Chapter 7: Water and Salt
“And all the water is undrinkable." The sinister black bird tattooed on the man’s bronze, muscular back looked alive, as if were beckoning me forward. Fly. It said. Fly away from this place before you've been buried in it. His back was only heaving in exhilaration and heat as he drunkenly threw darts, and when the bird returned to flesh I looked away to continue my cleaning.
"Is that so?” I said plainly, watching my stringy white mop smear the dirt over grey tiles. It was after my twentieth birthday, and I had gotten a job bussing tables and washing up at a small pub.
“Yeah, average boat on those salty lakes down there pays you five thousand a year.”
"You're so full of shit. What you trying to sell?" another of the lingering drunks growled.
“Shut up asshole. I'm talking to this young man here. It’s true! You can get up to like eight for working through winter. Of course, you have to survive winter.”
I had been intrigued by the idea of free travel and board, but as he chatted on I really started to imagine myself living the life of a fisherman. And with that kind of pay I could work for just a few seasons and live off of it for years as a wanderer, just drifting and searching. But what if I never find him? Am I really destined to only ever love Simon? He’s dead. No, no I will find him. I don’t need anyone else. I don’t want anyone else.
“Recruiters are already down at the docks. You should come by and see what offer you get. It’s better than sitting around in this shit hole racist city. Especially for someone like you.”
After I collected my pay, I mosied out into the rapidly crowding streets. I had planned to be finished well before the rest of the city woke, avoiding the crowd, but I had lingered a bit too long. Laseine was really a miserable place, despite the kind and generous home I'd found myself in. While I was finally making enough money not to feel like a complete burden on Lerato and Nomakhaya, it did not lessen my feeling of utter disconnect. I suppose for them the city had always been home and amongst the milling, suffocating crowd, they usually found familiar faces to shout out to or laugh with. This family was the only link I had to the place, and while Lerato was permanently my friend and brother, for some reason I could not stop thinking about the giant fish in the Salzen Lakes.
When I arrived home I helped Nomakhaya finish preparing the morning meal and casually asked her about fishing in the lakes.
“The best fish comes from there,” was all she said at first.
“No, I mean, what do you think about the job? Do you think I could do it?”
She stared at me a moment, and her eyes glittered strangely with pity. “It’s really dangerous, that’s why it pays so much, Avery.”
“But you know, if I got that much money, I could go to the City of Bei and look for the others.”
“That is true but, Avery, if you wait a little bit longer you’ll be able to save the money.”
“How long is a little bit longer? I think I want..." I fell silent when the door to their bedroom opened, and Lerato emerged with a half sleepy Anna and little wide eyed Maia.
"Awe, did you wake up your daddy again, Mai-mai?" Nomakhaya laughed and took the baby. She held her on her hip and fed her while Lerato and I finished setting up the meal.
“Lerato,” Nomakhaya started and leaned on her husband. “Avery was asking me just now, and I thought you might know what to say, about becoming a fisherman down south.”
“Absolutely not,” he answered immediately, and didn't even look up from his food, just as if he really were my father.
“Why?! I can’t stay here forever doing nothing!” I shot back.
"You're too young to just...."
“I’m not a child! Especially not yours, Lerato!" We had already had this argument more than once.
“You are not doing it,” Lerato growled back and finally looked at me. “You need to stay in one place or Simon will never be able to find you. You are safe here and I will find...”
“It's been two years! If he is alive he isn't looking for me anymore!"
“He would never stop looking! Don't be a fool, Avery!"
“Even if he is looking, he’ll never find me in this monstrous city. I need to find the others from our village. I’m going to the Salzen Lakes.”
“You’re going to get yourself killed, you fool! There will be nothing of you to find but a salted corpse at the bottom of a lake!” He stood, clenching his fist in frustration.
"Better that than a living corpse!"
He chewed on his cheek and stared down at me in frustration. “You don’t have a work permit. You can’t work on fishing boat.”
“You need a permit to work. And since you’re an illegal immigrant, you don’t have one. Well, you probably do but it’s not exactly one that’ll get you a job on a fishing boat. Maybe sold to soldiers for whatever reward there might be for your arrest.”
“Why would there be a warrant for my arrest? Who pays to have me killed? This place doesn’t make any sense!”
“The people with all the money pay to keep the order, so they can keep all the money. That’s how the world really works. It’s illegal to cross between the three sections, because the wealthier sections won’t be able to keep up their quality of life. The soldiers are there to protect those zoning laws.” Lerato crossed his arms with a sigh, as if he were telling me things I ought to already know. “Avery, it’s just idiotic for you to leave. You need to have patience. Simon can’t look everywhere at once; it’s a big world.”
“But in the City of Bei, most of the villagers went there. He would have gone there to find me; not Laseine.”
“That could be true, but the City of Bei is twice the size of Laseine, and if the villagers went there it would have been more than a year ago. Most probably aren’t even there anymore. So Simon’s probably looking elsewhere now.”
“But not here.”
He looked away from me, oddly focusing on the floor. “If you want to go to the City of Bei, save your money and take a train. End of discussion.”
“It’s not the end. You’re not my father Lerato, so don’t talk to me like that!”
He looked back to me. “Well, someone has to tell you how to live in this world! I could curse Simon for letting you live in such absurd ignorance all this time. You don’t question, you just do what you’re told until its really the time for you to listen and you go crazy and throw yourself into a catastrophe! No one will be able to save you from this mistake, Avery!”
I left the room in anger and shut myself up in my tiny room until I finally fell asleep. When I woke it was evening, and I lazily made my way down to the front of the building where Nomakhaya sold various things; silk scarves, sweets, jewelry that Lerato made, even fruits sometimes. Anna and Maia played around the small stand, and we shouted to buyers, sometimes taking long breaks and just chatting.
