Of Feathers and Flowers by Xan van Rooyan
For weeks she’d been hunting, and now—as the sun shimmied west, arcing away from the groping fingers of the Fray—Ara came upon her prey.
She’d worn her feet blister-bloody tracking the kermis along the edge of the world. Its spoor often proved elusive: a tatter of belonging caught in the embrace of a sprawled welwitschia or a mirage glint smeared across the sand, the figures within trapped in a loop of time shed like dandruff.
It was easy to mistake the litter of the kermis for detritus blown through the great schism splitting the northern sky. The tapestry of the worlds had been ripped open by opposing magics so that time and sorcery bled together, leaking through the wound—the Fray—to confound reality.
A veteran scavenger, Ara knew the difference between the marks of magic indigenous to her world and those skidded through the rift.
For one, Fray objects loitered. Lost and fallen out of space—out of time—they enjoyed their sojourn on the sands. As stains, they languished until swallowed by dust or picked up by greedy hands, as hers had once been, to be sold across the continent.
The remnants of a passing kermis rarely lasted more than a day. Its leavings were ephemeral. As the kermis scuttled on its chitinous protrusions, it changed and shifted. And so too did those held within its boundaries. All that remained in its wake were ghosts, soon turned to dandelion fluff, easily torn apart in the angry fists of desert storms.
To be so easily unmade. Ara longed for it.
The kermis had settled for the night, tucking its spindle legs beneath its capacious thorax. Ara approached with caution. Once she’d almost caught her prey as it slept at the foot of a mountain, but she’d rushed her greeting and the kermis had flinched away, folding into granite and snow before she could make amends.
Now she walked slowly, hands visible, approaching from the south as was the custom in her country. She hoped the kermis would understand she meant no harm. She only sought relief from the memories tearing at her like vultures at a carcass. Memory and regret left thicker scars than the priests’ whips had across her back. She wanted to shed her skin, her self—only a kermis offered possible respite.
Fireweed sprouted from the resting appendages, engulfing the dozing creature—equal parts revelry and refuge—in protective flames. The foliage crackled as it pulled apart, admitting her down a narrow path toward the gates. She exhaled and accepted the invitation. The flowers singed her clothes and charred the ends of her hair. The flames licked at her skin, tasting, testing, and the kermis shuddered in approval.
Barbed wire coiled from post to post, wreathing the edges of the festival grounds. From every barb, scraps of sacrificial flesh whipped like pennants in the evening breeze. Some were dry and heat-cracked, others still dripped fresh. They were pale and dark, tattooed and scarred, freckled, haired, worn, and smooth. All different, but all the same. Below each, a coagulation. Nacreous or speckled dark. A few even frothed at the edges, bubbles popping, releasing acrid fumes. For Ara, a noisome promise of hope.
Weeks, months—an entire year—had led her to this moment. She’d trawled the wastes, searching for a kermis, this kermis. She’d trailed rumor and hearsay, whisper and lie, and now she had it—or it had embraced her.
She snagged her finger on an empty barb. Perhaps her skin would fill this space, sun-brown and scarred, and ready to dispel the guilt netted within her sinews.
The gates eased open, grating on their fulgurite hinges.
Time flowed differently within the kermis. Moments swirled in eddies of interwoven currents. At first, Renier had tried to fight them, to move with a soldier’s intent, fierce and deliberate. Quickly, he learned battle was futile, that he too must ebb and flow.
He’d been told to wait and so he did, gathered with the others in the amphitheater as the carnys performed their nightly ceremonials. Whenever twilight thickened the air, the folk arranged themselves upon the rough scaffolding. The instruments began with solemn tuning. Fingers plucked at sinuous strings extending from jaw to crotch. Mallets hammered bone protruding from knees or elbows, and sometimes shoulders.
Renier thought of wings, of the ones he’d lost.
Throats opened and music writhed in the purple swamp of dusk. Renier saw the sounds in sparks of color he couldn’t name, a meteor shower, each boiling ember scalding skin and biting into bone as the notes plummeted through the spectators. Some of the visitors joined in. They danced—their feet the drums, the heartbeat. His own heart kept tempo, throbbing behind his ribs. Every pulse tugging at the stitches in his chest, reminding him why he’d come.
He scratched at the scabs. The wound festered with his indecision. He had to make a choice. He’d been here long enough to know, carried on the drifting time-flow back and forth along the path his life had taken or might yet take. He’d witnessed others make their choices. Now he could either slip his skin and leave this place or he could surrender to the song, the kermis, and join the endless wander.
