By Caroline Yoachim
Read by: Heather Welliver
Originally appearing in Asimov’s
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All stories by Caroline Yoachim
All stories read by Heather Welliver
Nominated for the
Hugo Nebula Award for Novelette, 2011
Rated appropriate for older teens and up for adult imagery.
Stone Wall Truth
by Caroline M. Yoachim
Njeri sewed the woman together with hairs from a zebra tail. Her deer-bone needle dipped under the woman’s skin and bobbed back out. The contrast of the white seams against her dark skin was striking.
“The center seam makes a straight line,” Njeri told her apprentice, “but the others flow with the natural curves of the body, just as the Enshai River follows the curve of the landscape.”
Odion leaned in to examine her work, his breath warm on the back of her neck. Foolish boy, wasting his attention on her. Njeri set her needle on the table and stood up to stretch. The job was nearly done — she’d repositioned the woman’s organs, reconstructed her muscles, sewn her body back together. Only the face was still open, facial muscles splayed out in all directions from the woman’s skull like an exotic flower in full bloom.
“Why sew them back together, after the wall?” Odion asked. “Why not let them die?”
Njeri sighed. The boy had steady hands and a sharp mind, but his heart was unforgiving. He had been eager to learn about the cutting, about the delicate art of preparing a patient to hang from the wall. What he questioned was the sewing, the part of the work that had drawn Njeri to this calling. She studied the woman on the table — the last surviving grandchild of Radmalende, who had been king when the country was ruled by kings instead of warlords. The two of them had come of age the same spring, and had taken their adulthood rites together. That had been many years ago, but it was hard for Njeri not to think of her childhood friend by name. “You think I should leave her to die?”
“Her bones were black as obsidian.” He traced the center seam with his finger.
Njeri said nothing. She admired the woman for her strength; she hadn’t cried or protested or made excuses. Few women were put on the wall, but this one had faced it as bravely as any man, braver than some. And her shadowself had been like nothing Njeri had ever seen. Dark, of course, but a tightly controlled blackness, an army of ants marching out from her heart and along her bones. A constantly shifting shadow that never rested too long in any one place.
“She made a play for the throne. Killed six Maiwatu guardsmen in the process. Her attack has opened the way for the Upyatu. I heard a rumor today the capitol is still under siege.” Odion masked the worry in his voice, but Njeri knew he was concerned. He had many friends in the upper echelons of the ruling class — it was how he came to be apprenticed to the highest ranking surgeon at the longest stretch of wall.
“There is always unrest in the capitol.” Njeri didn’t add that this woman had a stronger claim to the citrine throne than most. “Besides, it’s not our place to say what people deserve. General Bahtir pays us to take people apart and put them back together, not to judge them.”
Njeri nudged Odion aside. She settled back into her stool, and he went outside to set some water boiling for tea. He didn’t appreciate being pushed away, didn’t understand why she didn’t want him the way he wanted her. She wanted to tell the boy to find someone his own age, someone who liked boys, but Odion wouldn’t listen. Njeri returned to her work. The woman’s jawbone hung slack below her skull, but her mouth still closed around the clear stone that held her mind while Njeri patched her body together. The woman’s eyes stared up at the thatched straw roof, empty, with nothing but bone surrounding them. Flayed open, everyone looked wide-eyed and afraid. Njeri visualized how her muscles should fit together to recreate her strong chin and high cheekbones.
“Ever wonder what you’d look like on the wall?”
Njeri tensed at the interruption, then relaxed. Odion knew better than to startle her while she sewed, but she hadn’t taken up the needle yet. The boy was certainly persistent in seeking her attention. She considered his question. The work she did was good, healing those who came off the wall, but she had her share of secrets, her share of shame. Life demanded dark things sometimes, she didn’t need the wall to tell her that. What would her balance be? She hoped the good in her would be enough to cancel out the darkness, but she could not say for sure.
“I do,” Odion said, finally. “Wonder, I mean. I’ve never seen anyone clean — not on the smaller wall in Zwibe, and not here.”
“True, that.” Njeri picked up her needle, ending the conversation, and began to reconnect the muscles of the woman’s mouth. She stitched the entire face together without taking a break, though by the end her fingers ached.
When the sewing was finished, Njeri made Odion examine her work. It served two purposes. First, it was good for the boy to learn the ritual of checking and rechecking before the patient was restored to consciousness. Ripping out seams already sewn was a tedious process, but a mistake caught now could be corrected. After the mindstone was removed, however, mistakes meant pain and often death. She had to train the boy to be observant, to notice the slightest error. Second, of course, was that Odion’s eyes and hands were fresh — he was more likely to catch a mistake if she’d made one.
