By Chelsea Bondzanga
Hues of light flayed in fractals across the hall, like flowing fabrics. Where they failed to paint, mirrors and stained glass towered: protective. Cross-legged and still on the temple’s raised Centre, sat The Sāra, surrounded by her less poised Sisters. Her hair was cut sharp, a block of obsidian. The red on Her cheeks matched the red of Her silken robe; Her sash adorned with a dozen jewels and chains. What luck to have found Them! This side of the Tracks had only five Sāras, each stationed at a temple, each with Their aggregation of Sisters. Without warning, They would rotate, travelling on foot for days on end. It was not uncommon to find yourself at Temple without a Sāra or Sister in sight. It all appeared unnecessarily inconvenient. Mother, however, was a devout follower of The Faith who had heartily believed in its forgiveness and wisdom. In its healing.
In correct custom I was to await summoning, but after consideration, I declared myself.
“I wish to walk in bathed skin anew.”
The Sāra spoke in the Script of The Faith, her distant words deflating by my feet. “There is more you seek, child. Perhaps you will find it wading in our waters.”
With a shift from Her squarish form, Sāra’s Sisters rose in one sweeping motion, leading me through a million hallways of swirling, marbled arches, towards the bathing chambers. Silentious by creed, they shuffled formlessly in modest robes, a fern-coloured huddle with a shadow scurrying in appendage. The Sisters were prohibited to look ahead, travelling with downcast eyes so as not to be spoiled by the scruples of common men. Having undressed in a chamber, I reached the bathing hall naked and walked into its scalding, knee-deep waters with the Sisters in pursuit and their skirts trailing. Once they’d encircled me, they scooped up the bath’s water and poured it over my body, washing me in a pathetic trickle. Then they wiped and patted, up and down, with their hands. Scoop. Pour. Wipe. Pat. Repeat. Another unnecessary inconvenience. The Sister in front rose as she had been doing, but momentarily, our eyes met. I’d hoped to ignore her, but she stuck out her tongue. Bad apples, I thought. A while we were frozen in tableau, blinking occasionally to dispel the splashes of water that would sparkle in her pupils before gliding down her cheeks. After several constrained nods of annoyance from myself, the Sister beside bad apple noticed and bowed both their heads in violent remission. The ordeal continued with fervour and pace until I was drying myself off in a glass chamber. I felt lighter. Perhaps it was the cleanse. Perhaps the heat. Perhaps it was because I had not eaten at all since my arrival. I leapt out the Temple gates weightlessly.
“Fear! That was long!” Gebaldo greeted.
“Was it?” I replied, irritated by impatience. It was to be a long day. “You are positive Mr Cat was here?”
“Am I posi- fear! My boy does not lie, Detective. I couldn’t half believe it myself. Cat? A fanatic?!”
I ignored the latter comment. “And where is your boy, Mr Gebaldo? I wish to question him.”
“Baldo’s fine, Detective. Travelling circus. Fear, juggling my boy. Taller than the tallest stick. Freakishly thin too. But the arms of a magician. Other side of the Tracks now. Probably won’t hear from him for a while. Much to wife’s chagrin. “The world will do him some good, wife!” She won’t hear of it-“
He continued to gabble about wife, a woman that wept more than she spoke. With a man like Gebaldo, it was part of the deal. Every late hour, he was to be found in Cat’s under the smoke of its dimly-lit parlours, slumped over a regiment of dark drinks. And when he wasn’t inside, he was writhing in a crumpled heap by the entrance outside, having been severed from its tendrils by a poor, unassuming soul.
This had only exacerbated with Cat’s recent change of management.
