The Shadow We Cast Through Time

August 24, 2021

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Indrapramit Das (aka Indra Das) is a writer and editor from Kolkata, India. He is a Lambda Literary Award-winner for his debut novel The Devourers (Penguin India / Del Rey), and a Shirley Jackson Award-winner for his short fiction, which has appeared in a variety of anthologies and publications including Tor.com, Slate Magazine, Clarkesworld, and Asimov’s Science Fiction. He is an Octavia E. Butler Scholar and a grateful member of the Clarion West class of 2012. He has lived in India, the United States, and Canada, where he received his MFA from the University of British Columbia.
Content Warning(s):
Death or dying, Kidnapping and abduction

[Archive reconstruction; lore record, The First Demon, as re-told by Truthteller Surya]

It is told that the first demon was born when a young human child from the first village on this world wandered out into the forest nearby to explore. This was so long ago that no human had yet died on this world, in the village within the great winged hulk of the first starship that came down from the first world. What the child wandered into was no forest, of course, because the forest is a thing of first world, and back then, no humans had planted any trees in the cold soil of here. But to the forest the child went with their lantern, because humans see what they want to see, and everyone called the shaggy dark on the horizon a forest, though no one was prepared to find out what it was until that day. As the child came closer, they saw that the trees of this forest were in fact a city of clay spires from which flowed rivers of hair that blew in the wind, hair without heads, without humans, growing out of towers that reeked like excrement and coiled with jagged black spikes. But this child knew no fear, having known only the deathly void of space outside their starship’s windows, and the distant tales of first world, so they ventured into this strange city, drunk on freedom, on finding their own world to name and gift with the blessing of human witness. They were clever, and knew that these towers had to be houses, which, for humans at least, were starships that did not move through space, and simply sat on a world to transport humans through time instead. The child wanted to find out who lived in these houses on this world. They went up to one of the towers, which they realized had a doorway into darkness. Raising the lantern to the impenetrable mouth of this doorway, the child asked the darkness, “Does someone live here?”

The darkness answered, “Yes.”

The child asked, “Who are you?”

The darkness said, “I am the shadow that you have cast from across time, from the first world to this one.”

The child asked, “What does that mean?”

The darkness said, “It means that you belong under a star far away in the night sky, too far to cast a shadow here. It means that nature abhors a vacuum, but there is no nature here.”

The child said to the darkness, “I’m sorry, but I still don’t understand. Can you explain it better?”

The darkness said to the child, “It means that you cannot be good in a world that has seen no evil. It means that I will be your shadow under the new stars. It means that I will be the gift of evil. It means that I am the kal, and I have waited long aeons for you.”

And then the child realized that they had indeed come too far into this strange new wilderness, their lantern a tiny star in this city now grown dark as space with the new sun Umi below the horizon.

“But we have left evil behind on first world,” said the child.

And the darkness laughed, because outside of the endless void, a shadow needs something to cast it. The wind grew sharp as poison, as the locks of headless hair blew on the spires, and it grew cold as the skin of a starship drifted far from a sun, and the child had no choice but to enter that doorway where the darkness lurked. Lantern and child were swallowed, never to be seen again in the village of the starship.

When at dawn what used to be the child emerged from the spire, they were not human, for their bones had turned black as distant time. The child was no child any longer, but first of demons on this world, Death Walking, because all worlds need death if humans must tread on them. From that day onwards, the humans of our world began to die, as humans must, as we did on first world, and as we have done on all the worlds.

§

[Archive reconstruction; personal record, Death Letter of Truthteller Surya]

In the chill air, the doorway to darkness breathes a humid heat. Umi, the great lighthouse, is at the horizon, about to be swallowed by night’s tide. The doorway is an orifice under aspined arch, at the base of a spire of bones and living clay that rises a hundred feet into the air, jagged with curling black spikes. One of this monument’s many names (none given by those who built it) is hagtower, for the long white snarls of hair and grey membranes of skin that grow around the skeletons that compose it, making them look like ancient humans pickled in time and spacelight. Hags from Farhome, the first world, handmaidens of Death Walkingdancing down (or up?) in a pillar from the sky. Hair and skin; fibers of exomycelial lifeforms sewn into the bones by its builders.

