Ran got up from her seat and led me back to the cabin. Our cabin. As soon as the door was locked, she took off my collar.
The cabin was tiny: a bunk with only room for one, a little table that folded out of the wall, a shelf where she put a few books. I had to stoop to get through the doorway.
A man with a shiny badge had given her a blanket when we boarded. I was supposed to sleep on the cold metal floor. In my place: a good boy. But what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt us. That’s what Ran said.
She told me when we first got on that in the old days trains had run on wheels, over iron rails. That asleep or awake you could feel the beat of the wheels. Endless, like a heart. Ran made the rhythm on the bed to show me.
We glided, we sailed, a spear thrown into the night. Into the void: that was a word I learned since Ran bought me. We were deep in the world’s guts and getting deeper all the time. But we might have been in the void. “You go far enough inside and you end up on the outside.” I didn’t know what she meant by that but I liked the sound of it. I liked just about everything Ran said.
“Come here, Sugar Bone.” She only called me that when no one else was around.
I sat at her knee and she ran her hand over my scalp, gently. Then she raked her nails back, even gentler.
We played a game sometimes: she’d cut me with a pretty little knife, a pin with a fat pearly teardrop end, the shark’s tooth she wore around her neck on a silver chain. She’d cut my skin and we’d watch the wound heal up in a few seconds. A slit across my palm or along the curve of my shoulder. She never got tired of watching the two edges join and heal up perfect. And I never showed any sign of pain.
There’s no mark or scar on me. I’m smooth and sleek: another book-word I learned from Ran. My skin is the same shiny red-brown from head to toe. Ran is white like ice. But she’s hot too, like something left out all day in the sun.
“It won’t be long,” she said. “One more stop and then there’s no turning back.”
As far as I was concerned there never had been, not since we’d decided. “We take the train to Topheth and you’re free.” She told me that and I thought of nothing else for months.
But when she said “not too long” I had no idea of knowing what it might mean. That far underground we had no day or night to judge by. Clocks, of course, and schedules, but they did me no good. There were stops now and then, and meals served in the food car. But for me it was all one time, stretching and stretching. And when it snapped, we’d be there, in Topheth. End of the line. Freedom.
I’d never see the sun again and neither would Ran. She told me that it would take a while for our bodies to get used to the change. Not the outsides of us. My skin would stay the same color. And I don’t think anybody could get any whiter than Ran. It was our insides that would need to adjust. Vitamins, hormones, enzymes: more of Ran’s words. I didn’t pay much attention to those things. She always took care of me.
I sat at her knee and watched–through the tiny round window — the darkness flashing by. I asked her again what Topheth was like. We’d talked of little else since leaving. “Loud,” she whispered. “You’ll be afraid at first. Smoke, noise, flames.” Her voice got stronger, faster, like the train moving out of the station. I loved to hear her talk this way, telling me what our new life would be like. Silent, she was just a woman, a rich man’s daughter. But when she spoke she seemed to glow — happiness shining in her face — and to grow. We both got bigger as she told the stories from her books.
“At first you’ll think that everything is on fire. The sun’s below and the ground’s above. People walk on the ceilings. Float in midair. You can do whatever you want. Nothing is forbidden there. Free women and rubber-boys can walk hand in hand. They can kiss and not care who’s watching. Everything is allowed, and of course that makes it dangerous. But I’ll have you there to protect me.” She ran her hand down my neck, over my chest. “I’ll have my big bad Sugar Bone to keep me safe.”
A faint moan shook the train. The vents went dead and the lights flickered. I heard footsteps go past our door. Voices. Then the lights got bright and the air blew again, cool and sweet.
“No one will ask who owns you. There’s no such thing as chattel in Topheth. We’ll burn your papers as soon as we get there.”
Ran hadn’t owned me very long: less than a year. I’d heard of other rubber-boys spending their whole lives in the same household, passed through three, four, five generations. Mother to daughter, mother to daughter. But I wasn’t a gift. Ran chose me. She laid down her Daddy’s money to buy me.
She’d known my last owner, an angry little woman with ice cold hands. a friend of her Daddy’s, I think. Ran had seen me there on a visit. Then she had one of her servants come back to ask about a price. I overheard them talking. Was Mrs. Vang interested in parting with one of her rubber-boys? How about the one with the brick-red skin and the big shoulders?
Mrs. Vang had too many. I hadn’t served her in months. The older she got, the faster she grew tired of us.
