Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Kokab Zohoori-Dossa
There’s a dream that I have before I’m supposed to see him. It only happens then. I can drink glass after glass of wine, work myself into a coma, none of that matters. I only have this dream before I visit my husband’s grave.
Two stags follow me down a dark road. I am vivid, bathed in white light. There’s no one else, not one other person. Just me and these two massive stags. They are supposed to be people I know, and I want to protect them with every instance of life in my body. While I try my best to lead them, I quickly realized that they always know where I’m going. There is so much peace radiating from them that I stop worrying and walk slower, letting them take me to the woods that surround everything.
They’re both dead by the end. Massacred. Torn to shreds and picked to pieces. I lose chunks of myself trying to save them. I never succeed.
One is obviously my husband — Lukas Gorton, the Prime Boar that died a joke. I feel his madness and love soaking the ground around the dying stag, identifying it. The Prime Boar that died hornless, the one who had to have a private funeral because the people couldn’t stop taunting his dead body, and then his ashes. The stag is massive, it’s relentless in its loyalty to me, and it matches my pace no matter what.
The other, sweet and gentle, could be anyone.
We are dying, but we don’t have the funding to stop it.
You get funding in this country by losing your soul. That’s it. There’s no other way to save people, no other way to show you care about anyone. And once you’ve lost your soul, you forget what made you want to help in the first place. You get Yoan Kendal like this. Pretty victims. Have her tell it and the entire world picked on her until she thrust through that unsolicited animosity with a heart of rock and brimstone.
Yoan was always a beauty, always a sight for sore eyes, and always the love of every Prima or Prime-loving Horn in this country. I’ve seen men gore each other for a chance to smell her. Yoan loves a good death in her honor. And I’d be lying if I said I haven’t watched men gore themselves to death for me. We are the same kind of monster. I just let my viciousness rest in my head.
I plucked a hair off of my cloak, wishing I could find a blacker black, and tried to avoid her after a confrontation at the radio station. She sat in her car for nearly twenty minutes after. Maybe my anger is a dead giveaway, or a hint, or some nudge in a direction I don’t want people to take just yet. You don’t get funding in this country by being sick.
You lost your head, Lyria. You have to calm down. Just a little longer, and they’ll all be on fire.
We do these stupid debates on the oncoming mandatory quarantine as if either of our opinions matters. The Tivahs will make their decision based on the amount of irritation the sick cause them.
They love a good goring. Instead of two men, the Tivahs watch the ‘lesser horns’ do it. All of us vicious little monsters taking chunks of each other while they write laws and drink the best of the blood that falls.
Every day I find less humor, less love, less potential in the world.
But it’ll burn soon enough, and the remaining will go to the meek.
“Wear your hair up,” I told my daughter Junnie, and she sucked her teeth. I twisted my own hair, holding a bobby pin in my mouth, and raised an eyebrow at myself in the bathroom mirror.
“Fine,” I said absently. “Wear it however you want. You know what looks best on you.”
“No, Mom, come on. I’ll wear it up. Gosh, don’t be so soft,” she whined, rolling her eyes. The word soft sounded like marshmallows blooming from her mouth, every part of her a pillow — a patch of wet dirt. Junnie is the only Horn I’ve ever known that refuses a good goring, and you can hear it in the light way she speaks. At times I feel pride over it.
My Junnie. The big-horned, bloody-eyed monster. Her Horn Rot had humor to it when it was active. No one else had so much humor to their slow death. I watched her try to pull her thick clumps of hair back, watched her bad eye as it attempted to correct itself. She lost it to the Horn Rot before most people lost anything, but there she was, still alive. Both of her horns were so big that her neck deserved medals, it deserved applause. I let my head tilt back as I traveled the length of them. The rotten one spotted like a cow, like some animal, and it let out a hollow noise if you tapped it. She’d rammed metal rods through random spots as jewelry.
“I’m just being like… I don’t know. I hate doing this every single week.” Of course she does. Who wants to visit the tree growing from their father’s grave? Who wants to see the new lifeform that took their beloved Prime Boar’s place? A tree was a poor replacement for the man that used to put his foot between lesser Boar’s eyes and rip their horns straight from their heads.
But that’s all we have left.
“I’m sorry, Junnie, I really am. I bet you’ll still show up, though. Something in my heart tells me you won’t be a second late.” I gave her a sour smile and she fixed her face, turning to tie her hair up in the mirror. I gave up on my own and shook my hair out, picking another piece of lint off my cloak. Junnie took a breath, preparing to work her way through some conversation she didn’t want to have.
“You shouldn’t argue with Mrs. Kendal, Mom. You know she’s not the nicest person. She’s trying to look tough, but she’s not gonna let Lewish die-“
“I have to show my face in front of the Tivah’s today,” I muttered to the bracelet I was clasping to my wrist. “So I’ll meet you at the Garden. It won’t take long.” Junnie turned red, her skin blotchy and nervous.
