Phix hauls the rust-gobbled tram along the elevated line. Her tarnished wings stutter in the salt air, their metal quivering under the tram’s weight. Before I can draw the brake to ease her burden, another metallic feather pops free. It tumbles to the ocean below, swallowed by a wave. Phix has lost four primary feathers in the past three days.
“Mos . . . wen.”
My name breaks in the sphinx’s dry mouth. I reach a hand through the tram’s ceiling hatch to press fingers against her furred paw. “Rest.”
The tram groans against the line with Phix’s exhale, rocks gently, then ceases. We rest between stations, above the debris of the main switch house, though beyond the strand where the tramlines split—sunward toward damaged tracks and flooded islands, oceanward where our own tracks curve toward the cove where we sometimes see lesser whales. Warm sunlight beats down from the cloudless sky, turning my Phix gold under her dark sea tarnish. She is twice my own length in size, yet half the size of the tram; she hauls us both without complaint, strong even though she is failing.
There are no feathers in the tram. I have looked but find myself looking again as though I have not looked upon this interior for two years. I have walked from rusting stem to rusting stern, have swept every curved corner clean, and there are no feathers. I know we will have to search the river delta where debris clutters and even the idea is like a fist against my heart.
We pass it every five days—will reach it again in another two—and every time my dismay is fresh. The delta is filled with the evidence of other people, yet I have never seen another soul there. Phix says there are no others now, only their debris. There should be others. This tram was not meant to carry me alone; my grandfather ran the lines when the trams were full, the lines electrified. In the early days, Phix and I pretended there were people to ferry about, waiting around the next curve of island.
Phix stretches her wings against the clear sky, a great span that shades us from the sun’s warmth. I tense, expecting more feathers to loosen, but they hold and I ease my grip on the brake. Those wings stroke once more, moving us down the line. I don’t think I will ever grow tired of watching those wings move, even when their perfect moments are few and far between.
“We’ll rest at the cove,” I tell her, and her reply is a terse chirrup. I know she wants to go farther, wants to prove herself and find others of her kind despite the cost to her wings.
Phix announces them just as I notice the dark shapes in the ocean. Not lesser whales; these are larger, like dark stones gliding slow and sure toward Down Point. Warmer water is said to pool there and I wonder if it means we’re in for a change of weather. I make a note in my log: six whales, Down Point, mid-morning; submerged stones.
The whales surface every now and then, spewing. I watch them blow air into air because it’s easier than watching Phix struggle with the tram and wondering when another feather will drop free. These days, our world is eleven stations long, connected by the ancient elevated lines that loop the boundary of the island we call Selk. I may need to remove more tram seats from this rusting carriage before Phix can make another circuit safely.
A spark on the track ahead steals my attention from the whales, from thoughts of losing Phix. My hand rests on the brake and Phix exhales as her burden is eased, wings slowing. Out the front window, the spark makes itself known through the mirage heat spiraling up from the track.
My fingers brush the knife at my side, then I set the brake to stop the tram at the turnout to the cove stationhouse. I climb up through the tram’s hatch and perch beside Phix, who leans a strong shoulder into me. She is sun-warm metal, sweat-slicked fur, and hard breath. She chirrups again, happy or questioning, and her thin tail lashes. She sees what I see. At the turnout there sits a box latched with metal.
I pull myself onto the girders and walk the narrow foot track along the tramline as if I am on a high wire above a crowd. As far ahead as I can see, the line is as empty as it has been for two years, but here sits a box. A box that was not here when last we passed.
“What is it?” she asks me.
There is no good answer. “A box?” I ask in return. Her snort of irritation carries to me as I crouch before the box. The metal that latches it is smooth.
The box is small and not heavy. I carry it back to the tram, where Phix and I stare at it as though it might open on its own, but it only looks back at us, silent and metal and inanimate. My own face looks back at me, brown and round and swallowed by Phix’s own when she leans in closer. Her eyes are vast within the metal, stretched into winglike forms.
