From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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Fiction

Black,Their Regalia

"Black, Their Regalia" by Darcie Little Badger (art by Emily Osborne)

Outside, the quarantine train was unblemished white. Where its tracks skirted populated regions, barbed wire and warning signs—DANGER! ¡PELIGRO! INFECTIOUS MATERIALS! ¡SUSTANCIAS INFECCIOSAS!—discouraged trespassers from marking the cars with spray paint.

The interior was another story. In her cabin, a narrow sleeper with four beds (one for Screaming Moraine, one for Fiddler Kristi, one for Drummer Tulli, and one for their carry-on luggage, several densely packed grocery bags, and an electric violin), Tulli found graffiti scrawled near her upper bunk.

Amber Smythe was here

I LOVE JON HUYNH

Kallie + Brett + Austin Klark August 17-18

FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL THE CDC

god help us

Tulli fished a leather-piercing needle from her sewing kit. With marks like spider silk, she etched: The Apparently Siblings rode the White Train

Tulli, Moraine, and Kristi were only siblings in the spiritual way; their band name was a response to all the strangers who asked, “Are you triplets?”

When she felt thorny—so almost always—Kristi responded, “Because Natives look alike? No. Well. We might have the same great-uncle. He gotta reputation.”

“Hey! Tulli! Are you defacing the train?” Moraine shouted, as if she couldn’t hear him across three feet of recirculated air. “Don’t write our names! I’d rather not pay a fine.”

“Uh oh. I wrote our band name already.”

“Don’t worry,” Kristi said. “There’s no chance anybody will recognize it.”

So the Apparently Sibs weren’t remotely famous, but they’d been off to a promising start before the plague spread. On average, they played four paid shows a month and had sixty followers on Twitter (sixty-three, if you counted their mothers). With enough time, they could have serenaded the right person, signed a contract, and toured the world. Or, at the very least, toured states outside Texas.

Now, their on-stage corpse paint seemed like a premonition. What little humankind knew about the Big Plague pointed to a grim, albeit sluggish, prognosis. The poor souls who carried the strain had a year, more or less. Could be enough time to find a cure. Maybe even enough time to mobilize the largest treatment plan in human history. Unfortunately, some people crashed fast, their nervous systems torn apart.

A rap on the door announced breakfast: oatmeal and tea. The twenty-something, freckled nurse, Jon—is he the Jon of wall graffiti fame, Tulli wondered—prepared the food with automaton efficiency and took their temperatures. Ninety-nine, ninety-eight, one hundred and one point nine. Kristi was running a vigorous fever already.

“Can we do anything to slow her symptoms?” Tulli asked. Like all White Train nurses, Jon was a carrier, immune to the virus but contagious. Lucky: a hazmat suit would obscure the sympathetic crinkles around his eyes.

“Possibly,” he said. “The doctors at Mariposa Compound will do everything they can.” Jon dropped the disposable thermometer tips down a biohazard chute near the door. He hesitated in the exit, gazing beyond Tulli’s head, as if distracted by a memory. “Goodbye, then,” he said. “Call if you need anything.”

During breakfast, Tulli and Moraine hovered over Kristi, prepared to steady trembling hands as she drank lukewarm black tea. Full-body shakes were a late-stage plague symptom, but they begin with subtle tremors, and Kristi shivered when she choked down the dregs in her cup.

“It’s just chilly,” Moraine said, wrapping a black Pendleton blanket around Kristi’s shoulders. “We need sunlight. Open the curtains.”

“Good idea.” Tulli obliged, revealing the yellow desert. There were mountains in the distance and barrel cacti in the foreground. Nearby, a bird’s tattered, desiccated corpse hung from a coil of barbed wire. “You should both have a nap,” she suggested. “Terrible scenery.”

• • • •

The Apparently Siblings first met during the Maria de Soto University Pow Wow and Cake Walk for Charity. As poor college freshmen, they were enticed by the one hundred dollar “best student intertribal dancer” prize, not community togetherness or actual dancing, pinkie swear. Tulli had to scour the boxes in her dorm room to find her neglected dancing regalia: turkey feather fan, knee-high doeskin boots, and thirty-pound jingle dress. It had been years since her last pow wow, and the dress clutched her hips and arms, uncomfortably tight. Do it for money, she thought. And maybe you’ll win a free cake, too. German chocolate would taste so good right now.

