Merry escaped her pasture on the day she was set to calf. I’d only noticed her absence when I counted herd at noontime, placing her desertion between then and dawn.
According to Farmer Galzpit, calving sent even the most placid of cows on wild journeys to anywhere they felt best prepared to labor, whether that be a dry riverbed, a lonely hollow, or among the salt licks. This natural inclination would kill her and the calf both, so I gathered the Deliverer and Farmer Galzpit for a search party. Galzpit’s twins, Zake and Cale, turned our troupe into a fivesome, unless you counted Galzpit’s hunting slayps which seldom left his side except to harass me with their proboscises and would, he promised, “prove most valuable in our pursuit.”
“Did you forget to engage the lock?” I asked Galzpit. “Did you forget to shut your door this morning? Do you forget to close your eyelids each night?”
Farmer Galzpit spat. The black-leaf stained all of his teeth but the front two, lending credence to the rumor that those beige fangs were ivory replacements by a rogue Practioner.
“I forgive your excitability, Torfel, on account of your dire situation. Doubtless you’ll apologize when we find your cow.”
The pink slayp slurped at the spit but before all of it could be gathered, the green slayp slid in and reserved the choice mucus for itself. The pink slayp winked its pincers at the green one and spun to present its glands. These were second-generation slayps: Galzpit had brought their sire’s eggs back from the Campaigns. He swore they were more trainable and less hungry than any hound. Certainly, they were fouler.
“No need to hide, Torfel, Pinkie was only setting her brother straight, wasn’t she? Wasn’t she?” He scratched the preening slayp beneath its vestigial.
I emerged from behind the boulder. “I count it no virtue to be wet with slayp venom.”
Zake and Cale tittered, though I could not judge whether at me or the situation.
The Deliverer raised her head from the crook of her arms. She mimed yawning. She pointed into the distance.
“I agree with the wise one,” I said. “Let us depart. Life’s candle runs wax, the moreso my Merry’s.”
We followed Merry’s trail southwards out of the grasslands and into the marsh. Zake and Cale squawked their disapproval, the twins having developed a large estimation of themselves on account of their rarity. Only ancients remembered the last pair: tow-headed coopers who’d drowned fishing in their fortieth year.
“We wish to return, father,” said Zake.
“Hunger assails our bellies,” said Cale.
“And this foul water our soles.”
Farmer Galzpit, despite his glaring ineptitudes in areas such as watching other people’s cows, suffered no whiners. He slapped the both of them. Zake, the boy-child, and larger, nonetheless took the blow with less aplomb.
“Nay, father, I jest!” he cried.
Galzpit awarded him another reminder. I winced but did not voice any complaints, considering the titters from earlier.
The Deliverer struck a pose of admonishment toward Galzpit. She ticked her finger back and forth.
“For my respect of your position, I offer apology,” said Galzpit. “But as your jurisdiction ends at birth’s finale, I suggest in the future you keep your finger to yourself.” The slayps, understanding their master’s moods, circled the Deliverer in rather an insistent manner.
“Galzpit!” I snapped.
“Peace, peace,” said Galzpit, raising his hands. “They are yet young and unhealed.”
“Your children or your hounds?” I asked.
Galzpit had the grace to look embarrassed. “With all seriousness, I apologize. Never was my intention to threaten you, Deliverer.” He squirted air between his side-teeth. “Olive, Pinkie, down.”
The slayps sat. Their plated, symmetrical craniums made it impossible to tell their feelings.
The Deliverer nodded.
“Well, then, let’s get on with it,” I said.
Merry’s trail was rapidly disintegrating, which meant she’d forded Bleach Creek. We marched single file along its glowing length. Whirlpools manifested behind logs and rocks. Water-bugs skated beneath overhanging ferns.
Foreigner fishermen—Aedelsbeeans, Mivinis, even Jelzoonites—swore the Bleach River lagoons were the hottest spots north of Sungar-Lee. I prayed we would not encounter any anglers, since I’d rather not explain how each fish contained the soul of a person who’d swum in the river too long. Zake and Cale took to discussing these histories and especially the River Wanderer, he whose proper name is best not to utter lest you incur his attention.
“The River Wanderer is half-man, half-turtle,” said Zake. Galzpit nodded along.
“No, he’s two-thirds catfish, one-third human,” said Cale.
