Starhawk’s “The Fifth Sacred Thing”
In The Fifth Sacred Thing (1994), Starhawk describes an ideal culture that’s developed in the near future in San Francisco and the surrounding area. It values “four sacred things: air, fire, water, and earth. To call these things sacred is to say that they have a value beyond their usefulness for human ends, that they themselves become the standards by which our acts, our economics, our laws, and our purposes must be judged. No one has the right to appropriate them or profit from them at the expense of others. Any government that fails to protect them forfeits its legitimacy. All people, all living things, are also sacred. No one of us stands higher or lower than any other. Only justice can assure balance: only ecological balance can sustain freedom. Only in freedom can that fifth sacred thing we call spirit flourish in its full diversity. To honor the sacred is to create conditions in which nourishment, sustenance, habitat, knowledge, freedom, and beauty can thrive. To honor the sacred is to make love possible. To this we dedicate our curiosity, our will, our courage, our silences, and our voices. To this we dedicate our lives.”
The book opens with an old woman named Maya viewing the city from the top of a hill. “The city was a place of riotous flowers, climbing vines, and trees, boughs heavy with ripening fruit. You’d think we had plenty of everything – plenty of land, plenty of water, but we’ve simply learned how not to waste, how to use and reuse every drop, how to feed chickens on weeds and ducks on snails and let worms eat the garbage. We’ve become such artists of unwaste we can almost compensate for the damage…if we don’t think about the bodies in mass graves over the East Bay hills, if we ignore the Stewards’ armies that may be gathering just over the border. We chose food over weapons, so here we sit, lovely but unarmed.” (The Stewards Maya refers to are the leaders of the dystopian “power-over” state to the south, which has continued to develop as our own society might, left unchecked.)
Madrone, granddaughter of Maya’s dead lover Johanna, is wondering where her teenage lover, Bird, is. “Nobody had seen him for almost ten years, since the big epidemic when he went off with three friends and disappeared deep in the Stewards’ territory.” She joins Maya on the hillside, “dotted with shrines to goddesses and gods, ancestors and spirits…Up here, the sun was welcomed at dawn on the Winter Solstice, the shofar was blown to announce the Jewish New Year, gospel music was sung on Easter morning, the call to prayer was chanted five times a day, and at almost any time of day or night someone sat in silent meditation.”
As she prepares to give the invocation for this day’s holiday ritual, Maya wonders,
“‘What is this worth if we can’t preserve it?’ The drums began to beat in a trance rhythm, steady but slightly syncopated, to lead the mind and then shift it. Maya spoke: ‘Este es El Tiempo de la Segadora, the Time of the Reaper, she who is the end inherent in the beginning, scythe to the grain, the Crone, Goddess of the Harvest. In this her season, the harvest begins, and we reap what we’ve sown. The Crone, the Reaper, isn’t an easy goddess to love. She’s not the nurturing Mother or the Maiden, light and free – not pretty, not shiny like the full or crescent moon. She’s the dark moon, what you don’t see coming at you, what you don’t get away with – chance, you could say, or, what’s scarier still: the intersection of chance with past choices and actions. The brush that’s tinder dry from decades of drought, the warming of the earth’s climate that sends the storms north, the hole in the ozone layer. Not punishment, not even justice, but consequence.
This moon brings fire season: a time of hope and danger. We watch the dry hills anxiously, knowing the rains are weeks or months away. We hope for a harvest, we pray for rain, but nothing is certain. We say that the harvest will only be abundant if the crops are shared, that the rains won’t come unless water is conserved, shared, and respected. We believe we can continue to live and thrive only if we care for one another. This is the age of the Reaper, when we inherit 5,000 years of postponed results, the fruits of our callousness toward the earth and other human beings. But at last we’ve come to understand that we are part of the earth, part of the air, the fire, and the water, as we are part of one another. We’ve had two blessed decades to remake our corner of the world, to live by what we believe. Today is the 20th anniversary of the Uprising. I’ve been asked to tell you the story of Las Cuatro Viejas, the Four Old Women who sparked the rebellion in ’28  when the Stewards canceled the elections and declared martial law.
Down below the slopes of this hill, lived Maria Elena Gomez Garcia, whose grandmother grew fruit trees in the back yard from peach and avocado pits. While the Stewards’ troops were massing on the peninsula, commandeering stockpiles of food, and the rest of us were debating what to do and trying to work up the courage to do it, Maria gathered together with her neighbors – Alice Black, Lily Fong, and Greta Jeanne Margolis – four old women with nothing to lose. On the morning of the first of August, they marched out in the dawn with pickaxes over their shoulders, into the middle of Army Street, and all the traffic stopped, such cars as a few people could still afford to drive. Some of them were honking their horns, some were shouting threats, but when Maria raised the pickax above her head, there came a silence like a great, shared, indrawn breath. She let it fall, with a thud that shuddered through the street, and the four old women began to dig. They tore up the pavement, blow by blow, filled the holes with compost from a sack Greta carried, and planted them with seeds. By then a crowd had gathered, the word was carried through the streets, and we rushed from our houses to join them, bringing tools or our bare hands, eager to build something new. Many of us were crying, with joy or with fear, tears streaming enough to water the seeds. But Alice raised her hand, and called out in a loud voice, ‘Don’t cry. This is not a time to cry. This is a time to rejoice and praise the earth, because today we have planted our freedom!’
We tore up the streets, piled up barricades on the freeways, and smashed the doors of the locked warehouses. Those who supported the Stewards fled south with what they could steal, and we who remained planted seeds and guarded our water. We were hungry while we waited for the seeds to grow, but we’d pledged to feed one another’s children first with what food we had. The food we shared became sacred to us, along with the water and the air and the earth. When something is sacred, it can’t be bought or sold. It’s beyond price, and nothing that might harm it is worth doing. What’s sacred becomes the measure by which everything is judged. And this is our measure, and our vow to the life-renewing rain: we will not be wasters but healers. Remember this story. Remember that one act can change the world. When you turn the moist earth over, return your wastes to the cycles of decay, and place the seed in the furrow, remember that you are planting your freedom with your own hands. May we never hunger. ¡Que nunca tengamos hambre!’
‘May we never thirst! ¡Que nunca tengamos sed!’ the people responed, singing ‘Free the heart, let it go, what we reap is what we sow,’ as offerings of fruit, grain, and cooked foods were piled in the center of the circle.”
Bird, Maya’s grandson, is in prison in the south, his mind damaged by the “bigsticks.” His young cellmate, Littlejohn, is in prison for “‘stealing water one too many times.’
Someone was in pain. Someone was calling for help. ‘Maybe it’s the new guy they brought in yesterday,’ Littlejohn said. ‘They beat him pretty bad.’” Bird heals this man [Hijohn] by finding a “note” in his mind. “Eyelids fluttered on the man’s face, their movement barely visible in the dark. His eyes opened. Bird leaned close.
‘The earth is our mother,’ the Hijohn said. It was the beginning of a chant. Bird caught a sense of expectancy from the man, as if he waited for a reply.
‘We must take care of her,’ Bird finished the line.
A faint smile moved over the man’s lips. ‘Thanks, brother,’ he whispered.”
One of the guards tells the others that “they” want Bird “kept alive for some reason.”
Sweeping, Bird’s “hands on the broom handle seemed stiff and clumsy, the fingers somehow misshapen, as if they’d been broken and not set right. That disturbed him in some way, as if it represented the loss of something important. It teased at the back of his mind, like liquid notes of music, like rippling melodies flowing off the strings of a guitar. Then it hit him, with a force that left him sweating and clutching the broom handle for balance. He could remember his fingers, deft and fluid, not so much making music as matching what existed already and pouring through him, his hands one with his instrument and the great singing voice inside him. He stared down at his broken hands, aching as they curled around the thick broom handle. What had happened to them? To him? In his mind were gardens, the smell of moist earth and roses, the muffled sounds of drums coming out of a basement in a tall painted house that felt like home. The name came to him: Lavender House. Down the street was Black Dragon House, where his grandmother lived, but he couldn’t remember her name or picture her face. He could smell food cooking – onions and garlic and peppers, hear voices and laughter floating down from the kitchen windows. That was where he belonged. How had he come here, trapped behind these walls and broken? His grandmother had brown eyes that looked at you as if she could see you down to the bone. Maya. That was her name. He could almost hear her voice whispering to him: ‘You’re a witch, boy. Use your magic.’ But he couldn’t remember it.”
Later, Bird remembers being interrogated and asked how he “got into that power plant. Who could he still betray? Who was alive? Who was dead? ‘Who sees all beings in their own self, and their own self in all beings, loses fear.’ The men Bird faced weren’t alien to him, and so ultimately couldn’t defeat him. All they could do was kill him, and he wondered why they didn’t get on with it. They asked him questions about magic, and about the north – how the city was governed and defended.”
Back in San Francisco, “Lily Fong, one of the Cuatro Viejas,” asks Madrone, a healer, whether the latest epidemic is a disease or a weapon. “Lily was a Listener, who rarely left the island in the lake in the center of the park, where the Deep Listeners maintained a constant protective vigil in the spirit world, alert for threats to the people.
‘I wish I knew,’ Madrone replied. ‘From the evidence of the computer models, some of us suspect it’s engineered. But until we can find it and analyze it, there’s no real way of knowing. We’re living in a toxic stew. Don’t let the flourishing of the gardens and the clarity of the waters delude you. There are still chemicals in the Bay we may never be able to analyze, let alone neutralize. There’s low-level radiation left over from the last century, and who knows what’s being pumped into the atmosphere now? Biological weapons developed years ago may have been mutating ever since, along with uncontrolled experiments in genetic engineering. Put that all together, and it’s not surprising we have recurring epidemics. If anything’s surprising, it’s that we’re doing as well as we are. The problem with this virus is that we haven’t been able to find it. Not with magic, and not with a microscope. We aren’t even sure it’s a virus.’
‘We believe it’s a weapon,’ Lily Fong said. ‘Possibly the forerunner of a direct assault.’”