As we turned into a back alley, leading further away from the station, I began quickening my steps. Gebaldo’s chatter had consumed me and the number of passersby were growing, fearingly. They knew of me. They knew someone had been appointed to solve Mr Cat’s murder, but who I was exactly was a mystery. My cloak was hooded and shapeless, in lieu of their airy, more sprightly fashion. I had chosen more ‘encouraging’ garments, but in comparison, they hung limp. I did not wish to stop and explain myself to every curious stranger: I was to be selective of those I involved in my investigation. Unfortunately so, that meant Gebaldo and his partner, Baba Torr, who owned the only apothecary this side of the Tracks. Gebaldo was still spouting hopeless words on hopeless “wife”, when we found ourselves facing Motley Square and Baba’s Emporium of Remedies and Mixtures, wedged between Baldo and Sons’ Treats and Treacles and Cat’s Tailored Attires and Antiques. Where muddied bricks and pulsating vines formed the body of their decrepit peers, these stores shone brilliantly, their lemon white limestone peppered with moss in the likeness of scattered herbs. Each sign was written in white cursive longhand, across glossy boards that swung in eerie unison. The apothecary was distinctively the largest and most decorative store in the square, its turret-shaped windows displaying jars and pots, and urns, and vases of varying volumes and glazes. Newspapers splayed across the windows of Mr Cat’s store sported the line “UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT” in red. Gebaldo’s windows had been frosted to prevent the sad eyes of beggar children upsetting wife and the business inside. It had proven ineffective: children are curious creatures. A horde of them slotted around the ankles of those leaving and entering the shop. Interrupted by their whimpering and whining, Gebaldo raced ahead, shooing them away like vermin. They did not strew far before squatting by nearby corners.
In a strange display of what I could only gather as pride, Gebaldo started to beam foolishly, rapping knuckles to chest. He boomed outwards to Motley Square, “Behold! Fraternity! We stood in the mouth of the dark. Footsteps from the fire. Blind but not burnt. Burnt but not blind!”
I entrusted my unease in the care of my bone-coloured toothpick, slotting it into the gaps of my teeth as I passed him.
“Detective?” he interrupted, “Told the wife we’d stop by. We have a little stove above ‘Treats and Treacles. Do you like mackerel surprise?”
“That would defeat the purpose of a surprise, Gebaldo,” I replied, wiping the pick on the lining of my coat before tucking it away.
“You are very welcome to eat with your wife, Gebaldo.” The day whistled.
“No… no. And please. It’s Baldo.”
It was clear that whoever had designed the outside of Mr Torr’s apothecary, had not carried the same uplifting inspiration for the interior. The inside of the shop had been cased in some sort of padlocked coffin, twice buried. Every surface appeared dead, or dying. Not a single speck danced, not a single speck breathed, not a single speck even blinked back. The floors and walls (of what could be made out through the mess of wooden cabinets, shelves, draws and stacked trunks) bore the shades of brooding, cobbled streets. Rectangles had been carved into rectangles that had been carved into limestone, resembling a mirage of rippling corridors in the crooks of walls and ceilings. An eastern rug the colour of aged rust, tufting around its edges, had been pushed up against the base of the mahogany service station. The glow of swinging lanterns crystallised on the scales, the silver exchanging register and the glaring whites of Mr Torr’s eyes, searing into the backs of his clerk’s heads as they traded dulled coins for shinier ones. His pupils bounced at every tinkle of the register’s lever, slicing like a guillotine to a steel throat. I thought of the apothecary by the shoemaker, the droopy pharmacist with face-engorging eyebrows that furrowed into every question, every helpless apology, every prayer to return to Temple. We became acquainted when Mother weakened.
Baba Torr stood to attention, unlike a general, but rather an animal on its hind legs, guzzling sounds of desperate appeals and laughing metals. Gebaldo beckoned to him and they embraced as men did, like two distant wings taking flight. Unlike Gebaldo’s melting frame that settled around his stomach, Baba Torr’s limbs stretched and wrung as wet clothes did on a washer’s board. Everything of his was particularly long and prickly. He did not introduce himself, but only gestured a calcifying nail towards an alcove, tucked away behind a tall cabinet.
Musks, incense and stinging tinctures clung to motes in his office, stained muted jade by Eastern lampshades. There was a particular one on his desk…
“I am greatly fascinated by Eastern design. Yes yes, greatly fascinated.”
“So you collect antiques?” I responded, fixated. It was laced with flecks of tiny little minerals that had been reduced to shavings, recreating a pattern of rain-streaked mirrors. Undoubtedly, it was so.
“We collected antiques. I haven’t had the heart for it since Cat.”
