by Amanda Helms
The wordslinger first came into Lasthope on the back of a scarab the size of a large pony, during the worst flaying-wind storm in a generation.
Mind, we didn’t know then that she was a wordslinger, or even that she was a she. I didn’t witness it direct, but later one of our regulars told me of her, all bundled up in hat and gloves and too-big cloak, on account of them winds, you see. She climbed off her scarab with the stiffness of someone too long in the saddle. But like any rider worth her salt, she saw to her mount afore she came into the saloon, which is where I first saw her myself.
Me and Ruby were on a break, letting my babe Arlie grab at and occasionally suck on the tassels of our gowns. Spurs jangling, the wordslinger ambled to the bar as she pulled back her cloak–she had two canteens slung on her belt, one on each side–then, slowly removed her hat and, slower yet, peeled off her gloves. Waiting to see if anyone’d comment on her color, I reckon, for the raggedy leather of her attire was just a few shades lighter than her own skin.
Sit on down, mister; I am telling you “Just what the hell the likes of her is doing here.”
In Lasthope, we ain’t the kind of folks what care about people’s skin, so when the wordslinger perched on a stool, all William–that’s our bartender–said was, “Ain’t you a little young to be on your own?”
“No. Could I get a whiskey?”
William laughed. “Maybe you ain’t too young to be on your own, but you’re surely too young for whiskey.”
He was right. She couldn’t’ve been more than sixteen; her eyes and too-thin face were the sorts aged by experience, not time.
“I’ll fill your canteens for you, though,” William said.
“I don’t like to hand them over to strangers.”
“We ain’t gonna sabotage your slinging, if that’s what you think.”
“They ain’t got nothing to do with slinging,” she said. “They were a gift from my ma. But I’ll buy some soup, if you’ve got it.”
It was hot for soup, but a kid wordslinger, a girl kid wordslinger at that, and further one who’s black–it wasn’t hard to guess she was counting her coins.
Madam Fleur swept down the stairs. “On the house,” she said.
You’ve seen Madam, so you know what she’s like, how she could draw the eye even if she wore a burlap dress.
But far from burlap, the wordslinger saw Madam like you saw Madam: dressed in her purple satin gown with black brocade along the front, her hair all tied up in a nice neat bun with just two tendrils allowed to trail down the sides, and her ears adorned with her pride, her pearl bobs.
Naturally it took less time for the wordslinger to absorb the vision of Madam than it’s taken me to describe, and as William was long-used to the vision, he just said, “Yes ma’am,” and went to fetch the soup.
You’ve already guessed my profession, what with your rude demand, and the wordslinger ain’t dumb; she’d figured it out too, as well as Madam’s place. She kept her gaze down-turned as Madam approached, but we all marked the way her foot tap-tap-tapped against the leg of her stool.
“I’m Madam Fleur. What’s brought you here all alone, if you don’t mind my asking?” she said kindly, cause that’s her way.
The wordslinger glanced quick at me and Ruby–lingering on my Arlie, whose skin’s similar to hers–and then looked back to Madam. All apologetic-like, she said, “No offense, ma’am, but I don’t intend to be one of your pretty girls.” Madam Fleur chuffed. “It’s clear you already got work of a different sort.”
William came back with the soup and slid it and a spoon to the wordslinger. She tucked in with the eagerness of a half-starved coyote. You don’t come to Lasthope and stay without knowing the way hunger can gnaw at your belly so sharp you think it’ll eat your own bones, so we let her take care of her priorities.
When she finished, she said, “I’m looking for a man what calls himself the Drifter. Tall, wheat-colored hair. Wears a bolo with rattler fangs. I heard he done come this way. Seen him?”
Madam said, sharp-like, “Seen the front and the back of him.”
Now, I’m not so prideful I won’t tell you mention of the Drifter set my stomach a-churning. I stood, still holding my Arlie. “Gonna feed him some mash,” I said and bustled to the kitchen.
In passing, I looked to William’s shotgun behind the bar, for assurance.
Cause there’s legends round here about the Drifter. Story goes, he was a miner what used wordslinging to pull gold out of them rocks. He got lost in a mine so deep folks thought even his slinging couldn’t save him. Relief flowed all around, cause he was the sort what thought wanting a thing made it his.
