choking on the tail

Wallace washed ashore on a carpet of bones. Salt crusted into an ugly map in the lines of his hands. He retched, bringing up bile, brine and little else. Convulsions shook his body, and the shaking drove him deeper into the bones. They cut him, and he cried out. They were beyond counting: tiny fragile ones from fish, but larger ones, perhaps from men. He collapsed eye-to-eye with a seal skull. It still had a smearing of skin and flesh attached. Its mouth lay open, and where its tongue had been was only a stump. The whole air was thick with the buzzing of flies.

One landed on his face. He felt its tiny feet scratching across his skin. He jerked his head back, and it took off. It circled for a moment, then landed again just above his left eye. He pushed himself to his feet. Little bones cascaded out of his clothes. Their rattle played a too-cheerful melody as they hit the ground; tink tink plunk tink plunk tink. Ten ribs loomed over the beach. They must have come from a whale, though Wallace had been a sailor for thirty years and he’d never seen a whale that size. He’d heard stories of deep-water leviathans so adapted to the titantic pressure of the down-deep that if they came too close to the surface, they exploded. Things that the Gods made before the first turn of the world, when their hands were rough. It was comforting to think that even They had to start somewhere, and less comforting to think their first creations were still around. The spine connecting the ribs was thicker than a man- dozens of stout vertebrae, each one topped with a wicked bone spike.

Wallace knew, in the way a man knows he is hurt, or he is tired, or he is in love, that these were the oldest bones; the first bones; dead, but very much alive. This was a place where life and death were not two opposites, but two sides of the same coin. He was in the place he’d sought all along: the place where death didn’t have to last forever.

On his left, one of the ship’s cannons lying on its side. Pieces of wood from the ship littered the beach, but no other bodies. The great pale beach continued off inland. He could make out the shapes of   – trees –   a grove of something swaying in the wind. Stubby, scraggly things. The wind picked up, and wailed around him. It sounded like a choir singing runrunrunrunrunrun. He shivered.

“Baby? I’m cold.”

The voice echoed through the tunnel of ribs. It rattled the little bones on the beach. It made Wallace think back to fatter years, before he’d spent every penny trying to save her from the wasting tumours that took her health, then her laughter, then everything else. Beatrice — a woman whose voice he’d heard only in the confines of his dreams for many years.

“Wal? Please, talk to me. I know you’re there.”

Each syllable distinct and clear, as if she were standing beside him, and each syllable had a little echo- more of a grace note; I knowIknow you’re thereyourethere. Beatrice: a poor woman rich in love. Her voice steady now, but with a note of urgency- she was good at hiding her anxiety, but he’d known her a long time.

Wallace looked left and right, but he couldn’t see her. Perhaps he was dead after all, and this was his punishment. But no; the priests said that death was quiet, and dark. A place without pain, nor love. A place so deep beneath the waves that all light was crushed flat into darkness. This was not right. Everything hurt, and that told him he was very much alive. He licked his lips. He opened his mouth to speak, and only a weak croak came out. “Beatrice,” he said, “where?”

“Help,” she said, her voice rising, “please help. It’s coming back. We don’t have much time. You have to hurry, Wal. It’s coming.”

A howling wind blew through the gate-of-ribs and Wallace knew as he had known before, that it was a gate. A figure stood at the end of the great carcass. She was wearing the same dark dress they’d buried her in, now tattered with age. Just standing there while the wind whipped her hair around her. “Hurry,” she said, “It’s coming. It’s coming Wal we have to go.”

The last words came out a low moan- the sort one makes when they’re too scared to scream. The voice was too damn close, the woman too damn far. Wallace took a step forward. Bones snapped and crunched beneath his boots. His tread was slow and heavy as he entered the gateway. As he passed beneath the first pair of ribs, some great presence shook his body. It was beyond the physical — striking his body and making it ring like a great bell. It hurt him, and he clenched his teeth. He knew this wasn’t right, deep down in his own bones; he was inside some grand old machine left alone too long until a wheel came out of joint and the whole damn thing shook itself to pieces.

He could smell Beatrice now- the cheap perfume she bought from the market, tinged a little by nervous sweat. He passed the second set of ribs. His hand brushed against one, and his fingers ran across grooves- geometric patterns cut into the bone itself. They twisted as he tried to focus on them. It hurt his eyes. Beatrice’s insistent pleading continued in the background. There was no mistaking the raw panic in her voice now. He took a deep breath, and another shaking step forward.

