Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015

This story also appears in the BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2015, edited by Joe Hill (guest editor) and John Joseph Adams (series editor). Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Remembering Cimmeria: I walk through the bazaar, between the stalls of the spice sellers, smelling turmeric and cloves, hearing the clash of bronze from the sellers of cooking pots, the bleat of goats from the butcher’s alley. Rugs hang from wooden racks, scarlet and indigo. In the corners of the alleys, men without legs perch on wooden carts, telling their stories to a crowd of ragged children, making coins disappear into the air. Women from the mountains, their faces prematurely old from sun and suffering, call to me in a dialect I can barely understand. Their stands sell eggplants and tomatoes, the pungent olives that are distinctive to Cimmerian cuisine, video games. In the mountain villages, it has long been a custom to dye hair blue for good fortune, a practice that sophisticated urbanites have lately adopted. Even the women at court have hair of a deep and startling hue.

My guide, Afa, walks ahead of me, with a string bag in her hand, examining the vegetables, buying cauliflower and lentils. Later she will make rice mixed with raisins, meat, and saffron. The cuisine of Cimmeria is rich, heavy with goat and chicken. (They eat and keep no pigs.) The pastries are filled with almond paste and soaked in honey. She waddles ahead (forgive me, but you do waddle, Afa), and I follow amid a cacophony of voices, speaking the Indo-European language of Cimmeria, which is closest perhaps to Old Iranian. The mountain accents are harsh, the tones of the urbanites soft and lisping. Shaila spoke in those tones, when she taught me phrases in her language: Can I have more lozi (a cake made with marzipan, flavored with orange water)? You are the son of a dog. I will love you until the ocean swallows the moon. (A traditional saying. At the end of time, the serpent that lies beneath the Black Sea will rise up and swallow the moon as though it were lozi. It means, I will love you until the end of time.)

On that day, or perhaps it is another day I remember, I see a man selling Kalashnikovs. The war is a recent memory here, and every man has at least one weapon: Even I wear a curved knife in my belt, or I will be taken for a prostitute. (Male prostitutes, who are common in the capital, can be distinguished by their khol-rimmed eyes, their extravagant clothes, their weaponlessness. As a red-haired Irishman, I do not look like them, but it is best to avoid misunderstandings.) The sun shines down from a cloudless sky. It is hotter than summer in Arizona, on the campus of the small college where this journey began, where we said, let us imagine a modern Cimmeria. What would it look like? I know, now. The city is cooled by a thousand fountains, we are told: Its name means just that, A Thousand Fountains. It was founded in the sixth century BCE, or so we have conjectured and imagined.

I have a pounding headache. I have been two weeks in this country, and I cannot get used to the heat, the smells, the reality of it all. Could we have created this? The four of us, me and Lisa and Michael the Second, and Professor Farrow, sitting in a conference room at that small college? Surely not. And yet.

• • • •

We were worried that the Khan would forbid us from entering the country. But no. We were issued visas, assigned translators, given office space in the palace itself.

The Khan was a short man, balding. His wife had been Miss Cimmeria, and then a television reporter for one of the three state channels. She had met the Khan when she had been sent to interview him. He wore a business suit with a traditional scarf around his neck. She looked as though she had stepped out of a photo shoot for Vogue Russia, which was available in all the gas stations.

“Cimmeria has been here, on the shores of the Black Sea, for more than two thousand years,” he said. “Would you like some coffee, Dr. Nolan? I think our coffee is the best in the world.” It was—dark, thick, spiced, and served with ewe’s milk. “This theory of yours—that a group of American graduate students created Cimmeria in their heads, merely by thinking about it—you will understand that some of our people find it insulting. They will say that all Americans are imperialist dogs. I myself find it amusing, almost charming—like poetry. The mind creates reality, yes? So our poets have taught us. Of course, your version is culturally insensitive, but then, you are Americans. I did not think Americans were capable of poetry.”

Only Lisa had been a graduate student, and even she had recently graduated. Mike and I were post-docs, and Professor Farrow was tenured at Southern Arizona State. It all seemed so far away, the small campus with its perpetually dying lawns and drab 1970s architecture. I was standing in a reception room, drinking coffee with the Khan of Cimmeria and his wife, and Arizona seemed imaginary, like something I had made up.

