Voud had escaped the house before dawn, climbing up the ladder and onto the roof, across the neighbors’ roofs and down to the edge of the water, where she had caught three decent-sized frogs. She had tried but failed to catch a fourth, the bullfrog she’d heard honking hoarsely away somewhere on the bank; her sister-in-law Ytine would be dismayed at her muddy tunic, but there was no help for it. Now, her prey struggling in her bag, she went to ask the gods a question.
It was late enough in summer that she could go on foot, over the causeway. The shore of the gods’ island was muddy and cypress-shaded, but as she climbed, the trees cleared. At the edge of the trees, she stopped and dropped her bag on the ground. “I have questions,” she called. “Frogs for answers!” Insects trilled; the frustratingly elusive bullfrog honked. Voud sat on her heels—it didn’t pay to be impatient with gods—and watched the sky lighten.
Eventually a brown crane came wading along the margin of the island and walked with careful, backwards-kneed steps to where Voud sat. It kr-kr-kr-kred and then said, “Good morning, little girl.”
“I’m not a little girl! I’m ten!”
The crane took two steps backward, flapped its wings. “You have frogs?”
Voud picked up the bag. “Three.”
“They’re small, and weak. One question.”
“They’re perfectly good frogs! Three frogs, three questions.”
“Well. Before you start, I’m going to warn you—not every god would, by the way—not to ask me any questions that are impossible to answer, or that are ambiguously phrased. You’ll just be wasting your frogs if you do.”
Voud sacrificed the frogs, and said the appropriate prayer. Then she asked her first question. “Is Ytine going to remarry?”
“She’s free to do as she likes. Your brother Irris has been gone more than a year, and he was never a particularly good husband; no one would blame her.”
“He was a drunk,” said Voud. “He never did what he should.”
“A fair description,” said the crane. “Unfortunately, your question is the sort I warned you against; I don’t know the answer. Ask Ytine herself.”
“I thought gods knew the future.”
“Gods with enough power to make unlikely things happen are free to make pronouncements about the future,” the crane said, just the slightest bit pedantic. “If I happened to be wrong, I would have said something untrue, and that could be disastrous for me. Think hard about your next two questions. There’s no hurry. You know I won’t lie—I can’t without injuring myself.”
Voud frowned. “What god do I need to talk to, to get Ytine to marry the right person?”
“Is that really your second question? —Don’t answer!” it trumpeted before she could speak. “Take my advice, and say no.”
“Everything I think of is wrong!” she cried, frustrated.
“Why don’t you explain what your problem is?” The crane flapped its wings. “I can’t promise to help you directly, but we’ll have a better idea of what questions would be appropriate.”
Voud sighed. “My father died last year.”
“I am aware of it,” said the crane.
“My other brother, Tas, died last month.”
The crane tilted its head. “True.”
“Now it’s just me and Ytine and the baby, because Irris went off six months before the baby was born and never came back. And there’s too much work for the two of us, and we’re going to have to ask the neighbors for help. And Anghat—he’s a neighbor of ours . . .”
“I know Anghat.”
“Anghat told Ytine that he’ll come live with us and do the work if he can marry me.”
The crane turned first one eye on her, and then the other. “Why doesn’t he offer to marry Ytine?”
“He wants our fishing rights! That stretch of water belongs to our house. Ytine’s only married in.” And she could marry out and take the baby. If she did, Voud would be all by herself. Ytine had said she wouldn’t leave. But.
“Anghat is the youngest of ten,” the crane remarked. “There’s precious little to go around in his own house. Granted, you’re too young right now, but he’s not ugly, or ill-tempered so far as I know.
