The Crownless King (Part Four) by Chris Mahon
Over the next few days, Samal finished tracing the star map and continued teaching Iz about the workings of the skull. He showed her how to control the flow of blood and how it brought the muscles and skin to life, where the ears, eyes, tongue, and nose fit into the weave of flesh, then the different kinds of skin and cartilage. She learned eagerly, working for hours at a time. Soon, she was sketching in one of his notebooks, trying to figure out the branching patterns of the veins and blood vessels.
Iz was speaking more than he’d ever seen—she was full of questions, jokes, and little mutterings while she worked. Since the initial lesson with the knife, all of her reticence about blood, bone, and flesh had disappeared. For the first time since they met, Samal felt a surge of confidence in her. He could see her empathy, her sense of humor. It was like someone had loosened all the restrictions in her character. He knew why it was happening—she wasn’t afraid anymore, not of injury, or pain, or death.
He had stopped seeing the ghost of Ozu, but he knew it hadn’t gone away. He saw her in his dreams, walking with him under the shade of trees or swimming up to him underwater, her hair floating around her face like a jellyfish. Other nights, he saw Tenoch coughing up blood on a beach in Kil-Kharan, until he was coughing up his left lung, forcing the whole piece of gray tissue out of his mouth and letting it flop out onto the sand. He saw Tarinen sometimes, headless Tarinen, walking along the bottom of the ocean in the dark, toward a trench in the ocean that led to an abyss.
Finally, Iz asked him the question he had been dreading.
“Whose skull is this?”
Iz held up the skull, covered in muscle and the first webbing of blood vessels. Not a speck of bone was showing.
“It was a friend of mine, a woman named Ozu.”
“Was she a mage?”
“She was a sailor.”
“Did she fish?”
“No, she was afraid of fishing. There was a time, when she was fifteen, that she got—”
“A hook in her eye,” Iz said happily.
Samal stopped cold.
“How did you know about that?”
Iz shrugged, her eyes fixed on the skull. Samal glanced around, but Ozu’s shade was nowhere to be seen. His eyes moved back to Iz.
“How did you know that?”
Iz didn’t say anything.
“Has she been talking to you?”
Iz remained silent. Samal stepped over and crouched by her. With a careful hand, he hooked two fingers in the eye sockets of the skull and tried to pull it out of Iz’s hands. She pulled back.
“Give it to me,” he said.
“I haven’t talked to her!”
“Give it to me!”
Samal let go. “You either hand me that skull or we stop now.”
Iz was quiet. She cradled the skull in her arms and looked down at the floor.
“How did you know that she got a hook in her eye?” Samal asked again.
“I saw it in my dreams.”
Samal’s eyes narrowed.
“Give me the skull. We’ll use a different one.”
He saw her slowly uncoil and lift up the skull to him. He took it daintily, so as not to ruin Iz’s work. He’d have to drive away Ozu, keep her from invading Iz’s dreams anymore. He’d figure out how to transfer the flesh onto Tarinen’s skull in the morning.
That night, Samal dreamed he was sitting with Iz and Ozu in the tower. Ozu was wearing her sandals, her short canvas pants, and a pristine white shirt. Iz and Ozu were talking to one another, and Ozu was telling her a funny story. Samal got up and faked going to the stove, but snuck up behind Iz instead. She didn’t see him, but Ozu caught his eyes. Do it, she mouthed.
With one quick movement, he put both of his wooden hands on Iz’s temples and twisted her head sharply to the left, then the right, then the left, tearing the muscles apart. Iz started laughing at the sensation, even as her windpipe snapped and blood began draining from her neck. Even when the vertebrae in her spine broke, she was still talking to him. I did it! I’m a crownless king! she was shouting, delighted that she’d learned it. He set her head aside and knelt in front of Ozu, as if he were proposing. She bowed, and her head came tumbling off into his arms.
With careful precision, he connected the fibers of Iz’s neck to Ozu’s head, with Ozu giggling and talking to him as he worked. They joked, they reminisced, they told stories about Tarinen, until finally she sat up and touched her neck, feeling the scars. Then she wrapped her arms around him, squeezing him tight so he could feel how warm she was.
“It’s so good to see you again,” she said.
Samal woke up with the feeling of Ozu’s warm arms still clinging to him. He looked over at Iz, sitting hunched by the stove. She was sleep-talking again. He got up and crept up behind her, his feet touching down silently on the wood floors. He tried to hear what Iz was whispering, but it wasn’t Iz’s voice.
