She remembers thinking, on the very first day of this flight into exile, that she had plenty of days where she looked at Dance, thinking, ‘Whatever that is, I’ve been doing my bloody best to fuck it into perfectly blissful peace. And it’s been doing its level best to make me happy. To please me. To make dinner for me.”
Even when she is surrounded by zoomorphs and bug-damaged people and wild things barely out of the wild woods, she thinks it sometimes still.
The stress of these days on the road are telling on her. They miss their home, and you never realize just how comfortable the routines of living are until you don’t have them any longer. This vacation has gone on too long. There are too many people at this table, and she wishes she’d asked for bowls to take back to the little cabin that offers them some semblance of privacy. Emma scrubs her wrist over her eyes– I will not cry, it’s only fatigue— and takes up the big kettle that held the gumbo and starts for the kitchen with it. Gumbo is not an exotic beast here. It’s not the sausage with the fancy name and the carefully chosen shellfish, it’s bacon and three squirrels that someone brought in, and lots and lots of okra because there’s a lot of okra on the vine right now, and tomatoes. Tomorrow it might be fish. It’s all good, except that it’s eaten in such large company. And she is glad of the chance to stand at Lacey’s scullery, hands immersed in warm soapy water, the good smells of cooking and cleaning filling her nostrils. She can look out at the cypress and the glinting water, turning a deeper gold in the long long summer afternoon.
She starts wiping down the counters and the stove. Some of these folks, when it’s their turn to cook, they leave a huge mess, and Lacey swears like a trooper when she comes in to make breakfast the next morning. Movement catches her eye, and Emma glances up at the window.
Dance and Drin and some of the other men are drifting toward the house, pausing not far from the trees, talking and smiling as kids wander tiredly past them. The kids are all dusty, smudges up their legs. Playing baseball again, beyond doubt. Dance is not the only guy with a tail out there. But he’s the only one whose tail reaches out and straightens a gimme cap on a kid’s head, taps another on the shoulder and makes an Okay sign with it, and the kids shake hands with it as they pass. He grins, white teeth flashing in his sun-darkened face, and says something that makes the other men crack up, and the kids grin.
The men have taken the kids for an afternoon to give a break for other chores to the domestic folks–to those folks, whether male or female, who usually change diapers and spot older kids playing on monkey bars, and take away game controllers when it’s time for some outdoor exposure. The men outside are the guys who mostly can’t help out by going into town, and some of them can’t help with livestock. Two of those who do help out in the stables are sitting in wheelchairs, with gloved hands. They all look tired too.
There’s going to be a rush on the hot water in about five minutes, and then they’ll all be demanding the second kettle of gumbo. It’s so crowded that people eat in shifts. The early shift has the blocky-headed people who need extra time and attention to get food in their mouths. Emma works faster, hoping to get done with the dishes before the water runs cold.
But she can’t help but glance up when she sees Drin come up and hug Dance, and the two lovers–her husbands–start walking toward the house. Drin is holding part of the weight of Dance’s tail, as if he knows Dance has just done too much that day, and the weight is hurting his back. Dance rolls his shoulders, reaches out, rests his hand on Drin’s waist. She smiles, watching them, in spite of the racket of voices and house doors slamming. She’s completely unprepared for the big hand that comes down on her shoulder.
Emma whirls around, hand out, and a powerful grip takes her wrist. “Dunno why you’re lookin’ at them pansies, little lady, when I can make you happy right now–” says Efrim, grinning. “You got such a purty mouth on you, ain’tcha.”
Efrim has a lot of inappropriate behaviors, but grabbing women who didn’t invite it is going to be, Emma thinks, one of the last behaviors the man will demonstrate. There are too many women here who have teeth, one way or another.
“Let go of me, Efrim,” Emma says.
“You gonna hurt me again like last time, little lady?” says Efrim, as if he liked it. He puked for forty-five minutes in the barn, last time she got done kicking him.
“Let go,” Emma says, not tugging away, not trying to give him any warning how fast she can recoil. He didn’t have the reflexes last time to stop her kicking his ass across the kitchen, and he still doesn’t.
Efrim grins, and steps in closer. “I like me a purty woman who fights back,” Efrim whispers. “It’s kinda sexy. Not like them dumb bugfucked chicks who don’t know what’s pushing in between their laigs.”
Emma’s toe is just starting to come up when something blurs through the kitchen and there’s a noise like a panther fighting and black glitters are whipping through the air in lethal power cable loops.
Emma finds herself tossed up into Drin’s arms back in the doorway, and he’s shouting, and there’s something rolling on the floor, moving too fast to make out.
