To celebrate Tor.com’s 15th Anniversary, we’re reposting some gems from the more than 600 stories we’ve published since 2008. Today’s story is “Blood Is Another Word for Hunger” by Rivers Solomon, edited by Jonathan Strahan and illustrated by Xia Gordon. “Blood Is Another Word for Hunger” originally published in 2019 and was a finalist for the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Carl Brandon Award.
This story is included in our special anniversary bundle, Some of the Best from Tor.com: 15th Anniversary Edition, available to newsletter subscribers for a limited time.
Anger is an energy. A young girl, a slave in the South, is presented with a moment where she can grasp for freedom, for change, for life. She grabs it with both hands, fiercely and intensely, and the spirit world is shaken.
In a wooden house on a modest farmstead by a dense wood near a roving river to the west of town, miles from the wide road and far away from the peculiar madness that is men at war, lived the Missus, the Missus’s grown daughters Adelaide and Catherine, the Missus’s sister Bitsy, the Missus’s poorly mother Anna, and the Missus’s fifteen-year-old slave girl Sully, who had a heart made of teeth—for as soon as she heard word that Albert, the Missus’s husband, had been slain in battle, she took up arms against the family who’d raised her, slipping a tincture of valerian root and skullcap into their cups of warmed milk before slitting their throats in the night.
The etherworld, always one eye steady on the realm of humankind, took note. Disturbances in the order of things could be exploited, could cut paths between dominions. The murder of a family by a girl so tender and young ripped a devilishly wide tunnel between the fields of existence, for it was not the way of things, and the etherworld thrived on the impermissible.
Sully’s breaths blurred together into a whispery, chafed hum as she stood over the bodies. Blood marked her clothes, hair, and skin. She tasted it in her mouth, where it had shot in a stream from Bitsy’s artery. Her tongue, too, was coated, but Sully wouldn’t swallow. She couldn’t bear to have that hateful woman all up inside her body, slick and salty and merging with her own blood. Saliva gathered in her mouth till she had no choice but to spit on a patch of rug in the second bedroom, where Bitsy and the Missus’s daughter slept.
She stumbled downstairs and out to the barn and grabbed the bar of soap from the metal tin that held all her possessions. Determined, she slaked it over her tongue before biting off a morsel and swallowing it, just in case a smidge of Bitsy had made its way into her and needed eradicating.
Sully’s whistley, syncopated pants could’ve been the dying wheezes of a sick coyote or the first breaths of a colt, the battlesong of a screech owl, a storm wind. Sully closed her eyes. In the darkness and quiet of the barn, she could hear every night sound as loud as a woman hollering a field song. The music of it entered her, and she succumbed. When next Sully opened her eyes, she could breathe properly again. A few moments after that, she felt steady enough to return to the house.
Sully gathered the blood-laden sheets from inside and carried them to the property’s stream, where the rush of water rinsed away the stains. She knew well how to untangle blood from cotton, having regularly scrubbed clean the Missus’s, the Missus’s daughter’s, and the Missus’s sister’s menses-soiled undergarments.
When her fingers turned still from the mix of cool water and the brisk night wind, she carried the sheets to the tree and hung them over the naked branches. The beige linens blew back and forth in the wind, possessed. Sully went inside to warm her hands over the woodstove then carried the bodies of her slavers one by one over her shoulder outside. She dug a single grave for hours and hours and hours into the night, into the next day, and into that night, too, never sleeping, and filled the wound she’d made in the earth with Missus, Adelaide, Catherine, Bitsy, and Anna, and covered them with soil.
Her heart should’ve ached for these women—they’d raised her from age six—but it did not. She was still seething, madder, in fact, than she’d been before the kill because her final act of rebellion had not brought the relief she’d imagined it would. These ladies who’d loomed Goliath in her life, who’d unleashed every ugliness they could think of on Sully, were corn husks now, souls hollowed out. Irrelevant. How could that be? How could folks so immense become nothing in the space of time it took a blade to swipe six inches?
It was Sully’s unsoftened anger in the face of what she’d done that cut a path between dominions. The etherworld spat out a teenage girl, full grown, called Ziza into Sully’s womb. Ziza had spent the last two hundred years skulking in the land of the dead, but she rode the fury of Sully’s murders like a river current back to the world of flesh. Ziza felt it all, wind and sky and the breath of wolves against her skin. She spun through the ages looking for the present, time now foreign to her after being in a world where everything was both eternal and nonexistent.
