Chapter 3: Red Blossoms
Sharp worms of hunger were digging through the walls of my stomach, but I was too self-conscious to just slaughter them with some cookies. Nobody wants to watch a nervous little fat boy stuff his face to avoid talking to the other children. I was probably about twelve, and I was attending a dance as one of our socialization days with the girls. While I usually enjoyed our interactions with the girls, I was too busy trying to avoid a particularly troublesome one that had decided to assign me as her boyfriend. Her proudly self made family did not want her to marry a boy who was too pale, and according to her I was the only one of the three even remotely dark boys pretty enough to be her future husband. However, I thought as I spotted her staring at one of the other girls, her tastes were really for tall, masculine, white girls and not short, partially black, feminine boys.
The tall upperclassman she was looking at had very short blonde hair and was sitting on a table with her long legs open so wide that the little white shorts they had to wear under the skirts were visible to everyone in the room. She couldn’t have cared less about the boys milling on the other side, and the majority of them were equally indifferent. I, however, found myself staring for so long that another boy noticed.
“What are you looking at, dummy?” he teased and punched me lightly.
I rubbed my arm and just scowled at him without voicing a response. Her legs were quite muscular, unshaved, and tanned only from below the line of the tiny, crumpled shorts. She rested one forearm on her knee and kept talking to another masculine girl next to her, completely ignoring my feminine wife to be. Oh god, why isn’t she a boy? I found myself almost whispering aloud. There had to have been a mistake and she got stuck in the wrong half of the school. She didn’t even have breasts. What kind of girl has no breasts? And what was it that some of the older boys called her? A herm? I had no idea what that meant.
The tutors rang a bell and we were supposed to scatter and find a partner to dance with. And, of course, since I was busy staring up the other girl’s skirt, I was immediately found by the one I was trying to avoid. I cursed myself for being susceptible to such strange perversions and grudgingly started dancing with the girl. I generally enjoyed the company of the girls, and I almost resented that she had to completely ruin the social time for me.
She was boasting endlessly about her well established family, but all I can remember about her is her disgustingly sweet smell, and the beautiful, sparkling ornaments she always wore in her hair. The ornament in her hair that day was a flock of diamond and silver butterflies, all bouncing and shimmering in delightful contrast with her smoothed, ebony hair. I was still transfixed by them when I suddenly felt myself being pulled apart from her by much larger hands.
“I’m not dancing with you anymore,” I heard a voice say and a hand pushed up against mine, the other resting heavily on my shoulder.
“Sam, stop fucking around,” one of the large, older boys groaned and took up my fiancé’s hands.
“Oh just tell your parents to go fuck themselves, both of you,” the tall blonde that had taken my hands growled. Then she looked at me and smiled. “Don’t you agree, little sweety?” I couldn’t even look at her, let alone respond.
“Your parents already agreed to the match,” my senior returned, and I quickly found myself being led over to the other side of the room. It was an odd feeling not to be the actual leader in the dance, but I was too flustered to even attempt control. I actually found the way she was dancing quite pleasant, as I didn’t have to decide what we were going to do. She was technically still performing the moves of a follow but pushing me toward whichever she wanted.
“You’re a good dancer,” she laughed, and I finally looked up at her face. Her brown eyes arched up like lemon slices when she laughed, and her cheeks were just a little pink on the tops of the smooth, round mounds. Good god, no wonder so many girls were in love with her.
“I’m terrible.” I blushed and stepped on her foot.
She just laughed. “No, you’re the best. You just let the girl do what she wants.”
“You don’t dance like a girl.”
“Mmmm, probably not,” she laughed, and before I could object I found myself being twirled under her arm and pressed up against her. The feeling of her hand pressed into the middle of my back was the most intimate touch I’d felt since my mother had left me, and I immediately gasped, just staring at her in surprise. I was at once exuberant and completely mortified because despite the pleasure of her forcefulness all of our classmates and tutors were staring at us while I was pressed against her, red blossoms opening across my cheeks and ears like a love struck little girl.
“Samantha!” A shrill woman’s voice rang out immediately amongst the giggling students.
“I guess they noticed my dancing too?” She bent down close to my face, kissing me on the cheek before whispering with a laugh, “Stop looking up my skirt.”
I wanted to melt into a puddle and sink into the floor or explode in a thousand invisible pieces. Sam, on the other hand, was only smiling and rolling her eyes at the tutor pulling her away again. The tutor was harping over and over that it was a mortal sin to emasculate a boy like that, and she was going to end up making both of us burn in hell for eternity.
And as I lay in my bed that night, I committed more than several mortal sins against myself before I could finally erase the image of her legs, the feeling of her strength pushing me across the floor, a hand pressing onto the small of my back. I tried praying to make the desire go away, but it wasn’t like the crushes I’d had on other boys, and I knew that short of ripping out my own heart I was never going to get rid of this desire I only seemed to have for Sam.
Perhaps if I were able to have a programed heart, like they said ran the information in library computers? But what would it feel like to have a mechanical heart? Exposed in your chest as the doctors worked on your new lungs, iridescent skinned flies eating away the small red bits left behind from the flesh you were born with? Full of red, they land on your new skin, leaving behind undetectable red blossoms of vomit mixed with the efforts of your youth. And your new eyes watch as the liquid evaporates and the flies return to the sky, carrying your true heart home in their teeth.
“Avery?” Simon’s gravelly voice brought me out of my bizarre thoughts on the past.
“What?” I asked and looked down at his blood speckled hands.
“Take one out of the bucket.”
“I really don’t want to,” I winced, but did as I was told. I had been there almost two months, and Simon was showing me how to prepare fresh caught fish. He was going to be leaving on a two week assignment and wanted to be sure that I could feed myself if I ran out of rations before he returned. I thought he was being a bit silly, but I also knew I would have to learn the skill eventually.
His strong, slender hands didn’t flinch as they ripped open the little silver animal with a knife or when they pulled out its insides, or when they rinsed and salted it’s hollowed out body, or piled it with the corpses of its comrades.
“You do the next one,” he said, stepping back.
I didn’t think I could manage, as I had enough trouble just unhooking them from the line. I nervously picked up one of the fish, mentally preparing myself to kill it. Finally, I turned it so I could look at its gasping, struggling face and whispered, “I’m so sorry.”
