Gian returns to Sea-john from the Kingdom's wars certain that he has skills beyond killing, death and destruction. He needs to prove to himself that love is just as strong, if not stronger, than his hate. The Summer King gives him this opportunity.
This short story was acquired for Tor.com by consulting editor Ann VanderMeer.
We have been down together in my sleep, unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat, and waked half half-dead with nothing
Gian stole into the house. From the back garden, a work-song: soprano led two deeper voices, who called the responses. There was the big wooden box, under the worktable. Gian went to it, pulled the box out, and rummaged its contents. He plucked gold from his ears and put in disks of mother-of-pearl. He lifted off his military beads, all the commendations he’d won in the Kingdom’s wars as one who stood When the River Ran Red, and restrung his neck with clattering necklaces of polished white stones and shell nacre. Silence fell in the garden. Shadows blocked the good light. Busted!
The shadow up front leaned from brightness, peering into the dark—a sudden movement. Used to blows, Gian flinched. Still? No one alive could or would knock him around, and Milord the Marshal had gone down in the river, one of countless who’d bloodied the waters.
“That’s your sister’s.”
Black Daddy stood at the back doorway. In their scarves and broad-brimmed straw hats, Mama and White Daddy crowded close behind him.
“I asked,” Gian said. “She said I could borrow it.”
“There’s no bembe up at our temple today.” Black Daddy came into the house. “So what you dressing in daytime regalia for?”
“Somebody asked me to go somewhere with them, that’s all.”
“Somebody, huh?” Black Daddy invested huh with deep, wry knowledge. “Everywhere we go, Gianni, all this last season, people keep telling us how they just now bumped into you somewhere around the hills of Sea-john. Always with the same good-looking fella. People can’t remember when they last seen somebody so much in love. All of them say how happy they are to see you doing so much better now, than when you first got back from the wars. But why you never bring your man by here, Gianni? We could make dinner for him; he could meet your mamas-and-papas. Everybody could say hello to each other.”
“I can’t right now, Daddy . . . I gotta go somewhere.” Gian shimmied from his everyday shirt, bright-dyed and fitted. He drew on his sister’s, loose and white. “But soon, all right? Real soon.”
“You ashamed of us, Gianni? We too poor? You don’t want your fine man seeing what you come from?”
“No!” Gian thumbed loose the knot at his waist. “It ain’t like that.” His wraparound pooled at his ankles. “He’s just like us—nobody high and mighty. Feet on the ground, not nose up in the air.” Nothing like Milord whom he’d served the last decade, in other words. Gian rewrapped his waist and legs with the length of white cotton, expensively well-bleached. As was his wont, he tied off the wraparound girl-style, rather than just folded over, then buckled back on his belt and scabbard. “He’s just a plain ole Johnny from Sea-john, same as us.”
“Well, who his people, then? What hill they live on? Which parish? What the boy name?”
“Black Daddy . . .!” Gian exclaimed in exasperation; he swept up the loose flowers he’d laid atop the table.
“We can’t hardly step in the street, but somebody don’t stop us to say they just now seen you, hugged up with some fella we ain’t even met once. Now, all of a sudden, you going to services out of parish. What it feel like, Gianni, is you cutting out the people who love you best.”
“No, no; me and him just been busy, that’s all.” Gian desperately bundled his clothes and things together. “Soon as things get settled some, we’ll all do something nice. I promise.” No slipping out—he must say good-bye properly.
Mama and White Daddy weren’t dumb: of course not. But they were so ashamed of their accents, mostly Black Daddy spoke for them if he was around. And since sturdy rope and a team of horses would never tear them loose from his side, it was no wonder they couldn’t speak Johnny worth spit after a quarter century living in Sea-john. Black Daddy had learned their foreign jabber. Gian sucked his teeth softly, glancing down so his parents wouldn’t see him roll his eyes. He leaned up to kiss Black Daddy’s cheek, and touched Mama’s hand, then White Daddy’s. He fled the house.
