Outside the window, San Muerte Drive glowed orange with dust kicked up by a band of flayed horses.
“Those creatures, they’s part of the General’s army. Trained to make conscripts. That means they kill folk,” the crone said, huffing. “You see a load of conscripts passin’, the horses ain’t far behind.”
“Everyone knows that,” I said. The air in her shop stank of cigarettes and essential oils.
“Did you know they won’t kill young women?”
I nodded, thinking of Muireann and Marigold. Thinking of my flight from him.
“The line between young and heart ripped out, who knows?”
She glanced at me and saw, I presumed, the disappointment and boredom.
“Did you know a young woman can ride a flayed horse?”
This was new and intrigued me.
“It’d be a bad idea,” she said, cackles descending into wet cough.
In the distance black, shiny clouds roiled with faces and lightning. Tumblestorms. I wondered where the twins were, when they’d last eaten a hot meal, or when they’d last been hugged.
You might suppose my name is Chance. You’d be mistaken.
The last broadcast of import came from ground zero: it flooded social media, streaming, television. Everyone watched the descent, that sliver of ice in baby blue, suspended above Fort Worth, how it seemed to grow fatter, engorged, as it slid into place amid the meager downtown sprawl. Clips viewed more than any World Cup, Super Bowl, or Kardashian episode. The ship landed, and soon a crack of light at its base released its load and changed our world. The backs of people’s heads filled the foreground. No holes bubbling with green alien spiders. Not yet.
After media died, our dim evenings echoed with snatches of voice and song from the Bardo, and I’d sit with her as long as I dared before bolting home in the night.
“You’ve met the General?”
She glanced at me; coughed her wet cough.
“Every Shaman has. You will too.”
I remembered the old world, my parents, trips to the grocery store with dad and backyard hangouts while he grilled, constant chatter, laughter with mom, over what I couldn’t recall, before I lived with him.
I met Muireann and Marigold when I first arrived in the suburb from my uncle’s home. Dust engulfed the sky, filtered maroon, crimson, and scarlet to a diffuse saffron horizon. Memory: firmament aflame, my hair mussed by the breeze, the dead equine reek. The twins, I learned, wandered the length of San Muerte when the hoards passed. They turned to me that day amid the band of flayed horses, first frightened at this haggard wraith, then chattering around meek, quick smiles. A tumblestorm wheeled past and they glanced for faces between lightning strikes. A children’s game for the Bardo burbs. They creeped and charmed in equal measure, as the beasts herded around us. The destriers ripped men open and gulped out their hearts, a quick delicacy and a fresh conscript made.
They never bothered the twins.
Until one did.
A group of conscripts slouched through town, broken and bloodied by their harvesting band.
“You know why we treat women like we do, boy?” The old Shaman asked, laughing. Startled silent, she’d misgendered me.
Magic had rules, and she sought to share those rules before death came for her. Each step of our surest friend, as she dubbed it, counted in phlegmy, wet coughs, her every word a lesson meant to outpace the inevitable. From the window I watched the twins flit hand in hand across San Muerte, under red sky, silhouettes in dust. She cleared her throat, begging my attention, as she shared the secrets and rumors from the garrulous dead, stray artifacts, and the rare Bardonaut.
“I don’t know how to answer a question that big,” I said.
“Of course you don’t. But know this. There’s one way to bring someone back from the land of the dead. A fertile woman is needed. We all know it, instinctively. Gotta control a thing that powerful.”
“Women ain’t things,” I said, feeling clever.
She laughed at that too, glanced with trepidation at the dim window behind her. Red sky and black expanse stretched to the horizon outside, but through that window sprawled a shadowed room beyond the building’s perimeter, a room that shouldn’t exist.
“Put that out ya mind,” she said, noticing my attention. “Back to your litanies.”
“It’s like this in the dead land . . .” I intoned.
Inward, toward the landing site, the focal point in the war between humanity (dead and otherwise) and the aliens, life was brutal but quotidian. Severed limbs littered the ground, encampments congealed along the Trinity. Outward lay the Bardo, the dead land. Texas sprawled vast, black, and mythic beneath bloodshot sky. Wander too far out and you’d never find your way back. The dead, and other things, wandered inward, conscripts for the Buddhist General who led the dead army.