Simon laughed at me and handed over the mallet he called ‘a priest’. The name was very amusing. I placed the fish on the table and hit it in the head like Simon had shown me, but I hadn’t done it hard enough and the fish started flopping around all over. He took the priest back quickly and smashed it until it was still.
“It’s meaner not to hit it hard,” he said, handing me the knife. I was breathing a bit heavily and looked at the little fish, wondering if it was really dead, if it would feel it when I sliced open its belly. I cut it open quickly, scooping out its surprisingly cool, soft guts. I gagged a little, and Simon laughed at me again. “Good job, do the rest too.”
He slapped me on the back and sat on a stool to work on some kind of little machine he’d only told me was called ‘a receiver.’ I had no idea what it did, and it was made up of unbelievably small parts, none of which I recognized in the slightest. Simon was apparently a bit of a genius with technology and always at work on one thing or another. Also, he usually wore a pair of delicate silver glasses while he worked, which only served to increase his attractiveness, thus flustering me completely while also rendering me totally mute on the subject. I was mute on most subjects really; I rarely talked with him about anything aside from immediate concerns.
Overall Simon and I got along surprisingly well, considering how much I’d disliked him at first. He was generally a lot nicer to me than he’d been on the first day, and I realized soon after that he has a short, mean way of speaking if he’s emotionally shaken. His natural personality seemed to be more like the drunken but thoughtful Simon that had given me the oranges.
“Who’s going to eat all this fish anyway?” I complained and looked at the fish still swimming in the bucket.
“I’m giving some away,” he replied plainly and continued working. “Their rations are almost gone for the month. Plus, you need the practice.” He’d spent the entire morning fishing, but I was still amazed that he was able to get so many of them. How early had he gotten up exactly? I stared at him a moment, and he rose his eyebrows jokingly as he nodded toward the bucket.
I laughed too and shook my head, taking a fish in my hand. Had he been fishing all morning so someone else could eat? I pressed the struggling fish down on the table before I very quickly and very violently smashed it in the head. Simon’s eyebrows were raised even higher, but he also had an odd smile. I gutted and rinsed the fish quickly before triumphantly stacking it with the other bodies.
I had been living in the Outer Rim for nearly six months before I truly realized the gravity of my situation. At first it almost seemed like a very long, complex camping trip. I had to wash my clothes on a washboard and hang them to dry, use shared toilets and showers, and cook almost all of my food from very basic, mostly unrefrigerated ingredients. Simon even bought me a cookbook; he had no intention of assisting with cooking nor did I want him to. What he did cook was nothing short of atrocious, and while he seemed to be able to stomach anything I could not continue eating reconstituted soup and grilled fish forever.
I actually got quite good at household chores, and sometimes the neighbors would tease me and ask how long I’d been Simon’s wife. I never responded to them, and I immediately got a reputation for being a bit of a snob. Teasing tends to be a form of friendship making in that part of the world, but I was so used to it as a threat that I simply could not see their true intentions.
The only friends I seemed to be able to make were a group of little girls I met by the riverside. They were so amusingly raucous and bold compared to the girls I’d known in the Middle, that I actually learned to enjoy their silly questions about my origins. Most of the stories I told them were exaggerated, as everyone seemed to want to hear how about much harder it was to live in the Outer Rim than in the Middle, and I usually just indulged their fantasy. In exchange for the amusement, they helped me hone my fishing and laundry skills.
Fishing actually became one of my favorite activities and also our main staple of food. I saved our meat rations to trade for other luxuries, like butter or tea or the elusive honey vendor that came around maybe once a month. Simon seemed to really enjoy honey, and like any good wife I tried my hardest to please him.
Simon also kept his promise and taught me how to use a sword and a gun, and I spent most of my free time practicing combat skills or fishing with my little friends. I only had to work a few hours a week processing vegetables, as Simon had listed me as a minor and the keeper of our home to account for the required work hours one needed to fulfill in order to live in the village. Though sixteen was the age of adulthood there, Simon had arranged it so that I would be granted adult membership in the community only once I’d turned eighteen, the age of adulthood in the Middle.
Slowly, I started to realize that I actually enjoyed living in the Outer Rim much, much more than I’d ever enjoyed life in the Middle. I sometimes worried that Simon, my provider and only adult friend, would some day not return from one of his mysterious, rather lengthy expeditions, but as always I kept sufficiently busy not to dwell on it long. I just kept moving along from day to day, waiting for him to come or go, never realizing how fragile a situation I was in.
No matter what hour he returned, Simon was awake and out of the hole just after the break of dawn. I always woke up alone. I often wondered how he could possibly stay awake with so little sleep, but I was too reserved to question him. The only day he didn’t leave early was just a few weeks after we’d finished installing our new beds.
The beds were made of black iron that screwed into the wall, mine just a little smaller and hanging above Simon’s. On top of the black iron frame were mattresses stuffed with a strange mixture of old rags and plants that they use in the Outer Rim to stuff beds, pillows, and toys. I was informed by the woman who made them that I was quite lucky to have a nice mattress, and I should be grateful that I was taken in by my eccentric patron. To me it sometimes felt like unimaginable poverty, and I wondered how I would ever survive life in this world. But I did survive of course, and though sore and tired for those first few months, I was growing steadily happier every day.
Simon had come home in the middle of the night while I was asleep, and when I woke, I had decided to try and sleep in his bed for a little while before work. He told me once that my attachment to sleeping where he’s been is because in my recent past life I must have been a cat, but I’m sure the real reason was much simpler. I had decided to ignore the ladder from my bed and instead jump straight down onto Simon’s. However, as I swung my legs my feet stumbled onto something solid that let out a slight groan, scaring me enough that I let go and crashed backward to the floor.
“Are you alright?” I heard from the bed and slowly looked over at him. He had deep bags under his eyes and his blanket wrapped around everything but his face.
“I’m fine. You surprised me is all. Did I hurt you? Are you ill?” I stood and pulled the pants of my long underwear up a little higher, rubbing my bare arms with embarrassment. It was still late summer, and when I got too warm the night before I had flung my shirt off somewhere. I was not as chubby as I was before, already losing about ten kilos, but I was still just as self-conscious about my soft, boyish body as I’d always been.
Simon covered his face with the blanket. “I’m fine. I’m just tired,” he muttered into the mattress.