But for Ran I was the first, the only one. That’s what she told me the day she brought me home.
We had a little ceremony when they made the transfer. Names on a piece of paper. A fat man in a floor-length gown was there to make it official. He wrote up the papers. He took my thumb and pressed it into the hot wax on the writ of ownership. Mrs. Vang forgot about me before she was out the door. Ran kissed the writ, then kissed me, as if she could transfer the words from the paper to my lips.
Later, when she began telling me about Topheth, she said I’d learn to read there. Just breathing in the smoky air would make the words come to life for me. Sometimes, when I was alone, I’d pretend to read her books, making up words to go with the pictures.
“There’s a river of lava that runs through Topheth,” she said, getting up from the bed. “Stone that’s turned liquid. Air so thick you can mold it with your hands like clay. People eat filth there. They throw their money away. They go naked if they want. No one ever sleeps. Up is down, in is out. Every rule is overthrown. We can do whatever we want there.”
I stood too. I put my hands under her arms and lifted her off the floor. She’d told me once about a hero who fought a creature that took its power from below. It could only be beaten when its feet weren’t touching the ground.
I kissed her, holding her off the floor. The lights flickered and died. For an instant everything — inside and out — was pure blackness. Lips touching in the void. Hands hard in her armpits. The air was thin, sucked backwards through the vents. She hung in my hands, helpless.
I waited for her to say she loved me, then set her down. The lights came back on.
Saying she loved me in public would have brought shame and black looks, maybe punishment, on her. For me it would have meant death. But in our little cell she could say any words that were in her head. And I could do whatever I wanted.
“A long time ago,” she told me once, “it was absolutely forbidden to speak in public of what the body does. Birth, eating, elimination, sex, death. And before that it was considered obscene to talk of God, or money.”
She ran her finger down my forehead, over the tip of my nose, across my lips, my chin, drawing a line with her fingernail. “I love you,” she said, excited by the sound of the words. She closed her eyes and said it a third time. “In Topheth I’ll be able to say that no matter who’s listening.”
She took off my clothes slowly. She said she liked to see me laid bare a little at a time. She pushed me down on the bed and we did what we’d done a thousand times before. Every time it was the same, and every time it was new.
I woke first and lay against the bunk wall, watching the soft rise and fall of her stomach. Soon she felt my eyes on her and woke too. She said she was hungry.
She dressed. And when I had my clothes on, she told me to kneel. I did as I was told and waited for her to slip the cold steel collar around my neck. She hesitated. “Only a few more times,” she said quietly, then snapped the link and told me to get up.
We went down the hall to the car where they served food. I stayed three paces behind. I kept my eyes on the floor. I didn’t say a word when the scrawny little man — whom I could have killed with one hand — pinched my cheek and told Ran how handsome he thought I was.
She sat at a small round table, ordered and stared out the window at the pure, perfect darkness. I sat on a rug at her feet. The food came and she picked off a few scraps of meat and handed them down to me. Our eyes never met in public. She spoke nothing but commands when we were around others. “Go. Come. Sit. Stand. Answer. Be silent.”
The night Ran bought me she took me to a room filled with dozens, maybe hundreds, of candles. The air was heavy: smoke, heat, the sour smell of burning tallow. She had me unwrap myself like a Christmas present. “Slow down, slow down,” she whispered. “We’ve got all the time in the world.”
It shocked me, the tone of voice she’d used. With Mrs. Vang I was lower than an animal. She needed to be drunk to call one of us into her bedroom. And she always ended up in tears, cursing, slapping me and telling me to go away. But that first night with Ran I saw that things could be different. I felt the world start to change. Before she touched me, Ran told me a story. I understood little, most of the words were too hard for me then. Something about a girl and a king, night after night of stories, a wedding day that never came. I waited, naked, with the candle light and her soft voice playing over me. And only when she was done with the story would she touch me.
The next day, when she took me to her friends to show off her latest toy, she was a different person. I squatted at her feet, hungry, while she stuffed herself with chocolates and cherries and candied quinces.
The lights overhead swayed. The train was beginning to slow down. A little boy got up from his chair and came to where we sat. He petted my head, then, sure his mother wasn’t looking, gave me a sharp kick in the ribs. I showed no pain. He was smiling. I sat and he stood, eye to eye. The gentle pat and the angry kick were the same to him. He wasn’t sure what I was, but he knew I couldn’t strike back.
