The burial instructions are scored into her skin. The raised script that tendrils her arms, patterning her hands and wrists; the palimpsest of scars upon scars across her back. The keloids hidden so well behind her ears we wouldn’t have noticed them if she hadn’t bunched her hair upon her head one day, folded her ears in to show us.
It is, Chise said, the crest of the clan I would’ve married into, if I’d come of age in Ri’ingja. And here, she pointed, is my husband’s name and below is his father’s name in case he died and they needed to wed me to another son or cousin or something. Relieved I got away from that, she said. Nubia stroking the cragged ridge behind her ears. Wouldn’t go back if I could.
Nights we cannot sleep; hear Chise rustling around our flat, arguing with the ghosts in her brain. Mornings we find her nude except for the socks on her feet, her hands streaked in ink and blood, coiled asleep on the floor. Other things that were not there before: writing scrawled across the walls, scribbles not even Nubia can make meaning of; books pulled from their slots and de-spined; plates and cups smashed to shards. We crunch porcelain beneath our feet, begin to sweep. Slip on slicks of blood we cannot see for the dark and only barely catch each other from falling, our palms skidding on the wall, our breasts bouncing loose out our dresses. At the far end of the hall the windows creak, eyeing open—though I swear I checked the locks and latches before bed—and before I realize what I’ve seen there is a swish of tail through the glass, scales bristled like feathers. Slaps the windows shut.
We draft Chise up by her armpits, silver lesions seething up along her chest, stomach, thighs. Set her onto the armchair. She crumples into herself, stares back at us with the suspicion of a stray dog, as if she has forgotten what she’s called, how she got here. Her lips are purpled, teeth chattering, and her hands tremble violently enough her chapped knuckles split and glisten, though our flat is never set above 73 degrees and none of us knows the kind of cold that numbs and bites and fuzzes memories away for good. But here she is. Blabbering in the language she was born with, slaver foamed on her chin. The hairs on her arms shudder erect at our touch, her palms and feet crisscrossed with cuts. Confusion creases her face like an iris whose petals have unfurled, wilted.
What is she saying, I ask Nubia. What are we supposed to do?
Well, she says, gripping Chise’s wrist, inspecting the wounds. She’s not saying anything that makes sense. Of that I’m certain enough. These cuts though, the lesions–
Nubia thumbs the veins at her temples, nostrils flared, her hands smeared with blood. Don’t move, she says. We can’t leave her alone for now. Tip-toeing to the kitchen now but I swear I can hear her joints cracking, blood booming in her head.
Chise geysers heat, feverish and explosive. I bunch the edge of my dress; wipe the sweat pearled on her front, the bar budding above her lips. I stand up with the intention of running the bath for her and her fingers cuff my wrist; her nails grown hooked, talon-length. She is trying to say my name but her tongue touches the roof of her mouth and doesn’t budge; spit dribbling out her mouth, her voice muffled. Nubia returns from the kitchen; tweezes chips of glass out of the crescent of her soles, which throb and bleed, Chise hissing when the antiseptic touches her wounds. Chise’s grip on me goes slack—enough that Nubia can spread the claw, bandage her hands—and her mouth seems unable to form a scaffold for the word in her head, the name of what I saw just moments ago through windowpane. When she was a child she called it the hix. She doesn’t need to say it for me to know she’s seen it too. The word is hot on her breath, foul like fish gone to rot, like the air outside the dome.
A long moan—like an out-of-tune cello note—ripples through her throat and I see the wet shelf of her teeth, clenching and unclenching; the gnash and grind of her molars. This is completely fucked, I say to no one, though Nubia is at it with nail clippers, huffing, working now on Chise’s toes. How difficult it was to shut Chise up when she was a child and our language was new to her, and how she would spout these winding sentences that hurtled on but made no sense to us, the last words flickering ahead like the end of a moving train. How we couldn’t take walks through the park without extemporaneous games of hide-and-seek, Chise hiding, and Nubia and me searching the playground tunnels and beneath the bridge that spans the creek and behind tufts of shrubs; swiveling, circling round again. Our voices rough as gravel in our throats.
