To Ashes

Part of The Infinite Bard

To Ashes Cover Image
Designed by Gordon P. Sutton

Eisheth knew Anelia Anglimarche wanted to stay ahead of her mother’s letters. Even so, one reached their Trans-Russhya Railway car at noon on the second day. A rockfall had stopped them beside Lake Yulen’s snowy shoreline, and Anelia was leaning out of their compartment window to watch engineers jack boulders off the tracks when a lilim landed beside her, an envelope pinched in its wide, trembling beak. As Anelia opened the letter the lilim incinerated, its blue-and-white feathers blackening before they burst into clear green flame. Its eyes were the last to burn, and they remained fixed on Eisheth until they finally winked out like minuscule stars.

Eisheth felt dull surprise that, even after so many years, her children’s deaths still stung. The lilims’ bodies varied, shaped by different fragments of the person whose blood Eisheth had been forced to drink. Thousands of them had died to fuel the Anglimarche family’s rise to status and power. The letter carrier had been so tiny, its life spent delivering a note Anelia only read half-way through before she crumpled the page and tossed it away.

Eisheth looked away from the tiny pile of ashes. “How is your mother?”

Anelia grimaced. “Still dying.”

Eisheth bent and stretched a hand toward the crumpled letter, then stopped and glanced at Anelia. In theory, there was next to nothing of Anelia’s essence attached to the thing, and so no harm in Eisheth touching it without permission, but she asked anyway. “May I?”

Anelia nodded. “Sure. Help yourself.” Even this far from the engine, in a first-class car, Eisheth could smell the throat-burning scent of diesel exhaust and oil. Anelia slammed the window shut. “She’s so unreasonable,” she said, sliding down in her chair, one leg curled beneath her. Her knee bounced up and down like the needle in a sewing machine.

The night before, as they ran across a slush-covered platform in Beyrlin City, the young woman had said: “The letters are even worse than the calls. If she can’t see my face, she has trouble remembering I’m an actual person, not just The Disappointment.”

Now, she said, “It’s not just about the house — though Mother sure loves that fucking house. It’s about the family. It’s like each one of us is a boulder and she’s piling us all together, one on top of the other, to make this giant…mountain. She’s on top of grandma’s grave and she wants me on top of hers. Living forever through the family business.” She snorted. “Like there’s anything to the family business beyond screwing you over.”

Eisheth held the wadded paper in her hand. May Anglimarche’s presence clung to it. Anelia’s mother had not exaggerated her condition. She was weaker. Her presence was diluted, like blood fanning out in a bowl of water. Cancer ate at her body, and she bought herself time by using a net of lilim to keep her vital organs functioning. She wanted Anelia, her only daughter, to come home and prepare to take her place as head of the family.

“She won’t send anything out by radio,” Anelia said. “She’ll want to keep everything nice and quiet. She won’t want anyone outside the family involved.” The young woman frowned and tapped her fingers against the windowpane. “She doesn’t know you’re with me.”

“No, she doesn’t.” Eisheth dropped the paper into a metal wastebasket and folded her hands in her lap. “She hasn’t realized I’m gone.” And if May had not realized it, no one else would. Before Anelia had arrived, drunk and reeling, at Eisheth’s prison door, it had been half a century since Eisheth had seen another living soul.

Anelia smirked. “She may have the lilim, but she doesn’t have you.”

As the train lurched forward, Anelia’s face twisted and she tugged her black velvet bracelet from her wrist. “Here.” She tossed the bracelet into Eisheth’s lap. Eisheth’s breath caught as she gripped the jewelry and closed her eyes. An amalgam of thoughts, emotions and sensations, all of Anelia’s experiences linked to that one object — flooded into Eisheth.

Eisheth opened her eyes. The bracelet had disintegrated into a small mound of gray ash in her lap.

“Better than a cup of blood once a century, huh?” Anelia laughed. “The family claret.”

Anelia had ordered one of the lilim to lead her to Eisheth’s prison, to unlock the vault entrance and push open the heavy bronze door. The lilim surprised Eisheth; Anelia’s presence did not. The young woman stank of Anglimarche blood, and it was almost time for the next family head to come to Eisheth and feed her, force her to breed, take her children, and leave her alone in the dark for another fifty years.