“I know you’re lonely,” he heard. “It’s okay to be lonely sometimes.”
“But I’m always lonely,” Iz was saying. It sounded like she had marbles in her mouth.
He recognized the other voice: soft, filled with compassion and good humor. Ozu’s face flashed in his memory, and for a second he felt her arms around him again. He was right behind Iz, like in his dream. Her neck was bare in front of him.
As he came closer, his bare feet stepped in something warm. Rivulets of blood were streaming across the floor. He stopped, then craned his neck to look over Iz’s shoulder.
“Oh, there’s Samal.” Ozu’s voice rang like a bell.
Held in Iz’s hands was Ozu’s partially muscled skull, with two blue eyes in the sockets and a new tongue inside of its mouth. Strands of muscle connected the upper and lower jaws, but there were no lips, no nose, just flesh, bright and shiny with fresh blood.
Samal fell to his knees and crawled around to look at Iz’s face. Her eye sockets were empty, and streaks of red ran down her cheeks. He grabbed her by the chin and squeezed her mouth open. A river of blood spilled over Iz’s lips. Samal tilted her head toward the light. There was a stump near the back of the throat, where the tongue should be.
“Don’t worry about her, she’s okay,” Ozu’s skull whispered.
He turned to look down at the skull. As he watched, it began to chant.
Flesh of Iz, flesh of Samal,
eat, drink, churn,
split, grow, strengthen,
As he watched, lips bloomed on the skull, veins and blood vessels spiderwebbed across the muscle, and skin stitched itself across the face. Hair sprouted and grew, until he was staring at Ozu’s face.
“Samal, it’s me. It’s me.”
He was frozen there, crouching next to Iz, looking into Ozu’s eyes. But they were Iz’s eyes.
“Help me get my body,” Ozu pleaded.
“You died,” he muttered. “You died.”
“I know, but now you can help me!”
Iz began to convulse, then doubled over. She was choking. Ozu’s head tumbled out of her hands as she clutched at her stomach, spitting up blood. Ozu landed facing up at him, still pleading.
“Oh god, help me,” she was crying.
Samal could see himself reaching out and twisting Iz’s head off like a cork, just like his dream. He could see himself putting Ozu’s head onto her neck, weaving it shut. He could reshape Iz’s skin and bones until Ozu was whole again, same as she had been. He could see it all playing out before his eyes.
He saw Tenoch, looking up at him from the bed of leaves, begging him to save him. There was so much fear in his eyes, and Samal remembered what he had thought in that moment.
I can still save him.
He could feel the heat and blood on his fingers as he tried to keep Tenoch alive. He could feel Ozu squirm under his hands, his real hands, as he gently pulled the hook out of her eyelid. He could feel Iz’s burned skin coming off under his thumbs, and her body shuddering under his grip.
Then he was awake again. He looked down at Iz, who was still choking on the floor, gasping like a fish. He picked up Ozu’s head and looked into Iz’s blue eyes. Slowly, he drew out his knife.
“I can’t save you,” he said.
Ozu’s face twisted in fear, and the knife loosened in his hand. He set it down. Then he crawled over to the stove, where a fire was burning.
“Samal!” Ozu screamed.
He opened the grate. He held Ozu’s temples in both of his palms and pushed her head in, taking care to get all of the hair inside. After he closed the grate, he crawled over to Iz and tried to stop the bleeding. If he could just outpace the blood loss, if he kept her awake and kept the cold from creeping into her, he could keep her alive.
From the stove, he could hear Ozu screaming his name over and over.
That night, he dreamt of Tarinen. His old master was sitting in the surf on the beach at Kil-Kharan, his hairy feet buried in the wet sand and his eyes locked on the horizon. Underneath the faded mosaic of serpents and tide tables tattooed across his back, his skin was tanned the color of dried mud and mottled with wrinkles. His beard was big, black and curly, obscuring most of his face except for his eyes and his whalebone teeth when he smiled.
“Sometimes I wish I could take back the things I did,” Tarinen said. “or that I would wake up, and it would be that day again.”
Samal was sitting next to him in a tidal pool, watching his master’s face. There were no tears in Tarinen’s eyes, or melancholy, or even softness. His normal good humor had disappeared, and there was only his voice, deep and resonant.
“You have to kill that part of yourself,” Tarinen said. “The part that goes back and wonders what could have been.”
Tarinen turned to him, his brows furrowed.
“It will never let you sleep.”