“Lerato is just trying to protect you, you know,” she sighed suddenly.
“I do know that. I was just mad, and I feel so suffocated sometimes. I didn’t know that I would need a work permit. I didn't need one at the pub. "
“Well, most classier places won't take you without one. You need a permit so you can pay tax is all, or so these crooked politicians say. If that's so I don't know why they don't make citizenship easier. Just like I don't know who voted them into office again and again.”
Nomakhaya and Lerato were very political people, and I often heard her complain about the wealthy men that always seemed to magically get elected in the sham of a democracy that was their government. Also, they were very active and well known racial integrationists, especially Nomakhaya who had had a mixed race sister that was killed in some kind of race riot years ago. She often said I reminded her of this sister.
"Ugh, here come a bunch of crazies. Look away or they'll come over here and talk to you about that dead guy on the sticks," she groaned suddenly and turned her head toward me.
I looked anyway and saw a procession of men in brown robes carrying a huge wooden figure of Christ on the cross. I found these strangely ancient Christians comforting in a way I never expected. Their pathetic religious devotion seemed so familiar and understanding that I almost wanted their attention. But at the same time I could feel a rage boiling in my blood, and I gripped one of the fruits on our stand tightly, longing to throw it at these sickened creatures as if in revenge for all the Christians who had hurt me in the past. But the fruit suddenly exploded in my hand, it's red juices erupting like blood from its orange rind.
"Avery!" Nomakhaya gasped.
I shook the thoughts out of my head, apologizing as I started to clean up the mess.
"Oh, Avery!" She suddenly burst into tears and hid her face in her hands. "Oh! Simon will never come to Laseine!" I just stared at her in shock, not sure where this sudden confession had come from and why it was so laced with guilt. "He can't come here. He’s wanted for a very serious crime and...” She sniffled and finally looked at me. “I've saved all the money you’ve been giving me; I’ve been saving it for you because I know he’s not coming here, and I don't think Lerato can find him anymore."
“What did he do? Why didn't Lerato tell me?"
“Years ago, Simon killed the government official that murdered my sister Ana. Lerato promised him that he wouldn't tell you, but I... And he still thinks he has a way to find Simon, but his connections are old and broken; nothing is coming from his efforts.”
“I want to look in the City of Bei; I’m sure that’s where he is. For some reason; I just know it.”
Nomakhaya shook her head. “Look for him everywhere, in the strangest places, and you’ll find him.” She pulled out a parcel from her apron and put it in my lap. “A work permit. I got it for you a few weeks ago. It’s fake, but it’ll work well enough.”
“What will Lerato say?”
“I can handle him. Just, wherever you decide to go, write him and let him know that you’re ok. And we will write you if there is any news from his efforts. We’ll all miss you, but you are a grown man and you need to do what you will. I can see you getting lonelier, angrier, everyday we try to keep you here. This place can be awful, like it was for my sister, and I think it’s time you were freed.”
“Thank you,” I gasped, already feeling extraordinarily light. So light in fact that I was shaking and shivering, terrified and yet so excited I almost wanted to leave right that minute. And it was only a few weeks later that I found myself still feeling this way as I boarded a ship headed down river to the Salzen lakes, and the giant fish, and the City of Bei.
I sometimes find that water creates a lonely sensation inside of me, and when I was younger I used to wonder if it was because all water wants to join together, like two drops of rain close together on a pane of glass. And because our blood is made of water, when we look at a vast lake red with the setting sun, isn’t it just a natural force to want to drown one’s self in it?
I was actually surprisingly good at being a fisherman. I had gotten over my laziness in the labor camp, and because I had no real family or home, I did not have much to complain about on long journeys away from land. The captain that had chosen me for his crew was quite eccentric, even amongst the others crazy enough to make fishing the lakes their career. He was from the Out Skirts, like Simon, but he spoke strangely, and also often used words that no one else understood. That may have been the reason he took an immediate liking to me despite my fake papers.
The work was extremely hard, and the fish were enormous and violent, not at all the calm, gentle looking beasts with the ridges on their belly. I remember it was only my third netting, and I was helping another boat hand toss the fish around, when one of them swung back and the huge teeth jutting out of it’s mouth sliced me very close to my eye, almost blinding me. I was fortunate that most of the damage was on my head and cheek, and I learned quickly how to hold the fish so it couldn’t swing back and to move and cover my face if it did manage to break free of our grasp. But I still have a ‘fisherman’s scar’ on my face, and my days of innocent boyish looks were just about over.
The pay was fantastic, so when we stopped at a harbor the first thing I did was buy new foods or send letters and interesting packages to Lerato and Nomakhaya, along with many pretty little toys and trinkets for their girls.
It took almost three months to get to the City of Bei as we followed the migrating fish, and the city was more horrifying than any of the stories about it could have led me to believe. I find it to be the worst place in the Outer Rim, and the first time our ship entered its waters I gagged, the smell of the green brown sludge around it like nothing I’d ever experienced.
“Ah, the glory of true civilization!” the captain laughed when he saw me with my hand over my face. “When winter really hits, you’ll come to welcome the smell, Ah-vey.”
I just looked at him as if to say ‘I doubt it’ and he seemed to understand the look because he laughed again. I had never been in a harbor that chaotic, so I was just to watch the more seasoned crew members take us in. I also suspect my captain didn’t want me, with my strange way of speaking, yelling out so all the violent police in Bei could hear.
