The Tomato Thief57 min read
Grandma Harken lived on the edge of town, in a house with its back to the desert.
Some people said that she lived out there because she liked her privacy, and some said that it was because she did black magic in secret. Some said that she just didn’t care for other people, and they were probably the closest to the truth.
When her daughter Eva asked her to move into town, to be a little closer, Grandma Harken refused. It got to be a regular ritual with them—“Mother, won’t you move in a little closer? I worry about you out there alone.”
“What’s going to bother me out here?”
“You could step on a rattlesnake,” said Eva.
“I’d rather get bit by a rattlesnake than the neighbors,” said Grandma Harken. “I get enough people coming whining to me as it is. As it is, some of ‘em get tired and turn around. A twenty minute walk has its advantages.” She held up a needle and threaded it on the first try. “Besides, I can still see what I’m doing. Talk to me when I’ve gone blind.”
Eva sighed, the way she always did, and said, “If you won’t come in closer, you could have someone come out and live with you. Hire a girl, maybe.”
“Garden only feeds one,” said Grandma, which was at least three-quarters of a lie. Eva knew this, but didn’t possess the sort of steel that would allow her to call her mother out on it.
“You could at least get a dog.”
“Can’t get a dog. It’ll offend Spook-cat.”
(Spook-cat was a tiny ginger tomcat who lived in perpetual terror of loud noises, sudden movements, and unexpected shadows. He lived under Grandma Harken’s bed and would occasionally consent to sleep on her pillow, despite her snoring. He was deeply intimidated by the jackrabbits that lived in the desert, so trips outside to do his business lasted less than two minutes, followed by immediate retreat back under the bed.
He had seen a mouse once and it had frightened him so badly that he had not come out from behind the stove for a week.)
Eva sighed again.
It was debatable whether she knew the real reason that Grandma Harken lived so far out of town. Her mother kept a lot of secrets.
In fact, it was because of the tomatoes.
Tomatoes are thirsty plants and they don’t always want to grow in a desert. You have to give them criminal amounts of water and they’ll only set fruit in spring and autumn. Summer heat is too much for them and if they don’t die outright, you’re pouring gallons of water a day into the sand just to keep them alive.
Grandma Harken had spent the better part of fifty years growing tomatoes and she had a spot in her garden that held water just a fraction longer than anywhere else. It got shade in the worst of the afternoon and sun in the earliest part of the morning.
Her tomatoes were the biggest and the juiciest in town. She started them on the windowsill on New Year’s Day and she planted them out in February. They ripened in spring and she pulled the plants up as soon as the last one had been picked.
The same people in town who muttered about black magic swore that she was using unholy powers on her tomatoes. This was a little more plausible than general black magic, because obviously if you had unholy powers, you’d want to use them on your tomatoes. But Grandma Harken was extremely useful to have around and knew more about dangerous desert spirits than anyone else, so people shushed their whispering neighbors and smiled politely when Grandma passed.
Also, if you were very polite, you might be able to beg a few tomato seeds from her. The resulting plant wouldn’t be up to her standards, but it would still bear a damn fine tomato.
Grandma Harken had been watching her tomatoes very closely for the last few days, and not just to catch the hornworm caterpillars.
One of the smaller ones was starting to come ripe, and she was looking forward to it more than a little.
She’d been feeling worn out and overly responsible lately. It had been a long, long year, and there’d been that business with her grandson and the jackalope wife. It had all worked out as well as could be expected, but it had been a worrisome mess while it lasted. Her grandson had gone back east on the train, and good riddance to him. Boy had no business in the desert. But she worried anyway, partly for him and partly for his mother and partly because a foolish young man with brooding eyes can cause no end of heartbreak in the world.
Worrying didn’t do any good, but somehow that never stops anybody. Mostly it made her tired.
She didn’t look any older, so far as she could tell from the mirror, but her heart felt like somebody had been scraping the last bits out with a spoon.
If she could just sit down at the table with a knife and salt and some good white bread, maybe a little mayonnaise … well, it seemed like that’d put the world back into the right sort of shape around her. Sometimes the best cure for life was a ripe tomato.
She got up the morning after Eva visited and went out to the garden. The air was still cool and the porch steps creaked as she walked down them.
The tomato was gone.
Grandma Harken knew right away that it was missing, but she looked around the plants anyway. There were three of them, planted in a triangle, covered in heavy green balls. A few were turning red, but the tomato she’d kept her eye on, the one that had been right there …
It had been there last night. She’d looked at it in sunset and thought that it’d be ripe this morning.
“I ain’t losing my mind,” she said firmly. “That tomato was here.”
The tomato continued to be absent. There were no seeds on the ground or tracks in the dirt to indicate where it had gone.
The rest of the garden was large and dusty, like desert gardens often are. Jackrabbits liked to come lie in the shade under the beans. Jackrabbits aren’t known for eating tomatoes off the vine.
Strange things happen in the desert. Grandma Harken looked around suspiciously and went back inside to make tea.
Two days later, there were two fine tomatoes almost ready to split. Grandma Harken stroked their scarlet skins. “Tomorrow,” she said, with satisfaction. She had almost succeeded in putting the previous tomato out of her mind.
But tomorrow came and Grandma Harken beheld a distinct absence of ripe tomatoes.
This time she went over the garden practically on her hands and knees, but she could not figure out where the tomatoes might have gone. Jackrabbits didn’t steal tomatoes, and javelinas, which might, would have made a fine mess of the garden. It was too high up for a box turtle, unless somebody was outfitting box turtles with stepladders these days.
“It ain’t a kid from in town,” she muttered. “They know better than to try, and anyway there’s no footprints.” The only marks on the dusty ground were from Grandma Harken’s own sandals.
She prowled around the edge of the garden and found nothing. The fence was undisturbed.
She was crouched in front of the plants, staring at them, when she saw it.
She breathed in sharply. It was easy to miss, but if she looked in exactly the right place, she could see what looked like a single human footprint in the dirt between the three tomato plants.
She was so still for so long that Spook-cat came up and twined around her, making small mrrrrp? noises. She rubbed him under the chin automatically, barely noticing.
A thrasher called from the palo verde at the end of the garden. The noise sent Spook-cat skittering inside, and woke Grandma from her reverie.
The footprint had five clear toes. The owner had been barefoot.
“Thief,” hissed Grandma Harken, and stomped back indoors in a bitter state of mind.
She wrapped herself up in a quilt that night and sat in the rocking chair on the back porch. “We’ll see what kind of rat bastard steals an old lady’s tomatoes,” she grumbled.
(Grandma Harken thought of herself as an old lady, because she was one. That she was tougher than tree roots and barbed wire did not matter. You did not steal an old lady’s tomatoes. It was rude, and also, she would destroy you.)
She leaned her shotgun up against the porch railing in easy reach. Probably she wouldn’t need it, but there was no telling how low a body would sink once they’d started down the road of tomato theft. Murder was not out of the question.
Though I’ll try to aim for the legs, she thought, and grinned fiercely to herself.
The sun sank and the sky blazed redder than a ripe tomato. The herb leaves rustled and the bean plants whispered to each other farther down in the garden. The great sprawling squash had not yet set fruit, but they were sending questioning tendrils out in all directions, and the peppers were the size of Grandma’s thumb. All around her, the garden whispered, a slow exhale after the heat of the day.
Grandma Harken leaned back in the rocking chair and fixed her eyes on her tomatoes.
She woke in the morning with dew collecting on the quilt. Her back was stiff and two more tomatoes were missing.
She shot out of the rocking chair fast enough to knock it over on its runners and cussed the air briefly blue.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” she said, when she’d run out of swear words and turned back to religion. “This ain’t funny anymore!”
She stomped down and found a nearly ripe tomato, which she yanked off the vine and took inside. It sat on the counter. A day or two and it would be almost as good as the others.
She was angry now at herself as well as the thief. Falling asleep when she was supposed to be standing guard—what was that? Was she really that doddering an old woman?
“Not tonight,” she said grimly. “Not tonight.”
She watered the garden by hand and did the laundry, just to keep herself moving. She napped all afternoon, which Spook-cat quite enjoyed.
Then, as evening fell, she brewed herself up a pot of cowboy coffee, with the grounds still in the pot.