“Yes, yes, yes!” Ziza called as she descended from the spirit realm down a tunnel made of life. Breathing things, screaming things, hot, sweaty, pulsing, moving, scampering, wild, toothy, bloody, slimy, rich, salty things. Tree branches brushed her skin. Sensation overwhelmed her as she landed with a soft, plump thud into the belly of her new god. Ziza took in the darkness, swum in it. It was nothing like the violent nothingness of her home for the past two centuries. For here she could smell, taste, feel. She could hear the cries of the girl carrying her, loud and unrelenting.
Sully had never been with child before, and she didn’t understand the pain that overtook her so sudden as she shoveled the last gallon of dirt over the graves of her masters. Spasms in her abdomen convinced her she was dying.
As she fell backwards to the ground, her belly turned giant and bulbous. She stared up at the crescent moon and spat at it for the way it mocked her with its half-smile. Sully hated that grinning white ghoul, and with all the spite at the fates she could muster, she howled and she howled and she howled at it. She howled until she became part wolf, a lush coat of gray fur spiking from her shoulder blades and spine. It was magic from the dead land that Ziza brought with her, where there was no border separating woman from beast.
Hearing the pained wailing, Ziza made herself as small as possible as she felt herself being birthed, not wishing to damage her host. With her last ounce of etherworld magic, she shrunk herself down to the size of a large baby for the time it would take to come out.
“Help,” moaned Sully, but she’d killed anyone who might be able to offer intervention. “Help me!” Sully’s womb contracted, and overwhelmed with the urge to push, she squeezed until that baby who was not a baby came out of her.
Sully’s mouth hung agape as she watched the birthed-thing crawl from the cradle of her thighs then grow bigger, bigger, and bigger until it was full grown. It was a girl Sully’s age, and though she was not quite smiling, she was—Sully struggled to put a name to the stranger’s expression—impressed with the situation. “Lordy,” said Sully, but she was in too much pain to worry over this oddity. The skin betwixt her legs had suffered from the delivery, now inflamed. Her vulva felt like a broken bone.
She tried to stand but was too weak, and the freshly bornt teenager offered a hand. Sully took it but shoved it away once she was up, then limped along to the kitchen where she fixed herself a poultice of mashed bread and soured milk. The smell of it turned her stomach and she vomited on the table before collapsing over a chair. Was this how it would end, in this dank kitchen, on this dank farmstead?
Sully felt a hand on her back. “Ma’am?” the fresh-bornt teenager said. “My name’s Ziza. I’m going to take care of you,” she said. She had a small, squeaky voice that reminded Sully of a mouse. “Don’t you worry,” she said.
Ziza pressed the bread-and-milk poultice to Sully’s vulva, fastening the mixture to her body with strips of cotton. She mashed herbs into a thick, leafy tea. “Drink this, girl,” she said, smiling with a joyful warmth that did not match the bloodiness of these hectic circumstances. “It’ll help along with the poultice.”
Sully’s nose curled up at the scent of it. “You just raised me up from the dead, and now you’re telling me you can’t swallow a little of my brew?” asked Ziza.
Lulled by Ziza’s gentle, chiding way, Sully obeyed—her first time ever to do so not under the threat of violence. “Shhh, now. Sleep,” said Ziza. She began to hum, but it wasn’t a lullaby sort of song. Too lively.
“I’m not tired,” Sully insisted, but she couldn’t breathe through the pain between her legs and her words came out as a series of gasps. “Am I dying?”
“You’re passing out,” said Ziza, stroking Sully’s face.
“You an angel or something?” asked Sully.
“Oh, I think you might be the angel. An avenging angel,” said Ziza.
Sully hadn’t spoken to a soul besides her masters in years. She hated how heavy her eyelids felt, how much of a strain it was to keep them wide open. The limits of her body were robbing her of this moment, this bewildering, strange moment.
“Sleep,” said Ziza. And then one more time, “Sleep.”
For once it was a blessing for Sully to do as she was told.
Two days later, Sully stirred awake. The pain had gone, and someone had carried her to Missus’s bed, which was made up with the linens Sully had washed.