“But we like Americans here. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, is he not? Any enemy of Russia is a friend of mine. So I am glad to welcome you to my country. You will, I am certain, be sensitive to our customs. Your coworker, for example—I suggest that she not wear short pants in the streets. Our clerics, whether Orthodox, Catholic, or Muslim, are traditional and may be offended. Anyway, you must admit, such garments are not attractive on women. I would not say so to her, you understand, for women are the devil when they are criticized. But a woman should cultivate an air of mystery. There is nothing mysterious about bare red knees.”

Our office space was in an unused part of the palace. My translator, Jafik, told me it had once been a storage area for bedding. It was close to the servants’ quarters. The Khan may have welcomed us to Cimmeria for diplomatic reasons, but he did not think much of us, that was clear. It was part of the old palace, which had been built in the thirteenth century CE, after the final defeat of the Mongols. Since then, Cimmeria had been embroiled in almost constant warfare, with Anatolia, Scythia, Poland, and most recently the Russians, who had wanted its ports on the Black Sea. The Khan had received considerable American aid, including military advisors. The war had ended with the disintegration of the USSR. The Ukraine, focused on its own economic problems, had no wish to interfere in local politics, so Cimmeria was enjoying a period of relative peace. I wondered how long it would last.

Lisa was our linguist. She would stay in the capital for the first three months, then venture out into the countryside, recording local dialects. “You know what amazes me?” she said as we were unpacking our computers and office supplies. “The complexity of all this. You would think it really had been here for the last three thousand years. It’s hard to believe it all started with Mike the First goofing off in Professor Farrow’s class.” He had been bored and, instead of taking notes, had started sketching a city. The professor had caught him, and had told the students that we would spend the rest of the semester creating that city and the surrounding countryside. We would be responsible for its history, customs, language. Lisa was in the class, too, and I was the TA. AN 703, Contemporary Anthropological Theory, had turned into Creating Cimmeria.

Of the four graduate students in the course, only Lisa stayed in the program. One got married and moved to Wisconsin, another transferred to the School of Education so she could become a kindergarten teacher. Mike the First left with his master’s and went on to do an MBA. It was a coincidence that Professor Farrow’s next postdoc, who arrived in the middle of the semester, was also named Mike. He had an undergraduate degree in classics, and was the one who decided that the country we were developing was Cimmeria. He was also particularly interested in the Borges hypothesis. Everyone had been talking about it at Michigan, where he had done his PhD. At that point, it was more controversial than it is now, and Professor Farrow had only been planning to touch on it briefly at the end of the semester. But once we started on Cimmeria, AN 703 became an experiment in creating reality through perception and expectation. Could we actually create Cimmeria by thinking about it, writing about it?

Not in one semester, of course. After the semester ended, all of us worked on the Cimmeria Project. It became the topic of Lisa’s dissertation: A Dictionary and Grammar of Modern Cimmerian, with Commentary. Mike focused on history. I wrote articles on culture, figuring out probable rites of passage, how the Cimmerians would bury their dead. We had Herodotus, we had accounts of cultures from that area. We were all steeped in anthropological theory. On weekends, when we should have been going on dates, we gathered in a conference room, under a fluorescent light, and talked about Cimmeria. It was fortunate that around that time, the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology was founded at Penn State. Otherwise, I don’t know where we would have published. At the first Imaginary Anthropology conference, in Orlando, we realized that a group from Tennessee was working on the modern Republic of Scythia and Sarmatia, which shared a border with Cimmeria. We formed a working group.

“Don’t let the Cimmerians hear you talk about creating all this,” I said. “Especially the nationalists. Remember, they have guns, and you don’t.” Should I mention her cargo shorts? I had to admit, looking at her knobby red knees, above socks and Birkenstocks, that the Khan had a point. Before she left for the mountains, I would warn her to wear more traditional clothes.

