Content warning: drug use, child abuse
Jin flinches when the kettle starts to shriek. He’s not familiar with the sound—when has he ever used a kettle?—and in his current state of tension, the shrill noise feels like claws piercing his eardrums.
Fortunately, Arav is quick to take the kettle off the woodburning stove, handle wrapped in a thick woven mat of some kind. He doesn’t notice Jin’s startled wince, or if he does, he’s being unusually tactful about it.
“Have you ever had ojanis or moonflower in tea form?” the truthwitch asks, casual, like he’s inquiring about the local climate and not whether Jin makes a habit of drugging himself into a stupor.
Jin takes a breath and lets it out slowly. “Tried moonflower tea once. Spent two hours staring at the sky thinking it was the most beautiful thing anyone’d ever seen. Never did ojanis.” Swallowing, he adds, “Definitely never took them together. You sure this is safe?”
Arav looks up, smirking, from where he’s pouring hot water into a wooden mug. “Why, Jin, is that the voice of fear?”
The damn witch will know if Jin lies, so instead he snaps, “Don’t like altering my senses. Bad for business.”
To his surprise, Arav’s face softens. He returns his attention to where he’s carefully measuring out ingredients. “I won’t do anything to hurt you,” he says quietly. “Nor will I ask you anything we haven’t already agreed upon.”
Normally, such assurances would mean very little to Jin, but he knows how the truthwitch’s curse works. So full of truth magic, they can’t so much as speak in metaphor. And despite Arav being a smug bastard and generally a pain in Jin’s ass, he’s never once tried to do Jin harm.
Jin settles once more on the daybed, trying to calm his heartbeat as Arav stirs the concoction of ojanis, moonflower, and who knows what else.
“You sure you don’t want me drunk, too, just for the holistic experience?” Jin asks at length.
He can’t see Arav’s face, but he sounds like he’s smiling when he says, “Believe it or not, this isn’t something I’m putting together for your personal entertainment. Or mine, for that matter.” The witch turns around at last, bearing a steaming wooden mug. His face becomes serious. “I’m pretty sure I know your answer, but are you sure you want to do this? Sometimes memories are buried for a reason.”
Jin nods once, firmly. “Won’t feel whole until I can remember. And if I do have a family somewhere, I want to know why they did what they did.”
Tipping his head in acceptance, Arav hands Jin the mug. It smells strongly of witch’s mint and muddy fields.
Jin gives a bracing smile, then raises the mug in a toast to Arav. “Here’s to finding lost things.” And before he can second-guess himself, he tips the mug back and swallows down the scalding tea as fast as he can, barely tasting its bitter green tang. When he reaches the mushy herbs at the bottom, he pauses. “Should I drink these, too, or...?”
“No,” Arav says quickly. “It probably wouldn’t be dangerous, but...just in case.”
He comes forward to take the mug from Jin’s hand, and Jin has to crack a smile. “So, can you tell my future in the dregs?”
Arav rolls his eyes. “You don’t know how many people ask me that.” He studies the bottom of Jin’s mug for a moment. “If I were an omenwitch,” he says slowly, “I would say this particular arrangement forebodes an imminent change in your state of being.” He looks up, grinning. “You’re about to be very, very high.”
“Thought this wasn’t for your entertainment,” Jin grumbles.
Arav sets the mug back on the counter with a shrug. “Just because it’s not for my entertainment doesn’t mean I can’t be entertained.” He drags the lone chair in the room over and takes a seat across from Jin so their knees are almost touching. “You should probably lie down now,” he adds. “I’m not entirely sure how fast that tea will affect you.”
Jin remembers his one experiment with moonflower and not being able to stand up. He quickly swings his legs up onto the daybed and leans back against the pillows. There’s a long minute of silence where he’s hyper-aware of every sensation in his body as he waits for the brew to take hold.
“Deep breaths,” Arav murmurs. “Remember, you want your heartbeat slow.”
Of course. Jin forgot that part. He tries to focus on his breathing just like he does to fight through pain. One, two, three, four in. One, two, three out. Don’t think about how he’ll be entirely at Arav’s mercy in just a few minutes. Don’t think about the possibility that his mind could have hidden those memories for a reason, that his past might be enough to break him. Just don’t think at all, really.
Jin closes his eyes and breathes. One, two, three, four. One, two, three. Arav is a truthwitch and said he wouldn’t be harmed. One, two, three, four. One, two, three. Jin’s missing memories are more likely a product of the trauma that came after, not before. One, two, three, four. One, two, three.