“What’s more, this is the sort of thing I can’t get involved in. The terms of the agreement are very clear. We protect you from the marsh fever, and keep the babies from getting sick or drowning. We help manage the wildlife in the swamp. In return, you give us regular sacrifices and prayers, which we gods divide equally among ourselves. You’re allowed to petition us on an individual basis for things like cures, or fertility.” The crane dipped its head towards the dead frogs. “Or information. But hurting one household to help another is absolutely forbidden. We don’t get involved in village politics, let alone questions of who should marry who. Besides, you have only to refuse if you don’t want him.”
“He killed Tas,” Voud said. “He killed Irris.”
“I didn’t see it myself, but I’m told Tas tripped and hit his head on the edge of his boat. He was dead before anyone could pull him out of the water. These things happen sometimes. As for Irris, I don’t know if he’s alive or dead.”
“I was going across the roofs yesterday and I heard Anghat talking. I stopped to listen.” For a moment she considered what Ytine would say about that. “I heard him say, Well, is he dead? You’ve had plenty of time to make it happen, I’m tired of waiting. And I heard a scratchy, whispery voice say, Finding Irris was not a simple matter. He had traveled quite a distance. But he is dead. His throat was cut and he died, in a desert far away from here. And something else quieter that I couldn’t hear. And Anghat laughed and said, Why would you want to be released? I have sacrificed and prayed to you daily, since I found you a year ago. And then Anghat must have heard something because he started coming up the ladder and I ran away and I don’t think he saw me.”
The crane was absolutely motionless for a few moments. Birds hooted and twittered, and somewhere down at the margin of the island something jumped into the water with a plopping splash. “If what you say is true,” the crane said at last, with a ruffle of its feathers, “then Anghat has a god confined in his house. But there’s nothing wrong with any of you worshipping other gods.”
“And nothing to keep other gods from interfering with us!”
“Well, now.” The crane raised one foot and put it down again, delicately. “That’s a more complicated issue. We do have understandings with the gods of surrounding territories. The swamp would have been drained for farmland long ago otherwise. But I’m not sure what to do about this, frankly. I don’t think the gods of the marsh association have any grounds for acting.”
Ytine’s voice echoed across the water. “Voud!”
“I have to go!”
“Go,” said the crane. “And don’t waste too much grief on Irris. When he was here he only drank beer and slept all day.”
“Voud!” Ytine called again.
Voud turned and ran down to the water and across the cypress-shaded causeway, up the mound the village was built on, up the side ladder and across the roofs as fast as she could, to where Ytine stood, ten years older than Voud, with a naked toddler on her hip. “Voud! Where have you . . . oh, look at your tunic!”
“I was hunting frogs.” Not a lie, not exactly. She thought furiously for a plausible story, hating to have nothing to show for all the mud, not wanting to say any frog had escaped her, even as a lie.
But Ytine seemed too distracted to ask for details. “Get inside.” She blinked, and took a breath as though to speak, but stopped, and then, “Get inside,” she said again. Something was wrong.
“What is it?” Voud asked.
The ladder shook, someone climbing up. In a moment a man appeared—her brother Irris. And because his beard was trimmed close, she could see the thin red line that ran from one side of his neck to the other, as though his throat had been cut.
Irris was a changed man. When he went out fishing, he didn’t spend the day drunk or asleep in the boat and then come home with nothing, the way everyone expected. Instead he made a full day’s catch early, and then picked up an axe and went to cut wood. He sat down to dinner sober, played with the baby, spoke pleasantly to his wife and sister. In the evening, instead of drinking, he sat in front of the fire and knotted nets, or carved fishhooks. It’s because he almost died, the neighbors whispered. Everyone had seen the scar. Everyone wondered how long the change could last.
There were other things, little strangenesses that never made their way out of the house for the villagers to be aware of them. For instance, one afternoon Ytine brought him a dish of vetch, and he said, “My dear, it amuses me to call this gravel. So the next time I ask you for a bowl of gravel, you’ll know what I want.” Water was poison, working was sleeping. The list of changed names seemed to grow every day. Voud wasn’t sure why Ytine went along with it, except that the new Irris was kind and hard-working, and doted on the baby. And maybe, thought Voud, that was reason enough. The crane had said not to waste her grief on Irris, and she hadn’t cried when she’d heard the whispery-voiced god say he was dead.
