Subterranean Press Magazine: Summer 2013
The Shoot-Out at Burnt Corn Ranch Over the Bride of the World by Catherynne M. Valente
I don’t know much about the beginning, but in the end it was just the Wizard of Los Angeles and the Wizard of New York and the shoot out at the Burnt Corn Ranch. They walked off their paces; the moon seconded New York and the sun backed up Los Angeles and I saw how it all went down because I was there, hiding under the bar in the Gnaw Hollow Saloon with my fist between my teeth. Now you may call me a coward and I’ll have to wear that, but I’m a coward who lived, and that’s worth a drink if it’s worth two.
Robert and Pauline
Now, as I recollect it, the Wizard of Los Angeles sold his name for a pair of Chinese pistols, a horse the color of a rung bell and a crate of scotch the likes of which, god willing and the dead don’t rise, you and I will never taste. I hear that scotch has no label. I hear it tastes like a burning heart. I hear it’s served at the Devil’s own table, distilled by Judas Iscariot and aged in a black bull’s skull.
The Wizard of New York traded her name for a train she could fit in her pocket, a horse with two hearts, a dress like the fall of Lucifer, and a satchel of tobacco combed out of Hades’ own fields, dried on a rack of giant’s bones. New York was always the better haggler, and that’s a deal you only get to make once.
You gotta do something about names, see. Gotta get rid of them, double fast. Can’t get too far in the game with a name someone could just call you, out in the open, like Robert or Pauline. People like that, you can find them on a map. You can book them tickets and put a tax on them. Robert and Pauline couldn’t of done what those two did. Robert and Pauline have a nice little spread out Montana way. Pauline’s butter is just the sweetest you ever had. Robert never breaks his word, that’s just the kind of guy he is.
Come on. That ain’t how it runs. The Wizard of New York don’t churn her own cream.
Anyway, at least they both got horses out of it.
A Coupla Rules
You mighta heard it said that New York is where they make good magic and Los Angeles is where they make bad magic. Well, I don’t know about that. I never been to either place. What I want to say is there’s no one to root for here, okay? Those two chose to play the game. They didn’t have to. They could of had babies and grown oranges or beets or whatever the hell people grow when they aren’t circling a scrap of black dirt in the middle of nowhere like they’ve got a clock for a heart, set two minutes til. You might be tempted to say well, New York is cold and hard and I don’t care for that in a woman, or you might say Los Angeles is all illusions and unreal bullshit, and I don’t care for that in anyone, but the Burnt Corn Ranch don’t care about your sniffing and side-choosing, and it don’t care about nobody else either. It’s always been there, and it’ll be there when whatever walking hamburger is left clears out.
There’s a coupla rules.
Everybody’s gotta have a second. That’s good sense——the kind of arsenal these kids bring with them is music for four and six hands, if you get me. They hafta agree on a judge, too. Cheating don’t come into it.
It’s not always New York and Los Angeles. This has been going on awhile. This bit here is just the endgame, where the board is mostly clear, and every piece who mighta hid you has got itself killed or sacrificed and every move comes naked and grave. I remember when the Witch of the Mississippi shot the Baron of Nebraska in the eye with a glass flintlock she got off the corpse of a drifter with a diamond in his tooth. Probably somebody’s second, poor fuck. When she fired the thing, it filled up full of hot green fire. Smelled like licorice. Weren’t even a year ago New York hunted down the Hag of Florida, cut her up with a bowie knife blessed by the Pope of the Hudson, baptized in gin and olives and christened What Did I Just Say.
Fed Florida to her alligator friends piece by piece. They cried, but they ate her anyway.