Odion ran his fingertips up the seam of the woman’s left arm, then down the seam of her right. His touch was firm enough to feel both the surface seam and the muscles underneath, allowing him to test the depth of the stitches. He tested the woman’s legs, her chest, and finally her face. He didn’t speak as he worked.
“Flawless,” he said. “You never make mistakes.”
“I’m well-practiced now,” Njeri answered, “I made my mistakes before your time.”
She laid her fingers on the cool flesh at the base of the woman’s neck. Odion might be more likely to catch a mistake, but that did not relieve Njeri of her obligation to check her own work. She pressed her fingers along the center seam, sliding her hand between the woman’s breasts and over the gentle rounding of her belly. Her body was softer than Njeri’s, an alluring contrast to the fierceness she had shown in facing the wall. Where Njeri was lean and angular, this woman was feminine and curved. Njeri lost her place and had to backtrack her pattern along the seams.
“Did I miss something?” Odion asked, frowning. He placed his hand over Njeri’s.
“No,” Njeri said. She moved her hand away and finished tracing the seams.
Confident that she had made no errors, Njeri slipped her thumb and index finger into the woman’s mouth, which was dry and cool, preserved in a state of half life. She grasped the mindstone and pulled it free. The woman’s muscles tensed, then relaxed.
Odion held out a cup of hibiscus mint tea, but Njeri waved it away. Too soon. The woman’s eyes were closed, she wasn’t ready to face the world. She remained motionless, as though the stone was still in her mouth. Even her breath was shallow, as though she begrudged the rising and falling of her chest.
Odion shifted his weight from foot to foot, refusing to be still. Patience was not a virtue he possessed. Perhaps the young were never patient. Njeri had not been, when she was Odion’s age. Noticing her attention, Odion thrust the cup forward again. Njeri took it.
The woman’s eyes opened, clear and dark.
“The light of the wall shines upon us and reveals our shadows,” Njeri said. “Its light is the gift of a race long gone from this earth. You have faced the wall and returned. Speak your name and you may go.”
These were the ritual words that Talib had taught her, when she was in training. There was a falseness to them, for no patient was ever ready to leave so soon after being awakened, and none saw their ordeal as a gift. But the speaking of names was good, for it confirmed that the mind had returned from the stone. A name provided continuity between time before the wall and time afterwards.
“Kanika.” Her voice was breathy and weak. Odion pulled her shoulders up and pushed a wedge of bundled straw behind her back so she could sit. Njeri tipped the cup against Kanika’s lips, slowly pouring tea into her mouth. For every sip she swallowed, two spilled down her neck and over her chest. Njeri gave the empty cup to Odion to refill it.
“My son?” Kanika asked. “Bahtir’s men came for my son.”
General Bahtir put only his most powerful enemies on the wall, for fear that if he killed them they would curse him from the Valley of the Dead. A child, even one with royal ancestry, did not pose enough of a threat to be spared.
Odion returned with more tea. “Drink,” he said, pressing the cup into Kanika’s hands. Njeri reached to take it from her, but she clutched the carved wood in her fingers and drained the cup.
“I remember,” she said, “I feel myself open on the wall. Like looking in from the outside.”
Her hands shook. Had there been any tea left, it would have sloshed over the sides. “So much darkness I never knew was there, and my son is dead by now, because I couldn’t protect him. I failed him. You should have killed me. There’s nothing left of me worth saving.”
Njeri took the cup. She wanted to cradle Kanika in her arms and comfort her, but she had to act as a surgeon, not as a friend. She searched for something she could do to ease Kanika’s pain. The stone that had held Kanika’s mind still sat beside her on the table. Rainbows swirled beneath the clear surface of the smooth stone. It was a relic of the Ancients, made from the same glassy material as the wall.
“Here.” Njeri picked up the mindstone and pressed it into Kanika’s hand. “To remind you that there is light inside you too. The colors in this stone are the echoes of your mind.”
“There are not so many stones that we can give them freely,” Odion said. He scowled at Njeri. “You’re treating her differently because she’s a woman, because you knew her before the wall.”
There was truth to that, but Njeri did not retract her offer. Kanika stared into the stone. “So pretty. Light without shadows. I could swallow it, and drift away from my pain.”
“You would have no way to return, if you changed your mind,” Njeri said.
Kanika smiled, but her eyes were sad. “I speak of escape, but that has never been my way, you know that. Holding life at such a distance would be like not living at all, too big a price to pay.”
Odion reached for the mindstone, to take it from her, but she closed her fingers over it.
“I may not be able to use the stone,” she told him, “but I cannot give it up. It is my light, and I carry much darkness.”
Heat rose from the cracked-mud earth. The stars winked in and out of existence at the edge of Njeri’s senses, their light distorted by miles of wavering sky. Beyond the thatched rooftops of the village, rolling hills of dry grass stretched into the darkness. Kanika leaned against Njeri as they walked across the village to the healer’s hut.