“I had a mirror once,” she says, and before she can say more about the world that was, I grab the box and drop through the hatch, into the tramcar. “Moswen—”
I ease up on the brake and the tram glides slow on the line. “Let’s get to the cove station” is all I say. She knows I don’t like to talk about the world that was, the world that is gone yet lingers in pieces all around us.
Phix’s wings beat the air without further complaint and we move.
* * *
Grandfather died last winter; we couldn’t drop his body into the ocean as he wished because the hard-blowing storms would have only pushed his body inland. Phix and I spent most of that season in the river delta stationhouse after burying Grandfather in the cold mud of the riverbank. The tram stayed frozen to the lines in layers of ice, forcing us to leave the tramlines ahead untended. When thaw came, we were exhausted by the work that needed doing at every stationhouse and to the tram.
The lines had been Grandfather’s to tend before me, before even the flood. My parents hadn’t shown an interest in them; they were people of the land and wished to live where they couldn’t see the incessant ocean, but even they hadn’t been spared its hungry flood. The waves had taken everyone—had nearly taken even us, rising so high as to soak the trams.
Phix was older than me, her kind long-lived. She could remember two floods before the one that had carried my people away, could remember the bounty of fishes that washed into the trees for her to eat. She had not seen the ground for days, waking to find her next wriggling meal cupped within her metal wings.
We thought we were the last, but now the box. It sits near the handbrake, a small denial of everything we believed. Shadows course over the metal as Phix and I guide the tram into the station, making the box seem less real, though it doesn’t dissolve under my touch.
I look up at Phix’s question. “Don’t know.”
She peers down through the hatch at me, eyes narrowed. “Simple solution.”
With a grunt, I look back at the box. I can remember other boxes from the world that was, tied with long grasses and given as gifts. This box was a gift of sorts, too, but opening it opens us to the possibilities we have denied ourselves for so long. With hesitant fingers, I ease the latch out of its groove and push up on the lid. The scent of tree sap rolls out to greet me.
Inside rests a small piece of paper, used for a long-ago list. Those words are nearly smudged away, while others have been made on top of them in gleaming black seeds. These seeds stick to the page with sap.
I pull the page out and close the box. These seed words did not form themselves, and I am shaking when I haul myself through the hatch to sit beside Phix. I show Phix the page and she draws a sharp breath.
She reads the words aloud and it gives them a new power. “I am yet alive.”
On the page in black seeds they were one thing. Given voice, they were another. I want to set the page down because my hand is shaking but don’t want the paper to blow off the tram and into the ocean.
Phix sets her blue stare on me. “Who is alive? What does that mean? There is someone else in this world?”
She looks around as though we could be tormented by this new person at any moment. But the stationhouse stands quiet, but for the birds fussing in a rafters-high nest.
“Person’s got food aplenty, if they’re making letters with seeds,” Phix says.
I touch the seeds again, tracing the A in the word alive. If the person didn’t have food aplenty, they had sacrificed a good deal to leave the message. To let me—to let someone—know they were out there. But where?
“Another working tram?” Phix’s eyes go to the tracks beyond the stationhouse.
The idea seemed impossible. Most of the trams fell into the ocean when the waves came. We had found two others on the lines, but they had been in such bad condition, we had spent weeks pushing them onto adjacent lines where emergency trams once waited. They sat there even now. Had someone repaired one? Phix and I passed them every five days and we had seen no one. Hiding only to reveal oneself later didn’t hold much logic for me.
Phix sobs then, furred body shaking. She tries to fold a wing to her face, but I wipe her cheeks dry before she can. Afraid? Afraid that this person would take what little we had managed to create this past year? We had food stored in stationhouses along the route, supplies we had salvaged, countless things another person might want. This is where my mind turns. But Phix—
“Maybe there’s another me.” She squeezes her eyes shut and it seems loneliness that leaks from her, not tears.