Bird, Littlejohn, and Hijohn escape from prison by getting transferred to a work detail and fasting to clear the prison drugs from their systems. As they travel the hills, Hijohn tells Bird, “‘Where we come from, the Stewards control the water supplies. That’s how they took control of the government in ’28. The Millennialists [a puritanical fundamentalist Christian sect] backed them with funds and religious prophecies, and in return they put into law what the Millennialists believe. You’ve got to work for the Stewards and obey the Millennialist Purities, or you can’t buy water and lose your right to eat.’
‘And people really believe that?
‘Plenty do, or pretend. They have to, if they want a job and a roof and a full belly every now and then. Or they join us up in the hills and fight.’
‘Why are you both named John?’
‘It’s a tradition. When you go to the hills, you leave your name behind. You become anonymous: John Doe. It’s also to honor John the Conqueror, the spirit who came over from Africa with the slaves, who brings hope to the hopeless. Because, to be honest, we don’t have much hope of winning. But we’re fighting anyway. Are still determined to go north?’
‘Yeah,’ Bird said. ‘Are you still heading south?’
‘Yeah,’ Hijohn replied, adding, ‘I know where to find friends in these mountains. But north of here there isn’t much. You’ll run into the dunes, where there isn’t much cover, and then hills again. Farther up, when you get close to Slotown [San Luis Obispo], there’s a stretch where the old coast road runs right up next to the beach. The army still uses it, and you can’t bypass it to the east; they’ve got the area mined. If you get through, into the hills west of Slotown, you’ll meet up with friends of ours who can help you.’
‘Thanks,’ Bird said. ‘What about you, Littlejohn?’
‘There’s nobody waiting for me down south. Guess I’ll stick with you for a while.’
‘Goodbye then,’ Hijohn said. ‘It doesn’t seem enough somehow, just to say thanks, but there it is.’
Madrone, working at night in the healing center, held a sick child. She bent down to suck the disease from the girl’s solar plexus, feeling the ancient mouth of the Reaper draw what she sought out of the child’s body into hers. The girl’s aura flared bright. It was one of the oldest forms of healing known, and the most risky. Absorb the disease; then cure it inside yourself. Almost instantly, Madrone began to fear she’d made a mistake. The sickness moved so quickly. She could feel her ears ring and a feverish flush rise on her skin. She sensed something racing inside her toward her brain. She felt dizzy and slumped back against the wall as sweat broke out on her forehead. She tried to call in power. Why couldn’t she remember any goddesses, any names of power? Or how to use it? Things she’d known since she was a child.
Sharp teeth sank into the skin above her spine; in a moment they’d sever the cord and she’d die. Gathering her waning strength, she thrashed back and forth. Then something ripped loose from her back and she slid free, leaving her discarded skin behind. The thing she was facing was like nothing she’d ever seen before. She saw it as a giant insect but constructed, bolted together out of gray metal forms. Clamped to its back with an old-fashioned bicycle lock was a huge piece of thistledown, which reminded her of the way the common cold virus appeared on this plane. The snake is kin to the bird, she thought, and shapeshifted again, molding the ch’i of her body into scaly legs, wings. As a bird, she soared to the treetops. Then the thing attacked again, uprooting the tree where Madrone-the-bird perched. The higher she flew, the more the thing expanded.
Madrone squirmed free, out of the bird skin, which fluttered empty to the ground as she shifted again, becoming a fly hiding in the thistledown. She crawled to the lock that clamped the thistle to the monster. Finding the keyhole, she made herself smaller and smaller, then crawled inside. One by one, she tripped the hasps of the lock. The clasp opened, and the thistledown flew off. She could hear the monster roaring in rage. The sound reverberated through her; her body ached and screamed with it, but she slowly crawled out of the keyhole and down the body of the thing. It wheeled and turned, hunting for her. The surface was slick, but her fly feet clung tight and her wings helped her keep her balance. She moved along its shiny surface until she came to what looked like a large lag bolt in the center of the thing’s back. She shifted again, taking human form, clinging to the thing’s back like a monkey. It screamed and twisted, bucking and leaping, trying to dislodge her. In her hand was a crescent wrench, with which she struggled to turn the bolt. Finally, the bolt turned, and the monster’s head fell off and clattered to the ground. She was left sitting in a pile of metallic rubble.
She felt cool. In the physical world, her fever must have broken. She’d passed the crisis, but she was exhausted on every level of her being, as if her life force had been drained from her. She’d won, but she wondered if she was going to be able to come back. She was in a place where three roads met. Facing her, sitting on a three-legged stool, was an old woman dressed in a black cloak that seemed to shift and dissolve around her. She looked like La Vieja but, as Madrone watched, her face began to change, becoming scaly, its bones extending outward and its eyes narrowing into a serpent’s head. Then the serpent’s face split down the middle, revealing Coatlicue, the midwives’ patron, on her back a cradleboard tied with rainbow straps. Madrone dipped her head in respect, and when she raised her eyes, Snake Woman had taken the cradleboard from her back. She held it out to Madrone. Madrone reached inside the mouth of the cradleboard, which was suddenly alive, a snake’s mouth, a birth canal pushing forth a bundle wrapped in red and black cloth. Within was a black obsidian knife that changed in her hand to a surgical knife, like the one she used after a birth, to cut the cord. To cut the cord was to complete the birth, and to give birth was dar a luz, which meant to give to light. Death was also a cutting of the cord and a giving to light. Perhaps a greater light. She longed for that light, to fall into it, swirling down into depth beyond depth, into a deep, deep stillness where there was nothing but peace. From her own navel a cord twined, a pulsing spiral of red and a blue so dark it was almost black, a chain that held her. The knife could free her; in a moment, she’d cut the cord and be free. But somewhere back where she had a body she felt a touch, heard a whisper. Her name: Madrone. She wanted to be with her beloved dead, but there was a child in her lap. And a child on the next bed, a woman in the next room, and an old man in pain. What did she owe them? Their existence seemed to weigh her down. The cord twisted in her hands. It had become a snake, a pair of snakes, whose heads facing each other fused into the face of La Vieja/Snake Woman/Coatlicue, with a challenging pair of eyes. Madrone’s hands held the cord and the knife. Choice. The crossroads. Her mind moved slowly, like a diver underwater, pushing against all the weight of the ocean. She wasn’t ready to die. She would choose the burden of her vision…
A black crow became Bird’s guide. He saw it fly up before them, revealing a way across a ravine, or hear it call, beckoning them down a certain path.” Finally, he and Littlejohn meet the “monsters” of Slotown, who remember “witches” from the north shutting down the area’s nuclear reactor and smashing its controls. “A jumble of images flashed through Bird’s mind: long white corridors, and a round pit of a room lined with dials and switches – a presence like a living thing with its own strange beauty: matter liberating itself into power. He had killed it.
‘It’s been better since then,’ the monster named Morton said. ‘The Millennialists had purged so many tecchies that the Stewards didn’t have the know-how to repair the reactor or start it up again. The land feels better now, and there’ve been some kids born that are okay. Not to us, but there’s some others in the town, deserters from the army.’
‘We work to heal the land,’ a woman named Rhea said…
When the last switch was pulled and the hum silenced, they’d emptied their guns into the control panel. Which had left them unarmed and helpless when the door exploded and the guards came in firing. Zorah had screamed, Cleis moaned and fell, Tom cried out, and they became birds, soaring away on an updraft. Something had hit Bird in the thigh. He remembered falling, in a blaze of pain.”
Bird shows the monsters how to conduct a proper ritual. “Someone handed him a drum, and he began to play. His hands were stiff and they hurt, but as the rhythm built he grew numb to the pain. Only some of the other drummers were in time to the rhythm of the chant; the others wandered vaguely in and out. He began with a strong, solid beat to bring them into alignment and then added syncopation and counter-rhythms. Maybe this was all that was left, this maimed circle on the edge of a poisoned world; maybe he had no more home, no family; maybe there were no more circles of powerful witches, no rings of sweet lovers waiting to welcome him back, no ancient crones who could talk with the spirits, no one still willing to fight for the survival of the earth, no one left to remember the dead.
After the ritual, Rhea came to him and asked, ‘Will you make the Great Rite with me?’ He opened to her fully and gave himself over to the power she harbored within her, and she opened to him, revealing pain and beauty that answered his own. She was broken as he was broken, as this land was broken, but thanks to him and to the others who’d suffered and died for it, not destroyed. She was the bitter brew that nonetheless healed, the homeopathic drop of poison that cured the tainted land. He brought the sun to her, the dying, weakening, wounded sun that consumes itself as it gives light. And, so, he received back the bittersweet gift of the land, and rained.
‘Will you stay and be our teacher?’ Rhea asked when they were done.
‘I can’t. I’ve got to go home. I’ve got to find my family, if they’re still alive. But if I make it home, I’ll be back. Or someone will.’
‘We must work together,’ Rhea said. ‘We’ll work together, and we’ll survive.’”
Littlejohn stays with the monsters, and Bird presses on alone. Along the way, he meets “two hill men: Johnny Appleseed and Johnnycake,” who show him the Stewards’ military gathering in Slo Valley and tell him about the drought in Angel City [Los Angeles], where “‘the Corporation owns all the water.’
‘Which corporation?’ Bird asked.
‘Does it matter? They’ve merged and remerged and taken each other over so many times they’re all the same thing. They own Angel City, the farmlands, the seeds, the farm equipment. They own the Millennialist preachers and the vid networks, the Stewards, and the government. And like I said, they own the water. Charge heavy for it, too. You can tell the rich parts of town from twenty miles away. They’re green. Everywhere else is brown, dead, thirsty.’
‘We’ve got circles there,’ Johnnycake said. ‘We’ve got circles everywhere. Down in the valley and hidden away in the hills. And they’re thirsty. And sick. The Stewards control the antidotes. And the immunobooster drugs.’ You had epidemics up north?’
‘Some are natural. Some ain’t.’
‘There’s plenty people don’t like the Stewards, don’t believe the Millennialists’ bullshit, but without the boosters they mostly die. We need a healer.’”
When Bird asks why the Stewards are planning to invade the north now, Apple says, “‘Our economy’s a wreck. We survive by scavenging parts of old machines and patching them back together.’
