Everything in this story is true.
Present day, near M St and S 38th, Tacoma, WA, two miles from the mouth of the Puyallup River
Red and blue lights flashed in the rear-view and Mari winced. “Babe,” she said, complaining uselessly.
T. J. sighed and slowed, pulled onto the shoulder. There was no reason for the cop to pull them over, and they both knew it. He was a careful driver, especially with Lula in the car, and the car was in good shape. Too good, maybe: T. J. liked to show off, and while his Chrysler 300 was a few years old, even in the drizzling rain the rims sparkled.
Mari waited in the passenger seat, hands flexing uneasily on the purse in her lap. Maybe she should get out her phone and start recording. The cop car behind them loomed silently, running their plates or maybe just making them sweat. She pulled out her phone and checked the battery: nine percent. Fuck. Should have charged it after I got Lula from daycare. She turned and smiled reassuringly at her daughter in the car seat behind her.
November 1855, in the hills where the Puyallup River approaches the edge of the salt water
Ska’la’shee wasn’t sure where the Bostons were. She knew the soldiers from the East had left their horses behind. Both sides of the skirmish had been separated out into small groups by the thick pine woods, and had been stalking each other for hours through waist-high ferns and thorn bushes that masked steep slopes and gullies. Fog that smelled of salt lay over everything.
She also didn’t know where most of the rest of her people were, let alone any of Leschi’s people from the Nisqually watershed, the Squaxin, or their other allies. Ears perked for sound, she huddled in the skirt of a blue fir tree beside her cousin, Es’ku’ah. Her long rifle was less useful in the close forest, although she’d put a bullet in at least one of the soldiers in the first minutes after the Bostons attacked the camp. She had six more bullets left, and plenty of powder.
Es’ku’ah leaned against her shoulder. The two of them were the only ones left of their longhouse, after the sickness of body and soul that no medicine could cast out, the ghosts wandering in the night, the Boston settlers who left a pall of bad luck over everything they touched. He was all that was left of her cousins and siblings who had known her when she was a boy—before her spirit-powers transformed her into a woman and a shaman. Her other relatives were dead, and so was her partner. Two summers ago, a settler had shot a hole in his chest and a stream of dark red blood had flowed out into the bright morning.
“If we let them past us, we can pin them against the river,” Es’ku’ah said.
“The trees clear out, along there.” Ska’la’shee pointed. If the soldiers walked onto the riverbank, she could get a clear shot at them. It was coming on dusk now, and she wanted to shoot them before the night fell. And she felt Kali’kahlee’ua’ichi, her first spirit-power, stirring a predatory hunger in her belly, cold as the deep black chill of the ocean far under the waves.
“Let’s try it.” Es’ku’ah tilted his head close to hers, letting her decide.
She led the way quietly through the bushes to a spot she knew, where a small promontory of rock overlooked the rushing water. The river was high and gray with cold autumn rain. Clouds covered the mountain from the base to the top, but she could feel its solid presence framing the world behind her. She flattened herself on the ground, rifle to her shoulder, long knife loose in its sheath. Es’ku’ah knelt and fixed his arrows point-down in the ground beside him so he could easily pull them up and draw after he fired off his Colt revolver.
Ska’la’shee let her breathing get long and loose and quieter than the light rain drops on pine needles.
A flicker of motion behind the trees. Bostons, and more than one. Not novices, this group, not the clumsy settler men who cut down the trees because they didn’t know how to move through them. They moved almost as soundlessly as her uncle, who taught her to hunt ducks when she was a boy, before he dreamed that she was going to be a woman.
Beside her, Es’ku’ah’s lips moved soundlessly: he was singing a warrior song to give himself strength. Her spirit-powers — Kuahe’khuahe, whose quick wings were lifted by her cousin’s song, and Kali’kahlee’ua’ichi, her water-sister — pricked on her skin and thrummed in her ears, a silent drum in time with her heart.
