From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Liminal

I was already dead when the train came, but still I heard that whistle. Felt the keening wail all the way into my bones that were no longer bones. I could feel, too, the warmth of the railroad track, beneath hands that were not my own. Gemma’s fingers curled around the rail and the last rumbling of the cars rolled up her arm, into her shoulder, to curl around her neck like a scarf. Sombra reached for Gemma, hauled her easily into the car while the scent of old hay and animals rose around us. Horses, I think it was horses, as we three flopped there and waited for the train to lurch into motion. It did not.

I could feel myself breathing, though I had neither body nor lungs. Could feel myself shaking with exhaustion and cold both.

“I can’t believe we left Honna—”

“Ssh.”

Sombra shushed Gemma, closing a hand tight around hers. I felt both Sombra’s squeeze and the shift of Gemma’s hand under it. I listened to their combined breath, fogging in the cold mountain air, to the patter of the rain on the roof of the railcar, and to the crunch of booted feet over gravel.

“Don’t take stowaways.”

Sombra looked up and I focused through her ebony eyes to see the man who stood outside the car, on the shoulder of the tracks. He was small, though rounded in the middle, gnarled hands holding to a long stick. He had a kind face, cheeks rough with stubble, a bright blue cloth around his neck, like he’d stolen a piece of Colorado’s autumn sky and tied in there.

“Stowaway implies secret,” Sombra said, and I felt each word in her mouth as though they were mine. “Stowaway implies we don’t mean to pay.” The hand that didn’t hold Gemma’s unfurled to reveal a small lump of silver, still coated with dirt.

The man leaned forward and sniffed. Like he was smelling the metal. Could he do that? Sombra could. She could smell the metal even if it were buried a hundred feet down. Gemma could hear the metal, like someone had struck a tuning fork. I could taste it, even now as it rested in Sombra’s palm that felt like my own and yet was not. Was not. . . Could taste the dirt that clung to it, and the sweet silver beyond.

Confused, so confused.

Sombra crooked her fingers and the man snatched the silver from her palm. Her mouth parted in a smile, a smile which I felt and also saw through Gemma’s bright eyes. Bright from tears; Sombra leaned into her to kiss them from her cheek and salt water burst across my not-tongue as my not-cheek felt them kissed away.

Men were the same the world over, Sombra thought. They could be charmed by money if nothing else. But this man, he lifted his eyes back to Sombra and Gemma, taking in their tattered clothing, their cut arms, their tangled hair. He looked beyond all that and saw something that made me suck in a breath.

Sombra, I thought, he knows something.

Sombra heard me. She lifted her hand and rubbed at her ear, as though she were trying to dislodge an errant fly. I buzzed again.

He knows something!

My elder sister shifted in the hay as if she could get away from me, her skirts sliding up to show a pale length of plump leg. The man, strangely, did not look at that. He was fixed on her eyes, holding her black gaze.

“Don’t take fools, either,” he said, and slid the sliver into his pocket. “This here is a working train and you’ll be expected to earn your keep.”

“We always do,” Sombra said, ever practical. She bowed her head and though she was rain-soaked and filthy from a week at the end of a kidnapper’s rope, she still had something regal about her. Something I had never been able to pinpoint. Her-my hand tightened on Gemma, who leaned in closer, offering the man a silvered smile.

The man nodded only once, then moved further down the tracks, to other cars. Gemma’s silver eyes followed him, widening at the sight of others gathered there. Strangers, with worn faces and clothes alike. The man tapped his stick on every train car he passed and every train car seemed to give him an answer of sorts. I could feel the hum of the metal on my not-tongue, could taste this old machinery, and underneath the rust, there was something sweet indeed.

#

It was the bridge that called to me and pulled me back, because that’s where I’d met my end. They used to call it the High Pass bridge, but now I hear they call it Three Sisters Bridge. After we three.

