When I came to, some time later, it was to the tune of horse hooves on stone, and my throbbing head bumping against wood, and the giddy whispers of children. My eyelids were glued shut so when I pried them apart, half my lashes ripped out. I lay on my side, rocking, woven baskets stacked in high, leaning towers all around me.
I sat up and leaned into the columns of hampers. The purple welts and bruises all down my arms were not lost on me. A quick scan downward confirmed more of the same on my legs. But the kicker: one foot wrapped in textile, soaked in blood and – I drew it up, painfully, to confirm – missing the big toe. Just gone.
So. Old Jabal must’ve really worked me over. Shame I was unconscious for all that.
Toe aside, the immediate concern was my current predicament. Shedding the initial shock of post-waking panic, I recognized that I was in a horse-drawn cart. Headed back toward the innards of Nod, judging by the sun’s position and by common sense. (Carts full of product don’t leave Nod.) I plunged a scraped-up hand into one of the baskets and rummaged, coming up with a handful of sun-shriveled dates. I sniffed one, took a bite. Realized I was missing a tooth or two. And I thought, Wait a minute. Dates.
“Fruit man,” I said.
Summoning the little strength I had left, I parted two of the basket-columns. I poked my head through, saw someone with long, dark hair in the driver’s seat of the buggy and two little girls in the back seat, staring at me.
“Hey, fruit man!” I said. The raven-haired girls giggled. I pushed my shoulders through the stacks of grocer’s bins, forcing my way out like a newborn. “Fruit man, hey! Hey!” The kids thought all this was a riot. They doubled over in fits of laughter, holding onto one another. Adorable.
The driver did not find this so amusing. The figure holding the reins tensed up, shoulders raised. Said, “Yah!” and whipped the horse in front, sending the whole cart careening off the dirt path. One basket overturned, emptied onto me. I was buried in chestnuts.
The little ones were practically pissing themselves now. Real funny.
Out hopped the driver, sandals slapping against feet, sand clouds trailing, right toward the back of the cart and to me. In leaned the grocer, maybe in fact my grocer, and shifted aside a few fruit baskets so we could get a better look at each other.
“Yes? Yes, can I help you?”
It was not the man I was looking for. Point in fact it wasn’t a man at all. She was pretty-ish, but a little broad in the hips for my taste. Thin lips, too.
“Sorry, lady,” I said. “Wrong veggie-vendor.” I propped up against piles of produce, let out a little wince; my whole body was on fire with pain. Those guys had really done a number on me. “Say,” I said, “you happen to give free rides to all the battered vagabonds around here or am I just lucky?”
The girls clambered over their seats and threw themselves over the leafy hampers to join me in back, tittering all the way, the little beasts. “Momma!” they cried. “Momma, the man! He’s awake!” Real sharp, those brats. I mean, nothing got past them.
“Here.” Reaching over piles of fresh produce she handed me a waterskin. I accepted and squeezed it into my mouth, lapping up the liquid like a coyote. As I indulged, the woman said, “I rode from the South, headed Nod-ways. You were just slung over a boulder, bruised and bloodied, left to die in the desert. There were hoof-prints in the sand, leading north.”
“Bastards absconded with my ass,” I said, coming up for air. “The toe wasn’t enough?” A grumble and I went back to hydrating, let her do the talking.
“You were – you are – in bad shape, sir,” she said.
“We finded your tooth.” One of the girls – who could tell them apart? – held out her hand, in which sat a molar with a bit of root still dangling from it.
“Thanks,” I said, waving her off. “Keep it.” She cupped it to her neck, grinning, and her sister lunged for it. They started screeching and clawing and rolled over the barricade of baskets.
The woman rolled her eyes and returned her attention me. “What happened out there?” she said.
I handed her the empty waterskin. “Asked the wrong people the wrong questions.” I wiped my mouth, which hurt like hell. “Not the first time my parents’ reputation has preceded me. I’ve lost a few teeth on Mother Dear’s behalf.”
The woman looked at me, head cocked, eyebrow raised.
“Never mind,” I said. “You don’t happen to have any wine?”
She hesitated, opened her mouth, closed it. Her eyes flicked toward the kids and back. “I’ve got some gee-are-oh-gee.”
“That’d be lovely,” I said. The woman pulled out a smaller leather pouch full of grog and slipped it to me. I took the first pull before saying, “Thanks.”
“And of course you’re welcome to any of the food I’ve got here. We’re almost to market. We can get you cleaned up in Nod.”
“You’re all class,” I said. “A real blessing.” The grog was frothy and delicious. I’d lost enough blood earlier that my head was already swimming, the pain ebbing. “By the by, you don’t happen to be cozy with any of the other fruit-and-veg sellers out there, huh? Maybe you know a guy, trades dates for figs when the heat is on? Also comes out to sell on sixth-days?”
