From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories, an anthology edited by John Joseph Adams

Fiction

A Prince of Thirteen Days

a true son of Samarkand, and I won’t go for less than three dollars, not even to that sweet-­talking Mayor Crenshaw.

That’s what he says to me, the plaster man with his long embroidered cape and big­-knuckled hands. I jump back, almost far enough to fall into the fountain, because no one warned me that the communication charm I found in the bargain bucket at the back of Snappin’ Wizards actually worked.

I clear my throat. “Mister Statue Man,” I say, because I haven’t grown up on the Border without learning to be polite around magic. “Do you think you might have sex with me?”

#

After so many years in the park, the prince’s thoughts run slow and sticky; they burrow into the past like the moles beneath his pedestal burrow into the earth. He remembers the idyllic days with his beloved in the house by the lake; he remembers the mud­-and-­granite smell of mixing plaster, of the way it would smear her nose and hair when she was deep in her work, and then she would pause and turn and smile—a sudden, beneficent gesture—and say, “Well, what do you think, my prince? A good day’s work?”

He’s a century away from the World and the pain of all those years, but the soul his beloved gave him still stretches in answer: Yes.

“Yes?” repeats the girl who is not his beloved.

The prince turns from the past. The girl is dark, like the illus­trations of slaves in his beloved’s edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He has never seen such skin up close before, and he wonders at how it resonates with him, at how it feels much like his own, though he knows himself to be no darker than a duck egg. No one has spoken to him in a very long time. On the Border, people tend to leave well enough alone. He has liked that.

Who are you? he asks, not expecting her to understand. Not even his beloved understood his thoughts.

Somehow, this girl understands.

#

This story originally appeared in the anthology Welcome to Bordertown, edited by Holly Black & Ellen Kushner.

The statue said yes, but I don’t think he was answering my ques­tion, because a moment later the whirl of his thoughts pauses. It feels like he’s seeing me for the first time.

Who are you? asks the statue. His voice comes to me truer now, though at first it faded in and out like a secondhand impression ball. His face is as expressionless as ever, but I can feel him behind the rigid, noble mask, like he’s trapped.

“I’m Peya … uh … daughter of Althea, daughter of Lillian, family name Windbreaker, though I’m pretty sure Grandmama made that up when she came here.”

Too many years, he says, and I know his tone from the Mad River, or maybe just the rats who loiter nearby: Desolation, like hope, has rotted inside him. He’s sadder than I thought he’d be, my plaster man.

“What’s your name?” I ask. I’m expecting something different from what we usually get down here in Soho, newbie runaways styling themselves Shadesong or Spartacus or whatever.

But he says, She called me her prince.

I say, “Well, at least it’s fitting.”

Howtalk to me … He says this as a rush of something like water drowns his deep and formal voice in my head.

I didn’t expect the charm to work at all, so it’s no shock to me when he fades out. The city itself seems to speak in his place: In my head, I hear the laughter of a rat about to take his last drink of red, boys screaming, girls laughing, bricks cracking on pavement, bells tolling a hundred thousand funerals.

“Crap!” I say, and drop the charm in the fountain. It was a simple­ enough trinket: a plastic azabache eye attached by a leather thong to a pair of windup chattering teeth. I laughed when I found it in the bin at Snappin’ Wizards Surplus and Salvage, but then I could have sworn that eye blinked at me and Rabbit (my sister—sort of) gave me that look of hers, the one that means magic.

Rabbit’s never wrong about magic.

The teeth chatter for a few seconds in the water, but the whole spell has guttered by the time I get the nerve to reach into the murky green-­black depths of one of Fare-You-­Well Park’s crum­bling fountains. Why they still have water is one of Bordertown’s mysteries, I guess.

Like my plaster man.

“Why are you here?” I ask, knowing I can’t hear him without a working charm but wondering if he hears me. “Who would have given you away, Prince?”

Maybe the she who haunts him, like the he who haunts my mama?

On impulse, I reach out and touch his shoulder, though it’s covered in pigeon droppings, green with age. I always assumed the artist had made him naked beneath that proud throw of embroidered cloth, but I see now that he’s wearing a loose tunic beneath it, and there’s a vein, stark beside his collar, where a bit of the stitching has started to come undone.

“I really want it to be you,” I whisper. “I’ll be back.”

#

Few know the moment of their own creation, but the prince recalls the morning his beloved named him better than he recalls his last hundred Sundays in Fare­-You-­Well Park. She told him of her ambitions, how he was surely her prince, her true cre­ation, her best work with her stamp on the sole of his boot. She used quicklime plaster, that most ancient and sturdy of materials, favored by the Romans in buildings still standing. Inspired by a childhood love of the tales in A Thousand and One Nights, she had determined to create a prince of the Orient, a man so hale, so noble, with such a glint of intelligence implied in his plaster eyes that all who looked on him would love him as she did.

Her love had a kind of magic; the prince took on a kind of soul, and if it was not the most robust of such things, it wasn’t so weak as the garden gnome’s. But in the end, for the security of his position, she married a man she’d called a scoundrel and a liar: Seymour Crenshaw, mayor of Twin Falls, Pennsylvania. Crenshaw said, “He’s a bit … exotic to have in our living room, dear, don’t you think?” and put the prince in the back hall, behind a velvet drape. The prince did not see her very often after that. He resigned himself to the imperfection of his beloved.

Sometimes she would pull back the velvet drape. Sometimes she would look up at him on his pedestal and push back her hair and sigh. “We were good together, weren’t we, my prince?” she said late one night, her belly swollen past the point where garments could conceal it.

We could be again, he thought, and knew it for a lie.

