He was dying. Shot, fording the river with a bleeding limb giving way underneath him - his head filling with a hazy grey light. He was tired. His eyes were fading, seeing only the clouds and the froth of the water ahead of him - his comrades running out the far side, marching onwards. Leaving him in the river. He still had strength, strength to stagger a step at a time - the riverbed was rising under his boots, giving him hope even as the blood left his body. He could still move. The shore, pebbles and mud slipping together under his feet - the water merely lapped against his waist, his thighs, his knees.
He fell on his hands and knees. He couldn't see. He was safe. He couldn't move, couldn't even crawl. He would stay here. He would go home.
(This is always what they tell you first. They begin with death. You endure the death before you endure the knowing. After death, if you can bear to keep listening, you hear the details.)
"You get anything?"
Her voice doesn't disturb you. It's brusque and hard and her, and you're glad to hear it after the cold whispers of the dead. To you, her voice is the same thing that she is.
"Yes. A Communist. He died by the side of the river." She doesn't interrupt. She gives you space. "A year ago, perhaps. They crossed from south to north, and he had a wound, and he fell."
You use the euphemism because it sounds soft and grey, like a rock tumbling into the river, sinking into the airless dark. She's used to it. She doesn't scowl at it any more, or look like she's wondering why you, of everyone, doesn't call death by its name. You think she knows why you say 'fell'.
Death is a word used by people who haven't been through it. It would be like naming a country you've never been to. It's better to call it by what it seems like on the inside. Like falling. It's like tears falling.
She's realised you've said all you know, and responds, "Last year?" You nod. The two of you are interrogating history. "Why were they going to the far north? Even the KMT never chased them over the Yellow River."
You'll find out.
When the ambush came, they were camped in a bend of the river - trusting it, using it as a wall and well and fortress. They'd been safe and resting. A watch was kept on the road that led south, but it was weary and minimal.
Your mission is to watch them. She watches the living, and you watch the dead. Put the two halves together, and you can see the whole of the unanticipated problem called Mengjiang. There is a dangerous gap in knowledge here - the Philosophers shelter in the south with their children while a rift splits China in two, and here Japan comes to crush one piece under its left boot, another under the right.
And he was tired and he was hungry but he was keen, and it wasn't until he'd killed two of them that he realised they weren't the Kuomintang. And the unexpected is fear, and fear makes you freeze, and then he was curled on the ground, beginning his slow descent.
You watch the rest of them fight through his pain-dulled eyes. It doesn't end how you expected.
When you come back to yourself, you're lying flat on your back beside the river. There's moist dirt seeping into your shirt, and your fingers, stretched out above your head, are dipped in the cool water. The sun's shining through your closed eyelids, its warmth chasing away the thoughts of the dead. She's nearby; you can't hear her breathing, but you know she's somewhere close, watching over you. It's her purpose, and she wouldn't deviate from it.
You roll onto your side, curling taut limbs into your chest, eyes blinking in welcome to the too-bright sky. There's coarse grass under your cheek, a river-damp swathe of deep green, hazing into undergrowth not far ahead of you - your spectacles are safely in her pocket, and without them, everything is uncertain and soft. You lift your head, and you can't see her; she's adept at concealing herself, even from those with full sight. You're sure she's still stretched out on the riverbank above you. It's like you're looking for a hidden detail in a painting. After a few seconds of blinking and running your hands up the grass, you find her boots.
She crawls back towards you inchwise, not making a sound. For a moment, you're a child on the farm again; you thought it was just a patch of ground, but then you saw the adder. Her hand finds yours, and your fingers flounder, stroking hard dry skin and - yes - smooth glass, vision, clarity. You'd thank her - for watching while you couldn't, too - but she'd not have you waste the words.
"Get anything more?"
"Yes. An ambush by a Japanese patrol, somewhere downriver from here. The Communists marched here afterwards to ford the river and find the enemy camp."
"They fought off the Japs?"
"Yes. Through their enemy's carelessness. They were underestimated, and the enemy showed their strength too soon."
"Story of this war, everyone underestimating the Reds." You shrug without moving. You are as red as they come, but that is one thing in Russia and quite another here. "Let's move out."