The woman’s long hair draped her face as she hung her head. Her fingers drummed the side of the cart. “You mean my husband,” she said. “I’m,” she sighed, “filling in for him today.”
I gulped and burped into my robe. The girls erupted into another giggle fit, batting at one another. “Where is the old man?” I asked.
“Couldn’t say,” she said. “Mister Green-thumb’s gone em-eye-ess-ess-eye-in-gee.” She snorted. “And perfect timing, too, the miserable old gadabout. With another one of these on the way.” A pale and pretty finger flicked toward her belly. It bulged out in a perfect sphere. I’d missed it before but now that I was looking down there I worried she might pop any second.
“How long’s he been, ah, out?” I said. I looked at the kids. They’d moved on, disinterested and oblivious, playing swordfight with a pair of just-discovered sticks.
“Since last sixth-day,” she said. “He’d been aloof, a little depressed. Business hasn’t been great. Seems like anybody with anything worth trading is fleeing north these days, toward civilization.” Her eyes rolled to the back of her head when she said that word. “But we’ve made it through rough patches before. It’s no excuse. I could just…” She held out her hands in the shape of gnarled claws and grunted.
I drained the last of the grog and offered the container back, thinking. The whole thing stank. Mom and Dad’s Number One Baby Boy turns up, first time in ages, and throws a tantrum at this guy’s fruit stand – then Fruit Man just vanishes? With another little one on the way? I mean, I’d have high-tailed it, but I’m a heel.
“I’m Dashel,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Varush,” she said. “Of the South.” She jutted a thumb at one kid. “This is Yanish.” Then the other thumb, the other kid. “And Dayna.”
“Varush,” I said, “you’re a regular angel. And seeing as one good turn deserves another and all, I’m gonna find that husband of yours.”
“Papa?” one girl said behind me. “You find Papa?”
I tapped my ear to my shoulder. “Sure,” I said, slurring a bit. “Why not?”
The woman grabbed my hand with both of hers. I think one of my fingers was broken, but I was too drunk and worn-down to mind at this point. “Oh, thank you, thank you!” she said. “Yahweh smiled upon me, sending me to you!”
“Don’t get cute,” I said, and leaned back. I grabbed a cluster of grapes from overhead and munched. “Now step one’s finding my jackass big brother. None of you happened to see a guy with a spooky, mysterious mark on his head, didja’?”
The woman’s mouth curled down. She shook her head. “Not as I can say,” she said.
The pair of brats plopped down on either side of me, one in the apples and one in the pears. “You mean the Skulky Man!” one said.
“The Haunty Hood!” said the other.
“The what, now?” I looked up at them, swinging and carrying on like monkeys.
“He keeps to the back alleys!”
“Never shows his face!”
“Scooping up the dirt, scooping up the dirt!”
“The hole-in-the-ground, that’s his secret.”
“And nobody can see him but us!”
“’Cuz we’re special.”
They giggled and swatted and poked at me with their damn sticks.
The woman reached over to push them off of me. “Sorry,” she said. “Sometimes my husband brings to them market. They get so bored, restless. Their hearts go off on these flights of fancy.”
I picked off another grape from the dangling stalk – not unlike, say, ripping the big toe clean off some poor guy’s foot. I rolled it around in my fingers and pinched the juice out of it. The acid stung, seeping into a cut on my thumb. I licked it up, blood and all.
“All the same,” I said. “D’you mind if I borrow these little urchins for the afternoon?”
About ten minutes into our stroll I was convinced I’d’ve rather given another toe than spend one more second with these little wretches. Varush must’ve been thrilled to dump her daughters off on me for a while. They were spastic, disrespectful, unintelligible, and self-centered. In other words they were eight-year-old children.
But like it or not, I told myself, they were a lead.
“The Skulky Man comes this way!” Yanish said, darting down an alley in a serpentine. Or maybe it was Dayna.
“It’s his ultra-special, super-secret spot!” said the other one. She did a cartwheel and twirled, chattering. “And we’re the only ones who know!”
“The only ones!” her sister shouted.
“Daddy says the Skulky Man lives in our heads.”
“Daddy says he can’t see him. Only we can.”
“But maybe you can. Maybe you’re special, too!”
To keep up I had to quicken my pace – no small feat on a mangled, stumpy foot. “Girls!” I said. “Girls, wait up, will you?” A merchant, urinating against a stony, offset wall, watched over his shoulder as I hobbled after the skipping, somersaulting children.