Winds carried hints of gunpowder and sewage, then weakened, stilled, and reversed, as if the city heaved a vast sigh, and from the Bardo the odor of lost dreams and forsaken love blew dust, ruffled hair, chapped skin.
The monsters, myths, and magic existed but slumbered, extraneous to the modern world . . . until the aliens arrived. They emerged from the Bardo, antibodies to a virus. The green pseudo-spiders engorged people, sometimes other vessels (infamously Big Tex which roamed DFW, stalked the uninfected), and combined them into neomorphs. I’d crossed minotaurs, centaurs, and human centipedes on my trek from my uncle’s.
In the suburb, we rarely saw neomorphs, but witnessed conscripts, determined for the front lines, and less often an Avicinaut, business suit aflame.
Once the green-pseudo-spider-filled Big Tex trudged into our suburb, then slinked to the water tower near Elm. There it stood, peering outward into the red and black, like a giant cartoon cowboy peering into all of human history. It latched onto the water tower like it would blow away and held vigil for three days. Near as I could tell, everyone stayed in their house, afraid to catch its attention.
Except the twins.
A band of horses arrived, following conscript. The girls trailed the horses to Elm, then stopped, gazed up into Big Tex’s bland, bloated face. It tilted toward them, head askew like a mutt listening through a door. The girls waved at the monster.
It waved back, turned its face outward as if to take a last look, and then pivoted its significant bulk toward city center and set off into the fray, dripping green pseudo-spiders from its seams.
Later that day ten dark figures spilled from the Shaman’s shop and trudged past my window, pale-faced and dour. No one had entered the shop since I left. I fidgeted and bit at my cuticles. Why did they come to her? They’d followed Big Tex, but where did they come from?
I berated myself, dismissed it, but a thought niggled at me. It was dark, square, foreboding.
A colossal migration inundated the town, and I sheltered in place, delinquent to the crone. I called her that, but she might have been forty. Rode hard and hung up wet, my uncle’s East Texas twang intoned. He lived rent free and proffered these appraisals.
I once walked among the flayed horses, but she didn’t know. Gave me a ring. One ring to rule your ass, she said, cackling. If I put it on backwards, her matching ring would spark: I’m coming, we agreed.
I strode once among the bands, when I was young, before I escaped my uncle’s home, then as the means of my escape. Since then, I assumed a camouflage of ambiguity, let people assume. She’d assumed. Though I didn’t saunter among the flayed beasts, it wasn’t because of my gender, but my purity. I believed in my exile.
They accepted the twins. Sadness accumulated as I watched the horses and loved them from afar.
They’d crumpled my uncle like a plaything when I fled.
The knock startled me. I swung the door open and puzzled at the small, solitary figure against the dust haze.
Marigold threw herself into my arms, quaking. She smelled of wet puppies and bubble gum. I let her grieve for a moment, clutching at her like a lost doppelgänger, then I held her back and shook her. Her features hung on her face as if melted. Wounded by horror, the expression didn’t register, and I stared into her eyes until the tiny rivulets on her cheeks, the quiver of her mouth, the fact of her solitude jolted me.
“Where is she?”
“A fffflayed horse,” she whimpered. The world, and my stomach, churned.
The Shaman rarely left her shop, but the General would send a message to all the Shamans in a region and they’d travel to answer his summons at the foot of his tornado/tower.
On one such occasion, I broke into the shop and opened the black window. Cool breeze. Stink of gunpowder and must. I slunk through a series of rooms, a maze. The colors of the rooms: red-veined granite illuminated by cool light. I heard moans in a distant room, ecstasy or suffering, that morphed into indifference and grew sinister. I’d lost my way, forsaken the old stories. No trail of breadcrumbs, no diligently followed path.
Panicked, I stumbled into an alcove with a woman ensconced in a wooden chair. Ancient chicana, pale hair, wrinkled visage, cataract-filled eyes that flashed fear, then pity.
“Girl, you’re not me, are you?” She asked, with kind inflection. She shifted, assessed this creature, and intelligence stormed in her cloudy eyes.
“I—I don’t think so, ma’am.”
“I was as young as you when it began. Old women are the ghostliest ghosts. What’s your name?”
Not that much time had passed since ground zero. My brow furrowed. I told her my name.