“I’ve asked Seymour if he might purchase quicklime and sand from a distributor in Baltimore,” she said, and for a moment the hope! and the joy! was like unto life, and it seemed that his broad hands flexed, that his noble brow softened, that perhaps he even bent his neck toward her.

“Prince?” she said, her voice too high, too soft, too scared. “Lord, but this child has made me mad.” She rested her hands on her belly and spoke as though the baby inside could hear her. “How restless you’ve been this past week. I’ll be glad enough when I can see your face as well as feel you.”

Her smile was not for him, though it had once been.

“Prince?” she said again, surer this time. “It must be the moon….”

And she stood, raised herself to her toes, and kissed his perfect plaster lips.

“Seymour says he can’t possibly consider it in my condition,” she whispered, mouth between his ear and cheekbone. “I’ll ask again after the baby is born.”

She died a week later.

#

“Sit down,” says Grandmama. “I have biscuits in the oven.”

In some parts of Soho, a half dozen of Grandmama’s buttermilk biscuits can fetch at least a pound of coffee. I’ve seen them raise a ghost on the Day of the Dead. Biscuit day is serious business.

I sit down.

Even if she didn’t tell me, I would have known: Grandmama’s biscuits smell of crackling lard and fresh­-churned butter melting into dough, and a little of the myrrh she burns as she mixes it together with her wooden spoon. Sodium bicarbonate and buttermilk culture need help here on the Border. Sometimes just the incense will do it, and sometimes I’ve seen Grandmama go into a full-­on spiritual “Oh Happy Day” or “Didn’t It Rain” just to conjure a rise. She’s got a beautiful voice, but my grandmother doesn’t sing much otherwise. I’d never tell her, but I always like the taste of those biscuits best.

“The Lord is my shepherd,” she says, like someone else might say, “Don’t fuck up,” and she opens the oven door for exactly one second. She’s smiling when she sits across from me at our kitchen counter (a dark mahogany slab carved with ivy—formerly a door from some posh building from the place Parkside, our neighbor­hood, used to be before the Border). “It’s a good one,” she says. The tension has left her shoulders, which is the only thing that ever makes her look even a little old.

I’m not so shabby myself (and Rabbit’s too young), but I live with two of the most beautiful women in Bordertown, no lie. Both Mama and Grandmama have skin to match our kitchen counter, with big lips and big hair and cheekbones that could cut pastry. They came sixteen years ago from the World, when Mama was pregnant with me. They ran away from a bad man and a good man and a place they call the South.

I’m glad I live here.

“So what’d you do today, Peya?” Grandmama asks, one bare foot on the stool, the other dangling beneath.

“You know that thing Rabbit said yesterday?” I ask.

“Honey, she’s a little girl, not a prophet.”

“Sometimes she’s right,” I say, looking through the door so I don’t have to catch her raised eyebrows.

“So you went out to find a boy to have sex with?”

“To fall in love,” I say to the table, blushing. “That’s what Rabbit said: ‘In thirteen days, you’ll lose your virginity and fall in love.’”

“And sometimes that’s a thing you regret,” Grandmama says, with that weight in her voice that means she’s thinking of the World and the South and the misery of her own first love.

My grandfather might have been a bad man, I want to say, but that doesn’t make you bad for not seeing the darkness inside him right away.

“And what’s so wrong with just letting things happen, honey? Why force the issue?”

If only Grandmama knew just how much I’m planning to force the issue. “It’s a chance, that’s all. Who doesn’t want to find love? And if Rabbit says it will happen in thirteen days, I have to try and find him. I want it to be someone good.” Someone I’ve always wanted.

She gives me a sharp look. “And aren’t you my daughter’s daughter.”

Mama’s been hung up on the same man for sixteen years, and not for any good reason, far as I can tell—never mind that the man is my father. But before I can tell her that I’d never wait so long for a man who doesn’t want me, Grandmama stands to take the biscuits out of the oven. She never uses a timer, but they’re perfect anyway. To an outsider, it might look like Rabbit is the only magic in our family, but I know better.

She slides a biscuit on a plate and hands it to me. It’s an honor to eat Grandmama’s biscuits fresh from the oven. I handle it with due reverence.

“Well?” she says, like always.

“Delicious,” I say, like always.

But Grandmama doesn’t smile. “You find your boy yet, Peya?”

“I think so,” I say. “But he won’t talk to me.”

#

After that first unexpected conversation, the girl, Peya, returns. She talks, but she doesn’t hear. When she leaves, the sounds of the park scrape like sandpaper. The people in this Border city walk past him, speaking in voices too quiet or too loud, their sentences in cadences that rise at the end, that ask and ask, What is happening here? and When will it end? and What’s going on out in the World?

Turns out the Way into the Borderlands has become a wall. No one’s come in and no one can get out. People joke about coffee getting scarce, but they mean something else, like always.

The prince falls into the past again.

The funeral of his beloved was held in the graveyard of the tiny local parish. “A terrible shame,” said the chambermaids who polished the silver. “I nearly fainted in the heat.”

The summer of her death turned into the long winter of his mourning. Her clothes were given to charity, her precious plaster casts sold in bulk to an itinerant auctioneer from Milwaukee. The prince stayed behind his curtain; his soul withered like a fruit on a cut vine, but it refused to die. She and her baby boy rotted in the ground less than a mile away, and he could not touch her, could not hear her, would not see her ever again.

Two years later, someone else’s hand pulled back his curtain; someone else’s face peered up at him.

“Handsome devil, ain’t he?” said the man.

“Barbaric,” said the second Mrs. Crenshaw. “His first wife had appalling taste.”

“I take it this ain’t for the senator’s new place, then, ma’am?”

