Buhle dipped her oar into the Lagoon. Ripples spread out across the surface, distorting the once prosperous city that lay beneath the water. It had been called Cape Town, but that was before the ocean invaded the land, before the world went mad and before humankind changed. Now it was simply the Lagoon: a place where life flourished above the water and memories twisted in the currents far below. It was those memories Buhle sought. It was those memories that all Salvagers sought. At least, it was that curiosity and desire for something more that first drove them to join the salvaging crews. But time and failure weathered the spirit. Many gave up. They returned to their homes, ready to forget, to become respectable members of society once more. Others simply salvaged for the raw materials their people could use and forgot the dream. They stopped believing that technology could be recovered. It had drowned along with their ancestors.
Water swirled and pressed against the wood of Buhle’s oar. She pulled back, feeling the pressure of the oar’s passage. She felt it through her skin, muscle, bone. She felt it pressing against her spirit, that pushing, suffocating sense that the water had nothing to give. The water could not answer her dreams. It was a terrifying feeling, but the more time she spent below the surface, the more time she spent staring at the strange lines of circuitry, unable to decipher their secrets, unable to bring them back to life, the more it felt like truth. The Lagoon could not answer her dreams.
But it had not crushed them.
Buhle’s gaze drifted toward the distant foothills and the flat-top mountain that rose from them. Even from this distance, she could see the pristine white walls stretching across the summit. The people that lived atop the mountain -the Table- had secrets. At night the mountain glowed with yellow dots, like stars dropped from the sky. The lights did not flicker or dance. They remained chained in place, perfectly still and obedient. The lights on the Table did not burn like fire.
The Table did not share its secrets. Because secrets were power.
To leave the Lagoon, to step onto dry land and enter those foothills meant slavery. It meant torture. Death. Children were taught from a young age never to leave the water, but The Table had secrets, and as far as Buhle could see, the Lagoon had only ghosts.
A soft croak pulled Buhle from her thoughts. She gently rested her cheek against the toad perched on her shoulder and smiled faintly.
“Ah Buddy. You’re right of course, one battle at a time.”
They sat like that for a moment, the toad croaking a soft, almost purring melody and Buhle breathing in the contact like it was a drug. Then her village came into view, and the spell broke.
Thick concrete squares pushed up and out of The Lagoon. They were the last surviving remnants of Cape Town: the top-most stories of high-rise buildings standing defiant against the water. Coloured cloth fluttered on balconies, and everywhere was the activity of people. Men and women gutting fish, children running about and playing in the water. Still others pushing off in canoes to go hunt or fish. Floating walkways had been constructed between the buildings, and the rooftops served as common areas for people to gather. The high-rises made for easy homes -many villages such as this one existed across the Lagoon. Buhle took in a deep breath as she steered toward the docks. This visit was a farewell. She couldn’t tell her family that, wouldn’t tell them her plans, but she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving without one last chance to be with them. One more day of laughter with her brothers, one last chance to be wrapped tight within Goggo’s warm embrace…
But they would have to forgive Buhle first.
Buhle looked up and smiled, the tension easing slightly as she marveled at the ridiculous enthusiasm Wezi could muster for waving. Nathi did not show the same outward excitement, but he was smiling broadly.
“Molweni, my brothers!”
Wezi leaned over to grab the canoe, mooring rope already in hand. He spoke as he worked, every action a vibrant release of energy, “Goggo will be so happy to see you! She has been asking, -and when will that little one that makes all the trouble be coming again?- Goggo makes like life is boring with just me and Nathi at home.”
Wezi’s words should have felt soft, a laughter in the breeze, but they burrowed into Buhle’s chest and held fast. She stood up, her muscles feeling as if they had been replaced with solid stone, and heaved herself onto the jetty. Wezi bounded forward, arms wide to hug his little sister, but then he paused. He stared at the toad on Buhle’s shoulder.
“You have been making trouble.”
Buhle curled into herself. Her eyes stung with the promise of tears.
“Yeah… but… I can still get a hug, can’t I?”
