Gold, Silver, Bronze Bronze Bronze
Lillian Fu | Art by Joy Song
Surprisingly, the End-of-Life-Bucket-List-Excursions, or the eel-bellies for short, were Eleanor’s idea and not Aisha’s. Unsurprisingly, Aisha had immediately suggested she finally teach the two of them how to pilot planes, something she had been trying to do since the Wright bros were alive. Even more unsurprisingly, Zishan wanted their lessons to be held just inside the Russian air strike zone and for the plane to be an American fighter jet. Even even more unsurprisingly, Eleanor vetoed her.
So here Zishan was, sitting in the captain’s seat with Eleanor as co-pilot next to her and Aisha standing above them shouting instructions, thundering storm clouds pressing on the windshield. As a compromise, they’re flying over the Bermuda Triangle.
Or, they were flying over the Bermuda Triangle. Right now, they’re just falling.
As the red blinky alarm lights come on, Aisha yells at Eleanor: “Stop panicking! Press that button, then—NO! I SAID BUTTON!”
Eleanor, with all her PhDs and scientific achievements, was gloriously incompetent in many matters outside the lab, including vehicles. She shrieks obscenities at Aisha, first in English and then in her native Welsh, as the plane jerks through the air in futile attempts to stop its plummet.
Zishan cackles. Aisha screams, “SHUT UP! THIS IS YOUR FAULT!”
Which, well, is true. Although Zishan isn’t a WWI and II pilot veteran like Aisha or a lab-coat intellectual like Eleanor, she’s capable at pretty much everything she tries to do. She could’ve stopped this descent at any point she wanted. But if she isn’t causing international strife today, then she’s at least blowing up an airplane.
They break through the cloud cover and the gunmetal gray sea rushes up at them. Eleanor and Aisha release twin groans and then shoot twin dirty looks at Zishan. She just grins at them.
The most any of them would get from something like this is a mouthful of seawater and a few seconds of pain; the divinity in their blood protects them from most harms. But Zishan’s the only one who abuses her invulnerability like it’s a challenge to the world, to the bond that knits her bones together. Oh, you won’t let me die? You sure about that?
The wind screams around them in rhythm with the alarm in the cockpit. Zishan puts her arms up like she’s on a roller coaster and whoops like a child. Aisha crouches down on the floor of the cockpit with a sigh, muttering about her poor plane. Eleanor bonks her head on the dash.
In the moment before impact, the storm opens up behind them and a single column of sunlight illuminates the waves just to their left. And for one delirious second, Zishan forgets it all. She forgets her eight hundred years of chasing and fighting and dying without dying around the world with these two girls. She forgets the pact. She forgets that she’s on a timer.
As the plane’s nose touches water, she thinks: I wish we could stay like this forever.
Anyone, no matter their mortality, can make a bronze-blood. It was easiest, of course, for the gold-bloods, gods for whom the world was a sandbox: a single drop of ichor was all the divinity it took. The silver-bloods, the mythical creatures of nature’s making, needed a bit more effort: the life of one of their own; one forever for another. For the red-bloods, Death’s staple food, divinity was an act of cruel desperation: a genocidal sacrifice in exchange for the immortality of one person.
Seven hundred and seventy-seven years ago, a goddess of the sun fell in love with a warrior girl from a small tribe in Africa. It was the easiest thing in the world to slip a drop of gold into the well she stopped to drink from on a hunt. Seven hundred and seventy-seven years ago, a fae court from the Welsh forests captured a midwife’s apprentice while she was gathering herbs. She got her immortality when they executed a traitor, shaming him with the knowledge that his silver veins would be left to rust in a human’s body. Seven hundred and seventy-seven years ago, a Chinese emperor learned of a way to gain eternal life and ordered a massacre of the dense peasant population. One farmer girl survived, and stole divinity from the tyrant at the last second of the ritual through sheer force of spite.
Seven hundred and seventy-seven years ago, the warrior girl’s goddess brought the three newly bronzed immortals together in an effort to win her love’s favor. Seventy-seven years after that, after they’d outlived all their peers and the luster of eternal life had rotted away, the three women came to an agreement.
They made a pact. They set a date. They never spoke of it again.