“Throw it away. Please.”

The man took the prince home. “Looks to me you’ll fetch a nice enough price,” he said.

No less than three dollars, thought the prince.

#

I’ve had a crush on Prince ever since Mama first took me busking with her in Fare­-You-­Well Park. We’d set up near the entrance to the green, Mama playing her beat-up acoustic guitar, sitting cross-­legged on a blanket of Dutch­-dyed fabric she claimed came straight from Africa. She’d play songs and I’d sing the descant har­mony to her throaty melody. We drew crowds: the teenage runaway and her child with the swinging plaits. Never mind that my mother had run away with her mother—the story got the coins in the hat, while Grandmama schemed to find us something better.

But during the breaks, Mama didn’t mind if I explored. Prince was covered in pigeon shit, like most of everything in the park, and the dark canopy of oak leaves above him made it hard to see his face until I got close enough. He wasn’t white. What with elves running around Bordertown like sylvan gods, it’s sometimes hard to remember that there are other kinds of beauty—not everyone has to aspire to their patrician noses and willowy bodies and silvery-­pale skin. Which is funny, because my plaster man was the color of sour milk, and yet I knew that his skin was dusky, that his eyes were dark and his lashes thick. His nose was wide like mine, though his lips were smaller. He was different, and he was beautiful.

When Rabbit came in from the garden and told me I’d fall in love, Prince was the one who flashed in my mind. I’ve fantasized about him for so many years, wondering what he’d be like if he were a real man who loved me. And suddenly, the idea didn’t seem so crazy: The thing about Bordertown? Sometimes magic works.

There’s new graffiti scrawled on the broken flagstones in front of my plaster man.

“Bordertown LIVES”

“No shit,” I say. I look up at Prince and sigh. “I wish taggers would at least get an artistic sensibility, you know? Maybe draw something?”

But of course he doesn’t answer. Snappin’ Wizards doesn’t open until evening on Mondays. I’m waiting on Rabbit, ’cause if the magic worked the last time when I was with her, I don’t want to take any chances. She shows up twenty minutes late with two chorizo empanadas from Juliana’s and I could kiss her, so I do.

Rabbit grins. “She baked them special.”

“I’m sure she did,” I say, though Juliana never makes fresh em­panadas after one in the afternoon. For Rabbit, people do a lot of special things. She’s technically my aunt, though she’s nearly six years younger. Grandmama had an affair with a halfie when I was ten or so. It didn’t end badly, but it ended. Grandmama spent the next few months baking a lot of biscuits and pickling a lot of beets, and eventually we got Rabbit. Everyone’s been pretty happy since.

“You know he’s alive in there,” I say around a mouthful of spicy beef and flaky pastry.

She shrugs. “Sure. He’s sad, too.”

“You can hear him?”

“Nah. Just feel him crying.”

My eye catches on the red scrawl beneath him. Even without real graffiti art, the tagger’s handwriting hints at a certain flair.

“You think you could conjure some paint?” I ask.

Rabbit considers. “Wind feels nice today.” I’ve known Rabbit all her life, so I don’t worry about the non sequitur. She lifts her free hand. Her skin’s just a little lighter than mine, but it shines silver in the sun, a cat’s eye caught in the light. Suddenly, blue paint drips from her fingers. She takes another bite of her empanada. “What do you want to write?” she asks.

“Uh … ” I say, ‘cause even now, even for me, Rabbit can take some getting used to. “How about ‘learn to draw, genius’?”

She writes: ¿how about learn to draw genus?

“Perfect,” I say.

She smiles, licks the paint from her fingers. I take her hand and we walk.

#

He sold for two dollars fifty-­six cents at the flea market down by the harbor to an old Boston widow who had spent some time in the East in her youth. She declared his “uncanny resemblance to a certain native friend of my husband’s, before the Crimean,” and kept him in her drawing room. The company widows she invited to tea would sometimes admire him and laugh, after a few fingers of brandy, over the size of his hands.

“Just feel him crying.”

New words, a new voice. He sees the girls for the first time, indistinct and blurred, like he imagines dreams must feel. Peya and a new one, younger and stranger.

Crying? I cannot cry, thinks the prince. He blinks and they’re gone.

He recalls the basement of a warehouse by a creek that smelled of ammonia and burned sugar. His companions were rats and dust and the occasional garter snake. Years passed there; he did not mark them.

Here, in the now, now, fuck that, when can I get out of this goddamn city? What’s happened to the Way out of Borderland? the prince tastes salt on his tongue.

#

I buy all three communication charms left in that bucket and then ask Poplar if she has any more in back.

Poplar takes the red and green sucker from her lips and con­siders. I’ve never been able to figure if Poplar changes her suckers to match her hair, or her hair to match her suckers. “You know they don’t work, right?” she says, a little pityingly. Elves tend to get that way when humans show an interest in magic.

Rabbit’s off playing with a bucket of live newts by the register, so I can’t turn to her for corroboration. Even Truebloods like Poplar tend to give Rabbit a hearing.

“Why you selling ’em, then?”

Poplar shrugs and sticks the sucker back in her mouth. “Trader came by with a basket of trinkets. I liked his look, and … ” She trails off, lets the wrapped paper end hang loose. She tilts her head and stares into the distance, and for a moment she looks very Queen of the Hidden Lands, which is not at all her style.

“He was an elf,” says Rabbit from beside me. I never saw her move, and maybe she didn’t. “But not from around here.”

I think of Grandmama—she’s a little girl, not a prophet. But how much of that is denial?

Poplar inclines her head and smiles a millimeter. “You see the trader, lovey?”

“Just his shape. He glows like the Border.”

