"What in the name of the hundred hells was that?"
I looked at my companion. "You guys sure have a lot of hells."
She looked at me sideways. "How many do you have?"
I shrugged. "Just the one, I guess. But I read it has nine levels. A hundred, now that's a lot of hells."
"I don't know how many hells there are. The hundred hells is like a neighborhood in the hell world. You could think of like your Bronx."
"So there's one Hell World filled with hells?" I was ready to argue Hell Count. It was better than answering her question.
"Not... so much. All the hells are separate and complete hells. But," and as always she turned us back to what she wanted to discuss, "what was that?"
We'd been having discussions like this all day. She was really good at cursing, but few of her epithets translated well. The hundred hells one was about the easiest one I had heard so far. Now it was my turn to explain. "I think it was a sparrow," I said.
"A vile and evil thing."
"Not... so much."
"I saw the way it moved through the air. It was hunting, looking for a soul to feed upon."
"I think they eat bugs, actually."
"Of course they eat."
It had been a day of not making sense.
She looked at me with frayed patience. "Everything has to eat."
I nodded, hoping that if I appeared to understand she would let it drop. As with every other time I had used that tactic that day, it didn't work. She was bloody-minded, no doubt about that. Just another reason I was the last person on Earth to be her tour guide. But there we were.
"Perhaps it eats your bugs, but it feeds on souls." She looked at me, a challenge in her eye, daring me to contradict her. When I didn't understand what she was saying it was the fault of my language, not her ability to use it.
Was there some legend I had heard about the sparrow, a clever little thief? It seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn't call it forth. "I think—" That was as far as I got before another little bird darted past.
"They have the scent," she said. "They know their prey. People will die tonight."
And there was her proof. People would die tonight. People died every night. "So if there were no sparrows no one would die?" I asked.
She looked about ready to hit me, but suddenly rocked her head back and laughed. "Forgive me," she said. "I forgot I was speaking with a warrior."
I've been called a number of things in my day, as many names as she had hells, but never 'warrior'. Short, myopic, a bit on the dumpy side, a bit on the frumpy side, I looked somewhere between scholar and derelict. Today, through no fault of my own, I was an ambassador.
I did not ask for the job, nor did anyone ask me to represent them. I had been sitting, watching the sun rise, welcoming the music of the songbirds before it was replaced by the noise of traffic. I was contemplating my second cup of tea when the knock came at my door, soft but firm. I checked to make sure I was sufficiently clothed and opened the heavy wooden door to find her standing there alone.
Her. I suppose that pronoun is as good as any. That was my first impression, when I still assumed she was human. There won't be any interbreeding between our species, but there was a delicateness to her features that led me to apply that label.
"You will teach me," she said. It was not a question, not even a demand. It was just a fact.
I stood for a moment, regarding the imperious stranger who stood confident before me. I had yet to appreciate just how strange she was, how far she had come for this meeting. I resented the intrusion. I resented having to listen to her demanding voice where before I heard the birds. "I'm making tea," I said. "Want some?" That's the sort of warrior I am.
"That alkaloid will not affect me the way it does you."
"Yes, that's the one."
"It's still a nice way to start your day. Please, come in and share a moment with me."
"Moment is time?"
"Why would you offer your time to me?" Right there is when communication became difficult. I'm not sure, but I think 'time' and 'life' meant the same thing to her. I didn't figure that out until after she'd gone.
"Time shared is the best time of all," I said.
"I will have your tea," she said. I stood aside as she entered my little space. She filled it easily, and burst out through every gap. The kettle popped, and I was happy to have some very fresh loose Earl Grey. We ended up on my little patio, each holding an oversized mug, listening to the birds and watching them flit about. There must not have been any sparrows.
It was a beautiful morning, if a bit chilly. I savored it, forgetting my visitor for a moment as delicious gooseflesh passed over me. Everything smelled clean. I took a deep breath, held and released it. I heard her do the same thing, and gasp. She said something I couldn't recognize. I didn't ask. I was pleased I had brought her to the moment. The tiny slice of time.
"The warmth of the beverage provides a pleasing contrast with the chill of the air," she said. I took another sip and didn't answer. She was right, but she already knew that.
