A CHANGE OF SEASON
By Carmelo Rafalá
—I rode the monorail around its circuit, passing my stop a dozen times or more, clothes hiding the bruises on my torso which throbbed suddenly with each jolt of the car. My facial bruises would draw no attention. Street fighting among immigrants. Mugging. Happened all the time in Stinksville.
All about me dark eyes stared, blank expressions on tired sweaty faces, staring at the floor or into slipscreens. Foreigners mainly, some refugees, returning to the dank, rotten flats of our migration quarter, the only accommodation we are allowed. Only outsiders would look so haggard, so weighed down by the humidity. We don’t glide through it like Londoners do. We pulled ourselves along, like crippled dogs.
The setting sun had cut across the tropical skyline, ripping out bright, molten orange and red from a haze-smothered blue. I remembered the bright shards of sun through the clear skies of Tahiti Nui, and the hot, dry volcanic breath of Tama-Ehu scampering up the black sand to prickle our skin. Maruata would sometimes stand under the rumbling skies and shake the barkcloth I had made for her, like the goddess Hina, and wait for the lightning to flash, believing she had made it happen.
Believing she channelled the powers of the goddess never frightened her. Maybe it gave her a feeling of control, something lacking in our own lives.
Maruata. My Hina.
It was only yesterday when servitors, peddling goods for their owners, harassed me as I had hurried through London’s humid, narrow back alleys, trying desperately to find her. Rushing on I heard their metallic, spidery legs behind me, the sound like soft rain on the stone walks.
Goddess, I had thought, rushing through those sweaty London streets, where did you go?
The train car shook. Absently, my hand went up to stroke the puncture wound at my neck, the one made by the saixa needle, the one Rex’s twin, Kingsley, had given me with his cold, steady hands. I knew, somewhere in me, the spike drug lay in waiting, like a predator. Deliver the message, Temoe, Kingsley had said, voice like ground glass on metal. The message, my boy!
Near me, the weary face of a boy, no more than fifteen, stared down into his slipscreen, face haloed blue, eyes scanning for threads of salvation. News, messages, adverts, these things stared back out at him from the paper-thin comp. Down the length of the car, the eager eyes of labour drifters, either holders of temporary visas or illegals, looked into their own slipscreens for the hope of new work.
Despite my mission school education, I had no formal, practical training, no gifting that I recognised. Only had my body. And in these saixa days, a strong, clean body comes in useful.
Bleeding perspiration, I realized I was banging my head against the greasy window. The train stuttered on—
* * *
Four years ago, as the air rumbled and the ground shook with the latest volcanism—a product of the coming of the second sun—I had just returned to Tahiti to relax, pick up with my street contacts, find out what new demand was hitting the black markets, when I found her. Or rather, she found me.
I was taken aback by the warm grip of a hand, soft as midnight, upon my arm. I pivoted around to drown in her deep, dark eyes. They glistened with life, with memory.
“Te Tuna,” she uttered, blank face lifting up from some dark well within. “Te here nei au.”
My vision was a stray, a saixa construct of kisses and caresses and hotly whispered promises bound up in synthetic flesh. The question was how she came to be here, in the city of Papeete. Once, a stray took up residence with someone across the Taravao isthmus. No one knew how it got there. But one can always trust a mob to set things right.
Strays did not run amid the pure genomes of Tahiti. That’s not to say there wasn’t a black market demand for things saixa inspired—and that was how I had earned my living, after all. I’d spent my first few days back on the island, plying my contacts with drink and women to obtain fresh information on whatever new variations of saixa inspired sense heighteners, body sculpturing dust and adrenaline triggers might be available and in demand.
And the second sun had brought it to us, that crimson rain called saixa, that biomorphic agent which fell from the dark sky beyond to kill the other seasons—to invade, permeate, to rewrite much of the living, to change the face of the outside world. To remember.
She continued to grip my arm, firmly, eyes flickering. She was adapting, gene codes switching patterns in a cascade of phylogenetic inheritance, switching to adapt to me.
It was early, and the main market not yet bristling with customers. Before two fresh arrivals could cast weary glances at her pale, ashen skin, I hurried her out of sight. In an abandoned bungalow by the sea we sat on the porch, facing the wide Pacific, its whispering surf a calming panacea.