After the indoor shadows, the flood of morning light was nearly blinding. Gian turned up a hand to shade his view, squinting down the block. There he was! At the southwest side of the parish temple, in the last patch of semishadow, stood a silhouette well-known by stature, breadth of shoulders, and locks twined to a turban atop the head—waiting right where the eyes sought first. Gian dashed that way.
“You musta been talking to somebody.” Cianco laughed and took the flowers. “But you didn’t need to bring flowers, or wear regalia, either—that’s just the rest of them. It’s something else you gotta do. Now let’s get going: we got nigh on three hundred folk waiting for us.” He looked up suddenly, back down the street. Gian turned.
Three can marry in Sea-john but not two, not six, not any number but three: his parents stood at the doorway of the house, two under hats, and Black Daddy’s hand at his brow against the glare. There wasn’t much you could make out of them at this distance, except who was nearly as tall as Cianco, who as short as Gian, who was man, who woman, who—“I thought you said we were in a hurry.” Gian tried to draw Cianco away, who didn’t budge.
“That’s them, ain’t it? Your mamas-and-papas.”
“Yes.” Gian embraced Cianco’s arm. “But won’t the priests be wondering where we at about now? Can’t keep everybody waiting.”
“They look like real good people, your folks.” Cianco broke into a grin. “I’ma go say hi to them!”
“It ain’t right”—Gian made himself heavy, both hands gripping Cianco’s arm—“making all those people wait!”
Cianco looked at him. “You don’t want me meeting your folks.”
“It’s not that. Really, pop. Just . . . next time, all right?” Gian tugged without effect: no one made Cianco do anything, not by force. “We can have us a good visit next time around. Promise.”
Cianco stared and stared. Gian fought not to shuffle and grin like a liar about to be called out—but at last Cianco nodded. He turned and raised a hand in greeting. Far up the block three hands waved back. Then he let his lover nudge him into motion and drag them hustling the other way.
They went downhill and up into the next. “So, Gianni-mi—listen up,” Cianco said. “I’m gonna change and be all strange and different today, but still myself, all right? And if the congregation calls you the hallowed boy, or Summer King’s lover, don’t worry about it. Understand?” Not really, no; but Gian nodded. Cianco led them around back of a temple. “And she’s tough and hard -headed; she always gets her own way. But just for today, the one she chose for Summer King knows better. That’s me.”
She? “Who?” Gian said.
The Most High stood in the street outside the temple; she said, “Drink this. More! Now pass it to your boy.” She snatched the chrysanthemums from Cianco, and made them both gulp from a flask of infused spirits (oh . . . the world tipped giddily; Gian hadn’t yet broken the fast) and hustled them the back way into the temple, by a little postern door. “Man, why on earth did you dress your boy like another petitioner?”
Cianco could have exclaimed without injustice, “‘Ain’t nobody told him to dress like that—he put them clothes on!”’ but he said, “My baby’s pretty in white. I like him like this.”
The answer satisfied her. At Gian’s parish temple the Most High was a short elderly woman, too kind if anything—she’d always let him get away with things, including never attending services. Not the boss priestess here! This Most High was another Johnny giant, more robust in middle years than anyone younger. Abrupt and sharp-eyed, she managed to say with one glance, I’m well aware of your foolishness; soon there will be a reckoning.
Inside the temple drawing breath was work, the aromas thickening the air were so bitter, sweet, and noxious. Sage smoked from braziers. The fragrance of flowers commingled and clashed. Up in there reeking was the old standby stench too, savory with death, rusty and wet: a flock of beheaded fowl hung from trussed feet overtop stone deities, knee-deep in slopping tureens. The feathered bouquets wept clotted black drops still. Nausea watered Gian’s mouth . . . A hand clasped the back of his neck, rested with affectionate weight, and let go. The touch steadied Gian, on bad footing at the river’s brink. A fossil of memory jostled him in passing, and was borne away on the ruddy current: some soldier facedown, arrow ridden.