That year, the MdSUPWCWC, normally held on the soccer field, was moved to the indoor gymnasium in defiance of sparking, mountainous clouds overhead. The drum group sat in the center circle of the basketball court. They were surrounded by the dancing ring and crowded benches for participants.

Tulli noticed Moraine on the bench next to hers. Under the vibrant red fringe and sunset-colored beadwork that covered his grass dancer regalia, he resembled somebody in her music composition class, the kid who always answered Dr. Brumford’s rhetorical questions.

“Are you a music student at de Soto?” she asked.

“Yeah!” He lowered his Navajo taco to shake her hand. “I’m Moraine, like the glacial deposit. That’s a well-crafted jingle dress.”

“Thanks. My mom made it.”

“Blue suits you.”

“Maybe, but I wanted black and orange. Halloween colors. Mom hates the holiday.”

“Mine does, too! She thinks focusing on death and gloomy junk attracts evil.”

“My mom says I have ghost sickness.”

“What?”

“A mental shroud, a preoccupation with death, a fearful obsession that manifests as physical illness and psychic anguish. So basically I’m haunted because my favorite movie is Ringu.”

Moraine laughed.

“What if it’s real, though?” Tulli asked.

“You believe in the supernatural?”

Tulli shrugged. “I’m skeptical, but Moms have been right before.”

“Let’s test it. My throat hurts, and you’re wearing a jingle dress.”

“Okay?”

“Jingle dancing is supposed to heal people, right?”

“Maybe. It healed at least one person. Like a hundred and fifty years ago. Reputedly. An Ojibwe girl, I think? Dunno, man.” Jingle dresses, draped with hollow silver cones, clang with every leap. Tulli loved their rhythm, that’s all. She knew zilch about the origin of the dance, its significance. Not like they taught that in public school.

“Try to heal me,” Moraine insisted. “I want to believe.”

A young woman—fancy shawl dancer, her regalia cluttered with shades of yellow and pink—stepped between Tulli and Moraine. “First,” she said, “ghosts are real. They look like shadows, and your jingle dress test doesn’t prove anything. Actually, it’s borderline offensive, so don’t let respectable people hear you. Second: I think you’re both in my music composition class. Hey. I’m—”

“Kristi,” Moraine said. “Yeah, I know! Great to officially meet you!”

They spent the pow wow arguing about ghosts—Moraine insisted that the shadowy figures Kristi saw at night were symptoms of sleep paralysis, Kristi thought he was just scared of the unfathomable truth, and Tulli remained noncommittal. However, they didn’t annoy each other too much, so friendship inevitably blossomed.

None of them won the competition. That prize went to a hoop dancer math major.

Five years later, Tulli truly loved her buddies. She couldn’t envision better people to live with. To die with.

Hopefully, the death part would take its sweet time.

• • • •

The White Train’s mechanical heartbeat, a low whir that sounded nothing like the chug, chug, chug in movies, was punctuated by Tulli’s fingers drumming on the windowsill and her steel-toed boots tapping the vinyl floor. They were nearing the Mojave Desert, where several compounds, including Mariposa, treated high-threat contagious citizens away from the lucky uninfected.

Kristi’s reflection appeared in the glass, her wide eyes transposed over the cloudless sky. The Pendleton fell in a heap at her feet.

“Sorry, Hon,” Tulli said, turning. “Did my drumming disturb you?”

“My dream . . .” Kristi pointed to a silhouette that cut the white-blue sky with long, sharp wings. “She was in my dream.”

“That’s just a turkey vulture. Strange. I didn’t know they lived here. Don’t quote me on that before I Google it, though. Go back to—”

“She sent them. They’re her children, vultures. Eating . . . eating sick, old meat. To help make the world clean.”

“What? Whose children?”