Buhle choked on the silence that followed. Out of all of them, she had told herself, at least Wezi would understand. Now she stood before him, broken and exposed, as he contemplated her with a deep intensity he rarely allowed people to see. Buhle turned back toward her canoe.
“If you… If you think I should go…”
“Oh no… no, Boo, of course you can still get a hug. Hey, it’s okay. You’re still my little sister.”
Wezi wrapped his arms around Buhle and pulled her in tight, switching effortlessly from manic playmate to protective big brother. Buhle nestled into his warmth and allowed a few tears to escape. The hug was over too soon, but when Buhle pulled back, she saw Nathi was already on his way to the apartment. A whimper escaped her.
Wezi wrapped an arm around Buhle’s shoulder.
“It will be better if Goggo has a few moments to prepare. This won’t be easy for her.”
And Buhle did know, but it still stung. Nathi didn’t wait to say hello. He didn’t even give her a chance, he just… left.
“C’mon, let me take your bag.”
Buhle handed her belongings to Wezi and started walking. Her muscles were twitching. This was hard. This was so much harder than she had ever imagined it to be.
“Hey,” Wezi said gently. “It’s going to be alright, you’ll see. Goggo will find a way to blame me and Nathi. You know how it is.”
Wezi’s voice suddenly erupted into a terrible imitation of Goggo. “You call yourself big brothers? Hai! You let my granddaughter run off with a Salvaging Crew! My granddaughter! Of course something like this would happen! You are a disgrace as brothers! Disgrace!”
Buhle couldn’t help but let a smile cross her lips, “You let me run away, huh?”
“Of course. You couldn’t possibly do anything without first obtaining our brotherly approval.”
“And do you approve?”
There were several beats of silence. Then Wezi said, “I understand.”
Buhle grabbed onto those words, simple yet layered with so much meaning, and held tight. No matter what happened, Wezi would always be waiting on the other side of it. Wezi would be her beacon in the darkness.
Buhle blinked and found herself barely an arm’s length from Goggo. She wanted to throw her arms around the old woman. She wanted to confess and cry and have all her sins washed away in soothing lullabies, but that look on Goggo’s face…
Goggo stretched her hand out toward Buhle, but jerked it back with a cry. She brought both hands up to her chest, fisting them in her clothing. Tears gathered in her eyes, and her voice broke on a single word,
Buhle looked at her grandmother. There was no pride shining in her eyes, no warmth, no love. Only the hurt and the shock and confusion that Buhle had caused. Buhle didn’t know how to process it. Goggo, her Goggo, in so much pain because of her.
“I… it.. it was an accident. I didn’t mean for…”
Buhle hadn’t meant to lie, but the look in Goggo’s eyes broke her, and the words tumbled out. There was always talk of spontaneous bondings. No one could actually confirm the phenomenon existed, but the first familiar pairs could not have been deliberate, and so the theory remained valid. Her lie was plausible.
Buhle took a deep breath. It had taken months of careful study and planning. She had spent hours talking to the Bonded, finding out the strengths and weaknesses of their familiars. She had been exhaustive in her quest to know how the bond was formed and all the nuances that came with being Bonded. And then she had made her decision and gone out to find her toad. What she hadn’t spent enough time considering was the impact it would have on Goggo. Truth be told, no amount of time spent considering her family would have changed her mind. Even now, standing in the midst of the pain, she knew she would not hesitate to make the same decision. And so Buhle told them a story as close to the truth as she could allow.
“I was salvaging near the marshes. My mind was elsewhere. I wasn’t concentrating on what my hands were doing… I… I touched a toad and it just… it felt warm. I fell into the warmth… I didn’t think to pull back. I hadn’t realised… and then… ”
Goggo was shaking.
“No! I can’t do this. I can’t… Buhle? Buhle! No!”
Goggo turned away from Buhle and stormed into the apartment block. Nathi ran after her. Buhle stumbled back. She stared at the door. Just a few weeks back, that door had offered her sanctuary and a place to belong. Now they were barriers keeping her out. Now she was the one her family needed sanctuary from.
“I’m going to go sit on the roof,” she told Wezi. “Go to Goggo. She needs you.”