Only Chise could ever end the game though; appeared between us like she had never left, nonplussed and speaking to herself in Ri’ingja. A crust of dirt trapped beneath her nails, her reptilian skin.
She’s saying, Nubia would tell me, that she had to hide, no choice. That she had seen the hix behind us and had to run.
She needs, I begin to say. I think she could–
Except I cannot hear the sound of my own voice, cannot see the direction of my thoughts. What do I know about Chise’s needs? I crane my head back and scan the floors for broken glass we might have missed, the rusty smudge of footprints on the floor. Through the dim of the hall I can almost make out the Chise we’ve lost, the girl whose features came chiseled prematurely, the willowy lank of her limbs. She is balanced on one foot; hops, teeters. I wonder how loudly I would need to shout for her to hear me across the years.
Outside the dome the earth is giving in: the ocean simmering at the coastline, the rind of particles that spreads an ochre sheet across the sky, the air sulfuric. No one who leaves the dome returns unaltered, like astronauts who return to gravity slightly taller, their reflexes dulled, their DNA recombined.
When we were at university—Nubia in the thick of her linguistics dissertation, me finishing my legal training—we’d perch in the observatory of the library; watch the trail of women winding down the desert valley, tent cities hunkered before the gates of the dome. They were mesmerizing to us, the women: their swollen tunics flapping in the wind, the colors brilliant against the expanse of sand. They slung their infants to their chests. Enveloped their faces in thick veils, though this did not protect them from the toxic debris in the air, the scalding sun. We did not know where they came from then, had never strayed beyond the radius of familiarity: the library which is the heart of our city, the subterranean warrens of the shopping mall, the forest hooping the circumference of the dome. The towered observatory, which juts towards the oculus of the city where light refracts and eddies oddly, mirage-like.
We knew little of the world outside the dome, only that there were cities bleeding people into the desert. That there were cities built in open air, draining what little remained of the world. The dying body of it: its bones brittle as chalk, its blood cancerous, its lungs collapsing, collapsed.
We try Chise on bone broth, liquefied vegetables, juices loaded with protein paste. We try teas and tinctures, milk baths, home-crafted balms. No use. She prefers biting us to eating anything we give her; tackles us when we attempt to paint the walls their normal white, grappling for the rollers above our heads. She refuses clothes altogether now. Sweats through even the thinnest fabrics, leaves nests of cut-up scraps around the house. When we call the doctor in to examine her condition, she leaps onto the ottoman in the living room, dashes for the kitchen, slides beneath the table with her gums bared, hands covering her ears.
It’s a quiet epidemic, the doctor says. She does not explain what this means, in what ways it is quiet; says the common denominator in most cases is that the victim was born outside the dome, exposed to unfiltered air for a significant fraction of her life. Ri’ingja women mostly, anyone allowed entry before asylum laws were repealed. She blows on her tea, steam misting her glasses; sets her mug down to wipe the lenses. Her eyes, when she talks, do not meet our faces at all. Not our tense hands or the space between our shoulders. I can tell through the reflection on her lenses that she is staring at the walls, covered up in the sign system Chise has invented, the grid of diamonds limbed to rhombuses, of shapes conjoined to other shapes by lines, arrows. Just look at it from here, said Nubia the other day. You can blink if you need to, won’t make a difference. Just don’t move any. What do you see?
I didn’t know how to say it then, that any time I thought I’d recognized the pattern the symbols turned, tilted, moved.
As far as we know, continues the doctor—clearing her throat—there’s nothing like it, whatever this is. We have no way to treat it. Haven’t even named whatever it is.
We ask her what a proper diet might consist of, how her symptoms will progress over time, how long she has before the illness wrings the life out of her. We ask her how others have gone about it, preparing the burial rites.
The doctor shrugs. I suppose, she says, their guardians have come to terms with it. The impossibility of bringing them back and burying them properly, in their land. Mostly superstition of theirs anyway, she says, mumbling now as if to someone else. Spirits wandering aimlessly through the desert, seeking their homes for all eternity. Odd that they come here still believing that. Don’t you think?