I was going to stay in the capital. My work would focus on the ways in which the historical practices we had described in “Cimmeria: A Proposal,” in the second issue of the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology, influenced and remained evident in modern practice. Already I had seen developments we had never anticipated. One was the fashion for blue hair; in a footnote, Mike had written that blue was a fortunate color in Cimmerian folk belief. Another was the ubiquity of cats in the capital. In an article on funerary rites, I had described how cats were seen as guides to the land of the dead until the coming of Christianity in the twelfth century CE. The belief should have gone away, but somehow it had persisted, and every household, whether Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, or one of the minor sects that flourished in the relative tolerance of Cimmeria, had its cat. No Cimmerian wanted his soul to get lost on the way to Paradise. Stray cats were fed at the public expense, and no one dared harm a cat. I saw them everywhere, when I ventured into the city. In a month, Mike was going to join us, and I would be able to show him all the developments I was documenting. Meanwhile, there was email and Skype.

I was assigned a bedroom and bath close to our offices. Afa, who had been a sort of under-cook, was assigned to be my servant but quickly became my guide, showing me around the city and mocking my Cimmerian accent. “He he!” she would say. “No, Doctor Pat, that word is not pronounced that way. Do not repeat it that way, I beg of you. I am an old woman, but still it is not respectable for me to hear!” Jafik was my language teacher as well as my translator, teaching me the language Lisa had created based on what we knew of historical Cimmerian and its Indo-European roots, except that it had developed an extensive vocabulary. As used by modern Cimmerians, it had the nuance and fluidity of a living language, as well as a surprising number of expletives.

I had no duties except to conduct my research, which was a relief from the grind of TAing and, recently, teaching my own undergraduate classes. But one day, I was summoned to speak with the Khan. It was the day of an official audience, so he was dressed in Cimmerian ceremonial robes, although he still wore his Rolex watch. His advisors looked impatient, and I gathered that the audience was about to begin—I had seen a long line of supplicants waiting by the door as I was ushered in. But he said, as though we had all the time in the world, “Doctor Nolan, did you know that my daughters are learning American?” Sitting next to him were four girls, all wearing the traditional head-scarves worn by Cimmerian peasant women, but pulled back to show that their hair was dyed fashionably blue. “They are very troublesome, my daughters. They like everything modern: Leonardo DiCaprio, video games. Tradition is not good enough for them. They wish to attend university and find professions, or do humanitarian work. Ah, what is a father to do?” He shook a finger at them, fondly enough. “I would like it if you could teach them the latest American idioms. The slang, as it were.”

That afternoon, Afa led me to another part of the palace—the royal family’s personal quarters. These were more modern and considerably more comfortable than ours. I was shown into what seemed to be a common room for the girls. There were colorful rugs and divans, embroidered wall hangings, and an enormous flat-screen TV.

“These are the Khan’s daughters,” said Afa. She had already explained to me, in case I made any blunders, that they were his daughters by his first wife, who had not been Miss Cimmeria, but had produced the royal children: a son, and then only daughters, and then a second son who had died shortly after birth. She had died a week later of an infection contracted during the difficult delivery. “Anoor is the youngest, then Tallah, and then Shaila, who is already taking university classes online.” Shaila smiled at me. This time, none of them were wearing head-scarves. There really was something attractive about blue hair.

“And what about the fourth one?” She was sitting a bit back from the others, to the right of and behind Shaila, whom she closely resembled.

Afa looked at me with astonishment. “The Khan has three daughters,” she said. “Anoor, Tallah, and Shaila. There is no fourth one, Doctor Pat.”

The fourth one stared at me without expression.

• • • •

“Cimmerians don’t recognize twins,” said Lisa. “That has to be the explanation. Do you remember the thirteenth-century philosopher Farkosh Kursand? When God made the world, He decreed that human beings would be born one at a time, unique, unlike animals. They would be born defenseless, without claws or teeth or fur. But they would have souls. It’s in a children’s book—I have a copy somewhere, but it’s based on Kursand’s reading of Genesis in one of his philosophical treatises. Mike would know which. And it’s the basis of Cimmerian human rights law, actually. That’s why women have always had more rights here. They have souls, so they’ve been allowed to vote since Cimmeria became a parliamentary monarchy. I’m sure it’s mentioned in one of the articles—I don’t remember which one, but check the database Mike is putting together. Shaila must have been a twin, and the Cimmerians don’t recognize the second child as separate from the first. So Shaila is one girl. In two bodies. But with one soul.”