‘We do a lot of that too,’ Bird said. ‘But we’ve created some new technologies in the last twenty years. We do things with crystals that are hard to believe, and we’ve made some great advances in wind and solar power.’
‘We haven’t done shit, except carry on so the rich can still believe they’re rich and powerful. But even that is slowly crumbling away. We can’t make new parts, for computers or vidsets or anything, only cannibalize old ones. Now we’re running out. It used to be any poor asshole could afford a vidset to plug into; then it got to cost more and more: a month’s pay, two months’, six months’. This year, you can’t buy one at any price. So Waggoner, the head of the Stewards’ party, sent a diplomat to talk to the Panasians. And it seems they’re willing to trade with us again, but what do we have that they want? Wood from the northern forests, with the Golden Gate as a harbor to ship from. The South is exporting disease, then they’ll pump up their army with antidotes, move in, and mop up. Who’s gonna stop them?’”
Bird has to warn the north, but promises to come back with a healer.
“‘Don’t be too long,’ Apple warned. “Wait too long, and it’ll be too late.’
Apple and Johnnycake put Bird aboard a smuggler’s boat captained by a woman named Isis. The ship was a strange pastiche of sails and a jerry-rigged engine powered by solar panels. Isis guided it skillfully past the old navy radar, and left Bird at the old San Simeon pier. He walked on through the rest of the night, following the old coast road north. As daylight approached, he hid and slept. The next day, he headed up into the mountainous country of Big Sur. He picked his way north, following old trails or streams, eating berries and the dried meat and fruit from his pack. Suddenly he knew where he was. There was only one place in the interior of the mountains where the water seeped naturally hot from the earth. He’d been there, in the good years, backpacking with Madrone and the others. The springs were well maintained; the rock walls that contained the pools were freshly repaired and patched with cement. In the branches of the madrone that overlooked the pool hung offerings: bright ribbons, cloth dolls, feathers, and clay images of the goddess and of the god, the stag with the sun between his horns.”
Maya helps Madrone heal, and Bird finds her resting in the garden. The rains come, and the people are also grateful that, “since Madrone had changed its morphic field, the epidemic was over.”
Bird tells Lily Fong about his years in the south, concluding, “‘They think the north is a hotbed of powerful witches, each of us at Satan’s beck and call. They’re afraid of our magic, which is probably what’s kept them away all this time. Doña Lily, I don’t know if I can believe what I remember, or if what I remember is all of what I did.’
‘And that troubles you greatly,’ Lily said.
‘If you had told them the truth, if you had said to them, “Our city is defended by nine old women who listen and dream,” would they have believed you?’
‘So don’t torment yourself. Perhaps what you told them doesn’t matter.’
‘You mean it was all for nothing? All that pain?’
‘No. Resistance to violence is never useless. You did well, if only for the example you provided of choice. But not just for that. Certainly, information is important. Information is power. I just mean that no information is useful unless the mind is prepared to receive it. And now you understand our strategy.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘After the Uprising, we found ourselves caught in a dilemma. We knew that war was responsible for shaping the world into all the forms we wanted to change. Yet we were surrounded by hostile enemies who might at any moment attack and destroy us. This is the dilemma that every peaceful culture has faced for the last 5,000 years. And this was our one advantage – that we had history behind us. We’d seen all possible solutions played out, from resistance to retreat to acquiescence, and we knew none of them worked. That saved us a lot of time. We didn’t have to waste our energies stockpiling weapons or drilling troops; we could jump right to the heart of the matter – magic, the art of changing consciousness at will. You can look at a war as a massing of arms and materiel and troops, but you can also see it as something else – a delicate web of interwoven choices made by human beings, made out of a certain consciousness. The decision to order an attack, the choice to obey or disobey an order, to fire or not to fire a weapon. Armies and any culture that supports them must convince people that all the decisions are made already, and that they have no choice. That’s never true though. So, mad as it may seem, this is the terrain upon which we base our defense of this city – the landscape of consciousness. Consciousness is the most stubborn substance in the cosmos, and the most fluid. It can be rigid as concrete, and it can change in an instant. A song can change it, or a story, or a fragrance on the wind.
Like your grandmother, we Nine [the women of the city’s council] are of another era. We’ve stood, eye to gun barrel, with the greatest military machine the world has ever produced. The forces of the Stewards are nothing but the last vestiges of its power. We’re not naive about armies and military power. On the contrary. What we’ve built here is a possibility not counted on by those who’d attack us, and that’s where our hope lies. We are what we wanted to become.’
‘But can we preserve what we are?’
‘To wage war, one must believe in an enemy. If we refuse to be enemies, how can they fight us?’
‘I don’t deny it’s a gamble. None of us, even the strongest dreamers, knows what will happen.’”
Madrone, prepared by her dreams and the counsel of the wise elders, goes south by herself, meeting Isis and the Monsters. She stays with the Monsters for three months, healing and teaching, then sails with Isis and Littlejohn down the coast. In the hillboys’ camp she learns how to work with bees.
“A woman wearing a cloud of bees like a cloak appeared from behind the trees. Their buzzing was a chant-like hum. The air seemed to vibrate in harmony, and Madrone felt it move through her body like a sudden rush of intoxication. She smelled something on the wind, like the distilled essence of wild blossoms: honey. The woman seemed to be wearing no other covering but the bees; they crawled over her body like a second skin. The Melissa’s eyes, the only part of her not cloaked by the bodies of insects, gleamed. A single bee broke loose from the mass and flew toward Madrone, circling a number of times as if sniffing her out.
‘Don’t fear the sisters,’ the Melissa said. ‘With me, you’re safe.’ The bees weren’t separate from the wounded man they were healing. They’d become his aura, his vitality, and their movements were shifting and sustaining his energy field much as Madrone would have used her hands and her spirit power to strengthen his link to life. As she watched more closely, she saw that the movements of the insects corresponded precisely to the treelike pattern of a healthy energy flow.
‘Propylis,’ the Melissa said, pointing at the binding on his arm. ‘And in here.’ She indicated the water jug she carried, which she held to the man’s lips, giving him a few careful drops. ‘Taste?’
Madrone nodded and opened her mouth to receive a drop of something wet and sweet and strong. It lay on her tongue, burning like fire but tasting like all the compacted fertilizing power of the spring blossoms. For a moment, before it dissolved, she was no longer hungry or thirsty. ‘That’s our way of healing,’ the Melissa said. ‘We don’t have much, here in the hills, but we’ve learned to use what we have.’
‘I’d like to learn your way of healing,’ Madrone said. ‘And maybe I can teach you ours.’
‘I don’t know if we can learn your magic,’ the Melissa responded. ‘And if you learn ours – well, once you come into the hive, maybe you won’t want to leave. It’s very sweet.’
Later, around the fire, Madrone asked, ‘What’s the purpose of these camps?’
‘Different purposes,’ Hijohn said. ‘First, we’re a refuge for the ones who can’t take it down below. We give them somewhere to go west and north of here, where we have larger camps above the beach. There’s more women and kids there, and more water. The camps down here, close to the city, are mostly for raids. We let the Stewards know that everything ain’t under control. Maybe we blow up a water line one place or cut their communication lines somewhere else. John Brown, that the bees are tending, he got shot bustin’ people out of the pens. Sometimes we raid a food distribution depot, give the stuff away. Steal from the rich, give to the poor.’
‘Are you having much success?’
‘Maybe this doesn’t look like much to you, but it’s growing all the time. We’re like fleas on the back of the beast. Or like bees. One sting won’t do you much harm, but enough of them all together can kill you.’
‘What do you want from me?’
‘We’ve got some magic – you’ve seen the bees. But we need more. Also, the Web is strong, but it’s divided. We got the camps up here in the hills and houses in the city. Lots of different groups, who don’t all know or trust each other. They don’t have a sense of being one thing.’
‘And you think I can provide that?’
‘Maybe. I’m hoping that after you’ve been up here in the hills for a bit and helped us out, that we can send you down to the city.’
The idea made Madrone shudder, but she said, ‘I’m here to help. I’ll go wherever I can be useful.’ Later, she asked Hijohn about the pens. ‘What are they, exactly?’
‘Some of them are like whorehouses, where they service the soldiers. Some are like farms, where they breed soldiers and runners and other things.’”
The Melissa teaches Madrone the bee wisdom and joins her to the bee world with a small wound in the middle of her forehead. But she says, “‘You must return to the human world and be the healer needed there. Anchor the bee vision, so you can call it back or shut it off at will. Touch your forehead on the bee spot. Remember your old self, and call her back. Say your human name. Now touch the spot again, remember the hive smell, and let the bee sense return. You’re not of the hive, but now you’ll be able to draw upon the sisters for help, nourishment, and protection.’”
Back in San Francisco, the city prepares to engage the ‘enemy’ nonviolently. Maya says, “‘Suppose that nobody in the city obeys the invaders, or helps them, or gives them information. Suppose that all we say to the soldiers when they come, is: “There is a place set for you at our table, if you will choose to join us”?’
‘I’ve been up against some of them,’ Bird said, and I can’t envision them transforming under the influence of our sweet characters. But there is this. Of those first five thousand, at least forty-five hundred are going to be black, brown, yellow, red, or some combination, mixed with just plain poor. They’re in the army because they come out of a world you can’t imagine – I can hardly imagine it myself, even though I was locked up in it for ten years – where the color of your skin determines everything; where if you don’t have money, you don’t you eat or drink. These guys may never have seen free-running water. They’re going to come marching in here, and it’s going to look like paradise on earth to them. So it just might work. Some of them might welcome an invitation to come over. But not all. If we do this, some of us are going to die. Some of us are going to be hurt, imprisoned, beaten, tortured.’
‘Wars aren’t fought just with guts, or even with weapons,’ Lily said. ‘They’re struggles of consciousness, and consciousness moves to a rhythm. When disparate consciousnesses meet, they become more alike; they entrain. The invaders, coming into proximity with us, will become more like us in spite of themselves.’
‘Won’t we also become more like them?’
‘That’s the question we must face and the art we must develop: the art of remaining who we are. If we can hold onto that, our enemies must change. If we defend ourselves in the old ways, with force, we’ll revert to the old ways of thinking and doing things, and lose what we’ve built.’
