by Zarina Muhammad
In mythology and folklore, ancient religion, the trickster is a figure that outwits other characters. The trickster harbours secret knowledge, holds it tight against their chest and transcends; they disobey normal rules and defy conventional behaviour. Aahhhhh, what does it take to hold on to the corners of that kind of chaos? What must you be in possession of to be a trickster? Do you have to already exist outside the limits of acceptability, or do you veer off in that direction because of some magnetic pull? Do you end up there by accident, in the dark and alone? Maybe tricksters are lonely. That’s so sad, isn’t it.
If they are, I’ll give them company.
I opened my eyes again, so wide they watered. White lights strobing against the black dark, a green laser searched across the smoky room.
‘What did you say your name was darling?’ He leaned in against me, hand on the small of my back and breath hot against my ear. His drink was tilting against the rim of his glass. He was so soft, so damp and warm.
My name is Doe.
I didn’t know men were allowed in the Strap-Off.
He continued, slurring his words, getting drowned out by the thumping bass. The collar of his shirt was hanging wide and open, a gold chain flashed out at me. I tuned out and scanned the darkened room.
I hate the city sometimes. The morning before, I was miles away. In Silkoon, the days feel shorter. There are electricity cables running across the fields, piggybacking wires from pylon to pylon, but when the sun sets, the day ends. There are no streetlights, only two neon strips flickering from the late night dispensary. Just pitch black, everywhere except that short stretch of road, between two fields, in the village of Taffeta, Silkoon District, Myne. The autos have one bulb strapped to their flat fronts, so when someone whizzes in from the bigger village beyond the river, we see them coming from the bridge. I do hate the city, I do I do.
At 5am, the sun peeked above the horizon, low and pink, boiling. The clouds scattered with the heat, rising, and light flooded back into the village. I was standing on the flat roof of the pillar hall, I had slept there the night before, and now as the sun rose, it was time.
I saw it approaching through the shimmering clouds and dust. It writhed through, swimming towards the rooftop. The scales on its back glittered, flashing bronze and blue like it was on fire. As the creature landed, the wind whipped up around me, the blackberry trees reached up and scattered their leaves. I stood, still and calm, hair flying up in the currents from its pulsing, powerful body. The creature curled the length of itself flat around me.
Heir stepped down from its back, and pulled me into a tight embrace. She was cold, moist with cloud dew. Stray hairs curled at the side of her face, dark blue and sticking to her skin. She pressed her hand against the middle of my chest, and I hummed. Our foreheads touched for a moment, eyes closed against each other’s faces. The village returned to its still quiet around us and this creature coiled on the rooftop.
‘Doe, we have to leave. Now.’
I was ready, and glad.
Heir climbed up into the saddle first, hoisting herself over and straddling the beast. She reached down for me, and pulled me up. The creature groaned under our weight, and she soothed it with a murmur.
‘Is it ready?’ I whispered.
‘No, but it never is,’ Heir took my hands and wrapped them around her waist, kicked the beast between our legs.
It shuddered, tensed the length of itself. As it sprung up, a cloud of dust rippled beneath us, and we bounded out and up, into the air. We rose with the sun, heat settling into the day. I looked back as my village, Taffeta, shrank away into a blurred green pool behind us. We were sliding through the clouds, frost stinging the tops of my cheeks and the soft of my eyes.
Heir leaned forward, pointed towards the horizon.
‘Not far now, you can see it, there.’
In front of us, the jagged skyline of Ethni City was already alight with activity. The cleaners had descended on the towers, preparing it for the day ahead. I could hear the low growl of vans, trawling the streets as workers jumped on and off on their way to the first shift. This was a new kind of dust. Not brown and dry like in Silkoon, the dust in the city is black and thick. It is a kind of wetness, it clings to the surface of your skin and hides deep within you if you stand out in the open for too long. The heat gets trapped in it. At ground level, there’s never a breakpoint, where it cools. The smog never lifts, the humidity never passes, the clammy heat of the summer never rises up past the dome of the city. It is just always, always there.
In the middle of it all, peeking its layered top through the towers, is Temple Row. Warm stone, porous. Thick columns, grey with the dirt and smog. It grows towards us as we approach.
The creature’s liquid body tumbled through the sky, towards Sai, Silk and the City.