“You look ill. Should I get you medicine? Make something to eat?”
“No,” he groaned a little. I ignored him and started to make enough boiled wheat for the both of us. While the water was starting, I looked for my shirt and put it on. “Are you cold?” he asked.
I continued making the wheat. “Not particularly.”
“Because you’re ill.”
“I’m not…” he laughed slightly.
“You probably have a fever. Have you taken any water today?”
“I don’t want to.” He curled into himself on his bed, and it made me laugh a little. The blanket was light blue, and he looked like some kind of giant pale sky snail curling into itself.
“Don’t be a baby,” I laughed and got no response. “Simon? Are you asleep?” I put some water in a cup and brought it over to him. “Simon? Are you dead?” I shook him a little, and he flinched away like I had hurt him. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” he said breathlessly.
“Take this water.”
“If you don’t I’ll pour it on your head.”
He knew I really would, and one hand quickly came out from under the blankets. Purplish red blossoms covered it like the spots of a wild cat, sliced in a few places with the stray hairs of brownish scratches. The sight of it was surprising enough to make me spill half the water down the front of my shirt. I gasped, and the hand grabbed the cup, disappearing under the blankets again.
“Simon…” I looked at the floor, not sure what I should do or say.
“I’m fine,” he laughed lightly.
I suddenly realized I was burning the wheat and hurriedly shut it off. I salvaged what I could, but the burnt taste had gone through most of it. Still, I scraped it into two bowls and thrust one under his blankets while I sat on the edge of his bed to eat.
“It’s burned,” he laughed and kicked me lightly.
“It’s your fault. You should have just taken the water.” I laughed a little too, but my heart sank as I watched him shiver. “Simon, are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m just cold.”
“It’s not cold in here. You probably have a fever. Do you have any medicines for that?”
“Use my keys, the second largest brass one, and open the top black trunk. There should be trays in there. Take the second one from the top on the left side. Bring it to me.”
“Okay.” I got his keys out of his amazingly filthy, practically shredded pants. What exactly had happened to him on his last assignment?
The wooden trays in the trunk each had perhaps a dozen little lids on them, and I lifted out the left side. Beneath it was another of the lidded trays, which I brought over to Simon’s bed. He was sitting up, the top half of his body out of the blankets. I stared at the wounds immediately, and thought maybe he’d been pelted with sharp rocks. When I realized that his eyes were watching mine, I looked away as fast as possible and put the tray on the bed.
He started opening some of the lids as he said, “Bring me my wooden bowl and boil some more water.”
I did as I was told and watched him rub and grind up plants in the pestle. Then, I boiled the mixture he’d made for several minutes. He was asleep again by the time I brought it to him, arm hanging off the side of the bed and the tray on the floor. I examined his back, the wounds all over it, seeming worst on his left side and arms. Hand to hand combat maybe? I swallowed a lump in my throat, hands shaking in fear and the vague realization of his mortality.
“What happened to you?” I whispered, mostly to myself. I touched his back a little, and he woke quickly. His glossy black eyes blinked up at me, and then he smiled sleepily and took the hot cup from my hand. He drank it down quickly, making a sour face with each huge gulp. I held up his other cup of water, and he drank it thankfully.
“What did you put in it?”
“Trade secret,” he laughed and covered himself up again.
I had no idea what he actually did for the village. Perhaps he was responsible for some kind of goods trading? Medical supplies? Since I’d come to stay with him he hadn’t been doing as many assignments, and I’d heard several people complaining to him about this. He just laughed and told them to go by themselves if they were so eager. Perhaps he’s a guide? I also knew that one of his trunks contained maps, and that I was not allowed to open it. I’d asked him what he did once, if he had a station or rank of some kind, and he’d only told me that he was a lieutenant and helped with finances in the village.
“So that’s your area then? Medicine?”
He sighed and rolled over toward the wall. “Well, a family secret then. My mother’s recipe.”
“Oh?” I opened some of the lids and peeked in the tray. I couldn’t believe that Simon could make medicine when he couldn’t even properly fry an egg.
“Don’t play with that. Put it away.”
“Won’t you need more?”
“There’s more in the bowl. That’s enough.”
I went to the edge of his bed, leaning over to try and look at his face. “Will it really help your fever? Should I find a doctor?”
“Ha. I am better than any doctor,” he laughed again. I leaned over more, reaching my hand and slapping it onto his forehead. He flinched and asked with a shaking voice, “What are you doing?”
“You do have a fever.” I felt his cheeks too. “Not that bad though.”
“What?” I was feeling the back of his neck and about to touch his chest when his hand caught hold of mine.
“I’m fine. We just got in a little trouble on my last assignment.”
“Sorry. What happened? Soldiers?”
“Yes, and then, I just fell down a steep hill,” he said, curling into himself again. “I’m tired, Avery. Please just let me sleep.”
There was a tight, sharp little pain under my breastbone as I realized that I must have been hurting him. I stopped asking questions and pulled down one of my blankets, adding it to his. He was already asleep. His bed was a little larger than a single, and I rested my arms and head on the edge, watching his back. He looked strangely far away, the way the mountains had when I stood on the other side of the river, his back like those of the slumbering grey giants, moving just slightly with life.
I smiled, wanting to reach out and touch him again, wishing I’d been gentler the first time. But I couldn’t think of a reason to, and I fell asleep just watching the hills of cloth and flesh rise and fall with the weak rhythm of his life.
When I finally woke I was in his bed, under his blankets, and alone again. It was mostly dark inside, but there was just enough light that I could see the shape of his pale, completely naked body. He was turned away from me, and I stared at his wet, heaving back, the muscles across it, down the groove of the bruised spine, down lower, two round cheeks above relaxed, lightly muscled legs. He stepped into a pair of loose pants slowly, one long leg at a time, body parts like individual, glowing shapes moving in a mass of liquid darkness. And then he was half turned toward me, looking down at the ground.
“Are you awake?” his dry, quiet voice sliced through the reverberating silence.
My heart leapt into my throat, but I didn’t say anything and just turned and faced the wall. I was surprised again when a few seconds later he got into the bed with me, turned away toward the room. It was well into the afternoon, and I was sure I would not be able to sleep again. He moved even closer, lightly pressing our backs together. It was flustering at first, but somehow it relaxed me, and I found it achingly, strangely charming. I forgot that I was supposed to be going to work, and we both slept until evening.
