Son of All Men, C. 200 A.D.
The day Prester John was born, the house salamander died. His people considered this a blessing: an omen of a legendary future. It was only logical. The house salamander was the mortal form of the Great Salamander, from which all creation flowed and through which the created were sustained. The Great Salamander’s Milk carved the beds of rivers and nursed the fields into bloom, washing down mountains and cascading over marshes, never curdling, never ending. Her Silk formed the canopy of the sky, woven into nights and days and twilights by the north wind, spanning the Kyrgyz Alatau and reaching the sun; and the sun could not burn it. Her eyes were reflected as starlight against that silken sky, and just as the sun was her heatingcoal, the moon was her nightingcoal, comforting her against darkness and emptycold.
So the death of a house salamander was not a crushing blow to a Salamandric family, akin to the destruction of a Buddha or the desecration of a Quran, but was instead the opposite. The protection of the family salamander was so deeply ingrained in Prester John’s people that when a salamander actually died, it was understood that the death could be no accident of nature nor neglect, let alone malice. It could only be because the Great Salamander herself had called home one of her own, and any encounter with the Great Salamander was a blessing on all those it touched.
This was a good thing for Prester John’s mother, Tana-ja, who had, nine months earlier, gone on a binge of fornication that involved every man and boy in the tribe, plus more than a few of the women. Tana-ja’s longtime mate, Pharasa, had been killed in a battle with mercenary Cyclopes serving the Khitay. In a rush to fulfill their duties as the closest friends of the deceased husband of the most beautiful woman in the camp, all the soldiers in the war party volunteered (before the dead man’s blood had even seeped into the mountainside) to take Tana-ja as mate. She was young, with shining black hair and breasts like fresh manti dumplings, and she was also the only woman with green eyes that any of them had ever seen. It wasn’t a green you noticed most of the time, in casual glances or first impressions. Only when she truly looked at you would you see how green they were—green like new ivy sparkling with dew, or like the brilliant ribbons that swirled through the sky during the rebirth of a phoenix. The brilliance of this green rewarded any man she bedded—assuming they did so face-to-face, which wasn’t as common as one might think. Tana rutted through a half-dozen suitors before deciding to try them all, and after that, well, habits form. (There were lasting rumors that Prester John had no father, that he was born of nature itself, or that perhaps the Great Salamander had taken male form and lain with the grieving widow. In a moment of boredom, Tana-ja had indeed engaged in some unsound behavior with a house salamander, but nothing that would have led to the salamander’s demise.)
By the time she was too heavy with child to maintain her interest in the men, she no longer had any idea which one of them had planted the seed. And when she no longer had interest in the men, the men lost interest in protecting her from their jealous women. And that was the reason no one was there to midwife for Tana-ja on the day of Prester John’s birth. That might have made all the difference.
Prester John was born during the 39th Salamandric Effusion in Karatau, a region on the southern edge of the Kyrgyz Steppe long traversed by nomadic peoples, just northwest of the Talas River Valley. In those days, the Silk Road was more of a Linen Trail, with frayed dead ends and burlap bridges; Prester later reckoned the year was around 200 A.D. At the time, of course, he wasn’t Prester John, Prete Giam, or even Presbiter Ionis, though “Prester John” did derive in part from his birth name, which if put to paper would look most like “Gjona-ja.” Prester did not recall ever putting it to paper, having taken the title Presbiter Ionis many years before learning his letters.
The Effusion—a time for the production of sacred milk, which would be poured on virgin ground to re-enact the creation—meant the men were back home with the harvest. The river was now too high and irritable for further reaping. Its currents were known to swallow slow fishermen, and more than a few waves had tripped up a fool who complained of barren waters. Now, it was time for the women to work, to take on the sorting, drying, jarring, and burying. “No use having a harvest if it lasts only as long as a brown-pitch coal.” (It was a saying that long outlasted the actual availability or usage of brown-pitch coal, whatever that was.)