“Funny thing,” Poplar says. “Seems like we got two Borders now.”

“I heard no one can get out of the city past the Borderlands,” I say.

Poplar nods. “I tried to get out myself—”

“To the Realm?” I ask, surprised. Poplar doesn’t look like the type with elf parents to welcome her back for Beltane, but then you never know.

“To go to the World,” she says, entirely without inflection. “Bounced back. Not like I hit a wall, just like … I forgot how to find it. I forgot my own name for a while, until I fetched up outside of Danceland.”

“You have the rest of that box?” I ask, on impulse.

Poplar takes a sharp bite of the sucker and observes its cracked-­moon half while she chews. “What’s left should be in that bucket. He said the postcard had a transformation charm. And the pink wand with the streamers is some sort of conjure spell. I’ll give you three for one.”

Rabbit and I dig around the bucket for another ten minutes, but we only find three: two holographic postcards of an oak tree and one pink wand.

“Seriously?” I say, frowning at them.

“Better put that wand in a bag, Peya,” Rabbit says.

Okay, seriously.

“Got another sucker?” Rabbit asks as Poplar rings us up.

Poplar reaches under the desk and slides one across. Pink and yellow. “Every minute,” she says, and laughs to herself as we leave.

#

The Way might be closed forever and the World fallen away, but the prince doubts that anything can get rid of the pigeons. They keep him company at night and leave at dawn, like always. They remind him of the World and of his own crossing to this in­-between city.

He came to Bordertown the way they all do—with a bit of hope, a bit of need, a lot of luck. Unlike most of the runaways who fetch up in Fare-­You-­Well Park, the prince did not even know there was a Borderland to escape to. He merely longed for death, and yet he had never been alive enough to warrant it.

“Someone loved you, old prince,” said the fey trader who came to see him in the auction house. “I can feel her in you still, all these years past.” And after he bought the prince, the man asked, “Where do you want to go? About time you had some say in the matter.”

Away, thought the prince. Far away.

The man considered. “I cannot say you shall like it there, my friend,” he said. “The city is strange to even those it allows. But at least it will be different. And no one will bother you but the pigeons.”

His beloved had called them rock doves, and some mornings she would feed them alongside the ducks of their pond. So he does not mind their shit or their molted feathers. They coo in the mornings and come home at night, smelling of sunshine and earth and the musk of the red, red, river.

#

Mama catches me on my way out the next day. She’s smoking frankincense and sage in a hand­-rolled cigarette, wearing last night’s sequined scarf with her morning kimono, and I think I won’t be getting off so easy.

“Mom tells me you’ve found a boy.”

I shrug. “Pretty much.”

“Is he safe?” Mama asks.

I know her list of forbidden fruit: river rats, halfies, Truebloods, gang members, anyone in a Soho squat, noobs, natives, anyone who smells even a little of magic. Basically, every interesting person in Bordertown.

“Sure,” I say.

“That’s not an answer.”

“It’s not your business.”

Mama takes a resigned puff and blows it out toward the garden. “I did birth you,” she says, like a sigh.

“Younger than I am now,” I say. “Give me some credit, Ma. I know what I’m about.”

“No, you don’t,” she says, “but I guess that’s what life is for. Just promise me you’ll use a condom, all right? And if he has any sores—”

“I’ll make sure he’s clean,” I say hastily. Nothing worse than hearing your mom talk about VD. “And no way I’m getting preg­nant, don’t worry.”

Mama takes a last drag and stubs out the cigarette with a narrow stiletto heel. “You want to leave that one alone, huh?” I sigh. She’s so young, my mom, and needy like a little kid sometimes. “You and Grandmama are the best role models I could have.”

“Sure, keep talking,” she says, with that laugh that brings in half the crowd during her nights at The Dancing Ferret.

I give in and hug her. “I love you,” I say. I lay my head against her neck and breathe that sage and frankincense and honeysuckle smell that is so much my mother. She wraps her arms around me and rocks me back and forth like she has all my life.

Mama has her adoring fans, but she never brings any home. As far as I know, Mama has been celibate since she had to leave my dad sixteen years ago. I think a part of her still hopes he’ll follow her, find the Way to Borderland. I think he’s married or dead or plain old forgotten all about us, because one thing’s for sure: He isn’t ever coming here. After all, he’s had my whole life to try.

“I hope Rabbit’s right,” she says finally, pulling away. “I hope you do find love. There’s no better feeling. It’s what people live for.”

What about you, Mama? I wonder, but the sun is getting higher, and I want as much time with my plaster man as possible. It’s not so safe around there after dark.

“Rumor has it no one can find the Way to Bordertown,” she says, just as I’m about to leave.

“What’s it matter to us?”

Mama lights another cigarette with a shaking hand and looks away. “It’s just …” She takes a drag from the cigarette. “What do you think is happening out there, on the other side? What in the world would make the Way just close like that?”

I don’t have an answer for her, so I say, “You want to sing for a bit in the park?”

She starts to smile, and for a moment I’m sure she’ll agree—Mama lives to sing—but then she closes in on herself again and collapses into the hammock on our front porch.

“I’m … tired, honey. Don’t worry about me. You go fall in love.”

#

The girl Peya can hear him again.

“Will you have sex with me?” she asks for the second time.

He feels surprise, for the first time. How?

“Well,” she says, scrunching up her nose. “I’m working on it. Magic has gotten weirder than usual lately. Everyone’s saying Borderland’s closed in on itself: Humans never could go to the Realm, and now we can’t go to the World, either, so we’re trapped here forever. I don’t know what they’re whining about, personally. I love this city.”

I, too, love this city. This comes out unexpectedly.