Three men broke out of the trees, fully visible for a moment on the riverbank. Ska’la’shee squinted at them, at first not sure she was seeing correctly. It was several of the same group of soldiers that had attacked in the morning, but they had clearly run into more trouble since then. All three were bedraggled, bloody: one of them had dark bloodstains up to his elbows like he’d tried to save someone with a bad bullet wound. None of them were carrying their rifles at the ready, almost, she thought, like they were out of bullets. One of them walked unevenly, nursing an injury. After two steps, a cluster of saplings blocked them from sight.
Es’ku’ah raised his revolver and sighted on the place where they would come into view again, but she felt her own heart falter.
The ba-bum ba-bum ba-bum of drums in Ska’la’shee’s ears changed from silent to loud, pounding; without moving, she had moved into the spirit world, leaving her body and her cousin below her in time and space.
Beside her, Kali’kahlee’ua’ichi gazed at her, eyes dark and avid, poised to attack. Ska’la’shee had been feeling her water-sister in the urge to pull the trigger heavy as a blanket on her shoulders. Here in the spirit world her thoughts untangled, laying straight and true and taut. She vibrated like her soul was the head of a drum. “What do you want?”
The blackfish spirit dropped her jaw, showing her knife-like teeth. “Everywhere these trespassers walk, they upset the balance. I want to rip the flesh from their bones.”
“That’s all?” As Ska’la’shee spoke, she remembered her partner, grinning at a joke with a half-chewed strip of dry salmon hanging from his lips, and her heart twisted.
The Boston settlers were cruel, and would shoot a child of the Nisqually or Puyallup faster than they’d shoot a dog. But most of these soldiers, the new ones the government in the East had sent in the summer, fought honorably when she met them in battle. And these were injured. Killing them when they were defenseless would be shameful.
Kali’kahlee’ua’ichi snapped her jaws shut, spraying Ska’la’shee’s face with droplets of salt water. “Consume them!”
“Wait.” She wanted that too, but in this clear space, her eyes as sharp as Kuahe’khuahe’s, she knew her hunger was larger. Massive. Three soldiers, three deaths — it wasn’t enough. It was only more of the same, more destruction. And she didn’t want to be like them. “What if I want — more? A more complete victory? Not just over these Bostons, but — everything?”
Kali’kahlee’ua’ichi nudged her with her nose, considering. “Bigger than now?”
“That’s what I’m saying.” Ska’la’shee leaned forward, raised her hands to touch both sides of her water-sister’s wide face. “I want it all. I want it all set right.”
Kali’kahlee’ua’ichi nodded, showing she perceived Ska’la’shee’s resolve and approved of it, and began to moan out her song, calling to the edges of the world, to all those who could hear her. She gathered in her power from all sides like a wave drawing up and up and up.
Ska’la’shee stepped back down into the physical world.
The three Bostons passed out from behind the stand of trees, and stumbled along the stones of the riverbank, fully visible. She rose, resting her hand on Es’ku’ah’s shoulder for support. The beat of the drums pounded in her pulse. She lifted her chin, and opened her mouth.
The sound that came out cracked open the sky. It went on and on like the heavy beat of the thunderbird’s wings, like the rolling rumble of a spirit-power speaking from the smoke and drums of a dance, so loud the whole world shook.
The soldiers stumbled and fell to the ground, looking around them wildly, and her cousin leaned into her hand, opening his own mouth. She heard her water-sister moaning her spirit song and her sky-brother screaming brightly. Her cousin’s voice joined the noise. The sounds braided together like streams meeting at the rocky head of a river, whipping out of their mouths and away into the sky.
Present day, near M St and S 38th, Tacoma, WA, two miles from the mouth of the Puyallup River
“Moooommmm.” Lula kicked a drumbeat against her car seat. She took after her Mayan father, tiny and brown instead of tall and dark like T. J. She was so small that Mari had kept her in a backward-facing car seat until she was almost three, but now she was getting used to facing forward in the car. Seeing what was going on made her bossy. “Mom! Go, go, gooooo.”
“Be patient, mi’ja,” Mari said, trying to project calm. Lula was fully capable of getting a mad scream on, and she wanted everything quiet when the cop finally came up to the car. “We have to wait for a minute. We’ll get moving pretty soon.”
