From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

COSMIC POWERS

Fiction

Virgin of the Sands

Graham came out of the desert leaving most of his men dead behind him. He debriefed, he bathed, he dressed in a borrowed uniform, and without food, without rest, though he needed both, he went to see the girl.

The army had found her rooms in a shambling mud-brick compound shaded by palms. She was young, God knew, too young, but her rooms had a private entrance, and there was no guard to watch who came and went. Who would disturb Special Recon’s witch? Graham left the motor pool driver at the east side of the market and walked through the labyrinth of goats, cotton, chickens, oranges, dates, to her door. The afternoon was amber with heat, the air a stinking resin caught with flies. Nothing like the dry furnace blast of the wadi where his squad had been ambushed and killed. He knocked, stupid with thirst, and wondered if she was home.

She was.

Tentative, always, their first touch: her fingertips on his bare arm, her mouth as heavy with grief as with desire. She knew, then. He bent his face to hers and felt the dampness of a recent bath. She smelled of well water and ancient spice. They hung a moment, barely touching, mingled breath and her fingers against his skin, and then he took her mouth, and drank.

#

“I’m sorry,” she said, after.

He lay across her bed, bound to exhaustion, awaiting release. “We walked right into them,” he said, eyes closed. “Walked right into their guns.”

“I’m sorry.”

She sounded so unhappy. He reached for her with a blind hand. “Not your fault. The dead can’t tell you everything.”

She laid her palm across his, her touch still cool despite the sweat that soaked her sheets. “I know.”

“They expect too much of you.” By they he meant the generals. When she said nothing he turned his head and looked at her. She knelt beside him on the bed, barred with light from the rattan blind. Her dark hair was loose around her face, her dark eyes shadowed with worry. So young she broke his heart. He said, “You expect too much of yourself.”

She covered his eyes with her free hand. “Sleep.”

“You can only work with what we bring you. If we don’t bring you the men who know … who knew …” The darkness of her touch seeped through him.

“Sleep.”

“Will you still be here?”

“Yes. Now sleep.”

Three times told, he slept.

#

She had to be pure to work her craft, a virgin in the heart of army intelligence. He never knew if this loving would compromise her with her superiors. She swore it would not touch her power, and he did not ask her more. He just took her with his hands, his tongue, his skin, and if sometimes the forbidden depths of her had him aching with need, that only made the moment when she slid her mouth around him more potent, explosive as a shell bursting in the bore of a gun. And he laughed sometimes when she twisted against him, growling, her teeth sharp on his neck: virgin. He laughed, and forgot for a time the smell of long-dead men.

#

“Finest military intelligence in the world,” Colonel Tibbit-Noyse said, “and we can’t find their blasted army from one day to the next.” His black mustache was crisp in the wilting heat of the briefing room.

Graham sat with half a dozen officers scribbling in notebooks balanced on their knees. Like the others, he let his pencil rest when the colonel began his familiar tirade.

“We know the Fuhrer’s entrail-readers are prone to inaccuracy and internal strife. We know who his spies are and have been feeding them tripe for months.” (There was a dutiful chuckle.) “We know the desert tribesmen who have been guiding his armored divisions are weary almost to death with the Superior Man. For God’s sake, our desert johnnies have been meeting them for tea among the dunes! So why the hell —” the colonel’s hand slashed at a passing fly “—can’t we find them before they drop their bloody shells into our bloody laps?”

Two captains and three lieutenants, all the company officers not in the field, tapped pencil ends on their notebooks and thumbed the sweat from their brows. Major Healy sitting behind the map table coughed into his hand. Graham, eyes fixed on the wall over the major’s shoulder, heard again the rattle of gunfire, saw again the carnage shaded by vulture wings. His notebook slid through his fingers to the floor. The small sound in the colonel’s silence made everyone jump. He bent to pick it up.