* * *
There were no feathers in the cove stationhouse, least none that would do for Phix. Small, downy feathers scattered the floor beneath the rafter nests, and I swept them up along with bird droppings and mice bones. Amid the debris was one mouse skin, as if the animal had discarded his coat and gone for a swim. Between the floor slats I could see into the ocean, and while there were no swimming mice, two lesser whales made unhurried circles.
I tried not to think of the seed letter as I tidied the station, but it proved impossible. I didn’t want to think what it meant, because it was both terrifying and exciting to think of another person in this world. If there was another of Phix’s kind, might we also find feathers to repair her wings?
The sphinx had not been made for hauling trams. They were made as playthings, pets for an exclusive few. It was rumored that some sphinx spent their days asking people questions that seemingly had no answers, but of course there were answers. Somewhere.
“Do you think she will be tall? Perhaps she will be strong as you are? What if she doesn’t like fish?”
The questions Phix asks have no answer that I know. I pause in my sweeping and set the broom aside to cross to the storage closet and count blankets and candles. None has been taken or disturbed since our last visit.
“Maybe she will be a he, Phix.”
This draws a strangled sound from her and a round of new questions, ending with the idea that if there were another of her kind, perhaps it would also be male. I had never seen a male sphinx, but I do not say this to Phix, for I hadn’t seen her this hopeful in months. She’d last been this way as we fished a finrunner from the ocean, a treat that fed us for two days.
We sleep in the stationhouse instead of the tram, though sleep is a generous word, because we’re both agitated. I keep waking, gazing out at the tram to make sure it’s there, that no one has taken it away. Ridiculous to think, after all this time, but now we knew there was someone out there. Likely on our lines.
As the sun comes up, I take two extra blankets from the closet and three fat candles. If the whales are right and colder weather is on its way, I don’t want us stuck without warmth and light. Blankets and candles might also be good things to trade, and this thought surprises me, for I’ve never had anyone to trade with.
In the tramcar I set the seeded letter near the brake where I can’t help but see it, weighting it with two candles. Phix peers inside, perhaps thinking the same thing I did: that it had all been a dream.
We don’t voice any plan. I don’t exactly have one beyond doing what we’ve done every day since the waters rose. Travel the lines, keep them in order, look for supplies, and yes, though I have never admitted it aloud, look for people. Any people, but now the person who left the box with its letter. I picture this person tall, strong arms filled with feathers to repair my Phix. To keep us running the lines.
* * *
Phix loses two more feathers on the way to the river delta, one lost to the ocean, one falling through the ceiling hatch to rest near my feet. I set the feather near the seed letter, noting the way its quill tip is worn, allowing it to slide loose from the wing. We stop to allow Phix to rest three times, four times, five, and each of us hates it for a different reason. She doesn’t want to appear weak; I don’t want to impose this burden on her, but haven’t found another way to power the tram. I would rig a sail if I could find enough lengths of untorn cloth. The unspoken question curls against my heart: would Phix leave me if she could properly fly?
It is dark when we angle the tram onto the turnout for the river delta stationhouse. The old building rises black against pale, half-toppled trees clinging to the muddy ground. I know the water that licks the stationhouse pilings is brown from silt, blacker inland along the banks where mud and oil have mixed. In the moon’s faint light, oil gleams across the water, keeping whales and fish out. Upriver where the sand rises in a craggy bar, one might find snakes, but all else has gone, leaving the wreckage to collect where the river tongues the sea.
Phix rests as I brake the tram inside the stationhouse. We would like this stationhouse best, with its inside track and whole roof, but for the debris that flows beneath the building, a constant reminder of the world that was. Sometimes we find bodies, or the memory of bodies, for what bob to the surface are not “people” as we had known them. Bloated and pale and—
There is movement in the dark, beyond the stationhouse and up the river near Grandfather’s grave. I set the brake and climb out of the tram, faster than I have moved in weeks. My heart rests hard in my throat as I run the width of the building, to the shattered windows that overlook the upward tangle of river. A boardwalk of carved and painted wood once stood here, edged with small shops, stands of produce, artists who painted the sea. These remains tangle with the oily mud, indistinct under the moon’s weak light.
