Ouroboros

BY CASSANDRA KHAW

My father is the heavens, the wind, and the bones of the earth. My mother is the snake goddess who crafted the first woman out of yellow mud and pity. The explanation crouches on my tongue like a waiting leopard but I swallow it. She’s too beautiful to frighten away.

“My parents are dead,” I say.

Around us, the crowd pushes together, sinuous and clumsy, a stew of limbs and laughter and ink-painted mouths.

“Oh,” She runs a hand through her hair, black and neon-blue. Her bangs are soaked with silver. “I’m sorry I asked.”

“It’s okay. We weren’t that close.”

“So, why are you visiting your dad’s grave on Father’s Day again? Seems a bit morbid, doesn’t it?”

“It was my mother’s dying wish.”

“Ah.” 

She smiles wanly. Circe might have a punk name, but her heart bleeds Jane Austen. Her eyes are soft and wicked, bright under a veil of kohl-kissed lashes. Just like the fishnets and the velvet she wears, future armour for the optimistic goth girl. 

Circe slinks closer, and reaches for my hand. I stroke my fingers over hers, revelling in the texture of the skull rings, the vine of scars undulating over her knuckles. 

Her eyes gleam. She pushes off her barstool and into me, catching my face and hair in her small, clever hands. Her mouth finds mine. I taste tequila and tongue, lilies and sex. My fingers discover again the writhing topography of her back and hips, the taut muscles bridging ribs and pelvis. 

We kiss. Hard. 

Later, we make love with equal fervour. When we are done panting into covers, Circe catches my arm and loops it around her chest. She traces the stuttering lines of my wrist and fingers, broken and rebuilt so many times over.

“I love you,” Her confession frees a sad, soft laugh from her mouth. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t - “ 

My lips explore her back, the terrain of her cinnamon-skinned shoulder.  “Ssh. It’s okay.”

I memorise her scent, her skin, her sweat. These, I will keep for myself, to cup in my memories when everything else is gone. 

“Did I ruin everything?” So sorrowful, her voice. Like a songbird flayed and fettered to a cage of its own ribs.

Kill her, says my mother’s ghost.

“No.” 

Kill her, my mother demands. Louder this time, louder than the thunder of my pulse in my ears. 

“No?” Circe’s sleep-befuddled murmur.

“No,” I outline her neck with my fingers. “Very little bothers me.”

“You’re slick,” The tiniest of laughters, like a warm spring breeze come early. “You know you don’t have to say it back to me, right?” 

Ungrateful, spiteful child. Would you exchange the happiness of your entire family for a girl? And after what I’ve done for us? For this world?

“No,” I breathe. I thatch playfulness over my next words, my face rested on Circe’s. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to.”

I feel her smile take shape against my cheek. “I love you. So much. I have a feeling this is the start of something wonderful.”

Now, do as you’re told. 

“Yes.”


I slit her throat while she dreams.

Her blood is spice, oak, and citrus regrets.


“What are you wearing?” asks the stooped little innkeeper. Her curious eyes are frost-blue, alert.

“A memento from my mother, Mistress Anika,” I say. My eyes travel to my bracelet. The rope is the carmine of dried viscera, the gems arterial-red.

“You should be careful,” The old lady huffs.  “This is a nice place, but thieves are everywhere.” 

I close a sleeve over the jewellery. Smile. “I understand.” 

“You’re a quiet one,” She lifts an eyebrow. “I don’t understand why such a pretty girl like you is travelling here alone.”

“It was my mother’s last wish,” The lies come with the ease of practice. “She wanted me to see the place where she met my father, her first husband.”

“Ah,” Suspicion prickles in her gaze, like the hairs on a cat. “Strange request.”

“Yes.”

We exchange calm stares. She yields first. With a shrug, Anika turns away and I follow, suitcase in hand. She leads me to a gorgeous room, draped with furs and sleek black furniture. An image of Circe, naked and perfect, flits unbidden across my mind. She would have liked this place, I decide.

“This is beautiful,” I tell Anika politely, shoving away memories of Circe. Writhing. Moaning. Furiously, gloriously alive.

“Thank you,” She hesitates, pride warring with caution. “Tell me the truth. Why are you here?”

Her concern warms me. “I’m not going to kill myself, I promise.” 

“You never know. I remember a girl from last year. She said the same. I  - “ Again, she falters. “Don’t take any offence, young lady, but I hope you understand there’s probably nothing after death.”

I nod.

“Whatever happened, it isn’t worth dying for.” She grabs my hands. “Understand?” 

“Yes.” The bracelet warms, and the serpent-hiss of my mother’s voice swells. Kill, kill, kill -  “Anika? What would you do if the world ended tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow?”

“Yes,” I don’t look at her, allowing silence to expand. Instead, I make a slow circuit of the room, caressing every ornament in the room. 

“I don’t know.” She shakes her head, her smile wistful. “My husband is dead. My children are grown. My grandchildren are all happy. I take visitors because I am lonely. I’m not afraid of death. I’ve lived a long, good life.”

I wait.

“I suppose I’d do what I do every night: drink my tea, perhaps read that new novel I just bought, and then go to sleep.”

