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The Hundred Loves

By Melissa A Watkins in Issue Thirteen, January 2024

You cannot tell a person how to love you. You can only decide if you will accept their love.

First, there was Adeh, broad, dark, and bearded. At the beginning of the world, he taught me what love was, and how to accept it. I imprinted on him like a chick on a hen and followed him into a tomb. No matter. The next love brought me out of it.

When the dust fell from my eyelids, I looked my love Komi full in the face. His own eyes were used to sweeping black skies for stars, and so they found me, a tiny light hidden in the darkness under a burial mound. I was wearing the body of a woman he had seen before. I do not remember where I was before her, but she had fallen in the heat, and I was there to take her spirit’s place. It is the only time I have taken without any invitation.

The first time I touched Komi with her hands, he knew I was something different. Not a woman, or a man. Not anything he knew. He truly saw me, I think, in a way that few of the loves in my long life have.

One night as we sat wrapped in the warmth of firelight passing a dish of lentils between us, he looked at me and said, “I know what you are, I think. But it doesn’t matter.”

He did not know, not really. How could he? Entire markets full of people have frozen in terror upon realizing what I truly was. Still, I smiled and accepted his love.

There were many others over the years. I accepted them all and followed them on their paths, farther and farther away from the place where I was born, deeper and deeper into the lands in which we lived. They were short loves, simple loves. Loves of the plains, the deserts, the mountains. Special, but not lasting. I needed more.

I found it.

The next long love was Almasi, tall and deep black. I traveled far to meet her and learned how to chase down smelly cows with long horns and saggy skin to keep her. I pleased her mostly, and she pleased me entirely. She had a smile like a ray of sun coming through the clouds and a fist like a bolt of lightning. No matter. I accepted it.

Then she was gone, and I traveled back to the side of the world where I had been born.

It had been a long time, and the tomb where I had lain with Adeh and awoken to Komi was a pile of forgotten dirt surrounded by the footsteps of strange men. I had no one to love and nothing to do, so I followed the prints of heavy boots. They led me a long way away, to the shores of a broad body of water that reminded me of the heavy shoulders of one of my short loves, a man who liked to make things out of metal, whose heat-toughened hands scratched against my skin like a cat’s tongue. The width of the shoreline was where the familiarity ended.

I had never seen so much water at once before. It was a truly new and fascinating thing, and I stood still, watching it creep away from the shore and back again for a long time. Too long, for while I was standing, breathing in salt and watching the water lap at the land, the men who had made the prints came to me and wrapped ropes around my wrists and ankles, pushed and kicked me down to the water’s edge to stand among others, all scrawny, desperate, angry, unloved.

The men who captured us spoke a language I did not know, and their faces were unlike anything I had seen before in my long, long life—pale, creased, and reddened painfully from the sun. Even their hair was unusual, strangely textured, dull or bright, so strong and tough it did not need braiding or oiling. I could not imagine having hair that did not need pampering, having skin that was allowed to crack and wither so, and I wondered who loved them.

I missed Almasi, looking at them. I missed the way we braided each other’s hair into dozens of small plaits, the way we rubbed fresh butter from the smelly cows into each other’s scalps, faces, and feet. I missed the way her hands would rise, languid and oily, from my feet to my calves, then ever higher, always slowly. I missed her fiercely for a moment, so sharply that it caused a pain in my side. To soothe myself I looked around at the lost ones tied around me in miserable knots and searched for someone new to love. A new, short love would not make me forget entirely, but perhaps it would dull the sting for long enough to let me heal.

There was no love being offered on that beach, and so none to accept. There was only misery, held tightly in each heart and suddenly released in bubbles of terror—a whimper, a shout, a sob. I turned my face into the salt-scented breeze and moaned at the pain of it all.

Tall ships—I did not know what they were called, then—were bobbing far out on the endless water in front of us. I stood just as tall, living strong in the body of my last love. The others saw me and straightened too, swallowed back a little of their terror and pain, and slowly began to remember their own loves, their own strength.

We would all have come back to ourselves, I think. I would have found a new love soon enough and walked away.

But one of the strange men, the ones with the ropes and the heavy bootprints, walked past and looked me full in the face and what I saw there stunned me. It was not love. It was not hate, either. This man looked deep into my eyes and saw nothing. When the full force of his indifference settled next to my skin, I fell down, senseless.

I did not die, I think, but I might have. When I opened my eyes again, I was in a dark, swaying place made of wood that moved through the water. Ship, I heard one of the others say, and that is when I learned what they are called. The tail of a rat was disappearing from view. The muffled murmurs of pain from the beach had grown to a constant chorus of anguished moans. Saltwater ran past our ankles if we sat and our backs if we lay but did nothing to wash away the stench of the filth we were forced to shelter in.

There was no love in the bottom of the ship, only its opposite, the purest indifference to the humanity of myself and the others. We were wood, living and breathing, stacked for burning somewhere, thrown over the side if we mouldered and filled with worms.

I did not die, but I might have, many times.

