Poison

By Beth Bernobich

Part 1 of 2

Twilight was falling over Bagluar's alleys when I arrived at the south-side wharves, a handful of steps ahead of Yenny. Clouds of pale stars lit the northern skies. In the east, the twin moons were rising, bright and swift. One of Yenny's hunting songs repeated itself in my thoughts, but I kept silent. Tonight I was both hunting and evading the hunt, here in Bagluar, where thieves and other reckless creatures prowled. Whenever the tuhan -- the rich -- visited these streets, they came with fast cars, weapons, and guards. I came barefoot, dodging from shadow to shadow.

I paused, breathless. Rows of shacks lined these docks, standing like broken teeth in the mouth of night. Most were in ruins, burnt in the riot fires or left to rot, but a few remained whole. I found the one Eko had described to Yenny, when they thought I wasn't listening, and climbed through its broken window.

With a muffled thump, I landed on the floor, startling a lizard from its hiding place beneath a broken floorboard. I glimpsed a flicker of green scales and yellow eyes, before it vanished again. And I must hide as well, I thought. Quickly I slid behind a wall of broken crates and empty barrels, taking care to scatter dust over my footprints, so that Yenny would not guess at my presence. Then I crouched and waited, counting time by the waves slapping against the pilings.

He came slower, much slower, than I had expected. One, two, three handfuls of moments passed -- long enough for doubt to grow -- before the door swung open, and a lean dark figure appeared, momentarily lit by dusk's failing light. Yenny.

Yenny glided into the shack and eased the door shut. Floorboards sighed as he came further inside. Closer. Closer. The old shack stank of oil and tar and rotting fish -- sailing merchants had once stowed their goods here -- but above these smells, I detected another scent, a warm and ripe one.

Within a blink, moonlight spilled through the broken roof, like a puddle of clean milk rippling over the floor. The twin moons had climbed higher, and by their light, I saw that Yenny remained as doa selmat, as Yenny-brother. His face was shaped in sudden angles. His eyes were yellow, tilted upward and fringed with short dark lashes. When he turned his head, blue-black hair swept over his shoulders. Like me. Not like me.

With a quick glance around, he stripped away his pants and shirt. Moonlight poured over his lean brown body. Like mine, his nipples were dark flat discs upon his chest. But where I had only a stub, Yenny's thick penis curved downward over the night-black hair of his groin. My breath came faster, as I watched. I want him.

Yenny-brother stretched his arms toward the ceiling. For a moment, he stood, body arched and tense. The ripe scent grew stronger.

And then it came -- and swiftly.

Light brushed Yenny's swelling breasts. His nipples turned full, as though thumbs were pressing outward. My gaze followed the dusky blue shadows as they painted new contours upon his chest, downward over his rounded belly, down further to his penis, already folding into itself. My mouth went dry. My gaze jerked back to his face.

Her face.

Rounded cheeks. Eyes like new gold. Skin a luminous golden brown. I watched as bones and flesh altered themselves as rapidly as moonlight could trace the changes. Yenny made no sound throughout; only near the end did she exhale sharply.

I had asked once, Does it hurt?

He had said, No. She had said, Yes, oh yes.

Tears glittered in her eyes like diamonds in a rich man's mouth, like pearls spilling from a woman's sex. The tuhan sometimes paid Yenny lavish gifts to witness this transformation before they used her or him in more conventional ways. Hiding, I had often watched Yenny meet the bolder ones, the ones who came into Bagluar for a dare or a bet.

Yenny brushed a hand over her face. "Daksa," she said softly. "I know you're there."

My heart lurched in surprise. Reluctantly I emerged from my hiding place. "How did you know?"

She smiled briefly, and her plum-soft mouth was so different from Yenny-brother's thin one that my breath caught. "I heard you breathe."

Ah. Yes. Even now my pulse was beating hard and fast at the sight of her breasts. Forgetting myself, I reached out and ran my fingertips along their fullness.

Yenny allowed the caress a moment before she nudged my hand away. "Not now. He'll come soon, and he wants me fresh. Untouched, he called it."

