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The Stars are Wonder
A short story from Cheeseburger Brown
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The Stars are Wonder, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

10.
Angel by the Wing


I awake on a narrow tongue of beach nestled in the shadow of bluffs overlooking the sea. The splintered wreckage of our galleon is visible jutting from an irregular pile of rocks upon which it has been dashed, apparently unleashing of landslide of lichen-slick stones from the face of the cliff above.

A flotilla of objects bob sedately in the vicinity: an empty bottle of wine, a codpiece, the upper deck of Mr. Spice's false teeth, the right arm of the artificial woman, a cabin boy, a seat cushion, a spoon...

The sun has come out. The head of a pretty girl sits upon a pile of rocks next to me.

I am not horrified, and I examine the head from where I lie with a kind of detached curiosity. The neck terminates in a smooth, bloodless line. Her eyes are closed as if in communion, her lips pursed as if at study. It seems to me to have been a very peaceful death, for a decapitation.

I wonder where she came from. Despite the lightness of her skin it seems unweathered, like the supple faces of the Empire's most comely noble mathematicians. Her hair is black and short, feathery.

Steered by a morbid compassion I reach out to her touch her apple-ripe cheek, and I scream like a child when her eyes snap open before my fingertips find her. I throw myself backward and land in the surf with a splash, gasping.

The head shifts and the rocks beneath the stump ripple. I blink, my eyes irritated by the strange motion. The girl's eyes are fixed on me, lively and focused. A hand sweeps out of the rocks and extends on a pole of grey sand toward me, a tiny metallic device pinioned between dirty fingers.

"Do not touch me," she commands, a bewilderingly toneless speech that comes a second after her lips move.

"What are you?" I demand hoarsely, scrambling to my knees and crawling away from the menacing apparition. Even in my fear I note the crisp shadows the decapitated girl's arm of sand casts, as tangible and real as the wet locks of my own hair dripping before my eyes.

She pinches her mouth tight, says nothing.

I stand. Breathing hard I make a wide circle around the head on the pile of rocks that waver and discolour as my perspective changes. I settle down on my haunches and against the ocean and the sky it becomes clear: the girl's body is there, invisible, copying the light of the world behind it. Now her arm is a blue horizon, and if I raise my head it takes on the hue of the bluffs.

I shuffle closer. She trains the device on me ominously. I hold up my empty hands and lean in closer again: I can perceive her camouflaged left leg pinned between two clots of the landslide's slurry. This girl -- whatever she is -- is pinned like a butterfly to a collector's felt.

The device in her hand flashes and I reel back like a ragdoll, pushed by an invisible agency. I land hard on the sand and lose my breath. Croaking for air I kick out blindly and manage to strike the girl's hand. Her weapon flies free, skips twice on the water and then submerges with a fart of bubbles.

"Faeces!" she cries.

"That hurt," I accuse, rubbing my ass. In my abused state the whole affair leaves me a bit tired so I remain splayed out on the beach for some time, regaining my breath and watching the trapped girl watch me.

I theorize that she is the being I have seen walking in our wake. Is she herself of the magic?

After a while she sits up, her unadorned head seeming to float above the beach as she squeezes her hands beneath a large lip of rock weighing on her shin and attempts to prise it loose. She grunts, her face distorted not just by her effort but also by pain. Her leg, I imagine, has been broken.

She leans back against the rocks again, exhausted, sweat glistening on her young brow.

"You're stuck," I point out.

She stares at me, and then whispers something. After the briefest pause the toneless voice sounds again: "I am not permitted to speak with you."

"Oh."

I crawl over to her and ignore the next battery of warnings. There is an edge in her voice that tells me she doesn't have another magic pushing device. I explore the distorted camouflage of her leg, moving downward until I find the crevasse in which she has become lodged. Her strange clothes, grey and shimmeringly visible at this proximity, are ripped there below the knee, exposing a length of soft calf abraded and bloody.

(I decide that she is a mortal thing.)

She chops her hand at my neck and kicks at me viciously with her free leg, and I am toppled over into the mud again. The surf comes in a moment later and washes over me, leaving streamers of dank seaweed. I sit up and rub my throbbing neck.

"Get away from me," the girl commands. "Contact is forbidden."

"I can help you," I say.

"My colleagues are en route," she replies quickly. "Your surviving shipmates have walked north along the beach to a nearby village. I suggest you join them before my colleagues arrive."

I can tell this is supposed to be a threat but the childish quaver in her voice robs it of much strength. "How do you know where my shipmates have gone?"

"I can see them," she says, looking north and squinting.

I look north at the solid face of rock beneath the turf-topped bluffs. I look back at the girl, whose brown irises are dialled out for far focus. She blinks, her pupils flitting rapidly. "Less than an hour away by foot," she tells me, still looking at whatever ghosts she consults for such bewildering mathematics.

"You are a woman and I do not doubt your calculations," I say slowly, "but you are also possessed of powers such as I've never imagined and thus I have no basis to guess your motives. Tell me: are you from the Third Continent?"

No reply. I look out at the small cove in which we have landed, noting the lines of dried brine on the faces of the cliffs. I also note how the depression of sand where I had awakened has become a puddle. I turn back to the girl. "How long until your friends arrive?"

"Any moment," she lies.

I sniff. "The tide is coming in."

She raises her head to look for herself and I can see her elbows poking through other rips in her camouflaging skin. Her brow furrows. She bites her lip. She leans back again and avoids my eye. "Please help me."

"My help is conditional. You will answer my questions."

She assents. Her head drops. The rock camouflage of her bosom rises and falls with heavy breaths. "One question," she negotiates.

"Two," I correct.

(Onion War had spent decades squeezing answers -- unreliable answers -- drop by precious drop from the world. He never had my opportunity: I have an angel by the wing who begs my favour. Think of that!)

With a frustrated grunt the girl sits up again and pulls frantically at her leg while stealing glances at the rising tide. Then she gives up once more and pleads, "I am forbidden from sharing information with you." Her eyes jitter, then moisten. "I will fail my class," she adds.

"Two questions," I remind her.

She bites her lip again and nods. "Two questions. Quickly! Please."

When she has satisfied me we work together to topple away the debris pinning her leg. At the moment when she is freed I am close enough to discern the grey folds along her shin and calf inflate to become turgid sacs, correcting the position of the girl's mislaid bones with an audible crackle. She lets out a little yelp and squeezes my shoulder.

When I look up there are five figures standing on the rising waters. Hobbling, she goes to them. For a long time I watch after them, long after they have walked away over the glittering horizon.

The stars have come to horrify me, so when evening comes I cower.



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