But one evening Irris came home in an especially good mood. “Good fishing means good trading,” he said. He had needles, and fiber — dyed and spun — for Ytine, and a tiny, wheeled cart for the baby. “And Voud,” he said, “I hear you’re a hunter.” He handed her a bronze knife. It was small and its plain haft was dented, but it was a real metal knife and it was hers.
That was when she knew for certain that her brother was dead. Irris would never have thought to buy her something she wanted so much. Not without her telling him, and likely not even then. She sat there with the knife in her hand and cried.
“Voud!” said Ytine, alarmed.
The baby, who had been sitting splay-legged, pushing the little cart back and forth, looked up and began to wail. Irris picked him up. “Hush, little one, hush.” But he looked at Voud with no pretense in his eyes. He knew why she was crying.
Ytine had to know, too, but all she said was, “You’re tired, that’s what it is. Time for bed.”
The next day Voud was knee deep in water, pulling the down from the cattails, stuffing it into a bag that hung from her shoulder. The baby sat on the shore clutching his toy cart in one hand, meditatively squishing mud through the fingers of the other. The shadow of a thought crossed his face. “Don’t eat that,” said Voud. She waded back to shore, wiped the tiny hand on the hem of her tunic and gave him a piece of hard bread instead.
“Da!” said the baby. Voud looked up and saw Irris.
He came near, sat down, and set the baby in his lap. “I didn’t kill him,” he said while the baby gnawed happily on the bread.
Voud thought about that for a moment. “Who are you?”
“I’d prefer not to answer that right now.”
“Because you don’t want to say and you can’t lie.”
“Oh, I can lie.” He smoothed the baby’s hair. “But.”
“For a god, speaking is using its power,” said Voud.
“If I say something that’s already true, I’ve spent nothing. If I say something that isn’t true, then it depends on how big a change it would take, to make what I’d said the truth. The bigger the change, the more power it would drain from me. And some things can never be true.”
“Don’t gods say untrue things on purpose sometimes, to make things happen?”
“You climb down a ladder and don’t hurt yourself, but you would if you fell off the roof.” He frowned, just slightly. “If the lies aren’t too big, or too numerous, a god can regain its strength through prayers and sacrifices. But I don’t have worshippers here, and your brother’s death gave me just enough power to move in and repair his body.”
Voud sighed. “He wasn’t a very good brother.”
“But he was your brother,” said Irris. They were silent for a while. The baby’s eyes began to droop, the soggy fragment of bread still clutched in his hand.
“Are you good, or bad?” Voud asked.
He smiled. “The answer to that question is complicated, and it wouldn’t tell you what you want to know. I was very powerful once. That was millions of years ago.”
“Do you know a hundred?”
“A hundred of a hundred hundreds would make one million.”
Voud frowned. “Are there that many years?”
Irris raised an eyebrow. She thought he might have laughed if the baby hadn’t been asleep. “Beneath the dirt we’re sitting on, under the water, in layers of stone, are remains of creatures whose day came and went much longer ago than a single million years.”
The thought was dizzying, and Voud blinked it away. “So how did you get here?”
“I was on the losing side of a battle, a long time ago. Now it’s a desert hundreds of miles from the coast, but then it was near the sea. Our enemies made the water sweep inland and drowned us. For millions of years, I lay buried where I fell, until the ground eroded away from around my bones, and your brother came, and his killer rashly offered me your brother’s blood and body.”
“If I sacrificed to you,” Voud said, thinking of Anghat, “you’d have power.”
“Save your prayers for your marsh gods,” said Irris, looking off into the cattails. She followed his gaze. The crane stood there, managing somehow to give the impression of glaring balefully.
“I don’t think I know you,” said the crane.
