The Weighted Wires
My momma used to tell me stories about Arankê back in the wood-paneled parlor room where I cracked my skull. Back before I knew that room had it out for me. We’d sit in front of the radio together, and momma would braid my hair and start her stories, “Bethtolit Dram, you pretty girl, have I told you the dream I had…?” We’d sit until the power ration ran out and the flat went dark like sour chocolate. The place would get cold—a cold that settled to your bones ‘till the power came back on around sunrise. Only them upper-city Bankham folks got power through the night. That’s how you knew you got it made: you got through a night without your knees cramping from cold.
I remember Arankê’s stories. Some parts of them come through more than others. She was a dream-eater, for one. I always pictured her wrapping them all up in a blanket and eating them like one of them street gyros. Momma said it was different than that, that she had to give you a dream first. Arankê could build cities in your head, carve out a scratch in your skull. Some people would get lost in them, never wake up again. Arankê could make you think you were awake in the middle of a nightmare. Worse than that was when she made you think you were asleep.
“You see people talkin’ in the streets,” momma said, “they talkin’ to dream-people. They got ghosts in their eyes. Arankê put ‘em there.”
I grew up and figured Arankê was some hoodoo momma made up. She had her own Arankê, haunting her bones, making her crazy. She got locked up years ago—got caught with them drugs that put Arankê in her head. It’s been years since I thought about Arankê. Then I got this dream tonight and it all came back. It was like when you smell something you haven’t smelled in years, and then the pictures come, and the feelings.
I haven’t touched no drugs. But I felt Arankê. And I tell you now, and you better listen close: she ain’t no smoke and mirrors. She’s there. You see people talking in the streets, and there ain’t nobody around they’re talking to, they’re walking with dream-people. They got ghosts in their eyes.
You stare long enough, maybe they’ll come talk to you. Maybe Arankê will build a Somnam City in your head. Tell you what, though, you see them ghosts, you dream them dreams, here’s what you don’t do: don’t tell the city watch. They’ll catch you up like flies in their sticky nets. They’re gonna suck you dry, tell your family you’re hitting the oneira too hard. Throw you in the hoosegow, tell your daughter you’re on drugs.
I know about it, though. And I’m telling everyone I can—and you tell everyone you know, too. I’m gonna figure this out. I don’t want to lose somebody else.
Catch ‘em in the twilight, grind ‘em with your fist,
Don’t let the grey boys catch ya.
They’ll take you by the shoulder, take you by the wrist,
They’ll pull yer teeth an’ skin ya.
It’s been a few years since I been with somebody, so I have a lot of dreams where I’m in love. There’s one man I always dream about: Harris Blue. Ain’t no man alive like Harris Blue. Got eyes like the sky out past the Smog City gates: periwinkle, maybe, or baby blue. He’s a tough guy, been gritting his teeth through this whole rebellion and getting through it like a knife through water. He’ll talk to me sometimes, down in that cellar we meet in. He makes my heart rattle, makes it throw itself at its cage and scream until I get dizzy. His smile’s like oneira, makes my head foggy and my words drip out like a fighter spitting teeth. He don’t care, though—he just laughs.
All the girls in the rebellion, they flock to him—a bunch of ants attacking a perfectly wrapped candy that dropped. I guess I’m not different. I’m the sap having dreams about him. When I awoke into the Somnam City for the first time—the dream city Arankê built—I weren't scared. He was there, just as beautiful and charming as always. This dream was different than most of them, too. I knew I was dreaming. That's how I knew it was Arankê.
Towers, buildings, streets and markets I’d never seen before. There was all this blue glass everywhere... It was my first dreamscratch— the first mark Arankê made on the inside of my skull.
In the dream, I knew that the man I was closest to was Harris Blue. There were others, but I don't remember them as clearly. There was a pyromancer named Alextos and a hydromancer named Thumb. We called him that because he was missing his thumb—just the tip of it. It was covered in a blue wrap.
A lot of people had them bandages, those missing parts. It was a religious rite, only done by the most devout. Thumb liked to make a big show of everything, though, so he had certain affectations that drew attention to it, like gesturing to himself when he talked.
Now Alextos, he was quiet, but for the most part, Thumb's right-hand man. He'd sacrificed the tip of his index finger, a show of deep love and respect. Used to be a hit man— an assassin—and as a show to his divine that he was through, chopped off most of his trigger finger when he became a believer. Not many people did that. Most chopped off a bit of their pinkies. These boys were the real McCoy. Alextos wore gloves, though— never drew attention to his sacrifice.