My skin prickled. "Which one is it tonight? The tattooed man who likes silks? The one with the hawk-nose and ghost-gray eyes? Or is it the woman with green hair who pays extra when you cry?"

She shrugged, unflustered by my anger. "A new one. Eko brought me the message this afternoon. The client wanted me for tonight, maybe longer. He promised to pay for extras."

At least he was only an umatu, I told myself. Not one of our kind. Then I felt shamed. Sri and Eko were umatu; they were also our friends. But my heart gave a painful leap, knowing there were no more tikaki in Keramat or Bagluar or any other district in this huge city. All the others had left the mainland years before, shipped home by our keepers.

I shook away the memories, only to see that Yenny's eyes had gone distant. She was thinking of her rich client, this tuhan with his particular demands. Watching her face, I felt my belly tighten. "Tell him that everything costs extra," I whispered.

Yenny laughed softly, and her hips swayed, perhaps in unconscious seduction. I shifted uneasily, remembering how we used to couple. We coupled, oh, for half and double handfuls of reasons -- for warmth, for easy pleasure, for days when hunger wrapped us in its threadbare blankets. It was just last year we'd stopped, when Yenny first changed from in-between to one-who-ripens. She gave a half fingerful of reasons. I argued every one, but in the end, she simply said, "No."

We were both frightened, I think.

Nearby, an electric motor whined. Then a horn bleated -- a loud unwelcome sound in Bagluar's not-quite-deserted lanes. Yenny sauntered toward the door, still naked.

"Wait," I said. "You forgot. . . ."

Yenny glanced over her shoulder, smiling. "I didn't forget," she said. "It's part of the contract. He'll pay extra. Tell Eko and Sri that we can have ice cream tonight."

Still smiling, she walked naked into the night.


I want my sister. I want my brother. I want . . .

My wants tasted like poison. Muttering to myself, I folded Yenny's clothes and tucked them inside the cleanest barrel, hidden from casual scavengers. For a moment, I considered taking them with me, but the desire was brief. Instead, I flicked my knife open and scratched an X on the barrel, then Os on several more. Xs and Os. Kisses and hugs. Our keepers had explained these symbols to us, exchanging their stories and songs for ours. The memory brought me a mouthful of silent laughter, until it occurred to me that Yenny had expected me, and that she always knew when I watched her with the tuhan.

She likes it. Likes me watching, not doing.

Anger squeezed my throat shut. Just as quickly I forced it away. Anger gave birth to mistakes, and I could not afford any mistakes, not in this part of Bagluar. Be cold and hard like the stones, careful like the snake, I told myself, shoving my blade into its sheath.

I left the shack, sliding like a shadow from its shelter. Overhead, more stars dotted the skies in a silvery mist, and the twin moons chased each other toward the western skies. Going home, I kept to narrow lanes where the moonlight dared not linger. Fifteen streets to home. Six possible ambushes, and any one could be fatal. My bare feet were silent, my nerves alive. I listened with ears and nose and skin and tongue. My hands brushed the mossy bricks of old temples, the knobby wattle of bamboo shanties, the cold slick marble of pillars in abandoned market squares. A few pillars carried the faces of gods old and new, the carvings blunted by rains and hands laid upon them in prayer. Tuhan had commissioned artisans to make these statues in Bagluar's richer days, or so Eko told me. He and Sri had lived in this district before the tuhan left. Just like Yenny, they had their own stories of forgotten days.

And then I heard it: a breathy sound, like wings beating the air, coming from a doorway to my left.

I spun around and darted back through the alley. At the next crossing, I veered up a flight of steps and into a covered passageway, where my footsteps echoed from brick walls and cobblestones.

Slow, I told myself. Careful.

Now silent as leaves falling from the trees, I crossed through the dark-filled passageway, into a deserted moonlit courtyard, where I ran once more. Laughter echoed from the rooftops, marking my presence. Monkeys shrieked as they swung up and away, a wild dog yammered, and soon enough, heavy footfalls rang over the stones behind me.