There is lore that says the hags are our dead, going back to the ancestral grounds of Farhome—they will climb the glowing bridge of deadmoon in the sky, and leap off it into the ocean of spacetime to swim the waves back to the beginning. There is lore that says the reverse—the hags are the dead of first world climbing out of the ocean, dancing down here to cast our shadow and bring death here. Our village favors the former. It is our ancestors whose bones dance in these towers, who bodies make the demons that live in them, breathed to life by the black flame of the kal.

If I try to hurt the hagtower—with fire, or weapons—it is said that it will wake and tear me apart with its many calcified claws and stony teeth. It will not. The skeletal walls are lifeless bones, even though the tower itself is a colony lifeform. If there were demons nesting in the tower, they would kill me. But even if the tower were empty of a demon mother of contagion, the hag-skin that sheathes the dancing skeletons, translucent and grey under the light of the stars and flaring sunset, is sensitive. Disturbing it can release potent toxins. I have my gas mask and fiber pelts and gloves. But why would I hurt the hagtower, and the kal inside it, even if I could? I don’t touch the curtains of hag-skin or locks of hag-hair, or disturb anything in this sacred place. Up in the sky, Archive passes in the darkening sky, a tiny moving star. I chose this.

In the etched shadows of Umi’s fall, the hags of the tower do come alive to my eyes, their hair stirring in the cold breeze from the mountains far to the northeast. This doesn’t scare me, because I have come to see the hags—they are built of the bones of my people, my guardians, my friends, my lovers, my offspring. I have come to join them.

All these things are known to my people. They are not known to many of you in the sky, beyond the fallen gate, so I speak them to you and to the demons that surround me, in case time’s river snuffs our flame from the world. In case the gate opens again, and you find this letter, and need guidance to understand what’s transpired here. My words will go to Archive, because I must bear witness. There is more happening here than just my insignificant death.

§

For many years of my life, I was a mother by profession. I was twenty years old (by our sun, and no others) when I grew the first of fourteen children inside me. By then it had been years since we realized the gate in the sky had collapsed. We’d seen the ripples of spacetime warp the constellations, sending stars dancing on an invisible tide through the sky. Archive told us too—the gate was closed, and all the worlds gone. No more starships, no more trade missions, no more precious cargo of star-borne human genes to feed our gestation pods. Our village’s dragon spirit Eko, the starship that brought my ancestors here, could perhaps be revived one day, but it has slept long, and deserves its rest. It is ancient, and it would take much to learn how to steer it again. Even if Eko did set sail again after the long centuries, without an open tunnel to head to we’d be lost, drifting forever on the black ocean of space. We have no way of knowing when the gate might be opened again from the other side—it could be decades, centuries, millennia, forever.

Already my generation barely remembers the days when the gate was open, of visiting season, when arriving starships made new constellations in the sky. People from other worlds came down to crowd the world with new looks and tongues to bewilder and delight, their starships’ bellies full with precious cargo, foods we’ve long forgotten the tastes of, rice and wheat and tea and coffee, grown in climes milder than ours. Guardian Geyua, who was a teacher and Truthteller like I became once my mothering days expired, told us of these days, of the markets that sprung up in the village commons, bustling with life from other solar systems, of the Ambassadors who came from far off islands in the cosmic ocean. Some of them carried the words of Farhome, the promises of terrible machines, of mining bots and fueled vehicles and guns long forbidden on our world, in return for mineral, flora, fauna, and knowledge unique to this corner of the universe. We traded, but only for food and materials. They gave us much less than those other promises would have gotten us, but it was still a life-giving supply. But once the tunnel collapsed and the gate fell, visiting season became memory, not expectation.

We were alone, like first world was at the dawn of exo-time.