Sparks of music flared as a newcomer waded through the night. The heat of their presence stroked his bare arms where melodies prickled along the fine hairs. The traveler was ashy, fresh from a traverse through the fireweed. Time sloughed off their clothes, plucked away by the shifting currents in pale streamers. Their face flickered between younger and older, resigned and hopeful, eager and exhausted.
They turned and caught him staring.
Could they see his shame sprouting like guinea fowl feathers through his skin?
The music danced between them in firefly flickers and the kermis gave a hypnogogic jerk. The space between them folded in on itself until they breathed each other’s breath, knees touching, hair tangling.
“I’m Ara. She and her,” she said.
“Renier. He and him.” He offered her his hand and she shook it. His fingers brushed the ridges slashed across her wrist. He tasted her pain honey-thick on the back of his tongue. Beneath his fingers, a squirm of liquid bruises. He traced the winnowing beneath her skin, and quickly pulled away.
“Your shadows have teeth,” he said.
A petal dropped onto his thigh. Then another, melting between his fingers as he brushed them from his leg. He looked into Ara’s face. A petal squeezed free from her eye, dangling on her lashes before dropping heavy into his cupped palm. It landed with a splash.
“Ara, why are you crying?” he asked, whisper gentle.
“I’m not,” she said. “I’m bleeding.”
Alone, Ara wended her way through the alleys of the kermis, pausing at the outskirts. The leather pennants snapped in the wind as the kermis beetled through the sands. A flap of hide tore free and spiraled into the sky, a blur against the clouds shredded by the reaching claws of the Fray. The kermis flinched from the Fray’s touch, careful to stay well south of its reach.
The kermis slowed as it sidled up to a rainstorm. Lightning lashed the dunes and rain ran down its southern flank, soaking the hides. Ara was sure it would wash away every coagulated puddle beneath, but it erased only the one.
She walked to the fence, held out her hand and caught the rain. It was sweet and salty, and made her think of a home she’d never known but always wanted. Perhaps it was the kermis’ way of telling her she could dream if only she could unravel the nightmares seething through her veins.
Movement flickered in her peripheral vision. She turned and witnessed a moment she hadn’t yet lived, a piece of the future snagged on the present.
Her hand in Renier’s, the other gathering the hem of his shirt. His hand against her jaw.
The wind blew and the fragment dissipated, coalescing into a familiar form.
“Is this now?” she asked.
Renier flicked hair from his eyes. “I think so.”
“I saw the two of us,” she said. He nodded. The creases around his eyes were deep, carved by the weight of the secrets he carried. Shame slicked his skin like sweat.
The kermis flexed and she found herself breathing Renier’s air again. She plucked a feather from his hair, black and speckled white. Before either of them could say more, the rain ceased and a procession of carnys made their way to the fresh gap in the fence.
A semi-circle formed and, at its center, one of the kermis folk stood with a knife in their hands. The blade glimmered, its edge glowing blue from the lightning kiss that made it. A wanderer, so like Ara, knelt before the blade and bared their arm. Dense filigree marked their pale skin, a knotted lattice of mistakes.
The blade fell.
When the carving was complete, the bloodied visitor took their offering to the fence. The barbs held fast and the flesh began to drip. Pungent steam rose from the oily streaks.
Guilt and regret. Freedom and potential.
The visitor cried and washed the gore from their arm with their tears.
“Will they heal? Will they ever be the same?” Ara asked.
“They’ll heal, but never the same. That’s the point.” Renier’s voice was a bare palm brushing across a field of yellow rye. It was the rustle of sheets on a warm night, the hum of tumbling hair on bare skin.
The visitor with the flayed arm strode toward the gates. The hinges groaned open then shut and the visitor was gone, swallowed by the fireweed bobbing damp heads in the aftermath of the storm.
The kermis shuddered and gathered its limbs with chitinous creaking before scuttering through the shadow of the Fray. The wind turned cold, thick with snowflakes like glass splinters.
Ara looked to Renier. His sweat had frozen in delicate beads. She plucked a pearl from his forehead and popped it between her teeth. His shame burst aniseed on her tongue. He caught her hands and turned them palms up. Together they cupped the sharp snow; his blood, her blooms.
He caught glimpses of the futures, snatching them from the time-stew roiling at his feet.
In one, Ara’s face. Her hands. Her teeth. He was naked before her and she touched him, unpicking the seams running marrow-deep.