“I wish I could go home,” Kanika said. “I want to pull into myself and sleep. I feel like I could sleep forever.”
“Your punishment is ended. You could leave for home tomorrow, if you wished,” Njeri said, but she hoped that Kanika would stay.
“Ended? The wall was the worst, Njeri, but my punishment will last until I die. Anyone who sees my skin will know that I hung on the wall. Do you think people will forgive me? Embrace me into their lives?”
“Any man worth having would want you still,” Njeri said. “Or any woman.”
Njeri couldn’t read Kanika’s expression. Was there interest there?
“You don’t know what it’s like to be up on the wall. The things I saw. . .” Kanika brought her hand to her heart, digging her fingers into the fabric of her shirt to press against the seams in her skin.
“Dreams from the mindstone. Many of my patients have spoken of such visions.”
“No. There is only truth on the wall,” Kanika said. “I thought, before I went on the wall, that I wouldn’t have shadows. But I was only adding self-deception and arrogance to the list of my flaws.” Her words came in a steady stream, with only the barest pauses for breath. “No one can understand me, not with these scars. Not because of how I look, but because I know my shadowself.”
Kanika fell silent as they approached a cluster of Bahtir’s guardsmen. Normally they patrolled the periphery of the village in pairs, so it was unusual to see them gathered in the road. Several men shook their shields, zebraskins stretched taut over oval frames. Strands of human teeth hung below and rattled as the shields moved. One man ran his fingers over the tigers-eye clasp that held his threadbare orange cloak closed, and another tapped the butt of his spear against the dirt. The guardsmen were on edge tonight.
One of the men stepped forward to stop the women, then recognized Njeri and saw Kanika’s scars. He signaled to the others, and the entire group turned and headed back towards the guardhouse, a large clay-brick building at the outskirts of the village. When they had gone, Kanika pulled out her mindstone. In the moonlight there were no rainbows, only swirls of a silvery blue. “This is what I thought I was. I was so foolish.”
“That is as much a part of you as the shadows are,” Njeri said.
“We all have darkness,” Kanika said.
Njeri had heard this from many of her patients. It was a source of great comfort for them to think that they were not alone in having shadows. Sometimes Njeri wondered if there was truth in their assertion. There was no way to know; the innocent weren’t sentenced to hang on the wall. “You’ve lived your life well, despite your darkness. Doesn’t that give you some comfort?”
“No, don’t you see? We all have darkness. All of us,” Kanika pulled away. “The wall is pointless. You torture people for no purpose.”
Kanika took a few steps, then stumbled. Njeri caught her. Her skin was moist with sweat — heat and exertion were taking their toll. “The wall is about revealing a person’s darkest truth. If they see their darkness, they can fight it. The knowledge can heal them.”
“It destroys them. It destroys me. And you condemn people to this torture.”
“I am the hands that do the work,” Njeri said. “I don’t decide who faces the wall.”
Kanika tried to pull away a second time, but she was too weak. “You pass judgment every time you open someone onto the wall. Don’t pass the responsibility to someone else. We all judge, and we all mete out our punishments. You saw how all the guardsmen fled at the sight of me.”
“Superstitious fools,” Njeri said.
They walked in silence to Durratse’s door. Njeri knew the old healer well, for he had cared for her for several months after her mother died. She watched carefully for his reaction when he opened his door. He hid his revulsion well, but she could see the slight flare of his nostrils, the falseness in his smile. She wondered how she’d failed to notice it with the other patients she’d brought him. Or perhaps he’d been more forgiving of the men.
“We all judge,” Kanika repeated.
Durratse led Kanika inside. It was late, so he did not invite Njeri in. He simply nodded his head and closed the door.
The roughly hewn wood of the door had shrunk with weather and age, and she could still see them through the gaps in the wood. She wanted to argue with Kanika, to defend herself. Kanika insisted on focusing on the worst of the wall, the worst of her, the cutting. Like Odion, she paid no mind to the important work of sewing. She healed people, just as Durratse did, and her patients needed more healing than anyone.
When Njeri went out to stoke her cooking fire shortly after sunrise, the village was bustling with unfamiliar guardsmen. The new arrivals were Upyatu — a tall people, with broad flat feet. She watched them as she boiled plantains for breakfast. They were more boisterous than Bahtir’s men; they spoke in loud voices punctuated with barking laughter. Their heads were covered with elaborate beaded headdresses, and their shields were round and crimson. It could mean only one thing. The capitol had fallen.
Njeri pounded the boiled plantains into mash. It made little difference to her, the struggle for power. One general was replaced by another, but they all wanted the same work done. She wished for peace not out of support for any current ruler, but because in times of war she had to put more people to the wall. She took her mash back to the hut, where Odion was waiting.