The ground shifted beneath his feet, and he stumbled. The wind whipped up around her. He swore he could hear voices carried from afar singing runrunrunrunrunrunrun. He steadied himself against a monstrous rib, then ran. Beatrice was so close. Her smell consumed him now, made him feel whole for the first time in years. She was so close he could reach out and-

Gone. The wind stopped, and the whispering too. Wallace stood at the end of the great ribcage. The vile forest lay ahead of him. He could see the trees better now- dark red trunks and bulbous tops. They continued to sway, even without the breeze. Runrunrunrunrun. Wallace was thirsty- thirstier than he had been in his entire life. There was some memory that had consumed him only a moment before, but now it was gone and he was filled with a damnable thirst. He felt as if he could drain an ocean’s worth of wine and be left sober and empty. He knelt down and took off his boots. This was the right thing to do. This would placate his thirst, he knew it. His bare feet sank deep into the little bones. There was moisture in the soil beneath, and he savoured it. He wanted to sink right now, and let his skin drink until he became strong again.

The trees were very clear now. Red trunked, open-ribbed, each one topped with a leering skull. They clicked their fat tongues and shook their branchlike arms. Each man sunk to his waist in the bones, each one split open and wailing, his entrails hanging low like so many ships’ ropes, trailing through the bones, tethering him to the earth. Runrunrunrunrunyabastardrunrunrunrunrun.

Here, on the fence between life and death, was a good place to rest. He knew it.

***

In the dying light of dusk, each mangrove was an ugly skeletal hand reaching down through the brackish water. Maria waded up to her waist. The whole place reeked of fecundity and decay; a wheel going round and round. Mosquitos and midges circled around her, and she swatted at them. She hated the feeling of their tiny feet scrabbling across her face, near her mouth, near her nose and eyes. If Wallace hadn’t run off into the swamps chasing after Gods-know-what, Maria would be sitting on her porch having a nice smoke and enjoying the sunset.

She bumped against something dark, floating low in the water. She recoiled, splashing back, desperately trying to draw her hatchet. She’d seen enough autopsies back home in the Gosport Bayou to know what an alligator’s teeth could do to human flesh: police work took her into the morgue more than she liked. Certainly not the career she’d expected back at university, but better than nothing.

The log rolled over and floated away. She realised she’d been holding her breath the entire time, and she let it all out at once in a wheezy laugh. A crow screeched its reply at her, then took off. There were dozens of them perched all along the mangrove trees, chattering madly away. No little storybook ‘caw’ from these birds, but a high-pitched shrieking interrupted with throaty chuckles. It was a wild, insane thing. The crows watched her with hard eyes. Her mother had always hated birds. ‘Chykompomis,’ she’d called them, ‘dead takers.’ Good souls went down into the dark water to find rest, while bad souls went up into the fierce sky to be burned by the sun for all their days. Birds for the wicked men, and ‘gators for the kind. Maria clearly wasn’t ready for a ‘gator.

The clothes that weren’t submerged in swampwater were drenched with sweat. In amongst the mangroves were yellow flowers that she’d never seen before. They glowed faintly, like little lanterns. Their sweet, thick pollen hung heavy in the air and bathed the swamp in wan light that threw long shadows across the face of the water. She breathed it in, and it burned the inside of her mouth; only a little, like bad chilies or good whiskey.

“Maria,” said Wallace. His voice was unmistakable. She spun around, but she was alone with the crows.They laughed at her. She grabbed a floating stick and hurled it at a group of them. It hit the branch below and shook the tree. The crows took off screaming through the air. The heavy beating of their wings left ripples across the surface of the swamp. The pollen trailed lazily after them. Maria gasped and got another mouthful of the stuff. It burned, and she staggered back, almost losing her balance. Her arms pinwheeled until she managed to snatch ahold of a hanging branch and steady herself.

Something in the texture of the world changed. The colours became a little too bright, and the sounds a little too distant. Maria could no longer feel the cloying heat nor the omnipresent damp. One of the flowers lit up, so bright it was almost a flame. She stumbled towards it, smiling. Another flower lit up, some distance away, then another even further on. When she’d been young, her father had left out lanterns along the path from the fields, to guide the way home. The flowers knew this, and they knew the way home. She couldn’t say exactly how, but she knew it in the same way her body knew breathing: totally, automatically; with or without her input.