There’s different sorts of ways to get rank in this business. New York has to be born there, and Brooklyn and Queens don’t count, neither. If I remember it correct, she has to be born there, and her mother dead in childbirth, foot can’t have touched grass nor mud, hand can’t have sewn nothing nor cooked nothing, and she can’t ever have finished a novel, but she’s got to have started three. No more, no less. Los Angeles has to come from somewhere else. He’s gotta be in pictures, naturally, but never a lead, only in the background, at best maybe a line or two. His daddy’s got to have died while his momma was with child, he can’t ever of et Old World fruit, can’tve been baptized nor shriven, foot can’t have touched the sea, hand can’t have touched the color red.
The rules look stupid on purpose. That’s how folklore works, on a fool’s own engine.
Still, sometimes there’s more than one bastard stumbled into the conditionals, and then there’s what you might call attractions to shuffle it down. New York wants to be a woman. The Bishop of Wisconsin wants to be a little boy with black hair. That sort of thing.
Motion across the board goes from the edges toward the center. Used to be a rule about collateral damage, but that seems beside the point now. Hardly anybody left here but us chickens.
And then there’s the prize. Didn’t I mention? That’s me. Hunkered down behind a bar with bourbon showering down on my hair and glass exploding in slow-motion.
I’m the Bride.
The Devil’s Mare
I suppose you want to know how it got to this. Truth is I don’t know. I wasn’t born til the players were on the stage. That’s kind of the point of me. I was born at Burnt Corn Ranch on the summer solstice and I came out of a pinto mare just as human as you like. Maybe you don’t like too much, and that’d be about right. Back then Burnt Corn were run by Tincup Henry and his girl name of Ashen. When she was a skinny little cough of a thing her mother said she whored with the Devil and ate of the bread of Dagon. She locked that girl in the barn with the new lambs and lit the whole thing on fire. Possible she knew what was coming, possible she was crazy. Ashen’s eyelashes and eyebrows and all her hair burnt off before her brother Cutter (who happened to be the Duke of Maine, but he didn’t know it yet) run out in all the stink of burning wool and beat the flames off with his own hands.
Ashen probably had a name before her skin went grey like that. Probably a nice, fancy one like farmers give their daughters when they hope for better days. But dead girls get new names, and Ashen just wasn’t the same before she went into that barn as when she came out. And it ain’t just about her being bald and hairless as a worm forever. Her momma run off and her daddy drunk himself into nothing. But when Tincup married her, well, you never saw anything like that wedding table. Loaves of bread like wheels on a cart and a cake like a house of sugar. Ashen didn’t say nothing.
And that’s who raised me up. No idea what they thought when that mare lay down to foal. But they named her Almagest, so maybe they knew the score after all. When they pulled me out of her nethers, Tincup scratched his head and picked me up, full grown and covered in horse. He put me in the house by the stove like any other foal born sickly.
Day I was born Ashen started baking. Every day of my life smelled like something rising.
He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not
Met an old prospector once, by the name of Gilly Spur. She lived down the gulch, panning for prophecies in the dried up wrinkled scrub that usedta be the Colorado River. Caught a rack of runes once, all fishbone scorched with hairline scratches. For all the good it ever did her. The Khan of Manitoba cut off her hand to get them, and took off south after the Witch of the Rio Grande. Anyway, once upon a while I liked to sit with Gilly afternoons in the summer, when it was so hot the only safe places were down in the low, down in the shadows, down in the crevices where the dust don’t fall. She caught butterflies to eat, and you know I never thought a butterfly’d have eating on ‘‘em, but the big, warped-looking busters huffing heavy on the old river bed weren’t nothing but flying protein, and protein is king. Gilly Spur snatched them out of the air in a mason jar.
“Tell me who I’m gonna marry, Gilly,” I’d say to her while she crunched down on a monarch wing. “I heard girls before used to pull daisy petals to find out. Think that’d work for me?”
“Don’t you be in such a hurry, girl. The rest of us ain’t done here yet. And where you think you’re gonna spy up a daisy?”
“Do you remember before? Before there were a mess of wizards and popes shooting up the place, I mean.”
