World of Mercedes Ketch – Perfect in Flaws
Persephone had long retreated into the underworld, and Everett believed that the place she entered the underworld from was Toronto. Cold and polite, the gray apple, the chill in the air seeping into people’s minds and hearts. It’s why he liked Toronto; the sense of etiquette without thought, pity without relevance.
He’d known someone, decades ago, that had described autumn as a time of edges and scripture.
“What about winter?” Everett had asked that man.
“You’d have to ask Persephone,” the man answered. He’d died soon after, held in Everett’s arms.
Steam rose from gutters and carried the scent of waste and cigarettes and coffee. He nestled in his jacket, coffee close at hand. He’d just gotten back from Brazil and a new supplier, the coffee good and rich in his hands, down his throat, settling in his belly. Two cups, one for him and one for the lwa, as entropy tightened fingers on the throat of civilization.
Civilization was crumbling as it had crumbled before many times. He’d learned to enjoy whatever a civilization could offer before faltering in and dying, and this one had come so far. The stars struggled to find some place in the night sky, but the purple-orange haze of smog and clouds turned even the moon away.
The coffee grounded him. The candles littered around him, protected from the snow and still air, the dull haze of a hundred streetlights below. He stood on the roof of a building he owned – his home on the second floor, a coffee shop he ran on the first. Good cheap coffee, some tasty snacks, free wi-fi, open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, closed on Christmas but open for New Years.
Every New Year’s made him smile, the arbitrary measurement of time that this world is now obsessed with. He wondered what the next civilization would build itself on, once this one was dead and past and remembered only as another dark age. The arrogance of humankind, to think that whatever age they lived in was the apex of every possibility, that what they knew now was the only truth there could ever possibly be.
Cold and polite, he felt the soul of Toronto rear up and stare, nodding its head as it wandered the corridors of itself.
So many spirits out tonight, he thought. I wonder why.
He was having a moment, he knew, unable to remember whether this was the end or the beginning of winter. He knew where he was but after so long the seasons blended together, the decades, the centuries. He’d been told to remember and he did, back before sky had become earth, back before they’d won the war but lost, lost, lost so much.
What good was it to remember when everything he was had long since passed from breath into dust?
A shattering electric light flared into life beside him, the twinkling mire of a cell phone ring assaulting his ears. That grounded him a little; he was here and now. He stared, took a deep breath, let the sense of time wash over and through him. Call display showed no name but a long string of numbers, one of those strange equations that came from across the Atlantic.
He reached for the phone, tracing the edge of the small screen, his hand looking like a shadow against the light and the trickling flakes of falling snow, so gentle.
“Hello?” Everett asked, smiling at the sound of his own voice. The deepness of it, the richness, unmarred by centuries past and the present world.
“Hi, Dad.” Two words, the voice familiar. He’d had children in the past, watched them grow old and die. Some he’d sired and others he’d adopted and this voice was from the latter, a small girl left to die in the care of those who saw only someone to be used until withered. He’d bought her, a black man buying a Hispanic girl from white folks. From Rose Unwanted to Rose Stone and now, now, he’d given her away and seen her married, and now she was Rose Ketch.
“Hey.” He remembered her, the flash of her eyes, the crook of her lips when she smiled. The way she did her hair, the studious way her brow furrowed. Published, respected, he’d watched her grow and cultivated her loves, staring in awe at the women that unwanted child had become. “I don’t recognize this number. Where are you calling from?”
“Acco, in Israel,” Rose answered. Names cycled through Everett’s head, old names, dead names – Devinii, Kebara, Natufian, Meggido, Canaan, Kandar, Judea, Syria-Palestina, Palestine… He closed his eyes, took a deep breath. He’d spent a little time in the area, had avoided it for the sake of memory. “Are you okay?”
“You’re doing that breathing thing you do.” Rose sounded concerned. She knew him so well. “Are you having one of your… episodes? Do you know the year? The month?”
“It’s Toronto in winter time,” Everett answered, sounding stronger than he felt. “And I have a newspaper subscription on my phone. I’ve just been thinking.”
“Ah,” she said, and though she sounded reluctant she took the hint and let the matter drop. “How’s Toronto?”
“Cold,” Everett said, and now his smile was genuine. He was looking down at the few people wandering the city this late, the chill they braved so much more than mere weather. “How’s Israel?”
“Hot,” Rose answered, and he imagined the heat there was much the same. “Do you remember I was telling you about John’s dig? The new one?”