“Now, I have dared to suggest,” Tibbit-Noyse continued, “that the fault may not lie with our intel at all, but rather with the use to which it has been put. This little notion of mine has not been greeted with enthusiasm.” (Again, a dry chuckle from the men.) “In fact, I’m afraid the general got rather testy about the quantity and quality of fodder we’ve scavenged for his necromancer in recent weeks. Therefore.” The colonel sighed. His voice was subdued when he continued. “Therefore, all squads will henceforth make it their sole mission to find and retrieve enemy dead, be they abandoned or buried, with an urgent priority on those of officer rank. I’m afraid this will entail a fair bit of dodging about on the wrong side of the battle line, but you’ll be delighted to know that the general has agreed to an increase in leave time between missions from two days to four.” He looked at Graham. “Beginning immediately, captain, so you have another three days’ rest coming to you.”

“I’m fit to go tomorrow, sir,” Graham said.

Tibbit-Noyse gave him a bleak smile. “Take your time, captain. There’s plenty of death to go ’round.”

There was another moment of silence, this one long enough for the men to start to fidget. Healy coughed. Graham sketched the outlines of birds. Then the colonel went on with his briefing.

#

She had duties during the day, and in any event he could not spend all his leave in her company. He had learned from the nomads not to drink until he must. So he found a café not too near headquarters, one with an awning and a boy to whisk the flies, and drank small cups of syrupy coffee until his heart raced and sleep no longer tempted him.

A large body dropped into the seat opposite him. “Christ. How can you drink coffee in this heat?”

Graham blinked the other’s face into focus: Montrose, a second-string journalist with a beefy face and a bloodhound’s eyes. The boy brought the reporter a bottle of lemon squash, half of which he poured down his throat without seeming to swallow. “Whew!”

“We have orders,” Graham said, his voice neutral, “not to speak with the press.”

“Look at you, you bastard. Not even sweating.” Montrose had a flat Australian accent and salt-rimmed patches of sweat underneath his arms. “Or have you just had the juice scared out of you?”

Graham gave a thin smile and brushed flies away from the rim of his cup.

“Listen.” Montrose hunkered over the table. “There’ve been rumors of a major cock-up. Somebody let some secrets slip into the wrong ears. Somebody in intelligence. Somebody high up. Ring any bells?”

Graham covered a yawn. He didn’t have to fake one. The coastal heat was a blanket that could smother even the caffeine. He drank the last swallow, leaving a sludge of sugar in the bottom of the cup, and flagged the boy.

“According to this rumor,” Montrose said, undaunted, “at least one of the secrets had to do with the field maneuvers of the Dead Squad—pardon me—the Special Desert Reconnaissance Group. Which, come to think of it, is your outfit, isn’t it, Graham?” Montrose blinked with false concern. “Didn’t have any trouble your last time out, did you, mate? No unpleasant surprises? No nasty Jerries hiding among the dunes?”

The boy came back, set a fresh coffee down by Graham’s elbow, gave him a fleeting glance from thickly lashed eyes. Graham dropped a couple of coins on the tray.

“How’s your wife?” Graham said.

Montrose sighed and leaned back to finish his lemonade. “God knows. Jerries went and sank the mail ship, didn’t they? She could be dead and I’d never even know.”

“You could be dead,” Graham said, “and she would never know. Isn’t that a bit more likely given your relative circumstances?”

Montrose grunted in morose agreement, and whistled for the boy.

#

He stalled as long as he could, through the afternoon and into the cook-fire haze of dusk, and even so he waited nearly an hour outside her door. When she came home, limp and pale, she gave him a weary smile and unlocked her door. He knew better than to touch her before she’d had a chance to bathe. He followed her through the stuffy entrance hall to the airier gloom of her room. She stepped out of her shoes on her way into the bathroom. He heard water splat in the empty tub. Then she came back and began to take off her clothes.

He said, “I have three more days’ leave.”

She unbuttoned her blouse and peeled it off. “I heard.” She tossed the blouse into a hamper by the bathroom door. “I’m glad.”

