Content Note: self-harm and suicide
The first time Rang died, it stopped a typhoon.
The typhoon raged at the entire Orphan Cousin enclave. Torrents rolled in for hours, swallowing the harbor in foam and brine, dashing fishing trawlers against the shore. Storage houses were dragged into the surf whole, returning split marlins and salted yellowfins and sweet-core mollusks from whence they came, stealing all the people’s sugar and guava like it was a tax. When the waves caved Rang’s roof and crushed her skull, a storm that should have lasted days gave up. In minutes, it was sunny out.
Rang’s stepmother rubbed the bridge of her nose and filled out the paperwork.
The retreating waters carried Rang’s body far out into the bay. When she came to, she had urchins in her hair. Some of the Orphan Cousins found her on a patch of driftwood, and netted her and dragged her to safety. It was Len and Un’s boat, twin sisters who ran much of the Orphan Cousins enclave.
Len spoke with a softness that sounded like a hand about to close. “How’d you get so far out here?”
Un added, “And survive? You’re the healthiest drowned girl I ever saw.”
Dread and guilt shook up into a cocktail in Rang’s guts. She didn’t know what to say, and feared how anything she said would be taken. How could she put impossible things into words?
Then the twins interrupted her silence.
Un said, “So healthy you can probably work. We’ve got a spare fishing rod. That storm left every blacktip out here biting.”
Len said, “Want in? We’ll let you keep twenty percent of what you catch.”
“Twenty?” Rang twisted her hands in her shirt. “Last time I fished for you, it was thirty.”
Len leaned on the prow and said, “We did save your life.”
Un rubbed her thumb and fingers together. “And we’ve got to feed the family, don’t we?”
Len said, “We Orphan Cousins are all family.”
Un said, “You want to help the family out, don’t you? If we don’t give, what good are we?”
Shame could drown a person as easily as a high tide. Rang took a fishing rod and got to casting along with a dozen other Orphan Cousins. Every so often she scratched her forehead, at an oblong scar that nobody seemed to see. She felt it, though.
Rang swore when she found there were no docks to return to. All the fishers slept on the boats while the Orphan Cousins ashore rebuilt their homes, and everyone praised the god Life for sparing them from the storm’s wrath with his miracle. The god Life never showed up to claim his praise.
All the work of fishing and mending nets was good work to hide in. The family needed Rang to keep working and giving. New creatures had come to their waters from the unusual weather. There were blacktip sharks, and a bright green kind of puffer fish, and an enemy flotilla.
The flotilla sailed in on twice as many vessels as the Orphan Cousins had ever owned. These raiders would’ve been wiped out entirely by the typhoon, but by a miracle, they were left untouched. Their ships filled as much of the horizon as the waves had. The raiders introduced themselves with cannon shells, and followed up with an ugly song of rifle fire.
As Rang cupped her mouth to yell for their boat to veer starboard, a bullet flew straight through her heart.
Her stepmother said, “How are you back here already? You’re going to get me fired.”
It was the end of the battle for Rang, and the end for everybody else, too.
Rang floated amid a reef, this time witnessing the tail end of a freak whirlpool sucking the flotilla into the sea’s basements. The invaders went down firing into the surf as though to slay the waters for betraying them.
Rang tried to swim to shore, but Len and Un’s boat overtook her. They picked her up in the same net they’d used for tuna.
The twins touched her where the bullet had pierced her heart. Len said, “Do we have a miracle on our hands?”
Rang touched her hairline again, scratching at a bygone miracle. She didn’t know how to explain this bizarre gift she’d experienced.
Her hesitation earned her two toothless and accusatory looks.
Len said, “We Orphan Cousins are all family. We’re all we’ve got.”
Un said, “You wouldn’t hide something important from your family, would you?”
Len and Un sold her story for booze. The camp danced long past when they ran out of daylight, and they burned things they shouldn’t to keep going. They sang about having miracles in their pockets. Rang kept trying to leave, and people blocked her with drinks so strong their fumes could’ve ignited. They made dolls and effigies of her likeness.