“Who came up with that stupid idea?”

“Well, to be perfectly honest, it might have been you.” She leaned back in our revolving chair. I don’t know how she could do that without falling. “Or Mike, of course. It certainly wasn’t my idea. Embryologically it does make a certain sense. Identical twins really do come from one egg.”

“So they’re both Shaila.”

“There is no both. The idea of both is culturally inappropriate. There is one Shaila, in two bodies. Think of them as Shaila and her shadow.”

I tested this theory once, while walking through the market with Afa. We were walking through the alley of the dog-sellers. In Cimmeria, almost every house has a dog, for defense and to catch rats. Cats are not sold in the market. They cannot be sold at all, only given or willed away. To sell a cat for money is to imperil your immortal soul. We passed a woman sitting on the ground, with a basket beside her. In it were two infants, as alike as the proverbial two peas in a pod, half-covered with a ragged blanket. Beside them lay a dirty mutt with a chain around its neck that lifted its head and whimpered as we walked by.

“Child how many in basket?” I asked Afa in my still-imperfect Cimmerian.

“There is one child in that basket, Pati,” she said. I could not get her to stop using the diminutive. I even told her that in my language Pati was a woman’s name, to no effect. She just smiled, patted me on the arm, and assured me that no one would mistake such a tall, handsome (which in Cimmerian is the same word as beautiful) man for a woman.

“Only one child?”

“Of course. One basket, one child.”

Shaila’s shadow followed her everywhere. When she and her sisters sat with me in the room with the low divans and the large-screen TV, studying American slang, she was there. “What’s up!” Shaila would say, laughing, and her shadow would stare down at the floor. When Shaila and I walked though the gardens, she walked six paces behind, pausing when we paused, sitting when we sat. After we were married, in our apartment in Arizona, she would sit in a corner of the bedroom, watching as we made love. Although I always turned off the lights, I could see her: a darkness against the off-white walls of faculty housing.

Once, I tried to ask Shaila about her. “Shaila, do you know the word twin?”

“Yes, of course,” she said. “In American, if two babies are born at the same time, they are twins.”

“What about in Cimmeria? Surely there is a Cimmerian word for twin. Sometimes two babies are born at the same time in Cimmeria, too.”

She looked confused. “I suppose so. Biology is the same everywhere.”

“Well, what’s the word, then?”

“I cannot think of it. I shall have to email Tallah. She is better at languages than I am.”

“What if you yourself were a twin?”

“Me? But I am not a twin. If I were, my mother would have told me.”

I tried a different tactic. “Do you remember the dog you had, Kala? She had two sisters, born at the same time. Those were Anoor’s and Tallah’s dogs. They were not Kala, even though they were born in the same litter. You could think of them as twins—I mean, triplets.” I remembered them gamboling together, Kala and her two littermates. They would follow us through the gardens, and Shaila and her sisters would pet them indiscriminately. When we sat under the plum trees, they would tumble together into one doggy heap.

“Pat, what is this all about? Is this about the fact that I don’t want to have a baby right now? You know I want to go to graduate school first.”

I did not think her father would approve the marriage. I told her so: “Your father will never agree to you marrying a poor American post-doc. Do you have any idea how poor I am? My research grant is all I have.”

“You do not understand Cimmerian politics,” Shaila replied. “Do you know what percentage of our population is ethnically Sarmatian? Twenty percent, all in the Eastern province. They fought the Russians, and they still have weapons. Not just guns: tanks, anti-aircraft missiles. The Sarmatians are getting restless, Pati. They are mostly Catholic, in a country that is mostly Orthodox. They want to unite with their homeland, create a greater Scythia and Sarmatia. My father projects an image of strength, because what else can you do? But he is afraid. He is most afraid that the Americans will not help. They helped against the Russians, but this is an internal matter. He has talked to us already about different ways for us to leave the country. Anoor has been enrolled at the Lycée International in Paris, and Tallah is going to study at the American School in London. They can get student visas. For me it is more difficult: I must be admitted at a university. That is why I have been taking courses online. Ask him: If he says no, then no. But I think he will consider my marriage with an American.”

