by Karigane (雁)
“A person becomes a person through other people”
– South African proverb
Xolisa never lived alone if she could help it. She had grown up in the company of others, and disliked the silence of solitude. The modern conception of roommates was one she had much fondness for — company for meals and conversation, enjoyed for as long as it lasted and easily left behind. They never asked after her family, never pressed her for details about her childhood, never questioned her easy explanations of how she’d come to live in this city and how long she had been here. All they offered was friendly indifference, and that was all Xolisa wanted from them. Better to share a kitchen with strangers than a bed with someone who would ask where she was going, whose heart she would inevitably have to break and whose questions she would never be able to answer. She had learned, long ago, that the pleasure and comfort of a lover weren’t worth the grief that followed.
She had taken the smaller of two bedrooms in this Brooklyn apartment, crammed between their narrow kitchen and the air shaft. Her furniture was a hodgepodge of scavenged pieces — bookshelves with chipped laminate, full of water-stained paperbacks she’d picked up from boxes on the street; a metal bed-frame with no headboard and a creaky box-spring; an ancient chest of drawers with half the handles missing; a desk that she had made from an old door laid across two stacks of egg crates. She sat at the last of these tonight, perched on a wooden stool, her chin in her hand as she picked away at her latest freelance — another translation gig, English to Dutch, dry and technical. She was thumbing through her dictionary to check the spelling of “Grachtengordel” when someone knocked at her door.
She stretched her arms above her head, feeling the bones in her spine realign themselves. “Yes?”
The door opened, and her roommate — Grace — took a step inside. “Hey, Alex,” she said. “Mail for you.” She held out an envelope, standard business size, and Xolisa reached out to take it.
The name most people knew her by had been printed with labored tidiness in block letters. There was no return address, but the postmark was from JFK, and Xolisa frowned slightly as she slit the envelope open with her finger. “Thanks,” she said, already distracted. She heard her roommate shut the door again as she unfolded the letter, a sheet of notebook paper, ragged on one side from being torn from a spiral binding. The name here was her own, written in blue ballpoint pen, and she had to close her eyes for the length of one deep, slow breath before she read on.
The note had been scrawled in a language few would recognize and fewer still spoke, the handwriting as familiar as her own. The signature was a formality, but the sight of it quickened her pulse. Her hands shook, very slightly, as she refolded the letter and laid it at the center of her desk. She hadn’t expected to see that name again so soon. She’d thought she had a few years left, at least.
The air shaft outside her window was always dim, but now the dimness had the cool, blue feel of early evening. The letter had warned her not to stall, and she saw no reason to try. One more day in this place was hardly worth testing that woman’s patience. Better to get this over with, whatever came of it.
The locked box under her bed was covered in dust, and Xolisa brushed it off before opening it. She lifted out a worn manila envelope and tipped its contents out onto the desk: U.S. passport in the name of “Alexandra Imazi”, a stack of crisp bills neatly bound by a rubber band, a birth certificate from 1975, a social security card, a New York State driver’s license, and paperclipped stack of miscellaneous documents she’d thought she might need someday. She sifted through them for a few minutes, allowing herself the bask a little in nostalgia. This life had been a good one.
The money she set in the center of her desk, two months’ rent for Grace to find in the morning. The rest was dropped into the metal wastebasket beside her desk, followed by her wallet and a match. As smoke curled up toward the ceiling, Xolisa took the last items from the locked box, closed it again and pushed it aside.
She remembered the day she had bought this gun — a Russian PSM pistol, the steel as sleek and shining as it had been when it was new. At least a decade had passed since the last time this was needed, but her hands moved automatically. The loaded clip slid into place with well-oiled ease, and she could feel the sharp click as it locked into position. Funny, really, how selective the memory of her flesh had proved to be. The gun felt cold and heavy against her palm, but not unfamiliar.
The weather was cool enough for a jacket, so she wore her shoulder holster, the gun tucked up into her armpit.
Grace looked up as Xolisa she walked into their small living room. She was curled up on the couch, a bowl of popcorn beside her. “You going out?”
“Yeah,” said Xolisa. “Just into the city.” Her keys and metrocard were sitting on the table in the hall but she didn’t pick them up. Grace didn’t notice, or at the very least didn’t ask. The perfect roommate. Xolisa had been lucky to find her.
She jogged down the steps of her building and into the chill, autumn evening. The moon was out, and this street just dark enough for it to cast its own shadows. Normally she would have taken the less direct route, winding her way through the quiet interiors of Gowanus, Carrol Gardens and Cobble Hill. But tonight she wanted the anonymous comfort of a crowd.