“Ayup,” would say Gilly Spur. And she’d tell me about something like bubble gum, which was a thing you chewed in your mouth but didn’t swallow what had sugar in it. People used to be mad as cats, chewing on something and not eating it. Or she’d say there used to be an ocean left of California, which was so much water you couldn’t see the other side, and why the world didn’t just drink up so much of the good stuff just sitting there I’ll never understand. I’m glad I wasn’t born then. It sounds a terrible place.
Gilly Spur’d scry the sand like it was still water. Far as I know she weren’t in the game then or never. But she was nice to me, and she knew how to hide real good. Best thing to learn these days, but I never got the trick of it.
Mr. Junction City Savings
This is what the Wizard of New York did with her name. She put it inside an angry boy name of Johnny Holler, then killed a red-tailed deer out on the Connecticut saltwaste using Johnny just like a rifle. Took the dried-out hollowed heart of the beast and the name too and locked them up in the Junction City Savings and Loan vault, and gathered her goods-in-kind from the Loan Officer—a saggy droop of a man who used to be fat and lost it somehow, just lost track of his whole body til it was nearly gone and just a big blouse of skin left. He’s the line judge, the referee, the fact checker and the clock-watcher. Don’t know his name. Don’t even know if he knows it. He’s just the Loan Officer, Mr. Junction City Savings, only man I ever met who still owns a three piece suit and a tie to match his hanky.
Mr. Junction City Savings put Johnny Holler down in his book as New York’s second. Johnny said: I never asked. But it don’t matter. New York takes. New York brooks no refusing.
From just about then Johnny Holler started getting brighter. Sure, smarter—you can’t get clued in on the big game without sharpening up a bit. But he started glowin’ like a lamp turned on inside him, and all the time they walked out to Missouri to see about the Caliph of St. Louis he just kept shining brighter still. By the time I met him, you couldn’t look at him without squinting. His bandoliers screaming silver just like the moon.
Los Angeles nailed down his second up Oregon way. A minor player, Princess of the Siskyous or something, lanky tall white girl answering to Sally Rue. The Wizard of Los Angeles pricked up when she started making her name, strapped up his big snort of a horse and rode it all the way from Alamagordo where he’d fucked and then detonated the brain-stem of Abbot of New Mexico with a one lightning kiss.
Come on now. Don’t make a face. I told you it wasn’t a pretty thing, when these kids count off their paces.
Anyway, Los Angeles sniffed up the Princess just as soon as he crossed the Tahoe naphtha sink, smelled her like musk and cattle. Rode on north like an arrow. Put a blade between his teeth and hit the big empty college green where the Princess was sitting down to cards with her sad little second, boy by the name of Frank Bust. Los Angeles sat himself on the grass and played a hand or two, not winning nothing and not looking to, just taking a friendly trick when he could. When the sun got low he spat his black knife just as quiet as breathing, right between Frank Bust’s eyes. Kid didn’t see it coming to say shit, just gogged while Los Angeles brushed the hair out of the Princess’s Frank-spattered face and kissed both the her cheeks, said something in Algonquin or Greek or some such and pulled on her jaw like a trigger. Nothing came out—she was saving the bullet down in the deep of her for the end, and that made her Los Angeles’ kind of girl. He hauled her out to Junction City quick as a wedding.
She was already looking a little god around the edges. Her teeth shone like hard sunshine.
Something bad happened a long time ago. In the bubblegum daisygirl ocean days, when there were rivers where the rivers are. I’d like to know about it, much as you, much as anyone. Seems like a worthy thing to know. But I don’t make what you’d call a real effort to find out. I got my own problems. My own somethings bad. For awhile I thought it had to be a bomb. Something big and bright and final. They used to have bombs like that. That left black dust even after they’d stopped burning everybody up, and something else, something invisible, something that changed you if it touched you. Sounded right to me.
And the dust that comes down in the summer will burn you clean through.
