From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

COSMIC POWERS

Fiction

The Things My Mother Left Me

"Things My Mother Left Me" by P. Djèlí Clark (art by Reimena Yee)

Tausi sat listening to her aunts, who crowded in a circle at the far end of the room. Their dresses were a kaleidoscope of greens, reds, blues, and yellows, each worked with repeating patterns that shifted with the eye. Huddled like that they seemed to her one polychromatic beast with seven heads and fourteen limbs. None of them made an effort to whisper as they planned her life.

“Girl doesn’t need such a big house.”

“Maybe one of us takes her in?”

“Better to marry her off.”

“Who would want her?”

“Oh, she’s pretty enough.”

“Growing good wide hips. Make plenty children.”

“But what kind of wife would she be?”

“No mother to teach her.”

“Don’t talk about that woman.”

“Thief. Criminal. Witch.”

“Deserved what she got.”

“We’ll do what’s best for the girl . . . of course.”

Tausi shifted the clay pot in her lap. It was hot, even through the fabric of her wrap skirt. Her aunts brought food every day, nine in all since her father’s body had been washed and buried—so withered by the shaking sickness that had claimed him. But the mourning period would soon end. And something had to be done with her.

Were she a boy of fifteen they’d probably send her to apprentice with a Guild House, or to study alchemical herbology at an Nganga School. But to her aunts, only strange city girls apprenticed themselves out. And she wasn’t wealthy enough to be sent off to learn. No, she’d likely end up a nursemaid to some older cousin. Or perhaps she might fetch a good bride price—anything to get her out of this house, which was the real prize.

Tausi looked down to the stool that curved to fit her frame. It had been carved by her father’s hand. He’d put together every bit of this house, adding rooms and extensions. It seemed unnecessary with only the two of them. But he had promised her mother a grand home, and was intent on bequeathing this gift whether she dwelled in this life or the next.

“When her spirit comes to visit,” he’d often say, “she will like it very much.”

Five years had passed since her mother’s death. None of her aunts had approved of her father marrying a woman with no people or family. And then she’d gone and gotten herself killed. He had a duty to remarry, they insisted. But he hadn’t. Instead, he’d set about building a house to her memory. How it infuriated them. A smile tugged Tausi’s lips at the thought.

“So you still have your good spirits.”

She looked up to find that her aunts had sidled up before her. They were infuriatingly good at that. One caressed her cheek. Another patted her thick plaits of hair. A third pinched the side rolls beneath her top. It felt more an appraisal than affection.

“How pretty you are.”

“Keeping a nice size.”

“So good to take care of your father.”

“A fine young woman you’ll make.”

“Don’t worry.”

“Won’t leave you alone in this big house.”

“You’ll be in our care.”

“Seven new mothers.”

This time Tausi forced a smile, if only to hold back the bile.

When they finally left, she sat back wearily. They’d come again tomorrow. And the day after that. Then one day she’d be told to pack her things. Off she’d go to whatever fate they’d decided. Seven crocodiles they were, all with their mouths wide, ready to eat her up. But like the clever birds that fed between those sharp teeth, she was determined to outwit them.

Moving to sit on a reed mat, she opened the clay pot to find roasted cassava, boiled figs, and chicken in a spicy palm nut sauce. She spooned some into a bowl. Then set empty plates for her father and mother—for even spirits needed nourishment. As she ate, she began to plot her escape. She was still plotting long after the Wounded Moon ascended to bathe the town of Epoulu in her broken light.

• • • •

By morning, Tausi had fashioned a plan. She didn’t have much money—100 ingots of red-gold, and some blue-silvers. But it was enough perhaps to book passage out of Epoulu. She’d leave this backwater town behind and head to a city—perhaps even one of the great cities. Once her aunts had the house, she doubted they’d expend much time hunting her. The Ten Chiefdoms was a big place, after all.

She arrived at the river market by midday. From stalls, hawkers cried out their goods—earthenware, wild-meat, printed cloth, brass fittings, metal boilers, and other items bartered along the trade routes of the Chiefdoms. Her first stop was with the boatmen that idled about the Luaba River, whose murky waters churned between banks of green. She stopped short at sight of a gutted fang fish, hanging by its tail from a rack. The monster was easily taller than she was, with teeth like knives.

“Caught her out on the Luaba,” a grizzled boatman boasted. “The Efé strike me down if I’m lying! Took a piece of me with her, too.” He held up a bandaged hand missing two fingers.

Tausi looked over his boat: a small steam paddler. If fish that size roamed this river, she preferred something bigger. She moved on to the other boatmen, inquiring prices to the nearest city—perhaps Kasi or M’basa. Most shook their heads, explaining they only ferried between the towns lining the Luaba. A few laughed off her request, shooing away the mischievous “runaway girl.” She stalked from them, fuming at this upset in her plans.

