Shiyako and the Golden Cloth

By the third night of her captivity, Shiyako’s weaving had begun to attract crowds. She was working in a tower room in the Imperial palace, and for two nights now its window had overflowed with yards and yards of shining goldweve.

The prince had brought Shiyako back with him after his visit to the regional governor. He’d overheard her father, a porter, boasting about her marvelous weaving. Like her kin, Shiyako was indeed a skilled weaver, coaxing lengths of fine gold cloth from ordinary silkworms using spells passed down through generations. Had she married a village boy, she would have the amended her spells with syllables from her mother-in-law’s family – but instead, she’d become indentured in the governor’s house.

The prince had promised to marry her if she could produce such a quantity for three nights – as if she, whose conquered people lived and died at the Summer Empire’s whim, had any desire to marry him. Still she wove all through the night, though her fingers cramped and her voice rasped, for if she failed, the prince would raze her village.

“You’re quiet tonight.” The forest imp had followed her here and set to work weaving. At first, she’d been grateful for his help – how else could she have possibly produced the amount of goldweve she was supposedly capable of? But the third morning was upon them. Shiyako had no doubt that their goldweve would reach the ground, as promised, but then she’d have to marry the prince – and no doubt pay a price to the imp.

“I’m tired,” she said. Outside, cheering: their golden cloth had reached the third story.

“You know he won’t let you stop. You’ll have to keep weaving every night of your life.”

“There are worse ways to spend a night with a prince.”

“And oh, how many nights you’ll spend.” The imp bared his pointed brown teeth. His fingers darted over the silk threads. “I can still save you…”

“No.”

“You need only guess my name, and I swear I’ll free you from this tower, and save your dear village.”

“I didn’t ask your help, and I don’t know your name,” Shiyako snapped. “Be quiet; let me work.”

The imp settled. Another handspan of goldweve unrolled at his feet. Shiyako began to sing, a lilting chant that transformed the silk and kept pace with her fingers.

The imp yawned. Shiyako changed tunes: a lullaby her mother had sung to all six of her children. The imp’s head dropped, recovered, dropped again. He snored. Shiyako sang another verse, just to be sure, then cast off the length of goldweve. She needed to work quickly – she had only her own spells now, and dawn was coming.

[]

At sunrise, a crowd gathered at the base of her tower. They muttered to themselves – the goldweve ended just out of arm’s reach.

Shiyako clapped. “Hear that, imp? It’s morning.”

He grunted and tried to sit up, but found himself rolled up in the goldweve she’d spun in the early dawn.

“Is this the thanks I get?” he hissed.

“You wanted me to guess your name, but yours is irrelevant since it was another’s that got us both here: Hamul.”

He scowled, writhing in his golden shroud. “Never heard of it.”

“I believe you have. You see, Hamul was my father, and considering he died eight years ago, the only way the prince could have heard him boasting was if you’d been doing the boasting yourself.”

The imp froze.

Shiyako gestured to their weaving. “I couldn’t guess your purpose initially, but…this isn’t gold, is it?”

“No.” He grinned. “It’ll turn to rotten rattan at the next full moon.”

“Which is, what, twelve days away?”

He giggled. “More than enough time for our creation to be dispersed as gifts among the High Houses. How embarrassing for His Grace, eh?”

“Embarrassing enough to get me executed, certainly – unless I kept you as my evidence.” She smirked. “You need little food, right?”

That took the smile off his face. “What do you want?”

“Make him forget about me. I’ll tell no one your secret. You’ll embarrass the Empire, I’ll save myself and my village – we both win.”

He cackled, rocking back and forth in his golden wrapper. “You weave bargains as skillfully as silk! Unspool me, and we have a deal.”

The prince couldn’t remember why he’d climbed to the tower room and he was inexplicably angry. It must have been for this goldweve, he thought, and ordered it rolled up.

Save

Death These Days

Death went into the city, though she did not have an appointment. She rarely bothered with appointments these days; anywhere she went, there was work for her. Why, just last week, there was that little boy in – but never mind.

It’s so easy for them, these days; Death wonders if they take it for granted. They have as many options as there are stars, and the threat of consequence dwindles. Their concerns are few: How many bullets are desired? How fast shall they tear? How loud?

So it was these thoughts that distracted Death when she arrived in the city. She could taste its hate like stinging citrus, and its fear like ice. But she could also taste Love. She stopped and wrinkled her nose.

“Making progress, then?”

“Slowly.” Love stepped out of the shadows. “You’ll find there are fewer for you today.”

“Still, there are some. You can’t keep me from all of them.”