I never asked how she came to be in Papeete. It was obvious she’d hid aboard a boat. She was either ferried over by someone and somehow got away, or she acted on her own, driven by some inner instinct. Deep inside, I knew the latter bordered on the ridiculous. But to me she was there; I desperately wanted her to be there, in the glimmer of the eyes, the tilt of the head. My Maruata. My goddess. My Hina.
Blood rushed in my ears, years of pent-up longing slammed against my ribcage. “Do you know who I am?” I asked hotly. “Do you know?”
“You—” she paused. I thought she was going to call me Te Tuna, the ancestor’s name. Our fluid, mythical genealogy was learned well before schooling. Not even the mission schools could drum it out. And if she really were made from the reconstituted fibres of Polynesian womanliness and not imported, it would be her frame of reference each time she rebooted herself.
And she’d begin with Hina, goddess, lover of Te Tuna.
“Temoe,” I finally said, feeling foolish at her silence. “I’m Temoe.”
Her face softened, muscles relaxed with mock familiarity. “Temoe.”
She stroked my head as the night breeze flitted over us, chipped away at the memory of Maruata’s broken body and the man who had broken it, taken my flower and left the stalk. Sometime after the assault she had taken her own life. She was fifteen years old and all I ever wanted.
And she was there, some semblance of her anyway, in my arms, looking as she did those last days. Innocent. Beautiful.
She took my face into her hands, looked deep into me, smiled. And as distant volcanic lightning exposed the sky we lay, short of breath, still gripping each other, the sweat of our bodies locking us together. In her arms I died, and in her I was reborn.
Hina, goddess of death.
* * *
I knew I’d have to get her away. She could never stay there; the mob would never let her. That truth hit me while in a taxi. Turning a corner, hand-made posters adorned bricks like tattered sails: CLEAR GENOMES ONLY! FIGHT THE DEALERS! STOP CORPORATE COLLUSION! SAIXA WIZARDRY THE DEVIL’S WORK!
In that moment I realised, for the first time, how Papeete was a city of contradictions. Overtly it had a strict, almost cultist adherence to purity of the flesh; subversively it was a saixa driven, cut-throat, new world madhouse. But the seeds of discontent had long since grown angry roots, and saixa dealers trod carefully; users all the more so.
I wondered how long before the streets erupted like Jakarta. The rebellion against the siaxa dealers there had bloomed like wildfire and the city had burned for days.
Laying on the soft sand outside the bungalow, we looked up at the stars. Skin, naked and soft, pulsed quickly to a lover’s rhythm. Our nights here could not be kept secret for long. Secrets, like buried memories, find their way out, eventually.
On my next trip out, I thanked the gods for unmarked electric pod-cars, the small port of Taverea, and the hold of a pirate boat.
* * *
Three weeks ago now.
The last time I’d set eyes on my Maruata. London swallows outsiders…
Dust and trash blew through the bricked city alleys like tiny animals. In a darkened pub I found Rex at the bar, black skin suit hugging her contours. Snake flesh of saixa design, it adjusted to her every twitch, moved and writhed across her; sometimes it took on primal arrangements. When she was defensive her suit would grow needle-thin thorns, noxious, deadly; when feeling the victorious conqueror, it would sprout a multitude of jet black horns, bone-hard in their phallic arcs.
“Sorry, I look like shit,” I said. She smiled coldly, sidling up to me. Placing her arms about my neck she suddenly drew me close and, saixa needle hidden in palm, injected me with the spike. I winced with the pricking.
“Just got off a job last night,” I said, surprised. “Isn’t there anyone else? I need forty-eight hours down time.”
“You’ll be going through the city centre by boat.” She ignored me. “Someone holding out on us at the Ritz. Sundown, by Islington dock. Be there.”
“Sundown. Islington dock,” I repeated mechanically. “Anything else?”
“Just some newbie dealer with shit for brains. Deliver the message. Take whatever you can find of significance. Destroy the rest.”
And that’s how things go down when dealing in biomorphic agents like the saixa. The spike itself is saixa-inspired devilry. It is a rage-magnifier. Activated by visual attainment, there is no way to stop it. A concentrated ball of fury let loose to run toward its fatal conclusion. I was fortunate the spike worked on me, and stupid to try it in the first place. Some go insane; some catatonic. I must’ve been lucky.
What I was, at the time, was foolishly desperate.
