Ruin

“Ruin Marble” – Illustration by Anju Shah. Medium: White glass marking pencil on black pastel sheet.

Spring was late. Two, three weeks at least: April already and every tree barren, scoured and hesitant with the memory of snowbanks. The sorcerer Margaret took to climbing out the fire escape and waiting on the roof barefoot, thrifted winter coat thrown over her shoulders as a concession to the wind. The view was good: the island stretched out from Harlem down to the Bowery, undisturbed. Still, she lit cigarettes and burned them down to nothing between the knuckles of her fist. Ritual action, the old-school superstitious kind: not a ward or a spell, just a woman headed for the far side of forty lighting sacrifice fires while she watched the sky and the wind whipped her dress around her ankles. A very little bargain. Rearguard defense against foreboding. Anyone could do it.

When the horizon cracked open, she was slithering back through her kitchen window. The cracking caught the hem of her dress and flooded it a sudden, sodden red. When she stood up from her crouch she was dripping from collarbone to ankle in someone else’s blood. Outside the window the sky was a mass of bunched light, wrapped coils and turning gyres in every shade of white and gold, boiling out across the horizon and lighting the skyscrapers with incandescent fire. Margaret stared at it until she thought she’d burn her retinas, blinked – red, behind her eyes, and an afterimage crawling, the veins in her eyelids stained that same encroaching gold – looked again. Nothing but the white-blue haze of a perilous sky.

Yet, her dress was still gone to sticky gore. The horizon-fracture had wound her back two years in time, to the moment she’d climbed through the hole she’d ripped in this version of the city. She’d paid her passage in blood: hers, and the blood of whoever had been caught in the blast radius, on both sides.

She snuck a bare-eyed glance at the sun where it hovered like a coin, bright and illuminate and far too heatless.

There was nothing to be done about the dress. Margaret shucked it like a wet red skin and left it to puddle on the marble tiles. Small rivulets ran out from it and began to colonize the groutlines. The blood did not smell like blood: it smelled of aldehydes and burning lilies, tar and brushfire smoke. An angel-smell. Margaret passed her hands gingerly along her naked arms and sides, leaving streaky palmprints. She didn’t seem to be actively bleeding. The timeslip had not gone that far.

Her head pounded. She felt like a stretched soapbubble, breakable, thinning out with internal pressure. The marble was cold under her feet as she padded to the sink. The corners of the kitchen were glowing, over-bright, the edges of the world crawling with migraine auras and the sickly burning scent of something trying to come through. The sky labored and heaved, pushing at the white cloud-cover. A massive machine shoving at the frame of the world she’d hidden inside.

Gold, and writhing. Light spreading like ink in water. Margaret made a sound, a sigh from the deepest part of her chest. She screwed her eyes shut and stabbed blindly with her palm for the radio on the counter, twisted the volume as high as it would go. The radio was old-fashioned, an analog behemoth out of the 1970s, circular dials for AM and FM and volume and not even plugged into the wall, let alone the satellite network. Margaret had a laptop in her bedroom for music. The radio was – the radio shrieked to life in a cackle of static, scratched-record noise that resolved into a thin scream of a voice, laughing through this is RADIO FREE EUROPE! before subsiding into the hiss and pop of an unused channel.

Just its presence was comfort enough to make the blood on the floor smell more of blood and less of angels. Through her closed eyelids, Margaret still saw the electric hum of the lights dim and then return. The radio kicked back onto a beat closer to the stuttering of her own heart. Babe, said the radio, you have got such a bad case of the non-Euclidean horrors from beyond the stars, I hardly even know what to tell you.

“Thanks,” Margaret said. “That was clear before I consulted my possessed radio. Have you got any advice or should I turn you off again?”

Possession is nine tenths of the law, the radio hissed delightedly, and then cut itself off.

She’d brought the radio with her when she’d come to this world, dragged it after her and sealed the door up behind. She wouldn’t have left it. Before it was a radio, it had suggested moving in the first place.

Clear water dripped gently over the windowsill she’d climbed in through and pooled on the floor. It met the edge of her dress and shaded a delicate, spreading pink, like it was drinking up the blood. The air rose from it in perfumed gusts of hawthorn, celery seed, rosepetals. Margaret thought she’d left that all behind. This world wasn’t haunted.