“The new general brought two prisoners for the wall,” he said, speaking quickly. “He wants to hang them together.”
Njeri divided the mash into two bowls and topped each one with slices of green mango. How could Odion be excited about such a thing? The Maiwatu were his people. Besides, to put criminals on the wall was one thing, but to leave one there for the time it took to flay a second was cruel. Dissecting them simultaneously, but slowly, would be no better. “Cruelty. Already I dislike the man.”
Odion stirred his mash. “I thought, with two men, I might be charged with opening one of them.”
“We have but one obsidian blade,” Njeri said, “and the new general will want the services of a surgeon, not an apprentice. I will open them, and you will assist, as we have always done.”
A guardsman came to fetch them before they’d finished their morning meal. He was paler even than Odion, with a reddish tint to his skin, like dry dusty earth. Shorter, too, than most Upyatu warriors, and injured. Njeri could just make out the outlines of a bandage beneath the guardsman’s tightly fitted leather tunic.
“General Yafeu commands your presence,” the guardsman’s voice was nasal, and far higher pitched than Njeri expected. Not a man at all, but a woman with her breasts bound. The warrior laughed at Njeri’s surprise. “Call me Zola, and a woman. Bahtir would not allow women in the fight, he wanted them only for his bed. Yafeu is better. With him I can show my strength in both places.”
Zola grinned at Odion, exposing teeth sharpened into points. Her stare had an animal quality to it, something almost predatory. Judging from his reluctance to meet the woman’s stare, Odion did not find her aggression appealing. Njeri didn’t like it either; Zola had a showiness about her that was distinctly off-putting. Not like Kanika’s understated strength.
Njeri took up her obsidian blade, protected in its leather sheath. “The general will set us to work immediately then?”
“In a land where power shifts like flowing water, there is no later. Everything worth doing is worth doing now,” Zola glanced again at Odion, but again he gave her no response. She shrugged and led them to the guardhouse. A pair of goats were tethered outside, undoubtedly part of her payment for serving the new general.
Before they entered, Zola tapped the door three times with one end of her bow, announcing their arrival to those inside. The guardhouse looked the same as it always had. Sleeping bunks lined the walls, and supplies were stacked in neat piles beneath and around the beds. Only the occupants had changed, the Maiwatu guardsmen replaced by the Upyatu.
General Yafeu sat atop a makeshift throne at the back of the room. He was a young man, barely older than Odion, and he had surrounded himself with female guardsmen. His guards were in full uniform, but the general’s chest was bare except for a piece of vibrant yellow citrine that hung on a leather cord. It was carved into the shape of a lion’s head, reminiscent of the decorations on the citrine throne in the capitol. Two other stones hung from his belt, Bahtir’s tiger-eye and the rose quartz of Bahtir’s predecessor. At the base of Yafeu’s throne were two men, bound and gagged. Njeri was unsurprised to see that Bahtir was one of the prisoners. The other was a man she did not recognize.
Zola stood to left side of the general’s throne and whispered something into his ear.
“So you are the Surgeon of Stonewall,” Yafeu said.
“Yes,” she replied, “and this is my apprentice.” She did not bother with her name, or Odion’s, for Yafeu had the look of a man who cared not about such things.
“And the wall will show these men for the evil creatures they are?” Yafeu asked, gesturing at his prisoners and curling his lips as though the very thought of them repulsed him.
“The wall reveals the innermost secrets of our nature,” Njeri replied, “Those placed on the wall can hide nothing.”
Odion stepped forward. “If they have shadow in them, the wall will expose it.”
Njeri resisted the urge to rebuke her apprentice, but only because she didn’t wish to fight in front of the general. It was not his place to speak in this situation, and it diminished Njeri that he would misbehave like this.
General Yafeu laughed. “I like this apprentice of yours. He shows spirit, and a willingness to please.”
Njeri forced herself to nod and smile, even as Yafeu let his gaze linger on her apprentice. The general’s words held the promise of intimacy that Odion had long sought with Njeri, and the boy was lonely enough that he might be swayed by the man’s attention. She would have to be careful.
A guardsman entered without knocking and knelt, with his head bowed, in the center of the room. He was coated in sweat and dirt, and panted as though he had run the entire way from the capitol.
“Go.” Yafeu waved them away. “I will send you the prisoners when I’m finished here, and you can begin your work.”
The wall was three times as tall as Njeri, and thicker than the length of her arm. It stretched twice the length of the village, winding east into the hills like a crystal snake. The morning sun glinted bright off the stones, if they could really be called stones. The wall was made from blocks as clear as glass, irregularly shaped but fit together so seamlessly that there was no need for mortar. According to Talib, the wall had once enclosed the entire nation of the Ancients. The fragments that remained were laid roughly in a circle, with the capitol in the center.