“Ziza,” she called out, remembering her savior’s name. It slipped prettily off her tongue and teeth. “Ziza? You there?” Distantly she heard singing, but it was so faint she wondered if she was hallucinating it. She swung her legs over to the floor and stood, her bones and muscles creaking stubbornly. “Ziza!”
When no answer came, she went downstairs. The farmhouse had been recently cleaned. A metal pail filled with gray water sat in the corner near a mop and a discarded rag. The layer of dust usually visible on the floors and walls and wood stove had been washed away. Layers of grime that Sully had previously believed permanent had been scrubbed clean. The scent of lavender had done away with the previous odor of musk and sweat. Sully rubbed her eyes, made a shade out of her hand to block out the midday sun.
“Good afternoon, you,” said Ziza as she poked her head through the open window. Sully turned around to see the girl she’d birthed wearing a smile, one of Sully’s head scarves, and the Master’s church shirt, trousers, and suspenders. “Glad to see you’re finally up. I was getting lonely with only livestock as company.” There was that smile again, so wide and open it hardly fit on her face.
“You’ve made yourself quite at home,” Sully said.
“It got tiresome trying to be the polite house guest. There was too much needed doing,” she said. Sully saw that the panes of glass in the door, which had always been a murky brown, had been washed clean. They were clear and bright, sparkling just about. Ziza had turned this ramshackle cottage into something palatable, something the Missus had always hoped Sully would do. “You should come out here if you’re feeling up to it,” she said.
Sully peered around the main room of the farmhouse, all evidence of her murderous deed erased. Ziza had cleared away the pot of tea she’d brewed with analgesic leaves. The bloody clothes Sully had been wearing on the night in question were cleaned, dried, and ironed. They lay folded on a chair.
She wished she missed them. She wished at the very least she felt sadness or guilt. But all she felt was the same old rage. It burned her up, leaving her numb, nerves charred. She’d done the thing she’d always dreamt of doing, and now what? Perhaps now it was her time to die.
“You coming or not?” called Ziza.
Sully joined Ziza outside, where the sun was too bright. Her legs still weak, she leaned against the rotted wooden frame of the house, chewing her lip, arms crossed over her chest.
Across from her, not far from the chicken coop, Ziza drank in the sky. Her head tilted back at such a sharp angle that the base of her skull was perpendicular to the line of her neck. She touched her skin. Patted it. Poked it. Pinched it. Her whole body gestured joyousness. “Hallelujah, hallelujah,” she said.
Sully rolled her eyes at this stranger who’d made a house of her uterus. “What are you so happy about?”
“Haven’t you seen the sky today? Isn’t that reason enough to be happy?”
Sully slid her hands into the pockets of her apron and focused her eyes hard on Ziza. “No.”
“How can you be sure unless you have a look at it? Go on. Do it.”
Sully didn’t like to do what people said, so she looked out at the expanse of poorly managed land before her instead. The Missus’s family hadn’t been the most skilled of farmers, their approach to tending the earth one of brute force. They beat the ground with their hoes and rakes and called it tilling. The dirt was hungry. It needed feeding, cajoling, coaxing, singing to. Building up not breaking down. What had the Master and Missus known about growing something? All they knew was how to bleed something for all it was worth. What must it be like to live life when every interaction included the question, How much value can I extract from this?
“I can’t make you look, but it sure is beautiful,” said Ziza, eyes now affixed to Sully. She was small and birdlike, her mannerisms sharp and jittery. Her body was too small for her spirit.
“I don’t believe in beauty,” replied Sully, saying it because it sounded controversial, not because she particularly meant it. She counted the rows of cotton plants, which looked as scraggily and ugly as anything she ever saw. Ugliness was something she could count on.
“If you don’t believe in beauty, then I suppose you must’ve never seen your own reflection before,” said Ziza.
Now Sully didn’t have a response for that. “What did you say?” she asked.
Ziza returned her gaze to the sky. Her face was angled away, so Sully couldn’t see it properly, but she thought the girl was smiling.
“You’re nothing like how I imagined a ghost would be,” said Sully.
“Maybe because I’m not a ghost. If I was, could I do all this?” She grabbed a stick off the ground and flung it at Sully.
Sully batted it away then picked up another and tossed it right back. She reached down and grabbed handfuls of dirt and pebbles and threw them at Ziza, too.
“Stop! Stop!” Ziza cried, all the while laughing wildly.