The women had spent the summer days in their applewood yurts, sometimes together, sometime alone, spinning salamander silk into cool thread and thread into long blankets of near-liquid fabric, and sealing the fabric with the flames of tiny fires. These women now emerged, pale and creaking, to work the lines of the harvest: massive heaps of fish and fennis, eyeball caviar and river apple. The piles stretched between the camp and the river, and from the river the women could look back at their lives, nestled in a thicket of wood, with desert hills on all sides in the distance—though it was never wise to turn one’s back to the river.
Tana-ja by rights should have been exempt from women’s work, being enormous with child, but no one asked her to stop. None of the women asked her anything, in fact, or even spoke to her enough to coordinate her work with that of the others. But she didn’t need their direction, and she could do without their sympathy, she told herself. She knew what to do.
The women were jarring fennis. They dried the fruit by soaking it in brine, then sliced it open and let it bake in the sun. Once it was crisp, they stored it in clay jars that they buried just below the frost line until they were needed. This served the dual purpose of preserving the fennis and keeping it safe from worms, sentient waters, and tribal raids.
Tana passed the group of women who were sealing the jars with cork and fat. They looked up with contempt as she waddled down the line to the hardest job that seemed to need doing: the slicing. Fennis hulls were tough. An unskilled hand could get a cut that would quickly be salted with slimy brine. Tana had, since her childhood, seen women run screaming to the river to wash the salt from their slit palms.
She steadied her back with one hand and reached down to the pile of slick fennis. Its orange-yellow rind glistened under the dripping-away of grainy water. Tana flipped her knife from her smock—too quickly for the comfort of the women standing nearest—and sliced open the fruit with one jab and two slits. She ripped its flesh wide and tossed it to the cut pile. The other women who had been slicing moved away, some to continue the shunning and some in quiet fear of Tana’s knife. This left Tana holding up the progress for those behind her, who took the slower pace without complaint and now found room in their day for longer rests and whispered chats.
Normally, Tana and some of these women would have swapped shifts, but hours into the work, none stepped forward to relieve her. Tana didn’t care, not at first. She found the slicing easy. But bending over to pick up some fennis, and standing because she was in no condition to kneel, grew increasingly difficult, particularly as dawn gave way to midday and midday to real heat (heat being a matter of perspective along the Kyrgyz Steppe, where even the most violent of rivers were more icy slush than water).
It wasn’t working. Tana-ja’s efforts at self-mortification went unnoticed, or worse they were a welcome sight. She’d have to go further. Maybe if she hurt herself, someone would take pity on her. Maybe they’d see what a hard worker she was and how much she was willing to sacrifice for them. Tana was too tired and her hands too sore to register the difference between blade and stiff rind, so when she cut herself, she did so more deeply than she meant to. Brine seeped into the wound, stinging. One of the women passing by—Purna, the wife of the very first suitor to put his seed into Tana-ja—stopped as well, surprised by the sudden stillness of a figure that had been in steady motion all day. Purna was a hard woman whose beauty had been used up in years of long nights tending children and salamander coals. Her body now resembled a tall heap of fennis. Tana opened her bloodied hand, hoping Purna would feel guilty for being so cruel. Maybe she’d even bring her a cool pail of water to wash off the brine.
Purna looked but refused to see. She turned away in disgust, grabbed some fennis, and went back to her work. Tana positioned her hand so the other women could see the wound, waving it slightly to draw their glances. If they noticed, they didn’t care. Tana desperately wanted the relief of the river. She closed her hand into a fist, and the brine found new nerve endings to wash over. The pain ripped through her arm like a needle pulling coarse thread. If she rushed for the river, she might fall. And if she made it there and slipped, no one would help her up. She could drown; she could lose the baby. And if she sought relief, they would have won.
