Kij Johnson

Myths

Words and stories are cheap now. We type them into our computers, do some cutting and pasting and run a spell-check, and, pow, a story. They do not have the importance of the stories that were only told in the dark of a winter’s moon; or the stories that were handwritten, word by copperplate word, on a table in the corner of the parlor; or the tales that were passed down orally through a thousand years.

But stories should not be cheap; they should cost the writer something, and the reader something else. Ideally, you read something of mine and it changes you, if only by making you view something in a new way. Of course it has changed me; I had to tell the truth to tell the story — whatever the truth is.

I wrote "Myths" for a comic book called Andrew Vachss’s Underground, which collected comic and text short stories set in a near-future world.
 

Myth Girls tell stories. It’s what we do, same as Scooter Boys ride and Game Boys play. You have to be good to be a Myth Girl. You have to understand what the rules of a story are, how to tell it, when to scare your audience, when to let them off easy. You have to know how to fall into the trance that brings the Myth, and how to cement it in blood.

Pain cements things. I Tell you a Myth and I cut your hand, and you remember the pain and the blood, and the Myth with them. If you’re part of an audience, you’ll all remember, knowing you might have been the one cut. We try not to cut too deeply, but even so, Myth Girls don’t tell light stories. Talk to a Story Boy for that.

It’s hard to be a Myth Girl. What are you trading? Hard words and pain for food and a safe wall to sleep against. Not many people need the truth that badly.

 


Before I ran away, the Corp was training me to be a Savant. Mothers bring unwanted babies in: if we pass the tests, the Corp buys us. I don’t know how well the mothers are paid, but well enough that sometimes one has a baby hoping to sell it. I wonder what happens to the ones who don’t pass the tests.

We’re very expensive, Savants. There’s the money to our mothers, and then there are all those years of feeding us and training us, and paying our support “families,” and making little corrections inside our heads until we can interface with the big computers. After they make the changes, we get seizures that make us try to claw our brains out, and the medicines to calm us cost a lot. Whenever I was screaming at them to stop the seizures, they would tell me how lucky I was to belong to them, and how grateful I should be.

I was grateful, until I was eleven. It was my birthday and I wanted real Nisei food, so they brought in a chef from outside, maybe even from the Tunnels, where everyone said the best Nisei food came from. He was small and wrinkled with his hair pulled back in a long tail. He cooked right in front of me: chopped real, dirt-grown vegetables into pieces with a big knife, and then cooked them on a little burner. When we were done eating, he cleaned his pot and burner and packed them away. The knife he swaddled in a clean cloth, and slipped into a special case.

“Do you love your knife?” I asked, pleased to recognize the expression on his face.

He laughed. “It’s just a knife. A tool.”

“Then why are you so nice to it?”

“When your living depends on them, you look after your tools.”

“Genoa, you’ll catch your death of cold,” one of the “family” interrupted: “Here, sweetheart; put on your sweater.”

 


So I ran away. No one stopped me or questioned me, a little girl wearing slippers and clutching a bundle wrapped in a sheet, leaving by the Corp’s main gate. I don’t know what they were thinking for it to be so easy, except that tools stay where they’re put.

I think I went only because I didn’t know about the Underground. Mostly everybody ignored me, except for the ones who scared me. I walked and walked. A boy flew past on a scooter and grabbed the bundle from my hands. I started crying, and didn’t stop until much later, when I fell asleep in a pile of boxes set out for recycling in an access corridor.

I didn’t feel anything while I was asleep, but someone stole my slippers. After that I walked barefoot through the broken glass and trash in the Tunnels, or I tied rags around my feet when they hurt too much. I couldn’t run, so I hid a lot. When I got hungry, I dug through the trash piled up all over, and ate a lot of stuff that smelled funny and sometimes made me sick.

I had seizures sometimes. One time I woke up with my tongue sore from where I bit it and bruises all over my body that I didn’t remember getting. Another time, I fell asleep exhausted afterward and a bum woke me up, pawing through my clothes. I didn’t dare fall asleep after that. I kept moving down, deeper Underground, hoping the Corp wouldn’t find me.

Then I saw the Myth Girls. They ran past me through the Tunnels, shouting “Myth Girls Tell! Myth Girls Tell!”

They were all a lot older than me, in their teens. Their long stained coats had things sewn to them: bones, hair, scraps of plastic, antique memory chips and bars. Their hair was long, tied back with colored wires.

I was dizzy with tiredness and hunger and my head hurt and I had diarrhea and I was afraid another seizure might start, which would leave me helpless; but I followed them because I didn’t want to be alone in the Tunnels any more.

They led to an open place where five tunnels joined. In the center of a gathering crowd, a gang-boy knelt in front of a Myth Girl, a small copper-skinned girl with slanted cat-eyes. He was wearing a transparent jacket painted with colored slashes, dark skin ash-colored with fear. The girl held a little ceramic knife in one hand, and the boy’s hand in the other. “I Tell you the story; it answers the question. Blood cements it.” She sliced his palm. Blood poured over the blade. The gang-boy shivered.