T. J. tapped a rhythm on the steering wheel in the corner of her eye. Mari flashed him a comforting smile but he wasn’t looking at her and didn’t see. His eyes were glued to the rearview mirror. Mari jerked her hand up and turned on the overhead light to illuminate the inside of the car even though it was early afternoon.
In the mirror, a cop stood up out of the patrol car. He looked Southeast Asian but it didn’t make her less nervous that he wasn’t white; anyone who volunteered to be a cop, who went through the academy and got to thinking he was as good as a damn demigod, scared the shit out of her.
“No talking, Lula,” Mari snapped. “Hush your damn mouth.”
November 3rd, 1885, on the hill above the Tacoma waterfront
Lee Yoo’s oldest son, Cheong, stood behind the counter of their store in the cold early morning, peering at an English-language newspaper. She didn’t have to puzzle out the headline to know why he hadn’t waited for the Chinese broadside: the men who killed Fung Wai and his friends at the hops farm in Issaquah Valley, less than forty miles east, had been acquitted of murder. The news had come across the telegraph wires late yesterday evening and the whispers were running up and down the muddy hills of Tacoma.
All summer and fall the city had churned with rumors. Mayor Weisbach and other prominent citizens met at the Alpha Opera House and debated setting fire to the houses of the “invading Chinese” who “degraded white labor and spread disease and vice.” News trickled out of Wyoming of massacres of Chinese miners; in California wash houses were boarded up and burned, the families who worked there still inside. The Knights of Labor pasted posters up and down the streets: “Yellow Peril!” “Chinese must go!”
The violence was a river flooded with meltwater rushing off the steep mountains, pushing stones and logs before it. Catching all that debris in a temporary logjam and then, Lee Yoo feared, breaking through all at once. She could feel the fear like a pricking on her skin. White men paraded with torches in the night. Her sons were learning to read English from posters that called them an infestation of vermin.
“Gau Lee and his family left last night,” Cheong said. “For San Francisco. We’re leaving too, right? Papa doesn’t want to leave the store, but… we have to.”
“I don’t want to leave the store.” Lee Yoo leaned on the rough wooden counter beside Cheong, her son’s skinny body warm where it pressed against her. “This store has been good to us, has given us enough money to send back to your grandparents in Canton. And things aren’t better in San Francisco.”
It was a well-worn conversation between her and her husband, but Cheong scowled. The newspaper crinkled in his clenching fists. “‘Thirty Chinese miners were killed in Rock Springs in September and the outrage has spread to Washington Territory,’” he read carefully in English, adding in Chinese, “and Issaquah Valley is a lot closer than Rock Springs.”
She wrapped her arm around her son’s shoulders and held on too tightly. He was growing, was almost as tall as she was now, but his shoulders were still narrow as a sapling. Her comforting arm couldn’t make him safe. Fear and anger swirled together in her chest with a feeling like water rushing over rocks, the riverbed narrowing and narrowing, pressure making everything that much more dangerous.
Mid-morning, Lee Yoo heard a commotion and stepped out the door of the store, looking up and down the street. Whistles had been going off, and she’d ignored them, ignored the fear raising the hair on the back of her neck. The street was full of workers who should be on the docks, or in the mills and foundries along the waterfront. Hundreds of them. Clubs and poles sprouted from the crowd like weeds. Many carried pistols or rifles, long barrels pointed at the sky.
Halfway down the street, a knot of suits and hats resolved into Mayor Weisbach, his associate J. E. Burns, and several white men she knew owned lumber mills but didn’t know by name. They were going door to door. Lee Yoo could see Kwok Sue’s youngest daughter hanging out the narrow window of their clapboard house, staring at them, the mountain half visible in the clouded sky behind her. Raised voices carried but she couldn’t tell what they were shouting. Her ears strained: there was another voice, a song she couldn’t quite hear, drums going ba-bum ba-bum ba-bum.
She shut the door firmly, furious that they could make her feel so afraid. The white people were newcomers here as much as the Chinese were — the army had killed enough of the Puyallup to settle the war, but the traces of violence were everywhere still. The whites were convinced their God wanted them to keep every opportunity for themselves alone. They had a bottomless hunger that could never be satisfied.