Those early nights, I would dream of it, and so Sombra and Gemma dreamed too, tangled together on a thin mattress the trainman—Jackson—had given them. I remembered the wood of the bridge, slick with rain under my fingers. Sombra’s own fingers curled in her sleep as though she touched the old wood, hard after countless decades in the weather. It had not splintered, but had become like iron after surviving the storms. Gemma’s toes flexed as I remembered setting foot on the bridge slats. We’d all been barefoot, my toes had curled over the edge of one slat, watching the river far below. It was spring, and the rivers of the valleys were already starting to swell with snowmelt even though the days could still hold a chill to them.

“Come on.”

Franklin Roberts had a sandpaper voice, every word sounding cut in half, like someone had taken a blade to his throat at some point. I couldn’t see a scar if they had, though, but that meant little. Sometimes, deep wounds left no physical mark.

He tugged the rope which bound we three, taking our hesitation for fear, though it was more curiosity. We had seen this bridge before, but from the ground. To be up here was nearly a wonder. Roberts’ St. Bernard pressed his nose against my leg before trotting out onto the bridge himself. A soft exhalation of warm breath and then he was on his way.

We didn’t like what we could do, didn’t understand it, but had taken men into the mountains before. Still, it had never been like this. At the end of a gun, tied with ropes, beaten and cut. But then, the world changed, a mother died, and men took advantage. Men took. . .

The metal train car vibrated around us as the stick beat against the door. Sombra turned over and I watched the world shift around me as my perspective within her changed. Then Gemma moved and the scene shifted again. I saw through both eyes this morning, bright and dark both, a blur of shapes and colors.

“Up, you.”

The train had weaved its way out of the mountains and onto the plains of Colorado. Small towns or no, people came to the carnival when the tents were set. Kids came to watch them pitch the tents, pointing to one and then another, whispering about what they might contain. I tried to move closer to the kids, to listen more, for it reminded me of my sisters and the trains. But whatever I was now, I was bound to move as Sombra and Gemma did.

There was a great clatter as cargo was off-loaded, a burble of delighted voices that seemed to say the train was staying a while. Sombra and Gemma moved through the tents as they went up, feet barely seeming to skim the short spring grass, leaving a murmur in their wake as other members of the carnival got a look at them. Still tattered and bruised, but beyond that there lingered a mystery, a sense that each woman harbored something magical inside. My sisters’ cold fingers caressed the sides of the train cars every now and again, drawing from the metal we had for long wondered about.

Ever since I can remember, we heard the trains. We always dreamed of where they went and who they carried, having no good idea. We often thought our father had left us on a train, thought he might come back on one, too.

Mother said we didn’t need to know him, that he was an angry son of a bitch from up north. She told us of our birth—the three of us together in the dead of winter, sprung from a drop of Father’s blood in a circle of greenery that should never have been, and hadn’t been since—we stopped asking questions. It was clear to us that Mother didn’t want us asking, though when Sombra found a circle in the woods where nothing would grow and where animals would not venture, we all had to wonder.

Mostly, we thought about those trains. One might bring him back any moment, so we looked for that puff of smoke in the sky and the sharp whistle that could signal him.

A train never did bring him. Ended up taking us away, instead.

#

Jackson ran a tight train. He was a business man, first and foremost, a showman second, though it’s possible only the slightest breath separated first and second, truth be told. He was good at what he did, and the people who traveled with him loved him for it.

Jackson had said we needed to earn our keep, but our talent was seemingly nothing that could entertain the masses who came to the carnival. He called Sombra and Gemma to his own train car one evening, to see exactly what their potential was. I wondered if they would tell him what they were capable of. What we were.

The train car was sparsely decorated, faded posters on the walls, faded rugs tossed on the floor. A roll of tenting huddled against one wall, scarlet and cream, while a small desk sat in a green pool of light from a lantern. Jackson had a lockbox before him, a pile of receipts spread across the battered wood desktop. There was but one chair in the room other than that which Jackson claimed, blue and gold striped, but neither Sombra nor Gemma sat. Sombra kept an arm wrapped around Gemma who was shaking. Gemma could barely lift one foot in front of the other to get to Jackson’s desk.

Jackson looked them up and down when they came in, his eyes seeming not the least bit tired behind the half-moon spectacles he wore. His mussed brown hair needed a brushing; it looked like he’d been digging in it with his gnarled fingers. I tried to reach a hand out, to smooth an errant lick of it down, but couldn’t guide Sombra’s or Gemma’s fingers that way. Still, Gemma curled her hand into a fist at her side, as if she were resisting. Sombra’s hand shook. Was it harder for her?