My eager attachment to Simon grew more severe after every absence. He probably spent more time away than he did at home, but when he did return we were almost always together. Sometimes he would even have me excused from my jobs to help with whatever charity work he was currently working on, whether it be bringing food to old widows or cleaning the house of a disabled man. It was actually a bit addictive, and I even found myself volunteering to shovel snow for old people I hardly knew and hardly liked. Simon seemed to thrive on that kind of thing though, and I often envied his idealistic chivalry. To me he was practically like a shining pillar of solid, untiring morality. I spent very little time wondering why he did such things.
One day during my second autumn in the Outer Rim, I had decided to make a game out of secretly following Simon through town. It wasn’t often that he left me alone in the house with nothing to do, and I was mostly curious to see if he’d somehow found another boyfriend. He’d already had four since I came to live with him; none lasted longer than a few weeks.
He was wandering aimlessly, and since he rarely moved about town without purpose I thought perhaps he was only pretending not to have a particular destination in mind. I followed him for almost an hour before I started getting extremely bored. Just as I was about to give up he came to a stop behind the wall of a large wooden building. A small moment later two women approached him nervously. One was perhaps in her thirties, dressed rather poorly, probably the wife of a low ranking laborer. The other was very young, perhaps only a girl of eleven or twelve. I hid behind some empty crates on the side wall and listened closely to what they were saying.
“I don’t really do that kind of thing,” Simon was telling them.
“But you know how, don’t you? You used to be a doctor, right?” the older woman pleaded. “Please, she’s only a little girl. We can’t pay you a lot, but we’ll give you whatever we can.”
“It’s not about the money…”
“Please. The others here that do it, I can’t send such a little girl to them. And the circumstances... I don’t want people talking.”
Only silence ensued for some time. Simon finally said something too quietly for me to hear, and then I thought the girl answered him just as softly. The silence returned, and when I stood to see what was happening they were gone. Irritated that Simon disappeared as soon as he’d become interesting, I moped around the tents and refused to go home. I was too naïve to imagine what the pair could have wanted.
I wandered into the marketplace, nervously exploring the items in foreign tents. It was common to post a sign that said where the goods had come from, and the majority of foreign merchants were only from the three closest cities to our village. The nearest was the eastern one called the City of Bei, and from the look of the items that came from it I could only imagine that it was some kind of filthy, industrial hell. On the map Simon had shown me the second closest was a city to the south west called Kyou, the outskirts of which Guy, Mora, and I had found ourselves. The items from this city were usually more well-crafted than the rusted junk from the City of Bei, but it was apparently only a tenth of the latter’s size. The rarest city was the furthest away and to the north east of Bei, called Laseine, which only brought more expensive merchandise because of the amount of travel involved. I also noticed that the people from Laseine were very concerned about race and often would not socialize with people different from themselves.
All the cities were connected by bodies of water, with a massive river that ran through Laseine to the Salzen Lakes, five enormous bodies of saltwater on which lied the City of Bei and at the bottom of which sat Kyou. Our village was sort of nestled in the land above the most western lake, which according to the map was a forbidden land owned by the strange soldiers that lived to the north of us. No willing person traveled in the land above us, and any who had gone and returned would normally not speak of it. The Outer Rim was generally a thousand times bigger than I’d been led to believe, a hundred times bigger than the Middle.
I was thinking about the bizarre makeup of the world as I idly looked at some swords in a tent from Laseine. I wanted to ask the price of a beautiful short sword I had no intention of buying, but I was too nervous to speak with my accent. Objects from the Middle were rare and valuable enough; I didn’t want to know what those merchants would do with a young man, though Simon would sometimes give me gruesome suggestions that were usually sexual and involved the City of Bei.
The man looking after the tent only vaguely watched me, probably sensing that I had no actual money. He was average looking and perhaps only in his early thirties, with very dark skin and his hair in small, neat dreadlocks. He also had a thin beard, and strong, glistening arms that flexed rather beautifully as he worked on something below him.
I had forgotten myself and was about to ask a question about some of the superb metal work they had on display, when I thought I saw Simon out of the corner of my eye. I hurried out of the arms tent, following a hooded figure in a green coat. We ended up down river, fairly far out of town, up in the higher homes that needed ladders to get to even the first door. He met with the older woman from earlier, and they seemed almost frantic as they scanned the area to be sure they were in secrecy. I was immediately spotted, of course, but Simon just stared back at me for a moment. Without saying a word he put his hand on the woman’s arm and they both hurried into one of the holes.
I was disappointed that he did not seem to want me around and after a little more wandering just went home. I made dinner for both of us, but since he still hadn’t returned I packed his into a carrier to bring to the house. Perhaps he was working? Perhaps they needed him to fix something in their house? Simon was very good with machines and even electrical wiring and plumbing. I couldn’t be sure they’d remember to feed him, and Simon was far too polite to say anything. I waited outside the house, completely alone. The nearby houses seemed largely deserted; most of the occupants were apparently working similar labor shifts.
When Simon emerged he was alone, carrying his pack and a tight bundle of white cloths pressed against his chest. It didn’t take him long to spot me.
“What are you doing here, Avery?” He asked seriously, looking at the ground.
“I just thought I should bring you your dinner.”
“Thanks, but I’m not hungry right now.” I felt like I had to run to keep up with his long, swift gate.
“Oh, they fed you then?” I replied merrily, but he still seemed very grim.
“You shouldn’t follow me around like that. It’ll get us in trouble.”
“Why? What’s wrong?” He squeezed the cloths in his hand, and though they were bunched up tightly I could still tell that they were covered in blood.
“I have to get rid of this. You can’t tell anyone I was here. Did anyone see you waiting around?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Good,” he sighed, slightly relieved.
The sun was beginning to set, and after a few moments of walking toward the orange and pink blazoned clouds I realized we were not going home, but to the river. Simon immediately knelt down on the gravelly shore and shoved his trembling hands into the water along with the ball of cloth. The ribbons spread out quickly like a huge red blossom, unfolding and dissolving in the clear, calmly lapping current. He was still for a moment, softly letting the color of life wash away, before his hands suddenly started ripping into the red, pressing the sterile white cloths and trying to rinse the bloom away completely. I put my hands in the water as well, making him jump as I grabbed a fistful of the cloth.
