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An excerpt from

Tatterdemalion

Sylvia Linsteadt and Rima Staines

I’ve a fox-swallowed heart I do. It was made underground, you see, in the ribs of Lyoobov, who has known gunfire but has regrown like any wise plant will do from her trunk, from her waiting roots. The only difference is that this Lyoobov came back as a female, not a male, like plants that have both the ovum and the pollen. Red alder trees for example. She found that was easiest. She found it was necessary, this time, to be a she instead of a he. A mama-beast, not a papa-beast.

Of course you want to know that story of resurrection, but I’m not much of an alchemist. I know nothing of the metaphysical. I know only that I walked because I was looking for newts but I found no newts in the creek, so I walked further, and further, and I seemed to have some fire in my soles so I kept going. It was like following a red string or the path of a doe and all of her arrowed hoof-prints. I walked and ate rosemary cakes from my mother. The stellar’s jays cackled, flaunting their black combs and spreading flashes of indigo with their wings in the prickly oaks. I poured them perfect worms from my coffeepot and they quieted down, even left me a handful of blue feathers, which I put in my hair.

My need to keep on walking was like what you’re filled with when you meet a pretty girl and something about her is a whole hillside of purple lupines in your blood and you can’t do anything except hold her in your mind’s hands and follow wherever she goes. I know you think because I never could speak to you your way that I was simple or dumb or made in the wrong body with longings only for coyote-girls or something, but you are all mistaken, of course. I have loved quietly like any boy of fourteen. Annabelle, yes, I see you there turning pink because you remember how I watched you through the window of your father’s place where he fixed up all our shoes with tree resin and old rubber from the beach, string from the guts of rats. It was like that, the feeling as I walked for days—that kind of longing, except my longing wasn’t lust at all, but some need for wholeness. I barely ate besides the rosemary cakes and new huckleberries in the woods, tart ones that made my tongue dry.

At the end of my walking, Lyoobov and I just found each other, in the middle of a field made all of tar broken in fissures and veins by a thousand thick dandelions and milk thistles and clusters of lemon balm. It was like Lyoobov had been there all along, my whole life singing my small name, Poppy, Poppy, to the wind in thousands and thousands of small seeds. We are parts of the same thing, she and I. I am hers and she is mine, phantom limbs of each other. Lyoobov is not the same as before, not quite, because her bones came apart and then reassembled and she had to grow ligaments, veins, skin, which the broad-footed moles helped with.

She told me that all the barn owls gathered blood from their prey in their beaks until there was enough to fill her whole body. Her heart grew from iris tubers, from a thousand million lacey pieces of mycelium knitting and knitting at all the last red thimbleberries and freshly dead fox hearts of that great meadow where she was buried hundreds of years ago by the woman named Margaret who had watched him die. Before, Lyoobov was the map through the World as They Knew It and Out the Other Side, and he was a boy, like me. Now, Lyoobov, she is a Maker, that’s what she says, and so she is a girl.

None of that, which we shared, leaving together from the broken up tar field at the confluence of several asphalt branches that were hard and hot under our feet, matters much, though I can see you are lighting tallow tapers and you are bringing all of your rare blue treasures to give her: that seaglass, those blossoms and tile shards and scraps of wool and bottles full of nettle liquor and plastic balls.

Listen: I rode on the back of Lyoobov all the way east up the big mountains to where the snow starts and the sun rises and the clouds drop everything and the waters flow down.

Listen: I can tell you what happened to Anja, whose name you are always murmuring. Anja protect my child, Anja bless this bread, Anja heal this wound. I can tell you her story. We are carrying it, me in my little chest-country and my silver coffeepot, Lyoobov in the great chamber of her abdomen which I have slept in through a small trapdoor beneath her.

But listen: all stories are hitched to a hundred others, like the spokes on Lyoobov’s wheels, like the stars and how they are also many people, dancing. We are carrying their voices, from Before. All the threads that made Lyoobov, that made Anja, that made me.

It’s all candle-lit and red inside of Lyoobov, and she has been keeping these Stories safe too beside the heating hearth of her heart, where my coffeepot rests, near to boiling, ready to pour. You’d never believe it, what my pot brews on the hearth of Lyoobov’s heart.

You are whispering loud, you are coming closer. Yes, I do mean Anja born from the buckeye whose mother was Wheel. Yes, like Bells, Perches and Boots have told it, kestrel-watched, cowbell-clanged, sole-trod. I don’t know how to tell a thing like they do. I only know how to say it all fox-swallowed and then spat up again with fur and bones on these pages which are and are not like new white milkmaid flowers perpetually blossoming and then dropping their petals all over our feet, growing with their roots right in Lyoobov’s ribcage, where I was, after all, born.

I will tell it all to you, the life of Anja. But I will have to tell you from the beginning,

Before the Fall.

First, I will tell you how we came to know any of this at all.

* * *

It started out that we were just rolling along the broken highways of the Valley that stretches forever and ever, out to squares with overgrown orchards of fruit trees dry and dead. The Valley is scattered with empty canals, silt and crabgrass thrusting up everywhere. We picked fruit at first, until the orchards grew crippled, twisted, like they’d been poisoned. We told stories, you know, catching up, dreaming of bright lines through the sky that hitched us to each other, that splintered and shone through our identical bones.