It wasn’t right that their hunger should make them powerful.
Minutes later, the mayor didn’t bother knocking on the door to Lee Yoo’s shop, just barged in, muddy boots shedding water and dirt on her clean floors. The crowd had caught up with their leaders; men shouldered in behind the mayor, a mass of ruddy faces scowling and snarling.
“Yes?” she asked, folding her arms behind the counter, pretending courage she didn’t feel. The narrow wood of the counter wouldn’t protect her from the bullets in those long rifles but the mob would have trouble aiming between the crowded shelves of the shop.
“Where’s your husband, woman?” Mayor Weisbach demanded.
“Say what you want to say,” Lee Yoo said, lifting her chin.
The mayor’s stately face twisted. “All Chinese are to report to the train station by one thirty this afternoon. We’re cleaning up the city. You’re out.”
The drumming in her ears quickened. Ba-bum ba-bum.
Clattering steps on the narrow stairs jerked her head around. Cheong came down in a rush, banging his elbows on the doorframe. “What’s happening?” he asked in Chinese.
“One thirty, do you understand?” the mayor said, voice full of authority. He glanced around the shop at the barrels of rice and flour, jars of fish oil and rolls of flannel fabric.
Deciding what he wants to take for his own store, Lee Yoo thought bitterly.
“You knew this was coming. If you wanted to take more than what you can carry, you should’ve left when we first told you to get out.”
“Better pack ‘em up quick!” Lee Yoo didn’t see who shouted it out. “We’re done waiting!”
“Stragglers get their throats slit!” another voice called out.
“Issaquah Valley ho!”
“Burn the lice out!”
The song she couldn’t hear was telling her something, but she didn’t know what. The rage was too loud in her ears; she was caught up in it like a splinter of wood tumbled in the surf, like the flash of a black tail in dark waves. The rising power of it burst out into her limbs and she grabbed up the axe leaning beside the back door. A man shoved his way around the corner of the counter and she swung wildly at him.
He dodged backward, eyes wide.
Cheong yelped. “Mama! Stop! What are you doing?”
Lee Yoo lunged forward around the counter, swinging again and narrowly missing a second man. The whole crowd stumbled and jostled to get out of her way.
On the backswing, she caught a knee with the flat side of the axe head, and the man buckled with a cry. Too bad she hadn’t hit the Mayor. The men shoved each other around, knocking over shelves, dumping carefully-boxed dishes onto the hard wood floor. The porcelain crashed and cracked.
Cheong wrapped his arms around her waist from behind. “Mama, stop! Stop, they’ll kill you!”
The voice she couldn’t hear swept her up, the drums so loud her whole world shook. She shook Cheong off and dropped the axe. The flood in her chest poured out of her throat and up into the heavens, ripping them asunder in a stream of sound too loud to hear.
Present day, near M St and S 38th, Tacoma, WA, two miles from the mouth of the Puyallup River
The cop leaned in toward the window, gun already drawn and at the ready just out of her view. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“No, sir.” T. J. gripped the wheel hard.
The cop frowned. “Do you have any weapons in the car?”
Mari pulled her arms into her chest to make herself smaller. She could see how afraid T. J. was: he swallowed hard and when he opened his mouth it took a couple of false starts before he could say, “No, sir.”
“Mm.” This motherfucker wasn’t giving anything away, pausing again — listening to something in an earpiece, Mari saw. Frowning. His shoulders were too tight up around his ears; she didn’t like it.
Movement in the rearview mirror: a second cop getting out of the patrol car. Lula shifted in the back seat and Mari was terribly afraid that she was going to start wailing. A screaming child wasn’t a crime but every ounce of her knew: keep quiet.
“Show me your license and registration.”