Snap out of it, said the radio. Are you planning on getting devoured by a vasty reach of yonic angel-wheels, or what?

Perhaps a person could be haunted instead.

“No,” she said. “Have I told you lately that you’re not helpful? For an oracular device, your suggestions are both pedestrian and pornographic.” She pressed her palms against the cool marble countertop. It helped a little. It grounded her. The stone had ruins in it: accidents of iron deposit that formed the pattern of an impossible skyline, drowning in some other world’s rain. The radio liked it. The radio remembered a place where that skyline had been real. Margaret had – dismantled would be the neutral term – dismantled that place. Unmade it. Used its bones for a sanctuary, like she was no better than an angel herself. Her whole apartment was lined with it, a snail’s camouflage shell: ruin marble, the last remnants of the New York she’d been born in. The one she’d eaten up.

I’m no kind of oracular device. Make them a bargain and they’ll leave you be, the radio suggested. It had the worst ideas sometimes.

“I make them a bargain and I’ll spend the next seven years talking to you in Lovecraftian gibberish,” Margaret said. “You’d get so frustrated.”

Ia ia, the radio murmured. It’s not so bad.

When Margaret came right down to it, she’d prefer some saltkissed suckered horror from beneath the sea: better a monstrosity that you couldn’t know than a monstrosity that you’d come to know too well, and was only monstrous in that it reflected your own innate monstrosity. Angels – like some sort of corrective function in the schematic of the universe – were devouring creatures solely when a person needed devouring.

The air was too heavy to breathe, wavering and heatstruck. The sky bent. Pushed.

Margaret refused to be pulled out of her stolen city like a mollusk hooked free of its shell, held up squirming, evaluated for poisons. Swallowed, most likely. She had broken a world. But she’d been so careful with the one she’d ended up in. She’d been scrupulously fair while she’d been here. Only the little bargains, matches against the cold and growing amaryllis for farsight on the roof, the kind of magic she could buy with her own luck. Nothing that mattered. Nothing that should have brought angels in, except that there was a whole other world’s worth of being the sort of sorcerer who cheated: who’d left a string of sorcerer-struck people behind her, will-drained, luckless, caught and sent spinning in her wake.

“Help me?” she said to the radio, flattening one palm against the mesh of its speaker, pressing the other to the ruins in her countertop.

The radio said, babe, like you even needed to ask. Then it lit up gold – the same angel-color as the broken sky – all its dials alight.

Margaret burnt luck: hers, the radio’s. She was a conductor: countertop to blazing radio to bare feet on the floor, live wire, sorcerer plugged into the world like a closed circuit. Protective coloration. She belonged here. She declared it so.

When Margaret could open up her eyes again, she was alone and naked in her kitchen, which needed scrubbing and possibly sanitizing. The apartment creaked around her, settling. The sky was a blank and inviolate overcast grey. The water had stopped coming over the windowsill and lurked, shamefaced, in an innocuous puddle on the floor.

Much better, said the radio. You couldn’t have done that at the beginning?

Margaret flipped it off. And then she turned it off. Half the ruins in the countertop were burned away, used up. There was no way to get more. But perhaps she’d done enough.

In the morning, Margaret went down to Bryant Park to see if the world had held. She had a piece of marble in her purse and she’d brought the radio along, balanced on her hip like an enormous rectangular toddler. She endured the glances of pedestrians. This was New York – a New York, at least, even if it wasn’t the New York Margaret had been born in, and every New Yorker had seen stranger things just this morning. The radio obliged by remaining mostly quiescent on the subway, humming softly to itself at 440 hertz. The park still looked all right, until Margaret got close enough to the sandwich kiosk to trade cash for coffee.

The attendant’s eyes were liquid fire.

It said, angel-voice the alto pitch of a 1920s crooner: YOU ARE INK DROPPED IN FRESH WATER.

“Try a-fucking-gain,” Margaret told it.

Its mouth opened tonguelessly, a round black hole with a star in the depths of it. FROM YOU RADIATES NECROSIS, it said, and then INVASIVE SPECIES. It sounded proud of itself to have come up with the last one. Margaret had to admit it was a pretty good metaphor, for something emitted by a sentienceless rebalancing equation.

