Snake

by Shikagawa Hebiko (鹿皮へび子)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/3968.html)

Dawn to dusk, five days a week, Yóu works in the boxing section of the bridge factory. There are three main sections; the assembly section, the bird section, and the boxing section. The factory’s workers consider boxing the worst of the three because it combines all the tedious indoor labour of the assembly section with the dangerous noisy handling of the bird section. Usually the workers are sent to the boxing section in relays and shifts, so that they do not have to endure the place and the work for too long. But for Yóu who does not like going outdoors where the bird section has to work in the cold, and who also does not like the wintry drafts that wash like temperamental tides throughout the great production house where the assembly section is, boxing is the best out of the three places to be.

The tricky part to boxing is closing the lids, after the birds are put in. Getting the birds in is not difficult at all; it is the nature of creatures to escape when their cages are opened. In his time at the factory Yóu remembers opening thousands of cages, almost a hundred birds to each. Not one ever really checks to see where they are going. But by the time the last ones are about to leave the cage, the first birds who left have already decided that this new place they’ve been ushered into is not really that much better than the first one, and as the worker stands by ready to slide the lid over the mouth of the box, waiting for the last birds to fly into it, suddenly there comes a great screaming and the cage is full of birds again, dashing into the bars and each other, and there they are, no one can use them again, and to avoid having them upset the other birds in the boxing section and also in the free air outdoors they are taken to the river where they will be drowned. In boxing, more than elsewhere, the workers learn to be careful.

For Yóu, the birds never give him any trouble. When they are brought in, always at first they fly into a truly enormous panic and the walls of their reed-and-hemp cages shudder and agitate like a heart in the dying throes of a seizure. Then the cage-handlers put them down, and Yóu walks over and crouches down beside them with his head tilted, cheek on knees and arms wrapped around folded legs, a child uncertain if he should share the secret he is hiding. As the cage-handlers watch, Yóu looks slowly from cage to cage, and as he looks at each cage the hysterical birds within it spin themselves to a stop and find themselves a bar or twig or fellow to cling to, their little faces and bright eyes turned to him like flowers to the sun. When he opens their cages they take flight almost dreamily, leaving their roosts in neat and orderly succession, one after the other until the last one is gone and Yóu shuts the lid of the box on them.

It takes almost a week in a box for the birds to turn into a bridge.

*

Sometimes as he is walking to the factory in the morning or walking home in the evening he will hear his name called out across the front yard where everyone has to pass to get to the gates, and if he turns and looks he may see a hand lifted in greeting or goodbye to him. If so he will wave back. Sometimes he hears his name, but when he looks around he doesn’t see any hands lifted to claim ownership of the call and then he does not reply. Sometimes he wonders if the lost echo of his name wanders around the yard when he doesn’t answer to it, and then he thinks that he will always make it a point to find the person who called him and wave back, so that no more echoes will be lost to wander around the yard. But there are many people coming and going when he is coming or going, and it is always cold. In such a state he can really never find the person who called him.

It could be anyone in the factory, really; new people come into boxing all the time. Yóu doesn’t keep track of names. Everyone who meets him remembers his name. During lunch his neighbours from boxing who have rotated over into assembly will come over and talk to him for a while, but all their talk is of other people whose names are strange to Yóu. He cannot think of any of the stories he is told as things which really happen, to real people.

“Our line is getting a new trapper,” one of them says. “But they haven’t said who it is, not even if it’s a new person or someone coming back off rotation. Who is it, you think?”

“Maybe it’s Yóu,” another one says. They laugh and agree that would be great, they like Yóu and the way he makes the birds calm down. Someone claps Yóu on the shoulder; he reaches up and claps the hand he finds there back, awkwardly on the wrist, but not for long. The hand doesn’t stay on his shoulder long, too. One of the things Yóu has learnt from watching people in the factory is that you do not touch another person for too long.

“Yóu’s too good,” they say, “they’ll never take him out of boxing. Do you like that, Yóu?”