Months later, the Drifter emerged from that mine, and whether from his hateful greed or something old and dark in the mine itself, he come out different: neither bullet nor blade hurts him. However it happened, I believe it’s true, cause on Madam’s instructions, William and Leonard, what runs the general store, ran him off.
But later, William, white-faced, said he shot the man’s shoulder, but he neither faltered nor bled. I reckon the Drifter didn’t fancy himself run off so much as amused to leave.
After setting Arlie in a basket so he wouldn’t roll into something he shouldn’t, I poured some milk in a bowl and put a bit of bread in to soak. Sound carries from the bar, and despite my better intentions I moved quiet, so I heard tapping, one-two-three, one-two-three. The wordslinger, keeping a rhythm. Maybe practicing slinging in her head. “I’ll be taking a room, if you think he’ll be back.”
“What you want with the Drifter?” William asked, afore Madam could say as whether there was a room for her or not.
There was; Madam always finds space for ones young as her. But that don’t mean she minds making them sweat a little for wondering.
More of that drumming, but faster and with a harder beat at the end: onetwothreefour, onetwothreefour. “He killed my sister. My ma died of grief soon after. I will take my retribution.”
Like a devil got hold of me, I set to mashing the now-soaked bread with more force than necessary.
William snorted. “Ain’t retribution-taking a job for your pa?”
“Ain’t got no pa, and he wasn’t my sister’s pa anyway. You got a room for me or not?”
That, combined with her skin–which wasn’t so black as some–explained the wordslinger’s apologetic nature; like her ma had been a pretty girl herself, and the man who sired her–cause she’s right; she ain’t go no pa–a white man who’d’ve had no interest in providing for a mixed child.
My Arlie’s mixed too, and the sudden reminder of the Drifter plus the wordslinger’s story had my hands trembling as I picked up the bowl–and dropped it on the stone hearth. It shattered. A shard bounced up and cut my cheek.
Madam, William, Ruby, and the wordslinger burst in right as I was pressing a kerchief to the cut. It soaked through right quick.
“Dropped Arlie’s mash,” I said. Ruby brought me a chair and set to cleaning up while William went to fetch some bandages. Madam inspected my cheek.
Arlie still lay in his basket, a-sucking his fingers. The wordslinger said, “The noise– He ain’t crying.”
“He can’t hear,” I said. “Ever since he was born.”
The wordslinger stared at him, maybe marking the similarity of their skin. She turned to me. “I can help.” She ducked her head, like she wished for her hat again to cover her eyes. “If you want.”
“I can live with a scar, but suppose I’d rather not.” There’re some what like their pretty girls with scars, but most often, blemishes are bad for business. The wordslinger pulled the kerchief from my cheek and whispered,
Skin, you heal.
Blood, you quit
Skin, you knit,
Bit by bit
Leave no need
Simple rhyme, I’ll grant you, but the wordslinger kept repeating it, and when William returned and wiped my cheek with a bandage, he let out a low whistle. “Ain’t no mark, Bertha. Your skin’s smooth as Arlie’s.”
“Well.” Madam cleared her throat. “I don’t let rooms to people whose names I don’t know.”
Lifting her head with the grace of a queen, the wordslinger said, “I go by Nightingale.”
Well, looks like you’re getting a bit antsy, mister. Wondering what all this has to do with your question. It has everything to do with your question, so how about I have William give you a round on the house while I continue explaining?
As I said, Madam did have a room for Nightingale, and she took it. Weeks passed, long enough for us to get to know her, and to hope that maybe the Drifter had moved on elsewhere.
Days Nightingale’d pitch in with fixing fence posts and the like. You been here long enough, I reckon, to know there’s not much to Lasthope beyond this here saloon, Leonard’s general store, and the watering trough–enough though for them that work the mines five miles yonder. So if there was no odd job that needed doing, Nightingale’d spend hours pacing up and down the street or tending her scarab. Truth to tell, I think she was envisioning how it’d go down, when the Drifter returned and she faced him.
Nights she’d spend in the saloon, often offering to watch Arlie while I was otherwise occupied. On my breaks I’d see her dandling him on her knees, foot a-tapping while she while she made patterns with her free hand.
One evening, when I found time enough for a sit, I joined her and nudged her shoulder.
She set Arlie in his basket. “What?” She coughed. “I mean, you need something, Bertha?”
