The Sugar of the Earth – part 11


Where Pipe Street met Undone Alley a carmine eruption of bamboo cracked aside the cobbles, screening the alley’s aperture, whispering in the wind off the lagoon. The streetlamps had been annexed deep into the rampant growth were they hung like imprisoned moons throwing what light might escape, cut into slats of shadow by the vigorous culms.


The walls of Undone Alley were far taller than Nizzin and from one wall to the other an arch would leap to cut the view of the night sky into segments where the savaged stars could be seen shimmering. Tiny marbles of light hung from the center of each arch, not illumining the way so much as offering a lure to it.


The great cries of the party that had attracted Nizzin had died down, but he could still hear the hubbub of it hum. The alley bordered who knew what other estates, yards, fields, or houses. As Nizzin moved slowly down that alley of shadow he passed several curious doors, each one different, each one tangling with his imagination; trees might be seen reaching up over the walls from whatever grounds laid beyond the strange doors, great palms, or expansive empress trees, or the island’s red bamboo. Nizzin had stopped, was at the point of pressing his eyes against a certain keyhole set in the center one of those curious doors – strips of hammered metal green with an advanced patina – and he just pulled the vision of what lay beyond into focus when the cries of the party he had heard earlier erupted again. Laughter like breaking glass, applause like low waves rolling into shore.


Nizzin swung his eyes towards the sound. Where the alley had been dark there was a rich spill of light painting the cobbles and the wall the color and texture of an orange peel. Nizzin thought for a moment he could even smell the sharp scent of citrus assail him. Perhaps the wind pulled it out of one of the secret grounds that surrounded him, bore it down the narrow alley. His nostrils dilated. His eyes glazed and he hesitated. Nizzin craved secret things.


In that brief peep through the keyhole he thought he had seen pale flesh painted by the starlight, the silent mechanisms of an a machine that shone with oil, flowers nodding . . .


He tapped the keyhole lightly with his fingertip. The warm flood of light down the alley pulled at him. Silhouettes of partiers broke across the cobbles there and swung up the walls of the alley. Cheers again.  Tipsy shades of departing guests staggered out and down the alley away from Nizzin.  The light began to scissor closed, tugging Nizzin towards it. He quickly marked the patinated door with his knife – perhaps later he might return – and made for the closing door.





The Sugar of the Earth – part 10


Nizzin was an avid reader, though he was not a completionist. He’d read the better portion of hundreds of novels, but had only finished two or three, and those only because he’d started up somewhere nearer the end of the book with the forefinger and thumb of his left hand pinching a chubby stack of pages while his right turned the final few with a relaxed grace. He had always intended to reread many of his favorites but owned none of them.


In his bag he had three books that banged up against the knotted cloths wrapped around the treasure he’d stole: the first was a sword-fighting manual that masqueraded as a book of poetry, the second was a travel guide for a place he’d never been but enjoyed how in the writers comments there was couched the secret narrative of a search for a lost sibling, and the third was a novel written perhaps for younger readers but had a fantastic chapter about a red house that haunted the people who dreamed of it.


He’d already reread the portions of each that he enjoyed and there was time yet before the Starhenge revealed itself, so went out into the streets of that little town to find something to read.


Nizzin had taken a room in a poorer part of town where his meager money might be spread a bit further while he plotted his next move. The night, filled by the warm winds off the lagoons, blew through the narrow streets in sheets of ruffling dark. Little lamps and stray candles seem to buoy. Nizzin felt the drag of the dark around his ankles; he might walk straight down the cobbled streets to the sands and into the water of the lagoons and not feel any change in the cloying medium he managed. The notion of it made him giddy. He kicked his feet around as he went to see if anything might splash, but it was truly too dark to tell.


The cobbled lanes ran crinkum-crankum through the dark; there was more diversion than direction. Nizzin crouched beneath rows of low arches to pass wide windows of thick glass behind which tea drinkers obliterated the night with narcotic brews, courtyards ambushed him with seductive circles of stone like tidal pools. It took the serpentine path of Pipe Street to finally deliver Nizzin into a district blessed by hanging lanterns, sentinel streetlights & a coffee shop with a cart of disused books pushed against one wall. A muscular dire-zebra was tied out front with no immediate owner nearby and regarded Nizzin with the candor of an abused species as he passed.


Nizzin gave the giant animal a wide berth while he ordered a coffee and went to peruse the books. The barman set Nizzin’s coffee on the counter, ‘Are you looking for any-‘ , but the rest of his words were mangled by a sudden cheer of voices. Nizzin looked from the row of books to the barman, an older fellow, and said, ‘Wh- ‘. His inquiry was cut off again by that cheer.