Anyone, no matter their mortality, can make a bronze-blood. But only a few people can kill one. After all, sacrifice was the highest binding to the divine, and the bronze-bloods were sacrifice incarnate. Their life could only be taken by their maker or by another who carries the same bond in their body.
“Girl trouble?” Zishan asks when she finally catches up to Aisha. Zishan was usually the best at every challenge the three of them took on, eel-belly or otherwise, but rock climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan landed solidly in Aisha’s field of expertise. “Or, one specific troubling girl? Goddess-girl? Goddess-ex-girl—”
Aisha kicks at her. Zishan flails for a moment before finding her grip. She scowls, but doesn’t dare attempt retribution for fear of falling. “Hey! That was uncalled for.”
“So, goddess-ex-girl-trouble-friend it is, then.”
Aisha stops and heaves a truly beautiful aggravated groan. She visibly considers bashing her head into El Cap, the poor mountain. Instead, she settles on grumbling “I thought I was supposed to be the annoying one.”
“What? No. Look, if we were in one of those whatchamacallit, chicken-flickers films or whatever, you’d be the hot popular jock, Els would be the weirdo nerd that your jock bro falls for, and I’d be the annoying but lovable Asian sidekick,” she says between pants as they climb. “Obviously.”
“Obviously,” Aisha repeats dubiously.
“Stop changing the subject. Girl. Trouble.”
Aisha heaves a sigh, on par with her groan from earlier. “Dawn—” this was their, admittedly uninspired, nickname for Aisha’s sun goddess as her real name ‘cannot be uttered by flimsy human tongues’“—and I, you know, broke up a century ago,” she pauses. “Okay fine, I dumped her a century ago. A century and a half. 162 years. Whatever.”
Aisha’s struggling articulation leads to her quickening pace as she pours her frustration and nerves into physical exertion. Zishan doesn’t know how much longer she’ll be able to keep up. Get on with it, Aisha. She says this out loud. Aisha ignores her.
“We talked for the first time in decades last week, and it was because she got mad that I signed up for Tinder. I didn’t even go on any dates! It was completely—”
“Wait,” Zishan frowns. “What is a ‘Tinder’?”
“It’s a dating app.”
“App, the thing on smartphones that allow you to do things,” Aisha deadpans. “This is the fourth time I’ve explained this to you.”
“Whatever you say,” she says. “So why did you sign up for this ‘Tinder’?”
“Because—” she breaks off with a harsh exhale. Her pace quickens again. “Because I’ve been alive for almost eight hundred years and I’ve only ever been with one person. Because that’s insane. Because I haven’t been with anyone since I broke up with her. Because—”
She breaks off again, but this time she stops climbing too. Her breath comes out in ragged puffs. Zishan can’t see her face from this angle, so she just stares at the underside of her jaw, the tightness of the skin pulled over her cheekbones. “Because,” she says, voice rough and low. “We’re going to die soon, and it’s all still such a mess.”
Zishan, stunned, almost slips. They never talk about death. Ever since they made the kill pact seven hundred and seventy-seven years ago, they’d never talked about anything that important. She swallows and chooses her next words carefully. “Do you want to get with someone else? Or do you wanna get back with her?”
Well. She was never very good at being careful.
Aisha shrugs and gives a short shake of her head. “I don’t know. I don’t know if I could even do either if I tried. We just don’t have enough time anymore.”
What an idea, not having enough time. Zishan couldn’t relate to that, so she asked the next thing on her mind.
“Do you still love her?” Wow, okay, that was even worse.
Aisha nods, then shakes her head, then shrugs. She seems to consider assaulting El Cap with her skull again. “Sometimes I miss her so much I can’t breathe. Sometimes I think I never loved her at all,” she glances down, one eye looking at Zishan over her shoulder. “She’s a goddess, Shan-Shan. A goddess. And I was so young. I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
She starts climbing again, but at a much slower pace than before. Zishan scrambles to follow. “I didn’t choose this, you know. She didn’t ask me before she put that drop in the water, she just assumed that I would be jumping for joy.” She scoffs. “Golds and silvers, always so obsessed with their divinity.”
