Category Archives: Fiction

Held, by Ian O’Reilly

Madu is a satchel who is in love with Eliza, who is a woman and who is also a princess. Sometimes Madu thinks of herself as a girl, and sometimes she thinks of himself as a boy, and at other times all she thinks is that she is just another thing that Eliza carries around with her. That’s okay because sometimes Eliza thinks of herself as a warrior princess who sometimes thinks she is a girl, and sometimes Eliza thinks she is neither of these things but a piece of flotsam on a swollen river, or a movable bank account beholden either to her parents or her job or the State.

I know it is confusing, but real life is seldom ever as simple as it is in fairy tales.

Eliza is 29, and she is standing by the banks of the old swollen river that runs through the city. She is smoking her last cigarette (although she doesn’t know this yet), with Madu at her side. It’s rainy season and the city on the other side of the river is shrouded by sweeps of grey, obscuring the house where she grew up, and the grave she came to tend. Eliza has come back to the city where she was born for the last time, and tomorrow she will return to the other, younger, noisier city at the far end of the continent.

“Do you remember when she gave you to me?” Eliza asks Madu, or perhaps the river, but neither of them answer. Madu remembers Eliza’s grandmother, though, even if she hasn’t got the voice to reply. Madu remembers hands as cracked and lined as old wood, warm and soft at the same time, testing her twine bindings and brushing her with restorative. A reassuring pat, and the croaking wood-fire voice, already laden with tobacco tar, telling Madu “Yes, you’ll do just fine” a moment before being handed over to the much softer hands of a younger Eliza.

She’s yours now, my old satchel,” Eliza’s grandmother had said. “You can keep all of your new school books in it, and your packed lunches, and anything else. But you have to take care of it! Take care of it, and a bag like this will serve you a lifetime.”

If the girl-Eliza had mumbled a thank you, the satchel didn’t hear the words. Its gaze was still fixed on its previous owner back then.

Hurry on now girl, I’ve put a little something at the bottom for you,” the tobacco-smoke words had said. It had taken Eliza her entire first, worrying day at Upper School to find the crinkle-wrapped candy sweets that Madu didn’t want to give up.

Back in the present, then: “Do you think it was bad, at the end?” Eliza asks the satchel or the world again, the sudden taste of nicotine grown stale and harsh in her mouth. Madu doesn’t know, but she is glad when she hears Eliza sigh, say “Bleurgh,” and spit out the stubby end of the cigarette, never to smoke again.

When Eliza stands, folding the picture of her grandmother into the old satchel, Madu handles it carefully and reverently, before storing it away with all the other treasures she carries.

“I will never serve you!” It was rainy season and Eliza stood on the grassy bank of the river, under the arches of the old cherry tree. She brandished a twig in one hand and swished at an imaginary foe.

Madu understood it was a rhetorical statement, and wisely said nothing. Eliza wasn’t the first human to talk to her; once the satchel had been quizzed by the King of Siam as to the whereabouts of his entire clowder of temple cats—to which questioning she had similarly remained silent.

“I’m going to be a princess, and I shall ride a dragon and free slaves and fight your evil kings!” the girl who was also a woman snarled.

Madu thought this was an excellent idea. She had met several such warrior princesses, and all without fail had told exceptionally good stories and thus made for very worthwhile friends. She rustled against the grass and produced from her infinite insides the brass compass that Amelia Earhart had once hidden inside, because Madu thought it was the bravest thing she had in her, and if you were going to fly dragons then you should probably know your course.

Eliza spent the rest of that afternoon dreaming of adventures and far-off lands. When the rain finally eased and Madu rustled that it was time for them to get home, Eliza threw inside her drawings of dragons and the satchel hungrily gobbled them up, storing them inside for a future rainy day.

Madu has eaten dragons and diamonds alike in her time, the golden treasure hoard of the King of Trolls, rose-water from Palmyra stoppered in crystal bottles, as well as the astronomical charts of Signor Giordano Bruno. She has eaten things that were not meant to be seen, like the pages torn out from Eliza’s diaries, one after another until all she could taste was ink and tears. Madu has also eaten things that were meant for some other time and place and someone else: the cocoons of silkworms left after they were smuggled out of China in 552, the alternative original lyrics to “Cross Road Blues” that explain exactly where in Mississippi your wishes can be granted.

The satchel never complained about the things that she ate through the centuries, each one after another until she was sure she would burst. But she never did burst a seam or lose a buckle. Her careful horsehair stitches always remained in perfect tension with the stiffened ochre leather. She lost a bit of the design and shine on the outside, of course—magic bags weren’t expected to last forever now, were they? But if you looked real close (and Eliza always did) she could still just about make out faded swirls and concentric scrawls, tiny flecks of the gold and lapis that could have been dyes or could have been the remnants of whatever astonishing hide she had once been made from.

Occasionally Madu would feel sick and nauseated in whatever physics-defying, quantumly unpredictable organ passed as her stomach these days. Especially when she had to swallow the handkerchief that Eliza had used to cry over Christian Jenkers, the blond-haired boy from Literature Class.

Christian Jenkers had been the first boy that Madu’s current owner had kissed, as well as apparently the first boy that Petra Olsen had kissed not three hours later.

The tears made Madu’s stomach feel upset and irritable, and the satchel had wondered if she could swallow the odious little boy entire so he would never hurt either of them again. But then, of course, Christian Jenkers would live inside of her forever, a tick of hurt feelings and disagreeableness she couldn’t get rid of.

She settled for eating his spectacles when no one was looking in class.

Madu and Eliza went everywhere together—they were inseparable. Through her owner, the satchel got to explore the old city with its swollen river and cobblestone streets, its colorful markets hedging the slums and the iron-wrought gates around the sedate colonialist war memorial.

Madu was always an armory and an arsenal. She contained within her water, money, the gaggle of fantasy novels that Madu had with her always, makeup, string, a comb, a pack of pens and a shell from the beach they had once spent the summer hostelling by—all the useful and the semi-useful jetsam that a nearly adult girl might require. Later she carried other things like passports, mobile phones, a pack of cards with pictures of dangerous plants, sanitary products, and a personal assault alarm.

When Eliza was 24, and two years out of college, Madu ate the keys to her new apartment on the other side of the city, and wouldn’t give them back for two days.

Madu had been scared, at first, by the move. She had seen the way that everything in Eliza’s life had been carefully boxed and packed away, slowly folding into smaller and smaller spaces until the entirety of her had disappeared.

“You’re coming with me, stupid,” Eliza whispered reassurances to her satchel of holding.

During the quiet times that Eliza slept, the satchel dreamed. She thought about all the good and bad things that she had contained through the ages, and wondered what such a thing she was. How could she have admired her owner Perseus, the youth who had given her the still staring, bleeding head of Medusa, with its still squirming head of snakes?

A magic bag that could hold anything was a prize to any religion, whatever your pantheon. During her early years Madu had thought of herself as a cornucopia, overflowing with good things for all of humanity. But then she remembered Pandora, and wondered if she were not instead something much darker. Madu wondered if she was a blessing or a curse, and whether they could be the same thing at different angles.

In her own dreams, Madu rather pictured herself as a house, but with never-ending rooms. Behind some of the doors she held storms and the keepsakes thrown from lovers lost at sea; in others, she held buttons and thread. Madu didn’t know what kind of thing she was, nor where, if ever, she ended.

In her own dreams, Madu walked through the halls and rooms of herself, each balcony another treasure-trove, another stratum in the minutiae of her previous owners’ lives. There were whole geological epochs down here made of love and loss and longing and not-to-be-forgot. Madu wondered how many owners she had once had and how many she would have in the future. Would they all care for her, never losing her, just as Eliza had reverently looked after her? How many things would she keep within her?

In the very center of Madu there hung a magic-word mantra, as fresh and as radiant as the first day it was cast into her bindings:

Hold, Madu repeated, and gathered all of the things to her in a warm glow.

Ian O’Reilly is a freelance writer from the wildlands of the UK, endeavouring to add more robo-jetpacks, old gods, and general mischief to the world. He is the primary writer for fantasy boardgame The City of Kings, a proofreader for Ravendesk Studios, and his stories have previously appeared in Into the Ruins, Solarpunk Press, and Third Flatiron. He blogs, somewhat erratically, at troublesomewords.com.

1800 words, published February 13, 2018, Shimmer #41

Me, Waiting For Me, Hoping For Something More, by Dee Warrick

I’m aware that there is an extra set of stairs in the basement that doesn’t usually exist. Behind the big silver ventilation pipes, past the row of tenants’ bikes parked down here until springtime: a long, dark hole framed by rusted banisters, stone steps leading thereinto. And I think I might be the only one who can see the new stairs. You’re dicking around on your phone while the washer thumps and rocks in the corner, trying not to think about all the spider webs down here, trying not to think about how Shelly refused to come down here because of them. You lean against the crumbling brick wall and scroll past twenty Facebook statuses without looking at any of them, drowning your senses in insignificant light and color and movement.

Maybe I’m the same as the stairs. Maybe the metaphysical state of being when you shouldn’t be is its own sort of secondary reality. Maybe there’s a whole bunch of shit that shouldn’t be but is out there.

It’s weird, being the ghost of the boy you never were. Being only because enough other people assumed I was that I had to be. Becoming only because you tried so hard to be me for so long that I became. This is what undead really means, what it has to mean. Having life without ever having lived. Haunting without ever having died.

Wait, though. Now you’ve slipped your phone into your jacket pocket, and you’re squinting past the ventilation pipes, past the bikes. For the first time since Shelly left, you look awake.

On the night she left you, I watched you chain-smoke on the couch, lifting cigarette after cigarette from the pack on the coffee table with shaking hands, placing them between your lips, lighting them, inhaling without enjoyment or relief, exhaling without losing any of the tension in your shoulders. Your lipstick stained the filters the color of a bad bruise. I didn’t exactly remember, but I could feel you remembering how earlier in your transition, seeing lipstick on the filter of a cigarette—your cigarette—was a source of joy, a moment of recognition and reassurance.

You kept replaying your last conversation with her in your head. Trying to find moments you could reshape or rewrite, trying to figure out if it was a game you lost through inattention and incompetence, or if you were doomed from the beginning. You kept thinking that maybe when she’d said, “I can’t…” and then allowed her sentence to trail off into cruel, heavy silence, maybe you should have said, “I know it’s hard. I know you feel like this happening really fast. But I’m the same person you fell in love with, okay? I’m more that person now than I was when you met me, really! I promise!”

I wish I could talk to you about all of this. To apologize, maybe. But I only sort of exist. And while I know you feel me in here with you, I don’t think you can hear me. It’s just, I know you think Shelly left you for me, but that’s not right. I can’t have her either. And while it’s nice to see you appear to give a shit about anything, I hope you won’t investigate the suddenly-there stairs. With you looking at them, the stairs feel cruel and hungry, and where before I thought they might be comprised of the same un-stuff as me, now, I intuit them as a different sort of wrongness. So, look, I know you usually can’t hear me, but don’t go near the stairs, okay?

You tuck your hair behind your left ear, bite your lip. You step away from the wall. The washing machine rumbles behind you, and although I don’t actually have any organs, my heart contracts and spasms in time with the machine. I watch you press your body against the wall and squeeze past the bicycles. I watch you touch the banister. I watch you lean in. If I had breath, I’d hold it, and if I could resist the pull of your movement, I’d stay up here. But I can’t do either of those things. So down we go.

I don’t sleep. Some nights, if I am very lucky, I just sort of skip eight hours and start existing again when you wake up. Other nights, when we’re both unlucky, you dream you are me, and I find myself inside your dreams with you, feeling the way you hate having my body, feeling your contorted revulsion at being stuck inside me, my beard, my voice, my flat, fuzzy torso. Tonight, and nights like it, are a weird sort of middle ground. When your sleep is uneasy but unmolested by dysphoria, I sit up in your room and wait for you to wake up again. I spend a lot of time looking at you and wondering how you could have ever thought you were me. Tonight, I’m mostly using that as an excuse to not think about what happened in the basement.

I don’t even recognize you anymore, even after you’ve washed your face and gone to sleep. There’s no more of me on your skin. Even the tattoos we share look like they belong to you. The hormones are changing your body in subtle little ways, making your skin smoother than it was when you were playing me, awarding you, finally, the breasts you should have received decades ago. You’re you now. I mean, you were always you, but when your brain and the world conspired to give birth to me, to assign me to you as an identity you had to wear, it was harder to see you.

You turn over in your sleep, and your face betrays how bad your dreams are right now. I wonder if you’re dreaming of the basement beneath the basement. I’m glad not to be in your dreams with you tonight. I followed you after you crawled down. Watched you pull your phone out and turn on its flashlight. We saw it at the same time. The yawning forever of the basement under the basement. A blank stone space, impossibly huge, held within the eight measly feet between ceiling and floor but stretching in every direction until it fell over the other end of an underground horizon. The only interruption, the stairs and the railing behind us.

I desperately wanted to go back upstairs, but you weren’t moving. You were just standing there, breathing, and everything was so quiet that your breath echoed back to us in waves. I was too busy trying and failing to take it all in to check to see if you were doing the same, but I know the face you were making. Eyes large and bright. Lips parted. Your tongue pushed forward and pressed to one sharp canine. You made that face when Shelly said she needed to talk. It’s the face we wear when the enormity of a stimulus won’t fit inside our minds all at once. If I had real eyes, real lips, a real tongue, and not just ideas of imitations of yours, I’d have made the same face. Breathing into the distance, hearing your breath respond to itself.

Finally, you said, “Jesus… Christ…”

Long J, breathy E, the SUS like an afterthought, and the CHRIST a percussive punctuation. Your curse travelled into the void and transformed, like your breath, its echo a failed, mutant imitation. We stood there and listened to it grow louder and meaner, each few seconds expecting that it would reach its peak and retreat and each few seconds realizing that it had failed to do so. God, that noise. Your voice, but ruined, coming at us like microphone feedback from every direction. I wanted you to run, but you stood there, jerking around to aim your phone in every direction, revealing nothing. I began to get the sense—and I think you did too—that the echo had developed physical form, that its new heft and weight were barreling down the underground plain at us, that the concussion of your tongue on your teeth at the end of CHRIST had become sharp and venomous in the chasm and that if we stood here much longer, it would run you through, and me with you. You turned. You ran.

And now you sleep.

I watch the corners of your mouth twitch. You say something, but

I can’t figure out what it is. Just your brain misfiring, nonsense tumbling out. It’s weird to feel like I know so little about you.

I wondered if this would happen. Shelly’s sweet. And she cares about you, even if you aren’t the you she thought you were. It was probably just a matter of time before she called you, right? To check up? You’re on the phone, pacing around the living room, one arm wrapped around your waist like you’re worried your guts will spill out of some invisible hole, and I don’t trust you not to fuck this up. You’re raw right now, and shit’s so weird. You spent the whole morning on your phone Googling things like “ghost basement” and “house has new room suddenly” and “cave under building” and “hallucinations on hrt?” I just… like… don’t take this the wrong way, but if there was ever a time when you probably shouldn’t be talking to Shelly, it’s now.

You say, “Yeah, good. I’m good. I’m fine. I mean, I’ll be fine, you know.” And, “How about you? You’re okay? Work’s okay?” And, “No, hey, we don’t have to like… I get it, you know? I’m not mad. It’s okay.”

And then, “Hey, do you—no, go ahead. I mean, I was just going to say, like… do you want to come over? You left a bunch of your stuff, and I’m going to be around today, so like…”

You’re silent for a second. And then your eyes are full of tears. And then, trembling, “Mmm. Yeah, I can do that. To your mom’s, or…? Okay. Okay, yeah. Hey, I should… Yeah.” There’s a space I can tell you want to fill with an I-love-you. “Bye.”

You stand in front of the record player for a second staring into space. It’s like the long nothings in the room beneath the building are superimposed over the walls of your little efficiency, and instead of your vision being interrupted by plaster, you’re seeing forever. And then you drop your phone on the floor, and lean over one of the record crates, start flipping through it, and I know what you’re looking for before you find them. Because I remember that date too, even though it’s not mine to remember. She’d hauled selections from her collection to your place, and the two of you spent the whole night taking turns holding up sleeves and saying, “Have you heard this one?” “Oh, you’ve got to hear this one.” “This is legit, like, my favorite record.” And halfway through Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, she’d said, “Dude, this is break-up music. Terrible date soundtrack,” and she’d put on Sweet’s Desolation Boulevard instead.

You stand with both records, one in each hand, your eyes wide and wet, and for a second, I’m not sure what you’re doing. I don’t think you are, either. And then you scream, throw both records onto the floor, and start stomping on the sleeves. You pick up Unknown Pleasures, bend the sleeve until you can hear the record snap inside. Toss it like a Frisbee at the wall. You fall to your knees, grab Desolation Boulevard by the corners, lift it over your head, and bring it down on the corner of the coffee table. Again and again. With each impact, “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” your voice somewhere between a growl and a wet whimper.

Your upstairs neighbors thump on their floor to shut you up, but I don’t think you hear them.

I can’t stop you. I can’t help you. I’ve always been useless to you. I watch until you’ve tired yourself out. But then you stare over your shoulder, right at the space I only sort of occupy, and it feels like your eyes are locked to where mine would be if I had any, and your lips are curled away from your teeth. And I know that if I’d ever actually been alive, in this moment, you’d kill me gladly and without regret.

The Meijer receipt you toss into the passenger-side footwell of your car itemizes the following purchases: one mop, one can of white paint, one head-mounted flashlight with adjustable nylon strap, and a Diet Coke. The lady who rang you out called you sir, and we both stink-eyed her for a few seconds before you handed her your credit card.

You smoke incessantly on the drive back home. It’s only a fifteen-minute drive, but you go through, like, five of the things. I’m trying to be supportive here. I really am. It’s just… okay, if Shelly hadn’t called, would you be doing any of this? Wouldn’t you have just built a mental wall around our experience in the basement beneath the basement and walked away? This feels like… it feels like you’re only doing this because it’s something to do, something to inject into the space in your day you’d otherwise spend hurting and remembering and listening to sad music. And I’d support that, usually, but the basement under the basement isn’t just some jejune distraction, okay? It’s not like it just exists despite the fact that it shouldn’t. I… since we crawled down those stairs, I’ve become increasingly possessed by the notion that it exists exactly because it shouldn’t. And I can’t shake the notion that we are both better off forgetting about it. So why is this so important to you all the sudden? Why this?

I wonder if, before she hung up, Shelly called you the wrong name. Called you my name. Did she?

“Shut up,” you say, tossing your spent cigarette out the window. “You’re not real. You’re not here.”

I try to shut up for the rest of the drive home, but I’m not sure how this works. The line between thought and speech is blurred for me, and I have no idea what you can and can’t hear or sense or whatever. It seems like you’ve only just become aware of me. There are lots of new rules to learn. But now the possibility occurs to me that you’ve known about me all along, that I’ve been carrying on for as long as you’ve known you weren’t me, observing, commenting, and that you’ve just blocked me out. Christ, how horrible for both of us. Is that it? Have I been driving you insane, clinging to you, a constant reminder of what you escaped?

You park in front of the apartment building and press your face into your hands. “Ugh,” you say. “Enough. Enough self-pity, already. Enough solipsism. Let’s go.” But I can’t be sure if you’re talking to me or to yourself.

So this is it. Expedition day. I’d sort of hoped that after you slept on it, you’d forget about exploring the basement. But first thing this morning, you grabbed the paint bucket and the mop and the headlamp and we headed down. You’ve been so quiet today. I’m usually very good at reading you, but today, you’re a wall to me, a stranger behind an opaque mask. I’m nervous. If I tell you that, if I explain to you how I feel, will you tell me how you feel? Will you break, even just a little? I’m nervous that you think there are answers down here, explanations for why you feel so angry and so sad, or maybe explanations for why the ghost of a boy that never existed is following you around, and what if there aren’t? What if there’s just impossibility, spitefully extant? What if something happens to you down here? What if something happens to me?

You’re not listening, or pretending not to. You’re just walking forward, dragging the mop behind you, leaving a white line you can follow back. Every once in a while, you’ll stop, glance behind you to make sure the line is straight, set the paint can on the ground, and dip the tip of the mop head into the paint. Then you’re moving again.

We’ve been walking for a while now. Twenty minutes? Thirty? What if this is all there is?

“It’s not,” you whisper. Your voice echoes, but eventually retreats.

Now I can see the fog filling up the place, dancing in front of the beam of your headlamp like cigarette smoke. Thick, and weirdly colored. Vaguely pink, the sort of light, chalky pink of the little compact Shelly’s birth control comes in. A disconcertingly medicinal shade of pink, and I wonder if it’s toxic. What would happen to me if you died? I’m not your ghost. You were never me, not really. Would I just hang around? Would I persist even after you ceased? Or would I snap out of semi-existence?

“Goddamn it, just…” you hiss. It sounds like you’re about to scream, but you catch yourself. Hold yourself. I’m glad. I didn’t realize how scared I am of the way sound behaves in this place until now. How terrified I am that another noise will escape your lips and metastasize into something hostile and hungry. I’m sorry if my questions annoy you.

“Asshole,” you whisper.

A, somehow consonantal, snapping like a snare drum under a brush, the sudden sibilance of the twin S’s quick and then gone, the HOLE noncommittal, a footnote.

There. There’s something. Oh god, there is something ahead of us.

I was starting to think we’d never see anything, that the pink fog would just grow thicker and thicker until it ate up the light from your headlamp, that after some period of wandering aimlessly in pinkness, we’d just sort of forget ourselves, and having been forgotten, functionally cease. But no, look at that. There’s something right there, maybe about a quarter mile ahead of us, a sort of shimmering luminescence reflected on the floor and ceiling, like how an outdoor fountain plays tricks on the sunlight, gives it form and movement. You see it, right? I’m not going crazy?

Now you’ve picked up the pace. Your strides are long and your shoulders are set, and your chin is tucked. This is happening.

Will you please just talk to me? Can we please take a moment to talk about this before we plunge toward whatever we’re plunging toward? It’s not really fair, don’t you think? I mean, I know you never asked to look like me, to be assigned me, and I don’t want to impugn your experience or whatever, but I never asked to be dreamt up either. I never asked to be attached to you. But here we are. And I hate to pull this card on you, but your actions affect me. Can we please just talk about this?

