Insolent pattern, this: the spackling of corrupted metal where his lips wetted it every night. Insolent comfort, too: the way the boat extended an internal pipe of dragon-nail or chitinite or some such, it didn’t matter, from the tumble of planks that made the walls of the hold.
This is where Anefthyn suckled.
This is where he found his peace.
The first hit of fumes, belched up from the deep-held engine of the craft, brought a stinging as of insects behind his eyes, and a blurring of his vision; the spackling of the pipe turned dim, a glittering sea seen through his lashes. His eyes, of course, wavered closed. Anyone’s would. The fumes were potent. The first hit faded and he gulped the expulsion down, feeling the gas roll warm down his throat and into his chest, and then deeper still. The stinging intensified and his eyes snapped open, seeing more than the interior of the boat’s hold, the pipe in close-up. His heart leapt like a hound-hurt boar. Fast and faster, as if it would drill out of his skin and through his tunic and hit, crimson, against the wooden wall; it stayed in though, he stayed whole, the fumes made him whole. A way to forget her leaving him, with the children no less, and the shame of purchasing this most shameful of ships, because it was powered by a lower soul, and so cheap, and as he watched smoke curl around the edges of his vision the figure of that soul materialized. Conjurer-like, all showman, striding straight out of oblivion and onto the stage of Anefthyn’s life. Obscured by shadow but tall, elegant, a hat rearing up above his head and a cloak sweeping around him like an embrace as he walked, arm extended, towards Anefthyn, chewing and gulping at the pipe in the ship’s hold, filled with its substance, filled with the euphoria of the dead.
A ring caught the light as the fingers extended towards Anefthyn’s face, inches away, threatening a touch. He saw—
“Daddy, what are you doing?”
The vision blinked out. He saw grimed wooden beams, tasted the rotten metal of the pipe in his mouth. Realized he couldn’t breathe. Realized the pipe was deep: he had moved his throat over it in his ecstasy and as he withdrew saliva unsheathed it and he retched emptily onto the floor. The pipe swung back. The pipe glistened before worming itself back between the gaps in the ship’s planks.
“Daddy, are you sick?”
Thank Gods they were behind him. Thank Gods they didn’t see that. Not today, at least.
“I’m fine,” he said. His voice sounded unfamiliar. A hateful, husky thing. He blinked. Still not looking behind him. As the light returned to his vision—the fumes clearing there but warm inside him still, filling him thickly—he noticed the darker copper of evening light shining from the porthole that his children opened. Thoughts rearranged themselves unhappily: the opposite of paradise. Bodies. His. His children’s. Hunger. Food. That was the way of the world. That was how everyone lived, every single day. “Go prepare the table,” he growled. “It’s time to eat.”
Anefthyn ascended to the deck a few minutes later after washing himself with a jug dipped into the river, poured over his head and body like an offering at the back of the boat. His reflection glared redly at him from the water. You are a wretch, it mouthed, and you are alone.
The twins sat near the prow; Eleos had pulled a few small wooden crates together and arranged plates bearing hunks of bread, cheese fringed with green and slightly furred grapes. The boys looked up as he approached. Eleos wide-eyed, expectant, already seeking praise. Thymos scowled at him. He looked just like her when he pulled that expression. Both the twins did. They had inherited their mother’s voluminous hair, making them seem at once untamed yet exquisite, uncontrollable, a dizzying contrast to aspects so fragile they might shatter if you screamed at them. The sight of that—and the meager offerings of food—brought nausea to Anefthyn all over again.
“Is that it?” he said, sitting heavily on a crate between the boys.
“We reminded you to pick up fruit and bread from Nico at the last riverstop,” Thymos said. “But you were asleep.”
Before he could retort Eleos placed a small, chilled hand on his own.
“It’s ok. We’ll reach the next one tomorrow. This is fine.”
The boy split the portion between the three of them and, setting aside the most spoiled pieces, began to eat, exaggeratedly, looking from his brother to father with inane hope written all over his face.
Anefthyn paid him no mind.
“You want to run this boat?” he said, locking eyes with Thymos.
“I would do a better job,” Thymos retorted, without a beat.
“No, no, let him speak.”
Perversely, Eleos irritated him more than Thymos, despite the former’s constant and obsequious attempts to be helpful. Thymos he could fight with. Beat down with his fury, and the boy would fight back until the two had exhausted themselves, and some kind of satisfaction was had between the bruises and the beaten-forth blood.