T. J. froze for a second. “My registration is in the glove compartment, sir. I’m going to reach for it.”
The cop lifted one shoulder: wait, or hurry up, Mari couldn’t tell which. T. J. lifted his hand — reached across the console and pressed the catch on the glove compartment — it happened too fast, he fumbled the catch and the glove compartment burst open, spilling out a pair of sunglasses. BAMBAM BAM and Lula screamed Mari’s ears rang and the cop was shouting, “DROP YOUR WEAPON DROP YOUR WEAPON.” But he was the only one with a weapon and BAMBAM BAMBAM and T. J. was making this little whistling wet breath sound that she saw more than heard. Time was heavy and thick, distorted, and Mari was — she was screaming.
She stopped screaming. She put her hands up.
1931, in Tacoma, WA, on the hill overlooking the Puyallup River port
“A musician, you say?” The landlady was in her sixties, stout and tidy in wool so worn it was shiny at the elbows. Her skin was pale enough that she could almost pass for white, but John had been assured by three different people that she was the Negro landlord to impress here in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma. Of course, his father had warned him before he left Alabama that cities in the west were sharply segregated, engineered that way by city fathers who had battled back the natives and immigrants from Asia. No white landlord would rent to two dark-skinned black men freshly arrived from the heart of the South, so it was her or no one.
She pursed her mouth at him, her sharp eyes taking in the scuffs on the saxophone case slung over his shoulder, the thin soles on his shoes.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I teach piano, organ —” good church instruments, the ones parents wanted their children to learn “— and sax. And of course, I play.”
“Were you in the military? In a marching band?”
He swallowed. “No, ma’am, I learned from my own grandmother, on the organ at St. John Baptist Church.”
“Alabama, you said?”
Her face didn’t register familiarity.
“On the Tennessee River. It’s about mid-way between Memphis and Birmingham.”
“And you think you can find enough work here to pay your rent on time?” She frowned, looked him up and down. She was seeing his tight cambric shirt, the fabric washed so many times it was nearly see-through, and the too-long, doubled cuffs of his pants that betrayed that they were secondhand.
He nodded, trying not to show his nervousness. His heart was pounding ba-bum ba-bum. Too fast.
“Do you have any students here yet?”
“Not yet, ma’am, but my friend Ezekiel, he secured a job as a cook at the Winthrop Hotel.” He smiled with his lips shut, trying to look respectable. “And — I’ve worked as day labor on farms before, but the organist at Allen AME, he’s my second cousin’s brother-in-law and he’s in the musician’s union.”
Her frown deepened. “Your friend. That’s another matter.” She paused.
His stomach dropped like he’d been dunked in cold water. She knew just by looking at him, or rumors had trailed along the highways after them, the rumors that had driven them west looking for a sanctuary where they could be together. Of course, she wouldn’t rent to a pair of black African homosexuals. So where could they go? Much farther west and they’d hit the ocean, walk right into the dark waves.
Before he could do anything, the landlady shook her head. “I wish I could help you boys out, but you have to understand the scrutiny our community comes under. It’s not like Chicago or New York. Everyone knows everyone.”
So she would protect the local Negro community against the judgmental eyes of white folks — protect her community from him. From Ezekiel. He almost wished she hated them personally. “I understand, ma’am.”
“Maybe I could have rented to your friend alone,” she said. “But without a job, without an established position here in town…”
“Thank you for your time,” he said, and stood, dizzy with rage, the thrum of his pulse drowning out his own voice.
Outside, the rain came down softly, a drizzle scarcely worthy of the name. His case would keep the moisture off the saxophone and his wide-brimmed hat was almost as good as an umbrella. He muttered thanks to God for His small mercies.
The city was dotted with half-built buildings paused in the middle of construction by the Stock Market Crash, but the smell of freshly tarred pavement rose in the wet air. To the southeast, the mountain was capped with white clouds. As he walked, he passed streets that slanted steeply down toward the water, showing him glimpses of lumber mills and fish-canning factories and ships docked at the piers.
He turned down the alley behind the Winthrop Hotel and stopped short. Three young white men in bellhop uniforms lounged near the kitchen entrance, smoking. Their heads swiveled toward him. The closest man pushed off the wall he’d been leaning on and settled his weight easily on his feet. He was tall, John noticed uneasily, and his rolled-up sleeves revealed muscles that bunched and flexed beneath the skin of his forearms like he was used to moving logs rather than suitcases.
