“I’m going to tell you a story,” she says. “And when the story is finished, this will all be over.”
There are four of them huddled on the floor of her living room: Francisco, like the saint; Michael, like the angel; Jerome, like the translator; and her, Batul, like the queen of heaven. The apartment—a second-story walkup above a music shop, low-ceilinged, smelling faintly of clove and lemon—looks very much like what it is, the home of a twenty-four-year-old woman who makes a fair wage at a pottery factory. A number of brightly glazed mugs, sunbursts and peonies and beetles and birds, dangle from a rod above her stove. There are beer bottles in the wastebasket and cigarette stubs in a flat enameled tray on the end table, but not too many of either. A star made of leaded glass hangs in the front window, but it’s invisible now. The window is hidden behind her mattress, stripped and pushed up on one end, curtains drawn behind it to muffle the rattle of bullets, the clamor of young men barking orders.
Overnight, unpleasant sounds had risen from the music shop: angry voices, thuds, one sharp scream, and the twang of piano strings severing. Then the sounds moved back into the street, and the four in the apartment stole a few hours of uneasy sleep on the couch cushions.
The boys are eleven, twelve, and fourteen. Just yesterday morning—or the day before, it must have been—Batul had watched them kick a rag ball around the empty lot across the street, shouting juvenile vulgarities when the ball rolled out of bounds. They are quiet now, the saint resting his head on the angel’s shoulder, the translator worrying at the glossy pages of a fashion magazine.
The kitchen counter is littered with empty jam jars and cracker sleeves. On the table, white beans soften in a bowl of water. They should last another day, Batul thinks, if they use the small bowls, use their eyes to trick their stomachs.
“One story,” she says. Her voice sounds strange to her—flat, lacking its almost perpetual hint of a deep, melodic laugh. Men who spoke with her used to fall in love with that laugh long before they heard it. She touches the memory lightly, as though it were about a dead woman.
No. Not a dead woman. Not yet.
“Listen,” she says. “Just close your eyes and listen.”
• • • •
Once upon a time, in a land bordered by the desert and the ocean, Death fell in love with a prince. She had come to collect an old man, a music teacher who lived on the outskirts of a small, peaceful village, but the old man was late, having overstayed at tea and cards with a few of his friends. Rather than seek him out, Death sat on the stone steps of his shop and looked down into the nearby ball court, where a group of young people ran and jostled in the hot light of noon. It was there that she saw the prince, his beard as black as coal, his lips as sweet as mango. And the space in her chest where mortals carry their hearts became filled with something for which she had no name—thick as oil, hot as sunlight, bitter as untilled earth.
The prince, however, did not fall in love with her. Many princes in their time have courted Death, but he was not one of them. He reverenced her when she made herself known, bowing gracefully and touching his lips to her wrist. With time, she would even feel something like regret behind his courteous kisses. But reverence is not yearning, and regret is no promise.
Even in pain and longing, Death was wise. She had watched mortals with care, and she knew no mortal could be tricked into falling in love. So she challenged the prince to a ball game, of which the winner would be granted a single request by the one who lost. When she won—as she inevitably did, for Death wins any game she deigns to play—she did not demand the prince’s love. Instead, she asked for him to be lowered to the bottom of a deep, dry well.
He tried to escape, of course. The wall was smooth and sheer, and he lost his grip while climbing. When he landed, he broke his skull and died. And so he became hers forever.
Is that the end?
No, no, this isn’t that kind of story, where Death outwits a foolish mortal. No, this can’t be the end, because when this story ends the waiting will be over, and she can still hear the soldiers shouting in the street.
So the story goes on.
Whatever he had felt for Death when he was a living man, the prince’s feelings changed when he died. He had known her to be beautiful, dark and soft as grave dirt. Now he wanted to look at nothing but her. He had known her to be wise, more observant than any scholar, more cautious than any counselor, more learned than all the books in his royal schoolroom. Now he wanted to listen to nothing but her. He had known her to be tender as the opening bud, and brutal as the spring rain, and sharp as the frost. Now he wanted to touch nothing but her. In time, Death and her husband brought forth three children, each as lovely and wise and courageous as their parents.
They were called the Night Princes.