Then Dance is upright, and he’s holding Efrim up at ceiling level, with thick coils wrapped around Efrim’s chest and his neck, squeezing, and Dance has his mouth open.
“Holy shit,” says Fozzie, panting just behind them. The big man can move surprisingly fast. “Get her back,” he says to Drin, pushing past them.
“Get her back, Bollocks!” Emma says in a brand new fury, and Drin chuckles and pushes her forward. He always knows just what to do.
Efrim struggles, legs kicking at the cable holding him.
Dance hisses louder, head jerking.
“He’s gonna bite, hold still for fuck’s sake!” Fozzie shouts.
Dance’s head looks very odd. It’s then that Emma realizes his lower jaw is hinging out wider than a human being should be able to do. There’s a pale glint in there, about midway back.
“Fuck, he’s got them fangs locked out,” Fozzie says, almost conversationally. “You know what that means, Efrim?”
Efrim’s not tracking too well. He’s breathing in tiny gasps.
“That there is a pretty li’l back-fang viper set staring at you, Efrim. You know how lethal boomslangs are? No? Lemme tell you. They got cottonmouths beat all to hell for poisonous, okay? You hearing me, Efrim? Mind if you loosen up a little on his neck, there, Dance? I wanna hear his head rattle when I’m talkin’ to him.”
Dance’s head jerks again. The tail end slides off the man’s head and poises in a hook nearby, like a crooked pinky on a teacup. Emma thinks this may not be an improvement.
Fozzie says, “Drin, you maybe gotta talk Dance down. Ain’t good for anybody to kill a man when he don’t need to.”
Emma says, “He’ll listen better to both of us.”
“Oh yeah, just don’t make him afraid you’re at risk,” Fozzie says, and steps back; a gesture, as there’s nowhere in the kitchen really out of Dance’s reach if he’s crazy mad enough.
“Bring him down to the floor, please,” Emma says to Dance.
Dance gives another furious hiss, and hoists Efrim upward, bashes Efrim’s head on the ceiling with a thump, and then lowers him with great deliberateness until he can stand on his own feet. Efrim is incapable of carrying his own weight, given how short of breath he is, caught in the grip of those relentlessly tightening coils.
Drin touches Emma gently on the shoulder, letting her know he’s right there, making her jump. “Dance,” he says.
Dance turns his head, looking at them, the translucent nictous membranes flicking over his eyes. He probably couldn’t talk even if his mouth could shut around the fangs.
“You know you don’t spar in the dojo nearly as well when you lose your temper,” Drin says mildly.
The eyes blink at them.
“I think you’ve subdued him enough for Fozzie to get some answers, too. You know Foz wants that bad,” Emma says.
“Shit, I think Dance broke some of his ribs,” Fozzie says. “He’s not going anywhere. He smells real bad, too. Stinking drunk, right?”
Dance hisses again, but the coil around Efrim’s neck slides away, as if he’s putting himself away from the temptation to wring the man’s neck like a chicken’s.
“Want to lay him down for us, and we’ll get some answers about what he said?” Emma asks.
Fozzie turns his head, takes a step into the doorway to the sitting room. “Lacey, get somebody to drag up a stretcher and some extra bandaging tape. Efrim’s gonna need some attention.”
Dance hisses again, shaking Efrim about two feet side to side, and then the tip whips up and wraps around Efrim’s skull.
Emma opens her mouth to yell, she can feel Drin tensing his arm on her– and they both stay silent.
Dance lays the man down. The tail is carefully holding the man’s head in place so it doesn’t fall back and bash on the floor first. Then he leans over the man, fangs showing, and hisses.
“Spitting cobra. I can see spray–” Drin says.
“Good,” Emma says flatly. “Guess that answers that question.” She feels like she can’t get any air. Just panic, nothing new. She knows that strained feeling. Means she’s breathing too rapidly.
The black coils slide out from under the man’s body, arc around, bash into the kitchen wall and leave a long tail-shaped dent. Then Dance turns, stalks away toward the outside door.
“Dance,” Emma says, “Stay. Please. I need your help.”
Dance puts his hands on the dented wall, and then he’s sagging to his knees, and then, with no warning, suddenly he’s vomiting like a sick dog, right onto the floor.
By then Fozzie is bending over over Efrim on the floor, checking him. “Breathing, stable, good heart rate. Whatever Dance got going in his venom, that quick, it isn’t killing the guy. Hey, look at him coming around on us. Geez, it might be sobering him up. That’s gonna hurt. Man, I could see Lacey pulling something that mean.”