“You’re new in town.” The one in the middle spoke. He was shorter and slimmer than either of his friends, but still bigger than John.
“You know this hotel is whites-only, right?” the third man laughed. “You’ll have to beg a room from a Negro family if you can find one.”
“I know.” He and Ezekiel were staying in the kitchen of a friend of Ezekiel’s father, curled together under a single thin blanket on the plank floor. No privacy; if he wanted to kiss Ezekiel, they had to shut themselves up in small stolen places, which were hard to find. And now that their last lead on renting a room of their own had fallen through, he didn’t know where they were going to stay. “I’m here to wait for —” at the last-second he substituted “— my friend.” He didn’t want these men to know Ezekiel’s precious name.
“Your friend.” The same man sneered. “I don’t know where you come from, but we don’t need your sort here.”
“I’m from Alabama.” Stupid thing to answer.
“Go back to Alabama then.” The man shifted, stubbing out his cigarette on the bricks and letting his arms hang free. “You and your friend. I told you, we have enough perverts in Tacoma without you moving in.”
The tall man in the back said something under his breath and the other two laughed.
John could see how this was going. Growing up, he’d had this scuffle a hundred times, until he met Ezekiel and it all turned serious. Until his grandmother told him there were folks planning to kill him and Ezekiel both if they stayed in Florence, and the pair of them took off hitchhiking north with John’s saxophone and what clothes they could shove in a single carpetbag.
He smiled placatingly in spite of the pounding of defiance in his heart, and backed away, willing to wait for Ezekiel elsewhere, the street corner or back at their borrowed lodgings. But the man strode forward and grabbed John’s arm.
The feeling of cold water rose up and covered him, spinning him around. Hours of standing and walking in his ill-fitting shoes in the rain, on top of weeks of travel, years of bobbing his head politely, ducking thumps and slaps. The slurs tossed from cars full of white folks as they drove past him on dirt roads, their dust choking him the same as their contempt. The day he was twelve and his grandmother, sitting on the porch in the twilight with a guitar in her hand, said, “Now listen, child, this ain’t church music,” and played him a song. He’d heard it once before, on the pastor’s phonograph: Ma Rainey, singing about bulldagger women and sissy men. John had had no idea his grandmother knew about that kind of thing, let alone would sing about it aloud, to him, but he’d known what she was saying: he was what he was, and his family still loved him, but his life was going to be full of the blues.
All this history and love rose up in him like a wave and something in his chest turned over powerfully. He snapped his teeth and pushed the man away hard. Taking a step back, he opened his mouth and let out the pressure of the drums in his blood. A great stream of sound came out of him like a hundred heartbeats running, like all a guitar’s strings breaking at once: a moaning chorus, how his heart felt, the roaring of falling water gaining volume until John felt like the sky might shatter and fall down around him.
Present day, near M St and S 38th, Tacoma, WA, two miles from the mouth of the Puyallup River
“Sir, there’s no weapon,” Mari said, feeling too slow and stupid. How could either of them drop a weapon when there wasn’t a weapon in the car? “Sir please.”
“Stop moving put your hands where I can see them.” The cop tilted his cheek and talked into his radio, a blur of noise. Sirens kicked up in the distance, getting closer. “Don’t move. Get out of the car, ma’am, keep your hands where I can see them.”
Mari kept her hands up, moving slow as molasses. Lula screamed and screamed and Mari’s heart trembled madly in her chest like a fish drowning in the air. “It’s okay, mi’ja, it’s okay.”
She unlatched the door and swung it open. Slid her feet out onto the gravel, her hands high in the air making her balance strange. Pain everywhere. “Please don’t hurt my baby,” she said, not knowing whether she was talking about Lula or about T. J.
He already shot T. J.
There was a pounding in her ears ba-bum ba-bum ba-bum. “Sir. Please.”
“Don’t move. Put your hands on your head,” the cop snapped. “Get on your knees.”
She kept her hands high as she stepped away from the car then sank down. Soaking wet grass squished under her knees. Her heart was pounding so fast she was dizzy with it, her hearing fuzzing and her vision sparking at the edges.