“No, dad, he finished with Surcess,” Rose sounded playful, and he could imagine the light of her eyes. “The new one.”
“Surcess would be enough for anyone else,” Everett said, but his tone robbed the words of their criticism. He liked John and always had, but something was tickling him. “Isn’t it pronounced Akko?”
“Or Acre,” Rose confirmed. “You know these places don’t translate well. There’s something like fifteen versions for spelling Hannukah I’ve seen in English alone.”
“I like Channukah.”
“The the one that starts with ‘ch’?”
“Did you know there are people debating Surcess’ authenticity?” Rose asked. She sighed, and he could hear her stand, imagined her walking through whatever house she was living in. Acco, he recalled, was closer to the sea. Western Israel. “It doesn’t help that a private investor bought the whole island.”
“The Verenes,” Everett said, nodding. Solaina, Robert, and… Lloyd. He narrowed his eyes, thinking of the latter. He’d never liked Lloyd.
“You remember them?” Rose asked as if he would ever forget. “They were very excited.”
“I’m sure,” Everett answered, trying to keep his voice mild. “I’m sorry I missed the party.” He’d never been to Surcess – he’d been touring what would become Carthage when he’d first heard the stories. A whole island of people who would do favors for others and eat those who would not pay them back as demanded. Monstrous, evil humans, their name living on through the ages and now dismissed as myth. The Hellenists had destroyed them, led by a woman who had claimed their island for herself.
“It’s alright,” Rose sighed. “The Verenes are turning the whole thing private, though, and without further investigation…”
“It’s making John look bad,” Everett finished the lingering sentence. He knew how hard it was to explain anything to people when it challenged their view of the world; the people of the earth always preferred the shadows in the cave to the world outside, so afraid to remember the sky.
He wondered if, living among them, he had become so guilty. Would he know? How often might it happen? He shook his head, sat down in the snow and cradled his coffee. It was still warm, scalding his lips, but he didn’t mind the sensation. He let it ground him.
“How’s John taking it?”
“He’s trying not to let it get to him, but you know how he is.” Rose paused, and he could hear the quickening of her breath. “And it’s killing Jack.”
“And so he’s brought you to Israel,” Everett asked, the words not quite a question. If people were challenging John about Surcess he would find it difficult to get more grants, more funding… “How are you feeling about that? How’s Mercy enjoying that?”
“She likes the oranges and the fields,” Rose said. There was something wistful in her voice, something sad. “So do I. I’m trying to be supportive, but the books aren’t doing as well as I’d thought they would and… well, at least there’s something calming about deserts and mountains, you know?”
“I do,” Everett said, looking at his own horizon, the towering gray spires of concrete and glass, the dead valleys of streets named by those long since forgot. “What’s he looking for now?”
“A group of people called the Devinii,” Rose was silent for a long time, and Everett realized he’ wasn’t breathing. He forced himself to, long slow breaths, in and out, in and out, his eyes open as the towers around him looked like outstretched fingers.
“W-what name did you say?”
“Devinii. Have you heard of them?”
That was a code; she knew about him even if she didn’t know how old he was. She was asking if they were real if he knew them to be more than a fable. He nodded, took another breath.
“I have,” he answered, hearing her breath catch in her throat. “Your husband is ambitious – I don’t think there’d be much left of them, though. They predate Surcess by several thousand years.”
“Thousand?” Rose sounded surprised. “Thousand? How old are they?”
“About as old as my people,” Everett answered, and he heard her sit down, heard her take a deep breath. He’d never told her about his people, the culture they’d built, the one he’d been powerless to stop from being destroyed. No one could understand those horrors except the others that had been there, the handful of ones that had been asked to remember, and of those few, he trusted even less.
“This is what I give you,” the Annanuki had said. “Life until death.”
“Don’t we already have that?” one of the others had asked.
Everett silently wished that he’d stabbed them both, then and there.
It was painful to think about how much had been lost, how sky had been bound to earth. He’d told her the tales instead, the old legends that his father and his mother had told him, tales echoed by whispering lwa. The Scarlet Angel. The Musician. The Purple Queen, the Blue Queen. The Weaver.
“Dad?” His daughter asked. “Dad, come back to me.”
“Sorry. Sorry, hun, I missed that last bit.” Everett held the cup of coffee steady in his hands, staring at it, forcing himself to study the minute details until the world around him was all that mattered, here and now, the cold seeping into his ass from the snow he was sitting in. He stood, dusting himself off with one hand, holding the cup steady in the other. He could see all the way to the horizon, knew every window along the street.