They gave chase, tittering and having a grand old time, for a good while. We turned down back alleys and underground passages I can’t imagine many folks knew about. As we progressed I felt we were descending, making our gradual way into the dim caves at the heart of Nod. Every so often I’d stop to catch a breather, to rest my bruised and beaten body, and the kids would encircle me, skipping and smacking me on the legs, chest, face.
“C’mon, mister!” they’d say.
“The Haunty Hood’s hideout is so close!”
And then they’d be off, and I’d be out of luck unless I resumed my pursuit.
After what felt like ages they came to a sudden halt at the edge of a bedrock sheet that seemed to drop off into nothingness. They linked hands and looked up at me. From the dark abyss laid out before us crept billowing tufts of steam, the smell of sulfur. Having stepped up I could see a series of broken shale slats jutting like platforms from a steep incline, down into the dark.
“Kids,” I said, “you’ve been down there?”
“Sometimes,” said Dayna, or Yanish.
“When we follow the Haunty Hood.”
“The Haunty Hood don’t see us, ‘cause we’re sneaky.”
“But we see him, since we’re special.”
“Uh-huh.” I squinted down into the cavern. It could’ve led straight to the underworld, for all I knew. “And what does the, uh, ‘Skulky Man’ do down there?”
The girls put their hands over their mouths and stared into each other’s eyes. One of them spread her fingers and flashed her big, blue eyes up at me.
“That’s where he tends the Good-bye Garden,” she said.
Something clattered below and echoed up to us. Sounded like a long way down.
“What in the Creator’s name,” I said, “is a Good-bye Garden?”
They stepped apart, leaving a space between them just wide enough for me to step through.
Yanish, or maybe Dayna, said, “We’ll show you.”
I spat. A wad of mucus and blood hit the dirt. I tipped my nose down the opening and clicked my tongue, flashing a red smile.
“After you, ladies.”
By the time they’d hopped down half the rocky steps, my eyes had adjusted enough to appreciate the weak shaft of filtered sunlight, honed in a narrow band directly before us. It wasn’t much, but it kept me from overstepping and tumbling to the bottom.
The steps spilled out into a small enclosed cave. Down there the ground was surprisingly soft, like topsoil. At the farthest edge of the space was a huge mound of dirt next to a big, oblong hole in the cavern floor. Looming over the cusp of the crater was a small slab of limestone, forced into the ground to stand upright.
The girls kept their distance. Thrilling as it was to come down here, to show the adult how smart and brave they were, something about this earthy den set them on edge.
To be honest, I thought I could feel it, too.
Their voices drooped to a hush. “It’s called the Good-bye Garden,” one of them said, “because he comes down here when he thinks no one’s watching, and he digs and digs and digs, and he stands over the hole, and he cries and says—”
“‘Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.’” Her sister chimed in. They joined hands.
My mouth had gone dry. I ran a hand across the shoulder of either child when I stepped forward. What little light we had wasn’t enough. I could see there were markings scratched into the standing limestone board but couldn’t make them out. Squinting, straining, I tried to identify the design when something blotted out the puny light source.
“Girls,” I said, “step aside.”
Still pitch black. I turned and saw the kids, huddled, shaking and looking up. My gaze followed theirs until I looked at the surface opening from which we’d entered. Somebody stood there, feet hanging over the edge of the hole, watching from the depths of a raised hood.
“It’s him,” I heard a girl say.
The hooded figure – the Haunty Hood, I guess – stepped down. In comfortable, rote motions he walked the steep descending path without sound, without so much as a strained breath. The girls gasped. The Skulky Man’s feet landed firm in the soil and he stood there, statuesque. Watching.
Creeped the hell out of me.
“Girls,” I said. “Scram.”
They did as asked, for once. One dragged the other like an owl scoops up a mouse, right past the hooded lurker and up the incline, through the opening, back into the world above and – with any luck – Varush’s arms.
My new friend didn’t move a muscle until their padded footfalls and frightened cries faded away. Only then were the first steps taken in my direction.
I met the weirdo halfway, and we stood facing and considering each other. All I could make out in the dark and the shadow of the hood was a pinkish, lumpy blot on the forehead, like a scar. That and the eyes. Those fierce eyes.
“Hello,” I said. “Nice digs.”
“Get it? I said, ‘Nice digs.’ Because the hole?” I shook my head. “Ah, forget it.” Could be it wasn’t wise, but I turned my back to old Hoodie and crossed my arms, nodding toward the dirt mound, the hole, the slab. “So what is all this?” I said. “Who you telling good-bye?”
A moment passed, a long one, where nothing was said. Then this:
“Dashel. What are you doing here?”
Not the voice I’d expected, either. My big, bad, first-born brother sounded an awful lot like a lady. I turned around just as the hood dropped.
The Skulky Man was a lady. Not just any lady, either, but my sister. And not just any sister: my old flame.
It was my Sephura.