“Not me. Why are you in the General’s tower?” she asked.
She nodded, pushed up from her chair, trudged around the corner and led me to my window . . . the Shaman’s window.
“Don’t come back, girl.”
I nodded on the windowsill to leave her.
“You knew I was a girl,” I said.
“You’d of been killed or conscripted, otherwise.”
The tracks led into the red and black, through a valley of towering mesas straight out of a Chuck Jones cartoon. Not North Texas, at all. Mythic America. The tracks didn’t resemble horse’s hooves. Perfect circles, too small, damaged.
A zephyr ozone-sharp with perversion spilled from the Bardo; broken promise of rain dry enough to chafe. My lips puckered and cracked in a grit-filmed face.
“This is the one,” I said to Marigold, and she nodded. The band surrounded us, stench and clouds of flies whipped by their sinewy tails. Innumerable rats followed the horses and Marigold violently kicked one that came near, an outburst, a fit. I paused and watched a mare prance alongside, muscles bulged, tendons tight, then released, blood black. I waited, breath held. It ignored me, kept the old unstated promise. It nickered and nodded, rolled eyes white with cataracts, then loped into grainy murk.
I squatted so I could stare, level, into Marigold’s eyes. They were the clearest things I’d ever seen.
“Go to the Shaman. Tell her I’ve gone after Muireann. Tell her I’ll use my ring. If she can bring us back—”
“Just tell her, Marigold. Tell her I listened. Yes? But don’t get too close. And then hide in the bands. Stay away from everyone. Watch the shop. That’s where we’ll come back. If we come back. It won’t be long. If the General’s tower moves and we haven’t returned. Well, we probably won’t.”
Her face fell, stricken.
“A week?” she asked.
“At most. Yes. Be careful. Don’t trust her. Don’t trust anyone.”
“I never did.”
I rode into the Bardo on a flayed horse.
It’s like this, in the dead land, I kept muttering. At my back ground zero, it’s direction an extra sense, always apparent, a beacon, and ahead, infinite death, like a toothache.
Archetypal cacti caught grew in clusters, alongside more alien plants that resembled pairs of tall, cupped blades. Some were not plants, but the hunched profiles of deer-sized hares, towering ears a deadly mimicry.
When I passed, the king jacks—as I dubbed them—proved wary of my flayed horse but regarded me, salivating below impressive whiskers and quivering noses, their eyes blinking with lashes so lush they resembled fairy tale creatures until those mouths opened to reveal multiple rows of teeth.
Desert land, buttes, mesas, arroyos.
We crested a knoll above a river of the dead, flowing outward, a contemporary majority interspersed by the anachronistic, belonging to ancient eras. The dead slogged away from ground zero and toward the Bardo’s horizon. The boundary throbbed, painful—outward endless death, inward the quotidian, opposing polarities that inspired nausea and weird gravity.
The horse trembled as we lingered atop the bluff, then we followed the trail of round tracks downward, into the dead masses’ apprehension and furtive glances. The horse bucked, frustrated, eager to thrash, crush, bite and create conscripts. It tensed, adrenaline surged, a rumble began deep in its throat and I slapped its neck and told it No! The whinny sounded horror movie fake, and I slapped it again.
Pointed our way and it clip-clopped on.
We parted the mass of bodies in our passage, none wishing to cross our path. The flayed horse eviscerated three stragglers that shuffled too near. They each fell to the ground with stillborn shrieks, but when I glanced over my shoulder, they rose and trudged against the flow, back toward the front. Even the dead could be conscripted. The horse seemed pleased and trotted, jaunty, through our parted red sea.
The tracks, like footprints of astronauts on the moon, undisturbed, led up the far grade. I hurried the skinless horse after them, and it obeyed as if it read my mind.
We came upon the linear city after crossing two more rivers of the dead. One river followed a ridgeline, the other trampled a sloped valley, crested accumulated skree, then emerged to flood the landscape. Cardinal directions ceased: there was inward, outward, and uncertainty. We cantered a Mobius strip trail, deeper into death. Titanic mesas predominated along a curvature no planet possessed, as the idea of direction grew alien, abstractions limited in my brain.
The tracks led down and into a house.
“Magic ain’t nothing but shit you’re too stupid to understand,” the old woman said.