So I offered my body for the service of the village, of my people, so that we might keep our flame alit here a little longer. The gestation pods can only do so much when there will be no new humans coming here to trade new genes, perhaps ever—our wellspring, contained in the belly of our starship, grows dry under the inexorable drought of passing generations. Sex was not new to me. So I went to the fertility rite once I was of age, with my hair let down and my body bared, swathed only in space—charcoal for the void and rock salt for the stars, to honor the ocean of space and time that now threatened to drown us. One with the night sky against the bonfire, camouflaged, I could still recognize the silhouettes of the people I had grown with, and loved all my life, my fellow villagers, but if we saw each other, we said nothing. It was late summer, with the tunnel’s death still visible above us, a celestial wave streaking the stars. The bonfire was high and sparking, licking the throat of our village starship. Across the peaty sentinel grounds and mutant pines cloaked in summer’s mist, from the kal forest, we could hear the ululating cries of demons as they saw the blaze. We sang back, and danced our hearts to thunder. There were young and old there, all the village’s clades, the eldest, beyond birthing age, clothed not in space but in white ash, as handmaidens of Death Walking in their benevolent aspect, come to bless the rite and partake in its pleasure if they wished. Even some who declined to take part in the sex danced naked, to give the rest of us strength—others watched the children in the nurseries, who had been put to sleep. We drank bitter sap mead until the ground moved, and our swaying orbits brought us clashing into each other.

Having tasted each other’s honeyed mouths, we entered the ancient starship’s inner sanctum, and made love there to herald our true independence from Farhome, under the great arches of our dragon spirit’s metal ribs, under the impassive eyes of sculpted titans that once held the cosmic darkness at bay for our ancestors on their carbon-fiber shoulders. Long ago, our Ambassadors, sent to the stars from a village far to the east, where the world’s largest spaceport lies, had crossed the cosmic ocean to declare that this world was not a Protectorate like so many others in the sky. They told Farhome that our union here was of independent peoples on a world given to us by the bountiful universe, not by the leaders of first world. It had always been a tenuous agreement, with first world’s attempts to establish a protectorate stretching over generations. There is enough unique resource and knowledge here to keep the attention of Farhome, despite our colder climes and the threat of contagion. With the tunnel gone, the agreement was truly sealed. On the night I attended my first fertility rite, a tradition heralding our freedom and our potential doom, I fucked Saya of my clade, a village protector by profession, and a friend to my heart.

If you will abide, I can tell you ofSaya’s way with bow and spear, how her weapons sculpted her arms like wind against rock, revealing the rivers of her veins. I often brought her skaelg-broth during night watch, and watched the stars with her, watched how they were replicated in the eyes of demons emerging from the kal forest to stalk the sentinel grasses closer to the village. She never let a single arrow fly the many times I kept her company in the watchtowers. But I felt safe around her, even when I could hear the rattling whisper of demons echoing through the night. I admit this sometimes thrilled me, to watch their crowns of shadow breach the mists around the village wall, hunting for creatures to take back to their hagtowers. I never saw their faces, though I tried—they wear the faces of the dead, we are told, and I wanted to see if I could spot the faces of anyone I had lost to Death Walking. In breeding season, we saw demons roam far from the kal forests, approaching perilously close to the walls of the village and battling each other under the mutant pines that were gene-crafted echoes of the trees of distant Farhome. Their horns clashing to release spores that travel on the wind and bring the song of contagion to animals like us.

We were told from the time we are children; if you are called to the kal forest while young, you will enter the doorway to darkness, and your body will be given to the shadow to become a demon everlasting, a kalform. All through the summers, the spores will call the young to the kal forest, and you must resist the song of the handmaidens in their towers with discipline and pain, unless you are deemed unfit for the society of your fellow humans. When you give yourself to the kal forest as an elder, you will enter the doorway to darkness to be digested by the hagtowers. You will be one with the ocean of space and time, and your bones will give the handmaidens of death form in this world. Protectors are told during training to never kill a demon unless they put a human in direct danger, because every demon is an immortal kalform. To end the existence of one is to destroy something that might have lived for generations, having swum in the same waters of time as our ancestors, carrying their death masks.

Saya and I had played as children in our clade’s communal hall, running over the dirt ground shrieking with the other children—each of us had been demon or human in those games, chasing or chased. But as adults, in her watchtower, I knew Saya had come face to face with the real thing, that she had ushered humans to the kal forest to become demons.