She was always blushing, always shying away, always soft. Alone with her memories of her father? Of course, she didn’t want that. Of course, she wouldn’t admit that her fellow sick best friend would find no ally in her own mother if they started mandatory quarantines. She was an innocent doe at times.
“What if they like… arrest you or something? Maybe you shouldn’t go. Where’s Old Bro, anyway,” she grumbled. I shrugged.
“I won’t be long. Promise.”
There’s a daydream I have before I’m supposed to see him. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, if I’m awake and in conversation, if I’m walking up the long driveway leading to our oldest, cleanest family. The dream finds a way to present itself to me.
The stags, they follow me into the woods, and I have to find them food. They’re so big, they need something to eat, and I can feel their hunger in every step. They’re weakening.
Bears appear, and they’re massive, and one takes a swipe at the bigger stag. They’re so massive that I gasp, trying to turn around, but the stags rush forward. They rush forward despite my screaming, my agony. I can’t leave them, and I charge toward the fight like a fool. There is so much blood that I lose sight of my stags, that every creature blends together in a mess of matted fur and agonized screaming.
I can’t tell what animal is bleeding, or where I can help.
As I rush forward, the bears turn on me. They take chunks of my skin and flesh. They batter me. No matter how much I scream, they don’t stop until I’m less than nothing.
The stags die with me, bleeding out, and the bears are still chewing at them when the vultures come. One of the stags is obviously my husband. His eyes rest on me as he passes into the next life, wide open and unwilling to leave me for a second.
I tell myself the other could be anyone.
The Tivahs are an old family. So old they could have actual souls in their bodies, they could be kinder and lovelier than their subjects, they could have genuine hearts under the upturned chins, but they traded those in for praise and money so long ago that they’re just hollow.
I paused at their massive gold-lined door, wanting to teleport to my daughter’s side, wondering where my son was, and then it opened.
“Lyria! Such a sight! My gosh, you’re stunning no matter what you wear!” Igna Tivah screeched in excitement, her smile bigger than her head, her eyes taking in my cloak and slacks in just the slightest bit of disgust. I stood still, waiting for her to move.
“Yes. If only I were you, I wouldn’t need to try.” She laughed in delight at that, opening the door. I stepped into the massive home, always uncomfortable with their wealth. Clean blood bought you a lot in Notion, sick as we all are. Sick as our loved ones are. The foyer was bigger than my entire home and the lot it was on, and there I was, the top scientist in the entire country.
The barrier between Notion and Horn Rot.
Jodice Tivah gave me a tight smile, not bothering to invite me further into the home. Their initial invitation hadn’t been much nicer. A hastily written note (Let’s Talk) shoved on my desk that I had to pry from my assistant’s excited hands. Jodice and Igna were both old, leathery, nearly crumpled paper. They weren’t even the oldest Tivahs. You lived a long time when you were so healthy and loved.
Jodice offered me his hand, but he barely gripped mine when I accepted it.
“Is Old Bro not with you? I was hoping to see my favorite Prime Boar. You know, Aba is so hard to control, but your son is just lovely. Pliable. Agreeable. A bit too soft at times, but manageable.” I nodded absently, trying not to squint at the gold choker around his wife’s neck.
Hopefully, she’ll wear it when I set her on fire. I could take it off her burned body and give it to my daughter.
“Hasan is busy at the moment, I’m afraid. Junnie is busy as well. She was devastated not to make it.” Igna gave me a tight smile at the mention of my sick, big horned daughter. As if she’d be allowed in the Tivah household.
“We should stay on task. I’m sure you have somewhere to be. We’ve listened to some of the debates,” Jodice said, picking his nails, his dark skin shining like a hidden moon followed him around. Oh, they were clean, alright. Spotless. You could practically smell bleach in their blood.
“Glad to know you’re not busy.”
“I try not to be. Someone has to keep an eye on you and your little revolt-“
“Oh, you two! Stop it!” Igna laughed nervously, giving him a look. “We wanted to invite you to dinner, Lyria, but we were sure you wouldn’t have anything to wear on such short notice. So we’ll have to settle for a short lecture. I hate to draw things out.”
“As do I. Please, lecture me.”
“We don’t know what’s going on, Lyria. There seems to be a rise in… dissent, mostly around the people who support your efforts in this… futile fight against Horn Rot.” I circled them, pulling my cloak away from my back. A marble staircase caught my attention, and I wondered if we had sledgehammers that could dismantle it at the lab.
“It’s nonsensical, dear,” Jodice mocked. “They’ll die and take everyone else along with them. It only makes sense to snip off the rotten edges. You don’t leave a rotten apple in the basket. One bad apple-“
“I’m surprised you’ve seen an apple lately, Jodice. There is plenty of hope for the sick. I noticed you included non-fatal diseases in your proposal. Gore Horns, Wood Horns and Translucent Horns and Short Horns, right? They’re not sick. They have malformed horns. We’re killing them as well?”
Jodice sighed, cutting his eyes at the ground.