He showed me his fork. “Go ahead,” I whispered. Even speaking to a child was dangerous, but as Topheth approached, I felt my chains weakening. The boy smiled again, then stabbed the fork into my neck and yanked it out. In an instant, the four holes sealed themselves. The boy’s mother noticed he wasn’t at the table. “Rolly, get over here. Leave the poor thing alone.” He climbed back onto his chair but kept his eyes on me, wondering where the holes had gone.
Ran finished and put her plate on the floor. She always ordered more than she could eat. She took care of me: there was plenty of food for me if I waited long enough.
When she decided I was done, she jerked my chain. We went forward to the first car in the train. It was made all of glass: walls and ceiling and floor divided into little panes. We were moving still in pure blackness, but up ahead was a tiny light. The last station before Topheth.
There were soft chairs in the car, sofas and a little bar laid out with drinks and snacks. The car came to a point at the front, a glass snake’s head on the body of the train. Ran told me to sit and went to the bar.
A man offered her a glass of wine and they started to talk. I was far enough away, sitting on my haunches by the door, that I could only catch a few words. Ran used a different voice with the man: higher, clipped, faster, as if putting on an act. For the man or me, I wasn’t sure which. He touched her sleeve, he smiled and pointed and they went to the front of the car.
He asked Ran about me. She shrugged, laughed like a windup doll, as if embarrassed to have such a pet.
He must have seen rubber-boys before, but was using me as an excuse to make small talk. How much did I cost? Was I hard to manage? What did one do with rubber-boys when they grew tiresome?
The fact that Ran kept me meant she had money. Her father’s money. Another reason for the man to find her so interesting.
She laughed with the man like a bad little girl. With me — when we were alone — every word, every touch, was important. In her room with the doors locked, we were sinners. Our guilt weighed more than any steel collar.
She’d read me the story of a blind hero, again and again, out of the heavy black book with the flimsy pages. The man was chained in a temple, but he finally went mad and pulled the whole building down. There was a picture of the man: naked, with his eyes closed tight, straining, his chains pulling at the stone columns, the roof caving in, people running and screaming. Ran loved that story almost as much as me. She read it in a soft voice, as if saying a prayer.
With the man in the glass car she was a completely different woman. Joking, smiling, as though nothing — me, our trip to Topheth, all the stories she’d told me — meant anything.
She snapped her fingers and I went to her side. I towered over the man and he was at least a head taller than Ran. He wrinkled his nose as I came close. Some people say they can smell when a rubber-boy is in the room.
He was like a little dog, squeaky, moving too fast. I could have easily broken his neck. I could have taken his head and crushed it to a pulp.
“Hold out your hands,” Ran said. She rapped her wine glass against a wall, cracking it. I liked the sound. She did it again, making a ragged knife edge. With one quick move, she slashed me across the hands. The wound gaped like a toothless mouth. Then the bloody lips found each other, pressed themselves together and healed up tight. “It doesn’t hurt him at all,” Ran said. “He doesn’t feel a thing.” Sometimes she asked me what it was like when she cut me, and I’d just shrug. It was better if she didn’t know. It made me stronger not to tell her.
We felt the train slowing. A few more people came into the front car and Ran’s new friend introduced them to her.
“And you’re traveling on business?” a young woman said.
“Yes, in a way. We’re . . . I’m on my way to Topheth for my father. He has business there. I have some messages he wants delivered personally. And you?”
The woman made her lips into an awful, purple-red smile. She squeezed her husband’s hand. “No, just a holiday for us. We come down a few times a year. You know, there are things in Topheth you can’t get anywhere else. Misha’s becoming awfully good with a target pistol. He likes to spend some time in the galleries. You never know who they’ll have there next. And we visit the bawdy houses. Nothing like a little variety to spice up a marriage, don’t you think? I see your husband doesn’t mind you having your toys.” She ran her hand along my arm.
Ran said she wasn’t married.
The women pried open my fist and rubbed her thumb in my palm. “This is a particularly nice one. You’re taking him to Topheth to sell? I hear the market is good these days. You should get a fine price for him.”
“No, no, he’s not for sale. I just like to have him along when I travel.”
“Well, you might see something you like better and want to get rid of him. Have you been to Mama Luka’s place yet? How do you like the new gandy-hooks?”