Gian looked up. Cianco’s eyes weren’t on him; they admired the temple’s spectacular door of flowers. Often enough his lover had said, “I get so lonely for you, Gianni. Sometimes when you’re right here by me.” And then would come the bulwark of a hand, supportive somewhere on the back of Gian’s body.
The massive doors were thrown wide, yet nothing could be seen of the courtyard fronting the temple. Dozens on dozens of garlands hung in a curtain, blocking the view. The light broke up among flower petals, scattering on the temple floor as dimly luminous confetti, in peacock colors, and toucan.
“Jump, dammit!” The Most High snapped her fingers at the women and sissys attending her. They hustled forward with a crown of marigolds and tiger lilies, a crimson mantle, a green wraparound all stiff with gold brocade, and some fancy sandals of the sort nobility wore in the Kingdom. They stripped and redressed Cianco. With the nimble truant immobilized, and preparations underway, the Most High could now light into him properly. “You got some nerve,” she snapped, “falling up in here late like this.”
“But . . .” Cianco blinked, head shaking slowly, and smiled. “. . . I ain’t though.” That way he had, that voice, all caramel and languor, could awake such love in hearts, or—“You know me, Aunty: always on time.”—such fury.
She put her finger in his face. “Tu, m’iamas ‘Laltissima’!”
Cianco gently took the hand and softly kissed it. “I’m right on time, Most High.”
She snatched it back. “A couple hundred people out there waiting. They get one chance, once a year.” The Most High slapped his chest at one and once. “King comes at noon and he’s going at first quarter of the night—”
“Let’s don’t waste no time, then.” Cianco pointed at a hole in the ceiling, falling from which a narrow sunbeam struck a brass plate atop the altar. The endpoint sparkle had crept nearly dead center the plate’s much-etched symbology. (Sweet as nectar to the bees, so were the many splendors of Cianco to the sissys. He was muscled and manful, full of mellow charm—and oh it took the breath away, that print of bird! Gian felt himself in warm fellowship with his sisterly brethren, and so tolerated more foolishness than others might. Even so, one of the Most High’s attendants began to work his nerves with all the fluffing, and tweaking, and smoothing of the lay of Cianco’s mantle and regalia. It was just way too much. Gian muttered with soft vehemence: “All right, you done here”—plucking off those hands in favor of some having a right to that work, his own—“My man got him a sissy for this.” Licked wet, his thumb wiped away crystals left from sleep at the corner of Cianco’s eye.)
The Most High looked from one of them, beauty and virility made flesh, to the other, some other thing, and then back at Cianco. “So this your boy, huh?”
Of course she would have thought Gian born unpainted at first glance. Everyone did. Now he watched her eyes dismiss him into a familiar exile, deciding Gian’s origins must lie not off the hills of Sea-john so much as off the continent itself. His younger brother and sister never suffered such skeptical looks: they were both tall, both born tawny, and nicely browner still after a lifetime of equatorial sun. Proper hair too.
“Yes,” Cianco said, and with no little peck; with tongue, at length, he proved it. “Love me some him!”
“But . . . is he Johnny, though? Power comes down best for the young, los formozi, for somebody born up here in the hills, Sea-john.”
“You can talk to him, Most High. He standing right here, ain’t he? And he just as beautiful and Johnny as you or me, or anybody.”
Gian’s hair was tied back. With a winkling finger, the Most High loosed some strands for examination. What rufus stuff is this? Her thumb and index worried at the lock. And so lank! She, like most Johnnys, was very tall; nowadays though, with his hair grown long, the monstrous scar some arrowhead had torn across Gian’s scalp could be hidden, never seen by anyone but a lover. But the Most High mussed the monster out. Grimacing, she looked down, and demanded: “What hill? What parish?”
“Born and raised up on Mevilla hill,” Gian said. “Toretta deldio”—he gave her the parish-sign—“represent!” The hills of Sea-john all spoke different dialects, every parish another accent.
She frowned skeptically, but there was no arguing with the evidence of her own ears. Next she asked, “How old are you?”