“Are you sure, Buhle? I can stay with you.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Wezi nodded once. “I’ll come find you once she’s calmed down.” And then he disappeared behind that now impenetrable barrier.
It was Nathi who found Buhle perched on the edge of the roof. The sun was setting across the Lagoon, and the chorus of night bugs just beginning. He took a seat beside Buhle. The two of them sat there, legs dangling off the side, watching the world turn orange. When he finally spoke, his words misted over with emotion.
“Mom used to have a toad. It was a leopard like yours. She called him Spudge.”
“Mom… mom’s familiar was a leopard toad?”
“Ah Boo, the picture you painted today. You look so much like her and then… and then you have this toad on your shoulder…”
“No wonder Goggo freaked out as much as she did…”
Buhle wiped away a tear. She had been young when their parents had died-barely walking. Goggo had spun fairy tales of their lives, but she had avoided talking about their deaths. Familiars were to blame, that was all Buhle was told.
“How did they die?”
Nathi shuddered. “It was a lake gull. It came out of nowhere and snatched Spudge. Dad had a gull as his familiar, and he sent it after the one that had got Spudge, but something went wrong. They flew into this huge flock, and soon all the gulls where snatching for Spudge. Dad’s gull didn’t stand a chance, but he tried to fight them all. Mom was screaming on the floor and then dad was crashing down beside her and… well… Uncle Themb, he -he always said that was no normal gull, that someone sent a familiar to snatch Spudge… but…”
“Why would someone want mom dead?”
Their deaths had been brutal. No wonder Goggo didn’t want to talk about it. Buhle had come home with a toad and dredged up all of those memories. A toad, just like her mother’s. Goggo had looked at Buhle and seen the ghost of her deceased daughter. Maybe if they had told Buhle… maybe if they had been more open…
No. Buhle would still have chosen to take a familiar. Her parents’ story was not the first she had heard. It was not new information. It happened, it was a risk, but it was rare. And that was the thing about being bonded. It was a two way street. The creature to whom you bonded gave you powers, but in return you gave it your life. You were forever tied and, anything that happened to your familiar happened to you too.
“I’m sorry,” Buhle whispered.
Nathi shook his head. “I always thought that one day you would come home like this. Deep down, I think Goggo has always known too. You’re restless. Always searching for something more. It was always going to happen.”
“Will she forgive me?”
“I don’t know. But she will feed you. Are you ready to go down?”
Buhle nodded. She would eat, and she would sleep, and maybe she would catch a glimpse of light in Goggo’s eyes.
The oar felt heavy in the water now. Buhle let it drag as tears fell freely down her cheeks. The village was behind her, nothing more than a few smudged blocks on the horizon. Before her, a cluster of canoes waited. Buhle felt broken. Broken and stupid and entirely unprepared. One last day to spend with her family, she had thought, one last day to recharge, and then she would be ready. But the day had left her broken. Dinner had been suffocating. Every time Buhle had tried to explain herself or talk about familiars, Goggo would look toward her. Goggo’s eyes would bore into her and tear little pieces of her heart until it felt like only ribbons remained. You hurt me, those eyes said. You knew that this would hurt me, and yet you did it.
Buhle had not been able to sleep. In the morning, she had chosen to pack her canoe and be on her way, forgoing her original plan to stay for lunch. Wezi and Nathi had hugged her fiercely, making sure she promised to stay longer next time. Goggo had watched it all and finally, when it was all done, she had approached her granddaughter. Buhle had stepped forward, she had tried to embrace Goggo, but Goggo had stepped back, her head shaking.
“I will always love you Buhle, but I need time. Your choice brings out my darkest memories, and you lied when I asked you why. I’m sorry, Buhle. I need time.”
The words sunk into Buhle. She was leaving the water, but her ghosts would be coming too.
Donna curled her fingers over the handle bar and pushed, her knuckles white against wrinkled skin. She heaved with all the strength her eighty-three-year-old body could muster. The shopping trolley groaned, but it remained rooted to the sidewalk.
“Oh bugger that!”