“Take care, daughter!” someone called.

Tausi looked down to find a woman seated on an expanse of cloth. Her arms extended out over a set of small gourds, fearing they might be trampled.

“I’m sorry, Mama!” Tausi cried.

The woman shook a head of braided white ringlets. “The young are always in a hurry, as if they have somewhere to go!” she scolded, then brightened. “Perhaps, however, I have something that pleases you?”

Embarrassed at her negligence, Tausi squatted to inspect the woman’s gourds. Each had been polished until they shined and then painted with animals. She opened one decorated with a green gecko to find a sweet-smelling cream. When she rubbed a bit on her arm, her skin glistened like polished night-stone.

“So beautiful,” the woman admired. She held up wrinkled hands the hue of tilled soil. “I once had such skin. Passed on from my mother. I can see your mother has done the same. You look very much like her, in fact.”

Tausi looked up at that. She had her father’s curving eyes, but was growing into her mother daily—the same round cheeks, plump body, and strong legs. Most around Epoulu considered it rude to mention that in public, save for whispered glances. Not so this woman, it appeared.

“I mourn your father,” she offered. “As I mourned your mother. Some of us still carry her ways. We have not forgotten.” The woman bent to blow a gentle breath over her gourds. There was a familiar prickling in the air, and all along their surfaces the painted animals began to dance.

Tausi almost dropped the gourd where the gecko now flicked a fat tail. “Mama, no! Stop!” Her voice was a whisper. But the urgency must have carried, for the paintings went still. She released a breath. “Mama. You mustn’t do that. Someone could see!” Even now, her eyes scanned about for witnesses. Of all crimes in the Ten Chiefdoms, none was as terrible as magic.

The woman looked disappointed. “I had thought . . .” she began, then stiffened. “Must we hide what our mothers pass on to us?”

Tausi stared at the woman. Was she mad? “If you don’t hide, Mama, someone will report you.” She lowered her voice further. “Witch Hunters are never far!”

The woman snorted, as if one could dismiss such a thing. “The hounds of these Efé priests who now govern us? It was such men who twisted magic for their wars, and broke the world. But it is we who suffer. Let them unleash their dogs! We can only show the courage of your mother. Some of us still revere her—our Bandit Queen!”

Tausi flinched at hearing the name spoken aloud. “Take care, Mama,” she warned, “of insulting the crocodile while so close to the river.”

The woman laughed sadly. “Daughter, to the crocodiles, we are all food.”

A horn blared across the market, and Tausi seized the chance to break away from the reckless woman. She hastily offered a blue-silver for the gourd and left towards the source of the tumult. A crowd had gathered, and she maneuvered her way through before she could see what drew them.

It was a caravan. Only it didn’t look like any caravan she’d ever seen. It was made up of what appeared to be small rounded houses on wheels. But where Epoulu’s homes were adorned with repeating geometric patterns, these were painted in vibrant pastels. Feathered bush lizards pulled the carriages, their iridescent scales shimmering beneath the sun. The caravan arrayed into a circle, and on one of the houses a yellow door swung open.

The tall man that stepped out was by far the most striking figure Tausi had ever seen. A mud-colored fabric wrapped his shoulders and torso, while a long kilt hung from his waist, made up of strips of leather dyed every conceivable hue. Affixed to these were tassels and bells—so that he rattled as he walked. One hand clutched a cord tied to a small collared baboon with crimson wings. The creature perched on his shoulder and chittered noisily from a blue muzzle. The man strode forward, opening his arms as wide as his bearded smile. When he spoke, his voice boomed in the drawling accents of the western provinces.

“People of Epoulu! I am Master Abata, and you behold now my Great and Wondrous Circus! We have traveled far, collecting all manner of fantastic beasts and curious personages! And we have stopped for a few days before continuing on to Kasi. Tonight, as your guests, we will put on a show the likes of which has never been seen along the Luaba River. I invite you to come out, to be amazed and astounded!”

At his words, a stream emerged from the other carriages: men leading muzzled red-striped hyenas; women on the backs of giant sloths; children who somersaulted or walked on their hands. The crowd watched in wonder. And in Tausi’s mind, possibilities sprouted.

• • • •

She set out for the circus that night, following the crowds along paths lit by glowing aether lamps. None could remember the last time a circus came to Epoulu, and it was not to be missed. Women donned fine liputa skirts for the occasion: and men, colorful short-knee pants and airy cotton shirts in imitation of city dandies. Tausi wore a turquoise and red top with a matching wrap and sandals. The circus was a welcome reprieve from her aunts’ daily visits. More important, Master Abata claimed his caravan was heading next to Kasi. This could well be the escape she sought.

