Heart of Stars / T.R. North

A long time ago, on a planet far away, there lived a queen whose line was failing. The queen’s line had been royalty for so long that the genetic registry no longer had any clear idea of whose line should succeed her, for many lines had some claim to that privilege, with none much better nor much worse than the others, and her advisors feared many decades of contested rule and unrest if she could not produce a daughter. The queen feared that it would be the end of civilization on her planet, as hers was not the only failing line, and where once there had been bustling towns and sleepy villages and the long patchworks of canal-farms whose borders shifted from wet season to dry, there was now only wilderness.

Simply put, they could not afford to be ill-governed for a generation.

So the queen gathered her most trusted handmaidens and travelled to the necropolis to consult the last of the witches, a weathered and stooped woman over three centuries old. 

“If my line is to have any hope, if the people are to see me again in the face of my grandchildren,” the queen said, “I must have a daughter. Can you help me?”

The witch took the queen’s blood and gave it to U K’ux Kaj, the great machine by whose wisdom the lines flourished or failed, and finally she said to the queen, “Your line is almost exhausted, and to give you a daughter like yourself would do little more than prolong the inevitable. But, if you wish, I may be able to make you a daughter who will be powerful and better suited to this world.”

The queen meditated upon the witch’s offer, for the genetic manipulation of which she spoke had been tried in the past. It had resulted in new lines of monsters and monkeys who had indeed been better suited for the world than their progenitors, but they had not done much to earn the title of human, for they did as they pleased and paid no mind to their mothers or their gods.

“Will my daughter be a daughter, or will she be a beast?” the queen asked.

“I cannot read the future, as the probability engines failed before my mother was born and when I call the ancestors to me they come but do not speak. Truly, though, there are none of us without the seeds of both human and beast planted between our breasts,” the witch told her. “This is true even of the gods, who create and destroy in equal measure and in the proper time for each.”

The queen’s favorite handmaiden came forth with an idea. “If it please the queen, I could bear one of the children, and then she need not choose one course over the other until the girls were older and their worth proven.”

This pleased both queen and witch immensely, for the witch had no desire to be responsible for the queen’s line failing, and the queen felt that they had already suffered much ruin by committing to one course at the expense of all others. Thus it came about that the queen and her handmaiden were brought to bed on the same day, with the handmaiden delivering a princess fair and healthy as any child born to the planet in the past hundred years and the queen delivering a princess shocking and terrible to look upon.

“Mother!” the girl cried, as soon as her caul was broken, twisting in the attendant’s arms to look at the queen. “When I am a bit bigger, I must have a steed and a weapon to suit me. You should tell the witch now, so that they’ll be ready when I need them.”

“Xmucane guide me,” the queen said, for the girl she had borne had horn buds like a deer and teeth like a jaguar’s and spoke as no child had spoken in living memory.

The girls grew and flourished, inseparable as two shoots from the same stem. What one suffered, the other felt, and what brought one joy the other loved as well. The fair daughter was the spitting image of her mother the queen, and she was called Xquic because they hoped that through her the line might be continued. She was a happy child. The strange daughter was just as the witch had promised, though to her mother’s great relief she was good and kind as well as great and powerful. She was called Chimalmat, because she told them that that was her name.

The steed the witch made for her looked like nothing so much as a tapir, though it bellowed like a howler monkey and had great tusks sprouting from its jaws. Chimalmat climbed onto its back as soon as it was ready, and they moved together like one creature. The weapon the witch made for her was a great war-club.

“It is the last thing forged in my fires,” the witch said. “With this, the flame of Yepocapa has been extinguished. Use it well.”

All went as smoothly as it might have until the girls were grown, when the time came to clear the city and shut up all its doors for the night.

“Why must our people clear the streets and bar their doors?” Chimalmat demanded, restless and prowling at the threshold. “Who do we fear so greatly that we shut ourselves up rather than face them?”

She had asked this every year since she was born. On this year, the queen saw that she could not put the girl off any longer, for she was more rightly called a woman now, and so she must have the truth.

“It is the time of Wayeb’, my child, the time of the days which have no names,” the queen said. “On these five days the monkeys and the monsters, the men of clay and the men of wood, hold sway. They do as they please, and none can stop them without suffering greatly for it.”

Chimalmat was beside herself with this answer, and she took up her club and summoned her steed, and she resolved to drive the invaders back into the forest. The queen and the handmaidens could not dissuade her, and even her sister could not soften the steel of her heart. She gnashed her jaguar’s teeth and sharpened her deer’s horns and was determined to fight the monsters.

