In the dying light of an acidic sunset, an office building rose up from the basin of a refinery yard, stretching up thirteen stories to brush a heavy layer of smog. Behind the glass panel walls of the top story, a tall woman with bushy white eyebrows clutched the window bar, and gazed down without smiling.
The woman was old, the flesh of her face sunk in sullen circles, but her forehead creased like serrated steel. This tower housed the last functional refinery in the world, a pinnacle of old-world industry, and to her alone belonged the right to command and preserve it.
Behind her, a long glass desk ran the length of the room, the office’s sole ornament. The whole place had been built centuries earlier, to tastes more efficient than beautiful. Wooden books and papers towered in stacks across the desk, far outnumbering the chunks of plastic and blocks of stone. On one end, a silver rooster lay sideways, propped against an oak rendition of the Rosetta stone.
As the woman watched the workers, her eyes followed their movement without wholly focusing. Even the purple half-light betrayed her listlessness; a dangerous disinterest in the business of her own power.
She turned to the table, thick heels clicking on the grey stone floor. On a clear space, flat on the glass, lay a sandstone-colored syringe. She put her hand on it, but did not take it up. As the cream smog outside shifted around the window, the blue veins that crisscrossed just under her skin pulsed.
Facing the carved wall, she took up the syringe, and pressed its naked tip against her mottled wrist. The welcoming ice of it calmed her as she pressed, only denting the skin, not breaking it, not yet—
At the far end of the room, where the light could not reach, something rattled like a large chain. She opened her eyes.
In the courtyard below, a dull metal pillar lay half-buried in the dirt. The sides had been at some point spray-painted in obscenities, and recently painted over in a way that neither quite matched the original color nor covered the vulgar additions.
Near the base of this pillar, a dozen workers in charred snail-shell hats clustered like so many raucous disturbed ants, whooping and chanting. There was a loud crunch—the unmistakable sound of bone on metal—and then a solid thud. Someone cheered, but the crowd as a whole retreated a few paces, growling and afraid.
A small black woman without a helmet stood alone by the pillar, wiping her pickaxe off on the uniform of a very large, very dead worker.
The crowd retreated again, and the overseer, a round man in a red shirt—the only piece of colored clothing for miles—bundled through with great importance, and pointed at the small woman. A yard or so behind him, the tall woman followed.
“Faust, this is the interloper!”
He indicated the small woman with a sweeping gesture that involved both arms.
Faust looked at her impassively.
The small black woman stared past the overseer, pickaxe cocked on her shoulder. Unlike the other workers, she wore no hat. Instead, a mound of knotted and fuzzy locks covered her head, tied up with baling twine. In every other way she wore the uniform of a refinery worker, except that the neck of her charcoal jumpsuit hung carelessly open clear down to her naval.
She stepped forward, chin jutted, and held out her hand to Faust.
“Hey,” she said, her voice dark and unexpectedly husky. “Name’s Morningstar, or Mephistopheles, or the Big D. Call me Star. Demonic spirit, straight from hell on an airbus of sin and mayhem. Best known for the fall of Rome in 476 A.D.”
“Bullshit,” said Faust, crossing her arms. “Prove it.”
“Oh, my pleasure,” said Star, opening her arms wide to the sickly sky.
In the space it took to stretch and yawn, several things happened at once. The overseer became an overweight Irish setter, and the rest of the refinery workers a herd of snuffling black rabbits.
As the rabbits bounded off, the setter hitching awkwardly after them, a carpet of poppies sprang up through the black dust and bloomed around their feet.
Just like that, Faust was alone with the devil.
“Put them back,” she whispered, afraid.
Star grinned. “But that wouldn’t be any fun.”
She bowed to Faust with a sweeping mock sincerity, and stooped to pull a poppy from the dust at her feet. She handed it to Faust with a roguish smile.
“For you, my lord-high-mightyness. Now, word on the street’s that you’re in the market for a good time. That true?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Faust, primly. “And as a wayward son of god, don’t you have better things to do than—this?”
“Than what? Impress a few crickets and flex my infernal glory? I don’t think so.” A small locust bloomed at her lips between words, and flew away buzzing.
When Faust said nothing, Star sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Alright, here’s how it is. You want to die, yeah, anyone with half a third eye can see it. You can’t though, because some genius a hundred years ago thought immortality for mortals was a grand idea. And now you’ve got bored and buyer’s remorse and shit. Yeah?”