That night, after making her way to the hut and washing out the dirt- and brine-caked gash in a basin of stale, sleeping water, she avoided her salamander. He was a jet-black salamasire, almost as black as Tana’s hair, and large for his breed, about three and a half feet. He seemed more of a still shadow than a god, draped among the glowing orange and cool gray coals of his brazier, which was suspended by light copper chain from the uuks that formed the beams of a yurt roof. The coals were hot enough, but he wanted feeding, and feeding him would mean opening her mind to him, and Tana was done with that now. After glancing in on the salamander’s portion of the yurt—the area containing his brazier took up a quarter of the available space—after pretending not to meet his sullen eyes but feeling the edges of his chiding thoughts, she let the gray curtain fall between them as she half-eased, half-tumbled onto her bed of wolf’s fur and silk sheets. Sleep came quickly.
Sometime in the night, Tana-ja dreamed. In the dream, an applewood uuk beam shook in a woman’s upstretched fist, a wounded fist. As the yurt’s roof shook, bits of dry, white felt fell into the woman’s hair, the hair flowing down and covering her face as she wailed in labor. Then the dream wasn’t a dream, and Tana’s mind ripped open to the sound of her own screaming. It was time. It was time, and she was alone.
She looked up through the tunduk at the stars, and in the constellations she read a grin, whether malevolent or proud she couldn’t say. The uuk trembled in her shaking hand and rattled closer to the edge of the kerege that held it up. It slipped a notch. Tana felt it, but she looked up too late to see that most of the roof was crashing down around her as the kerege gave way. She wailed louder. The falling roof had separated, and there was nothing now between Tana-ja and the open air to allow her neighbors to pretend they could not hear. Even those who stuffed their ears with dry rolls of grease could do nothing to stop the sickly red clubs of sound that pulsed out of the collapsed yurt, smacking against neighbors’ barred doors and dripping to the ground with low moans. Men pretended not to hear out of fear of their own women, who grew angrier with each passing moment of silence, a silence broken only by the wails of a whore writhing under the debris of her home.
Tana-ja’s salamasire, who had been the envy of the tribe when his owner was a fighter of fiercingthirst, had been quiet to this point. He had said enough, many months before, in his daily warnings to the woman to fill her grievingspace with talk or work, not with the cocks of otherwomen’s men, for this would draw jealousyhate. The salamasire had offered her sympathywarm and healingthoughts, even, once, his own body, but they were cast aside like damp coal. Now this. He crawled from under the fallen copper chain and settled atop his pile of smoking coals, which lay scattered across the floor. He opened his mind to her needs.
Help me, she felt.
I will not. Not without willingkind from inside you, he responded.
I should not. Only your pain is needingwant.
I cannot. Not without giving you everything.
The black salamasire considered for a moment his options, his purpose, his function. What was his function if not to serve his keepertend? What function was left to him in this coldriver of anger and shame? There was another choice, another function he could fulfill, and in fulfilling, save the woman. This was not what he wanted. This was not what she would want, were she properly the woman. But she was not now properly the woman, and this was his function.
The salamasire lowered his head into the remaining ashes of his toppled brazier and died.
Salamanders from miles away felt the death in cold wind that flushed ashes from their coals, and they jumped to their squat legs, darting their heads toward the collapsed yurt of Tana-ja. This could not be ignored. The neighbors ran from their homes to see what the whore had done now. What they found was Tana lying amid the uuk beams, dappled in bits of long-neglected dry felt, not wholly conscious, clutching against her the still-attached and unwashed baby Gjona-ja. He gripped in his right fist a large clot of black blood. No one knew what the black clot meant, for good or ill, for such a thing had never been seen before and would not be seen again. He sucked madly at his mother’s breast, taking each gulp as if it might be his last. And truly, it might have been. But beside the mother and child, tangled in a chain now unattached to anything, was the still-orange hot brazier. And amid the coals was the salamasire, peacefully dead. Many in the mob dropped to the ground in shame, muttering pleas for forgiveness and mercy. Only one woman stepped forward. Purna, with no less anger in her expression than that with which she’d met Tana at the fennis heaps, took from her tunic a knife, short and designed for paring bone. She walked to the brazier, bowed, and rubbed each side of the blade against the dead salamasire. The blade sizzled in purification. She hadn’t cared about Tana’s wound, but before the death of a salamander she trembled. In the grand scheme of things, she told herself, borrowing a phrase from Kyrgyz figures of speech, even a whore like Tana could be sanctified by a salamander’s blessing.