§

One of Saya’s earliest duties as protector was to be part of an escort party for a rapist among our clade. For taking a young woman by force, he had been sentenced to be given to the kal forest, to become either food for the hagtowers or a body for a new demon. I remember watching in terror among the gathered crowd, before the exile. Saya’s young face had hardened, the waters gone from her flesh, like I’d never seen her before. She lashed her fist into the rapist’s face. The sound was like a stone hitting treebark, the blood bright with oxygen in the misty morning. Another protector, older, put a hand against her shoulder, firm.

“No need for that,” he said. Unspoken: Exile is enough.

Saya gave a jerky nod. Sick with worry, I watched the protectors put on their gas masks and take the condemned man through the village gate, into the peaty sentinel grounds, out towards the dark horizon of the kal forest. Saya did not hesitate, her bow slung across her shoulder, her spear held firm.

They returned in the evening without the rapist. I tried hugging my friend, but she avoided it, instead briefly squeezing my hand and walking away. I said nothing, just relieved that she had no wounds from the mission. When I joined Saya that night in the watchtower, she didn’t want to talk about it. When I kept asking if she was alright, that drought of tenderness returned to her face, like in the morning, and I recoiled. She asked if I wanted to know what Death Walking looked like, up close. I don’t remember her exact words, but she said many things that frightened me. She said she’d expected the rapist to struggle, scream as they neared the kal forest. But he’d just gone quiet. Saya said that even with her mask on, she could feel the pull of the hagtowers, especially when she saw the peace in that man’s eyes. When they came close enough, he just ran all by himself into the mists of the forest. She didn’t even see the demons.

“I recognized,” she said. “That what we are doing is sacrifice. He was a gift.” Then she looked at me, this part I remember. “I saw your judgment, Surya. When we left. When I hit him,” she said.

“You think I would judge you for taking a rapist to the kal forest?”

“What if it had been a thief? A food hoarder? We’d still send them.” We haven’t sent minor criminals out there for a long time, but this was right before the gate’s collapse.

“It’s not my place to judge,” I said.

She smiled, with bitterness, though it was gone quick.“It made me think we don’t belong. Here, on our own world,” she said. “That the kal is doing us a favor, taking us away. Demons don’t rape, after all.”

I don’t remember what I said to that. Maybe that demons kill. Maybe that they don’t have sex at all.

What I remember is that even in those days of youth, Saya seemed aged beyond her years after that trip out there. I remember the creases of her scars, like mine, dotting the lines of her cheekbones and temples, sinuous along her arms, where we pierced ourselves with hot needles during the fruiting seasons, when the kal spores are strongest in the air, and we feel the pull of the kal forest, the handmaidens of death singing from beyond time in our blood. That is when all the pubescent young in the village are sealed in the starship, where we drank bitter tincture to dull the call and threaded our skin with metal and string so the pain kept us from walking away to the kal forest. If we weren’t careful, we could wade out of time’s river and straight into the ocean of shadow, before the current of life carried us there. I knew that protectors who skirt the edges of the kal forest sometimes abandoned their masks and ventured inside, never to return.

I’ve known since childhood that I would visit the forest when my body’s time in the world waned. Since then I’ve known that our guardians, and friends, all the members of our clade, would walk there eventually, when their bodies made the decision to send them to exile. But at that moment, talking to Saya in the watchtower, I grew terrified that Saya would go to exile before time’s river brought her to the doorway. That she would heed the song early and leave me without my dearest friend. I told her not to go early into the dark woods. I asked her not to.

Saya said nothing, leaving me out in the cold.

And then, years along the current, the gate in the sky collapsed.

We had never fucked before, though we had fought in the mud as children, but we did that night, when I first joined the fertility rite, because I felt that Saya’s warmth and strength would be good for the child-to-be in my belly. When that bend in the river came, all us mothers gave birth in the belly of the starship, because it is the safest place in the world. The air vibrated with our spilled blood, our screams. I watched many of this new generation of womb-born emerge before mine. It hurt like falling to the world. For the first time, I became a mother. I don’t remember the name of my first daughter, but I remember her tender face devouring the air, fresh from my body, no different than the infants plucked from the membranous embrace of gestation pods. Saya came to see me with our other clade-members. Because we were dressed in the dark of space when we made love together, all of us villagers, Saya was no different than anyone there. But I knew that it was her seed that had grown into that first child. She winked at me and carved a thin line in my bicep with an arrowhead to mark the first birth.