Considering the life she’s had, I didn’t blame her for her poor manners. She was trying.
I indicated her hands. “You keep making patterns. What are they?”
She brought her hands out of her lap and stared at them. I hadn’t seen them up close before; they had raised whitish lines. Burn scars. From the placement of them I reckon they weren’t no cooking fire accident. But I ain’t ever asked.
“Wordslinging.” She must’ve seen something in my expression, cause right quick she said, “It ain’t nothing bad. My ma was mute. Taught me and my sister her signs, and I’m slinging some of that to Arlie.”
I perked up. “Your ma was deaf?”
“No, just mute. A john of hers–” She darted a glance at me and swallowed. “Well, she had to find a way to communicate, after.”
I trusted Nightingale, mind, but her slinging near my Arlie made me nervous. “Would you mind telling me? What the slinging is.”
Nightingale frowned, like her first instinct was to say no, but she cleared her throat. So quiet I had to lean in to hear her, she said,
“Wordslinger, word singer
Word sayer, word slayer
All these and more you are:
Word maker, word breaker
Word wreaker, word keeper
You’ll go far, my child, so far.”
The power of it tugged at me, firm as if she’d tied a string direct to my heart. It was a small thing, to be sure, but–it held power, nonetheless.
“My ma used to sling it to me,” she said, quiet, like she was talking to her own hands and not me at all. “First with her tongue, while she still had it. Then when she didn’t– I had them memorized. She’d sign while I slung, and that was how she taught me and Grace.” A frown, and, all low-like, “I ain’t gone so far, though.”
There was much I could’ve said in return to that, but I chose, “Your ma was a wordslinger herself, then?”
“Never claimed it, but I got it from somewhere.”
I knew better than to suggest the man who’d sired her might’ve been one. There’s a strength involved, in being what we are and surviving it–cause as you’ll recall, Nightingale’s ma died of grief. And grief ain’t no weakness; it’s human. So I wasn’t about to say anything what might indicate Nightingale’s own strength come from a man who ain’t worth his spit.
Words of that sort make me further disinclined to like you, mister. The price of your free drink is my story, so stop with your eye-rolling and sigh-heaving; you ain’t a bellows. You’ll allow me one more indulgence afore I come round to the Drifter’s return.
You may be wondering why Nightingale stayed in Lasthope for weeks on end instead of heading out to seek her enemy. I reckon it’s because she believed, like most, it wouldn’t be much longer till he came back.
Also, I think she stayed cause a life on the road is a hard one, and even a small got-nothing, far-north, flaying-wind town like Lasthope is better than being out on your own with naught but the clothes on your back, a rucksack, and your riding scarab. A lot of myths bout wordslingers done rise up like chokeweed, that they’re lone figures on the horizon, always looking to the next wordfight, ever-roaming and with no connections, no family. Like being without such ties makes them stronger.
I don’t think it makes them stronger; it just makes them lonely. But somewhere down the line, I reckon Nightingale bought into those stories, at least a little.
So even if she wouldn’t’ve admitted to it, I reckon the main reason she stayed is cause she hungered for family, and even a got-nothing, far-north, flaying-wind town like Lasthope can provide that. Better than some others, cause we know how to hold on to each other in the midst of hardship.
Yes, this is all important. So shut up and listen.
The Drifter returned on a blustery, but not a flaying-wind, day.
Leonard was the first to hear of it; some of his ranch hands came flying in on their locusts to warn him the Drifter was coming. On foot, but relentless as a tornado.
When the Drifter’d allowed himself to be run off, he’d set fire to Leonard’s crops for spite, and Leonard lost near fifty acres. So Leonard wasn’t happy to hear of it, but he also ain’t no gunman and truth to tell don’t much like associating with gunmen, so he burst into the saloon a-huffing and puffing and through wheezes got the word out.
Nightingale perched at her accustomed place, on a barstool, and at Leonard’s words she went stiller than a titmouse spotted by a hawk. “Which direction,” she said, bereft of her normal rhythm and lilt.
Leonard looked her askance and said, “North” which was toward his ranch and why he was allover worried. Cause he still had some fields that could burn yet, and the Drifter ain’t the sort to leave a thing undone.
Without another word, Nightingale slid off her stool and was out the saloon.