The young woman swayed in the doorframe, and the lilim — a slender, translucent fish-creature with delicate fins like a pair of dragonfly’s wings — disappeared in a burst of white flame. It stared at Eisheth as it died. Born of a mixture of Eisheth’s blood and that of an Anglimarche, the lilim were held in thrall to the Anglimarche family by that same blood. They possessed no more than the barest flicker of sentience, only what was necessary to carry out their orders. Once they completed their task, they died. Still, if they knew nothing else, they knew Eisheth was their mother.

Anelia stood with one hand jammed against the doorframe, arm rigid. She wore a gown of fine, pale peaches-and-cream silk, and she smelled of candles and flowers and vodka, as if she had just come from a party. One of her combs was missing and strawberry-blonde hair spilled across her left shoulder. “Mother wouldn’t tell me where you were. She wouldn’t even tell me if you were. Real or not, I mean. Alive still. She doesn’t trust me. But I knew.” She stepped into the vault and jabbed an unsteady finger at Eisheth. “I. Figured it. Out.”

She looked so pleased with herself, as though she had done something commendable.

Eisheth hated her with a clean white intensity. It had been so long since she’d felt true anger.

Anelia scuffed a foot across the tiles. “We have the same ones upstairs. They’re very old, you know. Very expensive. From the old country. Mother goes on and on about them. I used to fantasize about smashing them. Just sitting there with a hammer and whack! One after another.”

She cupped Eisheth’s elbow and guided her through the door, into the outside. “This is better.”

Anelia ordered a tea service for their private compartment. Anelia never traveled in coach. She had the money, so why shouldn’t she have a private room? Eisheth wasn’t one to argue. She liked the cozy, walnut-paneled rooms, with their efficient use of space, stained glass lamps, and crushed velvet furnishings, everything in the railway’s signature shade of forest green.

They drank strong black tea from glasses in metal filigree holders. Eisheth traced the rim of her cup with her finger. She enjoyed the smoky taste and aroma, and the way tea’s warmth spread through her abdomen.

“Have you been here before?” Anelia asked. The skeletal, prehistoric shape of a logging crane and a rust-spotted, corrugated tin roof painted a particularly noxious bright teal swept past their window.

All of Eisheth’s memories were precise, perfect things, without much connection, each nestled in the endless black felt of her mind. Yes, she had visited Lake Yulen, before any human had thought to name it. In her mind she traveled out, through the window, and down the narrow, pebbled shore. She remembered that she had once floated on the lake’s waters under a sky full of blazing stars. The cold had slowed her thoughts and the water had been so clear it was as though she floated on nothing, while currents moved clouds of phytoplankton beneath her.

“Yes,” Eisheth said. “Once, a long time ago. I traveled with a man, a poet, who wrote a great deal about the lake.”

Anelia scowled. “I wrote a poem once, you know. A really good one, got a lot of attention. It was about a girl who tends geese and talks to a dead horse and it helps her control the wind. She chases away this boy who won’t leave her alone. I won an award for it. They let me read it on the government radio channels, not just the private ones. Back when Mother was still proud of me for doing shit like that. Before I started taking it ‘too seriously’.”

After a few cups, Anelia stopped spiking her tea. Instead, she took swigs from the silver flask she kept in her coat pocket. Even from the other side of the car, Eisheth could smell the alcohol’s sharp reek.

Anelia sighed. Her head lolled against the back of the chair. “What did you do, before my family got you?”

Eisheth stared at her. How to explain an existence unfettered by the concept of time to someone bound by it? “I lived,” she said.

Out of the thousands of humans Eisheth had known, out of the handful she’d considered friends, there was only one whom she had loved. Yael, a woman so far back in the shadows of the Anglimarche family line that nothing of her remained in the physical world: no writings, no papers, no photos or portraits.

Yael was in her sixties when Eisheth met her at a sea-side cafe in a city called Avarahm. A southern desert town, Avarahm no longer existed: war and sand had wiped away everything but a few broken columns and mile-markers.

“Well,” Yael said, “you’re not human.” Eisheth sat on the beach with her feet a few inches shy of the water. Yael stood over her, a glazed cup balanced on a saucer in her hand. Laugh lines seamed her eyes, which were dark, deep-set, and intelligent. Her brown skin glowed with shades of rose in the bright afternoon sunshine, and the wind blew her gray hair back from her square-boned face. Eisheth liked her immediately.

