Plants and Animals
by Edward Kim
No need for words. Water destroys words. But her strokes are not articulate enough, repeat the same phrase over and again. The faces look upon her sadly. Their whisking legs scatter chants and prayers as they sink her down, mouths on hers taking water for air. Saying: Fear nothing. We are your friends. Saying: We shall take you to the depths, to She who bends lakes and rivers into Her body, summons streams and fountains to sea. Saying: The Oceanwife, Nurse of commingled waters. Saying: Who has given forth three thousand slender-ankled daughters? Saying: The Oceanwife, Nurse of commingled waters. Buried fish sweep storms of sand where light-footed laoshimen walk. Under bluelight splashed upon spruce and pine revealing faces in the floating needles come forth at the newcomer. Come greet the well-travelled one! Come gaze at the omen of her skin! A flurry of laoshimen slide through the ocean air. They swim faster than fish, surrounding her like a cloud of dust. Hands wave back and forth, hold her up in the currents. The twirl of a finger sends a wavelet that brushes back the long yellow hair; the flap of a hand pouches the water to turn the face otherside toward. Now a long red snake cuts through the water, curling around the white body, claiming it. A dark cloud laced with a manystranded voice perfumes the laoshimen and stills them. A swarm of snakes arrives to caress their bodies each, and the face of the Oceanwife, when She arrives, is long. The red laugh-shaped mouth is stretched wide and births a stream of tiny water nymphs. They swirl in the contours of Her voice; those that are not swallowed by fish learn to swim and dream. We heard you calling, says the Oceanwife. True that you would find yourself here; we drink from every creature in time. She holds the girl close to Her giant black eye, studies the gaping flesh, the swollen eyelids. Your body is light, says She. The laoshimen float helpless in Her arms, moaning. See how our liquid souls welcome you, says the Oceanwife, injecting bubbles down her throat. But your body is not ready-the threads of the Overworld pull at you even still. The Oceanwife releases the child and they watch her rise. Soon enough, soon enough, the Oceanwife promises. The darkness above is more nourishing now.
Blades of flesh, on this oily shore, began to twitch and ripple, scatter apart as I walked through. Salamanders clung to my hair and stung my eyes; my dress was stained. Water pulled against my roots. I went around the glade and saw a rose. Her slender neck was long and her head was shorn and her roots-I put my own against them, scratching her foot-toes were missing. She arched her face from water, from sun, in shadow smiled at my swaddled form. Uprooted herself and stretched her thorned length, tucked me under her arm. We moved east, slowly, pulling against the amphibians and the soft anemone strands. You fare well in water, Hyacinth, though you were nearly drowned when we found you, Rose said. She pointed to a fringe of blackstone to the north, but I looked instead at the stony archipelago spackling the sea-back, studied each glistering water-torn vertebra, traced a long narrow spine that must have connected them once. We sat in vigil the first five nights, Rose said, for no one had seen skin white as yours; some thought it an omen. What happened since-the aberrations scattered here along the spine, the neck, the limbs-might be spoken for in this direction. I shadowed Rose around the salamander glade, into the fringe. The thrysus she carried was tall and sharp and belonged to her ancestors, so she was told. We settled against a ledge. Watch close, Rose whispered. Out of the blackstone shifted shapes that formed the bodies of women. A group of elders immobile before the sea. The women did not blink. They did not speak. They have been here for centuries, said Rose. Each of the elders made for herself a stone, stroked it against her face, set it upon her head, or placed it in her mouth. They may have already named their stones. The sea was still before them. At once Rose split the sky with a thorny shriek. I stumbled away, eyes on the bloodless figure, open mouth splashing its bright red song against the striated, infected shores. Smiling, Rose pointed to the fringe where the elders now swirled, spun by the echoes of her scream. Their hands held the stones and flung them into the sea. The stones grazed the watery skin five, six times, then sank. I hid behind a rock and did not appear, even when the screaming stopped and my name was called. The spiked tip of the thrysus introduced itself into my stem, waved me up, walked me past the salamander glade and into a splash of deer. Come, Rose said. I have more things to show you. *