“No,” admitted Love. “There will always be some determined to hate. There will always be a handful lost to fear. They drown in it, or they let it eat them, complaining and justifying all the while. But there are many more who reach for me, who find their footing, and then show others how to stand. Even you used to know the worth of lives; did you forget, like they have?”

Death didn’t appreciate being made to feel she’d done something wrong. This was her job, her purpose. Hatred wasn’t her responsibility. So what if it made her job easier? Wasn’t that everyone’s goal – to work less for greater reward? And Death’s rewards flowed like red rivers these days. She was in demand, her and the strengthening Hatred with his vice grip and his wilful ears and his mocking words.

Even now, she realized, he was shadowing her, watching where she walked, scattering his fetid seeds in her wake, sowing them ahead of her. She hadn’t realized how frequently they collaborated these days.

As for Love – well, Death could see the appeal. Love tasted like aching sweetness: the last late summer peach, the final sip of the toast to a friend who is going far away, the fleeting fragrance of an embrace. Death was lonely, and Hatred very lonely, but Love was loneliest of all – and strongest, and bravest, because Love didn’t mind the loneliness. Her work was too important. Hatred minded; that, thank heavens, kept him weak.

Death didn’t mind. She would go back to setting appointments, like she did in the old days. If that meant letting Love win, well – Death was not proud.

“You can’t keep me from them forever,” Death said.

“Of course not – but you can wait your damn turn.”

Perseids

We race against the sinking sun.
While stars are glinting into light,
still dimmed by blinking traffic’s run,
we race. Against the sinking sun,
erasing stress in brilliance: one
star falling through the deepening night.
We race against the sinking sun,
while stars are glinting into light.

(Trying out a triolet.)

Two Hundred Seconds

I store new songs – more accurately, I hoard them. Before I’ve even heard a song all the way through, if I like it, I’ve catalogued its most distinctive lyrics so I can look them up later and add the song to my collection. I have a note in my phone full of phrases from songs I’ve wanted to collect:

hold back the river

take Jackson out of me

what kind of man loves like this

I’m driving and listening to NPR. I’m not usually driving during this particular program, so the music I hear is an unexpected surprise. I like this band’s sound, whoever they are, so I turn up the volume and listen closely. I wait to catch lyrics or the band’s name, waiting like a hawk to snatch my prey from the air and go on with my day.

“This next song, we’ve never recorded,” she says during a break. “We play it very rarely, so we hope you’ll enjoy.”

I’ve been to concerts. I know the magic of a favorite song performed live, familiar but achingly different, comfortable but ephemeral. I’ve been to shows where the band came onstage for their encore and waited patiently, silently, for the audience to go quiet enough for them to perform their final song completely acoustic – no mics at all. The room held its breath. We could barely hear them singing and it was beautiful.

I’ve only been half paying attention to the experience of a new song because I spend the time anticipating experiencing it again. All the new songs that I’ve collected phrases from, I may as well have been talking over, for all the thought I gave them after I had what I wanted from them. Anywhere I have Internet, I can listen to any song I want immediately – but if this particular song was never recorded, that means I can’t buy it, or even hear it ever again.

That isn’t why I turn off my mental recorder, though. It’s peaceful to realize there is no gratification, delayed or instant or otherwise, beyond the next two hundred seconds of music. I and a few thousand listeners are the only people who will ever hear this song, performed this way. I’ve let many countless seconds slip past without realizing how unique they were, so I focus on these and what they have to offer. I narrow my world down to the now, and the music.

In my car, I hold my breath.

Storing Summer

It’s only cool enough to walk come sunset,
mosquitoes buzzing tinny like the wires
overhead. Evading thorns, we pluck berries

from summer-warmed vines. Peaches, these blackberries,
and the strawberries picked out back at sunset –
they drip summer taste, sweet as sun, sharp as wires.

I thread each tart-sweet memory on wires
like beads: each velvet peach, the ruby berries,
even the whining mosquitoes at sunset.

Come autumn rains, each sunset strung on wires
Will wreathe remembered warmth, sweetness, and berries.

A tritina, my first.

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From Miami With Love

Most people are familiar with dread. It’s that feeling you get going into a test you forgot about, or being summoned by the boss during a wave of layoffs. Spies experience whole new dimensions of dread – getting caught crossing the Chinese border with stolen fighter designs, for instance, not that I’ve ever done that. Tonight, I felt it when I pulled up at the end of the Miami mansion’s driveway in an Audi R8, dressed in a rented Naeem Kahn gown, and saw only one other car: a black Lamborghini.

Tatiana favored black Lamborghinis. Every party we’d been to, she’d arrived in one.

I slumped in my seat. Tatiana had arrived before me?