The Tears of Pane had been part of a private collection before its exhibition at the Museum of Eastern Designs. A week after its unveiling, an antique rug the colour of aged rust and the lamp disappeared.
Before I could question further, Baba Torr spoke. Growling, almost.
“Such a beautiful thing and so incredibly slender. Yes yes. Like a feather or a wisp of some description. What do we think, Baldo?”, he asked, unfurling a toothless smile. I finally caught his indomitable gaze: the toothpick had been peeking over my breast pocket. His calcifying nail prompted me to a seat.
“Fear. Like a whisker, Baba. A cat’s.”
“The Cat’s Whisker. Yes yes.”
I pushed the whisker to lay flat. “You seem to have eliminated your competition, Mr Torr. The only apothecary West of the Tracks?”
“The only detective to take this case? We do not get many visitors.”
I inched forward. “So you sent Gebaldo to spy on me?”
“Gebaldo insisted. “Every tourist needs a guide Baba.” Drink?”
He bought out two glasses and a carafe the shape of an upturned crescent. The liquid was viscous, sap-tinged and alive. My head cocked backwards somewhere between a nod and filled cups, stifling claws as they tore through canals and pathways. After another, I continued.
“I only wish to solve the case if there is a case to be had, Mr Torr…” my torso pivoted to acknowledge the presence who’d stationed himself somewhere behind me.
Gebaldo took the adjacent seat, his back facing me. “Fear, Cat was murdered. Silent-like. Bloodless. Poison, we think. We don’t deal in poison. We’re manual men, Detective. Deals are made with hands. But poison? Fear not. That is a woman’s weapon. And fear, that is beyond our remit.”
“I am not an executioner, Gebaldo.”
“But you are a pious people, Detective. Pitying. Fiercely so, I’ve heard. Forgiveness is for the people of Sāra.” Sloppily, he raised up a carafe sloshing with drink and angled it in Baba Torr’s direction. “Him? This? Fear… they’re my forgiveness.” And he walked out the office in a grunt, carafe in hand.
Baba Torr somewhat fazed, resumed, “Cat was a man of many lives. He was a private, arrogant fuck, yes yes. A Sāra sycophant, I’ve heard, with greed as ravenous as his temper and a head as large as his heart.” He paused and pulled out a folded publication from his drawer, spreading it out on the desk. A chestnut complexioned woman gazed up at me; two twinkling gems through kohled lids, her lips parted in pleasure. It read: Xofel Rouge: Ninth hour at Cat’s. Member’s exclusive. Baba Torr’s nail cut at her nose bridge.
“She was his lover and now, the owner of all his businesses. Her mercy stands till daylight.”
A fresh sheen rested lazily on jaunty caps, beneath archways and over bridges. Lamplights lined the paths, leafless trees with painted black trunks levitating like worshipped idols of old faiths, crowned in golden halos. Night dawned while the westerners morphed into buried bodies in flapping cloaks. They meshed like bubbling matter tripping over streetsleepers but chained by firmer spirits. Occasionally, someone would spill from one globule of bodies to another, a merry game of back and forth. My guide had created his own game, now in possession of two metal tins. Waddling ahead, he drank from them interchangeably and audibly. Baldo’s right hand. Drink. Baldo’s left leg. Step. Baldo’s right leg. Step. Baldo’s right hand. Drink…
Pinching the cool slip of the whisker nestled between a seam, I balanced it on the folds of my bottom lip and thought of swallowing, of it crumbling in the acids of my echoing stomach. Her mercy stands till daylight. I thought of it piercing me from the inside, clogged in an unreachable depth as I shrivelled up into a mass of tissue. Stopping a lone street walker, I asked them to point me in the direction of Cat’s. A wide-brimmed hat answered melodically, a laugh held between breaths.
“My wheeled motor is just across the street. Accompany me?”
Flicking their hat upwards they revealed a pair of twinkling pools beneath their eyelids. I followed her without hesitation. We rode in silence, shrouded in the soundless communication of two old friends. She was, in fact, visibly incurious. Never had I thought to yearn for the drone of an alcoholic. The unfortunate size of her motor meant that her hat lifted slightly by its pressure, the brim coiling. Unperturbed, we drove like thread through sheer sheets of burnt yellows and dirty greens… tumbling past halt signals and coughing engines… past makeshift bi-pedals and tri-pedals… till we reached Cat’s.
