Out of Their Cages, by Rhonda Eikamp
The sorceresses had wheeled the wooden cage into the village at dusk. Maheha could still sense its presence out there as she lay on her pallet at midnight. Burning, always burning in her peripheral vision. Her ma had told her to look away as the cage rolled in, but the ruddy glow of the imprisoned man’s skin (not a man, my daughter), the undulating body like a flame twisting behind the bloodwood bars of the cage (not a cage – a spell) had made her knock her mother’s protective fingers from her face and stare, while other villagers shook their heads at her impudence. Her da had come then and thrust her back into the hut, but the burning had not left her head or her limbs.
Quiet as a snake now. She rose, scurried on hands and knees past the pallets of sleeping family members until she could stand. How do you trap a death-god, she’d wanted to ask her parents. How did the sorceresses do it? She knew the real question was Why. She’d seen her mother arguing with a sorceress afterward, the blue leaf-pattern tattooed on the magic woman’s face quivering with anger, as though a wind blew through trees. The rejecting gestures her mother’s calloused hands made, that said, Leave us! Move on!
The terror in her ma’s eyes.
Through the hut’s slats Maheha could see the glow at the end of the village and it seemed to move red fingers across her arms down to her belly. She passed her little brother, innocent in sleep. Not impetuous like her, he’d looked away from the god when told. Not dreaming now of hot fingers. She was so different – frenendi, ‘screaming child’, her mother called her. As if it had been a dream, Maheha could recall being held down when she was little, or tied, probably for some childish sin long-forgotten, and – yes – in the memory she was screaming, but she was a woman now or on the bamboo threshold to womanhood. This was not a childish fit. It was desire devouring her. A woman must look at a man like that, she would have told her brother, even if it meant sneaking out at night.
Always always burning, with desires others didn’t have. Wanting to escape the cage of bones that held her. Wanting the impossible – wanting to fly, or put her hand in flame. Called to danger. Throwing off her ties.
Outside, the breeze cooled her, but only for a moment. The light of the chainmoons showed her the ground, Three and Seven larger than the rest. Their blue faces were turned to the world, washing the cage bars a dull gray, the veins of the bloodwood rendered invisible. He stood facing away at the far end of the cage, giant back muscles clenched, his glow dampened.
Maheha touched the bars and the death-god turned.
And exploded into fire.
A wall of flame rushed at her. Silent, all-enveloping. The devourer, Kalhar, the god of endings in man-form, transformed now into a cube of heat that filled the cage. It lunged for her face as she gasped – and then it stopped. The cube of flame flattened against the bars, raging. Held back from passing through by the spell of the bloodwood.
With a whoosh the flame became a glowing man again, improbably large and yet standing on two feet, his ember hands wildly probing the unseeable barrier between the bars, feeling for chinks in the spell that imprisoned him.
Hide your thumb in your hand and the death-gods cannot take you. It was what children said, advice they received from their parents when they were afraid of the dark. It will make you invisible. Maheha made fists around both thumbs and felt childish.
When she looked up, the god had stopped probing the cage and was grinning at her. So much for thumbs. “Maheha.” He knows your name. The deep voice held a crackle of fire, vast machinery tamped to the bursting point, like the firebergs in the east. “Little pigtailed thing.”
It was only for the night that she braided her hair. On impulse she reached up and undid the long plaits. Her hair was beautiful, many had told her. Burn this, god, if you can.
The death-god was still grinning, trapped behind his spell. His teeth were red. “You are four years old.”
It made no sense. “I’m fifteen,” she told him.
His eyes narrowed. “I see. You do not know.”
“Are you so blind in your realm?” She couldn’t help but glance down, toward the death world that the elders said lay beneath the soil.
“Our realm, child, is up there.” A finger like a dart of flame pointed to the sky. “A beautiful place. Call it a boat. And you belong there with us, Maheha.”
This was what Kalhar did. She’d expected it. A death-god tempted, lured, told of the wonders that awaited those who would go with him. Visions would follow now, the elders had taught the children when they were young. Beauty beyond belief. And all lies. She would have to be strong.
And yet it was tempting. Not the cold ground – the elders had it wrong, if Kalhar wasn’t lying about that – but rather that vast sparkling space above. What would it be to fly? It made her gaze up at the sky for a second where he still pointed, to that large point of light beyond the chainmoons. That one that alternated bright green and yellow, the name of which was never to be spoken. The desire almost ripped her chest open. The burning started up in her again.
“I am not four,” she told him. “And I’m not a fool. You can’t tempt me. I came only to look at you.”
“You have no idea why you came.”
“I – ”
“He’s right, you know.”
Maheha spun. It was the sorceress with the leaf-tattooed face who spoke. In her palm the woman held the humming disk that her kind breathed their magic into, and as she kept her gaze on Maheha, she brought the disk to her lips, whispered something, and pressed the metal against the lower rung of the cage. The death-god began to paw at the space between the bars with his fingers, gouging as though fighting some sticky, melting mass.
One by one his fingers slid through.
“What have you done?” murmured Maheha.
The sorceress stepped back. “I am putting you where you should be.”
A godly hand punched through the bars, then an arm that swiped at Maheha as she swore and fell back, slipping in the mud. “Belongs to me!” hissed the god voice. He was fire again, in man-form. Like crusted lava, the skin of his lips broke open and tiny saliva flames erupted.
“No, Maheha, stop!” It was Maheha’s mother, running from the hut, still in her sleeping gown, holding an object that looked like a bent twig. As Maheha watched in wonder, her ma pointed the twig at the disk still stuck to the cage and a light shot out. The disk sparked and fell from the cage. Impossible, because her ma had no sorceress magic.