“Anyway, that’s fine,” Yael said. She sighed and sat down beside Eisheth. “Humans are exhausting.”

What was it about Yael that attracted Eisheth? What made her so different from the other humans Eisheth had known? She didn’t know. Nothing. Everything. She felt drawn to Yael as she couldn’t remember ever having been drawn to another being. So much of Eisheth’s life had been spent alone. Her own kind were invisible to her. It had always been that way. She knew from talking to humans, from reading their books and viewing their art, that others like her existed, but they were unable to see, sense, or hear one another. The humans knew more of her kind than she did. Humans fascinated her, but she spent her time floating on the edges of their societies. She held herself back. Immortality didn’t necessarily lend one bravery, or exempt one from the fear of making mistakes. Humans were so alien. She didn’t know where to begin with them. Most treated her with fear, fascination, or, at best, indifference. Yael was the first to treat her as merely another flawed, struggling being, and Eisheth loved her for it.

Time moved differently for Eisheth. Sometimes it passed slowly. If she sharpened her attention to a point, she could stretch the fall of a raindrop from a leaf to what would have seemed like weeks to a human. Other times she could collapse her awareness and become lost within herself, so that centuries passed her in the space of a blink. But loving a human, being around a human, weakened that ability. She became mired in human time and human perceptions.

Yael aged quickly. She grew sick. “You don’t have to stick around for this,” she said between coughing fits. “But since you don’t seem to know any better, how about fetching me a cigarette and another pot of tea? Make it strong, love. I can’t taste as well as I used to.”

“I’m just asking you to do right by our family–“

“Leave me be, Nuhaum. You talk a lot of nonsense.”

Eisheth froze in the doorway, the tarnished silver tea-tray balanced in her hands. Yael glanced at her from the bed.

“Get out of here,” she snapped. For a single, heart-stopping moment, Eisheth thought Yael was speaking to her. Then she saw Yael’s younger brother standing before the room’s single tall window. He swore and stomped out of the room. Eisheth said nothing. She set the tray down on the bedside table and looked at Yael. “Don’t mind him,” Yael said. She sipped her tea. “He’s just a lot of talk.”

That was the one and only time Yael failed her.

Eisheth suggested they attempt to produce a child. She could tell Yael didn’t have much time left. She couldn’t bear the thought of everything that made Yael who she was being lost forever. Eisheth had never tried such a thing and didn’t even know if it was possible. She didn’t know how her kind reproduced. She didn’t even know where they had come from. She had faded slowly into existence over the course of a thousand years. Perhaps the humans were right. Perhaps her people had been dreamed into existence. Did death come to her kind, as it did to humans? She didn’t know, but she suspected that at some point she would experience the same, slow fading in the opposite direction. Still, she knew her body. She knew her powers. She thought it might be possible.

That first child, Liraz, had been the most beautiful of all Eisheth’s children, the most sentient. She’d embodied the best of each of them. She was tiny, slight, less than three feet high. Her face looked like Yael’s had in the daguerreotypes taken when she’d been young. Translucent blue and green membranes rose from Liraz’s spine. Wings, too small for flight, grew from her shoulders. When she was older, Eisheth would teach her how to manipulate her form.

Yael died. Her family cremated her body. They tossed half her ashes into the sea and tilled the other half into the family garden.

“You’ll listen to me,” Nuhaum told Eisheth, the day after the funeral. He held a knife to Liraz’s throat. “And you’ll do what I say.”

Eisheth’s vision narrowed to a pair of points. One framed her daughter’s terrified face, the other Nuhaum’s eyes. She felt as if she were drowning in tar. The worst of it was that his eyes were Yael’s eyes, though Yael had never looked at her with such cold disdain.

Eisheth submitted to her imprisonment. First in a small, clay-walled room with sigils and wards scratched into the tiled floor. Then, a few years later, a smaller room in a larger house. Decades passed. She weakened and blood was forced upon her. She wished she could erase the memories of that first wretched spawning. The moves became more frequent. Houses passed one after another, each an improvement over the last, as the family’s fortunes increased. Yael’s family used Liraz and killed her the same way they killed the lilim who came after her, though Liraz lasted longer. They dragged Eisheth from one country to another, pursuing opportunities, outrunning famines and wars. They forgot how to paint the wards, but at that point it didn’t matter. Eisheth had grown so weak the walls were enough.