“Today you are one of the Atlax above,” she said, looking up at the statues gripping the ribs of the starship. “Pushing the dark back,” she said, near drowned by the choral wails of a new generation. She didn’t hold the baby, because she was no more a guardian to it than any other there. She had every right to, as part of the clade, but I know Saya. She didn’t want to seem possessive.

§

I have fourteen small scars on my arm now, carved by different members of my clade each time I gave birth in the starship’s inner sanctum. After the first, they were much less painful, because I asked for the tinctures. I have one half-scar, for one infant lost to miscarriage. And another, longer line of pale tissue across my lower abdomen, where four of fourteen were cut out of me. I have been lucky, fertile as the gardens under our climate tents. My body is striped like that ancient fire spirit of first world, the taigur, scarred not just by my clade-members’ work but by the babies that have stretched my belly like a drum with their limbs and heads, pushing against my flesh and skin so that they too are the Atlax, holding back the tide of time so that they might meditate, timeless, within me, before facing the turbulent river.

§

Many of the children have left with trading parties to other villages, never to return, to keep the human flame lit, delicately dancing on the oily surface of our gene pool on the world. If the gene pool becomes too shallow, too stagnant and polluted, that flame will flicker, wane, and disappear. The gate in the sky, after all, still remains closed, though we have danced many times around Umi. I can only hope that the little ones who went away with the surly traders on their solar buggies and gliders loaded with goods found peace and bountiful lives under the sign of a new starship beyond the wilds. We receive supplies, or other children to be swapped for ours, in return. Sometimes news comes—of trade caravans lost in the wilds and gliders crashed because of storms—but I choose not to remember the details.

§

Saya and I took many lovers in the years of rites to follow, on those summer nights with blazing bonfires under Eko’s throat. The two of us never had sex with each again, that I can remember, though our love has never waned. She found great fellowship in her protector group, fucking many of them, and making companions of them as they went hunting and foraging. By the time she was middle-aged, her back and gut were drawn with scars from the spearheaded tails and horns of demons, for coming too close and being too bold along the edges of the kal forest. I was always in awe of her courage, that she had been so close to demons and survived. I asked her many times, have you seen them wearing the faces of our dead? Of Geyua and the elder guardians who have walked away? And she always said no, I’ve seen only the faces of strangers from distant bends in the river of time, our ancestors preserved by the kal.

She was proud, though, never to have killed a demon in all her time as protector. Because she was one of my closest clade-members, I made friends of her fellow protectors too. One of them, Keliyeh, I loved for a while. He had killed a demon once, or so he said, to defend himself from an attack. I believed him, because he’d lost an arm because of it, replaced with a beautiful prosthesis of carbon-fiber painted black as the horns of the creature that took that part of his body. But no protector can ever have proof of such a killing, because demons killed must be left for their kin to collect and taken back to the hagtowers to be digested as food. Demon and human; we all go to the hagtowers in the end, to the shadow of the kal. It is a sign of respect, of our bond.

§

Once Saya retired from the protectors she become a Truthteller like me, teaching the children by my side and thrilling them with tales of her adventures. Just as she had taught me  much about the kal and its many forms, about the demons, I taught her, along with the children, of Farhome’s lores. I showed her ghostlights from other worlds, paintings and video and statues and art, archives, pictures of demons long before they came to be on our world. She was amazed by these unimaginably old visions of horned creatures, demons imagined at the beginning of time by people who’d never seen one.

“The lens of spacetime can be like a telescope. Even now, perhaps our ancestors watch us,” I said once (or something like that). She laughed, but she was agog with wonder. These times, the two of us aging together in safety, teaching archives, stretching and tanning hides, smoking meats, were precious to me.