“How do you know that?” spat Faust.
“Maybe my reapers are tired of your waffling. At any rate, your eternal life’s been very underwhelming so far. I could show you a thing or two.”
“What could you possibly show me that I have not already seen, and tasted, and gotten over?” said Faust. “I have used up and wrung out everything the world has shown me.”
The devil threw back her head and laughed a short barking laugh.
“And you’ve found it wanting, is that it? You people invent one cure for death and start thinking you’re Shiva or something. Get over it. Eternity’s a lot bigger than you think.”
Faust looked narrowly down the bone of her nose. “I sincerely doubt it.”
Star stepped in closer and looked up into her eyes without guile.
“Come with me,” she said, heartless as a child. “And I’ll show you.”
Up close, the devil smelled like hot breath heavy with mildew and peppermint.
“At what cost?” whispered Faust. “What do you want?”
“Very little,” said Star, grinning. “And I can show you what you’re missing. Because trust me, you’ve got this all wrong. Let me help you-”she licked her lips, “enjoy life. Drink it up. And you ain’t gonna do it from behind a desk.”
Faust pushed her away, trembling, full of her scent and the offers she was making. But even here she knew that there are two sides to every business deal.
“And what do you want in return?”
“Why, nothin’,” said Star, drawling on her vowels with uncomfortable deliberation. “—well. Nearly nothing. Just your good company, over and under the earth, as long as we both shall live. And you know, after.”
Star smiled easily, as if she made this offer every day. She probably did.
“It’s the standard issue contract, really,” she said. “No biggie.”
Centuries of poring over the same old books, searching for a knowledge long gone, hung heavy on Faust’s mind. After all this time.
“Be yours, as you shall be mine,” said Faust. “And you will show me wisdom.”
“Wisdom and wonders, baby doll,” said Star. “Why not? You got nothing to lose.”
She put out her little brown hand again. “And really, this smokestack isn’t doing it for me.”
Star’s skin glistened in the dusk light, sweaty and chapped with dust. It was foolish, and Faust almost didn’t believe her, this frenetic stranger with blood on her head already. But what had she to lose?
This time, Faust took her hand, and their palms clasped together like a kiss.
In a tobacco flavored bar of the homespun variety, a man with a black guitar hummed softly to himself, hunched over on a barstool in the middle of an empty dance floor. He stroked the strings twice, testing them. The crowd around the edges of the room shuffled a little closer in impatience.
In the space between their breaths, the man began to sing an old folk ballad. From the first note, the words and the music flowed together, and the people fell quiet like a prayer, reverent. As though the cracked wood boards of the bar did not carry stains of oil and vomit.
In a corner booth, Star explained the intricacies of badminton to Faust, drumming her fingers on a linoleum table, under a brown and noncommittal light bulb. Faust had acquired a new suit, on a pattern of scarlet with golden thread that swept around her with a crisp, militant grace. She looked decades younger.
“Sounds like witchcraft,” said Faust, watching the guitarist.
A smooth lock of black hair fell across his lined face, grey years of laborer’s tan plain under the fluorescent lights. He curled over, near bent in half over the instrument, and drawled into the next verse.
Even the devil turned around to listen.
When he finished, Star looked at Faust with her eyebrows. The crowd clapped, and shouted out follow-up requests, boots stamping on the filthy floor. When no more music was forthcoming, loud conversation broke out again across the room.
Faust’s eyes were full of tears.
“I didn’t know anyone still sounded like that, anymore,” she said softly.
Star blinked twice, wicked eyes flashing with understanding, between Faust and the guitarist, then shrugged. She began emptying little pink packets of sugar into her soda.
“A perfect form, I think you mean,” said the devil.
Faust did not look back at the guitarist.
“Well, yes,” she said, half-ashamed.
“Do your own wooing, woman,” said Star, licking her glass. “Can’t help you there.”
Faust looked back at the man, suddenly comprehending.
“Why not?” she said, with a degree of imperiousness that had not been there before. “I thought you were supposed to help me taste life, and all that.”
She had drawn herself up to her full height. Star took notice, but said nothing.