Worn out from Ziza’s constant frivolity, Sully huffed a breath. “What are you even doing here? Leave me alone. Go away.”
“I promise to stop pestering you if you look at the sky,” said Ziza.
“I don’t think you could stop pestering if you tried,” Sully said and mashed a little dandelion into the ground with her boot.
“Damn, girl, just look.”
Sighing, , Sully cast her gaze upward. At first all Sully observed was the cloudless, bright blue that she suspected had entranced Ziza so much. She felt disappointed that after all of Ziza’s haranguing for her to look, there was no revelation, no moment of transcendence. Sully didn’t feel moved at all. The sky was the sky, like it had been yesterday and so many days before. She was about to look away when out the corner of her left eye she saw a fluttering of white. A flock of seagulls approached, so far inland that surely they were confused. “What in creation?” said Sully, mouth and eyes wide. The seagulls dipped low to the ground to give her what looked like a bow.
“Mercy,” Ziza cried out, then laughed in astonishment.
The chorus of squawking hurt Sully’s ears, so she yelled for the birds to hush. At once, the seagulls became silent. She covered her mouth to stifle the gasp.
Ziza, grinning widely, turned away from the circling birds and the cavernous sky to look at Sully. “You did this, did you know that? You are astonishing.”
Assaulted with such strangeness, Sully didn’t know whether to be joyful or frightened, to revel in this new inexplicable power or cower in its presence.
Sully removed the artifacts of her past life from the house and burned them in a bonfire outside, thinking these vestiges of the Missus were the reason for the sick feeling she still had even now that the family was dead. What could not be burned, she smashed. What could not be smashed, she buried in the woods past the property line. The Missus had collected all sorts of knickknacks and bric-a-brac over the years. Needless figurines. Stacks of newspapers ceiling high. Old, busted musical instruments that no one played. Bottles of snake oil bought from this and that traveling salesman, promising to cure ailments no one even had.
“With all the accoutrements gone, this place doesn’t feel like much of a home at all,” said Ziza as she helped set the table for supper. She’d invited herself to stay. “Looks like a tomb in here.”
“You’d know all about tombs, wouldn’t you, Miss Dead Girl?” Sully said, experimenting with a partial smile so Ziza would know she did not intend her comment anything but facetiously, but she hated the way it felt on her cheeks. She resolved never to do it again.
Ziza snorted as she folded a cloth napkin and placed it on the table, laughing with her tongue against her teeth so the sound of it was a soft hiss. “What’s a woman like me know of tombs? I died in a outhouse and was surely buried in an unmarked grave or burned. Tombs are for kings and queens.” She grabbed a piece of cornbread from the basket at the center of the table and brought it to her mouth, her manner far from proper. Crumbs stuck to the corner of her lips and she wiped them away with the fabric of her shirt cuff. In the days since she’d been here, she had yet to take off the ivory-colored button-up that used to belong to the Master. His single bit of fancy attire. Clean and barely worn. Though Master Albert had been a small man, the fabric draped like a carnival tent over Ziza’s miniscule skeleton.
“I don’t mind that you’re so very uncouth,” said Sully and sat down to join her new guest, her sort-of child, at the table. She’d taken—not quite pleasure, not quite comfort, perhaps reprieve—in the routine she’d fallen into with Ziza, enough that she could try to make pleasant conversation through the numbness.
“Says the girl who slain five womenfolk with no more thought than she’d throw out dirty bath water,” Ziza said.
Sully reached with her fingers beneath her head wrap to scratch her sweaty head and sized up Ziza from across the small wooden round table. She didn’t look like any girl Sully had seen before with her light brown skin and green eyes, sun-colored nappy hair, a cornucopia of freckles.
“Was you always that color?” Sully asked. She’d heard tales about ghosts possessing women, turning them white with death. “Or was it what happened to you in the Thereafter? I knew a boy who had a patch of white in his black hair from all the worries of his life, though I’ve always been an aggrieved sort of person, and that never happened to me. They say I’m dark as a raisin.”
After a few bites of beans, Ziza had a gulp of lemonade. “I was just born like this,” she said. She dipped her cornbread into a bowl of spicy red beans, thick pieces of meat from the ham hock mixed in among the onion. She ate every meal so ravenously, and it occurred to Sully there might not have been food in the Thereafter.