We climbed over the backs of stags in mid-prance, a flock of hundreds frozen in flight, brittle arms and legs snapping from our weight. Shards pierced our feet like teeth; we pelted our soles with strips of my dress. The deer were still and dry. Sometimes we crawled between their hollow legs, raked our heads against their stiff stomachs. Once or twice a stag or fawn or long-necked deer, from our passing, twisted a leg and toppled, taking down those nearby. We saw other plants pinned beneath a cage of ribs or antlers, defleshed and of bones themselves. Many times I stopped to lean against the joints, pick apart splintered hooves to stab delicately the strands of rope now connecting Rose and myself. She pulled me along without a break, calling my name, letting trickle down the rope instructions on where to go, for I could not see in the fog. I followed the sound of her voice. Brushing against brown lichen, arms diving and dividing. Space small enough to thread right through. I stretched the splinters in my hand to mark the passing limbs, found the limbs already marked, the script more chiseled, more urgent, than anything I could attempt. Help, I imagined them saying. Help her. We skimmed over fawnskin leaves, into a clearing; Rose pulled ahead, snapping the rope. The cove was cold, damp. She sparked a fire but the antlers did not burn warm. The fire grew and glinted off the eyes in the field, cold creatures she walked towards, pulled out. She held their long, gnarled shapes, teased their sharp steel tongues against her fingers. I might have waited too long, Rose said-impossible to finish, or start again. But you'll make me go faster, she said. She started. Her spine swayed with every swing, every wet slice of string that flew apart, until the bone began to crack and she smiled at me. I smiled back and encouraged her, wishing she would stop, I could hear the long tall legs trembling nearby. There is no choice, you have to finish, Rose, so on. Scattered, splintered femurs. Metal scapulas laced with amber, rust. I crouched to examine them, piece their parts together. I wiped the blades against my clothbound arms, held them to the fire, saw reflected in their surface Rose's red face. Shafts of pure white meat shuddered in the center of the clearing. I moved closer. The tendons were striated against nature. Clumps of heart-shaped seeds tied together, a musical seed shaker, testified to age. Their ankles and wrists were tied together, stripped of leaves and auxiliary twigs, a portrait of constant flinching. Fingers ended in axils of tendril-bearing bipinnate leaves; they stretched them over their faces in a circle of leaves. Where should exist a head for these figures was instead a dispersion of shell and seed. You can touch them if you want, called Rose. They are still learning how to be naked. Did you do this all? I asked Rose. It is possible they are too young. Rotting remains of bark, leaves, and twigs formed random pyramids spread throughout. Rose doused each pile with a handful of fire, brightening the dusk enough to see another one nearby, the one of them left standing. What about her, I said. Rose handed down a grin-shaped tool. Since you asked. Vines of black smoke twisted into the sky. The spiked tip of the thrysus poked the little fires, birthing more sparks. A moon could be heard howling in the distance. Sirius in the night when I rose to begin. I am afraid. It's going in. Good. Is this how you want it? Exactly. I continued the stroke till most of the skin shone through, brighter than it should have been. It was acceptable: we were making progress: we would prove ourselves right.
After the last fawn fell; after its bones were stripped, polished, incorporated into the rest of the design, we lifted and carried it to a river. I remarked on how light it was, how solid in our hands. Rose smiled and knelt at the bank and washed the tools; golden threads pilled off the steel. She asked for a critique of her design so I gave her the best one. Bestowed words beyond what lay before us, stripping her to the stem. No need for changes. You have done everything right. She asked for a piece of cloth and covered her mouth with it and looked at the design again. She could not speak. Have you let anyone else see? Rose pricked me with her eyes, silenced me enough to see that she was crouching, leaning against the side of it, pushing it deeper in. Yes. No. We knelt on the bank, a school of girls stopping to watch us, this new arrangement singing in their hearts a treacherous, wild song. I grabbed a clump of snakes to keep from slipping, but Rose already was standing above it, on top of the river and everything within. We shall go far in this, she said. Her sinuous voice owned no attention, was every bit its own in light of the miracle. I played the eager student still, though I was the one to spread out my arms, hold them in a posture of giving. Thus we faced each other, growing smaller, fainter, as the current carried her away from me, lifting from the river the rope that connected us. She had forgotten her thrysus. She had forgotten me. In panic did she call for me to jump, swim towards, come with - but I failed to move. She yanked the line out like an infected artery, drew it taut, started hand over hand back to shore. I snatched the thrysus from the ground, cut the cord between us with its tip. On riversoaked roots I fled, against the direction of the herd, crashing into deer chests, plowing a path of broken limbs and antlers. Only my unshrouded face bore the markings of flight. Sap trickled into my eyes and soaked the dehydrated forest. I could see young arms and legs prancing east, glistening deer bodies birched together with squirrels and birds riding on top, possums. But deer grew scarce after so many hours. A new scent and a new fur slowed me. I stopped and looked around. Jaguars.
About the author:
Edward Kim lives in Austin, Texas. His fiction has appeared in taint, Del Sol Review, 5_trope, and elsewhere. Forthcoming work will appear in elimae and Snow Monkey.