“Who told you that?” snapped Galzpit.
Cale shrugged. “Someone.”
Cale, preventative of what her brother had suffered earlier, said, “I made it up.”
Farmer Galzpit accepted this explanation much faster than I would have, had I offspring.
By now we were far from home. I could not even spy smoke rising off the common’s bonfire. Distance shrunk our forest to a green slice. The world had been taken over by greedy flatness, stretching from the plain to the marsh and further ahead to where the river ran wide, and where we would have to edge our way along its pebbled shore. I prayed we encountered Merry beforehand, lest it become impossible to find her trail.
We came to a downed patch in the reeds. Merry had lain here. Cale and Zake both saluted me for my unerring tracking abilities, and I reflected they weren’t wholly awful, Cale especially.
“Is it true, father, that the River Wanderer will tell you secrets if you offer him pieces of your body?” Zake was employing a fallen branch as his walking stick. Whenever a fish flitted past, he stabbed into the water with rather more vigor than appropriate.
“Yes, child. Though you might phrase it differently. When the River Wanderer answers a query, he takes his due. His toll comes in commiseration to the depth of the question.”
“This explains your abridged mind and unexpurgated body, Shepherd Torfel,” said Cale.
I privately revoked my mislaid praise. “The joke is upon you, child, for anyone who wishes to find the River Wanderer is a fool indeed.”
“What’s wrong with learning secrets?” asked Zake. He watched the creek with all the focus of a hunting cat. “I posit these fish are too diminutive to contain the entire soul of a person.”
“Babies, I presume,” said Cale.
“Children brought by their parents to swim,” added Galzpit, winking at me. “I took you every day until Cale sprouted webbing and Zake gills.”
“I believe you not,” said Cale.
Farmer Galzpit produced a new lump of black-leaf. “Fortunately for me, your confidence is not the engine of my existence.”
“Those who do not know the cost of secrets have doubtless never heard the tale of Pupil Quizzenmot,” I said. “Woe to them.”
“Recount it!” cried Zake.
“Your base of knowledge is robust enough to support structures, whether they be shacks or outhouses,” said Cale.
“I just will recount!” I cried.
The Deliverer tapped my shoulder. She gestured off into the distance.
“What?” I asked her, feigning ignorance. I addressed the children. “Pupil Quizzenmot was the cleverest of the River Wanderer’s students. When the Wanderer still took students, that is.”
Another tap on my shoulder. The Deliverer mimed sewing her mouth shut.
“They’re old enough,” said Farmer Galzpit.
The Deliverer sighed.
“Continue on, fair shepherd,” said Cale. She blinked her lashes at me. With either hand she stroked a slayp; their proboscises slobbered her slender wrists.
“Sheathe your affection and I will,” I said, making sure Galzpit was not at all confused by my response to his daughter’s up-jumpery.
Cale pouted. “In four years, when I equalize your current age, I hope to have gleaned a sparkle of the wisdom you possess at this very instant.
I did not honor her with a response. “Pupil Quizzenmot, as I said, was—”
“The River Wanderer’s premier pupil,” said Zake.
“Yes. Be silent, I beg. As all might imagine, Pupil Quizzenmot paid a dear price for his wisdom. He would wait at a bend in the river where the River Wanderer emerged to hunt. After feeding, the River Wanderer slept beneath the root shelves of the river trees. Pupil Quizzenmot would crawl through the knobby roots that he might lean his head a lip’s breath from the swirling water and whisper his questions. The River Wanderer, always so close to the world of dreams that his sleeping is tantamount to our waking, took his tithe.
“First, Pupil Quizzenmot sacrificed his toes, then his lesser fingers, then his feet, and ankles, and by the time Pupil Quizzenmot was flat from the stomach down, he knew secrets reserved for ears and minds inhuman.”
Zake snorted. “I cry pretense. How did he locomote?”
Farmer Galzpit raised his mitt, where it blocked out the sun. Zake quailed.
“If you will listen,” I said. “Pupil Quizzenmot set to building a hut nearest the River Wanderer’s feeding ground. Hark, Zake: he dragged himself about this way and that way, for he still had both arms, employing hammer and nail and saw, and when he’d completed the ugly little hut, he sacrificed his right arm for further knowledge.”
“Why?” asked Cale.
“Why learn?” I asked. “Why strive to know things which only gods know?”