Myself, I too, was a mancer, but a dark one. My fingers thrummed with the electric entropy magic that makes even waking people shake. I practiced for months when I was younger. Cracked my best friend’s jaw. Her name was Alyss. She didn’t talk to me after that, and not because she couldn't.
What I remember, clear as glass, about my first dreamscratch was that everyone wore bracelets as a sort of identification. They were assigned a bland one at birth, but could change it when they were ten. I don't for the life of me remember what mine looked like. I knew Thumb's had green beads on it, but that’s all I knew. The wristband I remember most vividly was Harris Blue's.
It was a tattered old thing—a thick, almost nomadic weave of itchy brown twine that his red brown skin had worn smooth. He had blue glass beads on it, as well as wooden ones that might've been yellow once—a yellow that clung to it in flecks—but were now merely wood-colored, the pigment stolen by skin and sun.
There was a fang on it, and it was the part that I remember most clearly. I saw that large and jagged canine and knew it was his arm I was holding. I knew it was his arm I was pressed against in bed when I would run my finger along that tooth, almost as worn down as the man it belonged to, but still sharp enough to cut.
Harris Blue lived in this nice big abode, but I didn't live with him. I was still too shy to ask him if could move in. So I stayed with Alextos and Thumb in this old apartment by the city library. Every time I went to Harris' estate, though, it felt off. There was a feeling there like an emptiness, or a... I don't know. A feeling of loss.
I would go to spend time with him, and his butler would let me in, and I'd stand in the foyer as he went to get Harris for me and I felt... fear, almost. Like ghosts were in the walls.
I'd be with Harris and I'd beg him to move someplace else. I told him he could get something closer to the city. He lived on this hill of sorts out in the country, and the drive circled up to his house. I remember riding in a car up that road, framed by wildflowers, and I'd spend the whole time with a sick feeling in my stomach. I was afraid to go in, but I was afraid to ask him to move out somewhere with me.
As the weeks were passing, I could tell something was taking a toll on him. He looked different. He spoke different. He even loved different. There was a certain dead-tired air to everything he did. I've seen him like that before, in real life, when the rebellion looked hopeless. It wrung the blood out of my heart every time I had to see it.
I kept asking him what was wrong, but—even though we'd become very intimate in the dream, willing to share anything with each other—he'd closed off. We used to talk about everything. One night, before he'd gotten ill, we sat together in the grass on the hill behind his place. I remember we talked about the moon. There was a certain color to one side of it. They called it God's Garden.
Because I practice entropy, I said I could go there, in the blink of an eye. I could teleport. And I'd see it, if just for a moment. It'd be a nice way to die. I apparently talked about dying often, as Harris Blue frowned and brought my head to his chest and told me not to talk about it any more. Maybe he begged.
Nowadays, he hardly talked about anything. I thought it might have something to do with these disappearances that the city started reporting. Of course that'd be on his plate, I thought—everything always was. There was a shrine that started up in the poor section of town, near one of the churches. The wristbands of the missing and dead from the gut-turning mystery were hung from wires—like clotheslines.
I'd pass it on the way to my apartment every day, and worry grew in the pit of my stomach as the lines filled, more and more. Some I'd recognize—a wristband with a large and beautiful stone in the middle, a strange smoke-grey orb that was almost opaque in the light—belonged to a nice old woman who worked in the drug store. It was around this time that I started hearing about a cult starting up.
The cult of the jaw.
The strange fixation with sacrificing body parts would, apparently, in more extreme cases, lead to the extraction of the jaw. It was a permanent and ultimate vow of silence. Of course, many died of it. Almost everyone did. And, I guess, death is the ultimate vow of silence, too.
I went to lunch with Harris Blue one day. Thumb and Alextos walked with me, as no one went anywhere alone anymore. They looked around briefly and said they'd sit and wait with me, but I started taking off to look towards the back of the restaurant.
"He's too prompt," I said absently, "to not be here already."
I went to the back of the restaurant and there—in a booth that was mostly closed off from the rest of the room—was Harris Blue. He looked like hell, pale and with shadows under his eyes like a dead man. I sat by him quickly, pressing close to a body that wouldn't yield like it normally did.
"How long have you been here?" I asked. He smiled at me weakly.
“Hours,” he said. “The house felt too empty today.”