So she knelt to Tana and Gjona, turned the boy over, tied off his cord with a bit of thread from her pouch, and cut it. Other women took the cue. They stepped up to clear the debris and carry Tana on a litter to a place of safety. Tana was told of the events days later, when she woke from a delirium. In that delirium were visions sharper than actual memory, of things she could not possibly have witnessed. In these waking dreams, interrupted only by Gjona’s suckling, Tana saw a man in a dark fur cloak whose face she didn’t recognize. He had long brown hair and a full beard, and eyes so wide and so richly brown that they pulled her in and made her loins ache. The man walked out into the night alone, when the moon was in full coal, and approached the fallen brazier. No one had yet dared to touch it or the dead salamasire, which was still cooling and not yet ready to turn to ash. The man picked up the salamasire and turned it over. He pushed at its belly and worked away a pouch of skin, pulled it back, and dug into it with one thin finger. The man winced at the heat as he pulled out a tiny thing, a white thing, wriggling in agony at the surrounding cold. He popped the white thing into his mouth, under his tongue, and jogged back to his yurt. The heat of the infant salamander was already strong enough to sear his tongue, but he did not cry out.
Friday Afternoon: The Sentience of Waves
The problem with waves is they get into everything—fishing gear, bathing suits, the keel of the boat—leaving droplets of impatience flipping around in the bottoms of tackle boxes or clinging to your groin like unwanted compulsive thoughts. Then the sentience seems to spread from water to water, until next thing you know the stream flowing from your bathroom tap pulls away in disgust at the idea of being gargled. This was always the problem with St. Brianna Island. It protected the mouth of the Apalachicola River, which flooded the resulting bay with the fossilized nightmares of Virginia hillfolk, exiled Cherokees, and angry Atlanta commuters trying to ride the crest of the sprawling city’s survival past 2016. In the confluence where these unsettled fresh waters crashed against the more laconic Gulf of Tenochtitlan, they created an estuary of neuroses hungry for interaction with other sentient forms.
For Prester and Mina John, it was the perfect vacation spot.
The traffic on their six-hour trip south had been worst in the last leg: along the bridge and causeway that led to the island. On the mainland, in Little Hope—a squalid Florida town with broken-down shrimpers popping up at odd angles from rotting piers—the bridge was of ancient cut stone, whitened and pocked by time, decorated with mythological beasts like manatees and pelicans: manatees, the stuff of children’s fairy tales, great lumbering underwater cows that fed on grasses and nursed their young; pelicans, the daydreams of sailors, who imagined seeing them scoop fish from the water in mouths like bait buckets. Farther out, better sense prevailed, and the bridge was simpler, stronger, rising higher over the waves in an arc of rebar and poured concrete until it reached a steel apex tall enough for Little Hope’s rusted shrimpers to twaddle underneath.
As the Johns’ silver Nissan Pathfinder reached the apex of the bridge, the line of cars ahead came into view, stretching along a spindle of causeway where earth, rock, and sand had been piled upon themselves again and again to create a century-old road into St. Brianna. Prester noted this with admiration for the construction crews’ persistence as he eased up behind the car in front of him, settling in for the long wait. He didn’t mind waiting. On either side the waves playfully threatened to wash a car off the road. They would swell into a great bulge an SUV high (seeming to smile in a cruel, soft foam that spoke of Poseidon’s revenge and Caligula’s foresight, but Prester knew that was only legend, legend and a coincidence of shifting water) then lunge in a 500-pound splash of salty foam. Prester heard screams from some cars up ahead, drowned out by the peals of the waters’ laughter. No one seemed to be hurt, but the salt did considerable damage to their paint jobs.