‘I don’t know if nonviolent resistance will work,’ Bird said, ‘but if it does it’ll be because the ordinary soldiers come to realize that fighting us isn’t in their best interests. We can’t convince them of that by shooting them.’”
On the way back from a drug raid on a city pharmacy, Madrone and the others see some fancy homes. Getting water from a swimming pool, “Madrone couldn’t resist. She pulled off her clothes, and slipped in. When her head broke the surface, Littlejohn and the water bottles were gone. Up on the fire road, she heard shouts and the sound of an engine. A shot rang out. She needed to run, but she didn’t know in which direction.
‘Girl! Get your ass in here!’ a black woman in the doorway called. ‘Put those things on.’ She jerked her chin toward a uniform and apron on a hook.
Five burly men in khaki uniforms came in to check the house. ‘Did you see any suspicious persons around the pool area?’ one asked.
‘I been in here all morning fixing this luncheon for Miss Sara,’ the maid, Mary Ellen, responded. ‘I ain’t seen a thing. Becky, you peel those cucumbers before you slice them, you hear?’ Madrone found a peeler in the drawer below the cutting board and went to work over the sink.
A door in the opposite wall opened, and a young woman with blonde hair asked, ‘What is all this?’
‘Security, ma’am,’ one of the men said. ‘Command post up the hill spotted suspicious activity around your pool. Water thieves, probably.’
‘Nonsense.’” Later she asked Madrone who she was.
“‘I guess I’m your resident witch.’
‘What were you doing in my swimming pool?’
‘I was overcome by temptation, by the chance to get clean. I’m sorry. It was a stupid thing to do.’
‘You’re with the hillboys?’
‘I didn’t think they cared about being clean.’
‘When you don’t have water, after a while you stop caring.’
‘Where did you learn to swim?’
‘Where I come from, it’s a normal thing to do.’
‘And where is that?’
‘The north,’ Madrone said. ‘I came down here to help the Web; they’d asked for a healer.’
‘What kind of healer are you?’ Sara asked.
‘Back home, I did primarily midwifery and gynecology. Here, given what there is to work with, what I do is what you might call laying on of hands. We’ve done away with the old hierarchies in the north, but I was educated at the university through what they used to call an M.D. Plus training in herbs and Chinese medicine. Do you have a problem I can help you with?’
‘I didn’t know they still let women be doctors in the north. And I didn’t realize they let your people into universities.’
‘What people?’ Madrone asked.
‘Colored people,’ Sara said. ‘You’re black, aren’t you?’
‘Some of my ancestors came from Africa, if that’s what you mean. Some came from Ireland, Spain, Scotland, France, and the tribes that inhabited the central American coastal rain forests. What does that make me?’
At the bottom of the house, dug into the hillside, were two dimly lit rooms, servants’ quarters. On one of the beds lay a girl about five years old, and Madrone could see that she was very ill. There was a grayish tone to her nut-brown skin, and a bluish cast to her lips. ‘Her name is Angela,’ Sara said. ‘She’s my niece. Can you help her?’
Madrone knelt beside the child and laid a hand over her chest. Slowing her breath, she let herself feel the patterns of the girl’s energy. What she had suspected from her aura was true. ‘She has blood cancer,’ Madrone said. ‘Leukemia. But there are drugs for that. Gene therapy and antivirals and white-cell boosters. Any regular doctor can treat her.’
‘No doctor will treat her. My sister had a dalliance with Mary Ellen’s son. They were discreet but not careful, and she got pregnant. We tried to get her an abortion but it was too dangerous – the Millennialists were on a campaign and nobody would do it. So we sent her off to our country house, and when the child came, Mary Ellen passed it off as hers.’
‘I could tell you what drugs to get, and how to administer them.’
‘It’s too dangerous. We can’t afford to call attention to her. If my husband found out, Mary Ellen could go to the pens for having an illegitimate child. They don’t usually enforce it with the blacks, but if we rub their noses in it, trying to doctor her, they’d have to. It’s ironic. My husband manages a drug company. Anyway, how can I thank you?’
‘You already saved my life once today. If I could eat something and drink something, you’d save it again.’
‘Would you care to join me and the other ladies for lunch? Perhaps you could talk to us about where you come from. You can trust us. The hillboys aren’t the only ones trying to make changes.’
An excited buzz went around the room as Madrone started telling her story. It was ended by an older woman, whose gray cap of hair crowned a thin, pinched face. ‘I was a doctor,’ she said. ‘No, I am a doctor. The Stewards can take away a license, but they can’t remove my knowledge and skill.’
‘Thank you, Beth,’ Sara interrupted. ‘Madrone, please go on.’”
Madrone tells them about the Four Sacred Things and what they mean to northerners, then suggests that they team up with the Web. “When the ladies got up to go, only Beth clasped her hand with real warmth. ‘I’d love to talk more with you,’ she said. ‘I live near the university – I run a sorority house of nursing students. It’s on Gayley Avenue, right near the old main gate. Come and see me if you ever can, or if you need a refuge.’
The next day Hijohn took Madrone to the center of the City of Angels [LA], where she could teach healing. ‘Now we’re in territory the Web controls,’ he said. ‘The liberated zone.’ They’d come to an open square where the ground was shaded from the sun’s harsh rays by cloth awnings. The buildings that formed the boundaries of the plaza gleamed with whitewash, and around their bases plants grew, swaddled in moisture-conserving plastic. Bright murals were painted on the walls, and the wooden posts that supported the canopies were intricately carved. In the diffuse light under the canopies, a small crowd was gathered. In the center, three men and two women drummed, as the rest sang. One woman’s voice soared above the others, dipping and flashing in harmony. ‘Open your eyes, there’s a new day dawning, Freedom will rise like the morning sun.’ It was an old song Madrone had heard her mother sing, and a shiver of energy rippled up her spine. This was where Johanna came from. Maybe she’d walked these streets.
When the song ended, the crowd turned to welcome them, and the woman who’d been singing harmony came over to them. She had brown eyes, a pregnant belly, and skin the color of dark honey. ‘Welcome,’ she said. ‘My name is Katy.’
‘You’re the healer. I’m so glad you’re here. We’ve got plenty of water here. We run an illegal tap into a city pipe. So drink all you want.’
‘What happened here?’ Madrone asked Katy later. ‘How did the Stewards take over so completely?’
‘The collapse of ’27 began it,’ Katy said. ‘I don’t know what it was like up north, but down here it was grim. I was just a kid, but I remember the quake, how frightened I was when the ground began shaking. The epicenter was only a few miles north of here.’
‘But the quake wasn’t the real problem,’ Hijohn put in. ‘It destroyed a lot – water lines and gas pumps and roads, so it was hard to get food and water into the city. But a lot of the city was already in ruins from decades of riots and fires and bombings. And the Central Valley was almost dead from years of abuse and climate change. Food was already scarce. The Corporation had been stockpiling grain and seed and medical supplies, waiting for their opportunity. The quake gave it to them.’
‘The Stewards were their political front,’ Katy said. ‘They declared martial law, and the Corporation backed them. People who supported the Stewards got fed and cared for; those who opposed them were considered traitors and left to starve.’
‘People didn’t try to fight back?’
‘Plenty did,’ Hijohn said. ‘Some of us are fighting still.’
‘There were food riots and water riots and armed bands that attacked Corporation warehouses,’ Katy said. ‘In some ways, that made it worse. People got scared, and others were happy to see order established, no matter what kind. We had refugees streaming in from the Central Valley, shootouts night after night in the streets, whole sections of the city burned down, and the refugees brought disease with them, people said.’
‘Not all the people,’ Hijohn countered. ‘A lot of us thought the Corporation cooked up some bug in its lab and let it loose to rid the region of undesirables.’
‘The Millennialists said it was the wages of sin and immorality,’ Katy said. ‘And more people believed them than believed our side. There were mass conversions, even though the Corporation developed a drug to treat the disease with suspicious speed. Of course the drugs and the vaccines and the immunoboosters weren’t offered to the undesirables.’
‘The Millennialists cut a deal with the Stewards,’ Hijohn said. ‘They gave religious backing to the new order, and in return, once things had calmed down, the Stewards passed laws enforcing the Four Purities. There were the Moral Purity laws first, which outlawed fornication, rape, incest, and child abuse. People went along with them – they didn’t seem so bad. Then we found out that if you violated them, you officially lost your immortal soul, which made you fair game for rape and enforced prostitution, if you were a woman, and your children prey for all sorts of abuse. Then there were the Family Purity laws, which threw women out of most professions. The Spiritual Purity laws outlawed proselytizing for any religion that advocated or didn’t strongly oppose the worship of Satan, which was defined roughly as anything the Millennialists didn’t like, even other Christian denominations. Especially other Christians – they were close competition, and anyone who preached God’s love and mercy and compassion was practically an agent of Old Nick himself. My father was the minister of a big Methodist church, and he hung on, barely, for a while. But then came the Racial Purity laws. Everybody had to register as one race or another. My mother, who was Mexican, died in the epidemic. My dad refused to register himself as white, or me as Latin. He preached a sermon against the whole program in his church, and told the congregation not to register. That night the Millennialists burned his church down.’
Later, Madrone told the group, ‘We say that there are Four Sacred Things, and the fifth is spirit. When you live in right relation to the four, you gain the power to contact the fifth. The four are earth, air, fire, and water. They live in the four directions: north, east, south, and west. No one can own them or put a price on them. To live in right relation is to preserve and protect them, never waste them, share what we have of them, and return all we take of them to the cycles of regeneration. Together they form the magic circle, the circle of life. And the understanding of that circle is the beginning of all healing. So let’s begin by putting that circle inside ourselves. We call it grounding, touching the four within and around us. Close your eyes and feel your breath. That’s the first sacred thing inside us, the breath, which opens the roads of the mind and the imagination. Let it come in and out of our lungs, bring it down deep. Your breath is the beginning of power. When it’s strong in you, it awakens the second sacred thing: your fire, your energy. Imagine your energy, your life force, flowing through you, as if you were a tree and had roots going down into the earth. Those roots go down through the soil and the rock, to the third sacred thing, the water hidden under the earth. The earth is the fourth sacred thing, and the fire at its center is the source of your energy. That’s the power you draw on, and it’s always there. You can use your breath to draw it up.’ She went on, teaching them to fill the branches and leaves of their auras with earth fire, to draw down the power of the stars, and become whole.”
