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Authors: Sarah Porter

Vassa in the Night

BOOK: Vassa in the Night
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For Todd,

who proves that there truly is magic in Brooklyn

 

Night, you bring home all things

That the shining dawn scatters:

You bring home a lamb,

Bring home a kid,

Bring home a child to its mother.

—Sappho, as translated by
my grandmother, Anne Porter

Then the eyes of the little doll began to shine like two candles. It ate a little of the bread and drank a little of the soup and said: “Don't be afraid, Wassilissa the Beautiful. Be comforted. Say thy prayers, and go to sleep. The morning is wiser than the evening.”

—Post Wheeler, “Wassilissa the Beautiful”

 

PRELUDE IN NIGHT

EARLY LAST AUTUMN

When Night looked down, it saw its own eyes staring back at it. Two big black eyes, both full of stars. At first Night ignored them. Probably that strange gaze was its own reflection in a puddle, or maybe in a mirror left shattered in the street. Then it noticed something that made it curious: those eyes were full of stars, but the constellations inside them were unfamiliar. It was like gazing into the sky above another world.

Night decided to investigate. It reached out tendrils of darkness to examine this odd phenomenon. The eyes nestled, as eyes often will, inside a human face, at the top of a strong man's body. But how could night—another, different, unimaginable Night—live inside a human being?

The man waited, unmoving, on a dark field ringed by houses. Between his widened lids stars flurried through expanding black. Planets circulated like blood. Night had never seen anything so much like itself before, and a terrible longing surged through it. Maybe, finally, it had found a companion; maybe it was saved from being forever alone!

Night drew closer to him, and then closer still. The man waited, as rigid as death. He did not react in the slightest when Night came and perched on his cheekbones to get a better look. It breathed across his lashes and set them trembling. The man did not answer, not even with a blink. When Night shyly kissed him he felt very cold.

All of that should have been enough to make Night wary. It should have drawn back in alarm, floated safely above the streetlamps. But Night had been lonely for too long, and it forgot all about caution. It did not even notice that the man's face had peculiar coloring: pearly grayish white from the bottom of the nose down and coal black above. All that interested Night was what it saw
inside
his eyes. A meteor shot through their depths trailing brilliance after it. Night yearned, more than anything, to follow that streaking light.

If only it had been honest with itself, it would have admitted that the situation was suspicious. But Night, which hides everything in folds of shadow, is not in the habit of honesty. Since the man did not react to its caresses, it decided to touch him more deeply. A bit nervously, it stroked between his eyelids. His skull seemed to be hollow. He wasn't breathing. Night prodded again, curling a dark tendril through one empty socket. But the man still didn't move or even smile. Didn't he notice that Night was there? Didn't he realize Night loved him? Having gone already so far, too far, Night lost all restraint and licked and coiled its way into those eyes. It tried to speak. To beg for some reply.

And then the eyelids snapped shut, slicing right though Night's soft body.

It took Night a moment to understand. A part of itself was now trapped inside the man and couldn't get out.

It could hear that lost piece of itself crying, crashing frantically around the inside of the hollow man as it searched for an exit. He wasn't a man at all, but a trap, and Night understood what a fool it had been to fall for those glittering stars. They were only an illusion meant to draw it in. They were bait. Night battered at the eyelids, trying to set the stolen part of itself free. They stayed stubbornly closed.

Night raged like a bear that sees its cub caged and wounded.

It grew even more furious when the old woman came and pinned the eyelids securely shut with a pair of needle-sharp golden stars. This must be her doing! If dark could kill, the old woman would have crumpled to the ground in an instant.

But she didn't. She stood there grinning with satisfaction while Night silently shrieked.

“That's right,” she told Night. It realized she was no ordinary woman by the fact that she spoke to it in its own language. What human ever talks to Night? “Part of you will be staying with me, you see? Snug as a tapeworm in a rat's gut.”

The captured piece of Night's darkness rattled and cried to return to its parent. It seemed like a distinct being now that they were separated. A shadow-baby. It wept and howled and Night couldn't even comfort it.

“Oh, don't fuss,” the old woman crooned into the empty man's ear, addressing her captive night-child. “I made a mockery of man. You see? I made him just for you. He's your new home. Isn't he handsome?”

Night hunched over the old woman, wondering desperately how it could hurt her. It managed to yank her hair with a breeze, but that was hardly enough. She only leered at it in response.

“You, too. There's no point in complaining. You won't be getting your little bitty back, you see? Not ever. But don't you worry, I'll treat him humanely. And yes, he's
him
. He's a man now, in a manner of speaking. I'll keep him asleep and he won't need to feel the pain of separation. Not quite so much, at least.”

With that she lowered a helmet onto the black-and-white head. The helmet was huge, domed like a planetarium, and though it looked much bigger than the head it still seemed to fit perfectly. She slipped a visor of opaque black glass over the star-stabbed eyes.

The lost fragment of Night quieted, falling into a deep sleep inside what looked like a large, muscular man.

The man was sitting astride what appeared to be a black motorcycle, and the old woman reached to start something that was not actually an engine, though it sounded like one. Night watched the blind, man-shaped prison begin to drive in a circle. Around and around.

Night's consciousness is one infinite starry moment, timeless and drifting. It was no surprise, then, that it was so easily confused. Without understanding what was happening, Night was falling for the same trick in a dozen different locations, all at the same moment. A dozen old women sank golden stars into the eyelids of a dozen hollow men. Night's pieces became like lost children, riding forever on identical motorcycles in identical parking lots in scattered cities. Night lingered wherever it saw them. Hoping someday to bring them home.

Hoping they could all be one again. Join back together, and share the same stars.

 

CHAPTER 1

People live here on purpose; that's what I've heard. They even cross the country deliberately and move in to the neighborhoods near the river, and suddenly their shoes are cuter than they are, and very possibly smarter and more articulate as well, and their lives are covered in sequins and they tell themselves they've
arrived.
They put on tiny feathered hats and go to parties in warehouses; they drink on rooftops at sunset. It's a destination and everyone piles up and congratulates themselves on having made it all the way here from some wherever or other. To them this is practically an enchanted kingdom. A whole lot of Brooklyn is like that now, but not the part where I live.

Not that there
isn't
any magic around here. If you're dumb enough to look in the wrong places, you'll stumble right into it. It's the stumbling out again that might become an issue. The best thing you can do is ignore it. Cross the street. Don't make eye contact—if by some remote chance you encounter something with eyes.

This isn't even a slum. It's a scrappy neither-nor where no one
arrives.
You just find yourself here for no real reason, the same way the streets and buildings did, squashed against a cemetery that sprawls out for miles. It has to be that big, because the dead of New York keep falling like snow but never melt. There's an elevated train station where a few subway lines rattle overhead in their anxiety to get somewhere else. We have boarded-up appliance stores and nail salons, the Atlantis Wash and Lube, and a mortuary on almost every block. There are houses, the kind that bundle four families close together and roll them around in one another's noise as if the ruckus was bread crumbs and somebody was going to come along soon and deep-fry us. Really, it's such a nothing of a place that I have to dye my hair purple just to have something to look at. If it weren't for those little zigs of color jumping in the corners of my eyes, I might start to think that I was going blind.

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