No time to pick a better course. I pelted through another tunnel, into a wide street lined with trash heaps, ashes, and half-chewed bones. The buildings here were dark caverns, their round windows staring down at me. High above, more monkeys hooted in their lairs. Ahead, the street arrowed toward another moonlit plaza.

I skidded to a stop and burrowed into the nearest trash heap. Dust and ashes settled over me, and I willed myself not to sneeze. A tight handful of moments later, two massive shadows lurched past my hiding place. The shadows paused, sniffing the air.

Pemburu, I thought. Hunters. My throat squeezed shut. Worse than thieves or addicts or the knife-wielding whoremasters. Hunters might track a quarry for sex or meat or both at once. My heart beat faster, so fast it hurt. All I could think was that Yenny had walked naked and alone to her appointment, without even the deceptive security of a knife.

I swallowed and closed my eyes. Ears open. Heart beat slow. See how the grass bends and the air stirs. Hear like the stones. Breathe like the wind. Another of Yenny's hunting songs, recalled from our childhood on that faraway island. Yet memory sometimes was true. My skin took on the silvery gray coloring of wood and cloth under moonlight. My fear-scent faded, turning old and musty, like the ashes from a long-dead fire.

Our keepers, the scientists, used complicated words like metamorphosis and hormones and camouflage to explain us. We could turn invisible, they said. We could change from male to female and back. Survival adaptations, they called it, and speculated openly about what other fantastical transformations we could summon. Eyes closed, I wondered if what Yenny did was for our survival.

Gradually my heartbeat slowed. I dared to open my eyes.

The hunters stood motionless. They were tall, half again as tall as any tikaki. One crouched, with his knuckles resting on the ground. The other was upright, his long arms held loose and ready. They breathed, a wet rasping sound that drew bile into my throat. Breathe soft, heart still, I chanted silently.

Moments and moments, handfuls of them, passed. One pemburu turned in my direction. Moonlight made his blunt features into a gray-green mask, much like the moss-covered statues in the temples. His head swiveled around. His chin lifted, and I saw the gleam of his stubby fangs as he appeared to yawn, tasting the air.

Breathe. Soft. Heart. Still.

The hunter scanned both sides of the street; then, with a hollow grunt, he turned and summoned his companion to follow. They shuffled back the way they had come.

More long moments, a mouthful and a bellyful, passed before my muscles relaxed and I dared to breathe deeply. Until scent and sight and quivering nerves told me that yes, the hunters were gone.

I ghosted homeward, still trembling even though no more hunters crossed my path that night. Street by street, I covered Bagluar's length, until I reached a familiar waterfront neighborhood. Across the harbor, silvery lights from Keramat's thousand lamps stained the night sky, and more lights danced over the harbor's watery swells. Keramat, where the tuhan lived in their fabulous houses.

I circled around the vacant warehouse where Yenny and I lived with Sri and Eko. Chains held its doors and hatches closed, and most of the windows were boarded over, but a few shutters had come loose in the winter storms. I climbed through one such window and lowered myself onto the heaps of trash inside, which lay like moldering leaves upon a forest floor. This forest was built of planed wood, riddled with knotholes, and soft from constant damp -- a dead forest, and yet it sheltered us.

Orange lights flickered through the ceiling boards, and the scent of fire drifted down from the room above. My skin tightened in apprehension, and my scent altered to that of damp wood. Cautiously I approached the wooden ladder leading to the second story. The trapdoor was propped open, and light spilled through, illuminating the ladder's top rungs. The soft murmur from above sounded like Sri's voice, but others had died of trusting too easily.

I scratched the ladder and drew back. The voice fell silent, replaced by footsteps crossing to the trapdoor. Sri's head appeared.

"Daksa," she called down. "Come up. Eko has treats for us."

When I had clambered up, Sri dragged me over to Eko, who knelt beside our makeshift grate, poking at the fire with an iron stick. "Look," said Sri.