But apart than Gilly Spur the oldest soul I know is Blue Bob who lives at the top of a grain silo sharpening scissors for bread, and he said he never saw nothing blow up but what does he know, he never lived in a city that mattered enough to bomb. He says the mail stopped one day. Then the running water and a little after that you started noticing people’d gone missing. Just gone, blinked off like a fuse. He’d taken the last of his gas and headed to Cheyenne and got drunk for weeks off of the stuff lying around with no one to guard it. Blue Bob says he’s not really sorry. He likes the quiet.
He’s the Emperor of Wyoming. Told me once, half upside-down in a bottle of mash. It’s not that he can’t fight, he just doesn’t care. Doesn’t like the world enough to care. Blue Bob kissed me all over then, and I kissed him back even though he was so old you could see through him. I like kissing. Kisses are big and bright and final. Just because I’m writ down for the Burnt Corn Ranch doesn’t mean I gotta be a virgin when I get there. Can’t see no point in virginity myself. I’m not gonna live so long I should wait on much of anything.
Here’s what I think, though, at the end of everything behind the bar with the bourbon and the dog and the commotion outside.
I think the world just broke.
Nobody’s fault. Things get old. They go funny. They get stuck like a pump or run backwards like a pocketwatch. You just try and use an old pistol that ain’t been looked after. It might click and whine and stick. It might blow you clean dead.
Gilly Spur says there didn’t used to be magic. That’s nice. I like to think the world had a childhood. A little while when it didn’t have to bother with none of this.
A Ring Don’t Make a Bride
I saw me a picture with Los Angeles in it once. When pictures still showed down at the piano hall on Main Street. I used to like to get up in a dress and watch all those fine people flickerin’ up there. It was an old one, and Los Angeles hunkered down in the background of some bar, glowering into his two fingers of whathaveyou, up to no good. When the fighting started, he shot a lady of low morals through the heart, and looked at the camera like he knew I’d be watching in twenty years’ time. Funny thing is, I knew the shot lady, too.
She was the Pharaoh of Nevada.
New York shot her for real and true in our barn about a year before she got to Florida. Used a big birch fork and divined the Pharaoh’s path like clean water. New York took the train she got from the Savings and Loan out of her pocket and laid it down on the yellowcake flats where it swelled up like one of them old black worm firecrackers. Rode it all the way through the plains without a stop, even though the Tsar of Kansas was an easy get. She couldn’t wait.
The Pharaoh didn’t like waiting either. She turned up at my window in the middle of the night. Brought me beef and cotton lace and a real lily, so fresh the stem still seeped green. Came to me like a proper suitor, offering something precious, asking something precious. I sucked the dew out of the lily and it tasted like growing up. The Pharaoh of Nevada lay down next to me in my skinny bed and kept real quiet so as not to wake Henry Tincup and Ashen. She was a real handsome lady, with red hair and wide black eyes, heavy, soft breasts and sharp brass-tipped bullets all round her bony waist.
Come on, she whispered in the dark. Don’t you like me? You don’t want to sit around here waiting for those rotters to punch themselves sick over you. I’m here, now, and I’m ever so much nicer than the pack of them. I made that blossom myself out of the air and half a memory. I’ll cover you with lilies. Eat up that brisket and tell me it don’t taste right as a spring robin.
The Pharaoh of Nevada liked kissing almost as much as I do. Her skin was all dusty and hot and sour and good. She was right; I did like her. She was much prettier than Blue Bob, and when she got her hands inside me I saw lights dancing and lilies bursting and the sun bagged up in a sack of lace. The Pharaoh put a steel ring on my finger still slippery with her and slept like a heap of bones.
Thing is, just because you make a body shiver don’t make it yours. You have to go through the ceremony and bother and blood. I’m the end of everything. There’s no shortcut. The Pharaoh thought it was all over and won right up until the Wizard of New York steamed into town with her whistle shrieking the blues, shattering the windows and rattling the earth.
Too late, Nevada laughed.