“Isn’t there food in the place you came from?” she asked.
Ziza hummed as she played with her spoon, tapping it against her bowl. “It’s hard to say,” she said. The only times Ziza wasn’t actively cheerful was when Sully brought up anything that took place before she’d come to the farm.
“So you don’t like to talk about it or what?” asked Sully, aware she sounded coarse but unsure how to fix it.
Ziza squeezed her eyes shut. “It’s just, what happens when you die isn’t a thing you can talk about. It’s not a place that exists where I can just describe the color of the sky and the whoosh of the water and the subtle hue of violet in the flowers in bloom. It’s more like being drownt and you seeing everything through icy water.”
Sully blew on another spoonful of beans, but she didn’t bring it to her mouth. “Does it hurt your lungs like drowning does?” she asked. She leaned across the table toward Ziza, hungry to know the ways of death.
“It’s more like the moment of letting go, when the fight is out of you. When you about to pass out so the pain of being denied air is gone.”
Sully exhaled slowly, her lips trembling as she whistled out air. “I don’t see why you’d ever want to leave a place that feels like that,” said Sully. “Like peace.”
Ziza stirred what remained of her food, the hand holding the spoon shaking. “Don’t say that,” she said.
Even when the voice bearing the edict was as gentle as Ziza’s, Sully didn’t abide commands. “If you’re free to blather on and on about what a glorious day it is and hallelujah this and that and such nonsense, I can talk about what I want to talk about.”
Ziza sucked in her lips and let her head droop a smidge, eyes averted from Sully. “You’re right,” said Ziza. “I spoke out of turn. I’m a guest in your home.”
Sully didn’t expect the girl to capitulate so easily, and she was sorry her hostility had whipped the fight out of her. “It’s not my home,” said Sully after a moment.
“It’s not like I got papers saying it’s mine,” Sully said, and everybody knew papers were everything.
“Did you not kill the folks who had the papers? Therefore could you not change the papers? Is an owner anything but he who kills for the papers?” asked Ziza. The temporary contriteness that had overtaken Ziza went as quickly as it had come.
“But what would I do with this place?” said Sully, standing, finding Ziza’s inquisitive stare suddenly oppressive. She leaned back against the wood burning stove, where her cup of coffee sat keeping warm. She drank what remained, but still did not feel settled. She filled Master Albert’s pipe with tobacco and began to smoke it.
“You could live out your days here,” said Ziza.
“Why would I want to live out my days here?”
“Why wouldn’t you? Do you wish to travel instead?”
Sully inhaled smoke then blew it away from Ziza. It felt good to do this in the house. The Missus had always forbade Albert from doing so. “Travel? For what purpose? I thought travel was for seeing things, and I’ve already seen all I want to ever see, I think.”
“For the pleasure of it. Or you could stay here. Whatever you do, I’ll do it, too. You bornt me, girl. Look at this,” she said, untucking her shirt from her trousers and lifting it up to reveal her belly button, where there was a large, black stump. The remainder of the umbilical cord that had connected them. “We can go or we can stay. Which do you want to do?”
“I don’t want anything in particular,” said Sully.
“Then I’ll want for the both of us. I’ve decided. This is your home and my home, now. Our home. And it will be others’ home, too.”
“The others?” asked Sully.
“They’ll surely be riding your murder wave here,” said Ziza. “You kilt five, did you not? And I am only one. When we disrupt nature, she likes to reestablish the balance.”
“The gods like a defiant streak,” said Ziza. She’d taken it upon herself to teach Sully the ways of the world. Her lessons came over many weeks, given as she and Sully roasted corn and hot sausage over the fire together, or scrubbed mud-stained clothes in the stream, or swept, or planted crops of peas, or gathered wood or stone to build dwellings for their impending arrivals.
She learned about tinctures, roots, and bones. Some of it Sully already knew, like how to bring sickness to heel with the right cocktail of plants. The subject of resurrection was what interested Sully most, and she played close mind as Ziza babbled about necromancy, zombi-folk, mojo, herbs, conjurers.
Ziza described a bridge made of dreamscape, said Sully had accessed a way to pull people across it. “Why me?” asked Sully.
Shrugging, Ziza continued her work devising a crop rotation schedule for their land. She insisted that most of the acreage needed to lay fallow for at least a year, perhaps two, up to three, time over which they’d feed it with the manure of chickens, cows, pigs, and goats. “I guess the etherworld saw something in you and rooted up in you,” she said.