“Maria,” said Wallace. Whatever else was happening, that couldn’t be a hallucination. It was too raw, too frightened; too piercing, too there. She’d known her brother for thirty years, but not even her own memory could imitate him with such clarity. A shadow fell across her, but with no man to cast it. She stopped and gawped at the empty air. “Upon the beach, little bird” he said, “upon the shore of bones.”

“Yes,” said Maria, then wondered why she’d said it. Little bird– his nickname for her. She hated it.  She tried to stop the word, then realised she was not in control of her own body. It made no sense, but some primal part of her understood. She wanted to ask him to cut the bullshit and tell her where he was, and how he was doing this. The words would not come. Wallace continued.

His expression contorted and his next words were faster, almost a whisper. “It’s me,” he said, “it’s not me. It’s not me talking until it is me talking. There’s more than one of us in here. I’m sorry I can’t be more clear I need to hoard the beautiful secret that consumes us all in fire in love in muscle in bone; you must trust the green eyes to follow you home.”

“Yes,” said Maria. It was an ugly frog-croak. Whatever part of her which remained conscious was fighting for control of her throat. Whichever part of her spoke was filled with joy. It saw only the lights. The rest of her could not escape nor fathom the deep dread that her brother’s words filled her with. She trembled, despite the heat. She bit her tongue hard, and tasted the blossom of blood that filled her mouth. It was the only thing she could do to keep from speaking again- to break the spell that bound her.

The shadow vanished, and with it the puppet-strings that held her. Her lungs were afire. Her clothes and skin were coated in a layer of fibrous yellow plant matter. She spat into the water- blood mingling with pollen to make an orange blot floating on the surface. The flowers glowed: a line of them trailed off through the trees, disappearing around a bend up ahead.

She drew her hatchet, and held it forwards in both hands. She took a small step forward, then another. No dead men lurched from the shadows. No crows swarmed her to peck at her eyes. She took shallow breaths in through her nose, to avoid breathing in any more of the- the shit. The no-good mind-muddling shit that burned the whole way down. Her heart raced a mile a minute, but she couldn’t take another deep breath for fear of- for fear of that. Whatever that had been. Whatever had seized control of her and spoken through her.

Wallace wasn’t dead. She knew that, but it didn’t comfort her like it should have. There were worse things to be than dead. Her brother’s obsessive search to bring back his wife had taken him to every corner of the world and then some. All his talk of using magic to cheat death- perhaps he’d succeeded. It was of little comfort.

She reached the nearest glowing flower, and plucked it from its stem. The light was snuffed out. The flower was long, with four tapered petals protecting a series of stems in the middle. It smelled sweet, and musky. It was coated in pollen, giving it an unpleasantly grainy feel; like running wet sand through your fingers. Touching it made her hands tingle. She dropped it, and it floated on the surface for a few seconds before the water claimed it. The crows screamed again. One hopped onto a nearby branch, and tilted its head at her.

“Kraaaa,” it screamed, “kraaaaaaah.”

It hurt her ears. Her hands were shaking. She lunged at the bird with the hatchet. She’d wanted to scare it, but it wasn’t fast enough. The blade slashed open the flesh of the bird’s breast. It tried to twist away. It flapped its wings; first the left, then the right. It died without ceremony, and like the flower, it fell into the water and sank. All that was left of it was a little red bloom, and a dark stain on the blade of Maria’s hatchet. She was no stranger to death, but the suddenness caught her off guard and she had to stifle a shout. She needed to get out of here. Damn the glowing flowers, damn cryptic warnings; she needed solutions and she needed them now, before she breathed in enough of the dream-pollen to leave her drowning paralytic at the bottom of the swamp.

She rounded the bend, and saw a marshy hill rising up through the water. Beneath her feet, the soft ground began to slope upwards. She dragged herself onto the mound, then sat down. She shuddered, despite the heat. There was a hint of madness in it; it rocked her entire body, and stung her ribs and her guts.

Whatever force had brought Wallace to her had burnt her out. Her muscles ached. She needed sleep and she needed it soon. First heat, then sleep. She could make long-term plans once the short-term dangers were done with. She looked around. Moss coated some of the hanging vines. Maria reached up and pulled a patch of it down. It was dry, and fibrous. It might serve as kindling, but she needed something heavier for it to ignite.