He sat in a creaking wicker chair, set his cap on the floor. “There’s a rumor going around about some misplaced intel.”

She frowned slightly as she unfastened her skirt. “I haven’t heard about that.”

“I had it from a reporter. Not the most reliable source.”

The skirt followed the blouse, then her slip, her brassiere, her pants. Naked, she lifted her arms to take down her hair. Shadows defined her ribs, her taut belly, the divide of her loins. She walked over to drop hairpins into his hand.

“Who is supposed to have said what to whom?”

“There were no characters in the drama,” he said. “But if it’s true …”

“If it’s true, then your men never had a chance.”

This close she smelled of woman-sweat and death. His throat tightened. “They had no chance, regardless. Neither do the men in the field now. They’ve sent the whole damn company out chasing dead men.” He dropped his head against the chair and closed his eyes. “This bloody war.”

“It’s probably just a rumor,” she said, and he heard her move away. The rumble from the bathroom tap stopped. Water sloshed as she stepped into the tub. Graham rolled her hairpins against his palm.

Her scent faded with the last of the light.

#

He wished she had a name he could call her by. Like her intact hymen, her namelessness was meant to protect her from the forces she wrestled in her work, but it seemed a grievous thing. She was so specific a woman, so unique, so much herself; he knew so intimately her looks, her textures, her voice; he could even guess, sometimes, at her thoughts; and yet she was anonymous. The general’s necromancer. The witch. The girl. His endearments came unraveled in the empty space where her name should be, so he took refuge in silence, wishing, as much for his sake as for hers, that she had not been born and raised to her grisly vocation. From childhood she had known nothing other than death.

“How can you bear it?” he asked her once.

“How can you?” A glance of mockery. “But maybe no one told you. We all live with death. We all begin to die the instant we are born. Even you.”

He had a vision of himself dead and in her hands, and understood it for a strange desire. He did not put it into words but he knew her intimacy with the dead, with death, went beyond this mere closeness of flesh. Skin slick with sweat-salt, speechless tongues and hands that sought the vulnerable center of being, touch dangerous and tender and never allowed inside the heart, the womb. He pressed her in the darkness, strove against her as if they fought, as if one or both might be consumed in this act without hope of consummation. She clung to him, spilled over with the liquor of desire and still he drank, his thirst for her unslaked, unslakable until she, wet and limber as an eel, turned in his arms, turned to him, turned against him, and swallowed him into sleep.

#

The battle washed across the desert as freely as water unbounded by shores, the war’s tidal wrack of ruined bodies, tanks, and planes left like flotsam upon the dunes. The ancient, polluted city lay between the sea and that other, drier beach, and no one knew yet where the high tide line would be. Already the streets were full of the walking wounded.

Graham had errands to run. His desert boots needed mending, he had a new dress tunic to collect from the tailor—trivial chores that, performed against the backdrop of conflict, reminded him in their surreality of lying with two other men under an overhang that was too small to shelter one, seeing men torn apart by machine gun fire and feeling the sand grit between his molars, feeling the tickle of some insect across his hand, feeling his sergeant’s boot heel drum against his kidney as the man shook, as they all shook, wanting to live, wanting not to die as the others died, wanting not to be eaten as the others were eaten by the vultures that wheeled down from an empty sky and that could not be trusted to report the enemy’s absence, as they were brave enough to face the living when there was a meal at stake. In the tailor’s shop he met a man he knew slightly, a major in another branch of Intelligence, and they went to a hotel bar for beer.

The place looked cool, with white tile, potted palms, lazy ceiling fans, but the look was a lie. Strips of flypaper that hung inconspicuously behind the bar twisted under the weight of captured flies. The major paid for two pints and led the way to an unoccupied table.

“Look at them all,” he said between quick swallows.

Graham grunted acknowledgment, though he did not look around. He had already seen the scattered crowd of civilians, European refugees nervous as starlings under a hawk’s wings.