I stared. A pile of kindling burned in the grate. More firewood filled up one corner, and five oilcloth bundles were scattered over the floor. My mouth watered at the scent of rich food. Eko smiled at me, pleased.

"Tea," Sri said. She too was grinning. "Green tea and fresh bread -- fresh, Daksa -- and more sweet potatoes and spiced noodles and pickled eggs than we can eat. A feast."

"You made some good deals," I said.

Eko nodded. "A few."

"Like the one for Yenny."

Eko's black eyes narrowed to slits. "Like Yenny's."

"I made some good deals, too," Sri said.

Sri was dark and wiry, with thick black hair tied up in braids. She was like a storm cloud, lit with eerie moonlight when she smiled. Like other poor umatu, she and her brother had learned to forage a different way when the tuhan abandoned Bagluar to fire and decay and the hungry pemburu. Together, they often crossed into Keramat's richer quarters, either daring the police patrols, or taking to the sewers and tunnels underneath the city. When he was younger, Eko had loitered near the grand tuhan hotels, trading mouth and fingers and hands for food. Nowadays, with Sri, he carried messages between the tuhan in exchange for iron and copper rupiahs. I asked them once: What kind of messages? Eko had shrugged. "Duels," he'd muttered. "Drugs. Politics. More, I don't want to know."

Eko was taller than Sri, his face like a moonless night, his scent musky and full and lush. Sometimes I woke to hear Eko murmuring, and Yenny breathing fast and rough, as Eko's fingers brought my brother-sister to climax. Sex for warmth, sex to soothe away our fears -- that much had not changed.

We shared out bowlfuls of hot green tea and feasted upon spiced noodles and sweet potatoes and fish cakes. We saved none for Yenny -- her clients often fed her, and this one had promised to treat her well, Eko assured me. Indeed, both moons had long vanished before Yenny returned.

My stomach eased when I saw that she wore her old shirt and patched trousers. She also carried a new knapsack slung over one shoulder.

"Yenny!" Sri cried out, and flung herself across the room to give Yenny a sticky hug.

Eko stood up, his smile flashing bright against his coal-dark skin. He too had worried, it seemed.

"I brought us presents," Yenny said, swinging the knapsack around and dropping it with a thump onto the floor. "Presents and treats and money."

Like the gods in her tales, she distributed her bounty -- mangoes and coconut balls and spiced cakes and sticks of palm sugar. And the ice cream, of course, white creamy squares with chunks of pineapple, packed in layers of straw and cardboard to keep it cold.

"Those are the treats," Yenny said. "Now for the presents."

From her knapsack, she dug out a new folding knife, which she flourished before handing it to Eko. His gaze met hers, and they both smiled. Next she took out Sri's present -- a pair of new boots made from soft brown leather. Sri cooed in delight and pulled them on.

"And now for you," Yenny said, with a sideways glance at me.

She held out a small dark wooden box. I picked it up with my fingertips, and turned it over. Carvings of letters and animals and vines decorated its surface. Tiny hinges and a latch, both made from the same dark wood, held the lid closed.

"Open it," Sri said.

I glanced at Yenny, who nodded. Taking a quick breath, I lifted the lid.

The interior was like a hollowed-out ball, its surface rough like a coconut shell. At the bottom was a small mound of brown dust, caked and damp with an oily substance. I touched it.

A spicy scent filled the air, as rich and thick as the dust itself. My nose twitched, and something tugged at my gut. It was a smell from long-ago, from handfuls and armfuls of years ago -- the sweet milk-scent of my nursing mothers, the heady tang of my fathers, the grassy scent that recalled a long-forgotten sister who had kissed my cheeks and lips and eyes before our new keepers, the scientists, led me away.

I licked my lips, uncertain whether to weep or laugh. "Thank you."

Yenny smiled. "I found it in the night bazaar, at a shop that sells statues and pipes and spice boxes. The man said he traded with tikaki. Not here," she added, seeing the look on my face. "He sends out a ship to all the islands with trade goods from the mainland."