There were weeks, months, years where this happened, where memory drowned reason. He’d been told to remember and he never forgot and sometimes, rarely, he would act and bring the weight of himself down upon history and try to change the world.
“Is the Weaver out walking again?” Rose asked. “I can call back next week.”
“No. No, this helps.”
“If you’re sure.”
“I’m sure,” Everett said. He closed his eyes, took a single breath. He remembered the conversation, every breath from the moment Rose called, every word and pause and inflection. He opened his eyes, took a long gulp of coffee as he considered all of it and frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“We’re fighting over money.” He could hear the pain and embarrassment in Rose’s voice; she did not like admitting this, but few people ever liked admitting weakness. “When the Verenes bought the island, they stopped John’s peers from confirming his findings, and without confirmation…”
“People are branding him a crackpot,” Everett nodded understanding. “I’m sure Jack is thrilled.”
“Jack always had a firmer understanding of that sort of thing than John, and he’s done his best to keep the reality away from John, but…,” she trailed off, and he could imagine her biting her lip, closing her eyes, gathering her thoughts and her strength. He waited, patient with ages, patient with knowing. “John’s beginning to feel the crunch. We had to sell the house, and that’s why Mercy and I had to move out here.”
“You sold the house.” Everett frowned, looking in the direction the house lay. Even he couldn’t see it – the earth curved long before he might have, and there were cities in the way, but he still grimaced as he remembered every room and imperfection, the backyard and the garden, the ivy creeping up the side, the mint that grew along the back fences. “I loved that house.”
“So did I.”
“Let me buy it back.”
“Dad…,” Rose let the title hang between them, her tone uncertain. She didn’t want to ask and struggled with the idea of him doing this, the hesitation in her voice caused by a yearning for her old home and wanting to stand on her own.
She loved that house, he knew. They both did. To go from the bedlam and squalor of her childhood to those brick walls had been an impossible dream, and the two of them had made it their home together. Her harsh teen years, rebellion made worse by the pains of her childhood and the trauma he’d suffered in that decade, but they walked one another through it, walked one another beyond it.
He left it to her and John when he’d moved to Toronto. He’d always been a creature of cities, and he’d been glad when humanity had rediscovered them – living in Damascus, in Carthage, in al Hambra, in Kumasi, in Barcelona, in Toronto. He loved the lights, the whispers, the collective breathing of hundreds of human souls, the thrum of their heartbeats, the joy of architecture.
“You could have come to me,” Everett said. “You can always come to me. You know that, right?”
“Yes, I do, but John doesn’t,” Rose said, her voice very quiet. Everyone carried secrets, some shared and some not. Everett had shared his with Rose because he’d had to, but both of them had decided that John could never know – his obsession with the past would have broken against the length of Everett’s life, and they both knew it. “He likes you, but he doesn’t know… he doesn’t like asking for help.”
“No one is an island, Rose,” Everett said, the words as gentle as he could make them. “We’re all connected. Everyone accomplishes what they can depending on who they are and where they’re from, the relationships they build in and of the world.”
He didn’t need to add that he could afford it. He could afford almost anything, his riches grown through ages. He’d learned to diversify his holdings after Carthage was sacked, the lesson that no empire was eternal one that he’d learned slowly, but once he had, he’d taken the time to divide his wealth among different nations, different kingdoms, different places. This was a practice that had served him well.
When the idea of inventing wealth had finally occurred to the modern world he’d been an early buyer, and he was now easily in the one percent of the one percent, rich in a way that stripped the word of essential meaning. He owned the building he lived in, owned the seven blocks around it, ran a coffee shop because he enjoyed coffee and giving night people a place to go. He had grandfathered his investments into other investments, spending a year in every decade learning the ins-and-outs of different economic models.
It was better, he had found, to be wealthy than to be poor, and better to be free than to be a slave.
He frowned, remembering the early days of America, the rise of the Three Sisters, the… he blinked, let his thoughts settle.
Deep breath, he thought. Here and now.
He loved his adopted daughter. He liked John. He enjoyed his granddaughter, little Mercedes. She called him uncle and John thought Everett was Rose’s adopted brother. He looked at the stars trying to break through the smog cover and smiled, finishing the last of the coffee.
Sometimes, Everett thought, John could be more a child than Mercedes.
“Who’d you sell the house to?” he asked.
“A real estate firm for a down payment.”