It cost more than blood these days, but that was life. Salt, flour, coffee, and sugar were the only things Grandma Harken bought at the store, and the store could only get them in because Father Gutierrez was on good terms with the train-priests.
It didn’t matter how good the terms you were on, though, they were expensive as the devil. Most of the time she got by with tea and honey and cornmeal, same as everybody else.
Still, didn’t matter how strong you brewed it, tea was no substitute for coffee.
“I’ll be up half the night drinking and the other half peeing,” she said. “Not a chance I’ll fall asleep this time.”
She sat down in the rocking chair with the coffee mug in one hand and prepared to wait.
In the small hours of the night, Grandma Harken woke up because her bladder was killing her.
Her first thought was that she’d fallen asleep again, and damnit, she wasn’t that old.
Her second was that the thief was less than ten feet away.
It was a mockingbird.
Grandma Harken stared.
It glowed like silver under the moon—really glowed, every feather edged in white fire. When it shifted, it threw light across the prickly tomato leaves and left sharp-edged shadows across the ground.
The bird perched on top of the tomato cage for nearly a minute. Occasionally it would flick its tail and set the shadows dancing.
It might have sat there all night, except that Grandma Harken’s bladder was making its displeasure known. She squirmed in her chair and the rockers creaked on the porch.
The white patches on the mockingbird’s wings blazed up and it flew.
She shot out of her chair, bladder be damned, and charged down the steps. She could see the mockingbird flying, the sagebrush casting fantastic shadows, the saguaros briefly silver instead of black—and then it was a distant spark dwindling into the desert.
Grandma Harken watched it vanish against the sky.
“Mockingbirds,” she said aloud, stomping toward the outhouse. “Mockingbirds stealing my damn tomatoes.”
She knew mockingbirds eat fruit if they can get it, but she had to admit, she would not have expected one to make off with a full-sized tomato. Cherry or grape tomatoes, sure, but one of my big ones?
She was up and down three more times that night, as the cowboy coffee made itself felt, but she was hardly sleeping anyway.
Mockingbirds also don’t leave human footprints. And generally they do not glow like foxfire.
“Shapechanger,” she said to Spook-cat, who slept in a small orange puddle atop the pillow. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Again.”
The next night, she didn’t bother with coffee. She cleaned up the house and shooed Eva off when she looked inclined to stay late.
“I don’t need you fussing over me,” she told her daughter. “I ain’t gonna change and it’s just gonna make us both snappish.”
Eva was weak-eyed, mild-mannered, and had a disposition as yielding as a featherbed. It was hard to imagine her being snappish about anything.
But she’d also known her mother for a very long time, and she recognized make us both snappish as an olive branch. She stood looking down at the dishcloth in her hands, and said finally, “I’m worried about Brandon, that’s all.”
“He’s back east,” said Grandma Harken. “With your father’s kin. He’ll be fine.”
“Do you think so?” asked Eva.
Grandma Harken was sharpening her garden shears. Her hands slowed on the file and she said finally, “He’ll get in trouble and he’ll figure it out. Best to do it without us standing over him. It’s the only way anybody ever learns to clean up after themselves.”
“He’s been so upset since the girl—”
Grandma Harken threw down the shears. “He did a damn fool thing, and I cleaned up the mess for him. He should be upset. I’d be more afraid if he wasn’t.”
She exhaled and picked up the shears again. There was a burr in the edge of one blade and she set to work on it with the file. “Not your fault,” she said. “I shouldn’t yell. But see what I mean? I’m not fit for company now.”
Eva looked at her.
“I ain’t been sleeping well.” Grandma held that out like a peace offering, because her daughter was sweet, not stupid.
Eva nodded. She threaded the dishtowel through the ring by the little sink. “Can I do anything?” she asked.
“Let me stew in my own juices for a day or two,” said Grandma Harken. “Go fuss over someone who’ll appreciate it.”
Eva smiled faintly. “You’re the one I worry about.”
“I’m not dead yet,” said her mother. “And I’ve still got a trick or two left to play.”
She made an effort to be pleasant for the rest of the evening, and even let Eva extract a promise that she’d try to sleep more.
It ain’t a lie exactly. I’ll try to sleep more once I’ve stood off my tomato thief. Whatever they might be under the feathers.
As soon as her daughter had left, her whole demeanor changed. She laced on her good boots, in case she had to run, and locked Spook-cat in the bedroom. She put her garden shears in her apron pocket and made sure that her shotgun was loaded up with rock salt.
Grandma Harken knew more about shapechangers than anyone in town would have guessed, and that meant that she knew enough to be careful.
Mockingbirds are cousins to ravens, and that’s a bad game to get mixed up in. Never had any patience for riddles.
“Blessed St. Anthony,” she prayed, as she folded her quilt, “give me strength to defend my tomatoes.”
This seemed like a rather trivial thing to bother a saint with, once she said it aloud, so she added “And—err—defend me from temptation, amen.”
She pulled out her silverware drawer and dumped it on the kitchen table. With a ball of twine in one hand, she set to work.
By the time night fell, her best kitchen chair had been altered all out of recognition. She’d tied every fork and spoon to the back of it, flat with the bowl up or the tines out. Leaning back onto it would get you poked in a dozen places. There was one ladle aimed directly at the small of the back.
Grandma Harken was rather proud of that ladle.
She dragged the chair out on the porch and sat down on it, sitting bolt upright. She had a cup of tea in one hand—herbal, because she didn’t need to spend another night like the last one.
And she waited.
She dozed off once or twice, but as soon as she slumped backwards, the forks and the spoons jabbed her awake. The moon moved carefully in the sky overhead.
It was nearly midnight when she fell asleep—really asleep—and that lasted nearly a minute. But the ladle prodded her in the small of the back and forks were pressing into her shoulder blades and she came awake immediately.
The mockingbird landed atop the tomato cages and looked around. It was impossible to read anything in those small white eyes, but Grandma Harken thought it looked … furtive.
She kept her eyes lidded. Surely the porch was too dark for it to see her watching through the slits.
After a few moments of standing there, glowing like anything, the mockingbird dropped into the center of the bushes. Light splashed over the garden, briefly turning the squash and beans into a fantastic landscape of black and white … and then the light was gone.
In the dimness, she could see a figure standing up. The figure bent down, and came up with something in its hand.
Grandma Harken cocked the shotgun. The noise was like a crack of thunder across the desert.
The figure froze.
Grandma Harken looked down the barrel and said, “Don’t move. And don’t you drop my tomato.”
The mockingbird laughed. It was a woman’s laugh, short and rueful, but there was a bird’s hollowness behind it.
“If you shoot me, it won’t be very good for your tomatoes.”
“I ain’t getting much good out of them at the moment anyway,” said Grandma Harken. “Come out from between them, and don’t do anything sudden.”
She came out from between the plants, still holding the stolen tomato aloft.
Without taking her eyes off her captive, Grandma Harken leaned over and opened the back door. Light flooded out and lit up the face of the mockingbird-woman, where she stood at the foot of the steps.
She was human-shaped, short and broad in the hips, but not human-colored. She had a dark grey back and the white belly of a mockingbird. Her face was grey and black from the lips up, her chin and throat white.
She was naked, but she had feathers instead of hair. Her eyes were starkly orange.
Grandma Harken’s hand didn’t waver on the shotgun, but her mind was off and running like a jackrabbit.
She was never born a shapechanger, not looking like that. Whatever she’s done or had done to her, it came from the outside in.
Can’t imagine why anyone would try to turn herself into a mockingbird, but there’s strange people in the world and no accounting for taste.
At least she ain’t a kachina, or anything that looks like one. She’d been a trifle worried about that. Grandma Harken’s relationship with the people up on the three mesas was distant but cordial and she wanted to keep it that way.
People get awfully tetchy when you point a shotgun at their spirits.
Well, you couldn’t blame them. If blessed Saint Anthony came walking through the desert, Grandma Harken would’ve been pretty miffed if somebody shot him full of rock salt.
The shapechanger came up on the porch. She moved slowly, but slowly like a woman who’s got a gun pointed at her, not like someone who isn’t fitting inside their skin.
“Go on inside,” said Grandma Harken. “I’m right behind you.”
She got up. The mockingbird-woman glanced at the chair, wired with silverware, and laughed. “So that’s how you stayed awake,” she said. “Suppose a magic sleep can’t compared to a bunch of forks in the back.”