“Looks like you, don’t it?” said Len, waving an effigy at her. It had a hole through its heart. “Going to sell them for a fat price each.”
Un said, “Hold one of them, and show it off. So people see you and it. Come on, it’s for the family.”
They thrust one into her hands, and it sold right quick.
She had to ask the buyer, “What do you want to do with it?”
A man twice her age showed her, hoisting it up and spearing it through the chest. He waved it about like it was the flag of their enclave. Kids clapped their little palms, cheering the impaled effigy. Soon they begged for effigies of their own.
The man asked, “Aren’t you honored?”
Rang didn’t want to answer. Straying away to avoid answering was how she saw the silhouettes. They were funny shapes out in the sea, triangles nested together, bobbing and coming closer. It took her a long stare to recognize the ships, sailing without so much as a match lit to give them away.
There was a big crowd ignoring the pirates in favor of partying, and she ran into them, jumping onto the backs of as many dancers as she could. She yelled, “Get to the boats! The raiders are back!”
“We’ve got this,” said Len.
Len and Un got on either side of Rang, carrying cudgels. Other Orphan Cousins circled her, thicker than tall grass. Some had effigies, and more had pistols.
It was easier to let them do what they thought they had to. They all needed this, they all prayed at her desperately, and they were her family. She thought maybe she wouldn’t feel it.
The dawn sky was gray already, Old Ma’am Mountain having woken up and reminding everyone that ten generations of sleep didn’t mean she wasn’t still a volcano. That was the miracle this time. Between the tremors and the lava, both sides roasted in a mutually ugly battle. Some Orphan Cousins strayed from the fight, sheltering under thick trees, and calling for her.
Un stood shy of the battle, beating her cudgel against a boulder and screaming, “Rang! Rang, get here now! We need another miracle!”
Rang had a long life ahead of her of being sacrificed again and again, with the Orphan Cousins milking good fortune from her veins.
Part of her wanted to give them every last drop of her miracles. Part of her was ashamed that she hadn’t sacrificed herself sooner. There were so many loud parts of herself.
She ran. She ran from the part of herself that didn’t want to run.
When she finally found another enclave, it was half-empty, and most of the people still there ignored her in favor of playing dominoes. They slept among groves of unpicked citrons. The fruits were all thick and bottom-heavy in ways that made Rang’s tongue dance. She’d work here for food, happily.
A boy came up next to her with a smile like he’d never known hardship. “I wouldn’t pick here. These grounds are tainted, too. One bite’ll do you.”
“I heard that,” she said, trying to sound like she already knew. “You found a place that isn’t tainted?”
“Depends. You ever cut dominoes?”
“I don’t know how.”
“Then my name is Hillhill.” His smile made cracked teeth pretty. “I love to teach.”
Her face got so hot it felt like it’d boil and slide off. She tried to shake his hand, except Hillhill couldn’t move his right hand. He shrugged and laughed her gesture off. He had an unflattering, careless laugh.
He said, “I caught the sickness late, just before people knew to be scared. First you cough. Then you lose your right side. A lot of us got it; it’s in all the fruit.”
He sounded so earnest for someone who was filling her in on things she’d know if she was local. That meant things.
All she had in her pockets was an, “I’m sorry. That’s hard.”
“Could be worse. I could’ve been one of those saps who went raiding south and got eaten by the sea. You get hungry enough, you’ll do anything, I guess.”
And then Rang knew which enclave she’d stumbled into. She tried to hide it from her face.
In exchange for shelter, she taught anybody that wanted the secrets of net fishing, without saying where she’d learned it. Most of the Sea Hornets enclave kept distance from her like she had a disease, or maybe they recognized she was from the Cousins on account of how bushy her eyebrows were. They all had such thin eyebrows. Hillhill’s were the thinnest she’d ever seen.
Hillhill taught her to play dominoes. Sometimes he let her win. Sometimes she won on her own, and each time she hid how proud she was, and wasn’t sure why.
“Don’t do that,” Hillhill said. “Gloat on me.”
