Amajane’d been carrying her father on her back for a month. He made for a tame little cardboard tube, tucked into her rucksack between her washbag and spare drawers. She never changed her drawers daily, not even when traveling, so it was rare she laid eyes on him there, much reduced, but still shifty, cinereous.
She could have poured him out anytime in this desert. Left him, dust on dust. She was waiting for the right place, she said. She’d know it when it came.
Back by the sea, she’d broken him—still with limbs and flesh and wet thumping heart—out of prison. She’d grabbed his shoulders and flown him, his hands still chained, high out over the salt-spray churn of the sea, held him skybound with nought but her own power, herself a strong flyer but trembling, about to let him fall.
It felt like hours she was up there, bearing his whole near-dead weight. Words were spoken; she’s never said which ones. Maybe her mind was made up, and he changed it. Maybe it wasn’t made up, and not a thing he said could certain her.
Ellalee likes to say, She could’ve done it anytime. Dropped him in and let the sea and the rocks cut him apart.
Ettalynn likes to say, First chance she got she should’ve done it. She had a whole sea and no guts.
But it wasn’t her sisters Amajane had words with, up in the wind and the sky, before she—shaking, but still flying true—gripped that man and brought him straight back to the prison in the cliffs. It wasn’t her sisters who watched his dangling chains scrape the landing ledge and his chin soon after it, and Amajane’s scuffy boots stumbling a few steps away, getting distance, so her gut could heave and heave and send up nought.
And her sisters didn’t hear him laughing at her for it, beard fresh-blood wet, the iron in his teeth glinting dark. He’d have laughed til the sun went down, would that chained man, with his dripping nightmare sneer. And once, long ago, Amajane’d have let him. But that day Amajane—gritting her chattering teeth, pulling herself up with all the granite inside her—turned around. She turned around, and she looked him in the eye.
First it was that laugh, dying choking. And then it was his whole self, toppling over, chains aclatter. Dead, dead, dead in an instant.
No magic in it. She didn’t need any. She just turned around looking some kind of way, and bung he went. Sometimes, a person sees their future in stark clarity and chooses to roll off the coil while the going’s good, and that’s the best thing that could be said about Amajane’s father. The prison took his chains back but let her have his corpse.
She lugged him into the sky and over to the crematory. (Again, hark at the absent sisters, yawping on about dropping his hocus corpus into a wasteyard, into a canal.) In a few hours, she had a tidy tube of fine ash, his major moiety turned smoke. The smoke proved a relief, but what to be done with the ash?
Ellalee said, Scatter it in the street.
Ettalynn said, Pour it in the privy.
Amajane said, He deserves worse.
And so it was a month, a long hot dreary month of travel and search. When the sun rose into the sky, so did she. She’d fly hours til she tired herself, as even strong flyers do, then grudgingly land and tie on her bonnet and trudge through the dust and the heat. Amajane alone against the wind
s and the desert, the sun and herself unforgiving both. Maybe the time carrying him could’ve turned her toward a softer way. Maybe it only toughened her. She did not leave that cinerated man in a dry gulch to be borne up anew by any sudden storm, and she did not leave him on the red earth where the roots of tough plants might seek of him some succor. Only when the steam rose at the horizon did she finally stop.
The mudpots in the northern desert disappoint many a wanderer. Beneath scads of steam, foul and scorching and thick, lie pools ringed in uncanny colors. Some of the middles mimic mud, with slow viscous burps of roiling gas from the deeps, setting the mass aquiver, shivering the edges of heliodor, coal red, quicksilver. Other pools are so clear, so inviting, so calm, showing the smooth pretty pebbles in their depths. Shoreline scum in poison yellow and nightshade violet belies this freshwater masquerade. These pools also show, in perfect relief, the bodies that blunder too close—for the few fizzy minutes before they dissolve. Most travelers happen upon the mudpots hoping for water, and leave thwarted. A rarer few, with uncommoner goals, find these fatal pools most obliging.
Crack-lipped, sun-weary, Amajane set down her rucksack at a safe distance. Between the washbag and the drawers she ought to have switched out days ago, that tube of ash nestled shy and sly. No power anymore. No teeth. What’d she have to do this for? He was just granules, just powder. Surely she could rest easy now.
No. She wasn’t done. Two more steps forward, and a leap up, up, up into the air, just herself and that tube to hold aloft.
The mudpot Amajane chose was a frother. Not quite mud, not quite water, its gray-blue cauldron bubbling evil and quick. From the glimpses the steam allowed, she might’ve been floating above the ocean. It felt like hours she was up there, fingers clenched bloodless around that cardboard, staring down past scuffy boots into the roiling mudpot, hungry mudpot, hissing, popping. Maybe it was hours, or maybe it was minutes. Made no difference, in the end, to the fate of that tube full of ash.
Ellalee likes to say, She could’ve done it anytime else.
Ettalyn likes to say, She should’ve done it anywhere else.
But Amajane just nods. She’ll never tell them how it felt, to finally let him fall. She’ll never tell them how she laughed.