From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Black-Iron Drum

She made her heart into iron and carried it with her through the fire and flood of her war-torn province. The worst was when she saw the children drowning as she forded the Kalu river. At that moment the woman’s iron heart filled with the thoughts she would have had in the old days, and it dragged her head below water so that her sight was full of muck and her lungs threatened to breathe in the ash-stained river. But without a warm heart to distract her, her mind was clear. She walked to shore through a sea of corpses and afterwards vomited up black river water on the bank. The water steamed in the sunlight—the old, black blood of war, she thought—but the woman did not stop to see it dry. By morning she was already at the borders of Nuncia, her clothes dried like a new, dark skin on her back, her iron heart still heavy in her hand.

It took her a while to decide what to do with her iron heart: part of her still wanted to reclaim her old self. But her heartless mind knew better.

At the crossroads the woman took out her iron heart and looked at it for the last time. The heart had grown black and poisonous-looking from the memories it held. Its surface was blistered with rust; it sank heavily in her palm.

This heart is too heavy to bear any more, she told herself. Reluctantly, she dug a grave for it in the yellow earth. She buried it deep, at the center of the crossroads, and hoped no one would find it. Despite everything, it was still her heart: she did not want a stranger to carry it. That pain was hers and hers alone.

The woman arrived in the town straight-backed and empty-handed, with eyes hollow as mine-shafts from which all good metal has been stripped. The townspeople stared at the woman’s sorcerer’s tattoos and, during her first weeks in town, asked her to perform small magics for them. They asked her to charm their houses against mice and bewitch their grain, but the strange woman stared at them with her dark eyes and told them they were mistaken. She was no sorceress.

She found a man in the town who was willing to marry her. The executioner was a graying, crack-toothed man; his missing ear marked him as a thief; his profession marked him as one cursed by the gods. But the woman wanted only a house to stay in and a new life to go with it. The executioner gave her both, and called the woman Kalu, after the river that divided her new life from her old one. Though he was no sorcerer, he knew something about heartlessness, and never questioned the deadness of her eyes.

They lived together in separate corners of the present, never speaking of the past. Their house filled up with silence, and so every morning Kalu would sweep the unspoken words into a small pile and empty them into the grassy hollow. She watched the grass grow crooked there, but her spell worked; the executioner never asked an unwanted question and the silence, though thick, never grew poisonous.

In time she bore him children, small, dark-eyed children who shrank back from their mother when she approached. Like all young things, they could sense her heartlessness and feared it. But they loved her also, because they were her children and had no choice. As soon as they could walk they followed Kalu at a shadow’s distance, their faces trembling with questions they didn’t know how to ask.

Throughout these years Kalu was—not content, for the heartless are never content—but indifferent. She saw the sun rise and fall the way a rock sees the seasons pass, weathered but uncaring. This, for her, was almost like happiness.

But then trouble came, as it always does. It came in the form of a body.

Her husband spoke of it first. There was a tinker boy, he said, accused of raping a merchant’s daughter. The girl herself said otherwise, but the townspeople knew better to than argue with a merchant, and the boy had no family to speak of. The boy’s neck had not broken with the fall; he’d kicked for a time, and afterwards the crows came and pecked at him. And all that was fine and well, but now people were raising a fuss because the boy was an illegitimate son of an illegitimate son. Such bodies must be buried at the crossroads, lest they turn into the restless dead and stalk the countryside at night.

Kalu’s husband thought it was a great deal of talk over nothing. But let them bury the boy where they would; as long as he didn’t have to dig the grave, he wouldn’t complain.

Something touched Kalu now. She had not shivered in many years—indeed, she had felt neither cold nor heat for some time—but she shivered now and looked up, like a dog straining at a sound it barely hears.

“Where did you say they would bury that body?”

“At the crossroads,” the executioner said, and looked curiously at his wife, who had shown no interest in his work until that night. But Kalu put her head back down and stared at her weathered hands. Her hands could no longer bake bread or shape clay or create anything good, but they could still take. So she took her husband’s question from his lips with a quick flick of her sorcerer’s fingers. Afterwards she stayed up late and stared at the wood grain of her table.

She had felt this before, this sense of gathering threat. But she waited, just as she had in the old days, when she had heard the soldiers approaching and refused to turn her head and see. Seeing does you no good sometimes; it only reminds you of your helplessness, and robs you of what peaceful minutes remain.

She waited all night, and then, near morning, she heard something. A faint sound, one she had not heard in many years, like an iron drum beating. But when she lifted her head, it was gone.

Over the next few days, news came slowly, in odd comments and half-heard rumors. Kalu assembled the information carefully, gathering up the stray gossip and weaving it together so she could see its shape.

