- by Jaymee Goh -
To my beloved brother Gauphin, son of Founder Hiyaya, father of Malisa, Hirun, and Dastin, [in hastily added, squashed scrawl] and husband of Salis,
If you are reading this, then you are ready to pass into the realms of the After, to me now the realms of the Present. I trust you no longer mourn me. (Mourn, instead, for your loss, for the reminder of your own journey to the After, for the years we could not have had together.) For my part, I pass knowing you are happy, healthy, and unlikely to suffer the pains that plagued me and our mother. As you read this letter, do not take its words to heart too much, although please understand that after your eyes pass over it, it will burn itself. Ashes can tell no tales. When you read it, you will understand why I cast this spell, that you will read it soon to your own death.
I am so proud of you, my brother. Let me preface what I am about to tell you with this emphasis on pride. I saw you at your birth from our mother’s canal, squalling into the world with such vigour that we knew we would see you do great things. We sang songs to welcome you: Aunt Jemin hoped you would become a great orator; Aunt Kinaly wished you strength, to help build our city up from the remnants of Old Demia; Aunt Monsue prayed you might become a leading philosopher. I remember thinking, that for my part, I intended to see that you grew up with kindness and compassion, that our mother’s gentle hand would guide you along whichever path you chose. (I smirk, for all their wishes have come to pass.)
And how you grew! Your ambitions soared above the spires of Old Demia as we built new ones. I remember that day when you demanded to be tied to your large kite—your mad experiment on whether humans could fly. I didn’t think it would work, but we were in a part of the city high enough that the wind caught your tiny body. “Higher, higher!” you screamed as I held the string tightly, afraid that it would snap and throw you over the rooftops, over the walls, down to the sea on the horizon. You threw a tantrum at my not letting you more than five hands above the ground. (How Mother screamed at me when she saw. “Do you intend to kill your own blood?” she’d shrieked. “Do you want him to die? After all that we have lost?” I had to bite my tongue to explain that it was just a game, we would have stopped playing soon enough. She loved you so fiercely that sometimes I was jealous, hoped you would go away, in those selfish childhood days.) I miss our walks through the footpaths of our city, our prancing across the marble walls and open roofs, our scaling the ivy crawling up the towers and joining high-storeyed complexes. Old Demia was ours to claim: its empty rooms with treasures waiting to be catalogued; its herd bowls with intricate walls for the goats; its tunnel systems under the family mansions where slaves were once kept, with the occasional window looking out to the ocean.
You went through puberty and adolescence with the confidence we fought for you and your generation to have. Your cohort of children, born in the year of the Founding, have this sweetness about you; you take on new challenges with an easy smile, you accept your responsibilities with grace (and a bit of whining, but who doesn’t). If you have any faults, it is that you fail to understand our sullen pains, our bitter mutterings. We were so careful to not explain them, so you would not inherit our resentments. We had to be, so you would turn out nothing like the old Demians.
[small inkblot in margin]
I admit I am not very kind to your wife, Salis. She and I talked about this several times, and I hope that I made clear to her that it is no fault of her own: I am simply jealous of her, and your time with me is more important than your time with her. I am a shrew that way, and try very hard to curb these selfish impulses. Of course you should not feel guilty about not spending time with me! You are your own man, with your own life, and your wife was part of that life. How sweet she is, my brother! Carry on that promise to be true to her, Gauphin. I could not have wished for a better sister: such a strong thinker, a brilliant artist. For she is my sister (forget that by-marriage legal business, how boring; I wish we’d never kept that institution), as all of Demia is my family. After you finish this letter and have swept up the ashes, embrace her for me.
Toward the end of our mother’s life, we cared for her through that descending depression that I sense in myself: the headaches and crying fits, the nightmares from which we awaken screaming. Those who were there at the Founding have had it all our lives, of course, but it grows so much worse as we reach the twilight of our age. We have explained the Founding Sickness to you as leftover trauma from when we took over Demia from our predecessor citizens and suddenly found ourselves in charge of a city with so little training to do so. Your generation will never suffer this sickness, having never lived through that turmoil.
I think it a testament to our raising you that you find the Sickness to be a surprise; your sense of normal is very different from ours, that you cannot fathom the nightmares that would arise from such turmoil. I pray you will never have to, but although we are isolated on all sides by the ocean, who knows what history will bring to our shores? You will grow out from under the aegis of the Founding Mothers in due time. Perhaps you or one of your children will be like our mother, striking out boldly into a new world with shoulders back and head high.