Donna kicked at the back wheel lodged in a crack. A crack that was proving itself a worthy opponent in an unsanctioned duel. Donna huffed ,and with hands on bony hips, she scanned her surroundings.
The hazy noise of traffic swam through the air, and everywhere she looked, people moved. This one hurrying to a meeting, his briefcase swinging in a dangerous rhythm. That one talking on her phone as if every word coming from her mouth was the most pressing. All of them milling about like busy ants. All of them the same and none of them willing to stop and help an old lady out.
“Not this old lady.”
Donna surveyed her trolley again. Thick blankets bulged out of the top, her worldly possessions tucked safely beneath them. She had some freshly scavenged groceries in one corner, and an assortment of pots and pans were tied securely to the trolley’s sides. They clanged as she went about her day. Donna liked that. She called it her music. By all accounts it was a lot more pleasant than that drivel people listened to these days. But until Donna could get her trolley free, she would not be listening to her music.
Donna squatted beside the trolley and wrapped her hands around the frame. If she wanted the trolley free, she would have to lift it. The trolley was heavy and Donna old, but she couldn’t see any other way. She, like the people flowing around her, had a very busy and very important day ahead of her. Donna flexed her fingers, tightened her grip and lifted. That is to say, she tried to lift the trolley. There was a brief moment where the wheel hovered above the crack, but then the trolley thunked back down and Donna’s breathe wheezed out.
“Excuse me, ma’am, let me help you with that.”
Donna looked up at one of those “Tech” people. They were easy to spot in a sea of suits and ties. Their casual clothing stood out like one great big middle finger to the status quo. Donna had no idea what they actually did, but the world was changing faster than she could keep up, and they had something to do with it.
The Tech guy shuffled to the front of the trolley, and Donna got out of his way. In a matter of seconds, he had the trolley free and standing on smooth sidewalk once more.
“Thank-you,” Donna said. “I don’t know what I would have done without you. It’s my anniversary today. I’m going to the park to have lunch with my husband.”
The words gushed out of Donna. They always did when someone looked at her like she was a real person. Donna was so used to being glanced over, or stared at like she was some kind of incurable disease, that when someone showed her a thread of dignity, she grappled for a connection. She wanted to feel seen, and she would do anything to hold onto that feeling for just a little bit longer.
“Well congratulations,” the Tech guy said. He reached into his wallet and drew out a five-dollar note. “Here. Its not much, but happy anniversary. Get something good for dessert.”
Donna could feel the tears gathering as she took the money and hugged it close. “Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you. John likes those cookies with the jam in the middle. I’ll get some of those.”
“That’s a great choice.” The Tech guy smiled. “Well, enjoy your meal. Your husband is a lucky man.”
Donna smiled, and the Tech guy left. Just like that, she was invisible again, but her heart was lighter than it had been moments before.
Donna got behind her trolley and pushed it down the street. The park John loved best was not far. There were lots of trees and a beautiful pond where people would come to feed the ducks. John liked ducks. Aa messy kind of elegant, he’d say. Not show-offy like the swans or scavenging rats like the pigeons. They got the balance right. They reminded him of Donna. Donna wasn’t so sure she liked being thought of as a duck, but she liked the idea of messy elegance, and so she let John tell her she was like a duck and married him all the same. It wasn’t a fault that John chose such strange ways to compare things. He tried, Donna knew what he meant. That was all that really mattered.
Donna could see the park now, but first, she needed to stop and get the cookies. She turned down a side street and made her way toward a petrol station. Petrol stations were usually more expensive than grocery stores, but they would let Donna buy stuff without hassling her. Grocery store staff got real antsy when she walked in. They would try to usher her out quick as possible, using their bodies as shields to hide her scruffy form from other shoppers. It didn’t matter to them that she had money. She lived a different kind of life, an unacceptable kind of life, and for that she couldn’t be trusted. It was ridiculous. Donna had never stolen or done any sort of dishonest thing in her life. She certainly couldn’t say the same for some of those fancy rich folk that got to do whatever they damn well pleased. Donna shook her head. It was better to pay a little extra for the cookies.