The barman and Nizzin exchanged a look. The zebra out front made a sound of perturbation that rang out clearly without interruption. Nizzin came to the bar and took up his coffee. The barman leaned in and said, ‘There’s a pa-‘ , again the noise from nearby exploded. The barman tried again loudly, ‘There is a party.’


Nizzin felt this was now obvious.


The barman shrugged. ‘You should go see what you might.’ He paused and checked the air with his eyes as if he might spy the next cry coming. ‘The lady of the house has a vast library’, he continued throwing his glance at Nizzin’s hand’s briefly. Nizzin looked down to find that he’d carried a book from the wall over to the counter with him.


Nizzin set the book down, took a long drag off his coffee, set the cup on the counter and went to see what the party was all about. The dire-zebra offered a compact of bloodlust with it’s savage gaze as Nizzin passed then twitched it’s tale when it got no response.





The Sugar of the Earth – part 9


I am gliding forwards, thought Zgijia. The house and Zgija swayed on an eerie parallax. The partiers flowed across the room, frothed at the furniture in breakers of cheer. Their arms flow. Flowering. The stairs bend down beneath me. She walked upstairs through a colonnade of vases and their very round shadows. A cheer of voices, glass breaking. I’ve heard these things before. At a landing she navigated an eddy of guests leaning, carrying the candlelight in their glasses, touching their shoulders together testing the boundaries of intimacy. Just before Zgija disappeared upstairs entirely she saw where the hostess had fainted, her gown spread out in a spill of inky fabric, her wine a small black pond on the floor. She was being attended by those concerned. What was it she had said?


Zgija managed the hallway running her fingertips along the wall as she had along the walls of Undone Alley outside. Here there were tipsy couples too, though so many peoples’ eyes seemed to roll madly like marbles. Something had happened. Something has happened. She became dizzy. The hallway telescoped out before her like an undulating eel before abruptly opening on wide balcony where tall potted trees swayed like seaweed.


On the balcony, Zgija held the railing to stabilize herself. This is the man I saw before.  Nizzin leaned against the balcony easily as if nothing was wrong, as if nothing was unraveling around him.  He was looking up at the Starhenge, his gaze shielded from the glare of it by a heavy book he held.  He had long straight hair, his cheekbones were weirdly high as if he’d suffered some once debilitating violence and had undergone surgery to try and correct it.  Zgija tried to examine his eyes but came away with the impression of the quivering gills of suffocating fish.


Someone next to them disembouged a quantity of shimmering vomit like a rain-spout. ‘I’m so sorry,’ the wretch managed before vomiting again.


Zgija tried to say something to Nizzin but there seemed some disruption in the air that sundered understanding. He hadn’t noticed.  What was it the hostess had said?


The vomiting man collapsed and his sickness lay on the balcony like a spreading mirror gathering starlight. Again Zgija tried to say something to Nizzin. And they could speak it’s language, the hostess had said. Nizzin’s gasping eyes seemed enthralled with the increasingly strange radiance.  He turned to watch the arch of his shadow sweep over the balcony.  The Starhenge swung like a chandelier, throwing it’s light in fans.


She had tried to speak the words those sisters had known. Zgija could recall the hostess speaking, her wine glass had abandoned it’s shape in a glassy splash, the wine itself freed like a bird spread open in the air, a kind of queasy dissolve had ignited in everything around them. There the balcony bucked and folded. The potted trees squirmed. The Starhenge met Zgija’s gaze and did not blink.



The Sugar of the Earth – part 8


‘They were wishes,’ said a tiny woman with long feathers in her hair. She’d had far too much wine and had meant to manage the word ‘witches’ but it seemed so great an effort under the influence of so much grape.


‘They conjured cacodjinns and elementals, whispered secrets on the wind,’ a younger fellow embellished. He’d taken a position behind the tiny woman but kept having to hold back the arch of her feathers to add his thoughts.


The hostess waved the scepter of her wine glass, snaring the attention of the party-goers around her. ‘A fabulous tale is easy to spill. But if you’ – she gestured directly at the young man leaning past the feathers of the tiny drunk woman – ‘or you’ – she pointed at group of women whispering so close together they seemed to uncouple unctuously in order to turn their attention – ‘or you’ – the hostesses’ glass singled out Zgija who had been leaning against an open window trying to remain as anonymous as she might – ‘were to try to go up to their house now, if you were to venture past their antipathies, you’d be appalled at how timid your fables of those two sisters really are.’