“I think Yóu would make a great trapper,” one of the younger handlers says, an awkward young man who has for the past few weeks been developing an obvious and painful crush on Yóu’s wide wordless mouth and slender alien fingers and the bare nape of Yóu’s neck above his collar, a pale and forbidden valley between sloping twin falls of tangled dark hair. The other handlers are kind and do not laugh out loud, but someone does punch someone else in the arm, and the young man looks at Yóu and then at his feet when Yóu doesn’t look back at him.

“You can take his place in boxing and he can come join us; wouldn’t you like that, Yóu?”

“I’m not good at it,” the young man says.

“It’s warm in there,” one of the older handlers says. “I bet you’re glad to be staying in, eh, Yóu? It’s going to be a cold winter.”

“He’s always cold,” the other handlers agree. “Like ice,” and someone lays a hand on his forehead, another on his wrist, only briefly before pulling away. To Yóu, their hands are warm, so he thinks that to them, his flesh must be cold. “You’re not well,” the young man says although they’ve never touched, speaking directly to him; he shakes his head and looks aside, dropping his eyelids so half the world is obscured in great alternate zig-zag blurs of vertical shadow-stripes.

The young man doesn’t speak again, and the handlers change the topic of conversation to the football games that took place over the last weekend. Yóu listens, chin in hand, and for the tenth time fails to understand the concept of the offside rule. After lunch he goes back to the boxing line, but there is no activity throughout the entire line yet; they are still waiting for the handlers to bring in this afternoon’s birds. “Slow,” his neighbour for the past three months says. Yóu has forgotten his name. “What are they doing, catching those birds or hatching them out?”

Yóu cannot tell if he is joking, he stands so straight and with his head lifted high, staring off into the distance at the exit to the unloading bay. He dusts his hands off and looks at Yóu across the divider between their workspaces. “Show you something,” he says, and Yóu puts down the boxes he is unpacking and walks across to see. The worker picks up something from a pile of discarded straw packaging and cups it in his hands, walking to meet Yóu with such delicate care, Yóu feels himself stepping more quietly, secretly, trying not to draw anyone else’s attention. On the other side of the boundary the worker lifts his hands slightly, and Yóu, looking inside, sees three tiny speckled eggs. The worker’s hands look like a modernist sculpture, something carved from a hunk of solid beechwood; strong, elegant, the warm gold colour of something that will always be alive.

“I asked the trappers to get me some,” the worker says. “I like it when they hatch.”

Yóu’s eyes flick upwards. The worker smiles, also secretly. His eyelashes are the same pale colour as the fine waves of his hair, like a fawn in winter.

“No; I don’t bring them up,” he says. “I just hatch them out.”

It seems to Yóu then that he leans back, fractionally, as much as a continent drifts in a heartbeat; leans forward again when Yóu doesn’t say anything.

“Why shouldn’t it make sense?” he says. “We don’t ever cross bridges; we just put them in.”

He packs the eggs carefully back under handfuls of straw and offers Yóu a cigarette which Yóu refuses, indicating his thanks with a small quiet shake of his head. The worker bites his own cigarette in his teeth, to the side of his mouth, and slips his hand into the pockets of his coat hanging over his chair. Yóu thinks he is reaching for his lighter. When his hand appears again, it is holding a smooth unidentifiable lump of bright colour, a small rough sphere just large enough to sit in his palm. He offers this to Yóu, who takes it.

“It’s for you,” he says.

Yóu has never seen such a thing before; almost round, firm when he closes his fingers around it, skin smooth, bright green. The worker says, “It’s an apple,” as though Yóu knows what an apple is.

“It’s good for you,” he says, but he doesn’t say how.