“Terrified Jerry’s going to come along and send them all back where they came from.” The major sounded as if he rather liked the idea.

The beer felt good going down.

“As I see it,” said the major, “this haphazard retreat of ours is actually going to work in our favor before the end. Think of it. The more scattered our forces are, the more thinly Jerry has to spread his own line. Right now they may look like a scythe sweeping up from the south and west,” the major drew an arc in a puddle of spilled beer, “but they have to extend their line at every advance in order to keep any stragglers of ours from simply sitting tight until we’re at their backs. Any day now they’re going to find themselves overextended, and all we have to do is make a quick nip through a weak spot,” he bisected the arc, “and we’ll have them in two pieces, both of them surrounded.”

“And how do we find the weak spot?”

“Oh, well,” the major said complacently, “that’s a job for heroes like you, not desk wallahs like me.”

Graham got up to buy the next round. When he came back to the table, the major had been joined by another man in uniform, a captain also wearing the “I” insignia. Graham set the glasses down and sat, and only then noticed the looks on their faces.

“I say, old man,” the major said. “Rumor has it your section chief has just topped himself in his office.”

“It’s not a rumor,” the captain said. “Colonel Tibbit-Noyse shot himself. I saw his desk. It was covered in his brains.” He reached for Graham’s beer and thirstily emptied the glass.

#

Major Healy, the colonel’s aide, was impossible to find. Graham tracked him all over Headquarters, but although his progress allowed him to hear the evolving story of the colonel’s death, he never managed to meet up with Healy. Eventually he came to his senses and let himself into Healy’s cubbyhole of an office. The major kept a box of cigarettes on his desk. Graham seldom smoked, but, eaten by waiting, he lit one after another, the smoke dry and harsh as desert air flavored by gunpowder. When Healy came in, not long before sundown, he shouted “Bloody hell!” and slammed the door hard enough to rattle the window in its frame.

Graham put out his dog end in the overcrowded ashtray. Healy dropped into his desk chair and it tipped him back with a groan.

“Go away, captain. I can’t tell you anything and if you stay I might shoot you and save Jerry the bother.”

“Why did he do it?”

Healy jumped up and slammed his fist on his desk. “Out!” The chair rolled back to bump the wall.

“He sent the whole company to die on that slaughter ground and then he killed himself?” Graham shook his head.

The major wiped his face with his palms and went to stand at the window. “God knows what’s in a man’s mind at a time like that.”

“Rumor has it he was the one who spilled our movements to the enemy.” Graham was hoarse from cigarettes and thirst. “Rumor has him doing it for money, for sex, for loyalty to the other side. Because of blackmail, or stupidity, or threats.”

“Rumor.”

“I don’t believe it.”

Healy turned from the window. The last brass bars of light streaked the dusty glass. “Don’t you?”

“Whatever he’d done, I don’t believe he would have killed himself before he knew what had happened to the men.”

“Don’t you?”

“No, sir.”

“If he was a spy, he wouldn’t give a ha’penny damn about the men.”

“Do you believe that, sir?”

Healy coughed and went to the box on his desk for a cigarette. When he saw how few were left he gave Graham a sour look. He chose one, lit it with a silver lighter from his pocket, blew out the smoke in a long thin stream.

“It doesn’t matter what I believe,” he said quietly. “Now give me some peace, will you? I have work to do.”

The sun was almost gone. Graham got up and fumbled for the door.

#

Blackout enveloped the city. Even the stars were dim behind the scrim of cooking smoke that hazed the local sky. Though he might have wheedled a car and driver out of the motor pool, he decided to walk. Her compound was nearly a mile of crooked streets away, and it took all his concentration to recognize the turns in the darkness. Nearly all. He felt a kinship with the other men of his company, men who groped their way through the wind-built maze of dunes and sandstone desert bones, led by a chancy map into what could be, at every furtive step, a trap. He had seen how blood pooled on earth too dry to drink, how it dulled under a skiff of dust even before the flies came. Native eyes watched from dim doorways, and he touched the sidearm on his belt. With the war on the city’s threshold, everyone was nervous.