Her lungs hurt. When she glanced down, she saw red all over her white lace shirt, deep red soaking the fabric and sticking it to her skin. Fuck.
She had to keep her hands behind her head or they’d shoot her. He already shot you, stupid. Fuck, it hurt. Her balance abandoned her and she tipped forward face first, hands too slow to catch herself, and smacked her cheekbone against the curb.
Her vision went gray-white, shivery with pain. In the brightness a swelling wave lifted her, catching her and spinning her around above her body. When her vision cleared, she could see the whole city: the highway, the port, the Reservation to the east and the Air Force base to the south. The coast a line curving around the northwest, and all the people within its arms, moving, breathing, hearts beating in time, ba-bum ba-bum.
Somehow the broadness of her view encompassed time as well, the history of the city stretching out like a tunnel into the past: trees, everywhere, the roads and train tracks unfurling through the forest, buildings sprouting up and collapsing again, bigger buildings re-growing in the same lots. People, everywhere: hunting silently in the thick woods, hurriedly canning fish in dank factories, picking apples under a burning sun, idling and irritated in traffic on the highway. Native and black, Latinx and Korean, Vietnamese and white, and mixed like her: rooted and rootless together. Travelers come from every edge of the world, looking for a better life and finding — this.
Everywhere, every year, the whole city was a pulsing sea of voices that rose into the air. The sound of drums danced over houses and overpasses, flowed around church steeples and the clock tower, jumped between skyscraper-tops and rode along the train tracks.
The voices spoke to each other in many languages, and Mari found that she understood them.
Time to set it all right.
Yeah, it’s fucking time already.
Our bones are too heavy. The bones of our children are too heavy.
The first voice, the loudest, repeated: It’s time. Together, we can set it right.
They wanted her to do something. She could feel the tug from all sides like a strong current spinning her. The voices flooded in, overwhelming her thoughts. She tried to hold tight to herself, but the tighter she held, the stronger the voices whirled. Like drowning in whitewater rapids.
She couldn’t breathe.
Out of nowhere, a great black tail smacked her in the chest and knocked her free. Her thoughts untangled, laying straight and true and taut.
Yeah, like that.
We have to try it.
Will it work?
Reach for the sun, mi’ja.
Listening, she reached out again with open hands. Warmth — rightness — flowed up her arms and she felt herself growing saturated with power. It rolled through her, lushly, steadying her.
Far away, she could hear Lula crying. The cop stood over the car, pointing his gun over the hood at something huddled in the grass. Unthinking, Mari reached out and brushed a finger over the cop’s gun, melting it out of existence.
He jolted back, startled, and Mari flicked droplets of power at him, dropping rain on the heat of his furious fear. He spun around like someone had tapped him on the shoulder from behind, but she was distracted. Her attention was caught by the way her movement rippled across the city. Every voice in the cloud that surrounded her mirrored her movements and reached out, touched guns of all kinds and washed them entirely away.
The voices hummed with excitement. Suggestions poured into her, jumbled beyond understanding. She focused on the voices that sounded familiar — mothers, mostly, that timbre in their voices that betrayed hours of vigilance, and also some who, like her, had loved widely and fiercely, loved men and women who hadn’t quite loved them back. Like the city, the first voice said. She just needs to be cleaned up a little.
Mari reached out again, carefully, the voices guiding her hands.
We ought to level the playing field.
This fucker is out of tune.
There’s balance here, if we can find it.
Touched — records in the courthouse, of misdemeanor theft and nonviolent felonies, truancy and drug offenses, noise complaints and parking tickets that added up and added up like debris clogging a riverbed. Moving together, they washed them clean. Rental contracts and deeds to land. Washed them clean.
Everything she touched melted, liquefied, and the flood of power rose and rose, until the city sloshed with it. She bulged and grew, a river surpassing its banks. When she turned her gaze on the police station in the center of the city it crumbled and dissolved like a clump of salt. In neighborhoods as far as she could see, police stations softened and fragmented. Their walls drifted away.