The Gerters’ youngest child went missing. When he was finally found the boy was pale as death and could not look on fire without shrieking.

The drovers reported problems leading their cattle by the river roads and cut through the fields instead.

The hens in the town took to laying hollow eggs. Milk left in sight of a window turned sour.

All of these were disturbing signs, but they did not add up to anything coherent. No, Kalu told herself as she lay awake on her husband’s pillow, there is nothing to fear. These are a child’s nightmares, raised by my imagination in the dark to be laid to rest by morning.

So she turned her head to the wall and drifted off to sleep; but her dreams were full of the sound of a black-iron drum beating underground, at a pace that was almost familiar.

Bodies began to appear. A pair of beggars in the alleyway behind the temple. The merchant’s maid was found floating facedown in the duckpond. And everywhere people began to see the corpses of chickens, dogs and goats, sucked dry and bloodless.

Now people worried. A vampire was abroad; that much seemed certain. But where had it come from? The rapist seemed an obvious candidate, but he had been buried at the crossroads with flowering garlic in his mouth. A wooden stake had been pounded through his chest to prevent his corpse from rising.

No, the men said in the tavern, their voices low and nervous, it could not be the rapist. And so who could it be?

Kalu knew. The empty space in her chest ached with her secret, and the blood in her head drummed to a sound no one else could hear.

Her heart was coming closer. It was looking for her.

Kalu waited in the bright light of the morning. She waited in the hot shadows of the afternoon, and the long shadows of evening. At night, come sunset, she listened to a distant sound like the beating of a black-iron drum, the sound of the dreaded past growing steadily closer.

It would not do. The heart would lead the vampire straight to her door. And then what? She supposed her family would die, again. She supposed she might die too, although this thought did not disturb her as it once had. No, what disturbed her was the heart, and the incessant beating of that black-iron drum. It reminded her of things best forgotten, like pain and the taste of ash. No, her iron heart could not be left beating in some dead chest, drumming her ancient miseries to the world. It had to be buried again, deeper this time, buried so it could not rise again.

She chose her materials carefully. She gathered salt, for purity, and put silver rings on the long pale fingers of her taking hands. In the old days she might have used them to summon the vampire to her, but summoning required sacrifice and Kalu had nothing left to give. She had no passion to fire her magic, no heart pulsing hot blood around her veins; her sorcerer’s tattoos no longer had meaning for her. But she could still take. If war had taught her anything, it was that it was far easier to take things than create them.

Kalu took the salt and the silver and stepped into the hungry night. The charms on the door jangled behind her as it closed.

She did not have far to walk. The vampire stood in the center of the road, looking at each house in turn. It cast no shadow in the moonlight, but stood as straight as the boy’s body had dangled at the end of her husband’s rope.

“You are looking for me,” she said to it, regretting that her tongue could no longer create the language of sorcery. It would have been a useful thing to use here, with one of the restless dead before her.

The vampire turned its head and looked at her with pain-haunted eyes. And as it looked at her she could hear her missing heart miss a beat; it recognized her, her iron heart did, and it wanted her back.

The drum-like noise was dreadful now, a phantom pounding in her ears that she knew she could not hear and yet she seemed to feel. It staggered her; she almost dropped the salt, which would have been fatal. But her hands remembered to hold the jar fast, and quickly, as the vampire lurched towards her with the dream-like speed of the dead, she poured the salt in a smooth ring around her. The vampire stopped short.

“Now,” she said through gritted teeth, as the sound of her missing heart grew louder, “we will talk, you and I.”

The vampire stared at her. In the silence that loomed between them the iron drum kept its terrible rhythm. Its lips twitched as though it would speak, but then it stepped forward again, only to be baffled by the salt circle. It raised its hands, still covered in grave-soil, and stretched its cracked fingernails towards Kalu’s face.

Please,” it said, in the voice of the dead. “Please.

Kalu stared back, her eyes hard. She’d hoped this vampire would be more fluent than most of its kind, given that it possessed her heart. But as a rule, the dead have no great memory of language; they keep closest the words they said last, and almost universally those words are pleas. The dying plead for forgiveness or life but die anyway, unforgiven and unremembered; language therefore has little meaning for them and it crumbles as their bodies should in the grave.

She tried to speak to the vampire anyway, as she would to another sorcerer, or to a man with life in his veins. “You have my heart,” she told it, “it was not yours to take, but you found it in your grave at the crossroads, or it found you, and now you have carried it out of that grave to find me. You must be tired of carrying it; it is hard and heavy with memories that aren’t yours. Will you not set it down?”