Nothing, huh? No response. Fine.

Well, here it is. Here’s what you’ve been looking for, I guess. A pond in the basement beneath the basement. The floor ends sharply, a circular pit filled with gently rippling water, and lit from below, as though someone installed waterproof floodlights at the bottom. This is the source of the fog, too. It roils out of the pool, rises in tendrils that twine through and between one another, like time-lapse photography of vines growing.

You drop the paint can and the mop, strip your headlamp from your forehead, take a knee beside the pond, glare into its depths. I feel like I’m about to watch one of the tendrils of fog suddenly solidify and wrap itself around your neck, pull you down into water, and me with you.

That doesn’t happen, of course. You steady yourself, slide your feet out behind you until you’re on your belly at the rim of the pond. I float down beside you, stare in with you, not because I want to, but because I am tied to you. I don’t want to. I don’t want to do any of this.

There are… I want to call them fish, but that’s not what they are at all. They wriggle like fish, and since they apparently live in water, we both register them at first as fish purely out of idiot association, but they look nothing like fish, really. They look a little like human hands, their fingers blooming outward and then suddenly pinching together, propelling them through the water the way squids move with their arms. Their skin is the same medicinal pink as the fog, the same sort of slimy, patterned texture as banana slugs. They each have one enormous, lidless eye protruding from the space where their wrists would be if they were actually hands, and those eyes roll and dart with manic intensity, and I don’t like this. I don’t like them. I don’t like you right now. I want to go home. I want to follow the paint trail back to the stairs, and up them, and into your apartment. I want everything to go back to normal.

And then—their voices pitched low and cracking, their words enormous and clear but, somehow, unaffected by the acoustic horrors this place commits on your voice—the fucking things start talking.

Oh, they say. Oh, we are made less alone now. This is good. We decide this is good.

For fuck’s sake, let’s get out of here. You’re scared too, I can see it. I can see it in your eyes, almost as wide and as wild as the eyes on the wrists of the hand-fish-things in the glowing pool. You scuttle backward, push yourself off your belly and onto your ass, curl your knees up to your chest. If only you’d stand. If only you’d run.

Don’t speak, say the things in the pool. Your noise behaves strangely. We will speak, and if you wish to speak, we will know what you wish to say. We will consider whether we wish to respond, and if we determine a desire to respond exists, we will take action based upon this hypothetical desire.

You swallow. The noise of your throat constricting turns into an echo, a wet glottal implosion, throbs once, then dies.

You are obscured by a false thing, say the hand-fish-things. That is bad. We have determined that it is bad because, while we are false, yet are, and he is false, yet is, he did not seek us out. You did. We wish to see you clearly.

You look at me. And I know you can see me now. Maybe all along. Maybe since forever. All that time feeling isolated, feeling rejected by reality itself, and we could have leaned on each other. You could have shown me kindness. We could have been friends. The living girl who was never born and the ghost boy who never died. We have so much in common, don’t we? Don’t we?

The pool has started bubbling, the subtle ripple at the surface becoming chaotic, uneasy, as though suddenly the floodlights at the bottom have heated the water to boiling. One of your hands leaps to your chest, claws at your solar plexus, and you moan through your teeth. I feel it too. An arthritic ache cross-bred with an electric, tattoo-needle gash. Your moan echoes, eats itself and grows, becomes hungrier than it was before, turns into a heartbeat (NG, NG, NG, NG, NG), swells to meet the boundaries of the world, and Jesus Christ, something is tearing, something is growing, something is happening and it hurts, and I fucking warned you, didn’t I, and now we’re both going to die, not understanding, not knowing anything new, there was nothing new to learn, just confusion and obscenity in a basement that shouldn’t exist and which we shouldn’t and can’t exist within, Jesus fucking Christ, it hurts.

And then there is silence. You gulp breath on the floor, your eyes closed, your knees held to your chest. You rock back and forth. And I am separate from you. Given form. Given meat. I look down at myself, at my body. My physical, actual body. I am hideous.

There, say the things in the pool. Now we can speak together.

My body collapses. I am exhausted. And all I can do is remember.

The first time you saw me—the first time we realized we weren’t the other—you were thirteen. Do you remember? Sitting on your bed with the TV on, watching some music video, seeing the woman on screen with her guitar, with her bright red lipstick, with her black hair messy and falling in front of her smoky eyes, you thought: She’s so perfect. I don’t even remember what band she was in, do you? Anyway, your computer dinged at us. Instant message from some shitty middle-school friend of yours watching the same channel at his house: ‘you seeing this?’ Of course we were. ‘god,’ said your shitty friend. ‘what would it be like to fuck her?’

But you didn’t want to know what it would be like to fuck her. Or maybe you did, but not just that. You wanted to know what it would be like to feel the spirit of your hands in her hands, to use her fingers to brush the hair out of her eyes. To look in the mirror and recognize yourself as her. You’d never really noticed before, not in so concrete a way that you’d be able to express it in words, but looking in the mirror had always been a nightmare for you. I lived in the mirror. I, with my jutting larynx and broadening shoulders, I with my barely-there mustache and—god, what a horrible betrayal—my cock.

That wasn’t you, and suddenly you knew it. You got up, rushed to the bathroom, allowing yourself to be seduced by the barely formed hope that maybe, this time, now that you’d acknowledged it, now that you’d given yourself permission to hope for anything, that when you looked, you’d see the corners of me, would know how to peel me off of you and toss me away, but when we got to the bathroom and looked in the mirror, all you saw was me. And looking back, I felt myself as discrete and unreal, a parasite gestating inside of you. I saw myself on your face, but I knew I was a mask someone else had fastened to your skull as a punishment for something you hadn’t yet done.

I can’t hear your thoughts anymore. I can’t feel your feelings. I don’t know what you’re asking these things, or why they’re telling you their story. I know you can hear me. I know you can see me. And now, I know you are ignoring me.

We are not ancient, they say. Isn’t that funny? Abominable gods, we understand, are meant to be ancient. We are gods newly born. Perhaps more obscene for our youth than we would be if we were very old. There’s something beautiful about obscenity, don’t you think? About violating the rules of an orderly universe.

Explain me to me. Explain to me why you envisioned me as such a horror. This body is repulsive, a grotesque cartoon of malehood. My limbs are long and gangly covered with thick, horrible, spider-leg hairs, scarred with vague, faded caricatures of your tattoos. My belly protrudes, my flat chest caves in, my cock looks like a monstrous cancer growing between my legs.

The space we occupy, and the bodies we possess, we are not sure how they came to exist. There may have been an external cause. Perhaps one with some intentionality. Or perhaps there was only an exceedingly rare cosmic glitch, and therefore, we.

I crawl toward the pool. The surface has stilled since these fucking things ripped me out of you, gave me form. I stare at my reflection. My eyes are little black scribbles, a child’s drawing of eyes. My beard a wiry thicket of rough, sharp quills, shining with repulsive grease. My hairline recedes pathetically. Why would you do this to me?

We are interested in deconstructing Supposed-To. We are interested in violating rubrics. We want to see more beautiful things that shouldn’t be.

You’re staring at the things in the pool and listening to them describe me—I am a beautiful thing that should not be, I am a magnificent accident. You’ve had a friend your entire life who fits their exact description, and you’ve ignored me. You’re leaning close to their glowing pool, tucking your hair behind your ear, staring at their horrible little fingers swimming through the water like you’re looking at something precious, something wonderful.

We enjoy visitors. This is good. We enjoy being surrounded by others who transgress. Whose nature is transgressive. It would be nice to have more. To form a strange family. A church. We will grant you favor. That is what gods do, isn’t it? Grant favor to their church?

Finally, you look at me. And I watch the wonder drain from your face, see it replaced with loathing, with resentment. What right do you have to resent me? I march toward you, around the rim of the glowing pond in the sudden basement under the building where Shelly left you. Left you because you weren’t me. Because you failed to be me. You stand to meet me.

Don’t mind him, say the things in the pool. You’re right. He’s not even false in an interesting way. We have an idea. It might be nice if, together, we remade the world to be more interesting.

Speak to me. I don’t need these things telling me what you think. I lived on your skin for twenty-nine years. Don’t try to stare me down. Don’t try to affect an expression that communicates defiance. That expression is my expression. Those eyes are my eyes. And if these ugly little monsters knew anything about existing outside of the parameters of existence, they’d see which of us really understands it. Which of us has really lived it. I deserve to be recognized for all the years I spent making room for you. I deserve to be called beautiful. I deserve to be seen. You think you’ve suffered like I’ve suffered? You think I’ve ruined your life? You are ungrateful.

But I have fingers now. Horrible, ugly, hairy fingers you designed for me, and they are mine, and I will wrap them around your fucking throat. I will choke you until the body that should have been mine, the body you ruined turning into yours, is limp and empty, and I will leave this fucking basement, and I will make this world tell me I’m beautiful. I will wrap my fingers around a thousand throats until they all tell me, in unison, that they see me. I will—

“For fuck’s sake!” you scream, and bat my hands away. You’re so strong. Jesus, you’re strong. “You self-absorbed, self-pitying child!”

You press your hands against my chest, push. I fall, scuttle backward on the cold stone ground.

“You took my entire life from me!”

You’re so loud, and your voice is turning into something. I crawl away from you, but you keep advancing. I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I’m so sorry.

“You sucked my blood for thirty years, and then told me it was my fault when you were still hungry!”

Can’t you hear it? Can’t you hear the way the echoes are growing armor, growing teeth, venom sacs, and stingers? Can’t you feel the way this whole place shakes? I was wrong. Please. Just stop. Tell your gods to make it stop.

“After I started peeling you off, when you finished telling me I was crazy, you acted like you deserved a fucking medal for acknowledging my autonomy! And then you sulked, and cried, and told yourself a story where you were the one who was inconvenienced by me!”

It’s here. Born from your words, gestated in the horizontal void of this place. I can feel it all around me. Inside of me. The pink fog is growing thicker, turning solid, and I’ve already inhaled so much of it. But so have you. So just stop. We both need to stop.

“Fuck you! I hope you fucking rot!”

I am being torn apart from the inside. The echo, the fog, the little gods in the glowing pool, they’re all the same, and they’re all inside of my horrible, misshapen body, expanding. I feel the slick, sweaty skin of my chest stretch, tear. I don’t bleed. You didn’t imagine any blood for me. But whatever I am made of, it’s dividing, each molecule drifting away from itself, and it hurts, and if you don’t shut up, these echoes, this fog, these gods, they’re going to do this to you, too.

But you. The fog wraps around you, snakes under your hair, lifts you up. Your eyes are bright. Your lips are open. You’ve got your tongue pressed to one canine. You are held together. This place makes space for you.

“You’re not some magnificent accident,” you say, and your voice is low now. Almost a whisper. “You’re just the detritus of one.”

Your words rip me apart. And after so many years of being a ghost, I know what it’s like to die.

My afterlife is strange. I don’t exist much anymore. Sometimes, for just a second, I’ll find my way out of a pink fog and into your mirror. I’ll watch you do your makeup with your hair clipped to the top of your head. Sometimes I’ll hear other people in the apartment with you, other magnificent accidents recruited into the cult of the infant gods in the basement. All natural transgressives whose very existence violates cosmic law. Existing not in spite of the fact that they shouldn’t, but because of it. They seem very nice.

I don’t feel too deeply. Everything is very far away.

Tonight, you’re dressed in the attire of a priestess of your order. A sexy dress. A chaotic tangle of necklaces. Your hair freshly dyed. I watch you apply lipstick and notice a tattoo, an analogue of which I never possessed. A large, rolling eyeball where your hand tapers down to your wrist. You smile at yourself in the mirror. Not at me. You don’t see me. I can tell because you smile without proviso. You look happy in a way I never knew you to be.

Your doorbell rings, and you glance away from the mirror. Whoever’s here, you’re expecting them. You look excited. “Coming!” you say—long, musical O, warbling ING—and your voice is bright and joyful and playful and yours. You glance at the mirror one last time, then disappear into the apartment. And I disappear too.

Dee Warrick’s fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Apex Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and a variety of other venues. She lives in Amsterdam, where she spends most of her time complaining about the behavior of tourists despite being an American expatriate herself. She is large and contains multitudes.

published January 2018, Shimmer #41, 5800 words

An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or, Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita, by Rebecca Campbell

Mary Toft, First Part

Mary Toft is in the garden on an August morning rich with bees. Five months along, her belly presses against the rough linen of her skirt while one hand curves protectively around it, half support, half caress. She thinks: This time next year, what will she be? And after that? In the corner of her eye she glimpses a child—like a ghost, or a prefigure—running through the morning from the kitchen door to the garden wall.

She makes her way toward a field the mowers cut three days before. On the way she meets Margaret, and together they walk to their day’s labor. The mowers are already at work, crossing another field with the regular sweep of their scythes, the second load of the season. Mary and Margaret row the hay already cut and left flat to dry.

It is Mary who disturbs the rabbit, with no ill intention. An hour earlier the doe had fled the mowers, her heart wild and her eyes rolling white, and hidden among the fallen grass of the field now being rowed. Her breast and her tail are brightly white, and it’s the whiteness that stops Mary, as much as the movement, so she is first to look up and see the creature break for the edge of the field, speeding through the stubble and the brittle grass, her rear legs sliding from side to side in fear.

Mary watches the rabbit leap for the ditch. She cannot see it, but she knows—how does she know?—the rabbit stops, listening for those terrors above who would hunt her to earth, who would tear her to pieces and eat her, dragging her heart and stomach out through a rent in her belly. The other women return to their work, but Mary watches, and finds her mind returned to an earlier afternoon, some autumn when she was a child and her father brought home the bloody carcasses of three rabbits, their eyes blank in their sockets, and their paws limp. Mary watched her mother dismantle their bodies and consign them to the pot, their bones enriching a sauce of thyme and rosemary, their blood and livers added at the end to thicken. She remembered the slender and furless paws, the tiny feet, the delicate ivory bones broken in the dish, the sharp edge where her father’s knife, her mother’s cleaver, had split the powerful thigh bone, or shattered the ribs. How, taking a mouthful of the stew, she had also taken a mouthful of bone, and the points had scratched inside her cheek.

She can taste rabbit on her tongue, the fear and ferrous of its blood, or perhaps that is the taste of her own, where the bones pierced her cheek. She knows the rabbit still hides—white-eyed—in the ditch.

At that moment the child leaps like a rabbit in her womb. She returns to work, one hand often caressing her belly.

That night her labor begins, and what emerges is not a human child, not exactly. It is unsexed, its eyes sealed, its skin dark gray, like a hairless rabbit kitten, with an open pocket that runs from breastbone to privates, and its lungs and liver hanging outside its body.

In the light of a guttering taper it seems to Mary that the child draws one breath, but perhaps it does not. Perhaps his singular moment on earth was—like the morning’s prefigure—only a dream.

The Egg From Whence Hatched the World

In the beginning there was only water, and then the egg. The egg might be, for example, the product of a dove descending on the deep. From the egg might hatch a number of different entities, depending on the context. The universe itself might float from that original albumen. Or it might be a man, creeping from the shell on which a raven knocks to waken him. Or no creature at all might escape the cosmic egg, but rather the substance of reality itself, called by some ylem: the original material, the primeval atom.

In at least one instance it was Gaea who crept out of the world-egg, who conceived—with the aid of the waters—her son-lover Ouranos, with whom she populated the world.

The Monstrous Egg, First Part

New Mexico and the Trinity Test Site. In July, a young man climbs a hundred-foot ladder to where the Gadget, armed, awaits its early-morning detonation. He has been assigned babysitting duties in case of sabotage, though he is not sure what he is meant to do if anyone tries to approach his tower. The summer night seems to have arranged its own defense, anyway, and a storm blows in all thunder-struck, lightning-hatched. He spends the night alone, reading by the light of his TL-122-A, the dull yellow center of its beam illuminating half a page at a time, first one comic book then another, until—long before dawn—its narrow circle dims. After that it is only in sudden lightning strikes that he sees the whole page at once: the Human Torch, Captain America, Superman defeating fascists. All back-issues he’d picked up in the commissary.

Outside in the darkness and storm—so dark he cannot see the ground, only the wild and disordered air—the Gadget broods; it seems to him gravid and still, except when a high wind causes the whole tower to groan and sway and another handful of rain drenches the window, its drops caught in freeze-frame flash by lightning.

He is excruciatingly aware of the Gadget, and what lies within it, what chain reactions, what potential. It might be an entirely new world. Or an end to the old world. Or nothing at all, an empty egg, unviable despite their best intentions.

Mary Toft, Second Part

Mary buried the inside-out child. Once, she looked up from its little grave to see rabbits watching in the first rain of September, a flicker of drops across a bright sunset in a slate-colored sky. Her glance scattered the rabbits, and they peeled away from the gravesite where she had set a little bunch of cottage flowers—clove pinks, richly scented, from the warm corner beside the front door.

She thought of rabbit stew and early morning rabbits startled among the lettuces of her little garden. She thought of their white bellies flickering, as had flickered the belly of that rabbit who fled the mowers and haymakers, who had—in a flash of light—quickened within her. She thought: Perhaps the womb is transparent, like water, and perhaps the flash of light from a rabbit’s white stomach can quicken within, as the word of God quickened in Mary’s own womb.

She felt something move, a creature she could not name, and who knows what shape it took? From a smear of blood to a cluster of bones, from a frog to a hairless rabbit kit, to a monkey to a man, to the shape made by certain underground roots that scream when they are torn from the earth. Something moved in that internal darkness, enclosed by the shell of her belly.

The second pregnancy was easier than the first, and the tiny, flickering creature moved within her wild and skittish, so she wondered if she had not one, but a litter of kits inside.

The Prophetess Hen

In August of 1819, in a village outside of Manchester, a farmer announces the advent of a miraculous hen. She lays eggs of remarkable beauty that bear—in copperplate letters—words of hope and advantage: Love your Savior, says one egg. Fear God, says another. Hellfire Awaits.

The hen dies suddenly. The village doctor preserves the remaining eggs. It was not until 1837 that the Farmer—on his death bed—admits what many suspected: that he had written those messages on newly-lain eggs. When the ink dried he re-inserted them into the hen—well, into multiple hens, but the Prophetess of Manchester was the only one who survived the process more than twice—and waited for the mystery to reveal itself in his chicken coop.

Gaea and Ouranos

Together Gaea and Ouranos conceived Briareos, Kottos, and Gyes, lovely and powerful creatures with fifty heads and fifty arms each. While Gaea loved them for their strength and beauty, Ouranos was troubled by their perfection—their enormous shoulders, their great height, their hundred exquisite eyes. Rather than allowing their power to challenge his own, he pushed them back inside Gaea, who was also the Earth, locking them in the underground of Tartaros, which was also Gaea’s womb.

Gaea, she cried out in pain, as her sons dragged their fifty arms against the interior of her womb, which was also the deep region beneath the earth. She felt them return, also, to an earlier posture, since Ouranos’s violence twisted them into fetal creatures, their fifty arms wrapped around their bodies and their knees drawn up to meet the foreheads of their fifty heads. She felt each kick they made in defiance of her stony womb, each flip and turn as they sought some comfort in the tiny space their father had allowed them. She wept at both the pain and the perversion, and whispered to them: You will live in the air again; you will grow into your final form and you will be free.

Gaea and Ouranos continued to conceive children, and—once born—Ouranos returned them to their mother, until her whole body was occupied, womb and bowels, with creatures waiting to be reborn. With each child her body grew larger, the shell of her belly harder, and she could not move with the weight of them. She would burst, she thought, she would rupture, and all her children would run back out into the world again through her torn navel.

Where Children Thus Are Born With Hairy Coats Heaven’s Wrath Unto the Kingdom It Denotes

Monstrous births are prefigures.

In Towton, Yorkshire, in 1461 a child was born hairy from crown to foot, with a head made entirely of barking dogs. The child rose from the bloody sheets in which his mother lay, said Fear the flames! and expired. The dogs that constituted his head barked and whimpered a moment longer; then they, too, were still.

The obvious question is: What horror filled his mother’s eye or ear or mouth when he—enwombed—was still in flux, a protean creature awaiting his final form? The child’s shape is, of course, uncertain until the moment of birth, vulnerable to any number of outside forces. A vision of rabbits. A moment of insight. An internment camp. A refugee trail. A fat man or a little boy. A cigarette. A miraculous gadget. A sudden fright. A new passion. The presence of a beautiful man. The taste of honey. The uninvited touch of a stranger while one is walking through the grocery store minding one’s own business. The evil eye. The epigenetic triggers of famine and warzone. Fallout and trace mercury.

Elizabeth Johnson observed the First Battle of Bull Run with her sister, unaware that she had just conceived a child with her now-absent husband, a Confederate officer. Captain Johnson died in the battle, and although she did not observe his death by shrapnel, she did watch a man beheaded by a cannonball. Nothing might have come of it, had he not looked up the hillside in the moment of his decapitation, to where Elizabeth and her sister stood watching.

Should we wonder, then, that Elizabeth gave birth to a headless child in 1862? He lived for three years, and though his body grew, he was never physically competent, could neither walk nor crawl, and made only a whistling, mewling noise. Elizabeth remained a devoted mother to the end, dripping spoon after spoon of warm cream into the gaping sphincter of her son’s neck.

Mary Toft, Third Part

Dr. Graves, the man-midwife who attended the birth and death of Mary’s inside-out rabbit-child, wrote an account of the new sort of creature that scratched its way from her womb, part man, part Leporidae.

Dr. Graves did not subscribe to the old discourse of marvels and prefigures. He was a rational man, interested in the science of birth, particularly maternal impression, and not the mythology. He was pleased that a mystery had fallen in his lap, and he observed Mary’s symptoms with care, nodding sagely when he felt the fever on her brow and ignoring her rambling talk about the flash of a rabbit’s belly in the August morning, and the shadow of a little girl running to the bottom of the garden.

“Yes, yes, my dear, now you must rest,” he said. Her urgency did not trouble him.