When we found Chise, about a decade ago, she was in her ninth year and her eyes flashed amber like signal fires. Nubia was training novice interpreters at the border camps, interviewing refugees. As for me, my hands were heavy with asylum cases that would take years to resolve, documents piled in insurmountable stacks.
She had been lodged in the unaccompanied children’s tent; the aunts and cousins she came with were either sick or dead. She was veiled, her tunic a billowing spectrum of blues and she appeared—beneath the greenish haze that lit the tent—a figure composed of water. The soles were coming off her sandals and her feet were cracked dry, sandy white. Left lines of grime in the bath when we brought her home with us. By then we had learned enough about Ri’ingja women to know why they had abandoned their country, the reasons they risked diseasing their bodies in the desert: marriages arranged before girls could even speak, contaminated water, the sickening air. We knew also about the violence done to them when they were caught: young girls trafficked among desert overlords, the skin flayed off their backs. Bodies half-buried in the sand.
When Nubia asked for her name, the three of us huddled closely enough I could hear the rhythm of our breathing—harmonizing, syncing—she only stared, glassy-eyed. Tilted her head to one side and chirped her answer; the words coagulated. Nubia had tried to teach me Ri’ingja when we were still in school, stuffed my cheeks with sounds I struggled to shape into words, its syntax an oxbow of language that refused, as much as I practiced, to fit into my thinking. The girl took to Nubia immediately though; spoke so quickly I wondered if Nubia could keep up, the twists and trills so radically different from anything our throats and mouths can do. She lifted a sleeve, held out her arm: scars scored from shoulder to elbow to palm.
So. Her name, I whispered. Nubia scritching in her notepad.
It is Chise, she said, her fingers tracing an elliptical spiral notched at the side of her wrist. This is, said Nubia, the symbol of it. In her language.
Nubia cannot sleep. Her hot breath blooming across my neck, her lips hovering close enough I can feel their gloss on my skin. My skin prickles, a hot twang scattering up my arms and stomach, my erect nipples. She threads her arm beneath mine, her fingers strumming my ribcage; scoops my breasts in her hands. A whimper rattles through my throat and my mouth falls fist-wide, moaning out her name. I cannot remember the last time we did this, staring up at the smatter of prismatic light on the ceiling. Nubia’s tongue roving up my thighs and my fingers reaching, wiggling towards the damp mess between her legs. We used to imagine what she might have looked like: the child we would have made, if it were possible. Teased each other about the unwanted qualities she might have inherited from us, the worst of our genes pooled together. I can hear myself now, the shallow vibrations of each pant, my hips bucking, writhing fast enough now the bed squeaks out a beat. The crown of my head against the headboard. Drowning out whatever sounds we’ve been hearing lately, pressing in through the seams of the doors.
In the morning Chise is perched on a chair at the window, lathering the balm on her legs, massaging her calves, a book spread open on her lap. Her hair is coiled upon her shoulder, each strand plaited tight. We watch her without interrupting, her face angled in concentration, eyes trained on the city below, which is waking now with early commuters, school-aged children wiping the rheum from their eyes. She looks as she had just weeks ago, before she fell ill: each gesture executed gingerly, the creases on her face ironed smooth. She lids the balm, fingers through her book, lands on whatever she’s been looking for. A pattern of language perhaps. Perhaps a shard of memory that has been waiting to dredge itself up, to reel her back to what she’s lost, what she cannot return to. The doctor warned us though that this might happen: unexpected snaps of normality. The deterioration beginning again as quickly as it had paused, returning with violence. We haven’t blanked the walls of her derangement yet, but if she notices she doesn’t let on.
Nubia prepares a feast for breakfast, flat filled with the smell of burnt pancakes, cheese melting into thick omelet folds, bacon squirming in its own grease. I want to help, says Chise, her arms wrapped round Nubia’s waist. She is all giggles, halving and squeezing oranges into the juicer, wiping flour and snail-trails of yolk off the counter.
