Luis had been warned three times about crossing into the Giant's Doorway.
"The path across the desert won't forgive you," his mother had told him over a coil of sandalwood incense, "not like your father and I did. Thieves will find you begging for water, child, and they'll withhold the mercy of execution."
But Luis had been in that desert. Luis knew a thing or two about mercy himself.
"No living soul can tell you what's on the other side," the heron woman had told him over a steaming cup of chai. "Yes, boy, there are stories. There are always stories. But they all describe it differently, even from one telling to another."
But Luis didn't trust the stories to begin with. He was going to make a story of his own.
"You won't be able to come back here," Carlotta told him in the garden, over a honeysuckle bush. "I've heard that the paths beyond the doorway are infinite. Forward and back. Luis, you'll turn to leave and find the road you took now leads somewhere else completely."
But Luis told her that he was willing to walk that distance. It was his debt to pay.
"What do you owe that you could pay by going there?" Her brow trembled with anger. "Isn't there another way?"
There is always another way, Luis had thought. But he knew he couldn't take it.
And so Luis took a horse into the flatlands.
Late in the day, he and his mount stopped at a pool beneath a rocky outcropping, and they shared in a drink. As they brought their heads up from the water, there were men in red tagelmust around them.
"Tell me," their leader said as his dismounted, "what you can give me to purchase your life."
Luis said nothing.
"Ah, I should have known." The same man chuckled. "You ride out here, equipped like that." He pointed to Luis's horse with his left hand. "Your life is worthless to you."
"The horse does not carry everything I bring." Luis drew a scimitar.
"And so my suspicions are confirmed." Their leader found a hooked knife in his shirt.
Then another man in a red tagelmust spoke up. "Wait just a second," this man said. "I know you, boy!" This one pulled his scarf down to show a human face beneath, stained crimson by his turban. "By God's balls! You're the Vulture!"
"The… Vulture." The first man tasted the name. Luis's gaze remained locked with his.
"Come on, man, you remember him! He was a nasty fucker! Rode with us for a year, then took off into some slum back east. Guess his prospects with that woman dried up, eh?"
The first man sniffed. "Tell me, worthless-life boy. Is my friend telling the truth?"
When Luis told the heron woman that he was taking that road out into the flatlands, that was the end of him, as far as she was concerned.
But barely three hours had passed when there was a knock on the heron woman's door. This was her apprentice, Carlotta, wearing a violet sash: the color of goodbyes.
As they prepared the chai in the kitchen — there was always chai ready for those who would speak to the heron woman — Carlotta told her story, and the elder listened, leaned forward with her neck just slanted. Carlotta could tell she was trying to look sympathetic, but all her bird mask showed was curiosity.
The two of them went into the smoky little den where the heron woman gave counsel, and the heron woman spoke to her, and said that anyone who still leaves the village is inside it, as she is concerned, because home is something you take with you. She said that the very heart of love is fear: that we do not cherish a thing until we can sense its loss. She told Carlotta to give this boy a flower, as flowers can ward off the foulest spirits. Their smells make us remember better times, explained the heron woman, and foul spirits cannot overcome sweet memories.
That, the heron woman said, is why the gate to the town is adorned with lilacs.
Then the elder shuffled to the door, placed a bill in Carlotta's hand, and asked her to buy some incense. The girl smiled and stepped out into the sunlight.
Once the door had closed behind Carlotta, she fumed. It was beyond her station to openly disrespect her teacher, but did the crone think that Carlotta had never listened in on one of her counseling sessions before? It was always the same platitudes, the same empty gestures. The magic of tossing your problems into a blank-eyed pit and getting pleasant noises in return.
The heron woman's talk about home was trash. Her protection couldn't follow Luis beyond the gate adorned with lilacs.
The heron woman's talk about love was nonsense. She talked about the inner workings of fear and love, but if the witch had ever known either, she wouldn't remember it now.
The heron woman's talk about flowers was insulting. Maybe some people really were uplifted by a nice smell. But flowers did nothing about the pain.
And the heron woman knew this, and Carlotta knew she knew this. Carlotta knew a lot of things that the blue clay mask was holding back. She turned to approach the market, but a thought caught her in mid-step. A rude, nasty, wise little thought: that perhaps the heron woman should know this after all.