It wasn’t quite eight, and while the flow of pedestrians had thinned there was still enough to carry her along. Their numbers swelled at the usual places — the big Target near the LIRR, teenagers loitering at the Fulton Mall, an audience spilling out onto the pavement after a show at BAM’s Harvey Theater, the little knot waiting for tables in front of Junior’s. She crossed Tillary with a strolling couple and a man walking his bicycle beside him.
The air was crisp and clear, and Xolisa could see a long way across the water. The Manhattan Bridge was her favorite to walk across. Through the chain link fence on its southern side, she could see the glittering huddle of downtown and the graceful, sweeping curves of the Brooklyn Bridge, all reflected off the flat, dark water below. Xolisa liked how close the trains came, and how fast, rumbling beside her just beyond steel girders. Energy and chaos just barely contained; the whole point of cities like this one.
Canal street was far busier than Flatbush at night, but not so much that she had to slow her pace. She cut across town in a quarter hour, past the entrance to the tunnel, then a right onto Washington. Just after Christopher, she started to feel a twinge in the palm of her left hand. By West 10th it had sharpened into a deep, burning pain, joined by an ache in one ankle, as if she’d landed on it wrong. A wall topped with razor wire, probably. That woman was so damn reckless. And close enough, now, that Xolisa had to worry about it.
She saw the chopped-off tail of elevated tracks at the corner of Gansevoort, its edge fenced off, as if someone might wander off it otherwise. Xolisa kept walking, rusting storage sheds on one side and luxury retail in the low rises across the street. No point in making the climb here — too many damn buildings in the way, cutting her would-be path into disconnected segments. And borrowed injuries were enough to handle without actual ones of her own.
She considered walking all the way to 34th, where the rail bed swung around and dropped to street level. But she kept a lookout for alternatives, and a construction site on 17th provided. The zig-zagged bracing of the crane was easy to climb, and the jump down onto the tracks was only a few feet. Gravel crunched beneath her sneakers as she landed. Tall grass swayed in the breeze that drifted in from the Hudson.
Twenty-five years since the freight stopped running along this route. Long enough for the old loading docks to crumble, rebar showing through cracks in the graffitied concrete; long enough for small trees to take root in the lee of nearby buildings. Most would have guessed it had been fifty years, at least, but that’s how people were. They liked to gaze up at their tall, sleek buildings and think of permanence. But Xolisa knew better. She had seen how quickly such things fell apart.
She knew some folk hiked this way, despite the high fences and illegality, self-appointed rangers using wire cutters and crowbars to make the trail passable. A small garden had been planted outside the windows of a Chelsea apartment. Iron sculptures had been erected, rusted from exposure and bleeding red onto the ground. Grace had talked of plans to turn this place into a park, like the Promenade Plantée in Paris — a manicured strip of green stretching all the way up to the rail yards north of 30th. Stairways and elevators, recessed lighting instead of the yellow glow of apartment windows, no more broken glass catching the moonlight. The tracks cut through the old Nabisco factory, and Xolisa imagined a snack bar up on the platform, children weaving in and out of the fat concrete supports.
Warehouses to condos, rail beds to parkland, then perhaps back again someday. She’d enjoyed watching the contortions of this city, sometimes surprising even her. She felt a pang in her chest, and that surprised her, too. She should be used to leaving things behind. Perhaps she was just sorry to be leaving so soon.
Ahead, she saw the dark silhouettes of trees — a block-long corridor of tall buildings sheltering a grove, thin saplings that reached up toward the sky. A woman sat on an exposed length of rail, curled around the lit cigarette in one hand. Xolisa used the time it took to walk this last stretch to observe all the things that had changed. Her hair was longer than the last time Xolisa had seen it, tight little braids that fell around her face. She wore jeans stuffed into the tops of old work boots and a sheepskin jacket much too wide for her shoulders.
Xolisa stopped just out of easy reach. She could feel the gun pressing against her ribs. “Molo,” she said quietly, the word dusty on her tongue.
The woman looked up at her, face sliding out of shadow. Her eyes were red and swollen. She stood, and Xolisa noticed the gun in her other hand, black and compact. She brought the cigarette up to her mouth, and the tip flared as she inhaled. Blood had soaked through the strip of fabric wrapped around her palm.
“Xolisa,” she said, the first consonant a sharp click against her cheek. She went on in the language of the eastern cape, an old dialect born on the banks of the Great Fish River. “Xolisa, she’s dead. Thandiwe is dead.”
Xolisa pulled her arm closer, the steel barrel digging into the side of her breast. “They always die, Umlo,” she said.