Yóu takes it home and traces its shape with his fingers, presses it against his cheek, balances it on his knee and looks at it before he goes to sleep. The next morning, he sits straight up the moment he wakes up and looks all around, at the walls and ceiling and floor even beneath his bed, the distant mountains blue through the window over a skyline ragged and witchy with leafless trees. Everything is exactly the same as it was the morning before. At the factory the workers in assembly wave at Yóu as he passes them having their coffee outside in the yard. Birdsong rises from the unloading bay in waves like wings of sound. In the workspace next to Yóu’s, the worker who gave Yóu the thing called an apple is not at his usual place. Yóu works through the morning, staring perhaps a little longer than he usually does at today’s birds before boxing them, and still the area next to his is empty; all the handlers pass it by without stacking up the requisite stock of cages to be boxed for the day. No one mentions this absence or negligence; Yóu knows they might, if he asked, but no matter how sure he is (that they would talk about it, if he asked) there is in the bottom of his lungs a rasping sandpapery feeling that the worker who gave him the apple never existed at all, that the space next to him has always been empty.

When they take a break, Yóu walks away from the handlers to the very edge of his workspace, a small bare studio dusted over with stray feathers and bits of broken reed and straw, and looks over into the adjacent space where no one is working. “He’s gone to trap birds,” the handlers tell Yóu, when they see him looking. They are very cheerful; flushed all degrees of bright colours, from the cold of being outside.

“It’s better this way,” someone says. “He was always better outdoors; never understood why he suddenly wanted to go into boxing. He wasn’t really very good at it. Never made as many boxes as you.”

“You don’t miss him, do you?” a cheeky one says. “You know you’re better off with us, any day.”

As Yóu lifts his shoulders in a small shrug he sees the young man who likes him looking at him, quickly.

*

The trappers leave the factory latest of all, having to make their return journey to the site after a full day’s work to roll the carts under cover and put their equipment in storage for the night. The one who has most recently joined them lags behind the others, uncertain of what goes where, laughing at his assumptions when they prove to be incorrect. When he finally pulls his jacket on and walks out into the yard it is nearly empty except for small knots of people arguing over which pub to hit tonight. He waves to some of them as he passes, turning to smile, but his feet carry him forward unstoppably as though he moves on the crest of some slow, massive current traversing the depths of his personal sea. After the gate he stops in front of Yóu, who is slouched against one of the pillars that prop up an ugly stretch of orange awning providing a small shelter for those caught in sudden bad weather between the gate and the factory, now seeming so far away across the echoing courtyard. Yóu’s face is turned away from him, narrow head bent and hair wispy across fleshless shoulders like the soft dark down-hanging leaves of a weeping willow.

“Are you waiting for someone?” he asks.

Yóu looks up, eyes tawny in the fading light. The trapper stamps his feet and punches his hands deep into his coat pockets. What he can see of Yóu’s skin is pale and bloodless, the veins showing through fine and blue and exquisitely painful to see, as though Yóu were made of marble; lips like the petals of magnolias blossomed too early and caught in the frost, the trapper can’t help thinking. Yóu’s mouth parts, shaping air, but doesn’t say a thing.

“It’s freezing here,” the trapper says. “Come on,” and he reaches out and takes Yóu by the hand so naturally.

(there’s supposed to be a rule against that, no one ever says it out loud but Yóu knows; you do not touch another person for long)

Yóu’s chin lifts, eyes on him, and in the powder snow beneath the trees the trapper returns Yóu’s stare as a million birds have before. He doesn’t let go of Yóu’s hand. Snow falls in low soughing sighs around them, and in the distance the lights of hand-held lanterns and the headlights of snow-clogged vehicles pass in solemn waterlogged procession over the curves of the giant stone bridges leading out of the factory’s territories, across the river and into the trees. Slowly, like the falling snow, Yóu’s head drifts downward, chin coming to rest on chest and face sinking in twines of ragged blue scarf up to his cheeks. The trapper thinks he can feel a similar weight collecting in his head as though the cold is shifting inside him, ice crystals growing like stalactites on the roof of his skull and driving daggers into his brain. He puts his arm around Yóu, reels Yóu in; under his careful hands Yóu feels like bones and shells and tangled weed trembling and cluttered at the end of a gossamer net, bones and shells washing up slowly on a forgotten shore. He thinks of the thousands of birds he has caught that day that struggle and flutter and kick, their heartbeats racing against his fingers, and he could crush them in his hand if he tried. In Yóu’s heavy quiet arm around his neck a pulse ebbs like something distant and drifting, a lost tide washing slowly out to sea.