The memory lingered as I sat astride the flayed horse. What’s the ish? The Shaman deemed it folly to ride a flayed horse. She tended to accuracy, bereft of details. Then I realized the problem.
I couldn’t dismount.
Exploring the space between its hide and my pants, I found sinewy strands grew from its back into my buttocks and upper legs, joining us. It didn’t hurt. In fact, if I strained just right, it felt . . . Exquisite.
Peered left, then right, atop a ridge a hundred meters above the line of houses, store fronts, municipal buildings. A ring. One side of the city faced inward toward ground zero, the other outward toward deep Bardo.
I could feel hunger from those depths as we poised above the gullet.
I paralleled the city, East then West (approximations), and found no end. If it went on, it would encircle DFW. I could ride alongside it and I would come back to this spot. As I galloped, men came and went but ignored me.
Women slipped from the houses and shops, tended children, tossed out water, swept. Few acknowledged me, hands above scrunched faces.
All stood chained.
“Every town has a Shaman?”
The old crone nodded, smiled. My interest pleased her. We had the front door propped open, a rare luxury. No horses on San Muerte, nor Avicinauts nearby. Fresh air would be nice, she’d said.
“Do all the Shamans have a window like yours? The black one that leads somewhere else?”
She turned pale and fretted about the door, urged me to close it. She stood, faltered, collapsed in seizure, but recovered before I could react. I helped her up, trembling and sweaty, and led her to bed.
I returned to the tracks, indelible despite the wind, and followed them to the wooden boardwalk where they ended. The buildings had concrete foundations, and we sauntered, hooves high, to the near door, and the beast stomped—
Jigsaw splinters, slap of board against concrete, into the hovel where Muireann lay chained. Two men, Caucasian but dark with hair, beard, aura, stood above her. To the side lay a contraption that resembled a horse-shaped cab for two and supplies above spindly legs driven by pedals.
“You cain’t—” one man said before the destrier tensed, reared, then clomped, its shriek loud, horrible in the lamplight of the small abode. It took care not to stomp Muireann, unconcerned about the particulates and spatters of blood. She closed her eyes but did not scream. She’d walked among the horses and understood their alignment.
When the room fell to a quiet composed of the flayed horses’ breath and whinnies, clomping of concrete, she slipped from her shackles, and stood, wiping hair from her face. I searched, found a jacket hanging, and laid it over the horse. Then I leaned down and snagged Muireann beneath thin arms and plopped her astride the cloth.
“Chains didn’t stop you,” I said.
“They said I’d grow into them.”
Nothing to lose but our chains . . . the thought blazed in my mind, lit my eyes, burned at my skandhas.
The woman next door toppled from the boardwalk, chain pulled taut. Neighbors yelped, afraid, or sniped in rage, flashing eyes and waggled fingers. The horse had its way with them, Muireann quiet but trembling, and a dozen conscripts rose from the blood and viscera of their protestations to shuffle toward the front.
I urged the horse further along the inward boardwalk of the city, far enough that they would not have been able to hear the death stomps and screaming from earlier.
We arrived at a storefront with a cheerily painted sign. Odds N Ends. The name seemed ominous. A woman stepped onto the boardwalk in response to my knocking. She wore a simple shift, smiled.
“Hola, mi ja. Can I help you?”
A shackle and chain around her ankle.
“I’ve come,” I said. Muireann glanced back and up at me. “We’ve come to rescue you.”
“From what, mi ja?”
“You’re chained. A prisoner. We—”
I didn’t know what to call it. This gate in our wombs. This resource everyone but us might control.
“Ah, mi ja, so it goes. This is life, yes?”
“I miss Marigold,” Muireann told me.
“I know. Soon,” I said.
From home to home, shop to shop, we searched. I spoke to the women who would listen. Countless men fell beneath my hooves. I could have counted, but grew numb to gore and screaming.
We traveled the length of the linear city. The ebb and flow of death beckoned, urging toward the Bardo depths, endless death, a promise, a withheld caress.
I’d been right. The linear city stretched around all of DFW.
And I was wrong on all points that mattered.
“I miss my sister,” she reminded me.
“I know. Let’s go.”
I flipped the ring on my finger. It glowed blue, as if in a book of stories and ogres were near.
