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Excerpting At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories By Kij Johnson #2


The Bitey Cat

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Sarah has a cat. She’s only three but it’s just hers. Everyone agrees. No one else even likes the cat. Everyone just calls her the bitey cat even though Sarah knows she’s not really a cat. She’s a monster.

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Penny goes outside whenever she wants out of a special door made just for cats. Sarah can hear the door click from anywhere in the house and she runs to the back hall and looks out the little flap to watch Penny walk across the backyard around the corner of the garage.

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Sarah knows that Penny is really a monster. She is huge and fierce and could kill you any time she wanted except now she’s a cat with spots and stripes and white toes. But Penny remembers. That’s why she’s mad all the time. That’s why she bites everyone. That’s why she even bites Sarah sometimes when Sarah’s not even doing anything to her.

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The Horse Raiders

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Whoever was at the Moot would mourn us, and our scrolls would be closed and the name Winden remembered only in chants. Several dogs were not dead but I had no knife, no pain-killers to ease their suffering. I knelt in the bloodstained grass holding my gasping brindle bitch until my captor ran up and caught my arm. “You do not leave us,” he said. Her head hit the ground as I was jerked upright. “Kill her,” I said. He started to pull me toward the camp. I ripped myself free and pointed at the dying bitch. “Kill them all. Finish it.” “They are dogs.” He spat on the ground. “Unclean.” “Kill them.” I met his eyes until he said something guttural and gestured one of the others toward us, a youth barely into adulthood, more boy than man. They spoke back and forth for a moment, and the boy walked toward the dogs, pulling a long knife free. My uncle Bran’s knife. I recognized the notch at the tip.

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My family usually traveled only as much as we needed to keep the sun at n’dau or to find a trade fair or the Moot. I had never traveled like this: endless whiles of arrowing north and dawnward, riding until dirty foam flecked the horses’ coats and their riders fell asleep against their necks. I was bound too securely to escape, even were I free of the smoke, the not-caring. After a time, the woman, Suhui, handed my niece to the boy, Shen, as they rode. Mara’s face was dirty and she slept in the crook of his arm as though waking were too painful.

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“You don’t know.” I started to pick at the knots with my teeth again. “There is a plague. Everywhere on Ping, the horses are dying. The horses get sores in their mouths and then any illness kills them whether it is serious or not. It takes a long while for them to die. A dying mare can foal before she dies. But the foal is dying before it is born.

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“You can try, Katia. You can fight for her life.”

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“Important? Nothing is so important that you had to kill Ricard and Jena. Meg. Daved. The . The dogs.” My words came as croaks. My eyes felt pressured by poisonous, unshed tears. “Do you think I do not have a family, Katia of the Winden Clan? That I do not have brothers, a sister married to a book-saver in the city? A son, too young to leave his mother and join me? I have family and I fear for them. Without horses we will die. There will be no way to communicate, no way to gather tribute. We will starve. Save this foal.”

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Schrödinger’s Cathouse

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“There’s always a bar.” The voice sounds as though it’s cataloguing. “There is always a mirror. The seating is always in the same places. It changes, though, which can be upsetting if you’re sitting on it. The beds upstairs—they stay. Well, of course they would. We are a whorehouse. Members of the staff change a bit, but after a few visits you’ll be able to recognize most of us most of the time. It’s not so bad. Open your eyes.” “Where am I?” Bob asks. “La Boîte.” The voice sounds amused. “C’mon.”

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Read more at location 2521


It starts with a bee sting. Linna exclaims at the sudden sharp pain; at her voice, her dog Sam lifts his head where he has settled his aging body on the sidewalk in front of the flower stand. Sucking at the burning place, Linna looks down at the bouquet in her hand, a messy arrangement of anemones and something loose-jointed with tiny white flowers, dill maybe. The flowers are days from anywhere that might have bees. But she sees one, dead or dying on the yellow petal of one of the flowers. She tips the bouquet to the side. The bee slides from the petal to the ground. Sam leans his dark head over and eats it. Back in her apartment, she plucks the stinger from her hand with tweezers. It’s clear that she’s not going to die of the sting or even swell up much, though there’s a white spot that weeps clear fluid and still hurts, still burns.

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Sam stretches painfully, a little urine dribbling. He can’t help this; the nerves are being pinched. Linna has covered the back seat of the Subaru with a waterproof tarp and a washable blanket. She’s careful when she takes corners, not wanting him to slide. Whatever else he is (in pain; old; dying), Sam is still a dog. He hobbles to a shrub with tiny flowers pale as ghosts against the leaves, and sniffs it carefully before marking. He can no longer lift his leg so he squats.

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It’s going to be a day or two before anyone can head east here. Town of Terry’s just a couple of miles back and you might be able to find lodging there. Otherwise, Miles City is about half an hour back.”

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After the steers passed she couldn’t stop shivering, so she crawled awkwardly over the front seats to curl up with Sam, and pulled his soft blanket over them both. Now his spine presses against her thigh. Each bone is sharp as a juniper knurl. He smells of stale urine and sickness, but behind that is the sweetness that has always been his.

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But it’s easier to think of the queen of the bees as a woman. The woman’s gold skin glows against her white gown. Her hands are very long and slender, with almond-shaped nails. They pour tea and arrange cakes on plates ornamented with pink roses. For a disconcerting moment, Linna sees slim black legs arrange the cakes and blinks the image back to hands. Yes, better to think of her as a woman. “Please,” the queen of the bees says. “Join me.”

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Sam dances to Linna, bounces onto his hind legs to lick the tears from her face. She buries her face in his fur a last time. The smell of sickness is gone, leaving only Sam. Live, she thinks. When she releases him, he races once around the little field before he returns to sit beside the queen of the bees, smiling up at her.

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She is never stung again. Her dreams are visited by bees, but they bring her no messages; the calligraphy of their flights remain mysterious. Once she dreams of Sam, who smiles at her and dances on young straight legs, just out of reach.

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