The hill was thick with mangroves. Most of their roots were submerged and the rest were too soaked to be useful, but some of the upper branches might do. She hacked at them with her hatchet and managed to carve off a few stout pieces of wood. She arranged the wood and moss in a circle, places a ring of stones around it, then bent down and struck her first match.

It snapped. She swore, then tried to light the head. It caught, but it burnt her fingers and she dropped it again. It went out on hitting the ground. Two more left.

She took the second match, and ran it slowly along the edge of the tinderbox. It didn’t catch, so she struck it again, perhaps a little harder than necessary. Her breath caught in her throat, but the match caught without breaking. She knelt down carefully, and put the match to the moss. She held it there for a few seconds, but the moss did not ignite. She tried to light a different piece, but again the match burnt too short. She held onto it for an agonising second too long until the heat reached her fingertips, and she swore, and dropped it into the unlit fire. One left.

Such a small thing to decide whether she live or die; a strip of wood topped with sulfur. Her life put almost purely to luck. Unbidden, something Wallace had said drifted into her mind: trust the green eyes to follow you home. It was an old joke they’d had: you had to call Lady Luck by Green Eyes, because if she heard her own name she’d go running scared. There’s nothing so fragile as good luck.

Maria closed her eyes, and clasped the match and the tinderbox to her chest. “Green eyes,” she said, “lady of the deep water, I never worshipped you before and I don’t plan to start today. Lady whose every temple burns down, who is never there when she’s needed most; flaky bitch who lives where the water’s all the worst colours, help me out today and we’re even for everything else in my entire fucking life.”

She kissed the back of her hand, then made the sign of the deep water- her hand touching first her left shoulder, then her right shoulder, then her heart. Important to start with the left; always the least appreciated side. Maria had been left her whole life; left alone, left behind, left standing. The ugly reality living behind the pretty lies. The knowledge that you don’t have to be perfect, but you’ve got to be something.

She knelt, almost reverently, and struck the match. It caught, and flared blue for a second. She touched it to the moss, and her ad-hoc kindling caught alight. First the left side, then the right, then the center. Within a minute, the fire was ablaze. It smelled sweet, and let off a pale light.

Maria chuckled to herself, “must be something in the water,” she said. It wasn’t a joke: the water in the swamp felt very much alive. Not in the way a palm tree is alive, but in the way a mushroom is- a sort of low sentience that wasn’t smart enough to be malevolent but was doing its best.. She took off her wet clothes carefully, then laid them out next to the fire. She took her last remaining change of clothes out of her pack and put them on. They were a little damp, and smelled sweet. Water must’ve gotten into the pack somehow. She wanted to burn them but she had nothing else to wear. She’d have to live with the suspicion that her own clothes were poisoning her, twisting her mind towards some dark place where the words shouldn’t make sense.

As she lay down to sleep, a pillar of smoke from her fire pierced up through the undergrowth and left a grey streak painted across the evening sky.

She awoke later –  hours or days; time is a human machine, and means nothing to the wild. She was hungry, and cold. The pain in her muscles had fallen away to a soft ache. The fire had burnt out totally, down to the last ember. It frightened her for a groggy, half-conscious moment, but she caught herself: that’s what fires do –  they burn out. No point getting worked up about it.

Movement in the brackish water downstream brought her fully awake. A cluster of long, dark shapes floating just below the surface. ‘gators? Couldn’t be – she wasn’t ready for them, and it didn’t bloody matter whether they were ready for her. She had unfinished business with her brother. The dark shapes bobbed up and down, coming closer. She drew her hatchet, though its small weight in her hand only reminded her how outmatched she would be. She crouched, and drew a breath, and –  

-the raft lit up: half a dozen stout logs, lashed together with vines. The hellish yellow flowers grew all over it. Its stink reached her, and she gagged: rotting flesh and the sickly-sweet smell of pollen. Its movement was jerky, slow-fast-slow-fast as if an invisible gondolier were shunting it along. A crow tried to settle on it, then squawked and flew away into the mangroves. It’s hacking cry was too close to weeping for Maria’s comfort. The raft came closer.

Stop. Push. Stop. Push.

Stop.

Push.



Stop.

It was next to her little island now. Despite the slow current, it stayed dead still.