The wars had weathered him. So a young man came by so many scars, fine lines, and old man’s shadows in his eyes. “Twenty-three,” Gian said. Despite the truth’s implausibility, he spoke with a steady voice because of the hand stroking down his back. It cupped his ass . . . and dropped away.
The Most High grunted, the skepticism given voice this time. She snapped fingers at her priestly cronies again. “Y’all bring me La Pablo in here.”
They brought in a tall youth, shirt open, skin glossy as oiled obsidian; he smiled, seeing Cianco, and didn’t see Gian at all. Was this preferred boy good-looking? Halfway cute? Just all right, if you liked that sort of thing?
La Pablo was gorgeous.
A creepy-crawly sensation, hotness too—half a blush and half swarming ants— itched and burned Gian’s face and back, all up and down his arms. Cianco happily scooped the lovely La Pablo close to his left side and, lips upon ear, murmured to him tenderly. If one of the luminaries should condescend, then the homely lover, plain of face, knows damn well to choose some modest number, and then begin counting down the days of love. Beauty seeks after beauty, like goes with like; forever this was the way of things, world without end. Recognizing the moment long dreaded had come, and feeling a fatalist’s relief as much as dizzying humiliation, Gian eased back toward the postern door and . . .
. . . was caught by Cianco’s free hand, of course: reeled in close under his right arm. “Two!” said the Summer King, grinning at His bounty. He hustled Himself and armfuls out through the door of flowers. In the high noon outside, the Summer King shouted: “Look what I got, y’all!” brandishing His right and left arms. The crowd roared approval.
And well they should adore Him. The Summer King was man no longer but Someone greater. The folk clapped and stomped, hailing Him with joyful noise, the song palpable in its cadent thunder. He put forth radiance outshining the tropical sun at meridian. No one closer in the embrace of that glare, Gian squinted his eyes, a little shaken.
Priestesses stood round enormous drums beating the invocation. White-clad and chanting, the congregation held all manner of flowers. Most had come with wreaths of bright wild flowers and pretty weeds. The poorest held branches broken from magnolia trees, or jacaranda. A few folk held singular blooms, a rare lily or strange orchid, for which they must have foraged the bush, or nurtured in home gardens, against this very day. All had come with their best. The stout daughters of the richest family propped up between them a huge folly of flowers, bear-shaped and sized. Father and a younger sibling lay at their feet shivering on pallets, given to drinks and brows wiped dry by two mothers.
The people were crammed along the walls of the sacred compound, to clear a space before the door of flowers. In that dusty clearing awaited the throne. It was a huge stool of carven hardwood, shiny black from age and oiled care.
“Atuandicy, Pablihno,” said the Summer King, when they’d reached the stool. He put the pretty boy standing at the stool’s left side. Gian moved toward the right, but oh no, he’d got it wrong again. Taking seat upon His throne, the Summer King dragged Gian down upon one thigh. Big and smaller man fit their seats just fine, one a full foot taller and half again as heavy as the other; the stool, immense.
The drumbeat changed and folk quieted. “Who first?” called the Summer King. His voice, sonorous and rumbling just a moment ago, now eerily rang out as tenor, a bell tone.
A girlchild, four years old, stepped into the dusty amphitheater from the encircling throngs. While approaching the throne, she cast back frightened looks to a woman, two men, and three older children who nodded, flapped their hands, and smiled encouragement of the girl’s every reluctant step forward. She was called “Patri,” for with that name the family urged her on. And they cried, “Go on, baby. Keep going.” In her hand, she bore the flowering bough of a flame-of-the-forest tree, with blossoms red as mango pits, orange as that fruit. And full of fish, the jowls of some pelican rising from a sea dive might bulge too, as immensely as did this child’s, goitered or scrofulous.