Please,” the vampire sighed like a sunlit wind, “please.” It put its hand over the place where the stake had been driven; through the exposed ribs Kalu could almost glimpse the black surface of her dreadful heart. She turned away with a shudder.

The fingers on her hand twitched. How easy it would be, she wondered, to pluck that heart out from its ribcage? The vampire had the leaden strength of the dead, but she was heartless, and would stop at nothing. An even contest, she decided.

But the gods cursed those who took from the dead. Perhaps they would turn her iron heart back into flesh. And she could not bear that, not again.

“Will you not set it down?” she repeated, forcing her eyes back to the vampire’s face, away from that dreadful mass of concentrated pain. After a moment, the vampire shook its head.

Kalu let her breath hiss through her teeth. She turned her face to the starlit sky and tried to remember what she could of necromanctic lore.

“Will you trade me something for it?” she suggested.

The vampire appeared lost in thought, its slow, pain-fogged mind turning over her words. Then it nodded.

“What then?” she demanded. The vampire stooped and scratched something on the dirt. It had the merchant’s daughter’s name in it.

“A message?” The vampire nodded. “And who should I deliver it to?” Stooping, the vampire underlined the name in the pale dust and looked up at her, dead eyes reflecting the moon.

She nodded. “I will deliver your message,” she said. “If you give me back my heart.”

To its credit the vampire did not hesitate before reaching back to its chest. Kalu turned her face away, unwilling to watch her iron heart’s reemergence into the world.

And then it was done.

She knelt beside the tattered corpse of the boy. His corpse was thin and shabby; it rocked in the wind. Dirt and pebbles ground into her bare legs as she stared at lump of iron the vampire had placed in front of her salt circle. Blood hummed in her ears.

She turned away from the heart—it was easier to ignore, now that it was no longer beating with false life—and concentrated instead on the vampire’s message. But the words seemed to shift and jump in her mind. She could not hold them.

The wind was rising. Soon the crawling dust would erase the vampire’s words from the road. Kalu blinked repeatedly and tried to say the words aloud, but she could not make sense of them. Like her sorcerer’s tattoos, they held no meaning for her.

One cannot speak the language of the dead without sacrifice. Her skin felt cold at the thought. She had nothing to give; she could not carry the vampire’s message. And the gods would curse her, if they hadn’t already.

Kalu hung her head and forced her head to turn towards the lump of metal on the road. Her very bones creaked in protest.

She did not want to pick the heart up, not again. A shiver of weakness ran through her bones, ran through the pale crook of her exposed elbow down into the tips of her fingers, where it tingled unpleasantly.

She remembered it now, how it had felt to carry her heart through the ash-stained river where the children drowned and bodies spun up to the surface in illogical pieces. A hand, a bloated leg. No way to tell who the limbs had belonged to, no way to know if they were still attached to anything at all or whether they floated along as she had, broken and disengaged from the wholeness that she had once been. Her palm remembered the weight of her iron heart, it practically itched with the memory, and it was damp at the thought of carrying it again. Of being so close to the things she’d put away from her the day the soldier’s came and she did not turn her head.

But she had no choice.

It took her a while to pick up the heart. It was heavy, and her hands were slippery with remembered terror. She heard its beating in her head—a hallucination, she knew, since the vampire was dead—but there it was nonetheless. Louder now, so loud it throbbed through her, and when she picked up the iron heart it was louder still, and the iron heart stuck to her palm as though her flesh was a magnet, and the sound came through her like an earthquake moves through ground, as the sound of approaching cavalry had drummed up through her bones and lodged in her mouth as fear. That was the taste she remembered now, so close to the iron heart that smelled of ugliness and lay, black and poisonous and swollen with memory on her cold palm.

She swallowed and looked back at the vampire’s words. She read them aloud, and then she read them aloud again, and the iron heart seemed to slow and beat in time with the words. And why not? It knew a great deal about pain, and recognized the boy’s dying words as something it might have said, if hearts could speak.

But her mind still couldn’t hold the vampire’s words. The second she turned her eyes away they ran from her mind like water through fingers. It was not enough.

Kalu raised the iron heart to her lips, and quickly, so she wouldn’t think about it, put her tongue to its searing surface. For a split second the memories spilled in to her: the red stain on the western sky, her first husband’s laugh, the way her first children had screamed when the soldiers’ came.

She hurled the iron heart from her. When she opened her eyes it was lying in the dust, black and ominous. Was it her imagination or was the halo of pain surrounding it somewhat diminished? Certainly her blood seemed warmer. And the vampire’s words burned in her mind now with strength both bright and terrible.