Reds, too, Zishan thought. Because she’d chosen this. Out of the three of them, only she had taken it for herself. But she was so angry, then, a hundred lifetimes ago. Angry like she could make the world explode with her fury.
How long has it been since she’d felt anything even half as intense as that? A quarter?
She was so young then, too. She didn’t know what she was getting into.
Aisha says, more to herself than to anyone else. “In this world, only the bronze-bloods aren’t in love with immortality.” She shakes her head, voice getting even softer. “I just wish I…”
She never finishes the thought. They keep climbing in silence, lost in their own minds. The sun dips into a darker gold, gold lit orange and molten.
From way, way below, Eleanor yells “Tinder? Really, Ai? Tinder?”
Zishan opens the door to the roof of the hotel they’re staying at, the chill off of Greenland’s icy bay biting at her skin. She walks to the edge of the roof, where Eleanor is, and sits down next to her, both pairs of their legs dangling into midair. It’s just before dawn, the barest suggestion of light softening the horizon. The tumble of waves against shore and the sparse early morning traffic are the only sounds around them. Eleanor holds her cigarette out to her by two fingers. She shakes her head.
How long has she been up here, in the cold? Zishan opens her mouth to ask, but Eleanor speaks before she can.
“I haven’t chosen a successor yet,” she says, exhaling a breath of smoke.
Eleanor’s run a private hospital/medical research facility for the last century or so that sits on the forefront of disease prevention. Zishan leans back on her hands. “Make them fist fight over it,” she says. “Gladiator style and all that. Rent out the Colosseum, hire lion trainers. Or like, honey badgers. Those are vicious little bastards.”
Eleanor turns her head and breathes out a lungful of smoke on her. Zishan coughs, grinning impishly.
“What about Rafael?” Zishan asks. “You like him a lot.”
Eleanor leans her elbows on her thighs and props her chin up with her cigarette hand. “Rafael’s smart, yes, but he’s too young. He’s still in his twenties.”
She thinks back to Yosemite, El Cap and Aisha. I was so young. I didn’t know what I was getting into. She imagines repeating those words to Eleanor now, saying that she was younger than him when the fae took her. When they met each other, freshly un-human.
But that’s not what Eleanor needs to hear right now.
“Rafael…” Zishan closes her eyes, asks herself if she’s brave enough to do this, discovers that she is not, and goes on anyways. “He doesn’t have parents, right?”
Rafael was a foster kid Eleanor had come across while he was in middle school and decided to sponsor because of his genius. Eleanor looks at her out of the corner of her eye, a wary twist to her mouth. Zishan just stares back at her. Eventually, Eleanor sighs and stamps her cigarette out on the concrete besides her.
“When we were at a bar a few weeks ago, he told me that I was like a mother to him.”
Zishan nods, unsurprised. She’s seen the way he looks at her. She’s seen, too, the way she looks back at him, that softness in her eyes, the kind of pride that makes you ache to look at. She remembers, years ago, when Rafael had been in a car accident, the frenzy Eleanor’d been in. Emotion to a degree that’s been lost to the three of them for a long time now.
“Why don’t you just adopt him? You’re leaving him all your assets anyways, right?”
Zishan winces. She really needs to invest in a brain to mouth filter. Or a gag.
Eleanor doesn’t deign that with a response, just shakes out another cigarette and puts it to her lips. They both know why she can’t adopt him. Why she didn’t when she first found him, fifteen years ago. Fifteen years before their ending.
Eleanor lights the cigarette and takes a long, slow drag. Zishan lays back against the concrete and closes her eyes against the lightening sky.
The thing about being immortal is that you don’t change.
Zishan sits in a booth at a maid cafe in Tokyo alone, Aisha and Eleanor food poisoned in the bathroom, and turns this sentence around in her mind as she sips champagne. She’d said it to the other two a few centuries ago. Zishan’s memories are a sea of mostly melted candles, a few burning wicks among a landscape of hot wax, pungent and untouched, and that conversation is one of the ones still standing. She closes her eyes and it’s right there—red sands, date trees, Arabic spices, solitude like an empty sky inside her.