I wasn’t surprised she’d figured out the invitation. It wasn’t very complicated – a fragment of coded chatter intercepted from an Italian yacht, easily decrypted. But to have her reach the destination first? That was embarrassing personally and professionally. I’d let America herself down tonight.

And now, as punishment, I’d have to spend time with Tatiana alone.

I revved the R8’s engine and purred down the driveway. The majority of the population has never even heard of these gatherings. They think it’s hyperbole, an urban legend meant to inspire admiration for the espionage community. They think it’s self-promotion, an attempt to make ourselves look more glamorous, more like those famous movie spies we don’t have to name.

Maybe it is self-promotion, in a way, and it definitely does make us look more glamorous. Our jobs are tough, though, and we’ll take any opportunity to get glammed up and actually have a little fun. Even the Russians relax at these things – except Tatiana, who apparently never learned how.

I ran through the usual guest list. Captain Green would probably arrive shortly, apologizing in his posh accent for his tardiness when he was actually the most punctual among us. Either Chan or Lee would be there, depending on who arrived first. Chan loved parties, but refused to be in the same building as his Korean counterpart whenever possible. Farah, as far as I knew, had never failed to decrypt an invitation, even the infamous New Year’s one four years ago that had stumped the Russians, the Chinese, and the French. She’d be here, but she’d arrive a fashionable twenty minutes late – too late to rescue me from conversation with Tatiana.

Cannot believe she beat me.

A suited valet helped me from the car and two stone-faced doormen ushered me inside the house. Its marble columns and gilded wainscoting showed elegant restraint, by Miami standards.

“Major Melissa Weiss, CIA,” announced the woman standing in the foyer. Judging from the earpiece and tablet she was equipped with, this woman served as both the herald and chief of security. No doubt the tablet showed her every room in the house, complete with active scanning for unusual heat or biochemical traces that could indicate a weapon.

You’d have to be a real jerk to bring a weapon to one of these parties, though. It’s just not the mensch thing to do.

I made my way through the house. The kitchen, which at first glance appeared to be entirely copper-plated, boasted several platters of international finger food. The great room was dotted with bistro tables draped in white, and a portable bar stood near a colorfully lit but empty dance floor. The picture windows were open to the grounds’ manicured hedges, palm trees, and mosaic-tiled pool. Whoever was hosting clearly called in a few favors to score a site like this.

“Welcome, Major Weiss,” a lilting Russian accent called. My heart sank.

“Tatiana.”

“What, no happy birthday?” she pouted. She was wearing a very slinky, very red gown with a hefty gold collar necklace – easily large enough to conceal toxic gas canisters, I thought ungenerously. Clip the two ends together, twist a certain way –

Then it occurred to me. “This is your party?”

“Of course, kotyonok. No one loves Miami like I do.”

A genuine smile spread across my face. “Happy birthday, then.”

She hadn’t figured the puzzle out first – she’d written it. That was the only reason she’d arrived before me. I had solved it fastest, after all.

“Major,” I imagined the President saying (in a Southern accent for some reason, even though he was from Connecticut), “you’ve done your country proud.”

“A drink?” Tatiana marched towards the bar. “My bartender is late, but we are resourceful, no?”

I followed her, trying not to strut. I win. “I could go for a Manhattan.”

The Morning Walk

We start our day walking alongside the whispering yellow grasses in the undeveloped lot. They put a cul-de-sac here, connecting it to our neighborhood, but got no further. Now the wild grass has dried and gone to seed, and the field is scattered with daisies, lupine, and clover.

River likes it here best. She trots ahead, her tail loose. She gets nervous in the neighborhood itself, especially in the afternoons, with the watching houses and kids on bikes and extra noise. Here, though, in the cool quiet, it would be easy to mistake her for a “normal” dog, one we’d raised from a puppy rather than adopting three years ago.

Three weeks after we got River, we tried walking her in a different portion of the neighborhood. A pair of dogs barking at her from behind their fence scared her so badly that she slipped her collar and ran off. Luckily, she ran straight home. After that, we got her a harness, and we never took her along that route again. She used to be scared of so many things: flags snapping in the wind, heavy rain, her own leash. She’d shake and her tail would tuck under – she’d even refuse the treats we tried to feed her to distract her.

She veers, sniffing – she wants to go into the grass. I keep her back, wary of ticks. I’ve never spotted any; usually it’s just ladybugs perched on the seed heads, preparing to start their day.

Three years on, River is doing a lot better. She still hates beaches and only tolerates car rides. She’s much more comfortable on walks, but is still rare to see her this relaxed. I let her leash out and her tail sways as she trots.

Someday they’ll actually finish building here, mowing down the grasses and cramming nine or ten houses in, and those houses will fill with new families and new kids and new fears to overcome – but until then, this is our morning walk.