The breeze blows on the grass and weeds like a whistling ghost. Its cold seeps under my corduroy jacket and leeches the warmth from my bones. I shiver as though I’m sitting naked on the floor of a cavern.
Jacqueline has walked up to us although she risked soiling the soles of her boots, and is towering over my supine self. Her raven-black braid is draped over the thick lapel of her peacoat, but dark indigo highlights are undulating in the windblown loose locks around her ivory-white face, that hovers above me like an earthly moon. A sweet smile settles on her rosy lips, which would feel as soft and supple as the nipples now hidden by her turtleneck sweater and by the reinforced brassiere that supports her prodigious breasts. Her cobalt-blues, beneath which she conceals a thousand secret fountains and grottoes, are piercing deep into my psyche as if to flush my demons out of their hiding spots.
I’d love to stare up in silence at this divine being for the rest of my life; any words would mar the silence. But humans have to acknowledge their mental states through verbal constructs on a regular basis, to distract themselves from the certainty of their impending doom. I wring enough energy out of my bone-tired brain to string together a few words.
“Our adopted daughter vastly overestimated my physical prowess,” I utter in a rusty voice.
Jacqueline narrows her eyes and broadens her smile. She brushes a raven-black lock away from her face.
“Sure, but she already trusts you enough to know that you would save her from a nasty fall.”
“Or maybe she’s that reckless and self-destructive.”
“That may be part of it. She has taken quite a shine to you, hasn’t she?”
“A nice glow-in-the-dark shine. Enough to travel with me across spacetime to our wretched present.”
Nairu’s warm breath is tickling the base of my neck. This Paleolithic creature deserves a bit of paradise, with food to eat, a wide-open sky, trees for shade, and grass for chewing.
My mind gets inundated with images of that boreal forest from which I snatched our girl. A lump rises to my throat. Nairu’s abandoned kin must have prayed to their gods and devils to be spared from the unspeakable apocalypse that befell them. I wish I could leap forward another ten thousand years and disappear from this sickening age of mass destruction and despair.
“More importantly now,” Jacqueline says warmly, “even in this growing cold, you two look comfortable. Don’t mind if I join you.”
As Jacqueline crouches, she smooths her plaid skirt over her thighs, then she lies down sideways beside me, resting her face on her palm. The close-up of her regal visage in the dark makes me feel like a cat snuggled up by a radiator.
“Jacqueline, thank you for everything,” I say in a strained voice that risks becoming a broken whisper. “For welcoming this new daughter of ours into your home. For being here with me in this park. For existing at all in this insane world, when most of everything has come and gone.”
Jacqueline’s eyes glimmer. She softens her gaze and blows air through her nostrils. The vaporized exhalation lingers between our faces.
She slides a hand behind my head, brushing the top of Nairu’s, to cradle my nape. My beloved leans her face down and kisses me on the lips. She pushes her tongue into my mouth while her fingers entwine themselves in my hair. I take a whiff of her fragrance, a flower garden blooming with myriad blossoms. When Jacqueline pulls away, my heart is pounding in my ears like a tribal drum.
“You’re welcome, sweetie,” she whispers. “Isn’t it nice to feel the grass beneath us and hear the sound of the wind in the trees?”
“I’ve been far worse.”
She nuzzles my nose with hers.
“It’s going to be alright, you know.”
I swallow to loosen my throat.
“As long as you’re around, I’m sure it will be fine. If you become to Nairu even a fraction of the loving mommy you are to me, she’ll be happy.”
Growing up I only integrated bad examples of motherhood, so I’ll have to avoid turning into the kind of mom that forgets her daughter’s name, locks her out in the freezing rain, keeps her chained in the cellar, or hands her over to a warlord.
Jacqueline rests her head next to mine on the grass. With the tip of her index finger, she traces the seam of my upper lip.
“And I have no intention of ever giving you up,” she says in a deep purring voice.
“E-even after ten thousand years of brutal struggles, wars, earthquakes, plagues, ice ages and extinctions? Even after the human race disintegrates, leaving only scattered tribes of primitive savages? Even after the Earth becomes a burnt cinder drifting in the void?”
She slips her lips and tongue along the rim of my ear.
“Even if you get old and wrinkly,” she murmurs in my eardrum.
Jacqueline has stirred the water in the teapot within me; as its contents heat up, they slosh around and boil, threatening to scald my internal organs. I’d love to take my clothes off then roll around naked over every inch of mommy’s skin, with the zest of a dog that comes across a mud puddle in a park and rushes to turn itself into a swamp monster.