“Surely there is some talent you possess,” Jackson said, drawing his glasses off, to regard them across the desk.

My sisters had cleaned up well. Gone were the tattered dresses they had come in; Miss Delilah Chase, a lady with a good deal more beard on her face than one might normally expect, had loaned them satin skirts and corsets, and while the corset laces were let out as far as they might be, Gemma and Sombra still looked quite the ladies. We had never owned such finery ourselves, and as they’d dressed, I had felt those laces under my very own fingers. Could feel the swell of breast and hip alike, and the slip of satin against thighs.

Gemma leaned against the desk for a moment, which steadied her shaking. Her silver-blonde hair slipped over one shoulder. “You might find many uses for us,” she said. “Do any of your ladies share pleasures with the male patrons?”

Jackson blinked, as though such a thing had never occurred to him. I caused Sombra’s eyes to flutter—I couldn’t simply blink, it seemed. I was surprised by Gemma’s offer and I think Sombra was, too. Once, our mother had been asked if she would rent our services—not those in finding metal—and she’d answered the man with her shotgun. Such things should not be given for any price, Mother said. Now, to have Gemma offer it so freely. . .

Take it back, I wanted to scream, but it came as a rush of only air, air that filled the train car and ruffled my sister’s skirts; air that blew across Jackson’s desk and scattered every receipt there. Jackson tried to capture them, but the damage was already done. Whatever order he’d placed them in was destroyed.

As the pressure within the train car built, I could feel each side of the car as though I were pressed against each with hands and feet. Could feel the roof against my back as I bowed up. Near to exploding.

“H-Honna, stop it!”

I tried to stop, I really did, but couldn’t. My anger burst out of me like a small tornado, sending every bit of paper into the air. The door to the train car flew open on a rusted track that squealed a protest. The light in the room slanted; the lantern on the desk toppled over, the wind from my anger extinguishing the flame before it could catch the rest of the oil and set the entire place ablaze.

“Honna!”

Sombra’s scream deflated me. The pressure in the car eased and I felt only the floor then, as I curled around Sombra’s feet, lost in her magenta skirt.

Jackson peered up from over the edge of his desk, hands spread in the debris of receipts. “Who. . . is Honna?”

Gemma leaned into Sombra, curling her pale hands around Sombra’s darker arm. Light and darkness, and me the air between them. “Our dead sister,” Gemma whispered.

You might think a man would panic at that. Dead sister, here in the room with them? Responsible for the outburst that had ruined the small office? Jackson only grinned. It was a slow thing, calculating. I did not think then that this man was as kindly as he seemed. Oh, he could be, but deep down, he knew what his circus needed. Knew what the people would pay to see. And right then, that was us.

#

Jackson took his time with us, wanting to know exactly what we were. Trouble was, we didn’t exactly know ourselves. The things we could do, we’d simply always done them. Our mother said even as infants we’d gravitated toward metallic items, rooting them out from even the ground when we were outside. Metal called to us. She was forever finding spoons under our beds, small coins planted in pots.

Metal still called to me, even though I was. . . not. I had no physical body left to me, and yet could still taste the metal of the train cars on Gemma’s tongue as though it were my own. As though I’d walked up to each train car and licked it, to fully know the taste. The red cars tasted stronger than the green; the little blue caboose tasted like the memory of a place I had once been but could no longer find.

Jackson wanted what Roberts had—the secret to our talent, but we couldn’t give it, being that we didn’t understand it ourselves. We didn’t understand what happened to me, either. In the dark of night, when the train was at rest, Sombra and Gemma curled together in the dark and whispered. What had happened? Did Roberts do something to me? Where was I? They could both feel me, that I knew; they could feel me slip between them as easily as a whisper, filling up all the little spaces between and around. They tried to deny it, told themselves they were dreaming, but deep down they knew better. Deep down, they knew it was driving them mad.