You follow her to the copse on hands and knees - your equipment, hidden in a subsided hollow underneath an old tree, is lying undisturbed beneath a net of leaves and branches. It takes more strength and patience to collect than it did to conceal, taking burdens one at a time from her hands, and finally, after she's scanned from the river to the sky to make sure there's not another human being within sight, you wheel the motorcycles back to the road.
Even assured that the valley is empty, you still speak softly in her presence. "What next?"
"North til you find the next ghost, of course."
The next ghost had been a shepherdess, perhaps the most unlucky in all the world; she had not intended to see the Japanese, and meant no ill to them; her fall feels hard and ugly, and the ghost fretted, tearfully, for her sheep. You can't be sure, but you think she fell a few days before the young Communist; she has little of use to tell you save that they were heading south when they attacked her, but you know she's glad that you have a need for even that tiny scrap of her knowledge.
You make your camp together close to where the shepherdess died, and after a shared meal, you watch her work on her gun.
It's a constant project, a solid moment moving nightly towards perfection. Another notch here - another millimetre off the barrel - or an hour spent doing patient wrist exercises, because her arm is as much a part of the weapon as the trigger is. No one can take a recoil like she can. Back at base, she vanishes into the armoury workshop for entire evenings to study feed mechanisms, in some fervent conviction that it is in the feed that she will finally find the gun's secret.
Most soldiers who have put so much of themselves into a weapon give a name to it, but hers has none. She says she'll name it once it's ready to have a name, but for now, it's just a project, an act of becoming, a child still in the womb.
Whatever minute part of it she's fiddling with tonight, it does not absorb her whole attention. She has enough left over to address you the way you address the ghosts - probe with questions, sit quiet through the rambling answers. "What's it like, speaking to the dead?"
She's never asked that before, but her questions are never idle. She is patient while you find a place to begin. "It started after the war." You know little of the Philosophers, only what the dead have told you - that you serve them, and that they have taken control of the world. In 1923 their interests finally triumphed in your homeland's civil war. They killed millions to become what they are now. "There was a silence that stretched over everything - voices missing, stories I wanted to hear but which no one would tell me, and...I was young, and I didn't understand, and I just wanted to know what had happened and why. So I listened, as hard as I could. In the night I'd go to cemeteries, to battlefields. To grave pits.
"I don't know how it was that I learned to hear them and no one else did. I'd been yearning to hear, so it didn't seem strange. Perhaps," and these words are for her, because she taught you to understand this inner spirit of yourself, "It was the emotion inside me that took me to the battlefields to listen."
"The Sorrow." She's nodding slowly. She likes your explanation. But where has her emotion taken her? Unlike the others in your unit, she has no notably unusual abilities. She's simply a soldier. A level head, a steady arm, and a good eye, but there's nothing special about her. She has an interest in fighting with her hands, but that's all it is - she says one day she hopes to turn that, like the gun, into a perfect weapon - but to do that she will need a partner, a kindred as able as herself and she has yet to meet that kindred and she certainly won't find him in you.
You realise you've not answered her question yet. "Their world is grey and it moves slowly...the dead speak as if they are far under water. I have to push my thoughts, my questions, under that surface, and when they reply, it's like a wave that returns from the depths." You feel like your words are inadequate, just an echo of how it really feels, but you don't know how else to say it. You've never thought about what you'd say of it. You never thought she'd be so interested in you as to ask.
"How is it that you're not swamped? World's full of dead men - how do you find the right ones to tell us what we need to know?"
"They find me," you reply. "They're lost, and they need to have consequence in the living world...if they know, they will come and tell me, and if they do not know, they will search for someone who does." Death has no significance of its own. The dead don't talk about the saints and angels. They just desperately seek to draw meaning from the lives they lived.
"So any of them tell you anything? Doesn't matter which side they were on?" You nod. "Not very patriotic."
Well, no. "China, Russia, America - there's no difference to the dead."
"Or to the Philosophers." An observation. Not a joke. When she speaks of the Philosophers it is as if she is their tool and yet they are her burden. "It's the same the world over? Doesn't even matter what language they speak?"