Ran made her face hard, trying to hide the fact that she didn’t know the word.
“This is your first time down?”
“No. Of course not.” She turned away, looking toward the oncoming station. The light grew brighter. Everyone was quiet then. This is what it would be like when we came into Topheth. Huge columns. Blackened stone walls. Splashes of light on the train bed. Signs shouting out messages. Hundreds of people. A mountain of baggage. “How long do we normally stop here?” Ran said.
“Ten or fifteen minutes. Why?”
Ran snapped her fingers and we went for the door. I felt the whole weight of the train as the brakes came on, great jets of fire shooting from under the car. The walls of the station were lit up bright, like the rib cage of a huge snake.
The train slid to a stop and smoke billowed around us. Faces floated in the clouds. Hands waved. Luggage seemed to move by itself. A man pushed by with a little cart of flavored ices.
“Let’s go,” Ran said. We went through two cars and exited onto the platform. The air was different than inside the train, filled with oily smoke, body odors, burnt candy fumes.
Coming down a long metal stairway was a woman with her rubber-boy in tow. He was completely naked, with heavy weights on his ankles. Ran saw them too and we watched as they crossed a bridge over the train bed. They disappeared through a gateway with words flashing overhead in orange and yellow. I wanted to ask Ran what they said, but there were too many people nearby.
We went down a short tunnel to the station’s main hall. Ran checked the huge four-faced clock that stood like a watch tower in the middle of the room. “We have 10 minutes,” she said quietly. The ceiling was too far above us to see. Shadows and smoke boiled overhead. Shapes with wings sailed in the darkness. Trains were lined up at the platforms, some with glass-front cars like ours, some built to carry freight, some with military markings. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people surged around us.
Ran sat down on a bench. I crouched next to her. It wouldn’t be long and I’d be able to sit with her, an equal, in public. Though her hand was on my shoulder, she seemed very far away. “Aren’t we taking the same train all the way there?”
She didn’t answer. Another rubber-boy went past, carrying a little girl on his back. She rode in a leather harness, like a princess on an elephant. Ran had told me about elephants. Her stories were full of wild animals. Tigers and dragons, crocodiles and mermaids. Salamanders born in flame. Goat-leg men with burning eyes. Harpies who turn men endlessly on spits, slicing off meat to eat, waiting by the fires as the flesh grows back.
“What does that sign say?” I pointed to a string of bright blue numbers.
I asked again.
She cuffed me on the side of the head. “It says be quiet.”
That close to Topheth, a few more hours on the train, and I could already feel my freedom. “I want an ice. A red one. Buy me one.”
She grabbed my ear and yanked my head down. “Don’t use that tone of voice with me.”
I pulled loose, glaring at her. “I want an ice. Now.”
We were silent, watching the seconds tick past on the clock. Soon enough time would mean nothing. We’d live forever because there’s no before or after in Topheth. An eternity in a moment: that’s how Ran put it. I’d eat the same ice forever there, lie beside Ran in one endless embrace.
“I think we should get our things off the train,” she said. “We can stay here a while. Take the next train down.” Before I could argue, she said, “I don’t think you’re ready.”
A pair of guards walked past, boots clicking on the smooth stone floor. They slowed, looking at Ran and me. Men always looked at Ran, then at me, jealous and disgusted that she wanted me and me only. I bowed my head as the guards went past. I closed my eyes.
An alarm sounded, high and soft like steam escaping. One of the big signs flashed and the letters changed. “What does it say?”
She hit me again. “Keep your mouth shut.” She’d never spoken to me this way before: angry, fearful. Not even the time when, playacting, I picked her up off the ground and shook her like a little girl, when she forced a knife into my hand and told me to cut myself. This was different, not a game.
I stood up. “You haven’t really been there, have you?”
“Of course I have,” she said.
“Don’t lie to me.” Now we both were afraid, but not of each other. “You haven’t been to Topheth. You made it all up.”
She stood too, reaching for my chain. But I pushed her hand away and grabbed her instead, by the hair.
“Get your hands off me!”
The guards pushed through the crowd, their black shock batons ready. I let go of Ran but didn’t bow my head. “You have a problem here, Ma’am?”
“We’re going to Topheth,” I whispered.