At last came the big house and the final prison, half-built, half-carved from the living walls of a limestone cave: the vault.

Voksoll Interchange Station, a new glass and steel Fourth Republic building, rang with the sounds of hundreds of people walking, talking, humming, and laughing. Every five minutes the rattle of the information board echoed through the concourse as the station timetable updated. A handful of teenagers hawking freshly mimeographed newssheets paced in front of the radio newspaper desk. Their nasal voices rose above the station’s din. Behind them the operator handed scribbled updates to her assistant to type and copy for sale. The station faced one of the three wide gray rivers which fed into Lake Yulen, and a coal gasworks sprawled across the river’s farthest bank. The gasworks was a maze of chemically-stained metal towers, pipes and industrial chimneys spouting jets of clear blue flame, all of it crisscrossed with a black web of power lines. Arcs of white lightning leaped between the towers, and the wind carried the plant’s sharp, volcanic odor through the station’s open doors.

A statue of Anelia’s grandmother, cast from artificially aged copper, stood on the greensward before the gasworks. Its arm was extended, pointing at the gasworks.

Eisheth was transfixed by the sight. “Wait here,” Anelia had said, as she left Eisheth’s side to talk to a counter agent. Eisheth did as she was told, not that she had any choice. The world had changed so much since she’d last seen it. When Anelia had taken her out of the Anglimarche house, Eisheth had been weak, and the capital city’s streets were a blaze of light and sound that threatened to overwhelm her. She closed her eyes to it, and luckily Anelia called a taxi, and the cab’s relative darkness and silence helped. She had absorbed enough from Anelia’s belongings to know what many of these strange things were, and to understand their significance, but she still felt cut adrift.

Now she watched as a plume of steam erupted from one of the gaswork’s many smokestacks. She had some understanding – Anelia’s understanding – of how such a thing worked, how it and other places like it chewed open coal and sent its energy racing through wires across the Republic. Even a small town such as this one cast enough electric light to stain the nighttime sky, obscuring all but the brightest stars.

Eisheth felt small and lost. She couldn’t imagine a place for herself in this world. She could never have imagined what the world would become.

“Hey.” Anelia’s voice was taut with anger and impatience. The young woman held their transfers crushed in her fist. “Come on.”

As they moved toward the hall leading to the platforms, a lilim blocked their way. Dead silence fell as people became aware of its presence.

With a slim, jointless arm that moved like water pouring out of a vase, the lilim reached out and touched the hand holding their transfers. A moment later the lilim disappeared in a burst of green flame. Someone screamed, the sound echoing off the station walls. No one else moved or spoke. Eisheth stared at the spot the lilim had occupied.

“What did it do?” Anelia whispered.

Eisheth pointed at Anelia’s hand. “The tickets.”

Anelia swore and smoothed the crumpled transfers. Her face flushed, red-rimmed eyes turning bloodshot. “It changed the destination.”

Her gait stiff and mechanical, Anelia walked back to the ticket agent and slapped the transfers down on the counter. “I want to buy another ticket,” she said.

The station agent trembled. “I’m not on duty right now,” she said, and fled into a small office behind the counter.

No one would change the tickets. A second lilim followed them out to the track their train was scheduled to arrive on. This lilim’s translucent, elongated form had a tremulous, darker pink core, and the trailing edge of its body bulged outward as it drifted after them. When Anelia tried to head toward a different track it blocked her way.

“Great,” she said. “A babysitter.” She took a swig from her flask. “She’s so predictable.”

The passageway was conspicuously empty. Vendors usually lined the walls, and only one remained: a girl in a bright jacket crouched over a tarp covered with minidiscs. She smiled weakly at Anelia and picked up one of the glass discs by a corner of its paper sleeve. The girl’s face was pale and her gaze flicked between Anelia and the lilim. “W-would you like one, miss?” she asked. “I have lots — musicians, poets — no bootlegs.”

Anelia glared down at the girl, and Eisheth could sense Anelia’s rage and thwarted ambition.

A sharp whisper caught their attention. Two of the teen newsbarkers stood at the corridor entrance, steno pads and pencils in hand.