A box from home, carved by our people. I wanted to hear more about this shop, to ask if somehow the owners knew about our family, but Eko's and Sri's stares were like fingers upon my lips. Instead, I hugged Yenny and murmured thanks again. Yenny held me close a moment longer. I smelled flower-scented soap in her hair. I smelled a man's spendings on her breath and skin.

With a shaky laugh, Yenny drew back. "There's more."

More? I thought, but already she was pouring out copper and silver rupiahs from a new money pouch -- handfuls upon handfuls -- the coins glittering like eyes in the firelight.

"He wants me again, day after tomorrow," she said.

"Again?" I said softly, my throat going tight.

She nodded. I saw a look pass between her and Eko, whose face had smoothed into a blank mask. But he could not hide the slight change in his scent. He was unhappy.

"Then tonight we celebrate," Sri said, breaking the silence. "Ice cream first. Then stories."

"Stories," Yenny said quickly. "As many as you like."

While Sri scooped out the ice cream, Yenny began telling tales. I knew them all by word and timbre and cadence. Stories about hunter gods, whose arrows were dipped in magic blood. Songs about treacherous flowers that gleamed like torches, leading lovers along cliffs to their deaths. Tales of islands and peoples so far away, they seemed like dreams to me. When she could eat no more, Sri nestled beside me, her head resting on my chest. A strange scent lingered on my skin, like that from the spice box. It was the scent of almost-change, and my blood rippled in response. But almost was the same as never. I sighed, shifted my position, and idly scratched the blue-black serial number imprinted on my wrist. That, like my memories, was fading with every year.

Subjects in the study of indigenous peoples, our keepers had called us when they gave tours to government inspectors. Just two years ago we lived in clean bright dormitories. Our duties were few and easy enough. Let the doctors poke us with needles, stare into our eyes, and draw blood the next day. Sing. Dance. Tell stories. Ignore them and the cameras when we coupled.

Remembering, I let my thoughts spin and fall and soar in cadence with Yenny's voice, like petals whirling through the dense green jungle light. I might have seen that jungle light once more, had the scientists not lost their funding, had we boarded a different truck, had the drivers not taken the bribes. . . . Had any number of leaves fallen differently, the forest floor would look different, and trees would grow where others fell. But our truck never met the boat, and the other tikaki had died fighting, letting us escape a different captivity. Instead, our paths led us here, to this upper room of a neglected warehouse.

To safety, I thought. To Sri and Eko, our first true friends among the umatu.

I'd lost track of Yenny's storytelling, but so had she. Eko lay beside her, stroking her between her legs, and Yenny's soft moans interrupted her tale about a wandering ghost. Their noise woke Sri, who stirred, then pulled my hand over her breast buds. I massaged Sri gently until she drifted back into sleep. Holding her, I wondered if and when the change would come to me.


I woke to the soft pattering of rain against the roof shingles, and the weight of Sri's head on my chest. The air was ripe with the echoes of our feast, with sweat and musk and the sour smell of melted ice cream. A tendril of spice wound through it all. I lifted my head.

Yenny sat perched on a mound of old sacking by the windows overlooking the wharves. She had pushed open one of the shutters, and raindrops spattered through the opening, like a cascade of jewels from the sky.

I eased myself from underneath Sri and padded to my sister's side. "You didn't change."

Her mouth had lifted into a smile at my approach, but now the smile faded. "He insisted," she murmured. "He paid me extra to stay a girl."

"For how long?"

"One, two months."

"Did he say why?"

She shook her head. I waited, hoping she would tell me more -- she often did -- but Yenny remained silent, gazing over the harbor's blue-gray waters. Though I'd lived and coupled with her for handfuls and armfuls of years, I saw nothing in her face except stillness, heard nothing in her voice but words -- no colors or smells or shades of warm and cold. Only her fingers, locked together, betrayed her mood. When Sri rolled over and stretched, Yenny started up like a hunted deer, glided down the ladder, and was away.