"No. I think language is clay that we use to shape concepts. The dead have only the concepts, and their memories. They're the same in any place." That said... "There are some here who are different. Not grey things waiting for the current to take them. There's bright ones, with voices that ring over the centuries. They're like icons of saints. They've forgotten their flesh, and become the symbols they carry - a face turned into a phoenix, an arm turned into a spear. Maybe they were never humans. Now, they're just...the things that the living people love them for."
She sets down the gun, laying it on the dry grass well in reach of her hand. You wonder if she believes you - your parents never did, your priest never did, you're not sure if anyone ever has - and you think that she does, because she wouldn't have asked if she wasn't going to accept your answer at face value. You're used to failed attempts to expand others' horizons, attempts that leave them thinking that you're mad. She has no horizon. She's open to the new and the extraordinary, endless as the sky.
"And these people speak to you?"
These people are more than people. "Yes - I hear them even when they have no answers for me. They're part of the hills and the rivers here."
"What do they say? What do they want?"
You sigh. "They're old - they've been here for more centuries than other lands can count. When they were young, they thought this land was the whole of the world. They want it to go on for always, sovereign and inviolate. They want Japan out. They want China to be whole and triumphant."
"Have you told them we're in the middle of a bloody civil war?"
You usually try not to tell them anything. "Being a patriot is hard," you say.
It's your turn to listen the next morning. She talks rapidly while you're breaking camp - you packing away cooking pots and sleeping bags, she pulling tent pegs out of the ground, with the rising sun bathing the both of you in its clear light.
"This place has gone to shit since Sun died." She means Sun Yat-Sen, the first president of the Republic. She always speaks of him as if he is a revered member of her family, which to her you suppose he was - you know he was of the Wisemen's Committee, like her father. The dead don't keep secrets - Lenin told you about the others of that elect, six years after his own death. "The damn KMT were schisming before he was cold, and they turned on the Communists as soon as he was in the ground and haven't let up since."
You think about ghosts, and wonder if Sun is still wandering the streets of Peking, far away to the east. It's likely - they are all taken eventually by the current, but it is the most troubled who cling on for the longest. "It must pain him," you say, and she looks to you, confused. "There's nothing that troubles the dead more than watching children fight over their legacy."
She looks at you thoughtfully. It's like, if she is the sky, you are the shadows. She's looking down into the depths of you. "It's coming to pieces," she says. "There's the Kuomintang, the Communists, the Japanese...no saying which of them will be China once this is over."
"This wasn't meant to happen." It wasn't. There's a tremor approaching you from the far distance - the stirrings of those who will die in the years to come. You'd ask why the Philosophers in Russia and America don't send support, but you know the answer to that; you are the support. All two of you. Russia and America have no cause to march into Asia, and they have too little resources to waste them on meddling with Japan. And all for a land where so little changed for thousands of years, and so much changed within the last thirty. "What will they do?"
She knows what you mean. The Philosophers were meant to control war, and here they were having one of their three sturdy legs battered away from under them. "That's up to them," she replies. "We here to do the mission."
You nod. That's the beginning and the end of both of you. You're not unquestioning or slavish or ideologically pure. But her unwavering faith in the mission, and the mission alone, is like a candle lit inside her, shedding light in the murk of this ugly three-way war, and you have touched your wick to this devotion and seen everything illuminated.
She's rolling up the canvas, and you're toeing the ashes of the campfire, wanting to at least make your trail look cold.
The mission goes north towards Mongolia, where there is a Japanese military force, a desert, and little else. It occurs to you that there is an American saying that describes that place perfectly; high and dry.
Chapter 2: Rising Sun Chapter 2
Progress has to be meticulous. It's measured by precise pencil marks on her maps, by the fuel gauges on the motorcycles, by the words of the dead. You have to feel them all die, whether they're telling you about the Japanese occupiers and the Communist insurgents or whether you're just asking for directions to the next place you can go to steal some fuel. There's nobody else to ask - the living are incomprehensible, fractious and - as you inch closer to the dry lands - few.
You take your bearings from a ghost so content that you know, without asking, that she died only days ago and will be gone from the world soon. She spent her last hours surrounded by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She had become blind in her old age, and knows little of the Japanese, but there is a list of places others had told her not to walk, so that is where you will go. On the rough road northwards. Looking for the enemy and learning all you can about their strategy and capabilities.