The Deliverer chopped her hand into her palm: a clear communication of ‘cease.’ But I was almost done.
“Years gone and Pupil Quizzenmot did not have much more to give. He hurt in all places, even inside himself, but he’d learned a secret of longevity so he would never expire. The hut protected him from wind and rain and instead of decaying in these elements the hut transformed. It ripened into another aspect of the land, the ways hills are, or the oldest trees, or the river itself.
“Finally, there was only one more sacrifice to make. Pupil Quizzenmot sewed a blindfold of ermine fur. Then he bade the River Wanderer for that terminal knowledge. The River Wanderer sliced off his pupil’s eyelids. As the River Wanderer swam away in the river’s currents, red streaks of fresh blood trailing, Pupil Quizzenmot realized he’d become nearly as wise as his teacher.”
I tented my hand above my eyes and peered this way and that way, as if only just noticing our location. “If I’m not mistaken, we walk the very land upon which Pupil Quizzenmot built his hut.”
A beat of silence as my audience percolated this finale. Cale and Zake both gripped a slayp, the beasts happy for the attention, their rump spines squiggling. The Deliverer was rustling with the instruments in her pack and not paying the least attention.
“Well told, Torfel,” said Galzpit.
“Father, was that truth?” asked Cale. “Not that I am frightened, but instead curious.”
“That’s the way I always heard it,” said Galzpit.
“Zake, you are pale as a gecko’s belly! Need you water?” I affected brotherly concern.
“I am nothing so much as sleepy,” said Zake. “And in no way disturbed for my corporeal appendages.”
“Doubtless,” I said.
“Upon further consideration, I refuse to believe that story,” said Cale. “Thus, I am immune to its frights.”
“Cease your nattering,” I told her. In the course of my tale, we had traveled rather deeper in the marsh than I’d expected. Merry’s trail was clear enough in the reeds, except we were not following the river anymore, but rather a slow, wide bayou. Our strip of land was the only one in sight. All the rest was tree-tips sprouting out of the gray water into gray sky.
“I will strike you, given opportunity,” said Cale.
“That cow of yours has intrepid hooves,” said Galzpit. His voice, so deep, echoed off the flat expanse. Turtles on a nearby log slid to safety as we passed. Zake chucked his walking stick at a submerging runt, missed, and scared a roost of birds into the gray sky.
“We are almost certainly near,” I said, “for Merry’s tracks gain weight, indicating a slowing of momentum.”
“Excuse me,” said a voice.
It was a man’s voice. Not Galzpit, certainly not Zake. I about broke my neck trying to find the speaker. Yet there stood only the five of us, and the two slayps, who chuffed in excitement.
“Could you keep it down? You, boy, in particular. Some of us are trying to sleep.”
“Be wary! A spirit seeks to draw us into the swamp!” I cried.
Galzpit thwacked his forearm with a long, pitted knife. Cale and Zake brandished cudgels.
“Do not incense it with useless armaments!” I said.
Laugher, disembodied, made them see the sense in this, and it was in the motion of hanging her cudgel that Cale fell backwards into the bayou. She sprang from the water with vigor enough to imply levitation.
“Torfel,” she said. I followed her extended finger.
A face lay in the water, as if a person floated on their back but just submerged. Only a visage and a few whisps of dark hair breached the surface.
“What brings you to these parts?” asked the face, blinking to clear the sleep from his eyes, which were a perfect turquoise. I measured his age as nearly Farmer Galzpit’s, except appearing older on account of his beardlessness.
I sought guidance from Galzpit, who shrugged, and the Deliverer, who presented a flat palm and finger-legs walking across it: ‘let’s keep on.’
Yet, I couldn’t help but feel it ill luck to ignore this potamoi, or tangie, or water-sprite, or whatever it was. Especially on the way to a birthing.
“We search for my calving cow, your highness,” I said.
“And who are you supposed to be?” asked the face.
He was upside down from my perspective. I titled my head, so we were more-or-less looking eye-to-eye.
“The Sheperd Torfel, your highness,” I said.
“Hence the calf,” he said. “Sure, sure. And the rest of you? Identify yourselves.”
“Farmer Galzpit, sir spirit, and my children, Zake and Cale, twins, thus existing at the edge of your world,” said Galzpit. “And this silent one is our Deliverer, who doubtless wishes you glad tidings, but cannot speak due to our custom.” Galzpit bowed to complete the ingratiation.