The rest of the Myth Girls whirled around, howling. My head was spinning, and I wanted to throw up. My hands didn’t belong to me, numb and prickling, both at once. The Myth Girls’ rhythms throbbed behind my eyes. A tall girl had a ratty knotted braid that fell to her knees; her eyes rolled up in her head, and she fell over and started to Tell.

It’s easy for Savants to fall into trances: it’s part of how they change our brains, why they buy us when we’re babies. I didn’t realize I’d fallen into one until I woke up with my head in the copper-skinned girl’s lap. The crowd was gone, and the Myth Girls were all kneeling around me. I felt too sick to be afraid.

The long-tailed one knelt beside me. “You okay, fod?” Fod for “fodder:” Tunnel-talk for kids. Her fingers tapped the floor in an itchy rhythm, like she couldn’t hold still.

I shook my head, and then started crying, it hurt so much. “I’m — going to have a seizure. Don’t let them find me—”

Copper-Girl said, “Hey, you Told. You not even a Myth Girl and you fell right into it.”

“Please—” I sniffed.

“We watch you,” Tail-one said impatiently. “Swear. You can trance?”

“It happens...all the time,” I said. And then the seizure started.

 


When I woke up later, I was in a pile of rags in a little alcove. Safe. Usually I made a mess of myself in a seizure, so I guess someone had cleaned me up. “Where —” I started.

An albino-white Myth Girl sitting next to me jumped up and left. Tail-one and Copper-Girl came back with her a moment later.

“Hey,” said the tail-one, fidgeting. “I’m Maniac. I rule Myth Girls. This is Lyre —” she pointed to the copper-skinned girl “—and this Spider.” That was the white one. “You?”

“Um, Genoa,” I said.

“Why you Underground, Genoa? Girl like you must have a nice family somewhere.”

“I’m a Savant. I was. I ran away.”

“Shit, a Savant?” Lyre stared at me. “You a Savant, Corp takes care of you. Why run?”

“Um.” I didn’t even know the words for what had been wrong.

Maniac tapped her foot impatiently, fast. Maniac always moves like this, vibrates like a wire in a wind. “You too little to be by yourself Underground. You die.”

“I’m okay,” I said, but I shivered, remembering the Scooter Boy who took my bag, the stolen slippers, the unfamiliar bruises, the bum.

“Myth Girls be a small gang, but special. You be one of us, we take care of you.”

“But I have to have this medication—” I said.

“We steal the stuff, we need to,” Maniac said fiercely. “You Myth Girl now.”

 


It was good with the Myth Girls. They cut my hand to make me part of the gang, and then gave me my own long coat and sewed the first pieces on. I didn’t know anything about living Underground, but Maniac and the others helped me and got me medicine and took care of me. Lyre took me out teasing bums until Maniac chewed her out for taking me along on something so dangerous. Spider wanted to teach me to pick pockets, but Maniac said I didn’t have to do that. I fell into a trance almost every time we Told, and she said that was hard enough work.

I’d been with the Myth Girls a couple of months when a woman came to us. She was thirty, dressed Corp but poor, like she was from uplevel maybe doing some drudgy little job to pay for a single room and maybe to feed a cat. Her black eyes were very big, and she was sweating, rubbing her palms dry on her jacket. She was scared but determined, needing magic. I felt bad for the ones like her, and there were a lot of them: there is no magic, not like she wanted, anyway, to make everything happy and easy. But she had the money, and she had a question. Myth Girls don’t say no.

People drifted towards us as we danced shouting through the Tunnels — a half-dozen, then a dozen more, until we had a crowd. They always gather. It’s the horror of seeing a knife-victim bleeding on the street: you’re afraid, but you can’t resist. Even knowing it could be you.

I was spinning like a dervish, spiraling into my trance: even here, half lost, the Myth Girls whirling around me made me happy. I belonged here, with my friends, in the eye of this storm.

I raised my arms — they’d taught me a lot of gestures like this, to make it interesting. Maniac caught the corp-woman’s hand and held it palm-up, shiny with sweat. The woman whimpered, but I cut her anyway, saw the blood, and closed my eyes.

I can’t tell you a Myth without Telling. It’s the chant and the song and the dance and the words, all together. Without the Telling, it just sounds like bits of old fairy tales, jumbled up with hearsay and vids and Tunnel-smarts. But it’s the truth that’s Told. If it comes out different every time, it’s because you’re different every time you ask.

While I Told, the rest of the Girls would swarm through the crowd, quick as rats. They’d take packages and tokens, anything that might not be noticed right away.

Afterwards, the Girls clustered around.

“Nice work, fod.” Lyre handed me back my colors. I pulled the coat on, feeling it stick to my sweaty back and arms. I felt cold, tired, light-headed, a little sad, like always afterward.

“I did all right?”

Maniac danced from foot to foot. “Yeah.” She touched my shoulder, already turning away to lean over Spider’s shoulder. “What’s the take?”

Hey,” Lyre hissed, and gestured with her head toward the shadows along the Tunnel’s wall.

As soon as the story is over, the crowd always vanishes. Even whoever asked for the Myth leaves: I guess it scares them, what we do. No one ever stays. This time, someone was still there, leaning against the wall in the shadows under a broken Tunnel light. Watching us.