Madam ran after her so fast she had to hike up her skirts, which she’d’ve normally never done, but the loss of the rhythm that made you think Nightingale’s slinging was always around the corner–it had all of us worried. William with his shotgun; Ruby; me, Arlie in my arms; and what other pretty girls were free went out after her.
I don’t know if you ever been to a wordfight, but for all that Lasthope’s on the corner of nowhere and the edge of nothing, we’ve had our share of wordslingers come through to challenge the miners for their gold. Wordslinging’s got power on its own, you know, but when there’re witnesses–well, those’re fights slingers live and die by.
I don’t mind telling you my heart was in my throat when I came out on the street and saw Nightingale astride her scarab, kerchief pulled up round her face and hat slung low over her eyes, gloves back on her hands, and her ma’s canteens gleaming bright enough to blind. It struck me all at once that kit was her armor. Girding her loins for battle and all.
She waited in the middle of the road, facing north, as she drew a long swig from one of her canteens, swished, then spat. Though her face was was mostly hidden I could’ve sworn her eyes squinted, and glinted, as a plume of smoke from Leonard’s fields bore up on the horizon. Leonard’d long gone, and some of what men and women could leave their duties done it, on account of wanting to help him save what was left of his fields, best they could.
But all of us what worked at the saloon, we stood by Nightingale.
Against the backdrop of smoke, the Drifter ambled down the street. He brought with him a sour smell, like old milk and old blood. It blew on the wind before him. His pale hair was uncovered, and as he neared I heard over the wind a steadier hum, one that set my toes to curling and my mouth to twisting. I imagine it was to me–to all of us–like those high-pitched sounds only dogs can hear, that make them pin their ears tight to their heads.
Nightingale started up her own hum, a counterpoint, and while I can’t say for sure it weren’t no coincidence, the smoke from Leonard’s farm stopped pluming.
If the Drifter noticed, he gave no indication. He stopped thirty paces from us where we thronged alongside Nightingale, who remained in the middle of the street on her scarab. But when the Drifter turned his attention to the crowd, and then to her, she dismounted, and she stayed steady as he continued down the street, each of his footsteps sending up a small cloud of dust.
“My, my,” he said, in a voice meant to carry. “Quite a gathering. What’s this welcoming committee that’s come all for little old me?”
Nightingale pulled down her kerchief. Shoulders straight and the line of her back wooden, she said,
“Ain’t you heard?
I’m the Nightingale.
And my words—
They gonna make you writhe and wail.
Cause I got style, and I got class
And I’m gonna drop you on your ass.”
The second the last word left her mouth, it was like a giant invisible fist knocked the Drifter straight back on his buttocks, sending up a cloud of dust that covered him like pollen.
But he wasn’t down long, and he came up laughing.
“Hoo-wee! Quite a wallop you pack there, little miss.” Between one blink and the next the Drifter was but ten paces away.
And he said,
“Huh, Nightingale, say why’s that?
Cause you think you sing so sweet?
Think these folk are in for a treat?”
Now some of Nightingale’s tap-tap-tapping of her foot and the signing of her hands in her weeks with us I reckon must’ve been her planning her opening slinging, as well as other rhymes. But wordslingers, good wordslingers, have to be quick on their feet and quick with their rhymes. Though the Drifter’s words made her stagger some, she wasn’t near going down, and she said,
“Not no treat but a trident
Cause my rhymes, they’re vibrant
Best not think you can fight it.
This here trident,
It’ll spear you
All the way
through and through.”
At that something done stab the Drifter, for he doubled over and the force of that something dragged him back three feet. But he dug his boots in the dust, and he stopped.
And when he lifted his head again, it was clear he knew he dealt with a wordslinger, real and true. Quicker than the flick of a whip, he slung,
“You don’t know me, you don’t know mine
You know nothing about my kind
But still you’re here to challenge me
When the wiser thing to do is–flee.”
The force of it knocked Nightingale off her feet and into a hitching post ten feet yonder. Madam let out a little cry and started for her, but William, grim-faced, caught her and shook his head.
Wordslingers’re on their own, you see. The spectators’ reactions–their initial gasps, gut-twists, cheers and cries–can give power to the slinging. But physical interference? That’d’ve doomed Nightingale. Slinging relies on the words.