He feels calmer, like the stillness of the evening outside has been pulled into his body along with the air in his lungs. The daybed is comfortably molded along his spine. It’s almost as if he’s floating. He smiles, and sees the scene painted behind his eyelids. A warm blue lake, clouds like gauzy silk, and the hum of summer cicadas. He trails a hand through the water, marveling at its clarity before he once more relaxes into the gentle support of the lake’s surface.
A soft voice drifts through his mind, underpinned with just a hint of power.
“Do you feel the effects yet?”
And Arav is beside him, standing in the water nearby. He was always there.
Yes, Jin says. This is a good place. Thank you for bringing me here.
Arav’s laugh meets his ears—just once, quietly. “Good. Remember this place. You can return here as often as you need to. Just say the words ‘let go’ and you’ll be back here, feeling just as calm and relaxed as you do now.”
And because Arav says it, it must be the truth.
“Are you ready to begin?”
Yes, Jin says again, because that feels correct even though he’s not quite sure what he’s ready for.
“Tell me, what did you forget in those five years?”
This time, there is no underpinning of power. Arav’s voice is power, thrumming through Jin’s mind and memory. His vision of the lake dissolves as though he’s sinking deep beneath the surface. The cicadas are swallowed by silence.
Like rapidly turning pages, snatches of scenes and sounds whirl past his perception. He sees—hears—feels—large hands on his, gently guiding his brush through the strokes of a wobbly character; the press and murmur of a crowd as he scurries past an endless parade of skinny, threadbare legs; a with one hand, dancing on a chair as she sings a song about far-off countries and the magic they call from the sky.
Too much. Not enough.
“Let’s narrow it down, then. What do you remember of your father?”
“Are you going to eat that?”
Jin is three, and his sister’s eyes are wide as she stares at the roll he’s picking pieces off of. It’s blackened and crusty in his small fingers, and it comes apart in little shreds that he nibbles at without hunger. He frowns and shoves the roll at his sister, only for a large hand to pluck it off the table.
“Papa!” cries the sister. Her big eyes turn on him, pleading. She is small and slight with sunken cheeks, and she does not have the energy to spend on tears.
“Jin will want it later,” says Papa’s voice, deep and firm. He splits off one-third of the roll and deposits it into the sister’s hand. “But you want it now, and so we will compromise.”
The sister scarfs down the piece of bread quickly, but not sloppily. She treats each stale crumb like the choicest of delicacies. Nothing wasted.
Jin turns back to the splintery table and begins to pick at that instead, listless.
Hours later, after his fever comes down, his stomach feels empty and bottomless, pinched with hunger. He nearly cries when Papa brings him dinner, a pale, salty broth—and two-thirds of a roll, which he eagerly devours. Two-week-old bread has never tasted so sweet. And while he gobbles it down, Papa’s big hands smooth the hair from his face and rub circles on his back.
Fair. Kind. Warm hands. He never played favorites between me and my sister.
“What was your sister like?”
“I hate you!”
Jin is four, and his tiny fists beat against the legs of someone much taller, someone who laughs and kicks him in the gut.
Jin lands in the mud, dizzy from tumbling over his own empty stomach.
“Run back home, whore’s son,” the stranger sneers. He dangles the wooden horse that he’d plucked so easily from Jin’s hands. His tone becomes mocking. “Or do you think you can get it back? Come on, you can reach it, can’t you?”
Jin struggles to his feet, angry and crying, and jumps, reaching with all his might. The stranger jerks the toy back, laughing, and turns to leave.
A blur of dirty grey and black flashes past Jin and tackles the stranger around the knees. He yelps and tumbles, sprawling face-first in the mud. He tries to scramble upright again, but there’s a demon in the shape of a one-handed girl sitting on top of him, and she yells, punching with her single fist at every word. “Don’t you ever ever ever ever ever mess with my little brother! Shithead! Stupid! Give it back!”
The stranger bats blindly at his attacker, too busy spitting out mud to respond, and the girl—Jin’s sister, that’s his sister—snatches the toy horse from the stranger’s hand and runs. She sprints towards Jin, and with her handless arm she reaches. He grabs her wrist and runs with her all the way home, laughing instead of crying.
Her name was Mi-Ran. Loyal. Fierce. Like fire. She could burn you as easily as she warmed you. Think she got that from Mother.
“Your mother? What can you recall of her?”