“Well, yes,” said Star, “to a degree. I’ll foot the bills, obviously. But I can’t just charm him into your bed.”
Faust flinched at the vulgar implication.
“—he’s above my pay grade, if you catch my drift.”
The pile of sugar papers now rose higher than the glass itself.
“You know, wife, kid, cute dog,” said Star, rushing through the list as though each word pained her.
“Upstanding member of society. Disgusting. Can’t touch him. Or, better put, I can’t personally screw him over. He’s got to do it. Rules.”
Star spat expertly into the bin of ketchup packets.
Faust leaned back and sighed heavily.
“You’re a poor excuse for a devil. So far this limitless entertainment thing has included dress shopping and alcohol.”
The devil sighed with what could have been deep emotion, and took a delicate sip of her cup of sugar, pinky up.
“Sounds like your problem, not mine,” she said, following Faust’s gaze.
The guitarist had quietly paid his tab, and begun to slip out. On his way out the door, he paused to smile and shake hands with a young boy, no older than twelve. The smile on the boy’s face at being greeted as an adult was real and fervent. The man clapped the boy on the shoulder, nodded, and left.
Faust set down her mug and slipped out of the booth.
“It’s our problem now, then,” she said, following him.
Evening fell again. Ever since the smog had gathered thick over the earth, dusk came quickly, and lingered. The local vegetation struggled to adapt to this limited light, with limited success. Where anything still grew, it grew shorter and scrubbier than its greener and gaudier ancestors.
Faust stood under the wide brown leaves of a sad excuse for a palm tree, and looked down into the valley below. It was a man-made valley, the deep space between two ancient overpasses: concrete paths that had once provided transportation. Unused for years, the weeds and wild brush had reclaimed some hundreds of miles of highway, so that where the concrete was visible, it stood out like some old-world Mayan ruin.
A small green area of a few acres had been cleared in this particular valley, nestling between two wide overpasses swathed in vine. Neat rows of farmland stretched out like a circuit board, and a little scrap wood house stood unobtrusively by the junk heap. The porch was plywood laid over old tires.
Faust looked, and remembered a time when the roads raced full of headlights and chrome, and grapevines did not climb the traffic lights, the fruit bursting where the neon ought to have shone.
Star had little patience for this, or anything, and began to climb down to the fields. When they reached the tiny vegetable patch, Faust stopped again.
“What’s the holdup? You look fine,” Star snorted, “sexy as hell.”
It was true. The age had left Faust like a coat thrown back.
“It’s not that,” said Faust.
“Uh, a thank-you would be nice, but hey, it’s whatevs-”
The man working in the vegetable patch looked up and stared at them. Star stopped, and waved, a full-body motion that took her up on her tiptoes. It was the man from the bar. Faust straightened up, and brushed her hair back, a vulnerable gesture, unfamiliar.
His eyes were kind and uncomplicated, the set of his back strong, the curve of his lips true and full. He leaned on his hoe.
The man looked at Faust, and found her fair indeed.
His name was Rye, Rye Bauer, they learned, over tall glasses of sweet iced tea on the little porch. Common courtesy to strangers in a strange land, he said. His parents had been corporate-folk before the war, plant managers in the south.
Faust had never met them, but she knew their names and how they had died.
Afterwards, he had fled west alone, and settled when he found land enough. Growing up in the sour basin of old New Orleans, he’d always wanted to live off the land. Now he lived simply, farming the whole acreage between the sky roads.
Faust stirred her tea with a bent spoon, and tried to smile as she met Sickle, his thin-lipped wife.
“How do you know Rye?” she asked.
“We met at Foltzheim’s,” said Faust, “I saw him play.”
“Oh, I see,” she said, stiffly.
Sickle had been a farmer’s daughter before the war, and remained one after. She knew the ways of turnips and onions, and how to dry corn, laid up in store against a time when the earth no longer gave back at all. She was a brown potato woman, earthy and bitter at the industrial scouring her family’s land had endured.
The devil seemed in her element, balanced between the three of them, joking and posturing until Rye’s laugh rang off the tin plated walls.
“Why don’t you show her the pumpkins, Rye?” said Sickle, dryly, after one of Star’s particularly boisterous vulture impressions knocked the lintel off the door.
“I’d love to see them, actually,” said Faust, rising.