But it wasn’t. New York walked into the barn where I was born with a big bone gun on her hip, a barrel half as long as her leg. Used to be the femur of the Marquis of New Orleans and the shoulder blade of the Obeah of the Carolinas. It’s that kind of style that makes her a favorite, among those still taking bets. New York’s right dapper and swish. Nevada strode out of my bed all gloat but New York shot her through the throat from behind our cow Ptolemy, and my Pharaoh fell flat before she could work out where she’d gone wrong.
A ring don’t make a bride, that’s all.
New York tipped her hat to me. Said: See you soon. Barreled off out of town to keep her date with Kansas.
Sometimes at night I can still hear Nevada telling me stories about the one time in her whole life that girl ever saw Las Vegas.
The Duke of Maine
I asked Cutter once what it felt like, when he got called up. Him being my uncle in a technical sort of way and all I felt familiar enough to ask.
Cutter took care of the Gnaw Hollow back then, looking after the stores and the glasses and the spirits. He poured himself some thin old cough syrup which is just about as good as whiskey for getting yourself fuzzy, if not tasting half so nice.
“I was born in Maine, don’t s’pose you know that being just a kid,” he told me. “That’s part of it. No Duke of Maine could be from away. Born there and our ma moved us out west when she were half-done baking Ashen in her on account of pa Henry finding some knob of earth where things still grew. Spoke a coupla licks of French back then, and that’s part of it too. But if you’re hoping I got stuck by lightning I’ll disappoint you. Just woke up one morning and knew it like I knew my name. Down in my heart a big dark forest on a big bright sea just lay there saying: come on now, do right by me. I looked at you feeding the chickens and all the sudden you had a veil on I never saw before, and a dress of darkness. I could do things. Drown a man while he’s walking down the street breathing as fine as you like. Strike a stone and milk’d pour out. The forest in my heart said the Sultan of the Dakotas wanted killing, and I strangled him in the Black Hills. His skull turned into a rose. I wore it on my lapel. It told me things. That you’d lay down with me if I asked because the Bride is the generosity of the earth. When the frost’d passed and I could get on planting my mean old turnips. Where to find the Presbyter of Oklahoma—who has the blame of my lost leg, bristled fucking pig that he was.”
Cutter slugged back his cough syrup. “I won’t be your man, I know it. Didn’t even bother cutting off my name. I’m a hump for others to get over. But I hope to see Maine again before some other dark dog does me in.”
The Laird of Alaska froze him to death with a blink a couple of weeks later. I didn’t cry. You can’t get mixed up in crying this late in the game.
I got some magic of my own.
I can turn a chicken inside out. I can make the moon come on in the daytime. I can fry an egg on my belly and I can defend myself—if I look at you funny your heart will split open in your chest. I tried it on the Kaiser of Pittsburgh who wasn’t half as nice as Nevada and didn’t bring me a damn thing and he toppled right over.
I didn’t wake up one morning knowing I was anything. I just always knew. Like how you know you’re a girl or that you have ten fingers. It’s just a part of you, and you can’t say why. After she put her ring on me the Pharaoh said: what happens now? I shrugged. I made the moon come on in the dawn for her.
We’re getting close now. To whatever is supposed to happen when I get a beau for true. I can feel the world winding down to Burnt Corn as if I’m a spring in it, losing my coils. Sometimes I wonder if this is going on in Europe or Africa too. If some poor kid like me is waiting in Budapest or something for the Tetrarch of Granada and the Wizard of London to get on with business. But something tells me I’m it. Besides, the Dragoon of Boston has to be Ireland-born, and she’s never said a thing about where she came from but that it was emptier than a gallon jar in the morning.
I spent a lot of years thinking on this. I think I know the shape of it and every day I feel surer. Where Cutter had a forest in the deep of him I’ve got a bed and its getting wider all the time.
Still. You don’t show your cards til they’re called.
Gilly Spur says: the day the world changed the sky went green and sick. She says: it didn’t have a lick on the look of the sky this morning.