She found the Great and Wondrous Circus sprawled along a clearing near the market. It was made up of billowing white canopies bearing the Chiefdoms’ seal of sanction: two moons, one great and one small.

It had been over three centuries since a night with more than one moon. Not since the Long War, when the Efé unleashed magic hurtling sister into smaller brother, shattering him and leaving a jagged scar across her surface. The world had bore the brunt of this lunar fratricide, as continents cracked and the Sea Gods returned to reclaim ceded land. The Wounded Moon was now forever circled by the broken remnants of her brother, whose bones she held close. The Efé disappeared soon after, but their legacy remained written in the heavens.

And on the world they left us to rebuild, Tausi thought.

She joined one of the many lines snaking into the circus, where money-handlers snapped up currency like hungry fish. When a scrawny boy barked the price of admission—five red-golds—she balked. But there was no other way to find the circus master. She handed the ingots over, sucking her teeth to show her indignation.

The many sights of the circus soon made her forget the expense. Moko Men in colorful straw danced on towering stilts. Masked figures spit fire and walked barefoot on heated stones. Acrobats dangled from ropes and soared through the air to the gasps of spectators. One woman twisted her body into a brass trunk half her size. Another stood on her hands, arched her back, and lit a smoking pipe with her feet!

Between the dazzling spectacles, Tausi asked after Master Abata. But the man moved constantly about and was ever surrounded by enthralled audiences. She would have to find a way to talk to him alone. She was eating a mango doused in fiery pili pili sauce and trying to reason that problem out, when she came upon a canopy in the far back of the circus. It was curiously quiet given the clamor coming from the others. She slipped inside to see what it held—and gaped.

A giant cat lounged in one corner. It was almost as big as a forest elephant, with thick, emerald fur broken by slashes of ivory. It sat upright, displaying two back legs, two in its middle, and yet another pair at its front—six in all! At her approach, it swung a pair of yellow eyes to regard her while twitching a white-tufted ear. She stared back, wondering at how such a magnificent beast could be.

It took a moment to notice the others.

In another corner there sat a Jab Man. She’d always believed such men were the stuff of stories and questioned for a moment if he was simply costumed. But the bone-white horns jutting from his forehead looked decidedly real. And the black skin covering his slender body rippled even as he remained still. He wore only a long white kilt at his waist, and sat silent with legs drawn up beneath him, eyes closed as if sleeping.

The third figure was as strange as her companions. From head to torso, she was a woman with creased sepia-toned skin and flattened breasts that spoke her age. But beneath that, she was an Okapi, with a russet body similar to an antelope and four long legs covered in white bands. She bowed her head, staring at something between unkempt graying locks that framed her face.

Tausi followed the Okapi woman’s gaze to a black chain encircling one of her forelegs. She looked to the Jab Man to see similar chains wrapping his chest, near unnoticeable against his skin. One of the giant cat’s legs held the same, longer but no larger than the rest.

“The chains are of oremantic design,” a voice spoke.

Tausi whirled about to find none other than Master Abata. The bells and tassels of his peculiar kilt rattled as he walked, his winged baboon scampering behind. He pointed to the chain binding the Okapi woman’s foreleg.

“Wrought by Oboui metallurgists. They drain magic. I was able to procure some for my collection. It gentles such creatures, you see.”

Tausi fumbled for a response, thrown by his unexpected appearance. He talked through her silence, gesturing to the great cat. “I captured that one on the western savannah when he was little more than a cub, right from his mother’s lair. He is a Jangu cat—bred for battle by sorcerer lords during the Long War. They were said to be fierce fighters, but loyal to their masters. A rare beast indeed.”

He returned to the Okapi woman.

“Her I found wandering the edges of the Ituuri. They say whole bands of them live in that cursed forest. I bound her while she slept. Do you know that she has never spoken a word to me? Not one. No matter my many persuasions.”

Tausi said nothing, looking on the Okapi woman and the Jangu cat with new eyes. These were not performers in Master Abata’s show. They were his captives.

“Then there is this one.” The circus master turned to the Jab Man. “A devious creature. Bound to their bargains and contracts. He tried to trick me. But I got you in the end, didn’t I?” The Jab Man didn’t reply. He never moved or once opened his eyes.

Master Abata sniggered, looking over his menagerie the way a moneylender gloated over his hoard. Reaching to his waist, he drew out a smoking pipe and an iron tinderbox carved like a bird. Sparks flew as he struck the flint and touched the heated stick to the bowl. In moments, the stink of burning dagga leaf rode the air.