The silence lingered for several minutes, until we had both finished our tea and the bustle of the city began to pick up below. I took her cup. "Thank you," I said.
She shot me a suspicious look. "For what?"
"It good to share the morning with someone who feels it."
"Morning is time?"
"I suppose. It's part of the day."
"You are very generous with your morning."
I shrugged. "Even if you ruined this one, there'd be another one tomorrow. But you didn't ruin it at all. I am happy you came by, Miss..."
She did not provide a name. Crap, for all I know, she didn't have one. She said a pair of syllables in a foreign tongue.
He brow knotted. "You don't have a word in your language for it, but it's something like, 'I should have my intestines pulled out slowly while I watch and witness as they are eaten by..." She faltered. "There's no name for the animal in your language."
I sat back. If one of the syllables had been the name of the critter, then the other encompassed the whole intestine thing. Language, I mused, has its own compression. Things commonly expressed are shortened, built into the tongue and simplified. Where she came from, apparently watching your guts spill onto the floor was common enough to make it a single syllable. I had been annoyed, bemused, and intrigued, but now I was afraid. She wasn't from around here.
We walked, she swore, I cursed. Softly, to myself. Everything was a surprise to her, filling her with delight or anger or bafflement. I wasn't sure I would ever explain the ice cream truck, even as the tune it played over its loudspeakers wormed its way into my head.
Whatever she felt at any moment, she felt completely, without reserve. She was, herself, complete in a way I had never experienced before. She didn't simply have thoughts or feelings, she was consumed by them. It was that more than the subtle differences in her appearance which made her alien; it was her certainty and passion that were beyond human.
As the day passed I came to admire her talent for language, even as the rest of her pissed me off. She was horrible, impersonal, detached, and demanding, but I was drawn to her foul mouth. She was a poet. When she tried to translate her phrases I was astonished at the variety of scatological, allegorical, and spiritual curses she had at her disposal. There was a subtle and nuanced character to her cussing that raised it to an art. She was a bitch, but I will always remember her fondly for her unsurpassed use of metaphor and simile. I wished I knew her native tongue so I could better appreciate the subtleties of her vulgarities.
Now she had called me a warrior. She had used my language, with confidence. She believed it completely.
"I am not a warrior," I said.
She laughed, a convincingly human and disarming laugh. "Your are scmrztng," she said, or something like that. "There is not a word for it in your tongue, so I must say warrior. It is why I chose to come to you. Always you do battle with the winds that would blow your soul away; you have one foot in the void, in the emptiness beyond knowing, in the place between heartbeats, between life and death. For you there is never certainty, for you live in the unknown, battling things you cannot see."
"I think we are all warriors, then."
"I am not."
We walked through the peaceful evening, feeling the pace of the world change again, frantic for a time while humanity rushed home to rest, then gradually the world emptied as televisions came on and absorbed our once-mighty race. There would be no conquering us; we had already done the job.
She was scowling, working on a thought, trying to twist my language around something it had not been intended to express. I enjoyed the silence. "When I came to you, you offered a moment, a little piece of your life. I know share. It is when both give. I was frightened, but I could not back down from your challenge."
"It was not a challenge..."
"Yes, it was," she said. "You gave your moment fearlessly, with the recklessness of a warrior. It was a precious gift. That moment of peace, then, it was..." she struggled for the translation, "good." She laughed softly to herself. "That takes a lot more words in my tongue." She seemed almost shy for a moment.
"Better for the company," I said, feeling gallant. No need to mention how afraid I had been.
Another sparrow dove through the evening sky, a bullet darting and dashing in the still air.
"You do not hate them? Are you so wealthy you care not for the thief?"
"No," I said, "We do not fear the thief of souls because we have nothing they can steal. We are bankrupt."
She laughed once more and put her finger on my cheek, a gesture at once odd and familiar. "Thank you, warrior," she said, "Moments are swift, and can never be known except in memory."
She was leaving, and I would not be seeing her again. "How do you say goodbye in your language?" I asked.
She hesitated, perplexed, and replied, "I do not know that word."
Originally appeared May 1st, 2005.