At the doorway of the trapper’s cottage Yóu lifts his head, looking in as the trapper props the door open with one foot. The open doorway gapes, black; the sun has set almost completely and nothing of the place on the other side of the door can be seen. Some small movement stirs throughout Yóu’s slack arms, the deadweight of his long body shifts, the trapper holds his breath still with his foot against the door. Yóu’s breath hangs pale in the air; the trapper feels it against his cheek, cold and dry like an absent kiss. The doorway yawns. Yóu leans forward, the trapper steps over the threshold of the doorway, and Yóu passes through into the darkness with him. Behind them the door shuts with a creak, fitting snugly into its sill.

*

Afterwards, Yóu lies awake with the trapper’s chin on his shoulder and thinks, “We didn’t want this,” as clearly and certainly as all the words he has never been able to say. The trapper’s hands trace each rib along Yóu’s sides, slide down the valleys below sharp hipbones and touch him, gently, long innocent strokes in such dark secret places. With every touch Yóu is aware of the thought that, “We didn’t want this,” even arching his back and curling closer to the trapper’s hands, even sharing the trapper’s tongue warm and wet with his, even with his head bent and mouth full and hands on hips (not at all a negative gesture if the hips belong to someone else), fingers wound tight in his hair and femoral artery beating like sudden distant thunder through the thigh pressed against his ear. “We were just looking for something, and this door was open. We didn’t know it would be this.”

(The rule was: you do not touch another person for too long. When you touch another person for too long you have to promise to keep touching them, or to touch them again. That’s why, all the time, the people in the factory only touch in passing, to alert each other to the spoken words of hello or goodbye. Now it becomes clear, now you know it’s actually like this, it’s)

A draught blows in through the crack between glass and windowsill, Yóu can tell because the dull curtains across the window are fluttering. The trapper mouths a word, words, against the back of Yóu’s neck. When he was fucking Yóu he’d pulled the sheets up over both their heads and held Yóu down with his hands fitted perfectly into the curve just below the back of Yóu’s skull and thumbs braced against the sharp hinges of Yóu’s jaw, moving so slowly and carefully and gloriously inside the blankets and inside Yóu; it had seemed like they were somewhere else entirely, a strange and swimming and lightless place with nothing inside it, not even much space, just this one other person.

“I bet you don’t remember my name.”

No.

“I know. Don’t you see? And you’re not cold any more. It’s all right. I know you so well.”

Yes.

“It’s Kai.”

*

Kai is never there in the morning-before-morning, those hours in which if you wake up it makes sense to go back to sleep again, and Yóu can never wake up before he does. Just after Kai has been absent long enough for the final warmth of his body to ghost away, and in Yóu’s dreams he can sense the onslaught of the dangerous cold-sleep creeping up on him like scales of ice over the safe snug drowsiness of warm-sleep Kai’s arms and legs can wrap so smoothly around him. When he forces his eyes open and somehow rolls himself off the bed he almost always collapses on the floor, legs too numb to walk; staggers around then, trying to remember the warmest place in the house is. The warmest place in the house is always in the cellar, by the boiler, but when he’s cold enough he won’t be able to remember, and Kai locked the cellar after the first morning that Yóu successfully stumbled all the way down and then burnt his arm when he sat down and leant right against the iron grille at the mouth of the boiler, he was so cold.