The dock was extremely large and crowded, and even after we finally got our catch unloaded, I stayed on board the ship and debated whether or not I was brave enough to go ashore. Like the city itself, the people looked very industrialized and harsh, as the current fashions obviously favored body modifications like piercings and tattoos. I had quite a collection of tattoos on my left arm as well, but they were in the softer, colorless fashion popular in Laseine and more rural places. The people of Bei were actually quite fascinating and strangely beautiful, but it was after I finally got off our boat that I experienced their true obnoxiousness. People there tend to be extremely impatient, loud, and unforgiving to strangers. I couldn’t imagine the people of our quiet little village living in that place, and I had no idea where to even begin looking for them. Again, I’d forgotten a lot of the details in my life plan.
Some of the crew invited me to join them in their festivities, but as usual I just shrugged and shook my head with a smile. They dismissed my behavior as shyness and disappeared into the city without me. I walked very far, for perhaps a few hours, eating all kinds of delicious food from street vendors and trying to think of where else I could get some information about the refugees. Then, I saw some older women sitting outside a steaming bath house. I approached them tentatively, and it took me nearly ten minutes to get them to realize I wanted their attention.
“Wah a strain way tah telk,” the grey haired, very obese one in the center laughed at me.
“I’m sorry. I’m not from here.”
“Ya dun say,” she laughed again and so did the others. I asked them about the villagers and they all just looked grave.
“Tat pace gat gutted,” one of them said sadly and shook her head, the heavy piercings in her ears jingling gently.
“And some of the people came here. The survivors. Do you know where any of them are?”
“Wah e sayin?” The big one in the middle seemed to not understand me at all.
“Da livin unns. Eere dey be now?” The other said, and the big one nodded.
“Was en da sou,” the big one said. I didn’t know what she meant by that, and the one that could understand me best stuttered and pronounced the word ‘south.’
“Thank you, ladies,” I said with a smile, and they all laughed and blushed a little, apparently as amused by my manners as much as my speech.
I started walking south, but my god you could walk for a week and never make it across that city. I was too afraid to get on one of the extremely crowded public buses; not sure how to pay or how I’d be able to find my way back. It was getting dark, and I started to get very anxious, not really sure what to do with what little time I had left. I had enough money with me to stay the night somewhere, but I really hadn’t planned on spending it unless it was to help me find the other villagers.
It was a miserable feeling to be completely alone in a crowded, unfamiliar place, and I tried to occupy my mind with thoughts of fatigue and hunger instead of misery and hopelessness. I stopped to buy a sweet bun and had it in my mouth as I started to walk, finding my eyes drawn to a short, blue wooden building with most of the lights burning inside. Live music was coming from the downstairs parlor, and as I approached a tall, thin, very effeminate boy beckoned me.
“Ey u lil cutie, wan sum play?” I just blinked at him, and he laughed. He had piercings on his bottom lip and several on one of his eyebrows, with dark makeup around his very blue eyes. His blonde hair was shaved off on one side of his head, and large black swirls were tattooed all over the exposed portion. “Yar def a foreign un.” I still didn’t say anything. “Do I scare ya? E ave plain boyas too.”
His smile was quite friendly and though a prostitute is not something I’m used to, even in Laseine, he actually seemed much nicer than anyone else around. “I’m really looking for just a, a normal inn.”
“Wooo, wat a way ta telk.” He smiled and familiarly put his hand on my shoulder. "Eere ya from?”
“Fine, ya'dun ave ta tell me.” He pouted. “Mmmm, nearest normal pace es prob an hours walk dawn tat way. Or ya mean ya lookin fer girls? We dunt ave girls tat’ll service boyas. But yar a cutie. I cold ask.”
“No, I’m not looking for a girl.”
“I dun’t tink so,” he laughed and patted me on the shoulder again.
I finally gave him a smile but stepped away a bit. “I just need a place to sleep.”
“Hey, were da best deal in tawn. Sleep an play. Ok, ok I ave ta catch otters if ya ain’t buyin. Dawn tis road abou tirty minutes. Take big lef road anotter ten minutes, ya’ll see inns.”
“Thank you,” I said, and he patted me again. I was about to keep walking, but when I glanced inside the brightly lit windows a dark red color caught my eye. My heart leapt into my throat, and I couldn’t breathe for a moment as I stared at what looked exactly like Simon from the back. I thought about what Nomakhaya had said; to look for Simon in the strangest places. But then the figure turned, and while the face wasn’t an unpleasant one, it was definitely not what I wanted it to be.
“Which ya lookin at?” The boy I’d been talking with laughed and also peered in the windows.
“I just thought I saw someone I know. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to waste your time.”
“Ta red one righ?” I blanched a little, and he laughed again. “I cun see if e’s free ta-night.”
“No, I just mistook him for someone else.” But my god did he look like Simon. I found myself staring at him again, wondering what it would be like. I’d never had sex with anyone but Simon, and that was several years ago at that point.
The blonde boy went into the brothel, and I started to walk away, a twisting, painful feeling in my stomach and chest. I felt so lonely again, though I'd only been speaking with a stranger. So then, what would it feel like? To spend the entire night with a kind stranger? And in a half light, my god will it be easy to imagine he’s Simon. Would Simon be mad at me? What if he is alive and I do see him again? And if he is alive, has he already moved on? I looked back towards the warmly lit building and could see the blonde beckoning customers again. Perhaps, just one time. I walked back slowly, and when he saw me he crossed his arms playfully.
“Ya ran way.”
“Well, e’s open. Ya buyin?”
“Ummmm, I’ve never…”
“A virgin?” he asked with big eyes and another grin.
“No. I’ve never paid.”
“Oh, ok. Ya'are a cutie, ya cold gut pay. E's one hour for sixteen. Forty ya cun stay da night.”