“Avery, you don’t have to…”
“It’s all right. I’m good at washing clothes.”
“Don’t touch it. Don’t, I don’t think it’s going to come out.”
“Why? What is it?”
He stared at me a moment. “It’s blood.”
“Oh? That is hard to get out of cloth, isn’t it?” I said plainly and continued working. “But it’s not dry yet really. I think it’ll come out. Cold water is good for getting out blood.” I started scrubbing harder, beating the strips of cloth on the river’s rocks. Simon had basically stopped worrying about the cloths and was vigorously washing his hands and face. The cloths were still slightly stained, but not so obviously covered in blood, and since it was darkening quickly we just rang them out and neatly packed them up again.
“Is that girl sick?” I asked as we started back toward town.
“Mmmmm,” was all he said. We walked for a while, and then Simon put a hand on my shoulder and said. “Let’s go get a drink.” I gave him the water bottle I had strapped to myself, and he laughed at me but took it anyway. “Not that kind of drink.” He drank some of the water, wiping his mouth with his arm. “I think something a bit stronger is in order.”
I’d only ever had a sip of alcohol once in my life with a group of boys at school, but I did not admit this to Simon and followed him into a pub. He ordered me a beer and an entire small bottle of some kind of strong clear alcohol for himself. He drank a shot as soon as it arrived and then two more before I’d even gotten the nerve to sip my beer. It was bitter at first but generally enjoyable.
“Good?” he asked, smiling slightly. Spots of pink had already opened across his cheeks, and he was refilling the three little cups in front of him.
“It’s good.” I drank a little more and watched him choke on his fifth shot. I was worried, but I didn’t know what to say or do so I just sat there and watched him try to catch his breath.
Then a calm, deep voice chastised out of nowhere, “Are you trying to die, you old drunk?”
He looked up at the voice in annoyance, but then his eyes opened wide and his scowl suddenly turned into one of the brightest smiles I’d ever seen on his face.
“Lerato?” he gasped. It was the same man I’d seen in the tent from Laseine. Simon tried to stand, but the man playfully pushed him back down and then sat beside him. His eyes were unmistakably intelligent and dark, just like Simon’s, and he flashed me a quick smile before he took them away again.
“How have you been?” he asked Simon. “Haven’t seen you in… five years? You look a bit different.” He motioned toward his own facial hair.
“Yeah? Hormones. Listen, you’ve kinda caught me at a really bad time. I don’t always do this. Not anymore,” Simon laughed and pushed away his drinks.
“Oh? I thought I saw you earlier, getting up to something that didn’t look good.”
“The hell, even you saw me?”
“Well no, your friend here was in my tent, and I only realized the person he’d gone chasing after was you when you came back with him.”
“Your tent?” Simon looked at me sharply. “What exactly were you selling him?”
“Relax, relax. I’m just working with an ordinary arms dealer from Laseine. Licensed and everything.” Lerato laughed and looked at me with a strangely suspicious expression. “So what’s your name?”
“My name? Avery.”
“Oh?” Lerato’s smile widened when I finally spoke. “How old are you, Avery?”
“I, I’m almost eighteen,” I stuttered.
“Seventeen, huh?” he asked, looking at Simon.
“Don’t look at me like that, you don’t know the facts,” Simon growled and pushed him.
“I’m not. Seventeen and you’re what? Thirty now?”
“Not nearly.” Simon laughed. “Stop it; you’re embarrassing him, and yourself.”
They seemed very friendly with each other very quickly, and I started to wonder if they used to be lovers, my stomach twisting and sinking as they smiled at each other and chatted. I blushed with childish jealousy and for some reason tried to stay as still as possible, perhaps hoping to disappear.
“So, how’s my baby?”
“She’s fine. At home,” Simon laughed.
“You are treating her well? Have you broken anything on her?”
“It’s fine!” Simon seemed to notice my discomfort and brought me back into focus. “He’s talking about my sword, Avery. He made it.”
“The ice sword?”
“Ah yes, beautiful isn’t she?” Lerato sighed. “I really wish you had her with you. I’d love to see her… and make sure you didn’t break anything.”
“Hey, you sold her remember? And don’t worry. If I’m alive the sword is fine.”
“Speaking of selling. I have another you might be interested in.”
“Oh? No buyers for your flashy swords these days?”
“Everyone wants cheap and expendable. Not too many crazies like you walking in and out of solider territory,” he laughed. “What about for your little boyfriend? I’m almost done with one I know you’ll love. It would definitely suit him; let me show it to you.”
“We don’t need it. And he’s not my boyfriend. I told you to stop that,” Simon laughed.
“Why else would he bring you dinner? Hey, I told you I’m not here to judge.”
“Because we live together. Now shut up already.” Simon slapped him jokingly. “Ignore him, Avery. He’ll say anything to sell you an overpriced sword.”
“It’s all right,” I said and shrugged. I was really beginning to feel kind of silly sitting in a bar, not even allowed to buy my own liquor, listening to him reminisce with an old lover. “I need to be excused,” I said and Lerato laughed.
“You’ve got a really strong accent still, huh?” Lerato watched me as I stood. “Where are you from again?”
“Just leave him alone, Lerato,” Simon said, suddenly a bit stern. “It’s none of your business. Are you alright Avery? Is the beer hurting your stomach?”
“No, it’s just that I have to, you know, so I’ll be right back.”
“Oh my god. You’re definitely not from the Outer Rim, are you?” Lerato laughed suddenly, and Simon punched him hard, glaring at him very seriously.
“How did you know?” I blanched, heart leaping in fear.
“Of course the way you talk. But also if you were from the Outer Rim you’d just tell us you’re going to take a piss. It’s not bad manners here to talk about it, even if people are eating and drinking.”
“Really?” I asked in surprise. I’d never noticed, but then again I only really ate with Simon or alone. “It’s sickening to talk about that while you’re drinking, isn’t it?”
“I agree, Avery. It’s a manner we could all do with acquiring.” Simon pushed Lerato away from him. “One of many in your case, you louse.”
“Hey, I’m an ordinary family man now you know,” he laughed and scooted back into the seat.
“Oh? Who did you knock up?” Simon looked at him skeptically.