“Your surest friend knocks, lady,” I said aloud. I didn’t know if the magic conducted my voice, but I thought it fair to give her the chance to refuse this if it did. Static suffused the air along with the scents of offal and iron.
The flayed horse started, then bucked and trotted off into the badlands. Sky dark red, black expanse, until the flash of light and cracking, sand in eyes, then blood, an infinite vortex of suffering and shock—
I recognized her screams—
The emergence, like birth. Stifling air, gloom. Tunnel’s end, a dead scream echoed. The walls speckled with viscera and blood. Heaving breath, still alive, then awareness, the tick, tick, tick of time. The tiny figure in the corner, peering at her sister. Bawling for her sister.
“Go,” I say, and leverage Muireann down. She topples to the floor, then scampers into an embrace with her twin. Marigold breaks free and scampers near, balled fist lifted toward me, eyes intent. I reach down and she slips something small, cold, and round into my palm. Then she runs back and they hold each other, eyes closed.
The moment elongates, their embrace, their scurried escape, open door blinding, but their passage dims it and they slink into a passing band. He clears his throat and I notice the figure. Doesn’t look like a monk. Business suit over enormous girth, orange tan, blond hair, dead eyes.
“You look like that president,” I say and he laughs.
“I wonder,” he tells me. “Why you have killed one of my Shaman? Your mentor, no less?”
His voice is curt, formal, sensual. He doesn’t look like a General, either.
“The linear city, those women. Why?”
“Linear city? The Bardo gives us interesting perspectives, yes? I’d call it a circular city. Huge. It’s the hugest.”
I take a moment to understand the sound chuffing from his face is laughter.
“Are you a monster?”
At this he mewls, the amusement settling into ugly gentleness.
“Hard question, Shaman killer. I am Rakshasa, bitten by Cucui,” He says and laughs again, entertained, “all those years ago. They called me, in time, Geshe Rakshasa. More recent: General.”
“I mean. Did you have all those women chained? In the city?”
“Interesting thing, the Bardo. We’re told by mendicants it’s an in-between place. But you see, it is a form unto itself, a function, a mode, a multifarious proliferation thereof. And it has interesting ways of formalizing the circumstantial, actualizing the memetic. Big words. It gives you what you really are. I make use of that, fighting the incursion—”
I rear the horse and turn to the window. The rakshasa in his fine suit hisses at my back as we burst through the glass and into his tower.
The thing I understand about magic? Understanding is overrated.
Three days pass, measured in glimpses of sky from occasional parapets, machicolations, balastraria, windows. The aether is thick and Bardo radio waves provide esoteric nomenclature—fun, I guess—but most useful, often betrays nearby pursuers, minds static with bloodlust. The General’s elite guard follows, soldiers more skilled and quiet of mind, but I’ve outpaced them and their insectile-buzz auras, the tower Tardis-vast.
A psychic confluence grows stronger, up feels like outward, the Bardo twisted tight. I gallop along black basalt corridors wrapped within this coil of space-time, up the superstring.
Where did I hear that phrase?
I wonder about the relationship of tower to Bardo, but that’s another useless question I’m too stupid to answer.
The elite guard in pursuit, I meet iterative versions of the old woman I encountered in the black window. I speak with these doppelgangers—each time, first contact—wondering how to entreat them to my cause. It is her hand I ask for, to hold in momentary kinship, and it is her ring that intrigues me.
Were but she of child-bearing age.
That is interesting, I think from within the flayed horse’s skull. I agree, the thought unfurling in my girl’s brainpan. As I travel up the spire, the iterations of the elderly woman become younger—merely old, next middle-aged, then younger still . . .
Crack, crack, crack—
The woman crumples with a whimper. Quiet flutter of breath. The echo lives longer than she does and the bullet hole drools onto her hair and the stone floor, then the next report and a punch at my flank. The horse parts of me are magic-dead, but it still hurts like hell.
Canter into shadowed lee, break into gallop, follow an upward path around an outward wall, the tower smells of mold and agelessness, light filtered through rare balastraria give false impressions of cold mountains and forests just beyond the next corner. Damp, refreshing, breath heaved in cold, but steaming on the exhalation, the running warms, and adrenaline makes me eager and jumpy. The squad proves persistent, fast and pursuit remains intense and threatening. Gunshots dull my hearing.