Coming down must be what getting hit by a truck feels like. And I remember, in vivid detail, every punishing second, every broken neck, every shattered head, every ripped torso, every—
“Offer still stands, Temoe. Zondervan’s willing to go through with it. Help you handle your work memories. An expensive affair. He won’t offer such generosity again.”
I almost laughed, but knew better. “With no guarantee the procedure won’t erase portions of my life?” I shook my head. “Sorry. Neural detonators I’m not interested in, particularly biomorphic ones.”
“Shame,” she said. “You’re our best man. No one delivers messages with such savagery like you do. Must be something deep down in there”—she tapped her head—“which turns you so very primal.” She leaned in. “What is it? Daddy beat you? Mummy didn’t love you enough?” Her lip curled. “Lose someone? Break your heart, did she?”
Wisely, I said nothing.
“We’d be sorry to lose you, say, if you allowed your conscience or anything else to interfere.” At a back corner I spotted Kingsley, her fatal twin. Her eyes followed mine. “He’d be very sorry to lose you. Believe me.”
I did. Kingsley was my point of contact. Checked my ‘references’. Gave me the ‘all clear’.
Rex looked thoughtful. “And how’s that lovely Maruata? Oh, don’t worry,” she groaned. “My hands won’t go walking. With her Ident collar on, it’s as though you two were married or something.”
“Maruata’s fine,” I lied. “She’s just fine.”
A beep sounded in my pocket. I knew that an illicit job advert popped up. I fingered it carefully. Although I liked to keep up on the latest black market demands, if she even thought I was looking elsewhere for my employ—
“Message?” Rex did not look at me.
Gripping the slipscreen rolled up in my jacket pocket, I said, “Reminder. To wake up for my recovery bliss. Normally, I’d still be in bed.” The spike. Bliss. One drug to deliver messages, another to smooth over the aftershocks.
“Better go get your beauty sleep, then,” she said. “Come to think of it, you do look like shit.”
* * *
After the job, I stumbled into our flat at one in the morning; slammed up against a wall, slid down it halfway. Nice drug, that spike.
“Temoe, you woke me up!”
“Sorry, Maruata.” I pulled off my thin, sweat-soaked jacket.
“Temoe!” she screeched.
Looking down I saw the usual scene; my shirt, stained with blood. Fluid rushed in my throat and I barely made it to the bathroom in time. The sour taste of bile filled my cheeks, spilled out; its stench stained the air. When I had re-emerged she raised herself on one arm and blurted, “No you don’t! You go wash yourself off and flush those clothes before you even think about getting into bed.”
Returning to the bathroom, I stripped, washed the clothes down the sink, and stepped under a cooling shower, gathering much-needed strength, washing the stench and filth of London away.
Flashes returned to plague my eyes; images hovered in violent light. “Go away!” I said into my shaking hands.
Stepping out to the sink, I pulled a disk of bliss out of my pocket, opened it. Six wonderful white spots lay there, paper-thin, waiting for me. I looked at myself in the dirty mirror. So it’s come to this, hey? I placed a spot on my tongue; it melted like ice, warmed me like whiskey.
Maruata lay on the mattress on the floor, back turned to me. She seemed remarkably lucid; yet her unease was palpable. “You’re not alright,” she said to the wall. “And neither am I.”
Sitting on the edge of the bed, night rain drummed upon the window ledge, upon the concrete and metallic spires of the city. The pavement below was a shallow river.
“Te here nei au,” I said, “Hina.” I ran my fingers up her bare spine to her neck. Her skin was smooth, perfect, as I had always remembered it. Her hair was a tossed mane about the shoulders, poe rava, pearl black, and as deep as the night skies we had seen crossing the wastes of Tajikistan.
“Aita!” she spat. No! “You make me live like this and you say you love me?”
“You disappear, are often sick, don’t eat well even when we have more than our usual meagre portions, and you love me?” Her hand smacked the wall. She had more energy than expected for this humid climate. When I had first brought her here, I thought she would wilt away in the thick, oppressive air.
But if the weather did not get her, her own body would. I knew, eventually, that cellular mnemonics would interfere again, that the barriers holding back objective identity domains would deteriorate, and the cascading of memory would make her flitter, become unpredictable. Her cells, her conscience, wanted, needed to change.
