by Clio Velentza
A small figure comes drenched from the battlefield. Its naked feet leave gentle marks in the earth where bloody rainwater pools. Little toes, little hands, burning brow and dry mouth. The scarf clings to her shaven skull. On her left hand is a map drawn with charcoal, in her right a wooden bowl, fragrant with residue of wine and soil. Warm paint drizzles from her lashes.
At the town gate she stops. Around the low houses echoes the mournful clang of hammer hitting stone. She bares her dirty teeth to the guard, and he spits at her feet.
“You are dead, your highness,” he says.
She laughs, knocking the empty bowl against her dark head.
“Dead, dead,” she mocks. “Stupid I came back from the dead too soon. Listen – I can hear them cutting my gravestone. Last night I fasted and rubbed my skin with oil, and I will keep well in the ground. The jewel robbers will think I’m sleeping and won’t touch me.”
The guard lets her pass.
In the streets she finds her sister playing in the dust, her soft-soled feet wrapped in willow leaves. The girl’s locks are braided around her sea-shell ears. When their eyes meet, her sister stands up and throws a handful of red clay at her.
“You are dead, sister,” the girl says.
She laughs again, wiping the clay from her lips. The sound of the hammering goes on.
“Dead, dead. I held the twins when they were born, their heads were like peaches, and now they are dead, dead. I showed them what you taught me, how to tie knots and climb trees, they fought in the yard with sticks and crowns of reeds. And now their bellies are gaping in the field, and flies walk across their new teeth.”
The girl says nothing but tugs at her own hair, pulling out tufts of the coppery braids, and lets her pass.
She walks down the smooth paths listening to her sister’s weeping. Her mouth still tastes of the damp, salty clay.
Over the doors dangle fistfuls of rosemary and horned skulls. Sour faces watch from the mute depths of houses. Bony animals trail her, nipping at the cracked skin of her heels. In the thorny courtyard of the royal home rows of people are gathering silently, their backs pressed against the red walls. They pretend not to see but watch through the sleepy corners of their eyes.
The king steps out from the darkness in blue clothes hemmed with summer mud, and sunburnt flesh spilling over gold arm cuffs. He watches the child he remembers seeing sucking at his sister’s doomed breast. There is no softness left in this slight body, which twitches every time the hammer sings. He stops when his shadow touches the curled edges of her toes.
“You are dead, niece,” he says.
She does not laugh this time.
“You stole the gods’ wine and your traitor brother’s death,” he says.
The people listen, their heads bent low. The king raises a hand and a shudder ripples through them. They wait for her to speak.
“Dead, dead. You could never tell the twins apart, how do you know which mouth you put the coin on? You could only spare one bronze piece, but the ferryman won’t take one boy without the other. They will have to ride hand in hand and mouths sewn, to pay for your mistake. The Lady of the Dead won’t be able to tell the traitor from the hero. She will only see two boys too young to take a wife, wearing the same scars and carrying the same sticks.”
The clanging keeps cutting the dry air. Only the flies move.
“And what will you say, niece, when you are standing in front of the Lady?”
The hammer’s song stops. The wail of the reluctant stone being dragged fills the town.
She leans in and digs the ground with her little bowl. She pours the earth over her head. Clumps of grey soil cling to her eyebrows, tiny beetles scurry from her shoulders.
“Nothing except that I am thirsty, and ask for the water of oblivion.”
Clio Velentza lives in Athens, Greece. She is a winner of Queen’s Ferry Press’ Best Small Fictions 2016 and her work has appeared in several literary magazines, including Maudlin House, Gravel Magazine, Literary Orphans, Whiskey Paper, Atticus Review, Atlas & Alice, and Wigleaf.