Her doorway was as dim as all the rest. In the weak light that escaped her room her eyes were only a liquid gleam. She said his name uncertainly and only when he answered did she step back to let him in.

“I didn’t think you’d come.”

“I’m still on leave.” A fatuous thing to say, but it was all he could think of.

She led him into her room where, hidden by blinds, oil lamps added to the heat. The bare space was stifling, as if crowded by the invisible. On her bed, the blue shawl she used as a coverlet showed the wrinkles where she had lain.

“It’s past curfew,” she said. “And …” She stood with her elbows cupped in her palms, barefoot, her yellow cotton dress catching the light behind it. Graham went to her, put his arms about her, leaned his face against her hair. She smelled of tea leaves and cloves.

“Of course you’ve heard,” he said.

“Heard.”

“About the colonel? Tibbit-Noyse’s suicide?”

She drew in a staggered breath and pulled her arms from between them. “Yes.” She returned his embrace, tipped her head to put her cheek against his.

He pulled her tighter, slight and strong with bone, and some pent emotion began to shake its way out of his body. As if to calm him, she kissed his neck, his mouth, her body alive against his. He could not discern if she also shook, or was only shaken by his tension. They stripped each other, clumsy, quick to reach the point of skin on skin. She began to kneel but he caught her arms and lifted her to the bed.

#

He came closer than he ever had to ending it. Weighing her down, hard against the welling heat between her thighs, he wanted, he ached, he raged with some fury that was not anger nor lust but some need, some absence without a name. Hard between her thighs. Hands tight against her face. Eyes on hers bright with oil flames. No, she said, and he was shaking again with the convulsive shudders of a fever, he’d seen malaria and thought this was some illness as well, some disease of heat and anguish and war, and she said “No!” and scratched his face.

#

He rolled onto his back and hardly had he moved but she was off the bed. Arms across his face, he heard her harsh breathing retreat across the room. The bathroom door slammed. Opened.

“Do you know about Tibbit-Noyse?”

Her voice shook. An answer to that uncertainty, at least.

“Know what?” he asked.

Her breathing was quieter, now.

“Know what?”

“That I have been ordered,” she answered at last, “to resurrect him in the morning.”

He did not move.

The bathroom door closed.

She had broken his skin. The small wound stung with sweat, or maybe it was tears, there beside his eye.

#

When she stayed in the bathroom, and stayed, and stayed, he finally understood. He rose and dressed, and walked out into the curfew darkness where, apparently, he belonged.

#

Next morning, Graham ran up the stairs to Healy’s office and collided with the major outside his door.

“Graham!” Major Healy exclaimed. “What the devil are you doing here? Don’t tell me. I’m already late.” He pushed past and started down the hall.

Graham stretched to catch up. “I know. They’re bringing the colonel back.”

Healy strode another step, two, then stopped. Graham stopped as well, so the two of them stood eye to eye in the corridor. Men in uniform brushed by on their own affairs. Healy said in a furious undertone, “How the hell do you know about that?”

“I want to be there.”

“Impossible.” The major started to turn.

Graham grabbed his arm. “Morale’s already dangerously low. How do you think the troops would react if they knew their superiors were bringing back their own dead?”

Healy’s eyes widened. “Are you blackmailing your superior officer? You could be shot!”

“Sir. David. Please.” Graham took his hand off the other’s arm.

Healy seemed to wilt. “It’s nothing you ever want to see, John. Will you believe me? It’s nothing you ever want to see.”

“Neither is all your men being shot dead and eaten by vultures while you lie there and do nothing.”

Healy shut his eyes. “I don’t know. You may be right.” He coughed and started for the stairs. “You may be right.”