He finally told me what was going on. Slowly but surely, his wait staff had been picked off. At first he was angry, thinking they'd just left in the night. But nothing was missing, and all of their belongings were in their quarters. One by one, this happened to all of them until even the butler was gone. He laughed a little. He said it'd be hard to find new ones now, with people being so superstitious.
I really wanted to tell him to move. I wanted to get out of this city, even. I wanted to leave and never look back. I wanted to beg him to get out of here... but I knew he loved this place. Something held me back. I didn't say anything. I told him I'd wait on him, gladly, but he declined. He said he'd never make a lover do that. I think he missed the point and everything about it. That or he just wanted a reason to keep me away.
A reason that wouldn't acknowledge a fear I could tell was growing in him. A reason that wouldn't mean being superstitious, himself, and coming to terms with the fact that it'd mean I was in danger. Coming to terms with the fact that he might be, too. And I could see all of that and I knew it was a barrier I'd never break. I'd fought that battle a hundred times, but the walls were too strong.
I didn't beg. I didn't do anything. I let him change the topic and we had lunch before parting ways.
I'd taken to checking the wires every day. I would scan them in what felt like seconds, looking for that fang I was always afraid might be there. It wasn't, though. And for every time it wasn't, there was a powerful wave in relief in me and I could go about my day.
One day, Thumb had to tend to the temple for this water spirit. The place was enormous, as it had apparently been adopted into the main faith. The stone was cream-colored, and it was built big and reverent, like a cathedral.
What I remember most was that it went underground. There were all these channels of water and I could always hear beautiful chanting coming from the depths of the edifice.
Thumb, a man known to boast his own talents, was one of the better hydromancers in the city. He was asked to clear out a flood that had happened in the lower chambers—the older, dimmer chambers.
So Thumb goes to clear out the chambers and I'm sitting in our apartment when I realize that Thumb left without his bag of dice. Some mancers would apparently give a lot of meaning to little things no one else would really care about. It was like a placebo. There was almost this madness involved in mancy, and the items seemed to ground a mancer in ways no one really understood.
I grab his bag of dice and book it towards the shrine. When I get there, I can hear this surging water below and I get queasy. I got a fear of water so deep in me that there’s no pulling it out, no chest-pumping that’d work it loose. I get suddenly very, very scared that I'd end up going down there and there'd be a sudden wave that'd catch me up and spirit me down to the bowels of this place to drown.
I move down the floors, and the roar gets louder and louder. I make it all the way down to this old, cracked series of chambers when I see water gush out of the room down the hall. I start to bolt, but the water veers into the enormous cistern to my right like a charmed cobra, splashing down into the waters that were already there. I hurry up to the door to find Thumb in the middle of the room, pushing out the last of the water with a face of complete focus.
When he opens his eyes at the end of his task, he smirks. He says it's good at least someone was here to watch. He's surprised it was me, though.
“Ain’t you terrified of water?” he asks.
“I’m just glad you’re okay,” I say, giving him his dice.
He thanks me and tells me to go into a different chamber to tell the priests there that he's finished—that he just needs to pull the last of the water from the soaking stone. He says this is the worst part because it's the least dramatic, and that I'm not missing anything.
I do as I'm told, leaving to look for the room with the priests. I can't find anyone down on this floor, though. I search room by room, and I can't find anyone anywhere... except in the final room, a circular room with unlit braziers around the walls. There's a man there, just standing, and looking through a windowy in the wall at the large chamber with the water now churning within. It's a whirlpool, and one that makes me sick to watch.
I pipe up to tell him that Thumb's done the job when he turns around. His face is entirely veiled with the dark blue bandages of holy sacrifice. It seems far too short, his jaw apparently gone, providing a sleek slope from his top teeth to his neck.
Thankfully it's covered by the bandages, but the mask he's wearing is almost as horrifying—a mask with a blank expression and full face, a red line running from the corners of its lips to the edges of the mask. The line is dark with drips in it, and it's crusty like old blood. As soon as I look at him, I know he's not a priest and I go to hide immediately.
There's a feeling to him that's unnatural. There's a raw, electrical power in him, and I can feel it. I become scared. There's writing on the wall. All over the walls. As my eyes adjust to the dark room, I can read it. Two figures slumped in the far corner.
"Fear is precognitive."
