Peregrine, who had come to him that first evening at the lecture, in his wolfskin jacket and with a knife at Ebb’s throat. He’d done this during the intermission, in line for coffee. Had taken out this strange knife—its blade like the iridescent eyes of crocodiles, hilt an uncomfortable-looking, darkly polished piece of knots and warped wood—and laid its edge along Ebb’s jugular, asking can I buy you dinner? At the restaurant, Peregrine asked, can I fuck you if I pay for it? Then, after the sex, Peregrine had bought him again: I’ll pay for all your schooling if you’ll keep me. The choice had been easy for Ebb. Their love-making left him with an emptiness he’d always wanted, and he liked the man’s quiet, his quirks and inevitable pull. As Ebb worked on his MS in Aquatic Botany, they sunk deep into each other, smoking mugwort, sharing cream-rich tea, pillows, socks, feasts of live octopus.
It was after graduation that Peregrine started hurting him. When Ebb was still in school, the man just wanted to have sex in uncomfortable, dangerous places—in ocean-shallows as the tide crept close, in grimy public restrooms where broken bottles and wadded toilet paper littered the floor. But after Ebb graduated, Peregrine refused to go outside. He painted their room black, lined the shelves with jars of formaldehyde and animal fetuses, hung logs of mushrooms over their bed. He cut runes into Ebb’s belly and chest before they fucked, so they’d be red-slicked by the time they came. Afterwards, Peregrine would salt and lick the wounds. He’d have Ebb bring home dark rye bread and suet so they could make black pudding together with blood Peregrine tapped from his own wrists. Ebb didn’t mind the pain and strangeness, but sometimes he wondered if Peregrine was even human—or maybe it was that the man was truly human and everyone else just pretended. To Ebb, that visceral authenticity was irresistible; he knew humanity intimately, had played out too many of his client’s hidden desires to not know it. But they all wore their masks, except when they came to him crawling on their knees (or paid him to crawl on his knees to them). Peregrine, though…he wore humanity’s intestines on his sleeve. They were his sleeves. Or maybe it was that he had no skin. He had no fear. And that was what Ebb wanted. Dark emptiness. A drug to burn everything down. Yes, he worked on the days Peregrine wanted him home, but otherwise, he’d never been able to say no to him. And Peregrine knew it now as he ever had, because he released Ebb’s wrists and went to his knees.
He watched Ebb the whole time. Ebb could feel Peregrine’s gaze, though his own eyes were closed and stayed closed until he’d come. When Ebb opened them and buckled up his pants, Peregrine was standing, wiping honey from his mouth, licking it from his fingers.
“Is that…me?” Ebb said.
Peregrine laughed softly. “Of course. Want a taste?”
“Fine.” He wiped his hands on his pants.
“Let me see them. Your hands, Peregrine,” he clarified when the man tilted his head. Peregrine shrugged and put both of his hands into Ebb’s. “But…”
“They grew back,” Peregrine told him.
“No. That’s not possible.” Fear was returning, now that his lust was dissolving. Anyway, Peregrine was wrong—partially. He had fingernails, yes, but not. They looked wrong, like the tawny striped shell of a snail. “This isn’t possible.”
Peregrine ignored him and asked, “How do my eyes look?”
Ebb stared at them closely. “Purple,” he said slowly, “but that’s just the light in this place.”
“It’s not. They’re purple. I mean it. Come on, we’re almost there.”
Ebb swallowed, and shook his head. It took him a moment to force the word out, but finally, it came. “No.”
Peregrine just stared.
“Let’s just please go back,” Ebb said. That thing he’d felt when Peregrine’s dreams had started, that one piece he couldn’t consume, was growing the farther they went into the mire. It was like Peregrine was peeling them apart.
“Just a little farther. Don’t you want to meet my mother?”
“But I already have, haven’t I? That spider? The pit full of her children’s muck? She’s the swamp, you said it yourself. So I’ve met her. I’m in her.” It was ridiculous to say, but it was the sort of thing Peregrine believed.
“No, you aren’t. Not yet,” he said quietly.
The ground punched up and shifted beneath his feet. He stumbled against Peregrine. Muttered, “What the hell?” with closed eyes as he pressed his face into his lover’s chest, wishing the rest of him wasn’t so far away.
“It’s her. She’s eager to see you.”
Or there’d been an earthquake. He felt Peregrine’s hand on his head, stroking his hair. He straightened and looked up for his lover’s eyes. Peregrine watched back, and put a hand on his stomach like he did when he was hungry. “Come on. We’re so close now,” Peregrine said, and pinned Ebb’s arms to his sides and pushed him on.