“It would have been before your time,” said Irris.
“So I hear, and I’m not pleased to hear it. There’s a reason that place is forbidden, and a reason there’s a curse on anyone who spills blood there.”
“There’s a reason for everything,” Irris said.
“Why are you here?”
“I knew nothing of humans beyond what I read in Irris’s mind, but that was enough to know the world had changed a great deal. He thought of this place as quiet and remote, and that suited me.”
“Swear you mean no harm to the village,” the crane demanded.
“The man who cut my throat said he was paid to do it,” said Irris. Voud frowned, and thought again of Anghat and his whispering god. Irris stood, awkwardly because of the still-sleeping baby. “I’ll take him home,” he said to Voud.
When he had gone, she waded back into the cattails. “Be careful, Voud,” said the crane. “I don’t believe he’s as powerless as he implies. I still don’t understand why he came here.”
“He didn’t have anywhere to go,” Voud said. She thought of her brother, alone in the desert with no one to help him when he needed it.
“Don’t assume that means he’s not dangerous. I can’t interfere for the same reason I can’t interfere with Anghat, but you’ve always been a resourceful child.”
Anghat accused Irris of being an imposter when nearly everyone was home eating dinner. Children who had been playing on the roofs, jumping over gaps and skipping around the plumes of smoke that came up from the village’s fires, ran from house to house calling out what they’d heard, that Anghat wanted a trial, wanted Irris to prove he wasn’t a god!
Within a half hour the whole village was crowded around the headman’s roof, where Irris, Anghat, and the headman himself stood. In a loud, clear voice the headman explained the accusation and asked, “Are you the same man who left this village?”
“Would you be the same man you were, if you’d had your throat cut and been left for dead?” Irris asked.
There was a mutter of agreement, but “He hasn’t answered!” shouted Anghat. Which, Voud could see, the watching villagers realized was true. But Anghat seemed too vehement, and everyone knew he stood to gain if Irris were expelled, and Irris was just so different these days . . . the debate hissed and whispered through the watchers.
Voud knew there was one simple way for Anghat to prove that his accusation was true, and she knew it would work. It was just a matter of how long Irris could evade it.
The whole village was watching Anghat explain that if Irris was really Irris, he could lie. If she could only prove that Anghat had killed her brothers!
If she went into Anghat’s house, no one would see her.
She had imagined sneaking in, locating the god, and sneaking out, but it hadn’t occurred to her that there would be more than a dozen people’s belongings scattered around the house. And if Anghat had managed to keep his god concealed in such a crowded place, it wouldn’t be easy to find.
The crane had told her she was resourceful, so it must be true. “Whispery god, where are you?” she called.
“Here,” said a papery voice. She followed the sound to a corner crowded with rolled-up sleeping mats. “Here,” the voice said again.
“A hole in the wall, plastered over. Here!”
She put her hand on the wall, where she thought the sound was coming from. “Here?”
“Yes!” said the whispery voice. “Break the plaster, free me!”
She took the knife Irris had given her out of her belt. “I want something in return.”
“What power I have is bound up in Anghat’s wishes.” The voice was quiet but intense. “He sacrifices with conditions and qualifications.”
“Has Anghat forbidden you to answer any questions?”
“No. He forbade me to speak unless I was directly addressed. And he forbade me to harm him, or he would have been dead long ago.”
“I want to ask you three questions, and if you know the answer you’ll answer.” She frowned, thinking over what she’d just said. “You’ll answer right then.”
“Agreed. Break the plaster, set me free!”
Voud chipped at the plaster with the knife. “Did you tell him about Irris?” A thought struck her. “Do you know who Irris is?”
“I have not spoken to him since the day you overheard us from the roof. His family is too numerous. And yes, I know who Irris is. One left!”
She stopped digging. “Those don’t count.”
“I will answer no more questions until you free me!”
“I won’t, unless you say they don’t count!”