“There was some—”
Something or someone? I don’t finish the word. Phix drops down to crouch at my side, trembling.
“Stay with the tram,” I tell her. I check my knife, then head for the ruined doorway, down the stationhouse stairs slick with slime and bird droppings.
The movement comes again, a rustle of wings. I drop onto the boards Phix and I placed last winter when we came to bury Grandfather; they remain firm so I run. At their end, I dig bare toes into the cold mud as I climb the bank. Over waterlogged books and broken pottery. Over shoes and a rotting canvas.
Ahead in the dark comes a crackling sound and I drop to my knees, holding my breath. Trees arch above me topsy-turvy, branches interlaced like thin fingers, the spaces between ragged as mouths. There is a chirrup and for a second I think Phix has followed me, but the next sound in the dark is not her. It is a shriek I have never heard before.
I pull my knife from its old leather sheath. All around me debris rises in hazy mounds, seeming to shift, but maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m that unsteady. But amid the debris I see something I haven’t seen in years, branches knitted into the shape of a nest. A nest where someone might sleep. I hook a hand into it and pull myself up to peer over the edge. The bowl of the nest is filled with treasures. A dented metal box holds a broken locket, its chain tangled; its oval face shows that of a woman within, staring at the night sky. A broken comb and a shard of mirror nestle beside the locket. I reach for the mirror, remembering Phix’s mention of her own, and then a hard body bullets into mine, shoving me down into trash, into mud.
Feathers or fur, I can’t tell which in the panic, but it’s not skin. My free hand closes into the body as best it can while I strike with my knife, trying to avoid the wings battering me, the hard talons in my arms. Sphinx? The knife hits home, unexpected, into the solid body, and warm blood sprays over me. The creature screams again, pinwheels back, and I hear the familiar movement of metallic wings. Sphinx! No!
Nothing coherent comes from its mouth, only shuddering sobs in the wake of injury and panic. Warm blood slicks my fingers and I push myself up, meaning to launch myself at her, catch and hold her, but she’s gone, a blur against the moon and gone.
I can’t walk. My legs shake and I can’t get them under me so I crawl. I know exactly how far the grave is and once there, I rake the collected debris off and kiss the stone that marks Grandfather’s place. A vine tangles around my hand and I cannot pull it free for all the shaking. I lie for a long while in the mud, only trying to breathe.
When I finally regain the grip on my knife, slick with mud and blood, I cut the vine. The sharp scent of lotus erupts into the night, easing the reek of trash. I’m crying as I find more of the blooms; they have reached from the black river to cover Grandfather’s grave.
Phix gapes when I return. Maybe it is the lotus she stares at and not the mud and blood that cover me; she loves the flowers and we have not found any in months. She leans close and I think she means to eat one lotus whole, but it’s a metallic, black feather she clasps in her teeth, tugging it from my muddy arm. The feather is as long as my arm, black bleeding into gold along its outer edge.
“Birds don’t leave boxes,” Phix says, and I’m about to say of course they don’t when she points with the feather toward the box on the far side of the stationhouse. Small and metal and latched closed. I don’t bother to skim the mud off of me before moving toward the box. I leave muddy prints on the stationhouse floor, but only the small box matters. I kneel before it, finding it identical to the first box.
I expect a letter, but there isn’t one. There is a small bottle of black sand, a round white stone, and a dried squid. Phix leans closer to smell the squid in my hand. It is like any other squid we have seen—we both like them crisped by fire—but the other two objects are new, unknown. I give Phix the squid and she chews in silence while I tilt the vial of sand, watching the black grains shift.
There are no black beaches on Selk. Having circled the island for two years, I am acquainted with the colors that run from white to pink and all the pastels between. Cream, smoke, mint. The white stone is not as white as I first thought; it rolls in my palm and hidden colors reveal themselves, blue cascading into shell pink. It is perfectly round, unlike anything I know.
Unknown, like the bird—that sphinx—at the river.