She was right. The Khan considered. For a week, and then another, while pro-Sarmatian factions clashed with military in the Eastern province. Then protests broke out in the capital. Anoor was already in Paris with her step-mother, supposedly on a shopping spree for school. Tallah had started school in London. In the Khan’s personal office, I signed the marriage contract, barely understanding what I was signing because it was in an ornate script I had seen only in medieval documents. On the way to the airport, we stopped by the cathedral in Shahin Square, where we were married by the Patriarch of the Cimmerian Independent Orthodox Church, who checked the faxed copy of my baptismal certificate and lectured me in sonorous tones about the importance of conversion, raising children in the true faith. The Khan kissed Shaila on both cheeks, promising her that we would have a proper ceremony when the political situation was more stable and she could return to the country. In the Khan’s private plane, we flew to a small airport near Fresno and spent our first night together at my mother’s house. My father had died of a heart attack while I was in college, and she lived alone in the house where I had grown up. It was strange staying in the guest bedroom, down the hall from the room where I had slept as a child, which still had my He-Man action figures on the shelves, the Skeletor defaced with permanent marker. I had to explain to her about Shaila’s shadow.

“I don’t understand,” my mother said. “Are you all going to live together?”

“Well, yes, I guess so. It’s really no different than if her twin sister were living with us, is it?”

“And Shaila is going to take undergraduate classes? What is her sister going to do?”

“I have no idea,” I said.

What she did, more than anything else, was watch television. All day, it would be on. Mostly, she watched CNN and the news shows. Sometimes I would test Shaila, asking, “Did you turn the TV on?”

“Is it on?” she would say. “Then of course I must have turned it on. Unless you left it on before you went out. How did your class go? Is that football player in the back still falling asleep?”

One day, I came home and noticed that the other Shaila was cooking dinner. Later I asked, “Shaila, did you cook dinner?”

“Of course,” she said. “Did you like it?”

“Yes.” It was actually pretty good, chicken in a thick red stew over rice. It reminded me of a dish Afa had made in an iron pot hanging over an open fire in the servants’ quarters. But I guess it could be made on an American stovetop as well.

After that, the other Shaila cooked dinner every night. It was convenient, because I was teaching night classes, trying to make extra money. Shaila told me that I did not need to work so hard, that the money her father gave her was more than enough to support us both. But I was proud and did not want to live off my father-in-law, even if he was the Khan of Cimmeria. At the same time, I was trying to write up my research on Cimmerian funerary practices. If I could publish a paper in the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology, I might have a shot at a tenure-track position, or at least a visiting professorship somewhere that wasn’t Arizona. Shaila was trying to finish her pre-med requirements. She had decided that she wanted to be a pediatrician.

Meanwhile, in Cimmeria, the situation was growing more complicated. The pro-Sarmatian faction had split into the radical Sons of Sarmatia and the more moderate Sarmatian Democratic Alliance, although the Prime Minister claimed that the SDA was a front. There were weekly clashes with police in the capital, and the Sons of Sarmatia had planted a bomb in the Hilton, although a maid had reported a suspicious shopping bag and the hotel had been evacuated before the bomb could go off. The Khan had imposed a curfew, and martial law might be next, although the army had a significant Sarmatian minority. But I had classes to teach, so I tried not to pay attention to politics, and even Shaila dismissed it all as “a mess.”

• • • •

One day, I came home from a departmental meeting and Shaila wasn’t in the apartment. She was usually home by seven. I assumed she’d had to stay late for a lab. The other Shaila was cooking dinner in the kitchen. At eight, when she hadn’t come back yet, I sat down at the kitchen table to eat. To my surprise, the other Shaila sat down across from me, at the place set for Shaila. She had never sat down at the table with us before.

She looked at me with her dark eyes and said, “How was your day, Pati?”

I dropped my fork. It clattered against the rim of the plate. She had never spoken before, not one sentence, not one word. Her voice was just like Shaila’s, but with a stronger accent. At least it sounded stronger to me. Or maybe not. It was hard to tell.