That night Katy tells Madrone about the children “‘bred as toys for rich men, raised and trained from birth for sex and pain. It’s an industry with catalogs and videos and accessories – instruments of torture. In revenge, the tall blond kids we call the Angels steal kids, bust up houses, and kill people. They’re the ones who somehow got out and grew up.’
Madrone sat silent for a moment, too shocked to speak. ‘I wasn’t raised to believe in evil, Katy. But I can’t think of another word for this.’
‘There isn’t any other word for it. Where you come from they don’t have sex shops and torture clubs?’
‘No! We have a fair amount of sex, privately. I certainly never lacked for it before I came down here. But it’s not marketed. And that’s what I don’t understand: how can the Millennialists let this go on? They’re so anti-sex.’
‘The Millennialists are the backbone of the industry. All that repression has to find its outlet somewhere. And remember, it’s not fornication if it’s done with the soulless – conveniently defined as anyone who isn’t a good Millennialist. Also, it helps if it turns a profit.’”
Back in San Francisco, the southern invaders have arrived. “The men, Bird noticed, were sorted by color like a box of crayons, the molasses and mahogany in one platoon, ocher and umber in another, beige and tan and shades of pink together. ‘I am Commander Pershing Nelson, Acting Commander of the Fourth Army of the Stewardship,’ their leader barked. ‘Who’s in charge here?’
Bird and three companions stepped forward together.
‘We’re here to repossess this land in the name of the Corporate Stewardship from which it was stolen,’ the commander said. “’f you cooperate, we’re prepared to be lenient. Resist, and we can be merciless.’ He waited, looking at the four of them and finally fixing on Roberto, the oldest male. ‘You. I’m waiting for an answer. We’re offering you a chance to surrender without bloodshed. You’re outnumbered and out-armed. All we ask in return is a little cooperation in bringing this city under proper management. Answer me!’
Roberto’s face was calm and composed. He looked into the commander’s eyes and said mildly, ‘There is a place set for you at our table, if you choose to join us.’
‘There is a place set for you at our table, if you choose to join us.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
Marie stepped forward. ‘I’m Sister Marie Seraphim, of the Order of Our Blessed Lady of the Waters, and one of the freely elected representatives of this city. What we mean is that we’ll never cooperate with violence, either by submitting to it or using it.’
‘You got to do one or the other, lady,’ the commander said. ‘I suggest you submit and save us all a lot of trouble.’
‘We propose an alternative,’ Marie said, pitching her voice to carry to the ranked troops. ‘Your armies are swollen with the poor and the dispossessed. We’re a small population, decimated by famine and epidemics, in an area that once housed and fed hundreds of thousands. We can find room for those who wish to join us, to live the way we do, with respect for the Four Sacred Things: air, fire, water, and earth. We’re not a wealthy people; everything we have depends on our mutual cooperation. But for those who wish to join us we can make a place.’
‘Joining you is not the issue in question,’ Nelson said. ‘We’re here to impose the power and authority of the Stewardship.’
‘We don’t recognize that authority,’ Marie said.
‘I’m not offering you a choice in the matter.’
‘Nevertheless we have made our choice, which is to make this offering to each of you. There is a place set for you at our table, if you choose to join us.’ Her voice rang out over the assembled troops, and she arched her neck to meet the eyes of the darker soldiers in the ranks.
Nelson ignored her, speaking to Roberto again. ‘I need your cooperation in billeting my men. As I said, if you show the right spirit, this can go pretty easy on you. If not, I’ll put my men where I decide to put them, and you may be sorry about that.’
‘There is a place set for you at our table,’ Roberto said.
‘The next person who says that’s gonna be sorry they did.’
Lan, Roberto, Bird, Marie, and the crowd behind them chorused, ‘There is a place set for you at our table, if you choose to join us.’
The commander slapped Roberto across the face. ‘Say it again, boy!’
Bird stepped forward. ‘We don’t accept your authority,’ he said. ‘We will do nothing to aid you in any way. We won’t cooperate, and we’ll resist you in every way short of violence. We’ll also never stop offering you the choice to join with what is here instead of attempting to conquer and control it.’
Nelson’s face twisted contemptuously. ‘I’m not accustomed to taking advice from niggers.’
‘We’re not accustomed to that word in this city,’ Bird said, pitching his singer’s voice so that it carried through the ranks of men. ‘There are no barriers of color here. I say this to you, brothers – black, Latin, Chino, and white, that we set an equal place at our table for all who choose to join us.’
Nelson swung his rifle and smashed Bird in the side of the head.”
Nelson orders his men to make camp and tells his second-in-command to clear the area. “‘I don’t care how you do it – drag them away, run trucks over them, shoot them, but get it clear!’ He stomped off, going down the lines.
‘You heard the commander,’ Jones barked. ‘Get rid of them!’
‘Sir,’ one of the men asked quietly, ‘what exactly do you want us to do?’
‘Drag them off. That’s an order! And don’t be too gentle about it!’ The soldiers moved forward, looking scared.
Bird’s head hurt badly, with a throbbing that changed to a flare of pain as two officers grabbed his ankles and pulled him along the ground. He tried to become as limp and heavy as possible, but his neck tensed in spite of himself to keep his head from banging on the pavement. His shirt rode up his back and his bare skin scraped against the pavement. Around him he could hear blows being struck and occasional screams of panic as the crowd’s chant of ‘Hold our ground!’ got ragged. Sing, he thought, we should be singing. As loudly as he could, he began to sing. ‘We are the power in everyone, we are the dance of the moon and sun…’ Around him, voices took up the chant, and it flowed over the crowd and the soldiers both, until they were all of them linked in the same harmonies, the same rhythm, coming not through the ears but directly through the body, or something deeper than the body, sustaining them with the beat. ‘We are the hope that will not hide, we are the turning of the tide…’
The streets filled with soldiers that night. They seemed to be everywhere, marching up and down beside the streams, tramping through the open gardens, kicking at turf in the park, pulling ripe fruit off the boughs. Bird maneuvered his way around them, ducking into the doorways of friends, hiding in the shadows of trees. Sam had bandaged his head; Maya had nursed him and tried to make him stay inside, but he had to talk to Lan and Marie and Roberto.
A soldier knelt by the river, his hands in the water, tears on his face. ‘You okay?’ Bird asked.
‘Where does it come from, all this water?’ the man said.
‘From the hill, from the rains, from the reservoir above, from runoff from watering the gardens.’
‘But the water just runs through the street here. Anyone can steal it.’
‘Nobody has to steal water here, or pay for it.’
‘My brother got shot for stealing water. I got put in the army.’
‘Take what you need here,’ Bird said.
‘But we’re here to take your water away from you.’
Bird squatted beside the soldier and pitched his voice low, almost crooning as he spoke. ‘You can’t take away what’s freely given. We’ll never stand by and see our waters harmed or wasted. But what you need, you’re welcome to.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘There is a place set for you at our table. We invite you to join us. You don’t have to stay in the army.’
‘You mean I could join your side, fight with you?’
‘Fight in our way, yes.’
‘But what about the boosters? Once you’re on them, they say you’ll die if you don’t get them.’
‘Not always,’ Bird said. ‘I’ve known deserters who lived. It’s a risk, but we have doctors and healers. They can help you.’
Just then they heard a loud cry from the cross street behind them. ‘My unit,’ the soldier explained. ‘Got to go!’
‘Think about it,’ Bird said. ‘The offer stands.’”
The next day Roberto and Lan are shot dead for refusing to order a crowd of people to stop protesting a damming of the water. “My turn now, Bird thought, as the general turned to him. He was barely aware of what the man was saying, as he thought, one by one, of the people he loved. Adiosa, Madrone. I wish I could have seen you one more time. Goodbye, Maya. I’m sorry I can’t kiss you goodbye.
Suddenly there was a stir in the crowd. A flock of children dodged through the masses of people and surrounded Bird and Marie and the bodies on the ground. The officers stepped back in surprise. ‘There is a place for you at our table, if you choose to join us,’ Rosa, age 12, said to the general, smiling her brightest and most engaging smile.
‘You kids get out of here,’ Jones said. ‘I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if I have to.’ The children remained, silent and smiling. ‘I’m counting to three. One, two…’ A young boy Bird didn’t know stepped up next to Rosa. ‘Three.’ Nobody moved. Jones looked at the kids, back to his men, and back to the kids again. ‘I warned you. I don’t want to do this, but I will if you don’t move. Now I’m giving you one more chance. One, two, three.’
‘There’s a place set for you at our table, if you choose to join us,’ the boy said.
The soldier slowly drew his gun and pointed it at Rosa. ‘Move.’ The line of children held firm. He took a step forward, thrust the nose of the pistol under her chin, and said, again, ‘Move.’ Then there was a loud noise and the officer crumpled, a dark bleeding hole through the back of his neck. Somewhere down the line, a soldier threw down his gun and began running away.”
Rosa, Bird, and Sister Marie are arrested. A boy finds the deserter hiding and takes him to Maya’s house. “The young man’s hands were trembling, his dark eyes darted nervously about the kitchen, and his brown skin had an undertone of gray. Maya shook herself free of her own worries and smiled at him reassuringly. ‘It’ll be okay,’ she said. ‘You did a good thing. What’s your name?’
‘You don’t have to ma’am me. Just call me Maya. What can I fix you to eat? I could fry up some potatoes, and I believe I can offer you an egg.’
‘Anything would be fine, ma’am.’
‘We appreciate what you did.’
‘I had to do it. Couldn’t stand by and watch him kill no little girl. I ain’t from the pens like some of them. I come from a family. Had a mother, sisters.’
‘What are the pens?’ Maya asked.
‘Where they breed soldiers, ma’am. They got no souls, like regular people, so it’s no sin to breed them. Say a woman loses her immortal soul…’
‘How would she do that?’