Throughout the next weeks, I trailed after my sister when she met her new client. He wasn't truly tuhan, I decided. Unlike them, with their expensive cars, he drove a rusted blue van. He wore ordinary canvas trousers, scuffed brown shoes, and ugly shirts with too many colors. His scent was raw and eager and afraid.

Over time, Yenny answered my questions about him. He did not like to linger in Bagluar, she said. After she climbed into the van, he locked the doors and blindfolded her, then drove her to the hotel. "A different one each time," she added, her gaze going distant.

"Expensive ones?" I asked.

"No. But the rooms are clean. He insists."

"You can hear him, then."

She smiled. "He covers my eyes, Daksa. Not my nose or ears or fingers."

He must be a stupid man, I thought, not to realize how much the other senses tell us. "What do you smell, then?"

Yenny hesitated. "Perfumes," she said at last. "Soap-washed cotton sheets. More soap on his skin." Another pause, this one longer, before she added, "Clean plastic and new rubber from the sheaths he wears when he fucks me."

My skin prickled with uneasiness. "He keeps you long enough. What else does he do with you?"

Her scent sharpened. "Why do you ask?"

I shrugged. "Curiosity."

She gazed at me, eyes narrowed, but in the end, she told me. He liked a regular pattern, she said. He usually fondled her after he tied the blindfold. Once they reached the hotel, he hustled her through the lobby, and if the elevators were empty, she would suck him. Everything else took place in the room itself. He wore a sheath, she said. One for every time he fucked her, even though umatu seed never flowered in tikaki wombs. He said he knew it, when she told him, but that he feared catching a sickness.

"How many times a night?" I asked.

Once. Twice, maybe. A long session in bed, with Yenny underneath, while the man groaned and pushed and twisted his body around, rooting for pleasure. Sometimes he fucked her again before driving her to back to Bagluar.

"You spend hours there," I said. "What else do you do?"

Another keen glance before she answered. "I sleep, Daksa."

My skin rippled, the way it did when hunters passed by. No matter how painful the answers, I asked more questions about what the man did, and why, and how Yenny felt afterward. Listening to her answers, my breasts grew tight and full, and my stub shrank inward, revealing the vulva underneath. Then, when she slid off her clothes to demonstrate how the man touched her, my stub thickened and liquid pearls dripped from its opening, like a tiny mouth crying out its desires. Its. Mine. Hers.

I closed my eyes. "Why don't you want me that way?"

"I do want you," she murmured. "But we can't. It's not safe."

Pain gripped my stomach from the poison inside. "None of what you do is safe, Yenny. But you let him fuck you. You let everyone fuck you except me."

Yenny stiffened. Her body flickered, almost changing into Yenny-brother, but she regained control and released a long hard breath. "Do not do that again," she said roughly. From her look, she might have spoken to herself, as well as to me. "Daksa. Daksa, please. He promised me more money -- enough that we might buy anything. That we can eat, and be warm, and even--"

Even go home. All the blankness fled from her face, and I could comprehend her scents and moods and yearnings as clearly as I did my own. More clearly.

Yenny took me into her arms and kissed me, as though to make sure I understood. Her body was light and sweet, her smell richer and fuller than I remembered. Like my spice box, I thought. Like the scent of our older brother-sister. My thoughts leapt and sprang backward to the lab, farther back to the jungle. My mother's face had already faded into twilight shadows, washed away by months and years, but at times her voice still whispered to me. No more, Daksa. Yes, I know, Yenny. We are all hungry. Eat slowly. . . .

I strained to hear sister-brother's name, but could not.


I breathe in the scent of spices and dream of our island home. I dream of white petals drifting downward in an endless perfumed rain. I yearn for the shimmering green forest, the song of the waterfalls, for the taste and smell of eternal summer. In those dreams my body exudes a strange new scent, and it drives the deer before me into Yenny-brother's nets. In dreams alone, I am complete. I am man and woman, I am sister and brother.

And when I awake, I am neither.