Kalu stumbled to her feet. She hesitated, and then went over to collect her heart. It blazed with pain as she touched it, but she could not leave it here on the road for anyone to find. Not again.

She walked to the house on the river, the merchant’s house with the green vines climbing its walls. White doves nested in the tangled knots of vine. The dead boy had loved them when he was alive, the heart told her. Kalu shut her eyes and repeated the vampire’s words to herself. She hoped her heart would tell her nothing else.

Dawn was coming, a slow, gray dawn that tinged the air pink and smoked the dew from the grass under the window. Kalu stood ankle-deep in damp earth and peered up at the cracked window. She flung a stone up at the pane, the way the tinker’s boy might have a lifetime ago. A white shape moved behind the cracked glass: the girl’s maid, come to make sure her mistress made no trouble.

Impatient, Kalu did not wait to be turned away. She raised her silver-ringed fingers and said, in a language she had all but forgotten, bring her to me. The pale-faced maid retreated, the sorcerer’s words clinging to her like the cobweb of some poisonous spider, and when she next appeared it was behind a broad-faced girl with crusted blood on her forehead.

Kalu waited for them to open the window, her iron heart filling her hand with radiant pain. When she spoke it was in the vampire’s voice, with the words he’d left her.

I forgive you, she said.

Once delivered, the vampire’s words scattered to the wind. Somewhere, the merchant’s young maid screamed, high and thin, but Kalu’s head was full of the half-remembered sound of the black-iron drum. She turned away from the girl’s familiar look of baffled pain and walked back to her house with the pulse and shriek of ancient battles ringing in her ears.

Kalu stood in the cold, dawn-shadow of her house, in the pale hollow where the grass grew crooked and the silence was piled deep. Here, she thought, this will do. Silence to blot out any possibility of sound; dirt to bury it deep. She’d have to sow the ground with salt and place a horseshoe on its grave, but no townspeople would come to bury the restless dead in her garden. Here, Kalu’s heart could rest undisturbed.

But still she hesitated, because it was her heart, and part of her had missed it. The weight of her heart was familiar in her hands, the awful pain of it was familiar, and the way it cleaved to her. Her heart belonged to her, no matter how far she cast it from her; it wanted her back.

Kalu closed her eyes. It would not do to take those memories back. She could not live with them; that was why she’d cast them from her in the first place. Half a life was better than no life at all.

And yet. The taste of pain on her tongue had faded now, and her blood felt warmer. But her chest was hollow. Her children were frightened of her. And the phantom weight of her missing heart had preyed at her mind every day since she’d buried it.

She could not take her heart back and she could not bury it. What if someone else found it again? She couldn’t.

Her hands shook as she raised the iron heart to her lips. This time the memories that split her head open were shrill and tasted of blood. She dropped the iron heart into the black leaves and let it smolder there.

The leaves of the trees above her were greener than she’d realized. And she could remember the shadows of things now. Screams and names and places. For the first time in years, hot tears prickled behind her eyes.

It would not do.

She flung herself at the ground and began to dig, desperate fingers clawing through the grass and dirt, into the years of buried silence. When she’d dug deep enough she scraped the top soil for a dead leaf and, careful not to touch the iron heart, she used the leaf to pick its awful weight up and toss it into the hiding place she’d fashioned for it. Carefully she swept a mound of silence over it and buried the heart in the deaf earth. Not forever, she promised it. Sweat prickled her skin and she did not know if she was lying or telling the truth as she told it, not forever, just for now.

Her children looked up as she stumbled in, her limbs caked with dirt and blood, her hair uncombed. Her husband looked up and saw that his wife’s eyes were green now, and that there was a color in her cheeks he did not remember. But he and his children quickly looked away. They had learned not to ask questions.

Kalu stumbled through that day and the one that followed, barely listening to the wild reports of vampires and merchants that seemed to be on everyone’s lips. She was thinking of the pale green grass of the hollow, and what she’d promised the heart when she buried it. The past can’t be reclaimed all at once, she thought, but in small doses—that might be bearable.

In the meantime she baked bread with her daughters, and the dough she kneaded sometimes rose. The town settled back into the rhythm of its summer-time life.

Sometimes at night, at the edges of her dreams, Kalu thought she heard the faint beat of the black-iron drum. Then she struggled up from the depths of her nightmare and walked out the garden to reassure herself that the pale grass still grew crooked and undisturbed.

Soon, soon, she promised it. And walked back to face the day.

Von Carr is the pen name of Siobhan Carroll, a doctoral student at Indiana University. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in magazines such as On Spec, Realms of Fantasy, and Son and Foe.

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