I set the items down and step back from the box before skimming the mud and debris from my skin. I make a mess on the stationhouse floor but don’t care. I pluck another black feather free and lay them out near the box.
Phix shakes her head and says, “Not ours,” her breath redolent with squid.
Officially, they are ours, being that no one else is here to claim them, but I think that’s not what she means. She means these things do not come from our island, from Selk. It means they come from the other islands, beyond the split lines. Sunward toward damaged tracks and unreachable islands—tracks someone had fixed?
I had not looked on our last pass through. Phix and I never stopped there because the switch point was damaged beyond our means of repair. The switch house was lost in the flood; its collapsing weight had pulled the switches and turnouts into unusable tangles. If I were honest, we likely could have set them to rights given a season or two and the proper tools, but I didn’t want to. Didn’t want to visit those distant islands because they meant change. Phix and I were content in our circuit, or so we told ourselves. Phix’s tears and her breaking wings said otherwise even if we didn’t listen.
I pocket the sand and stone and scoop the muddy feathers from the floor. I mean to keep them, but they need washing first, as do I.
It’s hard to look at Phix as I move toward the door. Her face holds such hope that we are no longer alone. That there might be someone to share the burdens of this place. But if there was one, perhaps there were more. Perhaps they meant to take what they could of this place, make it their own.
But why leave the boxes?
That question is a sharp knife in my side as I turn to the door. The idea of someone reaching out to anyone else was less bearable then the idea that they meant to plunder our careful stores. I had never tried to reach out.
“Going to look and wash, then we’ll eat and sleep and go come morning.” Running on the lines at night was dangerous; we only did it when we felt it necessary. It wasn’t necessary tonight, so I told myself.
I trawl the sodden debris on the riverbanks with my knife in hand. I think that amid all this there must be another sphinx feather or two, but if there is, I don’t find them. There are fathoms of trash, pieces of lives; I cannot dig forever, even though I would for Phix. I come back to the tangled nest, to the locket and the face it holds. I tuck the memento into my pocket because some part of me refuses to leave the image of this woman alone in the waves of debris.
When I come back to the stationhouse, Phix has cleaned the mud away and carried wood to the fireplace. There are racks of dried fish and seaweeds in our pantry here and we make a feast of them. Neither of us says anything about the two fish that are plainly missing from the rack.
* * *
I check the river again in the morning. There is no sign of the creature from last night, nor sphinx feathers. I find a basket, its reeds tightly woven, and bring it back to the tram where Phix stretches her wings as if to test the joints. I drop into the tram with a grunt, my midsection black and blue from last night’s encounter, and set the basket near the brake.
I bid Phix to go slow today, not only because I dread what we may find, but because I want to survey the lines as we go. If there is someone else on the lines, I want to be certain the lines are undamaged, that nothing worse than boxes awaits us. If someone meant mischief, it would be easily to partially split a line, to leave it ready to burst under the weight of a tram. I join Phix up top, latching myself to the jackline that circles the tram so I won’t fall off.
All things considered, it’s a smooth ride except when we move over the wheels that guide the lines around each tower point. The towers are old, rust-stained limestone pocked with barnacles near the waterline. We pay close attention to the towers on every loop we make. If one is lost, the entire tram line may buckle.
The salt reef blooms in the water here, stretching bony fingers around two towers. Corals consume this stationhouse, wood pulled from its supports by the growing reef. We could reach the station with our rope ladder—the turnout and footpath buckled in the storms—but we don’t. We’ve had no cause to go. There is a glint from a sliver of metal and for a moment I think it’s a sphinx feather, but as we pass on, I see it is only an old piece of tram, catching the sun before clouds move over and rain mists down.
When I see the body, I think I’m mistaken again. It can’t be a body, but is rather a curved portion of tram that has fallen atop the Stacks. These vertical columns of rock spread outward from the coast before the land swings sunward again. But this shape wasn’t here on our last pass. It, like so much of late, is new and unknown.
The Three Sisters, the Witch, the Old Man; we have given each stack its own name. It’s the Old Man that bears the body up in the gentle storm. I unhook myself from the jackline and drop into the tram to pull the brake.