Peya grins, true and wide, and though it’s nothing like the smile of his beloved, the quality of delight reminds him of her regardless.

“I knew we were perfect for each other!” Peya says. “Now all I have to do is free you from that pedestal.”

I am a statue.

“Yeah, yeah, but you don’t want to stay that way, right? I mean, you think! You have feelings! It can’t be fun to have birds shitting on you for a few decades.”

If he could have smiled, he would have. Not so bad, he says.

Peya frowns. “Don’t you want to be human, Prince?”

Be human? In some ways, the idea appeals to him. If he were human, he could finally have a death. But if this Peya succeeded in changing him so utterly, would he still hold a piece of his beloved?

I am as she made me, he thinks. I can’t bear to change.

“But you can’t actually like being this way?”

His answer is unhesitating: I hate it.

“I don’t understand,” Peya says.

I love her too much to let go.

“In thirteen days, I’ll fall in love,” Peya says, like a girl mocking her own shadow.

#

There’s more graffiti on the flagstones.

“Bordertown LIVES” again, only this time the letters have gotten blocky and more even, like a stencil. Some of “Bordertown” has been painted with tangled brambles.

“Nice,” I say. “It’s a start.”

Rabbit’s blue paint is still there, but faded and cracked, like it’s been through a dozen rainstorms. She drew it only a few days ago. But that’s magic, I guess.

I wander away from my plaster man and sit on the ground beneath the nearby fountain. I’m not sure what to say to him after yesterday. It’s enough to make me wonder if I want to fall in love at all. First Mama and Grandmama, and now Prince too?

“Does love make everyone nuts?” I mutter to myself, and pick up the dog-­eared copy of my latest book: The Master and Margarita. I thought the cover looked interesting, and I knew I was right when Wolfboy (who owns that bookshop Elsewhere) held it for nearly a minute and eyed me like he was making sure I was worthy of the purchase.

North of me, a bunch of kids are chalking a big mural onto the cracked flagstones. It looks like a maze, the kind where you imag­ine the Minotaur around the corner. I stand up and ask the closest one—a halfie boy who looks about my age, though who knows— if I could borrow a piece of chalk. He tosses a green stick to me without a word. I go back to my fountain and my plaster man and my strange graffiti.

A princess in a tower? I write, because the brambles made me think of the fairy tale. Who’s sleeping? And then, Nice start.

I could just give this up, I think when I return the chalk. Grandmama’s right: Rabbit is just a kid, though she can get posi­tively uncanny at times. Even if it was a prophecy, no one said I had to fulfill it. I could finish my book, help Grandmama teach Rabbit long division, wonder about the Border and the Way with the rest of town, and forget entirely about my plaster prince, so hopelessly in love.

I stuff the book in my patchwork messenger bag and pull out another communication charm. I can feel the magic pulsing inside the plastic eye, the unwound teeth. It says, Speak, speak, listen.

There are two pigeons roosting on Prince’s shoulders. I nod at them, just in case, and set the teeth to chattering.

No one has talked to me so much since she died, he says.

“I think you’re beautiful.”

Of course. I’m a prince of the Orient.

“Is that where you were made?” I ask. “On the Silk Road? In Samarkand?”

No. Northern Pennsylvania.

I blink. “Is that … in the South?”

I do not believe so. It was difficult to get a grasp on geography.

We’re silent for a few minutes. One of the pigeons flies from his shoulder and pecks at the ground near my hand. I don’t have any bread on me; I don’t know why she bothers.

“I think you’re old,” I say, fingering the stylish outline of the painted thorns encircling the name of my home. “I think you’ve been missing her for a long time. And, right, who am I to say that you shouldn’t? You remind me of my mama. The way she talks about love … She says it’s the best feeling in the world, but she won’t let herself have it again. Sixteen years, and my dad’s all she thinks of. She was fourteen when she had me. Her dad, my grand­father, he was a bad man, you know? He beat my mom and my grandmother, and when he found out Mama was pregnant, he chased down my dad and tried to kill him. They ran away. Mama told Dad we were going to Bordertown, told him to find his way there when it was safe, but he never came. Whenever she sings “Another Star,” I swear she hopes she’ll see him in the audience. Sixteen years. I thought that was a long time to wait for someone.”

Perhaps he’ll return.

I snort. “And maybe the elves on Dragon’s Tooth Hill will pass out candy on Allhallows Eve. I think their chance is gone, Prince. I think Mama just holds on to it because she doesn’t know what else to do.”

Prince stays silent. But the chattering teeth are slowing; I can feel the spell winding down.

“I have a deal for you, Prince. I can’t promise anything, but I can try to turn you human for a few hours. We could have sex—you know, if you wouldn’t mind. And maybe you’ll like it? Maybe you’ll find a way to let her go?”

She created me.

“She’s gone.

The spell is fading and twisting, but I catch one last word, and it’s enough for me.

Try.

#

Days pass. The Peya girl comes and goes, but none of her attempted magic does more than brush off his cool plaster. He enjoys her company, but he resigns himself to her failure.

But then one night: “Don’t tell Peya.” It’s the other girl, the one with the silver-shining skin and wild hair, the one they call Rabbit.

Why are you here? he asks, but she doesn’t hear him.

“It’s the last day tomorrow,” she says, worry in her voice that belies her age. “No one knows what’ll happen. I don’t know if it’s a good idea for Peya to fall in love with you, Plaster Man, but she wants it, and this is her last chance.”

The prince wonders if he will miss Peya.

“The wind’s good,” says the girl. “Whoever put you here, they knew this was a deep pocket. Holds the magic tight. So I’m gonna try, but don’t you dare tell Peya. This has to be hers.”