“The stone wall,” Yafeu said. “It’s more impressive than the pitiful fragment in Zwibe. Though neither looks anything like stone.”
Odion showed no reaction to the mention of his home village. Instead, he answered the unasked question in Yafeu’s comment. “They call it the stone wall because people used to throw stones at the condemned while they hung. You can see the cracks where rocks flew wide of their targets.”
“The practice was discarded centuries ago,” Njeri added, before Yafeu got any ideas. “You can see how damaging it was to the wall.”
Njeri did not mention that it also damaged the people that hung on the wall, making it impossible to sew them back together. General Yafeu shrugged, then waved his hand at the guardsmen. The two prisoners were marched out to stand before the wall. Njeri pressed her palm to the forehead of each man in a silent blessing. It was ironic that Bahtir, who had once feared the ghosts of the valley, now received a blessing that asked those same ghosts to protect him.
“Don’t do this,” Bahtir pleaded. She had heard such pleas before, many times, but never from a man who had ordered others onto the wall. The former general had always seemed so brave, but that had been an illusion of his power. Now that he had no power, he had no courage.
Njeri brushed her fingertips against the icy surface of the two mindstones in her pocket. She wondered if she would be brave, in Bahtir’s place. She liked to think that she would be, knowing that the wall revealed only the truth — nothing more and nothing less. Kanika had been brave. The thought of her called back her assertion that Njeri had been wrong to put people on the wall. Did these men deserve such punishment? It wasn’t her place to decide, it couldn’t be. Her job was to cut and to sew.
Odion paced in the periphery of her vision.
She put a mindstone into the mouth of the older man first, and left him on the ground at the base of the wall. She moved on to Bahtir. Two guardsmen held him in place, one gripping each of his arms. She slid the glassy stone between his lips, and the life flowed out of his body. The guardsmen held him against the wall, and she pinned him there, driving shards of amethyst through the nine sacred points — palms and feet, hips and shoulders, and the final point through the nook at the base of his throat. The amethyst penetrated through his flesh, just until the tips touched the wall, and yet the attraction between the lavender shards and the clear stone held Bahtir firmly. His head drooped as though he bowed it in remorse, but once he was opened, smaller amethyst pins would hold the muscles of his face, and his head would no longer hang.
Odion handed her the obsidian blade. Like the wall itself, the blade came from an older time. Mbenu, who made tools for the village, could knap a blade from obsidian, but his tools did not have the power of the Ancients in them. This blade slipped between the cells, and Njeri had learned through many years of training to trace the exact paths that would peel a man open without spilling a drop of blood.
Her first cut sliced only skin, beginning at the top of Bahtir’s forehead and moving down the midline, over his nose, and to his lips. There she paused and traced the outline of his mouth with the blade before picking up the midline once more. Chin neck, chest, groin, all without a drop of blood. The only loss was a strand of his hair that grew exactly on the midline. Sliced away by her blade, it fell to the base of the wall.
She sliced down the inner edge of each leg to the ankle, then drew the blade around to the front of each foot and into a gentle curve to the tip of the middle toe, completing the first vertical sequence. After that came a series of horizontal lines, branching out from the center. One cut along each arm, branching into five lines at the fingers. Evenly spaced cuts along the torso and legs so the skin would lie flat against the wall. Last, a series of lines radiating out from the center of his face, so that it would open like an exploding sun.
Light streamed through his skin. Any darkness on his surface was artificial, a trick of the eyes and not an indication of his being. On the wall, skin of every color let the same amount of light pass through. Njeri passed her blade to Odion and wiped the sweat from her face.
When she looked up, she saw Kanika, standing on the hillside, one face among many watchers. She stood near the top of the hill with the people of Stonewall, all of them staying as far from the wall as possible. The villagers had seen this many times, and attended now only because the general demanded it. A foolish demand, Njeri realized, for even if no one watched, the shame of these men would be forever sewn onto the surface of their skin. No army would follow a sewn general.
Everyone on the hill judged these men. All except Kanika. She was there to judge Njeri, and simply by having begun the flaying, she had failed. Standing at her side, Odion held the obsidian blade lightly, as though it was made of air from the night sky. When she took it from him the weight of it pulled her down towards the earth. She had to ease the burden on her heart; she had to prove that Bahtir deserved this punishment. Instead of moving on to the next man, Njeri stayed with the former general, peeling away the muscles to get down to his bones.
She placed the tip of the blade on Bahtir’s breastbone, and leaned into it with all her weight. His breastbone split in two. She pried his ribcage open and revealed his shadows. They crawled like slugs from the core of his being, leaving trails of black slime behind them. This was her vindication, her proof that the punishment was just — but it was a hollow victory.