“If I change my mind about the se, sex, can I still stay the night?”
“Yah, buh still forty.”
“Ummm.” I felt the paper money in my pocket, wondering if I should waste it on this, but before I’d even decided my mouth was saying, “Ok. I want to stay the night.”
“Wit meeee?” he teased and hugged himself.
“I’m only kiddin. I’ll go gut ya red air boya. Mah, I nev gut the cutie unns.” He took my hand, and to my surprise started pulling me into the building. I gasped as the warm, alcohol reeking air hit my face and the modern music ripped into my ears. The one that looked like Simon was at the corner of the long bar, gossiping with the large woman making the drinks.
“Look wah I caugh fer ya?” the blonde laughed and pushed me in front of him. I had hoped he would have dark eyes, but his were actually a light, grayish color.
“Dis ta foreign unn?” he asked with a large, amused smile.
“Yes, lissen to em telk.” The blonde looked at me, but I really didn’t know what to say.
“What’s your name?” The red haired man seemed able to talk comfortably without the city accent.
“My name is Avery. What’s yours?”
“Alexsev. You can call me Alex. Would you like a drink, Avery?” He patted the stool next to him and waved away the man that had brought me in. I said goodbye to him, and he patted my head and perhaps said something about my way of talking again. Alexsev was much more reserved and confident than the blonde, and I could see why he wasn’t the one out on the street trying to bring in customers. And why he was so expensive. He didn’t have piercings or tattoos that I could see and was wearing plain black pants and a thin black sweater with the sleeves rolled part way up. He was fairly thin and tall, really built so much like Simon, perhaps just a bit less muscular though.
“Ummm alright. I guess I could use a drink.”
“What would you like?” I couldn’t manage to say anything, and he ordered me a dark, sweetish ale. It was very good, and I smiled at him after I tasted it, making him smile back. Then he rested his head in his hand and looked at me. “What are you doing in a place like this?” he laughed just slightly and let his head fall all the way to the counter. “Don’t you have a boyfriend?”
“I, I’m a sailor.”
“Ahhh, well that makes more sense. Do you have a boyfriend at home then? Or a girlfriend?”
“No. I don’t really have a home. That’s why I became a sailor.”
“No home? But where are you from? What about your family?” I just shook my head, and he pouted a little and looked at his glass of dark red wine. “Well, I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just not everyday I get a normal, shy young man like yourself.”
“I’m not so normal,” I laughed.
“You planning on something freaky? That costs extra you know.”
“No, I don’t even know if I can do it at all. I’ve never really done it this way before.” I sighed, feeling a bit miserable already.
“It’ll be alright. You paid for the night. We can go slow, if that’ll make you feel better.” He touched one of my curls and smiled at me. “You seem kind of sad though, I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. This beer is really very good.”
“I thought you would like it. It’s an art you know, learning to pick a drink for another person.”
“Oh really?” I smiled for him, and he seemed to ease a bit. We chatted for just a little while longer, and he was apparently very good at his job because I was starting to feel quite comfortable with him.
After about three beers he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Let’s go upstairs and be by ourselves for awhile.” The nervousness returned, but I took his hand and followed him up a narrow flight of steps in the back of the bar. The lack of loud music was a bit eerie at first, and I looked at him often, amazed by how much he looked like Simon in the dark. He had perhaps a bit more freckles, and his hair was probably just a little lighter, but in the dark even his grey eyes were easy to transform into Simon. He opened a door and brought me into a smallish bedroom, lighting only an oil lamp. He put it next to the bed, and then walked back to me, putting his arms on my shoulders.
“Do you want me to kiss you?” he asked, touching my face. “Do you want to kiss me?” I just stared at him at first, wondering how I’d gotten myself into this terrifying situation. But his smile was really very nice and taking even the sharp edge off my loneliness was worth anything.
“You, you can do it,” I said, and he kissed me lightly on the lips. Then he did it again, trying to loosen and relax me.
“What should I do next?” he asked and kissed me on the neck.
“You can take off your shirt if you want.”
“Should I take off yours too?” He pulled the sweater over his head, and when I nodded he took mine off as well. “Are you ok?” He hugged me against him, and I was surprised by how similar and yet how different it was compared to being pressed against Simon. It didn’t leave me breathless, my heart didn’t burst in excruciating warmth, but the lower parts of me reacted easily, desperately.
“I’m fine.” He pressed the back of his hand against the hardness in my pants. It felt very good, but when he took my hand and pressed it against his I flinched away in strange surprise. I had almost completely forgotten he was biologically male; and I had never in my life actually touched a penis other than my own. He looked at me curiously and didn’t do it again, instead pressing on me. He unbuttoned my pants and reached inside, and so out of guilt I unbuttoned his pants as well.
“You don’t have to if you don’t like it,” he said as I touched him.
“I’m sorry. It’s just different. The man I was with before wasn’t… the same type.”
“Was he circumcised too?” he asked, noting that I was.
“No, probably not.” Talking about Simon was making it difficult to stay hard, and he quickly started to change the subject.
“Only do what you want to do.”
“I can do it. It’s fine. I want to.” In reality it was making it a lot harder to continue, and I could feel myself softening in distraction. He moved away from me and got on his knees, taking me in his mouth without warning. This was much more pleasant, and when I looked down at him in the dim light it was extremely easy to imagine he was Simon, so long as he didn’t look at me too much with his grey eyes.
“Avery?” His voice was also so clear, not at all hoarse like Simon. But what he was doing felt so good that I almost didn’t care. “Do you want to be on top or on the bottom? Or neither?”