One week stretched itself like a worm into two, and like a caterpillar into three, and like a serpent into four and five. Yenny's client met her every two days. And like a serpent uncoiling toward its prey, each session grew longer until Yenny no longer returned at night, but in the ruby-red of sunrise. Each time she brought handfuls of money -- never as much as that first time, but soon we had more than Eko or even Sri could count. Every night we burned firewood without care. We ate hot meals, and Sri danced in her new boots.

Six weeks after her first meeting with the strange umatu, Yenny disappeared for two days. Fretting, I tagged after Sri and Eko, watching the tuhan they watched, scouting Bagluar's streets, running errands they set for me. We were all anxious, even Eko, who spent the second day crouched by our window, his gaze sweeping the lanes and squares and streets in all directions.

"She warned me," he said, when I came to his side. He spoke in a breathless whisper, as though to himself. "She said he wanted longer sessions. Said he would pay more. He promised. . . ."

Eko broke off, his face so filled with misery that I dared not ask what this umatu had promised my sister.

On the third day, Yenny returned.

Rains had soaked the city throughout the night, but by mid-day, the skies had cleared, and bright sunlight glared from the puddles, turning them into mist. Eko and Sri were away on errands. I had remained behind, sitting in the shade and breathing in the spice-rich scent from my wooden box. When I heard soft footsteps below, I closed my eyes and went still. Hoping and not hoping. More footsteps, careless and quick, then the ladder creaked. Still I refused to look.

"Daksa." Yenny's voice was a whisper, her scent a tangle of strange emotions.

I opened my eyes. Yenny stood a few steps away. She wore new clothes of bright red cotton, and her long black hair was brushed smooth. "You came back."

"Of course I did." Yenny smiled, but tensely. Her cheeks were darkly flushed. Her eyes looked dull, as though she had not rested well.

"Tired?" I asked.

"Hardly." She yawned. "I did nothing but sleep."

"Nothing?" My voice went high and thin.

"Nothing, Daksa. Really. But I do want a nap. It's the weather, I think. All that rain."

She drifted over to her corner and settled onto her blankets, head pillowed on her arm. Within a handful of moments, her breath slowed and she was asleep, so fast that my stomach fluttered. What happened? I thought. What new demand did he place on you, that you cannot share with me?

Crouching by her side, I touched her cheek. Her face looked plumper, I thought, and beneath the fear-scent, I detected a musky heavy fragrance. When I cupped her breast with my hand, her skin radiated warmth through the cloth. She stirred, and her legs parted, releasing more fragrance into the air.

Mouth going dry, I unbuttoned my sister's shirt and caressed her bare skin. Yenny smiled in her sleep. Bolder now, I pinched her nipples, which hardened at once. My own scent changed, growing salty and rank. Almost male.

I want my sister. I want my brother.

My hands trembled. My blood thrummed loud in my ears. All caution scattering into desire, I lay down beside her and mouthed her breasts and throat. Yenny's eyes flickered open and closed, but when I slid a hand down her trousers and between her legs, she did nothing more than sigh and take my fingers inside her.

Wet. Sticky. So he had not simply watched. Nor had he used a sheath this time. I withdrew my fingers, sniffed. My skin crawled. His sour fear stink was all over her skin. Deep inside was only Yenny's scent, but richer than before. It reminded me of summer rains in the jungles, of sweat-soaked days when the ocean had swallowed all its breezes. Of brother and sister. Of a desire she never showed me. And Yenny -- Yenny hardly moved throughout my caresses. She continued to sleep as though she were enchanted, like the heroes in her own tales.

But no heroes lived in Bagluar. No magic flowed through its gutters, unless you counted the magic from pipe smoke, or the spells cast by needles.

Still cautious, I pushed up Yenny's sleeves and examined her arms. There were the old needle marks, from when the scientists drew blood, or injected us with serums. Nothing new. With a light touch, I examined her wrists and neck and ankles -- all the places where drug users pricked themselves with needles. Nothing. Nothing.

My breath eased out, until I remembered Eko's words.

They start with the arms, but when those fail, they use the legs, the throat, the wrists, the ankles, and the tongue. Anywhere they can find a vein.