(“Did you scream?” Kai asked him, softly, the next morning (the first morning Kai started locking the trapdoor into the cellar, but Yóu didn’t even get up because he hadn’t been able to fall asleep all night). Kai had gone, Yóu hadn’t realized, and now he was back and his fingers rubbing something into Yóu’s shoulder that felt worse than the boiler’s grille but he didn’t scream then, either.)

And Kai brings him more apples, red and green and some clear and white like jade, impossibly fresh and bright in this dead sleeping season; he lines them up by the windowsill where the cold keeps them fresh. Kai says they’ll last through the winter. Kai never says where they come from, and never again asks him, after that first walk through the snow when neither of them knew better, to eat them. Yóu lines them up, all in a row, and then in another row, and another. Once, he looks up to see Kai standing silently in the doorway, and it seemed to him there passed the implicit agreement between them that when they couldn’t walk for apples, Yóu would finally eat one. Again, Yóu thinks, “But we don’t want that,” over and over in his head, breathing it into Kai’s mouth where Kai can’t ever seem to hear him.

The burn heals beautifully although Kai never says what it was he used on it. Sometimes Kai sees Yóu running his fingers over the new skin and then Kai smiles and pulls Yóu to him, thumbs against jawbone and fingertips all aligned perfectly at the nape of Yóu’s neck, presses his mouth to the strange awkward angles of Yóu’s face. Yóu always stands perfectly still when Kai seizes him like this, as though the places where Kai’s fingertips touch are trip-wired to paralyze him when Kai triggers them. Kai likes to kiss Yóu’s lowered eyelids and then open his mouth and poise open jaws on the apple of one cheek, white teeth right against his skin as though to take a bite.

“Is it because I gave you something?” Kai asks him once, holding him like that and watching him not move. “Do you think you owe me this?”

He thinks – but no, he can’t think, not with the lanterns burning swatches of copper and bronze into the faded walls and the perfect porcelain slopes of Kai’s cheeks and collarbones, the heavy sweet scent of the lamp oil and the crisp musk of dying firs weighing on both of them like a curse. Kai’s fingers move down his spine, the tips of Kai’s nails scraping each vertebrae in time with a lazy but meticulous beat. He shivers, his head laid sideways with his cheek pressed to the cool linen of the bed, and accepts each touch as he accepts Kai’s weight settling on his lower back and in between his parted thighs, hard teeth in the sensitive edge of his ears and white-hot hands forcing his knees forward and hips up and Kai hard and deep inside him, whispering a strange language into the back of his neck and, inexplicably, calling out his name so that he feels a catch in his throat and at the bottom of his lungs, choking off his breath as though Kai’s hands were drawn around his neck. There’s this shape of a sound that rises in him in response and he feels in that moment that if there was just one sound he could ever make, just one, it would be that name.

“There’s someone else who watches you,” Kai says. “I don’t want that.”

Yes.

“Let’s kill him.”

No.

“You could do it if you had a box. You can use the bridge in the box to go anywhere. Get anything.”

No.

“It’s really a very beautiful thing,” Kai says, “like an egg,” and he knows Kai is talking about the young man’s death, knows that Kai wants to hold it in his hands (Kai’s clever honey-brown sun-warm hands) like the tiny speckled eggs of the birds he traps out in the mountains, in the trees. He watches Kai, his breath rising and falling in the space between them; Kai’s breath falls across his cheek like a chrysanthemum, blossoming.

“It’s even more beautiful when it hatches,” Kai says.

*

One morning he has a dream where he wakes up when Kai does and follows Kai out of the house. He doesn’t know how; he can’t feel his feet, it’s so cold, but Kai is walking out of the door and he’s there with Kai, watching Kai shut the door, leaving with Kai through the frostbitten low-hanging twigs and swathes of morning mist coiled around the wet black tree-trunks, long and formless white bodies dead and cold as scales. Kai has a hand in one pocket, hiding something; eggs, he thinks, and wonders what Kai does with them when they hatch. In all the mornings he has woken up in Kai’s bed, he has never seen one of the fledglings Kai tells him he likes to hatch out with his magic hands.