Born from the dust of others, strays possess conflicting reminiscence. My own reminiscence must have been as conflicting as the ones brewing in her head. Te here nei au. I loved her, yet I dragged her across the world, pulled her through city after city. We were running from the clear genomes of Tahiti Nui toward the promise of a new dawn, a new story.
Da Nang, Bangkok, Mandalay, New Delhi, Mumbai, Marrakech—how long and how far did we have to run before the puta tumu changed for us?
Puta tumu. Origin stories; I clung to them, as a child to a much-loved toy.
“You are the goddess,” I teased her gently, “sail your boat to the moon again. Bring us back a changed fortune. Bring rebirth to our story once more. Then maybe you will love me as I have tried to love you.”
She sighed, but not one filled with guilt or remorse. “My silly boy,” she said softly, reaching back for my hand; her smooth, narrow fingers entwined with my rough, bony ones. “I know, Temoe. Te Tuna. But I’m afraid.”
I didn’t have to say our lives weren’t what she had expected. That thought lived silently between us, and later expressed itself in the dour posture that inhabited her body, like a lost and lonely spirit.
Hesitantly, she looked out the window at the alien city.
“Temoe. We need to leave. Take me away. Can you understand?”
I thought of my slipscreen, rolled up in my jacket pocket, loaded with the day’s latest job opportunities. But I pushed the idea aside.
“My contract,” I said. “I can’t up and leave like that. Not again.”
She let go of my hand.
“Maruata. You don’t understand. Eventually things like skipping out on a contact will catch up to me. Ruin me. I’m almost done. Three months and I’m free again.”
“ ‘And we’ll go anywhere you like,’ ” she quoted old words back at me. “You mean anywhere there’s work for you. If you can call this work. If you can call this living—”
The tone of her voice weighed on my heart. “Tell me the story, goddess,” I gently prodded, “like you used to, of our ancestors.”
“Ta’oto,” she replied. Sleep.
Reluctantly—and after a long while—I did finally sleep.
I had fitful dreams.
* * *
For some time, Hina lived as the wife of Te Tuna, god of eels. Growing weary, she wandered the world and finally sought love with Maui, the trickster. To win her back, Te Tuna sent Maui a challenge: they would each enter the other’s body in turn. Whichever body died first, the victor would claim Hina forever.
Te Tuna lost.
God of eels. I felt like an eel; the connotations certainly seemed to fit—slippery, maybe even deceitful. Never sought Maruata’s advice, consulted her wishes, thought about her needs. I packed her up, like a rag doll, and dragged her across the misshapen world.
But Puta tumu is the beginning. And if I wanted to follow tradition I knew there were no fixed versions, no set genealogies. Setting and need changed stories through time. So the god of eels may be an appropriate title but I never feared his fate, and the trickster was far from London.
* * *
A few days later, I awoke and she was gone. She left her Ident collar on the table. Without it she was classified independent. A stray. Without it she could be picked up by someone and become anyone.
But her parameters were Polynesian. There was a chance no one would want her; there was a chance she’d be left alone.
There was a chance.
* * *
Long stays in any place found Maruata confused, anxious. She’d wander off, driven by the desperate needs of the many varied inhabitants whose desires she was designed to fulfil.
Maybe, like Hina, who wandered into the world out of boredom or curiosity, she finally longed to be taken back, taken home, to have roots again in a simpler life devoid of the pressing wants of others—to return to her own genealogy and chart its fluid path once more.
Marrakech. Finding our flat was always a chore. The narrow streets of the medina formed an interlocking honeycomb, originally designed to confuse invaders and today serving the same purpose for tourists and any other outsiders. The first few weeks in the city found me paying a young Marakshi child for the trouble of guiding me home.
Inside, the darkness of night was seeping in through the opened windows. Maruata sat in a corner of the room, on the floor, blanket wrapped around her, eyes glistening in rapt attention yet focused on nothing.
“Why didn’t you come? You let me go and didn’t follow. Te Tuna, why? Why did you wait so long to come after me?”
I had helped her off the floor and to the bed, covered her with a blanket. She quickly went off to sleep. I sat in a chair and watched her.
I must have drifted off, for when my head jerked downward I shot up, awake. The bed was empty. Panicked, I hurried though the tangled landscape of winding pathways, meandering in and out amongst themselves, meeting and parting again. When I found her she was catatonic, squatting in a doorway, not far from the Medersa Ben Youssef.