“Where’s Shaila?” I said. I could feel a constriction in my chest, as though a fist had started to close around my heart. Like the beginning of my father’s heart attack. I think even then, I knew.

“What do you mean?” she said. “I’m Shaila. I have always been Shaila. The only Shaila there is.”

I stared down at the lamb and peas in saffron curry. The smell reminded me of Cimmeria, of the bazaar. I could almost hear the clash of the cooking pots.

“You’ve done something to her, haven’t you?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Eat your dinner, Pati. It’s going to get cold. You’ve been working so hard lately. I don’t think it’s good for you.”

But I could not eat. I stood up, accidentally hitting my hip on the table and cursing at the pain. With a growing sense of panic, I searched the apartment for any clue to Shaila’s whereabouts. Her purse was in the closet, with her cell phone in it, so she must have come home earlier in the evening. All her clothes were on the hangers, as far as I could tell—she had a lot of clothes. Nothing seemed to be missing. But Shaila was not there. The other Shaila stood watching me, as though waiting for me to give up, admit defeat. Finally, after one last useless look under the bed, I left, deliberately banging the door behind me. She had to be somewhere.

I walked across campus, to the Life Sciences classrooms and labs, and checked all of them. Then I walked through the main library and the science library, calling “Shaila!” until a graduate student in a carrel told me to be quiet. By this time, it was dark. I went to her favorite coffee shop, the Espresso Bean, where undergraduates looked at me strangely from behind their laptops, and then to every shop and restaurant that was still open, from the gelato place to the German restaurant, famous for its bratwurst and beer, where students took their families on Parents’ Weekend. Finally, I walked the streets, calling “Shaila!” as though she were a stray dog, hoping that the other Shaila was simply being presumptuous, rebelling against her secondary status. Hoping the real Shaila was out there somewhere.

I passed the police station and stood outside, thinking about going in and reporting her missing. I would talk to a police officer on duty, tell him I could not find my wife. He would come home with me, to find—my wife, saying that I was overworked and needed to rest, see a psychiatrist. Shaila had entered the country with a diplomatic passport—one passport, for one Shaila. Had anyone seen the other Shaila? Only my mother. She had picked us up at the airport, we had spent the night with her, all three of us eating dinner at the dining-room table. She had avoided looking at the other Shaila, talking to Shaila about how the roses were doing well this year despite aphids, asking whether she knew how to knit, how she dyed her hair that particular shade of blue—pointless, polite talk. And then we had rented a car and driven to Arizona, me and Shaila in the front seat, the other Shaila in back with the luggage. Once we had arrived at the university, she had stayed in the apartment. Lisa knew, but she and Mike the Second were still in Cimmeria, and their internet connection could be sporadic. I could talk to Dr. Farrow? She would be in her office tomorrow morning, before classes. She would at least believe me. But I knew, with a cold certainly in the pit of my stomach, that Anne Farrow would look at me from over the wire rims of her glasses and say, “Pat, you know as well as I do that culture defines personhood.” She was an anthropologist, through and through. She would not interfere. I had been married to Shaila, I was still married to Shaila. There was just one less of her.

In the end, I called my mother, while sitting on a park bench under a streetlamp, with the moon sailing high above, among the clouds.

“Do you know what time it is, Pat?” she asked.

“Listen, Mom,” I said, and explained the situation.

“Oh, Pat, I wish you hadn’t married that woman. But can’t you divorce her? Are you allowed to divorce in that church? I wish you hadn’t broken up with Bridget Ferguson. The two of you were so sweet together at prom. You know she married an accountant and has two children now. She sent me a card at Christmas.”

I said good night and told her to go back to sleep, that I would figure it out. And then I sat there for a long time.

When I came home, well after midnight, Shaila was waiting for me with a cup of Cimmerian coffee, or as close as she could get with an American espresso machine. She was wearing the heart pajamas I had given Shaila for Valentine’s Day.