“I was told that a local town girl has been searching for me this night. Yet I find her and only hear my own talk. Perhaps her tongue needs loosening?” He extended the pipe in offering.

Tausi hesitated, and then reached out to accept. She’d once snuck a pull from her father’s pipe to see what the fuss was about, and nearly choked to death coughing. This time was little different.

Master Abata’s laughter accompanied her hacking, and she thrust his awful pipe back to him, doubled over in a fit. When she regained herself, she found him grinning.

“This southern dagga leaf is of fine quality, yes?”

Tausi had no idea how to account the worth of dagga leaf. But she could feel the building euphoria that left her lightheaded. She found her tongue quite loosed, and words spilled out easily. The circus master sat silent when she’d finished, his dark face wreathed in wisps of white smoke. The small baboon flew up to rest on his shoulder, regarding Tausi from behind a crimson wing pulled across its face like a veil.

“You make quite a curious request,” he spoke at last.

“It won’t be for long,” she said. “At least until Kasi.”

“And what is it you will do, in Kasi?”

“I thought to join a Guild House. Or hire on with a sky ship—”

The circus master chortled. “What does a backwater town girl know of sky ships?”

Tausi’s face heated. “I just need to get there.”

“And how would you pay passage, were I to grant this?”

“I can give you fifty red-golds.”

“Eh! You would eat three times that alone from here to Kasi!”

Tausi faltered. So much? She’d hoped to hold onto most of her money. It would do no good to arrive in Kasi a beggar.

“I could work for you,” she offered.

The circus master’s eyebrows rose. “You are a performer? A juggler? What is it you think you can do for my circus?” Tausi once again had no answer. He read her silence and clucked his tongue.

“When I heard some local girl was asking after me, I inquired of her with the people of this town. They are very good at whispering. Isn’t that so, daughter of the Bandit Queen?”

Tausi drew back at the question. As always, her mother cast a long shadow.

“And if I am?” she asked, voice tight.

“That would make you interesting,” the circus master replied. “Tell me, does the daughter bear any of her mother’s . . . talents?” Tausi took in the look on his face. It was the same he set upon his menagerie: those creatures he bound in chains.

“If I did,” she answered evenly, “the Witch Hunters would have taken me.”

He considered this, then said: “In Kasi, people might pay well to view the daughter of the Bandit Queen. But she would need more to convince others she is who she claims to be. Tell me, does she still hold her mother’s great spear?”

Tausi was unable to hide her confusion. “A spear?”

“A great spear,” the circus master corrected. “The stories of the Bandit Queen traveled the Chiefdoms: the woman who spoke blasphemy against the Efé priests, dared to use forbidden magic, and showered the poor with stolen wealth. They say she came and went without being seen, wearing a red cloak and carrying a spear with a long blade of gray steel, etched with strange lettering. It was never recovered.”

Tausi was at a loss. “I don’t know anything about that.”

Master Abata pursed his dark lips, his face growing disenchanted. “A shame. For if the Bandit Queen’s daughter ever found such a spear, it would do much to convince me to grant her passage.” With that, he turned abruptly and walked from the canopy, leaving a trail of dagga smoke that hung in the air with Tausi’s hopes.

• • • •

For three days, she hunted the spear.

If her mother had such a weapon, Tausi had never seen it. But her memories were of a woman who sang songs that lulled her to sleep. A woman who swayed when she walked, and wore dashing colors, who smiled and laughed and told stories of clever birds and crocodiles. The Bandit Queen, the woman who forsook her family to wage war against the Ten Chiefdoms, was a stranger: a legend shrouded in secrets. She’d asked her father once how he could have let her take such risks. He’d laughed. No one ever let her mother do anything, he’d said. She’d told him she had to. Otherwise the crocodiles would eat away at her, bit by bit.

As she hunted, Tausi fended off her aunts, who now spoke boldly of families who might offer a decent bride price. Her only refuge came at night, at the circus. She spent most of her time in the canopy, marveling at the Jangu cat. When she looked upon the chains that kept it bound, she was saddened. And in its feline eyes she sometimes thought she saw reflected her own yearnings to be free.

Master Abata visited each night, both to look over his menagerie and to ask after her success. She had tried in vain to make another trade. But the circus master was skilled at bartering and had made his price plain. It was on the third night, after he had come and gone, leaving her despairing, that the Jab Man first spoke.

“He not going to keep his word.”