Maniac darted toward him, her little ceramic knife in her hand. “What you lookin’ at?”

He stepped forward into a cone of light. He was medium tall, his face shadowed by a crop of rough hair. Old — maybe thirty. Dressed like anyone Underground, but he had no colors, no gang jacket, no affiliation marks anywhere. I knew he wasn’t a bum: he didn’t have enough scars and he looked too dangerous.

“I’m Jordan,” he said, and looked us over.

“Shit,” I hissed.

“Know him?” Lyre breathed.

“He’s Corp, a corporate enforcer. I heard the name once.”

“Shit,” she said. Even down here no one would touch him: the Rules say he’s safe. Not to mention he could kill you if he wants, and who’s going to care about a Tunnel rat more or less? I kept my face down.

He said: “I’m looking for someone. Genoa. She’s a Savant who came Underground.”

Maniac strutted, knife flickering from hand to hand. “Just Myth Girls here, corp-boy. You see any Sahvaants here?” She rolled the word out, mocking.

He stood still, not buying it. “I hear the Myth Girls have been stealing medication for Savant seizures.”

“We no thieves,” she said, but she was still.

“She’d be worth a lot of money to her Corp, this girl.”

“No,” she said again, and I felt so happy I had to rub it in on him. See, I was important, I was a person. The Girls would never let anything happen to me.

I jumped up and walked forward, until I stood maybe ten feet from the enforcer. “Why you want her back?”

He looked at me, recognizing. “Her people want her back.”

“She doesn’t have people back there, just a Corp. She’s just a thing to them.”

“Right,” Maniac said beside me.

I said: “If she’s been gone a while, maybe she’s lost her touch. Maybe they wouldn’t want her any more.”

“No. They need her. You—” he stopped at my expression “— she knows how hard it is to be a Savant, how special. How important.”

“Maybe she’s special to someone else now. Maybe you’ll never find her. You look and look, and she’ll just never turn up.” I’m pleading with him, begging.

“Sorry.” He stepped forward.

Maniac was suddenly between us. “Wrong, corp-boy. Go home. We a family. We protect our own.”

See? I wanted to scream at him.

“She’s not yours,” he said to her. “She’s indentured to the Corp.”

“Myth Girls got her now.”

“Wait,” I said, but Maniac was louder.

“You, Corp — you got lots like her. Forget this one. She’s ours. She Tells Myths better than anyone.”

“She can’t make as much for you as I can offer for her return.”

“It’s not money,” she snapped. “Since she came, we sleep safer, eat better. Everyone Underground knows Myth Girls. We have face, people begging to come in. Myth Girls keep what’s theirs.”

“She goes back,” Jordan said evenly.

“You alone, corp-boy. Who’ll help you? Why don’t I just cut you up and leave you here for the rats?”

“You’re no slash gang; you don’t have anything to prove. And you know the Rules. Hurt me, they come down on you. Nothing is worth that. Not even something as useful as Genoa here.” He must really have believed that she wouldn’t go after him, because he walked right past her and her knife, and caught my arm before I could jump back. “Talk’s over. She comes home now.”

“We need her,” Maniac hissed. She lashed out with her knife and caught him in the side. He was right: you can’t hurt an enforcer, not without retribution. Not if they know it’s you. So you kill him, because then he can’t finger you.

The Girls piled in, slicing with their little knives. I tried to join in until Lyre grabbed me and pinned me to the ground. “Let me go!” I screamed.

“Got to keep you alive,” she hissed in my ear.

You look after your tools.

There was a flash of light and a smell like ozone. Spider screamed, and the Girls fell back. Jordan slumped panting in the clear space they left, a taser in his two hands. The wall behind him was splashed with blood. Spider lay unconscious at his feet, legs jerking. “Looks like a standoff. I don’t want to kill anyone, but I can,” he said at last. “And I could come back for you, Genoa, but I won’t. Just remember, we took better care of you. When you get tired of belonging to the Myth Girls, you’ll come back.”

“She’s not going anywhere,” Maniac panted.

I lay still, numb under Lyre’s weight, watching Jordan leave.

 


That’s when I ran away from the Myth Girls. They tried to find me at first, but gave up: survival doesn’t give you a lot of time for anything else. I didn’t go back to the Corp, and I didn’t join another gang.

I guess I’m a bum now. I’m hungry a lot of the time, and scared; but I have a place I can hide when I have the seizures, and I’ve padded it with bits of stuff so I won’t hurt myself. This way I don’t have to be a tool in anyone’s hands.

Everybody takes care of their tools, but it’s better to be a person. That’s the truth I learned, cemented in Jordan’s blood. And that’s why I left the Myth Girls.

 

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© 1994 Dark Horse Comics and Kij Johnson
Andrew Vachss’s Underground, Dark Horse, 1994
Reprinted in Girls Who Bite Back, Sumach Press, 2004
Honorable mention, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 8, St. Martin's Press, 1995
Intro from Tales for the Long Rains, Scorpius Digital, April 2001