The next day Daniel Toft sent word by way of his sister, Margaret, that Mary was again in labor. Dr. Graves arrived in time to see the aftereffects: the blood-soaked sheets, the fragments of pearly bone and tooth. The creature expelled was like the others, but more clearly a rabbit now, as though some progress had been made since she birthed its litter-mates. Dr. Graves took it away and sketched it: its delicate legs, the short ears, the tiny padless paws. If it were not for the blood, its belly would have been white. Not hairless like the earlier kits, this creature was small, but its eyes were open, its claws splayed and bloody in death.

Such well-developed claws must have scratched, he thought, on leaving the maternal seat. He could not determine how it died, but was not surprised at the death of a creature so unsuited to either human or natural worlds.

Dr. Graves combined his account of the birth, his sketches of the rabbit-child of Mary and Daniel Toft, his conjecture on the nature of maternal impressions, and sent them to an acquaintance at the Royal Society. He was gratified to receive a response within the week, an invitation to bring the Tofts to London for observation. Mary’s belly was swollen with her seemingly unending pregnancy, and she often talked of her desire for rabbit stew, of rabbits she often saw now, in dreams, fleeing from her, their white bellies flashing. When Dr. Graves examined her, a thick stench emerged from her womb, and there seemed, under the skin, some angry red distemper that spread down her thighs and up toward her navel. Her skin was hot to the touch, and she never seemed to sleep, only to lapse into unconsciousness.

The trip to London was painful for everyone. Mary gave birth to two rabbits on the road, attended by her husband. They sent these children back home with Margaret Toft, Daniel’s sister, to be buried with their siblings.

Mary did not know where she was, even when they told her “London.” She stayed in dark, closed rooms, refusing light as though it might pierce her, and when the blade of the sun did penetrate her darkness, she shrieked so that Dr. Graves relented, and examined her by the near-darkness of a candle. He touched her belly, and saw the torn skin of her secret parts, scratched as by claws, or broken bones, as though the creatures had not been born in a gush of blood, but had been dragged by rear foot from the womb, leaving the route of their egress written on her purpled flesh.

Mary was not often conscious. Her fever was high, and her eyes fluttered wildly in her sockets, as though she were troubled by constant, terrible dreams. When, in a temporary state of wakefulness, two gentlemen of the Royal Society interviewed her, she told them about a hay field, about the flash of a doe’s belly through the newly-turned rows, how the doe had gone to ground in a ditch, and Mary had watched her and—for a moment—felt herself akin to that creature, driven in fear from her home burrow when the mowers passed with their scythes. She described a terrible wildness of spirit, though the two gentleman were not clear if this was her own, or the doe’s. Mary asked them: Where was she now? Had she found her way back? She held onto their hands, as the tremors shook her belly. No one could answer her.

“Maternal Impression, a very definite case of it,” one gentleman said. “We’ll present it at the next meeting. Can you arrange for an inspection? Perhaps several—a number of our members will want to see it.”

“Yes,” said Daniel. “You tell us when, and we’ll have Mary ready. She’ll like to hear so many people are interested.”

Dr. Graves nodded sagely, and offered to let them read his recent treatise on the subject, as they withdrew, leaving Mary to her darkness, where—wriggling within her—the rabbits formed and died, formed and died, and she endured their birth and their return. In her half-waking state she saw not her husband, but a hulking and ancient devil who could not bear to see children born into the world, and so returned them to her after each bloody labor.

It was the landlady who found them out, when Margaret Toft visited the kitchen and asked her for a very small rabbit—dead or alive—the smallest she could find. When examined, Margaret wept and refused to speak. It was Daniel who admitted the deception, and Mary Toft began her long, slow recovery.

The Monstrous Egg, Second Part

This is an ancient recipe, not so much invented, as rediscovered in eras of dread: the Terror, the Year of Five Emperors. It flickered in popularity after the Trinity Tests.

Take two dozen eggs. Take a pig’s bladder, or similarly round, watertight mold. From here, execution will vary by era and taste: Do you prefer chicken or duck or ostrich? Do you prefer a wild boar’s bladder or the more delicate skin-sack of a loveable piglet or a huge egg-shaped mold from a Tupperware party? Some recipes call for yolks and whites to be separated, the yolks set first in a spherical mold, then removed to the bladder, after which the whites are poured over the top and set in simmering water. These differences are cosmetic. What matters is the idea: the monstrous egg that, once cracked, spills its contents across the dining table.

(Monstrous Eggs can occur naturally, as was the case in 1862, in Antietam, when a languishing hen refused to lay. When butchered, she was revealed to be hoarding one of these creatures in her oviduct, so large it killed the hen.)

In the 1950s the Monstrous Egg appeared in the guise of a celebratory centerpiece for a summer buffet, recommended in a least one issue of Woman’s Life Weekly where it was sponsored by Jell-O and called the Delicious Gadget. The recipe required four packages of lime Jell-O cast in an egg-shaped mold, swirled with layers of sour cream and grated carrot, and, floating in its green depths, boiled eggs—the yolks like pupils—staring as they waited to spill like a secret onto an unsuspecting diner’s plate. This was recommended as a centerpiece dish for buffets and barbecues, with a garnish of marshmallows.

In all cases, the appearance of such recipes prefigures a monstrous birth of another kind. That thing your hostess has placed at the center of the buffet, garlanded with marshmallows and water chestnuts? It is, in fact, the alchemical egg from which cracks the new and terrible world. No one knows if these eggs were ever eaten, or if they watched over the table like a prefigure of doom, l’oeuf monstrueux. The Delicious Gadget sits in the center of the suburban barbecue, awaiting detonation.

Mary Toft Had a Daughter

I have heard that there is, somewhere, a complex wherein these marvels, monsters, and prefigures are stored, or recorded, if their bodies have been destroyed. There are rooms full of jars in which float the pickled bodies of dog-headed children, and moon-calves, and mouse-eared cats. Beyond these nameable creatures, there are stranger bodies, which seem to our eyes incompletely imagined, interrupted at some mid-stage of development, neither man nor beast nor angel. There are diagrams on the walls, and books of two-headed flowers and insects with thirteen wings, and other early attempts to record the marvel of conception as it intersects with history. There are bodies stretched on pins in beds of wax, the remains of vivisected creatures, labeled by origins—mother and supposed father(s)—location, and date. The dates are significant: The children of plagues as well as comets find their resting places here; the children of Bikini Atoll, and the children of Trinity, the children of the Dutch famine of 1945, and children of the Gulag.

It was to this secret archive—the Museum Clausum—that Mary Toft’s surviving child was consigned by Dr. Graves’s machinations. Graves was present at this, her last birth—before Daniel Toft confessed—and had whisked the little rabbit-daughter away when he found her among the refuse of half-rabbits that Daniel and Margaret Toft had pushed into the birth canal.

Mary Toft’s daughter was a weak creature and smaller than the rest of her litter. The plan was for vivisection, so they might compare her anatomy to both rabbit and human models while still in action. At least two gentlemen of the Royal Society were eager to begin work, to slice open her belly and see, for a moment, her heart beat in the living air.

But rabbits are clever, and their hearts are wild. Dr. Graves left the child on the hearth in the Museum’s ante-chamber, and held an impromptu meeting about who would author the resulting paper, and where they would seek publications, and what the book might be called when it was done.

While they spoke, the new thing—part Mary, part rabbit, product of a flash of light, conceived in the intersecting glances of woman and doe—escaped from her basket and onto the warm hearth. She smelled formaldehyde and vivisectionists, and though her eyes were newly opened, some knowledge must have been inherited by her infant mind, as though the circumstances of her birth had written into the code of her being a profound fear of men like Dr. Graves and his company.

She crept from hearth to door, a creature so tiny she might be missed, this palm-sized daughter, this rabbit-homunculus. Her skin was liver-colored, dark enough to fade into the carpet. When a late-comer opened the door, she hid rabbit-still in the shadows and saw her chance. She darted with all the speed of her wild mother. This was a happy ending: a second birth for Mary Toft’s unnamed daughter.

A new creature quickens. A prefigure cracks the shell of the world: monstrous, miraculous, dog-headed, rabbit-bodied, conceived by the flash of a white belly in the dawn, the methylated DNA of a woman in duress, carrying her child through a famine or along a refugee trail from the flooded coast to higher land—from this crack will emerge something entirely new.

You might try to return it to its shell, but this time I do not think it will comply.

Rebecca Campbell is a Canadian writer and academic. Her work has appeared in publications that include The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. NeWest Press published her novel, The Paradise Engine, in 2013. You can find her online at whereishere.ca.

 

published January 2018, Issue #41, 3900 words

More Miraculous Births

Fallow, by Ashley Blooms
They find the bottle in the barn. There are a lot of things there, whole piles of things: tractor-part things, tire things, cutting things and bolting things, all tired things, slowly fading toward the same color of rusty brown. The inside of the barn smells of stale hay and beer. Misty picks the bottle that is the least broken and William holds it between two fingers and lets the water drain from its open mouth onto the packed-earth floor. 

Hare’s Breath, by Maria Haskins
It’s Midsummer’s Eve, and even this close to midnight there’s no darkness, only a long, translucent dusk that will eventually slip into dawn. Britt and I are fifteen, and she has just come back from That Place, the one the adults won’t talk about even when they think I’m not listening. Something’s happened to her there, but I don’t understand what it is, and she can’t find the words to tell me.

The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science, by Octavia Cade
A spear breaks its blade upon ribs and punctures hearts. It shines with ice-coated needles in the salt air, over breakfast. “I’ve had a letter,” says Lise to her nephew. He’d come to visit for the holidays so she wouldn’t be alone in the cold country of her exile. “I’ve had a letter and I don’t know what to make of it.” She thinks she might be worried. 

Black Fanged Thing, by Sam Rebelein

January was a shit month. It never snowed. Sun barely came out of hiding. Instead, a death-cold rain dripped endlessly. Mist curled inwards from the fringes of the woods. It covered the town for weeks, as Christmas decorations slowly drifted back into garages and basements. Everything here, just off-road of the Connecticut wine trail, lived for the fall. Once autumn was over, people indulged complacently in the holidays. But then they sank, miserably, into the post-apocalyptic beginning of a new year. Into the rain. This was when the winter wonderland died, dumpsters filled with sodden wrapping paper, and the world turned brown and gray for what felt like an eternity. Theoretically, there was Valentine’s Day to look forward to, but come on.

This was the bleak world in which Jude Ostermann was living when he did it. When he read the slip of paper and gave himself nightmares for weeks. Which makes sense, honestly. Bleakness breeds bleakness.

Jude Ostermann, thirty-eight, had himself a large white house on a quaint New England suburban lane. He had two children and a wife. He sold insurance every day at his father’s firm—started by his grandfather—or was it his father’s grandfather?—either way, some day it would be his. And he walked his dog every day in the empty hours before work. The dog, a young German shepherd, actually enjoyed the January barrenness. The damp made each individual smell stand up straighter, reach out farther. His steps bounced in January. Jude’s dragged.

Every morning, Jude passed by the same field. It was down a path behind his nice, pleasant house, through the woods and next to a golf course. The field had maybe been something once. It wasn’t now. Just dead grass and a half-broken, knee-high wall of slate chunks. A time-eaten wooden fence wound its shambling way around the field and back, vanishing amongst rain-stained trees.

He always took a few moments to look at it every time he passed, but Jude never thought anything of this field. What was there to think. Whatever the thing might have been, it was now just a goddamn field. Wasn’t it?

The dog, of course, thought it smelled great.

See, in Jude’s painfully ordinary, painfully drizzly town, there was one odd thing. Every evening at sundown, it passed. You could stand on your front porch and observe as it went by, and most people did. There were some who stood outside every evening to watch it pass. But you were by no means obligated to. Many people, in fact, did not. Some eyed it through their windows. Some made a game of it, trying to predict the exact moment it would approach. The time differed slightly day by day, but not by much. You could gamble in mere seconds, it was so precise.

Some never watched it. They stayed inside, staring at the floor with the TV turned way up. Played the radio loud, expecting it, dreading it. Jude’s wife, Heather, for instance, made a point of washing vegetables at the old kitchen sink, every day at the same time. The sink whined deafeningly. She did this to avoid seeing or hearing the odd thing. To escape the usual cacophony of hundreds upon hundreds of glass bottles rattling against the asphalt…

No matter what, though, you felt it. When it passed your house, that small round scar on your left temple would always itch. Ever so slightly. A tingle. It could catch you off guard if you weren’t ready for it. Make you gasp. Which is why most people were ready for it. Why most people stood on the porch, beer in hand, and waited patiently for the thing to pass. Eyes as glassy as the rattling bottles. They scratched the dull throb in their temple and afterwards, went back into their homes, back inside to the lives they chose. Or ended up with. Or whatever. And the cacophony of glass passed down the street, into the night.

Nobody thought about this odd thing. What was there to even think. Whatever yours had been, it was now just a goddamn scar. Wasn’t it?

And a minute a day wasn’t such a bad trade.

Tristan Ostermann was eleven and Delilah Ostermann was eight. Delilah didn’t have her scar yet. So in the year since Tristan had gotten his, she had been poking and prodding at it persistently. Probing him with questions.

“Does it hurt?” she’d ask.

“No,” he’d say.

“Do you remember what it was like when it happened?”

“Nobody does, stupid.”

Jude, in his armchair by the fire, would peer at his children over the local paper. “Don’t call your sister stupid.”

Delilah would flick at Tristan’s head. He’d pounce on her. They’d wrestle until Heather came in from the kitchen, pie-stench wafting behind her, and pull them apart.

Looking at Jude: “You shouldn’t let them fight like that.”

He wouldn’t even look up from the paper. “They’re not gonna hurt each other.”

“Delilah could slam her head into the table and pop an eye out.”

Jude would shake his head. “You shouldn’t have bought a table that’s all corners.” He’d snap the paper taut, pointedly, at the table. “The damn thing is a giant marble knife, for Christ’s sake.”

“Dollar,” the kids would say together. They’d point at the jar on the shelf.

None of it meant anything. It was all in fun, more or less. Happened every night. A complacent routine. And the whole thing was very pretty.

But sometimes, very rarely, Jude would find himself wondering, Is this nice? And…what was that thing? He’d scratch idly at his temple, hardly even noticing he was doing it. Thinking. What was that thing?

Rarely.

At night sometimes, Jude remembered the girl he dated in college. Not her face or her name. Simply that she was. That she left for…something. Somewhere. They fought a week before graduation. Or she fought him. Asked him to come with her. Asked him why he needed to follow his father into The Firm (which was always said reverently, with capital letters). Couldn’t he just give that up? Couldn’t he leave that town and…whatever she had suggested. Something vague about writing novels pressed itself against the memory, but failed to attach anywhere specific.

He remembered they were naked. Had just had sex, made love. Fucked. The distinction of what that had been wasn’t clear to him now. But the tiny room in his college-life apartment stank of it. Made the argument feel visceral and desperate, which it was. But, honestly, it was too late. He already had the scar. In fact, Jude remembered his temple throbbing horribly as she fought with him. Drowning out her words. Even in that moment, she was mist. Like he had no idea who or what she was. Whether he loved her eyes or wanted her body or needed all of it or what. It was too late.

“Leave?” he repeated, numb. “Why…why would I do that?”

She was from another town. She didn’t understand.

On a shitty evening in January, Jude stood on his porch. He still had his work suit on, but the paisley tie was loosened. He stared out into the street. The lane was silent. Inside, Tristan sat complacently at his desk, doing his math homework. Delilah, eight and unscarred, colored.

The sun was just about to set.

A screen door clapped somewhere off to his left. Jude listened to the familiar sounds of Phil coming outside. Phil, fifty-nine and fat, stood outside every evening with Jude as they observed the setting sun. The man held a beer in one hand, waved with the other. Jude waved limply back. They always did this.

Phil sipped from his bottle. Licked foam off his mustache. They stared silently at the hills in the horizon. Waiting.

“Weather,” Phil said.

The man had this odd quirk where he spoke almost exclusively about the weather, but never made any comment about it. Jude always kind of appreciated this. That you didn’t need to feel like you had to say anything about the weather. Just accept that you were going to be someone who was now discussing something trivial and small. In other words, it wouldn’t mean anything anyway. So why bother.

“Sure is,” Jude agreed. The two men smiled.

The lane was silent.

“Firm,” Phil said, as a kind of question.

“Good.”

“Kids.”

“Doing well. Tristan’s thinking about being a mechanic.”

Phil grunted. “Figures. Roger is about to retire. Auto shop’ll need somebody by the time he graduates.”

“He’s got seven more years yet,” Jude pointed out.

Phil grunted again, and said nothing.

Another, longer silence floated over them.

The odd thing that happened in this town every night at sunset happened then, and happened somewhat suddenly, as it always did. Somewhere far down the lane, out of sight, came the sound of glass sliding along the pavement. The jagged, staccato clack-a-clack of empty bottles bouncing against asphalt. The two men looked towards it. The noise grew. Became deafening. A wild roar. Finally, around the curve in the road, came the usual shadow. A small, slumped figure with short legs and long sloth arms heaved itself up the street. In the fingers coming down off its arms, it held countless lengths of twine. As it rounded the bend, the twine stretched out behind it and trailed, at a distance, hundreds of small glass bottles. The pathetic, hunched little figure shuffled laboriously past Jude’s home, tugging those bottles on twine behind itself. Sisyphus against thousands of boulders.

The thing passed, and vanished around the bend at the other end of the lane. The neighborhood became silent. And the sun sank.

Phil sniffed. “Tomorrow, then,” he said.

“Tomorrow,” said Jude.

They went back inside to their families.

When Jude re-entered the house, Delilah came running up to him with a picture she had drawn.

“I want to be a painter one day,” she told him, beaming.

“That’s great,” he told her, lying.

It was three days later when Jude did it. Approached the shadow and asked for his bottle. You could do that. Everybody knew you could. Everyone in the town had their own, and you could ask for it any night when the thing passed your house. You just walked up to it and held out a hand. You didn’t need to say anything. It knew you. It knew everybody. And everyone knew that. Didn’t know how, but they didn’t feel the need to ask either. Nobody actually approached the shadow, though. They all figured, “Why the hell would you want to?”

Jude, for one, had two or three reasons. But he only thought of them much later, months after the fact. Which was, obviously, too late.

Jude’s first reason came a week or two before he did it, just as the calendar flipped bleakly into the new year. It had been a typical night. The shadow had just disappeared up the road. The silence and the dark were deepening. Jude and Phil were lingering outside for a minute or so when, abruptly, Phil turned.

“Heard in town,” he said. “You know John.”

“Yeah.”

“Heard he never had his removed.”

Jude blinked. “How?”

Phil shrugged. “Don’t know. Guess he was out of school that day.”

“And they let it slide?” Jude couldn’t believe it.

“Guess so.”

“And he just lives like that?”

Phil laughed. “I know. Bizarre, man. I’m thinking, ‘No way, man.’ I would never do that. Don’t want to see mine ever again. Can’t even imagine having it in me. Not curious. Not at all. No way.” His voice cracked at the end of his speech. He swilled beer to steady it. He finished off the bottle and gazed into its bottom. He sniffed. They sank into a deep silence, thinking. Gazed out at the growing darkness and the rain.

“Weather,” Phil said, after a long time.

“Sure is.”

The second thing that probably did Jude in came the night after Delilah showed him her drawing. Ed, who lived alone across the street, was the one who did it. The smarmy bastard. Ed said things like, “What do you think about this cold front?” and “Think the Giants will make it this year?” God, Jude hated him. Unlike beautiful, simple Phil and his “Weather” and “Giants.”

This night, the rain came down in a fine mist, moistening everything before you even really noticed. Phil and Jude were the only two on their block who stood and observed the passing of the shadow. But on this particular evening, Ed marched out of his house the second the thing came before his lawn. He bounded down his front steps and approached it. Jude and Phil held their breath.

The figure stopped. The silence of the glass then was even more deafening than the sound itself. Ed held out a hand. The thing gingerly laid its bundles of twine on the ground. With slow and delicate movements, it picked one in particular. It reeled in the bottle. Handed it to Ed. Without flinching, Ed pulled the rubber stopper off the bottle. He grinned. The bastard. The thing watched him. He flicked the cork onto the grass of his front yard, tapped the bottle mouth onto his palm. A strip of paper slid out. He handed the bottle back to the figure. Unfolded the paper, and Jude could hear it crackling from across the street. The paper was yellow and old, had been folded up for a long time. Ed took some time reading whatever it said.

Then he laughed.

He waved the paper in the air at them. He called, “Hey! It’s…” He almost told them what it said. The men twitched, expecting the worst. But Ed stopped himself. He looked at the paper again. Smiled. He waved his hand like he was swatting a fly.

“Ah, shit,” he said. He tapped the paper against his palm. And went back inside.

The thing watched his house for a moment. No lights went on. Nothing. It picked up the pieces of twine, and went on its way.

Ed’s house remained dark after that.

What probably did Jude in the most happened five days later. He was walking the German shepherd past the same old field behind his house on that exceptionally bright, but still shitty morning, when he stopped dead in his tracks. Something new had appeared in the field. A prominent, shining black stone stood in the middle of the grass. The shepherd wagged its tail. Barked. Jude peered at the stone and realized, suddenly feeling very cold, that it wasn’t a stone at all.

He had never seen the shadow during the day before. No one had. The contrast between its usual half-unseen appearance and this full-on glimpse, in the clear morning light, was startling. Jude could pick out all its features. Could tell that it wasn’t a small man, or child, or whatever he had assumed it was. Nothing of the kind. It was a small, black-furred humanoid…thing. Its coat was matted and tangled. It crouched low amongst the dead grass, watching him. The black skin of its hairless face was stretched tight over the bones, giving the mouth and eyes an eerie, wide look. The eyes were lidless, flashing globes of yellowish-green. There was a stub of a snout filled with sharp teeth like rail spikes. It looked like a cross between a rat and a monkey and some homeless, demonic child, just sitting there. Gaping at him from the grass. Ugly and horrible.

What the fuck, Jude thought. Over and over. His heart hammered against his ribs. He was sweating, even in the dreary January cold. His mind screamed, How did I never see… Has anyone ever seen… What the fuck, what the fuck…

The dog barked harder. Struggled forward. Jude glanced down, tugged at the leash. When he looked back up, the thing was gone.

