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Fiction

Potemora in the Triad

There are always three: the father, the unfather, and the child. That’s why Vriskiaab threw my unfather off his back after she bore my baby sister, or so Vriskiaab tells me when he stops in the shade of a dune, his massive scales warm under my calves and the tail of him stretching behind me for leagues. My baby sister is soft and crimson-tacky in the crook of my arm.

I cup her warm, wobbly head. Her birth shook the earth, and the sand shakes under us still.

We have no milk, I say.

Hush, child, says Vriskiaab, his voice a thrumming coil under my heels. That infant is not ours. Your unfather left me a riddle, and now I must solve it.

I don’t care much for the balance of our triad, but the earth will crack open unless he solves it, so I hug my sister to my chest. Her cries are so shrill, and they ring like struck ceramic.

• • • •

Things I will say to my baby sister, come the end of the world: If you need to kill me, I don’t mind if you watch me kneel; and, vultures flock in odd dozens, and cactus fruit come in fours or seven, and you have two tiny moles under your left eye; and, I don’t care that you have a different father because we tread in the desert the same.

• • • •

Vriskiaab names my sister Baaiksirv. This quiets the rumbling under our feet, but not entirely; some of the canyons we pass have already collapsed, and there are no altar-men where instead exists rubble. Vriskiaab goes without his slain offerings and drinks from a nearby river, muddier than befitting him, and he filters it as he trickles it down the length of his back to the ridged hood under which I live.

The water is cool and silty, and my tears hot, my mind empty.

Father. Unfather. Child.

My unfather’s stories never depicted a triad with a hole inside.

My father cradles my sister in his mouth, in a birthing pocket behind his fang. His eyes are hooded in consternation. The ground shudders still, but we are not bereft, yet.

It will be two years before I see Baaiksirv again.

• • • •

Baaiksirv will smell like venom, a sharp, sour smell that rises from her soft cheeks and hair, but mostly her suckling mouth. Unlike me, she will have round pupils, and no scales anywhere, not even in a thin line down her spine. In that way, she is just like our unfather.

• • • •

When I turn twelve, I will sneak off my father’s back during that rare time he is deeply sleeping, after he fondly observes one of his festivals. It will be a relief to get away from the endless hazy sand and the distant chime of diamond sparring against bone. I wear a deep cloak because the cities are unfriendly to things that look almost-human, and I get moderately drunk for the first time, even though it tastes somewhat like my prodigious sister smells.

It will be the first time I encounter a double history. Slumped in the shadows of the beer-merchant’s iron tent, the constant tremor of the earth a gentle ring up the walls, I listen to an elderly orator quarrel with a young woman about how the festival story goes.

It is the same everywhere, with minor variations, the orator says. The world-serpent and the unfather and the child join hands and stay hands, and as long as the axiom remains fulfilled, so does our ground. Or do you come from an intriadic home? Do you contribute to the earth’s instability even now?

The woman does not flinch; her casual look of disdain frightens and intrigues me. She says: How sad to think it is destined, just because it is so. Where I come from, we believe in truths larger than yours.

Where do you come from? I want to ask. But it would bear no fruit; if that is what they think where the woman is from, then it is somewhere Vriskiaab never passes on his circumnavigation around the desert of the earth.

• • • •

Every night, my unfather would gaze at the constellations and curl around me like burning paper. I imagine my father’s previous wives did this, too. A long chain of mothers watching the stars, cradling their daughters to their chests so, so tightly.

• • • •

What Vriskiaab hums in the dead of his sleep, as shreds of his divinity escape from the anxious thrum of his bones, up the soft ribbed cave of his hood, and into my ear:

the father / the unfather / the unfather / the father but inverted / the end of the shaking / my daughters / the world for my daughters / my daughters for the world / our triad for the earth / the earth for my inscription . . .

Next to me, what Baaiksirv exhales in her easy sleep:

Yes . . . riposte, parry . . . dodge it! Kick fang too. No glyphic scroll . . . too much . . .

What our mother tells me in my dreams, after I finally do succumb to them:

A child sheds childhood when their last fangs arrive. But there can only be the three.

• • • •

There are thirty-two teeth in the human mouth, most grown by age sixteen, and hundreds in a serpent’s, shed and regrown all their life, and in the interstice is only anxiety and pain pain pain.