Jin is five, and he knows enough to cry silently. He sits curled in the corner, trying to go somewhere else in his head while his mother comes down from her blood-salt high. But it’s difficult to focus on the sands of Tiranezjh or the jungles of Scaraveda or one of the other places from Mi-Ran’s stories while his own mother curses and spits at him.
“What can I do with a boy?” she rages. “Your sister can work corners, but you! No one will pay for a boy. You are like a tick, sucking life from your family!”
Jin covers his ears with his hands, but that doesn’t block out everything. He can still hear the words falling on him like blows. He wishes Mi-Ran was here, or Papa, but Mi-Ran is out begging and they took Papa away two months ago. No one has told Jin when he will come back.
Mother twitches and cringes as the salt-high leaves her, mouth sticky and red. She stumbles toward the jar she keeps her happiness in, fingers scrabbling inside for any last crystals that remain. When she comes up with nothing, she screams in frustration and dashes the vessel against the floor.
Jin cries out as it breaks, terrified he will be next. Mother’s bloodshot eyes find him again, and her red mouth twists like an eel into vicious shapes. And then suddenly she’s smiling, and she’s calling him her little bird, and she’s moving towards him with her hands outstretched.
Her mouth is red, red, red.
Jin shakes as her fingers close around his wrist and pull him to his feet. She wraps her arms around him and whispers in his ear.
“We’re going to market, my little bird. Won’t that be nice?”
Jin isn’t sure, but he desperately nods his head nonetheless.
Mother doesn’t release his wrist as she leads him—drags him—outside, through the dingy streets, on and on until Jin thinks he’s going to collapse from this forced march. As he watches the buildings get thinner and older, leering over the street, he knows this is not the way to market.
At last, Mother takes him into a run-down house, moving past someone sleeping on the floor to a narrow staircase.
Jin is shaking again as she pulls him down the dark stone steps that echo with the patter of his bare feet. The cellar is small and the ceiling above dips inward like old, sagging skin.
A man sits at a table piled with little cloth bundles and one wooden barrel. He dips a chipped ceramic cup into the barrel and pours out a fistful of red crystals into an open cloth bundle. Jin sneezes at the overwhelming copper stench of blood-salt.
The man looks up, eyes flicking from Mother to Jin and back. He speaks rapidly in a language that Jin doesn’t know, gesturing angrily.
Mother says something in the same language. The man shakes his head. Mother says something else, and the man’s face breaks into a slow smile as his gaze shifts to Jin. He turns and begins packing a number of the cloth bundles into a leather satchel, which he offers to Mother.
At the same time as Mother takes it, she pulls Jin’s wrist forward, and the man’s fingers grasp Jin’s arm instead.
Jin’s heart is pounding. This man smells like rotten teeth and unwashed bodies and blood-salt. His grip is tight, too tight, and Jin tries to twist free only for the man to grab his other arm. Yellow nails dig into his skin.
Then Jin sees that Mother is leaving.
“Mama!” he screams. His fear of the man holding him is nothing compared to the terror of being left. He claws uselessly at his captor, a bright white coldness freezing his chest as he chokes for air.
“No! Let go! Let go!”
The man does not let go. He drags Jin closer, mouth splitting open in a grin that shows off his blackened teeth.
“Let go!” Jin sobs.
Let go! Let go! Please, fuck, just let me go!
The scene dissolves, swirling into darkness. The pain of the man’s grip, the stench of copper, and the black-toothed grin fade to nothing. Then there is light, warmth, and weightlessness. Jin floats on his back in a calm blue lake.
“Are you alright?”
There is no power in Arav’s voice now, only concern.
No, Jin says, and tears his eyes open.
Back in the caravan. The night outside is deeper than before, the air threaded with cricket song. Jin is still too aware of everything, like he’s seeing more of reality than he should. Dreams tug at the edges of his mind, trying to pull him back under to a damp, crumbling cellar reeking of copper. And he can still feel what young Jin felt, like sharp stones in his gut.
Arav doesn’t ask any more questions. He moves to sit on the edge of the daybed and lets Jin lean against him. His arm slips around Jin’s shaking shoulders.
The tears come as a surprise, and once Jin has started to cry, he can’t stop. He feels like his heart has been painfully propped open after being sealed up tight for twenty years. The fear and grief that come pouring out are too much. He clings to Arav, desperate for the support offered by that warm, gentle arm around him.
“You’re safe,” Arav murmurs. “It’s years and leagues away. You were so strong to survive, and you’re even stronger now. You’re going to be alright.”
And because it’s Arav speaking, Jin knows it’s the truth.