“You horse’s arse!”
For the first time in two years this pretty little thing and I were standing face-to-face, and she wasted no time making with the insults. There wasn’t much delay, either, in the way her cupped hand drew back, like a reflex, and slapped holy hell out of my gob. Got me right in the tender spot, too, where my tooth had fallen out.
“Damn,” I said. “You been practicing that or what?”
“Yeah, smart-aleck,” she said, her sleek black hair drooping over one eye. “Every night before bed I’ve been smacking the snot out of a dumb, fat pig looks just like you. I can hardly tell the difference.” She reached back for another good wallop and I snatched her wrist just in time to stop it.
“Now, sweetheart,” I said, “I don’t think you really wanna do that.”
“Why are you here?” she said, wresting her arm out of my grip.
“I was just wondering the same of you,” I said. “The girls were showing me your little hidey hole here. You know they’ve been shadowing you off and on for a while? Sort of a – heh – hobby of theirs.” My palm I moved in circles over my tingling cheek. “I’d known it was you we were tailing, I’d’ve cleaned up a bit. Made myself presentable and all. I thought you were— well, someone else.” I tapped the gummy welt on her forehead.
She recoiled, bit her lip. Wanted to slap me again, I could tell, but she didn’t. Instead she took a deep breath and looked up at the cuddling bat clusters overhead. “So,” she said, loosening up, stepping back, “still sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong.”
“Running errands,” I said, “for our parents.”
“Hell with them,” she said, and brushed past me. By some miracle of biology her long hair still managed to shine in the absence of light, spilling over her shoulders like a wave. For an instant I felt it trail across my arm, and I shivered. She was walking toward the edge of the cave, over to the big crater.
“What’s with the pit?” I said.
“Why don’t you come have a look?” she said. “If you’re itching to know so bad.”
From where I stood I could see she’d tensed up again, staring down into the hole. Her hands she pressed together, like in a prayer. I went over to her.
“I should warn you,” she said, “this isn’t pretty.”
It sure wasn’t. The hole was deep – it went down about twelve hands’ length – and it was lousy with grubs, worms, maggots. I mean it was like a pool of creepy-crawlies. Real nasty.
And beneath all that, poking up out of the grime and muck and bugs, was this thing. Looked like a man, size and shape-wise. But unmoving and… empty, somehow – just this flimsy, withered gray material wrapped around its bones. It looked kind of like a rabbit after it’s been skinned and gutted and burnt over an open fire, except like if all that had been done to a person. A bunch of rot and refuse stuffed into a bag shaped like a guy.
And the stench! Can’t do justice to that stink in words, but it nearly floored me.
Through my watering eyes I took a good, long look at the thing. There was a string tied around one of its wrists. Dead center of the head was a big, gaping hole like the skull had been split open. I couldn’t understand. What could happen to a fellow to turn him into that?
“Seph,” I said, “what is you’ve got here?” I wiped my chin, breathed through my mouth, and turned away from the thing back to her. “More to the point – for Yahweh’s sake, why?”
Those pretty, blazing eyeballs of hers fell under her long and perfect lashes. Following her own pointing finger, her gaze turned to the limestone slab looming over the pit. I was close enough now to see the markings. The crude, childlike glyphs gave me some trouble but I got them after a minute.
I read aloud as best I could: “Here… lies…” I stopped, confused, and turned to her and asked:
“‘Able?’ Able to what?”
Our backs against the cave wall, we sat warming ourselves by a small fire I’d insisted on starting. (Seph had taken up shivering with nightfall.) I took out my burning root and lit up one for each of us. She accepted hers without thanks and placed it between her lips.
“So,” she said, “our parents’ second-born son is a nauseous, shriveled mess at the bottom of a hole and I just happened to come here, and you just happened to follow. You’ve got a million questions, I can tell. Might as well start asking.” Her chin went up, her mouth forming a circle, and a series of perfect smoke rings floated out.
“Just start at the beginning,” I said. “I got all night.”