‘Stealing water. Violating the Purities. Say she goes to bed with some guy who isn’t authorized for her. Or someone overhears her questioning the Incarnation. If she’s young and good-looking, they send her off to entertain the troops. If she’s a bit older, she goes straight to the pens to breed soldiers.’
‘I can’t believe that. How do they justify it?’ Maya said.
‘It’s your choice, ma’am, to preserve your immortal soul or throw it away. Unless, of course, you come out of the pens and don’t got one to begin with. But if you destroy your immortal soul with wickedness, then all that’s left of value in you is your body, and your only redemption is to let the state use your body as it sees fit, for the greater good. I threw my soul away stealing water for my family. That’s how I landed in the army. I don’t know if I got an immortal soul or not. I guess if you’re poor, your soul is pretty thin to begin with.’
‘I believe you have a soul. You proved that tonight.’
The next morning, because the water dam had been blown up, soldiers shot five people at random. The army rebuilt the dam and began work to enclose the other streams in the city. Two nights later, another explosion rocked the silence, and again the water flowed. That morning, ten people were shot.” Meanwhile, Bird is interrogated and tortured, Sister Marie is killed, and Rosa is raped. “‘Her fate is in your hands,’ the general tells Bird. ‘Cooperate with us, and she’ll be left alone. Disobey, and we send her to the breaking pens for new whores.’
Bird put on their uniform and walked out in the city, flanked by two guards. They wanted him to wear their uniform as a sign of his defeat, to shatter the morale of the city and say to the people. See, here is one of yours who has turned. He wore it as a warning to them all, a way of saying, Watch out, I am no longer your friend, no longer the one you trusted. Put no faith in me.”
The rebel center in L.A. is raided, and Madrone escapes to Sara’s house on the coast. Sara drives Madrone to Beth’s, where they ask if any of her nursing student boarders is assigned to the research hospital where Katy may have been taken. Against all odds, Madrone’s able to spirit a laboring Katy out of the hospital. Sara meets them with her car, and they all cram into the cabin of Isis’s boat, where Katy’s daughter is born.
“In the northern city council, Cress expressed his suspicion of Bird, while Walker, Bird’s musician friend defended him. ‘Maybe he’s still resisting, in his own way.’
‘How? By running their water rationing program?’
‘Nobody’s taken any of their cards yet. Why? Because almost every house in this city has a cistern. If Bird’s a traitor, why hasn’t he told them about that?”’
An older woman rose. ‘My daughter was captured by the soldiers. She’s still too shocked and hurt to tell her story here, but I’ll tell it for her. They were going to rape her, a whole gang of them. Then Bird came in, and talked them out of it. He made them let her go. He’s no traitor.’
Lily rose and told the council Bird had told the southerners that ‘if they killed one of us, they’d be haunted. Our proposal is that we make his words come true by facing the killers with the consequences of their actions, making their victims real to them, but continuing to offer them a place at our table.’
A woman dressed in white approached the soldier in the Central Plaza. Yes, he was the one. She’d never forget him, the cold look on his face as his hand raised the gun to her brother’s head. She approached and looked him in the eye. ‘My brother Jorge, that you killed yesterday, was a woodworker,’ she said. ‘When I was little he made me the most beautiful toys.’
‘Get out of here,’ the soldier snarled.
‘He made me a toy dog that rolled on wheels; you could pull it with a string, and her head bobbed up and down. He got in trouble, though, because when Tía Anna asked him, “What are you making?” he looked her right in the eye and said, ‘This is a bitch on wheels.’
The woman’s eyes held tears, and the soldier shuffled his feet uncomfortably. ‘I said get away from me!’
‘Jorge could never resist a joke. I feel so sad that I will never hear his laugh again.’
The soldier glanced behind him. ‘Look, lady, I didn’t want to kill your brother, okay? Didn’t have no choice about it.’
‘But you did choose; it was your hand on the gun. You ended his life without ever knowing him or seeing his smile.’
‘Him or me, lady. I don’t shoot, next stick down the line shoot me.’
‘How do you know that? Is not that man, too, making his own choice? Maybe he too will choose to lay down his gun.’
‘We can never escape from choice.’
‘Fuck you! Get away from me! I never had no choice. Never had no brothers or no sisters! Nobody made no toys for me. I was bred for the army; I do what the army tell me.’
‘That’s a terrible thing to do to a child. You’ve suffered. You’re suffering now, because you have a choice to make. It’s the terrible gift you’ve come here to receive, and you’ll never be free of it again.’
The soldier patrolling the dam was a dark khaki-colored spot surrounded by moving figures in white. At first he pushed ruthlessly through the crowd, swinging his bayonet, but they followed him across the plaza. ‘My son was a gardener,’ Mrs. Hernandez said, holding out a basket of ripe tomatoes. ‘Take, eat the fruit of the man you killed.’
‘Out of my way, lady.’ He shoved her aside and turned, to encounter a small girl. ‘My abuelo told good stories,’ she said. ‘This is the story he told me about the woman in the mountain…’ He turned abruptly away from her, only to encounter a tall man, who smiled and said, ‘My cousin liked baseball. Do you play sports? No one could touch him when it came to batting, even as old as he was.’
‘Get the fuck away from me!’
‘Do you know how I felt, to see my son shot down, that bullet enter his head, that dear face I had washed so many times and watched as it grew and changed?’
‘Shut up, lady!’
‘Taste these fruits so you’ll know what you destroyed!’
‘I was ordered to do it!’
‘Choice is always possible. You chose to obey. And now we’re here to teach you the meaning of your choice. Even now, there is choice. There’s still a place set for you at our table, if you will join us.’
‘Clear the fucking way!’ He swung his rifle butt wildly, and it smashed the child in the head. She began to cry, and someone picked her up and soothed her, while a woman stepped forward. ‘My daughter, who you’ve just injured, is six years old. She likes to sing. From the time she was an infant, she moved to music. From the time she could stand, she tried to dance.’
‘I’m warning you, get out of here, or I’ll kill a few more of you.’
‘Then others will come in our place, to show you the consequences of that choice. But let me tell you more about my brother.’ He turned and fled.
Back in the Plaza, a sad, stocky man said, ‘My wife was the mother of five children. I loved her dearly. Do you love someone? Can you imagine what it’s like, to have her taken from you, to answer the cries of the children?’ The figures in white ignored Bird and converged on Ohnine. Bird recognized Rob Johnson and his kids. Nellie Johnson had been on the Water Council, and Ohnine had been one of her executioners.
‘I’m not fucking around with you, man. You have until I count three to get out of here, or you can follow your witch wife to hell,’ Ohnine said.
‘Here are our children…’ A shot rang out, and a red wound opened in Rob’s temple. He fell. The oldest Johnson boy stepped forward. He looked about fifteen, rangy and tall, his voice wavering only slightly. ‘My father was a good man. He loved us, and he knew how to fix anything.’ Ohnine shot the boy in the forehead. A girl stepped over her older brother’s body. I should do something, Bird thought, but he was frozen, immobilized with horror. ‘My brother always tried to protect me,’ Iris Johnson said. ‘My mother and father loved us. Didn’t anyone ever love you? Does your mother know that you kill mothers?’ He killed her too. Her eight-year-old sister stepped forward, and Ohnine, now wild-eyed and out of control, shot her before she could speak. There was another girl, younger still, who held the hand of a fat two-year-old. She broke down, flinging herself down on her father’s body and crying, throwing only one reproachful look at the man who pointed his gun at her. Bird held his breath. Ohnine’s hand was trembling. An old man stepped forward. ‘There’s still a place for you at our table, brother, if you will choose to join us,’ he said. Ohnine swung his gun blindly, as a woman appeared behind him, and then another and another, on all sides, women and men and children, until Bird could hardly see Ohnine in their midst, all of them saying softly, ‘Now, even now, there is a place for you.’
Ohnine dropped his gun and began to scream. The other soldiers watched as Ohnine huddled in a tight knot, puking on the paving stones and sobbing.”
Madrone, Isis, and the others make it to San Francisco. “Mary Ellen looked at home behind the stove, as if she’d always lived at Black Dragon House, helping Maya dish up stew for platoons of sick soldiers. Sara, dressed in a simple shirt and jeans, her blond hair pulled plainly back from her face and braided, awkwardly balanced trays of food.”
Madrone and the city’s healers confer about the best ways to wean surrendered soldiers off the boosters. Sam, an older healer and friend of Maya’s, tells Madrone the story of Ohnine and the Johnson family. “‘You mean he shot them all?’
‘All except the youngest two. Then he sort of fell apart. We brought him back to Lily’s place, but he’s still not eating or speaking.’
Isis looked up. ‘Those guards, they’re the elite. Bred for it, not like your city rats and water thieves. They’re soldiers first and last. You got one of them to come over, you doin’ good. Maybe the rest’ll follow.’ Later, told the council, ‘You people have a beautiful city here. I’ve walked all over it, looking for the poor sections, looking for the places where the houses are rotten and the gardens are dry, and at last I believe what Madrone’s been telling me, that you’ve built a place where everybody has enough. That isn’t what we’re used to where I come from, and it’s not what the soldiers are used to either. Doesn’t surprise me that they’re starting to desert. Most of them are just poor sticks that get picked up off the street, and go to jail or into the army. They’re not your problem. Your problem is the Elite Corps, the ones that are bred and raised for the army, that don’t know anything else. They’re going to be the last to turn, if you can turn them at all. And if you can’t turn them, you may have to kill them. I know that’s not your way, but it’s got to be faced. And they’re not easy to kill.’
‘Do you have any ideas about how to reach them?’ someone asked.
‘All I can say is this: they stick by their units. That’s who they’re loyal to, that’s who they believe in. So if you can turn one of them from any unit, there’s a good chance the others will follow. But getting that one – I don’t know how to tell you to do that. Maybe work on the one you’ve got, the one that shot all those people. Maybe you can change him.’