Magic sleep. It wasn’t just me getting old. That was a magic sleep.
Grandma did not punch the air and whoop, because that would have been undignified.
Instead she said, “I figured it wasn’t natural,” and sniffed.
The mockingbird-woman went inside the house. Grandma shut the door and gestured to a chair with the shotgun. “Have a seat.”
“You planning on shooting me?” asked her captive.
“Hand over that tomato and I won’t shoot anybody.”
The mockingbird woman handed over the tomato. Her hands were hard and charcoal-colored, the nails long and diamond shaped. They creased the red skin of the tomato just slightly, but didn’t break the surface.
“Why’re you stealing them?” she asked.
“Ain’t for me,” said the mockingbird-woman.
Grandma’s eyes flicked to the woman’s strange orange ones. “Ah.”
“Don’t ask me about it,” said the woman. “There’s not much point.” She opened her mouth, and Grandma saw that her tongue was black, and there was a thick silver ring through it.
“Surprised you can talk at all,” she said.
The mockingbird-woman shrugged. “You learn to work around it.”
Grandma nodded. “So you haven’t eaten any of these tomatoes?”
“Not a one. Give you my word.”
And that’s another strike against her being born a mockingbird. No member of the crow clan’d hand out their word so lightly.
She hefted the tomato. She’d made bread earlier in the day, and a little dab of mayonnaise, for the tomato ripening on the counter. Best to eat it up quick. Neither one would last long in the hot desert air.
“Sit a spell,” she said, “and we’ll fix that.”
Grandma Harken sat at her dinner table with the mockingbird-woman and they ate tomato sandwiches with mayonnaise and a pinch of salt.
It was every bit as good as Grandma Harken had been hoping. The tomato was sweet and acid and firm. It tasted like a morning in summer before the sun burned everything down to the bone.
That tense place in her chest loosened up a little. The world was hard and fierce, but it also contained tomato sandwiches, and if that didn’t make it a world worth living in, your standards were unreasonably high.
“So you ain’t wearing a mockingbird skin,” said Grandma Harken, watching her guest eat up the last crumbs. “You’re not taking one off and putting it back on again.”
“Nope,” said the woman. She licked one of her charcoal fingers and pressed it down on the crumbs, then licked them off again.
“And you were never born that way, either.”
“Born same as you,” said the woman.
Grandma Harken smiled sourly. “I very much doubt that,” she said. “But born human, I guess?”
“You guess right.”
“You under some kind of spell, then?”
The mockingbird-woman tapped a fingernail against the silver cuff on her tongue and said nothing.
“Ah,” said Grandma. “Well, then. You got a name you can tell me?”
“And I’m Grandma Harken. And we’re all introduced now. You like being a mockingbird?”
Marguerite stretched. “Don’t mind being a bird,” she said. “Flying’s less fun than you’d think, but it’s got its moments. I hate being small, though, and hawks are bastards. And owls.” She shuddered, and the feathers on her head all puffed up like a crest. “They don’t make a noise when they come up behind you.”
Grandma Harken nodded. She respected owls, but she did not want them hanging around the house.
“May I have some water?” asked the mockingbird-woman.
When someone in the desert asks for water, you give it to them. There weren’t many rules in the desert, but that was one of them. Grandma Harken got up and poured out a glass for each of them.
Then she made coffee. Between last night and tonight, she was running down to the bottom of her supply, but she had a feeling that Marguerite might appreciate it.
As soon as the smell began to fill the room, she was rewarded. The mockingbird-woman’s head lifted and her dark-gray nostrils flared. “Coffee,” she said hoarsely.
“I got a little cream to go in it, if you want it.”
Grandma Harken got out the cream and the sugar, which was nearly as dear as the coffee.
Still, much like tomato sandwiches, there was a time and a place when what you needed was coffee, and nothing else would do.
Grandma poured the coffee out into earthenware mugs and slid the cream across. “From Spangler’s cow.”
(She did not know why she told the mockingbird-woman this—it seemed unlikely that the odd enchanted creature would be familiar with Spangler or her cow. Still, Grandma felt on some level that if you were drinking something that came out of another living being, you ought to be on a first name basis. The cow in question did not actually have a name, other than “that damn cow,” so this was the closest approximation.)
Marguerite wrapped her scaly fingers around the mug and breathed in the steam.
Grandma let her sit in silence with the coffee. When she finally lifted it to her lips, it was a gesture as ritualized and heartfelt as communion.
She closed her eyes and Grandma thought that she might be crying a little, if birds could weep.
Well. Never underestimate the power of a good cup of coffee.
She poured herself a cup. Sleep wasn’t coming tonight anyway.
“I won’t come back,” said Marguerite. Her voice was thick. “I’ll tell him you caught me. He can get his tomatoes somewhere else—”
Her voice cut off suddenly, with a metallic click, as if the cuff on her tongue had struck her teeth.
“I’d rather they didn’t get stolen,” said Grandma Harken mildly. It seemed important to talk to fill the sudden silence. “But you’re welcome to come back, if you like. I don’t mind company.”
She considered for a moment, then added, “Well, specific company.”
Marguerite shook her head. Grandma could see her rolling her tongue around in her mouth, as if trying to find a tender spot. “Not smart,” she said, finally.
“Would you be in danger, then?” asked Grandma Harken.
“Nah.” She spoke slowly, and Grandma got the impression she was picking each word carefully. “Not really. I’m the only one of me. Can’t be another. You understand?”
“Not yet,” said Grandma. “But I’m starting to, I think.”
She poured out more coffee. Marguerite’s hand shook as she added the cream.
“I won’t tell anyone you were here, if it matters.”
“It won’t matter,” said the bird-woman. “Too much talking, now.” She drank the coffee greedily. “Thank you for this. It’s been … a long time.”
Grandma Harken nodded.
The light outside the window was starting to edge toward gray. Marguerite looked at it and sighed.
“Should get going,” she said.
“You can wait ‘til the owls roost, if you want,” said Grandma.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like that.”
Whatever leash she’s on, she’s got some slack, thought Grandma Harken. But does she want off that leash?
“Whereabouts you from?” she asked. “Originally, I mean.”
“Oh, my.” Marguerite leaned back. “North of here a good way. Other side of the Gila.”
Grandma Harken nodded. There were towns up that way, although she’d never been out that far. “You got any people up there that might appreciate word?”
Marguerite inhaled sharply.
After a moment, she said, “No. No sense poking old wounds. Thank you for the thought.”
“Seems I might have poked one myself. I’m sorry.”
Marguerite set down the coffee cup. “No harm done.”
She rose. Grandma Harken saw her only chance slipping away, and decided to be blunt. “You’re got one leg in a trap,” she said. “You want it opened?”
“No one can open it,” said Marguerite.
“If somebody could, though?”
“It’s too dangerous—”
“I’m a lot older than you, and a lot meaner,” said Grandma Harken, annoyed. “And I don’t take kindly to being lectured by a tomato thief. I ain’t promising you anything and you ain’t asking me for anything. Just yes or no.”
The mockingbird-woman stared at her for a moment, then her lips widened in an unwilling grin. Her teeth were shockingly white against her black bird’s tongue.
“I’d give it all,” she said. “But now I’ve got to go.”
“Go slow,” said Grandma Harken. “And watch for owls.”
She opened the door. Marguerite went down the steps and her skin blazed suddenly silver. By the time she reached the bottom step, she was shrinking, as if she were hunching down.
Then she was a mockingbird again. She took three hops on the dusty garden path and launched herself into the air.
Grandma Harken nodded to her and raised a hand. The fiery bird flew to the top of the garden gate, and then away.
“Well,” said Grandma Harken. “Good thing I put on my good boots.” She snatched up the bag by the door, opened the bedroom so that Spookcat could get to water, and took her walking stick into her hand.
Then she opened the garden gate and followed the spark of fire into the desert.
By the time the sun came up, Grandma Harken was hot and thirsty and tired.
Her water bottle was nearly empty. She had lost the mockingbird twice, and then found her again as she took flight. But now it seemed that she had lost her for good.
She was well up in the desert now, and there was something strange going on in the air.