The little girl raises her chin high, keeps her back straight. He thinks she looks like a princess, a queen. Then she opens her mouth. The words aren’t English, so he doesn’t understand them, but he recognizes their power.

Sometime after she begins—more than a minute, but not much—his fingers prick.

He has never felt his fingers before.

Then his arms, then his feet, then his nose and the back of his neck. His previous sensations have only been the most general: the vertigo of being lifted and carried, the jolt of being set back down. But now he throbs, he aches, he burns and burns.

Is this birth? he thinks, but he cannot move or cry or be com­forted as a baby would. He can only feel.

The Rabbit girl keeps speaking; sweat hangs in thick drops from her chin, stains the armpits of her smock. Her deep breaths turn to sharp gasps, but she scrunches her eyebrows, drops to her knees, and gives him her words.

He doesn’t want them. The pain is unbearable. She has decanted his past; years of sadness stream from his eyes, his nose, his ears and mouth. He chokes on it, and he feels the sensation deep in an impossible plaster throat. He strains against himself, he contradicts himself, he will crumble to chalk and die and be grateful for it.

With a cry, the girl collapses to the painted flagstones. The words have fallen with her; the unbearable pain subsides to nothing he has not felt before.

He is still a plaster man, but he feels changed, like she has stuffed his chest full of heart and lungs, his body full of quick­lime blood.

“I’m sorry,” the girl sobs. “I’m so sorry.”

It’s okay. You don’t have to cry.

Eventually she falls asleep, curved like a half moon beneath him.

#

We find Rabbit at dawn, asleep beneath my plaster man. He’s as clean as a new-made penny. She’s drooling on the flagstones.

“Are you all right, honey?” Grandmama asks, picking her up.

Rabbit glances at me and nods. “Sure, Mama,” she says. “It’ll work out.”

Mama and I share a worried glance. “You don’t want to ask what she’s gotten herself into?” Mama asks. “Smells like magic to me.”

Grandmama sucks her teeth. “Oh, hush, child. Can’t you see she’s exhausted? We can hash out the whys and wherefores later.”

We take her home. She sleeps most of the way back, but when Grandmama lays her on the bottom bunk of our bed, she opens her eyes and tugs on my shirt.

“I’m sorry, Peya,” she says, and a few tears leak out the sides of her eyes. “I tried. I thought the magic was deep enough, but it didn’t go all the way. It just wouldn’t move. I tried.”

I had wondered what Rabbit was doing beneath my plaster man, but I didn’t want to say so in front of Mama and Grandmama. I make sure they’re out of earshot and lean down. “What did you do, Rabbit?” I ask.

“Tried to make him for you,” she says. “It’s the thirteenth day.”

I had forgotten that somehow during the frantic search when Rabbit didn’t come home. Now it sinks like lead in my stomach. But I force a smile and brush her forehead with my hand. “Don’t worry, bunny,” I say. “I can wait a bit longer to fall in love.”

I steal three biscuits on my way out the door.

Grandmama sees, but she just raises an eyebrow. “Don’t sup­pose you know anything about what Rabbit was doing out there,” she says from her perch on the porch swing. Mama is sleeping on the hammock.

“Yeah,” I say. You don’t lie to Grandmama.

“You care to tell me?” she asks in that way that isn’t really a question.

“Tomorrow,” I say. “Just let me wait till tomorrow.”

“It’s the thirteenth day,” Mama says, a sleepy voice from deep inside the hammock.

I can hear cicadas buzzing as the morning heats, can smell the bloom of honeysuckle on the bushes alongside the road. Honey­suckle doesn’t bloom anywhere in Bordertown but here in Parkside, and I swear we have our own symphony orchestra of cicadas.

“Let the girl fall in love if she can,” Mama says.

Grandmama rolls her eyes. “Althea, you need to learn how to fall out of it.”

“Leave me alone, Ma. We all know how you feel about Derek. I just believe different, that’s all.”

You believe in a fairy tale, I think, a little angry, because even if I’ve never met him, he’s still my dad, and I believed Mama for years when she told me he’d come back for us.

Grandmama shrugs and turns to me. “Take some of the tea with you, Peya. The fridge is out again, and we can’t drink it all.”

There’s a work of art on the flagstones by the time I get back to Fare-­You-­Well Park.

“Bordertown LIVES,” nearly as tall as I am, a blocky, interconnected graffiti scrawl. And intertwined with the words are a hundred faces: elfin, human, halfie. I recognize a few of them: Dancer, proprietress of Danceland; Poplar; the elfin artist Camphire; even that kid Orient and his elfin friend who died a while back. I realize, as I look at it, that what I had assumed was regular graffiti has been some strange magic all along. Even in Bordertown, it would be impossible for someone to paint some­thing this intricate, this meaningful in the hour I’ve been away.

That means magic. No surprise, really. But then I see some­thing small painted in the corner.

A signature.

Cash in Hand, Detroit, Michigan

“You painted this in the World?” I whisper.

The blue message I got Rabbit to scrawl more than a week ago is still there, though so faded I have to squint and pray to make out the words. But in fresher paint, someone has scrawled beneath:

I learned to draw.

I hope I’ll see you soon

—Cash

Cash. A boy’s name, I think, though you can never tell in this town. I wonder how he knows these faces. Has he been here, or is he waiting out in the World, hoping to get in?

There’s some chalk in my bag. I put it there a few days ago, but the spell that called for the circle worked about as well as all the other spells I tried to turn the plaster man human. I pull it out, fall to my knees, and write:

Ask for Peya Windbreaker, daughter of Althea, daughter of Lillian. Or just ask where to find the best buttermilk biscuits in Parkside.