She took hold of my chain, but I slapped her hand away. The guards both sprang. I felt a hot jolt as one of the batons hit my chest. My arms went dead, fire running in my veins. But I could still kick. The other guard went down, shouting curses. The baton hit me again. Sparks and needles exploded in my head. With the quick turn of a knob, the first guard had his baton ready to kill, the point hard against my ribs. His knee was in my stomach. His breath was hot on my face.
He waited, looking to Ran. “Is it yours?”
She nodded. If I hadn’t been property, owned by a wealthy woman, the guard surely would have killed me.
“You have problems with it before?”
The one I’d kicked got up and put the bottom of his boot on my face, twisting my head sharply. I didn’t fight back, I didn’t even want to. I looked up at Ran as if from the bottom of a deep pit.
“No,” she said. Then quieter: “Don’t hurt him.” We were surrounded by hundreds of faces: angry, worried, puzzled, curious.
Ran could have been free of me right there. A rubber-boy attacking a woman of her station was grounds for death. “He gets wild sometimes,” she said. “But he’s learned his lesson. Don’t hurt him, please.”
Another alarm sounded. “We need to be back on the train,” she said.
The injured guard said, “Can I see your papers?” He went through them quickly and told his partner to let me go. He must have recognized Ran’s family name. “You’d better have it taken care of, Ma’am. It’s dangerous.”
“Yes, of course. Thank you for your help.”
They backed away and I stood, the feeling returning slowly to my arms.
“Let’s go,” Ran said. “We don’t have much time.”
We were back on the train just before the doors sealed shut. Ran led me directly to her cabin. She didn’t want to face the other passengers.
I felt the train moving. We were on our way and there was no turning back now. For either of us.
She said nothing for a long time. But her need to tell stories was too strong. “You’ll see when we get there. The train will glide in midair. There’s no ground there, really. The whole city hangs above the pit. The light comes from below.”
I wasn’t listening. I’d heard it all before. It was just a story, a way of keeping the truth from coming too close.
“People float in the air. We can kiss like angels. Gravity holds you up instead of pulling you down. We’ll have wings and crowns made out of fire. There are dragons there, in the deep, swimming in the flames.”
She stopped suddenly and laid my papers out on the table. “We can do it right now. We don’t have to wait until we get there.” She had candles. She lit them and set them up in a star shape. “We can perform the ceremony by ourselves. Right here.” The words rattled out of her as if someone else — the woman she used to be, all the long-dead people who’d written her books — was speaking through her.
“Here, look here.” She pointed to a name at the bottom of the page. “This is you, your name. Here’s the first letter.”
She found a pen and moved it over a piece of paper. A slow curve. Right to left, back, and right to left again. “There. The letter S.” A little snake, a black scar on the paper. “Go ahead. You try.” I did as I was told but couldn’t make the pen obey. The little boy in the food car could do better than me. Ran guided my hand and together we made a better S. Then me alone, worse than before.
“Try it again. Go slowly.”
I shook my head. “Let’s wait until we get there.”
“If you can’t read your name, then you can’t be free. That’s part of it.”
She picked up the writ of ownership and put one corner into the flame. It turned brown, but she pulled it back before it caught fire.
“If we burn the paper,” I said, “will I still have the same name?”
She smiled. “It’s up to you. In Topheth you can be whoever you want.”
“I don’t want to be someone else. I just want to be yours. Yours, but free.”
“Then you need to learn your name. Here’s the S. Try it again.”
Without thinking, I grabbed her hand and forced the pen to the back of my arm. I pushed hard and together we broke through. She tried to stop me at first, but I was too strong for. We kept going and the metal point slit the skin. Then we pulled back to watch the wound heal itself.
Ran dropped the pen and I forced it into her fist. “Don’t,” she hissed.
“I need to learn. This is the only way for me.”
We poked the hole again and moved the pen to cut a letter. An S, traces of ink along the edges. She fought me but I held on. “Don’t. You’re hurting me.” We slid the pen through the wound again, widening it.
“What’s the next letter?”
She didn’t answer, lifting the pen away and pressing it to the back of her own arm. Her smile was back; she’d made up her mind. She pressed and the point broke the skin. Weakened by the pain, though, she needed my help to complete the letter. She moaned and shook as the pen entered her, but we went on with it, slicing an S into her skin. This wound didn’t heal itself. It remained raw, ugly, oozing blood. Drops fell on the writ, making a small scarlet seal.
We looked back at my arm. The cut had closed up, but a faint shadow stayed, a ghost letter.
By the time we got to Topheth, we’d finished my name.