The line of cars created a perfect opportunity for the waves to carry out their function, which seemed to center on the annoyance of humans. Only rarely did they kill anyone, though with such great bursts of power they certainly could have washed the causeway clean of vehicles, perhaps the entire island. But they stopped short—somehow that wasn’t part of their function. For Prester, that raised the question of purpose. Function is one thing, but can one have function without purpose? And if not, what is the purpose of the sentience of waves? The bullying of humans couldn’t be an end in itself. Maybe it wasn’t their true function but only an afterthought, as they worked under lightless skies across vast deserts of ocean to communicate with the stars, or to birth molecular chains of hydrogen-oxygen couplings, or to prepare themselves for some watery apocalypse so far into the future that humans would then be only a vague memory to scattered surges of the Mediterranean Sea.
Prester hadn’t felt purpose in a long time. Well, in several months, anyway. Maybe not in a few hundred years, if he stopped to evaluate it properly. On his way to the Holy Land 875 years earlier with his army of Quaabites and sciapods, Prester John had felt purpose. Rebuilding his empire in Abyssinia, he’d felt purpose. At NSpaces, the extradimensional locations company where until recently he’d handled shipping and receiving of product, he’d felt purpose. Or maybe he only imagined it. But since his sudden dismissal from NSpaces, and with the growing gulf of silence between himself and Mina, “purpose” now seemed like a lost comfort blanket or a failed hobby. Or like the coals that we warm to stay warm, and they go cold and we go cold, and we scramble for yet more coals, and more coals, and more. So much easier to embrace the cold.
Prester took a sip of lukewarm coffee. Not yet.
“How’re you feeling?” he asked.
“Fine,” Mina said, her voice cracking from disuse. She cleared her throat.
“Looks like this will last a while.”
Checkpoint crabs, orange-red and about two feet wider than they were in height, scuttled in and out of movable wooden shacks at the head of the line of cars along the island’s shore. The crabs had caused the traffic backup, though if you asked them they’d only glare and snap at you. Crabs ran the island now. There was a time, many years ago, when they had been kept in check by colonizing Floridians; but that led in part to the Redshell Revolts, and revolts have consequences.
Nearby, a Cyclops child not yet taller than the shacks sat idly rolling a dead porpoise in the sand. His eye (the size of a cantaloupe, Prester decided) shunted out from flaps of skin still pink with youth. Fuzzy tufts of hair popped from moles and unseemly shadows, where the Cyclops’s father hadn’t quite managed to dress him in a manner suitable for interaction with humans (who were inclined, to a Cyclops’s dismay, to giggle when organs flopped loose and crashed into rooftops). The porpoise wasn’t yet decayed—it must’ve been killed that morning, and Prester wondered if it might be intended as lunch for the checkpoint crew. Every fifteen minutes or so, a crab popped up in front of the Cyclops boy (who blinked dumbly as if every supervisor were some fantastic new creature reborn before his eye) and chattered a string of orders. The Cyclops would rise, walk to the roadside, and pick up a shack, spilling angry crabs out the door and onto the beach. Then he would move the shack away from the tide and closer to the constantly shifting head of the line. Forecrabs screamed orders of left, right, and stop! just before being crushed into the sand by a few Cyclops toes or a shack foundation.
The crabs appeared to be taking turns with contraband inspections, searching every car for explosives and imported milk, each crab taking one car, then retreating for the day, union regulations being what they were. They were busy—always busy—and couldn’t abide having anyone try to skip past them or get out of their car to argue. But as the causeway widened from a thin line of bricked sand into a shouldered road, the occasional Hittite, seething in frustration, would jump out, slam his door, and walk forward only to be chased back by crabs swinging foot-long billy clubs.
Hittites were like this. Prester found them too quick to anger. He watched from a few cars back as a Hittite couple ahead of them tossed their heads and hands in argument with one another, their shouts muffled by the waves and idling cars.
“That poor thing,” Mina said.