“Put that there, little mama,” said the Summer King. The girl stooped to lay her flowering branch at La Pablo’s feet. “Now come here,” He said; the girl stepped just between the sprawled knees. He set a hand on her shoulder (the other palming the small of Gian’s back). To the crowd He said, “Bring down some power, y’all,” and the people began to sing; but quieted when He lifted His hand. “Oh, no, mamita. I need sure ’nough strength for this.” The Summer King shook His head sadly. “The flowers are good, but why didn’t you bring me some rum?”
The child stared, mouth ajar, knowing His question was owed some answer but not knowing what. Her eyes shone, and lips trembled. From along the walls her mamas-and-papas, sisters and brother cried pardon for their family’s poverty.
A cripple was leaning on his crutch at the edge of the crowd: to him, the Summer King called, “Can’t grow back that foot of yours, pa!”
Calling back, “No?” the old man said, “How come? Summer King could do anything, I thought.”
“Man, you been coming ever since that shark bit you. Every year the Summer King say the same damn thing: ain’t no growing back hands, feet, or nothing like that. What’s gone is gone. You been knowing it!”
“Yeah, well.” The old man scratched his beard, rooting in the grizzled scruff. “Man can hope, cain’t he? But, Summer King, not nothing? Can’t maybe grow me half a foot? Then, see, I could come back next year and get—”
“No,” said the Summer King. “It ain’t no half feet, either. So why don’t you just give that rum you holding to this little girl right here.”
The freckled old man, redbone, whitened with rage. Selfish spleen contorted his face, but as he looked at the pickney, inflamed eggs bloating her underchin, his sneer fell away. “Yeah.” He made a sheepish face, ducking his chin. “You right, you right.” The old man held out his gourd.
The child looked to the Summer King; He said, “Go ’head, little mama,” and she fetched the rum back to Him.
The Summer King unstoppered and drank. His body always blazed with more than ordinary heat—such that after making love, after caresses, after the whispers, on sweltering nights Gian needed to roll to the farthest edge of the long pillow for relief and sleep. Now those inner flames surged, and the flesh where Gian sat warmed up hot; sweat beaded his brow and sluiced down his back. The Summer King tossed the emptied gourd aside, and cupped the child’s cheek in His hand. She cried out, thin and high. Her body seized and shook. The little girl crumpled into the dust when He let her go. “Patrízia,” shouted one of her papas, who ran from the crowd.
The father knelt. His daughter woke and he lifted her in his arms. Laughing rapturously, he spun the child around, held aloft for the crowd to see—her chin and neck were sharply defined, the swelling gone.
So they made petition, one after another, until the enthroned sat knee-deep in flowers. There came grievous wounds and mortal illnesses. A woman bared a breast purple and deeply ulcered, a man held his testicle, gigantic and misshapen, cradled heavily in both hands. Infection turned brown-skinned toes, a golden shank, one damaged cheek the dark twin of which was perfect, into smelly black and verdigris sponge, all nibbled at by gangrene. For them, no, the beating drums, the crowd raised to unison chant, the proffered flowers, and even rum for the Summer King weren’t enough. “Hold on,” the Summer King bade these petitioners: “For this, I need some love.” And Gian’s role in the proceedings came clear: he must give the Summer King his kiss. At night on the long pillow, with the shutters closed and portieres drawn, naked in the midst of love, Gian felt passion for this man so surpassing fondness or desire he’d felt before, what else but to admit he’d known nothing of love whatsoever, was learning now. And those lessons had their time and place . . . surely not here? Yet, here, the merest brush of his lips to His raised the same ecstasies in Gian as the most intimate acts, and if the sacred kiss should become wet, and the Summer King slip His tongue . . .
It fell to lovely La Pablo to distract the sick and wounded. With the kindest fluency, his chatter did so whenever kisses ran long. Finally, the Summer King would free Gian to sit upright, then pass His hand over the crown of Gian’s head to draw off the blazing overspill of emotion, heady and hot and half-brokenhearted, stoked by their kisses. With the aid of “love” He could make even the worst-off well.
By the dozens they were healed, only four or five turned away.
To one of these the Summer King said, “No, grandfather. You belong to the Crow Sisters. I can’t give you but a little comfort. Want it?”