It wasn’t anything you’d notice if you weren’t looking for it. A little bit of heat haze in a place that couldn’t be hot enough yet to ripple. A wash that had water in it, except that Grandma knew damn well that it didn’t, not this time of year. Palo verde needles that moved in a wind that wasn’t happening anywhere near here.
You had to know the desert well, or have a good sense of the uncanny. Grandma had both and she didn’t like it.
“Blessed Saint Anthony,” she muttered. “Somebody’s folding the world.”
There wasn’t any rhyme or reason to it, as near as she could tell. It didn’t look deliberate. It seemed to follow in the wake of the mockingbird.
Two places lying close together, and sometimes you put your foot through one and into the other. Whatever she’s doing, she’s moving in between ‘em.
There wasn’t anything terrible in that other place, so far as Grandma knew—or at least, nothing that wasn’t already terrible in this one. It wasn’t anymore full of monsters than anywhere else. It was just a little bit different. The places bled into each other all the time. It wasn’t at all unnatural.
It was damned inconvenient, though, if you were trying to track a thing the size of a mockingbird.
She stomped over the sand, leaving tracks that were mostly bootprints. Sometimes the world folded around them and the tracks were bare feet.
Once or twice they belonged to a jackrabbit.
She stopped at last, taking another drink of water, and looked around. It was going to be a long way back. If the one wash was still full when she passed it again, she’d have to drink a little water from it.
And it’ll give me the runs, too, like as not.
The bird was nowhere to be seen. The hillside was an intricate pattern of white powdered earth between dark green scrub.
The first cicada began to buzz, and its brethren chimed in, until the air was a long rattling hiss of heat.
There were two long metal rails across the ground on the opposite hillside. A little green scribble of a weed had grown up along the slope, but nothing grew between the tracks.
When she breathed in, she could smell it faintly—the hot gunmetal smell of the train-god.
The tracks ran off toward the horizon. The burning mockingbird was nowhere to be seen.
Grandma exhaled. “Well,” she said. She spoke out loud, so the tracks could hear her, just in case something was listening. “Well. Guess it’s time to go pay a call on the Mother of Trains.”
She walked back into town, which took long enough to convince her that she didn’t want to walk clear to the train station. She swung by her house, fed Spook-cat, and left a note for Eva. Then she set out for the stable.
It was a good stable, kept clean, and it was run by a man named Tomas, who had gotten tomato seeds from Grandma Harken on three separate occasions. This was a rare benediction, and he was careful not to take it for granted.
“I need your old mule,” Grandma Harken told him. “The one I like to ride.”
Tomas looked at her, gazed briefly heavenward, and said, “That mule died five years ago, Abuela Harken.”
Grandma blinked. “What’d he die of?”
“Old age,” said Tomas, who was always extremely respectful but had a sense of humor anyway.
After a minute she said, “What’s the next oldest mule you got?”
“I’ve got a young mule,” said Tomas, “who’s as polite a girl as you’ll ever meet. And you are welcome to ride her, Abuela.”
“I like the old ones,” said Grandma, disgruntled.
“She’ll get old in due time.”
Grandma glared at him. Tomas contrived to look innocent.
“Fine,” said Grandma. “But she better have good manners.”
“She has better manners than my sons, Abuela.”
Grandma muttered to herself. Tomas had two sons, who were polite and respectful and built like bulls and who would spend hours splitting firewood for an old lady. These were things you learned to appreciate when you were Grandma Harken’s age.
The mule was indeed very well-mannered. She pricked her ears up and lipped delicately at Grandma’s sleeve.
“Good girl,” said Grandma, petting her nose. “Is she smart?” she asked Tomas.
“She’s a mule.”
“I’ve known some stupid mules.”
“A stupid mule is still smarter than a good horse or a bad man.”
Grandma sighed. It can be annoying when other people are right.
She loaded water bottles onto the mule and climbed on.
The mule waited politely—Is this everything? That’s all?—then set out. Grandma clicked her tongue and flipped the reins, setting her on the road to the next town over.
The one that had a train station.
The desert was full of strange things, but the trains were some of the strangest.
When white men came to lay iron rails across the land, the land didn’t take kindly to it. The train tracks looked too much like chains. The land brought heat and death and disease, and work on the rails slowed to a crawl.
“So they brought us to die instead,” said Grandma’s friend Anna. “From Canton to San Francisco and out to here.” She swept her hands when she said it, taking in the province across the ocean that she had never seen, and the desert where she had lived all her life.
That was the truth of history. Hundreds came and thousands died and hundreds more came to replace them. The blood of Anna’s people had bathed every inch of the rails.
When the train-gods woke, it was no wonder who they chose to be their priests. Chinese, black, Irish—even a Cornish woman way up north, where the snow piled up everywhere but on the tracks. People who had, with toil and tears, earned the gods’ regard.
It had made a lot of big money men back east furious. They thought they’d owned the railroads. They had the pull to get the army brought out to try and bring the machines back under their control.
The train-gods only had to eat a couple of regiments before they realized their mistake.
Lotta damn foolishness, Grandma Harken thought. People ought to be a lot quicker to listen to each other and a little slower to listen to something that calls itself a god.
She wouldn’t have said that out loud, though. She didn’t want it getting back to a train, or worse yet, to Anna.
Anyway, the system worked. You could get a train from one side of the country to the other, though it wasn’t always the same train or even the same country out the windows. Freight got moved, more or less. Sometimes it wound up in the wrong place or was summarily dumped in the middle of nowhere. The machines were capricious gods. (This was part of the reason for the price of coffee.)
They were very good about letters, though. Anna’s grandson was the current train-priest, and he said that his god thought letters were prayers and moved them as a kind of professional courtesy.
You appreciated that sort of thing in a god.
Grandma Harken could afford to be a little detached. Her people hadn’t been involved one way or the other. It had all been long, long before her time.
It’d been a good bit before Anna’s time too, truth be told, but Anna had an image to maintain.
Neither Anna nor any of her grandchildren could have said what bargain the train-gods struck with the desert, though.
That there was a bargain was undeniable. Grandma Harken herself had noticed that the tracks took some odd turns sometimes, to avoid a wash or a particular stone—turns that no human would have introduced to the line. And it was true that you could walk the rails until you died of thirst, and you’d never see the shadow of a saguaro lying over the tracks.
What it all meant, though, Grandma left for others to decide. The bargain was between the desert and the trains, and no business of any mortal creature at all.
Anna looked old. She was younger than Grandma Harken—probably—but neither of them were quick to compare.
She lived in a house alongside the train station. It was an old adobe, same as all the other houses in town, but it had a brightly painted balcony on the second floor and faded lanterns hung from the ends of the corner beams.
One of her grandchildren—or great-grandchildren, Grandma wasn’t sure, and after the bit with the mule, she’d rather not find out—opened the carved wooden door and let Grandma Harken inside. Anna was sitting in a chair in one corner of the room, her feet up on a stool.
“Harken?” she said. “Is that you, you old jackrabbit?”
“Last I looked,” said Grandma Harken. “You still alive?”
“Looks that way. Come in.” She waved to the grandchild and a chair was produced. “What brings you here?”
“Need an answer, and maybe a favor.”
Anna raised an eyebrow. She had very little left in the way of eyebrows, but her face was so wrinkled that the gesture remained effective. “If you’ve come to ask for a train to fetch your grandson home, I’d advise against it.”
Anna relaxed. “Glad to hear it. I’m still surprised we didn’t have some broody little babies around here nine months later.”
“He didn’t brood as a baby.” Grandma paused, remembering. “Well. Much.”
“Sit, sit. Have you eaten? Are you thirsty?”
The answers to these questions were completely immaterial—food and tea would be forthcoming anyway. Grandma Harken let herself sink into the comfort of Anna’s hospitality.
She’d brought along a half-dozen nearly ripe tomatoes. Now that she’d finally eaten one, they weren’t so precious to her.
The tomatoes were duly admired and whisked away into the kitchen. Tea was drunk, then more tea, and then Grandma Harken held up her hands and said, “No more, Anna, I’m begging you. I’ll explode.”
Anna laughed. “All right. You came for an answer, then.”
“A woman,” she said. “Turned into a mockingbird, from up past Gila way.”
Anna tilted her head. “Not one of mine.”
“Wouldn’t think so. But some kind of enchanter’s got her bound up with a silver cuff through her tongue, and I aim to break her loose if I can. She called it a ‘he’ but that’s all I know.”