Sully had always been touched by a flash of darkness. On the plantation where she was born, slave women gossiped about her true nature. Her mother, who’d been sold away when Sully was five, called her moskti after the blood-eating fairy in stories of their old home back across the water. They possessed human bodies and kept them alive by feasting on the blood of anyone nearby. As soon as she had teeth, Sully drew blood whenever she fed from her mother’s breasts. Four months old.
“When it comes to the divine, it’s best not to worry too much over the particulars, or you’ll lose the forest for the trees, you understand?” asked Ziza.
But everything Ziza said and predicted came true. Sully did give birth again, this time to a boy of ten named Miles. Two months after that came a forty-one-year-old woman named Liza Jane and a few days later her twin sister Bethie. Next came a man named Nathaniel with gray hair and skin dark like a fever dream who didn’t talk much but to recite lines of poetry. Including Ziza, five revenants in all came to stay, one for each of the lives Sully took.
Sully kept her distance from all but Ziza. She watched from afar as they made a home out of the farm over the weeks and months. They sang songs without her, swam in the stream without her, tilled without her, picked blackberries without her, and laughed without her. They were a family, as exuberant in their togetherness as they were in their resurrections.
Ziza was their shepherd—not just for the revenants, but for Sully, too, coaxing her like a lonesome, lost lamb back into the fold. “Sully,” Ziza said one day. “I’ve been missing you.”
Sully wasn’t the sort of person people missed, so when Ziza said that, she didn’t know what to do with herself but fiddle with a piece of flour-water paste caked to her palms. She peeled off the flakey remnants onto the wooden porch, where she sat rocking in the Missus’s old chair.
“Don’t you find yourself missing me, too?” asked Ziza, kneeling in front of Sully. She laid her hands on Sully’s knees and squeezed, and Sully stood up from the rocking chair so fast it almost toppled.
“You’re the one who doesn’t want to talk anymore now that you’ve got your new friends,” said Sully. She cast a glance out onto the fields, where the newer revenants, Miles, Liza Jane, Bethie, and Nathaniel, were picking wild flowers—weeds.
“It’d be easier to keep up with you if you didn’t sequester yourself away like you do,” she said, then shook her head and walked off. When she was almost out of earshot, she turned around and called, “I’d love you forever if you’d just try. Not that I don’t already love you forever.”
It was foolishness. Ziza was a silly girl, prone to bouts of childish whimsy, yet Sully found herself enticed by the promise. She didn’t care about getting closer to the others, but Ziza? She could bask forever in her attentions.
Miles, the little one, was a rascal and then some, always playing tricks on Sully. He’d replaced her jar of talcum powder with ashes once and another time laid a dead mouse inside her boots. But he was also a master of languages. He’d grown up in a boarding house up north where he’d learned German, Czech, Spanish, Russian, and Italian from the boarders. She liked listening to him rattle on in foreign tongues.
Miles taught her to read and how to do math, and called her “Sis.” She didn’t like him, but she didn’t unlike him, either, and she found her hostility toward him and the others melting to indifference and then to a reluctant fondness as the weeks passed by.
There were enough of them now that they were a proper brood. Food stores had dwindled to dregs. Though the seagulls brought them fish daily, some of which they ate, some of which they smoked for future rations, they wished for more meat and more flour for cakes and biscuits. They needed more clothes, more shoes, more horses. They’d used what they could of what was available at the house, and to get more, they’d have to leave the cocoon of wellbeing that was the farmstead.
Sully, knowing the local territory the best, drew up a plan to help them secure not only more supplies, but permanent safety. It was a plan of blood, for that was the thing she knew best.
Ziza had called this place their home, but what was a home if it could be scooped out from under them at any moment? If someone else could come and take the papers? If whenever any of them needed anything, they had to live in fear of discovery by the townsfolk who wouldn’t look well on a former slave and other dark folk occupying a property in a white family’s name?
It was no way to live, and if it was Sully’s last deed on this earth, she’d make the killing of the Missus and her family worth more than just her own peace of mind—because it hadn’t even garnered her that. Sully was a lost cause, but these folks could be happy here if she made it into a proper dwelling for them. Ziza could be happy.