Taking that for permission, Graham followed him down.

#

The company’s staging area was a weird patch of quiet amidst the scramble of other units that had to equip and sustain their troops in the field. Trucks, jeeps, men raced over-laden on crumbling streets, spewing exhaust and profanity as they went. By the nature of their missions, reconnaissance squads were on their own once deployed, and this was never truer than for Special Recon. No one wanted to involve themselves with the Dead Squad in the field. The nickname, Graham thought, was an irony no one was likely to pronounce aloud today.

He and Major Healy had driven to the staging area alone, late, as Healy had mentioned, but when they arrived they found only one staff car parked outside the necromancer’s workshop. The general in charge of Intel was inside with two men from his staff. When Healy parked his jeep next to the car, the three men got out, leaving the general’s driver to slouch smoking behind the wheel. They formed a group in the square formed by rutted tarmac, prefabricated wooden walls, empty windows, blinding tin roofs. The compound stank of petrol fumes, hot tar, and an inadequate latrine.

The general, a short bulky man in a uniform limp with sweat, returned Graham’s and Healy’s salutes without enthusiasm. He didn’t remark on Graham’s presence. Graham supposed that Healy, as Special Recon’s acting CO, was entitled to an aide.

The general checked his watch. “It’s past time.”

“Sorry, sir,” Healy said. “We were detained at HQ.”

The general grunted. He had cold pebble eyes in pouchy lids. “Any news of your men in the field?”

“No, sir. But I wouldn’t expect to hear this early. None of the squads will have reached the line yet.”

The general grunted again, and though his face bore no expression, Graham realized he was reluctant to go in. His aides had the stiff faces and wide eyes of men about to go into battle. Healy looked tired and somewhat sick. Graham felt a twinge of adrenaline in his gut, his breath came a little short. The general gave a curt nod and headed for the necromancer’s door.

Inside her workshop, the walls and the underside of the tin roof were clothed in woven reed mats. Even the windows were covered: The room was brilliantly and hotly lit by a klieg lamp in one corner. An electric fan whirred in another, stirring up a breeze that played among the mats, so that the long room was restless with motion, as if the pale brown mats were tent walls. This, the heat, the unmasked stink of decay, all recalled a dozen missions to Graham’s mind. His gut clenched again and sweat sprang cool upon his skin. There was no sign of her, or of Tibbit-Noyse. An inner door stood slightly ajar.

The general cleared his throat once, and then again, as if he meant to call out, but he held his silence. Eventually, the other door swung further open and the girl put her head through.

Graham felt the shock when her eyes touched him. But she was in some distant place, her eyelids heavy, her face open and serene. He knew she knew him, but by her response his was only one face among five.

She said, “I’m ready to begin.”

The General nodded. “Proceed.”

“You know I have lodged a protest with the Sisterhood?”

The general’s face clenched like a fist. “Proceed.”

She stepped out of sight, leaving the door open, and in a moment she wheeled a hospital gurney into the room, handling the awkward thing with practiced ease. Tibbit-Noyse’s corpse lay on its back, naked to the lamp’s white glare. The heavy caliber bullet had made a ruin of the left side of his face and head. A ragged hole gaped from the outer corner of his eye to behind his temple. The cheekbone, cracked askew, whitely defined the lower margin of the wound. The whole of his face was distorted, the left eye open wide and strangely discolored, while the right eye showed only a white crescent. Shrinking lips parted to show teeth and a gray hint of tongue beneath the crisp mustache. The body was the color of paste and, bar an old appendectomy scar, otherwise intact.

The hole in Tibbit-Noyse’s skull was open onto darkness. Graham remembered the Intel captain saying the man’s brains had been scattered across his desk. But death was nothing new to him, and he realized he was examining the corpse so he did not have to look at the girl.