She rubbed her hands over the flame. I got my first good look at her. Two years before, Sephura had been pretty. That night, she was a knock-out. Eyes that could stare a lion down to submission, a chin so sharp it could chisel granite, hair that fell to her waist like a black waterfall. It was almost painful to look directly at her.
The glowing root looked like a firebug, bouncing off her mouth as she spoke. “I just needed a place to hide,” she said. “That’s how it started. This man from the marketplace got it in his head he could have me, started following me around, licking his chops.” She was tracing a shape in the dirt with her finger; I couldn’t make it out from my angle. “I came down here, where I figured no one would think to look, and here was this… arrangement.” She cocked her head toward the gruesome excavation site. “The hole was covered then, level with the rest of the ground, but I saw the inscription on that stone and couldn’t just let that sit. I mean, it’s my brother.
“So I dug. I dug up that hole and found that body at the bottom. And it was him, Dashel.” Her fingers, taking hold of the root, were shaking so much that sparking ash flew from the tip. Her breathing, her speech were labored. “I was down there. I was down there with him. I got a real good look. Y’know how Mom always said he spoiled her, brought her back little gifts – jewels and flowers and things – in that leather pouch of his? Well, that leather pouch is tied around that thing’s wrist. Just like Mom says he wore it!”
For a second I thought she’d rest her head on my shoulders, sob into me like the old days. Instead her palms caught her head by the eye sockets. “I’ve been trying to understand,” she said, “to come to terms. I’ve never seen a dead person before. It’s… it’s kind of beautiful, in a way. Soothing. To know that there’s an end for us.” Her hands slid down, clutched her arms in a self-hug, the stick still smoking between two fingers. She was crying but didn’t seem at all sad. “Don’t you think?”
I sat up. “Don’t say that, love.”
“Well, I think so,” she said. “Did you even know a person could die? I mean, in concept, sure. Maybe a wolf could get you, or you could fall down a crevasse. But how many people do we know of that actually, really and truly, just ceased living?”
I didn’t care to hear her talking like that. My voice was so low I could barely hear it myself. “Now?” I said. “Just the one, I s’pose.”
“So I come here sometimes.” Even the tears and snot trickling down her face were perfect, trailing in even, parallel lines. “To look. And to say ‘good-bye.’”
I turned my head. Across the cave, the hole sat open like a yawning mouth. The little stone marker above it pierced my eye with his name.
“He was always their favorite,” I said. “Mother and Father won’t be pleased.”
“To say the least.” She stabbed the soil with her smoking root-nub.
“Well, that cinches it,” I said. Bracing for pain, I pushed up and stood. “Finding Brother Number One is more crucial than ever now. Could be he knows what happened to the Golden Boy here. Could be he’s in danger himself.” With my petering root I lit another and went right on smoking.
“Hold it,” said Sephura. One perfect finger hovered over my bandaged foot. “What happened there?”
“Oh, this? Got tired of five toes,” I said and sniffed. “Thought I’d try out four a while.”
“You look like hell. Who did this to you?” She looked up at me. And was that a peek up my robe? I hoped.
“Mm, robbers,” I said. “A couple of wise guys from the marketplace jumped me. Took off with my ass.”
“That was you?” Her soft hand wrapped around my ankle, cradled it for a second. “I heard about that.”
“Boy,” I said, “word travels fast.”
“Well, it’s a small world.”
I shook my head. “Getting bigger all the time.”
In went her bottom lip; she was thinking. “These guys. If they just wanted your stuff, why take the toe, too? Seems excessive.”
I let out a bitter chuckle. “Some kinda message – you know how people are. ‘Screw you and your apple-munching mother!’” I pulled back my foot.
“The abuse you take for her, Dashel.” She shook her head. “I’ll never understand it. What did she ever do for us?”
“Yeah, well,” I blew a purple cloud out of my busted schnozz. “She’s my mother, and you know what a big softie I am. What’m I gonna do, Seph?”
“Maybe don’t go around advertising you’re the son of Original Sin?”
I leaned on the cave wall, smearing bat guano onto my back. “You’re a peach, sis.” Restless, I took a cautious sidestep.
“Where you going?” she said. “You in a hurry or something? Sit down and stay a while.”