Tausi jumped. The canopy was usually empty. People fast grew disinterested with its odd occupants that performed little. Save for Master Abata’s visits, she had become used to the solitude. But when she turned to the Jab Man, she found him staring. It was the first time she saw those eyes open. She’d imagined they would be that same liquid black as his skin. But she hadn’t expected the pupils: pinpricks of light like fine stars. It took a moment to find her voice.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“The circus master not going to keep his word,” the Jab Man repeated. His smooth voice had an almost singsong accent she couldn’t place. “The spear is what he want. He will take it. If you lucky, he cut yuh throat on the road. If you not lucky, he sell you to a brothel merchant.” He cocked a horned head and grinned his pearl-white teeth at the dread spreading on her face. “Or did you think the great cities was just fancy Guild Houses, sky ships, and bacchanal?”

“Why do you say such things?” she stammered.

The Jab Man brought his hands up to grip at his chains. “Because I know the worth of the circus master’s bargains.” He nodded to the Okapi woman. “And I see the wickedness he do she. One day, one day, congo tay,” he sang, “time gon catch up with he.”

Tausi looked to the Okapi woman, only now understanding something was broken in her bowed form. She’d never fully trusted the circus master. He had too much of the crocodile in him. Perhaps, however, she hadn’t fully grasped the sharpness of those teeth. “But why would he—?” she began.

“You not asking the right question!” the Jab Man snapped. “You see me? I ah real maco. I does watch people. I watch you. Even with me eyes closed. You is a smart one. Doh play dotish now.”

Tausi had no idea what dotish meant, but she didn’t like it. The right question, however, became clear. “Why does he want my mother’s spear?”

The Jab Man smiled. When he spoke, Master Abata’s voice flowed from his lips. “A spear with a long blade of gray steel, etched with strange lettering.” He returned to his own voice. “The spear is magic, girl. An old weapon, from allyuh Long War, when allyuh went mad and almost destroy yuh blasted selves”

Tausi listened, bemused. A magic spear? Where would her mother come across such a thing? She thought carefully before asking her next question. “What does the spear do?”

“Many things,” he replied. “Gray steel come from the Ituuri, where the Efé once call home.”

Tausi started. “The Efé lived in the Ituuri? But the priests say they were gods, who came down from the heavens to punish us.”

The Jab Man rolled his eyes. “Nancy stories. The Efé was people, just like you, only small, small so. Then allyuh bring yuh Long War to they forest. The Efé doh have big man weapons. Or obeah what can summon demon armies. So they call on the Ituuri to save them. And the Ituuri old, with deep, strong magic. Strong enough to break the world! The spear yuh mother have, it make from that same Ituuri magic. Old and deep.”

Tausi had never heard such things. She’d been taught that it was the Efé who gifted the priests the power to found the Ten Chiefdoms, to assure a lasting peace after the Long War, and to create the edicts on magic.

“Why are you telling me this?” she asked.

“Because the circus master fooling you with he talk,” the Jab Man said. “All skin, teeth, eh laugh! He not going to take you from this place. I will.”

That took her by surprise. “You? I don’t mean offense, but you can’t even free yourself.”

“But you can. With the spear.” He gestured to his chains. “That magic can break this oremancy. Free me, and I will take you with me. Kasi. M’basa. Any city of the Ten Chiefdoms. Any city in the world. I can take us there in an instant.”

Tausi thought back to the stories she’d heard of Jab Men: that they could traverse vast distances, appearing wherever they wished. Perhaps he could be her escape. Only there was one problem.

“I don’t know where the spear is,” she admitted.

“Of course not,” the Jab Man remarked. “You searching for it with yuh eyes.”

She frowned. What was that supposed to mean?

He sighed, as if explaining a thing to a child. “Yuh mother not going to let she enemy take she spear. Before they catch she, she would have sent it away.”

“Away? Where?”

“Beyond the world maybe, or the spaces between. Who can say?”

She shook her head. Now he wasn’t making sense at all.

“I know this,” he continued, “a magic spear can only be found again by magic.”

Tausi’s insides seized. “I don’t know any magic,” she said flatly.

The Jab Man leaned forward in his chains, straining taut muscles beneath his ebon skin. “That basket doh hold water!” he hissed. “Lie to the circus master! Lie even to yuh self. But not to me. I can feel the magic you hiding. The magic yuh mother teach you. It sweet in you, sweet too bad!”

Tausi’s heart pounded, her soul laid bare in that gaze.

“Doh fix up yuh face so,” the Jab Man chided, settling back and easing his shoulders. “I doh care about yuh priests, and their schupid laws. Find that spear. Set me free, and I do the same for you.” With that he turned, and, closing his eyes, spoke no more.

• • • •

Tausi left the circus, carrying with her a knotted bundle of thoughts. Master Abata. The Jab Man. The Efé. A magic spear. And of course, there was her mother.