The face laughed derisively. “‘The edge of my world,’” he mimicked. He laughed again, then became serious, the change as fast as a sluggish river turning tumultuous in the rocks.
“Risky, coming here,” said the face. “Especially for normal folk such as yourselves. You trek in the realm of Pupil Quizzenmot.”
“We know, Torfel told us so,” said Zake. His bravado was obviously counterfeit.
I went to my knees and cast my glance waterward in an unctuous display. This afforded me the opportunity to discover the rest of the face’s body. To no avail, for the gray water parried my attempts at ocular penetration.
His turquoise eyes swirled. “Full of wisdom, are you, Sheperd Torfel?”
I answered without considering the consequences. “Me? Oh no, your highness. Only a fool making his blind path through the tribulations of life.”
The face guffawed. “Maybe you do possess a measure of wisdom.”
I didn’t bother ruining good fortune with verbalization. I only bowed my head until my forehead broke water. I opened my eyes below the surface: an unfathomable gray as obfuscating as blackest night.
When I resurfaced, the face grinned to near lasciviousness. “Due to the shepherd’s wisdom—and because that boy-twin of yours, black-teeth, awoke me at a prime moment in my sleeping rhythms—I will assist you. To wit, your Merry cow bays her birth not half a mile away.”
“Many thanks, highness,” I spluttered, but the face had already sunk beneath the gray stillness. Meager ripples expanded until there was no sign of any visitation.
Farmer Galzpit and his children stook stock while the slayps played a mournful dirge on their backlegs. The Deliverer closed her eyes and breathed in, out; in, out. My fingers and toes itched as if I’d sat on the limbs too long.
A cow’s bay broke our stupor.
“Press onward!” I commanded. “With verve! Deliverer, bear in abeyance your tools.”
“Who was that?” asked Cale.
“Let us never converse of it,” said Farmer Galzpit. He mimed vomiting and eating the vomit, an honorific to that eternally hungry and eternally living God, Vircesean.
In short order we came upon a hut and upon Merry, who lay breathing hard enough to flume a wildfire. This plot of land was the terminus of our trail—behind the hut stretched naught but gray water and blankets of seaweed masquerading as safe harbor.
The Deliverer opened her bag. She set to ministering. I laid Merry’s great soft head in my lap and whispered sweet things into her clover-down ears.
The hut was a strange structure, as much loam and leaf as log or brick. Thick grass crawled from the roof down along the walls except where stone buttressed the structure. Its stone-slab door cracked ajar and Cale and Zake wasted no time in prying it open. They disappeared inside.
Farmer Galzpit spit a hunk of black-leaf and inserted another. The slayps ran circles around him, venturing in the hut’s door only to gurgle and scuttle away. “What is my task, Torfel? I venture to say I’ve never been party to a birthing.”
“Neither have I.”
“You two, shut up,” said the Deliverer. She whistled. The slayp’s halted and retreated their proboscises. Galzpit and I made not a peep but cast each other amazed glances: we’d been granted a gift, for the sacred dialogue of the Deliverers was no small litany and reserved only for the adherent’s ears. Except in times of crisis.
“Torfel, keep on with your alleviation. Galzpit, keep watch. If harassed, you are shield to this mother.” The Deliverer’s voice was high-pitched, calm, and firm.
Farmer Galzpit bore his knife.
“You’re my favorite cow,” I told Merry, “Don’t tell the others.”
“Wish we had her standing. But wish in one hand, eh?” said the Deliverer. Wind whipped. Swamp birds honked a V-shape overhead. I rubbed the space between Merry’s nostrils, up her nose, between her liquid eyes.
“Now there’s my mama,” said the Deliverer. “Push, mama, push like you’re having a movement. Don’t be embarrassed. Push, push, and now wait, yes, wait, and when the next contraction comes, you take a deep breath and hold it, hold it, and push it until the count of ten…”
Merry acquiesced to the Deliverer’s orders as if trained for the very task. After several contractions the Deliverer began to massage Merry’s belly.
“Who’s my pretty cow?” I asked.
Cale and Zake strode out of the hut. “Attend to our discoveries, elders,” said Zake. He’d grown three feet in height since gaining entrance to the hut.