When she didn’t stick up for herself, he brought out the materials. They carved more than they played. By watching she figured out how to put artistic flourish into the dots on their faces, sometimes in triangles or pointed cones. You could trade ten sets of quality dominoes for two thirds of a bag of rice, which supposedly didn’t carry the sickness. She could make it a month on two thirds of a bag.
She tried to carve more than he did, and hustle them more than he did. Hillhill was determined, and with his one good hand, he often insisted on carrying both of their bags of dominoes.
The second time he did it, she said, “Give those here.”
He answered, “Who caught breakfast this morning?”
“And who caught dinner last night, and roasted it?”
“Did I cook it wrong?”
“You don’t have to keep giving all the time. Soon you’re going to corner the domino market. Let me do something for you.”
When he carried them, she didn’t know what to do with her hands. When he was talking to customers, she tried to organize the sets, and it wasn’t enough. Her thoughts squirmed. She wanted to kiss him, and every time it felt too selfish. If he tried, she’d let him do it, just like she’d let Len and Un take her life.
One night she wondered if giving could be a curse.
When Hillhill came asking for her, Rang hid under the floorboards. She didn’t know what conversation they needed to have, and was too afraid to choose. She said nothing and hoped he didn’t hear her breathing.
It was such a sunny day that Rang couldn’t look up with unlidded eyes. Smoked yellowfin was in the air, and she was too late.
The day she went to find Hillhill, he was carrying some short, pudgy girl’s sacks of dominoes. The sacks clicked, so she knew the two had been carving. Rang’s chest ached, and she prayed to her absentee father that those dominoes wouldn’t sell. She followed them to market and seethed when a mariner bought ten sets. Their good fortune made her spit at her own feet.
Her only pleasure was when this new girl fell to her knees coughing. Rang stalked them all the way to a squat hovel, and on the stoop, the new girl hacked up a mess and shuddered and winced with one eye in the way that meant that side could soon be paralyzed.
If Rang was fortunate, the girl would be dead in a week.
Rang practiced straining with her bags of dominoes, but it was too theatrical. She never needed him to carry them in the first place. This wouldn’t win him back.
So she practiced conversations:
“What do you think shark tastes like?”
“What if we made a set of dominoes we didn’t sell, that were private to us?”
“Need a date for that new girl’s funeral?”
None of them sounded right. She couldn’t even woo an imaginary lover.
Twice more Hillhill came to visit her, probably wanting solace about this dying other girl. Both times Rang hid, holding her breath rather than facing him.
Twice she went to see him. Both times he was at the short girl’s place, with a prayer candle lit for the god Life. Hillhill was so attentive to the girl’s needs, holding the cup to her lips when she couldn’t. They were so sweet together. The sickness was killing her. It’d take a miracle for her to make it, and they were praying to a god who’d never even answered his own daughter.
Rang told herself they deserved better. She could give them better.
There was a bluff not too far from the Sea Hornets enclave. The fall hurt worse than Rang ever imagined, crumpling her up and leaving her conscious as she rolled into the waters.
She should’ve hated her stepmother; her stepmother had killed her real mother. But as much as Rang enjoyed various strands of pettiness, she knew Stepmother Death had no choice and killed indiscriminately. Her stepmother was just one of The 99 Deaths, each as overworked as the last gatekeeping the afterlife.
All of The 99 Deaths sat along an impossibly vast desk, beyond which no eyes could fathom. Each Death was gargantuan, dwarfing the souls waiting in line, and they all looked similarly exhausted, surviving on tea and spite.
As Rang walked up to the desk, her hundred-foot tall stepmother clucked her tongue. The woman had tattoos that would pass for murals in the living world, so broad and vivid, of fields of hogs chasing something hidden by her stepmother’s jacket.
At least none of the souls waiting in line looked mad at Rang for cutting in line like this. None of them acknowledged her at all, and looking at them was like trying to focus on sun bursts in her eyes after a flash.
Rang put her hands together and asked, “Can you please find my dad for me? If I talk to him, I’m sure I can fix this.”