In another, he decided to stay and the town’s folk axed open his spine and spread his ribs, gifting him the wings he mourned. They tied him to the scaffolding, granting him perpetual flight. There he hung, shedding skin and sin, letting the wind ring kestrel cries through his bones.
He waited for another future to unroll from the threads of time, the one where he decided to leave. All he caught were splinters of his past, each a molten skewer through his gut.
Ara found him in one of the ramshackle tents where all the visitors stayed. She ducked beneath the flap bringing soothing shade to parched earth.
“I saw this,” she said. “Us, I mean. Is this what you want?”
The stitches in his chest pulled tight. He pressed his fingers to the wound, pus leaking through the scabs he’d scratched and torn.
“I haven’t seen the end though. I don’t know if you’ll let me finish what I start.” Ara eased herself beside him. The weight of her was comfort and apprehension. “But unless we start, we’ll never know.” She took his hand, his callouses catching at her palm. She squeezed his fingers then gathered the hem of his shirt.
Ara expected his touch as he pressed his hand to her face, his eyes like an ocean, wide and trembling. She’d seen this too, but hadn’t felt it. Now his fear dragged frosted fingers down her spine. Ara breathed it in, the iron of it clinging to her teeth.
She pulled off his shirt expecting a chest slabbed with the muscle promised by the breadth of his shoulders.
His chest was bound, muscle and more, constrained by eyelets and bow-tied strings.
A tidal wave of his humiliation crashed through her, leaving a bitter riptide as she fingered the bindings. Her own anger gnashed serrated teeth within her. Who had made him feel shame for this? Her anger simmered in the air between them, rank and acid.
“This is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“It’s not what you think.” He caught her fingers. Ara pulled back, letting Renier loose the knots.
He set the binder on the straw-stuffed mattress beside them, the inside stained black and red. Ara traced a finger along the sharp outline of his collarbone and slowly down his chest to the feather embroidered above his heart. The stitches were taut, dragging at the bruised skin. Scabs cracked and oozed.
Her fingers tingled with the spell-work woven through his flesh. Magic, though none like she knew.
“What is this?” She asked. “What does it make you?”
“A soldier,” he said, exhaling a dying gasp of pride. “At least, I used to be.”
“Where I’m from, soldiers don’t have to be a he.”
“No. But I am.” He met her gaze and held it with a half-clenched fist, waiting.
“You are,” she said and the tension in his shoulders subsided.
He wrenched a feather from his hair and crushed the quill. The black-spotted fluff curled and withered on the floor. “I was a falcon once,” he said. “I soared and spiraled…” His hand mirrored his imagined flight, his eyes glossed with memory. “Until I made a mistake.” His words were shattered glass. His hand quivered mid-air then crashed to his lap. He choked and spat more feathers, soft and downy. They tumbled like ash at his feet. Ara caught one and held it to her face. Its secret murmured familiar, of a blade in the darkness.
She traced the fading scar where a falcon’s feather had once been neatly sewn into the pale flesh of his chest. The residue of the spell stung her fingers.
“I took a life I shouldn’t have,” he said. “And got what I deserved.” He dug his nails into the broken feather on his chest. “I’ll never fly again, but I want…”
“To be free,” she finished for him.
Time turned syrup and soup. It enveloped them both, scattering their past and future like breadcrumbs from a shaken table cloth. A drowning, a surging, unraveling and becoming. Lies and truths, secrets and memories. They held each other and weathered the storm, breathing through each other’s lungs, swallowing one another’s histories.
Ara emerged from its passing, naked and brittle, known to Renier in ways she never might’ve chosen. And he was known to her, both human and bird—the magic coursing through his veins sang of updrafts and air currents, of curved beak and sharpest talons.
He’d never wanted to be a soldier, enlisted only to save his family starved and depleted on a drought-stricken farm. And because he wanted to fly—a privilege bestowed only on those who served.
He’d killed a man—a prisoner already on the wrack. His sword across the man’s throat, an act of mercy. And for disobeying orders to separate skin from flesh, teeth from jaw, marrow from bone, he’d been reduced to a spotted fowl barely capable of flight.
“You saved that man from torment,” she said.
“I saved myself from what I hadn’t the stomach to do.”
“A kindness to you both.”
They bent their heads, foreheads touching. Ara had seen the future. She knew what came next.
Her lips on his skin, her nails down his spine. He sighed and whimpered as she used her teeth on his chest, gnawing at the threads. Something cold found her fingers and she leaned back, wiping sour copper from her lips.