“What foolery have you been partaking in?” asked Farmer Galzpit. “Release those… feet, this instant. And Cale, likewise the hands.”
Zake and Cale let fall their loads. They unclipped and stepped down to their natural heights. Before them was a pile of wooden limbs: legs and arms set with buckles, leather straps, fasteners, buttons, or whatever was best for that portion’s congregation with the body. Pinkie hefted a wooden foot between her mandibles. Farmer Galzpit slapped the slayp’s rump and Pinkie dropped the foot and retreated behind Merry and the Deliverer, who shooed the beast some feet off.
“My foolish progeny! Deposit those back from whence they came!” cried Galzpit.
“The value is immense,” said Cale. “Did you not order my brother and I to ‘keep watch for and subsequently gather any perceived treasures in pursuit of sale at market’?”
“Quote not my own phrases toward me!” snarled Galzpit. He kicked a hunk of turf into the bayou. “Who in this vicinity, according to legend, might use artificial extremities?”
“Sweet Superior,” I swore.
Cale gasped and threw the requisite signs to ward off my eternal damnation by Sweet Superior’s Shining Hands, considering it was past mid-afternoon and thus during that God’s Second Naptime.
“Many thanks, Cale,” I said. “But harken to your father’s phrasing.”
“I understand his meaning not, and neither does my sister,” said Zake.
“Pupil Quizzenmot may not enjoy your molestation of his equipment,” I said, attempting jocularity that they might understand my point without becoming afraid. For my part, I knew I must rectify this possibly mortal blunder, so I slid from beneath Merry— “Don’t go too far, she’s about to pop,” reminded the Deliverer—and began gathering the appendages. They were warm and rather more pliable than their wooden appearance belied.
“You jape,” said Zake.
I interlinked my fingers with a wooden hand. Another hand I pressed against my forearm until its clever fingers grasped tightly. So situated, I carried the entirety of the load through the stone portal before I could second-guess the impulse.
“Accuse me again of inappropriate jest and—” I lost the rest of Galzpit’s utterance in the insulation of the hut, which was as green inside as out and seemed large as the outside, too. I walked for more than ten yards to make the far wall, dewy grass caressing head and foot, the ceiling as verdant as the floor.
On the wall before me were depressions shaped like the mirrors of limbs. These depressions slowly filled with moss, as if the wall could not help but revert to an unpressed state. I rejoined each appendage into the wall. The moss crawled to cradle its parts.
Yet my placements were imperfect. Whoever lived here—I refused to be sure—would doubtless know someone had tampered with their organization. All the better reason to leave at first occasion.
I obeyed my baser instincts. In a flash I was out into the open air, diving free, the mossy walls seeming to grab at me as I soared through the portal. When I landed hard on the ground nobody helped me up because nobody was paying me any mind.
It was as if the world had turned off-kilter but marginally: Zake, of all people, sat with Merry’s head in his lap. The Deliverer squatted at Merry’s splay. Behind her Famer Galzpit and Cale were pointing off into the gray, of which a mist had lately made addition. The only thing mooring us in space was the green hut.
I dodged a slayp’s curious proboscis. “It’s happening,” said the Deliverer. The air itself felt… strangely electric, as if a storm were sweeping in.
Cale bade me gaze down her arm. Off the end of it, something lurked in the water. Only a crest of the shape broke the surface but whatever it was, it was large, and it was moving closer.
“Here we go, mama, said the Deliverer.
Merry’s moo echoed through the fog. Her tail twitched. Beneath, cresting in and out, was a white nodule that I supposed was some part of the calf. A slack of mucus hung suspended.
“What is it?” Cale whispered.
Something in her tone made me turn. The shape in the water was closer, now, and more of its broad back was revealed. A beak plowed the water.
Suddenly, completely, I knew.
The Ocoun, I thought, and cursed myself for the thought, so specific I might as well have said it aloud. To utter the River Wanderer’s true name—or at any rate its old name, its-just-a-person-name—was to invite its curiosity.
But the River Wanderer did not look at me, and I knew I’d used up all my luck for the day. Maybe for the rest of my life.
“The River Wanderer,” whispered Farmer Galzpit.
“Come on out, little one,” said the Deliverer. “You’ve got to push, mama. Remember I said ‘push’?” She stuck her index finger through the eyehole at the end of a woven leather strap, then shoved her hand into Merry up to the shoulder. Mucus rained. After some digging about, the Deliver drew out her arm to reveal the leather strap was now hanging out of Merry parallel to the burgeoning white of her calf.