Njeri could feel the eyes of every man, woman, and child on the hillside, boring into the back of her neck. They looked at Bahtir, not at her, but she felt as though she was the one whose heart was exposed. She wanted to throw down her blade, or smash it to slivers against the wall.
The sunlight that passed through the wall cast no shadows. Even the stones that were flawed with a spiderweb pattern of cracks — scars from poorly aimed rocks of generations past — even those stones contained no darkness. Those imperfections on the wall simply broke the light into rainbows. It was a mockery of mankind. A mockery of Bahtir, whose shadowed heart was exposed for all to see.
Judging from the sun, it was mid-afternoon now, and a plate of untouched food sat behind her. Odion must have offered it, but she did not remember waving it off. The boy stepped forward and sprinkled water on Bahtir’s body to keep the tissue from drying out. When he finished, he came to her and put his hand on her shoulder. He could see that she was suffering, and Njeri knew he would gladly take over her task.
The second man lay unconscious in the dirt, his mind still locked away in stone. He was older, his hair a pale gray, almost white in the bright glare of the wall. Njeri could see the outline of his bones; he was underfed, or ill, or both. Njeri didn’t know the man’s name.
Two guardsmen held his limp body against the wall and Njeri pinned him into place. She raised her blade, holding it at the man’s head, at the starting point for the series of incisions she had made a hundred times before. It didn’t matter that the man was old. It didn’t matter that she didn’t know who he was or what he had done. She had opened Kanika, she could do this.
“Do you tire?” Odion whispered when the pause grew too long. “I can bear this burden for you.”
Njeri could not pass the blade to her apprentice, not at this moment, not in this way. Not even if the boy was ready, which Njeri doubted. This was a decision she had to make, to cut or not to cut. If she couldn’t open this man, it meant that Kanika had been right — that in thinking it was not her place to pass judgment, she had been judging just the same. The blade quivered in her hand, and a droplet of blood appeared on the man’s forehead.
“Give me the blade,” Odion said, holding out his hand.
“No,” Njeri said. This was her duty, and had been for many years. She could not escape from this, not now, not ever. To fail in her duty would be an act against General Yafeu. She could feel his gaze boring into her from the hillside, waiting, judging, finding her wanting.
“What is the delay?” General Yafeu called out. “Your task is not yet finished, woman.”
“Who is this man?” Njeri asked. “What is his crime?”
“That is no business of yours.” Yafeu’s voice held amusement. He found this entertaining. Like a circus act, or a play. This was the man who Njeri had trusted to pass judgment. If she had believed herself unfit to decide the fate of others, surely this man was worse. Which made Njeri worse for having accepted his orders.
Njeri couldn’t do it. She couldn’t open this man that she didn’t even know. She tore an amethyst pin out of his hand and reached for the one in his shoulder. Guardsmen rushed in to restrain her, and she put up no fight. The obsidian blade was taken from her.
“Open him,” Yafeu said, speaking to Odion.
“No!” Njeri cried. “Please, let him go.”
“At last, a statement with conviction.” Yafeu smiled. “Will you take his place, then? Do you believe so strongly in this man that you would face the wall instead of him?”
Njeri knew her motives weren’t pure. She wanted to save the man, yes, but not for his sake. She wanted to save him to make up for all the times she’d cut people open blindly. She wanted to make amends for opening Kanika without even asking of her crime. But surely it was better to do the right thing for the wrong reason than to not do it at all.
Odion stood before her. His eyes brimmed with tears. He had wanted to prove himself today, but not this way. Even with all his impatience and ambition, he still loved her. There was hope for him yet.
“Yes,” Njeri said. “I will take the man’s place.”
“Pin her up,” the general ordered. “Boy, you can gut them both.”
Njeri managed two steps toward Yafeu before the guardsmen closed in and restrained her. “It could kill him. Especially at the hands of the inexperienced.”
“You had your chance to do it, and if the boy kills him, the ghost will curse him, not me,” Yafeu said. “I can’t let an enemy go free.”
Njeri turned to Odion. “Open me first. I can stand to lose a few drops of blood, and you will do better with the old man if your hands are practiced with the blade.”
“I don’t have a mindstone,” he said. His whole body shook, and he reeked with the sweat of fear. “We only brought two mindstones.”
The general would not be pleased. She wondered if he would order her opened without the stone. That way would surely mean death.
“Take this one.” It was Kanika, her voice soft and close. In her hand was the mindstone that had held her mind, the one Njeri had given her to keep. The guardsmen moved to encircle her, but backed away at the sight of her scars. She was a ghost, a curse, a plague. Njeri couldn’t believe she hadn’t noticed it before, the punishment that continued after the wall.
“I will be there when you wake. We can face the world together,” Kanika said. She brushed her hand against Njeri’s cheek.