• • • •

She still remembered the day the Witch Hunters had come to their house: two men in black robes, with inked faces and silver-capped teeth. The guardsman that accompanied them had stepped down from the leather stirrups of his armored pangolin to deliver the body atop the wheeled bier the creature dragged behind. The writ of execution he carried bore the two-moon stamp of the Chiefdoms. Tausi hadn’t wanted to look at the corpse wrapped in white. Instead, she kept her eyes on the pangolin, counting its overlapping golden scales and trying to gauge the length of its claws—even after her father had begun to wail.

• • • •

When she reached home, she gathered what she would need and walked to her mother’s room. Her father had built around that space, and it felt as if she stood in the house’s heart. She seldom came here. But tonight she let the Wounded Moon’s broken light pour in. She put on one of her mother’s dresses—a green fabric patterned with leaves—marveling that it now fit her. The soil she held she sprinkled across the floor, and poured water and bush wine in libation. Then she sat down in front of her small offering and called on the magic.

It had been a long time since she dared allow herself this. Magic frightened her. Not for the reasons it frightened others, who condemned what they didn’t understand, what they had forgotten, blaming it for what men did to the world. Magic frightened Tausi because of the fear it created in others. The fear that allowed for Witch Hunters. The fear that allowed laws that demanded her mother’s life. That fear lived inside her: a crocodile that gnawed and devoured from within. But tonight she would face that fear. She had to, if she was ever to escape this place. After such a long time denying the magic, she wondered if it would even come. Or if, like an unused appendage, it withered and atrophied.

A prickling on her skin was the first hint at an answer. The torrent that followed was staggering. Magic flooded into her, racing through her limbs until it tingled at her fingertips and bled through her pores: a dammed river set free and now eager to spill its banks. The crocodile inside her fought and drowned in its depths. And she trembled with exhilaration. The Jab Man had been right. The magic was sweet, so, so sweet!

Pushing her hands into the offering of earth, water, and spirit, she blended them together. This had been one of the first bits of magic she’d been taught. Her aunts thought her mother had no people or family. But that wasn’t true. Her mother had come from a long line of women who worked magic. And their spirits were always there when called. Tausi had neglected them, frightened to awaken even a sliver of that power. But if the Jab Man was right, she needed their aid. She hoped they would hear her now as she sang:

Come mothers, come see your daughters,

Come mothers, whose daughters are calling,

Come mothers, whose daughters are waiting,

Come mothers, come see your daughters.

Her lips chanted the familiar words—a mother’s lullaby sung to her in the dark of night—as her hands worked. And she soon found she was not chanting alone. Other voices sang with her. They came first in their ones and twos, and then in scores. Women of her blood. Women tied to her by a thread of magic that extended through the ages—before the Efé priests and Witch Hunters and the breaking of the world. Their hands settled over her own, moving to her rhythm as they sang together. One voice rose above them in her ears, a voice with arms that held her close again, with fingers that wiped her tears and lips that gently kissed her dampened cheeks.

Then, as one, the voices fled.

Tausi opened her eyes, not remembering when she had closed them. There on the ground in front of her sat a lengthy rod of dark wood, banded along its shaft. One end held a triangular blade, longer than her arm. It shone in the Wounded Moon’s light, revealing etched markings upon a surface of slate-gray steel.

Her heart leapt, wondering if this was an apparition—some trick of the mind. But when she gripped the wooden shaft with a muddied hand, it was solid and real enough. And it had not come alone. Beside the spear sat a bundle of crimson. Wiping her fingers clean, she lifted it to find it was a cloak, stitched with small mirrors that reflected blackness and drank in moonlight.

She clutched the cloak close. Her mother had sent back more than her spear this night. She’d gifted Tausi a piece of herself, something to help evade the crocodiles that hunted in the river.

• • • •

Tausi returned to Master Abata’s Great and Wondrous Circus, swathed in shadows. Her mother’s cloak rendered her unseen in the night, and any eye still awake slipped over her without notice. The crowds had gone, and she made her way through the sleeping grounds. When she slipped inside the canopy, only the Jangu cat stirred. His yellow eyes flickered awake, and he lifted his head to search out the unseen presence.

Tausi didn’t lower the mirrored cloak until she knelt before the Jab Man. His eyes flew open. Before he could speak, she revealed the spear, then wavered.

“You promise to take me,” she said.

“Yes!” His bright pupils were eager. “That the bargain we make!”

She looked to the Jangu cat, having already decided she would not abandon him. “And we take him too.”

The Jab Man nodded. “Whatsoever!”

She pointed then to the Okapi woman. “We shouldn’t leave her chained either.”

“I wouldn’t think of it,” the Jab Man agreed. “Come, now! Release me!”