“I’ll do this alone,” Sully said as she explained her plan to others. She would raise an army, an army of revenants.
Liza Jane shook her head. “Don’t talk nonsense.” She had a strong island accent that Sully loved. She’d stayed up many nights listening to Liza Jane’s tales about how she had escaped her plantation as a teenager and lived most of her remaining years as a pirate on a ship called the Red Colossus. “We are brave,” she said. “We’ll do whatever you say.”
Miles nodded his head and so did Bethie. Nathaniel, looking sage with his gray hair and knowing eyes, said, “You will never be alone again, Miss Sully.”
So be it.
For several weeks, they raided the nicest wagons that passed by along the main roads, stealing their supplies, bringing the drivers and passengers back to the farmstead for Sully to kill. For each body disposed of in this way, Sully birthed a ghost. She numbed to the agonizing pain of labor and let herself be comforted by Ziza’s vast knowledge. Shepoke of a goddess named Artemis who watched over young girls, unwed women, wild animals, the wilderness. “You could be like her, don’t you think?” said Ziza.
Sully was laid up in bed where she’d spent the last several weeks. The constant birthing had worn her to bone. The killing, too, hurt. “Army or not, I can’t do this anymore,” said Sully, worried she’d disappoint Ziza, but Ziza only nodded and took Sully’s hand in hers, kissing several times so tenderly, like no woman was supposed to do to another. It made Sully shiver.
“I think we’ve got enough now anyway for your plan to work. There’s twenty-six of us in all,” Ziza said. She dipped a cloth into a bowl of hot water and pressed it to Sully’s head. “I’ll fetch Miles and tell him he can go into town to start the next phase.”
The plan was for him to tell the sheriff about all the murdered folk at the farmstead, and when the sheriff led his troops here, they’d mount a full-on attack on their home territory. Take them by surprise. They didn’t know how great their number was. They didn’t know what weapons they’d raided, what traps they’d set. “We’ll be able to take over the town and make a fortress of it. We’ll be safe, and we’ll make a place where others can be safe, too,” said Ziza, squeezing Sully’s hand tight in reassurance.
Sully wept in Ziza’s arms. She didn’t know where the tears came from or why they fell. Everything was going her way. Having killed twenty-six and birthed twenty-six, the count was even. She didn’t have to fear another tumultuous labor.
“I’ll stay here with you as long as you want,” said Ziza, that warm smile that was always there shining brightly at Sully.
“You should go help. I want you to go,” said Sully. “You been here the longest. You’re the one who can lead them.”
Ziza’s smile began to waver as she worried her bottom lip. “I’ll go,” she said, “but you stay right up in here, you understand? If you leave, there’s a chance you could get caught in the cross fires. You might kill someone by mistake and then have to bring another back. Your body needs rest.”
It was dark when Ziza finally went and the sheriff came with his cavalry. Sully let herself drift in and out of consciousness. She awoke to the sound of shots firing. She saw the spark of a blaze.
Their entire property had been booby-trapped, sharpened branches primed to raise up and stab any person or horse who tried to get through. Sully heard their cries of pain.
When the night grew more silent, she stumbled out of bed and into a pair of old boots. She walked down the stairs and out the front door. She saw Miles running toward her, a hand on top his head to keep his floppy sun hat from falling off.
“Miss Sully,” he called, out of breath. With only the moon as light, she couldn’t see whether he was injured or if his clothes were stained with blood.
“They’re all dead,” he said then whooped and laughed and ran up to her to give her a hug. She patted his back and told him to go inside and wash his face. It seemed like a big-sisterly thing to tell a boy.
Sully walked to the barn where the weapons for slaughter were kept, where she used to sleep. Inside was the blade she’d used to kill the Missus. She felt nothing as she touched it, neither relief nor rage. Any memories she had associated with the event sat inside her unrecalled. The battle with the townspeople had been won, but Sully couldn’t answer why that mattered.
There existed a depth of loneliness so profound that once experienced, no matter how briefly, trust in life could not be restored. Sully took a knife and stabbed it in her gut just above her uterus then carved a large circle around the organ. She removed it from her body and dug a shallow grave with her hands, buried it there as she bled out. When she died, at least the others might be able to use the etherworld that had made her uterus into a portal.
“Sully!” she heard. “Sully!”