Our mother! Some are born followers, but our mother was a born leader: far-sighted like an eagle in flight. She saw puzzles in all fabrics of life and solved them easily; she saw little imperfections as an affront to her person. We made fun of her for it, you and I, but understand that she did it to protect us, protect Demia, and most of all, protect herself. She was so proud of you. I sometimes saw her at her most unguarded moments watching you, and before she turned away she would sigh and smile with tears running down her face. [spot of water damage]
I will tell you now of that night of the Founding, my Gauphin, because you have asked me so many times. I will tell you so you will know why Mother said those harsh words to you toward the end of her life, spitefully accusing you of not understanding sacrifice (because you do, oh you worked so hard to be where you are; you, too, have suffered sleepless nights and arduous pains—I remember your long days mastering spellwork, or crafting that perfect speech to your committee, or rebuilding the Hyathi farmspire—your sacrifices simply cannot be compared to hers, that’s all; they are not any less valuable, my brother!) and haughtily refusing to speak to some of your cohort.
[the calligraphic flourish of taletellers, signaling the start of a story]
We teach something of this legend: our predecessors, the Old Demians, were a proud race that lived in the city before us. Their ancestors, with masterful spellwork, laid the foundations for our safety against the elements of the surrounding seas and potential enemies from beyond. They were artists to the highest degree, planning the architecture of their buildings to fit all people of all ages onto their island with space to spare. They were active citizens of their city—men, women, even children, participating in council meetings and assemblies. Their greatest wizards raised the city out of the ocean, leaving behind a single trunk to link us to the world below, leaving Demia impenetrable from its enemies. Who those enemies are is a knowledge lost to time.
We teach nothing of the tunnels underground. Underground lived the wretched race that ensured the comfort of the Old Demians. We are descendants of the Underground, Gauphin. We ran their power supply stations; we wove their cloths; we polished their shining buildings; we maintained their sewers. Our tunnels stretched under the cattlehouses and the farmspires, under the family mansions and educational campuses and pleasure houses, that we would be conveniently placed to serve. Some of us have even dug far down, almost to touch the sea, but the Old Demians’ spellwork created a border to prevent the sea from wearing the trunk down, and thus kept us in.
The Old Demians were slavers: they traded our families among themselves, making us pack up our lives and go as they pleased. They were neglectful on purpose, that many of us died for their amusement. They were calculating in their abuse, turning us against each other while they laughed on our backs. And we were complicit in our own pain: when one of us was given the overseer’s whip, we whipped each other harder than necessary, just to show the Aboveground that we could be just like them, matching them cruelty for cruelty. (Sometimes I wonder if it hurt more because we did hurt each other worse, or if because the sting of betrayal amplified that hurt.)
We have taught you a little of Old Demia, their propensity to believe in the elevation of one over another. You laughed at the idea of the separation of the strengths of men and women. You were shocked at the hypocrisy of the men; they made women work alongside them, under the guise of equality, ignoring our pregnancies and suckling children. You yourself, Gauphin, joked once that surely if we had had a father like that, Mother would have eaten him for breakfast. I laughed with you, agreed with you, but in my heart of hearts I wept. You cannot fathom the bitterness bred by watching your dearest fathers and brothers, who said [letters in bold, wavering layers] they love you, then trade your body away for their own survival and status, or use you to alleviate their own misery. All the kind words Father whispered to me in the dark meant nothing but more pain to come. I am not sorry he is gone.
We had planned for a long time . . . decades? Centuries? I forget. But you cannot keep raking coals over others and pretend that their own desires do not exist. You cannot keep throwing pearls before humans you think are swine and assume they would not aspire to have those pearls for themselves. We had internecine fights of course, but as the years passed we knew we wanted more, wanted better. We taught you this: eventually your enemy will grow so resentful of you, you will become their reason for uniting.
We had created our own language, one that the Abovegrounders could not read, and would not think to read. It used their alphabet, their words, but where they read of trivial things like the mourning of lost loved ones, paltry mimicry of their poetry, and shopping lists for things the masters wanted of us, we embedded calls to revolution, debates on the best courses of action, strategy proposals for attack, and promises of change once we were united. We had refined this over centuries: an elegant cant to match our oppressors. (It looks nothing like the writing we have today. We developed our own elegance, more pleasing to the eye, that is ours, all ours, rather than hiding ourselves in the irritating cursive script of the old masters.)