Prester looked more closely. The man was waving his arms around but certainly hadn’t hit the woman, and she was turned in profile as she berated him with fury steaming from her face. Prester wasn’t sure which one merited his compassion—he wasn’t good at these things.
“Which one?” he asked.
“The salamander—just look at him,” Mina said.
On the shelf of the rear window rested the Hittites’ salamander. He was a salamasire, mottled orange and about two feet in length. Just as female salamanders had to be milked, males had to fulminate—belch fire from their furnace-hot bellies—and they had to do it several times a day. This one was smoldering in pain.
“That’s just cruel,” Mina said. “He must be miserable holding back like that. They ought to have him in a pyrorium.”
Good training, Prester thought.
The man in the car pointed back to the salamander, and Prester saw that the salamander must be what they were arguing about. Prester and Mina hadn’t argued that way in a long time. Almost a year, actually. It was easier this way.
“Someone ought to take that poor thing away from them, or at least from him anyway.” Prester glanced over. Mina was beautiful. So beautiful. Almost more so when she was angry like this—her brow furrowed and eyes burning—though she was holding back, trying not to get herself upset. She kept her long, reddened hair pulled back in a ponytail, which was now adrift over her shoulder, leading Prester’s eyes down toward her left breast. (Prester stopped his thoughts. Now wasn’t the time, even if his shadow was elongating and lurching in the space behind him. He leaned forward to douse the shadow with a blast of sunlight.) Mina’s hair had been brown when they met, but she’d taken to dyeing it with a tinge of red. Prester didn’t mind; it reminded him of the concubines along the Tigris River those many years ago. But Mina wasn’t from the Middle East. She was a descendant of the Great Presbyterian Mission Crusade to Madagascar, and you could see in her eyes the pearl blue of northern Europe mingled with the deep brown of the native peoples. The passion of those who strove to bring True Religion to the islanders, and the passion of the islanders who resisted it just as ardently. So beautiful, in function and form. And solid now. Prester couldn’t see through her arm at all.
“You seem better,” he said.
Mina held her arm up to the window. “Not even a glimmer of light showing through,” she said.
In moments like this, Prester sometimes considered telling Mina how much she meant to him, how she was perhaps the most passionate, dynamic woman he’d ever known, how he had become closer to her than to any of his previous wives, how he truly and deeply loved her. As the air pulled into Prester’s lungs to be transformed into these words, the Hittite ahead of them in line got out of his car and slammed the door.
The man edged along the narrow clearance between his car and the shoreline and opened the back door, while his wife shouted warnings barely audible in the distance. He put on a pair of oven mitts, reached to the rear window, and pulled the salamasire down from his perch (the salamander quivered and nodded in anticipation), then held him out, pointing him toward the open bay. The salamander took a deep breath of wet, salty air and fulminated a cloud of heat and flame that the harsh wind caught up and dispersed. Feeling much better, the salamander turned and purred at his master, but just then a rogue wave reached up, grabbed the salamander by one leg, and flung him several-score yards into the bay, where he performed a spastic five-skip plunge.
“Oh my God!” Mina shouted, and from the back of the Pathfinder they both felt a sickening wave of shocksadness from their own salamanders, safe in their pyrorium but sympathetically hurt.
“OhmyGod, ohmyGod, ohmyGod,” Mina muttered, her hands over her mouth. “I can’t believe that just happened.”
“Hunh,” Prester said, unsure how to respond to what seemed to him a perfectly natural turn of events. The man should have known better—waves don’t abide salamander flame—but Prester John had long observed that knowing better has little impact on the actions of a Hittite. The man, shouting and crying but also shaking with fear, got back in his car, slammed the door, tore off his oven mitts, and pounded on the steering wheel. His wife reached out a consoling hand, which he shoved aside.
Prester decided that the moment had passed, but he resolved to have that conversation with Mina later, maybe as a good segue into their “decision,” as they’d come to call it. That would be nice.