“She’s a good teacher,” Emma says, and hears the weird edge in her own voice. She grabs a roll of trash bags, lines a trash can with two layers, and hands it to Drin, who’s kneeling by Dance, talking to him. Then Emma is there too, gripping the heavy mug they’ve been using to help Dance release the venom building up in those glands in his sinuses. She dares to reach out, put her hand on Dance’s arm.
Dance drools, gasping, and then wipes his face on his sleeve, and looks up them with those eye membranes still closed. Then he leans on the wall, breathing hard. After a moment he gestures, and Emma hands him the mug, and both Drin and Emma slide back on the floor away from him, as he waves them off, not stopping until he nods that they’re far enough away.
Then he gets the rim of the mug pushed up under the fang tips, and he squints his eyes shut, and pushes onto it, as if it hurts. His tail jerks, coils and lashes angrily. It takes some time before he gets done, jerking and struggling against the rim of the mug, and he pushes himself to do it again, several times. When he finally pulls the mug away, he jerks his head up, shakes himself, and then suddenly the fangs are folded away, and his jaw closes, his mouth shuts, and nothing shows. There’s just him, kneeling on the floor with the tail furiously black, the tip lashing back and forth like an angry cat. Kneeling, Emma thinks tiredly, in front of a mess that may be toxic in itself.
Drin is moving. He has got plastic baggies on both hands. He retrieves the mug of venom, carefully, and takes it to the counter to be poured into a sealed jar. He labels the jar and carries it across the room, puts it into the locked fridge where they keep the other various unusual items required in a household with various kinds of zoomorphs, many of them sick or injured. Some of the meds they need are pretty dangerous in themselves. Then he runs a lot of cold water into the empty mug.
She gets up, goes to the sink, finds a pair of plastic gloves, picks up the roll of paper towels, and begins methodically wiping up the mess on the floor, dumping towels into that double-lined plastic trash can. She takes her time washing her gloved hands. She’s giving Dance time to calm down, so he can watch her move around and understand that they’re all okay, he doesn’t have to do anything more.
Drin peels off the baggies inside-out, off his hands, into the trash can. Then he fills a glass of water, brings it to Dance, with his boot toe he shoves the double-lined can closer, where Dance can spit out the rinse-water. Emma gets Dance to hold still while she tips a dribble of water into his eyes, draining that away into the trashcan. Drin dampens some paper towels, brings those to Emma. She washes Dance’s face, carefully and thoroughly, especially where venom spray might have drifted. Just because he can generate it in specially-constructed organs doesn’t mean it won’t poison him, too.
Then Drin holds up another plastic trashbag. Emma leans in and unbuttons Dance’s shirt with her gloved hands and slides it off him; she takes it carefully by the back of the shirt and folds it, spray-exposed surfaces inside, and dumps in the bag Drin holds for her. That way, it can be put in the washing machine without poisoning anybody else. She washes Dance’s hands, his arms, takes another damp towel to wipe down Dance’s neck and down onto his chest, over his forearms. Dance looks aside, submitting to this as if he’s still feeling nauseous, as if he’s afraid he’ll start puking again. She goes to the sink, rinses off the gloves, peels them off, and tosses them into the double-bagged can to get thrown away. They aren’t going into hot soapy washwater for dishes again.
It seems perfectly reasonable that they do all this so automatically, thinking their way silently through the risks of Dance’s venom, when they’ve never done this kind of cleanup before.
When she looks up, she sees Fozzie finishing the process of wrapping stretchy brown bandaging tape in loops that will keep Efrim safely down on the stretcher. He nods once, and two silent men pick up the load and take it out of the house. Fozzie follows them, silently shutting the kitchen door. He looks grim. They’ve got a long night ahead of them, very likely; one that they didn’t need either.
Dance rolls his head, turns his face away toward the wall he’s dented in his rage.
Emma kneels down next to Dance, on the other side from Drin. She folds her legs crossways, rests her tired hands on her knees. When she sees the tears start to run down Dance’s face, then she reaches out and rests her hand lightly on his forearm. He twitches, and she pulls her hand away, waiting. Once he accepts the touch, then she can stroke his tail, get the ugly black coloring to fade out of it as it relaxes. Drin has his palm down on the middle of the tail already, lightly, not gripping it, not stopping it when it shifts agitatedly around.
Emma can hear Lacey’s voice. “You kids go sit in the other room. The grownups are upset, they need some time to calm down so they can be safe around other folks again.” Then the kids are trooping away out of the next room further away, down into the next room, chattering about who gets first turn with the game controllers.