The next love was a man who had survived the terror of indifference and now lived, somewhat. He was dull of eye and slow of step as he toiled between endless rows of grain and cotton. I had been bought and sold by then, and the constant disregard that followed us through the fields dulled me as well. I walked in torpor, pulling weeds and reaping stalks not for the joy of what they would bring but out of fear of a lash, a cuff, or worse.

I had also been living in the body of my cow woman for too long. There was little of the memory of the love I had accepted left in her strong, soft flesh. Without a new love to live in, I felt the deepest parts of myself begin to dwindle. I was used to open love, given freely and often, after a handful of joys had been shared. Here, love could be used as a weapon or a curse, and the people kept it secret out of fear. I had been walking the world from its beginnings, yet a few fields of tasteless grain and the quiet, furtive love of slaves would be my undoing, for there was nothing in the open to gratefully accept, only endless sea waves of forced giving. I needed more and became less. As all who desire love and cannot receive it do, I began to think of power instead and who I could use to wield it.

Still, this slow-stepping man unlucky enough to have been born in these lands saw me, still wearing the lean black body of my last long love, and something peeked through his dullness, something that called to me and woke him slowly as he bent and swayed and sang.

When he was ready to love me, we ran.

Before I could accept him, we were caught, and he died under the heaving bodies of angry dogs who were more loved than we were.

I was carried back to the rows of grain, shamed and beaten there.

The one who had sent the dogs looked at me while I was catching the long tails and sharp knuckles of pain, and I saw him suddenly. I saw him see me, not as nothing, but something.

At last.

While I was lying on my stomach with my back covered in herbs, he came to me and I saw a little love there, a weak, grasping thing made more of the love of himself than any knowledge of me. Still, you cannot choose how a person loves you.

You can only accept.

It is a difficult choice, sometimes.

I gathered the people who worked in the fields and the house, all who had been brought in ships or birthed by mothers who had survived them. They stood in a restless cluster near the porch of the big house while I went inside to work. I was quick, methodical. I had learned how to steal long ago from a small and doe-eyed love who walked the tightrope between male and female with a grace that belonged to neither, but I needed none of their expertise to do what was needed. I gathered cash, opened drawers and cabinets and placed all the small and valuable things there into sacks, then called a man who worked in the house to help me carry it all to the porch and share the goods out. I went to look for more.

A pale woman wearing too many clothes chased me around the house as I searched, pulling at my sleeves. I shook her off after one look into her eyes. There was no love there at all, only need, like meat without salt. She began to cry. Walker, she called me. Walker, how could you. You’re mad, Walker, I swear you are. I ignored her until finally she began to destroy the fine, loveless things in the house in a terrified rage, howling a word that made no sense until I realized it was the name that belonged to the body of this weak lover. Matty, she cried, and then again, long and hollow like the voice of the wind, Matteeeeee!

I stood on the porch while she broke dishes, overturned chairs, and wailed in counterpoint to the beat of plates against the kitchen floorboards. I told the men and women who had been bought that they were no longer property. They stared, then scattered.

I watched them go, one hundred of them. Men, women, and children, stolen from the lands where I became myself, broken in the lands of others, branded the property of a man named Matty Walker. His body fit my spirit poorly. His power fit my intentions perfectly. I watched the one hundred slip into the woods that bordered the fields they had so thanklessly worked in like ghosts, and I decided to give them even more.

As they went, some looked back quickly, fearfully. I understood. They did not know what I was, as Komi had claimed to many years ago. They did not love me, and I did not blame them. I barely loved myself, this way. But I had decided to love them, and I had learned from Matty Walker that there are ways to make a person accept what they would otherwise not.

A woman with a face speckled and tiny like a quail’s egg darted back towards the porch to snatch up a silver spoon that had fallen from one of the sacks, and then turned and dashed away, avoiding my eyes.

Too late. I had already decided to give myself to her, to all of them. I already felt myself stretching, thinning out even more in the way that my loves did when I accepted them. Instead of fighting it, instead of finding someone who desired me and continuing to live in them, I let myself trickle out of the body I had taken and follow my own desires. I flowed from the porch into a hundred different directions, into the many fleeing bodies of my unwitting new loves. I could not live in this place as I had, surviving on the crumbs of stolen affection. Instead, I would give myself away, the way my lovers had over the years, and let what I was enrich their freedom.

The feeling was new, but I accepted it.

The woman with the spoon flashed one quick and terrible look over her shoulder before vanishing behind a tree. It hurt me, even as my essence began to strengthen her for her journey into freedom. She hated the body I wore, and in the moments before it dropped lifeless on the sanded wood of the big house’s porch, I understood. It did not stop the hurt.

No matter. I still loved them all.

© 2024 Melissa A Watkins

Melissa A Watkins

Watkins is a writer now, but used to be a teacher, a singer, an actress, and a very bad translator (thankfully, not all at the same time). Her short stories have previously appeared in midnight & indigo, khoreo, Fantasy Magazine and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. After fifteen years of living in Europe and Asia, she's now based in Boston, where she reads too much and rants about it at EqualOpportunityReader.com.

Fiction by Melissa A Watkins
  • The Hundred Loves