The old man wept, and said, “Yes.”
The Summer King whispered in the old man’s ear, and whatever He said smoothed a few hard lines of pain from the old man’s brow, and raised a wavering smile to his mouth. That petitioner went away content.
All those others denied had had truck with witches: they’d entered into pacts from which they now sought escape. All of them made the same report, that the price of witchcraft proves too high . . . everything! Each in turn, the Summer King suffered to speak her piece, or cry his repentance, but always He shook His head at the end and said, “No.” Here was neither comfort nor aid, for man or woman who’d gone to witches.
Third of those refused was a woman frail and aged, her scalp darkly gleaming beneath wisps of cotton. Oh, she moved Gian! The hunched carriage of her shoulders, her haunted eyes, the hopeless slackness of her mouth, half-open and gasping: all was reminiscent of soldiers who’d come through the hottest action alive, yet afterward could find no good in life. Haltingly, the woman gave an account of the perfidy of witches that raised the hair on Gian’s arm. To hear how they’d tricked her turned his stomach—they’d taken so much for just a little luck in finances! Sent unsuccored back to the arms of her two wives, the woman let go such rough sobs Gian couldn’t bear them. He turned, and his own eyes full, said, “Won’t you?”
In the dusty courtyard were hundreds, and none missed this petition. The drums fell off, all noise from the crowd, saving the wives who wept together. In that lull, only after he’d asked, did Gian recall that every favor comes at some cost.
Sweeping Gian off His knee and embracing him close, the Summer King whispered in an ear: “To help her, say yes: before midnight, you’ll tell me what happened When the River Ran Red”—Gian’s stomach clenched painfully—“and the whole truth of your service to Marshal Jaqash, peer of the Kingdom, wasn’t he, who fell in the river. Of course he did! Cruel but no coward, Milord always led the corps from the front, didn’t he, and you there right beside him. The lesser soldiery said about you corpsmen: ‘Spilling blood gets ’em drunk.’ Yeah, you few up in the van they called Blood Drunkards. Heaven has plans for you, Gianni-mi, but you’re no good to yourself or the world all walled up in secrets.”
Afraid of questions—afraid of his own answers, rather—Gian never spoke about the years of his conscription. It was a horrible shock, then, hearing unuttered confidences pour from another’s mouth. Bitterly he said, “You know everything already!”
“No,” whispered the Summer King. “This is your own heart talking to you—your poor lover knows nothing.”
It was Gian’s pleasure to be handled and grabbed by these hands; but sometimes his body must signal the contrary, for the grip always knew when to loosen, as now. Gian stood and met the gaze of the accurst woman, needing his eyes full of the sight of her suffering, if his mouth were to say yes. She stood between wives, gripping their hands, her eyes terrible with hope. Neither wife was older than Gian, yet the toll of tribulations had croned the woman who’d gone to witches.
Gian said, “All right, pop.”
The Summer King beckoned the woman back. He said, “Lean close,” and the words whispered into her ear dried up every tear, and straightened her back, and her hands clenched and opened as she listened. Her countenance was no longer woebegone, but became charged with fearful awe. After the whispers, much-shaken, the woman gave the promissory nod. The Summer King accepted her flowers and drank her rum and she stepped away, that Gian could give the kiss. Tasting only of the fruit juices Johnnys mixed into rum and called Jaúndi mar libre, there was no breath of spirits in the Summer King’s mouth.
Gian had been waiting for this so long.