“You going to give me coffee to go along with the guilt trip?”

The angel knew not coffee nor was it acquainted with sandwiches. It just stood there, where a perfectly acceptable human being had been just yesterday, and did not accept money in exchange for goods and services. Margaret generously didn’t tell it that it was being hypocritical about the invasive species thing. It was an angel. It didn’t know better.

COFFEE WILL NOT HELP YOU, said the angel, finally, when it had worked through the logic problem enough to answer her.

“Fixes the caffeine headache, though,” Margaret said. “I know that’s not part of your moral calculus –”

On her hip, the radio hissed itself into audibility. Don’t taunt the angel, Maggie, it said. Hi, angel.

NEITHER WILL MECHANISM PRESERVE WHAT ROTS INTERNALLY, the angel opined. UNHOOK YOUR ATTACHMENTS TO THIS WORLD.

“No,” said Margaret, thinking of the ruined skyline of the New York she’d come from, thinking of the mechanized perfection she’d unmade to bring herself and – and the creature that’d become the radio, that light-riddled figure ablaze before she’d shoved him into a mess of aerials and transistors. “No, never, and to hell with you.”

The angel cracked open at the mouth. The top of its head fell backward like an unhinged jaw and the star in its throat spilled ionized white light that pooled gravityless in the air before lunging in tendrils for Margaret’s wrists.

If it caught her it would scour her raw. That would be the beginning of how she’d pay.

She turned and ran, the radio bumping on her hip hard enough to bruise.

I would have equivocated a bit more, it said reproachfully.

“Shut up, you’re heavy and that thing wants you as much as it wants me –”

Babe, the radio murmured. Turn left. The library.

The grand entrance of the New York Public Library – the same in this world as in every other Margaret knew – loomed as soon as Margaret took the corner of the block at a speedy whipround angle. Stairs and three neoclassical archways under a colonnade. The marble under her feet slammed shocks up the back of her calves as she dashed upward between the two lions guarding the doorways. Their eyes were stone. A world had its own defenses, sometimes. And sometimes a sorcerer could slide inside them.

The library patrons stared at her as she ran, another sharp left and then straight up the staircase towards the reading rooms. Her knees hurt. She was going to wear out. She’d meant to: meant to hide here, the shell of this New York wrapped around her while she got decently old and decently died. She’d gotten out. Hadn’t she?

The Rose Reading Room was dimmer than it should have been, grey light through the great arched windows, but the ceiling was still glittering-rich with coffered rosettes and the perfect dawn sky caught in a fresco in the center. The same here as in Margaret’s own New York, and she loved it in just the same fashion. She skidded to a halt, the radio thumping her in her gut with one sharp corner, and walked like a civilized person who belonged in this world down the center aisle.

The patrons turned to look at her anyway. Too many of them. At least none of their eyes were angelfire.

She sat down at one of the vast tables, setting the radio in front of her, and put her face in her hands, fingertips pressed hard into her temples, trying to think. She could go home and lie on the marble countertop, sorcerer-world circuit draining ruins out of the marble and rendering her invisible to anything that wasn’t native to this cosmology. It would buy her a day, at best, considering how long the last use of the marble had preserved her. She didn’t think the angels would forget her in a day. And she’d lose the ruins, all of them, gone. A whole world over.

The radio was lit up, brighter than it should have been in public. Maggie, it said, right out loud. Look at the windows. It’s snowing again.

“Can you turn down your podcast?” said the man to Margaret’s left. “This is a library.”

Margaret made an apologetic noise. She looked out the window. Snow was coming down in sheets, wet and white and all wrong for the season. Out of phase. This world wasn’t right and it hadn’t been all year.

At the other end of the room, a man stood up out of his chair, turned to face the snow as it battered the windows, and burst into helpless, wracked sobbing.

Your feet, said the radio.

Spreading out from the soles of Margaret’s shoes was a thin sheet of ice. It didn’t originate from her – or from the shoes, whoever heard of ice-emitting shoes – it merely grew out of the floor near where she was. The crack in the world, amplifying along a foreign frequency. By the circulation desk, the electronic notice-board which lit up with patrons’ numbers when their books had arrived from closed-stack storage shivered to static, to gematria, to darkness.

“Fuck,” said Margaret.