A fulgurite blade lay beside her hand. The kermis had provided.
Renier rolled the hilt into his palm. Time rippled, flashing a future where he flung the fragile knife to the floor.
Ara pried the dagger from his hand.
He let her and this time the spell-woven threads severed with ease. She teased each tattered end from his skin and her lips pressed truth to his wound: defiance took courage, betrayal had many faces, what he’d done was right.
“Take all of it,” he said. “For the fence.”
She paused, a question she didn’t need to speak out loud.
“I’m sure,” he said.
Again, Ara raised the blade and carved in the wake of her kisses.
After, with his chest bound and bleeding, he brushed his hands down her back. Her scars rose to meet his palms through the soft linen of her shirt.
“What about you?” he asked. His fingers trailed down her arms and found her wrists.
“Even if they flayed me entire, it wouldn’t help. The rot in me goes deeper.”
Renier had seen her past, flashes limned in burgundy. The swish and shiver of robes across marble floors. Candles and incense. Magic splitting the lips of the spell-weavers as they sent Fray-stolen power scudding through her veins, twisting the shape of her.
Once a year, they’d opened her back, rewarding the devout with the flowers born from her blood. But then… He’d seen the coin exchange hands and the curtained alcoves where those with titles paid to split her skin, to pluck out petals and suck on nectar. The chains thrummed a threnody against her bare ankles, knocking elegies from the hard stone beneath her knees.
Sometimes they sought to take more than the flowers from her veins.
Ara had endured so much, more than Renier could fathom. How could he begrudge her the blade dropped by a hand drunk on her blood, the moment seized, the throat slashed garnet as she fumbled for keys, loosed her chains and ran.
“We’re the same.” He held her hands, but she pulled them free.
“Look.” She held her right arm between them, mottled with flitting shadow-bruises. The wrist had been severed, more than once. She dragged the blade across the thick scarring, cutting deep, and the smudge beneath her skin swarmed. Renier wrapped his hands around the wound, but no blood welled between his fingers. Instead, flowers erupted against his palms.
Coils of daisies tumbled from her severed skin, then delicate snowdrops dribbled to the floor. After that, spikes of purple lupini speared through the gash in Ara’s arm. Finally, whole blooms gave way to single petals, each leaving stains on Renier’s fingers. He watched the wound seal and tried to gather her pain as the blooms retreated to bruises beneath her skin.
“I never asked for this,” Ara said, wiping lilac from her cheeks.
Renier pressed his lips to her wrist and kissed the truth between her ragged edges: defiance took courage, betrayal had many faces, what she’d done was right.
The freedom they both longed for furled tight around them. Like resting wings; like sleeping blooms.
Together, they walked to the fence and Renier fastened the swatch of flesh to an empty barb. Beneath it, the dirt swallowed up his shame, drinking every drop leaking from his shriveled offering.
The carnys and wanderers gathered to watch him leave, pressing close to Ara.
The gates swung open and the fireweed split apart to hem a path. He’d chased this kermis across the dunes, sun sick and desperate for a chance at redemption, for the hope of once more having wings. The freedom he’d found came without feathers.
Above him, the sky pulsed with the strange magic of the Fray, a heartbeat throb in time with his own—with hers.
He stepped through the gate. It closed. The fireweed hissed and spit embers, driving him away from the kermis crouched in the dirt.
Renier turned as the kermis gathered its appendages in ambulatory preparation. The tents and pennants rose, and Renier squinted against the sun to catch a glimpse of Ara. She twirled a spotted feather in her fingers and smiled. He pressed a hand to the flower folded into the binder, held snug against his chest.
Voices rose in song, splashing colors he couldn’t name across the air as the kermis creep-crawled an escape from the reaching fingers of the Fray. In its wake, it left a trail of flowers: daisies and snowdrops, lupini and drifts of weeping lilac.
Xan van Rooyan is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa with a serious peanut butter addiction. Now calling the cold, dark forests of Finland home, Xan would like to be an elf when they grow up. When not conjuring strange worlds with peculiar words, Xan teaches music, rock climbs, games, devours graphic novels, and loyally serves their lord and master: Lego, the shiba inu. If you’d like to read more of Xan’s words, check out Apparition Lit and Three-Lobed Burning Eye. You can also find more short stories and novels published under the name Suzanne van Rooyen. Hang out with Xan on Instagram or Twitter, or find Xan on Patreon as Xan van Rooyen.