He tried to grapple himself back down to Earth, but the woods swam around him. It was a child in a mask. Had to be. A large raccoon. A fox covered in dirt. Scarecrow. Leftover Halloween decoration. Art installation? Surely, though, surely it was not the same thing that stalked through the town every night. Did it crawl out of the earth? Fall from the sky? Dig its way out of a dead pile of leaves? Did it live in this field? Were there others? Why had no one thought about this?

What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck…

For the first time, Jude wondered: What was that thing?

He thought about it all the way home. It made his temple ache, made the scar there sing with pain. And that’s what really did it. Him thinking. Seriously thinking, for the first time. Seriously wondering: What had that thing been?

Over dinner that night, Tristan spoke about school. His teachers, an upcoming field trip. He talked about his woodworking class and how he wanted to take shop class when he got to high school.

Delilah talked about her art.

Jude sat there, still thinking. Was this nice? Sitting at a candlelit table in a big warm room with the German shepherd curled up in the corner? Was this good, being able to be home with his wife and kids, eating a hearty dinner with red wine and laughter and being able to ask Tristan how he did on his math test, finding out he got an A-, looking over at Heather and loving her and loving Tristan, and Delilah with her adorable little paintings that he knew, secretly, would not last, blood pumping pumping pumping through his temple, the dog hoof-huffing as he dreamed, the clock in the kitchen ticking, pipes tinging as they heated up, and the whole thing nice and simple and perfect and his wife was saying something.

“What?” he blinked. The room seemed suddenly bright and crowded.

Heather blinked back. “Sorry?”

“Sorry, what were you saying?”

“I…” She frowned at him. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. Just tired lately, I guess.”

She nodded sagely. “Must be the weather. Everyone feels gross.”

“Of course,” he said, unsure. He rubbed his temple. From somewhere across the table, at the corner of his eye, the furry, black fanged thing leered at him.

That night, when Jude crawled into bed, Heather was already there. She folded into him as he laid down. Fit herself to him like a puzzle piece. She called to him from somewhere far away. He tried looking at her face, but saw instead the black fanged thing shrouded in a fine mist. In an instant, his blood was cold, his forehead damp. He found himself drowning in the same thought: It might have been something small, it might have been something important, it might have been grand or fun or…something. What the fuck was it? What the fuck was that thing?

“Jude.”

She cleared. The mist vanished for a moment, and he saw her.

“Hm,” he said.

“You okay?”

“Fine. Long day.”

“I love you.”

“I love you.”

She looped her arm over his chest. Moved it around, twisting her fingers in the curly black hair there. She kissed his stubble. Said his name. He turned to her. They dug into each other’s clothes.

What it ended up being was something vague, lost between making love and fucking.

Afterwards, they lay tangled together. All limbs. He closed his eyes almost peacefully, almost asleep, feeling almost good, and she shot out of bed. She padded across the carpet to the bathroom. Brushed her teeth, took a shower, cleaned herself. Came back into bed fresh and new and unmarred. She purred.

“That was nice,” she said.

The fuck-stink of his college apartment wafted into his memory. The black fanged thing leered at him from the window.

He had nightmares about it. Felt it eating him. He awoke still feeling the teeth. He stayed in bed, sweating against the flannel sheets, and listened to the sounds of his family. Tristan eating cereal downstairs. The wooden fracas of Delilah’s colored pencils. Theoretically, these were comforting sounds. Instead, they made him feel worse. Made the imaginary toothmarks down his limbs and across his belly burn.

Why did he keep thinking about it?

It was just a goddamn monkey.

Wasn’t it?

See, they did it when you were ten. They had a big day in April where everyone wrote essays on what they wanted to be when they grew up. What you truly wanted to be. You wrote it in history class, which was somewhat ironic, honestly. The history teachers, smiling, encouraged their students to be as ridiculous and as horribly truthful as they could. So the essays were all about astronauts and paleontologists, movie stars and world travelers. Every ten year-old in the entire town did this. Explained what their beautiful, ridiculous lives were going to be. Their craziest, truest, out-of-this-worldest dreams. Then they were filed into the gym, where they spent the rest of the day waiting their turn. They sat in the bleachers, clutching their essays, murmuring. They glanced anxiously towards the small white tent in the corner of the gym. They were called, one by one. And one by one, they went into the tent.

The tent itself is a mystery. Nobody knows who organizes it or what’s inside. It just shows up. And you have to go. All that is known is that you leave with a bandage on your temple. Your essay—the astronaut, movie star, pop singer dream—has vanished. And you are unable to remember what it was.

After it’s over, you go home and have a nice meal prepared by your mother, paid for by your father, and you really appreciate it, for the first time.

Delilah, of course, was eight. Her dream would not be taken for two more years. But when it did happen, inevitably, her mother would ask her, “Why don’t you color anymore?” Already knowing the answer.

Delilah would shrug. “Just don’t want to.”

And she would lead a simple, perfect small-town life.

So it happened that Jude got it all stuck in his head. Couldn’t stop thinking about it. About the college apartment and the girl and something about novels and not selling insurance. The black fanged thing. And the next evening, at sundown, Jude turned to Phil and said, “I’m gonna do it.”

Phil blinked at him across their yards. “Do what?”

“Look at mine.”

It was like he had stabbed Phil in the gut. The man made a large O with his lips. Shook his head. “Why?”

Jude shrugged. “I’d like to know.”

“Ed’s an outlier.” Phil pointed with his beer to the darkened house. “That’s not the usual. You shouldn’t… I mean, most people see theirs and…”

“I know,” said Jude.

“They flip.”

“I know.”

“That’s why nobody does it.”

“I know. But I could take it. Ed seemed to. I wanna know.”

Phil was quiet for a moment. He sipped his beer. Finally, without looking at Jude, like Jude was already dead, he said, “All right, man. Whatever.”

They were quiet. Waiting.

As if knowing it might be for the last time, Phil said, “Weather.”

Before Jude could respond, the end of the lane clattered. The thing came around the bend. Jude could now picture its eyes, fur and fangs clearly. And it made it worse knowing that Phil, who had never thought or wondered about it in the light of day, could not. Could not bring himself to ask the questions now eating at Jude from the inside out.

The black fanged thing approached. Trembling, Jude stepped off his porch. The thing turned to face him, still coming. Still rattling. Jude moved down the walk in front of his house in a trance. Shaking. Legs hardly obeying. When he got to the sidewalk, the thing stopped. Silence boomed down the block. Night deepened. From behind him, Jude could hear Phil muttering, “Jesus, man. Jesus.”

Jude held out his hand. From this close, he could smell it—the phosphorous reek rising off the creature’s hide. Could hear its rasping, hollow breath. Feel the sickly lemon-colored eyes. Gently, the thing placed its ends of twine on the ground. It took some time selecting the one that belonged to Jude. Finally, it picked one out of a large cluster. Jude’s bottle was stuck to three others, in a big clump. So, like it was moving through mud, the creature reached out a long, loping sloth-arm paw and peeled the twine free. It seemed to take years to reel in Jude’s bottle. When it finally rolled up the street and into the creature’s hand, Jude felt like he might fall over.

It might have been small. It might have been nothing at all. Or everything. Or… An even more horrible thought dawned on him. What if he read the paper, and it was exactly what he had now. Maybe that was what had happened to Ed. Or maybe the paper was blank. Maybe the dreams were all gone.

Jude took the bottle. The creature let its hand drop to the ground and it watched him. The bottle was small and round, sort of like a cannonball. Or an inkwell. A square rubber stopper was jammed into the mouth. Jude removed it in one smooth pull. Dumped it on the lawn. He shook the bottle by his ear. Paper tink-ed inside. He upended the bottle into his palm, and the paper dropped silently out. As Jude unfolded it, the creature gathered up its lengths of twine and moved on. Phil had already gone back inside, not wanting to see.

The paper shook between his fingers. It took him several tries to hold it open enough so that he could read it. When he did, he almost laughed, as Ed had. It was his essay. His goddamn essay. From when he was ten. He read it. Blinked. Read it again. And almost threw up. He couldn’t remember writing it at all. Couldn’t remember wanting…that.

He stood there for several minutes, alone, as darkness bunched up around him. Finally, he let the paper curl back up in his fingers. When he was ready, he brought it and the bottle to the garbage can next to the garage, and threw them in.

He wondered what Ed had seen. Wondered what Phil had written. Tristan. Heather. He knew what Delilah would write when her time came. He saw, now, the black fanged thing way too clearly in his mind. Saw it panting that phosphorous, horrible breath on him.

An alien. He tried to decide that that was what it was. An alien thing, penned by a ten year-old stranger.

Shaking, Jude went back inside. In the well-kept living room, his family was sitting around the television. Heather made room for him on the couch. He wrapped an arm around her, the other around Tristan. He tried to slow his heart. Clenched his hands into fists to keep them from shaking. Heather didn’t notice.

Delilah was on the floor, coloring. Jude forced himself not to look at her.

A small voice at his side whispered, “What did you see?”

Jude turned. Tristan gazed up at him with deep, wondering eyes. Jude put a hand on his head. The boy’s hair was soft and young. Jude pulled him a little closer.

“Nothing important,” he said, almost believing it.

Tristan looked back at the screen. He chewed his lip. Several minutes went by.

“I kinda want to see mine,” Tristan said.

Jude looked back at those eyes. So blue and unmarred.

“Nah,” he said. He offered a reassuring shake of his head. “You’re better off. Trust me.”

Tristan said nothing else. Jude tried to convince himself he hadn’t just lied. He was still trying when he went to sleep that night.

In identical houses throughout town, identical televisions buzzed and hummed. The town was content, now that the one minute was over. At least for the day.

In the morning, Jude would go to The Firm. He would sell insurance, as his father had. He would come home and be with his wife, and his dog, and his kids, whom he loved. He stopped walking by the field every day, and stopped standing out on the porch at sundown, because it made his scar hurt. Because he could no longer do so without seeing those shining, tennis-ball eyes. Without remembering what young, glorious things they held behind glass.

As January dragged itself along, Jude managed to put it all out of his head. Managed to stop wondering, again, what the thing had been. He managed to enjoy the complacency of his simple, small-town life, even with its one unbearable minute each day. He managed to enjoy the shitty and unending January rain.

He loved this life. He chose this life. He felt good about it. And it was nice. Really, really nice…

Right?

Sam Rebelein lives in Poughkeepsie, NY. His work has been published in Dark Moon Digest Magazine and in the May and June calendars of Every Day Fiction, 2017. It has also been performed onstage in collaboration with the play development lab A Howl of Playwrights in Rhinebeck, NY, of which he is an active member. He is a co-founder of the sketch comedy group Crebuland, which you can Like on Facebook. For whatever it’s worth.

Black Fanged Thing, 4800 words, published January 2018

 

Raise-the-Dead Cobbler, by Andrea Corbin

The air was muggy, a heatwave burning through the spring, on the night that we met to conjure two people out of almost nothing at all. None of us could’ve done it without the others, and none of us would’ve dared, except Mason said please and I said maybe and Jun said we could, and so we did. You need a few materials first, then follow a sort of recipe. Call it Raise-the-Dead Cobbler.

INGREDIENTS

  • Three tired so-called witches, of flesh, of time, of dreams.
  • Bone fragments, stolen reverently.
  • A lock of hair, kept for years and years.
  • An old book, passed down from mother to son to daughter to niece, and so on.
  • A dark night, with a new moon, and as many clouds as feels right.
  • A secluded room, in a lakeside cabin far from the city’s bustle and traffic’s roar, where owls hoot plaintively and a cool wind rustles the leaves. (A cramped attic in an apartment on the edge of the city, with shouty neighbors, will work in a pinch.)
  • Flint, not matches.
  • A stone bowl, low and wide.
  • Dry kindling.
  • Floor space, as much as you expect you’ll need. You know who you’re looking for. You can measure, move furniture, sweep, mark out the space. Lay out a pillow, in anticipation. The floor is hard, after all.

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. “Is your roommate home?” Mason asks, braiding his hair back, lightning fast. It gets warm in the attic. Mason wears none of his usual jewelry, only a locket on a thin chain, which dangles outside of his shirt. You say no, of course not. Your roommate is out of town for the next six days. That’s why this is the perfect new moon, even though Jun has a deadline at work tomorrow and shouldn’t be pulling an all-nighter.
  2. In a flurry of motion, Jun arrives, drops her bag on the floor and her iced coffee on the table, then says, “I can’t do anything in this skirt” as she kicks her heels off. She shimmies out of the skirt and changes into red leggings, pulled from her bag. “Do you really have it?” she asks, pulling pins out of her hair and letting it fall loose. You steal a long drink of her coffee.
  3. On the way up to the attic, you worry. Mason worries. What will they think of you? Will they be happy to wake up? Will they be scared? What if they hate you? How long will it last? Jun said it would last, but what if they decide to leave you? After all you did? Would that be okay? When they wake up in the dark room surrounded by three witches, if they scream, will you be able to comfort them, or make it worse? Will it work? Will they come back wrong? Different? Can you really do this? Should you? God, what if everything does work, and they want to stay, and be with you? What then? Can they get a job? Should they? How will you support them if they can’t? Shit, is this a terrible idea? Is it selfish? What if coming back gives them health problems? What if they had health problems before that you didn’t know about, and coming back is nothing but suffering? Will they hate you? Will they love you? Will you love them?
  4. Jun strikes the flint and lights the fire.
  5. Chant words after Jun, with Jun, words that can’t be spelled or written down, and yet she reads them from a book in her lap. Her book is filled with drawings and paintings, and you can never find the same one twice. Once you saw a page and read the drawing; there was a burst of light, and a small creature appeared, like an oviraptor, feathered and colorful but the size of a hummingbird. That was the day Jun said it looked like you were a witch of time. You’re still learning what that means. The oviraptor is named Magda and lives on your porch for most of the year. You take her for walks. You should take her for more walks. No one would notice.
  6. The shards of bone rattle. The lock of hair dances in no wind. You close your eyes.
  7. Nothing changes, except the room feels smaller. You haven’t opened your eyes. Your eyes are closed, and the attic room has shrunk, and if you reach out you don’t know what you might touch.
  8. Open your eyes.
  9. To your left is Jun, then Mason. They open their eyes too, breathing timidly. You’ve been holding hands for a while, grip tight, tight on Jun’s stiff prosthetic. Next to Mason, in the space laid out on his side of the attic, is—
  10. There is someone to your right.

Once I explain what happened, he decides to go by Joseph. Why? Well, it is his name. No, but why? Because this isn’t his life, now is it? It’s something different. He’s something different.

Because of his movies, I’ve always thought of him in a particular way, kinetic and silent. He rubs the back of his head, an overwhelmed look of concern furrowing his brow. But I can’t read his face. The problem is he puts on that face so easily, so often on film, that I don’t know if it’s just a face or how he really feels. Sweat drips down my back, makes my shirt cling. He sits very still.

“Why is this happening?” he asks, voice so much deeper than I always imagine.

“I—” don’t have a good answer.

“What are you?” Joseph asks, and again I stutter and don’t answer. In my head I hear all the times Jun told me you’re a witch, you jag, but I can’t say it.

We all go downstairs because the attic room is boiling; Joseph trails after me, and I trail after Jun. Behind Joseph is Mason and his mom. Angela, I think.

“Well, that’s that.” Jun picks up her discarded skirt.

“You’re leaving?” I ask.

“Do you need me to stay?”

“Yes!” Mason sounds desperate. He’s not quite looking at his mom ever. Eyes skidding around the edges.

Jun takes a long swig of her watered-down iced coffee. “‘Kay.”

“So this is the year 2016?” Joseph asks. That was part of what I told him upstairs. It was real, it was his far, far future, and it was okay. He took it in stride. Now he looks around the kitchen, which is a mess. I should’ve cleaned up. Why didn’t I clean up? It’s fine. Why would he care? But I care. I care that the first thing he sees are my dirty dishes and moldy fruit, the mail covering the counter, and the oh my god, the bra hanging over the back of the chair.

I slide in front of it.

Angela pulls out a chair and sits down, pressing her hands flat on the table.

Mason hovers. “It’s okay. It’s me. I’m your—I’m your kid. You have a kid and that’s me.”

“You said that,” Angela says slowly. “I don’t get what’s happening.”

Mason looks helplessly at Jun, who exhales through her nose before speaking. “You know photocopies? We found a moment and made a photocopy of you, then brought that you to our present. Call it magic, call it time travel, call it a great big lie and a weird dream you’re having. I don’t care. It’s happening. Mason is your kid. Congratulations.”

Angela is quiet a long time, staring at Mason. It’s got to be a lot to take in, skipping twenty-odd years of society and tech and life and then bam, your grown-up kid, Mason, not much younger than Angela is probably, Mason with his long black braid, big worried eyes lined with black, tattoos crawling over his bony shoulders and under his shirt. Mid-nineties life versus grown-up Mason now must be battling it out in Angela’s brain, but during the silence I realize we pulled Angela from before she got pregnant. Maybe before she met Mason’s dad. And Angela’s working out what all that means.

“Okay,” she says, shaky. “Well, don’t tell me how I died, and I think we’ll be okay.”

Pretty soon, Jun drives Mason and Angela away, leaving Mason’s car on my street where I promise to make sure it isn’t towed.

I make coffee. Start tidying, washing dishes. Joseph wanders my rooms, looking at the shared mess my roommate and I live in, coming back to check my progress. Hands clasped behind his back, leaning forward to inspect a poster or a bookshelf. Always with that stone face.

A plate slips from my hands, hits the counter, crashes onto the floor. “Shit!”

Joseph pops his head into the room, eyebrows raised in question.

“It’s fine. Plastic.” I pick up the plate and spin it in my hands. “I don’t have to do this right now. I should’ve done it earlier. I could leave it. It’s not important. Are you hungry? I don’t think, it’s not—” When words start crashing and failing before they reach my mouth, I turn back to the dishes.

“Isabel. Are we related?”

“No.”

Joseph paws through some of my mail. Pages through an Anthropologie catalog. He looks at me, barely moving his eyebrows. “The other one brought his mother.”

When I squirt soap onto the sponge a little too forcefully without a word, he goes back to the catalog. Even with the astringent lemon suds, Joseph’s close enough that I can practically smell the years on him, this weird ozone scent of a hundred years. It’s soaked into his clothes, permeating his skin, this invisible sense of time.

Fuck the dishes. That ozone smell is making me dizzy. There are clean mugs. That’s enough. I sort out my coffee, then gesture weakly at the milk and sugar for Joseph to figure out.

The living room is more like a nest and less a rat’s nest, and comes pre-loaded with snacks I forgot to put away, so by the time Joseph joins me I’m gnawing on a hard gingersnap. He sits on the other end of the couch.

“We’re not related,” I say.

Joseph gives me a look, one eyebrow barely raised, eyes glancing down and back up, and I laugh, this nervous snuffle into my cookie—and he laughs too. It’s kind of stunning. This side of him almost no one gets to see. Except me, I’m seeing it.

“Then why?” Joseph asks.

“It’s hard to explain. We can undo it.”

He digs into the box for a cookie, dips it in his coffee. “Why?”

“If you don’t want to be here. It was maybe stupid of me. Selfish. Or hubris. I don’t know. I’m a little, you know, it was a rough spell.” My chest is tight, and I’m starving but can’t imagine doing any more than reach for another cookie, and there are little sparks of a spell migraine flecking in my vision, so I can’t really, I can’t think of what to say to explain myself.

“We’ll see how it goes, I guess. So far you have good coffee and bad cookies, and other than that I don’t know.”

“You hungry?” I ask again, though I’m not completely sure I get the words out.

At some point I take a long blink and when I open my eyes, Joseph’s setting my coffee down on the table next to the cookies. He says my name once, I think, quietly, “Isabel,” hand on my shoulder.

“What is this?”

I wake up on the couch and not on my bed, as happens way more often than it should. I’m an adult. Why can’t I make it to my bed?

“What is this?”

My eyes won’t open until I rub them hard with my fingers, and my mouth tastes like trash and my phone is being thrust in my face while my shoulder is shaken. I had a plan for this. I should’ve planned for the spell migraine to take me out, but I didn’t, and now my plan to introduce Joseph to the modern world is ruined because he’s already poking around while I was dead to the world.

“It’s my phone,” I say, and as the words come out I can’t bear the taste in my mouth. After I brush my teeth and wash my face, I join him back on the couch. Joseph presses the button on my phone, screen going bright and dark. Like this is all perfectly normal. Magda, my oviraptor, is sitting on his head.

“This is a phone?”

“Gimme,” I say, and unlock it. Magda chirps. Without looking, Joseph puts a hand up for her to jump on, and I wait for the inevitable question—

“How’s it work?”

Not the inevitable question. I shrug. My coffee is stone cold but it’s right there and caffeinated, so I gulp it and make a face of pure regret.

I was going to show him how the phone works, but there are messages from Mason and Jun, not to mention family and one of my few non-witch friends and some guy I’ve been meaning to ghost.

  • Mason: I can’t believe this is happening
  • Jun: Congrats. Mother’s day is in two weeks

While reheating my coffee I ignore the rest of my messages. Joseph sets Magda on the table, where she nests in a pile of mail.

“About a hundred years to catch up on.” I yawn.

With Joseph around, time tumbles past so quickly I almost forget the sensation of it, until a moment catches against my skin, lingers like an echo.

In the park, Joseph listens to me explain things poorly, strides over a bench because it’s in his path, steals my phone out of my hands. He unlocks it, swipes the screen. Walks backwards in front of me.

“This,” Joseph says, pointing my phone at me, his eyes on the screen, “takes pictures?”

“And videos. Movies.”

He turns it around and around in his hand. “This?”

“People shoot whole feature films on it.”

He laughs like a kid at Christmas, pure delight spread across his features.

Another day my ancient laptop is spread out in pieces on the coffee table, and Joseph prods at the soldered base. I tell him a probably inaccurate version of how it works, then tell him to look it up on the internet if he’s interested. “But don’t take apart anything else, please.”

He pieces the laptop back together and turns it on. “How do I look up the internet?”

When I tell him how easy it is to watch movies, Joseph gets a wild look in his eyes. “On the computer?” he says, and “Well, it’s a disappointing screen to watch on, but—” and he finds a list from the AFI, then says with determined joy in his eyes that he’s going to work his way through the whole thing. While he studies the list, I catch up on more texts.