“Run, Maheha!” she yelled.
Too late. With the last barriers melted, the god shoved aside the bloodwood bars as if they were grainpaper and stepped through. Even as Maheha scrambled up from the mud and twisted away, a wall of heat in the shape of a massive hand slammed into her back, holding her in place. She squirmed and felt the bonds extrude throughout her, thick cables of molten gold in every limb. This is the ecstasy. The call one had to fight, the elders said, but why fight? What glory it was. Through a gold haze she saw her mother lift the twig again, terrified and resolute, before sorceresses swarmed from the shadows and took it from her, pinning her in their midst.
“Your magic is old, Niomha,” the lead sorceress said. “You should never have broken off your studies when you married.” The tattoo leaves of the leader’s face twisted into a grimace. “Just as you should never have used it to do what you did later.”
Fight for her. Through the haze Maheha found words and pressed them out past the god-gold in her lungs. “Don’t take her. You have me.”
“Oh, he cannot take another, Maheha,” the sorceress told her. “He is only here for you. Kalhar was right, you see. You don’t know why you left your bed tonight, what drew you. What has always drawn you, to rebel, to question. To throw yourself at danger as though you were trapped in a cage.”
“It’s all lies!” her mother screamed, and a sorceress cuffed her into silence.
The lead sorceress had turned to face Maheha, the face-leaves ablaze now in the light pouring from the death-god. “It is because you are already dead.”
Quietly, her mother began to sob.
No. I’m alive.
“You drowned in the shifting bogs when you were four, Maheha,” the sorceress continued. “Your parents found you and in the deep forest, while no one looked, your mother wielded spells she had no right to as an interrupted apprentice. Binding your spirit as it struggled to fly away. Making a cage for you.”
Memory boiled across her mind. She’d slipped and fallen. Murky water all around, the weight of herself – such a revelation for a toddler, this gravity that could not be fought, the darkness as she sank ever deeper – and then she’d gone to sleep. Only to awaken with life being blown into her, stretched out on the ground, a bent twig laid across her chest, hammered with fists. In the air above her a flaming man had hovered, calling, reaching for her. When she screamed, trying to go to him, her parents had tied her down with supple bloodwood bonds. Magic to hold her soul on earth. The memory became lost afterward, changed by her mind into something trivial, a child’s tantrum.
“We loved you so much,” her mother sobbed.
“But it was wrong,” said the sorceress. “The death-gods come for us when we die and take us to a new life in another realm. In return for this miracle, their rules may not be circumvented.” She waited, watching Maheha.
There it was: a life unravelling, woven together into a new pattern. Everything explained. Oh the ever-burning anger, the disinterest in this place, how the colors leached from things when she squinted. The sidelong stares of the villagers whenever she did not act as others did. The longing, long-forgotten, to go with that flaming man, a different man from this one and yet the same.
“Yes,” Maheha said to her mother. “It was wrong.”
As if a signal had been given, Kalhar stepped back from Maheha, the gold haze draining from her veins.
“You were hidden from him,” said the sorceress. “We had to capture him, bring him here in order to direct his attention to the blank space that is you, but it was you who had to come out tonight and approach him. You had to realize there is a cage around you, one that you can walk out of if you wish.”
“You are four,” came the lava voice again. It made sense. To the death-gods, she had never moved on. Maheha turned to face him.
“No,” her ma moaned, but it was a defeated moan, already acknowledging that her daughter was gone.
“You must make the decision yourself,” came the sorceress’s whisper. “Choose the right thing.”
Maheha opened her arms to Kalhar.
She had always heard that the death-gods wielded swords, but it was a smaller and more vicious-looking weapon that appeared now in his hand, wreathed in blue fire. It was an expander, such as the medics used to extract arrowheads from the injured after battle. A tong with two sharpened spoons at the end, able to slip into an open wound and stretch it until the spoons could close about the object and scoop it out. But her wound was not open. The spoons slipped into her chest like burning stones, expanding to create a hole that hadn’t been there before or had it, a pressure she could feel in her loins and fingers, and she wanted to scream Mercy, lord, but it was done. The spoons extracted her heart, a glowing-red mass that did not beat, while air rushed into her chest to take its place. Pain and yearning gone. Cage bars breaking.
Kalhar lifted the tong high into the air and the heart ignited and burned to ash.
He threw his arms wide and he was a wall of fire again. Trees burst into flames that leapt across the ground to eat at the huts. She could see her ma kneeling on the ground, sobbing, her da who had woken rushing from their hut door, crying out for her to stay.
“It’s all burning,” Maheha whispered.
“No it’s not,” the god told her. He hugged her to him. “You planet-bound thing. Let me show you what alive is.”
She had always been the hottest object she knew, a vortex of light on her hard bed at night, but he was fire itself. They shot into the sky, an arrow of flame. You’re flying. Looking down, she saw he hadn’t lied – the ground wasn’t burning, only an illusion. The village would be all right. Looking up, she saw their destination, that nameless point of light beyond the moons, all the wonders that awaited her in his realm, coming up fast now, a boat ringed in green light and slowly spinning, so beautiful it stopped her breath.
I’m originally from Texas and live in Germany. Stories of mine have appeared in Daily Science Fiction and The Colored Lens, The Journal of Unlikely Cartography, the Fae anthology from World Weaver Press, and the Lightspeed special issue Women Destroy Science Fiction. When I’m not writing fiction, I translate German legal texts into English, which messes with my mind more than I’d like to admit.
Posted on May 6, 2015, in Contest, Issue 16: Shinigami Stories—Reaping the Harvest of Souls and tagged contest, death, death reaper, e-zine, grim reaper, horror, shinigami, short stories, The Were-Traveler. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.