Your basic resources are drying up. To get fuel and water, you must steal from the Japanese. And the dead don't linger near the Gobi - when you need someone to listen to, she has to find someone and kill them.
It's not the first time it's come to this. But it makes you sad.
It's almost midnight when you stop to make camp. You needed to get far from the wreck of the Japanese convoy, fast, and the last breakneck hour has left you weary and with a throat dry as dust. But it was good, by her reckoning - you took fuel, ammunition, precious water, and a new and significant target. She doesn't say much, but through her tiredness she seems to throb with a quiet happiness. It's the killing - that, and the answers the dead gave to you. They showed you the way to the radio base in the desert. They promised you success.
It's not success or promises that make her herself, though. Bloodshed is enough.
She eats ravenously and then crawls into her sleeping bag; she gave enough time to her gun earlier. You bank the campfire, take your boots off and follow her. It's colder up here, and you curl your limbs. The chill makes the space between you seems all the wider.
A few seconds after she settles down, she speaks, as if to no one. "It's going west."
She's not referring to her map and its spider-maze of notes and angles. It's an American saying. When something's gone wrong - or someone is dying - you say they're 'going west' because they're like the sun setting. It leaves you in night. Her satisfaction with the evening's work couldn't keep the sun above the horizon.
She also doesn't care. The mission is reconnaissance - to be the Philosophers' eyes and assess this high land where two currents flow against each other. It doesn't, can't, matter to her whether the Japanese will prove stronger than the two native factions; her mission is to know, not to fall into one stream or another, Communist or Nationalist or invading empire.
You're a Communist, but you're with her and the Philosophers and China's communists go against their ends. You're not on any side. You're mercenary, alone.
She's on every side, a light illuminating the carnage.
Russia was once a place of carnage, and there the Philosophers' interests prevailled. Here? You try another American saying: "Did they back the wrong horse?"
She grunts, sleepily. That's why they sent you here, and her only answer will be to finish her mission. She will find out. You will find out.
The grassland is thinning under the wheels of your motorcycle, turning into discrete patches, then tussocks, then by the time she slows on the road ahead of you, sparse and isolated clumps. Atop a slope in the far distance, you can see the radio mast.
It's too open here, with too much sky and nowhere to hide. There's no ghosts in this land, so you can't even escape to the river. She's heading off to circle the hill, but you know she won't find anywhere safe enough to leave the gear, or secluded enough to lay an ambush. You'll have to leave it to hope, and stay close to her while she kills.
She's not satisfied, but the thought of a team of dead radio operators offering up all their codes and secrets to the Philosophers is worth the risk. So you hope. You hope you abandoned the motorcycles before anyone took account of the noise. You hope they won't see your approach, two soldiers on hands and knees, like moving clumps of grass.
When you see a patrol leaving the gates of the tiny compound, there is nothing you can do but lie still. She won't kill in the open. It's not until they're out of sight that you can inch on upwards, and it's not until you're hidden under the shadow of the wall that she takes aim at the guards at the gate.
There's two of them, and two of you. She moves slightly outward, leaving you with the wall at one shoulder and her at the other, and signals for you to be ready. When her left hand drops, it will begin. You look at the guard on the right down the barrel of your Beretta, and wish you could tell him how sorry you feel.
You drop flat to the ground a moment after the two muffled shots, and you have the ghost before his heart has ceased beating. He's still dying and you can hear the storm gathering inside the compound, and her gun was the lightning, and here you are face-down on the dry ground listening to the thunder. The dying. He never saw it coming. This isn't one of those times when you look through dead eyes and see her, wild and radiant, staring at you from behind a gunbarrel.
He's not her enemy any more. He's her eyes on the inside, eyes still moist and open, and you hear yourself reciting his answers almost before you frame the questions. "Thirty. Not all here - six on patrol - ten sleeping in the barracks -" You're close to weeping because it's coming so easily. He's only just below the water - he, and one of his comrades, no - friends, no - two.