“The Plague Eater.” With a sleepwalker’s drowsy gait, Kristi stumbled back to bed, pulling the cotton sheet up to her chin and murmuring something about dancing. Tulli tucked the Pendleton over her friend.

“What?” Moraine asked, waking. “Did Kristi have a nightmare? Must be exciting. I’d love to experience her brain for just one REM cycle.”

“Nightmares aren’t pleasant, last I checked.”

“Better than the tedious junk I experience. This time, I dreamed of notes in the major key.”

“You’re a true musician, Moraine.”

“Guess I’ll try again.” He pulled the sheets up to his chin. “Hey.”

“Yeah?”

“Keep an eye on her, okay?”

“I promise.”

Once her friends drifted off to sleep, Tulli sat on the end of Kristi’s bunk and held her hand. The muscles in her long fingers—a violinist’s fingers, spidery and dexterous—tensed, relaxed, and tensed. Her livelihood, if not her life, was rapidly expiring.

Where were the powers their mothers swore by? The great forces that heal faithful children and make bodies strong? “I’ll do anything,” Tulli whispered. “You just need to ask.”

In the silence that followed, she chuckled. The Apparently Siblings reveled in gallows humor. It was much nicer than weeping.

Later, as the train chugged through Mariposa Compound, it passed rows of white barracks with slatted pitch roofs. Laundry lines, sun-bleached plastic toys, and potted plants cluttered the residential grounds. The train stopped between sprawling, nearly identical facilities. To the right: a hospital. To the left: a community center. Beyond them were convenience shops, the kindergarten to twelfth-grade school, a computer lab, a library, and a cafeteria. Tulli had memorized her compound map during the trip, knew where every facility was located. Where she and her siblings would live. Where they would be treated. Where they could eat, rehearse, and hang out. Where they would be memorialized, if the plague consumed them.

Nurse Jon helped load their bags on a trolley. “I have to ask something,” he said. “Are you three related?”

“Because we look alike?” Kristi asked.

“Excuse me, Miss. I don’t meet many goths.”

“You’re my new favorite person, Jon,” Tulli said. “Our style is closer to neoclassical alt-metal fusion than goth.”

“Here’s why I asked,” Jon said. “They house men and women separately in Mariposa Compound unless you’re family or dating.”

Moraine shook his head. “I see,” he said. “We have the same great-uncle. Will that do? I can’t convincingly pretend to date a woman.”

“Hopefully. Good luck, you three.” Jon escorted them outside, stealing a breath of fresh air before ducking back into the White Train.

Thanks to their apocryphal great-uncle, the Apparently Siblings shared a bedroom that was originally designed for one patient. Imperceptibly tinier than their efficiency apartment in McAllen, the close quarters did not bother Tulli. At least they had a window. Granted, it overlooked a blank white wall, one of the neighboring barracks.

“The internet broke again,” Kristi said, prodding her laptop. She’d been bedridden for three days, shivering under her covers and racing to finish her memoirs before the illness made typing impossible. “I’m supposed to call my parents in twenty minutes.”

“There’s a landline in the common area,” Moraine said.

“I want to see them.”

Tulli peered out the window, her back to the other siblings. During sunset, the blank wall resembled a cool flame: vivid orange, blushing darker, slipping into shadow. “How’s your family doing?” she asked.

“Still healthy, but worry will kill ’em before any virus, at this rate,” Kristi said.

Orange became rust, red, black. Tulli rapped a shrill toy drum she borrowed from the K to 12 music room. Pacing, Moraine hummed the tune he dreamed on the White Train. Kristi finished her memoirs with a discontented sigh. At nightfall, they all climbed into bed. Breakfast ended at nine sharp, and the meal lines got longer every day. “What’s the opposite of a vampire?” Moraine asked. “‘Cause I feel like one. It’s unnatural, this early-to-bed schedule.”

Tulli pretended to be asleep. If she responded, Moraine would chatter well into late-night-early-morning. The last time that happened, they overslept and missed both breakfast and lunch. She could hear Kristi shifting, shuddering, contorting under the Pendleton blanket with whispering shif, shif, shifs. Plague-triggered muscle spasms: most people called them slow death throes. It was like a dance, a terrible dance.