[scribbles in margin: foreign alphabet in clunky lettering, then in regular script: “our names in the Old Demian language. Doesn’t it look ugly!”]
Old Demia celebrated their Second Millennium since their coming to this island that night. (Some of us justified what we did that night through claiming that the land is ours by right, that we were here before the Old Demians. Many of us disagree. Ultimately it is a rhetorical debate that has no meaning. How can we trace such a thing when it has been made murky through generations of rape and denial of self-knowledge? And what does it matter now that they are dead?)
They were so complacent, spellcraft was no longer a priority of theirs. They thought our servile manner was a sign of their superiority and complete dominance, that our silence meant we accepted the pain they doled out to us, even enjoyed it. They tried to tell us the songs we sang in the Underground, echoing across the walls of the caverns, were inferior by-products of exposure to their own music that echoed from their spires. Everything was designed to remind us of our abjection, but when you have a cant that teaches you otherwise, underneath all their prideful boasts were the voices of our fellows, reminding us of a better time to come.
We chose a night of celebration: some old founding festival where there would be an ordered chaos, fireworks, and shouts everywhere. First, we exploded the armouries of their soldiers. Then like ants bursting out from the hill, or perhaps a volcano’s eruption, we overran old Demia. We slew them where we saw them: men and women, old and young. We left the babes-in-arms; our men had ideas of revenge. They were many, but we had the strength of several generations’ fury. It took a long time to wash out the bloodstains. I pursued close behind Father and Haruin (our brother; I will return to him later); we fanned out with our extended families to cut down every celebrant.
Old Demia was silent by the end of the night. It is incredible how easily something built over thousands of years could be finished in a few hours. (We have never spoken of this; why would we leave you this legacy? We lie by omission, leading you to think that the passing of Old Demia was something foregone, a natural disaster. We took on the burden of guilt so you might grow easy and happy.)
Our Founding Mothers took over. [smear of water droplets]
Gauphin, understand that we loved our fathers and brothers. Mother loved our father. They had managed to find each other again despite Mother having been traded away many times. But Mother also hated him, for what he did to her, to me, to our brother. It was unfair, because he was the gentlest man we knew—it hurt all the more, precisely because of that, and how he took it for granted that this is how it should be.
The Founding Mothers had their own alphabet, sewn into the fabrics they wove, the breads they baked, the pots they moulded. They were far more sophisticated in their thinking than either oppressor. (I suspect their conversation started much earlier, or else flew by faster, to come to the conclusion they did.) They were also more unified in their thought, less prone to leveraging or bargaining. This made the men think we were docile. More: we had spellcraft. I am named after she who taught it to our ranks and spread the knowledge in her weaving.
The Founding Mothers turned on these fathers and brothers. Several were perhaps hysterical. (I do not cast aspersions on them; this is merely my observation of the moment.) The oppressors were a poison to be purged, aboveground, underground. We took the opportunity for the moment of complacency by our own men, just as they had taken advantage of the complacency of our masters.
I don’t remember who struck the first blow, but I remember Aunt Kinaly laughing wryly after, that the men thought we had gone mad at first, struck by sudden bloodlust. (Bloodlust by women was unthinkable then. Bloodlust is unthinkable now, of course, but back then, the very concept of bloodthirsty women was a joke. Our father certainly laughed at the idea.) We had agreed prior that we would not stop to explain ourselves. We also agreed that if we could not consider killing our own kin, we would ensure we were far away from them so someone else could do it.
We cut down the other women who defended their husbands and sons, too. [handwriting slowly shrinks to a shaky scrawl] Every child who took the side of the fathers was killed immediately, boy and girl. [smaller writing] This meant many children who had the capacity to [almost illegible] speak and remember their fathers. [inkblot, then normal handwriting] I do not want to stress the need for united action, but we could not take the risk of anyone hiding one of these men, nor the risk of thinking that they had right of way to act as they did toward the rest of us. Everyone who thought that the fathers were justified in any way were compromises to the vision we could not make. We teach you of cooperation and collaboration, because compromise is an evil designed for abuse to continue hurting with false promises of reward in the long run.