I kept going back to the bridge. In my dreams, I carried Sombra and Gemma with me. Bare feet on rain-wet iron-hard slats. The dog’s breath curling warm against my leg. Roberts pulling on the rope that tied us. Sombra and Gemma resisted, said now was the time—now, now, now!

And then they pulled. Pulled so hard we three went down on the bridge. The dog whined, breath coming out in clouds, then scampered off the bridge and away as Roberts charged.

“Come on!” Sombra screamed the words, pulling that wet rope, trying to get me and Gemma to our feet. But Roberts had hold of me on the other end, Gemma caught in the middle in this awful game of tug.

Roberts drew his knife, a hunter’s knife that was well cared for. He was a hard man, in desperate need of money, but what he owned, he took good care of. That knife bit into the rope and as Sombra tugged, he cut. Cut until the rope came apart and I went staggering back into his arms.

There was a moment when he smiled. Beyond his wet beard, his mouth parted to reveal crooked teeth. But it was a joyous smile, as though he’d won something. My bare feet slipped on the bridge slats, I went into his arms hard and unbalanced him.

We flipped over the rail as though we had been pushed, and it was Gemma’s scream that followed us down. It was a long fall; it almost felt like there would never be a bottom to the valley, and when there was, it was icy snowmelt that closed over us. Icy water and rocks and then—

Then, I was back on the bridge, standing between my sisters, looking down into that valley at the churning river. I curled my hands around Sombra’s arm and she shrieked. She batted at the air to push me away and screamed and screamed until her throat was raw. At long last, she didn’t push Gemma away. Only curled against our sister and moaned like her heart had been ripped out whole.

That was when the train’s whistle rose above everything, and we moved.

#

Jackson called Gemma to his train car, alone. I curled around her neck close to where her heart beat, tattered bits of me resting between her small breasts as she stepped into the ring of light nearer to Jackson’s desk. He crooked his fingers and she came closer yet, as though he had her tied with a rope the way Roberts had. Gemma slipped around the corner of his desk, her skirts whispering in a low, emerald voice.

She thought he meant to take her up on her offer, of men finding pleasure with them, but when he finally took hold of her, she gasped in surprise. I felt the sharp draw of breath and the pain, too, where his fingers bit into her arm. He was quick about it, drawing a sweet-smelling kerchief from his pocket, to press it over her mouth and nose. This awful, heavy scent made me withdraw; like clouds coming apart under hard wind, I felt myself dissolving. I slipped from Gemma’s neck, onto the dirty floor, and pulled myself back together.

As Gemma finally slumped, unconscious, Jackson dragged her from the light, into the depths of his train car. There, against the back wall, were two cages, like one might keep animals in. Jackson opened the rusting gate of one, and pushed Gemma inside, before relatching and locking it. Inside, Gemma lay still like death, knees drawn to her chest.

I fled. I slipped through every crack that train car had and stretched long across the frost-tipped grass. Could see in my not-eye the bridge Roberts had pulled me over, could feel those cold, wet slats under my not-feet as we slipped and went over. Reaching for Sombra now felt like falling all over again, and I discovered then, she was gone, too.

The train car stood quiet, mattress empty, lantern snuffed. The scent of it did not even linger in the cold night air, so it had been a while. I could see tracks in the dirt outside the car, bare feet and booted, but they vanished into the grass, the frost having covered them well.

All the long night, I looked. Looked but could not see or feel Sombra. I could taste her though; her fear coated these mountain woods and the back of my tongue alike, thick and bitter. It was nowhere and everywhere, and I could not latch onto it.

Knowing where Gemma lay, I crept back to her side, slipping through the cage bars. But when I settled beside her, she came awake, shrieking like she was being killed. Her hands knotted into her hair, over her ears, and she rocked, screaming incoherently. I did not want to leave, tried to touch her, crawl inside, but she bucked like a green horse, flinging herself against the side of the cage until at last I left, and her screams turned to whimpers carried on the night wind.

The following day was quiet. I could not go near Gemma without making her shriek and I could not find Sombra, so I shadowed Jackson. On the surface, his day was ordinary. He walked circles around the tents to inspect them and be sure they were holding up well under the constant tug of wind; he spoke with employees as to the evening’s performances; he visited the few horses they kept and offered his hands to them, to nuzzle with velvet noses.