I nod again. I can feel my mother’s approval, mothwing-soft. A twinge of regret flutters through my breast, but it finds no purchase. Grandmothers sit on the precipice of loss. No one would miss her too much, would weep too bitterly. Everyone knows that the old reserve their last waltz for death.

“What would you do?” She asks, tone wondering.

I freeze.

What would I do?

“I’d - “ The words clot. “I guess I’d ask the woman I love if she’d forgive me for what I did.” 

I see her mouth quiver into a moue, but she presents no accusations of blasphemy. Instead, Anika nods. “No reason why you can’t do it now.”

My mind fills with Circe’s slack features, the gash in her throat like a slim, second mouth parted in appeal. “It’s … I can’t, I’m afraid.” 

“And, why is that?” Unused to action, she prowls the length of the room, plumping pillows and correcting the symmetry of the decorations.

I exhale. “Complications with my mother, I suppose.”

“She’s not as open-minded as me, then?”

The laugh she frees from my throat startles me with its innocence. It’s Circe’s laugh, unfathomably brilliant, and for a moment I am overcome by loneliness. “No. Not at all.”

The old woman nods curtly. “You should not listen to her if she doesn’t make you happy. I learned this from becoming old: parents only think they know best.”

My mother’s voice crashes like waves, dragging me under. Kill her, kill her, kill - I pinch the bridge of my nose between my fingers. “Disobeying her would bring about the end of the world, though. I think.” 

It is an almost truth. 

Anika curls a lock of pale hair behind an ear, and smiles fiercely at me. “In that case, perhaps you should make your own world, then.”


My mother and I fight for the first time since her death, but her will is more potent than mine. As I always have, as I always will, I surrender and steal, cat-footed, across the veins of Anika’s home.

The old woman kept a chair against her door that night. But, that does not hinder me. I cut her throat. Anika does not awaken to the plik-plok-shlick of her years, warm and empty of want, dripping into an old urn.

Her blood tastes like smoke, cinnamon, and cicada dreams of summer sunlight.


I dip my hand into the hole in the cold ground and stir slowly, mixing Anika’s blood with Circe’s. I crush the rubies on my wrist into powder, mix what is left of mother into the dirt. Mother, maiden, crone. A new mythology stitched together from the sinews of the old. 

I lift my arm, now crimson to the elbow. Power, old as the politics of gender, crackles and fills my mouth with the reek of coins. I begin writing the runes on the earth the way my mother taught me. We sing as I draw the sigils, my mother and I, her ghost-voice full and sweet, mine clogged with red.

"Daughter?"

I look up. The word peals like thunder. The blue of the sky is thickening, becoming a paste made from stars and a crunching sound that makes me think of stone pestles on chilli seeds. 

"Father," The wind kisses like a blade, digging wounds into my cheeks.

My father's voice is gravel, granite, and grief. "What have you done?"

“Blood for blood. I am helping mother take your place," I tell him, crossing my legs. 

The soil feels warm. Granules of dirt are beginning to reknit into muscle tissue. A wildflower thins into a strand of dark, coarse hair. I picture the blood of my loves, the blood of my mother, seeping into my father’s meat. Like worms, hollowing him, eating him from inside out. "She is tired of human husbands, and tired of this world."

I add a moment later, "Tired enough to buy a new world with her death and yours."

His yolk-yellow left eye twitches. I wonder how many people are howling right now, at the sight of eyelids contracting around their sun. "This creation was her choice."

“Even goddesses make mistakes.”

My heart stretches against my ribs. I think about my beautiful, trusting Circe. I think about Anika, who died for her kindness. I think about sacrifices and a goddess who wanted to be a woman and the price of love.

All for you, mother. I set the world on fire, all for you. So you can stop calling me an unfilial child.

She does not answer.

Wordless, we sit. Father and bastard descendent, framed in the gnawing silence of a dying universe. His voice gusts through the clouds: "You'll destroy everything." 

"Yes,” I say again. The wind screams exultantly with my mother’s voice.

“You’ll die,”

“And everything else too. We will all die to create her new world.” I tell him, numbly. 

The sky blackens, becoming the colour of charred skin. The taste of ozone floods my mouth. I can hear klaxons wailing in the distance.

“Her rule will be terrible.” His voice opens welts on my arms.

“Yes.”

I think about Circe again. I cling to the memory of her skin and shape, the choir of her fingers, the dance of her expressions. I rehearse what I would say if we met again in the malleable chaos.

“Stop her - “ How quick that theft of vitality! My father’s voice is but a ghost now.

“How? I can’t.”

“Drink us both.” 

And then he is gone.

I don’t hesitate. The knowledge of his request is inked into my marrow, my spirit. I push my essence, unmarked by death or stasis, into the earth and I eat. 

My father goes quietly. My mother screams as I gorge myself on the idea of her. Bite by bite, I claim my birthright.

Their blood tastes of hope, stardust, and the murmuring of the dreaming dead.


I am the heavens, the wind, and the bones of the earth. I am the clay of your creation, the smile of your mothers. I am not sure what manner of God I will be, but I know this: I will be one that knows love, at least.

I reach into the ether, and find Circe’s hand.


Cassandra Khaw is Ysbryd Games' business cat, and also the author of the upcoming Codemancer companion novel AND an IF novelist for Choice of Games. She never stops writing. Ever.


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