Satisfied with their arrangement, Tausi brought the spear point to tap the black chain. She didn’t know what to expect as the etchings on the blade began to writhe. When the chains crumbled to black dust, she gasped.

The Jab Man scrambled to his feet. Howling with glee, he did a little dance: winding his hips lewdly and rolling his sinewy torso. Leaving him to his celebration, Tausi turned to the Okapi woman, who might have been sleeping for all her silence.

“Mama!” she called. “I’m going to free you now. Do you understand?” The Okapi woman never raised her bowed head. Sighing, Tausi touched the blade to the chains and watched them collapse.

The Okapi woman stirred then: a statue returned to life. She lifted a foreleg, as if testing her freedom. Raising her head, she revealed a weathered face with eyes swathed in black—eyes so haunted Tausi thought her heart might break. They darted about, searching her surroundings. Unexpectedly, she began to speak in an unfamiliar tongue—her voice frantic, then angry.

“I don’t understand, Mama,” Tausi apologized.

But the words only grew in pitch. And those swathed eyes were no longer haunted; they seethed. The Okapi woman lifted her arms and the air in the room prickled—hundreds of needles biting the skin, a feeling Tausi knew all too well. There was a shout from the Okapi woman, followed by fire. It erupted from her hands in fluid white streams, tearing holes through the canopy and lighting up the dark. It raced across the circus, putting all it touched to flames, and the screams of animals and people soon rose up into the night.

Tausi fell onto the ground, crawling backwards to avoid the dripping fire. The Okapi woman radiated magic. Tausi had never seen so much: a bright, turbulent sea that churned in waves and eddies. The woman swept that power up with her arms and hurled it out into the night. She bellowed with rage as someone else laughed. The Jab Man. He danced amidst the flames unharmed, reveling in the destruction. Tausi shouted to him; the air that entered her throat was searing.

“What’s happening? Why is she doing this?”

The Jab Man turned a gaze to her that competed with the fire. He seemed somehow larger: his curving horns sharper and his skin like melted pitch. When he spoke, his voice was guttural. “Allyuh think to chain up a child of the Ituuri? You think to chain me? A slave gone burn down she master house! Watch she!”

Tausi stared in horror. He had wanted this. The grin he cast at her realization split his face wide. “Hear this. Doh ever cross ah Jab Man.”

A roar shook the canopy, and she looked to see the Jangu cat, rearing back from the flames. The black chain kept him bound. And he would burn if he remained. Pushing to her feet, she ran towards him, through smoke and fire. When she came close, he bared his teeth and six pairs of jade claws, an animal’s fear in his eyes. She slowed her approach. He didn’t strike, but watched her movement. Reaching out with the tip of the spear, she touched the black chain. When it crumbled, the great cat wasted no time. She threw herself back as he bounded past, fleeing the burning canopy and running out into the night.

“Eh! Look trouble now!” the Jab Man cried.

Tausi turned to see a man newly arrived, silhouetted against the flames. Master Abata. His eyes surveyed the chaotic scene of his menagerie, then stopped in bewilderment upon her. She never got a chance to shout a warning, for the Okapi woman saw him first. Streams of magic lashed out to envelop the circus master. At first nothing appeared amiss. But when his skin blackened and liquid fire gushed from his screaming throat, Tausi realized he was burning from within. His body folded, collapsing into a pyre that blazed with white flames. The small baboon that was the man’s constant companion chewed frenziedly through its leash. Breaking free, it shrieked as it winged into the night, its feathers trailing smoke and embers.

“Moon does run until daylight catch up with he,” the Jab Man sneered. He pulled his satisfied gaze from the dead man and extended a hand. “Lewee go.”

Tausi looked to the offered hand and then back to the flames that devoured the circus master like a living thing. “She’ll burn the whole town!” she coughed amid the smoke. “We have to stop her!”

“Not our bargain,” the Jab Man retorted.

“People will die!”

He shrugged. “How you care so for this place now?”

Tausi winced. There was little love in her for Epoulu. True enough, she was eager to leave it behind. But she couldn’t just let it burn. Not all those people, even with their whispers. Not even her scheming aunts. She had to put an end to this.

“Stop her!” she said, this time a demand.

“Not our bar—”

“In exchange for our bargain!” she cut in.

The Jab Man’s eyes narrowed to brilliant slits. “If this some trick . . .”

“No trick,” she assured. Master Abata’s charring remains were enough to dissuade such idiocy. “That’s my price for freeing you!”

The Jab Man cocked his head. “You give up yuh bargain, for all ah them?”

Tausi nodded firmly. She would, if it meant no one else would die.