‘What do you do at night?’ I turned to him, sharp. The crescent tips of my fingers pressed into the soft flesh of his arm.
He leaned into my neck and inhaled.
‘You smell like jasmine flowers, saffron.’ His eyes were closed now.
My hand made its way up his chest, flat, skimming the open hanging collar of his shirt, up to his neck. I pushed the heel of my hand against the soft, collapsable tissue of his windpipe. He started to choke, gently, slumped against my shoulder.
‘I asked you a question.’
His voice rasped, and his drink began to slip out of his glass in a delicate stream. I heard it weeping, tinkling against the glassy floor tiles, a glistening thread. So beautiful.
‘What do you mean?’
‘What did you do last night?’
My grip tightened, his neck was warm.
‘Answer me. NOW.’
‘I was here!’
The music thumped around us, and he was so still, so calm. We stared at each other, unblinking.
He broke. Then his hands were pushing back against me, trying to peel me off. But I had him by the neck, the soft part, remember? So I squeezed harder, watching carefully as his skin went white at my touch and the blood rushed to the extremities of his face. So beautiful. Like blushing, along the high points of his milky cheeks, the proud tip of his nose.
‘And what did you do while you were here?’ I was speaking quietly now.
I was told it isn’t good to raise your voice. Good girls don’t shout. And I think I agree. Shouting doesn’t always convey authority; more often than not, it belies panic, loss of control. Speaking in a low tone can be a display of confidence, it can scare people. So when I want to be listened to, I make sure to speak quietly.
‘Why are you doing this?’
Tears started forming along the outer rim of his eyes, like his drink, they fell slow and determined down his stubbled cheeks.
‘I know what you did last night.’ I felt his pulse quicken beneath my hand.
He blinked back at me.
In breaking these boundaries, the trickster mocks authority. Boundaries, rules and borders are all there for a reason. The existence of authority makes these boundaries necessary. If a hierarchy is to exist, it must be upheld by firm lines of demarcation.
When someone flies out of the category they were intended for, do they become a trickster? Is a trickster a type of misfit? Incorrectly categorised, and out of place?
Does that movement have to be purposeful? I feel like I crossed the line by accident.
The creature swam back up into the sky, cutting through the dense smog of the city, and ruffling the clouds.
Heir walked ahead, quick steps at the edge of a run. The wide flat pools of Temple Row stretched out on either side of us on the walkway. The water glistened green under the morning sun, hanging low in the sky. The sand blasted stone beneath us was peppered with yellowing moss, darkened by shadow, wet with the pressure of our feet as it dipped into the pool beneath us at every touch. We raced along the bobbing walkway, up to the stairs of the inner temple, as the birds cried out in warning above us, circling closer.
‘I didn’t know how to help her, it’s beyond my abilities,’ Heir was panting, out of breath as she bounded up, two steps at a time.
‘I’ll try my best,’ I grabbed at her hand, and she pulled me along with her into a run.
Time stretched out and each moment played at half-speed. Hymen heard us coming. The double doors flew open at our touch, and we rushed over to Silk, laid out on a stretcher before the altar.
‘She’s stabilised, but she’s still not woken up,’ Hymen hurried us into the room, speaking in hushed tones.
‘I could only bring half my kit, the village pillars lock up the rest, and I couldn’t-’
‘Doe, it’s fine. Your abilities alone will help more than any of us can right now,’ Heir soothed me as I knelt down beside Silk’s limp body.
‘She’s in a bad way. I can hear her aura.’ I shook open the toolkit, herbs scattered out across the marbled floor.
The room fell into a deeper hush, as I placed my hand on the centre of Silk’s chest and hummed. My eyes closed, I felt colours pulsing up out at me. They swirled and met, fell apart like peals of laughter. Now resounding circles, expanding like sphincters; widening and widening, yawning open into a stretch until a perfect image of a face descended.
~~~~~ Milky fat cheeks, rounded around a proud and prominent nose. Curly hair, flopping over onto one side, and two cruel eyes pinching up into a laugh. A gold chain flashed out from the edge of a shirt’s open hanging collar.