“Well, I would.” Anefthyn saw his courage waver and he grinned, appalled at himself as he did so. He couldn’t help it. None of this was his fault. “I would make sure we kept up with the village, and not drink mother’s money away and buy a better boat, and not spend all my time down in the hold, and feed us more than this dung.”
The boy flipped his plate, sending moldy grapes scattering like surprised prey. They rolled across the crate and disappeared among the other dross dirtying the boat’s deck. Anefthyn caught the boy’s wrist and Thymos yelped.
“Mother’s money?” he growled. “Mother’s? You know how hard it is to make a living?”
“No, of course you don’t, you know nothing about anything—”
“That’s enough, Anefthyn.”
A voice from across the water.
Filos hailed him from a boat steered parallel to theirs, a few oars-lengths away. Turning, Anefthyn blinked in surprise. He had forgotten there was a world beyond this boat.
“I thought we were last in the caravan,” he said, releasing his son’s wrist.
“I slowed to give you time to keep up.” The older man folded his arms, looking from the boys to the father. Judging, no doubt, Anefthyn thought. Judging the poor ship, their skinny frames. The food on their plates. “No one gets left behind.”
“Easy for you to say!” Anefthyn shouted, leaping to his feet, the fury at Thymos redirected. “Look at you, look at you in that thing. How much did you pay? Who powers your craft, Filos? A king, a sorcerer?”
The boat was magnificent: carved with aspects of sea dragons, fluting wood dipping down into the water to form wings, an unseen engine purring behind it, making a fan of ripples. Steam jetted forth from gills hewed into the hull. Filos, stood on the shining deck, was five decades old, childless, partnerless.
It’s wonderful what one can do without either of those things, Anefthyn thought, bitterly.
The man ignored his question and pointed a muscular, grey-haired arm to the mountains from where they had sailed.
“The storms are coming in the night, neighbor. If you don’t keep pace you will be drowned by them.”
He heard the boys gasp, turning their little faces to the imposing red mountains behind them, the river wending its wide path up through the trees and dusky plains to disappear into the heights. Above, on horizon’s edge, spilling outward: dragon-nail thunderheads, a cacophony of clouds. They had been late leaving this year; the village would descend from the mountain in their rivercrafts to winter in the lowlands, and Anefthyn had hesitated.
I was mourning my wife leaving me, he had told himself.
The storms didn’t care. No one did.
“Leave me be, Filos,” he said, suddenly exhausted.
“Let me take the children at least,” the man replied. “I’ll throw a rope, moor next to you. Let me take a burden off your back.”
“I am fine.”
The boat rocked on the churning waters. His empty stomach ate into him.
“At least take some food.”
Something heavy hit the deck. Looking down, Anefthyn saw a large oval object wrapped in a woven towel. Pulling the covering aside he saw that it was a loaf of bread, and thick-sliced animal flesh.
“Shall I cut it, father?”
Little fingers at his hands, grasping at it . . .
He pushed Eleos away and, stepping back for power, hurled the food into the water.
“On your way, Filos. Never insult me again.”
The other man looked at the children, surveyed their boat. The blackened wood (Anefthyn had tried to burn it that first night, drunk and hateful). The frayed timber. The noxious cloud belched erratically from the vents in its bow.
The fumes . . .
“Finish that,” he said, gesturing to their plates as Filos’ ship purred ahead, buffeting them in its wake.
“Finish that and go to bed.”
Anefthyn descended to the hold.
He suckled all night.
There it had been, waiting for him: the unsheathed pipe, the redirecting of the craft’s power into him. No wonder they were slowing. No wonder the storm would catch them.
Teeth and lips fitted around the pipe just so, as they always did. First hit. Gas hissed through the tiniest spaces of his teeth, warmed the roof of his mouth. Kissed every ridge of his throat as he swallowed it down. His eyes stung, and his heart contorted in frenzy, and the darkness came and the man stepped out of it.
The soul of the ship. Anefthyn beheld him clearly now, for the first time after days of suckling: decadently dressed but not rich, no. The opposite of it. Trying-to-be. Because the cloak, in full light, shone cheaply, and the hat was ragged, and the man was gaunt with poverty. There was the ring, though. That looked bright, and real. A genuine emerald. Perhaps Pearl of Lampad.
Where did you get that, Anefthyn said, or thought he said, because some part of his mind realized that there was an iron pipe filling his mouth and pushing into his thorax.