The crowd outside bobbed and lolled buoyantly. Above them, an impressive matrimony of lofty western apartments and looming, cylindrical structures of eastern design, stuck together like chewed sweets. The cylinders bled crimson, an aquarium of dark fishes swimming to music seeping from its screens. Partygoers folded over the apartment balconies, plush dolls half-standing, half-falling. I craned to see further but was struck by a vacuum of air and a pimpled usher, his smile waning with time. I thanked her by asking for her name. With a hand suspended in the palm of a ridiculously stout gentleman, she looked over to me as she whispered something in his ear. He nodded obediently.
Then she asked, “what’s the rush?”.
The member’s lounge was full in capacity and texture. Fumes of noush caltense, a gas used to quell nerves and more flippantly, souls, were fused into starched fibres and coiffures. Some bodies were anchored to the carpets, watching their minds somewhere above the ceiling canopies. Others had been draped over the bar and the sofas and tables, ornaments to a spectacle. The stout gentleman sat me in a cabin by the stage, a carafe and a filled glass in waiting. It was odourless under the gas, so I thanked the Sāras and took a leisurely sip. Acrid, it stewed in an abyss.
A flash welcomed the ninth hour and she emerged through a clearing of applause and performance smoke; an icon of chestnut against oil-slicked violet that hugged and a face framed by a scarlet cloud. I could only see her in profile, watching the jutting curl of her nose, but I was certain. She did not present herself as the bad apple or the wide-brimmed hat, but as, “Xofel Rouge, your alluring singer of the West.”
And then… then, she sang. She sang and the lounge burst, the ground turned to mush, and we were catapulted, submerged.
During a segment where Xofel granted the member’s requests, I was led by her gentlemen through the fungal audience, out of reach from hedonists and hot rooms into the uppermost level of the establishment. Her private chambers echoed, a void with views over the horizon. She arrived late, glistening in pearls and followed by an usher balancing a platter of parcelled mackerel and clove tea. We hunched over floorboards and steamed portions in a percussion of cutlery and mastication.
After I'd swallowed my last morsel, I asked her how she knew it was me. Xofel crawled to my shoulder. A laugh hovered over my left ear.
“This is my side of the tracks, Detective. I sing to it and it sings back.”
I took the whisker, ready to bare the snares of my teeth before she trapped my wrist in a clasp.
“Did you like your welcome gift?” I dropped it and she slid it away on her person. She positioned herself directly opposite, knees pressed to her chest. When I felt that she would not move again, I sought what I had waited for. “Why did you kill Mr Cat, Xofel?”
“What do you seek from us, Detective?”
The scarlet cloud had shrunken from her sweat. She tugged at it in clumps. “I could not bring myself to kill Cat, so I did not. After all–”
“–His men are convinced.”
“His men are convinced that in the late hours; moons bloomed where his eyes should be, that when he vanished he wandered rooftops, that he was their master of infiltration because his epidermis would sprout fur at whim so he could slip through gaps. But he died before they realised that he was not anybody’s master, but a drowning man with a toothpick.”
“Please, Xofel. The truth.”
“The truth is… Cat sought to bathe anew. The truth is, he too saw my tongue in the bathing hall. The truth is, I dreamed of singing. The truth is, he loved me and it was perfect. The truth is, he was lucky. The truth is, he had a Mother and a brother who lived underground. The truth is, he abandoned–”
“The truth is I found them, across the tracks: the Mother dead of disease, the brother forgotten, a fraudulent in disguise, seeking— ”
“—Who killed him, Xofel?”
She unclenched her knees. “It is not a question of who, easterner, but what.”
“They will kill you at dawn.”
“Death is a poison reserved for the curious, child. The deals of The Faith are sealed in impermeable blood, for Ours is a higher purpose and Ours shall prevail.”
Below, the world cracked into a million fragments as the scarlet cloud wilted, in streaks.