  • Mason: I don’t know what to do! She’s like our age.
  • Jun: What did you expect?
  • Mason: IDK!!! I just wanted to meet her
  • Mason: She’s nice though
  • Mason: Funny too she’s funny like my aunt
  • Jun: aunt like your mom’s sister
  • Mason: …yes
  • Jun: what a SURPRISE Mason
  • Jun: Well just be a person and stop expecting a mom and let me know if anything weird happens
  • Mason: Weird??
  • Mason: Is sleeping alot weird
  • Me: Jun if there are side effects you didn’t tell us about I’m going to send you back to the twelfth century.

“Isabel,” Joseph says, his voice low. My phone lights up.

  • Jun: You don’t know enough to do that
  • Me: Not yet.

“Isabel,” more insistent. I put my phone aside. “You said I’m a second me. I didn’t think about it before, that I’m still… I’m a part of history.”

He scratches his jaw. Stares at the screen. Pushes the laptop to me, points.

One of his movies is on the list.

“Would you watch it if you were me?” he asks.

“I wouldn’t want to know too much about that other life, you know?”

“You do know about it.”

His eyes fix on mine, which seals it in my heart: I can’t tell him, either the good parts or bad, because this him will never have them. All those things aren’t Joseph, they’re him. And that’s the point. But, God, I want to assure him and I can’t. I can’t tell him you’re a genius and deserved better or I brought you here because a hundred years later you’re still impossible or I’m awful and chose you because I’ve always had a crush on you.

So I just nod.

After that, Joseph always refers to the life we split him away from in the third person. Someone else.

My roommate comes back. I tell her Joseph is a friend from out of town. She doesn’t recognize him. Out of context, I guess, or more likely not everyone would recognize him like me. Not without the suit and the soundtrack, the house falling down around him.

I tell Jun I’m too busy helping Joseph adjust to meet. She texts back, Don’t you think J&A mean it’s esp important to meet and get yr ass over here tomorrow.

I don’t reply.

I don’t go.

“The future is disappointing,” Joseph says after I tell him about space. We’re both in pajamas on the couch, the night’s movie long since over. We’ve settled in, he and I, uncertainly into whatever this new life of his is. When I got home last week he had scrapes on his palms and a bottle of wine on the table. Something about street performing, which made me want to quit my job to go watch, but I have to make money somehow and tech writing pays better than anything else I’m capable of.

“We went to the moon!” I protest.

“Not recently.” He looks tired. He says the couch is fine, but I don’t think he’s been sleeping much. “You can bring me out of the past, but no one’s living on the moon?”

“Our spells aren’t exactly public knowledge.”

“Then what do you do? I haven’t seen you do any magic. What good is it?”

I gear up for a furious defense because we have rules, the three of us, but my phone trills, lighting up with Jun’s photo. “Shit,” I say, because Jun hates calling. It can’t be good.

Jun says, “We have to meet, right now. Leave him at home.”

“What is it?”

“Mason and Angela. My place. And be ready for…” Jun exhales loudly. “Mason says we’re just talking, but stuff a protein bar and some coffee in your face on the way over. Might be work to do tonight. Another new moon.”

“Shit,” I say, hanging up. “I have to go.”

“That other person,” Joseph says. “It’s not going well, is it?”

The look in his eyes is so tired that my heart plummets, and I don’t think twice about my rules or anything else before I kiss his forehead and tell him to try and sleep. “Mason is… they’ve been having issues. It’s probably nothing. Try and sleep. It’s gonna be okay. I’ll be back by morning.”

Lying and not knowing are indistinguishable sometimes, even to the person talking.

Mason is a mess.

“I keep having these dreams,” he says, like he doesn’t always have these dreams that hound him. His hair is in a high bun, no make-up, ashy tired skin, hunched over in an old sweatshirt I don’t think I’ve seen him leave the house in before, though it’s summer and we’re out on Jun’s porch. “When I wake up, my mom, she’s always gone. But then I wake up again. I’ve never had that happen before. I’ve never woken up and still been dreaming. What does that mean?”

“Did you really get me out of my house for dreams?”

“Have you been listening for the last month? Let him talk,” Jun says. Leaning against the railing, she doesn’t look at me, only Mason. It’s a scolding without the scolding; we all know that I haven’t seen either of them for a month.

And Mason talks. Tells me how they’ve been fighting, Mason and his mom. How Angela left for days. How she came back and apologized but never—she never quite looks at Mason fully. Won’t see him. Oh, she’s talked to him and been kind enough and civil and in some ways it seemed like Angela was trying to live, trying to be in the world, but ultimately she won’t talk, she just won’t talk to Mason. Mason yells and cries, Mason makes dinner and tries to connect, Mason asks questions, Mason tries not to expect her to be a mother, but still, he wants a person there.

There’s a reason we discuss every act of magic. There’s a reason we meet every week. There’s a reason we have rules.

“Isabel?” Jun lobs my name into the silence.

“Oh, Mason.”

“I wanted her to be happy,” Mason says.

“Where is she now?” I ask.

“Inside.”

“You asked her?”

Mason looks at his fingers. Jun shakes her head.

“You gotta ask her. If she wants to stop—”

Mason jumps up, chair legs scraping across the wood porch. “I know.” He goes inside, door clattering shut after him.

“Can he do it?” I ask.

Instead of answering, Jun adjusts the straps on her prosthetic hand. It’s a good way to shut me up, since I always watch and say nothing and try not to think about how she got it, try not to think about that spell. The way we looked at the image in the book, how the sun seemed to go red. How we talked for weeks, but kept coming back, hungry for it—if we prepped, if we studied, we could do so much more. Why shouldn’t we try to summon familiars?

Somewhere is a lion-headed dog with a small portion of Jun’s flesh, a small portion of her power. They’re still connected. I don’t ask Jun if she can feel it.

I try not to think about it. The things we’ve done. Maybe I should. This is the worst yet, or the best. Too early to tell. Even if I strain, I can’t hear anything from inside, and time ticks by. I can feel it, every second. I can always feel it.

The seconds feel heavier tonight.

“Maybe it would’ve been better if we never met each other,” Jun says. “We’re a potent combination. This won’t be the last wild idea one of us has, the last time we manage to break something.”

“What’s broken?” Like I don’t know. I listen harder for any sounds inside.

“After this, maybe we should go our separate ways.”

“You could never let go of Mason,” I say.

“No,” she agrees, “not now.”

“We can’t do this again. We have to stop each other sometimes.”

Jun stops fiddling, folds her arms. “Mason wanted this so bad,” she says. Her voice strains, directed more toward her bare feet than to me, none of the matter-of-fact confidence she usually wears. All that’s worn away tonight.

Mason deserved this spell to go right. I didn’t need it at all. I desecrated a grave for it, for my own damn childish fixation.

“You’ll make him stay here tonight? He shouldn’t be alone,” I say.

“Yeah.”

A siren carries through the air, invisible. Cars roll by, and somewhere nearby, a party blares music, muted by walls and distance. There’s no such thing as silence, except inside the house.

“If Joseph stays, if he’s happy…do you think Mason will hate us for it?”

Jun looks up. “Is he happy?”

The door opens.

Inside the house is dark, and Mason has been crying. So has Angela. According to Jun, this part doesn’t have the same requirements. She and I push furniture out of the way in the living room, roll up the area rug, wipe away old chalk streaks, and get to work.

There’s the slightest hint of dawn in the sky when I get back to my apartment. At the sound of the door, Joseph blinks awake, looking at me from the couch, and he sits up. The clouding dots of the spell migraine have already come and gone, and now it’s settled in as a tight nausea in my stomach, all of it less than last time, but I stop with keys in my hand, looking at Joseph and not really looking at him. What has he done with his days? Why can’t he sleep? Is he happy? I’m not sure what matters and what doesn’t. Intention is garbage, hope is garbage, love is garbage. All of us are. It doesn’t matter when it leaves someone you love clutching a lock of hair and sobbing in the dark, until you cast sleep over them like a blanket, and hope that maybe when it wears off they might be okay. Or be able to find their way to okay.

If I keep my hand on the wall, I can keep my balance. Small steps to keep moving, small breaths to contain my nausea.

We uncreated her, and it was terrible. It felt like murder. Angela asked us to, and all we had to do was light the fire, speak, and she was gone, but it was—there was a lock of hair, threatening to disperse in the wind of our breath, where she had been. Mason dove for it, gathering the black hair up into his fist, clenching it until sleep fell on him, and Jun tucked the hair back in his locket.

It wasn’t just hitting undo. We split her off and made her new, and then we ended her. A month’s worth of a new life, and now oblivion. The old her, Mason’s mom, all that story unfolds like always, but this month, it’s going to shadow Mason forever. We’ll all remember Angela, but Mason most of all.

Once Mason was asleep, Jun told me she cast an extra spell at the end to move the body. She didn’t want Mason to see it. By midnight, Angela was gone and Mason was asleep, but Jun and I stayed up a while, spinning complicated spells, because a body is no easy thing to deal with, even when it’s only a shell, even for a witch. It has to go somewhere. It has to be dispersed.

I sat shaking in Jun’s kitchen for an hour, her and I taking medicinal sips of whiskey until we could speak again, and all I could say was, “I can’t do that again.”

I had to take a cab home.

Pressing my forehead to the wall and squeezing tears from my eyes, that doesn’t help anything, but that’s where I’ve ended up, halfway to my room, shivering.

Joseph slings my arm over his shoulders and grabs my waist.

“Please be happy,” I mumble.

“It’s gonna be okay,” he says, and we shuffle toward my bed. I realize, fuzzy as I feel, that even this close to him, I can’t catch the smell of years anymore. He smells like smoke and dryer sheets and some faint aftershave. Quietly, he helps me into bed, and before I’m fully in, I drag him in after me.

“Go t’sleep,” I say, curling into his chest. His fingers find their way to my temple and brush gently.

Here’s another recipe. It takes longer than the other. I don’t know what to call it. I’m not sure about the last step yet.

INGREDIENTS

  • One witch of time.
  • One man who shouldn’t exist.

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. After you undo what you did, after you uncreate who you created, call in sick to work again. Your roommate asks if Joseph is staying much longer. Say, “Well, he’s helping me now that I’m sick, so I don’t know.” You look bad enough that she accepts this, but not for long, you’re sure. Maybe, you think, Joseph can get a job, and you can find your own place. You feel a little better in the mornings, if you wake up in his arms, and you think he sleeps better too. It’s just sleeping. You don’t talk about it.
  2. Mason stays at Jun’s house. You help him move his stuff. Joseph helps too, setting up a system of rolling carts that nearly works, except for the laws of physics and the existence of porch steps. Mason swears he’s never doing magic again, but at least he’s sleeping without help, and the bags under all your eyes are fading.
  3. The three of you, Mason and Jun and you, meet a lot. More often than before. You only talk.
  4. Joseph disappears some evenings, goes out and comes home with dessert, a bottle of wine, leftover food.
  5. “Where were you?” you ask, eating baklava. It’s not that you’re mad, or want him to stay home, or begrudge him the fact of his own life. You’re curious. He says, “I’ve made some friends. A theater troupe.” You say, “Oh, good! I’m sorry I—” though you don’t know quite what you’re apologizing for. That you haven’t taken him out on the town? While he’s been learning about a changed world, and while you were knocked down by a spell again? You didn’t know if he was ready. You figure apologies are in order somehow, in case he thinks you’re assuming he owes you an explanation.
  6. “Look,” Joseph says, sitting next to you on the couch, pressed arm to arm, starting a video on your laptop. A straight shot of him in the park down the street, performing a routine not quite like any of his you’ve seen, with a tall broad man who makes Joseph look smaller than he is. Someone else is holding the camera, and you see it shake a little when they must be laughing, but the only sound is music. While you watch, an audience ebbs and flows and grows; some of them hold cell phones up to grab a snippet of him, or come forward to drop money in a hat on the ground.
  7. He counts his earnings from street performing, and then counts his earnings from the theater, and then comes home with a cell phone, a camera, a flexible tripod, and a new hat, which he reshapes with water until it’s stiff and familiar. Then he leaves it on the table unworn.
  8. You start to do magic. Little spells. You still have a line drawn, but it’s not as solid anymore. “If we’re a little more flexible,” you tell Jun, “maybe we won’t be so tempted.” But really you think, who’s stopping us? Mason watches you wrap a time bubble around the oven, because all of you are starving, and Jun’s casserole is taking too long. Mason watches you very carefully.
  9. You find a new apartment, one that has a dishwasher and no roommate, and you buy some furniture new for the first time instead of finding it on the curb and hoping it isn’t infested. Sure, you don’t have frames for the posters, but you have a coat rack and you vacuum once a week.
  10. While Joseph makes small movies to post online, and Jun and Mason start being a proper them, you work and read and practice with time, and wonder what you could do with the right fourth witch. Wonder if that look that Joseph gives you sometimes means he wants to kiss you, or if that’s you being hopeful. Watch one of his movies—not Joseph’s, the other him. One where he’s still young and beautiful and vibrant but a little older than Joseph, then you watch another, and another, until you feel glutted on that face, absolutely full to the brim and not sated. When you see Joseph the next morning, it does nothing for the sensation, hits a completely different spot, so you kiss him, unbrushed coffee teeth and all.
  11. After that, while you’re avoiding each other, spend a lot of time with Jun trying to read her book. She says you’re doing really well, considering you’re not a blood relation.
  12. Fight with Joseph. Little fights. Everyday fights. Then a big one, when Joseph’s asking what you think of his next idea and it spins out into something about debt and freedom and desire; you say, he doesn’t owe you this; he asks, do you think that’s why he’s still here? He leaves and doesn’t come back that night, and you figure, that’s it. At least you had this much. At least you didn’t have to undo him.
  13. Alone with Magda, make a token. Use grains of salt, the last drops of the wine you had shared during the argument, a scrap of paper that you very carefully draw on. Seal it all up in a locket, then fuse the clasp together.
  14. If he comes back, give it to him. Tell him that it’ll keep him safe when he’s away. Tell him you’re sorry. Tell him you hated every second he was gone. Tell him you made some of them last twice as long, and then sped up others, because you couldn’t decide whether you deserved more pain or not. Tell him Magda missed him and built a nest in a hat he left behind. Tell him you think he’s a jerk for staying away so long. Tell him he better come back again and again. Tell him that you love him.

Mason says he had a dream that I could tell the future. Coming from him, that makes me choke on my wine, but then he says it wasn’t that kind of dream. “Maybe start with that,” I say.

“You could tell the future because you found a spell that let you turn time backward. You could do it, you know. It wasn’t that kind of dream, but if anyone could do it, you could.”

“Would you want to know?” I ask.

Mason shakes his head. “No way.”

“Me either.” Lies. Everyone does. I desperately want to, and don’t, because it’s been a month that Joseph’s been gone and I’m carrying around this token. I’ve resisted looking at his feeds—if there were new clips, I’d watch, but how could I bear his face?—and I haven’t called him. But I’ve still got this token in my bag.

“I’m glad you had us over,” Jun says at the end of the night. We’d planned tonight before the fight. One year since the big spell, as some sort of commemoration. Not exactly a celebration, but Mason wanted it. We barely talked about Joseph or Angela, but it was good to be together, all of us thinking about them and thinking about what we did. We talked about other spells we might want to try some day, about Magda’s penchant for stealing food from unattended plates, and about a boy that Jun met who she was certain was a witch and did we want to meet him.

Before they leave, Mason asks if I want to try a charm he’s been working on. There’s one for dreamless sleep, and one for positive creativity, and one that he’s not sure what to call, but it helped him after… After. It was the first charm he made after.

I take dreamless sleep, because I keep dreaming in black and white, and wake up unsure of what I’ve done and haven’t done; did we bring them? Did we end her? Did he leave? I’d like to sleep and wake up sure of myself.

“Isabel,” Mason says, “How are you doing? Really?”

His face is so concerned it’s almost funny, after all we put each other through, and how uncertain I was that he’d ever sleep or eat or do magic again last year. This last year, none of us would have gotten through it without the others, and none of us would’ve had to without the others; most of the time I don’t regret any of it, not my part. Not even his leaving. And if Mason’s okay, I don’t regret that either.

Besides, we’re terribly powerful witches. If I really want to, I can make anything happen.

Andrea Corbin lives in Boston. Her work has appeared in Crossed Genres Magazine, Sub-Q, The Sockdolager, and Recompose. Her interactive fiction, design work, and the occasional blog post can be found on her website. She talks a lot of nonsense on Twitter as @rosencrantz. She’s working on her magic powers, mostly so she doesn’t have to wait for a delayed train ever again.

The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science, by Octavia Cade

Lise Meitner
Co-Discoverer of Nuclear Fission

A spear breaks its blade upon ribs and punctures hearts. It shines with ice-coated needles in the salt air, over breakfast.

“I’ve had a letter,” says Lise to her nephew. He’d come to visit for the holidays so she wouldn’t be alone in the cold country of her exile. “I’ve had a letter and I don’t know what to make of it.”

She thinks she might be worried.

They walk across a frozen river, across the flood plain and into snowy woods—at least Lise walks, while her nephew glides on skis beside her, under crisp, frosted trees that smell of sap and pine and holiday gifts. Her fingers tingle in the cold, and their tips shine oddly in sunlight.

The letter is from Otto Hahn. She slits it open with nails grown sharper than knives.

Lise used to work with him, but is now at the point where she thinks we were better friends, once.

Hahn has been working uranium: pelting it with neutrons to split the center, but he doesn’t yet understand what it means.

Lise sits with her nephew on a damp and chilly tree trunk sifting snow out of her way, making frantic calculations on odd bits of paper. Together they nut out the process of fission, publish a paper roadmap with directions writ in fear and ice and sunlight, a cold capacity for power.

It is widely read.

Lise is visiting Copenhagen when Denmark is invaded. Niels Bohr arrives on an early train: he woke early to hear the news, and together they plan to throw a line across the North Sea, to hurl and hope for the best.

She sends a telegram from Stockholm to friends of Bohr in Britain. It’s obscure to some but it’s clear that this is not the first spear sent, that there’s a black cloud of them hurtling over Europe, and their heads are all familiar.

Her fingernails are spears now as well, hard and pointed. Lise rips them out at the roots, one by one, but they always grow back by the morning, and the floor around her bed is littered with cast-offs.

In Berlin her work is being used to try and make a bomb.

This keeps Lise awake at night. There’s a wrenching in her chest, like all her breaths are frozen solid in her ribcage, making pale clear statues of her questions.

Hahn is working in Germany—not on the bomb, they’re of one mind on that, but he’s working still. Hahn, who once helped her escape the Nazis.

She wonders what would have happened if he’d made a different choice: turned away, sent her somewhere other than north.

(There were some she worked with who would have done it, when the memory of the times they spent together faded into ashes, fit only for fuelling that which would melt any ice and burn the trees to black shadows… She wonders if some fondness would remain for her, enough for those former familiars to spare her the camps and run her through themselves.)

Her nights are cold and sleepless; she’s speared upon the empty hours, and can’t close her fists without blood loss.

Lise knows about war. It’s camps and commandants and compromises, the long slow defeat of the self.

It’s escape and humiliation and death. It’s exile in a colder country, it’s someplace without a home, always remembering the time when she had one—a home built of atoms and equations and friends when all of them were free from shame and her hands were clean enough under natural light.

Now even cleanliness is gone, and no matter how she scours herself in snow and ice, the thin sheen of guilt still stains her palms. The nails are now too strong to pull out; she covers them up with polish to hide the shame, but the gray steel bleeds through anyway.

“I will have nothing to do with a bomb,” she says, even though she is wanted in the waste land, and war is not being wanted, not anywhere.

Lise is in a small hotel in Leksand, central Sweden. She finds the woods a respite from her work, from pain and prejudice and the sure, shuddering horror of what is to come.

When it happens, when Hiroshima is covered in clouds and silence and tiny spearheads all singed round the edges, a journalist calls for her reaction.

This is how she first hears of it.

(The hotel mirror is like ice, and when she looks in it all her ribs are broken.)

She puts the phone down, gently—with still-stained palms and hands that have never forgotten what the haft felt like before she passed it on—and leaves the hotel, leaves to walk alone for five hours in the snowless country before she can face another person; before she can face herself.

Her fingernails are spears, and too heavy for her hands.

Robert Oppenheimer
Scientific Head of the Manhattan Project

A waste land is a draw card and a trapdoor.

It has rock paintings and petroglyphs and pueblos—beam holes and old ladders that bring the scientists in and make them tourists, make them gawp and gape like schoolboys.

Robert shows them around—he came to New Mexico before all of them, chose the site specially. He feels at home there, feels that it fits him; he walks the cliff dwellings bloody-legged and limping, leaves his pattern in the rocks, feels those rocks imprint in him. The markings grow stronger, deeper, the more time he spends on the mesa. There are glyphs on the back of his neck, paintings in the hollows behind his knees, and dust sifts from the holes that appear in his chest, in the bony protrusions of hips.

He feels the land in his flesh, and builds a castle of his own for questions.

The land around is made of tuff, of lava lumps and welded rock, of ignimbrite and mesas, a base of black basalt, all eroded into canyons and steep slopes and tracks worn into hill sides.

(When he lays his hands against the rock, he can’t tell which is flesh and which is stone.)

The ground can be treacherous and stony-slippery, and one false step can mean separation from friends, security breaches and revocations, falling from a great height and breaking his knees on the ground.

(Like comes to like, in the end.)

The gypsum sands are cool to the touch, and the dunes run like clouds beneath him. Robert feels the crystal granules erode into his shoes; they slough from his feet when he’s busy with calculations and construction and consequences. There’s squeaking in his socks… the grinding of a thousand tiny spearheads blunted down by bone and friction.

It’s as if the cloud has broken down beneath him, then been built up again from fragments into a cutting edge with a blade as fine as fire.

The desert seeds are made of knowledge. They are bitter. Hard-won, and unhappy.

Robert wouldn’t dig them up—not for anything, not even when they leach the earth and make it difficult for other things to grow (he’s lost friendships, and trust, and some likings will never come again: They cannot tolerate the ground he’s sown with salt and slaughter and dead suns).

He’d still never dig them up, those seeds that are sad and glorious and grind sand into glass. They’re part of him, and he can no more unearth them than he could trowel up his heart.

