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"Ulder"

Vajra Chandrasekera lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Static, Clarkesworld and Lightspeed, among others. You can follow him on Twitter at @_vajra.
"Ulder," said the man in the hat, leaning in, lips barely moving. His eyes darted, as if anyone else on the train would hear him through their prophylactic earplugs. We were the only two with ears open.
"What?" I said, too loud. The man in the hat leaned away, mouth tight, beard bristling. He didn't look at me again.
At the station, guardsmen took the man in the hat away. I watched them go out of the corner of my eye; they'd knocked his hat off when they took him down, and his hair was tousled from the scuffle. I couldn't see the hat anywhere, but there were so many people on the platform. I imagined it crushed and stepped on somewhere in the press.
I mentioned the word to Kirill in bed that night, and he stiffened, asked me where I'd heard it.
"He didn't tell you what it meant?" Kirill asked when I'd told him the story.
"What does it mean? Do you know?"
Kirill hesitated so long that I prodded him to see if he'd fallen asleep. "You know I hate it when you keep secrets," I said.
"Don't be melodramatic," Kirill said.
And then he told me what the word meant.
It was several days before I thought to ask him how he had known the word. I spent those days in a haze, raw and newborn. The wind seemed colder. I started letting my beard grow. The long bones in my shins felt weak, as if from fever. And the word, it reverberated in me, growing echoes like fungi in the dark.
Ulder, I said to myself at my desk, working and writing. But only inside, so that the other people in my office wouldn't hear me. I needn't have worried; they all wore prophylactics anyway.
Ulder, I said to myself when I saw uniforms on the street, guardsmen arresting someone.
("Disappearing," Kirill had once said, early in our acquaintance. "Not arresting, disappearing them." And I only thought, this man is free and beautiful. But if I had known the word then I would not have thought ulder, because Kirill was never that.)
Ulder, I whispered when they broadcast the prayer-anthems, tinny from loudspeakers, in the evening as I walked to the railway station. I used to mumble along to the prayers out of habit, never seeing what was in front of me.
Ulder, ulder, ulder.
I said it out loud the next time Kirill and I slept together. It had been almost a week, because we couldn't afford to be seen together too often. Kirill flinched as soon as I said it. He rolled out of bed, lighting one of his contraband cigarettes.
"Now who's being melodramatic?" I said.
The cigarettes were very Kirill. That was both the extent and the nature of his rebellion; slick, sly, sweet-smelling, carcinogenic.
"I was afraid you'd react to it this way," Kirill said. "Some are immune to memetically transmitted disease. But you--"
"MTDs don't exist," I said. "I've told you, it's just state propaganda against disapproved ideologies. Ulder--"
"Don't say it to me," Kirill said, laughing his bitter tar laugh and coughing. "What do you know about it? I was the one who told--"
I don't want to talk about the fight. That's not the way I want to remember him. But we shouted a lot, and I think someone must have heard.
A few more days went by, and I wanted to make it up to him. So I went to see him at the teahouse where we usually met after work. But even as I got there, I knew from the commotion that something was wrong. I didn't recognize Kirill's walk at first, pressed between the guardsmen as they marched him out of the building and into the waiting van. I only realized it was him when he laughed, bitter like tar.
Not knowing what else to do, I took the train home. It was crowded, as always, and I hung from the strap like a drowning man. And when the young woman, the only other person in the carriage without earplugs in, caught my eye, I didn't have a choice.
I knew what would happen, that it wouldn't go unremarked, that you'd be waiting for me on the platform with your batons.
But in her eyes I saw a moment of openness, that fragile and fractured thing I had always seen in the mirror and never recognized until I heard the word, and though I knew she wouldn't understand and I couldn't explain, I leaned in and said "Ulder," the word naked and bright like fever in my mouth.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, July 31st, 2014

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