Tonight, she is floating in melted candles, calcifying with her memories. Or maybe she is always here, suffocating in wax, and her belief that she lives without touching her past is just a self-delusion.
She finishes her champagne. Almost immediately, one of the waitresses comes by and offers a refill. She accepts. Aisha’s paying tonight anyways.
Idly, she draws her finger through the condensation her glass left on the table. She writes the Chinese character for gold, then silver, then bronze, then, after a pause, red.
She examines the tallest candle. How many times has she tried to chip it away? How many times has she rebuilt it resentfully, obsessively? That day: her family, her village, her entire province up in flames, her sooty and blistered hands slamming down between the Emperor’s feet on the ritual circle, divinity flooding her body full to bursting, almost as full as her rage. That day, the start of it all.
She thinks back to that sentence again, that night in the Arabian dunes. The thing about being immortal is that you don’t change. And then she thinks back to the past few weeks, her conversations with Aisha and Eleanor as they trekked across the world one last time.
She doesn’t know if she believes it anymore.
Because yes, she will always be that girl in the Chinese countryside with her half-burned body and anger, and she will always be the woman crashing planes into the sea to see which one will give first: her or the world. And yes, Aisha is still stuck on the same lover after seven hundred and seventy-seven years, and Eleanor is still too scared to call herself a mother.
But she’d caught Aisha sitting in a patch of sun, lips shaping words given to the light. And she’d seen sheaves of blank adoption papers hidden in Eleanor’s desk drawer. And this time, when she surfaced after crashing that plane to find her body unbroken, she’d just laughed.
And why shouldn’t she laugh? She’s a bronze-blood, rarer than silvers, rarer than golds, splashing around in the reds’ world like it still belongs to her. Pitiful? Maybe. Tragic? Certainly. But who could stop her?
Who could stop them?
She sits back in her seat and closes her eyes. She knows the answer to that question already.
Aisha and Eleanor wobble back to the table and start grabbing up their bags and coats. “Up, you drunkard, we’re going,” Aisha mumbles pleasantly.
“If you vomit on me, I’m confiscating your hotel key card. You can sleep in the hallway,” Eleanor says sweetly.
Zishan throws up her hands. “Love you too, guys.”
They walk out of the cafe into the Tokyo night. On the table, written in faint lines of water, is the Chinese character for ‘bronze’ over and over and over again.
For their last eel-belly, the three of them climbed a mountain. This was unsatisfying for three reasons: one, that it was Aisha’s idea; two, that most of the eel-bellies had been Aisha’s ideas; three, that most of Aisha’s eel-belly ideas had involved physical activity and the ‘Great Outdoors’. Mother Nature was overrated. Zishan should know, she’d met her before. She was a jerk.
Zishan wasn’t entirely sure what country they were in. She was only vaguely sure what continent they were on. But she was almost certain that they were trespassing, because there wasn’t a trail on the mountain they just climbed and they’d parked their rental SUV behind a fallen oak tree. So, there was a good chance they’d be arrested. Again.
But Zishan crested the last uprise, panting like a mortal about to die, and came up next to Aisha at the top of the mountain. And all she could think was I’m glad that no one else is here.
Because the sun came through the clouds in bright, piercing spears of white gold. Because the mountains below were purple and blue and green, spun from mist and held breaths. Because she stood next to Aisha, and Eleanor walked up at her other side, and for a moment, they owned the world.
Forget the golden gods and their power, forget the silver myths and their arrogance, forget the red humans and their life. They were bronze, and they were better than them all.
Next to her, Aisha sucks in a huge breath and lets loose a holler that shakes birds from the mountains around them. She slings an arm around Zishan’s shoulder, grinning down at her and Eleanor both, and then on her other side, Eleanor picks a rock from the ground next to her and flings it into the mist, yelling at the top of her lungs.
Zishan laughs. She laughs and clutches her arms around the two women besides her, and she screams up at the sun.
“You know, I’ve been thinking this over,” begins Zishan.
Eleanor snorts, but elegantly, because she’s Eleanor. “That’s a first.”
Zishan doesn’t deign this with a response. This grabs both Eleanor and Aisha’s attention, because Zishan never ignores the low-hanging fruit. They blink at her, then blink at each other, then set down their respective 21st century technology brain-fryers and give her their full focus.