In the moment between breaths there was the sound of glasses being refilled, the shuffling of feet.


‘Conjurings? Their conjurings are sewn into the air around that house!’ she flourished her fingers. ‘Machines perhaps? O, They had machines! Their automata still stalk the great gardens there,’ more flourishing followed.


Looks were exchanged across the room. Some of the guests seemed riveted, some embarrassed. The hostess had clearly begun to channel the spirit of her story. Zgija found herself meeting the eyes of many there, taking quick account. The helpful man with the glasses from before was now examining his shoes, his meager offering of conjecture spent. The group of whispering women still exchanged melodramas. Yet the room was far larger than Zgija had first thought, the candle-play folded shadows and distance. At the back of the room she thought she could see the shape of that fellow who had been raking his gaze across the town and the lagoon through a spyglass as she had that first night she arrived on the island. He stood obscured behind two larger men done up in dark vests and sculpted quaffs of hair. She was at the moment of moving towards him when the hostess resumed her narrative.


‘The real thing that set those two deviant sisters apart was what they knew of the incursion site,’ here the hostess drew out the long ‘u’ of incursion cutting it off only after a serpentine duration. ‘They understood what had come through.’


This seemed gauche almost. Guests averted their eyes or took the opportunity to drain their glasses.


‘They knew the Starhenge. . .’ she dragged out the moment, her fingers fluttering in anticipation, ‘ and they could speak it’s language.’



The Sugar of the Earth – part 7


Undone Alley was a narrow passage bounded on both sides by tall walls that rose up past the height of any person to leap across at intervals as arches that segmented the winding path. The shadows lay heavy there, had laid heavy there for so long as to build up a residual dust the tainted the air. There were only very tiny lanterns, hung from the arches, nothing more than little marbles of light to mark the way.


Zgija moved along the alley, trailing one hand against the wall, the texture of the stone against her fingertips, keeping a distance from the inebriated couple the swayed along in front of her. She wore a hooded gown of dark orange, sleeveless and cut high over her legs to allow free movement and to show the peeking curls of her great tattoo that squirmed over her thighs and led up beneath the crisp folds of the dress. She was bare foot, the jewelry around her ankles clacked.


From somewhere further ahead down the alley came music.


‘There were two of them, of course.’


The woman held her glass like a scepter, resting it against her collarbones as she spoke or swaying it ahead of her to make a point, the rich liquid inside curling on itself, catching the candle light tucking it away, snuffing if out. She took a long swallow while her guests waited for her to continue her story.


The party was an orange hum of people. No one had challenged Zgija’s entrance, she’d even been offered a glass of wine from tray of hammered bronze where other such glasses gleamed in the candle glow; the same wine the hostess made such a show of swallowing. Watching the woman’s throat manage the mouthful Zgija had the distinct impression of a sidewinding serpent moving over rough terrain.


The hostess coughed lightly. ‘They were twins,’ she stretched the ‘s’ out elastically until her teeth folded the sound into an insectile ‘z’. She coughed again.


‘I remember,’ said a helpful gentleman in glasses, taking advantage of the pause. ‘There were all kinds of stories about them.’ He made his own attempt at swirling his wine glass but spilled some in his exuberance. ‘They lived up in the hills in a kind of laboratory or castle.’ He paused and sipped his wine, ignoring the spill, before turning his eyes towards the hostess, each lens catching the orange light and erasing his eyes. ‘Is that right?’ he wondered.


The hostess was clearly annoyed at having her story interrupted. She removed her empty hand from where she had been absently petting her own decolletage and waved it in the interloper’s direction with the lightest twist of the wrist to show he was no longer needed.


‘It was a listening station, I believe. They could hear the stars,’ she dramatized the words so that no one gathered might miss the implications.




The Sugar of the Earth – part 6


In town one might see people sitting in a cafe looking out across the lagoons; out there where the sea churned deeply, out to where the embarrassment of the mainland was tucked behind the horizon the way one might hide a deformity in a long sleeve or heavy coat. At night, before the Starhenge shone, one could imagine the brisance as the mainland was rewritten. There was an affliction like a demeaning homesickness. It went around in the gazes exchanged along the towns rolling streets, was passed like tickets of access in the thin alleys were the sun or the stars could not be seen. If one was braver, out in the jungle perhaps, that look might be cooked away by the misanthropic flora. Would it be better let the deformity run free? To cut the sleeve of that heavy coat, to tailor the whole of it to fit the new changed shape? New ways to walk. New ways to leap. New ways speak. A new sky to live – would that be living? – under. Would it have been better to stay on the mainland? The sickness of not knowing lived in the eyes of so many who moved through those streets of that town.