My mouth thinned as Nightingale pulled herself back to her feet. She moved careful, like she had a bruised rib at best and a cracked one at worst. She hacked and spat bloody phlegm. But she still slung.
“Birds got wings
Bees got buzz
Bats got teeth
And bears got claws
Now I’ve got
All these things
But you’ve got
Naught that does.”
Clutching Arlie to my breast, I exchanged glances with Madam, then William, all of us withholding groans. It wasn’t a strong sling. For one thing, bees have wings like birds, and bats have teeth like bears.
Worse, her meter hitched. Nonetheless, maybe it gave Nightingale some of the teeth and claws she slung about, for she stood a little taller and seemed to breathe a little easier.
It done nothing to the Drifter, though. A smile suited to the Devil himself spread over his face.
“What is that racket?
Think you can hack it?
Think if you whack it
Then I won’t track it.
But I gotta say: skill, girl, you lack it.”
Nightingale gasped and dropped to her knees. She cradled her ribs as blood dripped from her mouth and onto the dirt of the street. Skittering to her, her scarab chittered and flashed its wings. She hung onto it and drug herself upright, but it was clear she’d fall again without its support.
The Drifter advanced.
He wasn’t no more than three steps from her when he said–not slinging; he was that confident–“Why, you’re hardly more than a child! Why’s it you think you got to fight me?”
Nightingale hacked and spat. The spittle landed on her boot. To the Drifter’s amused smirk, she slung, all in a croak:
“My sister was called Grace.
Her movement matched her name.
You took her and left no trace.
So your life I’ve come to claim.”
As before, the words bolstered Nightingale; she leaned less on her scarab. But as before, her slinging had no effect on the Drifter.
“Grace? I don’t remember no Grace.” He yanked her hat off her, then turned her head this way and that with a rough hand. I clutched Arlie too tightly, and William cocked the shotgun, for all the good it’d do to a man who don’t bleed.
The Drifter was back to smiling. “Oh, yes, I do remember now. Colored girl. Her tears tasted sweet, like honey.” He smacked his lips. “You, though . . . I bet you taste bitter, like dandelions.”
With that, the Drifter stuck out his long red tongue and licked up her neck, to her chin, and across her cheek.
Madam had to hold William back, then.
But the Drifter wasn’t done yet. He grinned at the tears streaking Nightingale’s face, stood back, and slung,
“The cut of your jib
Ain’t for violence
I think you’d do better
Nightingale scrabbled at her throat. Her eyes bugged out, and she made tiny whimpering noises that about broke my heart, and Madam’s, and William’s, from the looks on all their faces.
The Drifter put his hands on his hips and stared down at her; she’d sunk into the dirt.
“Well, what I oughta do with you, now?” He nudged her with a boot. “Been thinking to take on an apprentice, but I never thought it’d be no colored girl.”
He focused on Madam, a rattler ready to strike. “But I got some other business to attend to first, it seems.”
He started for us. William’s quicker than a startled jackrabbit when he wants to be, and he hoisted up the shotgun, aimed, and fired faster than it takes you to blink twice.
The Drifter looked down at his belly, where a ragged hole now graced his shirt, but no blood came. “Now, we been through this already,” he said. “You can’t hurt me.” He started forward again, but Nightingale up and grabbed his foot. Her other hand wriggled in the dirt. I squinted, trying to get a better view.
And I smiled. For Nightingale’s hand, it wasn’t wriggling, but signing.
The Drifter, frowning, shook off her hand. Near stomped on it, but she yanked back too quick, and that hand started signing like the first.
“What you think you’re doing, fool?” He kicked her in the middle, hard, and William cocked the gun again. Nightingale curled in on herself, panting. But her fingers kept on signing. Kept on slinging.
The Drifter had already discounted her, so his back was to her when she hoisted herself upright, blood a-running down her nose, and screamed, so harsh and shrill I think if she’d been but a foot closer to the saloon, she’d’ve shattered the glass of its windows.
That gave the Drifter pause. Nightingale still sign-slung. At the same time, in a voice more suited to a frog, she voice-slung,
“Do your worst
With your verse
Do your time
With your rhyme
Cause you think
But I know
You’re just low-rate,
Full of hate–
And I’ll lead you
To your fate.”