“I don’t want to,” Ebb mumbled. But he didn’t fight.
His lover’s smell of fermented molasses and buttermilk was too strong. His lover was too strong. He felt dry, as if when Peregrine had sucked him off, he’d taken something from him, something more than that strange honey-cum. Peregrine was draining him. He was a pig hung upside down with its throat cut—which would have been fine, if it had been mutual, if he could have cut Peregrine’s throat, too.
Whatever it was, Ebb couldn’t move. This was what he wanted, after all. To be betrayed, but only by Peregrine. To hurt. But only at his lover’s hands. Because he could trust they wouldn’t leave him.
Peregrine nudged him off the muddy expanse they’d been wandering along, into water. It was surprisingly pleasant and clear, Ebb noted absently as he floated belly-up. He let his fingers trail through the water, thinking of how it might feel even nicer if he had no nails.
“Bet you’re glad I never lost any weight. I float better this way,” he said, as Peregrine stepped off an underwater ledge. The surface came up high on his lover’s chest as he pulled Ebb along.
For awhile, he drifted, half-asleep, and only woke fully when they stopped moving.
“We’re here,” Peregrine said, mouth close to his ear.
Ebb opened his eyes and looked up to see a huge cypress stretched far above their heads. White catkins hung from it. He laughed and struggled in the water a moment, till his feet sank into the silt at the bottom. The water lapped at his bottom lip. “Is this what you wanted to show me? This tree’s your mother?”
“Oh, yes. She’s very close now.” But Peregrine wasn’t looking at the cypress. Ebb followed his gaze, far off, beyond the other water-bound trees. It was dark in the mire, but Ebb could see an approaching murk, seeping beneath the surface.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“She’s coming,” Peregrine said, kissing Ebb’s forehead. Then he took out his knife.
Ebb went still. He hadn’t seen this coming, but he knew what the knife was for. He almost laughed. He should have known, he should’ve expected this, but of course he hadn’t. He never would have guessed. How could he have? The closer you are to something, the harder it is to see it.
Peregrine lifted and dropped the blade; Ebb dropped with it, plunging underwater. He clenched his fists and teeth like the blade had bit him, but it hadn’t and anyway, it didn’t matter; everything still hurt and devouring was so different than dying. He’d done so much for Peregrine, given so much. But this was Ebb’s line. He wanted emptiness, not an end to it.
The knife stabbed into his right shoulder as he clawed through the silt. His arm felt wet and cold. Darkness swilled into his open eyes and flowed around the cypress trunks till his head was lifted up out of the water.
“Don’t struggle, Ebb,” Peregrine said, holding him up by a handful of hair. “I love you so. See, she’s coming for you. She wants to meet you.” Peregrine grit his jaw like he always did in hate and frustration, tongue mashed against his front teeth. Ebb watched the slight gaps between them fill with blood and mud. He jerked at Peregrine’s grip, felt hair rip; he couldn’t lift his stabbed arm, but he clawed with the other at his lover’s chest and hair. Feeble attempts, every one. He felt sleepy, as if the knife was a sedative.
Peregrine spoke over his silent struggles. “My mother always wants for herself anything I have, anything I’ve ever had. Venison, puppies, lovers. And you know what? I give them to her. I always have. So I can be free, so I can be human.”
Ebb leaned against his vice-arm. “Peregrine, please, let me go.” The words were like crabs, claw-hung from his bottom lip, trying to crawl back down his throat. “We can escape and I’ll keep you safe from her, I promise. You’re mine as much as I’m yours and I know well what that belonging means, requires. We have time, but we have to go.” Lies, though. He knew they were. The water fused into darkness and the cypress’ white catkins fluttered without wind. They reached towards Ebb and his lover.
“See how she watches, Ebb? She wants you, more than I ever could,” Peregrine said. Ebb wished he could pretend he heard sadness in those last few words.
Air brushed his face, startling him; it was so thick in here. The breeze was the first he’d felt since entering the mire. On the tree, the catkins stirred and detached, drifting in a trailing mass, pearly canines sliding from their small flowers.
“No…” he whispered, because he knew what happened next, no matter how impossible—the catkins would latch onto him and it would all be over.
Peregrine released him before he could struggle. Ebb sloshed through the water, but the catkins flurried around his face. They pricked his flesh and froze him.