“And I’ll just stay here with the lovely lady of the house, getting up to absolutely no good whatsoever” said the devil, tossing her hair.
“Careful, she’s planning to make off with your wife,” said Faust, half-sincerely.
Amid the general laughter, a young boy of about five or six came out of the house, glancing distrustfully at the strange women, and shoved a book in front of Sickle. She considered the rough alphabet scratched within with care.
“Dean, say hello, young man,” said Rye, with a pained expression.
Faust stared, as if she had not known that children existed before this moment.
The boy turned halfway around, and looking at the ground, muttered a greeting. Star grinned and offered him a yellow candy, pulled from some mysterious pocket.
“Hey, kid,” she said.
He buried his face in his mother’s arm, distrustful as a dog.
“These are friends, be polite, sir,” said Sickle, patting his head.
Dean glanced up at Star, shook his head vigorously, and ran into the house. The wood door slammed behind him, but his quick feet could be heard disappearing into the back of the house.
“Kids,” said Rye, sighing.
His wife glared at him. “He’s your son too now.”
“He’s too old to act like that,” said Rye, “But what can you do?”
No one knew anything about children except Sickle.
“Kids, right?” said Faust.
Rye met her eyes, and smiled again, as the devil rearranged her legs and sat cross-legged in her chair.
“Weren’t you guys going to go look at pumpkins?”
Rye rose and offered his hand to help Faust down from the porch, like some forgotten royalty. From anyone else, she would have laughed, but she took his hand gently and without protest, as if she held it too tightly it might shatter. As their hands brushed, his touch burned.
While Star chattered on beside her about prehistoric farming strategies, Sickle looked after them.
A few days later, Faust trailed off alone to the little valley between the old roads, at an hour when the strange sour woman and her son were both in the little scrap house. Rye knelt alone in the corn, pulling baby elm trees out of the dirt and piling them in a wicker basket.
He smiled wide when he saw her. Faust knelt beside him, and began to pull trees too. Her slender fingers did not know the work, and she struggled to find a way in the soil.
After a few trees were in the basket, she looked at him. Sweat trickled down his face, and his tan cheeks flushed with the heat.
“Is that your son?” she asked.
“No. She was married before me.”
Silence sat between them for a few minutes, no sound but the heat in the corn stalks and the heaviness of the still air.
“How did you meet?”
“Her father sold me the land. She came with it.”
Rye glanced at Faust when she leaned, elbows in the dirt, to pull a handful of green shoots just under a leaf. Silver hair swept across her thin shoulders, skin pale with a life spent away from the sun, and just then he thought her the loveliest thing he’d ever seen.
She sat up, leaned back on her heels, and looked at him.
“Come with me,” she said, loving him.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “This is my land now. I will not leave it.”
Falling to her knees, one hand knuckled into the dirt for balance, Faust leaned in and kissed him softly, the sweat on their lips mingling and tasting of silt. He took her face in both hands and left a smear of dirt down her cheek.
The corn at the back of the row rustled, and Sickle called his name.
At dusk that night, Faust lay on the ground under a plantain tree, twirling a leaf between her fingers. The smell of smoke hung in the air, though no fires burned nearby.
“He won’t do it, Star,” she said to the canopy of branches. “The land is his, and so he is hers.”
The branches swayed, and a little orange monkey with a grey and twisted face hung down by one arm with a bounce.
“Don’t tell me you’re giving him up,” it said with Star’s voice, swinging inches above Faust’s face.
Faust jumped and swung at the monkey, missing with an ungraceful flail.
“What are you doing?” she said, vaguely horrified.
Star shrugged. “Amusing myself. Something you’re very bad at. You barely tried.”
Faust shuddered, but sat down again. The wrinkles on Star’s face were particularly incongruous, and disturbed her deeply. With difficulty, she answered.
“It doesn’t matter. He is young and happy. He has a work he loves and he is content.” She shook her head. “I do not understand it.”
Faust buried her chin between her arms. The little monkey swung into the air, twisted a double-somersault, and Star landed on the dirt again, whole as ever.
She flopped down and sat cross-legged before Faust.
“You think you’ll fix anything by just sitting here?” Star poked Faust in the forehead. “That hasn’t worked for the last few decades, has it?”
Faust shook her head slowly.
“Action, babe, that’s the key here,” said Star, gently, nestling down next to her. “You’re beautiful. You can do it.”