“As they were cast out of the city once before, so shall I drive them out again,” she said. “But take care, and shore up the lintel posts, and shut up the windows and the doors, and do not stir past the threshold for anything, or I fear that they will cause some great mischief before I can restore their exile. For a wild thing coming into the house is a messenger from the gods, but these men of wood and of clay and their descendants will hear and obey no god, and follow only their own whims, and they must be kept out.”

And so Chimalmat went out to fight the monsters, and she laid about her with her club, and her steed laid about it with its hooves and its tusks. When she struck the monkeys, they screeched, and when she struck the clay men, they made a terrible squelch, and when the steed struck the wooden men, they made a terrible sound like the beating of a great drum. All together, the battle raised a ferocious din, and it filled the whole city with its noise, until Xquic could bear it no longer and looked from the window to see how her sister fared.

In that moment, one of the clay men reached up and caught her by the hair, and he pulled her from the window and might have been the death of her if Chimalmat had not struck him down with her club. When the queen and her handmaidens brought Xquic indoors again and cleaned the clay from her skin, they found that her flesh had become like reeds and her face had become soft and formless, so that her mouth could shape no words.

Chimalmat returned victorious, only to have her joy turned to consternation by her sister’s fate.

“Did I not say there would be mischief if it wasn’t guarded against?” she cried, cradling the manikin her poor sister had become. “Why did you not mind her?”

But there was nothing to be done except consult the witch, for Xquic could no longer speak, and her limbs rattled and rustled against her body whenever she moved, and she was greatly distressed by her transformation. The witch took Chimalmat’s blood, for Xquic had none left, and gave it to U K’ux Kaj, the great machine their ancestors had made to house the gods. She called to the ancestors to come and give their advice, and when she was done she gave the queen an answer.

“The only hope for her lies on our homeworld, in the hearthplace of our first ancestors,” the witch said. “There they may repair the damage.”

The queen was stricken at this news, for returning to that place seemed impossible.

Chimalmat was undaunted. “If Xmucane and Xpiyacoc have guided us and guarded us, if U K’ux Kaj has counselled us, then surely they have not abandoned those who came before us and persisted after us. If U K’ux Kaj has said it should be done, then I shall do it.”

What could the queen do but relent? Her one daughter would not be dissuaded, and her other daughter could only speak in a rustle of reeds and the squelch of mud. If Chimalmat failed, then so too would the queen’s line, and so too, eventually, would their world. So she gave Chimalmat leave to outfit their fine ship—Zipacna, who carried the mountains on his back until he became one himself, whose wild heart fueled the ship which bore his name—for the journey.

Zipacna was provisioned and prepared for launch, and Chimalmat and Xquic boarded alone. The sisters sailed for the homeworld, and when they arrived, they found a thriving port in the sky outside the reach of the planet’s gravity. The witches there were puzzled by Xquic’s affliction, but Chimalmat said, “Let me speak with your machines, let me give my blood to your hearth, let me summon the ancestors and ask their advice.”

They could hardly deny her, and so it was done, and here the ancestors heard Chimalmat and gave their assent and answered her with what was to be done. Xquic was made whole again, and the sisters embraced happily, and the witches were amazed but recognized that all had been made right that had before been an affront to the order of things.

The sisters told the witches all that had happened, and spoke of their failing lines, and of the steady, slow retreat of humans from the world. The witches gave their blood to Zipacna, and spoke with the heart of the ship, and burned incense over its engines, and finally they said to Chimalmat, “The dwindling you have seen cannot be undone except by an infusion of new genes. The engineering used in the past is too little, even with its dangers, to make up for what has been lost. If you would restore your world as you’ve restored your sister, you must continue to the homeworld, of which we are but an outpost here.”

The witches warned them that the homeworld had become a wild place, and that the sun and moon had become dim. The people had become lawless, they said, and in consequence the gods were quick to anger.

“What you seek will not be easily won. In the old days it would have been given with honor, for the asking, but now people are inhospitable and suspicious. You must be cautious, if you are to succeed.”

Xquic was frightened by this, but Chimalmat comforted her and said, “U K’ux Kaj will guide us.”

And so they continued on their way, and when they landed, Chimalmat arrayed Xquic in all her finery. She decked her out in gold and silver and jade and obsidian, and she draped a cloak of bright feathers around her shoulders, and when she was done Xquic shone almost as brightly as the sun, whose face had been dimmed by the neglect of the people. Chimalmat set her sister up on a seat on Zipacna’s prow, and she crowed loud enough to wake everything in the land, and she said, “Come! Come, fellows, and see the new sun!”