He grinned a crocodile smile. “Accepted.” There was a pause. “But I can’t stop she.” He met Tausi’s livid glower. “Cut eye doh kill you know. I can’t stop she, but I can tell you how.” A black finger pointed to the spear.

Tausi eyed the weapon uncertainly. “I don’t want to kill her.”

“Then don’t kill her,” the Jab Man taunted.

Tausi stifled her irritation. The creature was insufferable! Rising, she faced the Okapi woman with one last appeal. “The man who hurt you is gone!” she cried out. “You can stop!”

The Okapi woman turned to stare at this interloper to her retribution—and hurled magic in thick streams.

Tausi had time only to lift her spear against the deluge. She expected to be burned away. But as the magic struck, the gray slate blade cleaved through the currents, sending them dissipating about her. Emboldened, she walked forward. The Okapi woman screamed and hurled magic anew in violent cascades. Pushing against it was like facing a wind that pushed back in turn. But Tausi bowed her head and planted her legs firm—those strong legs passed on by her mother—and pressed through the maelstrom. When she reached the Okapi woman she lifted the spear.

“Stop!” she pleaded. “Please!”

Her answer was a thrust of magic that almost swept her back. But she swung the spear, striking the Okapi woman across a shoulder with the flat of the blade. The etchings on its surface came alive as it met skin, and something powerful rushed into the gray slate steel. The force of it almost sent Tausi to her knees, and her hands shook as she fought to hold the spear’s shaft. Then abruptly it was done. And there was silence. The tempest that had roiled about the Okapi woman was gone.

“You take her magic,” the Jab Man explained. He walked up to point at the spear that now hissed with smoke—not heat, but a deep cold that covered the gray metal in a light frost. Everywhere, the fire looked to be dying, leaving behind smoldering ruin. “My bargain done,” he declared. “I leave now—without you.”

“Wait. One more thing.” Tausi looked to the Okapi woman, shrunken now without her magic. She stood staring at her hands as if trying to recall what they’d held. “You have to take her, back to the Ituuri.”

“When cock have teet,’” the Jab Man scoffed. “Not our bargain.”

She turned to face him. “If she stays here, she’ll be killed.”

“By the people you saved,” he jeered.

“Yes. But I’m not making a bargain for me. I’m making one for her.” She gestured to the Okapi woman. The rage was gone from those eyes, which were haunted once more. “You knew she would do this. You used her hurt for your revenge. And gave her nothing in return. That’s the way of your kind, isn’t it? Bargains and contracts? Well, you’re in her debt. And you’ll pay it, by taking her home.”

The Jab Man glared, and anger rippled across his features, his skin seeming to boil. She met that bright gaze unflinching—as her mother would have done. A clever little bird that survived by outwitting the crocodiles that would eat her up.

“Girl smart like she mother,” he rasped through bared teeth. “Goat doh make sheep in truth.” He snatched up the Okapi woman’s hand, startling her. “We play this game again. Ent?”

“I doubt it,” Tausi said tersely.

He flashed a grin. And the two of them vanished.

Tausi sighed deep, thinking on what she had just given up. But it felt right. Her mother had passed on more than she knew, it seemed. She hoisted the spear to her shoulder, wondering at her next course when a rumbling growl came from the night.

She turned to find the Jangu cat emerging from the smoke and darkness. He had returned. He crept forward on six legs with the sleekness of a hunter, his gaze fixed on her. She tensed as those yellow eyes drank her in. He reared up before her, but she didn’t run. She’d seen too much this night to run. She held her ground and, instead, reached up a hand to stroke the thick fur of his neck. It felt as beautiful as she had imagined. When he didn’t pull away, she smiled.

The people of Epoulu say that on that night a strange fire burned down the circus that had come to market. Water pumped from the river could not quench the flames, and there was fear it would sweep into Epoulu itself. Inexplicably, the fire died away—like the hand of a god had snuffed it out. What had saved the town none knew. But many claimed to see a woman emerging from the smoke. She rode upon a monstrous cat, holding aloft a spear while a red cape flapped in her wake. As the two sped away from Epoulu beneath the Wounded Moon, shouts rose up along the Luaba River.

“The Bandit Queen!” the people cried. “She lives!”

© 2016 by P. Djèlí Clark.

Share This

P. Djéli Clark

P. Dejéli ClarkPhenderson Djèlí Clark’s short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Tor.com and several print anthologies includingGriots I & II, Steamfunk, Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Myriad Lands and the forthcoming Hidden Youth. You can read his ramblings on SFF, politics, history, diversity and more at his blog pdjeliclark.com where he goes by the moniker the Disgruntled Haradrim. He also spends far too much time as @pdjeliclark on Twitter.