There is a story she remembers at breakfast. Bread crumbs speckling her lips, half-chewed toast in her mouth. A story the elders shared in hushed warning, a cold note to every vowel, whenever a woman, incapable of withstanding another beating from her husband, confined to abject dependency, would declare her intentions of abandoning Ri’ingja for the desert, where she would perish outside the purview of her ancestors, without a proper burial, without an elder to read the prayer scored into her skin. And out there, they cautioned—their gnarled fingers kicking the air like spider legs—lurks the hix, hungry for unprotected souls, detecting even the slimmest of fears: snakes and scarab beetles, the fire spreading through the desert valley, the black drop of a well.
She does not remember how many times we’ve already heard this story. How many occasions we awoke with her squeezed between us, her drool pooled on Nubia’s shoulder, our six tangled legs. How many times she kicked herself out of her sleep, shouting for the ghosts in her nightmares to get away, get away. Even as she got older, she claimed with certainty that she’d seen it beneath the skin of the walls, recognized the shape of it from when she was a child in the desert. The hix camouflaged in the sand dunes, its sharp head burrowing into the ground. She had, she said, felt the length of it slithering beneath her feet, circling the perimeter of their campsites, its thick bones shifting beneath the sand.
We feel it everywhere lately, the hix. Its shadow crouched over Chise while she sleeps, snarling at us through the taps. Stealing after me as I catch the bullet to the office. I think, I tell Nubia one night—both of us too terrified to sleep—I think I believe her, I think this whole time we’ve just–
With one hand Nubia covers my mouth. Brings my hand to her breast with the other. We fuck until light sluices through the windows, sheets sticking to our anxious bodies, the taste of each other on our hands and lips. We fuck like a couple that knows it cannot last, who knows it’s not a matter of if but how soon one or both of them will fall out of love, fuck everything up—we ride this out like it’s our last. I want to tell her to stop, to explain that when I look the walls are folding in upon the bed, covered now in Chise’s writing, the invented scrawl shifting around like a tattoo on flexed muscle. But Nubia huffs and pants into my cunt and already I can imagine the dull expression in her eyes, her mouth and chin slick with my sex, and the thought of her—looking back at me—reels me back into my body, my orgasm receding further and further away until my breath is even again and the room is still enough we can hear Chise shredding our books to confetti and stuffing the scraps into her mouth.
The writing returns across the walls, almost vengeful. Nubia pacing up and down the hallway, scraps of paper stuck to the soles of her feet, inspecting the damage. What the fuck is going on, she says, her thumb flat between her brows. What the fuck is she trying to tell us.
Nubia tells me she needs to leave the flat, has work to do. I love her, she says, but I’m losing it. I don’t know what I’ll do if she fucks up another one of my books. If she doesn’t let us sleep. If I don’t stop dreaming about the goddamned writing on the walls. I agree. Keep watch of Chise and try working from home. At times she is the Chise I know, the girl who could read volumes of poetry in a weekend, recite Rilke and Dickinson from memory. Who could vent for hours about the increase of red tide blooms and marine animal extinction, could explain why methane levels have rendered the air flammable. Other times I see the dial turning in her eyes, her pupils dilating. Words shattering between her teeth.
This morning she is fine again. Brings me tea in her lucky mug, picks a book of poems to read at the table where I huff and sludge through my work. My eyes straining on a heap of documents fanned before me: estate drafting for one of the dome’s founding architects, a bitter custody battle I cannot be bothered with today.
The words blur. Let’s take a walk, I say, knowing she deserves to see the world outside the flat. At least once more before her body gives in. The smile on her face is lopsided and her hair bobs neatly on her nodding head, a sock-shaped bun. She mouths something to herself, poetry maybe. Maybe whatever she meant to message on the walls. Wraps herself in a brocade shawl we bought for her when she began to outgrow all her childhood clothes—cuffs tight at the wrists, the hem of her trousers at her calves—and she declared to us that she did not want to dress like the other girls, in sleek parkas and form-fitting jeans. I’m proud of where I’m from, she’d said—the spice of incense filling the Ri’ingja specialty shop—and lifted the shawl off its hanger. Frayed threads coil from its edges now and it is threadbare in spots, pocked with holes.