Farmer Galzpit and Cale flanked me. “He’s on the other side of the hut,” whispered Galzpit. “He sojourns mere feet offshore.”
“What’s he doing?” I asked.
Farmer Galzpit and Cale shrugged identically.
“Keep watch, for you are our defense,” I said. Galzpit and his daughter crept to the edge of the hut and peered around.
“What occurs?” asked Zake. “From this vantage I can see naught.”
“Speak only to the cow,” snapped the Deliverer.
“Nothing occurs beyond the daily fall of evening, curious Zake,” I said. I joined the Deliverer behind Merry, where she gripped the leather strap. The Deliverer pulled. First out was the hoof, bone white, the leather strap cinched tightly around. Another pull, and another hoof, after which Merry dumped a swift bath of defecation over the entire proceedings. The Deliverer laughed.
“Hazards of the job, eh?” she said.
Merry mooed in answer.
“He doubtless hears us,” whispered Farmer Galzpit. A sheen of terror had entered his eyes. I’d seen the same glint in a cow’s eye right before stampede. He swallowed his slug of black-leaf and inserted another, not seeming to notice.
“He’s been hearing us,” I said. “Hold strong, Galzpit, we need you.” I chanced a glance beyond the hut.
The River Wanderer floated offshore on the hut’s other side, about ten yards away. He was composed of turtle, not catfish. The turtle’s shell was wide enough for a man to lay there on his back with his arms spread. Which is exactly where the man lay. Except he was inside the shell, encased within the clear expanse, as if floating submerged in crystal waters. His head lay near the turtle’s anvil head. The turtle’s eyes were the same turquoise as the man’s.
I relinquished my view.
Merry’s calf was a foot out. I was marveling at the disgusting majesty of this procession—understanding for the first time in my life why Delivering was a calling reserved only for those rarest, brightest few—when out jutted the calf’s head.
The Deliverer regripped the strap. “One more for the road,” she muttered, and hauled back.
It was enough. The calf slid out of Merry with a momentous sluice, trailed by its afterbirth—an absolute mess of it, far more than I’d expected. The calf lay there like the half-moon fallen to earth. “She’s a girl,” I whispered. The Deliverer manipulated twin knives bolted together at their roots. She snipped the birth cord. I’d heard of this organ but always doubted its veracity. I’d certainly never expected to see with my own eyes.
The Deliverer handed it to me. She gestured with her chin.
The Deliverer mimed tossing the birth cord. Back to silence, then.
“Oh.” I already missed her voice. I threw the birth cord into the water. The current drew the cord at speed. As I watched it curve around our peninsula, nearing the River Wanderer, the cord disappeared in the quick waterfall of a subterranean mouth.
The mouth of an animal which was crawling out of the bank. Grey water obscured what variety of creature, but it was evidently a large one, for the earth churned as if a man were rising from the dust. The mouth sucked more gray water and then its visage surfaced, covered in weeds and moss, teeth long and sharp and flat.
Only when the fingers emerged did I realize who it must be. There were only two: the middle finger and thumb.
Pupil Quizzenmot broke free of the earth and slid bodily into the swamp.
He paddled his hand in long strokes, bobbing across the surface of the water. The River Wanderer coasted in his direction. The turtle head lurked beneath the water while the man preened in the sun. They met and Pupil Quizzenmot crawled atop the great turtle’s back. He flopped until he could lever himself onto his torso. The water had washed him clean.
Pupil Quizzenmot was unremarkable despite his almost complete lack of features. Perhaps because of this lack. He had one eye, a hole in the center of his face that might have been a tiny mouth or a large nostril, and a hole in the side of his head that was probably an ear canal. The rest was smooth, scarless. His single arm was kite-thin. His organs, what remained, pulsed in discrete rhythms.
Pupil Quizzenmot craned his neck and he and the River Wanderer’s man-face looked eye to eye. Or so I supposed, for at this angle I couldn’t see the shell man except in profile.
I ducked back behind the hut.