“Are you okay?” he asked Mina, who had begun breathing hard, trying to calm herself, trying to avert what he then realized could come next.
“I will be,” she said and began her meditative breathing exercises, closing her eyes and her mind to the scene ahead. “I just need to not think about it.”
He glanced over a few times to make sure she was right, and she was. He’d learned long ago to leave her alone when this happened. She’d be fine.
There had been many Hittites among the army that Prester organized for his crusade to the Holy Land almost nine centuries earlier. They were among the first to muster, having had long grievances with the Saracens on their western border. The Hittites were also among the first to abandon Prester when his crusade stopped at the Tigris River, when his supplies rotted away on the banks of a river that would not freeze: despite the promises of Jesus, despite Prester’s long months of prayer, despite his supposed commission to save the Holy Land from the grip of the infidel. He didn’t blame the Hittites. He muttered no silent curses under his breath at the mention of their name. Jesus, though. Jesus was another matter.
As soon as the causeway was wide enough to allow it, the Hittite got out of his car again and stormed to the crab shack, his wife pleading with him to stop. The Cyclops boy glanced over and put down his porpoise to watch. Prester glanced over at Mina, to make sure she still had her eyes closed in meditation. The crabs, of course, had little to do with the ebb and flow of the waves (that, by exception, was not their doing), but the man blamed them nonetheless for the traffic, for the long delay, for the narrowness of the causeway, and he shouted as much shortly before a red carpet of crabs poured out of the shack, each holding a black billy club in the short claw and snapping eagerly with the large one. They beat him there by the side of the road, in a cascading flurry of black wood and flailing limbs.
Prester slowly turned up the radio—“Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac—to drown out the screams.
Had the crab shells not been red to begin with, the sight of the Hittite’s blood would have been more striking. The beating and its audience delayed traffic even longer, and lunging fingers of salt water buffeted even more cars. But now the drivers kept their doors shut and windows tight, regardless of the needs of their own salamanders. The crabs soon directed the Cyclops to lift the offending tourist, unconscious and tenderized, and carry him to his own trunk.
Mina looked up just as the trunk slammed shut.
“What just happened?” she said.
“I don’t think you want to know.”
Before the 9/11 attacks, access to the island had been easy. One simply drove over the causeway, stopped at the local Hell for groceries and enjoyed a week or more of quiet vacationing on the Gulf of Tenochtitlan. But now, a decade later, there were security checkpoints. Inspections. Their own little war on terror waged with billy clubs and traffic backups. Prester wasn’t sure what the crabs were afraid of. St. Brianna Island had no buildings taller than three stories. There were a couple of private airplane runways, but nothing accessible to terrorists. Besides, anyone who really wanted to could simply buy extradimensional passage and they’d be able to plant an army in the center of downtown, decked out with AK-47s and grenade launchers.
That had been Prester’s specialty. Not organizing armies (he’d certainly done that: during his crusade, during his time in Abyssinia, and even, to an extent, during the Redshell Revolts), but booking extradimensional passage. At NSpaces, his job was to ensure that extradimensional portals, usually fist-sized spheres that could expand to fill a doorway, were safely shipped to the correct locations and then returned upon lease expiration. The process would have been much easier if the portals could themselves be shipped by extradimensional portal, but the last time someone had tried that, the portal-inside-a-portal opened into a separate reality in which extradimensional portals did not exist. While the experiment was a failure, it did allow the emergence of the second Ambrose Bierce, who had come upon the portal while traveling. The incident gave the management of NSpaces the basis for new protocols banning the portal of portals, and it resulted in the collaborative twenty-four-part sequel The Devil’s Encyclopedia by the Ambroses Bierce.