I rolled Yenny onto her back and eased off her trousers. Yes, there behind her knees, I found puckered marks, small red dots where needles had walked. They felt hot to my touch, and hard like pebbles. My hands trembled, and my mouth went dry, but not from desire.


"I took no drugs," Yenny shouted.

"What about those marks?" I shouted back. My fear must have looked like anger because Sri cringed. Yenny trembled, too, and pulled at her tangled hair. Nervous. Only Eko remained calm, his attention on the flute he was carving with his new knife.

"He wanted to watch me sleep," Yenny continued, more quietly.

"With drugs?"

"With drugs," she insisted. "But only sleeping drugs. He said they were safe. He wanted. . . ." She hesitated and glanced toward Eko. "He wanted . . . to fuck me like I was dead."

Sri shuddered. Eko's face pinched into a frown. "I've heard of that," he said. "He's a sick man -- sicker than most. Are you done with him?"

"Yes." Yenny's voice trembled. "Yes, I'm done. Done and rich and now we can eat like tuhan ourselves."

She was lying, lies of silence, though I could not guess what secrets she kept. Eko too watched her closely, his hands lightly holding the half-carved flute. He might not be tikaki, but he had senses keener than most umatu, and I wondered if he could detect her lies as well as I could.

The silence stretched out, thin and raw. Finally Eko breathed out a sigh. "We have enough for forever," he said softly. "You don't need one like him again. Please."

Yenny nodded and turned away. Her eyes were bright with tears.

"No more," she said.

The tightness in my throat eased. We were rich, as Yenny said, but even if we turned as poor as dust, I didn't want her to take another client like that one -- a strange frightened man with an appetite like maggots.

As though she heard my thoughts, Yenny opened the box where we kept our savings and fingered the coins. Iron rupiah. Silver ones glinting like raindrops. A few gold ones, as bright as Yenny's eyes. Eko watched her a few moments, then laid aside his flute and stood. "I'm going into the city," he said. "I . . . I have some deals to make."

He exchanged a glance with Sri, who stood as well. "I'll come with you."

They climbed down the ladder, one by one. I heard them cross the room and climb through the broken window. It was late afternoon, and breezes carried the strong tang of the retreating tide into our room. A handful of moments passed before either Yenny or I spoke.

"I did it for us," Yenny said.

I touched her fingers. "I know."

She shivered and brushed a hand over her eyes, scattering the tears, which fell like jewels onto her red-dyed shirt. The drops darkened the cloth, making new patterns, then faded into the air.

"Change," I told her. "Be my brother. Be like me. Whatever you wish. Then we'll go running along the docks."

Yenny smiled tentatively. "Like children."

"If you like."

Her smile warmed. "I like."

She rose to her feet, graceful once more, and shucked off her trousers and shirt. She lifted her arms above her head, wrists crossed like a dancer's. Her head tipped backward and she stood, poised between now and yet, a curved and golden ribbon, illuminated by the sunset's burning light. My breath caught. I waited.

Quiet. Stillness. Longer and longer I waited, breathless.

"Yenny?"

Yenny's throat quivered, and her skin gleamed with sweat from an effort I could not see.

"Yenny? What's wrong?"

Another heartbeat of silence, and then, "I can't."

My pulse jumped and ran forward. "Try again."

A stupid suggestion, but Yenny nodded and closed her eyes, as though to concentrate harder on the transformation. I saw her muscles shivering underneath her skin. I smelled a strange new scent -- ripe and heavy -- overlaid with the sharp edge of desperation.

Yenny's eyes blinked open. Tears glittered in her eyes. I had no need to ask if she felt pain.

Yes, oh yes, my love.


Read part 2 here.

 

Copyright © 2003 Beth Bernobich

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Beth Bernobich is a writer who likes to reinvent herself, often in several directions at once. Most recently, her fiction has appeared in Full Unit Hookup and Beyond the Last Star; she also has a story forthcoming in Polyphony 2. This is her third appearance in Strange Horizons; her previous stories here can be found in our Archive. For more about her, see her website.