“We are in graver danger,” I announced, but quietly. Nobody paid me any attention. Merry licked her calf clean and the Deliverer packed her bag. Farmer Galzpit orchestrated Cale and Zake’s collection of the afterbirth. Zake held aloft a dead calf twin. It was tiny, half the size or less of its sister, and its birth cord hung without connection to its mother. It had no eyes.
“Cale, I’ve found your double,” said Zake. Cale struck him on the cheek. While he strove to stay upright, she strode to me and attempted the same maneuver, though having seen it coming I raised a forearm to combat the blow, at which point she punched me in the abdomen.
“As I promised,” she said.
“A woman of notable dependability,” I whispered, having little breath.
“Assist us, proud shepherd, that we might escape this haunted place all the swifter,” said Farmer Galzpit.
“Be calm as I deliver this information,” I said. “A figure whose name rhymes with ‘Scruple Lizzenrot’ has joined the River Wanderer.”
Farmer Galzpit moaned. “Let us drown ourselves, so we might not suffer sorcerious tortures before our imminent demise. Zake, Cale, come walk with your father into wet death.”
“He jests,” I told Zake and Cale. I addressed the Deliverer. “Can Merry walk? The calf?”
The Deliverer nodded. The Deliverer shook her head. She pointed at the baby, and I understood this to mean: what is her name?
“As of yet, who can say? I must see her in life.”
“You are as decisive as you are thoughtful,” said Cale.
We filed to the front of the hut where the path home stretched meagerly before us. The problem was that for twenty or so desperate yards we would be in full view of the gathered legends.
Farmer Galzpit did not suffer my hesitation. He draped the calf over his shoulders and strode down the path, gray water lapping on either side, his slayps darting low and dexterous between his feet. I cooed to Merry; we fell in behind the twins. Zake carried the dead calf just like his father the live one. Cale carried a canvas sack and inside the sack were two jars of afterbirth.
At last came the Deliverer, who wore an expression of such tranquility I feared her response to imminent danger as much as I envied her state of mind.
And yet I needn’t have worried about her composure, for it was she who noticed first. She wrenched my head around and pointed my chin at the River Wanderer, upon which Pupil Quizzenmot yet sat.
An identical tableau as before. Or was it? Something was different. And in realization of this my senses revolted, the scene re-organized.
A third figure had joined the River Wanderer’s council. Or had this thing been next to Pupil Quizzenmot all along, and was only now revealed by a trick of the falling light? By our angle to its existence?
It lurked just behind the Pupil, seeming to drape over the limbless one while making no actual contact. Its very existence seemed a contradiction.
Details came before the whole—if a whole there was. Its form was skeletal. I traced up from where its bone-knees met the turtle’s shell. Two legs, one arm, a crescent moon of a torso. Around each skeletal root revolved a storm of matter: scraps of flesh and tendon and blood stretching droplet-to-droplet in constellated harmony.
I couldn’t name it. There was no classifying such a thing except in its opposition to humanity.
But I knew what it was.
It was the rest of Pupil Quizzenmot.
The Deliverer tugged me along and yes, I’d had enough, and I was just turning to warn Galzpit not to look but he’d already stopped and so had Cale and Zake.
Twin howls rose from the slayps. Pinkie played her forelegs against her midlegs with all the deftness of a viul maestro. Olive played accompaniment at a lower register, a sort of chitinous drum beat against the grasshopper bellow of his sister.
“Stay,” hissed Farmer Galzpit. His black leaf spit out of his lips. “Olive, Pinkie, stay.”
But the slayp’s yet crooned.
Zake and Cale edged behind their father.
“Stay,” hissed Galzpit.
I reached out for Pinkie’s harness and her proboscis unsheathed and searched for me in blind muscularity.
I recoiled. “Foul beast!”
“Olive, down. Pinkie, down,” said Galzpit. But the command had leaked out of his voice. I dove to the side. Just in time.
Pinkie shot beneath Merry’s legs while Olive undulated over Merry’s back. They charged in tandem, wove together, their coordinated speed unfathomable and speaking to a communication beyond what us red-blooded could imagine.
But no sooner had the slayps surged than Pupil Quizzenmot’s poisoned-double fled. Its body congregated into the water. It squirted down the current like a dozen water snakes. Olive rippled along the water’s edge in pursuit and when there was no more land, pitched himself into the murk.
Pinkie made straight for the River Wanderer and Pupil Quizzenmot. The slayp’s cirri roiled like a cloud of worms. Her proboscis was erect and its pellicle retracted so the forcipule’s envenomed tip might ooze.
