Chapter 24 (comes to pieces)

I stalk away. I leave Skeleton Cook behind, because he has to fetch my cloak. I stalk down the street, ignore the curved one of dark green, I march to the hill. I march to the edge of the city to the hill steeped in mud and I don’t stop even though I hate the mossy mud and I slide down it. Boots squelching and sucking and slurping.

An echo booms. Somebody yells. I don’t look back.

Dear heart, who put all these walls around you? Who in this mess of an ice cube self decided you needed the protection of a caging house?

Dear brain, maybe this is a piece. You looked out and saw them, Kolariq’s boys, all shiny and confident like suns. You looked in and saw you, all gentle and unsure, glowing so dim you had to get away to see yourself. It is easy to see what cannot be seen in the dark.

So simple: dirty, clean, hot, cold. These hands, wiggling, textured, in love with the ocean who frees uncomfortable grains of sand from your fingers. These feet, in love with the cold of water after drying by a fire. Your hands and feet don’t feel like you do, heart.

Dear heart, you give yourself up every time you fall in love. You lay it in somebody’s hands, let them run, let them touch the spikiest parts of your fire self. It is no coincidence they put it down, to feel cold, to feel smooth. Nobody wants to play with fire forever. Hands are too good at being burned for that.

You spent years tracing the cracks in yourself you didn’t know were there. Years in that house, with the Skeleton Cook, with the sea cat, with the garden, with the summer trips through the frost orchards. They say you can go crazy walking through the frost orchards.

It felt like years. Four and a half years is a long time. Four and a half years is not enough to forget, is not enough to trace all the cracks, convince yourself others could see them and you would still be okay.

Why is it so hard to let somebody else see the cracks in you?

***

A memory, brain: Aukai in the water, singing at the top of his lungs. One of the other boys, the one with only one working eye, winced and covered his ears. “You sound terrible!” he exclaimed.

“Your blood circle is disappearing,” Seashells bragged. Seashells because today he had tiny gray shells coiled around both wrists. “I win. Again.”

The boy with one good eye stood up and punched him in the chest. Seashells gasped, nearly falling backwards. “Really?” Seashells yelled, standing up and pushing him back. “Somebody’s a sore loser.”

“Not my fault he distracted me!”

Meanwhile, you were really trying not to get distracted from your own blood circle. Well, your circle of Aukai’s blood beneath your level hands above the water. You felt sweat prickling on your forehead.

“You couldn’t yodel if you tried!” Aukai shouted, but you were pretty sure Silver-eye and Seashells couldn’t hear him above their own shouting, but you could hear him, which distracted you, or maybe it was the thought of salt and how the ocean and your blood and your sweat were all salty. Aukai started singing again, which is when you officially gave up on the fading blood.

Night-sky popped out of the water like a darting ribbon and pushed Aukai sideways before you could warn him. Aukai splashed wildly as you glared at Night-sky, but he danced away. Which meant he got caught in the shoulder by one of Silver-eye’s flailing feet and went back under.

Kolariq shouted, walking into the waves towards the three-person battle in the water. You sighed, because Aukai was pretending to be a sea ghost and was tugging your ankles.

Blond boy ran past you and tackled Kolariq, turning the three-person battle into five. For some reason, when Kolariq burst above the waves he was laughing. He would’ve had the upper hand, but he couldn’t seem to stop laughing.

You walked to the beach. Your hand had a long gash from where you cut it. You thought nobody was listening. You started singing.

You didn’t actually know any songs, so you just kind of went “Ah-ah-aaaa, la-ah-aaaa.” It made sense, in an illogical way, like explaining something that didn’t actually have edges.

“That’s my boyfriend,” Aukai’s voice cut through to you. You instantly stopped. Somebody fell over in the water.

You turned around, already blushing, discovering that the fight in the water had stopped. Discovering that nobody was on their knees trying to keep track of a blood circle, and that they were all staring at you. “What?” you asked, feeling small. The boy who liked painting spluttered above the water.

“Let’s just say, you’re a whole lot better than he is,” Silver-eyes said. Aukai punched him too.

You blushed deeper, and would have run into the cave, except Kolariq forbade any of you from getting wet, sandy feet on the rug. So you sat down, hugging your knees.

“Get back to your blood circles, everyone,” Kolariq announced. He was trying to wring water from his shirt. “Who has the knife?”

“I do,” Bone-builder announced, pulling it from his sash. He always looked slightly off balance whenever he left his bone arm in the cave.