But beneath that calm surface, I felt something else was at hand, and when he shuffled back to his train car, and a dog fell into step beside him, it seemed like a puzzle piece. The St. Bernard gave a low whuff into the evening air and I could remember what that warm breath felt like against my own leg as we stood near the bridge. Roberts’ dog, now Jackson’s? What had Jackson done to my sisters? What torment did they know while he roamed his circus train?

Jackson packed the main tent that night, oversold the show and left people pressed outside, straining to see. Experience The Weird Sisters!, his hawkers cried. Witness The Sheer Bounty of Strange!

I lingered at the top of the tent, against the striped canvas though it moved against me with every breath of wind. Prior to the show, the lights in the tent were doused; everyone there was thrown into darkness and Jackson let it linger long enough to grow uncomfortable. The people fell to utter silence, and then you could hear the uneasy murmur among them. What was happening? Could anyone see? Did something just brush against my leg?

The lights returned with a great explosion; from every corner of the tent, colored glass oil lamps were lit in the same instant, bathing everyone in a strange, green glow. It seemed as though we were underwater, compressed by great fathoms of water. I stretched along the tent, my not-eyes riveted to the cages which rolled into the center ring.

Two cages, one draped with blue-dyed canvas, one of them the animal cage from the back of Jackson’s train car. I could feel then, Gemma’s heart lodged in her throat. Warm and salty, metallic and not unlike silver. A thing that called to me, bid me down to the ground. I clung to the tent canvas, trying to feel Sombra in the other cage.

The fire that was my eldest sister had been banked. She existed, still that oh yes, but as a low pile of cooling embers only. I reached for her and it was like reaching my not-hand into an icy lake. Beyond the chill, there was a fiery sting, something that promised warmth but could not yet deliver. I drew back, attention rounding on Jackson who walked between the cages, his walking stick having been replaced with a whip. I became aware of a low rumble at the base of Sombra’s throat. Wherever she had been kept, she knew well the feel of that leather lash.

In the sickly light, Jackson appeared like a man from another world. His small body unbent and he stood straighter than I’d seen before–the showman in his element, garbed in a suit that shimmered in the green lights. He was not small and hunched over with pain in this place. His face unpinched itself and though bathed in emerald and lime, seemed at the height of health. He smiled and lifted his arms and the crowd leaned forward as one, to see what he had brought before them.

“I beg you all to be witness tonight,” he said, his voice carrying to even those outside the tent. “I beg you to witness these strange women, these weird sisters, and know them for what they are.” Slowly, he rounded the cages; I could smell the ground beneath his boots, dirt that had been pounded by horses earlier in the day. “They are not human women, my friends, oh no. Not these.”

The whip trailed with a whisper across the top of Gemma’s cage. I felt her flinch as my own.

“Angry and strange, they will consume you if you look too long upon them.” Jackson moved around Gemma’s cage, to a point again between them, where a table had been placed. He set his whip to the side and drew back a blanket to reveal a staggering sight. “Two bodies trying to contain three souls! They must be appeased!”

The crowd drew back with assorted gasps at the sight of the struggling sheep bound to the table. Jackson took up a knife, not unlike that which Roberts had used to cut me free from my sisters, drew back the sheep’s throat, and cut it open. My sisters screamed with the sheep, and it felt I did, too, until our throats were raw from it. Warm blood, a familiar metallic tang against my not-tongue, and to the west I could feel every bit of silver calling us. Burning into us. The blood flowed down the sheep’s neck, over Jackson’s hand, into a bowl of honey where it pooled crimson against the gold.

“Strange offerings for strange women!” Jackson cried above the din of the crowd. He was losing some of them—some of the more delicate ladies in the audience had swooned. Others had fled, pressing through the eager bodies yet outside the tent. These came in to take their places, to gape at Jackson’s sacrifice in the ring. “I give you this, O Silver Sisters!”

There was a strange reverence in Jackson’s voice at that, an almost-caress that seemed to slip right down our spines. Gemma curled into it, while Sombra leaned toward it and then, angry at herself for doing so, revolted. Her entire cage shook. A spark burst from Jackson’s hands, and the sheep, blood, and honey were engulfed in flame.