In the hypnagogic realm between awake and asleep, where dreams poisoned reality, a shadow stood proudly against the wall. It possessed eyes: unblinking, round, yellow eyes with pupils that swallowed Tulli’s soul, two points of space-time singularity from which nothing could escape.

Drumbeats rang—rap, RAP, rap—and the shadow began to spin. It revolved clockwise around the walls, and when the circle was completed, a final, thunderous rap rang out, punctuated by the sound of breaking glass.

Tulli leapt to her feet; the window near her bed had cracked. Cautiously, she peeked outside. “Whoa!” A wake of turkey vultures stumbled drunkenly below the window, stunned by their impacts against the glass. One by one, they alighted, until all that remained were three tail feathers piled in the dust.

“Hyuh!” Moraine said, patting his pillow-ruffled punk pompadour. “I just had the worst case of sleep paralysis.”

Kristi, wrapped in black wool, said, “It was a dancing ghost. Unless you believe in shared hallucinations?”

“What about shared visions?” Tulli asked. “Guys. This may be our jingle dance moment. I think we’ve been chosen.”

“By whom?” Moraine said.

“No idea. Hold your imperious retort while I grab those feathers.”

As Tulli entered the alley, she heard a radio muttering through a neighbor’s cracked window. The static-thickened voice said, “I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death.” Tulli was not religious, but, as a fan of horror movies and the novel Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, she knew all about the four horsepeople of the Apocalypse, color- and noun-themed riders who emerged during the End Times.

The moon was full and high, its light spilling into the alley between barracks. When the radio preacher concluded, “. . . to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth,” Tulli pressed the turkey vulture feathers over her eyes, blocking the obnoxious white globe. They were so dark, Tulli wondered if their vanes devoured more light than the blackest material on Earth, a forest of carbon nanotubes constructed by Japanese scientists, her personal STEM heroes.

“Not today, Apocalypse,” she said.

Inside, Moraine and Kristi were fussing. Nostalgia washed over Tulli; she thought about the day they met. How little things changed, even when everything changed.

“The virus causes hallucinations when it damages the temporal lobe,” Moraine said. “Shadows are common.”

“We all saw a woman spinning around our bedroom as turkey vultures smacked rhythmically into the window.”

“Okay. Sure. What makes you believe she was teaching us a special dance?”

“Powerful dances come from visions. That’s what my mother taught me. That’s what her mother taught her. That’s how I know what I know.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way: if your ancestors knew powerful dances, why aren’t we ruling the world right now?”

“We’re holding our own,” Tulli interrupted.

“And dying,” he said.

“The whole world is dying. Seems like the perfect time for higher powers to reawake. You’re a singer. I’m a drummer. Kristi is a dancer . . . until her hands work again. We’re going to respect the vision that danced across our wall tonight. What’s the worst that could happen?”

“Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing would be the very worst,” Kristi agreed.

“Right. Nothing. Moraine, I’m scared of nothing right now.”

He bit his lip, contemplative. “All right. Let’s get started, Ladies. Kristi needs regalia. What was the vision dancer wearing?”

“A dress?” Kristi said. “And a shawl? It’s hard to tell. The whole thing was a shadow.”

“A shadow . . .”

They needed black fabric. Lots of it.

The first flier the Apparently Siblings pinned to the community message board was short and informative:

BLACK FABRIC NEEDED FOR A DANCE CEREMONY!

Hόόyíí! Please consider donating used clothes, thread, buttons, etc. A collection box is outside our door (Barrack 19, Room 3). FYI: you won’t need mourning suits once we destroy the virus with sick (but not actually sick) rhythm and motion. 😀 Cheers! Tulli+Moraine+Kristi of Apparently Siblings fame

The flier only attracted one donation, a pair of black wool socks. Somebody also offered to DJ their “plague prom.” Undeterred, they tried again:

BLACK FABRIC NEEDED

Hόόyíí! We are Apache/Navajo. Ceremonial dances have social and religious power in our communities. For example, we dance to honor veterans, win cakes, and appeal to grand forces. It’s a fact! Please help us perform a dance for community wellness. Leave used black clothing outside Barrack 19, Room 3. Thank you, bless you, and thank you again! Tulli+Moraine+Kristi

In came donations of lace-trimmed dresses, conservative blouses, and skirts: outfits made from silk, cotton, polyester, and rayon blends that were dyed every conceivable shade of black.