“Life is a deadbeat,” Stepmother Death said. “I haven’t sniffed him around in two rainy seasons.”
“Is he, like, nervous to see you again? Maybe he doesn’t know what to say.”
“Don’t stand up for people who won’t stand up for you.”
This advice didn’t help Rang’s situation. It just made her resent her own pettiness, and she was clinging to that right now. “I’m trying to…talk to a boy…”
“You can’t romance the dead, fool child. Because of the trust your father set up, you can’t even stay down here.” Stepmother Death drew out a sheet of paper, a fresh form, and began inking the sections for Rang. “You ought to be grateful. It’s the one thing Life left you. More chances, more miracles.”
“Can you fix it so the next miracle helps the sick people? And that girl?”
“I’m afraid I can’t. Those are your burden, little demigod.”
“Living feels impossible.”
“And you want your daddy to come fix it? There’s a way with that.”
Rang gripped the edge of her stepmother’s desk in both hands and peered up at her. “What way?”
“Realize it ain’t gonna happen. If you want to meet someone, you’d better hurry up.”
Stepmother Death stamped the form, and Rang was alive again, her clothes dripping from the sea.
There was gunfire in the distance, and the stink of spent powder closer. All along the river there were dead people strung up in nets.
Without thinking about where her feet were headed, she came to Hillhill’s shack. The door hung open like a slack jaw. Inside sat one person, that meddlesome girl whose name Rang had never gotten, fighting fits of tears. She clutched Hillhill’s carving knife like she was fixing to turn herself into a domino.
Rang fought about it, and lost the fight to herself. She opened the rickety door. “Hey. Is Hillhill around?”
The girl’s eyes were puffed nearly shut, and she looked wearily over at Rang through all that hurt. “Somebody found a load of fresh meat. The holy load. Thought Life sent it himself.”
A miracle of feasts. Why did that miracle sound so bad?
“We were lugging it back when the Orphan Cousins struck. They heard we were sick and easy prey. They took most of the food, and weren’t satisfied there. Hillhill got in the way so I could…He…he should have…”
Rang’s mouth went as dry as an old grain of rice, her tongue threatening to crumble up into dust. She couldn’t make words. She couldn’t apologize for the miracle, for the food that had gotten hungry people dead. The person she wanted to apologize to would never hear it.
The girl asked, “Did you know him?”
There was a hunger in her face, like she was ravenous for more of Hillhill. The look made Rang feel greedy on top of dry.
Rang managed to say, “We were friends for a while. I’m Rang.”
“You’re her? Hillhill asked for you a lot.” The girl looked down at the knife in her hands, and tried to hide it behind her side. “I’m Berry.”
She said her name was Berry, and the sentence was punctuated with bombs exploding in air. The palm trees shuddered over the shack like an artificial storm rolling in. The noise was a demand that rattled in Rang’s chest, threatening to usurp her heartbeat. She wanted to collapse onto Hillhill’s floor and lie where he used to at night. A pile of his old shirts lay there, a collection of holes.
Another bomb went off, and Berry grabbed Rang’s elbow and pulled. Berry said, “Come on.”
Rang asked, “What are you doing?”
Berry said, “We’ve got to take care of each other or else we don’t have anybody.”
The girl dragged Rang into a run. Rang followed. Following was all she could give tonight.
Following Berry was dizzying. She looked like Hillhill—not in appearance, but in how she looked at surroundings. She looked for where others could go without checking whether her own footing was safe.
Under the thickest patches of the trees was an old sulfur mine. Rang and Berry joined the rest of the Sea Hornets as they plunged inside it. It smelled like mineral baths, but they had to look out for where gasses leaked from cracks. Red foxes had dens in the mines, and wherever they lived, the refugees could also hide.
Berry and Rang came upon a pack of clever elderly physicians who were carrying the injured to shelter. Old folks with gnarled hands pressed their palms to open wounds to keep them closed. They all had that same way of looking for others, like Hillhill and Berry. It was like being surrounded by a dead boy.
She had to help them.