She sat back, and glanced at the windows out of habit.
“Nothing out there can hear you,” said Anna. “Or if it could, it’s so big that you shouldn’t be tangling with it anyhow.” She flicked her fingers. “Sounds interesting, but what do you need with the Mother of Trains?”
Grandma told her about the tracks.
“I could go over every inch of the desert and miss it if somebody folded the world up the wrong way,” she said. “Trains don’t care about folds.”
“They run in three worlds,” said Anna distantly. “We will not talk about the fourth. If there is anything to be seen, the train-gods will see it.”
She gestured, and the grandchild appeared. Grandma Harken took the time to finally look at the child—a girl, delicate as a quail, probably older than she looked. “Go and get your uncle,” Anna said. “Tell him we will be at the station shortly, with a question.”
The girl nodded and padded away.
Anna watched her go. Someone would have to have known her as long as Grandma Harken to notice the sudden smoothing of a line between her eyes, as if she had found an answer that eluded her.
“The next priest?” asked Grandma.
“I wouldn’t wish it on her,” said Anna wearily. “She’s got desert in her, not steel.”
Grandma nodded. She was something of an authority on the subject.
“I’ll send her to you,” said Anna.
“Like hell you will!” Grandma scowled over her tea. “I don’t need a girl and I’m hard to live with. And I’ll probably die running after mockingbirds.”
“Then you’ll want somebody to point to where the body fell,” said Anna. She waved a hand. “Not now. Later. Soon, I think, but not yet. After you’ve dealt with this foolishness, perhaps.”
“You get your answer and she gets a teacher,” said Anna. “Fair trade.”
Grandma Harken glowered, but she knew that Anna had her in a hard place. And the girl like a quail needed … something.
“She broke her arm when she was small,” said Anna quietly. “She’s got cholla ribs for bones. We didn’t let the doctor see. I set it myself.”
Grandma sucked the air in between her teeth. That was immense power and vulnerability, all at once. That was a child that should never be taken out of the desert.
That was someone a little more like Grandma Harken than either of them were like fully human folk.
“Dammit, Anna …”
Anna’s grandson Jun was a slender man with apologetic eyes. He clasped his hands together and bowed over them to Grandma Harken. “How may I assist you, Grandmother?”
It felt awkward to be formal with a man you’d seen in diapers, but Grandma Harken had come to speak to a train-priest, not talk about how much he’d grown in the last forty years. She nodded to him. “Appreciate it, Jun. Looking to see if the train’s gone past anything strange.”
They stood in the station itself, not the main platform, but the small room before it where the train priest spoke to the engines.
There was no train there now, which was a relief. A train was like having a thunderstorm in the room with you, and having a priest around made it worse.
Jun smiled ruefully. “The trains go past many strange things, Grandmother.”
“One in particular, then,” said Grandma, and set out to describe the place where the world was folded and the train tracks ran through it.
Jun listened. He listened intently, with his eyes closed, and Grandma had to fight to keep from shivering.
Passing right through him to something else. It ain’t natural.
And then, because she had to be fair: Lot of good things ain’t natural. Most of ‘em just don’t rub your face in it.
She finished describing it and waited.
“Yesssss …” said Jun, and there was a hiss of brake lines in it. “Yessss, I ssee.”
He opened his eyes. Grandma’d seen it once before, so she didn’t take a step back, even if a good chunk of her skin wanted to.
It was nothing so dramatic as the color changing. It was only that there was something else in his eyes, something that wasn’t human or even close to it. When he blinked, his eyelids came down like the door to the firebox slamming shut.
“Along the line,” he said. “North and west and north again. There are five saguaros together. There is a hill of stones. There is a dwelling of the used-up people. There is a person there.” He nodded twice, with his eyes still closed. “There is nothing else for many miles.”
“This person,” said Grandma Harken, “he’s folding the world?”
Sweat was beginning to trickle down Jun’s face. She could feel the heat radiating off him. “There is a person. There is a bend in the track. There is a bend in the track.”
“Does that mean—”
“There is a bend in the track.”
Anna put a hand on Grandma’s arm and shook her head.
Grandma bowed to her friend’s experience. “Thank you,” she said.
The train-god, through Jun, said “Yesssss …” and it trailed away into the distance as the god went away again.
Jun stood for a moment, trembling like a horse that has run a hard race, then let out his breath in a long sigh. When he opened his eyes, they were only human dark.
“Can you tell me what it meant by there is a bend in the track?” asked Grandma.
Jun took out a cloth and wiped his head. “It’s hard to say,” he said. “Probably there’s really a bend, but repeating it like that …” He shook his head. “They fixate on odd things. That was the Mariposa. It’s not the clearest of the trains. Leviathan was better, but Leviathan has stopped speaking. The other trains say that it’s waiting for something.”
This was alarming, but also nothing to do with Grandma Harken. She made a mental note to order more coffee, though, in case the trains were planning to run mad.
They left the station. Jun came with them, not sweating now, shivering as if it were midnight in the desert instead of noon. Anna sent another grandchild to get him tea and put a blanket around his shoulders herself.
“Worth it?” she asked Grandma.
“I hope so,” said Grandma. “Thank you, Jun.”
The girl with bones made of cholla ribs said, “Who are the used-up people?”
“Hohokam,” said Grandma, which was a thing she hadn’t known she knew until she said it. “The ones who built all the canals. That’s what their name means, the used-up ones. Our enchanter’s squatting in some ruins, I guess.”
“Do you think he’s Hohokam, then?” asked Anna.
“Not unless he’s a thousand years old,” said Grandma. “Which I can’t rule out entirely. I’ll be going. Jun, thank you, and you too, Anna.” Her eyes slid over the cholla-bone girl and she nodded once and took her leave.
She rode back to Tomas’s stable with her mind full of shards, like a shattered clay pot. The Hohokam were all jumbled up with the trains and the folded world and the girl and the mockingbird.
Well, no matter. Things would sort themselves out. She’d know what she had to know when she needed it.
“Or I’ll get caught with my pants around my ankles,” she said to the mule’s ears, “and I’ll die with a stupid expression on my face. I suppose that counts as getting sorted out, though.”
The mule flicked her ears, but did not comment.
“I suppose I better try not to die,” she said after a little while. “That girl of Anna’s is gonna need some teaching.”
She tried to think about what she could teach anyone, let alone a girl who was already part of the desert, and the thought was overwhelming. She hadn’t been all that good with her own baby, and Eva had been as good and placid and easy a child as any born.
It was late when she reached the stable. A light burned in the window, though, and after a moment the door slammed, and one of Tomas’s sons came out to meet her.
“You didn’t have to stay up,” she said. “I might’ve been gone days.”
“We would have stayed up for you, Abuela Harken,” said Tomas’s son. He looped the mule’s reins over his hand and led her into her stall.
There was nothing much to say to kindness, particularly when you suspect that it’s because you’re old. Grandma walked the rest of the way, to the house with its back like the desert.
“At least I’ll get one more night in my own bed,” she said. “With my own Spook-cat on the pillow. Can’t ask for more than that.”
In the end she got two more nights. The garden was wreathed in beans and the little green husks of tomatillos were beginning to dangle from the sprawling plants. They needed staking. If Grandma Harken had known beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was going to die tomorrow, she would still have staked up the tomatillos and harvested the beans.
She had two ripe tomatoes and she ate them both, on bread with salt, and they were perfect.
On the morning of the second day, she got up before dawn. She petted Spook-cat, which first alarmed, and then delighted him. She strapped water bottles to herself like a bandolier and filled her pockets with sage and cigarettes; she put on her good boots and wrote a note for her daughter that said “I love you,” and then she closed the garden gate behind her and walked into the desert.
The pre-dawn air was sharp and gray and seamless. There were no mockingbirds to light her way. Still, here, she didn’t need them. This was a landscape she knew as well as she knew her own name.
The folds in the world that had gone out from the mockingbird’s wings had settled now, a paper ball crumpled and then smoothed out again. There were still small ridges here and there. Grandma Harken could see them if she looked—the shadow of a palo verde tree that fell a handspan too short, a place where, for an instant, there were two moons in the sky. But these were small things.