This arrogance riled the people, and angered those who heard her, and eventually they came to fight Chimalmat for making such terrible claims. Only the bravest dared once they saw the sharpness of her teeth and horns, and the strength of her arms, and to each one she said, “If you fight me, I will show you no mercy. I will grind down your face, and I will eat up your heart, and you will be forgotten by your people.”

Only the bravest of the brave held fast at that, and so she said, “Let us give our blood to Zipacna, let us burn incense over his engine, and let us call our ancestors to witness this.”

Once they’d done as she said, she fought every challenger, and the whole land was filled with the din of their battle, and she threw every opponent down into the dust as if they were nothing. After Chimalmat had defeated them, she said, “You have fought well, and you should be rewarded.”

Instead of doing as she’d said and killing them in their defeat, she gave them a piece of Xquic’s raiment and sent them on their way. When she had given the blood of four hundred challengers to Zipacna, and Xquic had nothing left but a necklace of jade that sat over her heart, Chimalmat asked the ship, “Is this enough to renew the lines of our people?”

Zipacna, who had carried them in his belly, who had given birth to their ancestors in their new world, whose wild heart fueled the ship, spoke to her, and he said, “One more.”

Xquic was downcast, for she had long since stopped shining as the sun, and those who fought Chimalmat would no longer be outraged by her boasting but look on her as a fool. But Chimalmat comforted her and told her to be brave, and she climbed onto the back of her tapir and took up her club and rode away into the forest a little bit to wait.

In no time at all, a young man ventured forth, and when he saw that Xquic was alone, he grew bolder, and he came to the ship and called up to Xquic. He reproached her for her pretensions, and took her to task for her sister’s boasting, and begged her to put aside her arrogance and repent of it.

“If you’ve come to fight my sister,” Xquic said, “she is not here, and you will have to wait.”

“I have not come to fight,” the young man told her, “for I have watched her best warriors greater and bolder and more skilled and more cunning than I am. It will be useless, and I cannot stop her. I have come to speak, and to you, because you may be swayed by my words and because the gods care only that people do what is right—whether it’s done because of persuasion or force of arms is nothing to them.”

His words touched her, and she called down to him, “Let us give our blood to Zipacna, let us burn incense over his engine, and let us call our ancestors to witness this.”

He agreed, and when it was done, Xquic gave him her jade necklace and asked if he would not come with them when they returned home. She told him of the failing lines, and the world where people cared for the gods and their mothers, and that in time he would be her consort, for he was gentle and wise. He laughed when he saw that he had been tricked, and that she did not believe herself to be the sun’s equal, and that it had all been a ruse to find the bravest and the boldest of the people who would fight for the gods.

“Your sister is very clever,” he said, “and you are very good, and I believe that I would be very happy if I made my home with you. But my place is here, where people may yet be talked into behaving correctly and fulfilling their duty.”

Chimalmat, seeing that Xquic and the young man had come to some agreement, returned from where she had been hiding in the forest.

“Have you got yourself a husband, sister?” she asked.

“He will not leave this place,” Xquic said. “He will not come home with us.”

Chimalmat listened to his argument, and her heart was touched. She said, “Go and tell the people that my boasting was not in earnest. Tell them that they were not bested by those who disrespect the gods. Tell them that the woman who shone as bright as the sun has broken up her finery and given away her jewels, and that the woman who defeated them honors the true sun as she ought. They will listen.”

To be sure of this, she fashioned a club for him that was a match for hers, and she made it from the wood of a tz’ite tree so that its words would echo his. Xquic blessed the jade she had given him and asked that he not forget them.

And so the sisters returned to Zipacna, who had carried mountains on his back, and they sailed home with the renewal of their world beating in his heart. And if they have not suffered some other disaster, that world is flourishing still.

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Author’s Note: This story is a retelling of Tatterhood with personalities drawn from the Popol Vuh, the creation myth as told by the pre-conquest K’iche’ Maya, and ancillary sources.  The Popol Vuh can be found in its entirety here.

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T.R. North was born and raised in Florida and has never been featured in a “News of the Weird” column run in another state. Other works of short fiction can be found in Metaphorosis, Persistent Visions, and PseudoPod.

Read T.R.’s chapbook: Of Witches & Wolves

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