Together Rang and Berry grabbed any end of a stretcher that needed hands. They carried crying survivors towards the mines. Berry kept trying to take the heavier end of stretchers from Rang. It was a hurtful kindness. A feeling gnawed in Rang; she wasn’t giving enough.
When another crop of injured people arrived, Rang abandoned the mines. She streaked in the wrong direction, south for the river where the Orphan Cousins’ boats would be. As she went, she hopped and waved her arms. Armed people were happy to give chase.
This time her sacrifice would mean something. Even if this was her last life, it would be worth it to give the people in the caves another minute. Thinking of any other way to help was like trying not to think about suffocating when you were underwater.
They pursued her with nets and guns in the utterly wrong direction. She was actually proud of how far astray she led them before she was split in half.
She screamed at her stepmother, “You stole Hillhill!”
Stepmother Death removed her giant bifocals, dropping them on her desk with a report like an abrupt hurricane. “Firstly, it was another of the Deaths that took him. I don’t even like optimists. Secondly, it’s not my fault you didn’t live your life with him.”
“You said to go find someone if I wanted them, and he was gone. I tried to go back to him as soon as I was alive.”
“Which wasn’t fast enough. It’s almost as if the universe doesn’t wait around for your bullshit.”
“You’re not my real mother.”
“Then why did you bring your problems to me again?”
“I’m sorry you’ve been cursed with perspective,” her stepmother said in a tone so dispassionate it could’ve cracked continents in half. “If you see Life out there, please, tell him to masturbate more often so I get fewer of you on my hands.”
“The miracles don’t do what I want. They’re making things worse. The fighting is getting worse. Hillhill’s dead. His whole village is dying.”
Stepmother Death gestured with her stamp to ninety-eight other busy members of The 99 Deaths. Each was burdened with an infinite line of souls. “I’m aware people are dying. It’s why I’ve got to get back to work.”
“What am I supposed to do? I’m killing myself and it doesn’t help.”
“If you want a chance at anything being better?” Stepmother Death brought her stamp down, hard and soundless. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to live.”
The Sea Hornets found a cache of guns lost a generation ago deep down inside the cave system, all perfectly preserved without a speck of rust or grit anywhere. No one remarked how impossible this was as they rushed by Rang, loading pistols and hoisting tubs of fuel that smelled like rotten vegetables. They raced down the mountainside to take the beach back from the Orphan Cousins.
The first Rang saw of this miracle was a man’s legs being blown off so cleanly that a butcher could’ve done it. His name was Kasp, a local carpenter. Rang dragged him to safety, what safety there was with death flying in both directions overhead. Kasp was delirious, and she kept apologizing to him anyway.
“Berry, come help me! Please!”
Berry slumped next to the mouth of the cave, in an old crack in porous stone. She watched everyone without blinking. Rang couldn’t tell if Berry shook her head no, or was merely shaking.
Lugging an injured person wasn’t so different from lugging a sack of rice with a few rips in it. Rang carried Kasp on her own, making sure nothing spilled. You had to mind the sensitive spots so they didn’t break open. She joined the mobile hospital before she knew one had sprung up around her.
They had more pistols than gauze. Clever elders broke open bullets and used their powder to cauterize wounds. Rang got used to the smell sooner than she would have expected.
Kasp reached for Rang’s left hand and thanked her every time she passed by. He couldn’t move his right arm because he’d caught the plague a year earlier. All he had was his left hand, and all he said was he was alive because of her. She promised to teach him dominoes after the violence ended.
Rang forced herself to be present, beside Berry whenever she could be. They ferried supplies together for an interminable while. People kept handing in jars and canteens of water for the common need, and sanitizing sheets to make bandages.
“Berry, how do you tear sheets in such even strips? Can you teach me?”
Berry didn’t respond. She kept staring at Kasp, and the pain in the creases of her face was almost as scary as when it disappeared back into blankness, her trauma a sinkhole behind her face.
Seeing the mess of a man coming in on the next stretcher, Rang told her, “Sit this one out. Get us some lunch. You can’t give too much.”