Prester had no collaborator, and he never wanted one. He barely had colleagues. They had a way of making things too complicated, with too many loose strings left behind. Leave no trace—that was Prester’s motto. He kept things clean, orderly. While some of his coworkers invested in transient decor—paintings and posters that could appear and disappear with the doors and windows—Prester found this an obnoxious luxury and much preferred the calming effect of NSpaces’ default “Supernatural Taupe” color scheme. His pressboard laminated desk was more machine than work space. He kept projects to be done on one side and projects completed on the other. Sometimes, when the project side ran low, he’d slow down and relax in the calm of it as he waited for more paperwork to arrive. In between these trays of ingress and egress was his milk mug, a gift from his boss that came with an inspirational slogan: “Vision. Creating a new path into the future.” Prester had a habit of turning the words away. He preferred his own “Leave no trace” slogan. If a job is done well—if the product is ordered, arrives, works according to specifications, can be easily returned and paid for—then no one should have any memory of who helped accomplish the job, no record that the job was ever done. In fact, the sure sign of a job done poorly is that it requires that one extra phone call, that one extra question, that briefest of exasperated sighs that leads one to wonder who is responsible. It is in failure that we draw attention to ourselves, Prester had concluded. Success is in absence, never in presence.
Once, while cleaning his desk, which was his ten-minute ritual at the end of every workday, Prester came across a document he had neglected to file. It was for Species Control, one of his top clients, which had ordered a “Keeper’s Trick”—a vertical portal the size of a soccer goal, used for transporting large objects or animals. Prester went to file the document but realized it was an NS-24, not an NS-42. Someone had transposed the digits, calling for a horizontal product the size of a trashcan. Prester laughed, imagining Species Control agents trying to stuff the bloodied carcass of a black rhino into a trashcan-sized portal. Knowing them, they’d likely carve it up and port it a piece at a time before calling to admit the problem. Prester refiled the order on an NS-42. It’s much easier to laugh when there are no consequences. And avoiding consequences is easy: observation, patience, control.
“I’d like us to go the Crab Festival this year,” Mina said, breaking the long silence. “It would be fun.”
“I suppose,” Prester said. “When is that?”
“Monday, I think.”
“Oh. I thought we’d be done by Saturday night.”
Mina was quiet for a moment.
“But we could put things off,” Prester suggested. “Reschedule.”
“Maybe,” Mina said. “It would be good to go, one last time.”
Prester and Mina had started coming to the island on their first anniversary, back when they enjoyed the beach and the warmth of sand rising through their bodies. They’d lie for an hour or more on the fine, white shore, listening to the gulls, to the ease of one another’s breathing, to the waves’ distant mutterings and chatter. Prester would watch tiny drops of sweat rise atop Mina’s thighs, coalesce, and glide down, making one final dart against the curve under her leg before giving up in helpless pleasure and falling to the towel. A few years later, as the melt condition grew worse, they’d had to take precautions. He’d rub handfuls of crushed ice against her back, enjoying the cold trickle dripping between his fingers and down his arms into the sand. But lately, for the Johns, the beach had become more scenery than destination, and a trip to St. Brianna more habit than getaway. This time, it would finally be a getaway again.
They passed inspection—the crabs instinctively gave Prester a wide berth—and made their way along the familiar route to the beach house they had purchased many years earlier, a one-story, pastel-yellow clapboard on stilts with crushed oyster shell and pebbles for a driveway. Opening the beach house door was easy enough. The door was swollen with the sweet stick of slate mildew, a problem that seemed to grow worse each year, but it hadn’t completely sealed.
“Do you need me?” Mina yelled from the carport.
Hauling in eight stairloads of luggage was simple, as was transferring their salamanders, one white and one gray, into the pyrorium in the hallway.
“No, I’m fine,” Prester yelled back.
But then there was the gun, a Colt 1911 with wood grips. Casually opening the suitcase, removing the gun and the magazine, and stowing them away—that wasn’t so easy. Prester didn’t want to leave the gun out, but he didn’t want to hide it either, like it was something to be ashamed of. He put the gun in the white wicker dresser that they never used except maybe to stash some spare towels, all ratty now with fuzz and holes. He shut the drawer. He turned from the dresser to Mina.
“You okay?” he said.
“Yeah,” she answered. “Just tired, you know?”