“I…” He continued licking and sucking me, and I considered just ending the sex this way, it felt so good. But it was only going to be one time. “I want to be on top.” I pulled his head away, and I remember he smiled at me with his sharp eyebrows raised in amused surprise.
As the sun shattered through the city smog, I sat up in Alexsev’s bed and immediately looked out the window. The view was mostly the brick side of a building, but also a bit of the street beyond. I walked to the window and sat at a little cushioned bench that was below it. Then, I folded my arms on the sill, my head resting on top of them as I watched stray cats still picking through the alley garbage below. It was so much quieter at dawn than it had been the night before, and I even started to think that I could enjoy the City of Bei, so long as I didn’t have to move from that moment.
“You’re awake already?” I heard Alexsev’s voice, and I turned and looked at him. “You don’t have to leave so early. You have a few more hours.”
“I’m used to being up at dawn, on the boat and everything. You should go back to sleep.”
“I’m ok. I’m going to get a drink. Do you want anything?” I just shook my head and kept watching the cats. “What’re you looking at down there?”
“Just some cats. I enjoy cats.”
“Me too; they kill the rats,” Alexsev laughed and left the room. He came back a few minutes later and pressed a cold glass of water onto my upper arm, rolling it against a bit of scar there, as if touching it would make me tell him about the rest on my back. “You seem so sad; are you all right?”
“I’m fine; don’t worry about it.”
“Can I ask you something, if you don’t mind me being a bit personal?”
I laughed as I took the glass of water, and expecting him to ask about the scars I said, “Sure.”
“Who is Simon?” he asked plainly, and I had a hard time swallowing the water in my mouth. “I shouldn’t have asked; I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right. Did I call you that?” I tried to laugh it off, but I was shaking a bit and had to put my water down on the sill.
“Just a few times.”
“I’m sorry. You look alot like him; that’s probably why.”
“An old boyfriend?”
“I guess so.” I laughed again. I’d never really thought of Simon as my ‘boyfriend’ and the word seemed so simple, so sadly inadequate, even though it was probably true. I wonder, if Simon is alive, does he consider me to have been his ‘boyfriend’?
“You seem to miss him.”
“He’s dead,” I said quickly, and I could hear my voice crack just a little.
“Oh.” Alexsev looked away from me, drank a lot of his water, and said quite sincerely, “I’m sorry. I’ll stop prying about it. Are you hungry?”
“I should be going soon. I was actually trying to find some people, and I’m pretty far from where the ship is docked.”
“Who were you looking for?”
“Some strays,” I laughed. “Did you hear anything about that village a while ago, the one outside legal limits?”
“I heard soldiers from the north killed a lot of them. There were some here, but they went south, a lot, probably most, left to go to Kyou.”
“Why to Kyou?”
“It’s a smaller city; more what they’re used to. You may have noticed the City of Bei isn’t exactly known for its hospitality.”
“You’ve been very nice to me. Even though I’m paying you; you’re nicer than your job really forces you to be.”
“Well, I’m from Kyou.”
“Yeah, you don’t speak like someone from Bei.”
“I do sometimes. I’ve been here about six years; my parents brought me here when I was about twelve.” I hadn’t realized that Alexsev was so young, but it somehow relaxed me a bit. “We were too poor, no connections, they drank all the time, and that’s pretty much how I ended up with this job. I got sick of living in poverty, shoveling fish guts, and waiting to die from worms. So I thought, I’m pretty cute, I think I can get paid for it. No offense about the fish thing.”
“None taken, I don’t really have to deal with guts, just the teeth,” I laughed, and he touched the scar on my face.
“Is that from a fish?”
“And the ones on your back?”
“From lashes. I was in that village that got killed; they brought me to a work camp.”
“God, how did you escape? Not many people come back from there.”
“That’s not my secret to give,” I laughed again and so did he.
“You like being all quiet, dark, and mysterious, don’t you?”
“I dunno. My whole life I’ve been a naïve, chubby little pretty boy; it’s a bit weird to have switched roles because of what happened to me.”
“You’re still pretty. You just have to look to see it. Your eyes are really pretty, even though you won’t look at mine.”
“I’m sorry; its cause they’re too pale.”
“Hey I know for a fact my eyes are beautiful, you jerk!”
“Sorry. I just meant to say that Simon had dark eyes.”
“Oh I see, Simon again. Do I really look like him that much? Maybe we’re related; is he from Kyou?”
“No; he was from somewhere in the Outskirts.”
“Really? Were you from the same place? Is that why you talk funny?”
“No, we lived together at the village. I’m from, somewhere else far away.” I laughed again, and he playfully rolled his eyes. “Does it bother you; that I was pretending you were Simon? Is that rude?”
He waved his hand at me in dismissal. “Not at all. Not at all. It’s more common than you might think. Besides, you were so sweet to me, and if I have to be Simon then it’s fine. I don’t mind at all.” I stared at him, wondering what it would be like to live in Alexsev’s lonely, smothering world. “Why you staring at me like that? When I get nice clients I do what I can to keep them coming back; less creeps I have to service.”
“Sorry.” I drank some of my water and stared at the stray cats again. “Where’s a good place for breakfast around here? Can I buy you some? Or is that not aloud?”
“I’m allowed to do whatever I want,” he laughed. “But you know everyone around here knows I’m a hooker. So if you’re eating breakfast with me, you’re umm, tastes might get back to your shipmates.”
“I don’t care.” I laughed. “I’m not afraid of that kind of thing. Let’s go. I’m starving.” I turned away from the cats and started putting on my pants.
“Alright, crazy,” he laughed and also started getting dressed.