You feel her grabbing your collar and you are scrambling to your feet, making a stooping run for the gate. You're struggling to keep up with her and struggling to keep lucid. She needs you in easy earshot. They aren't coming any more, they're taking to their defences, and the dead know where they'll be hiding -
"- left, get behind the gate!" She dives across the open gate, and you follow her, propelled by sheer momentum, and you hear a crack as a bullet thuds into the steel above your head. She's rolled to a crouch by the gap and she's shooting, shooting, and you feel someone die. "You got him."
She pulls back to reload. "There's more there?"
Another bullet answers for you. "Only one -"
She's returning fire, and the words are false almost before they leave your mouth. "Where now?"
"Right, to the mast -" A little rampart of sandbags there. More cover.
She runs, and you stumble, feet catching in the rut between your mind and your fragile body, and she's taking cover ahead of you. You hear her shot pass your ear, and there's another man dead behind you and you think she must have saved your life.
You roll down beside her, heart thudding, You're facing the rough compound wall and she's leaning over you, looking for a target. You must give her a target. "There's more - ten o'clock - by the fuel tank -"
"Then get down."
That's the last you hear. There's a rumbling hiss of white noise in your ears - a sound too loud to comprehend - and then you smell scorched flesh and you can't see because your spectacles are covered in black smoke.
You can't count the dead. They're clamouring, a cloud of mud in the river - it's only by asking them that you can tell that there's not enough. She still needs you. "There's -" You're so exhausted inside that it's hard to speak. "There's another patrol - outside - they're coming back from the south -"
She calls behind her as she runs. "How many?"
"Two, both together. They -"
You drop to your knees. Stay here. With the dead. It's safe with the dead. In the dark water, feeling them thrashing as they sink, and yet you remain lying on the surface, their deaths a lulling wave that keeps you afloat.
You don't know how much time passes before you feel two more strike the water beside you, dropping into the dark like heavy stones. You think they're smiling.
It's bruising pain that draws you back, one you haven't felt in months - she's kicked you in the ribs. "Sorrow." She is no longer ecstatic - the joy in her has turned tense and angry. "Sorrow, they found our bikes."
You stare at her and at the dead all around you, and all you can think is; What have you done?
"They're fucked. We're fucked."
Chapter 3: Rising Sun Chapter 3
High and dry. Breathing hurts, like your lungs are fighting against the desert air for moisture. Your hands hurt - they're a mass of bruises and scratches, and they ache from how little they've accomplished in the last who knows how many hours. (Three, one of the dead says. He was their brigadier. He didn't fade as fast as the rest did.) Her grimness hurts, her stone eyes and her resolute struggling with the broken bodies of the motorcycles.
The dead were not contrite about what they'd done - no more than she was contrite about killing them. They'd come across your equipment, and heard the gunfire while they were still discussing what to do - and had decided to wreck your means of escape before joining the fight. You went with her to speak to their corpses, folded on the ground beside the rainbow-sheens and scraps of rubber.
They shot out the engines and ripped the tyres with knives. The Japanese camp has no motorcycles, and any hope of escaping the desert in one of their trucks vanished when she destroyed their petrol stock. The only other supply line is a stable of mules. She made a meal of one, and the flesh is as tough as rope but it's the first fresh meat you've had all month.
The dead radio operator dictates the evening's radio call for you, and you wonder how long, how many mistakes, it will take before they realise the base is compromised. They'll blow it to pieces as soon as they realise. You need to leave before that can happen, but there's nowhere to go.
Out of options, she had used her last resort; after much jury-rigging to boost the signal, she used the radio to make a coded transmission that would, given luck, should a good wind carry it far enough, reach a Philosophers outpost in Siberia. She knew not to cry for help to China. You are the help. But until a response is made, you're stuck in a Japanese outpost in Mongolia, with no way out of the desert, few supplies, thirty corpses and each other, and only a few radio codes to use to bargain with your masters for your rescue.
You think of pictures you've seen of the pyramids in the deserts of Egypt. Those are tombs too. The dead don't much care for the stones that mark them, but they care about their legacies. It is likely that you will leave none.
The only things in the world that shed light are the stars and her smouldering cigar. It's almost no light at all. The night is entirely silent and empty except for the presence of the dead, and eventually the two of you will go huddle in their barrack and try to sleep. Not yet.