She didn’t know if it was the angels or if it was her own doing. Or a combination of the two, reinforcing each other, shaking physics and seasons and logic all awry. The sobbing man wasn’t the only one crying, now. It spread from table to table, a contagion, that spreading ink in water the angel had claimed she was. She could feel the smart of tears behind the bridge of her nose herself.

Grimly she wrestled the radio back up onto her hip and got the hell out of the Reading Room. There was a bathroom down at the end of one of the grand corridors. She could not look at the snow in there, at least.

The floor of the bathroom was cold through the ass of Margaret’s jeans, white and black chessboard-marble with no cities in it. She could see the toes of her boots reflected in the full-length nineteenth-century mirror at the end of the room: the toes of her boots surrounding the bulk of the radio, and all of the rest of her hidden. There wasn’t anyone else in the bathroom, which either had to do with the increasing failure of causality or with how this bathroom was hidden around two corners and had terrible signage.

“When you got away from them,” she asked the radio, “how did you do it? Not how we did it, I know how we did it. But before you ran into me.”

What makes you think I got away?

The radio was hardly audible: all static-scraped hissing, transmission garbled from the weight of the falling snow, except that it was right here with her and all transmission artifacts were ostentation and mocking amusement. Margaret thumped it with a bootheel.

“The part where you’re not burned to tatters. Confess already; how’d you do it?”

It’s like you said, said the radio, no louder but a little clearer for the thumping. They want me as much as they want you. So who got away, exactly? You just helped me disappear for a while.

Margaret waited, but it didn’t continue. “I’ve never asked you about where you came from,” she said. She meant it as a threat; they both knew she did.

Signals and noise, said the radio. You not asking is why I like you, Maggie.

“Me not asking doesn’t mean I don’t have a good idea.”

Tell me, then. Spin me a story, sorcerer. Explain how I ended up willing to become an inanimate object on your exquisite kitchen counter, when you found me as a pillar of fire. This’ll be good.

Margaret spread her fingers out against the rough mesh of the radio’s speaker. “Even a rebalancing equation can consider itself,” she said. “Or that’s how I imagine you happened. Some angel looks at all the burned wreckage of righteousness and decides it is too fucked up to be going on with. Of course after that you weren’t an angel anymore. It’d be a contradiction in terms, an angel who came to some other conclusion given the same evidence of moral failure and human cruelty.”

The radio hissed like it was taking in a breath with lungs.

Margaret kept going. She’d guessed all of this a long time back; but saying it out loud was like spilling that ice that had spread out from her shoes from her mouth instead, sorcerer as a crack in the world, a kind of breaking poison. She and the radio had kept each other company, and not asked. “You spun yourself a body,” she said. “Practiced some moral failure and human cruelty yourself, pretty much because you could. Am I getting it right? An expansion of options. An experiment. Maybe you loved the world. Maybe you loved a person who the divine calculus said wasn’t worth anything but fire. You tell me.”

Maybe, said the radio, I loved the divine calculus so much that I wanted to make a choice instead of being a result.

“That’s a very old version of the story.” The brightest angel, falling away from unchanging Neoplatonic perfection: a creature made to only love, claiming the choice to love or not love, because a choice was truer. A good story. Very unlikely to be true, in any world, let alone this one.

The oldest. It’s my favorite.

“It would be,” said Margaret, and thumped the radio again, more companionably. She could hear the wind outside picking up even from inside the bathroom, the slap of wet snow against the stone. The mirror had spidered over with gold cracks, sometime when she hadn’t been looking. It bulged in the top right corner, like the splitting sky. She smelled lilies again, which was either handsoap or angels or anticipatory hallucination. This New York had been whole once; a city undisturbed enough to curl up inside. A thousand thousand people all rushing through its vast machinery, without even knowing she’d escaped into the middle of them.

Invasive species wasn’t that bad of a description for sorcerers, now that she was considering it properly. A little impersonal. The sort of description a moral calculator would make.

She kept thinking of the man in the reading room. Of how he’d begun crying, as if there was nothing else he knew how to do anymore. She wondered how fast that kind of crying would spread. She wanted to take out the chunk of ruin marble in her purse and rub it against her cheek, or offer it to the sobbing man, or grind it to pieces and be done with trying to be good. All of those things at once. None of them would help.

