The Island of Varos
By Severna Park, illustration by Janet Chui
2 June 2003
Early in the Occupation when the Conqueros came, my mother painted her birds in secret. Materials were scarce so she resorted to the old technique of distilling color from the night air. Glass tubes ran from the single window in her studio to the filter jars in the middle of the floor, leaking droplets of yellow, red, and green. She only had a bit of blue, since it was the hardest color to extract, even under a full moon.
She painted on vellum, as it was more conducive to a lifelike appearance. Jays with gray-blue feathers, sparrows all dowdy brown, and magpies in black and white. When the paint was dry, they would pull themselves from the paper like damp hatchlings, then fly off into the dark. The creation of life was her act of rebellion while so much was being destroyed.
I would stand transfixed and silent while she worked and she would pretend she didn't see me. When she was done she'd put away her brushes and smile. "Remedios," she'd say, acting surprised but secretly pleased. "Have you been there all night?"
As a child I thought everything she did was magical. As a grown woman, I know I should have asked questions and learned more.
The news of the massacre came early one winter morning, six months after my mother's death. That there had been a massacre was no surprise. The Conqueros destroyed us regularly, by families. You could tell who had fallen out of favor by whose close relatives had been killed. This time, when they listed the names of the dead, my cousin, Tortola, was one of them.
Tortola had been a flighty, silly girl, no more dangerous than a flower.
I put on my clothes and went to see my Conquero soldier, Huitzle Pochtli.
At the beginning of the Occupation, soldiers had been on the banks of every canal, on every market corner. Now they were quartered just outside the city, where, except for the killing, they kept to themselves.
Huitzle was a commander and had his own house, built of metal and concrete. His pennants waved over the plain metal door and his guards. They recognized me and let me in, leering, the way they always did. There was no shame for them in consorting with the conquered, only shame for me.
Huitzle sat naked on the edge of the bed with a flower in one hand and money in the other.
"Which would you like first?" he said.
I sat next to him, wearing only my long fine hair. His bulk still amazed me after all these months. Where my people were thin as wind, his were broad, thick with muscle, furry on the face and chest. I felt expressionless compared to him when we had sex. His grunts and shouts. My breathless silence.
He slid his hand up my leg but I stopped his hot fingers. "Something terrible happened today," I said.
"Something terrible happens every day." He put the flower between my thighs, and dropped the money on the floor. He bent over to kiss my throat.
I moved away from his bristly lips. "Someone I know was killed," I said. "She was my cousin."
He shrugged. "Why tell me? You know I have nothing to do with the secret police."
"You can find out why she was killed. You can find out if I'm on one of the lists."
"A cousin," said Huitzle, reproving, "is not a sister or brother or mother or father. If we wanted to wipe out your family, we would have done it long ago. All the police want are the people who've gone to the Personajes and taken their souls from the Temple. They're trouble. They're nothing." He held his arms out. "Is that your price, this time? Information?"
I hesitated and nodded, and he smiled.
"All right," he said, "I'll find out for you."
I came over to sit on his lap, and he buried his face in the down of my hair.
He didn't know it, and I would never tell him, but my soul was still in my body, not in the Temple. The Conquero nuns hadn't been able to take it from me, and Huitzle couldn't either. I pressed my bird-weight onto him, and forced him back on the warm bed. He stretched me over his wide body, and moved inside with a sigh.
When he was done, I went to see Luz.
Luz sat on her wheeled hassock in her salmon-colored silks, her brocaded tunic, and headdress of feathers. She watched me with brown, owlish eyes as I wandered around the Temple's receiving room, checking name tags on the small amphorae. The walls were lined with them, floor to ceiling, all unglazed terra cotta, each shaped like an inverted tear. Inside, the souls varied. Tiny stars or a bit of flame. Flower petals. A kitten made of autumn leaves. A face with a hand over its mouth, eyes staring up in alarm. But these were the souls of the living.
"Tell me who you're looking for, daughter."
Luz was one of the Personajes. Their responsibilities were generally as stewards to the dead, but they also stored the souls of those still alive. The Personajes had a certain amount of status before the Occupation, but now they were hardly better than collaborators. In return for information about whose souls were safeguarded in the Temple and whose were missing, the Conqueros had allowed the Personajes to keep most of their rank and all of their wealth.
"I'm looking for my cousin," I said, "Tortola."
Luz studied me. "Your mother was the painter."
I was surprised she'd heard of my mother, but who could say what this creature knew. "That's right."
