Red runs the table, to stop herself from thinking.
In Strand 622 C19 Beijing, she, uncomfortable in her sheathing of silk (but channeling Blue), starts a debate about canal construction that feeds into a debate about public morality that spurs a principled, incorruptible bureaucrat named Lin to accept an Imperial dare. If Lin clears drug-smuggling foreigners from Guangzhou, he will have funding for his infrastructure project. When Lin reaches Guangzhou and tries to break the drug trade, a war begins, and Red slips away.
In fourteenth-century Axum, Islamicized and strong in Strand 3329, Red, in shadows, stabs a man who’s about to stab another man who’s wandering home buzzed on espresso, sugar, and math. The man Red stabs dies. The mathematician wakes up the next day and invents a form of thought that, in another strand, much later, will be called hyperbolic geometry. Red’s already gone.
In ninth century al-Andalus she serves the right tea, at the right time. In the diamond city of Zanj she strangles a man with a silken cord. She seeds the Strand 9 Amazon Basin with defanged versions of European superbugs ten centuries before 1rst contact, and when conquistadors arrive, they face locals by the millions, strong, thriving communities that won’t perish by mere contact with the world across the waves. She kills again and again, frequently, but not always, to save.
And she watches over her shoulder.
A shadow follows her. She has no proof, but she knows, as bones know their breaking stress.
Commandant must suspect. A drop in her efficiencies would point to compromise. So Red throws herself into her tasks: works riskier assignments than Commandant would ever require, succeeds beautifully, brutally. Time and again, empty, she wins.
She climbs upthread and down; she braids and unbraids history’s hair.
Red rarely sleeps, but when she does, she lies still, eyes closed in the dark, and lets herself see lapis, taste iris petals and ice, hear a blue jay’s shriek. She collects blues and keeps them.
When she is sure no one is watching, she rereads the letters she’s carved into herself.
All this running and murder merely passes time. She waits and waits. For the guillotine: She’s been trapped, the one for whom she waits has fed Commandant the letter she left behind, and Commandant’s just playing her out now, squeezing Red for work until the Chaos Oracle indicates she has marginally more value crushed.
My deav Cochineal—
Or: Blue (she lets herself think that name once in a two-mooned month) read her letter and recoiled. Red wrote too much too fast. Her pen had a heart inside, and the nib was a wound in a vein. She stained the page with herself. She sometimes forgets what she wrote, save that it was true, and the writing hurt. But butterAy wings break when touched. Red knows her own weaknesses as well as anyone. She presses too hard, breaks what she would embrace, tears what she would touch to her teeth.
She dreams of a morpho butterAy with wings spread large as a world. She strangles, screws, builds. She works.
She watches birds.
There are so damn many birds. She never heeded them before; knowledge of them (whose call is that, which is male and which female, what’s the name of the duck with the emerald head) is all stored on the index, but when has she needed it? She planned to get to it one day; she plans to get to everything one day.
But now she learns the names from books. She pulls some from the index to save time and because books are heavy, but she does not leave the knowledge in the cloud. She repeats the names to herself; she carves patterns into her eyes.
She burns three astronauts in their cockpit on a launchpad. Every cause needs sacri1ces. The stench of seared pork and sour rubber catches in her lungs, and she Aees upthread, lets no one see her weep. Collapses on the bank of the Ohio River, bends double, vomits in a bush, crawls away, and cries out the rubber and the screams. She strips. She wades into the water until it
covers her head. A Aock of Canada geese dawn north and paint the sky green-black with the creaks of their wings.
She stops the air bubbling from her mouth.
The geese settle on the river. Their legs churn the water. They stay half an hour, only to lift oP in a thunderclap of feathers.
One goose waits on the shore, for her. She kneels.
It lays its head on her shoulder.
Then it leaves, and two feathers remain.
Red clutches them to her for a long time before she reads.
Later, farther south, a great horned owl takes the goose, and the seeker, weeping, eats its heart.
When Red enters the clearing, only footprints and the cored goose remain.
My dear Miskowaanzhe,
I write to you in the dark before dawn, slowly, longhand, chalk on slate
—later I will translate these words into feathers. There is a small hill from which I can watch the sun set over the Outaouais River; every evening I see a red sky bleed over blue water and think of us. Have you ever watched this kind of sunset? The colours don’t blend: the redder the sky the bluer the water, as we tilt away from the sun.
I’m embedded, now, in a strand beloved of Garden—one of the ones where this continent wasn’t critically overrun by settlers with philosophies and modes of production inimical to our Shift—on a research mission, tugging at and wicking 1bres for easier braiding into other strands. Always a balancing act, of course, to give without losing, to support without weakening. Everything a weaving.
I’ve been placed here to convalesce, I think. Garden doesn’t always spell these things out but does know my fondness for hummingbirds and migrating geese. I’m grateful. It is good to write with leisure. I hope, while here, to stretch my letters out, if only because they will have to 1nd you at a lived pace—it will be a long while before I walk the braid again.
I’m married and will soon wake my husband with rose-hip tea and breakfast before sending him out to train. He’s a good man, a runner and a scout, and the days are getting cooler, so there are a great many messages and supplies to send and share before the storytelling season sets in and blankets us indoors.
It is such luxury to dwell in these details—to share them with you. I want, Red—I want to give you things.
Have you ever tasted rose hips, in tea or jam? A tart sourness that cleans the teeth, refreshes, smells like a good morning. A mash of rose hips and mint keeps me steepling my 1ngers all day long, to keep those scents in my head. Sumac, too—I think you might like sumac.
I 1nd myself naming red things that aren’t sweet.
Your letter—your last letter. Be certain that I won’t drop it where any of your fellows can read it. It’s mine. I am careful with what belongs to me.
Few things do, you know—belong to me. In Garden we belong to one another in a way that obliterates the term. We sink and swell and bud and bloom together; we infuse Garden; Garden spreads through us. But Garden dislikes words. Words are abstraction, break oP from the green; words are patterns in the way fences and trenches are. Words hurt. I can hide in words so long as I scatter them through my body; to read your letters is to gather Aowers from within myself, pluck a blossom here, a fern there, arrange and rearrange them in ways to suit a sunny room.
It amuses me to think of liking your Commandant. What a strange Strand that would be.
I keep turning away from speaking of your letter. I feel—to speak of it would be to contain what it did to me, to make it small. I don’t want to do that. I suppose in some ways I’m more Garden’s child than she knows. Even poetry, which breaks language into meaning—poetry ossi1es, in time, the way trees do. What’s supple, whipping, soft, and fresh grows hard, grows armor. If I could touch you, put my 1nger to your temple and sink you into me the way Garden does—perhaps then. But I would never.
So this letter instead.
I ramble, it seems, when writing to the darkness by hand. How embarrassing. I’m quite certain I’ve never rambled a day in my life before this. Another thing to give you: this 1rst, for me.
PS. Should this 1nd you near a library, I recommend Tvauel light by Naomi Mitchison. It’s the same in all strands in which it exists. It might be a comfort to you on the move—I can tell you’re moving a lot right now.
PPS. Thank you. For the letter.