Back in the rain, Phix moves with me as I climb down the front of the tram. She leaps to the stone and a hiss escapes her. She rocks back on her haunches, tail lashing, and I see that the body is a sphinx.
She is not dead, but her eyes are closed to the rain. Her chest hitches, soaking-wet hair coiling dark against her neck. Her metal wings are folded along the length of her back. Where Phix is golden, this sphinx is black. I kneel beside the body and note the mark of my knife on her feathered chest. Blood gleams in rivers amid the black feathers and fur.
“Sphinx?” I ask.
Her eyes shutter open and they are as golden as my Phix. I suck in a sharp breath. The eyes slide shut and my gaze lingers on the wings, considering, until Phix stamps a foot. We talk about most everything, my Phix and I, but this, like the circuit we make, seems beyond words.
Phix doesn’t have enough strength to haul the body herself, but returns to the tram. When she comes back to the rock, she has brought ropes with her. I nod and begin to bind the black sphinx. The sphinx is injured enough that she does not fight me, does not try to bite or strike out with her wings. I bind her so her wings cannot move, so she is like sail wrapped around mast. Phix and I haul her onto the tram roof. There, I unwrap her, and it is Phix’s turn to stare.
There remains a distinct lack of words.
* * *
The black sphinx sleeps fitfully but will not stop bleeding; something deep inside her has been cut. I have no medical supplies, but we cushion the sphinx with a blanket and bind another against her wound. The knife wound I made.
We overnight at the Stacks, the rain easing until it is only cold mist. Phix shifts with agitated energy as the other sphinx sleeps, her eyes flicking to me and then to the body between us. In the candlelight streaming up from the tram, the sphinx is a massive black shadow.
My teeth crunch through a dried fishtail and I look at my Phix, gold and beautiful and broken. I can only imagine the thoughts that run through her head.
“She is not well,” Phix says.
I nod my agreement and chew the fishtail to dust. “My doing.” I break the dried fish apart, peeling skin from flesh, and tuck another bite into my cheek.
“Are the boxes hers?”
Phix is trying to solve the riddle we have been given. Between us, the sphinx opens her eyes, but says nothing, too weak. I break another piece of fish off and offer it to her. She lets me slide it between her lips.
“It seems likely.” I don’t know what else to say, because I’m also trying to solve the riddle. I look down at the form between us. “Sphinx, are the boxes yours?”
Her throat works as she swallows the fish. I offer her a drink from my canteen, and only after she has swallowed does she nod.
“My mistress. Bade me. Leave them.”
A low shudder runs through Phix and seems to echo in me. The sound of another voice is completely astonishing. You live without a thing for so long, you don’t notice the enormity of its lack until it suddenly returns. Our two voices had for so long seemed one. Now here is another.
A thought rises within me, and I slide my hand into my pocket to withdraw the locket I found at the river delta. I show the oval and its faded face to the sphinx and my question is silent, but heard. The sphinx nods.
“That. Is my mistress.”
I close my hand around the locket and wonder. Had the sphinx built herself a small nest at the delta, containing all she owned in the world, as she set about the task her mistress assigned her? And had we, in a clumsy accidental encounter, taken it all from her? Everything she had and also her life?
Questions rush from Phix. “Where is she? Who is she? Is she on the tramline? Will you help us find her?” The hurried words remind me of the rising waters, the way they went everywhere without cease.
The sphinx cannot answer Phix, though. She draws a halting breath and closes her eyes again. Her blood has soaked through the blanket against her chest. Her breath comes shallow, hard.
Phix leans over to look at the sphinx’s face. I can tell my girl is holding back. She wants so much, hopes so much. I leave the strip of dried fish beside the sphinx and drop into the car to find my own rest.
* * *
Come morning, we move again. Phix’s wings are sluggish, having spent a night in the rain and mist. The wings groan as she guides the tram away from the Stacks, toward the long line that will eventually take us to the strand where the tramlines split.