• • • •

I’m excited, says Baaiksirv. We are both squatted in the dark cavern of Vriskiaab’s mouth, behind his towering bottom row of fangs, watching the bright sand race past. The walls of this vaulted cavern, and even his fangs, are ornamented with games, scrolls, weapons; Vriskiaab does not confiscate Baaiksirv’s possessions as he does mine.

Baaiksirv’s small hands grip our father’s fangs, natural, unthinking. Mine clasp my knees, which are patchy with scales. Her frame is so similar to mine—our narrow shoulders, our land-awkward legs—but her knees are skin-smooth. Our textures are so different.

She turns to me, an enchanted scroll glinting, forgotten, under the muscle of Vriskiaab’s tongue. Potemora, what was your eighth-year-ceremony like?

I had no eighth-ceremony, I say. Short, slender Baaiksirv glances at me lengthwise; in her scabbard is a diamond blade, the kind that can kill gods.

What did you do for your eighth, then?

Vriskiaab gave me an infant’s rattle.

• • • •

How do I pass my time? Weaving molt into little dolls, or humming what little songs I have, or staring out at the desert. A hundred different ways that are all the same.

• • • •

Shedding scales is an itchier business when your sister is too busy to scratch them.

• • • •

I think I’ve inherited my mother’s mouth.

• • • •

On her tenth birthday, Baaiksirv kills Vriskiaab’s oldest friend, the tortoise-upon-the-deep Hiahmenam. Her diamond sword cuts deep across its giant, leathery throat. Vriskiaab cries large salty tears. I think they’re of grief, until I lie down that night, my tongue prodding a loose molar, and realize the desert’s tremors have lessened just a little more.

• • • •

As my sister loses her teeth, she asks me what she should do with them. Grind them up? Make them into beads?

Swallow them, I tell her. Nothing good comes out of growing older.

• • • •

That day, she comes home caked in unfamiliar blood and smelling like fear. I sponge it off her skin as she sits in my barren skin-cave, blinking slow, looking down at her blade. It’s coated in crimson, too, flaking off to reveal the white diamond underneath. She flinches the first few times I touch her, and I am filled with anger, choking on it.

Her lips barely move. Hiahmenam’s neck opened so easily. He had scales, but it was so easy. Her tears drip onto the flat diamond. Vriskiaab sent me. Or I went. I don’t know.

My sponge stills. Reptilian blood soaks into the lines of my palms.

Why? I ask, though I already know. My sister, the human to the immortal, the god-killer to the god, the rising star to oppose the sun.

Why? she whispers. Because it’s something he would never do.

Vriskiaab. Baaiksirv. Even her name subverts his.

• • • •

I cradle my sister that night, while she cries. Why must I be the unfather? she sobs. Why won’t the earth stop trembling? Am I not good enough?

• • • •

What is the final manifestation of an unfather? This must fall outside strict triadic interpretation.

• • • •

The legend my mother used to tell me: The world-serpent slithers across the world in a pattern, carving divine words across the ancient dunes, sustaining reality through the repetition of their inscription. The serpent cannot see what falls directly behind them.

I throw my twenty-fifth tooth off my father’s back.

• • • •

Baaiksirv hunts large game in the canyons, and each time she begs Vriskiaab to let me come along. On one occasion, Vriskiaab begrudgingly agrees. In the shadow of the rock face, we come across a dead horned viper, crimson oozing from its head. Baaiksirv crouches down and flips it gently with the edge of her diamond sword. Shrub mongoose got to it, she says.

My words feel careful, voice dampened against the limestone. Killed by its unviper, then. A final manifestation of the triadic.

Can’t be, she says. There’s no unviper if there isn’t a viper anymore.

I had been harboring a winged and fragile hope behind my ribs, and it cracks. So our triad cannot end so easily.

I watch Baaiksirv sheathe her god-killing sword.

• • • •

Under the cool hood, I hunch over the scroll I stole. It smells of venom and spit. I balance it on my knees, so my father doesn’t feel the shush of paper across his skin. Spidery illustrations unfurl and unfurl: arms, chest, intestines, skull. Here I stop, squint at the marginalia, and read.

A human has thirty-two adult teeth, of which I have twenty-eight, and the last four are called wisdom teeth. It indicates where they are. I stick my finger in my mouth, past my sharp molars, to the stretch of gum at the very back.