Los Alamos is a high country, one surrounded by mountains, and the air, for those not used to it, is thinner and sharper than blood.

Robert is used to blood.

He sees it on the mountains, the Sangre de Cristo, where it shines in the east every evening—scarlet and blue-black and purple. The rocks are thick with it, and burning.

It’s on his leg, and his hands, and when it seeps past the bandages and into the soil he can’t tell where he leaves off and the land begins.

In the worst of it, the white dunes, the hard alkali of soil, there are plants that survive the sands. Stems lengthen above the shifting surface, keep their leaves in sunlight; are quick and bright and blooming.

Robert is no gardener, not really, but there’s iron all through him like the sympathy of sap, and what he builds in the waste land is beyond piñon and desert gypsum flowers.

Charlotte Serber
Head of the Technical Library of the Manhattan Project

A sword is forged with paper and silence.

It doesn’t look sharp, but a single page can slice into soft bodies as well as any steel—and more, it can tell other people how to slice into them as well.

One must be careful with paper. It can be stamped down, pressed into a mold and sharpened round the edges, but even holding by the handle it’s still not safe. Someone can always take it away for themselves unless it’s shut up tight in an armory, with shelves and safes and stillness.

Charlotte handles it gingerly. Part of her care is paper cuts and poison edges, but she’s most concerned with precision and reproduction. These documents are the basis of their efforts, marking signposts and dead ends, and they can’t be relied upon if the metal type forging through her fingertips impresses on paper and distorts the message.

Books come from Berkeley and Oak Ridge and Chicago, packed in black suitcases and sent with a special courier to keep them unopened and out of the hands of children with their too-soft flesh that’s too easily cut.

Charlotte has communication embedded in her flesh, her fingertips crowned like typebars with little metal letters, but these keys aren’t always sufficient and she has to use others. The metals catch as they move together.

When unwrapped, the swords go to shelves where they’re crammed between blades made of journal paper, of yellowed leaves, of reports and endless snarky queries for detective stories… or to a vaulted reading room with locks, or to a safe so old and hardened that its three tumblers have succumbed to inertia and Charlotte has to kick at the crucial point of opening or it will shut up tighter than suitcases.

The blacksmiths are members of the Women’s Army Corps, or are married to the scientists. They wear blue jeans, or Lane Bryant’s latest (black rayon with little white buttons on the pockets and a matching stripe down the front), bras of armored cones with a sweater stretched over top like chain mail, or olive uniforms with gold insignia on the lapels (Pallas Athene, for strategy and skill and making just war).

Their hammer strikes are the keys and levers and springs of type, the clank and carriage of return strokes—every day there are reports, and every day the armory copies and collates, distributes new arms.

(Not everyone can hack it. There’s one, a journeywoman by trade, who sees a tottering tower of chemical documents to be classified by heft and height and weight and runs away to drive a truck. Charlotte sees her later, in a corner of the mess, with a file and a determined expression, sanding down.)

Some papers are left out overnight, left to rust and damage and the red oxidation of exposure, by chemists and physical forgers gone home for the night. There are fines for this, and extra duties looking for the lapses of other—their discards left as prey for theft and sabotage. (“I don’t deserve a fine,” says one bitter culprit. “That report’s all rubbish anyway. If only it were stolen…”)

There’s no process for disposal, no ceremonial burning. It’s a discretionary thing, and discretion is weather-based. It’s unpleasant to stand in the waste land amongst the labs and the green army huts and burn in the blistering cold, the blasting heat. (They’re more conscious of security on cool evenings when there’s not a lot of wind and the incinerators are warm-hearted.)

When she holds her hands out to the fire, the letters on her fingertips heat and glow. She feels them all the way down to her bones then, the molten marrow. Others might try and take the type away but Charlotte is not one for looking askance at print, so she picks each letter out, carefully, with red nail polish; skimps on her nails so that there’s enough for alphabets.

Charlotte is sent to Santa Fe with Robert’s secretary, Priscilla. They go to misdirect the locals: “Make them think we’re designing electric rockets.”

They take their husbands, make a night of it, find bars and hotels that are perfect for subterfuge—with drinks and drunks and dancing, and many levelled roofs ripe with shadows.

Type sinks in and out of her fingers, adjusting to audience. She’s manipulated it before—the letters float almost like her kneecaps do when she’s relaxed and can push them around with her thumbs. She’s only got ten fingers, after all, and there are more letters than that.

She’s used up the last of the nail polish on them. This is not a time for subtlety.

“Take my sword,” says Charlotte. “It’s electric.” But the man she’s dancing with talks of nothing but horses, compliments her moves like she’s a mare on the trot—he has no interest in false information, even when she dips her fingers in sauce and stains his collar with symbols. No-one has any interest—not even the rancher her husband traps by the lapels as he flat-out lies to his face.

The information they give is blunt and unwieldy; it must be smuggled back to Los Alamos, and melted down amidst the stacks.

Charlotte’s days are spent with letters—even more than when she was a child with fat fingers, learning the alphabet.

A receipt from the library at Berkeley shows that more than twenty percent of books that come to the waste land are not in the English language. More come from Strategic Services, who seize copyrights from warring Europe, reproduce their journals, smuggle out the flat blades from field agents in Scandinavia or North Africa or France.

Her days are spent with letters, and for many years Charlotte will sharpen her swords with her fingers first, with spelling before speech. “That’s P, H, Y, S,” she says, enunciating, and tapping each fingertip in turn. “That’s Physikalische Zeitschrift.”

Niels Bohr
Danish Physicist, Scientist at the Manhattan Project

A question is a wave and a lonely particle.

It is complementary, existing in parallel with an answer. More, Niels has der Kopenhagener Geist, the spirit of inquiry, and all its questions are the chorus What will come from this?

He sees two answers to be taken from a box with uranium ribbon. The first is war and all destruction (brief suns that storm the beaches and boil the water sterile); the other an unbroken age of peace (a single sun reflected in a calm pool, and all its images put quietly away). Both have their birth in the bomb.

In 1939 he walks like a man carrying something too heavy for him, too heavy to be answered. He sees the coming war, and he sees the German bomb. It weighs him down, makes him mumble-footed, and he places each foot carefully, as if stepping into a future full of green-fused sand and spears.

Later, in the waste land, the storm is bearing down and he feels himself the only one who notices, the only one who sees a time when everyone is cloud-handed; when what they’re building will birth a different world where all politics are resolved with suns.

What will you do? says the Geist. What will you do?

Niels had helped Lise Meitner escape from Germany, never thinking he was to be her mirror. A German woman, sympathetic, slips him news that the Gestapo are coming for him. He will soon be arrested and put to the question.

But there is a fishing boat, and then a trawler. There is resistance and taxis and a twin-engine bomber that leaves him light-headed and dreaming a different life. There are liners and trains and false names: Baker, as if he is bringing bread instead of the hope of ending ovens.

His presence calms the younger scientists and they come to him with questions: Are we doing the right thing? they ask.

Look at what I left behind, he says. Look at what is coming.

It keeps him from looking at himself, at the Geist. He sees his edges fraying, his flesh becoming translucent.

Niels misses his family. He misses his home—the sober streets of Copenhagen, the water and the wide horizon. He misses the connections, and how solid they made him feel.

In the waste land, he wanders the mountains, scrambles through canyons and piñon trees and the red dirt, and talks. Always he talks, though it’s low and muttered and half to himself. People have to huddle close to hear, and he likes it; likes the feel of crowds and company, being close enough to feel their breath.

(It helps him forget that his wife isn’t with him.)

But at night he lies in a cold bed, his conscience square before him like a block and he doesn’t know how he should place his head on it. No one is there to tell him.

Comfort is for children. Niels left it behind long ago. He does not want it back. Comfort comes with warmth, and that is something that’s foreign to his bones now. All a Geist feels is chill.

He does not believe that everything will be all right, that everything can be made up for. Even necessities have a cost—and one that can’t be paid with rosy cheeks and unlined skin and the blind unstinting certainty that everyone is good.

As a child he thought science was for children. It was exciting, the world spread out before him to explore, to be dissected and delighted in and imagined by him. There was no question he couldn’t ask, and then he learned what questions could do, and the innocence was over.

“I tried to be a comfort,” said Robert. “I was not.”

It is hard to comfort a spirit.

The right words would heal the waste land, mend his friend’s spear-splintered thigh, stop him from slopping in blood—and if Niels knew the question he would turn away and never, ever ask it.

The waste land represents a hope and danger both, he says, and he cannot fathom one without the other.

A Geist is meant to linger, and so he does.

He thinks of Lise, who lives as far from the desert as she can; who will not compromise herself and finds her faith in that. He thinks of Edward, who would turn the waste land into charcoal if he could, and grind it down to dust when he was done. He cannot make himself into either, but sometimes…

Sometimes there’s a shadow on his leg.

Dorothy McKibbin
Manhattan Project Office Manager, Santa Fe

A platter is wafers and consolation and service.

“What am I to do here?” she asks. She had agreed to take the job before she knew what it was—had met Robert briefly, and that was enough for her, enough for them both. Trust sprang up unstinting.

She thought he felt the land as she did—that his limp and her widow grief could come to the waste land and be useful, be comforted by the creation of something new, something that bore the mark of canyons and bare rock and a sun so bright it could kill them if they let it, bleach the last life from their bones.

Her job, as it turns out, is to never question, to never repeat a name but to bring people together regardless as if they were strangers sitting down to a meal.

“If you want me to get them all broken in and breaking bread, you’ll have to give me a free hand with the baking,” she says. A platter doesn’t fill itself, and if she is to tie the coming pilgrims to Robert then she needs to work his flesh with her own. All those dust trails he leaves behind him… the powdery flesh, the little bloody trails.

Land has a dark taste, and a bitter one, but it binds together. Dorothy’s tongue grows, is covered over by little armored plates, armadillo-like. They’re sensitive to flavor, and far more silkily flexible than meat.

Dorothy sits at a desk behind the door at 109 East Palace Avenue: There’s a heavy wood lintel set into stone, thick calcimined walls to keep out the sun and hollyhocks in the courtyard.

She’s the stop before the Hill, the guardian of the waste land and the gate-keeper of Los Alamos. She welcomes them with plates of crispbreads, of little thin crackers the color of tuff and skin cells, of petroglyphs and atom shadows. “It’s been a long trip for you, I’m sure,” she says. “Get that down you, you’ll feel better for it.”

Her newly armored tongue can sense their saliva, can taste it on the air. They’re greedy for the bread and when their mouths water, Dorothy’s waters with them, because hunger is contagious and armor can only do so much.

All the scientists come through her, and the WACs and the women, and nearly all of them think Santa Fe is their destination, want directions and dance halls and a shoulder to lean on. They’re all very tired, and nearly all very young, and she thinks some of them need a mother very badly.

“Ask me if you need anything,” she says. “I’m here to keep track of you.”

(She tastes them in the wind, every one, long before they get to her office.)

In the high country of the waste land, Dorothy has a name: She is called the Oracle, the one who knows and tells and shares, in an environment where sharing has become a strictly limited thing. Consult the Oracle, they say on the Hill, and her disembodied voice through the crackling lines is a consolation.

She can find for the children camps and kittens; find a doctor who will perform abortions; find sewing kits and pack horses and hotel reservations that serve something other than commissary food. A good cook herself, often up to her armpits in dough, mud and blood under her fingernails because spears may be sent up from the earth but a platter contains the fruits therein, in whatever shape Dorothy can find them.

The women of the waste land find her counselor and confidante, and take her advice in all things, use her house for their weddings and try to make a home as she has done. It’s her tongue they find most helpful.

“You’ve got to learn to make do,” says Dorothy. Secrecy and silence together have forced her tongue into other roles.

Dorothy is invited, with two couples, to take an evening meal at Albuquerque, on Sandia Peak—the giant red rock that shines at night with colors like the bloody mountains.

She takes bread to break with them—the last supper before the test—her picnic basket a paten; takes blankets and a mackintosh, for the sky is black with clouds and cunning.

At 5:30 a.m., a light from the sands flashes towards them, a spear from the waste land stabbed out and shining. The leaves are transubstantiated and the trees turned to brief gold about her—lovely and gleaming in the sterile sunlight.

“I’d never have thought that light had a taste,” she says. That taste is lemony, with undertones of burning. When she stands in the early morning with her armadillo tongue stuck out straight as if wavelengths carry snow instead of the shadow of ashes, all the little plates are slickening.

For all the time Dorothy spends ferrying food up to the Hill (pumpernickel bread and picnic baskets, Christmas geese and warm rolls with butter) her favorite meals are with Robert, and they are nearly always the same: oven-baked potatoes, near-lethal martinis, shoots of green asparagus and Robert on the patio broiling beef, fork in hand and standing back from spits.

“Why didn’t you make a fight of it?” she says, of the trial. “Why didn’t you ask me for help?”

She would have kept talking ’til they threw her out, she says, and the plates hit the table with a thump, as if carrying heads other than their own.

Betrayal, it seems, also tastes of lemon and ashes. No wonder she couldn’t tell it apart… Dorothy wants to take her steak knife and scrape the little armadillo plates from her tongue, leave it red raw and screaming, because what use is armor if it can’t protect someone she loves?

Dorothy has travelled all over the waste land. She has been to the Valles Caldera, the springed and smoking domes in the mountains, knows what it’s like to seethe below the surface.

It’s in this land that she finds affinity—for Robert and for silence both. She bubbles while he bleeds; it’s a hard thing to be silent, when you don’t want to be. She doesn’t always manage it, would spit lava if she could, superheated (and does). And her words burn going out, as much as they burned the recipient, but the armor-plating is spreading through Dorothy’s mouth, her cheeks and esophagus and gums, and she knows the words that burn because they taste like light in the waste land, like seared sand and her little cracker breads together.

Edward Teller
Hungarian Physicist, Manhatten Project Scientist and
Subsequent Father of the Hydrogen Bomb

What is a dandelion? says Dorothy, of Edward. It’s something coarse and in need of kicking up, before presence turns to supplantation. A weed. A curse.

(“If it is a question of wisdom and judgement…. one would be wiser not to grant clearance,” says Edward, on Robert and security, and will forever wonder if people will think it was jealousy speaking.)

A dandelion’s not like an orchid, not delicately designed, sweet-smelling and subtle, with petals like a pork pie hat.

(“I’m sorry,” he says, and Robert is left gray and grave in a room grown untrusting, and too dark for him.)

They’ve a sour taste, dandelions. Edward coughs one up in the middle of the night, bright and gleaming with saliva, with stomach acid, and marvels at how familiar it feels on his tongue.

No one has ever told Edward don’t mess where you work, don’t drink a diuretic tea of dandelions even if the pretty color makes you think it’s a good idea, it isn’t, so he comes back to Los Alamos, after the trial and finds, all unexpected, the cafeteria a Coventry.

The other scientists shun him, turn their backs. They refuse to shake his hand. Rabi is the first, and particularly cutting. He gives Edward nightmares of a great black bird, of a raven that struts over him while he sleeps, snappish and sneering, a dreadful beaked bird’s smile of cold iron ready to pick out his eyes.

He wakes on cold early mornings and his mouth is clogged with petals, stuffed with them, and he’s asphyxiating on bitterness, his heart beating out of his chest with choking breath and the shadow of wings.

Edward is always noticed. When he and his wife Mici first climbed the crawling knife-road to the mesa, they shipped with them a baby grand called Monster. Edward plays sonatas late into the night and though his infant son sleeps through them, the neighbors do not.

He is heard in the theoretical lab as well, where he’s famous for fluttering, electron-like, from one unfinished atom project to another. He considers himself a bricklayer, an architect and dreamer; has no patience with brick-making physics. The plodding brute force of it strikes him as shambling and cold.

But no matter how loud, he never stands out as much as he does after the trial. Saints have flowers come up under them when they walk, but he knows of no saint who leaves dandelions in their footsteps.

Dandelions are too bitter for sainthood.

A dandelion is not an orchid, but they are small and hardy and Edward feels a kinship. Not such a bad thing, to be a dandelion.

And they are bright, bright like little suns, like playing Liszt and Bach and Mozart—and the lights in happy memories of Budapest, before the ravens came to pluck them out with ruined petals and love me nots.

Edward gathers the flowers he’s brought up out of himself and makes bouquets of them. He sets them on his piano and plays and thinks of new worlds, and old ones.

“Fuck you,” he says.

“A danger to all that’s important,” says the raven, perched out of reach of damp sheets as Edward dreams in a red sweat, covers his eyes in dreams. “It would have been a better world without him.”

It is hard to be seen as noxious. Edward vacillates between remorse (he confesses himself to Fermi when the latter is on his death bed, and gentle in his condemnation) and raving defiance, the bitter grief of a man who has left all behind, his home an ocean away, and is now without friends. (“Daddy’s got black beetles in his brain,” says his daughter.)

Beetles and birds and words that can’t be taken back, the half-sweet scent of flowers. The only way to drown them out is with another bird, and bigger—he’ll fly with the hawks for the rest of his days, make second-best friends amongst them.

(Perhaps they’ll like small yellow flowers too.)

(Even tolerance he would accept.)

The hydrogen bomb is to be his redemption. But when it’s built, there’s no new waste land, no desert community tied to him with chains of unbreakable orchids, fragile and delicate and stronger than atoms.

(He wonders what he’s done wrong in his success.)

So he takes his bomb, the new monster of his mirror dreams and breaks open his thigh with it, cracks bone, rips flesh: tries to make himself a Fisher King reborn, capture character with black blood. It’s the new dolorous stroke.

But the wound heals without much fuss at all, though dandelions burst from the scars and his once-torn flesh smells of them forever.

Kitty Oppenheimer
Botanist and Wife of Robert Oppenheimer

A grail is green fertility and the blood of others.

December, 1944: Kitty gives birth to a daughter. She’s not the only one—by this time over one hundred people work at the hospital, and Los Alamos is baby-mad. Army disgust sparks a popular poem: “The general’s in a stew, he trusted you and you…” but the average age there is twenty five, so what does he expect? A scientist is not a sterile thing.

Toni is born despite disapproval, born in midwinter, a Christmas child, and Kitty sits with her window looking outwards to the snow, drinks in the baby scent. It’s almost too much, too powdered sugar-sweet, and soon she’ll be sick of it.

“Do you want to adopt her?” Robert will say to another couple, as if the grail had nothing to do with him. As if the bits and chunks that fall into the infant blanket—the fused sand and seared flesh and ignimbrite—have nothing to do with him, and are something to be kept separate instead of evidence of the rocky bloodline that runs through them both.

Kitty wants to slap him.

Science is too busy for visiting hours, so husbands stand on packing boxes outside the hospital windows and peer into maternity, peer through the glass like they’re staring at a country made foreign to them, at a new and strange creation, cupped with blood and blankets (and Lord, how it squalls).

Compare to the glass after Trinity, the emerald blasted glass that lurked hot and bubbling in the crater; the blinding light of boom and blast dropping trinkets in the sand.

(“Look at it! Look what we made!”)

A spear to be thrown into the future, a weapon for her daughter’s days, the blade hard and sharp as nails.

Kitty sees both glasses, sees well enough to measure the drams of her husband’s interest, and how ill-matched it is. She wishes she could care for one so much more than the other, as he does, but one of them speaks so much more of winter to her that love is impossible.

Kitty’s parties are famous, with bottles and cocktails and the five-foot punch bowl—a giant jar for chemical reagents, stolen from the lab and weighted down with ice cubes.

There’s no reason not to drink. Kitty knows she is difficult to like. She is called a bitch, but an elegant bitch—with a bathtub and a kiva stove and oak floors, so that’s something, marooned on that bloody rock as she is with dust and dreary dirt, the hideous stoves that never light, the constant bitching about housework. She’s a botanist, for God’s sake, or was, so what is she doing now organizing contracts for the home help in a place where the grass is drowned in mud and sun?

It’s no wonder she drinks. The alcohol is an armor to her, plating over her tongue and numbing her lips, and when she drinks enough even the armor is stunned, and she can taste nothing around her, see nothing around her, and even the baby-scent is drowned in it.

Flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone: that’s marriage—bound by straining sinews, by faith and fidelity and resentment. Tiresome sometimes, but familiar.

Kitty leaves the waste land with her husband. Leaves it for the gray land, the courts and charges and tape that would be red if it hadn’t been bleached into pale lines and quicksand. One look at their faces and she knows it’s rigged: She may be sick of scientists, but few in the waste land wear such surety in their colorless eyes, wear certainty like a pin-striped suit. (They’re less cunning at home, if red-eyed and bloodshot from vodka and insomnia.)

“Kitty was such a support,” he says afterwards, after the gray men cut him to pieces and she held him up regardless.

His shirts smell of dandelions and heartbreak, as if he’d been rolled in them before betrayal.

A cauldron can restore the dead to life, or so they say—but sometimes… Sometimes it’s a saucepan—something utilitarian, and used to make soup.

Kitty is with her husband in the Virgin Islands, where he is recovering from hearings about his loyalty. (She sympathizes, but underneath, where she’d never admit it, his mistresses are raising their glasses to her. Well, let them. She’s outlasted them all, sex and state and science.)

A turtle is caught, a leather-beaked monster that sees better in water than out of it and tastes best of all in soup—but Robert pleads for clemency; pleads with a slow turtle-vision of his own to lift it from the pot and into life. It’s as if he sees himself in everything now, contaminating: all the information of his life’s work welling up under his fingertips and dropping into the simmering broth, an alphabet soup of suns and slaughter.

“All the little creatures,” he says. “I saw them in New Mexico after the test. Please,” he says, “I can’t bear it.”

Try drink, thinks Kitty, and you’ll be able to swallow anything then, darling.

Toni is in her crib, asleep, when her father waits miles away, at White Sands, and yet the sun that sears his eyelids imprints onto hers.

She spends the rest of her life looking for it, looking and not finding, the image and the resurrection of her parents.

(“Look at it! Look what we made!” they said.)

She follows the sun to the Caribbean but it’s not bright enough, no, not nearly, to blind her as well as her father was blinded, and she’s left seeing all too well the land that she was born in and the blood that she shares with it.

(“Look Mom,” she says, looking back, “Look Dad, look what I can do.” She’s talking to dead people, their bodies crumbled to dust and leaving her behind, with her flesh that bubbles with type and tuff and the memory of treachery, with questions under her fingernails and the remembered taste of a consolation that’s never quite enough.)