Someone comes to town. They got shadows like wounds. One on a train, one on a horse. Ashen sets them a good breakfast and they talk like nothing’s gonna happen. Like they’re friends.
I wish I’da seen the Grand Canyon. After all this running around, you’d think I’da come across it. But no, you stove in the Saint and it closed up like a buttonhole. The Wizard of Los Angeles shovels hot eggs into his mouth.
But you got the Rockies, the Wizard of New York laughs over her chicory tea. All six foot five of that sweet old Thaumaturge. I heard him go all the way out in Virginia. I heard you filled him up with pink fire and made rubies shoot out of his eyes.
Too bad we can’t jaw all day. I could get to like you.
Johnny Holler and Sally Rue water the mounts, a bowl of blood or a gascan full of coaldust, either way, hardly matters which gets which. They’re each glowing so bright they can’t even look at each other, silver and gold as the moon and the sun, before the moon went black and the sun went white.
And me? Well, I hide. Gilly taught me good and I go down under the bar at the Gnaw Hollow Saloon when the Loan Officer comes striding into town with contracts in his belt. Everyone understands and consents to the action at hand, no arguments once the outcome is clear, yes, yes? Speak up, too late to be shy, what are the agreed-upon weapons? Guns, Blood, Poison, Time. Game, Set, Match. Sign on the dotted line, witnessed by Mr. Holler and Ms. Rue, and get me a bourbon, will you Johnny? That’s a good boy.
They walk it off. Their seconds open long blackwood cases and in them are the Chinese pistols, the long bone gun. There’s no sound in Burnt Corn but dust holding its breath. The clock tower bongs out the end of everything. I have time to be afraid before the first shot. I have time to consider I haven’t a notion about what I’ll do when it’s over. What I’m for. And then the New York’s femur-barrel blows its warm welcome, and a violet venomous ropy dripping something roars out and catches Miss Sally Rue in the glowing golden eyeball and puts her out as fast as hiccuping. Advantage New York.
It goes like a battle goes. Boomboomquiet. Clickbanghush. Los Angeles fires with both pistols, and a thousand sparrows stream out into a patch of starry night floating between them with the day just as fine as paint all around it. New York opens her mouth, wider, wider, until her jaw hits the dust and she can swallow the birds in one hitching breath. But one brown songbird, dragging six stars out of the nighthole behind it, claws through Johnny Holler’s chest and burns out his heart. One-one.
It’s like that, when Wizards fight. Half the time it looks like fighting and half the time it looks like theater, like an awful old puppet show, the paint peeling on the marionettes and the backdrop peeling, but the strings go jerking on. It’s happening and I can’t do anything, the bottles burst above me and the glass rain in my hair drifts infinitely slow, caught in a slow burp of time New York let sour up out of her palm. I squeeze my eyes; the Loan Officer gets a stream of liquid light to the eye and goes down heavy. The light goes dim in the sky like a picture house at intermission. Time to find your seats. The real show’s about to begin.
The glass hits my scalp. I taste scotch and blood and old, old wine.
There’s a hand on mine in the dark. I don’t know if it’s New York or Los Angeles. I guess it’s the Groom, whoever that turned out to be. I think about Gilly Spur and the daisies. I think about Nevada and her kisses. I think about Blue Bob, about Ashen and Cutter and the smell of the wind through Burnt Corn Ranch. I can hear my beau breathing; I can smell the magic on somebody’s breath. There ain’t nothing in the world but the world, running funny, running down, winding up, busting its springs and looking for its repair manual.
It’s black. Burnt Corn is gone and so is Gnaw Hollow. There’s a veil of glass and dripping booze over my eyes, and the Groom lifts it up. I know when she kisses me it’s the Wizard of New York, and when she kisses me she swallows me whole like she swallowed the sparrows. I’m a seed, I’m a wedded ring. I see the insides of her, and they are vast.
You need two. If you’re going to start over. You need a seed and a dark place.
Everything happens at once.