Emma looks around from that doorway to Drin, who gives her a soft kiss on the cheek, without a word spoken. Then she blinks, because Dance moves, and he too kisses her, on the other cheek. She looks at Dance in surprise, looks at the translucent membranes sliding open again on his eyes, and then she leans in and kisses him back. On the lips. Because, Emma thinks, this is one small enough damn thing I can do for him, and I want him to know I mean it.
“Thank you,” Emma murmurs, and kisses his cheeks, and his forehead, and then he has his arms wrapped round her, and he’s crying silently into her shoulder. She feels Drin’s warmth come up at her back, and then he’s got his arm around Dance too, and they’re all a pile of waterworks.
“Christ,” Emma says at last, taking deep breaths, and feels her hand holding the last little foot of Dance’s tail as it winds around between her hands, stroking it as if he’s a cat in distress. It’s turned a dark muddy brown, not quite the same color as the floor.
By then, Drin is sitting with his back against the wall, and he has her in one arm, and Dance in the other, with Dance sprawled across his lap so Dance’s head is resting in her lap. With her other hand she strokes his scalp, brushes back Dance’s hair. He gives a long tired sigh. Drin kisses her hair, and his arm tightens on her.
She knows that she’s going to make love to Dance soon, perhaps tonight, and she’ll kiss him, and let him lick her in all kinds of intimate places in the way they both love him to do, with the same mouth that can produce different types of venom under different provocations, and pretty damn quickly, at that. They don’t always know what the rules are, or what will trigger something off.
“I choose,” Dance says then, as if it’s hard to talk, as if his head hurts. “I choose what I will do, not that man who–” the tail lashes angrily.
“Yes,” Emma says. “Yes, that’s it, exactly.”
“God, I’m starving,” Dance says.
“If you think,” Emma says in a high, put-upon voice, “that I’m gonna slave over another pot of gumbo just so you can go and puke it back up, you got another thing coming.”
Dance looks up at her, and his smile is like a sunrise.
“Fish will stay down,” Drin says, “Let’s feed you, and then fuck you. Does that sound good?”
“Ooh, yeeess,” Dance purrs. His voice has changed just a little during these weeks. A purr really does sound like a purr now. His tail helps him get to his feet, and then the tip extends to Emma like a helping hand, pulling her up when she grasps it. And she’s getting used to the way it slides over her shoulders and arm, the tip whisking behind her ear in a gentle, casual caress. He leans into her, hugs her, strokes her back with his hands and tail tip, and then he turns to Drin in the same way. Emma puts her hands on her lower back, stretches, groans a little.
She looks over her boys from head to toe, and they are doing the same, making sure of each other– over and over now, like a little ritual. are you good? I’m good. Drin touches Dance’s face and hair and back, little touches.
Lacey has her knitting in her lap, in the big room, when they come through. “They took him out to the barn for tonight, got a little infirmary with a lockup out there. I promise you that man ain’t never gone to have another chance for them tricks. But we’ll deal with that-all tomorrow, proper.” She goes right back to her knitting. Emma is sure the gauge will be way off, big wide loopy bits unevenly next to tight stitches, so she’ll have to yank it all out again. But if it keeps her calm, nobody’s going to argue.
The cooler where Dance gets his fresh fish is not a little styrofoam box any more. Lacey has insisted Dance needs to fish out of their emergency water supply-pond, practice hunting for himself. He keeps fishing it empty in a day or two, and the boys enjoy catching things so they can refill it, and watch him fish it out again. They could watch him at it all day. Hell, so could Emma and Drin. But no one is around in the evenings. Dance made it clear he wasn’t on show all the time.
Emma still hasn’t gotten used to watching Dance feed. It’s not revulsion, or embarrassment she feels, though– it’s a kind of exhilaration at the sight of all that speed, power, precision as he makes his strike. She’s begun a private catalog of his techniques; when he’s angry, nervous, hyped-up, he’ll thresh the water ‘like a bull gator’ in Fozzie’s admiring words, his powerful shoulders rolling in the foam he creates, as he snatches his fish with one hand or the other. It’s shockingly fast, and Emma would swear that Dance is operating a few seconds ahead of himself– his head is already turning towards the next prey before he’s caught the current hapless victim. Tonight, it’s gar from the pond.
An almost gentle tap with the tail across the juncture of spine and gasping fish skull, and it hangs quiet in his grip, with the tail tip filleting the meat off the spine like a steak knife, delicately, while his other hand is plunging onto the next. His lips curl back from his front teeth, but he doesn’t open his clenched jaws.
She asked about that, once. He told her he’d made it his rule, as Lacey taught him. No gaping mouth unless you mean to kill what you’re looking at. Which meant Dance had been perfectly willing to bite Efrim. He needs another rule: No tail-touch when he’s mad.