“Pati,” she said, “you left so quickly that I didn’t have time to tell you the news. I heard it on CNN this morning, and then Daddy called me. Malek was assassinated yesterday.” Malek was her brother. I had never met him—he had been an officer in the military, and while I had been in Cimmeria, he had been serving in the mountains. I knew that he had been recalled to the capital to deal with the Sarmantian agitation, but that was all.

“Assassinated? How?”

“He was trying to negotiate with the Sons of Sarmatia, and a radical pulled out a gun that had gotten through security. You never watch the news, do you, Pati? I watch it a great deal. It is important for me to learn the names of the world leaders, learn about international diplomacy. That is more important than organic chemistry, for a Khanum.”

“A what?”

“Don’t you understand? Now that Malek is dead, I am next in the line of succession. Someday, I will be the Khanum of Cimmeria. That is what we call a female Khan. In some countries, only male members of the royal family can succeed to the throne. But Cimmeria has never been like that. It has always been cosmopolitan, progressive. The philosopher Amirabal persuaded Teshup the Third to make his daughter his heir, and ever since, women can become rulers of the country. My great-grandmother, Daddy’s grandma, was a Khanum, although she resigned when her son came of age. It is the same among the Scythians and Sarmatians.” This was Lisa’s doing. It had to be Lisa’s doing. She was the one who had come up with Amirabal and the philosophical school she had founded in 500 BCE. Even Plato had praised her as one of the wisest philosophers in the ancient world. I silently cursed all Birkenstock-wearing feminists.

“What does this mean?” I asked.

“It means that tomorrow we fly to Washington, where I will ask your President for help against the Sarmatian faction. This morning on one of the news shows, the Speaker of the House criticized him for not supporting the government of Cimmeria. He mentioned the War on Terror—you know how they talk, and he wants to be the Republican candidate. But I think we can finally get American aid. While I am there, I will call a press conference, and you will stand by my side. We will let the American people see that my husband is one of them. It will generate sympathy and support. Then we will fly to Cimmeria. I need to be in my country as a symbol of the future. And I must produce an heir to the throne as quickly as possible—a boy, because while I can legally become Khanum, the people will want assurance that I can bear a son. While you were out, I packed all our clothes. We will meet Daddy’s plane at the airport tomorrow morning. You must wear your interview suit until we can buy you another. I’ve set the alarm for five o’clock.”

I should have said no. I should have raged and cried, and refused to be complicit in something that made me feel as though I might be sick for the rest of my life. But I said nothing. What could I say? This, too, was Shaila.

I lay in the dark beside the woman who looked like my wife, unable to sleep, staring into the darkness. Shaila, I thought, what has happened to you? To your dreams of being a pediatrician, of our children growing up in America, eating tacos and riding their bikes to school? You wanted them to be ordinary, to escape the claustrophobia you had felt growing up in the palace, with its political intrigue and the weight of centuries perpetually pressing down on you. In the middle of the night, the woman who was Shaila, but not my Shaila, turned in her sleep and put an arm around me. I did not move away.

• • • •

You are pleased, Afa, that I have returned to Cimmeria. It has meant a promotion for you, and you tell everyone that you are personal assistant to the American husband of the Khanum-to-be. You sell information about her pregnancy to the fashion magazines—how big she’s getting, how radiant she is. Meanwhile, Shaila opens schools and meets with foreign ambassadors. She’s probably the most popular figure in the country, part of the propaganda war against the Sons of Sarmatia, which has mostly fallen apart since Malek’s death. The SDA was absorbed into the Cimmerian Democratic Party and no longer presents a problem. American aid helped, but more important was the surge of nationalism among ethnic Cimmerians. Indeed, the nationalists, with their anti-Sarmatian sentiments, may be a problem in the next election.

I sit at the desk in my office, which is no longer near the servants’ quarters, but in the royal wing of the palace, writing this article, which would be suppressed if it appeared in any of the newspapers. But it will be read only by JoIA’s peer editors before languishing in the obscurity of an academic journal. Kala and one of her sisters lies at my feet. And I think about this country, Afa. It is—it was—a dream, but are not all nations of men dreams? Do we not create them, by drawing maps with lines on them, and naming rivers, mountain ranges? And then deciding that the men of our tribe can only marry women outside their matrilineage? That they must bury corpses rather than burning them, eat chicken and goats but not pigs, worship this bull-headed god rather than the crocodile god of that other tribe, who is an abomination? Fast during the dark of the moon, feast when the moon is full? I’m starting to sound like a poet, which will not be good for my academic career. One cannot write an academic paper as though it were poetry.