At Lily’s, Madrone reached out and took Ohnine’s hand. She began to heal, which was only to reach and offer, without judgment, to let the power flow. They sat in silence through the night, holding hands. Outwardly, nothing moved. Inwardly, Madrone poured colors down gray dust roads, kindled rain on mud-cracked fields, cried over corpses, and excavated a long-buried stone that began to pulse and beat like a heart. Night turned to dawn. The patch of sky framed by Lily’s window changed to indigo, then hazy blue. Finally the man looked up. His head rose slowly, like the tip of a bulb risking an emergence into light. His eyes slowly focused on Madrone. ‘My name’s Madrone,’ she said softly. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Don’t got one. Number’s Ohnine fivethirtythree sixteenhundred, Unit Five.’
‘What do people call you?’
‘We’re not going to hurt you, Ohnine.’
‘That’s not how we operate.’
‘That’s how everybody operates.’
‘What you gonna do, then?’
‘If you can heal yourself, you could help us.’
‘Help you how?’
‘Help us understand you, all of you.’
‘So we can save ourselves, and you all too, maybe.’
‘What you mean?’
‘I mean that there truly is a place for you at our table, if you choose to join us. You could live in this city, the rest of your unit too, with enough to eat and drink and nobody giving you orders to kill people. There’d be work to do, but it’d be worthwhile work, making things, growing things. And you could have a name of your own, not just a number, and respect, if you earn it.’
‘Don’t believe you.’
‘I’m going to give you a name.’
‘I come from the pens. We don’t got names. Only the white boys get to earn them.’
‘But now you’re part of us. All of us in this city, we’re like a unit too. All of us together. And everybody has a name.’
‘What name you gonna give me?’
‘River. A big stream of water that flows free above the ground.’
His lips curved in a tentative smile, and he looked young for a moment. Then his smile faded. ‘How do you know who to stand with?’ he asked.
‘What do you mean?’
‘How do you know who your people are? Bird – you know Bird?’
‘He was my lover.’
‘That Bird, he talk a lot about his people, about this city. Lotta bullshit, maybe.’
‘It sound good. I like to picture what it be like, if what he say is true. Then that day, you know the day I mean?’ Madrone nodded, and he went on. ‘We had our orders to kill any people come at us like that. Didn’t think nothing about it. We in the army, we do what they say to do. I shoot one, shoot another one. They keep on coming. Stupidest fucking thing I ever seen. I shoot again. I can feel Bird behind me – he don’t like it. Well, they his people, I think, and then this thought come to me: Who my people? I never asked that before, and I have to stop to think about it. I see that girl, the little one, and I think, how do I know who she is? I don’t even know who I am. Never even thought before that I might be somebody, but maybe I am. She look like me, kind of – maybe she my people and I don’t even know? I couldn’t kill her.’
‘No,’ Madrone said softly. “I’m glad.’
‘Maybe I already kill my people – maybe they gonna haunt me for it. How do I know? I never thought about it before, but now I can’t stop thinking about it. Where did I come from? What happened to me?’
‘You found your immortal soul,’ Madrone said. ‘The bigsticks said you didn’t have one. But they were wrong.’
‘And now you gave me a name,’ River said. ‘You must be my people, now.’
‘We will be your people. Will you help us?’
‘What you want?’
‘I want to save Bird.’
‘Yeah. He one tough demonfucker, but they gonna break him down.’
‘And the others too. There’s a girl, a young girl, a friend of mine and Bird’s.’
‘That skinny little girl they bring him to see?’
‘Where are they keeping her?’
‘I don’t know. They move her all the time. Sometimes they keep her close by, down the hall. Sometimes in another building.’
‘Could you find her? I think they’re using her to threaten Bird, to make him do what they want.’
‘They using her, all right. Maybe I can find her. Have to make contact with the unit, first. See what they know.’
Madrone did another healing session with River, a bowl of honey in her lap. Breathing deep, she triggered her bee mind, and let herself sink into a trance so deep she could read the man’s chemistry from his smell. Fear, pain, and an immune system that was barely functional. She could see the patterns in the ch’i worlds, she could taste what he lacked and will her own body to provide it, brewed out of her own hormones and proteins, exuded in the bead of sweat that formed in her bee spot. She let it drop into the honey, placed her hand above the bowl to charge it with ch’i, and let it transform. River watched her, transfixed with fear and fascination. Now she took the breaths that called her back to herself, looked into his eyes, and smiled. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ she said. ‘I’m going to give you another gift.’
‘Your freedom. Taste this honey. See, it’s harmless, I’ll taste it myself. It’s magic, good magic. Eat this, and you will never need the boosters again.’
Cautiously, River dipped a finger in and licked it off. ‘Tastes good.’
‘It is good. Go ahead, eat more. Eat as much as you can.’
‘If this shit works, I get you an army.’
‘It’s a deal.’
Meanwhile, Maya, fed up with doing nothing, put on a white dress, brushed out her long silver hair, wrapped a white cloak around herself, and took her silver-handled walking stick down from its peg. No one moved on the walkways, except, here and there, an armed khaki-dressed figure or a ghost in white like her, on a mission of haunting. The morning had passed by the time she reached the old stone mansion atop Nob Hill where the general made his headquarters. The steps of the house were lined with ghosts, silent and patient in their white cloaks. Maya could see that in some of the watchers’ patience had hardened into apathy and desolation. Still they waited. No one emerged. She mounted the steps, leaning heavily on her cane, then used it to pound on the locked front door. Finally, the door opened a crack and a dark face peered out. ‘Get off the steps, or we’ll clear you off! You can’t come in here!’
‘You can’t keep me out,’ Maya said, sliding her cane into the crack and butting against the door with her shoulder. But really it was her eyes that gave her entrance. For she’d slipped out of herself and something larger had slipped in: the Reaper, La Segadora, the Old Crone, the Death Hag. She’d become the Implacable One, and no boy soldier could withstand her. She pushed the guard out of the way and strode down the hall. He followed after her and tried to grab her arm, but she dangled her cane between his feet and he tripped and fell hard on the marble floor. I’m skirting the edge of nonviolence, she admitted, but while he was gathering himself up again she pushed through a pair of imposing double doors and found herself in the general’s office.
Maya pounded her cane on the floor, and the general turned and stared.
‘What in Satan’s name is this? How the hell did she get in here? Who are you?’
Maya opened her mouth to say something reasonable, but what came out seemed to come through her from somewhere else. ‘Your death,’ Maya said. ‘I’m what you’ve always resisted and what you come to in the end. Your fate. I’m the gray in your hair, the lines on the back of your hand. I’m the Reaper, the reckoning, the consequences of your actions. I’m your chance to rise to the opportunity you have here. I see who you are, and who you might be. Your ancestors cluster around you. One of them is a small boy who watches as the Inquisitors drag his mother off, strip her naked in the public square, prick her with needles searching for devil’s marks, rape her, and burn her alive. I see his eyes as he watches the flesh that meant his comfort and food crackle and char, as the hands that soothed him blacken. I see him wear that pain as armor, grow into it until it becomes his skin. And now he is a grown man in a faraway place: La Gorée, Africa. Do you know that name? The Last Door, they called it, an island through which all slaves passed on their way out of the continent. And here he is, your illustrious forefather, in the rape room, violating a black woman while her own small boy is forced to watch. Maybe he leaves his seed in her, seed of pain that grows in her belly and somehow survives the Middle Passage through hell to be born. Not your ancestor, that one, but the father of fathers of one of these men here, or my grandson. And the woman is able to love the child, as women do love, until this one too is torn away from her. Oh, it’s awesome what human beings are capable of doing to each other and surviving. So many women harboring seeds of pain, nurturing, bringing them to birth so those offspring can enact their pain on some other woman’s body, and always, always with one hope – that somehow, someday, this will change. Someone will refuse to pass the pain on any longer. Who knows? Maybe you are that person?’
The general stared at Maya, transfixed. ‘Pain forms a man,’ he said. ‘Or breaks him. A man isn’t made until he’s been broken.’ Then he seemed to shake himself awake. ‘What’s your name?’
Maya took a deep breath. The Reaper deserted her, and she was just a woman again, old and small. She drew herself up to her full height and spoke with dignity. ‘Maya Greenwood.’
‘Aha. The writer?’
‘I wasn’t aware my reputation still survived in the southlands.’
‘I once had the pleasure of burning a number of your books.’
‘A fan,’ Maya said. ‘I’m flattered.’
‘What did you hope to achieve, coming to me like this? Did you expect to win me over with your blasphemous babbling? I would have thought Maya Greenwood was smarter than that.’
‘I came to warn you,’ Maya said. ‘You can’t win here.’
The general laughed. ‘Your grandson wouldn’t agree with you. He seems to think we can’t lose.’
‘I’ve come to share his ordeal,’ Maya said.
‘That can be arranged.’ The general gestured to his guards. ‘Lock her up. But don’t work her over. Her heart might go out on us, and I’ve got a special use for her.’
Maya sat down on the rug. ‘There is a place set for you at our table, if you will choose to join us,’ she said as the soldiers dragged her away.
‘You got to eat, ma’am,’ a soldier said later, picking up the platter of bread Maya had left untouched.
‘No, young man, there you’re wrong,’ Maya replied. ‘I’m ninety-nine years old. I don’t got to do nothing.’
‘For real?’ he breathed. He looked very young to Maya; perhaps they drafted them at fifteen or sixteen in the south. His eyes were wide and round in his copper face. ‘You really ninety-nine years old?’
‘Just had my birthday, back in June. Fog-Rolls-In Moon, we call it. Not that we were much in the mood to celebrate.’
‘Maybe you like some soup? Bring you some,’ he offered.
‘I’m a wild bird. I don’t eat in captivity.’
‘You don’t eat, you die, ma’am.’
‘Call me Maya. It’s my name. What’s your name?’
‘Don’t got one. They took it when they took me for the army.’
‘Ridiculous. Nobody can take your name. You still remember it, don’t you?’ He glanced quickly around the dark room, as if worried that someone might hear them, then nodded. ‘What is it?’
‘Tom,’ he whispered. ‘Tomás, my mother used to say.’
‘Mucho gusto, Tomás. Pleased to meet you. There, that was your name, and now you have it back. So you have a mother? You weren’t bred for the army?’
He shook his head no. ‘Our unit, we come off the streets. Soup, ma’am? What you say?’