She reached the train tracks as the sun came up. It dyed the rails rose and chrome. Grandma Harken stood, thoughtful, and took a long drink of water.
“All right,” she muttered to herself. “All right. If I were a train …”
It was dangerous to walk on train tracks now. A train could appear out of nowhere, skipping from one world to the next, and give you only a bare moment of warning.
Still, it was no more dangerous than anything else. She cleared her throat and spoke to the rails: “The Mother of Trains knows my name.”
There was no overt acknowledgement. She hadn’t expected one. She stepped up onto the rails and began to walk between them. Her boots made a satisfying clomping sound on the railroad ties.
The desert heated rapidly. She passed saguaro standing tall, arms raised, filled with woodpecker holes. A thrasher called from the top of one, and she had to shade her eyes and see if it was actually a mockingbird.
There were no shadows on the tracks. The saguaros folded their arms to prevent it, and they were the only thing tall enough to cast a shadow here.
She walked until the sky was turquoise hard, until she had emptied one water bottle and begun another. Then she shaded her eyes and looked ahead, and there were five saguaros standing together, and a hill beyond them, crusted with stones.
Grandma Harken nodded to herself.
The tracks did bend there, an abrupt turn that no train that was not a god could have navigated. The metal rails held together, but the wooden ties were twisted up as if they were made of dough and not creosote-soaked wood.
There is a bend in the tracks.
“Quite a bend, too,” she said aloud.
A coyote trotted by, ears alert. It glanced at her, interested, and flicked its brush.
“Don’t you start,” she added.
The coyote grinned, that being the natural expression of coyotes. It trotted on.
She walked back and forth along the bend, and absolutely nothing happened.
“Huh,” she said. She’d been hoping … well, nothing was ever easy.
She went back a third time.
The coyote was back. Its eyes were the coldest thing in the desert.
She couldn’t see any edges. The shadows on the hill were clean and crisp.
The coyote was circling her.
I’m not looking to die just yet. Go find some other meat.
She knew that coyotes couldn’t hear thoughts, but sometimes she thought they could smell them. It winked at her, and then it passed on the far side of the tracks and vanished completely.
Grandma Harken grunted.
“I’ll be damned,” she said aloud.
Well. The enchanter—whatever or whoever he was—had folded up the world here, folded it so hard that it doubled back on itself, so that something on the far side vanished completely from view. The tracks had pulled away from the fold, like skin sloughing away from a burn.
The trains run in three worlds. We will not speak of the fourth.
Suppose the enchanter had folded all three worlds around him, to keep the trains away, and was living in the fourth world?
“Blessed Saint Anthony …”
The coyote reappeared on the far side of the hill. It trotted up to the tracks and sat down, tongue lolling, God’s dog amused at something.
Waiting to see how I do, I suppose.
She studied the hill carefully. It looked like any other small hillside in a desert, not large enough to be a mesa, merely a rise in the landscape, dotted with mesquite and teddy-bear cholla. An ocotillo spread a hundred fantastical arms near the base, where there might be a small seep of some sort. Ocotillo liked more water than other plants, when they could get it.
If there was water here, the Hohokam might have built near it. If there were a people better at using water in the desert, Grandma had never heard of it.
The hill had nothing that looked like ruins, though, not even two square stones beside each other. Not a temple mound nor—
Her eyes narrowed. The coyote tilted its head.
On a rock above the ocotillo, there was a pale splotch. She ambled over to it, and there it was, pecked out of the surface, a round-bodied lizard.
“So they were here,” she murmured. Her eyes tracked over the petroglyphs—a human, a set of concentric circles, another lizard, bigger than the last one. A human upside down, which generally meant “dead.”
The coyote had stopped grinning and was watching her intently.
“Don’t suppose you can tell me anything,” said Grandma Harken.
“What’ll you give me?” replied the coyote.
“I’ve got sage and cigarettes.”
The coyote scratched pensively at one ear. “Let’s see the cigarettes.”
Grandma Harken took one out and laid it on a stone, then stepped back.
The coyote sniffed at it, unimpressed. “Poor stuff.”
“You eat sheep afterbirths,” said Grandma.
“Yes, but only the quality ones,” said the coyote, and grinned again.
“I should know better than to try and deal with coyotes,” muttered Grandma Harken.
“You should.” The coyote licked up the cigarette and held it dangling in its mouth. “Look! I’m a human. Do this. Do that. Stand here. Don’t eat that.” It cackled at its own cleverness.
Grandma Harken shook her head and turned back to the railroad tracks.
“Go underneath,” called the coyote after her, and when she turned her head back toward it, it was gone.
Go underneath. She turned the words over in her mind. Go underneath.
Coyotes were liars, of course. Worse than ravens. But this one had taken the tobacco.
She walked along the track, into the sharp bend. The rails buckled, and the gaps between the ties were deeper than they should have been. And yet the hillside was seamless, not even a shadow out of place.
Almost perfect, she thought. No one would ever notice, if not for the trains.
She stood at the farthest point of the bend, a foot on each tie. The world dropped away underneath the rails.
The gap should have been too narrow for a grown human to fit, but one of the ties was twisted out of the way, on the end nearest the ruins. And she was made of bone and sinew and wire, and was no longer young.
She wiped sweat from her palms, grabbed the metal rail—it was hot from the sun and burned her hands—and swung herself down through the gap, and into the next world.
Immediately everything changed.
The hillside was no longer a small rise but a large one, cleft in two, with a narrow stone defile between them. Petroglyphs marked the stones on either side, layered over each other into incoherence.
Grandma Harken took out her water bottle and spilled a little over her smarting palms.
She turned her head and the tracks were gone. That was going to make getting out … interesting.
“Oh well,” she muttered. “If I were sensible, I’d still be at home with my tomatoes.” She started forward into the defile.
There was a dragon in the sand.
It was thirty yards long, thick bodied, with a blunt wedge of head. Its scales were dusty black and mottled orange.
Grandma knew Gila monsters well enough and did not fear them, but the largest one that she had ever seen was smaller than the smallest claw on this one’s foot.
“Oh,” she said aloud. “Oh, my.”
She heard herself say it and hated her voice for sounding like an old woman. But even Saint Anthony, who wrestled demons in the desert, might have been taken aback by the size of this one.
The dragon’s eyes were glossy, beetle shell black, and they were fixed on her.
She swallowed hard.
“Give me water,” said the Gila dragon, in a voice like sand hissing over the desert floor.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” said Grandma Harken, but she sounded more like herself in her ears.
“They are not here,” said the dragon, “or I would ask them for water.”
And it laughed, then, a little choking hiss, and it seemed to Grandma that it was the sound of a creature in pain, not a monster on the edge of devouring a victim.
Not that that won’t change in very short order, mind you …
Grandma Harken unfastened one of her water bottles. She suspected that she was going to die very shortly, but there were rules. If she lived long enough to talk to the cholla-bone girl again, she would tell her this one.
When someone in the desert asks you for water, you give it to them.
The Gila dragon’s mouth cracked open and a long blue-violet tongue slithered out towards Grandma.
She upended the water bottle over it.
The dragon swallowed, and then there was a crack like thunder.
She hadn’t noticed the shackles on the dragon’s leg. They were the same dusty black color as the scales.
There were three of them. Two still held, and the third had broken and fallen away. The skin underneath was raw and clear fluid oozed from beneath the scales.
“Give me water,” whispered the dragon.
She gave it the next water bottle to drink.
The second shackle broke. She could not see where the chain was anchored. To hold a beast that size, they must have been bolted to the center of the earth itself.
“Give me water,” said the dragon a third time.
One shackle left. And when it breaks, it could lunge forward and devour me. It wouldn’t even need the poison. One bite ought to do it.
Only a fool would set such a monster free.
“Please,” said the Gila dragon.
Grandma Harken cursed herself for a fool and poured the last of her water out over the dragon’s tongue.
The crack that followed was louder than the others and split the air like lightning, like the sound of mountains splitting.
In the silence that followed, she heard the tiny metallic clunk of the shackle falling to the ground.
The dragon looked down at its freed leg. That would have been the moment to run, but Grandma Harken thought perhaps she should just sit down. Her heart was hammering in a way that she didn’t like, and her vision pulsed in time to her heartbeat.
It’d be entirely too stupid, to drop dead of a heart attack out here in the desert before the beast lays a claw on me.