She's quiet. She's played her last card, and now her hands are empty, with not even the gun occupying her able fingers. This is not the time to be continuing the gradual refining one's life-work. And you, you curl your knees against your chest and hold yourself tight. You feel like the night is inside you, an aching void of stardust, empty even of death.
You might survive. Maybe the Soviets will hear you and decide you're worth rescuing. And that narrow hope pushes down on your mind like a huge weight, pinning you beneath the uncertainty. You're not hoping you'll survive - you're just terrified that you won't.
Even in the quiet and the no-light, you don't think the woman beside you shares that feeling. You've seen her unwind with a cigar so often, and she seems no different from ever - breathing out her frustration with every puff of smoke, coming home to what she - always, impossibly, one word, one emotion - is. As, you suppose, are you. Hugging your knees with just enough hope to be terrified of that thing that you are.
"Hey." You can see little of her save the tip of her cigar, but it's enough to know that she's lying on her back, stretched out over ground as dry as bone. "You don't like to look at the stars?"
"No," you whisper, and bury your eyes against your trousers.
"They're the same here as they are in America. Or in Russia," she adds. "Everyone in the northern hemisphere sleeps under the same banner."
You feel your hands unclenching. You both travel unmarked, without passports or insignia, but you need no such prompting to catch her meaning; forty-eight stars on her homeland's flag, one hollow yellow one on yours. China has its round, white sun, now covered by night and who knows what might become of it before morning - but these are the emblems of matters as distant from you as the sky.
What the Philosophers do to hold their firmament together is far out of your hands.
Your only part in it was the mission that you've failed.
You look to the little orange glow that marks her presence, and find it burns so low that you can almost see her face; cheekbones stained and beaded with sweat, hair a nest of gold. Her eyes look upwards, unblinking. "Is this why..." Why she's so utterly clear and simple. "Why you give yourself to the mission so completely?"
She shifts the cigar to the corner of her mouth. "Yes. Everything else...it's all one."
You look up. It's all beautiful.
Minutes pass before you say what you're really thinking. "You're not afraid to die?"
"No." Her voice becomes perplexed. "You're afraid to die?"
No, no, no, it's not the dying - you've felt it too often and it's awful but at least it could be quick and while the dead do nothing but mourn until they are pulled away entirely, that wouldn't even really be a change. That's not what the terror is. The terror is huge and unnamed.
"I'm afraid of not living any more," you say. There's a curtain slowly closing over you, and you only now realise that all this time you've desperately wanted sunlight. "There's so much I've not done yet." You know your words are small and stupid. "I - I'm not ready to die."
You're twenty-one years old and you've done nothing with your life but talk to ghosts.
And the stars don't care and can't hear you, but she does. "Yes?"
Her words are warm and fierce. "I'm always ready to die. That's what makes life worth living. When you're fighting, you have to give your all to every moment, because it could be your last. You have to be always ready. Always complete."
You want to protest, say she's young and beautiful and herself and that there's so much she could do - but this is the essence of her. This is what she can do, now and ever. This is her spirit, the light she sheds.
"I - wish I could live like that." But she's her, and you're you.
"And why can't you? What is you think you've missed out on?"
You don't know what to say.
Before the dead began to speak to you, you had dreams of what your life might be like when you grew up. Working a farm like your parents did, with a wife beside you and a son of your own - a strong, fair-haired boy who would dance towards the future in the way of all children. Could you tell her about that? It wouldn't mean anything to her. She's the Philosophers' child: she never dreamed little things like that. In the core of the dream lies a more understandable regret, and what you think you will say is, "I've never loved someone." But there beside her - you with your head on your knees and she lying on the earth with her hair unbound, her presence smelling of salt and smoke and mingling with your own like sunshine behind the clouds - you know that would be a lie. A euphemism for what it is that you've never done.
You don't have a name for it. You've never been there, so how could you? You can only use the name for where you are now. The name of the empty space between the space where you sit and the space where she sits.
"I'm a virgin."
You're not ashamed. Just sad.
She laughs. She's not mocking you. Maybe it's an 'I thought so' laugh, or an 'I never guessed' laugh, or a 'You're so young' laugh. You can't hear the thoughts of the living. Only their words. "What, is that your only regret?"
