“What’s immortan?” you ask Miss Giddy who looks sagely at the growing crowd. You stand by her side like a broken monument, chipped in places but still made of smooth stone. Her eyes are clouded with dust and knowledge.
“The only thing on which they agree.” she replies. White bugs with black-painted heads scuttle around the base of the citadel. They hold steering wheels above their heads and hoot and holler and bleed. You watch them go with a surge of unknown sadness.
“But what does it mean? I’ve never heard the word before.” and you know many words, the thought troubles you. “immortan,” you repeat, looking up at the skull-carved niche in the cliff face.
You can only make out his horse-teeth mask. His long, white hair hangs limply over his shoulders. He has a voice like a thunderclap, he speaks with surgical precision.
“It’s nonsense,” she says, less quietly. You’re surrounded by like-minded women. “he isn’t going to live forever.”
When you ask the War Boys what kamikrazee means, they go a little wild. They repeat it back to you with infant eyes as if that might help you understand. They seem sincere in their devotion, mad-driven by love and rage.
The grown men babble like babies about Valhalla. You haven’t the heart to correct their improper use of english. The children are more palatable, rebellious and less inclined to follow so much as they are to lead.
They find the words in your skin fascinating and it’s immediately clear that no one is teaching the pups to read. Some of the big ones know some things, remnants of schooling from their mothers and fathers but it’s not being passed on.
“Come here, precious.” you say to a little boy with black paint that’s slowly being lowered down his forehead. Day by day it’s chipped away as he draws closer to something that feels like the end of a quarter-life, not even half.
The pale freak behind him tries to do the restraining, six-foot tale and coated in scars and contrasting black. His charge is beyond his command and the little boy crosses the engine room to look at you.
“What are you?” he asks, sounding less accusatory and more curious. Children are less likely to criticize what they don’t understand, remarking with fear and interest.
“I am a history woman,” you reply, smiling for him. “the old lady who teaches the wives also teaches me.” the little boy looks at the writing on your legs and fingers. it flows up to your hands and wrists and arms. You’re not saturated in prose as Miss Giddy is, but what’s there speaks of a promise. Some day.
“What are you doing? We’re tryin’ to teach things.” another voice says, this one belongs to the man who tried to hold the boy back. You lift your head, defiant. You like the engine room, the dust blows hard and stings your face and eyes. It makes you feel alive.
If you’d known, if you could have known you might have picked up your paper and knife. You might have left. Instead you raise your voice above the howl of the wind and the scrape of an electric saw.
“I am teaching, too.” you say. The man comes barrelling forth, all evil-looking and painted like death. He’s strong, an outlier. His mouth is contorted up into a smile you initially think. It’s only when he gets close that you realize the smile is one drawn by a knife, one he has no control over.
He looks as if he’s about to say something cruel. You watch his tongue coil like a snake around a biting phrase. The sight of you up-close is startling enough to give him pause. He stares at the words your inking into your exposed thigh.
“Read it to me.” he barks like a dog, frothing at the mouth. Poe spoke of a vulture’s eye and you see it in him, on the left side of his skull. It’s rimmed an angry red that raises in you a shudder. You look down at the fresh ink.
“Sound it out,” you retort. You try to mimic him but something inside you rebels against his entitled tone. “are you good with your letters?”
The pups, the rest of them have followed in his footsteps and your friend is now surrounded by others. They snicker, divided down the middle. Some laugh at you, others at him. He swats at a boy’s pale-and-black-painted head, looking annoyed at him and you.
“Do I look stupid?” he hisses. “I’m not stupid.”
“Really? Good then that I didn’t ask.” you drop your eyes and carve a little e next to its twin. He snarls above you. “I asked if you know your alphabet. I won’t read it to you, you have to sound it out to me.”
“Stupid.” he mumbles. You shrug. He turns to the pups surrounding him, four boys with wondrous gazes. None of them have his vulture eye. “Beat it, I’m older. I’m gonna talk to her.”
They scatter without a second thought, likely to find more older boys to cling to. Your heart aches at that, that their only companionship is so poisoned at its core. At least they have some guidance, at least they aren’t ripped away from parents to live alone.
“I,” he says, pointing to your thigh. He sits down across from you, nearly jabs your raised skin and you smack away his hand. You brandish your knife as if threatening to cut him with it.
“Say it, snake.” you say, danger in your tone. “Don’t touch me.” he wrinkles his nose.
“Slit.” he rumbles like an engine. Is that his name? Unfortunate. “It says I, that’s all.” at least he retracts his hand.
“Correct.” you say. He lights up into a mockery of a smile.
“Didn’t have to tell me that, I know it’s right.”
“Go on.” he pronounces the next word, would like woo-uhld. You shake your head minutely. “Would.” you repeat.
“Wood? Doesn’t that have two os’?” you nod. “Then what’s that upside-down n doing there?”
“That’s the letter u.” you say. You begin to write the rest of the sentence. He follows closely.
“What’s it doing in wood,” he begins. You shrug. “if you say it just like that, why do you need two words?”
“To differentiate the material from a statement of intention. Keep reading, you’ll understand.”
“I understand already.” he growls, but does as you tell him. “Kay now.” he sighs.
“Know.” you correct.
“Don’t tell me no. How do you say it if you’re so smart?” he exclaims. You look up at him and for the first time, something similar to a smile stretches out on your mouth. He finds it enraging. “What’s so funny?”