“They don’t count,” hissed the voice, a whispery sigh. Outside and above, the villagers laughed at something.
She dug with fresh ferocity, revealing a gap in the wall and, sitting in it, a black stone some eight inches long, a huge, cruel bird’s beak.
“How can you speak?” she asked without thinking.
“Anything with a mouth may speak.” Which seemed odd to Voud, since the beak was motionless even when it spoke. “Two questions left!”
The stone beak cradled awkwardly in her arms, Voud threaded her way through the villagers watching Irris defend himself. “And for dinner my wife brought me a bowl of gravel,” Irris was saying. “It was delicious!”
“Nothing but lies for the past ten minutes!” said one man, “Give it up, Anghat! You’re lucky if Irris doesn’t bring trial against you for this!”
“I’m sure,” the headman said, “that Irris realizes Anghat’s suspicion was reasonable. Now the issue has been settled, publicly and fairly.”
“Let him bring trial against me!” Anghat cried. “Let him say straight out that he is the Irris who left here nearly two years ago!”
“Voud,” said Irris, strong and clear, and suddenly everyone was looking at her. The headman frowned, perplexed, and Anghat’s face went slack, his anger turned to fearful astonishment.
“Anghat is a murderer,” she said. “Whispery god, who are you and how did you come to kill my brother Tas?”
“Two questions! I am quit of our agreement! You have no name for me. I was strong beyond your imagination. I and my confederates changed the land into sea and the sea into land; we defeated our enemies and left them drowned and powerless.
“Then I was betrayed. For millions of years I lay buried and starving until earthquakes and storms freed a small part of me from the mud and stone of the river bluff in which I was trapped. The man Anghat came along and chipped the beak from the rest of my skull, brought it to his house and put me in a hole in the wall and plastered it over.”
“Lies!” cried Anghat.
“I will be revenged!” said the stone. “Anghat gave me blood and prayers, but I could use them only for his purposes. He wished me to kill the men of a particular house without arousing suspicion. The father was old, it was nothing to hasten his death. The son named Tas I caused to fall and hit his head with killing force.” Anghat turned to run but he was trapped by the solid mass of villagers. “As for the man you call Irris. . . .” Anghat made a strangled noise and collapsed. “This is not Irris,” the stone continued, “but my ancient enemy whom I thought trapped forever.”
The stone beak was suddenly burning hot, and Voud cried out in pain and dropped it. It hit the rooftop and shattered into a dozen pieces. From the south came a dull rumble, almost like thunder, but the sky was cloudless. “Anghat is dead!” someone cried, and the villagers began speaking and shouting. Voud remembered the whispering god saying he forbade me to harm him; remembered Irris sitting beside her, the baby in his lap, refusing to promise not to hurt any villager. The man who cut my throat said he was paid to do it.
Voud looked toward Irris. He lay unconscious on the rooftop, Ytine kneeling beside him. Irris’s ribs moved in slow, shallow breaths.
“Ytine,” the headman said. “I’m trying to make sense of this.”
“It lied,” said Ytine. “When it said my husband had died. It must have killed Anghat, and tried to kill Irris, but its lie destroyed it.”
Voud shook her head, but didn’t say what she was thinking—the crane was right, Irris had had more power than he had implied.
Voud and Ytine sat by Irris, who lay where the men had placed him that afternoon. The sting of Voud’s burned hands had faded. She was crying.
Ytine’s eyes were closed. The baby slept curled on a mat, his thumb in his mouth, eyelashes sticky with tears. There was the sound of wings, and then the crane stepped fussily down the rungs of the ladder. Ytine didn’t open her eyes, or say anything.
“Ytine is praying,” Voud said.
“I know she is,” said the crane. “Voud, listen to me. You could sacrifice to Irris, but I strongly advise you not to. At my most powerful I couldn’t do what he did today. A whole section of bluff downstream collapsed into the river and just dissolved away. The ancient gods weren’t like us. The world has changed so much; the ways gods survive are very different now. I honestly don’t know if the gods of this marsh would be strong enough to protect you from him, if you ever needed it.”
