born careful

“They caught up with you,” Drin says woodenly.

The little girl tosses tangled hair out of her eyes, a gesture Drin does not recognize, a gesture that feels like it must be habit for her, the girl herself. Dance’s word rings in his ears: mudang.

Emma, he thinks, might know what Dance is talking about.

Emma; and Wojohowitz—General Wojohowitz—called her Watson.

“Damn right, they caught up with me, son,” says the General. “Not too many moons after Watson here did the thing she does so well, and you and your little posse disappeared. Hope you’ve been keeping your big mitts off the ‘Phone, like we talked about before I died.”

Drin takes a startled step backward.

“The ‘Phone’s bad?”

“Of course the ‘Phone’s bad, son. How do you think they put me down?”

“He’s been very careful,” Dance says suddenly, mildly, in a tone Drin is not quite sure he’s ever heard before.

Well, Dance is reasoning with a ghost, he thinks.

“Lieutenant Navarre was born careful, soldier,” says the General. “But something out there trumped his ‘careful,’ so my recommendation,” and this voice is coming out of the little girl, this sound like steel wool riding over scratched and abraded metal, “my recommendation, Corpsman, is that you sit this goddamned conversation out.” The General laughs again; the sound is immediately interrupted by a sharp, barking cough. “Listen up, son. The dead do not customarily take time out to advise the living. Follow me?”

staring girl, photo by Sibylle Bergemann
photo by Sibylle Bergemann

Dance, subdued and none too steady on his feet, just nods.

The little girl’s mouth opens on harsh consonants, almost coughing them out, a lighter higher voice overlaid atop that of the General.

Dance wobbles, clutches with a yelp at his middle, and falls to his knees.

Emma’s mouth opens.

“Who,” she says, voice rising, “the hell are you?”

“Why, Watson,” says the little girl, “you’ve hurt my feelings.”


The little girl shifts her stance–Drin still can’t see her feet, can’t look at her feet–and then she smiles at him, a tired, companionable, frighteningly adult smile.
“Let’s take a look at your scrubs, son,” she says. “Inspection time.”
There’s a strangled sound behind him, and Drin turns to see Barret, blundering past Cesar’s gun to come up beside him. Barret is breathing hard, and there’s something gray beneath Cesar’s dark skin.
“Callie?” Barret asks.
The little girl regards him impassively.
“Not really,” she answers finally.
Her eyes flick to Drin. “Keep this one in the back line. He’s got a headful of jam. Don’t let it get cracked open too soon. And for Christ’s sake, don’t let him shoot anything.”
She stretches out a twig-arm–Barret is still gasping like he’s been running hard–and across empty air effortlessly moves Drin aside.
“Let’s see the other guys,” she says.
Drin’s neck aches viciously, and he tastes something bitter and metallic on the roof of his mouth. The little girl has her back to him, now, and she’s walking with casual arrogance towards Cesar and his weapon, towards Emma astonished in front of the Jeep, toward the wavering, half-conscious Dance. There’s a weird rhythm to her walking, as if one hip is riding higher than the other, and it’s this, even more than the smile and the inflection, that makes Drin start to shake.
He knows that walk. He’ll never forget that walk.
Cesar stands completely still as the little girl approaches. She’s tiny, small for her age, small even compared to Dance. But as she lifts her head to squint at Cesar in the stormy light, he lowers the muzzle of his gun, changes its angle just enough to let her in his guard.
She’s talking to Cesar. In Spanish.
Cracking jokes the troops only ever heard from one guy, ever.
He hears Cesar say something in response, hears Aaron’s indrawn breath all the way across the clearing. The little girl is snorting with laughter, and Drin goes cold all over.
She tosses a grin at him over her shoulder.
“I’ll be goddamned, boy, you know what you got here? A coupla dead guys.”
“We’re not dead!” Cesar says, in a tight, muffled voice.
“Yeah,” she says. “I call bullshit. You’re the twice-dead. They killed you in the tanks, and then you got tossed out with some of their cheap targets. They called you in, you don’t show, they assume you failed to revive. Oh no, you just ignored ’em. Now that’s what I call a real zombie. Boy, are you an embarrassment or what? You just walked away! Walked up South America!” She’s laughing again, and breaks up into a wheezing cough that Drin associates, out of long habit, with lung cancer.
She looks across at Emma, then.
“Watson,” she says softly. “Motherfuck. It’s Watson.”
Emma presses her cracked lips together, closes her hands into fists.
“Callie,” Barret says again, helplessly. “Jesus, Callie, what–”
Dance, inexplicably upright, weaving slightly, has materialized beside Barret.
“She’s a mudang,” he says softly. “It’s okay. She’ll be okay.”