‘Why are you so worried about me?’
‘You die, you haunt me.’
‘Does that bother you?’
He shuddered. ‘Come out to the guardroom, ma’am. I need to clean this place.’
‘You’ll have to carry me.’
‘No, I’m refusing to cooperate. It’s a time-honored political tactic.’
‘Okay, I carry you’ – he hesitated, and then said, ‘Maya.’ He set down the bread, slid his hands under her, and lifted her, holding her out from his body as if afraid to allow too much contact. He carried her into the hallway, where a number of soldiers were stationed. They were all bronze-skinned, with dark straight hair. Three of them were playing cards at a desk they’d set up. Tomás set her down on an empty chair beside the desk. ‘Watch her,’ he said to the card players. ‘I got to clean her cell.’
‘Tie her,’ suggested the soldier closest to Tomás, a big man with muscular forearms.
‘I ain’t gonna tie her. She’s ninety-nine years old.’
‘No shit?’ The soldier turned and looked at Maya.
‘On my honor, as a witch and a former Girl Scout.’
‘You gonna put a spell on us?’
‘I don’t need to,’ Maya said. ‘You’re already under a spell, a spell I’d like to free you from.’
‘Who got us under a spell?’ asked Muscles.
‘The general, of course. He’s got you under a spell of obedience. Otherwise, why are you here? You don’t want to be here, do you? When you could sit with us at our table, at the place we have ready for you?’
‘What you people mean by that? You mean we should come on over to your side, win the war for you? Then what? We die from no boosters?’
‘We’re on the edge of a solution to the booster problem.’
‘Say we come over, say we even win. Then what? What you do with us? How you feed an army?’
‘We can’t feed an army. But we can offer you ways to feed yourselves. Land, if you want to farm. Work here in the city, if you prefer. A house to live in – a big one if you share it, a small place or an apartment if you want to live on your own.’
‘What kind of work?’
‘What kind of work would you like to do? We can train you for anything you like.
You could build transport towers, or help maintain the water systems, or raise silkworms. Some of you might even want to study at the university. We’re short-handed here in the north; we’ve got more that needs doing than people to do it. So we all work hard. You’d have to work hard too. But you’d never lack for food or water.’
‘Why should we believe you? What’s the catch?’
‘You’ve seen our city. Have you found any slums? Any ghettos? You’ve seen who our leaders were, before you murdered most of them. You’ve seen that they come from all races, that no one group rules us. It’s true there are some things we won’t tolerate here. Rape, for one. Violence. But we’re offering you a chance at freedom. Isn’t that worth a gamble?’
Tomás emerged with the cleaning bucket. ‘The room’s clean, now. I can put her back.’
Muscles shook his head. ‘Let her stay out here with us.’
‘Yeah,’ said another soldier. ‘I like to hear her talk.’
Without meetings, without consensus, without formalized strategies, people began to fill the streets. By day small groups sat down in the major roadways, impeding troop movements. When they were cleared, with blows or shots, others took their places. By night, spontaneous marches assembled, hundreds and finally thousands of people, dressed in white, roaring and chanting and marching through the streets while drums beat. Madrone joined them when her work for the day was done. It assuaged some deep need in her, to walk in company with others, voices raised. The soldiers stood and watched. Whether they had been ordered not to fire or were afraid of ghosts, nobody knew.
At the next council meeting, Madrone said, ‘I have good news. We’ve developed a protocol for booster withdrawal that appears to be effective. We’re ready to start leaking that news to the army.’
The next day at the central plaza, a crowd gathered and saw Maya, pale and frail in her tattered white dress, bound to a pole, a gag stretched across her mouth. Isis nudged Madrone. ‘Let’s get up there, closer to her. Maybe we can do something.’ They began worming their way through the crowd but stopped as a group of soldiers pushed their way through the massed people and mounted the platform in the center. They were molasses dark, with tightly curled African hair, like River.
‘That’s my unit,’ River said. ‘I got to talk to them.’ He plunged into the crowd in the wake of the soldiers. River’s unit arranged themselves in two lines on the north and south sides of the platform. One lone figure, Bird, was left standing in the center. Madrone recognized him, even though in his uniform he appeared as one more dark, anonymous soldier. He gave off a red glow of pain, surrounded by a dull gauzy film that seemed to wrap him up in a separate bubble of air.
The general stepped forward, his voice booming out over the crowd. ‘I didn’t call you here,’ he said. ‘Nevertheless, it’s opportune that you have come. The Fourth Expeditionary Force of the Stewardship has claimed this land in the name of the Four Purities. We’re charged with cleansing this land from all forms of witchcraft and demon worship. Before you stands the chief witch and demoness. You’ve come to witness her execution. One of your number has abandoned the ways of evil and joined us to receive the blessings of Our Lord. Cadet Fivefour Threethreefour, once known as Bird, we honor you today by choosing you as executioner.’
A bee landed on Bird’s forehead and stung him between the eyes. He let out a small cry. A golden pain, a good pain, shot through him like a shaft of sunlight, breaking through the fog. A myriad of Mayas swam and danced before his eyes, but each one was clear and perfect. Bees walked his wrists with thread feet, and he wanted to caress them. They were emissaries of a power that always and everywhere offered itself, asking nothing in return. That was the real gift, the true grace: love, the fifth sacred thing. ‘Fire!’ the general shouted, but bee venom trickled through Bird’s veins, dissolving the drugs and the haze of pain. Everything became very clear. Each separate face in the crowd seemed to have a firm outline drawn around it. Maya’s eyes glowed, big as moons. He would not put out their light. What happened to Maya, to Rosa, wasn’t under his control. He couldn’t save them. He couldn’t redeem the choices he’d made before, or guarantee that he’d have the strength to resist again. But none of that mattered. What mattered was only to gather the courage for this one moment. Slowly, as if he were laying a child down to sleep, Bird lowered the rifle and placed it on the platform. ‘I won’t kill for you,’ he said to the general.
‘Then you’ll die.’
‘It’s a better choice,’ Bird said. ‘There’s more hope in it.’ He raised his hands above his head and waited for the noise and the blast of pain. But he wasn’t afraid. He could feel the ground under him again. The song he’d made for Madrone echoed in his ears. He’d thought he’d lost the music, but now it worked his lips and pried his mouth open and forced its way out of him. He sang for the people, hoarsely at first, but gradually his voice strengthened, and the sound rose and swelled above the crowd. His upraised arms became a gesture not of surrender but invoking, for he’d never loved his life more than at this moment. And even when his voice was silenced, some other voice would continue the song.
‘Unit Five, fire!’ the general ordered.
Bird looked out at the men who had their guns trained on him. It was his own unit, and that seemed comforting, somehow, to die at the hands of friends, not strangers. He’d grown into them, become one of them, as they now shared some part of him. He smiled and sang louder, as one by one the soldiers lowered their guns. ‘Fire!’ the general ordered again. They remained standing, silent and impassive. ‘Fire!’ the general roared a third time. ‘Fire, you slimecrawlers, or I’ll have every soulless one of you taken out and shot!’
River sprang onto the platform. ‘Unit Five,’ he cried, and everyone in the Plaza could hear him. ‘We in the wrong army! Follow me, and fight for ourselves! The witches, they can fix us so we don’t need the boosters. They our true people. Stand with them. We got nothing to fear.’
‘Shoot to kill!’ the general ordered his private guard. River knocked Bird down and grabbed his discarded rifle as gunfire rang out. The soldiers of Unit Five returned fire, leaping off the platform and into the panicked crowd. Lasers flared, shots rang out, and people began screaming and desperately trying to push through the press of bodies. The squadron around Maya melted away to join the scattered soldiers of River’s unit.
Isis and Madrone reached the edge of the platform near Maya just in time to see Bird dive at her feet as a sheet of laser fire went streaking above his head. Maya’s dress was singed, but she looked unharmed. ‘Are you okay?’ Bird shouted. She nodded. He fumbled with the ropes that held her till someone handed him a pocketknife. Released, she slumped forward but he caught her and eased her down.
‘Give her here,’ Isis called from below. She picked Maya up, slung her over her shoulder, and ran. Amid the bullets and the streaks of laser fire, Bird half jumped, half fell, off the platform to the ground. Familiar arms enfolded him; he remembered them from somewhere as he recognized the body that pressed close to his. He blinked his eyes to clear his vision and saw Madrone. For one long moment they clung together, while fire engulfed the platform and the crowd fled. Wrapped in her arms, he felt whole again, redeemed, forgiven.
Madrone and Bird found Rosa, and urged her to walk. They made their way through the thinning crowd, calling out to people as they ran. ‘The prisoners! We’ve got to free the prisoners!’ The crowd surged behind them, rising like a tide that broke on the glass doors of the old Federal building, where five armed soldiers stood guard. Madrone closed her eyes, and sent out a call. Within moments, they were surrounded by a cloud of bees, humming and buzzing and making forays at the soldiers, flying into their eyes. The soldiers dropped their guns and fled.
Rosa nestled into Madrone’s shoulder, unable to speak. People passed them by, waving banners and singing songs of victory. They lit bonfires on the tops of all the hills, and all night, drummers pounded out rhythms and people cried and danced. The army was gone. Some had fled down the old highway, others had died in the crossfire of mutinies, many had simply laid down their guns and asked to be taken in. The streets were thronged with people, the streams flowed again, and lights moved on the bay as boats sailed home. The general lay in a hospital room, and Maya sat beside him, still dressed in white. ‘So you’re dying and I’m not,’ Maya said. ‘How ironic. You get shot by your own men and I get carried off by a gorgeous Amazon pirate. Not bad for a woman of my years.’
They had offered the general healing, but when Madrone came, her hands extended toward him, he shook his head. ‘No witchcraft! I don’t mind dying. Better than living in defeat. Others will replace me.’
‘Maybe,’ said Maya. ‘Maybe not. Perhaps you’ve taught us the lessons we need to know to resist those others too.’”
Maya and Bird talk about returning to the south, and River agrees to join them with his men. Read the sequel, The City of Refuge (2016) for that story, and the prequel, Walking to Mercury (1998) to learn about Maya and her friends’ youthful activism.