• • • •
Once upon a time, a woman who shared a name with the queen of heaven lived in an apartment above a music shop. She had large hands and a pretty voice, and when she came home from her job at a pottery shop she liked to drink dark beer and smoke thin clove cigarettes.
One day a man whom she no longer loved, who had black tattoos on his hands and a beard as dark as chocolate, followed her home from work. He stood screaming at the top of her stairwell: if she did not learn to love him again, he declared, he would kill himself. Leap into one of the deep, dry wells at the edge of the town, break his skull open and haunt her forever.
“Go right ahead,” she said, and slammed the door in his face.
• • • •
Everything began on the day the Night Princes left home, for all children who are not orphaned or abandoned must one day leave their parents. Death knew this. But she was not happy to see them go, for in all her years—from the moment the first woman plucked fruit from a tree to the moment you opened your eyes this morning—Death had never bore any child but these. The eldest, Francisco, had inherited his mother’s loveliness, her plump cheeks and round arms, her saffron-yellow eyes. The middle child, a daughter named Michael, had inherited her mother’s wisdom: a quick ear, a slow tongue, a memory like engraved stone. And the youngest, Jerome, had inherited his mother’s passion, her violence and her gentleness, so that one moment he was slicing his palm on a thorn or prying open the shells of mysterious sea-things, and the next he was lying in the cool twilight, watching snails emerge from the damp or infant birds peep their heads from the nest.
It was Jerome who first decided to leave, although he was the youngest. When he announced his intention, Francisco and Michael vowed to go with him, for they had never lived apart. None wanted to dwell alone in Death’s mansion, which had no windows and no music.
So they went without their mother’s blessing. They had journeyed only a day or two when they came upon a vast river, deep as a lake and swift as wild horses, which they could not agree how to cross.
“I will swim,” said Francisco.
“I will raft,” said Michael.
“I will walk along the bank,” said Jerome, “until I find a bridge across.”
What happened, do you suppose? Could they all have crossed the river in their ways, and met upon the other shore? There would be little to this story if it were that simple.
Francisco went down to the water and lay his pack and his sandals on the shore, and loosened his strong shoulders, and filled his lungs with air. None of it was enough. He made it only a quarter of the way across when the current caught him and dragged him to the muddy depths, where he fought and gasped and drowned.
But as his spirit floated to the ocean, leaving his beautiful body behind on the riverbed, he called out to the water creatures, begging them not to return him to Death his mother. The water creatures agreed. Gathering up his body, they hid it in the stomach of a whale that only came up for air once every ten years—it was that big. This way his mother would not find him, for what we call Death is the death of land creatures only, and not of the water creatures, which have their own gods.
With his body hidden, Francisco’s spirit drifted on the current, dazzled by all the life he saw below the sea: the reefs of coral, the sparkling schools of tuna and glassfish, the crabs as red as burnt clay—
Yes, I hear them. Gunshots. Keep your eyes closed and listen.
• • • •
Once upon a time, before she lived in an apartment above a music shop, the girl had lived with her mother in a house on the edge of the desert. There was a story she didn’t like to repeat: a story that her mother had once kept a man at that house, but one day he wasn’t there anymore. A few weeks later the villagers found him in a ravine some two miles out into the desert. His body had been savaged by coyotes.
All this happened, if it really did happen, a little less than a year before Batul was born.
That was an unusually dry year, the year her mother’s man may or may not have gotten lost in the desert. Ever since, the spring rains have filled the ravines. Batul remembers how impatient her mother would be, waiting for the rain: how she’d draw back the living room curtain and stare at the sky, her arms folded in the wide sleeves of a silk robe, her hair wet from her bath.
Was she waiting eagerly, as for the return of an old friend? Or was she afraid? Batul could never tell.
Then one year the soldiers came instead of rain, and Batul moved into the village, taking a job at the pottery factory. Her mother is still in that house, as far as she knows. Perhaps the soldiers who gather on her land at the edge of the desert still tell each other stories about ravines and coyotes, and what happens to the corpses of beautiful men when nature has its way.