Peregrine stood back and watched. Ebb pleaded with wide eyes through the catkin’s pale haze—which was mad, he knew; his lover had just stabbed him, after all. Peregrine wasn’t going to save him; his face was unrecognizable with greed. Or was it love? Why can’t I tell them apart? Ebb wondered, desperate. Why the fuck do I care right now?
“Not yet, mother,” Peregrine hissed and ripped the catkins from Ebb’s head. Darkness shifted to the mire’s flower-scattered surface. It felt rough against Ebb’s skin. “Soon, mother, soon,” Peregrine murmured, running his fingers across Ebb’s throat. “Just let me have my last few moments.”
Ebb wanted to cringe away. He wanted to lean into his lover’s palms. He couldn’t do both, so he didn’t move.
“She’s just keeping me alive. You understand that, right?” Peregrine said. Ebb said nothing. “I’m just an infant,” Peregrine went on. “What she makes of you becomes milk for me. Eating is her way of loving. Don’t you think consumption is the truest form of love? I mean, fucking’s no different, right? I enter you, you consume me.”
Don’t you dare compare us. I love you. She doesn’t. Ebb forced air into his lungs, forced his mouth to move. “Don’t you know she’s using you? You’re just her lure.”
“Perhaps. But I have to live somehow. This is just how it is. After I kill you, the waters will pull me back to that pit where I’ll rot and then be reborn—because of you, Ebb. You keep me human, don’t you know that? God, I want you so much.”
Ebb forced air into his lungs. “So have me, Peregrine. Just once more, and then you can kill me.”
“Fuck, I want that so much,” Peregrine said, voice shivering, the hand on Ebb’s face shaking. “Want you so much…”
Ebb coughed, limbs twitching. Peregrine’s touch torched a thousand memories of a thousand touches, so much emptier, and far warmer. It burned up his daze.
Ebb spun around, choking out, “So take me.” He gripped Peregrine’s knife-hand and shoved the blade into his lover’s throat, ripped it out.
Ebb dove below, screaming at himself—dead, dead, dead—spewing bubbles. But he knew it was a lie. A knife wasn’t going to kill Peregrine. Not even a knife in the throat.
Swamp-water was nothing like the ocean. The sea was giant and hollow; the swamp was primal stew. He’d been free-diving kelp beds for years; he could escape this place, easy. Land wasn’t far; nothing gave chase as he swam, or as he scrambled from the slough. His arm felt like it was ripping off. He wished it would. Mud sucked at his soles, but didn’t slow him. Something trailed beneath the water’s surface, but it didn’t rise, just lapped at the bank as he ran.
Something was wrong, of course, and not just the fact that Peregrine wasn’t chasing him. It was Ebb that was wrong. He’d been wrong, for years. Energy spit heavy and bright through his veins and he thought, I’m leaving myself behind.
He’d been wrong about Peregrine; he’d been wrong about himself. We both cling to emptiness, yes. That’s true. But I crave it and Peregrine leaves it in his wake. I have too much of everything in me, he has too little. We aren’t the same, and that’s good. Because we can give each other what we need.
Ebb wanted the space between fingers and teeth, the constant restarting, the void before burgeoning. And so he stopped. And turned. Peregrine stood at his back, grinning at him from the shallows, purple-eyed with a mane of lank, wet marsh grasses. His smile was full of broken, pointed teeth and punctured bladderwrack, but it was still Peregrine. He gripped Ebb’s forearm and hauled him close. Pinned him on his back, coughing, splattering seawater across his face. Ebb couldn’t see his lover’s ruined throat for all the mud.
“See what I am without you, Ebb?” Peregrine groaned. His voice was guttural and fractured. Then he smiled and it was endearing as always, even with his chaotic mess of teeth and seaweed. “I won’t let her have you, Ebb. I won’t.” Ebb smiled back as Peregrine leaned down, nuzzled his face against his partner’s throat, kissed it, bit it out.
Ebb arched his neck into Peregrine’s mouth, into his teeth. He felt for his lover’s own throat—it was gone. He smiled wider as Peregrine’s tongue found his esophagus. This was how it was supposed to be. A feast.
He knew his lover’s hunger and thoughts and dwindling life. Peregrine’s mind reminded Ebb of swimming beneath a warm, waterless ocean at night, and he could feel moss against his bare feet. Water filled their bodies, and catkins, rotting wood and leaves. The swamp was engulfing them; they were eating the swamp.
They became enormous, a vortex of feeding. Not man, not human. Pregnant wilderness.