He curls the tail in tight loops automatically, not even thinking about it, and gives a little grimace, and the stuff suspended on that tail gives a puff of smoke. Then he extends the opening coils toward her, first. “Would you like some?”
“Yes, please.” She’s suddenly ravenous. The gar is flash-grilled, charred black on the surface and perfectly tender inside, and it’s some of the best fish she’s ever eaten. Emma gives him a crooked smile, mouth full. “You’re an effing gourmet chef,” she tells him, and swishes her hands through the water to clean them.
Drin gets the second skinny side of gar, and sighs over it. “Oh man,” he says.
“Mmm,” Dance agrees, tipping his head back to swallow. He kicks off his shoes, pulls off his grubby socks with his toes. “Mmm mm mmah, I needed that.” Then he leans over the water, eyes wide, not focusing on any one thing. Waiting. This is hunting-Dance at his best, in Emma’s opinion. She can feel that tingle of anticipation, watching his body arrange itself, his knees flex, shoulders roll forward in minute increments. Dance’s tail shifts, like a sliding fog, thickening as he pulls all that dense muscle into tense readiness. He becomes a statue while her heart begins to speed up. A quick glance at Drin shows the big man intent as she is, with the same look of adoration.
Whatever it is, Dance has seen it. He compacts even further, and she’s never been able to see how he does that– he tracks, slow and steady, with his whole body, tremoringly intent. And then he’s over the water, arrowing at least ten feet forward, his tail streaming behind him. He meets the surface with a hiss of displacement, and gone. Emma hears Drin’s sigh of rapture in unison with her own.
Then they look at each other, and laugh. “Wet clothes in the washer again!” Drin chuckles.
“We forgot to get him to unpants himself.”
“Well, throw it in with his shirt, it’s all good,” Drin agrees.
“Too much fun–” Emma begins, and there’s a noisy burst of water.
Dance is flinging back his wet hair, grinning, his head popping out of the water like a seal. He’s laughing with them, holding up not one, but three gar, all of them limp in his hands. “I know, I know, I forgot.” He’s still holding them up while he strokes lazily through the water, legs and tail providing more than enough power.
“Sexiest damn Little League coach I ever met,” Drin says.
“Maybe it’s because his pants have no ass?” Emma says.
“Oh, could be,” Drin agrees. “Or maybe he feeds us such damn wonderful fried fish.”
Dance sits down in his soggy pants on the concrete wall of the tank, curls up his tail, cooks the narrow strips of gar perfectly, and absentmindedly swishes his tail in the water behind him to cool it and clean it between fry jobs. It’s not electrical; there’s no ground faults, Drin checked on that with this same tank of water, an extension cord, a voltmeter, and a couple of doodads he found in the barn. It seems to be, as Drin remembers it being, purely optical. For this task, there’s no flash, no glitter, no showiness; it’s not even with visible light, just infrared. Dance lets the tip dangle in the water, cooling off again safely.
One memorable evening he pulled six bluegill out of that water because they couldn’t resist coming up to check out the tail tip weaving idly in the water.
“I don’t know,” Dance says, mouth full. He puts on Lacey’s accent, making them laugh. “You seem pertty damn sexy for a coach y’self. Iselda got a crush on you, big boy.”
Drin sighs, and accepts a piece of fried gar skin. Dance likes giving them the nice bits; it makes him happy. Give Dance barbecued salmon skin with a little fat on it, and he’s ecstatic.
“She’s seven!” Emma exclaims.
“She got big big ideas,” Dance says, chuckling. “Hey, tell me she’s wrong.”
“Nope, I gotta agree with the lady’s taste,” Emma says, smiling up at Drin.
“I think we ought to get Dance out of those wet underpants and into the shower,” Drin says.
“I think you’re right.”
Dance sighs with repletion. He pus on his shoes, holds the socks. His tail scuffles around, scoops up garfish spines. He lifts them, looks at them, gravely thanks the animals he’s just killed for their gift to him and his friends, and then he puts the bones away in the locking nearly-raccoon-proof dumpster. Lacey has been having to put ever more inventive locks on that bin. The midnight furries rifle through the compost with impunity, and Lacey doesn’t want larger, odder things from the woods finding meat in their compost piles. The corncobs are attractive enough menace.
Dance’s wet pants are starting to slide down and gape, and he hitches them up, absently, with his tail tip. She hears Drin chuckle at the sight of it. Dance hitches again, and sighs, holding them together at the back, and just in time, too–as the gradeschool-age kids come piling out of the house, barrelling around the corner, headed out for the play equipment under the trees.
Life in the great swamp, Emma thinks suddenly, is a whole lot more complicated than she ever realized.