I followed Zenith south. It seemed the best thing to do after we barely survived the bomb blast in Rotterdam that took so many of our friends.
“Europe’s gone for shit,” he told me. “We must make like rats.”
Zenith was nothing like a rat. Tall and whiplash thin, he had skin like burnt sugar and large, expressive eyes – brown, like a doe’s – but there was nothing soft about his nature.
The voyage was beyond awful, and we scuttled about the ship’s hold, eluding capture. Zenith turned it into something of a game. All I wanted was to feel sold ground beneath my feet again, and to put distance between ourselves and the humans, whose stink contaminated the vessel.
Perhaps it was the combination of seasickness and what bad food we stole, but my dreams were troubled. A siren voice tugged at the edges of my awareness, and gave me no rest, so that I tossed and muttered when I was sleeping. Calling me south.
When I told Zenith about this, and that I feared that our quest was ill starred, and that perhaps we should disembark before we made port at the Cape of Storms, he only laughed at me.
“I should call you Ulysses and tie you to the mast,” he said.
“Who’s Ulysses?” I asked, puzzled.
“Never you mind,” he told me.
The cargo ship docked in the early hours of the morning, and all I could make out of the city was the dark bulk of a flat-topped mountain with a scattering of lights like lost stars at its feet.
We slipped between the dockworkers unloading crates and had one bad moment when four off-duty workers tailed us as we departed from the quay.
“Hey, pretty boys with the long hair. Are you girlies?”
“Moffies!” another brayed.
Zenith kept his arm around me as we hurried from these rough men.
“I don’t see how this place is better,” I muttered.
“Hush now.” He kissed my cheek. “You’ll see. There are no others here who call themselves Wraeththu. Things will be better.”
Zenith found us lodgings in the garret above a tavern that did double duty as a whorehouse. At night, when he was working in a nearby bar, I lay awake listening to the shrieks of laughter, murmurs of lovemaking, and, occasionally, stifled sobs.
I meant to find work, but the teeming streets frightened me. Besides, the few times I did explore on my own made Zenith anxious. He filled my head with awful tales of outside.
I confined myself to our room, and lost myself in silent contemplation. My only visitors were the pigeons with their beady yellow eyes and metallic-sheened plumage. I never tired of watching them strut and preen, and I flew with them when they stretched their wings and glided between the sullen buildings.
“Be patient,” Zenith told me. “I am saving money so we can rent rooms in a better part of town.”
“How much do you have now?” I asked, suspicious of how long it was taking him to find enough for a deposit.
“All I ask is that you trust me.”
Aruna was my sanctuary, when I allowed myself the abandon of our inner landscapes of starburst passions, and vortexes of power that dragged me into constellations of euphoria. I spread my wings wide and soared to the sun, Zenith my shadow, twined with my soul and consuming me with his hungry flames.
Afterward we’d cling to each other, and my entire existence contracted to the contours of his lips and the small scar on his left brow.
“What are you humming?” he asked me.
I hadn’t even known I had a song until I stopped.
“It makes me sad,” Zenith said.
He wouldn’t say. Instead he brought his mouth down on mine and his breath tasted of sunshine and autumn leaves.
Five weeks in that miserable garret and every time I asked Zenith how much longer, he told me to be patient. All the while the song at the boundary of my dreams grew more insistent. One night I woke with my legs hanging over the edge of the sill. The cobbles gleamed wetly beneath the light of the moon, suspended above. Vertigo almost tilted me over and I pulled back inside, my heart racing.
The melody shivered at the limits of my perception, more felt than heard, and when I pulled down the sash window, a stranger’s face was briefly superimposed over my own – gibbous like the moon.
Zenith slept, lost in whatever dreams had snared him in their silken skeins. A sly smile quirked his lips, and I watched him a while, washed out by the light of a single candle. An impulse led me to his bag, where he kept his money. I had to see it for myself.
There was no promised roll of notes. What I did find was a handful of copper and a few silvers, as well as stubs from a place called Table Bay Taverna. The ink smudged off on my fingers, but I could still make out the words: Bright Fella, Startling Arrow, Grey Mane…
Without turning on the light, I sat there while that single candle guttered, and I traced the words and spoke them under my breath as though they were invocations. I pressed the stubs to my nose and inhaled…
Men sweating crowded around a small flickering screen wreathed in cigarette smoke beer stains on the floor tiny horses running down the straight tickets clutched in oil-stained hands anticipation elation disappointment
I didn’t need to ask Zenith where the money had gone. This time, when the siren song only I could hear bloomed in my soul, I added my voice to its threnody.
Zenith did not wake, even when I shut the door behind me. Nor did he race after me. I became a shadow, headed to the north and this new continent’s arid interior, and for once, I felt no fear.
* * * *
Super secret question: What birds grace Taym's windowsill?