She had a feeling she was already gone, that she was hearing Ziza call her from the other side. There it was, that feeling Ziza described. Drowning.
Sully was cold and heavy, and she felt her body struggle to lift itself up. After a few seconds of trying, she gave up.
“No, no, no, no, no, no,” said Ziza, grasping Sully’s body, her voice fading until it was all gone.
Sully wanted to say sorry, but she didn’t know words anymore. Was time passing? Was she wrapped in rope? Was the feeling of dying eternal? All these thoughts came as nightmare visions as she glided through a fog.
Forever passed by, then—
Sully felt heat. She felt water. She felt something squeezing her, choking her nearly.
Sully was being born.
She opened her eyes to find herself on a patch of dirt, Ziza above her.
“Oh, my Sully,” Ziza said. She kissed Sully’s face, a hot streak of tears wetting Sully’s cheeks.
“I don’t understand,” said Sully. She looked around and smelled the air. It felt as if no time had passed. The scent of gunpowder poisoned the air.
“You were born again through your own womb,” Ziza said, face stunned into a bewildered frown. She’d never looked so shaken. “You were only gone a minute. Then I heard the earth crying. I dug it up and there you were.”
Miles came and tossed a blanket over Sully. A young man named Dominic carried her to her bed. Others doted on her. They brought her medicine. They brought her food. When the initial commotion of her birth had passed, she asked all but Ziza to go.
Sully expected her to say something like, “What makes you think I don’t want to go, too,” or, “Like I want to be here with your fool ass,” but she hummed to herself in the rocking chair in the corner of the room.
What bothered Sully most about Ziza’s relentless happiness was that it was not the result of obliviousness, naivete, or ignorance. It was a happiness that knew pain and had overcome it.
“How come you smile so much?” Sully asked.
Ziza walked to the edge of Sully’s bed and took a seat, her bottom a few inches from Sully’s feet. “Just always been like that,” she said.
“I don’t know how to feel nice.”
“You’re not a nice-feeling kind of person. I suppose that’s not who you’re meant to be. That’s all right. I like you mean and crotchety,” said Ziza.
“In another life I could’ve been sweet. I could’ve been just as happy and sweet as you, had it been different. Had everything been different. Had the world been different,” Sully said, wiping a stray tear from the corner of her eye.
“We’re already on our second lives. I don’t think there’s anything different,” said Ziza.
Sully held a pillow tight to her chest. “I’m bored of hurting,” she said. She thought of the ancestors she’d vesseled and brought back to life with the baptizing waters of her womb’s amniotic fluid. With Ziza, she’d cultivated a small sanctuary for them on this farm, a sanctuary that would grow to include the nearby town. But it was not enough. She needed the whole world for them.
Before, Sully thought it was her lack of want for anything that made her feel so shapeless and void, but her relief at seeing Ziza upon her rebirth upended that notion. She wasn’t numb for lack of want but for wanting too much. She was ravenous for the whole world. The sky and the oceans and the creatures in those oceans and the cities and heartbeats and Ziza and Miles and Bethie and Liza Jane and Nathaniel and the mountains and brass and harps and pianos and wildflowers and glaciers and brothers and sisters and cousins and picnics and the sun and telescopes and a treehouse and sausage and winter and the height of summer, when the air was so thick it stuck to your skin like pecan brittle in your back teeth.
Even as she imagined possessing all these things, she wanted yet more. It was strange, she thought, how limitless a void inside of a person could be. It was strange that a person could be killed, but not anything that that person had done.
Ziza scooted up on the bed and laid her hand on top of Sully’s and hummed a hymn about battle. The pitches were low, and the key was minor, a haunting caress of song against Sully’s skin. How many moments like this would it take for her raucous, angry soul to be soothed? How many songs? Were there enough in the world?
When the song finished, Ziza climbed into the bed with Sully and held her close. She sang yet more, no theme uniting which tunes she chose. Sully let a single hot tear fall onto Ziza’s hand when she understood her spirit would never know true soothing, but wrapped up in Ziza, she saw pinpricks of true glory, a grace big enough to make it worth it. Perhaps there would not be peace, but there would be Ziza, and with Ziza, there was a future. Ziza hummed on, and in that moment, Sully was content just to listen.
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger” copyright © 2019 by Rivers Solomon.
Art copyright © 2019 by Xia Gordon.