In this time of her life, she confided in me in ways that made me think she still wanted to go early to the kal forest. That fear of mine never quite went away. I knew she, like many protectors, suffered sleep walks and vivid dreams that drew her towards the hagtowers. She told me once, drinking mead in the banquet hall, that on her foraging patrols she had twice seen demons embracing in each other’s arms within the gloaming of a hagtower’s doorways. That they had been making love, like humans, like their bodies once had when they were used for human lives, for singing and dancing and talking and eating and fucking.

 “Death Walking, making love?” I asked her, my disbelief clear.

 “Fucking, if you prefer,” said Saya. “Would that make it more believable? I know what I saw. Demons, fucking like humans. Rutting behind the curtains of hag-hair.”

“The kal reproduces by taking bodies, making kalforms, not sex. You probably saw two demons during fruiting season, clashing horns to release spores, that’s all.”

“Oh, are you the one who has looked Death Walking in the face now? Why are you explaining what I’ve known since I was a child?”

“You think I’m still a child, to be made a gullible fool.”

Saya cackled then, shook her head, and hurled the last of her mead down her throat. There was sweat beading on her forehead. The hall was chilly, despite the fires inside. As she’d grown older, she drank more, not less, to numb the call of the forest. We probably fought more that night about what she saw out there, but in good nature. She never brought it up again, though. She is a proud woman and doesn’t take accusations of foolishness well.

I should say now that Saya has already walked here to the kal forest to meet Death Walking, like so many I have loved, like all my guardians, and some of the children I birthed who did not heed the warnings. The dirt roads of the village feel empty these days, haunted by mist or sunlight, the shadow cast by Eko long. Do not be sad for Saya—she lived a long life, with many to love in it. My fear, that she would leave me to come to the forest early, did not come true. Like a true friend, she waited, waited long, until there were cataracts in her eyes and she was braving spasms of longing for the forest. Too much exposure to kal spores during her time as a protector, despite the masks she had worn. She finally heeded the call in dark of night, alone, taking a solar skiff. I’ve long known we were approaching the end. I thought we would go together, but I should have known she wouldn’t have wanted to say farewell in person, or have to watch me die with her. For all her strength, she couldn’t take such things. The first time we watched one of our elder guardians go on the final exile, she cried for days, barely eating unless I spooned broth into her mouth.

I cannot begrudge her the silent departure. She did leave me alone, but she waited as long as she could. It has been two days since she left the village. So now I come to the doorway as well.

§

I take off my backpack and open it. Inside are scrolls of printed meat from the village’s bioreactor cauldrons, wrapped in twine, their flesh marbled violet under deadmoon’s glow. It’s cold enough that they have kept through the day’s journey on the solar skimmer, which I’ve left by forest’s edge for protector patrols to retrieve later. I unwrap one of the scrolls, tearing off pieces of it and carefully leaving the pages of meat pierced on the black spikes emerging from the bony walls of the hagtower. I leave these little offerings, prayer flags of succulent DNA from first world, as decoration around the doorway. I came through the forest with a necklace of dead rabbits taken from the village hutches, tossed behind me to keep demons at bay until I reached a hagtower. Three rabbits are left hanging over my heart, and I give them as gifts as well, hanging them by the doorway. The hagtower seems to stir, a rustling from far above. In the village, the scrolls would be smoked over spiced peat flame and eaten in strips with porridge, the rabbits skinned to make pelts and turned to stew or kababs. Here, the offerings are left raw.

I speak into the darkness, as the child who became Death Walking did.

“Who lives here?” I ask the dark.

The darkness doesn’t answer, but the mother of contagion at the top of the spire does, their voice the death rattle of the demon they are. Their cry is powerful, audible over the wind despite being so far above me. It is not the scream that precedes attack, but the ululation that signals a space, a warning, for me.

So I kneel on my swollen knees and bow my head low to the hag-webbed ground, sending pangs up and down my back. My old heart beats like it is young again. I haven’t been slaughtered swiftly by the mother at the top of the hagtower because of my age. I have proven my lack of speed, and brought gifts.