The black sphinx sleeps intermittently. Phix chatters whether she or I reply or not. Phix can no longer keep her speculations to herself. She is eager, a thing that translates to the way she hauls the tram; I tell her to ease up, but she doesn’t. Her broken wings make hard strokes in the salt air. She is excited over the idea of finding this sphinx’s mistress, of finding me my own kind as her own has been found. When Phix’s left wing gives under the strain of her enthusiasm, snapping hard enough to cause an entire line of feathers to spill free, the tram shudders to a halt. Phix’s sob makes me sick, and I climb to the roof where both sphinx regard me.
I can see but one way to repair both of them, but I do not say this awful thing. There is no way to tell Phix that I could repair her wings with those the black sphinx possesses. My eyes rest on the black sphinx and she regards me, already knowing. She must know better than I; hers is the body that bleeds its life across the rusted roof of the tram, that grows weaker with each passing hour. When she nods, I nod in kind.
Phix chirrups the word as I drop back into the tram. My hands are shaking as I take hold of my knife. I must finish what I accidentally began at the river delta. Phix sees the knife when I come back up and shrieks.
The black sphinx tries to hush her, but Phix will not be hushed. With her broken wing, Phix is unsteady. She tries to get between me and the black sphinx, but cannot. Their bodies are so very solid, even with both of them injured, and I fear for one moment that we will all plunge from the tram. The tram rocks beneath us as I gently push Phix back, curling my hand into her feathered chest.
“She will not survive the day, Phix. The blood will not stop.”
“Mos. . . .” She goes slack against my hand, sobbing. Her cheek presses into my forearm, tears coiling their way into my elbow. “Moswen.”
I cup her cheek as I withdraw, but only briefly. My attention is for the black sphinx now. I stroke a hand over her feverish head and her eyes meet my own.
“She is.” The black sphinx draws breath, ragged and wet. “The other islands. My mistress. Searching.”
Searching like me and Phix, and I ache at the idea of it. Phix bends her head to press her cheek against the sphinx’s, and questions spill from her. Tell me everything, tell me the skies you have seen, tell me where these wings have taken you, tell me your name, your name.
“Aset,” she whispers, and her dying body is racked with another trembling agony.
My blade ends it as swiftly as I know how. Grandfather once showed me how larger beasts of the land were killed; under my blade there is a wet sigh, a jolt, and then Aset breathes no more. I fear Phix will flood us anew with her tears.
When I touch Aset’s wings, Phix hisses. Her tail lashes as the blood cools on my hands. That I will need two tools to remove the wings is foremost in my mind. I stare at Phix a long while, her broken wings no longer capable of folding neatly against her back. The left one cocks out, stuck. Fresh rain begins to patter on us.
Her face is misery, but she nods in reply to my unasked question. I drop into the tram to get my tools, to wipe my hands as clean as I can. These tools, much like the wings I’m about to take, once belonged to someone; we’d found the toolbox sitting on the mint-green beach, as though someone meant to come back for it. We waited a long while. They never did.
The work is slow, not because of the rain but because of my shaking hands. These wings are flawless, and the joints move without protest. The metal is coated with black varnish, allowing slivers of gold to peek through.
The agreement to keep Phix’s original wings is silent between us. I set the broken wings carefully inside the tram, then settle the new wings into place upon Phix. It’s not as awkward as I feared; these wings have been made to fold so neatly, their span doesn’t overwhelm. She shrugs once and the wings notch into place. I set to securing them. Once done, she stretches, wings spanning over me, over the form beside us, making a shelter from the rain.
Phix leaps into the sky, downdraft washing over me as she flaps those glorious wings. Her cry is one of sorrowed delight, and she flies, bright against the storm, in wide loops. She climbs then plummets, a golden fireball amid the rain. It steals my breath every time.
I brush a hand over Aset and wrap her secure in the bloodied blankets. I bind her once more in the ropes and, while Phix flies, begin the hard work of lowering Aset into the water below. The tide is going out.