It lifted its great mottled head. It was a low, flat beast, for all its size, so it did not tower over her. She looked into its eye and saw her face reflected back.
“Thank you,” said the dragon. And waited, like a penitent awaiting absolution.
Grandma licked her lips. “Weren’t nothing,” she said.
It moved then. She fell back against the canyon wall and watched it go by. It was like a train-god passing, long and dark, and then it was past and the bright blunt tail was vanishing around the curve of the defile. She heard the sound of its scales scraping the stone, and then, much too quickly for something so large, it was gone.
Stepped out the world, she thought, back into one of the other ones. I hope it doesn’t get hung up on the rails.
She slid down until she was sitting and put her forehead on her knees. There had been a time, when she was young and immortal, when beasts like that were part of her world and she could have danced in the tracks that they left in the sand.
She felt old and mortal now.
She had a few sips of water left in one of the bottles. When the pulsing sparks in her eyes faded, she drank one of the last sips.
She got up.
There was a scale on the ground before her. Not a large one, a little smaller than her palm. She picked it up, and it was warm and felt like leather. She put it in her pocket, because sometimes the desert gives you an answer, and it is your job to find the question.
She had to keep one hand on the stone wall as she walked. She could feel chisel marks under her fingers. The way was mostly natural, but someone had smoothed down the stone a little, long ago.
Grandma Harken followed the turn in the wall and there it was.
It was adobe and it was old. The roof had fallen in on one side and the tops of the walls had the slumped-pottery look of weathered clay.
It was not a large building. The entire structure was not much larger than Grandma’s house, though it had been at least three stories tall before the roof fell. If she tilted her head back, she could see the remains of shattered floors sticking out from the high, broken wall.
The world was folded so tightly around it that the desert sun had turned the hazy gray-green color of the sky before a storm.
There was trash around the outside. Bird bones and rotting scraps of fruit made a scattered midden, although she could not smell anything. A few flat weeds crawled across the ground and despite everything, Grandma Harken felt a gardener’s urge to pull them.
Not the time. Although if I don’t die in the next few hours, I’ll get them before I leave.
The opening to the ruins was a narrow rectangle of darkness. She watched it for a long time before she approached it.
She had taken only a step or two forward when someone came out.
He was young, perhaps in his late teens, and clad in the same strange, feathered skin that Marguerite had been. By that, she thought he was likely a victim. He had a dark crest and his cheeks were stained brilliant scarlet.
Roadrunner, thought Grandma Harken.
He saw her.
His mouth fell open in surprise—she saw a glint of silver in his tongue—and he said something frantic in O’odham.
Grandma could understand about twenty words of O’odham if the other person spoke very slowly and clearly, which he hadn’t.
Probably warning me off. He’s not the enchanter, anyhow. Poor kid must have gotten caught like Marguerite.
He does like turning people into birds, doesn’t he?
From inside the ruin came another voice, thick and rumbling. She could not tell what it said, either, but the roadrunner-boy put his hands to his mouth and grimaced.
“It’s all right,” she said. She’d never had much of a plan anyway, and apparently stealth wasn’t part of it.
Whether he understood her words or her tone, she didn’t know. He took her arm, his eyes apologetic. She followed him inside.
It took a long moment for her eyes to adjust. The gray-green light through the broken ceiling did little to illuminate the shadows.
It was colder inside the ruin than it should have been.
“Ah, hell,” said Marguerite, somewhere off to her left. “I told you to stay away.”
“I’m bad at that,” said Grandma cheerfully, as she tried to pierce the darkness.
There were broken pots in the corners, and a few intact ones, draped with old flower sacks and coarse-cured hides. It smelled rank. Whoever lived here was a poor housekeeper.
At the far end, something moved.
She heard the thick, rumbling voice again. This time, it spoke English.
“Where do you come from, old woman?” asked the voice. “And why are you sniffing around what is mine?”
Her first thought was that it was a bear.
Her second was that bears generally had better manners, and certainly kept themselves cleaner.
It was a man, more or less. He was huge and hairy and his head was sunk down between his shoulders. He sat on a throne, like a king, but the throne was made of broken stones and rabbit skins and there were flies crawling in and out of it.
He did not belong in the desert. He stank of cold and forests and distance, of magic from another place and another time. More than that, he stank of power—his own power, wrapped up in that bear-like hide, not a power that could give itself to a place and be given back in return.
There were things that could come to the desert and learn to live with it, like the trains, but this was not one of them.
“You’re not from around here,” said Grandma Harken to the cold-king.
He made a noise like bubbles breaking in glue, and maybe that was laughter.
“I have been driven out,” he said. “Someone found the soul I had hidden in a duck egg. It takes time to grow it back.”
“Seems a fragile sort of place for a soul,” said Grandma Harken. “Better than a chicken egg, but not by much.”
“I shall wrap it in a snake next time,” said the cold-king. “I have learned.”
Marguerite and the roadrunner boy shifted in the corner. Grandma spared them a look and saw that Marguerite had put her arms around the boy for comfort.
Well, and now I know why she wasn’t entirely keen on curse-breaking. Had nothing much to do with flying after all.
She had no idea what she was going to do, butit seemed like she should probably start doing it.
“I’ll ask politely,” said Grandma Harken. “Let these people go and stop twisting up the world hereabouts. The land doesn’t like it.” She considered this, and then added, “Please.”
“I do not care what the land likes,” said the cold-king. “This is a dreadful land.”
“Then why’d you come here at all?”
The cold-king stretched. “I did not choose. I hid myself in the seeds of a thistle and when I woke again, I had crossed an ocean and was rolling and rolling across the hills of this terrible, dry place. But soon I shall be done growing back, and until then, my old enemies will not find me.”
Grandma Harken sighed. She had never thought it was going to be easy. “Well,” she said, planting her feet, “I’m afraid you’ve made a new one.”
The cold-king flung out his arm and power raged through the ruined building. Marguerite cried out and the roadrunner-boy spoke a short, sharp curse.
The cold-king’s power struck Grandma Harken and would have knocked her down, but she let it spin her around instead. She’d been a dancer in her youth, the wild kind, so she spun like a top and landed, breathless, on her feet.
Well, this is going to end badly, she thought.
Her right hip let it be known that it was not up for any more of that.
She reached down and pulled out her kitchen knife. It had seemed very large when cutting tomatoes in her kitchen. Now it was a small bright wedge against the bulk of the cold-king.
He laughed his bubbling laugh again. “Pretty,” he said.
The next blow came sideways and there was no spinning with it. It slammed her into the ruined adobe wall. Her head struck it and spawned a universe of stars across her vision. The knife went skittering across the floor.
She slid down the wall and into a jumble of shattered pots. One dug into her back, in the same place that the ladle had, and for a moment Grandma wondered if she was still in her chair on the porch, watching a glowing bird fly across the garden.
Was that a dream? The dragon and the train and …
She remembered the cholla-bone girl’s face. No, she had not been a dream. Her mouth was full of blood.
“No!” cried Marguerite. The mockingbird-woman lunged across the floor, her orange eyes shining in the dark. She caught the cold-king’s arm and tugged at it, fierce and ineffectual. “Stop! She’s old! She can’t hurt you!”
Shows what you know, thought Grandma, vague and indignant. She didn’t think she could stand up, but she wasn’t done yet. She’d hurt that bastard plenty.
She would … she would …
She had no idea what she was going to do.
She had lost her knife. She put her hand in her pocket, looking for something else—a weapon, a seed, she didn’t know what—and found something smooth and leathery under her fingers.
The cold-king flicked Marguerite off as if she were a fly. She landed on her shoulder, and the roadrunner-boy ran to her and crouched over her, fierce and futile.
Grandma Harken pulled the leathery thing out of her pocket. It was the scale from the dragon.
The cold-king turned his head, snorting. “What is that?” he said, sounding surprised, and it occurred to Grandma for the first time that he might not know that she had freed the monster.
He lifted his hand. She could not flee, and she could not dodge, and she was already against the wall. The next blow would likely kill her, for her bones were no longer as strong as they had been.
For lack of anything better to do, she put the scale in her mouth and bit down hard. The musty reptile taste mixed with the salt of blood, a thin, acrid stew.