I lean against my plaster man’s legs, take a bite of Grandmama’s raise­-the-­dead biscuits, and wait.

#

Come sunset, the earth begins to move. Peya doesn’t feel it, drowsing a little by his booted feet. But then, she’s human, and he’s a creature of many magics. The movement isn’t physical, not quite, but it’s a changing, and it is felt as deeply by those with the senses to mark it as any earthquake or hurricane would be in the World.

“Prince,” she says, levering herself to her knees. “Would you mind if I tried one last time?” She has run out of those chattering teeth that let him speak to her, but he tries to nod regardless. His muscles seem to tense, but he is as still as ever.

I am a statue, he wants to tell these stubborn girls. I’ll never be anything more.

Peya pulls out the postcard of a tree, the one that seems to leap off the page and into the world if she holds it in the right light. She tried this once before, but though he felt the magic surge through him like electricity going to ground, his aspect did not change. “What have I got to lose?” she says, mostly to herself.

She shakes out her thick hair and flashes the tree at him. “Prince,” she says. “I wish to transform you. From inanimate to animate.”

The earth moves; the magic strikes; he steps off the pedestal.

“Oh,” says Peya. The postcard—now a simple two­-dimensional image of a cat—flutters to the ground.

“It worked?” says the prince, and so he knows that it did. His skin is still the color of a duck egg, but it feels like skin. His clothes conceal a true body beneath. He is not human, and he will never be. But he has always been something more than a statue.

Peya stands on her toes and kisses him.

He has never done this before, but something in him quickens at her touch, and he recalls why she longed to animate him in the first place. “Shall we do it here?” he asks.

“On the Green?” She looks around, sees that everyone is gone. She shrugs. “Why not?”

The spells—both hers and Rabbit’s—have cleansed and remade him. There’s no more pigeon shit on his shoulders, no more mud on his legs. The grief inside him has drained away. As he lowers Peya to the grass, as he gently removes her clothes and watches in wonder as she removes his, he wishes more than anything to see his beloved. But the grief passes clean through.

He thinks only of Peya when they make love.

#

I lie in the grass, my hand entwined with his plaster-­pale one. He’s warm, which you wouldn’t expect from how he looks. I am languid and content and contemplative.

But I’m not in love.

“There’s one last spell,” I say, looking up at the sky. There are lights in it, pinks and blues and purples, not quite like fireworks and not quite like stars. I wonder if Rabbit’s thirteenth day means something more than just my deflowering. I wonder if something is happening to Bordertown.

“Spell?” Prince says softly.

“Like the teeth I used to talk to you. It’s a conjure wand, sup­posedly. Would you like it?” I ask.

“I could call up anything I like?”

“You could try.”

Prince sucks in air and blows it out noisily, like someone still amazed they have a breathing passage. His breath smells like the inside of a limestone cave, of damp and cool stone. “I would like that very much,” he says.

I slip my shirt back on as I walk to my bag. The wand looks as silly now as it did when I pulled it out of the bucket, but Prince takes it reverently. He’s just as beautiful naked. His clothes look like plaster casts that fell on the grass, but when I touch them, I can feel the embroidery, the fraying hemlines.

Magic is a funny thing.

“Thank you, Peya,” he says. “And thank Rabbit, too.”

“Prince, what are you—”

“I conjure death,” he says.

A woman rises from the earth.

#

His beloved had a terrible voice, but she would sing sometimes when they were alone together. Dirty songs that she overheard in the harbor market or old Irish ballads that her mother had taught her. She sings one now, and her voice is still terrible, and her voice breaks his heart.

“The pipes, the pipes are calling,” she croaks.

To his surprise, however, a stronger voice joins hers, catching the stumbles, bearing up the song.

“From glen to glen, and down the mountainside.”

He doesn’t know why his beloved sings, only that it seems she has come for him. He cries tears of sediment and lime; he has longed for this since that summer behind the velvet drape, since the wails upstairs told him she was dead. “Please, please, please,” he says as she folds him in her arms.

She cries, too. Eventually her voice stops altogether, leaving only Peya’s.

His beloved lifts his living chin, stares deep into his weeping eyes, kisses his soft lips. She feels more solid with every passing second. Peya’s voice fades. He last hears “’tis I’ll be here in sun­shine or in shadow,and then it’s only the voice of his beloved in that place where the dead go when they have lived enough to die.

#

Plaster dust cakes the grass and slides between my toes. I don’t mind. I’m crying, at least half from happiness. My plaster man has found her. His beloved.

The lights in the sky are growing brighter. Even from this deep in the deserted park, I can hear the growing rumble of confusion and alarm that’s gripping the city.

In thirteen days, you’ll lose your virginity and fall in love.

In thirteen days, you’ll kill your prince.

In thirteen days, your home will never be the same.

I tie my skirt more securely around my waist and go hunting for my shoes. I find them upside down on Cash’s mural. I wonder if it’s a play on words. No longer “LIVES” the verb, but “LIVES” the noun.

“Did you find your way here, Cash?” I ask to the empty air.

The streets are mad by the time I find my way back home. Shouting in the street. Screaming and muffled sobs. I want to know what has happened, and I don’t.

Mama is crying on the porch, rocking back and forth with Rab­bit in her arms. Grandmama is talking to someone in the kitchen. He’s eating a plate of biscuits, which means he’s important. I can only see the back of his tight afro, a smear of red paint forgotten behind his right ear.

My stomach feels like the sky, popping with blues and reds that burn and then linger.

“Thirteen years,” Grandmama says, like she’s repeating something.

“Yes, ma’am,” says the boy. His voice is deep, but I can tell it likes to laugh.