It’s wet and smooth still. I think of the calamity hidden under them. Like sharp spears poised to pierce up through my skin.

• • • •

Vriskiaab starts letting me go on canyon hunts more often. I fear this change of heart.

• • • •

I bring back pebbles of all shapes and sizes.

• • • •

The worst of Baaiksirv’s training is soon to end, Vriskiaab tells me. It’s hard to hear the hum of his voice through my sobs; I’m sprawled face-down beside his ear, my cheek pressed against his warm scales. Above us, the night sky is swathed brilliant with stars, and below, the sand rushes past. I feel as if I am in a dream, and if I make a wrong move, I’ll disrupt this. This is the closest I’ve felt to my father in years.

Don’t cry, Vriskiaab says, and the softness of his voice makes me cry harder. You know, I wish I had done things differently when raising you. I became all swept up in balancing us.

You left me behind, I want to say, and instead my mouth opens in a wordless wail. I am a bottomless river of sorrow, and it floods from me in wracking waves. I feel like I’ll never be wrung out, not ever.

Look at the stars, child, Vriskiaab says. Look at the constellations. Aren’t they so beautiful? Your sisters are up there.

My eyes are too blurry to see them properly, and my mouth tastes like gravel. I mash my fingers in my eyes and blink. Gravity tilts, and I realize he’s looking up, too.

• • • •

Baaiksirv and I sit on the end of Vriskiaab’s tail, one hundred hands from where it tapers to a blunt point. We make this pilgrimage once a year. Our view of the desert swings slowly from the west to the east and back again, and our father’s indent, that endless inscription, coils across the hot dunes to the distant horizon. My tongue is wet with grit and blood.

I turn to Baaiksirv, sitting beside me, and with a jolt I realize she’s almost as tall as I am. The slopes of her cheeks aren’t as full, and her limbs are long and awkwardly birdy. And though it’s hard to remember our mother’s face, it feels easier when I look at hers.

She meets my glance, and her lips pull back into a sheepish mix between a frown and a smile. She says, what is it?

I shove her in response.

She exclaims and scrambles to her feet. We take turns chasing each other back up our father’s tail. The day is long and sunny and I feel like I could outrun anything.

• • • •

It becomes too painful to talk, but I don’t take out the pebbles, not ever, not even when I’m sleeping.

• • • •

I have a long, terrible dream about my mother, where I’m calling for help but I can’t open and close my mouth right, and my teeth snag against each other and rip from my gums and I wake with my chest burning and my throat heavy and my neck and stomach slick with sweat. I press my cheek back into my crinkled wad of Vriskiaab’s molt.

The earth is rumbling.

The earth always rumbles, so why has it caught my attention now?

A deep, sinking foreboding. I duck under the entrance of the hood and straighten in the desert wind. Dust stings my eyes. I reach out and rub my fingers together.

The particles are too irregular to be a sandstorm.

Thunder splits the air. The earth shakes, and I stumble and fall. The cracking and roaring rolls on and on, through my chest, my bones.

I twist to the left. Canyons in the distance, collapsing. I watch in horror as they fall.

Their sand-clouds thunder toward us.

• • • •

I am spitting out my stones into my palm, I am digging my finger into the crater-wound, there are shards of stone still embedded in my gums; no, those are teeth—

• • • •

A child sheds childhood when their last fangs arrive.

• • • •

But there can only be the three.

• • • •

The unchild grabs her cloak and sprints across her father. Every breath is a tremble. Her father’s massive head arcs toward her, fangs glinting, and she leaps.

• • • •

The ground’s trembling is too irregular, the roiling dust-storm too thick, for her father to track her footfalls. She braces her cloak against her nose and runs sideways into the wind. Every heartbeat is a wet slosh. My heart can be spilled so easily. It wouldn’t even take diamond.

• • • •

Refuge is a darkness; refuge is the echo of dripping water in a cave. Refuge is spitting clots of blood and dust onto the stones and hugging yourself with abraded arms and sobbing.

• • • •

You huddle at the far end of the cave, where the air is stale and dry and the roar of the desert is far enough that you can hear your rattling breaths. It has evolved into a sandstorm now, so thick at the entrance that you exist in complete darkness. Every sob sears your lungs, and the night stretches endless in front of you.