I keep my forehead to the cold ground for ten seconds, my grey hair mixing with creepers of hag-hair. Then, still kneeling, I look up at the sky, and see the mother crouched high above the bony hags, a demon against the stars, horns silhouetted against the twinkling arch of deadmoon.

“I have come to leave this tributary and swim out to the great ocean of spacetime above. You are the shadow we’ve cast and our guide to darkness. I offer myself freely to your kal, mother of contagion,” I say, looking up while still kneeling.

The horned head retreats, becoming one with the spikes and bones of the hagtower. I look down again and wait for what seems an eternity, my breath hissing in my mask. Then, the hags of the tower sing to me, a haunting wail that raises my body up. Something is moving through the hagtower’s cavities, the kal inside responding like an intricate machine, turning the entire colony life form into a musical instrument as the wind runs through it. The song stops. The demon emerges from the doorway to darkness in front of me, parting the curtains of hair.

At first, the mother of contagion looks like a human, skin white as a star, etched with scars just like me, dressed in diaphanous robes of hag-hair that hang off her like moonlit water. They wear a chain of black bones around their hips, which ends in a living spearhead. It is their tail—the most visible part of the mutated kalform skeleton inside their ante-human flesh. Then, as the demon walks out of the hagtower, emerging from the writhing, unseen grasp of the kal inside, their crown of shadows slides out of the dark doorway. The horns curling out of their head; two daggers of dark slicing out of the temples, two spirals with all the grace of the universe itself behind their pointed ears. There are smaller horns decorating their bald scalp, bristling down their neck like jet flames. The black fire of deep space, and the water of time.

I am face to face with Death Walking, like the first child to come to the kal forest. The demon’s eyes are the burnished scarlet of dying stars. And in their pale arms, nestled in the folds of the demon’s white robes, is a sleeping infant, small black pinpricks like drops of blood decorating its hairless scalp—the beginnings of horns, a crown of shadows. This cannot be, of course—Death Walking cannot give birth through womb or machine, only humans can. I assume I’m hallucinating this star-carved child out of fear and euphoria.

But the demon pays my disbelief no heed, walking up to me, their bare, clawed feet caked in dirt, sinking into the mulch. They bend down, a rattle in their chest and throat, mouth parted to reveal fangs black like their horns. Like me, the demon kneels, but only on one knee, their powerful legs sliding out of the robes. Their thighs are crisscrossed with scars where the kal inserted its shadowjacks all along the given body, to mutate it into this kalform. I was so surprised to see the baby in their arms that I barely looked at their face. They wear the faces of the dead—perhaps I will see the death mask of one I have loved. But this demon wears the face of someone I have never known, though they are very beautiful in their own way, their cheekbones and temples sharper than any human because of their kal-mutated bones, growing into their crown of horns. But how can I be disappointed, here at the end of my life, when Death Walking holds out this strange infant to me, as if to show me a miracle.

 “Is this your baby?” I ask, my voice trembling through the mask’s speaker.

 There is kindness in the demon’s face, if only because my human brain wants there to be—recognizes something in the death mask of a human from hundreds of years ago, turned to something else. Behind them, the hags of the tower smile their toothy smiles, my people from across time laughing at this unexpected ripple in the river. I laugh as well. The mother of contagion has become a mother. The demon does not laugh. The demon extends their arms so that the baby is near my own chest, head and buttocks cradled in their elongated hands, stirring memories of holding so many of the village’s babies to my breasts, years and years ago.I notice that the baby has genitals, which look the same as a human’s. Instinctively, I reach out to take the baby, the thought that the demon wants me to feed it suddenly growing amid the blossom of memories within my skull. I am too old, and have no milk in my breasts, but my hands reach out anyway.

 I think of Saya, refusing to take from my arms the first baby I birthed for the village, even though she knew there was something of her in it.