We cut through the path behind our building, head toward the creek. I link our arms tight, hold her close enough I can smell the balm on her skin, a waft of spearmint from her hair. The breeze meets our faces in cool, controlled waves.
There is a delusion of autumn: scraggly trees stripped bare. Leaves crisping brown. Chise tips her head back, chin pointed skyward. Red veins break across her cheeks, lesions scabbed and clustered around her jaw and neck, the backs of her hands. I am afraid, she says, her voice shot like she’s been wearing it away for weeks. I am afraid I should have stayed in Ri’ingja. My people, we aren’t meant to die anywhere else. It was a mistake for me leave.
Her stride is just a beat behind my own; I slow my pace. I shake my head, tears weighting my eyes. Bring her close enough to kiss her temple, pick stray leaves from her hair. Nubia would know how to respond, have the right thing to say. How about some ice cream? I chew the words in my mouth, savor them; cannot bring myself to repeat them aloud.
Ahead the creek rills along, water sucking on the bank, and the wet gravel crackles. There are families all around us now, the chime of the ice-cream cart up the path. Children—barely skilled in toddling—sidle past and between us, and shocked we sway like too-thin trees. Their parents offer perfunctory apologies, push sleek aluminum prams along the path. It’s too late: the lock between us is undone. I look around but Chise is gone. I scan for her through the thicket of downy heads, toddlers throwing their arms in the air like seedlings about to limb and lengthen. Through crowds of balloons that seem to want nothing more than to snap their taut strings and float into the sky, as if it were vast and endless and uncovered.
When we are children we are taught that we are impervious here, in our city—that nothing from outside the dome can harm us. Our air filtered pure, our water clear as glass. Wind-speeds and temperature regulated to yield the healthiest crop, to maximize our comfort. Still. I can feel it everywhere now: the hix stealing in through the shadows, busting out of its camouflage, its yellowed teeth. The one threat that made it undetected through the tunnels; that mocks everything we’ve built to be apart from the world, to survive it. It is in my marrow now, a frigid flow through my veins. The cold sweat that wrenches me out of my sleep.
I am certain now that we will live to see the end of everything. Wake up rubbing dust and debris from our eyes, the walls of our dome rubbled around us, the red eye of morning.
I dodge the gaggles of mothers, the dizzying fuzz of running children; stray off the path. My cheeks glow hot with blood and my armpits stain circles through my jumper. I listen closely for her—the crunch of her feet against the ground, the shallow rhythm of her breathing—but the sound of blood pumping is thunderous, a drum in my brain. My throat tightens, too dry to squeeze a sound through, and my phone weighs heavy in my pocket; I will not call Nubia, not now. At home Chise’s writing is spidering still across our walls. We have not discussed how we’ll give her a proper burial.
The wind is skirling now, swoops the scarf off my neck, and for an instant—nearly tripping on my shoelaces, dread contracting inside my stomach—I can feel the weight of Chise on my back, her thin legs wrapped around my waist, her fingers worming in my hair. I stagger backwards, struggle to unlace the ghost of her off my back, the scrape of nails at my scalp, and there she is: squatting at the edge of the bank, beyond the copse of swaying alders, rocking back on her haunches. She is nude except for the shawl around her shoulders, scars bleeding tracks down her arms and back, her hair loose around her face. Through the space between her feet I see her fingers in the gravel, tracing words or symbols again. I don’t know.
And though I can feel my throat budding open, her name ready in my mouth, I cannot stop thinking of what I will tell Nubia later, of how to explain what I saw. What I’m seeing now. The hix whaling up to greet her, a sheet of water coming down its ancient face, and Chise braced now more than ever for what is coming, lifting her hand up to touch it.
Roberto Rodriguez-Estrada is an MFA candidate at the University of Virginia. A poet and fiction writer, they are writing a novel.