Afterward, I gave him the name of my boat and our projected route, and he said he would write me when he could. It was a nice feeling to have made a friend, even if I had already slept with him.
I didn’t actually expect him to write me, but a week or two later the captain handed me a pretty, lilac envelope. A few people on the crew teased me and asked if I’d gotten a girl friend, but I just shook my head and didn’t speak to them like always. The letter was apparently written just a few days after I left, and it was just an account of interesting things he’d seen and done. He asked me to send him back some decorated sugar candies from a famous town we were headed toward. I sent him the candies and just a short letter about what the town had been like.
Alexsev's s letters were always just simple chatting, but I liked having someone to talk to about those small things in life, like when you see something beautiful, or find a new food, a new bug, a new fish, saw a cute guy, or bought new boots. When we came back to Bei I would have lunch with him, but once I'd gotten to know him I no longer had much desire to sleep with him. He would occasionally offer, free as long as I let him be on top, but I never agreed.
In general, however, it was as if my sexuality had reawakened, and I often thought about having sex with other men, even if they didn't look like Simon. So I was doing fine for awhile, and though still quite lonely and bitter I felt a bit less like drowning myself in the lakes. I even slowly became more civil towards my shipmates and made a few friends among them. By the time I made it to Kyou I was already twenty one years old, and almost a third of my life had been spent in the Outer Rim.
It was spring in Kyou when my life completely changed once again, and I was nearing my twenty second birthday. I'd been staying with a young transsexual man named Naoki, who I'd met in a bar where Lerato told me I ought to ask about Simon. As usual I got none of the information I was looking for, but I did make a few friends, including this rather cute young man about the same age as myself. I actually ended up sleeping with Naoki the first day we met, and many times after that, but we were more playful friends than actual lovers. I remember the first thing I liked about him was that he was quite a bit shorter than me, with a mostly stocky, nicely petite build. I also remember him as having pretty and honest dark eyes, and that his face was always a bit rough and unshaven.
Something was also quite different about being with him, nothing at all like being with Simon. I did not feel so intensely attached to him, and we even had a few flings with other people while we were consistently seeing each other, a few times even the two of us with another man. I think perhaps Naoki reminded me more of Sam than he did of Simon, even though they couldn’t possibly have been more physically different. He had a very easy going attitude, smoked a lot of cigarettes, and swore a bit more than the average person. He was also mostly interested in women; I believe I was just a passing amusement, an experiment.
“What’re you thinking about so hard?” Naoki laughed as I stared at him on our last day together.
“Just something that happened when I was little. An old friend of mine.” I was writing about Sam in a notebook I had started keeping my thoughts in. "You know do you ever wonder if your memories are distorted? Sometimes I swear I change mine, and they don’t make sense anymore.”
“Everyone does it a little bit, I think,” he laughed lightheartedly. “I know sometimes when I remember my childhood I remember myself as a boy, but I was definitely a girl.”
“It’s weird isn’t it?” I smiled at him and returned to my book. I wondered if Simon ever felt that way about his memories but immediately shook my depressing thoughts away by admiring the shape of Naoki's tanned arms against his sleeveless white shirt.
He was washing the dishes in the sink of his tiny apartment and looking out the little window above it. When I think of him I often remember him that way, very calm, and so enviously satisfied and confident in his simple life. He really wasn’t at all like Simon. Not at all like myself.
Naoki and his friends had helped me find a few of the other displaced villagers, but none had any word of Simon. A few even warned me that Simon was not the type to be found easily, especially by anyone asking questions about the village or other broken zoning laws. I found this very curious, and I did start to wonder, not for the first time, what exactly it was that Simon did for a living. But I did not like the answers coming to my mind and so I just shook them away like the rest of my deeper emotions.
The familiarity of the villagers had been quite comforting, but learning that they could have little contact with Simon made me less inclined to seek them out. If these people could not tell me where to find Simon, then who could? It was perhaps this deep sense of hopeless lethargy that was responsible for my promiscuity at that time in my life. I had quit my job on the boat, and if I hadn't met up with Naoki I think I may have just lay down in a ditch and let myself rot to death. Even having made friends in Kyou, I still did very little but sleep, eat, and perhaps drink a bit too much. I only worked two mornings a week as a dock hand and kept my savings well balanced.
But on that warm early spring day, a clue from a very unexpected source was already sitting in Naoki's postbox. I remember Naoki was singing a song to himself as he wandered to the first floor of the apartment complex, and still singing it when he came back up. I sometimes found his constant need to make noise quite annoying.
He handed me a package from Nomakhaya, and then teasingly dangled my lavender letter from Alexsev over my head. I only vaguely tried to get it from him and instead focused on opening my package.
“Is this one from a lover?” He laughed and held the envelope up toward the sun. “Oh hey, there’s a photograph inside.”
“Oh yeah, I gave him a camera. Its from my friend Alex in Bei, not a lover.” I laughed and took the letter from him. When I tore it open the picture fell to the floor with a swooping motion near Naoki's feet, and he picked it up for me. I started reading the letter while Naoki examined the picture.
The first line said, "I think you should sit down when you read this." I ignored the advice, and Naoki was already talking about the photograph.
“It’s a picture of a guy with red hair, crouched down feeding some really mangy looking cats.” I looked at him skeptically. There was no way Alexsev would ever touch a stray cat. “He’s pretty cute. I swear I’ve seen him somewhere before.”
My heart was beating a bit faster suddenly, and I hurriedly went back to the letter. “I saw a very strange thing in the alley this morning, and for minute I thought I was insane because it was like I was watching myself actually feeding and touching those disgusting stray cats you're always looking at.” My heart raced up into my throat, and my mind suddenly felt hot and blank.