The man squatted before him, not answering, just smiling. Filling his vision. He smelled good. Rose-like. The ring shone on his fingers, and he moved them so that patterns of light marched in bars across Anefthyn’s face. The essence of an entire forest captured in one beam, and that beam proliferated.
To look at that forever!
To forget the shame of not doing his best, because he had never wanted children anyway, neither of them had, only she had been braver and left, first, and he was stuck with their two boys. Not yet men. At least then they could be responsible for themselves. But that was many years ahead. Perhaps . . .
What do I do, he asked the man. The priest who had animated the ship had told him it was possessed by the soul of a singer, an entertainer. A poor spirit. Assured him that it was good, anyway, because all spirits are.
That was another lie the weak were consoled with.
The man waggled his fingers, smiling on. The ring flashed. The bars of light marched and marched. Another world he could not be part of. The man appeared to be speaking—his lips moving—but no sound issued forth, or if there was, the tiniest, tinniest ghost of noise, Anefthyn could not make it out. What? What are you trying to tell me?
The man’s face contorted in sudden range. The ship lurched—and the pipe, lodged now in Anefthyn’s throat, so eagerly had he descended on it, butted upward, and he felt his upper teeth crack, and his lips split, and when he withdrew (awful, unending length vomited out) he spat blood. Laid on his back, panting, head throbbing, he looked up at featureless navy night sky through the porthole. Curled his tongue around his teeth; felt jagged edges where they had broken. Pushed the tip into the parted sections of his top lip. He was fanged, now. Bifurcated.
Wait. The sky was not featureless: pale clouds slid across it. The ship hummed beneath him.
The ship was accelerating.
Someone was piloting it.
Licking blood from his mouth, buoyed by rage, Anefthyn leapt to his feet and sprinted up to the deck.
He found the boys at the wheel. Eleos was the lookout—stupid little sniveling Eleos—and he shrieked as Anefthyn emerged from the hold and rushed to the prow, bloody-faced and eyes livid.
“What do you think you’re—”
A bellow of thunder from the sky; the horrid surprise of frigid air buffeted him. Turning, Anefthyn saw the sky brushed bright at its limits with the rising dawn—and glutted with clouds in the epicenter, the river banks crackling with moisture in the air. The storm was come upon them, and there were no other boats from their village around them. They were alone.
Blessed resignation. His decision was made.
“It’s too late now,” he said, trying to calm them. Warmed with peace. “Come on, son . . . ” Eleos darted out of the way as Anefthyn advanced on Thymos, whose slender frame was braced against the wheel. Turning at the last moment the boy lashed out, kicking him in the shin. Father and son cried out. The pain pierced him—why did these two always ruin every good feeling? Why could he not have any good thing?—and Anefthyn seized Thymos by the hair, pulling him easily from the wheel. He howled, he thrashed, but the boy was young, not yet ten, and powerless. Eleos beat at his side as he strode towards the porthole leading to the hold. He seized, him, too, catching a pale wrist that so much resembled his mother’s. the awful vision of him pinning her to the bed; the passion of their lovemaking, caught in an obsession replayed over and over with one another, before the pain. Before these two. Before her disappearing as if she had never existed, forgetting all of this easily, effortlessly.
Anefthyn hurled the children into the hold, descended the steps down and, taking one last look at the fuming sky and river that rocked like a bled-out bull around them, slammed the trapdoor shut.
“I want you to know,” he said as the boat lurched, grey light filtering in through the beams, “the words of a wise person. We are given a little cup of joy and a cauldron of misery in this life.” He spread his hands, legs shaking to balance. “So here we are.”
His children were huddled in a far corner, clinging to one another. Even Thymos had no fight left.
I have broken a child, the tortured thought came, and he wept at what he had become.
“I miss mother,” Eleos whimpered.
Of course he did. Of course they all did. But that was not the life for him: to love one person, and to live with them, and to make more lives, and to all live under one roof until the end, and even beyond. It didn’t work out like that for everyone.
But the sentiment made him think of something.
“I know you do, little one. But listen. There’s a way we can be together with her . . . or at least, not care that she’s gone.”
He turned to gesture to one side of the hold: the frayed beams revealing dun piping. Thunder made a muffled fury somewhere outside, high up, a world away. The river seethed.
But there was nothing out there for them. It was all here.