First, Tulli and Moraine crafted the dress with cotton and synthetic scraps, stitching a patchwork skin over Kristi’s body, its voluminous skirt trimmed by lace and tulle from mourning veils.

Next, they made her ankle-high moccasins by taping faux leather from a wannabe motorcycle jacket around her flip-flops. “I know we’re amateurs, but I’d look better wearing garbage bags on my feet,” Kristi said.

“They have charm,” Moraine promised.

“What will we do about the shawl?” she asked. “The ghost was definitely wearing one.”

“Voilà!” Tulli draped the black Pendleton blanket around Kristi’s shoulders. “All it needs is fringe. I’ll start shredding socks.”

As the pièce de résistance, Tulli fashioned three hair clips from the tail feathers. She thanked the turkey vultures; from rachis to barbed vane, their gifts held the plague eater’s blessing. Plus, those vultures had kicked her off the fence straddling belief and denial. Cathartes species didn’t live in the Mojave Desert; Tulli absolutely knew their territory because she Googled “where do turkey vultures live” after Kristi noticed one outside the White Train. Indeed, those birds were scientific proof of the supernatural; they had to be sent by powers greater than nature: spirits, ghosts, gods. All of the above?

“Are you ready?” she asked, pinning the blue-black feather to Kristi and the brown-black feather to Moraine.

“Shouldn’t we practice?” he asked. “I’ve only heard this song in my head. What if I can’t hit the high notes?”

“No time. The virus ruins lives every hour. Plus, Kristi’s boots are falling apart, and we won’t find another free motorcycle jacket. Do you want to scrap your leather pants, Buddy? It’s now or never.”

As the Apparently Siblings marched outside, turkey vulture groupies landed on the barrack rooftops. Neighbors peered out windows and gathered in dirt streets to marvel at the birds. Some people leaned against canes or shivered atop wheelchairs, their faces tilted skyward. “They think we’re carrion!” a man said, laughing at his own gallows joke. Nobody else would.

“Follow us!” Moraine shouted. “To the memorial courtyard!”

The vultures—two, three, four dozen—swooped from their perches and hopped-waddled-hobbled after the Apparently Siblings, their wings spread for balance. Draped from head to toe in black, Kristi led the procession, supported by her two friends. With the setting sun at their backs, their shadows stretched ahead of them and parted the light that fell against the glittering white stones in the circular courtyard. A pillar—white marble, nine feet high—jutted from the belly of the courtyard. Its bronze plaque read: IN MEMORIAM. Already, several names had been etched into the base of the pillar, but there remained room for thousands on its blank faces: one canvas that Tulli hoped would remain empty. She crouched against the eastward-facing side and beheld the night encroaching.

“What’s with the birds? Everybody go inside! Back to your rooms, please!”

Was that security speaking? A doctor or administrator? Though the voice was magnified by a bullhorn, Tulli could not see its source beyond the wall of spectators and turkey vultures that surrounded her.

“On my count,” she said, drumstick raised. “Káye, dáki, táłi!”

“What?” Moraine asked.

“Sorry. That was Lipan. Um, what’s the Diné word for three?”

“Just use English,” he said.

“Three, two, one!”

Moraine sang in clear, deep vocables; it had been ages since Tulli heard his voice without a hint of guttural death growl. Stunned, she nearly missed her entrance. The first beat on her toy drum cracked like a whip.

Rap!

Even with a bullhorn, the security-doctor-administrator could not overwhelm Moraine.

Rap, RAP, rap!

Tulli’s drum spoke of healing and hunger.

Rap!

Kristi spread her arms and began to spin as she orbited around the memorial pillar, clockwise. By the second loop, she staggered more than she spun; every successive loop was smaller, closer to the pillar, as if it drew her in. On the fifth, she fell and crawled.