Lyoobov crooned to me each dawn that it was time to go East, toward the sunrise and the place where the snow all gathers up those granite peaks. That’s where it all Began, she said to me in her way. That’s where she had first been dreamed into being four centuries ago, cold in the foothills in the snow, under the sky full of the smog that drifted and stayed from a City to the west.

Lyoobov’s bones trundled on about ice, and I followed, teaching myself to juggle almonds and peaches from the trees at the western edge of the Valley, boiling them up later in my coffeepot and pouring out vials of some elixir for the two of us, nothing transformed—just the hot syrup of peach and ground up almond.

One morning we met a woman between the endless trunks of the almond trees in an orchard empty of leaves or fruits. We wandered through, horrified, wondering at this desolation.

That’s when it truly began. From far away she looked like a girl my age, tanned as a nut, tangled bun of hair, long moving wide skirts of tawny fabric stained and frayed but so ample it was hard to tell exactly where they ended. Close up, her face was lined a thousand ways like the little feet of songbirds. She greeted us with a hand raised. She smiled at me specifically, brilliantly, so that her whole face moved. To Lyoobov she nodded, a low nod almost like a bow, and she said:

“You’re up and lurching around already, that’s a good start.” She reached a hand to lift her skirt to her ankles and I saw a sea of sparrow, junco, finch, wrentit and kinglet feet around her own feet, pecking at a ground as vast as the whole Valley where we had been wandering. She grabbed one, a yellow goldfinch, snapped its neck and split it open with a single long fingernail.

“Here is a map of the way up the mountains. You knew already, didn’t you Lyoobov, that somebody’s been calling, hard to say who, somebody’s been dreaming and time to go back, like a blue thread on a needle stitching a single blue stitch up there and leaving the line between so the place the water comes from and the place it goes are a single system again, not a clogged artery all laced up with sorrow.”

“Iris from the stories!” I said, and it came out a garble of these words from Lyoobov’s book and the speaking of songbirds. I reached out my hands to cradle that little goldfinch, the color of poppy pollen and the dark shade of night, still warm, still with a cheep in his beak, a word of comfort, a word of satisfaction at a small worm. Inside his opened abdomen, ribs as fine as plant stalks, I saw the sharp granite and snow and blue riverbeds of the mountains called the Sierra Nevada, looming to the east. The ones we’d already been moving toward. I saw the whole mountain range in there and I also saw a fine tracery of paths, magnified. The amount of detail that yellow-feathered body contained made my head spin.

Iris grinned at me like a girl and it made her face complicated, an old woman’s rivuleted topography of skin.

“Mmm,” she said. “I have been called that.” A wink. “Follow the blue creeks. I think you’ll get to the right place eventually, between the two of you.” She pulled several dried up bird organs the size of fingernails from a pocket and ate them like berries.

“And you,” she said, touching my red hair, “listen well.”

After she left I wished I’d offered her a draught from my coffeepot; I wanted to know what would have poured out. What it was she needed most. Perhaps it was best I didn’t.

* * *

The dead almond trees and the patches of crabgrass turned to broken tar, the ghost-bones of suburban houses, and dust, as we went further East over that Valley. Dust and fallow fields with stumps of old life across them, little husks and withered root balls. Poisoned, I whispered to Lyoobov and she whispered to me, and below our feet we could feel the sorrows of buried rivers, long ago dammed and dug under in tunnels of cement. By the time we rolled into the dry juniper scrub foothills, me sitting up on Lyoobov’s broad back with the blossomed book of her bones in my hands, learning and learning its sounds, the sounds of my boy’s voice as a thing separate from a raven’s, a frog’s, a streambed’s, I think I had learned the look of Hell.

Lyoobov always made the fire. It was an extraordinary thing to watch her gray leathery hands, her nimble wheeled bulk, her short trunk and her tail and her big dark eyes like cut out moons with tapered edges—all of her went into the making of a blaze. It was like she was giving birth to it, stick by gathered stick, tented into perfect forms that allowed the air and the flames to twine and crackle and sear. Afterward, she ate the embers, one by one, savoring.

Every night I held out that dissected goldfinch for us to peer inside of. It never seemed to decompose, only remained a just-dead yellow form, neck broken, changed from a body to a map. We followed the blue lines like veins in the mountain range of her ribcage, not because we had any idea what we would find, but because it felt like the only thing in the world to do. It felt like following sustenance; like this was the only way to be fed, though we ate haphazardly—quail and lizards, roots, almonds stored in Lyoobov’s carriage-sized middle. I slept there nightly, the embers she had eaten warming her body, part wagon, part beast she is, a place all made for dreaming in. I seemed to grow in every direction nightly, absorbing the shapes and sounds of human words.

It may have been a year, a year and a half, it took us to get there. I cannot say. We rolled, we dreamed, through that wasteland of dust, up the mountain. We changed and we also stayed much as we always had been. I am no good at measuring things.