We dream countries, and then those countries dream us. And it seems to me, sitting here by the window, looking into a garden filled with roses, listening to one of the thousand fountains of this ancient city, that as much as I have dreamed Cimmeria, it has dreamed me.

Sometimes I forget that the other Shaila ever existed. A month after we returned to Cimmeria, an Arizona state trooper found a body in a ditch close to the Life Sciences Building. It was female, and badly decomposed. The coroner estimated that she would have been about twenty, but the body was nude and there was no other identification. I’m quoting the story I read online, on the local newspaper’s website. The police suggested that she might have been an illegal immigrant who had paid to be driven across the border, then been killed for the rest of her possessions. I sometimes wonder if she was Shaila.

This morning she has a television interview, and this afternoon she will be touring a new cancer treatment center paid for with American aid. All those years of listening and waiting were, after all, the perfect training for a Khanum. She is as patient as a cobra.

If I ask to visit the bazaar, the men who are in charge of watching me will first secure the square, which means shutting down the bazaar. They accompany me even to the university classes I insist on teaching. They stand in the back of the lecture hall, in their fatigues and sunglasses, carrying Kalashnikovs. Despite American aid, they do not want to give up their Russian weapons. So we must remember it: the stalls selling embroidered fabrics, and curved knives, and melons. The baskets in high stacks, and glasses of chilled mint tea into which we dip the pistachio biscuits that you told me are called Fingers of the Dead. Boys in sandals break-dancing to Arabic hip hop on a boombox so old that it is held together with string. I would give a great deal to be able to go to the bazaar again. Or to go home and identify Shaila’s body.

But in a couple of months, my son will be born. (Yes, it is a son. I’ve seen the ultrasound, but if you tell the newspapers, Afa, I will have you beheaded. I’m pretty sure I can still do that, here in Cimmeria.) There is only one of him, thank goodness. We intend to name him Malek. My mother has been sending a steady supply of knitted booties. There will be a national celebration, with special prayers in the churches and mosques and synagogues, and a school holiday. I wish Mike could come, or even Lisa. But he was offered a tenure-track position at a Christian college in North Carolina interested in the Biblical implications of Imaginary Anthropology. And Lisa is up in the mountains somewhere, close to the Scythian and Sarmatian border, studying woman’s initiation rites. I will stand beside Shaila and her family on the balcony of the palace, celebrating the birth of the future Khan of Cimmeria. In the gardens, rose petals will fall. Men will continue dying of natural or unnatural causes, and the cats of Cimmeria will lead them into another world. Women will dip their water jugs in the fountains of the city, carrying them on their heads back to their houses, as they have done since Cimmeria has existed, whether that is three or three thousand years. Life will go on as it has always done, praise be to God, creator of worlds, however they were created.

Dr. Patrick Nolan is also co-author of “Cimmeria: A Proposal” (with M. Sandowski, L. Lang, and A. Farrow), JoIA 2.1 (Spring 2011), and author of “Modern Cimmerian Funerary Practices,” JoIA 3.2 (Fall 2012). Dr. Nolan is currently a professor at Kursand University. He is working on A History of Modern Cimmeria.

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015

This story also appears in the BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2015, edited by Joe Hill (guest editor) and John Joseph Adams (series editor). Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Theodora Goss

Theodora Goss is the World Fantasy, Locus, and Mythopoeic Award-winning author of the short story and poetry collections In the Forest of Forgetting (2006), Songs for Ophelia (2014), and Snow White Learns Witchcraft (2019), as well as novella The Thorn and the Blossom (2012), debut novel The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (2017), and sequels European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (2018) and The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl (2019). She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, and Shirley Jackson Awards, as well as on the Tiptree Award Honor List. Her work has been translated into fifteen languages. She teaches literature and writing at Boston University and in the Stonecoast MFA Program. Visit her at