“Touching,” General Yafeu said, “but it’s time for you to go back to the hill. Unless you’d like another turn on the wall? I don’t think anyone has ever faced it twice.”
Kanika kissed Njeri’s forehead, exactly on the spot that Odion would begin the first incision. She lingered a moment more, then walked past General Yafeau and up to the top of the hill. Odion stepped forward. It hurt the boy to see Njeri with someone else, sharing the intimacy that he himself longed for.
“You and I will share a different bond, Odion,” she told him.
He nodded, and his jaw clenched as he prepared for what he must do. For a moment she feared he would refuse this duty, as she had done. It would anger Yafeu if he had to take his second prisoner to a lesser fragment of wall, and it would mean death for her and Odion — they had no claim to the citrine throne, their blood wasn’t powerful enough for Yafeu to fear their ghosts. She held her mouth open and waited.
Odion pressed the mindstone between her lips, and she closed her eyes and swallowed herself.
The stone became her body. She sensed its boundaries, smooth and round. Her mind swirled restlessly inside. It felt like something was missing. She was indigo-blue. Perhaps green was missing? She searched and found flickering flecks of green, like emerald rain in her river of blue. She found red and yellow and purple. All her colors were here, but something was fundamentally wrong with this existence.
She pressed against the boundaries of her stone, and discovered thousands of tiny windows. Speckles of color were stuck to the edges of each opening. She tasted one of the windows, and the flavor of otherness repulsed her. She withdrew to the center of her stone, checking her threads of red and yellow, her flecks of green, her river of blue. She was intact.
Her churning nature sent her out to her boundaries once more, and she tasted each of the windows in turn. She began to develop favorite spots, flavors she returned to again and again. Her extremities oozed out through those windows, the ones that tasted best, and her strands of rainbow-self brought images from beyond the stone.
The first was Odion. The boy held the obsidian blade in his right hand, and a bundle of muscle tissue in his left. The tissue belonged to Njeri. The name came without the sense of self that she knew ought to accompany it. Njeri was a painting of a memory, hanging on the wall. Njeri was the body, and she was the stone, and yet they were the same.
Odion flayed Njeri open. Tiny beads of blood leaked out from misplaced seams and poorly detached muscles. The tip of the blade tore into her and isolated every thread of her being. Odion cut Njeri’s body apart, and every slice he made burned her in the space between her colors.
Odion plunged the blade into Njeri’s breastbone and pried her ribcage open. She burned like a white-hot flame, a blaze too strong for her river of blue to extinguish. Ragged black canyons stretched out from Njeri’s heart like festering wounds. Her colors recoiled from the darkness. Odion misted the body with water. The searing fire of pain died to glowing embers. He was finished, and he disappeared from her senses.
She stretched her colors towards the darkness. That was what was missing inside the stone. Her colors dimmed with the setting sun, but even as her red and yellow shifted into lavender and silver, there was no shadow. She reached into the dark canyons and tried to latch onto them, to pull the blackness out. Instead, the shadow pulled her inward, down through the center of Njeri’s heart, and into the wall itself.
Bahtir was beside her. The cuts she had inflicted on his flesh drew her further out of herself, closer to her patient and deeper into the wall. Echoes of Bahtir’s shadowself seeped out from his body and writhed in the cracks between the giant stones of the wall. She felt his flesh, still hanging, but he stayed inside his mindstone.
Someone new appeared. She recognized the woman by her shadow. Kanika. Tendrils of red and gold and green seeped out from Kanika’s mindstone, but they wandered aimlessly, without direction or purpose. Kanika had stretched out from her stone and seen visions on the wall, just as she had claimed, but the wall did not guide Kanika backwards. The wall did not pull everyone as it pulled her. She wanted to stay with Kanika, but the wall carried her away.
She moved backwards through time. She felt every cut of every man and every woman she’d ever flayed open, and still the torture did not end. Talib’s final patients were next, the ones that she had watched to learn his trade. Then people she didn’t know, stretching back before she was born, before Talib was born. The knowledge that passed from teacher to student across the generations bound them all together as surely as if they’d shared blood. She was tied to the surgeons, and that bound her to their patients.
An infant appeared on the wall. Black threads grew out from his heart like mold, and covered the insides of his ribs. His blackness barely moved, it was a constant, steady thing. She did not know if it was greed or fear or rage. Perhaps it was something she had no name for, because a shadow grew within her people before they had the words to name it. She felt the infant’s agony twice over — the searing heat of the blade that cut him open, and the anguish in her heart at learning that even the innocent held shadows.
Soon after that, she came to the earliest days of her people, when watchers threw stones at those who hung helpless on the wall. Each blow crushed her colors, smashing them together into a muddy brown.