“This time, whoever manages to maintain their circle the longest wins,” Kolariq plodded to the beach, skirts sopping wet and covered with gray sand.

“Wins what?” Seashells asked.

“Permission to sleep in the cave tonight,” Kolariq said. The smile drained from Seashells’s face. “I’m joking,” Kolariq said. “You don’t win anything.”

***

I stop at the heap of rocks Skeleton Cook was buried under only this morning. I can sense him, still in the city, carrying my cloak. And…my brow furrows. Something is weighing down the cloak in his arms as he climbs over something.

I sit on the rocks, on the opposite side as Rattle-bones’s reclined seat, arms folded. The sun is low in the sky, and my stomach rumbles. I can deal with an empty stomach.

I wait for Skeleton Cook, because that is better than thinking about the queen. Better than thinking about the ways I retreat because I hold cracks and her touching them makes them crack wider. Maybe. Why is it so hard to let somebody see the cracks in you?

I wait for Skeleton Cook, because waiting is better than wondering if Rattle-bones or the queen will bother to come find me. I can’t decide if I want them too.

Skeleton Cook appears at the top of the hill, silhouetted, and I decide he needs boots. The mud sucks and pulls his bones with each step down the hillside, and it is a battle against the ground itself to keep his invisible strings pulled together.

When he gets close enough I see the eggshell on my cloak. The bowl of a magenta eggshell, cracked and jagged along the rim.

So.

Was it the queen who put it there, or Rattle-bones?

I can’t decide if the eggshell is supposed to be an apology or not. Why would they apologize? I’m the one that left.

I stand and approach Skeleton Cook, who has stopped where the mud of the hill creeps into rocks and moss. I pluck the eggshell from his arms with trembling hands, place it on the ground. I take my cloak, which is dirt stained. I put my cloak over my shoulders. Simple things, first. Simple things help stop shaking fingers, I pretend.

An echo booms from the city, like before, but I don’t hear a scream this time. My eyes go to the eggshell. My heart hammers, because what kind of bird newly hatched screeches in echoing booms? “If,” I mutter to Skeleton Cook, “the booms are even screeching.” What kind of bird makes booms that aren’t screeching?

I scoop up the eggshell and prop it over Skeleton Cook’s head. Maybe this is how I disguise him as an actual person. We could sail across the sea like that, like Aukai talked about. All that openness. “Maybe,” I tell him, “I should go apologize.”

***

I have to go around to the road, because I don’t think Skeleton Cook will make it back up the hill. At least, not without losing a toe bone or two. We start on the road as the sun is descending, making our shadows stretch deep behind us. The palace looms like a spearhead cutting through that orb of red.

Another echo booms, and I squint at the palace door. It seems to be closed, or maybe I’m just not looking in the right place. But there also aren’t palace guards swarming the street, guarding the palace from the booming thing.

Skeleton Cook and I turn left onto a street of cyan, Skeleton Cook clanking because he’s worried about the booming thing. I take my cloak off and tuck it between his shoulder blades and collar bones, throw the hood over the eggshell covering his skull. I let him walk in front of me, trying to judge if his head looks average person sized. It is rather round, but then again, that could be a coil of braids looped behind and around his head.

There’s another boom, and this time it’s followed by a scream. I’m not sure if that’s a human’s mouth or a bird’s beak though.

I finally break into a run as another scream–definitely human this time–splits the air. My hands are shaped like claws, ready to whip words and blood like flying daggers.

I skid to a halt. I put my hand to the corner of the building.

The bird is jet black. The bird is on top of a building. Dear brain, don’t look at the body hanging off the edge of that building.

I scream. I scream in a language with no sound. The bird stares at me, like she can hear it. She screams back and my words fall mutely to the stone. They wither away as the street rocks. I stumble, grabbing Skeleton Cook’s radius bone from his forearm, yank it free even though it makes his hand shatter to the ground in individual bones.

I hurl it. I’ve never actually thrown a bone like a ribbon of blood, and I discover in the moment it leaves my fingertips that it is more like a slingshot. The elastic taffy pull towards the rest of Skeleton Cook is still there, but I cut it off. Release it. The bone snaps away.

The jet bird beats glimmering wings, sparkling like ocean water, screeching thunder like storm clouds. Skeleton Cook’s radius shoots through her wing, spraying dark blood. I inhale, catching the scent of salt, gripping the texture of watery crystal, melting snowflakes. Her heart is a pounding storm of snow and hail.

“Get away!” I shout, both hands like claws as I swing them across my body. The bird is thrown from the top of the building, slamming to the street. I push down, squish her blood as close to underground as I can make it go. She screams like thunder.