“I can’t start again,” Umlo whispered. “I can’t do this again.”
“I can’t!” Umlo raised the gun, steady as stone even as her voice trembled. “I’m finished.”
Xolisa frowned. “I’m not.”
“Please.” Umlo’s thumb released the safety. “Together, or it won’t work.”
Xolisa’s hands stayed at her sides.
“You fucking bitch,” Umlo snarled.
Xolisa had time to sigh, resigned, before the bullet split her forehead in two.
Coming back was often worse than dying. Most of her deaths had been quick if not painless, over before she could fully appreciate the details. But coming back took forever.
Awareness returned before her body was finished putting itself in order. She had to lie and wait, alone in the dark room of her mind, until all her parts connected, bone and flesh knit together and nerves restrung. Once repaired, they still ached like a bad knee in a storm.
Her first breath felt like fire in her lungs. She choked on the cold, dry air, and then on the coughs that followed, tears streaming down into her close-cropped hair.
She always had a vague sense of where Umlo was in the world. When they were this close, the other woman’s body became an extension of her own. Eyes closed and head throbbing as blood coursed through reconnected veins, Xolisa still knew Umlo was crosslegged on the ground a few feet away; that the hand had healed but the rest of her was a mess of new problems. Xolisa could feel every detail of Umlo’s discomfort: the poisonous heat of smoke in her chest, the stone that dug into her thigh, a swelling bruise on her forehead from where it had hit the rail. She must have passed out from the force of Xolisa’s pain. It had happened more than once before.
“We had a sheep farm up on the Karoo,” Umlao said, calmer now but voice still unsteady. “No one ever bothered us there. We came into Laingsburg, we behaved ourselves. No fights. Kept my hands off her. Shit.” Xolisa heard her toe the gravel. “We could’ve stayed there fifty years.”
Xolisa opened her eyes. The sky above was still dark, but to the east it had started to lighten, the city stars fading from view.
“She fell off a ladder in the barn. Off a fucking ladder. I told her to let me get that kind of thing, but she…” Umlo’s voice broke, and she was quiet a while. Xolisa could see the smoke from her cigarette curling between the branches. “Forty-two years old. Just a kid.”
“They’re all kids,” said Xolisa, still looking at the sky.
“Fuck you,” Umlo muttered, but the fire was gone. She rolled the cigarette between her fingers and watched Xolisa push herself up, slow and easy to keep the nausea at bay. “Didn’t think you’d show,” she said quietly.
Xolisa laughed, soft and a little bitter. “After that letter?”
“I knew you’d leave the city otherwise,” said Umlo. “But you’re smart. You’ve always been smart. Smarter than me, anyway. Enough to get out of this”
“Then why didn’t you-!”
Xolisa held up a hand. “Not tired of living. Tired of this.”
Umlo snorted. “What’s that even mean, eh?”
Xolisa ran a hand over her short, dense curls, brushing away bits of twig that had caught in them. “The last time I saw you was at Malagasy,” she said. “You remember? You came with the 7 SA Motorised Brigade, dressed like a man. A soldier.”
“You were some kind of nurse. With the British.” Umlo scowled. “I remember.”
“And before that,” Xolisa went on. “What? Fifty years? That bar in Umtata. You hadn’t seen me since 1810. 1811? And you spat in my face.”
Umlo slammed the gun down onto the track, a loud clang that echoed up between the buildings. “You gave our village to the fucking Boers! Gave it to them, the land we were born on!”
“Smith’s men would have taken it anyway.”
“You can’t know that!”
“I know what happened to the people who stayed.”
“And then you fell in with that ass, Shaka.” Umlo barked out an unpleasant laugh. “That must have been fun, eh? Playing at war until his half-brother killed you.”
Xolisa rubbed the spot where Umlo’s bruise pained her, imagining she could feel a bump. “I died three times,” she said. “They buried me deep. Dirt in my teeth for weeks after.”
“You got what you had coming.”
“Maybe.” Xolisa didn’t enjoy these thoughts, as much as they never quite left her — all so long ago, but in her mind as fresh as yesterday. “I had a husband, then. Did you know? He was away at war. But they told him I was dead. Too many had seen it happen.” She shook her head. “He lived another twenty years, and I had to stay away.”
Umlo watched in wary silence as Xolisa reached into her jacket, slid her pistol from its holster and placed it on the ground between them. “I’m tired of kids,” she said.
The gun shone with reflected light, bright and mechanical against the grass. Umlo stared without moving to pick it up, brought the cigarette to her lips and took a long, slow drag that nearly set Xolisa coughing again. “I’m not like you,” Umlo muttered, smoke drifting from her mouth as she spoke. “I can’t be alone like that.”