The flood overtook City Hall and entire towers swayed and tumbled piece by piece, as fast as workers could evacuate. The river rushed through the corrupt banks that preyed on the poor and the for-profit immigration detention center, the courthouse, the municipal jail — it burst open their doors and let everyone free before pushing the walls off their foundations. Ceilings sagged until they fell in and were swept away, leaving every cell and courtroom open to the sky.
To the south, the Air Force base was dense concrete. She started at the edges with the gates and fences, the guardhouse, the rifles out just for show. All swept away, engulfed, and the momentum carried her right onto the runways, into the hangars. The planes themselves floated for a few moments before they sank. The concrete of the runways cracked and buckled and the pieces slid like continental plates in miniature.
The bigger her hands, the more of them she extended, the less precise she got. But the small details were finished. She was a flood in full rush, pouring across the land in every direction.
Clouds rose over the city, mist and rain mixing with light, sunbursts throwing rainbows every which way. The wail of fire engines responding to the chaos was overwhelmed by a song she didn’t quite know, but the sound of drums pulsing in her heart and her ears was becoming familiar. Mari looked at all the things they had destroyed, she and the powers together, and reached out into the chorus: How’s it look?
Chatter swelled and burst, rolled over her:
Took you long enough. So many dead, and only now do you get around to fixing it —
It’s good, though.
Now we must keep it.
Good luck with that. Never seen this kind of thing last.
You’re forgetting. You’re forgetting the people.
She recognized that voice. It was the first one that had spoken to her, the eldest, the one that sounded like wings, like blue sky, and somehow also at the same time like deep dark water, size and power and predatory focus.
We’ve cleaned the city, the voice said. Now clean the city.
Mari saw what she meant, saw the people standing, running, staring among the sudden ruins of city. Tumbled out of cars on the highway, bewildered on the grass beside the torn-up tarmac at the Air Force base, fled from the prison. Chasing after those fled from the prison.
She saw them all, and flexed her arms to shake the clouds. Rain fell on every face, the crown of every head, cascading down into every life between the mountain and the water. She felt the smudges and blurs in them begin to dissolve, all the bullshit, the false histories and the lies, the hatred and entitlement.
The rain fell, and cleared the air. Cleaned the spirits. Soothed the hurt. Left behind the rock-solid truth that every person deserves respect.
Mari floated among them, a cloud that reached into every part of the city, from the mountain to the ocean, the river running clear and true in its bed. She circled it all, and when she made it all the way around, she settled toward the ground again, the chorus of voices softening into murmurs as she went until she heard only one: a child screaming.
Mari’s attention narrowed down to the street where her body lay, where a bewildered man without a gun or a badge, the insignia on his clothing scoured into illegibility, was trying to comfort her daughter.
The slide back into her body was like breaking the seal on a jar of peaches: slow, difficult, and then quick and satisfying, the pop of her joints as she turned over and sat up like a perfect scale of notes waterfalling over her. She stood and took her daughter from the arms of the former police officer, and then stepped over to the car.
T. J. was still bleeding in the driver’s seat, his chest barely rising with each small breath. Only a few minutes had passed. His eyes were unfocused but he was still alive. She laid her palm over the bullet holes. The thrum of spirit pulsing through the city vibrated in her spinal cord and out her fingers, dissolving the bullet fragments and knitting the tissue back together.
T. J. blinked at her and grabbed her hand, held on. “What —”
She smiled. Lula was still screaming wildly in her ear and the city spread out around her on all sides, damp and breathing. She kissed her daughter’s cheek. “It’s okay, baby,” she said. “It’s okay, I got you.”
Joanne Rixon lives in Tacoma and is an organizer of the North Seattle Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Meetup. Her book reviews have appeared in the Seattle Times and her short stories have appeared in Fireside, Terraform, and the Bronzeville Bee. You can find her at joannerixon.com
Sasha Penn is a queer woman and an enrolled member of the Chehalis Tribe; she learned her first words of Lushootseed, the Coast Salish language in which some of the characters in this story are named, at home when she was a small child. She lives in Tacoma, Washington.