She shook her head and the feathers rustled. "You won't find your cousin's soul here, any more than you'll find your own. It's not in your family's nature to let the inner self sit idle, not even in death."
"Have you mentioned that to the police?" I said.
"Flightless girl," she said. "I never tell them anything."
"But you let them look around. They can see if names aren't here."
She made a dismissive gesture. "Their lists are incomplete. They're impulsive. They kill people for no reason, day after day, names or no names. One day they'll decide their work is complete and they'll be gone. That'll be the end of it."
"They've been here over twenty years," I said. "We don't fight them. What makes you think they'll ever leave?"
"Boredom," said Luz. "They're dying for a good fight, and we refuse to give it to them."
"We're afraid of being killed," I said.
"Fear succeeds where courage fails," said Luz.
I walked along the stone quay, past one new Conquero church and then another. I am too young to remember the city before the Occupation, but I think it was much different in peaceful times. Today the canal spirals between crumbling older buildings and new mission churches colored in ochers and soft grays. The obscure gray water is dotted with fishing boats, which brush the calm surface, each caulked with a paste of alchemical silvers.
No fish in the waters these days, and no pescadores. No leaves on the trees. Barely a change of season. I turned and crossed a bridge to avoid the Convento and thought about my mother.
She was ill for a long time before she died. When she was no longer able to paint, she was taken to a hospice and I went to the Convento del Conqueros. There was nowhere else. Hundreds of other girls were collected by the nuns, spared for one reason or another when the rest of their families were killed. Some arrived on their own and gave up their souls without a struggle. Some were coerced, then broken by the force of salvation. When I came the nuns tried to redeem me as well.
I refused. I was violent -- Satanic, they said. When my mother weakened I became worse. Even the most sympathetic nuns gave up on me and my soul and finally they allowed me to leave. I was an orphan in an occupied city, without money or work. That was when I met my soldier, Huitzle.
He was sitting on the quay at a turn in the canal, peeling an orange, dropping bits of skin into the water. I was hungry. I knew what his food would cost me. I sat next to him anyway.
"Good evening," he said.
I looked into the water to see us both. He was very fine in his blue and gold uniform, gleaming in the evening light. He must have known everything about me just by looking. I had on the narrow gray dress, gray shawl, and high white collar of a Convento novice. I was drab and invisible against the colorless sky.
"Hello," I whispered.
"It's late for you to be out," he said. "Shouldn't you have a chaperone?"
"Yes," I said.
He held out a sliver of orange. "Are you hungry?"
"Yes," I said.
He waited while I ate, and gave me another piece, and another, until the fruit was gone. He took my sticky hands and wiped my fingers, one by one. He kissed them and then he kissed my mouth.
"Will the nuns miss you if you stay with me until morning?" he asked.
"No," I said.
Huitzle had no interest in my soul or where it was located. The salvation of my people didn't seem to concern him. He paid me in the morning and he paid me to come the next night.
A month later, my mother died. It was my responsibility to make sure her soul was properly cared for and since I had some money by then, I asked Luz to do the ceremony.
Some people cannot stand to watch. I did, because my mother had never trusted Luz.
Luz came with a second Personaje; a man with hawkish eyes and long mustache. His cloak was made of stiff cloth, shredded at the edges to form a sort of false plumage. The fabric was coated with stiff white paint, and when he held his arms akimbo underneath, he meant to look birdlike and reverent. I would have been happier with only Luz, no matter how I felt about her.
Luz didn't even bother to introduce him as he leaned over my mother's corpse. I stood up from my little stool in the corner of the Mourning Chamber.
"Wait," I said, because it was my right. "What qualifies you to search the dead?"
He never said anything, just opened his tatty white cloak.
From his belly, his soul shone out. His was a whirling cosmos, flecked with stars and spinning nebulae. It cooled the room, sucking in every scrap of heat. He closed his cloak and I shivered in the chill.
"Does that answer your question, Flightless?" Luz took an amphora from her voluminous silks and handed it to him. "Neither of us are incomplete." She raised an owlish eyebrow at me. "Now tell us," she whispered. "What qualifies you to guard the dead?"
What would she have done if my soul had been put away in one of her amphorae? I suppose she would have known already, and wouldn't have bothered to ask. I unbuttoned my black mourning dress, and opened it.
Indigo swallows and teal-colored hawks billowed into the chill air, circled the room once and fled back to the shelter of my body. I closed my dress, wondering if Luz would demand my soul now that she knew for sure that I'd kept it, and what I might say to refuse.