“So you must be one of the first to get through,” she says.

He shrugs. “I’ve tried every year for the last ten,” he says. “Your granddaughter helped me out.”

“Cash?” I hear myself saying. My throat feels too warm, the air too thin.

They turn—even Grandmama didn’t hear me come in. He has paint under his fingernails and a gap between his front teeth.

In thirteen days, Rabbit said, with that look on her face.

“Sit down, honey,” says Grandmama. “There’s news.”

Mama picks herself up, and she and Rabbit take the other two stools and the rest of the biscuits. They tell me what I’ve already half guessed.

Thirteen days here with the Way in and out of Borderland closed meant thirteen years out in the World. Cash was six years old when he first scrawled that childish “Bordertown LIVES” in front of my plaster man.

“When you gave me your name,” he says, “I looked you up. There are message boards on the Internet—I mean, anyway, this thing where people ask for information about friends and loved ones who got stuck on the wrong side of the Border. I found a request posted almost a decade ago from a Derek Thompson in Andalusia, Alabama, asking for any information about his daugh­ter Peya and her mother, Althea. It fit.”

Mama starts crying again. Cash looks down at the table, his Adam’s apple bobbing. I think I know where this is headed, but I can’t ask; I can barely feel my own skin.

He pulls something out of his pocket and pushes it across the table. A photo of a man I’ve never seen but recognize anyway. His arm is around a smiling woman and a smiling little girl. “This is his family,” Cash says softly. “His wife sent me the photo when I tracked her down. Turns out Derek Thompson died last year. A heart attack. The girl in that photo is about twenty now.”

Mama gets up from the table so abruptly that her stool falls with a clatter.

“And why the hell didn’t that damn fool come here when he promised? When the Way here was wide open and all I wanted was him to walk it? He had to go and start some other family?” She storms upstairs.

I half stand to follow her, but Grandmama just shakes her head and Rabbit puts her head on my shoulder.

“It’s okay, honey. Leave her for now.”

Cash swallows again. “I’m so sorry to have to tell you all this.”

“No,” Grandmama says firmly. “We’re glad to have you, and we’re grateful for the news. You want some tea? Rabbit, fetch him some tea. I’ll see if that arugula isn’t ready yet in the garden. You look like you’d fall over if someone pushed you.”

Cash and I stare at the table, awkward and suddenly alone.

“What did all that mean?” I ask, daring a glance up at him. “‘Bordertown lives’?”

He blushes, or at least I’m pretty sure he does. “It’s an under­ground thing. After a while, people thought Bordertown had disappeared forever, gone back into Faerie, you know. People who didn’t think so would scrawl that on the sides of buildings. I wondered if my stuff was somehow showing up in Bordertown…. That paint was so weird, but I wasn’t sure until I got your message.”

“That mural is amazing, you know,” I say. “How did you find all those faces?”

“Message boards. People who’d been here would put up drawings, poems, stories about what they’d seen here. I just col­lected it.”

I shake my head. “And I thought I didn’t understand the World before.”

“It’s all right,” he says. “It’s nothing important.”

I lean into the ivy on the table and look up at him. My heart feels strange, like someone’s pumped it full of helium and stabbed it through.

“You wanna go dancing?” I ask, at the same time he says, “Sorry about your dad.”

“I never knew him,” I say. “Mama thinks he was a good guy, probably was, but he never came to find us. It’s … weird. That’s all.”

“I’d love to dance, Peya,” he says, very formally, and for a mo­ment he reminds me of my plaster man.

Rabbit wanders back in with the tea as we’re standing to leave.

“Grandmama says to give you this,” she says, and hands me a condom. Cash’s eyes get a little round, but to his credit he doesn’t say anything when I stuff it into the deep pocket in my skirt.

“Thanks, bunny,” I say.

But Rabbit looks at me a little sadly. “Did he say goodbye?” she asks.

I nod. “And he thanked you. It all worked, in the end.”

Her grin could light the sky. “I liked Prince. I’m glad.”

“I liked him, too.”

Cash looks slantwise at me when we step into the street. “What was that about?”

I take a deep breath: honeysuckle and dirt and our neighbors’ twenty-­four-­hour stew. Home.

“Oh, just thirteen years,” I say.

He may know the World, but I know this city. I take his hand; we go dancing.

 

© 2011 by Alaya Dawn Johnson.
Originally published in Welcome to Bordertown,
edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner, with an Introduction by Terri Windling,
published by Random House, May 2011.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Bordertown and the Borderlands were created by Terri Windling, with creative input from the authors of the previous stories and novels in the Borderland series, as well as Mark Alan Arnold (co-editor, Volumes 1 & 2) and Delia Sherman (co-editor, Volume 4).  The “Borderland” setting is used in these stories by permission of Terri Windling. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Alaya Dawn Johnson

Alaya Dawn JohnsonAlaya Dawn Johnson is the author of Moonshine, a vampire novel set in the Lower East Side of 1920′s New York City. She has also written Racing the Dark and The Burning City, the first two books of a YA fantasy trilogy called The Spirit Binders. She came to Bordertown through the books of Emma Bull, Steven Brust, Charles de Lint and others, which eventually lead her to discover the magical world they had all shared. She grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC and dreamed of life in a real city until she finally escaped to New York. She can be contacted via her website, www.alayadawnjohnson.com.

3 Responses »

  1. A wonderful tale with a nice hook. I like the working of the gap in publishing time into the actual timeline of the story world. The characters live, the story flows, the magic is marvelous. Rabbit begs to have more stories written of her.

    And it left my mouth watering for some fresh-from-the-oven buttermilk biscuits!

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