Croix de Guerre

“You bark those orders good, Lieutenant,” says the little voice, sounding amused.

Drin feels a bodiless force push him backwards about three feet. Behind him, someone sucks in a breath.

“Don’t,” he says softly. “Don’t.”

The little girl smiles. She is missing teeth. Her eyes, chestnut brown, pan past him.

“Cute,” she says.

The little girl is wearing a man’s white buttondown shirt. The cuffs hang over her hands, and the shirttails flap against her bare, muddy legs. Pinned to her right shoulder are numerous thin ribbons. The colors on these are hard to look at. Emma, he thinks hazily, would know what they stood for. He recognizes just two, a Croix de Guerre from the First World War, and another one, red and green and black, for service in Afghanistan.

Drin looks down at where her feet should be, sees running water.

When she speaks, Drin hears a buzz, like a harpstring with a burr in it–a ghost of doubled sound.

“El Jefe,” she says, and he hears war, the hum of bees.

Locatelli, in F

God,” Emma grunts, “he must weigh three hundred pounds.”

More, whispers the voice in her head.

“Put him on the floor, he’ll break that poor bed if we try to let him sleep on that. I think he’s going to be out of it for awhile.” Drin’s voice is giving out on him, raspy, faded as an old carpet.

“You got the tail?” Barret says. “Guy’s got some fiddling muscle on him. It’s gonna be fun.”

Now there’s a clown who’d be funny in a hurricane with the windows blowing out, says the voice.

Oh wait, he is in a hurricane with the windows blowing out. Or will be. You ready for that, Watson?

Shut up, she tells herself savagely.

Remember me? the voice says. The sonuvabitch who sat through your meetings with you and taught you how to play politics while you wanted to lay on your purgatory’s bed of nails in charity fundraising hell and make a few things, you know, like, actually fucking work for a change?

Now there’s something to look forward to when you die!

Oh great, let’s help Emma get through her meetings!

“His eyes are dilated,” Drin’s voice says. “He’s reacting a little bit, it’s just wide open. They’re evenly together, far as I can tell.”

Of course Drin has picked up a little flashlight from somewhere, checking Dance’s eyes, as if he’s been an EMT for years.

Just like he’s been a trucker, sometime, years ago.

“Usually that’s a sign of concussion,” Emma snaps. “When they’re even but too wide.”

“Well, huge surprise,” Barret says. “What in hell did that–that thing taking over Callie do to him?”

“Thing?” Emma snarls. “That wasn’t a thing. That was just Old Beet-Nose. The General. No big deal, just a rude dead guy who used to twirl everybody’s panties in a wad, and the higher the rank they were, the better he liked it.”

Drin sighs. “Not like they didn’t earn every wrinkle, and you know it.”

“I’d have ripped off their balls and served them up pickled, with cocktails, on ice,” Emma says, low and ragged.

“Yeah,” Drin says, and he looks down at his hand, stroking the tail that is about half visible, glinting faint blue and green lights. “Yeah,” he says, with that thousand-yard stare she knows so well. “Maybe that’s why you’re here, love, and he’s not.”

You always did have a mouth like a toilet, that inner voice comments, amused. Guess I taught you right, hey?

Barret frowns.

“Yu Jeong,”he says slowly, as if somewhere he’s learned that precision is important in the blurring edge of the supernatural, where names have the ability to make intangible shapes solidify. “It wasn’t your old friend Wojo who smacked down your friend here. It was the other spirit. The one who didn’t say anything to the rest of us.”

Drin says it before him. “It was the Korean General, the crazy guy who –what did the General say? ‘Who opens the little girl’s head.'”

Barret frowns. “I hope she’s all right.”

“Yeah.” Drin nods. “Makes me wonder what he said to Dance, in all… that… force.”

Barret scowls, glancing off anxiously in the direction of the kitchen. Emma knows, absently, that he’s still worried about the little girl.  Barret knows her from somewhere else.

“Yeah, you’re right, it wasn’t Wojo who knocked down Dance,” Drin says quietly, and Emma blinks at him. “It sure wasn’t the little girl. Although she’s got plenty going on there herself. Mudang, Christ. She’s only, what, eight or nine? Those kinds of shamanic mediums don’t usually get going like that until they hit puberty, don’t they? What did you say her name was, Callie? I think the lady in the kitchen got her some food. They seem to know each other, thank God.  I was afraid we had somebody who wandered off from their folks and hitched a ride for a hundred miles or something. It’s been known.”