~~~~~ A blow landed with brute force. I felt the air around me bruise, absorbing it. The space rippled as colours fled. His knife slashed across and blood spurted black out at him, across his laughing face and his crisp white shirt. It dripped down, across his teeth, droplets forming against that gold chain, hardening brown and rusty. He laughed again, colder now. His hands gripped at soft skin, and he pulled.
~~~~~ I fell out of the vision, my breathing ragged and in sync with Silk’s.
I spoke clearly,
‘I can see him. He was waiting for her in the alley behind the Strap-Off. The cuts won’t heal without his blood in turn.’
I turned to Hymen,
‘I know his face now. We have to be quick. She is weak, I’m not sure how much time is left.’
‘I’m not letting you go alone,’ Hymen rushed over to grip my arm, still outstretched over Silk, and still tuned into her auratic symphony. She fluttered beneath me, caught in the wind between worlds.
I hate it when they do that. I’m not quick, but most times I can run for longer than them. So I always catch them eventually. What baffles me is: I have no idea how he got out of my grip. All I saw was his teeth, blinding and fast, sinking into the tender flesh of my forearm. I must have recoiled at the sheer speed of the pain. Because the next thing I knew, there was blood running down my arm, hitting my leg, spraying in a swinging crescent as I sprinted after him across the dance floor.
Hymen was waiting for him at the doors of the loading bay. By the time I caught up, he was on the floor, wheezing.
She threw a black hood into my hands.
‘Cover his head.’
I shook it loose from the folds of itself, and approached, steady hands.
‘You can’t do this,’ he was trying to bargain with us now.
I laughed, baring my teeth at him now. My forearm still stung from his bloody bite. I could see, my own blood was drying around his mouth, mixing with the spit-wet blood along his gumline. That must have been his. Good.
‘Watch us,’ I spat at him, kicked at the soft of his stomach. He groaned. I was delighted.
Hymen was nervous, but I didn’t care. I think I was enjoying this. I swooped down and caught his head in the hood.
‘Don’t you know who I am?’ He was squealing now, voice muffled by the coarse fabric. But from this angle he looked like he was pleading. And this question wasn’t heavy with entitlement, it was genuine. He really thought we didn’t know who he was. Hymen laughed too, binding his hands behind his back.
‘We know who you are,’ I reached down to my thigh, fingers searching for the thin blade strapped tight. Found it. I flicked it open from its sheath, watched to see it greet me with a flash, moonlight against the steely tip. I circled round, looked up at Hymen. She was circling too now, her arms up in front of her like she was holding a wide embrace. The switchblade in her hand was black, dark, heavy. It didn’t glint in the moonlight like mine.
He was writhing and lashing his legs, hands straining against our zip ties for a way towards the base of the hood over his head. Hymen and I swooped down, in sync and on beat with the muffled thumping bass leaking from the doors of the loading bay.
I lost myself in the rhythm of it, to tell the truth.
We were dancing, all together.
We didn’t hear his screams.
We didn’t stop when we saw the lights.
When they came rushing out of the van, shouting orders at us, we carried on.
He melted like ripened fruit, his body rotting into the pavement beneath us, blood bursting back at our open mouths, grinning.
When they hurled us into the back of the van, I closed my eyes, hand on my chest, and hummed. I returned to Silk’s vision. It was white, blinding. I saw Heir holding a handful of herbs, looking up in awe and fear. The inner temple was alight with the burning torch of Silk’s body, red hot and sticky.
In the sky above us, the creature roared. Its winding body curled and tossed itself up, higher into the blue dark clouds. I felt the rain hitting the roof of the van and smiled.
‘Silkoon is beautiful in the rain. The blackberry trees catch the water with their open leaves, and everything smells like life, like earth.’
‘Doe-’ Hymen was crouched against the wall of the van.
‘The fields flood in the summer, you should see them sometimes,’ I turned to her, eyes wet with tears.
‘Doe, listen,’ Hymen’s voice was urgent, sharp. ‘Did we get to him in time?’
Zarina Muhammad (b.1994, London) is a writer and an art critic @ the white pube (thewhitepube.com // @thewhitepube). She writes about exhibitions, institutions, food and other little bits in between. cancer sun/aries moon/sagittarius ascendant. ‘intellectual charlatan’, ‘sociopathic pseudo-critic’, leading proponent of ‘The Philosophy of the Warm Tummy’ & cowboy in the art world.