“You my friend are looking at the luckiest man ever born in the Outer Rim,” he said, jokingly swelling his chest with pride. “By this time next year I will be wed to the most beautiful creature to ever grace god’s earth.”
“You’re really getting married?” Simon laughed. “She must be desperate.” He started drinking his next shot, but Lerato took it from him.
“On the contrary, my crusty comrade,” he laughed. “She is like a goddess in human form. Nomakhaya.”
“Nomakhaya? She’s marrying you? I thought she hated you.”
“Ah, well, after a lot of effort and rejections I finally charmed her into sleeping with me a few times. And now she’s having my baby, so she said she’ll marry me.” I felt relieved for a moment, thinking that Lerato would probably not have been Simon’s lover if he preferred women, and then another moment later I remember that Simon was physically a woman in the past. Still, Lerato did not seem terribly surprised to see Simon as a man. I stewed in confusion and listened carefully to everything they were saying.
“Oh, and you’re here to avoid this responsibility are you?”
“Nope, as soon as I make enough money with this vendor to get out of my contract I’m headed back to Laseine to settle into wedded family bliss.”
“Wedded family bliss, my balls,” Simon laughed skeptically, but ever since Lerato had mentioned the child his laughter seemed much more forced. “Now, I have to piss. Get out of my way.” He pushed Lerato and hurried out of the pub.
Awkwardly left alone at the table, Lerato just smiled at me and tapped his fingers a little. “You don’t have to go anymore?”
I shrugged and said, “Eh, the feeling already passed.”
“Oh?” We were silent, and Simon seemed to be taking quite a long time. “So, how long have you been here?”
“More than a year.”
“And how long living with Simon?”
“Same amount of time.”
“Oh? I see. You’re a rescue?”
“I suppose so. I came here by accident, and Simon gave me a place to live.” Lerato ordered beers for both of us, even though I hadn’t finished my first one. “How did you know that people don’t talk about that in Middle?”
“You don’t drink?” he asked, either not hearing me or just ignoring my question.
“Not much, no.”
“You have to watch how much Simon drinks. He’s going to die one day. How long have you two been a couple?”
“Oh, we’re not. Simon is with someone else.” I had momentarily forgotten that Simon’s last fleeting relationship ended a month ago.
He nodded. “And you? Are you with anyone else?”
“Me? No no, I don’t think about that stuff much.”
“You like Simon though, right?”
“Well, he does a lot for me.” I blushed, twisting the beer in my hand nervously.
“It’s practically bursting out of your seams. He’s not the type that notices though. Have you told him?” he laughed and clinked his glass against mine before he started drinking.
“No, no no. It’s not like that. He’s just my friend, really.” I shook my head and drank my largest gulp yet.
“Whatever you say. He really looks like a man these days. I mean, he did before but now, damn. I didn’t think that was possible. He wasn’t a pretty girl anyway though. Looks better as a guy, which I guess is lucky.” Lerato seemed lost in his thoughts for a moment. “Good for him.”
I’d ocasionally tried to think about what Simon would look like as a woman, but it was surprisingly hard for me to do so. It baffled me to think that the man sitting across from me had seen him like that. “How long have you known each other?”
“I met Simon when he was… maybe thirteen or so? He has no idea how old he is, only God knows now I guess. I myself was about sixteen, and not in a very good situation. ”
“The woman you met changed your life?” I asked, getting a little bit worried.
“No, not her actually. What changed my life was probably getting my ass kicked by a thirteen year old girl.” He raised his eyebrows and took a long swill of beer.
“By Simon?” I laughed a little.
“Yeah, I was trying to pickpocket her, him, and well, it didn’t go over well. My pride was completely crushed. He used to travel with his mother, and they stayed in Laseine for, I don’t know, maybe a couple of years. We did some business together then. He left when his mother died though, and he got in some pretty bad trouble. I haven’t seen him in something like five or six years.”
“His mother…” I looked down into the dark, murky beer below me. “She’s dead?”
“Ah, yeah. Don’t be too sad though. She was a crazy, evil fucking bitch. And don’t think I’m exaggerating either. Actually, I'm probably being too nice,” Lerato sighed, and then his eyes flashed towards the entrance in concern. “So Avery, are you any good with a sword?”
“Above average these days, I guess. Simon’s a good teacher.” I followed his gaze.
Simon was by the bar and three dirt covered men were standing around him. At first I assumed he’d just gotten in a little trouble due to his disorderly drunkenness, which was not uncommon but never caused much harm. However, his face was very serious, and he stared very harshly into the eyes of the man directly in front of him. I stood up, and Lerato followed me over to them.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Simon said plainly, putting his hand up between himself and the man.
“Liar,” the man growled. “No one else but you would have done that to her, you god damn dyke. You’re a murderer!” Simon looked away from him for a moment, and the man suddenly wrapped his hand around Simon’s throat. Despite it being highly illegal to do so in a bar, I drew Lerato’s sword and without thinking quickly pressed it to the throat of one of the man’s comrades.
“Let him go!” I demanded, but no one moved. “I will do it!” I had to press the sword deep enough to draw blood before the man’s hand loosened enough for Simon to step away.
I dropped the sword immediately and pushed through the men to stand beside Simon. He seemed much more sober than I thought he’d been and calmly stooped to pick up the sword. The men watched him very closely, all three flinching visibly as he skillfully stabbed the sword back into Lerato’s sheath. With the sword out of the equation, their confidence returned and they started pressing toward us again.
“I’ll have your rank for this. I don’t care how much money you have!” The one in the middle kept speaking to Simon. The man I’d put the sword to looked down at me angrily, and the other pushed Lerato a little bit on the shoulder. I knew this was going to end horribly, and I braced myself for the fight. It certainly wasn’t my first fight; that’s something you just can’t escape in a boy’s school, especially with my explosive emotions.
“Good luck with that. You’re lucky we don’t put animals like you to death, you sniveling, disgusting, pervert,” Simon laughed, and the man swung but only nicked him in the arm.
“Take it outside!” the pub owner screamed immediately, but it was too late. Simon had already hit him back and did not miss, landing solidly in the upper abdomen. The man facing me suddenly punched near my clavicle, pain shooting up into my neck and face as I fell back. I tackled him and we both fell to the floor, exchanging hits to the chest and perhaps one each to the face before we scrambled to our feet again. I lost track of what Simon and Lerato were doing, and a large crowd of drunks had gathered to cheer on the fighting. It was only a few seconds into it before the people in the crowd were pulling us apart and throwing everyone out the door.