• • • •
While her brother waded down into the frigid water, Michael took her axe and bow from her pack and headed into the forest. She gathered up tree limbs that were wide and straight and lay them on the ground. She killed a pair of small, quick deer, wrapped their sinews around the logs, and left the raft to dry in the sun. While it was drying, she fashioned a paddle, a long, dark thing like a spoon, strengthened over a low fire. When all these things were ready, she rowed herself across the river.
There, on the other shore, she saw a terrible sight.
What she had taken for low hills were in fact the temples and palaces of a city, their stone faces ornamented with splashes of blue and green paint. But not one living thing stirred in the streets, except for a coyote Michael caught nosing at a pile of rags. Whatever had happened had come swiftly, while merchants bustled between their market stalls and young people played in the ball court and grandparents sat on the steps in front of their houses, shelling beans and sipping tea. Michael saw stacks of pottery and desiccated flowers in the empty market, and rubber balls in the empty courts, and bowls of rotted vegetables on the empty doorsteps. But of the people, there was no sign. Only that fat coyote and an overpowering stink, like sulfur and burning meat.
The smell alone would have turned most mortals away, but Michael was one of the Night Princes, a daughter of Death, and her curiosity was stronger than any man’s repulsion. She wandered farther and farther into the abandoned city. She passed pools full of tadpoles and exotic flowers; elegant wagons and rickshaws, covered in streamers and brightly painted signs in a language she had only read in books; and here and there, the bones of something small, a dog or rat, limbs curled beneath its body. She saw the coyote several times, its bloated white stomach hanging between brown limbs, its eyes a hazy blue.
The third or fourth time she met that clouded gaze, a rock came flying out of a house—over her shoulder, whistling past her ear—catching the animal in the neck. It screamed and barked like a man cursing after a slap, then took off at a lopsided run. Michael turned and saw a young woman standing in a doorway. Her skin was gray as stone, her stomach bloated like the coyote’s, and blood had dried on her chin.
“There was a sickness,” the woman explained. “Then hunger. Those who were strong enough fled down the river. The rest are dead.”
Michael stared in wonder at the woman. She had never seen sickness before.
“Why are you still here?” she asked.
“I was spared,” the woman said. “When Death came to me, she said she would let me live if I would carry a message.”
“What message? To whom?”
“To whoever came through. I am to say that Death is angry because her children have abandoned her.”
“Is that so?” Michael said thoughtfully.
“There’s more.” The woman stepped out of the doorway, into the light, and Michael saw that her eyes were as hazy as the carrion-eater’s. “I am sorry, but the sickness comes upon anyone who breathes it.”
“Is that so?”
For the first time, Michael felt fear. It was a cold, empty feeling, like something had been drained from her, like her bones were caving in. Curious, she thought. But since there was nothing else to do, Michael invited the woman to accompany her out of the city. Together, they would find a way to escape Death.
• • • •
Once upon a time, Batul worked hard in a pottery factory, and when she came home at the end of a shift her hands were dry and cracked and coated with gray dust, and her arms were speckled with blue and green glaze. But every month she paid her rent on the apartment above the music shop, and she filled the apartment with beautiful things. She ate well and sometimes had money left over to buy a movie ticket or a fashion magazine.
During that time, Batul loved a man with black tattoos on his hands. He lived with her in her apartment of beautiful things. When she came home from work he would turn on the radio in her kitchen, and they would dance together and smoke cigarettes before the open window.
But they became unhappy. One day he hit her. She kicked him out, and she changed the locks, and she went on dancing and smoking by herself.
Then one day, the man she no longer loved appeared in her stairwell with a knife in his beautiful hands. He screamed at her and cursed at her. She thought that he was going to kill her. She knew in that moment that all her joys and agonies, all her labor and her dreams might end there on her concrete steps. And she wanted to be calm and courageous, but she was terribly afraid.
• • • •
The gunshots have fallen silent. One of the boys’ stomachs rumbles, and Batul goes to check on the beans. They are still small and hard. Drying her hand on her shirt, Batul hopes that she’ll be able to light the stove this evening. There’s not much in this apartment that they can eat without a fire. Even her tea comes in firm black lumps, difficult to coax without a heavy boil.
Whatever the soldiers are here for, she wishes they would hurry. She doesn’t know who they are, whether they’re the same boys stationed on her mother’s land or something new: scouts from some hostile territory, or even a rich man’s mercenaries. She doesn’t know if they are passing through, all those heavy wheels crunching and thudding over streets made for sandals and bicycles, or if whatever they’re looking for is hidden in her village.