True to form, the petrol station cashier barely gave Donna a second glance. The cookies were bought and paid for, and Donna left the store happy to have been treated like a regular person. She pointed her trolley toward the park and clanged her way down the sidewalk.
Donna had set up her picnic blanket beside the pond. Ducks waddled about the perimeter, their beady little eyes on the meager spread. Donna’s excitable chatter rose above their quacking, “The bread buns are a little stale, but they’re still good. And you have to try the apples. They’re only a little bit bruised, but so very sweet.”
She smiled at her husband. “I met a nice young man today. He helped me when my trolley got stuck. And he gave me money to buy the cookies. They’re the ones with the jam in the middle. He said you’re a very lucky man to have me.”
Donna leaned over. She brushed her fingers against the faded photograph that sat opposite to her. The man in the picture was a much younger John than Donna could truly recall, but when she propped the picture up against a rock like that, it still felt like John was looking at her.
“I think I’m the lucky one,” Donna whispered. “With you by my side, I was never invisible.”
Thell arched her wings too late. The slight updraft that should have slowed her fall didn’t come. Her feet smacked into the rough brick and she flung forward. She threw her hands out, pumped her wings furiously, and grappled with her boots for solid purchase. The words streaming from her mouth matched her limbs in their inelegance. In one final thrust of her wings, Thell came to a standstill.
Congratulations cupcake, A+ landing!
Thell closed her eyes, took a deep breath and sighed it out. She meant for it to calm her nerves, but really, nothing would do the trick today. She was exhausted and angry and that damn gash in her bicep wouldn’t stop throbbing. This ridiculous excuse for a landing hadn’t helped matters; Thell could feel fresh blood welling up beneath her makeshift bandage, and she wasn’t sure how much longer it would hold up, but that was a problem for later. She took in another deep breath and sighed.
Why felines had such a vendetta against fairies, Thell did not know, but she wished they would get over it already.
Or maybe they could all just fall over and die.
Thell took a moment to register the morbid nature of the thought. She was meditating, was supposed to be finding her calm center, but honestly, it felt like a waste of time. Thell had never been particularly good at meditation and on a day like today she wasn’t even sure she had any calm to find. Maybe murderous thoughts would serve her better for the task at hand. She wasn’t going to be facing off against cats this time, but murderous was murderous, and Thell would take what she could get.
Thell opened her eyes.
She had landed on a window ledge. The grime buildup was many years old and a musty smell permeated the stone. A thick stench rose up from a dumpster in the alley below. That was Thell’s target. She had visited a lot of dumpsters today, but unlike the others, this bin was devoid of life. A black and white feather sat atop the lid.
Fairies had not been displaced when humans set up their towns. They had adapted to urban life quickly and it soon gave rise to a new profession. Those known as Divers made their livelihood digging through human garbage and selling their wares at Market. It was dirty work and dangerous. The profession attracted fairies out on their luck, willing to get dirty, to take the risks, and to shoulder the prejudice of the wealthier Fae. Because it also attracted the worst kind, diving encouraged the formation of gangs, mob bosses and underground dealings. Thell had firsthand knowledge; she used to be a Diver.
Used to, Thell. You got out of this life, remember?
Thell gave the feather one more look before craning her neck to survey what little of the roof she could see. No Magpies, but they wouldn’t be in plain sight. That feather was a challenge. The Magpie pair had long ago claimed this dumpster as their own and no rodent, bird nor fairy would dare take from it. Thell inched as close to the ledge as she could and stretched her neck out just a little bit further; a bit of sky dusted with afternoon orange, but nothing else. Thell backed into the cover of the window ledge.
They were probably watching her, their beady eyes glinting in anticipation.
“You don’t have to do this Thell.”
The words rung hollow. Taking on the Magpies was as good as signing her own death certificate, but this dumpster was her last hope. If she came away empty handed she could wave her new life goodbye. A new life that was starting to look horribly similar to her old life…
Thell knelt down, and taking dirt from the ledge, muddied up her wings; their iridescent nature was as good as yelling “I’m here! Eat Me!”