"Do you show this to your soldier-friend?" asked Luz.
"No," I said, ashamed that she knew that too. "Of course not."
"Very wise." She sat next to the other Personaje.
He had already taken the black veil off my mother's body. Now he put his hands on her belly and closed his eyes. With his thumbs, he peeled her mortal edge away, to expose the dark rift in her. Icy air rushed out carrying the damp smell of frozen leaves. He reached in and pulled a roll of vellum free.
Luz took it from him, turning the scroll over in her long fingers as though she was going to look inside before I could.
"Had she shown you this?" she asked.
"Never," I said.
Luz gave me the scroll, still frigid from oblivion. I unrolled it carefully.
"What does it say?" asked Luz.
It said, Plant here the soul of the Conquero.
"It doesn't make sense," I said.
"Let me see," said Luz, and she took the scroll.
"What does it mean?" I whispered. "She hated them. She fought them. Why invite them in -- in -- there?"
Luz gave it to the other Personaje. He studied it for a moment, put it in the amphora and looked at Luz.
"This is," said Luz, apparently translating from his silence, "something she wanted you to use to defend yourself."
"What do you mean?"
Luz put the small amphora in my cold hands. "When you figure that out, bring this to the Temple. I have a place for it." She smiled and they both got up and left, abandoning me to the rest of the funeral arrangements.
After the burial when I passed the Convento, I knew the nuns were watching. They had told me they could commune with dead souls and though I had shouted my disbelief in their faces at the time, a doubt had taken hold in me. Did my dead mother know how I was spending my life, wrapped in the arms of a foreign soldier? She did. I was sure she did. And it was because the nuns had found a way to torment her with the truth.
Her vellum message confirmed it. Plant here the soul of the Conquero. Huitzle. What other Conquero could she mean? Did she know that Huitzle Pochtli was kind to me in his own way, and that he had protected me from becoming a cheap, camp-following commodity? Did she know that he had helped me find the grand room I lived in now, and given me enough money to buy furnishings? Did she know how much money he'd given me? Could she understand how little I'd given him?
I'd expected Luz to preside over Tortola's remains as well, but when I went to the Mourning Rooms, I was told that only a funeral was planned. I hurried to the graveyard at the edge of town, where I found Tortola's uncle shoveling damp earth over her coffin. There was no one with him, no family or friends. Only ash-white tombstones and dull leaves under the pewter sky.
He saw me and stood up straight, running his fingers through the unraveled broom of his hair. "Who are you?"
"I'm Remedios," I said, "Tortola's cousin."
He thought for a moment. "Ah," he said, "the Conquero's harlot," and started shoveling again.
When it was clear he wouldn't speak to me, I said, "You're burying her alive."
He gave me an angry look, and threw another clod of dirt into the grave.
"Her soul is still in her," I said. "Why didn't you do the ceremony?"
He stood up and hurled the shovel at me. "Whore!" he shouted. "Go back to your bastard soldiers! You know what they took from her! You know!"
I did know, and like the Personajes, I had refused to admit to myself what must have been obvious to everyone else.
I ran home, trembling, and waited for Huitzle.
My room had been the parlor of an ancient manor house before the Occupation. It remained lofty and spacious, even in the oppressive air of wartime. A mirror over the fireplace filled the sober wall, making the space seem twice its actual size. The traditional garden planted in the center of the room long before the Conqueros still bloomed with fern and rosettes. Vines still hung in graceful coils from the ceiling.
I went to the desk beside my bed and took out my mother's amphora. At first, I had kept it on the mantle, but I could hardly bear to see my reflection next to hers. I'd moved her to a table by the window, where I thought she would have enjoyed the air. Then because the view was so grim, I'd moved her again and put her in a desk drawer until I could decide on the most appropriate place. For the last six months she'd stayed there, where the dark and the lack of disturbance might be a substitute for deathly peace.
"Mama," I whispered in the silence of growing things, and found that I had no way to explain myself. "Mama," I said, and wiped tears and mascara across my whore's face.
The knock on the door was Huitzle. Tonight his flower and his cash seemed perfunctory. When he'd had what he felt was his money's worth, he propped himself up in the bed and surveyed my room.
"Look at this place," he said. "It's a dump. You should pull the damn moss off the ceiling. It's destroying the plaster."
He was in a bad mood. Normally, his bad moods made me nervous, even frightened. Tonight he made me angry.
"It isn't moss," I said. "It's a vine. The flowers are beautiful."