Batul tells a short, calming story to the mugs above her stove: Once upon a time, a boy joined a group of soldiers in hope of finding adventure. They walked through many villages and caused no harm. There. Isn’t that nice?
There’s a cartoon of juice in the ice box, nearly empty. She loops her fingers through the handles of three mugs and carries them into the living room.
• • • •
For many days, Michael and the woman from the plague-stricken city wandered throughout the kingdom, searching for a cure. They crawled and stumbled through the tangled jungle, the soft sweet-smelling coils of vines and variegated flowers, murky water swirling about their hips, until they came to a golden palace raised on stilts. Beautiful music filled their ears and beautiful faces stared at them from the netted windows; but no one would speak to them, nor even throw a scrap of food down from the gilded piers. They trudged across the desert, where the red earth was cracked and naked even of sand, until they reached a low white palace built over the mouth of a cavern. Inside the cavern was a library, scroll upon ancient scroll wrapped in leather against the damp. But there too they were shunned and sent away, without even a chance to moisten their lips in the subterranean fountains.
As the days passed they grew weaker and weaker. The disease thickened their lungs and tightened their joints, so that each step became grinding agony. Her companion sweated and cried out in her sleep, and Michael came to know not only sickness, but also pain and weariness and worry.
At last they had gone as far as they could. They had no more land to wander; they stood upon the shore, and the gray sand was thick and cold beneath their feet. Michael heard the seabirds call to each other about the strange creatures that had appeared in their domain. Soon the cries were taken up by the crabs and the sea-snails, and then by the hungry fish—
And so word reached Francisco, who drifted on the ocean currents and listened to the wisdom of the water creatures. In an instant he appeared to his sister, surfacing from a tide pool in a horrible and gorgeous display, like a statue shaped in living water. The reunion of the Night Princes was as joyful as you can imagine; yet Michael sensed a wariness in her brother when he cast his awful liquid gaze over her companion.
“My dear sister,” he said quietly, as the sky grew dark overhead, “I will learn the cure for this sickness that afflicts you. But I will tell it to you and you alone. Come to me in the morning, but leave your companion behind.” And he kissed her farewell with lips made of saltwater.
Storm clouds thickened above them, and Michael and her companion took shelter in a shallow cave in the cliff above the beach. They slept fitfully, and while they slept, a furious tempest broke upon the shore. Cold waves and bitter hail lashed the spit of sand. In the morning Michael returned to the tide pool, but its borders had been broken, scattered by the raging water. Francisco’s spirit was nowhere to be seen.
Then her companion came running to her with a look of horror. Michael followed the woman about a mile down the shore, and there she saw an awful sight: a whale as large as a mountain, stranded upon the sand. Its monstrous mouth gaped, the ragged baleen stinking and dripping, and inside lay Francisco’s body. His eyes were frozen open, his hands rigid.
Michael cried out and grasped her brother’s arms, but there was no response. He lay as still as the beached whale; for Death had come in the night and reclaimed her eldest son.
Michael lay in the sand and wept until her eyes were dry as bone. But there was nothing more to be done for Francisco. In the mouth of the whale, he had as grand and fearful a tomb as any king. So Michael closed her brother’s eyes and eased his hands upon his chest, and she and her companion walked again.
They turned inland, following the valley scored by a swift and powerful river. After three days and three nights, they came to a stone bridge. The stone was masterfully carved with animals as sinuous as living creatures, serpents coiling on the rails, lizards creeping over the columns. On the other side stood a beautiful city, twin to the one that had fallen to the plague. Once again Michael gazed upon markets and ball courts, gardens and doorsteps—but now all of them were loud and bustling and bloated with life.
They had walked only a short distance beyond the city gate when they heard a cry of delight. In the door of an apothecary shop, arms laden with jars of chamomile and valerian, stood Jerome. He had followed the shore of the river while his brother and sister attempted to cross, and he had come to the stone bridge, and in the city on the other side he found work as a healer. All this time he had been studying the secrets of banishing sickness and preserving life.
Now Jerome’s face was grim, for he looked on Michael’s companion and saw her for what she was: their own mother, Death.