“We all gotta die some time, little bird,” said Wallace. His voice wasn’t as strong as it had been before –  as if it were carried a long way on the wind. His shadow fell across the water. A leaf alighted on it, and it broke apart into a hundred little ripples. The swampwater chuckled in Wallace’s voice as it lapped against the islet.

“Even Beatrice, even me,” he said. His words were echoes of echoes now, and she had to strain to hear.

“Even you.”

The last words were his, but from her mouth. She stepped onto the makeshift raft with one foot, expecting it to shift under her feet. Instead, it was rock-steady. She stepped onto it fully. For a moment she thought the world was shifting around her, until she realised that the raft was moving again, so smoothly that she hadn’t noticed.

“I ain’t dying,” she said, to nobody in particular. The swamp didn’t reply.


Time and time and time passed, as the mangroves got thicker and the water got more brackish. On what may have been the ninth or tenth or thousandth day, she found the coast. It should’ve been a relief to get out of the swamp, but she cried. She had no food left, and very little water. She hadn’t seen her brother in person in over a year, and in spirit, well-
She didn’t want to die out here. She didn’t know why the thought scared her so much –  she was used to death through her job but somehow she’d thought, in a quiet, un-thought way, that she hadn’t counted. It’s very easy to be blasé about at a distance, even when elbow-deep in somebody else’s suffering. The personal reality of the matter struck her then, and she wept and wept as the raft drifted down through the delta, and out to sea. Death wasn’t simple, or glorious, or ugly; it just was. It happened, then the world kept turning. You could spend your whole life worrying about it, then look back and found that you’d hardly lived at all. Wallace had lived like that, and now he was a shade –  an echo of a man. In a way, he’d been like that ever since he lost Beatrice: another traveller lost in the mysteries of death, spinning his wheels forever.

The seawater here was deep, beautiful green. She could no longer see the coast behind her. A peace came over her, and she stopped crying. Her throat hurt. For the first time in a long time, she wasn’t scared. She pushed her hand under the water. It was warm.

“I did pray to you, didn’t I?” said Maria. The sea didn’t reply, but it wasn’t supposed to. There’s no god so silent and fragile as Lady Luck.

That was it –  the thing that she’d been waiting to know all her life; life was not about fearing death nor embracing it – it was that without death, life had no meaning. Without death, there was only stasis –  a stagnant, unchanging world. A raft that didn’t move with the ocean’s roil was no raft at all: just a shadow, that not even the crows would land on. To live was to act without fear, and trust your luck. Maria dangled her arm into the water, then her shoulder. She tipped her chest over the edge of the raft, and fell, and smiled as the water embraced her.

***

Maria washed ashore on a carpet of bones. Crusted salt formed an ugly map of crusted salt formed an ugly map of crusted salt of

Little voices poked around inside her skull, reverberating around inside her head until it hurt. She closed her eyes to try and shut them out somehow but it only made them louder and more insistent. She recognised them all, but couldn’t put names to them. Some were frantic, some were calming, some were calling out to her. They flowed together into a single babble, until she could hear all of them, so she could hear none of them.

Run.

It wasn’t an order, it was a warning. Ahead of her was a great ribcage, stretching off into the sky. At the end of it, a single figure, smiling at her. Wallace, or the thing that wore his face. It was beckoning with both hands, waving and calling to her, though the words were lost to the wind and the maddening echo inside her own head. A wave of peace washed over her, but she saw it for what it truly was; not her own mind, but an invader, a parasite; something trying to reach in and pull her strings until she danced the way it wanted.

She wasn’t scared any more. That emotion had been entirely burnt up over the last week. Fear can keep you alive, but it’s not productive; it sends the mind inwards, reeling. It wasn’t the cold, damp inward-ness of fear that filled her now but anger; fear that’s been set alight, burnt as fuel. Anger can’t build a house or raise a child, but it’s useful in a pinch, and it set her staggering to her feet now.

“You,” she said, “you ASSHOLE.”

She took a shaking step forward. Little bones fell from her clothes and rattled against the others on the surface of the beach. Wallace’s eyes glowed green, even from here. The voices in Maria’s head took on a furious new tenor trust the greeneyeseyesgreentrustthegreenrunlittlebird

That last one was him, breaking through whatever spell they had him under. Run. She hefted her hatchet. The wood and the leather bindings were soaked and ruined, but it was holding together well enough. Its weight in her hand was reassuring. Run.