She had seen all that the wall had to show her. She waited for Odion to return, to take her down. She sensed that in her distant present, Odion was taking the men down from the wall. The men, but not Njeri. He could not bear to heal her, after having seen her darkness.
The wall rebuilt itself.
Tiny fragments merged together to form a perfect ring of glassy stone. It happened so fast that she had no way to know what had destroyed the wall. All she knew was that it was whole now. The vastness of it made her feel small, a tiny raindrop of color in an ocean of stone and light.
Two Ancients touched the wall, and she felt them as though they touched her skin. It was the end of their time, and the knowledge of that fact filled them with sadness. She waited for the surgeon, the last true surgeon, but then she realized that each of the Ancients that touched the wall also held an obsidian blade. Moving in perfect synchrony, each Ancient sliced open the other. They controlled the blades in a way she did not understand, and even after they were opened, they continued to cut each other. The surgeon and the patient, the judger and the judged — in the time of the Ancients, both went together to the wall.
Like them, she knew both ends of the obsidian blade.
Odion appeared before her.
Not yet, she pleaded. They were almost done. She wanted to see the Ancients, to see if they had blackness. Odion began to take her down, removing the amethyst pins one by one as guardsmen held her in place. Her colors pulled back into her heart and towards her mindstone. With just one hand still pinned against the wall, she could not see the Ancients, but she could feel them, and what they did here was not punishment, it was not judgment. For them, the wall was love. The Ancients did not hide their shadows — not from each other and not from the wall. And in the moment of their union, when they lay open to each other, they drew knowledge from the wall. They absorbed the history of their people, the wisdom of countless generations.
She caught fleeting images of cities a thousand times larger than the capitol, and weapons that could scar the earth itself, and ships of glassy stone that sailed not on water but in space. Her river of blue wept in undulating strands of turquoise at the beauty and the horror of their past.
Njeri’s hand came free of the wall, and the connection was broken.
She watched from the mindstone as two guardsmen placed Njeri on a stretcher. They moved the body to a table, and Odion spent hours stitching it together, stopping once to sleep. The boy made two mistakes, and had to tear out the seams and start again. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter how long it took, or even if he never woke Njeri at all. She had been wrong about the wall, wrong about the blackness. They had taken something beautiful, and sullied it with their imperfections.
Odion checked every seam seven times, then reached into Njeri’s mouth. His touch shattered the boundaries of the stone. Her colors whirled outward, searching for structure. She dissipated into the space around her, traveling down her tendrils into Njeri’s body — her body — the form she had lived in all her life. The shape of the body was wrong, like a shell that was too big.
Her eyes wouldn’t open. Her body was desiccated and weak, and she couldn’t stretch tendrils into the world beyond. She longed for her colors, for the fullness of history within the wall, for the knowledge of the ancients. After such vivid truth, the drab reality of life seemed false.
Strong hands pressed against her back, and her body bent at the waist. She felt so brittle she feared the action would snap her in two. Something warm pressed against her lips. The world was out there, acting on her, shaping her body, inflicting this warmth. The heat spread down from her lips, over her skin and down her throat. It smelled of mint. Tea. Odion was giving her tea.
She wished she could open her eyes.
“The light of the wall shines upon us and reveals our shadows,” Odion said. “Its light is a gift, from a race long gone from this earth. You have faced the wall and returned. Speak your name. . .”
Njeri heard the words. She heard the boy falter, and waited for the rest. And you may go, she thought, prompting him to finish. But she found comfort in the pause. Comfort in knowing that Odion still did not want to let her go.
“Speak your name, and you may go,” Odion whispered.
Njeri opened her mouth, but no words came.
“Oh, Njeri,” Odion said, breaking with tradition and speaking her name before she had spoken it herself. “I would have sewed you sooner but the general forbade it. He insisted I start with Bahtir. But I didn’t check him. Not a single seam. I was too impatient to get to you. Then, after Bahtir died, a soldier stood guard while I sewed the second man, watching work she didn’t even understand to make sure I didn’t unleash another vengeful ghost. . . Oh, please don’t die. Please come back.”
She heard the desperation in his voice, but how could she go back to the world, after what she had done? She had ruined so many lives, on a wall that wasn’t meant to be used that way at all. Time passed, and more tea flowed over her. She passed through several cycles, the warmth of the tea followed each time by Odion’s words. She could not speak.
Kanika’s voice came from across the room. “You can’t hide forever, Njeri. Speak your name and come back to us.”
She was right. Njeri couldn’t hide. She had seen what no one else knew, the true nature of the wall. If she did not wake, no one would know what she had discovered, and the wrong would continue. The Ancients did not hide their shadows, they learned from both their darkness and their light.
Njeri opened her eyes and spoke her name.
About the Author
Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places.