"You've got water stains all down the walls," said Huitzle. "You know how expensive that is to repair? And the floor--" He pointed at the silver fern and pale rosettes that grew between the bed and the fireplace. "Why do you people plant gardens in your houses? Can't you afford carpet?"
"Buy me carpet," I said. "I'll rip out the garden."
He gave me a narrow look. "I pay enough for you."
"Others," I said, "pay more." Which wasn't true, but it offended his sense of propriety.
He started to roll over on top of me again. I slid out of the bed and ran into the garden.
Huitzle pushed himself off the mattress and scratched at his hairy body. "You went to a funeral today."
A rush of fear came over me. I stood in the center of the room, up to my ankles in cool ferns. "My cousin. I told you."
He nodded. "Did you go to her soul-ceremony?"
"Her soul was gone," I whispered.
Huitzle smiled. He came into the garden, kicking through the ferns and flowers.
I stepped back. "What do you do with them when you take them?"
He laughed. "We've used the extracts to cure diseases. Some have been made into power supplies. A few seem to have the potential to make us immortal." He came closer, almost within arm's reach. "But we haven't found many of those."
"Why don't you take what you want from the Temple?"
"Because those are the souls of the living," said Huitzle. "What we need are the souls of the dead."
Behind him, in the big mirror over the fireplace, I could see myself, naked, in the center of the garden, wrapped in downy hair. Huitzle. Huitzle Pochtli was nowhere to be seen. He was as invisible in my room as I had been against his sky. I looked at him again and finally understood.
"Don't you have a soul?" I whispered.
"Of course we do," said Huitzle, "but it's nothing at all like yours."
He reached for my throat.
I opened myself.
I flew at him.
Sharp beaks and claws. The drab room exploded with a blinding rush of indigo and teal. He beat my birds away from his face while I cut into his belly, talons sharp with fear. I pierced his sloppy heat and he fell backwards, scrabbling and shrieking, until he was nothing, nothing, nothing.
I buried Huitzle in my garden but not before I found his inner seed. His soul was shriveled like a raisin, attached to the underside of his stomach by a raft of tissue. I took my mother's amphora out of the desk drawer, opened the vellum scroll and wrapped his bloody essence inside.
By morning, it had sprouted. Black flowers draped the desk and spilled onto the floor. I touched the soft undersides of the leaves, the rich velvet of the blossoms. Their smell was thick and blunt as sex.
I found a pair of gloves, and ripped the poisonous thing out by the roots.
What we used to called the Island of Varos is now an island of black flowers. They choke the canals and grow over the quays. They crawl up the ramparts of the mission churches and through the windows of the Convento. They fill the houses of the Personaje and their Temple. Every place a Conquero has fallen, their seed has found a place to sprout. And everywhere the corrupted Personajes fell, butterflies erupted in yellow clouds. They pollinate the cloying blossoms and the flowers spread to the edge of the sea.
From a distance, the island looks like a jungle of dark weeds.
From the sea, a spring wind blows the prow of my little paper boat away from my old home, toward an undefined horizon. I cradle my mother's amphora, steadying myself against the fragile bulwark. Inside her urn, there is a tiny pot of blue paint.
Not indigo or some blue shade of gray. She has left me a vibrant azure color, as bright and hale as the new sky.
Illustration © 2003 Janet Chui
Copyright © 2003 Severna Park
Severna Park's short stories, including the Nebula finalist "The Golem," have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies. Her Nebula Award-winning short story "The Cure For Everything" was also chosen by Gardner Dozois for his anthology The Year's Best Science Fiction 18. She is the author of three novels: Speaking Dreams (1997, AvoNova), Hand of Prophecy (1998, Avon/Eos), and The Annunciate (2000, Avon/Eos). Both Speaking Dreams and The Annunciate have been finalists for the Lambda Literary Award. Ms. Park lives with her lover of almost twenty years in Frederick, Maryland, and is presently at work on a collection of short stories. To contact her, send her email at email@example.com.
Janet Chui is bad at writing her own bios and tends to slip into third-person and/or lists when attempting to do so. She lives with her family in a very vertical house on the tropical island of Singapore, with two hamsters, a pond, and two tanks of guppies and small catfish. She somewhat likes cooking (when she doesn't need to do the dishes) and also tries growing her own herbs, so in the event of a dire apocalypse, she'll at least have both herbs and freshwater fish to live on for a few hours or so. And one should probably learn to cultivate edibles when attempting to be an artist. Or writer. And she concedes that Jason Erik Lundberg is a pretty magical and real boyfriend.