“Nah,” I said, puffing. “Got me a veggie huckster to find. Last person seen talking to our Big, Bad Brother in public. You know the guy, by any chance?”
Seph bristled. “Maybe you should drop this, Dash. Ever think our brother doesn’t want to be found?”
“Since when does that matter?” Squinting, thoughtful, I looked up and out of the cavern, where night was falling again outside. “I figure that grocer’s the key to all this somehow. Don’t ask me why or how, but he’s important.”
“Whatever you say,” she said. “But it’s late, and it’s dangerous out there, and your veggie fella’ can wait.”
I mumbled. “Apparently not.”
“So how ‘bout you take a load off and keep me company a while? I missed you, Dash.”
I flicked the burnt-down stick and smiled through the pain that stretching those muscles caused. “Well,” I said, “since you twisted my arm.” I slid down into the mud and didn’t waste a second, falling over into her, all groping hands and flapping lips. My hands reached out, like of their own accord, and pulled her close. I gave her a smooch on the neck, the cheek, the mouth.
What’d she do? Slapped me again. Pushed me away.
“Dashel, you shit!” she said. “No! No. Off!”
As if it hadn’t taken enough abuse, the side of my head bumped hard against stone. Rubbing it, my voice came out loud and harsh: “What’d you do that for?”
“I don’t want to do… that,” she said. “Not with you. Never again.”
“Coulda’ fooled me. You were awfully friendly up until ten seconds ago, toots.”
“You’re my brother,” she said.
“Used to be I was your man, too.” I kicked up some dirt. And I’m not proud, but I got a little whiny, a little needy, here. “Why not? For old times’ sake, Seph, why not now?”
For that I got another good smack. Then she jerked her arm up and pointed at the lumpy scar on her forehead. “Because of this, asshole! Or don’t you remember stumbling home, drunk out of your mind, knocking me around and putting out your burning root with my face?” She folded her arms and scowled at the ground. “You hurt me, Dashel. In so many ways.”
“Well, things are different now. I’m different now.” She clicked her tongue. “I mean it,” I said. “I don’t drink any more!”
“Well, not any more than I ever did.”
“Just stop it,” she said. “It’s not happening. You think you’re something special, but you’re just a louse, Dash. Maybe I needed you once, but I don’t anymore. You said it yourself, the world’s getting bigger all the time. Gene pool’s deeper every day, and there are plenty of fish in the sea.”
“Well,” I said, getting back up and brushing myself off, “enjoy your fish. I’m gone. Nice to see you again, sis.”
I was halfway to the shale steps that led out when she called to me:
“I’m leaving, Dash.”
I stopped, but said nothing.
“I’m moving to Enoch. You know, the city. Think I’ll see what’s doing up there.”
I did not look back. “Good for you,” I said.
“And I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” she breathed in, “but I’m pretty sure your grocer’s there, too.”
I did spin around then. “What?”
“Those girls you had with you before – their dad’s the one you’re sweet on, isn’t he? I buy from him sometimes, you know, an avocado now and then. We got to talking once. I happened to mention my plan to move out there when they opened it up to people.” She stood up. “He made a real big deal about it, acted like nothing could sound better. If he’s flown the coop, I’d look at Enoch.” A big, long sigh made locks of her hair dance. “And there’s the last bit of help I’ll ever give you. Now get out of here, you horse’s arse.”
My mouth hung open a second, unsure what to do. Finally I convinced it to tell her “thanks,” and then I turned back around and scuttled up the incline out into the surface world once more.
Just before I swung my leg up onto land, I gave one last look down into the cave mouth. There was Sephura, still my Sephura if you asked me, standing over the hole again, shaking with a case of waterworks and staring down at our dead brother.
Dead. Our brother was dead.
I hoped to Yahweh that the other one wasn’t, too. But let’s just say I wasn’t feeling warm and fuzzy about it.
From this angle I could see the shape she had carved into the soil with her finger. I had to admit she was a heck of an artist.
It looked just like me.
I mean, except the little “X” shapes she’d put in place of my eyes.
TO BE CONTINUED.