The Hoffenphaafs know it, the mud-men know it, the steam urchins sprouting in their vesicles know it, even the protein-sellers that carry the thick-frozen slabs between slaughterhouse and tower on their enormous calloused shoulders know it – the pillars of the earth shiver in the heat, the golden-tiled floors of the playtime levels are bending, the face of the earth below buckles until it near breaks. Like an egg about to hatch: something is coming.
Melchior, bent-back with his years and punishments and labor, Melchior, poet of the underside and the sulfur-light levels, writes this in the coal-dust in the seven-fold tunnel the first day:
the seam separates
inside, a liquid rose
The Hoffenphaafs squeal and scurry in the corridors of the playtime levels, gathering in groups of two and three and chittering, neglecting their work. The Ladytowners don’t know what to make of it, and whine: why, why is it one can’t get good help anymore, Lord knows I work my fingers to the bone until the Hoffenphaafs are recalled to themselves and bring them soothing cordials, and so the first day passes.
The Hoffenphaafs sing it, the mud-men sing it, the steam urchins sprouting in their vesicles sing it, the protein-sellers throw the fibrous wedges (to be shaved and roasted and served in a salad with pomegranate seeds to the Ladytowners with their cordials and scented wines) down from their frost-bitten shoulders and join in, with low-slung bass seeking the tune.
Below the vaulted chambers where the sulfur-light seeps are hollows, grooved like holes knuckled out of earth by a giant’s fist, and it’s here in the dank that the brick makers, their lungs filled up with hard-packed clay, are sent to die. The voices reach them, baritone and soprano; merging together like freshwater meeting salt on the verge of the ocean. The song sooths the red dust from the ears and throats of the doomed brick makers. The song swells full-bellied up the pillars that the Whiteshirtmen and Ladytowners constantly forget are rooted in the clay beneath the city, the clay the brick makers mine to shape and burn and make the soaring arches, the paradise towers. The song caresses the down-spun walls, girdled by the nests the sulfur-light folk build to sleep out of the muck, stained by the handprints of those who pause for a bare moment to rest. Pulsing like a drum, the song beats against the underside of the playtime levels, all covered with soot, and the black crust loosens in parts and falls like ashy snow. Where it falls away the under-dwellers see, painted in bright, forbidden colors, an eye, an expanse of cheek, the bridge of a nose, a fall of hair across a brow. Only a part of an immense portrait, splayed across the grey concrete who knows when, but the whispers begin: it’s from the before-times, it’s the face of the Maiden of Fire. It’s the Mother of Shadows, who births and kills. It’s the face of the first that leapt from the Governor’s dome, it’s ancient as the sad trickle of the river-that’s-left, it was born this morning from our song.
Melchior, whose back is whip-scarred pink and grey, sings this to the dying brick makers the second day:
riddle me this – a stone inside a tree
an egg inside the stone
The Hoffenphaafs grow thoughtful. When the Whiteshirtmen go to strike them for moving criminal-slow, they see their faces and the chill in their eyes makes them draw back, and so the second day passes.
The Hoffenphaafs see it, the mud-men see it, the stream urchins sprouting in their vesicles see it, the dying brick makers see nothing because they have drawn inside their hollows wrapped in yesterday’s song. The protein-sellers gape to see it, and the playtime rakes and Ladytowners will have no meat this day. Down the seven-fold tunnel, through the muck of the river-that’s-left it strides, looking neither right not left: an immense ox, red as the bloody sun. Where the tunnel vomits into the great underchamber, with the pillars of the earth growing through the dim air like tree trunks, it bellows like a woman in labor and falls to its knees. No one dares touch it, but it splits apart regardless, dry inside.
From between its ribs steps a panther, tawny and graceful. Its eyes are like crystals rooted in rock, its great feet soft as velvet, its claws sharp as heartbreak. It roars like a tide-turning wind, and around the huge fanged mouth the skin peels away. The pelt sloughs off, the bones tumble into a pile, and the skull rolls away like a ball.
The heap of bones shifts and a naked child steps away. It spreads its arms to the people and they know what they must do; they fall upon it, pulling muscle from muscle, joint from joint. Weeping, they devour the child, even the bones, and it never cries out.
Riddle me this, whispers the Maiden of fire, the Mother of Shadows, the sister of the sweet devoured child from the vaulted archways above. Does the egg choose the manner of its own destruction? For if it breaks it shatters its perfection; if it doesn’t, what stirs within will die.
Melchior, his fingers twisted with ancient chastisements, takes the saber-fang of the panther and writes upon the paper-thin, paper-dry oxhide:
beneath the mother’s belly
a broke-neck baby bird
The Hoffenphaafs crack open the doors of the playtime levels, and let in the mud-men and the protein sellers (the steam urchins have sprouted in their vesicles, the brick makers are dead). The Ladytowners know it, the rakes know it, even the Whiteshirtmen with their detachable collars and rock-crystal studs and beautiful cravats know it, the Governor sits with his head in his hands and a loaded pistol on the polished mahogany before him: the third day is ending and like an egg, it chooses life, it chooses death, it is all going to hatch.
Samantha Henderson lives in Southern California with humans and other animals. Her short fiction and poetry has been published in Realms of Fantasy, The Lovecraft eZine, Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit and Weird Tales, and reprinted in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Science Fiction,Steampunk Revolutions and the Mammoth Book of Steampunk. She’s the author of the Forgotten Realms novels Heaven’s Bones and Dawnbringer.