Zgija sat on the bow of her boat and drank black coffee watching the people move past. She had been on the island for a day now, observing and learning. She wore flowers in her hair, tempting the narcotic influences as was the style for glamorous women on the island. At any given moment on the curling streets of that little town, sea-sided and salt-touched, a lady might succumb to the fevers of her ornaments, not always an accident.


Looking over the cobbled undulations of Pipe Street. She watched people pinch cigarettes one way then another, some grips considered more fashionable than others. Down at the small tables fringed in the orange glow of the cafe she watched the drinkers sip and smoke.


There was breaking glass and applause. A heavy wind blew in off the lagoon leaving in it’s wake wavering tree tops each seemingly trying catch and hold what starlight they might. Melodramatic gasps came up from the tables. One or two of the drinkers stood and looked around. Though the warm light of the cafe persisted it made, thought Zgija, those in it look more vulnerable, selected. A woman with a flower in her hair and a low-cut dress got up from her table, upsetting the bottle and candle there, took two tipsy steps to the perimeter of the lantern’s glow and screamed at the sky. There was very little echo and the sound felt surprisingly close. She screamed again and Zgija could see tears on her cheeks catching the lights. Her painted lips were swollen. A strap of her gown had fallen off her shoulder. One of her companions came and fetched her back to the table, now put to right. She sobbed once. A few more of the cafe’s patrons moved closer together. The wind moved in again heavily. Several lanterns failed. The dark then, voluminous.


The Starhenge revealed itself as it did each night at it’s hour.


An array of gasps from the cafe, followed by laughter; the light cacophony of released tension. Without seeing it happen, Zgija realized the lanterns had resumed. The woman in the low-cut dress wiped smeared make-up from her eyes, laughing at something one of her companions had said. A fresh round of cigarettes were lit. Zgija went inside.



The Sugar of the Earth – part 5




The jungle had seethed into the building vine by vine, blossom by blossom, branch by groping branch in a slow siege of sumptuous verdancy so that all the avenues to, so that each egress from, was wreathed.


Whether it had firstly been a library or whether it had initially been an observatory was moot.


Library: the capacity of the shelves failed, books piled up in crenelations.


Observatory: the lens cracked.


Alas: the luxury of dust.


Methany moved through the mess of it. From somewhere close there was music grinding itself against the air with the nostalgic friction of a bygone medium. A hiss, a pop; there the distortion of heat, the clasp of moisture, a craved-for degradation that chewed at the moment. Each towering shelf cut a rich measure of shadow into the sweet light so that one might pass from sensation to sensation – cloyingly warm to tantalizing chill to cloyingly warm. She eased between shade & sun, sun & shade, her nigh-nudity painted with each pass. Her jewelry clacked, whispering to itself.


At the far end of the library there was a small couch where her sister slept beneath a wide window open to the purple sky, the cooling air, the few sequins the wind wrung from the condensation built up around the island’s peak.


“I was dreaming”, Mathalia said, roused.


There was a gravity between the sisters.


Methany lied down next to her twin. Their mind-shapes arched languorously up the wall, rippling against the ruination of it like streams bubbling over stones. It looked as if the shadows of two children, standing in front of a large fire stretched their muscles in preparation for some exotic exercise.


They stepped out onto the roof where a large table had been set with a cloth, a bottle, and two glasses, though the wind had pushed one of the glasses over were it lay in a pool of drying wine. A few insects sipped at the spill with their long legs.


From up on the roof the sisters could see much of the island sprawl out around them in great folds and hills, in soft fields and tangles of jungle. Northwest of them though rose the peaks of the island, clotted with mist. There they looked with an ache in their twin bodies. There the promise of release. There the danger of the incursion site.


The weight of that place, from so high up, from so far off, came down on Mathalia, still soft from dreams, and she suddenly frothed into a panic. She pulled back her lips and coughed up two sharp laughs like things that had been choking her. She swung away from her sister, yet not letting go of her hand, turning on her heel like a dancer. Her breath seethed between her teeth and her face flushed. But then, as quickly as it had set on her, the fit passed. Mathalia blew her breath out, lips pursed as she might extinguish her dread like a candle.


Methany pulled her sister in close to her, touched her forehead with her own, letting her mind-shape drape affectionately over her.


“Soon,” she whispered, “so soon.”


Beneath the twins, around the building, alchemical mannequins moved about the grounds gathering fruit, picking flowers.