Xolisa met the other woman’s eyes. “What makes you think I want to be alone?” She stood, careful but steady, and stepped past her gun on the railbed. Umlo’s frown was suspicious, but when Xolisa knelt in front of her she didn’t move away.
“There’s something I’ve wanted to know for a long time,” said Xolisa. “Something I needed you to help me answer.”
“You could’ve just asked,” said Umlo, though from her tone she knew that wasn’t true.
“I had time. I knew you’d find me when you wanted to. When you were ready.”
Umlo flipped the safety back on and set her gun on the track beside her. She kept her eyes down, twisting a braid around the fingers of her now-empty hand. “So ask,” she said, rough but very quiet.
Xolisa could see the moment Umlo realized what she intended, eyes wide and mouth opening to protest. Then Xolisa’s fingers brushed the hard point of one nipple through her shirt, and the words died on the other woman’s lips. She pinched it, gently, a shiver of pleasure traveling up her spine. Umlo’s sharp intake of breath was all the answer Xolisa needed.
She had long-ago tired of men — their easy arrogance and casual condescension, the ways they looked at her and they ways they did not. On the nights she chose not to spend alone, the bodies she twined her limbs around were all soft curves and sweet-smelling skin.
The boxy coat and shapeless jeans hid most of Umlo’s figure, but Xolisa had known her for centuries; had spent their long-ago girlhood running though warm, green valleys, washing in the streams that fed the Great Fish River. Umlo was a beautiful woman. Eyes dark and almond-shaped; high, round cheekbones dusted with freckles; dark skin a little weather-worn, crinkled around her eyes and at the corners of her mouth; small breasts and narrow waist hugged by the tee shirt glimpsed through the open front of her coat.
Xolisa lifted her other hand to her lips, fingertips grazing the sensitive skin. Umlo shivered and closed her eyes, and Xolisa wondered if the low thrum of pleasure between her legs was her own or borrowed. She rolled her nipple between her fingers, her thumb tracing the shape of her open mouth, and decided she didn’t care.
They hadn’t been this close in a century, and Xolisa had almost forgotten how it felt, proximity tangling their nerves. She reached out, and Umlo’s lips were dry and soft beneath her fingertips, the echos of pleasure distinct from Xolisa’s own, sensitive in different places, peaks and valleys realigned. When she leaned in to press their mouths together the sensation nearly overwhelmed her, the boundaries of give and take all but dissolving. Only a kiss, and already the thrum had deepened, underwear cool and wet and clinging as she pushed Umlo onto her back.
Xolisa could feel the gravel against Umlo’s ribs, but neither of them cared. She pushed the thin, gray shirt up to Umlo’s collarbone, gasping a little as her mouth close around a dark nipple, the movements of her tongue making her own back spasm. Umlo wriggled beneath her, shoving the jeans down over her hips, far enough for Xolisa’s hand to slide between her thighs.
Infrequent as her trysts might have been, Xolisa was not a young woman. She had been here more times than she could recall, her fingers parting soft folds and seeking out the hot, slick warmth they protected. But as she crouched above this woman, knuckle-deep and pressing, just so, her arm began to shake with the effort of holding herself up. Umlo’s hands were on her breasts and her own fingers urged both of them forward, dragged them toward a cliff higher than any she’d knew could exist, spiraling upward with every rebounded twinge of ecstasy.
“Fuck,” Umlo hissed, her back arching off the railbed, muscles tightening in spasms around Xolisa’s hand and fingernails dug into her shoulder. Xolisa buried her face against the curve of Umlo’s throat, her cry muffled by thin braids and the grass beneath. Her arm gave out, and she felt the crush of her own weight, warm and limp and not unpleasant.
They shifted a little, until the sharpest stones were pushed aside and their clothes were back between their skin and the ground. Then they lay together, breath and blood in sync, watching dawn creep across the sky.
“Why here?” Xolisa asked after a time, the words whispered into the shell of Umlo’s ear.
“I like it here,” said Umlo. “It’s a wild place. Left on its own.”
“That’ll change soon.”
“I know.” Umlo sighed, her fingers tracing Xolisa’s collarbone. “That’s why I wanted to see it.”
“Things can’t stay wild for long anymore.”
“No. But we’ll find another. Someplace new. No history.”
Xolisa chuckled. “Everything has a history.”
“New to me, then.”
“New,” said Xolisa – slowly, as if tasting the word. “Odd, that something could still be new to us.”
Umlo pulled her a little closer, lips pressed to her forehead. “Yeah,” she whispered, her breath warm on Xolisa’s skin.