She wore a prosaic bathrobe of worn blue velvet, tightly belted at her waist. Her dark hair was pinned at the base of her neck. Her feet, on the stained cement floor, were bare. She set the brakes on the gurney’s wheels with her toes, and then stood at the corpse’s head, studying it, arms folded with her elbows cupped in her palms, mouth a little pursed.

An expression he knew, a face he knew so well. Another wave of sweat washed over him. He wished he had not come.

The fan stirred the walls. The lamp glared. Trucks on the street behind the compound roared intermittently by.

The girl—the witch—nodded to herself and went back into the other room, but reappeared almost at once, naked, bearing a tray heavy with the tools of her craft. She set this down on the floor at her feet, selected a small, hooked knife, and then glanced at the men by the door.

“You might pray,” she said softly. “It sometimes helps.”

Helps the watchers, Graham understood her to mean. He knew she needed none.

Her nakedness spurred a rush of heat in his body, helpless response to long conditioning, counter tide to the cold sweep of horror. Blood started to sing in his ears.

She took up her knife and began.

#

There is no kindness between the living and the dead.

Graham had sat through the orientation lecture, he knew the theory, at least the simplified version appropriate for the uninitiated. To lay the foundation for the false link between body and departed spirit the witch must claim the flesh. She must posses the dead clay, she must absorb it into her sphere of power, and so she must know it, know it utterly.

The ritual was autopsy. Was intercourse. Was feast.

Not literally, not quite. But her excavation of the corpse was intimate and brutal, a physical, a sensual, a savage act. As she explored Tibbit-Noyse’s face, his hands, his genitals, his skin, Graham followed her on a tour of the lust they had known together, he and she, the loving that they had enacted in the privacy of her room and that was now laid bare. As the dead man’s secret tissues were stripped naked, so was Graham exposed. He rode waves of disgust, of desire, of sheer scorching humiliation, as if she fucked another man on the street, only this was worse, unimaginably worse, steeped as it was in the liquors of rot.

He also only stood, his shoulder by Healy’s, his back to the rough matted wall, and said nothing, did nothing, showed, he thought, nothing … and watched.

When Tibbit-Noyse was open, when he was pierced and wired and riddled with her tools and charms, when there was no part of the man she had not seen and touched and claimed—when the fan stirred not air but a swampy vapor of shit and bile and decay —when she was slick with sweat and the clotting moistures of death, then she began the call.

#

She had a beautiful voice. Graham realized she had never sung for him, had not even hummed in the bath as she washed her hair. The men watching could see her throat swell as she drew in air, the muscles in her belly work as she sustained the long pure notes of the chant. The words were meaningless. The song was all.

#

When Tibbit-Noyse answered, it was with the voice of a child who weeps in the dark, alone.

#

The witch stepped back from the gurney, hands hanging at her sides, her face drawn with weariness but still serene.

“Ask,” she said. “He will answer.”

The general jerked his head, a marionette’s parody of his usual brisk nod, and moved a step forward. He took a breath and then covered his mouth to catch a cough, the kind of cough that announces severe nausea. Carefully, he swallowed, and said, “Alfred Reginald Tibbit-Noyse. Do you hear me?”

A pause. “Y-ye-yes.”

“Did you betray your country in a time of war?”

A pause. “Yes.”

Graham could see the dead grayish lungs work inside the ribcage, the grayish tongue inside the mouth.

“How did you betray your country?”

A pause. “I sent my men.” Pause. “To steal the dead.” Pause. “Behind enemy lines.”

The general sagged back on his heels. “That is a lie. Those men were sent out on my orders. How did you betray your country?”

A pause. “I sent my men.” Pause. “To die.” There was no emotion in the childish voice. It added calmly, “They were their mothers’ sons.”

“How did you know they were going to die?”

“… How could they.” Pause. “Not be doomed.”

“Did you send them into a trap?”

“… No.”

“Did you betray their movements to the enemy?”

“… No.”

“Then why did you kill yourself?” Against the dead man’s calm, the general’s frustration was strident.