Haruin had the same father as we
I loved Haruin, but
Haruin was nothing like you, though you look much like him
Haruin was older than me by six years. A strapping young man, in the first bloom of manhood. He was extraordinarily handsome, so much so his mistress often loaned him out to her friends. He was gentle with his mistress (so he said), but came home crying with impotent rage, and visited his abuse on me after. He had been one of the fastest avengers the night of our eruption. I loved him so much, Gauphin. It is in his memory that I love you so deeply; I lost Haruin that night and it pained me beyond belief that I did not think about this death for many years.
[slash of blotted ink—]
[a smear of a quill tapped onto the paper many times]
Gauphin, this is the nightmare I suffer in the Founding Sickness: I see the moment when we were standing on a high tower, having massacred its inhabitants, overlooking the fires, the burning. The signal of success—the tolling of all the bells of the city—echoed into the night, lightening as dawn approached. In my dreams, Haruin turns to me, grinning in triumph. He says to me, “Look, sister, is this not magnificent? We are free.” He lifts my face to kiss me, as he so often did, in a way that preceded pain, and then—I feel the squelching of his blood onto my hand as I gut him. (I wash and wash my hands, but I still feel it.) I did not mean to ruin his beautiful face, I had hoped to close his eyes and preserve his beauty for burial, but he toppled over the balcony railing, down below in such a terrible fall even Mother could not recognize him.
The burial was a terrible thing. [text partially obscured by water damage; written without allowing parchment to dry] We threw bodies over the wall to the sea below; this is how we discovered that the spellwork boundary preventing the sea from wearing down the trunk of our island city has no hold at the city walls. (This in particular was Aunt Jemin’s idea. She said that she hoped the sharks would stay to protect us ever after.) We chanted prayers for our dead for many months.
The memories are evil, but we were finally free. Free, Gauphin! We sang healing songs, created the traditions we would pass onto you. We created art fiercely, tended to the crops and cattle. We gathered our new community in the east side of the city, that our windows will be kissed by sunshine every morning to remind us of the reason we erupted. [water smeared text ends] The Founding Mothers raised the children together. It should not have been so easy, perhaps, but remember we had been caretaking the city for generations; we did not need to be told how to run its basic functions as we rebuilt our society from the ground up. I remember how joyous it was, not to be told how we should be. Some of us took on the roles of the men our fathers and brothers should have been. Those who lived in fear of having their girlhood beaten out of them were overjoyed at finally being allowed to be women.
Several of the Founding Mothers were pregnant at various stages. That is where your generation comes from, Gauphin: the first generation of children to be born after the terrible purging of our world’s poison, a world fresh and ready for you to be born into. And your sweetness has made us feel like the eruption that took Old Demia was a passing nightmare, and you as the new day.
And this is why we have so few people in the city of Demia, why we seem to use only a small corner of the city, as we slowly grow outwards and claim other older buildings. You and your cohort explore the underground caverns where we once lived and loved each other, where we hated and hurt each other. You have asked us over and over why we refuse to tell you anything about them, because it seems unbelievable that no one had discovered them prior with the tunnels so extensive. We refuse to tell you because to do so is to tell you of the history we enacted, the violence, the people we killed.
[strong lines from fresh ink] We did this so you would have no role models of cruelty and fear. We did this so you would grow up putting comfort and compassion first, with all the rewards thereof, and no understanding of the rewards in the oppression and abuse of others. We killed the ones we loved for this, so we could have a new day, a new dawn, a new civilization free from the taint of cruelty. One last cruel act visited and erased that we could start anew for the ones we love, and those to come.
We made Demia what it is so you could go forward without our burdens on you and yours. Forgive me this new sadness in your heart, your knowing the cost of founding our fair city. You are coming to the end of my letter. Let it go! For my sake, for the sake of our Founding Mothers, do not burn your fingers holding on. I hex this letter so you will never speak of it; I refuse to let this evil continue, when the possibility of its absence looms large.
Love your wife and children well, my brother. I await you in the After.
Your loving sister, Italla
© 2017 by Jaymee Goh
Jaymee Goh is a writer of fiction, poetry, and academese from Malaysia who moved to Canada for tertiary education. A graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Workshop 2016, she is finishing, at this very moment, a dissertation at the University of California, Riverside, about multiculturalism and whiteness in steampunk. Her creative work has been published in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed Magazine, and Interfictions Online. Her non-fiction has appeared in Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution, and Science Fiction Studies. She co-edited The Sea is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia (Rosarium Publishing), and recently edited The WisCon Chronicles Vol. 11: Trials By Whiteness (Aqueduct Press).