“From Afghanistan, right?” Emma hears herself say, in a harsh, sarcastic tone.

She knows Drin is looking at her. But she’s looking at Dance, laying on his side, face blank, eyes like open black voids into space, staring up at them, as much as he’s looking at anything.

“Among others,” Drin says, and in his voice there’s the worn, tired edges of somebody who’s been fighting for a long time.

She knows what it feels like.

“Tibet is the usual venue people expect for stuff like this, but there’s others.” He strokes Dance’s tail lightly, cupping his fingers around it.

Yeah, you’d know some more of those places, huh, Watson? Bouncing out there all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and crawling back with your ass kicked soundly into some kind of humbleness. I mean, as close as you ever get. God forbid you should unbend an inch.

Gotta thank your little dragon of a ride here for working out some of those stubborn old knots out of that stiff neck, Watson.

Shut up, she tells the voice in her head, but it doesn’t.

You’ve already been living in your worst nightmare, the voice says. For years. I don’t know what you’re afraid of now. A little taste of honey, and that’s when you lose it. A little bit of kindness, a little bit of tail–

Shut up, she tells the voice.

Watson, you got no respect in you. You know what happens, if I go away and let you stew in your mess?

No, what? she replies, and she’s still mad as hell at him, goddamn his eyes.

He’s gonna die.

She blinks, staring at the walls. At the furniture. At the things that tell their provenance to her as clearly and loudly as if they were shouting, everywhere she looks. And how, when things that don’t match, the data streams on it leap out in bright green and bright pink and dark red, as if they’re lined with a highlighter pen.

Shut up shut up shuddup, she says, closing her eyes.

But he doesn’t. Uncle Wojo, who always knows better.

That voice in her head who wakes her up at four am on a rough day, saying things like, Hell, waking up early is a gift, don’t waste it. Haul ass, it’s time to get moving.

The voice of a guy who loomed larger than life, back in a life she no longer has. Maybe never had, if she’s going nuts.  A life that she never wants to see again. All those flash images, those things in the water-filled boxes, the rows upon rows of half-grown things stinking.

You’re the real mudang. You’re the fucking grownup. You’ve been doing it for years. But no, you can’t talk to Uncle Wojo, you’re so mad you can’t leave it. You and your goddamn pride.

I have to go ride poor little Callie, who’s getting a cold.

You owe him better.  Tell your dragon what he needs to know.

“Dance,” she whispers, putting her face down close to the staring eyes. “Dance, talk to me.”

The body stirs, the tail flops loose out of Drin’s worried grip and comes around and comes at her so fast they all gasp. It slides up on her waist and twice round her ribs and hugs her, gently. Gently.

She wipes the goddamn irritating water out of her eyes and kisses him, kisses his face, and the tail strokes down her back, touches her on the ache in her spine, and she hears herself choke out a laugh. He always makes her laugh, dammit.

“Yeah, yeah, it hurts, you can work on it later, okay?”

Dance’s lips move, a little puff of breath. “Mudangs have gods,” the puff whispers, precise as he’s ever been, and she feels her eyes go wide. “The Fire Horse burns his stall.”

“West,” Emma replies, automatically. The Fire Horse means West. It’s all there in her mind, in the crooked spidery script of a crazy old Italian monk who lived too long in some very strange places, and only wrote down a maddeningly cryptic few bits of all the bizarre things he saw.

“It’s said that mudang gods command cardinal directions, similar to the loa spirits here,” Drin murmurs.

“Is it the storm? The wind is shifting?” Emma leans closer.

ink of dragon in wind by Kano Hogai
Dragon by Kano Hogai

“You sing the Fire Horse to life,” Dance says, pupils so wide that the weird look of it draws her gaze in hypnotically if she looks at him too long. “They used too many small words. Gods, big words. Get it right.”

Emma snorts. “Now you sound like Uncle Wojo.”

His mouth sags a little, and he breathes harder, as if he hurts.

“What do you need?” Emma asks. “You want some water?”

“Case,” he breathes. “Music.”

Barret surprises them all by moving first.

“Right,” he says. “The viola. You need the viola case.”

The tail squeezes Emma a little on the arm, like a nod, and she relays this.

Get him to unlock the viola case, says the voice, the one that’s made her cut through the crap in meetings for years, as much a part of her as her backaches. And about as welcome, too, most days.

Dance’s chin comes up a degree, and he blinks.