“… I thought this war.” Pause. “Would swallow us all.” Pause. “I see now I was wrong.”

Healy raised a hand to his eyes and whispered a curse. The general’s shoulders bunched.

“Did you betray military secrets to the enemy?”

“… No.”

“Who did you betray military secrets to?”

“… No one.”

“Don’t you lie to me!” the general bellowed at the riddled corpse.

“He cannot lie,” the witch told him. Her voice was quietly reproachful. “He is dead.”

“… I do not lie.”

The general, heeding neither the live women nor the dead man, continued to rap out questions. Graham could bear no more. He brushed past Healy to slip through the door. In the clean hot light of noon he vomited spit and bile, and sank down to sit with his back against the wall. After a minute, the general’s driver climbed out of the staff car and offered him the last cigarette from a crumpled pack.

#

The battle became a part of history. The tide of the enemy’s forces was turned before it swamped the city; a new front-line was drawn. The scattered squads of the Special Desert Reconnaissance Group returned in good time, missing no more men than most units who had fought in the desert sands, and carrying their bounty of enemy dead. Graham was given a medal for bravery on a recommendation by the late Colonel Tibbit-Noyse, and a new command: twelve recruits from other units, men with stomachs already toughened by war. He led them out on a routine mission, by a stroke of luck found and recovered the withered husk of a major whose insignia promised useful intelligence, and on the morning of the scheduled resurrection, the second morning of his four-day leave, he went to the hotel bar where he had learned of Tibbit-Noyse’s death and ordered a shot of whiskey and a beer.

He drank them, and several others like them, but the heat pressed the alcohol from his tissues before it could stupefy his mind. He gave up, paid his tab, and left. By this time the sunlight had thickened to the sticky amber of late afternoon. The ubiquitous flies made the only movement on the street. Graham settled his peaked cap on his head and blinked to accustom his eyes to the light, and when he looked again she was there.

She wore the yellow cotton dress. Her clean hair was soft about her face. Her eyes were wounded.

She said his name.

“Hello,” he said after an awkward minute. “How are you?”

“My superiors have sent an official protest to the War Office.”

“A protest?”

She looked down. “Because of the colonel’s resurrection. It has made things … a little more difficult than usual.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“You have not—” She broke off, then raised her eyes to his. “You have not come to see me.”

“I’m sorry.” The alcohol seemed to be having a delayed effect on him now. The street teetered sluggishly beneath his feet. His throat closed on a bubble of air.

“It was hard,” she said. “It was the hardest I’ve ever had to do.”

His voice came out a whisper: “I know.”

Her dark eyes grew darker, and then there were tears on her face. “Please, John, I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t think I can do this anymore. Please, help me, help me break free.”

She reached for him, and he knew what she meant. He remembered their nights together, his body remembered to the roots of his hair the night he almost took her completely. He also remembered the scratch her nails left by his eye, and more than anything, he remembered her gruesome infidelity with Tibbit-Noyse—with all the other dead men—and he flinched away.

She froze, still reaching.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She drew her arms across her, clasped her elbows in her palms. “I understand.”

He opened his mouth, then realized he had nothing more to say. He touched his cap and walked away. The street was uneasy beneath his feet, the sun a furnace burn against his face, and he was blind with the image he carried with him, the look of relief that had flickered in the virgin’s eyes.

© 2006 by Holly Phillips.
Originally appeared in Lust for Life: Tales of Sex and Love,
edited by Claude Lalumière and Elise Moser.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Holly Phillips

Holly Phillips is the author of the novels The Burning Girl and The Engine’s Child. She is also the author of many short stories, many of which have been collected in her World Fantasy Award-nominated collection, In the Palace of Repose, and have appeared in such magazines as Asimov’s, Fantasy, Clarkesworld, Weird Tales, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, On Spec, and anthologies such as Full Moon City, Interfictions, Shine, and Lovecraft Unbound.