She asked the radio, “And what does your oldest story suggest we do now?”

Told you already, Maggie. Make them a bargain and they’ll leave you be.

Fifth Avenue was brilliant with chill January sunlight, four months late. It poured from the roiling sky along with the snow. The wet slap of flakes soaked Margaret’s hair and plastered it to her cheeks; her eyelashes iced over. The angels were across the street, six columns of flame and one gyre-wheel of wings and eyes arrayed in a judgmental half-circle.

At least they’d stopped pretending to be people.

SORCERER, they said, all of them together, a chord that made Margaret’s spine ache to hear. OBSERVE THE DAMAGE OF YOUR PRESENCE.

“Got it,” Margaret muttered. “Observing it right now.” She felt drugged on music and cold, distant, more aware of the sharp almost-sneeze in her sinuses – aldehydes again, angel-perfume and chilled air – than anything else. Like she was someone else. Like she was about to do something terrible, was watching herself do it.

Hey, angels!

The radio blazed in her arms like a star.

NO MECHANISM HIDES YOU SUFFICIENTLY, an angel said, managing to convey surprise in minor sixths.

Wouldn’t think it could, the radio agreed. I’m the possession, not the radio.

“Shut up,” Margaret told it. “You’re antagonizing them.”

They could use it –

SORCERER. RENDER UP WHAT YOU HAVE SHELTERED.

There we go, said the radio.

Margaret looked down at it. If an inanimate object barely containing the ruined husk of divine calculation could look smug, it was managing. It was limned blue-white and had turned all its dials to a previously unoccupied FM channel. In a moment she thought it would begin singing Warren Zevon, or would have if they were back uptown in her apartment, but if they were back uptown it wouldn’t need to.

“Like hell you’re trading yourself for me,” Margaret told it.

GIVE US WHAT YOU HAVE CONCEALED. REMEDIATION MAY BE POSSIBLE. The angels still hadn’t crossed the street, but their circling was closer now; they crowded at the bus stop. The sky gaped open like an abdominal wound, white on white on distant gold.

Bargains are bargains, Maggie, the radio said gently. Light a cigarette. It won’t kill you for years, especially if you keep not smoking them.

She could put the radio down, and go back into the library, and try to get the man in the Reading Room to stop crying. The angels would devour the radio. They might leave her be, sated with a deeper justice. She was only a sorcerer. There were worse aberrations in the universe. She might buy herself enough time to actually die of old age before they came back for her.

“No,” she said.

Like watching herself do something terrible from a distance. It was easier than she’d expected.

“No,” she said again. “You don’t get to pick for me. Go make more choices.” She knelt down and put the radio on the sidewalk. The snow melted where it fell on it. She ran her fingers through the wet, like she’d wipe tears off a cheek. “Hey, radio. I unbind you. Run for it.”

Hand to the radio. Other hand to the piece of marble in her purse, the ruins blood-warm and responsive to her touch, stored-up luck ready to be used. Closed circuit: the sorcerer and the world, electric. She could feel the ruins going, all the protection she had with her dissolving away.

When it was done, Margaret straightened and stepped off the curb. The shape of the radio was already beginning to decohere behind her, the rough speaker-weave unweaving, the fire showing through at the corners. She was brightly, terribly glad.

The focus of the angels came down on her with the same physical force she’d always felt touching the marble in her kitchen: that grounding in some other world. They honed in. Every time she blinked she saw the veins behind her eyelids blaze with light.

“I’m prepared to recognize the consequences of my actions,” said Margaret. “In this world and every other.”

GO ON.

She jaywalked across Fifth, toeing the snow aside with her boots. “Sorcerers are selfish,” she said. “That’s what makes us sorcerers. And humans. Look at me, all you servants of the divine: I take responsibility.”

The angels met her with a susurration of wings.

It didn’t hurt the way she’d thought it would.

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Arkady Martine
Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, a Byzantine historian. In both capacities she writes about border politics, rhetoric, propaganda, and liminal spaces. She was a student at Viable Paradise XVII. Arkady grew up in New York City and currently lives in Uppsala, Sweden. Find her online at arkadymartine.wordpress.com or on Twitter: @ArkadyMartine.