“Not ‘no’, Slit.” you say. “Know. Like I know you can keep reading. Taking it word by word is getting too close to them. It’s better to read things by sentence.” he shakes his head.
“Can’t read that fast, I got better things to do.” he says. You nod.
“But you can learn. You’re doing well.” positive reinforcement, Miss Giddy used the same techniques on you.
“Of. That’s easy.” he says, he sounds proud. Your smile comes back despite your determination to be annoyed.
“Good. What would you know of?”
“The e?” you incline your head.
“Close. Thee.” he furrows his brow.
“What does that mean?”
“It’s an archaic term,” he cuts you off with a glare. “Archaic means outdated, old. Older than the whole poem, sometimes.” he looks confused but is unwilling to understand any more than what he seems determined to learn. A sentence in a whole stanza is his fixation. “Thee means you. I would know of you.”
“What does it mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then why bother?”
“Because one day, someone else might know. It needs to survive that long.”
“Who wrote it? Do you at least know that?” you look down to the torn and rotten scrap of paper that tells you exactly a fraction of the whole.
“Someone named Delaire.” you reply, although you’re not sure.
“Never heard of him.” you shrug. Has he heard of many writers? You decline to ask.
“I have. He writes nice poems.” Slit seems momentarily uncomfortable.
“Do the words make sense when they all come together like that?” he points at your thigh instead of the paper. You smile again, timidly.
“You want me to read you the whole thing? It still won’t make much sense. We only have a little bit of it.” he notices your use of we but seems to pocket it instead of casting it aside with a huff.
“You said it’s nice. I want to hear it.” you shrug. You point out on your thigh what comes before, it has already been scrawled in tiny letters.
“And, thinking he would find some fault he whispered “I would know of thee. Among the many lovely things that make the magic of her face…” you finish, reading slowly but it still isn’t enough for him.
“That’s it?” Slit sounds disappointed, but not in what you have said.
“I know,” you begin and his glaring eyes dart up from your naked thigh. There is empathy in your voice, honest understanding. “I want more, too. It’s so sad that it’s gone.” he furrows his brow.
“Huh.” he mumbles instead of replying, of giving your observations a conclusive response.
“But do you see why I write it down now?” you ask. He gives a shrug. “Wouldn’t you rather have that than nothing?”
The rage in him seems quelled by action that is inherently non-violent. His fingers still twitch as he sits on the ground. He doesn’t kick up the dirt around you and snarl for blood. War Boys are mindless beings, are they not? You think to the wives in the vault who need Giddy’s teaching so desperately.
You look at a victim, a grown man with infantile and feverish lust for war. Battle fodder, you remember one of them saying. Living, breathing bullets fired from a car-shaped gun. Your heart sinks.
“Maybe. Don’t know.” he says after a time. “I just want to know what it means.”
That shocks you, just a bit. It shocks him too, it seems and he looks down at your legs. He’s trying to puzzle his way through what else is written there. You wonder if any of it is familiar to him.
“What do you think it means?” you counter.
“How should I know? I don’t know history.” you raise a brow. Who taught him to think so dependently? As if you have to guess.
“You can still have an interpretation. That’s what poems are about. Delaire’s been dead for centuries, and he can’t tell us what he meant.” something in Slit’s disturbed mind finds that interesting.
“Is that how all words work? They mean what you want?” you shake your head.
“Not all, but this. You should have an opinion on this.” he hesitates for a moment, eyes darting. He’s a dangerous man, an entitled one with deep hatred in him. You almost flinch when he finally speaks.
“What do you think?” he asks instead of laying on his own thoughts. You frown.
“You care what I think?” you ask in turn. You are withholding information and it makes him angry. He sneers.
“I asked, didn’t I?” he says, a sharp edge to his voice again. Your lift an eyebrow. “You can read it all, tell me what you think it means.”
“Someone’s speaking to— someone. The narrator.” you say. “Someone wants to know what he thinks of someone else. A woman, perhaps.” there’s confidence in your voice. Miss Giddy’s read more Delaire, she’s heard your thoughts and given you the soft look of disagreement. She has her own ideas but won’t silence yours.
“Woman?” Slit huffs. You nod.
“See? The magic of her face.” he wrinkles his nose.
“Doesn’t make any sense to me,” you give him a tired look. “how can a face be magic?” he defends.
“I think it means he likes her.” you say with a lilt to your voice that makes Slit uncomfortable. He has no idea why he’s still sitting here, watching you waste your time when he could be working on that faulty engine.
The other War Boys watch him with something like curiosity. He’s not the strongest, he struggles with being noticed just the same as anyone else. But he’s the most stubborn, and the history woman has him pinned down with the sharp point of his own curiosity. It’s a marvel.
“When you like someone, don’t you exaggerate just a bit?” he surprises you with his understanding of the word exaggerate. Poor Slit, setting your expectations so low.
“No.” he says, plainly. “I tell them they’re shit.” you incline your head just a bit. Your smile comes back but he hates it a little less.
“Why?” you counter.
“So they get better.” he says, a note of finality in his voice.
“Sounds confusing.” you say, reaching for your paper. All that’s left to do is write the writer’s name beneath the sentence fragment. Slit seems to find that hilarious. His face cracks in a grin that must be painful.
He stands, boots scraping the ground. He laughs, it’s a harsh sound.
“Yeah? So do you.” he walks away, but he can’t shake the sense that you’re the one leaving him in the dust.