Sombra came alive again; heat called to heat, and she drew this power into her. The blanket that covered her cage was wholly consumed by the flames; for a moment, it looked like she was sitting in the middle of the fire herself. I could feel her straining against the metal which confined her, and Gemma, too. I was drawn to that power, unable to fight it, and slipped away from the tent roof, riding those warm currents of fire toward my sisters.

Jackson withdrew; he stepped back and dropped to his knees, mindless of the pain they gave him, his eyes bright with tears as he watched the scene before him. I felt myself sucked into the heat of the flames, near to exploding again; felt whatever was left of me, turn liquid and stretch, reaching for the cages.

The metal doors flew off their hinges, into the crowd which moved like some confined ocean wave in the tent. I was aware of a new metallic tang, fresh blood from the weeping crowd. Bodies pressed under hot metal doors. Seared flesh. Screaming children.

I stood again on the bridge, toes curled against the iron-hard slats of wood. Roberts’ knife, bright in the rain, sharp as it bit into the rope. I clung to that memory, as though it might anchor me and save me from the madness in the tent. But I saw then it was also an anchor to Gemma and Sombra. If I didn’t let go, they would never let go.

I let go. The tide turned black and devoured me. I channeled the blood and the screams and the fire and beneath it all, the sweet taste of that honey; sucked the power from them and reached for my sisters. Reached until my not-hands took hold of them and dragged them from the ruins of their cages. At that touch, the three of us together again, the tent exploded.

The striped canvas snapped upward, as though a great hand grabbed it. The poles came inward and the crowd fled, strange black shadows in that green light. Three days later, Jackson’s boys would find the tent and its poles in a Kansas field. Tonight, there was only the fire from the sacrifice, the broken oil lamps that scattered the field.

There was something else then, a prickling along my arms, an awareness that I was once again sheltered within a body. Gemma’s head rested gently between my hands, silvered hair trailing across my fingers and arms. In a blink, I shifted from Sombra’s body, into Gemma’s, and she was not screaming, but welcoming me inside. I watched through her eyes as she looked up at Sombra, her body seeming black like the night sky above, strewn with stars. Charred by the fire, yet still alive. Still alive. . .

“Sombra?” Gemma whispered.

“Hush now,” she told me, and gathered the Gemma-me against her. I bled out of Gemma and back into Sombra, feeling securely held between both. Sombra lifted her head, eyes pinpointing Jackson. Blood and soot made a strange mask over his face and Sombra nodded to him once. “Thank you.”

These were not the words I expected her to say and only in the days that followed did I understand. My thought that Jackson had known. . . the sight of the St. Bernard trotting at his side. . . the discovery of a stack of bills in our train car, tied with a slip of paper that read “Roberts.” Sombra and Gemma sat with this money between them one evening, legs crossed Indian-style.

“He knew,” Sombra told Gemma, black eyes lifting from the money. Her fingers moved over the stack of bills between them, sparks of fire glinting from their tips. “He heard what we were and claimed us.”

As much as this should have horrified Gemma and me, it didn’t. Gemma nodded, stardust shifting down her shoulders. “Broke us and remade us right,” she whispered, feeling right for the first time in years.

Roberts hadn’t wanted silver at all. He’d hunted us at Jackson’s behest. In the end, though we escaped Roberts, we had still come to Jackson’s train, drawn by those often-heard whistles that carried through the mountain valleys we called home.

And now this train was home, my sisters and me remade into something we had never imagined. My sisters were two halves of the same thing, one light and one dark, and me still the breath between them. Where one was concave, the other was convex. Where one was sharp rocks, the other was smooth water. Sombra’s hair was the night sky while Gemma’s was the stars. And sometimes, I made them exactly backwards from that.

E. Catherine Tobler lives and writes in Colorado–strange how that works out. Among others, her fiction has appeared in Sci Fiction, Fantasy Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, Talebones, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. She is currently the fiction editor at Shimmer Magazine. For more visit www.ecatherine.com.

2 Responses »

  1. Nicely done!

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