And again, here, in London, like Marrakech and New Delhi, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the chattering curtains of the crowded night had parted, opened and swallowed her.
But she’d never been gone this long, never disappeared so completely. From Kilburn to Chiswick, she was nowhere to be found.
An old city drowns and sprouts roots, reaches out to create new spaces while still drawing life from the old. The noise, clamour, jostling confusion of servitors, taxis and pedestrians dodging each other went on, unabated. Things may alter, modify their form, but they never truly change.
Neither did we. Neither did I. Stumbling blindly through the myriad of London’s streets and interlacing alleyways, I was a man on trial: on trial for choosing to ignore the sorrow in her deep-set eyes; on trial for addressing my desires over hers; on trial for emotional abandonment.
* * *
“You know what I hate?” came the grinding of Kingsley’s voice. Hum? People who don’t listen.” He shook his head and stepped out of my vision. Another man came into view but before I could say a word a fist came down upon me. I crumpled to the pavement. “People,” he continued, “who let me down.”
“I’m sorry,” was all I could say through my bloody spittle.
Kingsley grabbed me by the hair. “You went off, looking for that stray, that creature of yours!” he shouted through his teeth. “For days! Out of contact for days! In breech of contract, Temoe. And you lost me fifty thousand!”
A boot kicked me hard. My side exploded in fire.
“I vouched for you! And now Zondervan wants blood!” He slammed my head into the asphalt. “And I’ll be damned if it’ll be mine.”
Speaking proved impossible; my words were held captive in blood.
“Got a job for you,” he said, hand sliding down my neck, a needle, pricking the skin. “And now—”
* * *
—And now, as the monorail advanced further into the city’s migrant quarter, pushing us deeper into the dense groves of London’s devouring swamp, I closed my eyes, hoping the gentle rocking of the train car would calm me, take my mind off the burning puncture wound in my neck.
And in my blood, the spike boiled in waiting.
Between the buildings the sun’s sharp lights, reds, purples, flashed behind my lids. Figures, silhouettes, moved from flash to flash, unknowable visions, unknowable stories, reaching out to me…
A brusque jolt snapped me back. Train stopped. My stop again. This time I got off. Deep green fronds overhung the suspension walks, keeping in the humidity which pressed down with an unbearable weight. That air was so heavy it almost made one gag in mock suffocation. Below, the slack waters stank of organic decay.
The high-rise stood before me, rising like a sentinel of prehistory. My destination. On the fiftieth floor, a long corridor and a door at the end. Hand on the knob, I braced myself for what would come next. I slid my skeleton pass over the locking mechanism, threw wide the door.
Straddling a form on the bed, body arching, was Maruata. Head thrown back, the act seemingly one of madness and ecstasy, she raged insanely upon a suited figure covered in hard, black phalluses.
Rex turned to look at me, distantly, with trickster’s eyes as old as time, hands engaged in their own erotic play as Maruata writhed upon her, lost in a dream.
Running over, I grabbed Maruata’s arm but she flung it away. A woeful look flickered across her eyes, the look of shame, and regret.
And then I felt it, the spike, welling up within me…
Heat burned inside; fury exploded in the air around me; lightning flashes of red before my eyes in a tumult of chaotic energy. It was as though I had stepped out of myself, watched myself grab her by the throat, lift her off of Rex, and slam her up against a wall several times. She tried to speak but her choking words ran past me like the blowing east wind of the Pacific.
* * *
Night gave way to day.
I lay there, long after Rex had cleared off, on the floor, face down for several hours, staring at the simulated wood grains.
Everything was quiet except for me. A thin howl escaped my lips, pierced the air. The need to vomit pressed my gut, again and again. After a time, dry-heaving remained, wrenching and twisting my innards.
I didn’t need Zondervan’s memory detonating procedure. I knew that. And it was a calm knowledge, without proper emotion. Ideas, visions, feelings vanished, nothing but rolling wastelands of ice remained.
The harsh suns climbed over their respective horizons as I walked out of the complex. Strangely I didn’t appear to feel the heat, to be sweating. I felt cool; a block of ice in a firestorm.
Staring ahead, I walked along in my new, cool skin. The air was crisp, the heat was gone, and the suns rose on a new season.
Winter came to the city.
A Change of Season (c) 2011 Carmelo Rafala. Previously unpublished.