“He’s got a lot of scars,” Naoki was saying. Alexsev didn’t have a scar on his entire body.
I read on in the letter, already sure that I was simply a madman. “I thought, that is so something Avery would do. And then I remembered you said that Simon guy you used to know looked a lot like me and I thought well just maybe. So, I call to this guy and he acts like he didn't hear me at all. Then I take the picture and he turns and has the evilest look in his eyes. But I was curious so I say, hey is your name Simon? He stands up, still scowling at me with that, who wants to know look on his face. I thought, no way this can be the guy a sweetie like Avery is looking for! He starts walking toward me, and I get freaked out and panic and start saying that it was just that my friend Avery was looking for a red haired guy named Simon. So then he slams me against the wall, and demands to know who told me to ask him that! I say its the truth and he seems kind of confused and softens a little like he might believe me. And he takes out a picture of this boy looking toward some fish swimming in a pond, and it takes me a minute to see it but it was you! It really was you! So..." My hands were shaking too hard to read on.
“What’s the matter, Avery? You look sick. Bad news?” Naoki asked worriedly and put a hand on my shoulder.
“C, can I see that picture, Naoki?”
“Of course, it’s yours after all,” he laughed and handed it to me. A dry sob instantly wracked through my chest and back, making me double over in shock. It was not Alexsev in the photograph, and there was no mistaking the face, even if it was partially obscured by his constantly overgrown hair. He was holding little bits of food, and the feral stray cats that I knew so well were eating right out of his calm, dangerous hands. Simon. It could be no one else. Oddly, I confirmed in my mind that the photograph was really him because of his boots. They were the same boots he’d worn when I lived with him, but they were a bit more beat up.
“What’s the matter?” Naoki asked, looking at the picture with me. “You know, he looks really familiar somehow.”
“That's Simon,” I said, running my thumb over the face in the photograph.
“The one you were looking for!” Naoki said happily and patted me roughly on the shoulder. “He’s alive then!”
“I suppose he is.” I pressed the photograph to my chest almost greedily and continued reading Alexsev’s letter.
“He drew something on the back of this piece of paper, which he says is for you. He said that if you are really Avery you will meet him between two worlds, where you first met, in ten days. And then someone whistled to him, and he just left without saying anything else. Avery, I know you won’t have much time after getting this letter to get wherever it is you’re supposed to meet him. Good Luck! Write back and let me know how it goes. Love, Alexsev.” I turned over the piece of paper in awe.
“Naoki, which way is the Middle?”
“The middle of what?”
“Of the world. The Middle. The place called the Middle.”
“I suppose it’s beyond the river in the south. Not that far but...”
“How long would it take me to get to the river?”
“A few days if you get a bus to the south, I think. Why? What does the letter say?”
“I’m sorry, I have to go meet him there. Which way is south?” I turned the map on the back of the letter around and around but couldn’t really make sense of it.
“Right this second? Think about this first. You have to pack and...”
“I'm sorry." He was more distraught over my leaving than I ever expected, his eyes even a bit moist and cast down at the floor. I touched some of his soft black hair and leaned down toward him, whispering against his face. "Thank you for taking care of me, Naoki." I kissed him on the top roundness of his cheek near to his eye, and after a long pause, turned to pack my things.
I divided the majority of my savings among Lerato's family, Alexsev, and Naoki. It was quite a substantial amount I kept in a local bank in Bei, but I only had to write out certificates of withdraw to those I wanted to give it to. This thought made me feel quite happy and at ease as I disembarked the bus on the far southern edge of Kyou. Nomakhaya could use the money to get ahead on next season's merchandise, Alexsev could maybe buy a ticket back to Kyou, Naoki could finally have enough saved to get the surgery he wanted to have for his chest. Things were good. Simon was alive. I was finally going home. The world was perfect again.
What is the first thing I’m going to do when I see him again? The correct dramatic response would be to kiss him. Squeeze him to me and kiss him deeply on the mouth. But that isn’t what I really want. My arms had an aching feeling along their inner sides, and as if separate from my own will they wanted to squeeze against Simon’s flesh. When I see him again. When my Simon, my lover, my family is returned to me. I want to lie with him in an endless, soft, clean bed and press my eyes and mouth into the nape of his neck so that all I can see is his soft red hair, all I can taste against my lips is the salt of his sweat, feel with my body only his warm skin.
It took several days to reach the end of the map he’d given me, the evening prior to his expected arrival date. It was darkening and I remember everything felt quite surreal and almost illusory as I slowly approached a small, familiar paved road on a steep hill. I followed the road lower, until I found myself staring at a little general goods store, and the dark old man in tan clothes was outside of it sweeping away the dirt and dried leaves that had gathered around the entrance. People are very clean in Kyou. The first time I’d seen the store I remember distinctly feeling how dirty it was, but now everything seemed so different from when I was sixteen years old. And then at the same time, it was exactly the same; the old man even wore the same plain, recycled peasant clothes.
“Hello,” I said to him, suppressing my accent the best I could. He stared at me long and hard, and I started to feel quite nervous. Did he recognize me?
“Interested in some boots maybe? Or a repair?” he asked, pointing to the cracked leather on mine.
“No, I’m looking for someone actually.” I showed him the photograph of Simon, but he just shrugged and said he hadn’t seen anyone like that around in a long time.
“Not since they stationed soldiers down by the old bridge.”
“Soldiers are stationed all the way down here in Kyou?” I asked, pretending to be ignorant.
“There was an incident a few years back. The bridge opened.” He was starting to stare at my face more closely, so I looked away from him and pretended to be interested in the goods in his windows.
“Do you have any dried meats? Squid maybe?”