She hangs herself with rope that smells of dry dust of old dirt and waste lands—for a grail might be life and love and blood, but that blood comes from spear wounds and salt and knowledge that is never, ever lost.

Octavia Cade has a PhD in science communication and loves writing about oceans and science history. She once backpacked around Europe with so much telescope in her pack there was hardly any room for clothes. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Apex, and a poetry collection on the periodic table, Chemical Letters, has recently been nominated for an Elgin. Her latest novella –not about science at all!–is the highly disturbing Convergence of Fairy Tales, because when she’s not messing about with seagrass or dead scientists she’s having fun with all the horror she can get her hands on.

[Editor’s Note: Octavia submitted to us twenty-eight times before we bought this story. Never give up, never surrender. Keep going.]

Boneset, by Lucia Iglesias

The blind Bonesetter’s townhouse enacts the architecture of a skull. Windows imitate eye sockets the Bonesetter has known. The front door comments on the vigor of the jaw, swinging up and down on mandibular hinges. When the hinges thirst for oil, the door munches up the lucklorn gutter-mice who skitter over the threshold, chewing them into flesh-jelly and spitting them across the foyer until the Bonesetter serves the hinges their oil from a crystal eyedropper. The home’s ample upper-story suggests the sage proportions of a prodigy’s frontal lobes. At the back of the house, in the occipital chambers, the Bonesetter puts his patients back together. Here, the ceiling slopes low and the walls have a curious slant, leaning inwards as if to scrutinize the Bonesetter’s living art.

Phials, jars, flasks, flagons, and bottles—celadon-glazed or blown from floss-glass—peer down from the Bonesetter’s shelves, winking in the light of the firefly lamps. The lamps, two dozen orbs of quartz, hang from fishing line strung along the ceiling beams. Each orb imprisons a family of fireflies. Convicted of incandescence, they serve a life sentence, their rueful glow seeping through the quartz. Encircling the room like a ribcage, twelve rows of shelves hold the Bonesetter’s secrets: powdered amber laced with damselfly or drakling, sprigs of feverfew dried under a child’s pillow, strips of skin inscribed with sonnets, cats’ whiskers, three dozen flavors of bottled laughter, pennyroyal pressed between pages of a harlot’s autobiography, reflections caught from mirrors or windows or the backs of spoons, rainbows skimmed off oilslicks, the language of rain trapped in a bottle of pebbles, rosehips pickled in spite, teardrop cordial, candied cobweb, two dozen sets of milk-teeth, glitter ground from the wings of butterflies and luna moths, bioluminescence smoldering in saltwater from an underground sea, a tantrum preserved in formaldehyde, unborns sleeping in amniotic fluid (unmice, unmoles, unmunks, an unfox), strings of abandoned punctuation, letters jettisoned from sinking languages like cacophonous ballast, faceless pocket watches, the chiming of rogue bells, antimony lozenges, vixen-milk, electricity combed from the fur of a catamount, essence of jubilee, essence of melancholy, and a fever dream distilled into pure alcohol.

These rare and irascible ingredients make the Bonesetter a master of anesthesia, antiseptics, and antipsychotics. On the night-market, the Bonesetter could earn a lifetime and a half of luxury from the sale of a single phial of jubilee or an ever-sleeping unmunk. Fathers would sell their daughters’ hair and mothers would sell the roses from their sons’ cheeks for vixen-milk or bottled laughter.

While these dozing riches lie upon his shelves, the Bonesetter hoards his true treasure in a cabinet above the sink. As he rinses sweat and a spritz of blood off his socket-clamp and wrenches, he fancies he hears his leather-bound prize rustling behind the cabinet door. Like the echoes that once chased his bounding son through the corridors, the book’s pages betray secrets not their own. After kneading his hands dry on his apron, the Bonesetter spiders his fingers over the cabinet door until he finds the latch. His head turns, trying to follow the hands it cannot guide. His eye sockets are scooped and empty as oyster shells.

The cabinet’s leather-bound book weighs the same as a promise kept or a winter evening unraveled by the fireside: It is the sum of fulfillment and fortune, and when the Bonesetter runs his fingers over the embossed spine, he knows that if Death dropped by to settle the accounts tonight, he would find the Bonesetter quite willing to cash in his life and scratch his debt to the soul-banker. The Bonesetter will leave life having given more than he took. And if his son overdraws the account, as rumor whispers he will—well, that is a story still to be written. For now, there is only the blind Bonesetter and his book, which he lays on the operating table and opens with a sigh. He foots around for a stool and, finding one, draws it up to the table’s rim. Sitting straight-spined as only a virtuoso chiropractor can, he stares at the chamber’s single octagonal window as his fingers read.

Splashed in the blue sluice of twilight, the Bonesetter appears discreetly luminous. Lustrous as a black pearl, his skin is slicked with dusk’s light. Reading the raised text with his index finger, he nods along to the familiar rhythm of his own words. He remembers penning this chapter—in the hollow hours between midnight and a new morning—how he wrote through two whole bottles of bone-meal ink and had to ask his son to pelt down to the cellar for a spare femur to grind into a third bottle. Oleander ran away before the end of the next chapter, and the Bonesetter had to spivvy up a pulley system to replace his young bone-runner. The boy had taken such carnivorous interest in skeletal anatomy that his father had felt certain Oleander Bonesettersson would become his apprentice after dusting up his paleontology and troglobiology exams at school. After the boy left, taking only a coil of rope and his father’s entire supply of jaw-wire, the Bonesetter’s wife opined that their son had been spending indulgent helpings of time with the mad aunts in the attic, and that the spinsters were to blame for infecting him with the feverish whim. The Bonesetter had always classified the aunts amongst the vermin he shared his home with only because he had yet to devise a humane way to evict mice, spiders, and mother’s sisters. Still, he contended, nearly every house in the City had an aunt or two in the attic, and they hadn’t launched fleets of runaways. However, by the time he embarked upon writing his epilogue, a runaway-epidemic struck the City and devastated the youth population. Though his wife never stooped to “I told you so,” she did introduce a bill amongst her fellow senators to ban the atticking of aunts. Somewhere under the opal-studded dome of the Senatorium, her bill was growing a coat of dust. The prospect of seeing the dickered biddies loose on the streets was too frightful for the senators to compass. And some whispered that she had only introduced the bill to lure attention away from the rumors that pinned her son as Patient Zero, the poison in the well.

Dark as the lacquered shell of a mussel, the Bonesetter’s fingers rub word-nubs, tracing letters built from bone-meal, letters as spare as their author, shorn of flourish and arabesque, sleek and bald as a god. His handwriting is as familiar as his own methodical anatomy, each popped P and high-shouldered H as intimate as the regal vertebrae rippling down his diagrammatic spine. Amongst the granite facts chiseled into his skull, the Bonesetter knows he is more father to this book than to Oleander, for he never learned to read the boy’s mood from the angle of his elbows or the slant of his jaw, whereas his book speaks to him in the acute language of powdered bone. Though the boy is flesh of his flesh, the Bonesetter never learned the unique knobble of Oleander’s knee joints, never played the xylophone of his spine, never measured his unfurling wingspan. As Oleander grew into his bones, his father was welded to this stool, breeding this book. The Bonesetter rarely molders in remorse. He has no time for the soft and fleshful. Bones are his business. Yet every night, he falls asleep over this book, waiting for his boy to come home.

Under the Bonesetter’s fingers, the words warm, coming alive on the steel operating table. When the Bonesetter scoops a child from Death’s doorstep and carries her back to her parents, they often call him a Vivimancer. Many believe he is a warlock who can spell any doll or daughter to life. However, the Bonesetter knows it only takes a posset of fetal-vole and violet-oil to stimulate balking nerves. He knows the words under his fingers have no more life than a clench-fisted fetus in its formaldehyde bath. It is his own life he feels quickening under the skin of these words, a whole lifetime of study injected between leather covers. He skims from chapter to chapter, savoring the cream of each case study. He relishes the purity of his signature taxonomy, untainted by an erroneous genus or a fretful crossbreed. Pain is the purest sensation, and he has strained the case studies to clarify kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Not a twinge has escaped his sifting. The Bonesetter can pin the speciation of any ache, be it a mocksome noddler bobbing under the lumbar, or a gwee tweakler kindling only on twenty-ninths of odder months. His case studies—case stories really—are a Wunderkammer of spasms, a cabinet of curiosities, a circus shriek-show, a freakgasm, a back alley, a bucket of screams, a torture garden, a family tree, a brood of masochists, a torturer’s dictionary, a surgeon’s thesaurus, a child’s encyclopedia, a captain’s log, forensic evidence, a fancier’s guide, a three-hundred-page equation, a collection of recipes, a dream atlas, the ingredients for a nightmare, a sacred text, a fifth dimension, an old wives’ tale, a new metric, a riddle written on a Möbius strip, an un-nameable shade of red, a prophecy, an iridescent menagerie.

Yet of all his weeping treasures, of all the wailing, groaning, giggling agonies nestled between the snug leather covers, his most exotic specimen, the crowning jewel of his algesiology can be visited in Chapter the Last: In Which I Meet Pain’s Brother. A researcher’s treatise can never be anything other than a flagrant autobiography, a spiffing-up of the diary and laboratory notes, a plummet into rambling marginalia and restless hypotheses. However, few researchers become protagonists in their own case stories. The Bonesetter had never been one to guinea-pig himself, but that changed after he was visited by the most effervescent caller ever to fondle the bell cord beneath the sign of crossed bones.

On that fate-encrusted night (fortune-varnishing visits always happen in the owl-hours, by an eldritch rule), the Bonesetter’s wife was out, carousing with her constituents at the neighborhood malt-bar. Oleander ought to have been deep into the second or third layer of sleep, which meant he was probably gossiping with the aunts in the attic over porcelain thimble cups of triple-distilled dew. When the doorbell squalled, the Bonesetter was prying into the structural secrets of a fledgling’s wing-bones with his octoscope. On this night, he still wore both his eyes, bright as geodes, only casually myopic from a lifetime of study. A bit stiff from spending the day swan-necked over his octoscope, he creaked to the door. No business hours were posted under the sign of crossed bones because bonesetting was his life’s work, and obsessions don’t come packaged in eight-hour increments. Absorbed as he was in the intricate dialogue between skeletal articulation and biological function, the Bonesetter did not find it peculiar that someone else in the City was fraught with an osteological quandary at this owlish hour. When he wrenched the lever to open the mandibular door, it would have seemed to anyone on the stoop that the door’s jaws had opened upon a gaping foyer, for the Bonesetter was quite camouflaged in the unlit atrium, blending into the suave umbra thrown by the streetlamp. However, his visitor spied the noble glint on his lofty cheekbones and spoke through the jaws of the door.

“You’re the Bonesetter? What an emerald pleasure to meet you at last. I read your article on sentient spinal growths with relish. Absolutely lip-smacking the way you chronicle the sub-phases of fetal pain. And you gave a tantalizing hint about a new book in the tumbler, didn’t you? Your Taxonomia Algesia. May I borrow an hour of your evening, Master Bonesetter? I have a proposition I think you’ll find savory.” The man spoke as if his teeth were slick with butter. His sibilants glistened with a sheen of caviar.

With his back to the streetlamp, the man was a silhouette snipped out by the keenest of scissors. His head was cocked at a wily angle, leaving his features in blackout (the kind of blackout that in the theater is followed by a scream cropped short). However, even in two-dimensional cut-out, the insolence of his anatomy was broadcast by the lamplight. The Bonesetter automatically catalogued his brash bone structure, noting the skeletal audacity not with shock or revulsion, but with a collector’s buttoned-up interest. The caller’s polydactyly failed to raise an eyebrow, for the Bonesetter could have filled a smuggler’s false-bottomed trunk with all the gratuitous fingers and toes he’d met over the course of his career. The stranger’s supplemental pair of arms raked up a bit more interest than the superfluous fingers. Sprouting from his iliac crest, the arms breached from his coat pockets and dangled to his knees. Yet what really won the stranger his guest-right in the Bonesetter’s home were his genu recurvatum, his back-bending knees, or more precisely, the tango-dancer’s grace with which he glided upon those perplexed joints as the Bonesetter stepped aside and watched the visitor swan over the threshold.

Most of the Bonesetter’s visitors are somewhere between sweat-drenched endurance and octave-shattering agony. Therefore, by latched habit the Bonesetter led his guest to the examination room, where he drew up a second stool at the steel examination table. In the formaldehyde light reflecting off the specimen jars, the Bonesetter inspected the man he couldn’t help thinking of as his patient. Formaldehyde-yellow is a tint that flatters few, yet the stranger wore it well. Whereas most men and peaches are coated in a thin glisten of hair, the stranger was slicked in a filmy sheen of feathers. The thickened light caught in his quills, rinsing them in amber. A translucent third lid flicked over his eye, as if to polish away the jaundiced light, leaving his cornea amnesia-white. If he suffered from the freeloading fingers, the unwarranted arms, the concave knees, the gossamer feathers, or the lizard-lids, the pain was imprisoned so deep within that the Bonesetter couldn’t sense its locus. What symptom had brought the stranger at this owl-hour? He waited for his patient to unlock the matter himself.

“You do speak, don’t you?” said the man with a twist of the lips that was several degrees short of a smile. “This will be mammothly tedious if we have to precede in miner’s hand-language.”

The Bonesetter, who often goes days without opening his mouth for anything except yawns and nettle-butter sandwiches, realized that his visitor expected some species of greeting.

“What disturbs the peace in your bone-house, sir?” he tried. “Whether it’s a rogue disc or a dickered rib, I guarantee you won’t leave my operating room until I’ve spiffed your skeleton back into the wonderwork it once was.”

A smile split the stranger’s face like an unhealed wound. “My dear bone-buckler, I’m quite at home in my skeleton. It’s book-business, not bone-business, that brings me. I know a publishing house that would glut your ledgers with more gold than you could shake out of a dwarf, if your manuscript arrived wrapped in my endorsement.”

As the Bonesetter calculated the surface area of an average tunnel-dwarf in cubits-squared, and derived an approximate maximum gold-load based on the tensile strength of dwarf ligaments, his guest closed his auxiliary eyelids and watched the chiropractor through their iridescent film. After settling upon a sum that would amount to a lavishly embellished diploma with unimpeachable letters of reference for Oleander, along with six dozen phials of the rarest pathological specimens to round out his research collection, the Bonesetter blinked the numerals from his eyes. He studied the visitor varnished in formaldehyde-light.

“And whose bones do I have the pleasure of greeting, sir? You seem to know me, but have not, I think, labeled your specimen.”

“Only because there isn’t enough ink in the City to pen the length of my name. I have worn so many monikers, epithets, sobriquets, aliases, and noms-de-plume that I would have to hire the entire Librarians’ Guild and empty the City Archives of their scribes just to write a taxonomy of myself. Then you could thumb through the card catalogue and find a nickname that doesn’t give you lock-jaw. Some of my older pseudonyms have grown aggressive in their dotage. I wouldn’t trust anyone’s tongue around them except my own. Of course I also have a passel of harmless-enough names. I’ll fan them out for you like a gypsinger’s cards and let you choose. Like the gypsinger’s painted menagerie of hermits and fools, each name has its own will and wiles. Thief-of-Thieves, he’s quite the sneakster, and hard to parry, that Lie-Smith. Sif’s Husband is no slick-groomed foppet; there’s teeth on him, the Otter-Killer. Hel’s Father knows too much about the sunk and dead, but Neck-Risker is always smirking at Death. You’ll know Scar-Lip by the way he wrings his words, and the Lad always has a laugh tucked up his sleeve. Pain’s Brother knows a redder way and he will always win when it comes to grips, though Plague’s Nurse prefers loss, watching it slow and blue as it strangles men.”

Upon finishing this catalogue, Pain’s Brother straightened his legs to the clicking point, his recurve knees retorting like rifles. He crossed his ankles under the Bonesetter’s stool and leaned back with all four elbows propped on the examination table.

That a single being should be strung together from so many names did not strike the Bonesetter as anything other than ordinary, for he sees every organism as a calcium palace of spire-spines, gabled skulls, latticed ribcages, and hinged knuckles. No woman is simply Sabriye or Adelaïde or Bryony, no man merely Mordekai or Fenimöre or Wolfgang. Each creature is an illuminated encyclopedia of anatomy, from clavicle to sternum, coccyx to calcaneus, lunate to lumbar, ethmoid to ulna, tibia to trapezium. The Bonesetter was less interested in a catalogue of gregarious epithets and more interested in the flexion of those knees and the reshuffling of ribs that accommodated those arrogant additional arms. Still, as the names spilled across the examination table, he recognized a few from the rumors that gusted down back alleys on Rubbishday. The Thief-of-Thieves was known to steal bad luck and poverty, leaving nothing but riches, though Sif’s Husband might tuck a seventh son into his satchel before leaving by the back door, and the Lad had as much arsenic as ingots in his pockets.

Pain’s Brother stretched himself still further, as if intent on smearing himself over the entire examination room. His feet emerged on the far side of the Bonesetter’s stool, and he laid his head back against the steel table. The faint plumage that papered his skin vibrated like hummingbird wings, flicking fidgety reflections against the luminous glass jars that lined the walls like mortality’s mosaic. His third lid remained sealed, but beneath that iridescent film, both indigo irises were fixed on the Bonesetter.

Though the man had spread himself like a bacterial culture on a microscope plate, the Bonesetter muzzled the impulse to unbutton his examination instruments and conduct a full osteological analysis of the unique specimen. In fact, he was mildly nauseated by the man’s appalling posture, and in his unease he ratcheted his own spine up another notch. At this interlude in the transaction, the Bonesetter’s wife would have poured herself a measured nipper of triple-distilled mallow-malt, but her husband poured himself a measured breath. He crocheted his exquisite penumbral fingers in his lap and exhaled.

“Your offer is as attractive as a well-aligned spine, and if it’s as sound as a logician’s brain-case, I would be a jingling fool to decline. However, I fear you must wear the motley and bells tonight, for there is no book. You have wasted your incandescent company on an old bonesetter whose hands are more suited to realignments of the cervical vertebrae than to wordcraft.”

The stranger’s smile puckered his face like a scar, a crease so deep you could fall in if you looked too close.

“I’ve worn the motley and bells enough times to know that the fool always leaves with full pockets. There is no book yet. But surely you have a squalling manuscript tucked in a cradle somewhere just waiting to be swaddled up in red leather and adopted by an affluent publisher and her husband?”

The Bonesetter’s fingers knotted themselves together so tightly they seemed intent on strangling one another. “The manuscript was stillborn—malformed—not viable.”

Cracking all twenty-four knuckles in a lazy fusillade, Pain’s Brother said: “A transfusion. A transplant. High voltage resuscitation. We’ll save it somehow. What are the symptoms?”

“It stopped growing at Chapter Eight. Total cessation of mitosis. Stunted. A runt.”

“Diagnosis?”

“I can’t carry the manuscript to term. My taxonomy of pain was organized based on a hierarchical principle of magnitude. Extrapolating from a lifetime’s collection of case studies, I started my speciation with the most domestic pains: the frolicking twinge of a papercut, the bloated ache of a bruise. Then I ventured into more idiosyncratic kingdoms of pain: the auroral menstrual cramp, the starburst contusion of the ulnar nerve. However, my case studies yielded no material for the final chapter. Where was my apex species, the mind-predator, the carnivore who devours rationality, the beast that turns a man into raw meat beating away at its bone-cage?”

Pain’s Brother butterflied his two dozen fingers, splaying them like specimens against the steel examination table. He tipped his head back, spilling onion-colored hair across the table. The more space he blotted up, the more the room seemed to cling to him, and the Bonesetter felt as if he were being squeezed out of his own office like the last tumor of dried-up glue squeezed from the tube.

“Spoon out your eyes,” said Pain’s Brother to the ceiling.

“Pardon?”

“Spoon out your eyes. Then you’ll meet a pain you could never snare in a case study. Your last chapter must be written in first person. You’ll only know the mind-carnivore if you feel it gnawing at your own sanity.”

A smile gouged across the guest’s face as he met his host’s gaze. In the gore of that smile, the Bonesetter saw his guest was right. He couldn’t name the predator pain until he knew it more intimately than he knew his wife.

For the first time since growing into his full, exacting height, the Bonesetter drew his knees up to his chin and balanced on the stool like a perverse egg. He laced his arms around his shins and sealed his eyes against the rancid gleam of the light. Inhaling a steadying dose of starch from his trouser-pleats, he spoke into his kneecaps.

“Will a grapefruit spoon do?”

The stranger’s laugh rebounded from the walls like high-speed whiplash, leaving the glass jars whining. The Bonesetter’s teeth ached.

“When the manuscript is spackled, spiffed, and spit-polished, post it to Delphinia and Daughters. They’ll have the presses ratcheted and ready.”

The Bonesetter heard the stranger’s stool scuff his tiled floor. Then a sound like sinews unclasping their skeleton, tendons unfastening from flesh, bones unsleeved from skin—he flashed his eyes open, but caught only the smirking swing of the back door as it flapped on its hinges. A few slivered feathers listed in the door’s updraft. It was as if the stranger had unmade himself, distilled into a fever dream.

The Bonesetter allowed himself a dozen diaphragmatic breaths, watering his lungs with the clammy midnight spilling through the door. Then he unkinked his knees, ironed out his spine, and strode to the kitchen. Light from the streetlamps curdled on the marble counters and in the bowl of the porcelain sink, streaking the kitchen in shades of broth and clarified butter. The lamplight foamed on the mother-of-pearl inlay in the knob of the silverware drawer. The Bonesetter raked the drawer open, and as he shoveled through the silver, the yolkish light dribbled in. Not a single grapefruit spoon remained.

“Oh Doctor-Daddykins, oh Bonesetter-Baba, oh Postured-Papa—whatever could you be pawing for under midnight’s skirts? You look guilty as a boy-o caught with his thumb in the kumquat pudding. Did you hope to pluck out a succulent night-truffle? Do you like the burnt-caramel flavor of nighttime? Or are you looking for these?”