“I’ve been thinking,” she continues, pronouncing each word slowly with full vowels and consonants. “How are we—how is this supposed to work?”
Eleanor sits forward in their living room armchair. The pendulum of the grandfather clock Zishan’d carved a few decades ago swings behind her. “How is what supposed to work?”
Zishan gestures vaguely in the air. “You know. Our—our—killing each other.” Her words freeze the air around them. “Do any of us really know? Like, does it have to be with our bare hands? Or could a weapon work so long as it’s one of us wielding it?”
“I—uh,” Aisha exchanges a look with Eleanor. “Well, it’s symbolic right? A sacrificial bond has to be broken by another sacrificial bond. I don’t think it matters what we use.”
Zishan bites her lip, her gaze darting anywhere but at their faces, her hands twisting in her lap. “But what if we mess up somehow? What if-what if we get the timing wrong and one of us is left alive at the end with no way to die? What if—or, or…”
She trails off, mouth dry. A downside to eight hundred years of avoiding conversations about mortality with the only people who understand her particular brand of mortality was becoming a wreck when she finally tried to start one. She looks down at her lap, takes a deep breath and exhales slowly, trying to calm her heart rate.
Eleanor reaches over to place a hand on her knee. “Hey,” she says, voice soft. “What’s this about? Really.”
What was this about? She lets out a helpless breath, too pathetic to be a laugh. It was about Aisha saying “I wish I had more time” while talking to her about love on a cliffside in California. It was about Eleanor’s son that she’d just gotten and wasn’t near ready to let go of. It was about weekends spent with each other, traveling around the world doing things for no other reason but because they wanted to, and because they wanted to with each other.
It was about standing on top of a mountain with her two best friends and screaming because the world was still beautiful.
“I don’t want to kill you guys,” she says, looking up at them. “I don’t think I could.”
Silence. The pendulum of her grandfather’s clock swings. Its ticking is the only sound in the room.
She opens her mouth again. “And I don’t want you two to die either. I-I can’t stand the thought.”
Still silence. Eleanor and Aisha look at her with wide eyes. She has the absurd urge to laugh. What life was this, that her best friends were shocked that she didn’t want to kill them?
Zishan makes to swallow, aborts, takes a short breath, and then swallows again. Before her nerve flees her completely, she blurts out one final statement. “And some days, I think I wouldn’t mind living a bit longer. Living for forever.”
Emptied, she sits ramrod straight, hands clenched tight in her lap. She holds eye contact with the other two only because she can’t tear her gaze away. For several small eternities, Eleanor and Aisha sit frozen in their armchairs. Then, slowly, they regain movement.
Eleanor nods once, not her usual curt nod but a long, considering dip of her head. “Okay,” she says.
Zishan blinks. “Okay? That’s-that’s it?”
Eleanor nods again. “Yeah, okay. I’m… I’m okay with that.” She looks to Aisha. “Ai?”
Aisha’s brow crinkles just slightly, her lips parted a fraction. She leans back in her seat and crosses her arms. Her gaze shifts from Eleanor to Zishan and back and forth again. The little spark of hope that had lit in Zishan because of Eleanor’s agreement flickers. Then Aisha shrugs one shoulder and says, “Yeah.” She smiles, that breaking dawn smile that made a goddess of the sun fall in love with her. “Yeah, I like that. Why not? Let’s do it.”
Zishan grins, light as air, a sky inside of a person. A fresh coat of paint struck across the canvas without a care for what’s under. “You crazy bastards. We’re talking forever, you know that right?”
Eleanor shrugs, a smile pulling at her face. “Forever, baby.”
The words are so incongruous in her voice that all three of them double over with laughter. Aisha reaches over and slaps a hand on Eleanor’s shoulder, then her other hand on Zishan’s. “Forever!”
Zishan looks at them, sitting on antiques from centuries that they’ve lived through, that they’ve fought through, pasts and memories they don’t think about or talk about but keep housed in the place they sleep next to each other. Always next to each other. And they may not be gold, they may not be silver, they may not even be red, but they were bronze, bronze, bronze.