As we went in the store, I wondered what Guy must have been thinking when he came in here all alone back then, only eighteen years old and trapped in a whole new world. I went back out into the cooling air and stood in front of it eating dry squid and drinking some hot tea out of a round ceramic cup. I stood where Mora and I had waited and looked up a little. That’s about where I was when Simon burned a hole in my hat, and he had those horrible blue eyes. The building seemed oddly smaller, perhaps because I was a little bigger, but it was likely just that our relationship had changed. The old man had frightened me so much; now I could probably kill him with my bare hands if I wanted to. Simon had also terrified me; now I wanted to see no other.
I returned the cup and started to walk into the woods, unsure where I was going. The old man gave me a little direction, warning me all the while not to go down there because there were soldiers.
“I’m not afraid,” I’d laughed, playing with the hilt of a sword I’d bought in Kyou. “I’ll kill them all if I have to.”
It was a summer forest, filled with ferns and greenery, but the same large dry leaves littered the ground and stuck to my filthy, worn out boots. It took some time before I came to the river, and I stared into the mists but could see no part of the Middle the way I had been able to see the mountains of the Outer Rim back then. There was nothing but white mist and a large, orange setting sun. I knew it wasn’t really that far of a crossing. I had sailed much further than that on the Salzen Lakes. So how can it be so separate?
I could see the closed up bridge to my left, and though the sun was already quite low I started making my way to the old mechanism, deciding to approach from above so I could see any soldiers guarding the place. I hadn’t seen any of their ghostly white shapes since I left the camp, and it wasn’t until I was looking directly at the bridge that I could make out a strange, pale figure like a man. It had to be a soldier, but it was in a very strange position. Even in all my months in the camp, I had never once seen a soldier do anything aside from stand, run, or march. But this one was sitting.
For a moment I doubted that it was a soldier at all, but as it came into focus I knew it could be nothing else. It was staring, as much as something without eyes can stare, right into the sun setting behind the Middle. I drew my sword and approached cautiously; it didn’t move or seem to notice that I was there. I had gotten so close I could have reached out and tapped it's shoulder, when it finally turned its hideously deformed face towards me. The right half of the face seemed to have had the skin pulled away, some of the loose flesh still piled up around the bend of the neck. The blood was clotted but seemed somehow unhealed and raw. What was frightening enough to make me gasp in shock and drop my sword, however, was that a big, sea green eye was staring right into my own.
We were still for some time, and then I finally fumbled my sword back into my hand. I held it to the creature’s throat, but it did not move to attack me. Its right arm was missing, and it seemed there was a wound in the side and the right upper leg. I flinched again when it finally turned its head toward the Middle and raised its left arm. It pointed toward the sun, I thought, but then I wondered if perhaps it was pointing at a larger picture. It looked at me again, still pointing, somehow waiting for me to act. I stared at the eye, my whole chest gusting with pain, a sharp discomfort in my knees from looking at flesh so raw I could see the blood pumping through the vessels beneath it. I sheathed my sword.
And then, as I stared at this strangely beautiful green iris, I understood. The shock to my mind was so harsh it felt physical, and I blinked my eyes and threw my head back slightly. I knew those eyes. And I knew why it was pointing to the Middle. It was Guy.
Five years. It was over five years ago that they took him. I thought of the scream I’d heard coming from the soldier when Lerato dug his fingers into its eyes. They want to die he had said. They’re not human, but they are human. The creature before me still pointed and looked at the sun, not truly blinking but a quick, thin film every so often rising from the bottom to rinse its eye.
“Guy?” I said and it looked at me again. Its gaze then returned to the sun, and it stretched its only remaining arm towards the bright orange light as if it were trying to poke the sun in it’s joyfully burning belly. It was probably all a dream, so I sat next to him and also pointed toward the sun. “That’s the Middle.” It looked at me again, but he just kept pointing. “That used to be my home.” Why I would tell a soldier that I am a criminal in the Outer Rim, I do not know, but he did nothing but rest his arm on his leg and stare at the sun.
A gurgling sound started in it’s throat, and I felt like I was going to cry as I imagined it was trying to speak. And then, as the pain built up and stung behind my eyes and under my nose, all the sadness in my world just churned itself into an intense rage, and I stood and threw a rock as hard as I could into the sky above.
“Come on Guy!” I said and took the soldier’s arm. I am definitely insane. This cannot be real. “I’m taking you home! I promise, I’ll take you back where you’re safe. And to a hospital, and they’ll fix you up to be just like you were before!” I was already trying to pull him to his feet, but he seemed unable to walk. Instead, I draped him over my back, his legs dragging on the floor as I slowly started moving us towards the water.
I don’t know if I was hurting him, but I could feel his blood soaking through the back of my shirt. What am I doing? What exactly is my plan of action here? He was much heavier than I expected, and I had dragged us only a few steps before I had to stop. I looked up from the ground, and I could see other soldiers approaching from several angles. I ignored them and took a few more steps forward. However, by the time I’d finished these steps they were upon me. I had to lay Guy down on the ground rather roughly, and I unsheathed my sword, ready to chop to them to pieces. They want to die, they want to die, I kept repeating to myself as I blocked the attacks from the first two. But I could not bring myself to hurt them, wondering where their home had once been. Who was their mother? Had they ever been in love? Another had come from behind, and instead of killing me it wrapped its arm around my neck, pulling me back against it. It was strangling me, and as I struggled, my eyes became darker and darker, and all I could see was the green eye on the ground, its blood covered hand reaching towards me as if to beg me not to let him die there. But then the other soldiers were in front of me, and their waxy white skin was the last thing I saw before darkness completely enveloped my eyes.