Pass into a region of the tower composed of large chambers shaped like the inside of a nautilus shell, cathedrals within cathedrals turning into profane fleshy limbs, entwined.
Charge ever upward. Magic-dead, I never tire, onward, upward, mindless, until unknowable kotis of kalpas of space-time elapse and . . . I come upon this girl, almost a child. She shrinks back, a ghost. But we see each other and linger on the exposed topmost parapet of the tower. She cries, eyes the horse—aware, it seems, of the danger of flayed horses but not of their embargo toward young women—overcomes her fear—
Far below stretches the battle-torn landscape of DFW. Beyond that, the red and black of the Bardo, mesas, endlessness.
“He tricked me. Everyone thinks—”
“The General,” I say.
Confusion mars her face. The wind smells of rain—such beauty—and a hint of blue flashes between gray clouds.
“The old monk,” I say.
“You think a ring holds all the world’s magic, someone once told me, but on a woman’s finger, it’s a gate. You’ve bled?”
Confusion again, but a meaningful glance clarifies and she nods.
“We could destroy this, but you’d be a gate. And that means—”
“I’m a ghost. You don’t know what it means.”
I slip the Shaman ring Marigold gave me onto her finger. I nod at it and she wrenches the apprentice ring from her finger and slips it on mine.
“You know how the old magic works?”
“It’s dangerous. To your shaman, to you.”
“I consent,” she says. “I take responsibility.”
She doesn’t grasp the breadth of what’s been done to her, iterative hell of so many lost selves growing old, alone, trapped. But no sense in adding to her misery.
I take the girl’s apprentice ring, flip it and slide it back onto my finger. It glows blue.
The girl’s corporeal self wears the apprentice ring, the original, suspended in an upside-down car, wreckage imminent. A magic I do not know holds this pocket of space-time. Another ghost version of her stands beside me, observes me, observes herself and her family in the moments before impending death.
“He did this to me. To us. I don’t understand why.”
“Why never really matters,” I say.
She’s startled at my reply. Cries. Since the beginning, no one has heard her.
“Please,” she says. Through tears, she begs for the Shaman’s ring.
I re-enter the dark, fetid temple to parse through the explosion of flesh within.
The Shaman’s remains cool in the pizzeria-turned-temple. I locate her hand and retrieve the ring. I wipe the effluvia, blood, and gore from it and shamble out to the floating Subaru. Through the open window I place the Shaman ring on the girl’s finger. I pretend it a gift from me to her, a promise, a vow composed of secrets and silences only we might decipher.
It is like this in the world. Soldiers fight, civilians shelter, evils parade in daylight, men-shaped creatures, everywhere, and those not conforming to these man-shapes are murdered, maimed, or raped out of hunger, power, boredom; why doesn’t matter. Those with uteruses get pregnant, give birth and raise the seeds of violence, perpetuating the cycle. Men-shaped creatures with holes in the back of their heads bubbling with green pseudo-spiders battle the General’s army; other-than-men lay dead or dying, limping from trespass to desecration, conscripts incoming, another band of flayed horses, glory, glory, hallelujah.
Engorged, still my dual, eldritch self, flayed horse from the Bardo and battered babe from the battlefields of suburbia—Ha!—but more still: filled with the green pseudo-spiders and crouched on the giant’s shoulder as I flip the ghost girl’s ring to return.
The old magic is mine.
Stark horizon where bruised sky paints the world in chiaroscuro, a front of tumblestorms blow inward, their shadows like fingers in a nightmare. Time slows, an artifact of the superstring or I’m clogged with adrenaline.
It’s like this in the dead land: on a flayed horse I fall toward the tower, head full of green alien spiders. They bubble in my craniums, horse and human, multifoliate chimera. I fall past Big Tex, it, too, emergent from the ghost girl’s womb, and she hovers near, correct that this is magic. Shit I don’t understand.
We plummet, Big Tex, ghost girl, and I toward the tower. The soldiers in black and their General wait, but even now iterative ghosts of her fall into her more corporeal selves, alight with rage. We use his magic against him, her iterations become an army to defeat this last vile patriarchy.
You might suppose my name is Chance, but you’d be wrong. It’s Necessity.