Anefthyn fell onto his hands and knees—the boat swayed on the water’s swell—and scrambled over to the blessed spot where he had suckled so many times, seeking that spackle of metal, the taste of it. He could see the pipe’s side—but the ship would not yield the opening.
“Don’t you do this,” he begged, beating at the wood with his fists. “Not now.”
“Daddy, I’m scared.”
He scratched at the wood in animal frenzy. He cursed. He battered it with his fists. His flesh bruised—yes, more blood—but it wouldn’t yield.
Not this betrayal.
Not when he needed it the most.
Losing balance as the boat rolled to the left, he fell onto his back, and a clatter of sound made the boys scream. Tools had fallen from where they were suspended on one wall. A lantern, an iron spike, a saw.
In moments he had retrieved it. In moments he was swinging away, the metal hitting metal with a sound like a cat’s howl, each swing, each exertion promising a euphoria that he could taste on his lips. One blow finally severed the pipe. It swung open, gaping awfully, into the room.
Anefthyn hurled the axe down. Panted. Sweat soiled his whole body; his clothes clung to him like furies. Blood trickled somewhere in his beard. But it was there: the pipe, revealed, carved open now, and the fumes. The temptation to suckle was strong but he stopped himself: he would go last.
“Boys,” he said, turning to his children. Beaming, broken-toothed, lips flayed. “Come.” The gas rolled a furtive carpet about his feet, gliding across the floor.
Eleos stood, slowly.
Of course it would be him, first. It had to be him: the purest. The weakest. A putrid mixture of both.
“Brother, no!” Thymos seized his arm with both hands.
Such beautiful things, Anefthyn thought. They deserve to know beauty, as I have done.
Let them have their little cup of pleasure.
“Trust me,” he said. Even here the fumes tingled in his nostrils, bringing that familiar tingle, that acid bounty.
Eleos took step after faltering step towards him, unsteadied by the boat’s rocking. Anefthyn curled an arm around his tiny body and directed him to the pipe, and its black opening. “Put your mouth to that, son, and breathe deep. It’ll taste bad at first—but then you will feel good. I promise you.”
The boy trembled in Anefthyn’s grip. Tears made tracks on his plump face, cleaning skin that had been blackened by the fumes pouring from the pipe.
“I know. I was too. I’m scared of so many things. Failing you. Being alone. Hurting you. This is the opposite of hurt, though.”
The hold had all but filled with fumes. Anefthyn saw everything through gauzy haze; his son, next to him, felt like a puppet, a little marionette. Let him inhale it. Let him feel it, too.
“No.” The boy’s reply.
Annoyance. Anger. His old friend.
“Give me this!” Anefthyn roared. “Let me have this!”
His hands traveled up to the crown of the boy’s head, gripping that luxurious hair, driving the boy to his knees, to the mouth of the ship that belched and belched forth its essence, escaped now. Uncaptured. “Put your lips to it. Do it!”
The river surged; rain hammered the deck above. They lost balance once more. They tipped over, father and son. Anefthyn fell face-first into the siding. Welcomed it, pushed his face into it, his ruined teeth. Where. His broken lips moved with life on their own, seeking. Perhaps this is what infants felt like in their mother’s waters. Perhaps this is what all life was like: to return to that, the satiation of blind hunger, without any care in the world.
He would do it. The smoke was too much; he was in the eye of the storm, the conflagration. No vision but dark. No sensation but a sickness bubbling with something else: an excitement, a gratitude. A breath exhaled. His lips found the pipe and latched on like he would never let go.
Thymos could see nothing now. The hold was full of that sickening black smoke. He watched his father fall, his brother rolling to the side, released. Coughing—the smoke made him gasp and gasp again to fill himself with anywhere near enough air—he crawled over to them, blindly, pulling his brother towards him.
Wordlessly he turned him, struggling to get to the stairs, and the porthole, and the deck, and clean if storm-rent air above.
“No,” Eleos croaked. “We have to save him.”
Behind them, Thymos saw their father knelt before the wall, throat bulging, eyes closed, mouth fixed lamprey-like to the pipe. An eel pecking at a hunk of flesh, unremovable. He looked up at the porthole—they were almost there!—and at his brother, and the pity there. Back at their father.
It would be too easy for him to go like this. This was no end for him. Crawling, taking strength in one another, the boys took an arm of their father each and pulled, yawing their bodies backward. He was stuck. He would not budge. Taking a higher grip on his shoulders, Eleos shifting to his waist, Thymos strained to push Anefthyn’s face from the pipe. Fumes blinded him. His vision darkened.
