You would think we are given arms only so we may hold the ones we love as they die. Certainly you have never been given any reason to think otherwise, and I wonder if this is why the only part of the dream I can recall is the end. Do you leave me with the memory of holding his broken body in my arms as punishment, or simply because that is the moment you, too, are forced to replay? When you look back on your time together, can you even trust your memories? Or does your grief rewrite every loving embrace into the desperate clinging of the living to the dead and dying? I do not think your arms were made for cradling corpses, but somewhere along the line that became your specialty. Do you wonder, deep down beneath the cigarettes and alcohol and morphine, if the dying part does not precede your touch, but the other way around?
During your stay at the House of Propriety, you have no name. You are given a number upon arrival, and it is this number by which you are referred to by the adults. You are not allowed to tell the other girls your name; you are not allowed to tell the other girls anything. You are not allowed to speak.
When the newest girl arrives at the House, she is given the number 18. Since there are more than eighteen girls in the House, and she is eleven years old, she isn’t certain of her number’s significance. She almost asks, in the beginning when the Rule of Silence is new to her and therefore forgettable, but a single glance from the Matron reminds her to hold her tongue. During the tour she bites the inside of her cheek to keep from asking questions, though it feels like a thousand of them bubble in her throat and push at her mouth.
There are six adults at the House: the Matron, terrifying in her stiff black dress and tight-bound gray hair; her husband, a man who enjoys earning the girls’ trust in order to exploit it for his own amusement; their eldest daughter and her husband, a lazy, spoiled couple who treat the girls like servants; and the youngest daughter, a reserved young woman who watches always for rule breaking. The House is an old Victorian manor turned into a maze of rooms and passageways by an almost unbelievable amount of clutter. It seems to 18 as if every resident who has passed through its halls left something behind, so that strange objects sit on every surface and in piles against the walls.
Though 18 keeps her head down in the beginning, it doesn’t take her long to learn the ways of the House, which girls can be trusted, and which spy for the adults. By the second month, she has become involved in what some call, both affectionately and with no small amount of wry humor, the Resistance. A small network operates among the most rebellious residents, messages passed in coded signals, rearranged objects, and nearly inaudible whispers. To these valiant efforts, 18 brings a valuable asset. 18 has no word for what she can do; she calls it “ghosting”, though she knows she can’t really be a ghost if she’s still alive. Whatever it is, since she was a toddler 18 has been able to send her consciousness, or maybe her soul, out of her body to invisibly and silently explore the area around her. Never has this skill been so useful or so necessary. With it, she eavesdrops on the adults and keeps watch while the other girls pass messages or commit subtle sabotage.
Through the network, 18 learns about the Repentance Room. The little building can be seen from the House’s rear windows, but from a distance it looks like nothing more than a shed nestled near the back wall of the garden. According to the others, however, the Room is used to punish children who break too many rules of the House. There they are locked, in cold and darkness, without food or water, for hours or even days. Some girls never return at all. The adults always claim these girls ran away, but no one believes them; there is no running away from the House.
After six months, 18 is finally allowed to go into the gardens as part of her daily chores. Her first time out, she tries to ignore the Room but finds herself drawn to the dilapidated shed anyway. The door is sealed by a large padlock, but 18 doesn’t use her ghosting to see inside. She isn’t ready for that truth just yet. Instead, she turns her back on the Room with the intention of leaving its dark secrets behind – but instead, they come out to face her in the light of day. Unbeknownst to 18, she has been gifted with one other strange power: the ability to see the resting places of the dead. As she turns away from the Room and back to the gardens, she catches a glimpse of bare skin between the leaves and investigates. Like a hologram, the vision of the buried dead girl floats just above the rich garden earth, the spring flowers and long green leaves sticking up through her translucent form like beautiful knives. When 18 looks up, she realizes the pale ghosts litter the garden.
In my dream I am Tanim, floating upright in black, icy saltwater. Before me is a creature both beautiful and terrifying; his skin is red, his hair white, and though I cannot see below his bare chest through the water, I know beneath his waist is not a pair of legs, but a long, serpentine tail. Every line of his face is perfect, and when he smiles I glimpse the tips of pointed fangs behind curving lips.