You're about to say 'No,' but then her hand finds your leg, in the dark, finds the place where your cheekbone rests on your kneecap and strokes it with a rough and definite touch, and you realise it wasn't a question, but an offer. You clasp her hand, and hold it against your face.
Maybe she can feel the breaths gulping hard in your throat. You feel hot with the rush of your heartbeat, so hard it's pummelling your dreams into dust. This isn't what was meant to be. You had longed for a wedding night, cosy comfort and God's smile on you both. Not this empty, starlit place you're going to die in.
She's sitting up and pushing your spectacles up into your hair, framing your face with her hands, and they smell of oil and dry earth, and even she isn't sure about what you'll do next. This is the edge, and you must either stop here forever or dive over it into the vastness beyond.
You'll die without ever marrying, and this is the woman who'll never be your wife.
You kiss her.
You're damp-eyed and your heart brims with mourning for everything the two of you will never have, and her lips are soft and warm and feverishly insistent, tasting of tobacco and blood and water. The feeling in your heart is like spilt tears, flowing into every extremity, and your fingers are suddenly so alive that the feel of her hair in your fingers is like touching her with your soul. You're too hot and too sensitive, pulling off her bandanna and feeling the skin of her brow, so young and alive and her that you can do it. You can empty your cup on the ground and live with nothing to lose. You can be like her, giving your all, ready to die.
Your hands drop to her shoulders, shift down her back, because you're desperate to live and you don't know how much you dare. She's cupping your head from behind, stroking your neck, running her tongue over your lips, and it's like your blood is the river raging through your veins, scalding your flesh from the inside. You're gripping her waist, finding warm skin under folds of filthy cotton - and you never meant to but this is what she has offered, and you're holding her in hot hands and opening your mouth and her tongue is compelling you to lift your hands and -
You stop with your thumbs touching silk, and turn your head away from her lips. It's not right, and you don't know whether you're being a beast or you've been a fool. What was it worth, all those weeks of averting your eyes and treating her like a lady, if you've ended up sitting on the dirt with your hands on her breasts?
It was all one moment after another.
She's resting her head against yours, breathing into your neck, rising into your touch with every inhalation. When she speaks, it's to your bones and your rattling heart, not to you. "What would it take to make you happy?"
You answer without hesitating. "More time with you."
It's such a foolish answer, because if anything had ever been worth dying for -
You feel her lips curving against your neck. "This is our time."
She's kissing your throat and pulling at your too-hot clothing, letting night sting your skin, and it's like the whole universe has listened to your worries, and replied. You open her shirt and her bra with fumbling fingers, but every moment you spend touching her makes you feel a little more calm, until you're calm enough to realise that you're living what you barely dreamed of and that it's okay, and it's real, and that even if you die here you'll still have this moment. And your body - her hands are on your belt, and you'd tell her to slow down except you really don't want her to - your body wants this as much as your spirit does, or - her hands - more.
She only stops to get properly undressed, and you do too; she pulls you down onto the ground with her, touching you with restless hands, and you dare to do the same, running down her back, over her hips, touching firm places and soft, not quite believing what it is you're holding, but holding all the same.
Your cock is hard between her fingers, as if her touch is drawing all the blood from your heart towards her. You've never wanted anything so much. You want this more than you want to live.
She rolls you over on your back, untangling her legs from yours and moving to straddle your thighs. You look up at the stars, and she guides you inside her with one hand. She makes a no-sound, a hard-soft exhalation of breath that you know very well. She does it every time she kills.
You didn't know that it would feel so good.
You didn't know it was so simple. Not a matter of barren miles and high, forbidden walls, with the angels and saints keeping guard. It's just warmth and movement, as basic and profound as holding her hand.
And you are lying beside her in an undiscovered country, an arm around her shoulders, her fair head resting against your neck. Your hands are still passing over her, not exploring it but pacing out a circle the two of you have made, from firm shoulders to soft breasts, her heart dancing beneath her skin, her breath coming in warm murmurs that tickle you, like life itself is hissing over your chest.
She says your name, a name you could not possibly be feeling less. But it is what you are. And this is where you are.
You've found its name on the inside, written on her flesh and in the light in her eyes, the light you've always seen there and yet are now seeing as if for the first time. You can call love by its name and mean it.