Pupil Quizzenmot watched Pinkie approach with no sign of budging. He lacked all expression except in his eye, which oozed a yellowish pus down the taught skin. The eye reminded me of my own eyes, after I’d been crying, when their color was brightest and their depth of meaning sharpest.
Pinkie launched her segmented body through the air in a feat of wild athleticism. Her aim was true. She would have slammed into Pupil Quizzenmot had he not slid suddenly into the water like a pale otter.
Pinkie’s proboscis clasp the shell. Her cirri pattered against carapace.
“Pinkie, come!” roared Farmer Galzpit.
Pinkie only doubled her attack on the River Wanderer. The River Wanderer calmly beached itself on the peninsula.
The man inside the shell—the man with turquoise eyes—regarded us. I’d assumed he was stuck, a bug in amber, so when he brought his arms and legs together I almost screamed at the surprise of it.
And then he flipped over and dove down into the shell. Which was not flat, anymore, but deep as anything, deeper than the blackest trench in the sea. In this limitless depth, the man with turquoise eyes oriented himself skyward. He surged to the shell’s surface and caught Pinkie in the instant before her forcipule latched.
I don’t know if the man with turquoise eyes actually left the shell, though I doubt it. I doubt as well that the shell bowed to his extended proportions. I watched it happen and all I can say is that no matter what happened, next thing Pinkie was swimming frantically within the black expanse. Her eyes pitched wildly upon flaccid stalks.
The man with turquoise eyes grasped Pinkie around the hindfeet where no cirri might plunder his flesh. He slung Pinkie into the depths. Pinkie drifted down, down, down into that utter blackness. Until she disappeared.
Only then did the man with turquoise eyes retake his splay-legged and splay-armed position in the turtle’s shell.
He smiled at me.
I remember little of the escape homeward. Glimpses of the misted path unfurling into the gray. The lapping gray water. Of Merry at the end of her lead towing me along as much as I towed her. Of Farmer Galzpit and the new calf and next to him Zake and the dead calf.
Olive met us at the edge of town, none the worse for wear. He played a solo song and when there was no answer from his sister he played again, mournfully. The Deliverer patted him on the carapace, saluted me and Farmer Galzpit, bowed to Zake and Cale, and, duty completed, left.
Farmer Galzpit made haste to alert the Councilors of our escapade. Zake and Cale accompanied me to the pasture where others gathered to admire our new calf.
After a while basking in the approval of neighbors, I left Zake and Cale to collect the rest of the praise. I was ready to collapse. As I prepared for slumber, I could hear Cale orating to the crowd:
“Legends have their origins as surely as cows. That we twins, invested with a touch of the otherworldly, would be the center of such legend is unlikely, and yet the truth! So, listen—”
I closed my window. I stripped all my clothes but my left sock. I splashed water beneath my arms and on the back of my neck. I lay down in bed.
Perhaps the stories were wrong. Perhaps, over the years, the River Wanderer—no, the Ocoun, and why not, if he’d already marked me? Perhaps over the years, the Ocoun had perfected his methods of removal. Perhaps Pupil Quizzenmot never suffered his wounds, at all. Perhaps he’d unraveled with neither pain nor fear. The Ocoun did not cut, did not slice; the Ocoun pulled hunks like a sculptor pulls soft clay from the block.
Maybe Pupil Quizzenmot hadn’t realized what was happening, at first. Not until he went home and took inventory of himself.
I removed my sock.
Outside, the crowd murmured, and the cows bayed, and Cale’s voice rose and fell far into the night.
I heard all of this because I could not fall asleep. The cure to exhaustion? Shock, it turned out.
Or maybe not just shock, but also revelation. The realization of inevitability. Of want: a want for wisdom, a desire for a brief glimpse of the path forward, clear enough but misted over. Wild and deep and long and gray.
I wondered where my toe had gone now that it wasn’t attached to me.
Did it glide along with Pupil Quizzenmot? Had it joined that constellation of blood and flesh and bone?
Or did my pinky toe lurk just behind me, out of sight, visible only in tricks of failing light, in the swirl of the wind over gray water, by my angle to its existence?
J. M. J. Brewer was born in Wisconsin but writes from Texas. He is an assistant professor at Tarleton State University.