The queen crawls into the street, shaking, even from where I am. There is another building past the first, the front of it collapsed in cracked stone. That’s where she is crawling from.

The bird falls still as the queen approaches her. The queen stares at me, eyes merely smoothed pebbles. She opens her mouth like she’s going to say something, but she doesn’t.

I shut my eyes, because I can’t keep it all separate. Skeleton Cook standing behind me, the radius bone that I think ended up on the building, the crystalline sensation of this bird’s blood pinning her to the glistening black street, the texture of ancient, riddled bark in scarlet dripping down pale stone.

A piercing whistle breaks my concentration, and Skeleton Cook clanks to pieces. An eggshell cracks. I can’t keep the texture of melting snowflakes distinct from ancient wood anymore and they both end up flattened to the ground. I wince at the sick thump of body on stone.

***

Dear brain, block it out. The palace doors grinding open, the queen’s friend running out, the three guards stopping before the band of dark green stone before the crumbled building. This jet bird, as echoing as a storm, is small enough to fit in an eggshell as small as my torso.

“Get the harness!” the queen’s friend shouts.

“No,” the queen tells her.

Feet shuffling. Whispering, because there are palace guards. I let go of the blood, drop my aching arms to my side. The bird doesn’t move. I might have knocked her out, not letting blood move places it needed to. I’m going to pretend I knocked the bird out.

I slump to the ground, discovering a solid wall beside me that I lean into. Lean into like I could be a round table against the wall somebody is sitting on. Oh brain, block that out.

Footsteps approach me. “You should take the bird with you,” she says. I don’t look up, because I don’t want to know if this is the queen or her friend. Except it’s definitely the queen. “When you leave.”

“I came back to apologize,” I mutter. “About blowing up.”

The queen kneels in front of me, hands folded in the lap of her dusty, blue-violet parka. “I shouldn’t have pushed you.”

I glance sideways, at the queen’s friend, at the palace guards, walking back to the palace. “Why are they leaving?” I ask.

“I said I could deal with the body. And the visitor, with the crazy bird.”

I stare at her, uncomprehending. “Don’t they know that’s the royal avian?”

“Royal avians don’t kill people.”

“Ah,” I stare the other way, at Skeleton Cook’s pile of bones. His skull is still inside the eggshell, but pieces of that are scattered in an arc away from him. “Did he provoke it?” I regret saying it that way. “I mean, did the bird just attack him?”

“I’m not sure. I was upstairs, sweeping, when he started yelling. Then there was screeching, and I ran downstairs and saw the bird fly at the wall. Broke through it like water. Brought the entire thing down,” she pauses to shakily suck air in.

“Oh,” I say. Realize if I really wanted to know, I could build a fire. I could look in the flames for his form, sitting against a wall on a round table, watching the magenta egg crack open. “He chose to come with me, you know,” I’m not sure why this is important.

“He was a good scientist,” she nods. We both pointedly ignore the fact that him being a good scientist is likely what got him killed.

“I can’t train a bird,” I say.

“I can’t train that one,” she replies. “Not if they’re capable of breaking through rock like that. No harness could hold a bird determined to bring an entire building down.”

“Who sent the eggshell with my skeleton?” I ask.

“Me. Your, um, skeleton was in the building too, so I gave him the egg before he climbed out.” We both stare across the street at the evenly spaced doors in the line of unbroken buildings.

“I should go fetch his arm bone,” I shiver, because the sun is setting.

“Was that what that was?” she glances up.

“Yeah,” I nod.

“I should fetch my supplies and return to the palace. Do you think the body–I mean, he can wait until morning?”

“If it freezes, yeah.” Of course it’s going to freeze.

“Okay,” she reaches into the side of her parka and pulls out a mismatched pair of mittens. Pulls them over her hands. And neither of us move.

***

“Do you have anything else to eat?” I ask.

She sighs. “If you wait around until tomorrow morning, I can bring a few days worth of supplies.”

“If the bird stays here until tomorrow morning.”

“I think you found that egg in the snow for a reason,” she says.

“You’re just saying that.” I start to pull Skeleton Cook’s bones together, until I remember the radius bone is still on the building.

“Maybe I am.”

I finally stand. “I should find that bone before it gets dark.” And before the bird wakes up.

“I should return to the palace,” she says. She slowly rises from the ground.

“I’m coming back,” I blurt.

She smiles wanly. “Save the goodbyes for tomorrow morning.”

(end of part 2)

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