(but we don’t ever cross bridges either, he remembers; just put them in)

At the edge of the forest, Kai withdraws an iron box from his pocket; pushes its lid open, and sets it on the ground. He doesn’t even wait but steps up almost immediately in the same moment, setting foot onto the bridge that flies free from the depths of the box, an arch through the air made of a thousand magpies. It’s not a very long bridge, nothing like the grand sky-skimming bridges they’re told about in the factory, the kinds that that spanned heaven and earth; squinting, he can see that it ends just over the horizon. Kai steps gently, feet seeming to move on the air just above the heads and backs and black-and-white wings of the birds who don’t seem to mind that someone is traveling upon them. The air up where the bridge rises to, where the birds fly, is much colder and thinner than even the bed after Kai has left it, the winter evenings before Kai comes to him; even Kai seems to huddle his arms more closely around himself and hunch his shoulders, pale eyes slitting further shut and further distant through miles of crisp crystalline air.

It seems to him that Kai walks on forever, and he wonders how Kai can possibly hope to travel all the way to the end of the bridge and return in time to make breakfast before going to work. But before the end of the bridge, perhaps in the middle – the crest of the bridge’s curve – Kai stops walking. There’s trouble in the hard grimace he sets his mouth in, the tautness of his brow, his long legs braced stiffly apart almost spanning the width of the magpie bridge. The lines of light falling through eastern clouds split and branch in the horizon beyond him to form a brilliant crown of bright antlers overhead, a crown spanning the sky.

“There it is,” Kai says, and when he looks at Kai again he sees that Kai’s hands are cupped and extended in front of him, more hopeful than offering, and he is not surprised when the sound of cracking eggshell is followed by a scattering of nameless black fragments from between Kai’s fingers like strange awkward sand. Kai opens his fingers and the death that hatched from the warmth of Kai’s hands flies free, impossible to see clearly for the speed and rapture of its flight. But he feels like he’s looking in the wrong direction; Kai isn’t looking at the death as it flies away, at all. Something else is still in Kai’s hands, something else that was in the same egg as the death of the young man who will no longer work as a handler at the bridge factory. Kai didn’t look at the hatched death at all, and Kai loves watching things hatch. Something was in the same egg, and Kai isn’t at all surprised to see it there, is now touching it with the gentle good feeling of something found a long while ago and hidden for the future and only unearthed today, at the invocation of a lucky star or good omen. A white star in a blue sky.

When he wakes up it’s to the sound of Kai’s voice, humming. He’s sprawled across twisting tree roots half lost in huge drifts of snow, Kai crouched beside him rubbing his hands and blowing on them, and he thinks then that Kai would make such a good fussy mother for a slow sick child. There is a box on the ground, lid beside it, empty, he knows this as soon as he sees it lying in the snow at the edge of the trees. He has never really thought he would ever know the difference between a box that has not yet been filled and a box that has already been opened, but now he realizes it’s easy; looking at this box, if he was a bird in a cage he wouldn’t want to fly into it even if you opened the door. Kai’s tawny cheeks are a richer colour than the rest of him, all the pale tangles of his hair gone wild around his face. Something heavy in Kai’s hand, wrapped in gauze the colour of bone. Kai offers this to him, and he takes it.

“It’s for you,” Kai says. “I found it some time ago and I put it away in a safe place because I knew it wasn’t for me, and now, I think I understand; it’s for you.”

And helps him put it on; something not wrapped after all but truly made of bone, a jaw, two jaws, each lined with rows of gargantuan teeth lying so close to each other that when shut they leave almost no space between them. One row Kai fits to the curve of his jaw, presses up over his chin and fusses with buckles he can’t see, fingers pressing into those places that keep him quiet so he can’t even lift his hand to take it off. “Watch the top,” Kai says, and he closes his eyes, feels something passing over his face. There’s a feeling he has, the kind that comes when he’s lying in bed and Kai’s fingers trace the skin on his arm where he was burnt, and although he has his face half-buried in Kai’s neck and all he can see is Kai’s skin, Kai’s smile, Kai’s fine hair tumbling into his eyes, he has this sensation of imbalance, a shifting weight totally separate and distant from him, as of some great dark cloud passing over the sun on the other side of the world.