The scene had spilled out onto the street, and a much more serious tone enveloped us. The man that was fighting with me seemed to have lost interest and was watching Simon and the most offended man. A big space cleared around them when the man drew his sword. My heart sank, and I desperately searched for Lerato. When I saw him he was being pulled away by an angry old merchant, most likely his boss. I looked back to Simon in desperation, wishing I’d had the sense to bring him his sword. But who could have imagined we’d end up in a bar fight this serious? Simon paced patiently on his side of the clearing, never taking his eyes off his opponent.
“Come on, come and get me,” Simon laughed suddenly. “What are you waiting for!?” He yelled, a deep, serious growl to his voice that sent a frightened pain through to my bones. I never would have imagined Simon like that, his soft voice erupting with aggression and a desperate, almost insane cruelty dancing in his half drunken pacing.
The man screamed and attacked like a fool. Simon is very fast; I knew from experience that brash moves wouldn’t work. Still, my mouth was so dry that swallowing left a suffocating tightness in my throat akin to a suppressed sob. Why doesn’t one of these people give him a sword? The watchers stared half in glee, some in terror, and others with grim, unreadable faces. Simon dodged the attack and walked to the other side, close to me.
“Simon,” I tried to get his attention, but he didn’t seem to hear me. The man attacked again and this time Simon went behind him and jokingly smacked him in the back of the head. This only enraged the man, who glanced at me as he turned to attack again.
“Don’t even consider it,” Simon warned, very firmly.
“Consider what?” the man huffed, walking backward in my direction. Oh no. I stared at them in shock. Is he really going to use me against Simon? I tried to wriggle my way to a different place in the crowd but did not get far.
Simon suddenly stormed to the side and pulled someone’s sword out of its scabbard, immediately running towards his opponent. The man dived towards me with a growl and the crowd flew backward, all of us tumbling and falling on top of each other. The man had only brushed the bottoms of my feet before he had to turn and block an extraordinarily hard blow to his back. The sound of the clashing metals scraped over my nerves, and I wondered what Simon would have done if the man hadn’t been able to block the blow. Would he have sliced right through his spine?! The whole crowd gasped and backed away in a panic, leaving just the three of us in the center. The man pressed back against Simon, using the fact that he was physically heavier and stronger to push himself on top. Idiot. Simon quickly came out from under the pressure and the man fell forward enough to give Simon a moment to hit him in the back of the legs, both of their blades swinging and just narrowly missing me. The man fell onto all fours and Simon stood resolutely, pressing the tip of the sword against the center of his back. The crowd had gone completely silent, surprised by how serious the fight had gotten.
“I could kill you right now,” Simon said, pressing so hard the man flinched in pain. The he almost screamed, “I should kill you!” The man didn’t say anything and just grit his teeth. Then Simon’s whole body seemed to slacken, and he looked at the ground and tossed the sword away. He ran his hand through his sweaty hair and calmly started walking toward me.
“You’ll get yours in hell you murdering bitch!” the man spat and threw a rock at Simon. It thudded hard against his back, but he just kept coming to me as if he hadn't felt a thing. He didn’t say a word and just pulled me up by my arm and brushed the dirt off my clothes.
The crowd parted loosely to let us through, and then Simon and I just found ourselves alone and walking toward home in awkward silence. I had my hands in my pockets and vaguely glanced up at him. I was trying to think of something fun to cheer him up, but all I could manage were awkward smiles and raised eyebrows.
“Hmmm?” I asked lightly.
“You were raised to be a Christian, right?”
“I guess, but I’m not anymore.”
“No, I can’t believe in a single god.”
“Really? You believe in several gods then?”
“I guess. Not permanent or truly divine. I think they make mistakes like anyone else. And that they die. I don’t believe in an almighty creator god, I guess.”
“So then with death, do you think there’s a heaven or a hell?”
“I think there are. But, I believe in reincarnation, I think, going from heaven to hell to our world round and round and round for eternity.”
Simon laughed just slightly. “That almost sounds worse than hell.”
“Probably. If you become enlightened you can escape though.”
“Are there certain morals you have to follow?”
“Selflessness, lack of desire, don’t harm anything, things like that. I don’t know really.”
We had arrived, and Simon was staring down at the door, forehead wrinkled in thought before it smoothed out into a blank stare.
“Avery, can I be forgiven for what I’ve done, in your beliefs?”
“No,” I answered plainly, and he looked at me with surprisingly vulnerable eyes. “In a way, whatever you do will come back to you. What you do will be done to you. And everything will be even in the end. That’s the only way.”
He sighed and opened the door. “That’s good. At least that’s something.”
“What do you believe in? Gods? Sin?”
“Me? Mmmm,” he said and started climbing down. “I don’t know. I’ve never believed in anything really.”
“I used to read about the Buddha a lot when I was researching religions,” I said as I pulled the door closed. “He wasn’t part of an approved religion for my rank, but I liked reading about his teachings.”
I explained the basic story of the Buddha to Simon while he started washing his hands and face rather obsessively, and I put a cool cup of water on my face where I’d been punched. His favorite of the stories I told him seemed to be the one about the Buddha feeding himself to a starving tigress.
“So someday, I’ll let that child eat me alive.” He seemed to have relaxed and was looking at me very calmly. I looked away from him quickly when I finally realized that he was not talking about the girl and that she was not sick at all.
“Simon?” I said and looked back at him. “It’ll be alright.”
“ I don’t know why it bothers me so much. It shouldn’t, right? I had to do it. Somebody had to do it. I just wish it wasn’t me.” He had one arm wrapped around his stomach as if he’d be sick. “Or that I was someone else entirely.”
“It was probably best,” I said insincerely, not knowing what else to say. He hadn’t spoken to me so frankly since the night he gave me a piece of the sky.
“It’s unfair. How could he do that to her? Women shouldn’t have to do these things. And if she could have told us earlier we could have used medicine, and it wouldn’t have been so... ” He pressed his hand against the lowest part of his abdomen, and then turned quickly and wretched into the little sink.
“Are you alright?” I asked in a panic, patting him on the back.