“You can make him better, at least enough to get up.” Her throat ached, and her voice was unsteady.
“I don’t know what he wants,” said the crane. The baby, still asleep, gasped three times in quick succession and then sighed. “I don’t know what he’ll do. He’s dangerous.”
“Fire is dangerous,” said Ytine, speaking for the first time. She opened her eyes. “We still keep it in the house.”
“Fire is what it is,” said the crane. “You know how to keep it contained.”
Ytine said nothing, only looked at it. Voud couldn’t read her expression.
“You’re dangerous,” Voud said to the crane, realizing.
“Very,” the crane said. “That’s why there are so many restrictions, in the agreement with you. But I do my utmost not to be a danger to you.” It took two precise steps closer to Irris, spread its wings and then folded them again. “Irris is what he is, a potentially powerful god not bound by the marsh accord. But his presence has made your life significantly better. Whether I help or refuse to help, I may harm you. So I’ll consider myself bound by your choice. I know what Ytine wants. I can guess what the baby would say. But you, Voud, are head of the household while Irris is incapacitated.”
She wanted to say I’m just a little girl! “I only used one question, before. You still owe me two.”
“True,” said the crane.
“What happens if I say no?”
“Irris’s body will eventually die. The god will still inhabit the corpse and you’ll have to dispose of it. But I can help with that.” Voud sobbed twice, and sniffled. “If you say yes,” the crane continued, “I can give him the strength to get up. If he finds worshippers somehow, he may grow stronger than we can handle.”
“That’s what you’re afraid of.”
She turned the new thought over in her mind—the village’s gods, who watched over the babies, who had always in her memory been benign, even avuncular presences, were dangerous. Like fire, Ytine had said. She thought of Irris with the baby on his lap, thought of her knife. The stone beak burning her hands, shattering, and Anghat dropping dead. She had been afraid since that moment, a nameless fear that the crane just now had outlined for her. And if the crane didn’t know how to deal with it, how could she? She felt more tears well, and wished she could be done crying. “Can you make him strong enough to talk?” she asked.
“That’s three, and yes, I can.”
Irris opened his eyes. “Voud,” he said, his voice the smallest sound imaginable. Ytine dipped a cloth in a bowl of water and squeezed it over his mouth, and he swallowed. “I owe you.”
“Are you going to hurt us?” She tried but failed to keep her voice steady.
“Not a good question,” Irris said, his voice still a whisper. He closed his eyes again.
Voud shook her head, frustrated. “I want to help, but I’m afraid of you.”
“Smart,” Irris said.
“You wouldn’t promise not to harm the village,” Voud said.
“I knew I had an enemy in the village.” He paused, and Voud leaned closer, to hear him. “I didn’t know about Anghat’s god, though it knew me. Another thing I owe you for.” Ytine wet the cloth for him again, and he swallowed. “I don’t mean harm to the village. I’ll abide by village law.”
“For how long?”
The corners of his mouth twitched, faintly. “As long as Irris’s body lives.”
Ytine made a sound. Voud looked up—she was crying, quietly, her shoulders shaking.
“Well done, Voud,” said the crane.
Within a week Irris had recovered. If anyone voiced suspicions, they whispered. No one dared make an accusation; if they were wrong it would be unjust, and if they were right it would be unsafe. Certainly any time after Anghat’s death, if storms or floods washed bones out of the muddy riverbank—skulls with tusks and huge teeth, gigantic femurs, snaking lines of vertebrae—the marsh gods were consulted before anyone would touch them.
Eventually the whispers died down. The headman worried briefly about his position, but Irris showed no sign of ambition. Voud was another matter—but whoever her brother was, the headman would rather have her as an ally than an enemy when she was grown.