“I’m going to buy it back and put it in Mercy’s name as part of a trust,” Everett said, his tone allowing no argument. “Keep the money you got from it. Are you comfortable?”
“Me? Yes. Of course. This place is, well, it’s lovely.” But it isn’t home, she thought, and he could hear those words in the slim shaking of her voice. “What do I tell John about the house?”
“Anything you like,” Everett said, letting her know that he’d support her. “Next issue is your finances. You want to handle this on your own, and I get that. The Verenes are why you can’t get grant money?”
“I guess. I mean, yes, kind of.”
“Then call the Verenes,” Everett said. “You got on well with Solaina, I seem to recall, and Robert seemed to get on well with John. If they’re so interested in Surcess, let them have it – but get them to pay John for what he found, and get them interested in what he’s currently looking for.”
“You think they’d be interested?” Rose asked, her tone light.
“If they’re interested in Surcess, they might be interested in the Devinii,” Everett shrugged, letting the motion flavor his voice – she would not see the motion, but she would know that he’d done it. “Call them. Find out.”
“Okay,” Rose said, and she sounded so much more like herself.
“Do you have a contact number?”
“Yes, Dad, from Solaina.” Rose paused, and he could hear her licking her lips, swallowing. Her voice dropped, became quieter, more frightened. “Do you remember her?”
“I do,” Everett answered. “From when the two of you were kids.”
“We were in our teens,” Rose’s voice turned warm, her recrimination playful. She was fond of those memories despite their horror, but the ability of adults to swim in their childish nostalgia had always amazed Everett, always left him wondering if his own memories were so tinted. He shook his head. Here. Now.
“Barely,” Everett said, his eyes rolling. He remembered young Rose, rags and bones, her eyes haunted and smoky, and Solaina’s anger and flashing sword. “Give her a call. Play on history and see if there’s anything there.”
“I’ll do it as soon as I get off the phone.”
“You might want to have Jack plant the idea in your husband’s head.”
“What?” Rose asked, surprised by the suggestion. “Why?”
“Because your husband, much as I love him, can be a bit of an idiot,” Everett said, smiling as he leaned against a wall, his eyes drifting over the city spires. “He might not listen to you, and he won’t listen to me, but a suggestion from Jack…?”
“Yeah, okay.” He could hear her grin. “Love you, Dad.”
“Love you, too,” Everett said. He let the words hang between them, enjoying a comfortable electric silence, breaking it only to ask, “Is Mercy around?”
“She’s out in the orchard,” Rose answered. “The property we’re on has an orange field. She spends her days reading, playing, or stealing oranges to eat.”
“Aright, well, let her know her Uncle said ‘hi.’”
He could hear Rose shifting her weight, making herself more comfortable, hear the way her breathing changed. Rose understood why they told Mercy the things they did, understood why they kept the secret from the eight-year-old girl – children traded secrets for candy, and Mercy might never know the full depth of Everett’s life, might never know that he could live forever.
Other children in the past had traded secrets bigger than that. Everett had seen it happen, had even had it happen to him. He’d had to flee Spain, cross a sea and flee further to escape the fires of Inquisition and the persecution of zealots. He’d ended up in chains, ended up blistered and shattered across an ocean, ended up in-
“Dad?” Rose asked. He took a deep breath. Here, he thought, now.
“Sorry, lost in thought again.”
“Hopefully, it’s a little more pleasant.”
“It is,” Everett lied. She knew that he had seen and been and done many things, and often it was the bad memories that dominated. She’d seen him when- he smiled, shook his head, laughed. “Iataad taohif aamgae.”
He asked her to call him when it was done, to let him know how things are and if there might be anything else that he could do to help. She said that she would and that she loved him and then she hung up and he stayed there for minutes afterward, staring down at a single girl staring back up at him.
She was young, this girl, pale as snow, with raven hair and emerald eyes. Her facial structure was that of someone that wasn’t human but was trying to be – lacking the small ticks that came from growth, the small changes evolution brought to structure and culture brought to stance. She was looking at him and she nodded, smiling, turned and vanished into the night.
There were powers older than he was and too large to easily comprehend. He’d seen some of them in the past, been there when they’d done their workings and changed the world. It made him shudder in a way the cold never could, to know that such powers were moving through the world again, were gathering, that one of them might think that the conversation he had just had was important enough to watch so closely.
He replayed the conversation in his head once more, all of it from beginning to end, felt something that he’d missed when he’d muttered the most ancient of prophecies: iataad taohif aamgae.
In the long dead language of the Devinii, it meant none may escape.