The demon steps back lightly. There is a lash of movement that starts at their waist and shimmers around them. A razored flower of agony in my back, brief and powerful enough to buckle my legs and send me tumbling to the ground. The pain subsides quickly, but I can barely move. The demon looms over me, returning the infant to their chest, where the robes have parted to show small breasts leaking rivulets of dark, viscous milk like ink. Just as the hagtowers feed the demons with their hagmilk, so does the demon feed this child. I see their tail slither around their body again, curling against flesh, leaving a trail of my blood with its spearhead. It reminds me of another spirit of Farhome, the serpent, seen in many lores I’ve learned from Archive. I remember that to many peoples across the sky, our world would be seen as punishment for the wrongdoings of humanity. Hellhome, because here be demons.

I laugh. Another demon moves towards the mother of contagion who felled me, climbing down from another hagtower nearby. They squat by the mother’s legs, watching me. I can’t see their face well, just the blazing pinpricks of their eyes reflecting the deadmoon. I imagine that this one wears the face of Saya, even though Saya is too old to have been used to create a demon, and is now being digested inside a hagtower. I may as well imagine her face, though. I wonder whose body grew whatever mutant seed that created the baby in the demon’s arms, derived of DNA spiraling out of the stars and into the shadow of this world. The infant starts to cry, and it is a sound I’ve never heard before—a higher, sharper rattle than that of the demons. It is one of them. This is a real child of demons, offspring of Death Walking. I am witness to a great turbulence in the river of time, a bloom of life springing from the depths.

Saya was right all along. She had seen what she’d seen. All these generations of taking human bodies to create new kalforms, and the kal has finally learned how to use the bodies as we do. Death Walking has evolved to reproduce sexually. I laugh, and wonder if that’s the taste of blood at the back of my throat.

The mother of contagion wasn’t asking me to feed their infant, but showing me, the human, their antecedent, what they have learned from us. Tears blur my vision. As I was mother, they are too. I, we, are a mirror to them, and always have been.

§

Perhaps one day the humans of our world will die out completely, leaving only Death Walking. As I send these words up to Archive, a demon watches, lets me speak. I have no pain, their tail’s spearhead slick with anesthetic to numb the gash in my back. They seem remorseful, but that is because they have a human face, and once again, I see what I want to see in its scarlet eyes. I startled them by reaching for the infant. There are others, their eyes glittering atop the hagtowers and their swirling hair. Is this the first of their children that I hear suckling at the breast of the demon, like the first child that walked into the doorway to darkness and created their race? Was this baby truly created through sex, through that ancient dance of bodies forged from the echoes of Farhome? I cannot know these things. It seems a pity to die now, at the cusp of such realizations, though it doesn’t sadden me. These demonic poisons are intoxicants; how else to explain this ridiculous poem I have narrated to my killers, reliving the last moments of my life to you, to them?

Even as my life leaves this body, I feel it raging in my brain, as if the language demons don’t yet have must be expressed through me, the waters of time muddied by my glorious flailing. I can barely feel this body, which will be dragged into a doorway to darkness and turned to hagmilk.

These demons, that surround me as I die, no longer seem like aliens. They never were aliens. This is their home, the home of the kal. Perhaps the kal has been trying to hold us by the hand all along, and bring us to its world, not ours. If the gate in the sky never opens, it may not be such a tragedy for us all to die, as I will soon. The strange cry of the demon infant proves this. Our flame may waver out on the world, but our shadow will remain. It isn’t possible, is it, for shadow to be cast without light, but here I have witnessed a miracle unthought of in all my days of praying by the Reactor of our ancient starship Eko, may it never crumble so that the children of demons may play on its weathered flanks.

I’ve taken off my mask, so that I breathe the same bitter air as the demons. This tributary ends, and I clamber out wet with lived time. The handmaidens sing, and Death Walking feeds their child with the black milk of space. I walk with them now across the bridge of deadmoon, studded with roiling gemstones of ice and rock, alive with Umi’s light. The ocean above is dancing with starry surf. I dive into it.

§

When at dawn what used to be the child emerged from the spire, they were not human, for their bones had turned black as distant time. The child was no child any longer, but first of demons on this world, Death Walking, because all worlds need death if humans must tread on them. From that day onwards, the humans of our world began to die, as humans must, as we did on first world, and as we have done on all the worlds.

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© Indrapramit Das
Originally published in the anthology New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color edited by Nisi Shawl, Solaris, 2019

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