“Fuck off!” Anelia shouted. She swept her foot across the girl’s careful array. The girl cried out, cringing back against the wall. A handful of discs slid up the hall and the barkers ducked away. The girl grabbed her cloth, scooped up the scattered discs, and ran back into the concourse.

Anelia glared at the lilim. Her hands clenched at her sides, crushing the tickets. Eisheth’s stomach filled with cold dread as she felt the young woman gather her will.

For a moment nothing happened. Then part of Eisheth’s body just below her right arm bulged outward, the skin taking on the appearance of a soap bubble. The bubble elongated. It sprouted arms and wings and a tiny knob of a head. Eyes opened in the creature’s featureless face; huge, aqueous lenses that held nothing but pupil.

“You go tell my mother to rot in hell,” Anelia said around clenched teeth. A mouth appeared on the lilim’s face, in response to Anelia’s request. Eisheth stared at it. Its face reminded her, in some oblique, horrible way, of Liraz’s. She wanted more than anything to reach out to it, to let it perch on her finger, to stroke its back. She knew her naked longing was clear on her face, but she couldn’t help herself. To watch one of her children being born, knowing how little time it had been granted–

The tiny lilim bobbed its head and disappeared. Eisheth’s breath caught in her throat. She looked up then, and saw that Anelia was watching her, had been watching her — for how long? She didn’t know. She felt almost as vulnerable as she had when Nuhaum first forced her to bend to his will.

The baby-sitter lilim followed them and took up a position outside their compartment door. Eisheth glanced at it as she stepped into the room after Anelia.

Anelia wrenched open the window. Big snowflakes blew into the room as she collapsed into a chair. Eisheth stood close to the door, hands clasped before her. The train whistle blew, the sound piercing even four cars away from the engine.

“Those people, they’ll remember the damn lilim but they won’t remember me, or anything I’ve done,” she said. “I wanted to be remembered for my own things, not hers!” Anelia drained her flask and threw it across the room, where it pinged off the side of a metal wastebasket and slid across the floor. “She could’ve helped me! She didn’t do anything on her own!” Angry tears filled her eyes. “Everything she has is built on you!”

Anelia lurched to her feet and wrenched off her clothing. “Here!” she shouted. “Take it, you can have it, take it all.” She tossed each article to Eisheth and they bounced off Eisheth’s stomach and fell to the floor, and Eisheth knelt and gathered them up and a heady miasma — memories, scents, sights, feelings — flooded into her even as each item crumbled into ash, and then Anelia, naked, panting, was on her knees before Eisheth. The young woman tucked herself into Eisheth’s arms. “Take everything,” she whispered. “You’ll remember me. I know you will.”

Much later, Eisheth sighed and brushed handfuls of ash from her skirt’s heavy folds. Nothing else remained of Anelia’s body. Eisheth felt neither pity, nor contempt, nor remorse. She was tired of humans, tired of them and all they entailed.

Daybreak was not far off. Eisheth stood in the fading dark for a long time, simply breathing. Anglimarche blood, wedded to her own, ran through her veins with a vitality she hadn’t experienced in all her long years of captivity. After centuries of carefully measured feedings — just enough to force her to give the humans what they wanted, not enough to set her free — the rush of power was intoxicating.

Eisheth closed the window and opened the door leading into the hall. She held out her hand to the lilim, touched its warm, pliant skin and thought she saw a spark of recognition in the watery depths of its blobbish blue-black eyes.

“Come,” she whispered. She stepped back into the room.

It followed.

Eisheth smiled. Her arms darkened, stretched, thickened in some parts and thinned in others. Great black feathers appeared, even as her clothes faded into her body. For the first time in ten centuries of servitude, she spread her wings. Her feathers brushed the walls to either side. Her body became insubstantial and she slipped effortlessly through the train car’s roof and out into the night. Trailed by a single, glimmering shadow-form, she cupped air to her body and rose away from the train’s noise and stink. She swooped low over Lake Yulen, her wingtips trailing through the icy water. Clean, cold air filled her lungs.

Behind her, in the east, a wave of black rose and spread across the sky. Tens of thousands of bodies blotted out the stars. From deep within herself, Eisheth felt a strong, steady pull.

Her children were coming back to her.

© 2019

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