Thell looked at her reflection in the window. The doll’s clothes were dirty and bloodstained. Her face was a mess of sweat and grime. This was not how a house servant was supposed to look.
But non of the other house servants had ever been Divers.
Thell had thought that Madame Hersh hired her despite her background as a Diver, but it was becoming perfectly clear that Thell had been hired exactly because she had been a Diver.
Madame Hersh had a strong craving for human things. She was a powerful fairy and she did not take kindly to failure.
If I fail…
Thell had accepted that morning’s shopping list knowing her maid’s uniform would need to be put aside for the Diver’s. Three items on the list had not been available at Market; better odds than Thell had hoped for. The first two items had been challenging, but doable. The last item, Thell muttered it like a curse word: “Organic, pasture-raised Camembert.”
The Magpie dumpster belonged to an eco-conscious, French Restaurant. If the Camembert was anywhere, it was here.
Thell took a steadying breath. She stepped from the ledge and dropped. At the last second, her wings flared out; Thell’s feet were feathers on the ground. She dashed across the alley, careened around the dumpster and slammed hard into the back of it. Her heart beat furiously; her fists clenched tight against dagger hilts.
Thell peered around the dumpster. The alley was as silent as before.
Damn those Magpie! Where were they?
Thell pulled a ball of fairy light from her pocket. It rose and came to a rest beside her shoulder. She turned to face the dumpster. It was overfull and the lid hovered, leaving an easy entrance.
Thell swallowed her fear and rose; in a matter of seconds she was through the gap and wading knee deep in half eaten croissant. The aroma of soured food stung her. Garnish, baguette, snails, and then… there it was. The silver wrapping sparkled in the fairy light. Thell waded closer. She blinked once, twice, but the words remained: Organic, pasture-raised Camembert.
That was too easy.
Thell sniffed the cheese; pungent, but fresh.
Much too easy.
A chill ran up Thell’s spine. She shook it off. Fairies did not need much and soon Thell had scraped together a fist sized ball and wrapped it in a corner of foil. She tucked it in her pocket and turned. A shadow passed over the exit.
Thell extinguished the fairy light. The shadow passed over once more, slow and taunting. Cautiously, Thell made her way toward the exit, stopping just short of the light. She crouched behind a wilted lettuce leaf and waited. Minutes passed. Thell waited. An eternity.
And then her moment came. A beady eye peered through the gap. Thell launched herself forward, pulling her twin daggers free as she sprang. The blades landed first, a meaty squelch and caw of alarm. Thell slammed into feathers. Black wings flapped. Thell was flung sideways. She gripped her daggers and pulled them free with a “PLOP”. Blood gushed from the socket. The Magpie screamed in fresh anguish. Thrashing feathers blocked the exit. Thell tucked her wings tight to her body. She ran and arrowed into the mass. With a screech and tumble she was out of the dumpster and falling. She crashed to the ground, landing on her bad arm. Thell cried out and rolled. She was barely on her feet when a beak slammed down. The second Magpie. Thell had barely evaded the attack when it came again. She sidestepped, but a taloned claw was waiting and caught her wing. Its tear was audible.
Thell flapped her wings. She tried to rise, but the pain swallowed her. The Magpie was advancing, slowly now. It had already won.
Human noise blared into the alley, Thell turned. The kitchen door had swung open and a busboy was hauling out garbage. Thell stumbled toward the door. The promise of freedom filled her with adrenaline. She flapped, lifted. The door was waiting. The Magpie shrieked. Thell whimpered and pushed on. The Magpie threw itself after her. Thell cried. She was so close…
A sudden blending of yells and caws made Thell pause. She glanced over her shoulder and laughed, the Magpie had collided with the busboy.
Thell took a moment to savour the sound of victory before stumbling to safety.
Dusk was settling across Heritage Park when Thell finally arrived back at the Mansion. She deposited her goods in the kitchen and was just making her way down the hall, dreaming of the very long, hot bath she was about to have, when Madame Hersh’s voice drifted in from the living room,
“…how embarrassing. If I hadn’t heard from Toyanne this morning… Camembert is so last season. It’s all about the Chèvre now, goats milk you know.”