Another man stepped into the hold. Tall: rich, elegant. At once kindly of aspect and yet furious; he looked disheveled, like he had been crying. The boys knew this was no lampad, nor oread: this was a human spirit. The spirit of their ship. Thymos froze, his muscles burning as he kept the pressure on his father. Eleos spoke to the man.
“Please, sir. Please. Let him go.”
The man brought his hands up to his face, making a cage with his fingers. His shoulders shook. Perhaps he was still crying. A green ring glinted on one of them. Eleos blinked. As he looked at it the light changed, and he saw it was hewn rock, of the sort he would kick every day on the way to tutor. When he had had a tutor. No treasure at all. “Let him go.”
The man stepped backward into the smoke. The sound of his soft weeping became great, racking gasps: Thymos had pushed their father free of the pipe and the man lay, struggling for air, on his back. If he were not their father he would seem monstrous: broken, fanged teeth, blood all over his lined face, his beard, fists purpled with violence. The smoke hissed, escaping out of the spaces in the wood, the perimeter of the porthole where undersea blue of sky could just be seen.
Dawn was coming.
The ship would not move now, with the spirit escaped. They were at the mercy of the storm.
Thymos collapsed against Eleos, and the two lay on the rising and falling chest of Anefthyn.
“Thymos,” Eleos said, feeling for the hand of his brother, the hair of their father. Vision darkening. There was still so much smoke: the whole soul of the boat pouring up around them. It was as if a fire burned underneath the whole world. He went to speak but breathed more of it in; saw the blood drain from his brother’s face, the blue of his lips, all the veins in his eyes like fractures on ice. He said his name again. He said the name of his father, and his mother, and kept trying until breath became breathlessness, something hotter than air, sourer, and sight became a thing far away.
Smoke and smoke and smoke.
When the village had made landfall in the next river-stop, and he had helped the families with their home-setting, Filos took his craft back up the river to see what had become of Anefthyn. The storm had been fierce, but not the worst they had seen; he had left the man because his presence, in that moment, would only have provoked him to more violence. As his boat glided across the becalmed waters Filos let his gaze sweep across the verdant expanse of the banks, reeds like an audience, mountains behind them calm now, as if they would never dream of violence. He thought of the spirit of Anefthyn’s boat.
A man who had died young, decades past. A man who had been ostracized back then for living alone—and the men who lived alone, childless, wifeless, were treated with as much suspicion as women who did the same. There was no shame to this now. There had been no shame in that spirit inhabiting their craft. People stayed, and people left. All were good.
There it was.
On the curve of the river, sat motionless on the water, as if it were a sculpture. A sagging and sorry-looking construct of wood, hull ribbed with metal. This thing was dead material now, nothing more. Mooring alongside it he stepped over onto the deck. It was a poignant sight, the impoverishment of it. He felt for the children.
A man on the deck startled him. There was an aspect to him that chilled the world grey, that made him want to turn his boat around, pretending not to see him, forgetting him entirely. A young man, long-haired. Red-eyed from weeping. Sat cross-legged above the hatch that marked the entrance to the boat’s hold.
Filos forced himself to hail him, knowing exactly who this person was. Who he had been. The man ignored him, and as Filos’ craft approached he saw the hatch was framed with black. Burned. Or corrupted, by escaped gas. Of Anefthyn, of the children, there was no sign. Filos shouted their names, turning his eyes from the stranger.
The other man stood—Filos saw it like the sun in the corner of his vision, a force of nature that snagged his animal senses—and he felt that grey gaze turn on him.
“Anefthyn,” Filos called again, except his voice was a croak. “Not the children.”
Tears like jewels rolled from the other man’s eyes. “ . . . the children?” Filos formed this as a question, addressing the man. The spirit. Surely he was not unkind. Who unkind would linger like this?
The spirit moved his lips to speak, but Filos heard nothing, understood nothing. The blue lips finally stilled; the spirit shook his head—or, at least, made a movement of right to left, which could mean nothing, which could mean anything, because the dead could not speak. When he was done the man stood, lifting himself in translucent dark threads of air, and stepped out of the day.
Where his feet had been: an iron ring, spackled with corruption, blackened wood, grains like the ridges of nails, and the hold beneath.