The wind gusts a long-ass moan through the leafless tree branches as the night takes a chillier turn. Nairu slides down from my chest, squeezing my right tit through my shirt and bra, and nestles against my shoulder as if to sniff my armpit. The three of us huddle together like house cats napping in a wrinkled blanket.
My limbs feel heavy and stiff, like sacks of sand strapped to my torso. I’m slipping into a languid trance. I close my eyes and unmoor my mind, which has grown fuzzy with drowsiness, so that it paints on the canvas of soft blackness whatever insane spectacle it pleases.
The first pinkish streaks of morning light stain an ethereal sky. A yellow sun appears, spreading waves of liquid gold. But the sky cracks open as if a projectile punched through the stratosphere, that sheds its pale inner membrane down over the horizon like a dirty gauze while the culprit, a rotund creature with shaggy, burnt umber fur outlined in buttermilk-yellow light, falls towards me with leisurely gravity.
The beast’s leathery snout gleams with its own sticky sap. On either side of a chalk-white face, the roughly nostril-sized eyes, two black holes into a crumpled universe, betray the monster’s dim-witted gentleness, like that of an uncle who would always lend a helping hand and dispense morsels of dubious advice. At the end of its elongated forelimbs, the inward claws, large as dinner forks, are holding awkwardly a folded, yellowed paper.
When the beast lets go of the paper, it unfolds itself with a dry crackling sound and takes off like a sparrow that had gotten captured and imprisoned in a birdcage. The decrepit paper flutters towards me. It touches my nose, flips over and hovers in front of me, displaying its underside. The paper’s edges are browned and torn, and its coarse surface is sullied with bloody fingerprints, but it contains spidery handwriting in fading red ink and an archaic script.
I am a creature of great mystical power. My name is Dialectos, which in your language means “tongue.” My soul is sustained by the constant stream of dark matter that suffuses every atom of the universe. At the end of my feet I have four toes, and at the end of my tail, two; each of them a gigantic stiletto. I enclose in my wings a tiny sliver of the blackest metal, found at the center of your Milky Way galaxy, where countless stars spin like pinwheels of fire. I do not speak the language of men, or even the tongue of beasts, and yet my speech is known to all living creatures. In the realm of the unseen, you humans and other beasts are like flies upon a wall.
Leire, your ancestors’ bloodlines can be traced to the sphinxes that used to roam your continent like sentient wildcats, before the age of iron and steam engines. I hereby grant you full custody of Nairu, the little orphan from the Paleolithic age, who was exploring the fringes of her community when you kidnapped her, upending her life forever, to bring her past the barrier of the Younger Dryas apocalypse into a world of steel-boned cities, lightbulbs, telephones, radios, televisions, submarines, airplanes, rockets, computers, guns and atomic bombs.
You have violated the sanctity of time and space, as well as diverted the riverlike course of fate, so I shall appoint you to the job of loving the Ice Age child. Although she was born in a distant time, now she belongs to your tribe. You will feed her, bathe her, comb her hair, dress her in pink tutus and slippers, sing her lullabies, cuddle her when she has nightmares, buy her toys, stuff her face with pastries and ice cream, and teach her to play the harp. To help Nairu forget the horrors of the world that your gormless species has created, you will make her life fun and absurd. In return, I promise to reward you with a salary of dark matter.
Under your care, if the child grows into a lovely woman, your name will be inscribed in the Hall of Ancestors at her place of birth. But if you instead become the fiend that haunts the nightmares of children, I will cast you back in time, into a frozen cave where you’ll meet a future self who will ask: “Who are you?” And you shall answer: “I’m Leire, the mommy who lost her daughter.” That I promise and swear on the ancient blood that coats every blade of grass. For the next three thousand years, I shall periodically send you letters so you may remember your mission, and that I am always watching.
Signed this day, at the last hours of the eighth year of the calamity,
The paper curls itself into a bowtie, then flies away towards the dawn’s light. As the paper shrinks, it ignites into a fluttering white flame against the furnace-red sphere of the sun.
I smile to the darkness of my mind, and imagine my heart hardening to the extent that a thousand years of suffering couldn’t crack it. I want to slice my head off with a kitchen knife, then hold the decapitated head in the sky so that my eyeballs and mouth, dripping red-and-green goo down on humankind’s face, could scream one thing to everyone, even those who loathe me: “I love you.”
Author’s note: the two songs for today are “路標” (“Michishirube“) and “鬼ヶ島” (“Onigashima“), both by the great Ichiko Aoba.
I keep a playlist that contains all the songs mentioned throughout this novel. Eighty-one songs so far. Here’s the link.
Two neural networks did AI stuff to render many, many pictures related to this chapter. Here’s the link.
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