“Fuck you too,” she said, “for all this. For leaving, for getting caught up in this. For getting me caught up in this. Most of all, for thinking I’m some kinda goddamn coward like you. You were so scared to die that you wasted your whole damn life.”

Those were the words she needed. They burst out of her, and echoed off the ribs, growing louder and louder. She took another step forward. The ground shifted beneath her feet; not enough to set her off balance. One more step, and another. She was beneath the first two ribs now. A familiar tension was building in the base of her skull and she knew her little passenger wanted to make himself known. She took another step, and pain seared through her spine. Her body spasmed, and her arm swung wildly. The hatchet smashed into the nearest rib. It rang like a bell, and the pain receded, only for a moment before surging back with the fury of a weak man scorned.

She arched her arm back, then swung again. The hatchet connected with the rib with a loud crack. Tiny little fractures sprang across the surface. The runes flashed brightly, then died out. The pain in her bones surged once more, and she took all her rage and threw it behind her swing. The iron blade smashed into the thick bone. There was a crack, then a groan, and the thing started to topple.

It fell without ceremony, though Maria knew that there was a dimension to it that she couldn’t see with her eyes: some monstrous thing that was being torn apart and thrown up into the salt air. Some titanic fissure between the worlds of the living and dead that had been open for too long, and was now closing. A wound in the world finally beginning to scar over. The pain was gone.

There was something there, buried hip-deep in dirt, slumped over, arms stretched wide like tree branches. His skin was red-brown, and with a gasp, Maria realised that he had no skin; it was just exposed muscle and bone. His body was barely human: some of his bones must’ve broken many times over to get him into that shape. She ran to him.

Maria had seen enough autopsies to know that his organs were in entirely the wrong places- stretched and shifted and perverted. He looked at her with one pleading eye, and opened his mouth. The sound that came out was between a hiss and a gurgle. The muscles in his neck twitched as he did it. Half his face was lumpen and gnarled, like a candle left to burn down too long. He hissed at her again. It almost sounded like her name.

The anger was gone too now, and she was empty. You didn’t run. His lips twisted around in an ugly parody of a smile. That’s my sis. The words arrived into her head fully formed, but thin.

“You gonna die?” she said. She wasn’t crying, but it was a near thing. His throat had gone all dry again. She already knew the answer, and she was dreading it. The word came into her head softly, with just enough kindness to really twist the knife; nope. Wallace wasn’t dead, but he wasn’t alive either. He was caught in a cycle that would keep going in circles forever. More trees, more suffering on and on without stopping. She looked in the distance and saw more of them, beyond counting, swaying in the breeze. Their moaning and clicking and hissing was just on the cusp of hearing.

She knelt, and kissed Wallace on the forehead. She was crying now, and she couldn’t stop it. She took the hatchet in both hands, raised it, and swung it low across his throat. Through her tears, she could make out three words before the thing that had once been her brother went limp. Thanks, little bird.

It wasn’t the blood that now lay thick around her feet that was the most shocking thing, but the unbearable lightness, set to the shrieking of the other trees in the distance. Hundreds of them, thousands even. Folk who had come looking for someone they loved, and found themselves just baiting another trap. Folk made prisoners to their own compassion, trapped between life and death. Dogs chasing their own tails, starving because they never saw the damned rabbit. Round and round and round, forever.

She looked back to the shore. She could barely see it through the tropical haze, but she knew there was no help coming. This place wasn’t on any maps, nor in any stories; nobody who found their way ever made their way home to tell of it. Just salvage and bones. She turned back to the distant forest. Whatever magic trapped folk in that horrible state wasn’t coming for her: she’d closed the gate. There was only one thing for it.

She lifted the hatchet again. It was soaked with blood now, and so small and fragile. Just like her. Her bones hurt, and her muscles ached. She realised they’d been aching for her whole damn life, just waiting to be used. The trees in the distance called out to her, still trying to lure her, following some dumb vile instinct to keep the dog chasing its own damned tail. She knew they weren’t the enemy though, any more than Wallace’d been. She took one step forward. Just one step, then another.

There was no way she could finish them all before her arms gave out; before her feet failed her. Then again, she’d spent her life being beaten by the odds and was dying to beat them back. The Green Lady loves outside chances.

‘Ah, to hell with it,” said Maria, “only one way to find out.”

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