By the time she neared the end of it the Drifter’s face had gone all purple and he was shouting his own sling over her, trying to drown her out. I couldn’t quite catch all of it, cause Nightingale’s voice were getting stronger the longer she went on, the more she kept signing. But he said something like,
“Oh this little lady
Thinks she’s more than a baby
Oh this little sprite
She ain’t got no fight.”
Whether it was the power of Nightingale’s slinging with voice and hands combined, or the strength of vengeance desired, or the strength passed down from her ma, or even sheer cussedness–the Drifter had little effect on our Nightingale.
She out-slung him, pure and simple.
She stood straight and tall by this point, and though he had more than a foot on her, she nonetheless seemed taller than him, tall as a giantess, and her voice took on a liquid quality–like the honey he’d mentioned to rile her. I didn’t know it then, but Nightingale told me later that her signing matched her spoken words when she said, in a voice of quiet surety,
“My mama taught me,
Never to fear.
My mama taught me,
Never to veer.
My mama taught me,
Heart be true
My mama taught me
To defeat you.”
Though there was nothing direct in it to drive him to his knees, he done fell nonetheless. Without a second’s hesitation, she caught up his collar and leaned close to his ear.
“This is how you die, you son of a bitch:
Without a cry, without a twitch.”
And I swear upon my own mama’s grave, his mouth made O’s like a surprised fish, and he keeled over. Just like Nightingale’s slinging commanded, he made no cry, and he made no twitch.
We burned the Drifter’s body, of course, cause like I said, maybe he was a man once, but no longer. Fire is safest, with his like.
As we watched the ash that’d been the Drifter rise on the breeze, I said to Nightingale, “What’re you planning now? Heading back home?”
She laughed a little, though it sounded more like a choked cough. “I never right thought on it.” She didn’t say, Cause I didn’t think I’d live, but it was in her eyes. “Bonefort ain’t home no more, not with Talia and Ma gone.” She peered down the street and out toward the desert wilds, and I reckon she was thinking on more long, bitter-cold nights with meals of dried root and only her scarab for company.
“You could stay on here,” Madam said.
“All respect, Madam Fleur, but I still don’t intend to be pretty girl.”
“Once again I wasn’t about to ask,” she said. “But William could always use some help round the bar.”
Arlie’s fist found a curl. I worked to disentangle it. “And I’d sure appreciate if you could teach me your signs.” I don’t mind saying, my voice hitched. “I wanna talk with my boy. Stay.”
Madam set her hand on Nightingale’s shoulder, squeezed. “There’s a place for you here, Nightingale.”
She bowed her head. Near soft as a butterfly’s flap, said, “Much obliged.”
I see you’ve finished your whiskey, mister. Must’ve been some time ago, though you never asked for another. Well: You’ll get no more on the house. Cause all those details you thought didn’t matter to my story? They do. They show we’re a family in this here saloon, in this here town. And like I said, Lasthope ain’t one of them towns that abides by the sort of talk you spouted about our Nightingale.
Which is why William’s getting the shotgun, same as the one as didn’t fell the Drifter. I’m betting though, it’d fell you.
Afore you run off, though, lemme finish the tale proper: That, mister, is how Lasthope came by its first wordslinger.
But it’s just a piece of how she became part of its family.
About the Author
Amanda Helms is a science fiction and fantasy writer whose fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Cackle of Cthulhu anthology, Daily Science Fiction, Future Science Fiction Digest, and elsewhere. Amanda blogs infrequently at amandahelms.com and tweets with a smidgen more frequency @amandaghelms. She and her husband live in Colorado with their increasingly lazy Boxer mix.
About the Narrator
Stephanie Malia Morris works in a bookstore by day and a library by night, which gives her access to more books than she can possibly read over several lifetimes. She is a recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award and a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH, Apex, and Nightmare. She has narrated short fiction for StarShipSofa, Far Fetched Fables, Uncanny, and all four of the Escape Artists podcasts.
About the Artist
Yuumei is an illustrator, comic artist, and designer. Her works include “Knite” and “Fisheye Placebo” webcomic series, Axent Wear Cat Ear Headphones, and various art that focuses on environmentalism, fantasy, and human nature.
You can read her comics for free at YuumeiArt.com
Follow on Instagram.com/yuumeiart or support on Patreon.com/Yuumei