The creature identifies himself as Satan. He tells me he can give me everything I’ve ever wanted, in return for naught but my mortal soul. I know the offer is a trap, or at least a badly one-sided bargain, but I don’t care. What has my soul ever done for me? And what good is it, anyway, if I give up my one chance at fulfillment to preserve it? I don’t care about eternity. I barely care about mortality.
I don’t answer in words. Instead, I push through the water and take the creature’s face in my hands, pressing our mouths together in a painful, hungry kiss. Those fangs cut my lips and tongue, but I don’t care. I feel like I’m starving, like my entire life I’ve lacked something essential that I can identify only now. In this moment I know that all I want, all he can give me, is to serve him, love him, worship him for eternity. And with his arms around me, fingers digging into my flesh, he seals our bargain.
In my dream, you take once more the forms that suit you so well, the wolf and stag in human flesh. In my dream, you take up the deathdance that must feel so familiar, so instinctive to spirits who have known nothing but love and war, rise and fall, for so many eternities. In my dream, you slay the dragon together and each heartpulse of blood, each twitch and cry, is the physical manifestation of your bond. See, you say through bloody mouths, see how I love you, my darling? See, you say through rending teeth, see how it could be, beloved, just the two of us? See, you say through the poetry of mutual destruction, over the body of your slain prey, see – this is our design.
I dream about protests, fear, anger, queer blood and tears spilled in the streets. A knife in someone’s hand; my own, maybe, or Daren’s. “You never let him talk about it, either,” I say to Tanim, thinking of the illness, the madness that rolls through Daren’s mind like a storm front and how its edges spill into mine. Tanim grabs my wrist, yanking it up and back so hard I think he means to snap it, and growls a threat I can’t remember afterwards. I remember he means it, though. He’s never looked at me with such rage before – nor has he ever hurt me. That image is what stays with me as I wake: the anger and violence in his eyes, my thin wrist gripped in his clenched hand.
By the end of the dream I am an old woman, still walking proud and tall in this place of smaller beings, but wrinkled and tired nonetheless. As the suns set, I watch the children of our peoples’ union dart between the mud houses in play. They are growing up in a world where they are the minority, little half-breeds of two alien races, but here they are treated like the blessings they are. Back home, two universes away in a place to which we can never return, they would be hated and mistreated. Those of us who remain from the first colony remember the way hate’s seeds spread so easily through our species; that we did not bear them in our own hearts was why each of us were chosen for the worldjump.
Evening cools the hot, dry air of this desert planet, and the flattened dirt road retains just enough warmth to soothe my bare feet. I take a moment to pause and stare up at the sky, at the familiar constellations and circling moons that once felt so foreign and frightening. Now, they are a comfort. I think of those of us who have perished on this planet; do they look down on me, one of the very last, from their home in the heavens? Tears well in my eyes. I wish you were here, I plead to the beloved who was taken too early to witness this planet’s miracles. I wish you could see what we’ve created… I wish you could have known our children. I sink to my knees, weeping, my tears darkening the ground like the rain which never falls here. I miss you! I cry. I miss you so much, darling! You should be here; you should have shared all of our joys! I love this place. I love these creatures who have shown us a different way of living. But love does not replace the ones of my own species who are gone and never to return. I am one of the last. And my time is short.
They told him he did not need to identify the body; they could do so through dental records, to save him the pain. He declined, despite vocal protestations. To shirk such responsibility would make him a creature more pathetic and cowardly than even the killers themselves. Perhaps if the method had been different, if the officers had not with averted eyes and stilted words explained the way Daren had died and the state in which his body was found, Tanim might have avoided the morgue. He could imagine a gunshot wound easily enough, or the curved bruise of a noose, but this? No. He needed to witness for himself the slurs carved into his lover’s charred skin – faggot, freak, queer – and hear from the coroner directly that Daren had been alive through it all. It was the very least he could do when he was unable to do anything of value. Living with the inescapable images of the broken, burned body seemed a meager tribute, but it was something.