Thirteen years old, and taught marksmanship by shooting bound felons full of arrows, the boy he’d been had thought, A long time from now when I get home to Sea-john, I won’t kill again or hurt anybody. I’ll have friends. I won’t be alone. Eighteen years old, and favorite of the Marshal himself, Gian had been the corpsman most envied of the vanguard, despite the hard use everyone saw, and the harder still none did: that Gian had dreamed, This won’t be for always. I’ll go home one day, and there’ll be some Johnny man, better and kind to me . . . Later on, under hard black rain, the torrents made of iron and each drop some man’s death in the river, Gian had splashed on past the upreaching hands of drowners, the faces breaking the surface with a gasp only to go down again, and across the river on the far shore he’d caught sight of enemies who would die once he and this spear reached them—and they reached them, and they killed them, as many falling at his hand, quite possibly, as legend claimed. This is your work now, Gian had thought, strewing death about him, but only live and some day, home again, turn your hand to something better, and in Sea-john life will be good, and safe, and full of love—
The kiss broke. Gian sat up dazed and the Summer King gathered up the heart’s hot surfeit in His hand. With it, he broke the witches’ curse upon the woman.
Catastrophe, it’s said, can bleach a suffering head overnight. What Gian saw then was hair, sparse and white, turn instantly black and thick, blooming about the woman’s head heavy and dark as some thundercloud. Her brow smoothed, and the corners of her eyes. Her hands softened, and gaunt limbs grew plump and strong. Everyone in the temple courtyard knew the moment her baby, fallen quiet these last days, kicked with sudden life: the woman clapped both hands to her heavy belly, and joy beyond joy lit up her face. In the arms of her wives again, she cried still, but not as before. Gian wept too.
Lastly there came a petitioner uncalled-for. This man smiled, wholesome of aspect, and handsome. In his hand he bore a lily rich in color as the deepest tissues of the body laid bare. When he set the flower down, its petals brushed Gian’s ankle, soft and downy, only a little cooler than living flesh. A hue and cry broke out among the congregation, for no few at the bembe knew this man. He was Sea-john’s greatest villain. How had he passed unseen in the courtyard until this moment? The drums quieted and none would sing for him. Sing? “Throw him out!” “Strike him down!” “You be careful there, Summer King. Watch him close, beware!” The fulminations of the people went on and on, until at last the Summer King said, “Be still, all you! I’ll hear him just the same as anybody.” Deep was the hush that fell then, and all hearkened to the hideous truths spoken before the throne.
This man had once been the lover of a famed beauty who in the end had chosen to marry others. So the man had gone to witches for a vengeance. Before the next dark-of-the-moon, both husband and wife of his former lover had met with gruesome misadventure: the one scalded dead when a vat of boiling laundry overturned, the other caught out some night without talisman by the wild dog packs. Indeed, the famous beauty too was dead now: throttled and drowned, by this man, while bathing. Crimes enough, anyone would have thought, when the man owned up to these murders, then quieted. Yet indignant voices from the crowd picked up the tale, and called out further iniquities. The mamas-and-papas of the beauty: found mutilated and dead. An orphaned infant: snatched from aunty’s arms; dashed against a wall. And more, and worse.
When the chorus had at last rendered a full accounting, the man hung his head. “Those things . . .” he said sorrowfully, “. . . happened. It’s true”; but all this evil owed to the whispering devil perched on his shoulder, the man said. The witches had put it there, and even now he felt hot breath blowing on his ear. Though no one else could glimpse it, and none but him hear, the fiend was always with him, suggesting fresh abominations. That lickle child, your knife: kill her, it might say, or, Sex that man there; choke him dead in the throes of love. Only to make amends for past evils did he now beg freedom from this demon, goading him always deeper into damnation. You were hard of heart not to suffer some doubt then, not to wonder whether this man could really author such grisly wrongs, seeing his soft brown eyes glitter so, full of tears.
And yet to him, as to those others, the Summer King said, “No.”
The man turned to Gian. “Ó Sãozinho, will you speak for me?”
Uneasy, Gian shook his head slowly.