He stares at me in my hiding place with his eyeless face and I know without a shadow of a doubt that he sees me. But even so, he leaves the room, turning his head away and walking slowly through the chamber. I wait a bit, heart throbbing, but as soon as I leave, the first place I run to is home. I needed to get my car and check on Harris Blue as soon as I could.
At home, Alextos is sitting at the table. He’s sifting through mail. Apparently I'd gotten a slew of letters since leaving the flat.
"It's all for you," he says. "It doesn't say who from, though. We ought to report it. I'm familiar with this. People put poison in these kinds of things."
"Why would someone be trying to poison me with a letter?"
He doesn’t answer, instead taking a letter opener and cutting one of them open with gloved hands. He sets it on the table, shaking it out of its envelope. He tests it with a drop of something from within his pocket.
"I've been trained to poison a man with a flower," he says. "This looks clean, though. Maybe it's just an admirer. A damn creepy one." He sets the rest of them down and goes to put on his coat. "I'm going to pick up Thumb. He should be done soon."
He leaves, but I don’t stop him. I’m completely entranced by the letter that is now in my hands. I know who they’re all from. I open the letter and it reads, "Child of the space between stars. Your fear is precognitive. His blood will fuel a revolution."
I knew he was talking about Harris Blue. I knew from the writing on the wall back in the cathedral. That sort of thing you already know in dreams—nothing can pull a fast one on you.
Alextos took the car, so instead of jamming all the way out to Harris’ house, I ran to the wires to check and make sure that his wristband wasn't there.
It wasn't. Not yet. But a very new one hangs there—one that must've been hung by the masked bastard himself, in some cruel mockery of the quiet reverence paid to the dead. It's green, and it's very familiar to me. It's Thumb's.
My fear melts away to anger. I forget about my worry and set out to hunt down this jawless horror. A jawless horror that I don't seem to notice can move much faster than I can.
I try to teleport to Harris Blue's estate, but I end up in a marketplace. It’s dark and quiet, being so late at night, but all the crafts and wares are still out.
I turn to look at the gateway out of the marketplace, and I freeze. I can just barely see that mask, in the shadow behind the wrought-iron bars. The carved bone of his mask glints in the soft light.
In a panic, I wreak havoc on the bars with my entropy, crunching them together so they'll be impossible to get through. I start to break the glass on the cases around me, planning to use it as a weapon, when I notice that he’s still approaching. He steps up to the bars I'd mangled and forces them open with a superhuman strength as I watch. My anger already starts to drain away.
The glass lifts from the ground at my urging, and the shards dive at him, but he dodges the attack with ease. I break the glass ceiling above him, raining down cruel, dangerous shards, but they dissolve into sand as they come near him.
I’m desperate, throwing whatever I can at him. I try to break his bones, but whenever I try to reach my power into his body, I feel sick. My heart pounds and my breath gets sluggish and I have to stop.
All that while he keeps walking towards me. He doesn’t have a jaw so he can’t say anything, but I doubt he would even if he did.
There’s a shelf of sharp wares to his left, and I’m sure I'll have him this time. I break the first two legs of the hutch and watch it start to topple forward. I watch, almost in slow motion, as the knives and other ritual weapons start to pour from the shelves.
And then suddenly—without any transition at all—I’m standing where he was, and he, where I'd been. And I try to stagger away as the weapons draw close, but my muscles suddenly feel weak and I fall to the floor.
In an instant, a large and polished tray—one that had been on another table moments before—now lay across my midsection. I take several biting blows to my arms, but am otherwise fine... only badly bruised. When I look up, the jawless man is gone.
Footsteps approach me quickly, and when I look up, I see Alyss there. She’s been crying. She throws the tray to the side and hugs me close.
She says she'd had a dream about this, only I'd died in it. She wasn’t sure if what she'd done would work. At first I thought the tray had been the jawless man, with the weapons only being a taunt. I am much more unnerved to find he genuinely wanted me dead.
More unnerving is the idea that maybe he doesn’t want me dead, and knew Alyss would save me. It’d mean he’s toying with me.
The last thing she says to me, as I’m waking up, is that she saw me as an enormous bird in her dream. The jawless man was on my back and we were flying in a blue sky, dotted with clouds. She doesn’t know why, though.
“I’m sorry about your jaw, Alyss,” I say weakly, as waking makes the scene run like a watercolor painting. I jerk out of the Somnam City before Alyss can respond, feeling like I’d spent months asleep. I check the clock.
It’s going to be a long night. I guess Arankê has a lot to show me.