Metal snaps behind his ear, and he thinks he can feel Kai’s hands on him, holding him, he shouldn’t be able to move but he can, he’s moving his hand and it really is moving, reaching up to touch Kai’s fingers around the back of his neck but Kai’s fingers aren’t there. Kai’s hand reaches for his and he can feel Kai putting something into his hands, something heavy and infinitely precious, he handles it carefully without even thinking about it, doesn’t look at it, knows what it is; looks at Kai instead, all the time, Kai’s smile. He thinks about how Kai could never make as many boxes as he could, and how Kai never brings up the birds that he hatches, of the warmth of Kai’s hands that open up speckled eggs and the dead chill of his own. There’s a sharp smell of apples like perfume and sweet rot that always stays with them even when Kai pulls the sheets up over their heads. He balances his thumbs on the edge of the lid, he knows that’s how this is done although for all the boxes he’s shut he’s never opened one. Flips it up; the box opens. Kai is still looking at him. He closes his eyes, although really it feels like dark wings are flying up over his face, more and more and more of them until they obliterate the weak winter sunlight entirely.

*

He’s walking through a place he doesn’t remember arriving at. All around him, through the white trees of a black forest, he can see the faces of beasts for fleeting seconds at a time before they hurry away from him. The forest is dark, melancholy, deep. By a still pool that goes down forever the king of the land raises its head to look at him, and half the leafless branches overhead (and the other half, reflected in the water) seem to move with this simple gesture of the king’s. He does not remember feeling afraid. The king challenges him, but he doesn’t need to reply at all; his eyes are not covered by his mask, and even the king and the ghostly trees cannot turn away when he looks at them. In the murky, not-night not-day half-light decaying in slow periodic oozes of time beneath a sulfuric sky, he knows with startling clarity that the pupils in his dark-rimmed eyes appear enormous, their irises clotted black and vertically slit in unblinking twin circles the colour of poison.

Behind a mask crowned with great horns the king smiles at him, not unkindly. He thinks of Kai, and then it doesn’t matter.

*

Metal snaps behind his ear again and Kai’s hands slide the straps out of his hair, pull the upper jaw of the mask over his head, unclench his fingers and take the second, horned mask ever so gently from him. At the last minute he remembers to lift his hand up, towards Kai, and Kai shifted his grip to accept it as one would a gift. He thinks, this has to be equal to the price of an apple he didn’t ask for and has never eaten. Still he doesn’t move, and Kai isn’t holding him at all, is too busy trying to undo the mask of jaws with one hand while hanging on to the mask of horns with the other. Kai’s fingers are shaking, slipping, he can’t blame Kai because both masks are slick with red and black blood. When they finally get the mask of jaws free, all of it, Kai seizes him and he submits, allows himself to be caught around the neck and kissed. He thinks: we didn’t want this, and: Kai’s mouth is very warm.

“It’s just beginning,” Kai promises him.

*

Near the end, he has an idea he is going out like the tide, with the tide (the great tides that beat on the coast over and over again like the sky before the end of the world, frozen in time), as clearly as if he can see his own death finally breaking through its shell, wings wet and crumpled and paper-thin. There is a very strong memory he has where Kai turns and looks at him and he can see Kai’s hand reaching out to touch the mask with its teeth pulled up over his face. We don’t need this, he tries to tell Kai, and fails, even with Kai’s hand lingering on his skin (promising, each time, to keep touching, and to touch again); it’s too late, it’s been far longer than a week since he stepped into the doorway Kai held open for him.

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