At some point, the flow of the air changes.

You realize you are not alone.

It is the loneliest realization you will ever make.

• • • •

Baaiksirv? you say.

• • • •

She does not light a torch, though you are sure she has one. You do not move as her footsteps approach; she’s revoked her silence, so you can feel their soft thud, track her with your sightless gaze.

Hi, Potemora, she says.

You cannot see anything, but you know she’s standing over you. You wait for the silvery unsheathing of her sword.

A rustle. She sits down next to you.

She leans her head on your shoulder. Her hair tickles your cheek.

You say: If you need to kill me, I don’t mind if you watch me kneel.

A heave, like she’s exhaling. How could I watch you in this darkness?

I don’t mind waiting until morning.

She makes a small sound in the back of her throat. A drop of moisture falls on my shoulder, then another. I realize she is crying.

• • • •

After I listened to the orator and the woman quarrel, I remember thinking: I wish I knew where my mother came from. What truths she believed in that were larger than ours.

• • • •

The trembling of the earth grows more violent, and I keep glancing up at the roof of the cave, and I hug Baaiksirv tighter to my side. We were on our way to a village, Baaiksirv whispers against my ear. There was a woman there who was soon to have his infant.

The news of this is a slow and dull pierce through my heart. It surprises me, though it shouldn’t. That was one of the most stable ways the triad could continue.

I think he wishes I were more rebellious, Baaiksirv says. That I was more un. Even killing Hiahmenam was at his direction.

He struck at me when I fled.

She nods. To fling me toward you. Because he can’t do it himself.

• • • •

Morning is coming, and my teeth are rattling in my skull, and the thunderclaps are tearing through the wind, and I’m struck with the urgency of saying all the things I’ll never get to say. Baaiksirv is nearly asleep in the crook of my arm. The triad, I say, is stupid. Vultures flock in odd dozens, and cactus fruit come in fours or seven, and you have two tiny moles under your left eye. Father’s inscription is wrong.

Baaiksirv makes a soft sound I nearly lose to the cacophony.

I hug her tighter.

• • • •

She’ll wake scared to death of the shaking. She’ll say: This is my fault. For being here. For being all wrong.

• • • •

Scant dawn starts lightening the whipping sandstorm at the entrance. A bone-deep jolt under our feet. The ground, cracking.

• • • •

I don’t care that you have a different father because we tread in the desert the same.

• • • •

Her head tight against my chest, my arms squeezing around her. The darkness is an all-consuming battering scream. Stone rushing toward us.

We fall.

• • • •

In my dream, my mother is reaching toward the sky.

• • • •

I wake to hands on my shoulders, shaking me.

Potemora, comes Baaiksirv’s voice. It’s hoarse, wrung out.

My eyes flutter open.

Beyond Baaiksirv’s worried face are streaks of clouds, a brilliant blue sky.

We are alive.

Everything aches. I sit up slowly. The landscape is sand and rubble, but the ground is intact.

We stumble as we stand. Baaiksirv leans against me.

I follow her gaze to the distance. The path in the sand our father always slithered has been swept away; the inscription broken, gone.

The bright sun beats down on my head.

I can find nothing to say.

Vriskiaab, Baaiksirv whispers.

I turn in a slow circle. In the distance are unfamiliar canyons, a blur beyond that suggests mountains. The horizon is a wavering smudge, and in the leagues and leagues around, there’s only the two of us.

The inscription. Broken. Gone.

I am made small by my awe, my searching sorrow, my disbelief.

So the world wasn’t to end. The truth was so much larger.

Wordlessly, I take Baaiksirv’s hand. Our palms are scratched and gritty. Her sheath is empty—her sword buried or flung away, I don’t know.

She squeezes my hand shakily, and I squeeze back.

We take one step, then another. And another.

The sand is rocky, pocked with stone, but it is perfectly still.

Sara S. Messenger

Sara S. Messenger. Dozens of gray-white clouds sprawling across a light blue sky.

Sara S. Messenger is a speculative fiction writer and poet residing in Florida. When she’s not playing fetch with her cat, she reads poetry collections in the sun. Her short fiction has appeared in Diabolical Plots, and her poetry has appeared in Strange Horizons. If you enjoyed this work, her full portfolio and other musings can be found online at sarasmessenger.com.