Faust grunted. “That’s not the issue.”
“Nonsense,” said Star. “You feel rejected, that’s all. So, it’s a little harder than we thought. Big deal. Act. Take control. Do what is necessary.”
Faust looked at her helplessly. “How?”
“Just tell him! Make your case.”
Faust stood up.
“I did, devil, I did! And he said no. Is this the happiness you promised me? Is it? You’ve done nothing but dress me up in a child’s costume and show me what I cannot have.”
Silence hung between the women for a moment. A bead of sweat trickled sticky down Faust’s neck, and she swiped at it.
“One time. That’s it?” drawled Star, undaunted. “So he didn’t jump to and do what you wanted the first time. You think the world was built on first tries? Obviously, you should try it again.”
Faust did not look convinced.
“What if he never wants to come?”
Something red flickered in Star’s gaze. She grabbed Faust by the chin and looked her full and level in the eyes.
“Then you ask him again, and again, and again. Compel him. Press him from every side, with every charm you have. Red lips,” she said, running her little hand over the human’s lower lip, “for dreaming of desire, silver-haired: with the pale moon’s blessing, and black lashes, dark as the night I was born.”
She bent forward, and kissed Faust on the forehead.
“You are Faust, and you will not be denied.”
Faust swallowed thickly. The blood had come to her face, hot and fierce. She did not know what power was in her to do this thing. It seemed so far from her, this talk of red lips and coaxing.
“What about his wife?”
Star pulled away, and raised her eyebrow.
“Leave her to me.”
Near the pumpkin orchard, in the heavy half-dusk, Rye let Faust show him in wonder the silver flowers that grew at the base of every lamppost for miles. They bloomed in tiny stars, the silver of her hair, and he wove her a chain and laid it around her neck.
In the house, Sickle listened in her high-backed chair, while Star taught her the witchery that was something like knitting, a basket springing to life out of little steel wires. As the shimmering web came together, Star talked quickly about home improvements and where to find valuable engine parts in scrap yards. If Sickle watched the window with anything like unusual care, Star did not see or took care not to notice.
As soon as his mother was not looking, Dean ran out the back door, barefoot in the glass heat.
Two nights later, Rye came up out of the fields, head bowed, a rake on his shoulder. He did not think it strange to see Faust standing alone on his porch, proud with ownership and crowned with wind. She belonged there without effort.
He leaned the rake on the porch wall and walked to stand below Faust on the steps. He did not look up, but fixed his gaze on a knothole behind her.
Faust waited for him to say something, the question she wanted to ask caught behind her teeth. Behind them, the rake slid slowly to the floor. He did not move to pick it up, or even acknowledge that it had fallen.
“I can’t do it,” he said thickly, finally, still without looking up.
Faust put out her hand and touched his cheek. Star’s words rang in her mind. And you will not be denied.
“Why not?” she said, as if it was the simplest thing in the world to leave one’s wife and child.
Rye shrugged desperately. Perhaps it was.
“She needs me,” he said, grasping. “Think of Sickle. Think of what this will do to her.”
Faust paused to consider this. Each heartbeat roared in her ears, with every silence. Say yes, she pleaded—to herself only. It lacked the commitment of a prayer.
“But I do not think of her,” she said finally. “I think of you.”
Rye raised his eyes to hers. She smiled, in the way she thought a mother might smile.
“You are not happy,” she said quietly.
“But I promised.”
Faust stepped off the porch and took him in her arms. He buried his face in her neck, shoulders bent together in an oxbow. She smoothed his hair, not understanding.
“I know,” she said, “I know.”
He clung to her, and nodded.
They sat like that for a while, Faust crooning and gentling, Rye crawling into her words and hiding there. It would be fine, she reasoned, they would go north and find new land, far away from where anyone ever knew them. They would leave tomorrow. Sickle would have to understand.
A summer wind gathered the trees together, and heat washed over them both.
Faust stood alone on Rye’s porch the next morning, early, waiting for him with her pack on her shoulder. A grey sunrise filtered through the shifting clouds, and threw yellow bars of sunlight across the pine wood planks. The wind was brisk, and Faust shivered.
Sickle answered the door alone. Her lips drew together, brown and ugly and pursed, as she stepped back with forced hospitality.