There was another crack of thunder, like the sound of the shackles breaking, and something struck the wall of the old adobe.
The cold-king turned, startled. Pebbles rattled from the ceiling.
It occurred to Grandma Harken that she should probably get up before the ceiling came down.
She rolled sideways, slowly, onto her knees. She did not seem to be dead yet.
The wall shuddered under another impact. There were cracks in the wall now, running in all directions.
She stood up. Her back felt like an open wound.
The wall fell.
Through the gap came sunlight, thin and hazy as it was in this place. She saw the blunt wedge of the Gila dragon’s head, and then it drew back and slammed forward like a hammer.
The cold-king blinked in the sudden light. His face was fish-belly white under the coat of hair.
She looked around for something to throw at him—it didn’t have to be large, just a distraction, anything to buy the dragon another few moments—and then the roadrunner-boy charged.
The sound he made was half-human, half-bird.
The cold-king slapped at the air, and another wave of power washed over them, but differently.
The roadrunner-boy fell down and was a roadrunner. Marguerite’s cry became the harsh scold of a mockingbird. And Grandma Harken, who had been hunched over, searching for a weapon, dropped back to all fours, her body twisting into a shape at once forgotten and familiar.
Her ribs heaved. Her ears were as long as her arms. Two sickle horns rose up on her brow. Her fur was white with age, but her legs quivered with the memory of speed.
Well. Well. It’s been a long time.
She would have laughed then, but jackrabbits don’t.
The cold-king stared at her. “You were supposed to be a bird,” he said, sounding baffled. For a moment he sounded less like a monster and more like a man. “They’re always birds.”
The dragon hit the wall again and it fell down and took part of the roof with it.
Grandma stamped. She couldn’t help it. She had no other way to shout a warning. The roadrunner ran for the open doorway, and the mockingbird fluttered, dodging falling stone.
The cold-king spun around as masonry struck him, and the Gila dragon reached in and closed its jaws over him.
The poison of a Gila monster is greatly exaggerated. The bite is not. It clamped down on the cold-king and no power on earth could have freed him.
The cold-king sagged like a puppet with its strings cut. There was no blood at all.
Grandma stamped again, because the deathless do not die so easily. From the doorway, the roadrunner and the mockingbird looked in.
The body heaved. Around the edge of the dragon’s teeth, the flesh gaped open and something fell out.
It was a hare, but it looked unfinished. It was hairless, though its eyes were open. It staggered as it tried to walk, and its legs wobbled.
Until I finish growing back, the cold-king had said.
Not quite finished, then, thought Grandma, and launched herself at the hare.
She was old but her claws were still sharp. She struck the hare hard and rolled it over, biting at its throat.
Its flesh was soft and spongy, slick with fluid. She could not get purchase on it. It did not fight back but squirmed against her, trying to escape, leave a trail of slime like a slug over her paws.
It wiggled a little way free and the mockingbird struck at its eyes. Grandma ignored the screaming of old bones and grappled with it again, kicking for its belly.
Her claws found purchase at last, and tore into the swollen skin. Again, there was no blood. The hare’s body went limp and something feathered fought its way free from the open belly.
She did not know what kind of bird it was—some sort of water fowl, with a harlequin mask of green and cream over its face. She struck at it, tearing strips from its wing, but it was in the air before she could bring it down.
It made it nearly to the open doorway and the mockingbird slammed into its head.
Marguerite, in bird form, was barely a third the size of the fowl, but she fought like a creature possessed, battering the creature’s face with its wings, keeping it out of the air. The fowl hissed like a snake, trying to get into the canyon and more open air.
Grandma dragged herself forward. If she leapt, she could knock it out of the air—if she could even leap. It did not seem likely. Kicking the hare open had done things to her hips that would be a long time healing.
The roadrunner slammed into the fowl’s back, driving its long beak into the fowl’s neck. It went limp.
And is that all?
No. It never is, is it?
Its bill opened and the neck worked as if the corpse were vomiting. A serpent with tiny, poisonous eyes slithered free, tail whipping as it fled.
The roadrunner pounced before it had gotten three feet away. Of all the prey in the desert, it was snakes that they loved the most. It seized the beast behind the head and whipped it back and forth against the canyon wall.
Grandma sat back on her haunches, tense and trembling, waiting for the next form.
The snake’s body split open and a white egg flew out.
It traced a pale arc in the air, glistening. The roadrunner dropped the snake. The mockingbird flung herself into the air after it. The ancient horned jackrabbit lunged forward.
And the coyote with cold-moon eyes caught it neatly out of the air and swallowed it in two bites.
“What?” it said, licking its lips. “Were you going to eat that?”
The air shivered. The folds fell away as three worlds snapped back into place. The sky was blue and hard instead of hazy green. Grandma was an old woman sitting on the side of a hill, with her legs tucked up beneath her. Marguerite fell heavily out of the air and the roadrunner boy helped her up.
“Well,” said Grandma. “Well. How about that?”
The coyote sat down, looking pleased with itself, which is the natural state of coyotes.
Marguerite’s skin and eyes were brown, no longer gray and white. She reached into her mouth and pried the silver cuff out of her tongue. Her young companion, no longer feathered, spat blood. He was older than Grandma had thought. It was his wounded eyes that made him look so young.
His name was John, Marguerite told her. (Privately Grandma suspected that was nothing like his name, but she wouldn’t have given her real name to the cold-king either.) He had been captured not long after Marguerite. His people were to the south and east. “I’ll see him home,” she said, looking at Grandma, as if she expected her to argue.
It did not matter in the least to Grandma, so long as she didn’t have to deal with it. “Go into town and talk to Tomas,” suggested Grandma. “Tell him I sent you. He’ll loan you a mule.”
They nodded together and stood, leaning against each other, the only two people in the desert who knew what it was like to be tongue-cut birds.
John spoke to Marguerite, and she translated. “Is the old man gone?”
“Don’t know,” said Grandma. “Things like that don’t die easy. But I’ve never heard of anything coming back alive from inside a coyote.”
The coyote looked, if possible, even more pleased. “My stomach is very dreadful,” it said. “I eat carrion and dung, when I can get it.”
“I don’t think it’ll be back for awhile, at least,” said Grandma. “And if it is, you and John will know how to defeat him. You’ll need a different third, though. I’m too old for this.”
“Thank you,” said Marguerite, and “Thank you,” said John, pronouncing the words slowly and carefully.
“Weren’t nothing,” said Grandma, which was a lie and a half.
After they were gone, Grandma fell backward and just breathed for awhile. The shadows were growing very long. A whole day could not have passed in the ruins of the used-up people, but perhaps time had folded a little oddly too.
She heard the tracks sing, as if there was a train somewhere nearby, but it did not pass this way after all. That was just as well. She did not think she could deal with a god just now.
“Are you dead?” asked the coyote with interest.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” snapped Grandma. “I ain’t dying just yet,” and that may or may not have been a lie. She wasn’t quite sure.
“Then you had better get up,” said the coyote. “And I will walk a little way home with you, just in case you die along the way.”
It took her a long time going home. The coyote walked her nearly all the way, keeping up a string of nonsense, and since she refused to show weakness in front of a coyote, she walked faster than she might have otherwise.
She refilled her water bottle at the last wash, and drank deeply. When she lowered the bottle, the coyote was gone.
“All right, then,” she said. Not being grateful, because you never show gratitude to a coyote. But not being ungrateful, either. Just in case.
She walked until she saw the fence around her garden, and then she stood and looked and thought that perhaps she hadn’t lied to the coyote about dying after all.
She went the last little way and opened the gate.
The cholla-bone girl sat on the back steps, carefully petting Spook-cat. She looked up at Grandma, her face very serious.
“My great-grandmother sent me,” she said.
“I know,” said Grandma wearily. She leaned against the gate-post.
“She says you’re supposed to teach me,” said the girl.
Grandma was silent. Wondering what an old jackalope wife could teach to a girl with bones made of cholla ribs. Wondering if there was anything she knew worth learning, after all.
She thought of the lessons in the desert, and thought that this girl probably knew them all already. They would have been written on the inside of her skin since the day before she was born.
Still, there was one thing she had worth passing on.
“Come on,” said Grandma, pushing herself away from the fence. “We’ll clean out the back room for you. But first, I’ll teach you how to make a really good tomato sandwich.”