He said nothing of this to his sister, however. He embraced her, clucking like a mother hen over her wan, haggard appearance, and sent her to his house in the city, where his lover served her hot soup and wrapped her in warm furs.
Now, Jerome had always been daring, quick to calculate and brave in risk. In the city with the serpent-carved bridge there had lived, many years before, a gifted sorcerer, and this sorcerer had a daughter whom he loved better than all the world. When the girl was born, he built a cage from iron and adamant and bone—a cage strong enough to hold Death herself. For no one, he declared, not even Death, would touch the girl against her desire.
This, of course, had not ended well for the sorcerer. While his daughter was still very young, she came to an almost unbearable sorrow and welcomed Death with her own hand. Not long after, the sorcerer drowned himself in the river, leaving all his riches and his inventions to gather dust.
And so Jerome had found the cage in the dead man’s warehouse. Now he led his mother to it; and before she realized that he had seen through her disguise, he trapped her within the bars of bone and iron and diamond.
“Oh, my clever son,” she said, baring her teeth. “Oh, my brave, daring, clever son!”
He looked upon his mother, his face gaunt with sorrow.
“I offer you a choice,” he said. “Renounce your claims to my brother and sister and restore both of them to me, safe and whole.”
“Or?” Death whispered.
“Or I will leave you in your cage,” he said. “Humankind will become immortal, and for all of time this city will be known as the home of the man who overcame Death.”
He stood before her, tall and trembling, and tears glistened in his eyes.
Death looked upon her son and laughed.
• • • •
One more story. Just close your eyes and listen.
Once upon a time, a woman met Death in her stairwell. She felt cold and empty, like her bones were caving in, like everything she loved had been drained from her. She knew in that moment that Death could not be escaped, could not be outwitted. And although Death did not claim the woman then, she felt ever after that she was pursued.
Oh, she could forget, forget for hours at a time, glazing mugs at her factory bench or dancing in her kitchen, standing on her doorstep and watching the village boys play ball. And then the violence came again, the men. She told stories to convince herself that Death was fair and gentle, but all of her stories got away from her. She could no longer believe them unless they ended badly.
• • • •
Just one more story, one more story I’m going to tell you, and then it will all be over. The gunshots have resumed, the shouting; in the street below, someone sobs as though his heart is broken. The taste of orange juice is sour on the back of her teeth. And she doesn’t believe it anymore, what she whispers to the boys on her living room floor, but it’s easier than admitting what she does believe.
All she knows is that she does not want to die.
• • • •
Death raised her hands, and all of her children stood before her: Francisco cold and serene, Michael shaking with weariness, and Jerome weeping soundlessly. “Foolish children,” she said in her deep, musical voice. “You do not understand what a mercy I am to those who are lost, or sick, or tired, or in pain. You speak to me as though I am an evil, a calamity. But I am comfort. I am peace. I am the end of fear and affliction.”
The Night Princes turned to each other and held out their arms and embraced. The only sound was Michael’s ragged breath, the scuff of Jerome’s shoes on the bare floor.
At last they released each other and looked upon their mother.
“Be that as it may,” they said, “we do not want to die.”
And so Death restored Francisco to life and cured Michael with a kiss. Jerome released her from the cage of bone and adamant, and she returned alone to her house without windows. And the three Night Princes lived together in that beautiful city on the river: Francisco, who had died; Michael, who had traveled with Death; and Jerome, who fought against her.
Did they live forever?
No. But they lived happily, and for a very long time.
• • • •
Closer, closer, the guns and the shouting. Batul’s voice wavers as her story draws to an end. The boys have fallen asleep on the cushion-strewn floor, lulled by her voice and the chamomile and valerian syrup at the bottom of their mugs—all except for Jerome, who murmured the question. She answers him, laying her hand upon his shoulder, and he too goes to sleep.
She sits in the middle of her living room floor and listens. Her eyes are closed, but they fly open with every gunshot.
It’s like trying to wake from a nightmare. Maybe she’ll open her eyes and it will never have happened. Open her eyes and it will all be over; she’ll be sitting on her bed with a book, reading the story, not living it. Open her eyes now, and it will all be over.
Open your eyes.