Berry handed off a tray of surgical supplies and left. It was only in surgery that Rang noticed the tray was incomplete. It had three of almost everything. It was missing one scalpel.
They saved people that looked dead, and they lost people with the complexions of health. This wasn’t dominoes. She didn’t learn it; she endured it, refusing to give in to the confusion of how the next surgery would turn out. Then Kasp got some new infection and needed his spleen removed, and she held his hand and was sure she’d have to kill herself.
The feeling overtaking her like that meant she had to get out, and she ran from the mobile hospital with eyes too wet to see where she was headed. She couldn’t give like that. The habits were stronger than she was. She tried running away from the habits themselves, and away from the radius of suffering that roused them. She heard a stream gossiping wet little half-truths, and followed them to the source.
A huge chunk of worn granite lay in front of the stream, and she fantasized about climbing up it and yelling, “No!” The height would add to the defiance. She’d yell until her father heard her.
Berry was sitting on the left side of the granite, her legs pressed together like she was trying to fuse them into a tail. She had one sleeve rolled up, inspecting her wrist.
She had a scalpel.
For a moment, Rang was going to threaten herself. She’d run to camp for a scalpel of her own and open her veins if Berry opened hers.
But an ultimatum didn’t feel right. It’d almost guarantee more guilt, more weight on a tree branch that had cracked.
That’s all they had in them. It would’ve been humiliating if either of them had the strength left for that emotion. Rang climbed the granite and sat on the other side, scraping the backs of her thighs.
Berry kept her sleeve rolled up. She said, “The same people with the same skill with the same supplies do the same work, and some of the hurt stay, and some of the hurt took.”
“The people that stay alive come from hard work. I don’t know how a doctor does it.”
“It could all go away anytime. Any of it.”
“Does it scare you?”
“I don’t feel scared.”
“What do you feel?”
Berry hunched over herself, like she wanted to revert into an egg. “I couldn’t help Hillhill.”
“That’s not on you.”
“I see those people in there…split open just like me.”
There weren’t any visible cuts on her, not that that meant they were absent. “Berry?”
Berry said, “Split open like Hillhill. They’re split open like him, and it should’ve been me. If I’d carried my weight, it would’ve been me.”
“You didn’t take anybody’s spot. Nobody is dead because you’re alive right now, and people in that hospital are going to live because you lived and worked.” Rang rubbed knuckles into her tear ducts. “You’re so tired you can’t imagine feeling not tired. I’ve been that way for months.”
“It’s a deep tired.”
Rang asked, “Have you ever seen a miracle?”
“Yeah, you have.”
Rang pulled off her top and scratched at the scar over her chest where once someone from Berry’s enclave had shot her to death, and a scar across her midriff where she’d been split in two. This had to be more defiant than screaming at an absent god.
“I told myself that when I got hurt, other people got miracles. But ‘miracles’ was a lie. They were catastrophes. They gave us more confusion, and more people in broken pieces. One time I let people club me, thinking some help would come out of it.”
“What did it do?”
“It made me think I was dispensable.”
Berry’s shoulders shook like new bombs were going off overhead.
It was silent. There were no more gunshots. The fighting had paused, and might be over. They hadn’t heard the silence, because the two of them weren’t done. Berry still had her scalpel, the flat of it over the blue shadows of her veins.
“That’s yours,” Rang told her. Rang sat down close, without moving for the blade. She flattened her hands on her knees and said, “I’m too tired to know what to say.”
“I’m too tired for everything…” Berry said, and her eyes closed like she was too tired for vision.
Rang said, “Please, just be tired with me.”
Berry moved slowly, dripping like she was a sculpture of molasses losing her figure in the sun. Gradually, she slumped into Rang’s naked shoulder.
They listened to the stream gossip, and to the stale sounds of peace time, and wished they could fall asleep, but were too tired for that. Sometimes Berry leaned on her, and sometimes she found herself leaning on Berry.
They stayed like that until a surgeon came out looking for them. Kasp had woken up, and wanted to know if they could teach him how to play dominoes.
© 2020 John Wiswell