“Hello, Faust. Come in, please.”
Faust nodded, curt and scrambling for words as she stepped obediently over the mat.
“Ma’am. Lovely place you have here.”
The words felt hollow in her mouth. Sickle shut the door behind them, and wiped her hands on her bright blue plaid apron. Faust clenched the synthetic strap of her bag, feeling too clean and well-fed, woefully out of place in the dirt floored kitchen. Sickle turned back to the counter, and began to peel the skin off an onion without ceremony.
“I supposed you’re here to see Rye,” she said. “You always are.”
Faust pulled a chair out from the kitchen table and sat without invitation. The reality of his wife was always far more intimidating than the concept of her.
“I’m here to see the both of you.”
Sickle laughed suddenly, a harsh choppy noise, and opened a drawer.
“Oh, is that so?” she said, jingling the silverware.
In the moment of Faust’s hesitation, Sickle turned, fear and anger in her face. She shook, backed against the counter-top, hands behind her back like a soldier at attention, but she stuck her chin out firmly.
“Who are you, really?” she said, too loudly.
“I don’t understand,” said Faust, wondering vaguely where Star had gone.
“You’ve got money, bitch. Anyone with half an eye could see it. And rich people don’t just come down out of their mansions and make friends with us. We’re low-lifes.” Her voice began to climb steadily up in pitch. “You call us prairie miners. Or dirt fuckers. You’re too good for us—“
She sucked in a breath and hissed.
“You want something,” she spat. “You’re after the farm. Think you’re gonna make big oil out of us with no trouble at all. Well, I’m onto you.”
She brought her hand out of the drawer suddenly, and she held a knife. The blade leapt long and silver in the dim kitchen, sharp for tough root vegetables and bitter poultry.
Faust stood up quickly, hands raised, and placed the chair between her and Sickle. Carefully, carefully, she thought. Do what is necessary.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, trying not to look relieved. Sickle did not know about him.
“Oh, but I do,” said Sickle, waddling forward a step, knife raised. “I know your kind. Don’t think I don’t know!”
She lunged, swiping wildly in the air with the knife. Faust stepped backwards, swift in her new young strength, and shoved the chair at her, so that Sickle stumbled over it and half-fell.
In the moment of confusion, Faust knelt nimbly and wrestled the knife from her grip. Without hesitation, she sank the knife into the other woman’s back. The first time she didn’t think. That made the second time easier. And the third.
Sickle made a confused blubbering noise, like a choking motor, and batted heavily at Faust’s knee with one hand. Faust sank the knife into her soft flesh one last time, for good measure.
This time, she felt it hit the wooden floor underneath. She left it there.
Faust stepped out of the house into the soft morning, shutting the door carefully behind her, as much as the bent lintel would allow. Red streaks ran down the folds of her khakis, a grasping handprint barely visible. She knelt on the smooth pine floor that he had built, and stared out at the climbing vines and old sky roads.
Rye found her there, hours later. He was coming in from the east, where his father-in-law lived, with Dean trailing at his heels with an armful of blue cornflowers. Rye ran when he saw her, quick-breathed and anxious, and would have knelt by her, but she gestured wordlessly towards the house.
When Rye came out again, alone, he was old.
“You did this?” he said, fumbling over the words.
She showed him her hands, gaze open and pleading.
“It was necessary.”
He could not look at her.
Without waiting to see whether she would leave or not, he turned and went back in the house. A moment later, Faust heard a soft cry. She remained there, red hands curled in fists, looking at the seams on the wooden planks.
When she looked up again, Star was coming along the side of the cornfield, a sprig of grass between her teeth. As she walked, the corn wilted, a brown swath widening among the crops with every step she took. But she was still beautiful, from her blunt nose to her curved full lips.
A single beam of sunshine fell across her shoulders, and caught in the golden weeds woven into her hair.
Faust stood up and shouted for her. When she got closer, she shouted again, and as the devil reached the porch, she spread her hands for her to see.
“You did this,” said Faust, voice cracking.
Star arched an eyebrow, as if she already knew.
“No, you did,” she said, leaning against the porch.
The door opened, and Faust looked up, hoping too eagerly for it to be Rye, for him to say she would live, that he understood, that they could leave—
Dean stepped out, and offered Faust a cornflower.