The breathable ethers grew spiteful, pungent to the tongue and nose and eyes, as when chilies strike hot oil. La Pablo si beau screamed; for the man’s face convulsed with demoniacal rage. A hidden dagger drawn, a hand thrown back only to stab down—and the villain lunged. (Gian had in fact shifted weight from his perch already, and set his feet in readiness, watching this man hawkishly all along. Gentlier. More gently, he might have caught the murderer’s hand in its descent, crushed the fine wrist bones in his grip until the fingers sprang apart, loosing the blade, or else wrenched the man forward faster still and sent him hurtling past the throne to a stunning fall. More roughly, there were easy openings for a killing blow to the throat, or else for slitting it wide, should he swipe out the knife from his own belt. But in the event, rough or gentle wasn’t Gian’s to choose.) Some dry leaf blows into a campfire well-stoked and drawing well. What follows? That leaf catches at once, swiftly is consumed, a shadow withering briefly in the fierce light, and thereafter little remains, not cinder and ash so much as smudges of char. Thus for that man bewitched: where he’d stood, a whorl of soot came floating down, a scorched funk already dispersing from the air. The mortal whole of him had burned, unto teeth, bone, and the knife.
The Summer King lowered his shining hand, and it fell dark. Become Cianco the man again, he stood up with Gian, and celebrations began.
The hymns and holy drumbeats turned worldly, the dancing fast and loose. Everyone feasted. Long after dark, beloved hands plucked Gian mid-dance from amidst a sweaty grind of women, and he clung to Cianco as the dizzy world spun still, he’d drunk so much. Overhead, his lover said to the wives: “Getting late, y’all. Me and baby need to head out.” After some hugs and kisses for Gian, they left.
Cianco walked with purpose while Gian straggled after, a finger hooked in his lover’s belt. They came over the hill, seaside, where breezes freshened off the waters—this wasn’t the way to Cianco’s house. Nor were they heading down to the beach to sleep, as they did every so often.
“Where we going?” asked Gian.
“I want you to meet somebody” was the answer.
Salty air stirred and Gian stopped. He closed his eyes and stood, swaying as wind cooled the rummy sweat slicking his skin. That thunder in the distance, rolling and rolling, was only the ocean downhill: with loud-mouth Johnnys all gone to bed, the sounds of breakers hitting the beach reached up into the hills. An arm encircled him. “Come on now.” A deep voice, warmly fond. “Come on, with your drunk ass.” Basso and arm chivvied him into motion and kept him moving. “Moon’s setting,” Cianco said.
“Mmm,” said Gian, keeping his eyes closed; he trusted to the arm’s guidance. Gulls cried overhead.
“We’ll hear ’em ring soon—midnight bells from over in the Kingdom.”
At midnight, the memory of his promise returned. Gian’s eyes sprang open.
“Ready to tell me what you got to say?” Cianco said. “It’s a long walk.”
Stopping sometimes for Gian to catch his breath, they walked the length of several parishes. When he’d told everything, though expecting to feel lighter and unburdened, Gian felt only tender and undone, none the better.
“Sit here,” Cianco said, with hands upon Gian’s shoulders to urge him down beside some parish well. With satiric looks—inspiring shy smiles—Cianco made a parody of the nuptial rite. He drew up water and gave it to Gian to drink; kneeling, he rinsed Gian’s hands and feet. But whom did the joke mock? Hard to say, with nothing but the real thing in his care. Gian’s heart knocked painfully. He must still carry the past with him and the river might never run clear again. Love doesn’t take the burdens away, only makes them worth bearing.
In a temple across the square, drums of a nighttime bembe had this whole parish bumping; and suddenly they ceased. Behind the walls, a voice spoke in the silence, pure and clear as ocean shallows, that woman’s voice—until it turned, mid-word, to smoke and gravel, the deepest bass of the most ancient grandfather. If they were only just getting to the invocation, this other congregation would be all night, Gian thought. He yawned. And it finally dawned on him to ask, “Pop, where are you taking me? And who we dropping in on, this late?”
“End of the block, right there.” Cianco pointed. “And she’s a nightbird. ‘I’ll be up whenever you get here,’ she said.” He pulled Gian to his feet. “My woman I go see every day I ain’t with you.” Midnight bells rang over in the Kingdom. “About time the both of you met. It’s something all three of us together got to talk about.”
“Super Bass” copyright © 2013 by Kai Ashante Wilson
Art copyright © 2013 by Wesley Allsbrook