“They aren’t the easiest to look at. And Gore Horns, come on! They’re begging to be put out of their misery. Can you imagine a giant horn growing from your stomach? If you all keep letting these abnormalities spread down your bloodlines, you’ll end up mush. You should know that. Of all people, you should be happy to see these people in quarantine. Take down the flyers, Lyria, for your own good. Look what happened to Lukas-“
“I’m not happy. I don’t agree. I’m not taking down the flyers.” They both shifted uncomfortably, Igna waving her leathery hand around as if she could sweep me from the air. Jodice kept squinting at the ground, anger growling through his shadow.
“Well. There isn’t much else to say then, is there? You’re visiting your little Garden today?” The question sat heavy in my heart for a moment, and then I imagined his skin slowly charring, slowly breaking off into bursts of ash.
“Of course, I am. Speaking of family, I’d really love to see Burnel. I haven’t managed to speak to her since the decision was made about her husband-“
“Boyfriend.” Igna spat. If she got any stiffer, she’d snap. “There was no legitimate marriage. There was no relationship, as far as you know.”
“Really? I’m sure I know different. The husband… what was his name… Bosque, right? A wood horn-” I stopped myself as Jodice moved closer, his hand gripping into a lazy fist. They were slowly inching me back to the front door.
“Not sure what you’re talking about.”
“The one Lukas was sent after? What a sweet man. Bosque… what was his last name? Bosque something? I’m sure it was Bosque, but what was his last name? Or what is his last name? BOSQUE doesn’t ring a-“
“You should go, Lyria. Your mind’s obviously failing you.” I nodded, grabbing the knob behind me. Igna blinked a lot, holding her arm over her stomach and her head high.
Calm down. Don’t go too far.
“Your daughter… it’s like she vanished. It’s been so long since I’ve seen Burnel, she must be a full adult by now. I’m surprised you’re not training her for politics. Is she here? I’d love to say hello.” They both stopped.
“Bunni hasn’t been feeling well lately.” Jodice reached behind me and opened the door, nearly shoving me out.
“I can take a look at her if you want-“
“Don’t you have to visit your tree? Shame to ruin a tradition.” I smiled brilliantly, nodding to them both. They waited for a bow, but I let my cloak wave and left.
They are not royals. They are not in charge. Term after term they’re voted in, yes, but they have no pull other than clean blood.
Clean blood spills the same as dirty blood.
The Garden was always beautiful. I saw Junnie’s horns rising into the air all the way from the parking lot. Before I could walk through the graveyard, I spotted my son Hasan slowly walking over, his wide wobble leaving little space for anyone else. He gave me a small pat on the back, and the smell of blood on him made me want to vomit, but I smiled. A hedgehog struggled in his mouth, clawing at his face, but he let it.
I watched him bite down, filling his mouth with blood. He finally pulled it out, still struggling, and let the blood drip onto his shirt.
“Bad time with Yoan this morning, Ma. You can’t lose it like that.”
Since when did everyone listen to the damn radio?
“I’m aware. She insulted me too many times. I can’t stand it.”
“She couldn’t fit her head up her ass if she wanted to, why let her bother you?” He took another huge chunk out of the hedgehog, right through its skull, and I smiled at his words. I wanted to be disgusted with him, to admonish him. But I enjoyed my son’s boorish behavior.
I am no different than the people I’ll burn.
“Did you find our little rabbit yet?”
Hasan let out a low chuckle, staring at the dead hedgehog. “Nope. She’s around, though.”
“How are you so sure?”
“The dying girl you hate so much put her name on the contact list at quarantine. Nameless Bunni, if you can believe it. No number or anything, but I bet she knows our rabbit in some way.” His smirk expanded the universe, and I was so proud. If only they could see my pliable giant when he wasn’t in front of them.
“Really? So bold. I see why you’re stalking her.”
“Yeah. She’s a sneaky little kitten. Definitely on our side.” I let him think about his crush for a moment, walking forward into the Garden. Lukas would have growled in pride at the blood covering his son’s shirt. He wasn’t one for espionage, but that was always my specialty. We both stared forward at Junnie’s horns. Sweet and gentle Junnie with her masculine horns.
“Good. Let’s destroy our enemies properly. Find the rabbit for me, Hasan. It’s all I want.”
Somehow, time froze. I can’t remember joining Junnie, or paying respects to Lukas. I looked up and the sun was going down, and then I was in the dark of my room staring at the night sky through my window.
The sickness does that sometimes. I lose a lot of moments to it. But I curled up in my bed, hugging my massive pillows, and I let myself fall asleep.
My mother taught me to believe in nothing but dreams. Your mind will tell you things other people won’t. Even as a woman of science, a woman who doesn’t believe in anything I can’t see, I trusted her. I may not say it out loud, but I took that advice with me into adulthood.
There’s a dream I have after I go to see him. Two stags bathed in white. One of the stags is obviously my husband. My Lukas.
I tell myself the other one could be anyone.