“Almost done!” Tulli shouted.

RAP!

The ground crumbled, and darkness enveloped their world, a darkness so absolute, even phosphenes vanished. As if drawn together by organic magnetism, Tulli, Moraine, and Kristi found each other and linked arms as they fell. “Are we dead?” Moraine hollered.

“I feel great,” said Kristi, “so probably.”

“Do you see that?” Tulli asked. “Below us!”

Two arms lit by their own radiance—glowstick-bright bones illuminating muscle, veins, and flesh with cool red light—sprouted from the abyss; their skin was rough with pox scars, their nails curled like talons. The Apparently Siblings landed on one pillowy, massive palm.

“Children,” a hoarse, tooth-rattling voice said, “I enjoyed the performance.” It came from everywhere, as if the void spoke.

“Thank you!” Tulli rolled into a sitting position; she’d landed gracelessly. They all had. “Are you its composer? Are you the one who gave us visions?”

“I am.”

“It’s an honor. May I ask, um . . .”

“Why?” Kristi interrupted. “There are lots of decent people on Earth, so why choose us instead?”

“Because,” the void said, “I am your biggest fan. Apparently Siblings, when you scream in dim places, I listen, and I relish what I hear.”

So they did serenade the right person. Tulli knew it would happen eventually, though she’d expected a human talent scout. “Will . . . you help?” she asked. “Help make us and everybody else healthy again?”

The temperature dove from chilly to Alaska winter cold. Even Kristi, with her wool shawl and patchwork dress, shivered. “From the world Above,” boomed everywhere Below, “I take the Big Plague, drink its coils, and sate my hunger. The virus is now just a troubled memory. Make no mistake: you’ll all die eventually. Heheh. Mortals always perish. Maybe by illness. Maybe by accident. Maybe by something stranger. It’s not my place to know. When the time comes, I hope you will find me and perform for all the dead, the never-born, and the monstrous who live in my deep country.”

“Woah. Metal. What . . . what are you?” Tulli asked, leaning against her friends for warmth. “A spirit?”

“A ghost?” Kristi asked.

“A god?” Moraine asked. “Or could you be part of a complex delusion? Maybe I’m asleep, and all this has been a nightmare.”

“Just call me Plague Eater. The rest is mystery.” The fingers curled around them. “But I’m definitely not that last guess.”

• • • •

“I have to admit,” Tulli said, “that the White Train is much nicer this time. I even saw Nurse Jon sipping a martini in the dining car. I asked if he wanted an autograph, and he said, ‘No, you left one on the wall.’ What a funny guy. I may really love him.”

Kristi snorted. “Get his number, but don’t invite him home. Our apartment must be rank. We left chili in the sink.”

“Let’s hire a maid after the tour finishes,” said Moraine.

“Maybe even rent a bigger apartment?” Tulli asked.

It had taken a few weeks to check, double-check, and triple-check their blood samples; not a hint of Big Plague remained. In fact, nobody carried the virus anymore, regardless of the bodily fluid or tissue that was screened. Big Plague even vanished from test vials in laboratories and secure government facilities.

Maybe that’s why so many people believed that the Apparently Siblings apparently saved the world. YouTube videos of their performance helped, too: turkey vultures bobbing their naked heads, the dance, song, and drum, a flurry of feathers, an empty courtyard, cheers when the crowd spotted Tulli, Kristi, and Moraine on the medical center rooftop.

In every video, their bodies were perfect silhouettes against the red western sky.

© 2016 by Darcie Little Badger.

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Darcie Little Badger

Darcie Little BadgerDarcie Little Badger is a Lipan Apache scientist, writer, and friendly goth. After studying gene expression in toxin-producing phytoplankton, she received a PhD from Texas A&M University. Her short fiction has appeared in several publications, includingStrange Horizons and Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time, an anthology of speculative fiction by indigenous writers. Darcie tweets as @ShiningComic. For her complete bibliography, visit darcielittlebadger.wordpress.com/my-short-stories.