* * *
Phix comes back to the tram when tired. She rests and the question is on my lips: does she want to be free when we reach a stationhouse with access to land? Perhaps I could make a pulley system for the tram to continue my routes, perhaps I will find enough cloth to make sail, for what is the other option? To settle somewhere and . . . live? The word is strange in my thoughts as Phix dips her head into the hatch, dripping with rain and grinning.
The circuit is all we have and so we go, running the lines as we never have before. There is power in Phix’s new wings and we sail through the sky. Phix laughs when the tram jostles over the wheels that route us around a tower and carries us out of the Stacks, toward Weather Buckle where the lines dip as close to the water as they will. The belly of the tram skims the ocean—that stationhouse long since buried under the water—and then we shoot up, climb easy, and for a long while we glide, the tram and Phix humming.
The ruins of the wheelhouse rise from the ocean as we round the island’s highest point. The wheel arcs from the water right below the tramlines, weeds and nests clinging to the old wood. Usually we are greeted by squawking birds that reel into the sky and scatter, but today the wheel stands quiet. As if someone else has already frightened them away.
A box is tied to the wheel with a length of rope. Phix slows and I set the brake, and for a long while we stare at it, then I’m reaching for our rope ladder, opening the lower hatch, and climbing down. I tie the box around my waist as I climb back up.
This box is not like the other two. It is made of woven reeds and inside there is a ruby-red sphere, smooth skinned. It smells like a flower, and when I break it open later in the afternoon, small red seeds scatter everywhere. They are sweet and stain our mouths red.
A fourth box greets us when we reach the point where the lines split. This box is tied to the line far past a turnout we have never taken. The metal track is dented, hammered back into position and patched with half a sphinx wing. I bristle at the sight of it, but was it any worse than reclaiming the set of wings I did for Phix? We stop the tram at the turnout, looking at the box.
When I don’t move toward it, Phix does. I set the tram brake and let her go, pacing uneasy circles around the tram interior.
Phix has brought the box, and I pull myself up through the hatch. This box is also woven, smaller than the other three. Inside, there is a bunch of dried squid and a rolled piece of paper. I press it flat atop the tram to discover a drawing. Black ink needles across the page to create the image of an island. But it is not Selk. It is the island that rises beyond the tramlines here, one of the islands we’ve never been able to reach. Inked tramlines circle the island, with marks for stationhouses, switch points, provisions. Water, trees, wind currents. Whales marked in the water that laps the coastlines.
Phix tongues the squid from my hand, then I drop through the hatch. I set the box with the others but keep the inked page in hand as the tram rocks under a burst of wind.
I ease off the brake and guide the tram onto the turnout. The wind rocks us again and Phix whoops, stretching her wings into the air, hauling the tram onto these new lines where we bump and shake over the sphinx wing that holds the curve in place. The windows shudder and unknown water spreads out below us.
The first island hunkers low and large, spreading its black sands outward into blue waters. Small, pale squid dart in the shallows while trees I cannot name reach out from the black shores, long green fingers stretching above the water as we skim past.
In the distance on the track, there is another tram. It sits motionless upon the lines, seemingly empty and without a sphinx. I lift my eyes to the sky, but it too is still.
Within the tram, there is a slight figure, her wrinkled brown hand resting upon the tram brakes. Hers is the face within the locket, and no breath moves her chest. The old woman is dead, two boxes with metal latches sitting beside her. They are empty, but woven bins line the tram interior: notebooks, seeds, fruits, and stones; dried squid, jars of black sand. My fingers trace the lines that mottle the woman’s hand.
“Moswen.” Phix peers through the tram roof.
We will need to move the tram, I think, my mind racing ahead of my heart. Once we move the tram to the emergency lines, we can sail these tracks, learn them as we had learned those of Selk. And—
—and. I exhale and lift an empty box. My mistress bade me leave them. I smile at my Phix.
“We have work to continue.”
E. Catherine Tobler’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and her first novel, Rings of Anubis, is now available. Follow her on Twitter @ECthetwit or her website, http://www.ecatherine.com.