“I’m fine,” he laughed and turned the water back on. He put his whole head under it, and I helped him splash it over his neck, completely soaking his shirt. I brought his towel and turned off the water, but he still leaned over the sink, completely drenched and trying to catch his breath. I had to almost force him to turn away, and I put the towel over his head more to save his dignity than to dry him.
“Breathe,” I said, rubbing his back. “Just breathe deep, one at a time.”
“I can’t,” he gasped, still bent over with his arms wrapped around himself.
“If you can talk you can breathe. Make them longer and slower.” I sat him on a stool and kept rubbing and patting his back. It was an odd and awkward moment, and we stayed like that for several minutes until Simon was finally half way calm.
He brought his head out of the towel, but immediately pressed it to his face again. He had definitely been crying, and bright red spots were scattered across his cheeks and eyes. He looked away from me and put the towel back over his head.
The last time I’d seen a boy cry I was thirteen years old; he was twelve. And his eyes were round and blue; they looked nothing like the black, unreadable almonds that Simon had hidden from view. Yet somehow both were achingly beautiful.
“Avery, will you tell me more of your stories?” Simon asked, and I flinched out of my day dream.
“About the Buddha?”
“About anything.” I was fairly good at making up stories, and I half wondered if he thought the Buddha was just a fantasy I made up. He was rooted in fact, so I’d been told, but I had no way of knowing if that in itself wasn’t just part of a clever story. I told him about the monkey who sacrificed himself for the others in his troop, and Simon decided he liked that almost as much as the story about the tigress. After I exhausted my short knowledge of Buddhist stories I just started making things up, adding little bits of reality from life, stealing little bits from other stories I’d read, little bits from my dreams.
Simon lay down on the bed behind me, and I kept talking and talking about anything I could think of. He was mostly silent with a few comments here and there that proved he was listening. Almost an hour passed, and I was getting very sore from sitting hunched over on the edge of the bed. I thought maybe Simon was asleep and had slowed considerably in my chatting. I was in the middle of a story about a little girl with dark curly hair that I often saw in my dreams, telling him about a crow that had tried to steal her away in its claws, when I decided he was asleep. I sighed and stopped completely for several minutes. Then, I jumped in surprise as his fingers softly traced down my spine.
“Avery,” he said quietly, my whole body covered in chills. He continued in strange words I couldn’t understand.
“What?” I asked, laughing nervously.
“Lay down with me.” He pushed his hand under my arm, pressing it flat on my chest as he pulled me backward. I blushed horribly, but it was fairly dark, and I was sure he couldn’t see it. I lay next to him on my back, and he was on his side, hands curled up by his face. “Keep talking.”
I laughed and did as he asked for only a few minutes before he was completely asleep. I looked at his face, my heart beating so hard that I worried he’d be able to feel it and wake up. His hair was dry but extremely tussled, dark strands of it falling all over his ghostly white face. I was very close to him, and even in the dark I could see the tiny freckles scattered across his nose and cheeks. A strand of hair fell into his mouth, and I carefully pushed it back up with the others, chest bursting with warmth and pain like nothing I’d ever felt before.
In that moment I knew I was so completely in love with him it would probably kill me. It wasn’t like any of the crushes or fantasies I’d had in the past, and I had to use my own slow breathing technique to keep myself from kissing him. I eventually failed and very softly kissed him on the forehead. He didn’t wake up but instead a few seconds later started to snore. I laughed uncontrollably, and this time he did wake up a little, putting an arm around my middle as if that would make me stop wiggling.
I relaxed, and when he started snoring again the sound and vibration were very soothing, like a cat purring, and I started to drift to sleep as well. I had strange half waking dreams about the dark haired girl, mixed with memories of the boy I’d seen crying, the boy that I’d made cry.
We were in the same science class, the boy and I, and he was my partner for laboratory experiments. He was very small and soft with blue eyes and wavy, dirty blonde hair. He wore large, round silver glasses, spoke very softly all the time, and was quite sweet and feminine in his mannerisms. I was of course infatuated with him and quickly started to do better in science so that he would remain my lab partner.
We were left alone one day in the lab because the two older boys in charge of us had gone off somewhere alone, probably to do things with each other they shouldn’t. One thing that always baffled me about our school was that they’d taken a bunch of boys suspected of being homosexuals and put them in school together, isolated from girls. I was one of the few boys I’d known to enjoy the days we had to socialize with the girls, but my intentions were a bit more focused than more genuinely heterosexual boys. But besides my infatuation with Sam that boy was one of my few crushes, as he was at once fascinatingly well behaved and pious but also alluringly soft and androgynous. I was determined that he’d at least become my best friend.
I’d made a lot of progress in completing this goal, but something strange came over my mind one day as I watched his lips speak about the experiment. His glasses were falling down his nose, and he quickly pushed them back up and smiled at me sweetly, waiting for my approval of what he’d just said. But I hadn’t been listening to a word and instead had gotten very close to his face. I looked at his partly open mouth, and he pressed his pink lips together tightly.
“Avery?” he said nervously. Then I bent forward and kissed him, surprising both of us. My eyes were closed, and I couldn’t see his immediate reaction. He had gone stiff at first, but then he seemed to relax, mouth melting against mine. I broke away, and he kissed me back quickly, grabbing my head to keep me from moving away. I opened my eyes in shock when he let go, and I vividly remember the strange feeling of the eyelashes of my right eye brushing against the wetness on his cheek. He stared at me, hand covering his mouth in despair. The tears flowed out of his eyes incessantly, and a groan came from deep in his throat. Then he stood up, still staring at my confused face before he ran out of the room as fast as he could.
The next day I had a new lab partner, was lashed seven times on my wrist, and had to apologize to the Lord profusely for days. The boy never spoke to me again, and always looked at the floor or whispered a prayer to himself when I was near. When I was young I found it very aggravating that I was the only one to be punished, but now I think of it as something extraordinarily sad for both of us.
And as I lay there in a half daze with Simon sleeping next to me, I wondered how many times they would lash me for enjoying lying with him, how many times I’d have to apologize for the thoughts running through my head. None because he was not born with a penis? Maybe just three? Or is it really worse? Twenty lashes then? The last thing I remember I had come to the bitter, silly decision that I’d have to apologize to God for every freckle on Simon’s face. I fell asleep trying to count them and completely forgot to apologize at all.