He’s waiting for input, says the General’s voice in her head. And only the gods of mudangs can tell him what key the tune is supposed to be in.

Well, why doesn’t Locatelli haul in his own damned Baroque self and tell us? Emma says, exasperated at the logical inconsistencies.

She’s never had much patience for tricksters and mediums and table-lifters, who are at least trying to make a living, and none at all for self-indulgent New Age soccer moms trying to get at the meaning of a life spent in the suburbs, bred like cows in their stalls.

Uncle Wojo the General laughs. He’s busy. Man, he’s always busy. Get in line, that guy has a waiting room like the Beatles.

“You know what the lock is?” Emma says to Barret, grasping at straws. Maybe she doesn’t have to do this. It’s a struggle sometimes, keeping the dialogue straight, not talking out loud to people who haven’t heard what the General said. Or the others. There’s rules. She doesn’t have to. She’s very clear on this. Tell the murder victims she’s not doing that case load any more.

“Locatelli,” says Barret, firmly.

Of course it is, Emma thinks, flinching at a particularly savage jab in her aching back muscles, as if somebody who she can’t see has just given her a huge shove in the ass. Didn’t I just say so?

“It rotates. Goes through all his pieces, I think you have to mesh with it,” Barret says. “I just don’t know which one it is at any given time. It’s a fail-safe, in case I lose it.”

Drin gives a chuckle. And then he starts to laugh. And laugh and laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Barret asks, and he’s polite about it, under the circumstances.

“Dance knows Locatelli’s pieces in the Art of the Violin like nobody else, all business, backwards and forwards.  He drills on them to improve his technique. My God, I think I could do them in my sleep. He taught himself the transpositions onto Fozzi’s violas last week. You want somebody who can do every piece Locatelli ever wrote, on just about anything with strings, you’re looking at him.”  Drin pats the tail fondly.

“Okay,” Barret says. “Let’s pile some more wierdness on top of the wierdness, it’s all good.” And he holds out the case.

Something seems to strike him, then, and he says, anxiously, “But wait–you don’t know it. You might not know, I mean. Umm, they found some of the guy’s later manuscripts, right? With notes?”

They look at him.

“The books you’d have now aren’t right,” Barret says. “I just read a new article about it. Auren got hold of it, God knows how, to make this lock harder to break. The Maestro’s notes said that he left one piece out. Nobody knows why. He didn’t write the music for this anywhere else, just a little scribble in the notes. Locatelli’s notes said something about a logical puzzle, the corner piece for the reader to complete on their own. Like that mathematical proof, Fermat’s Last Theorem or whatever it is.”

What’s the key, Watson? says the voice in her head. He’s waiting on you.

No, she says. I am not a goddamn tape recorder for people’s leftover unfinished business and their stray ghosts and their murdered little babies who never lived long enough to talk. It’s not my job. I never asked for it.

Yes you did, says the General, and he’s not pleased.  You got metal threaded in your bones for it.  Give him the key.

He’s not gonna die because I kept a lid on my silly fantasies and shut up the viola case and told you to go away and just fucking die, like you should have, she says.

C’mon Watson, you know better than that.

Oh, do I? she says, a little hysterically. I’m talking to a dead guy and a guy with an invisible tail and a guy out of time–

Well hell, if you say no, the best he can do is die in his sleep.  They made their stupid limited words too small for him, and he’s never going to grow out without help. I hope you and Lieutenant Drin polished that boy’s saddle brass good when you rode him, loved him all happy, because any last little bit, any crumb of the mean or the fear or the hate, when you open that case, he’ll come apart under you like the sun blowing up. At least dying quiet is better than that.

Emma lowers her head and kisses Dance on the cheek, and whispers, fiercely, “I don’t care how big you get, or what kind of a dragon you turn into, I love you, and you’re ours. You got that?”

Chinese hand scroll painting of dragons
At Play in Clouds

There’s a puff of air on her cheek, saying, “Good big words.”

“He wrote it in F,” she says firmly. She leans over Dance, and whispers, clearly and firmly, “You can figure it out. You can do this puzzle. I know you can. It’s in F sharp.”

A little puff of air greets her cheek like a kiss, and then the irises come shut as bright as coins, the pupils almost pinpoints. The tail slides loose from her waist, fumbles on the floor, and Barret puts the viola case into its coils, and the tail carries it up to Dance’s chest, hugs it there. Dance’s lips move a little, and then go still.

The skin around his eyes squints a little, the most human sign they’ve seen from him since the fight in the road.

Drin smiles. He knows the look. “He’ll figure it out.”