Oleander had perched himself owl-wise on the marble counter opposite the silverware drawer. He was hocked back on his heels in a mess of shadows so thick you could slather them on rye. Leaning out into the frothing light, he brandished a bouquet of silver grapefruit spoons at his father. He had his da’s cheekbones—sharp enough to perform surgery—but his complexion was watered down by mother-blood. In the lamplight, his father was a painting in oils, rich with lapis and ultramarine, whereas Oleander was sketched in chalk.

“Only rag-taggle vagabonds and prize-wives ought to listen at keyholes, Oleander,” his father scolded. “If you ever kip that trick again, your mother will hear about it, and you know what that means: A senate interrogation and an ear-ache. Now be brave, my little fibula, and give me a grapefruit spoon. You can lick the rest like silver-lollies if you fancy a midnight snack. I need only the one.”

Oleander slumped back against the wall, drenching himself in shadow. “And I need the skeleton of a juvenile shrew. Only the one. What a soup we find ourselves swimming in, Dumpling-Da.”

“So it’s your pestilent intention to make me buy my own grapefruit spoon back from you for the price of a mint specimen? You do realize that a fully articulated juvenile shrew skeleton with copper wire ligaments is not an urchin’s plaything? It will win you no back-alley battles against aluminum soldiers.”

In the ferment of shadows, Oleander mined his ear-canals for wax with the handle of a spoon. “There’s nothing left for me to win in the back-alleys, Doctor-Dadums. The ragamuffins and streetlings won’t play with me anymore. They say I cheat worse than a Doggoblin.”

In the skimmed light, the Bonesetter was several shades nobler than the dignified night that idled at the window. “And is my son a maggot-tongued cheat?”

“No. I’m a scientist.”

As if fingering an extravagantly fractured femur, the Bonesetter at last found the fulcrum upon which his son’s grievance seemed to rotate. His patient would flinch. And then they would bring the bones back into agreement.

“The gutter-mice wanted to live again,” continued Oleander, his voice thinning to a whisper. “I could feel it under their fur. They were dead, but I quickened them back to life in my bare hands. It’s not my fault that the urchins couldn’t bring their aluminum soldiers to life. My undead mice were better warriors.” His lips perked with a chalk smile. “They were romping first-rate, to tell it true.”

“So you will give me back my own grapefruit spoons if I sacrifice one of the princes of my collection—the very spine of my scholarship—to feed your necromantic addiction?”

Oleander knuckled the spoons together, clicking up a racket with the improvised castanets. Above the sterling syncopation he chanted: “It’s science, Osteo-Daddio. As scientifical as your bone-fiddling and spine-spiffing. You diddle inside live bodies to make them livelier, while I diddle with dead bodies to liven them up.”

In the silver cacophony, the Bonesetter discovered a subspecies of pain not yet catalogued in his manuscript. Although he had abandoned those pages to the dust-boggarts under his bureau months ago, his fingers itched to speciate and log this new finding. A tunneling throb, he would call it. And even as its silver claws gouged deeper into the sanctum of his inner ear, he gloried in the resuscitation of his manuscript. For the price of two eyes. Why, it was a champion bargain. Practically burglary. Who knew dreams could be paid for from the pockets of the eye sockets?

So much time has sifted through the Bonesetter since the lamplight buttered that fermented midnight. Even now he feels time flaking away in flossy nubbins, weakening his ankles and aching under his arthritic knees. He is but a scaffold of brittle bones, soft sift in an hourglass, a bower of bone, calcified home to a parasitic mind which remains supple and strapping, even as the bone-house goes stale and crumbles away.

Under his fingertips, the words rise defiantly, brazen bone-meal calligraphy that calluses his reading fingers. The words are his own, more familiar than his wife’s voice, but he prefers to feel them rather than hear their tarnished echo toll through memory’s auditorium. He can’t stop worrying their edges, scuffing the crossbeam of a T until his finger goes numb. They are the scabs of wounds he can’t give up. He won’t give them the peace to heal. He chafes them through billowy blue afternoons, as the examination room sombers and dusk flutters down on moth wings. Spine aligned with the earth’s poles, he is a statue carved from rarest hematite. He has the secret sheen of an unfathomable well. Dusk-light pools in his eye sockets, empty as eggshells.

The word-scabs rasp under his fingers, and he feels his way back to that night where he lost his eyes and his son to a hunger he once called science. Though Oleander didn’t disappear until he had grown into his father’s height and daunting posture, he amputated himself from the family on the night the Bonesetter spooned out his own eyes. In those strange days, the boy haunted the house, a specter never pinned by sharp lights. Only the aunts in their cobweb-quilted attic ever saw him sit still. His skin was smoke-blue with bone char and bruises. As skeletal treasures vanished one by one from the Bonesetter’s pathological collection, new squallings and squeaks were added to the uncanny symphony singing behind Oleander’s bedroom door. A few of his uncreatures, including the gutter-mice and the shrew, must have marched after the Necromancer when he left his father’s house, but most were later discovered in the silent bedroom, starved carcasses snuggled into drawers and looped over door handles, waiting for their erstwhile master to wake them once again.

In the house modeled upon the human skull, the Bonesetter has begun another collection. He bottles the rumors that waft through the vents, filing them by theme: mercenary necromancy, corpses kidnapped from crypts, a break-in at the City Archives, a mammoth skeleton gone missing from the paleontology museum, militant gutter-mice, an epidemic of runaway children.

Dusk’s last light filigrees the page with silver wire. The Bonesetter cannot see twilight, but he can smell it. He knows he ought to put his masterpiece to bed between its leather covers. Yet still he worries his word-scabs, wondering which wound is more predatory, the gnash of the grapefruit spoon as it chewed through his optic nerve, or the fanged memory of Oleander’s last smile as he tossed the spoon to his father, the gleam of his teeth shearing the darkness in two. Angry teeth were the last the Bonesetter ever saw of the boy. After paying the pain-price, he buried himself in bandages and bookwork and when he emerged, the boy was gone. The Thief-of-Thieves lied about the price of publishing. The book cost more than a pair of eyes. It cost him his son.

Tonight, like every night, he will wait all through the owl-hour, hoping to hear the doorbell bawl. He will pay the Thief anything to steal back his son.

For Gerard Manley Hopkins,
master word-setter, who found the poetry in bones.

Lucia Iglesias has taught English in Germany, packed produce at the farmers’ market, cared for other humans’ cats, and modeled for art students. She travels widely and often. Though she grew up in California, she suspects she is a changeling and is still searching for her real home. Her first publication appears in this issue of Shimmer and she is still beaming.

 

Return to Shimmer #40

Fixer, Worker, Singer, by Natalia Theodoridou

Fixer Turns On the Stars

The sky creaks as Fixer makes his way across the steel ramp that is suspended under the firmament. It’s time to turn on the stars. He pauses a few steps from where the switches and pulleys are located and looks down. He allows himself only one look down each day, just before sunset: at the rows of machines, untiring, ever-moving; at the Singer’s house with its loudspeakers, sitting in the middle of the world; at the steep, long ladder that connects the Fixer’s realm to everything below. He’s only gone down that ladder once, and it was enough. Fixer caresses the head of the hammer hanging from his belt. Then he walks to the mainboard and turns off the sun. The stars come on. He pulls on the ropes to wheel out the moon. There. Job well done.

Fixer senses the coil inside him uncoiling. He retrieves the key from the chest pocket of his coveralls and thumbs its engraving: Wind yourself in the Welder’s name. He inserts the key’s end in the hole at the side of his neck and winds himself up. In the Welder’s name.

The sky creaks.

Wound up and tense as a chord, Fixer sits on the ramp and rests his torso against the railing. He inspects the firmament under the light of the starbulbs. The paint is chipping—it will need redoing soon. He wonders whether it was the Welder himself who first painted the sky. It must have been him, no? Who else could have done it, before Fixer existed? Fixers, he corrects himself, and the coil tugs at him with what could be guilt, but is not. He imagines the Welder—just his hands; he can’t picture all of him, never has been able to—slathering on the blue paint, then carefully tracing the outlines of clouds.

Fixer pulls the wine flask out of the side pocket of his coveralls and takes a swig. It’s just stage booze, water colored red, can’t get drunk on it; he figured that out a long time ago, but he still likes to pretend, especially when the sky creaks the way it does tonight, when his coil is tense just so. What wouldn’t he give to feel things—what hasn’t he given—to be drunk, to be angry, to be excruciatingly joyful. But the world is so quiet now, quietly falling away, even emergencies are rare; and it’s lonely under the stars. He takes another swig from the flask. “Make-believe wine in honor of the Great Welder in the sky,” he says. Another swig. The coil eases some, his back slumps a little against the railing.

One of the stars didn’t come on, he notices; the bulb must have given out. Fixer gazes at the concrete shape of the moon haloed by the spotlight that’s reflected off its surface. There is rebar poking through at the sides, the back is crumbling. But that doesn’t matter. Only Fixer can see the back side. Things only have one good side, from which they are meant to be looked at.

Yes, the world is quiet now, but for the creaking of the sky. The hum of the machines below has stopped for the night. There used to be thunder beyond the firmament, but not any more. There used to be singing from the Singer’s house and the Welder’s voice blasting through the pipes of the world. Now there’s only the Singer’s rusty voice spilling out of the loudspeakers in short, shallow bursts.

“Tap into this thing, this ugly feeling of despair,” the Singer’s voice croaks, as if she knows, actually knows what it’s like to stare at the back side of the moon.

Fixer glances at the blown starbulb again. The coil inside his chest wants to spring forth, find the spare lightbulbs in the dark, fix it. Fixer fixes the sky, and if he doesn’t, he’s no Fixer at all, is he?

But, instead, he takes another swig from the wine flask, watercolor communion with the Welder who fashioned the world. He closes his eyes.

“I’ll fix it tomorrow,” he says out loud.

Singer: His Voice in Fragments

Your metallic voice. The wind rushing through me.

I remember when we voiced this pipe organ together, every flue, every reed, so it could breathe with your truth. Now everything is rusty and old. Falling. And apart.

I haven’t seen you in so long.

Fragments of your voice run through me and into your organ, my organ, when I least expect it. When I manipulate the pipes, aching to make each one sound the way it used to, I cut my fingers on the rough edges and fake blood comes out, mixed with grease.

And I have all these foreign memories that you planted my body with, these fragments I cut myself on every day:

An old man tuning a pipe organ.

A .45 round nose bullet fired from a handgun, tunneling through a body—and did you know the machine gun was inspired by a seed-planting machine, way back? Of course you did.

And there’s also the voice of a very young poet made great only by his self-imposed death. Why did you deem this story important for me to know? Am I to sing about it? Every day, I think about the poet. Is it because the poet-boy worked at a factory? Was it much like this one? Is it true he fed himself to the machines?

You are not forthcoming with answers to my questions.

And I have enough self-awareness to know I am falling apart, but I do not know why or why not or why I should keep myself from doing so. Yours was always a practical project first and foremost, yet you never lacked in poetry. Why else would you have installed a Singer in the middle of it all?

And why did you leave me here, all alone? Fixer always had a partner, each the fail-safe of the other, keeping one another from thinking themselves more than they are, and Workers are many, because you needed many. But there has only ever been one Singer.

Was I your most successful feature? Or the least so?

I press the loudspeaker pipe open. “Tap into this thing,” I say, “this ugly feeling of despair,” and not even I am sure who I am talking to any more.

Worker: Keep This Shop Like You Would Your Home

Pull, turn, press, says the coiled thing inside. So we pull, we turn, we press. The conveyor belt does not pause, and neither do we.

We work the line. We never blink. Our eyes close when the shift is over and only then. We never blink or we will miss the next beat. The next bullet. And the next.

Projectile, case, primer. The propellant container is empty, has been for some time, the great barrels that used to haul it in came empty for a while, then stopped coming in at all. Should we stop? Could we stop? We shouldn’t. We couldn’t. We didn’t. We don’t.

Pull, turn, press. Projectile, case, primer. No propellant. The bullets are lighter now. But the work doesn’t stop, the work doesn’t change. Handling the lighter bullets takes great care. Our hands are slowly accustoming to the new weight. Pull, turn, press. Don’t make a mess. We keep this shop like we would our home. Just as the sign on the wall says we should. We glance at it. Only glance. We never blink.

Our eyes are dry and our wrists hurt. They hurt so much we wish we could take them off, and the coil inside us slowly unwinds.

At night, when the moon comes out and our shift ends, we will close our eyes. We remind ourselves.

At night, when the moon comes out and the shift ends, we will wind ourselves up. One more time.

Then, a piece of the sky comes down with a thud.

We glance up.

Singer Sings of Holes in the Sky

There is a hole in the sky. Does this mean you’re coming back? Does this mean you’ve started dismantling the firmament on your way back to us?

I blow through a loose flue—disconnected from the organ like that, it reminds me of a long gun’s barrel, its speech as distinct as rifling, as fingerprints, as a person’s voice.

I hold my palms in front of my eyes.

Why did you make me without fingerprints?

I search my repertoire for answers, but I only come up with tidbits about wound ballistics instead:

Hollow-point bullets do not penetrate as deeply as round nose bullets, but they expand to almost twice their size within a person’s body, causing devastating damage to surrounding tissue.

Why did you want me to know all these things?

How can I still love you, knowing you made me so I would know all these things? Can I?

Are you coming back to me through the bullet wound in the sky?

Worker Prays to a Bullet

A piece of the sky came loose and fell to the ground and from inside us came the sound of a spring breaking.

Pull, turn, press. Projectile, case, primer. Something loose, above, inside. Pull, turn, press. We cannot look at the missing piece of the sky. We cannot look at the hole in the world. Instead we pull, we turn, we press. We don’t blink. Our wrists hurt. Tonight, when our shift ends we will close our eyes and we will step back from the conveyor belt and we will rub our wrists and we will hold our wrists close to the uncoiling thing inside. And we will feel it uncoil almost all the way and then we will wind ourselves up again. And we will look to the left, to the pile of all our other bodies rusting neatly one on top of the other. Did all our other wrists hurt like this before each of these other bodies of ours stopped working? Did we forget to wind all our other bodies up again before our coils unraveled all the way to their very end? This, we will wonder. One more time.

And we will sweep the floor around our other bodies, and we will polish every part of the machines, every piston, every cog. We will keep this shop like we would our home, and then we will look up and we will close our eyes and we will open our mouths and we will wait for the Singer’s voice to fill our insides, and it will be as if we have swallowed a piece of the sun with sharp, rusty edges that catch on our tongue, and even the rust will be good, and so we will praise the Great Welder in the sky who made the sun and the moon and the stars.

But thinking ahead to the end of the shift won’t do. Pull, turn, press. Our wrists hurt, something is loose, and we drop a bullet to the floor, scatter primers everywhere. We’ve made a mess. We should keep this shop like we would our home, even when there’s a hole in the sky. The coil inside strains as we pick the bullet up and hold it high above our head against the light of the sun and it is light and light and light. Its full metal jacket, its hollow point. We see it going into a person’s body. Inside the person’s body, the bullet blooms into a flower.

Who would think of such a thing, other than the Welder in the sky, who made the sun and the moon and the rust?

We look at the bullet and see it is a thing of beauty. The conveyor belt advances, the bullets unpulled, unpressed, unturned. Full metal flowers—do they dream of blooming?

Our wrists hurt. We think of praying. The words of the Singer’s song to the Great Welder in the sky flash in our head, as bright and comforting as the stars. The coil inside sings: O Welder, O Welder hallowed be thy name—but the words twist as the coil uncoils and the sky creaks and primers are at our feet and the conveyor belt conveys faster than our wrists can move and the bullet is beautiful today. O bullet, our coil sings, flying lead ricocheting off our tongue, O bullet, O bullet in the sky—

Fixer Looks for a Piece of the Sky

Fixer was changing the blown starbulb when the piece of the sky came loose, leaving a gaping hole in the firmament. The sound it made as it hit the ground sent a shiver down Fixer’s spine and caused his coil to tingle with tension.

But now he is calm, standing at the top of the ladder, looking down. The sky needs fixing and he is the only one to do it—and do it well. It might take a long time, looking for the piece, going all the way down and then back up again, it will throw the days and nights into chaos for sure, but what else can he do? There is no other Fixer to turn off the sun while he’s gone. Not any more. And so he sets out for the ground, to walk among the machines and the Workers and the noises of the world. It’s been a very long time since he’s last been to the ground. His hands feel like they might be trembling, but they are not. Is this excitement?

Off he goes. Down, down, down, for a long time.

His feet are steady on each step of the ladder, his arms are strong, but the coiled thing inside his chest is coming looser and looser as time passes, and he will soon need winding up again or he won’t make it. He’s almost to the last of his coil when he realizes he can see the sun from its good side. It is round and shiny and bright, despite the creeping rust at the edges of the metallic surface. It’s perfect.

The coil inside him creaks, and so does the sky. He takes out the key with unsteady hands—almost drops it, in fact, and then what would happen? What would happen to the world if he gave out and there was no one to move time along any more? He inserts the key into his neckhole and twists and twists, his body tensing with every turn, and he knows deep in his core that now would be the time to switch off the sun and to wheel out the moon so the machines can stop and the Workers can wind themselves up again under the sound of the Singer’s song. But he’s not there to do that any more, and it is still day even though it’s night. He wonders what an endless day might do to the world, what sights may be seen under this much unexpected light. He wonders if the other Fixer will be waiting for him on the ground, accusing, staring at his hammer, understanding nothing, stage blood coming out of his head.

Fixer chastises himself and speeds up his descent. It shouldn’t be long now.

And if the other Fixer is there, waiting, so what. Stage blood washes off easy.

When he finally gets to the ground, he lands amidst the loud, tireless machines producing garlands upon garlands of cartridges. It takes him a while to understand what the heap lying next to the ladder is. Then, he sees them, an arm here, a face there, the pile of Workers’ bodies stacked neatly one on top of the other. What has happened here? What has become of the world while he was up there taking care of the stars?

There is a single Worker tending to the conveyor belt. She moves slowly, unsteadily—she’s near the end of her coil, surely.

“Hey, you, Worker!” he shouts in order to be heard over the clamor of the machines.

She turns her head, only for an instant, but still her hands miss the next bullet, scattering primers all over the floor by her feet.

Fixer walks closer. “What happened to all the other Workers?” he asks.

“We’re all still here,” she says. “But not all of us talk and move any more.” She speaks slowly. She’s almost done, almost spent.

“You can stop working now,” Fixer says. “Your shift is over. Wind yourself, in the Welder’s name.”

“But it’s still day.”

“No, it’s not. It’s night.” He points at the hole in the firmament. “I just had to come down here, so there’s no one left to turn on the stars.”

Worker is still working, but she steals furtive glances at the sky. “But it’s not night,” she insists. Her voice quivers.

He approaches, his hammer swinging at his belt. He looks at this Worker, the tragedy of her existence, the completeness of her devotion. She will work herself to the end, and it’s all his fault. He gently takes her shoulders and pulls her away from the conveyor belt, letting the half-formed bullets fall off the end and clatter onto the ground. Her hands are still going through the motions, pulling, turning, pressing. He grabs them, steadies them. “It’s okay,” he says. “It’s night. You can stop now. It’s night.” He repeats this until she stops moving.

She holds her hands close to her chest and stares at the sky for a long time. Then she lets her body slump onto the floor.

Fixer sits on the ground next to her, his back against the unfaltering machinery of the world. He feels his coil uncoil slowly, looks over to the pile of Workers, and, for a moment, he wonders if this is it. If he should just sit here next to the last of the Workers, allow his coil to uncoil all the way to the end and stay there, let his body shut down, collecting dust under the relentless light of the sun.

But then his eye catches a glimpse of the hole in the sky and the coil inside strains because he needs to fix the flaw in the world. So he gets back up and goes look for the missing piece of the sky.

Before he starts climbing the ladder with the piece held tightly under his arm, he puts his key in the Worker’s neck and winds her up. For a moment, she looks confused. Then she’s on her feet again, pulling, turning, pressing, as if nothing has passed between them, or between her and the world. She doesn’t say a word.

Singer: His Voice Back Together Again

I thought the day’s length was a sign that you were coming back. I thought the hole in the sky was a sign that all of this was finally over—the constant fight against the rust with nothing but grease and a handful of facts that I no longer know how to assemble into songs.

But the hole is gone now and the sun no longer shines in the sky; the world is healed, restored, the creation you left behind intact, self-preserved.

The organ’s voicing is as complete and perfect as it is ever going to be without you. You made me well, but you did not make me to last forever, did you? Because, now, wouldn’t that be cruel?

Tonight, I will sing my best hymn to you. It has only one word, but it is the sweetest one I know, O Welder, O Welder in the sky, and the only one I know to be true.

Look, the moon is coming out.

Fixer Sleeps Under the Stars

Fixer’s limbs feel heavy and worn as he paints over the restored piece of the firmament under the faint shine of the moon. He could have looked through the hole in the sky, but he didn’t. The coil wouldn’t let him, he told himself; it jerked and strained at the mere thought. Besides, why would he? The world is fine as it is. Soon, everything will be as it was before, as if nothing ever happened.

As soon as he finishes the restoration, he turns on the stars, and each one comes alive, bright and familiar, their light soft and soothing.

The coil inside him is quiet now. The Singer’s voice spills out of the loudspeakers. Is it just him, Fixer wonders, or does it sound just as it used to when they first came into the world, before the rust, before the world started giving out, falling apart? She really does have the most beautiful voice, Singer.

“Welder, Welder, Welder,” she repeats, all night long, making everything okay.

Fixer decides to sleep in his ropes tonight, suspended under the stars, lulled by the Singer’s voice and the creaking of the sky.

In his dream, he’s carrying the piece of the sky under his arm. There is a great joy inside his chest. He takes a swig from his flask and it burns his throat as if it were no longer stage wine. It makes his coil vibrate with song.

“Could I sing?” he wonders. “Could a Fixer ever sing?”

Drunk on his joy and his wine, Fixer no longer thinks of the tired Worker below. He doesn’t think of the pile of bodies, or of the other Fixer’s head staring at what can no longer be fixed.

In his dream, Fixer runs his fingers over the surface of the sky. He traces its length, its chipping paint, the flat outlines of its clouds. Then he pulls his hammer from his tool belt and caresses its head while the coil inside loosens and loosens.

In Fixer’s dream, the flawed world creaks. Before nailing the fallen piece back in place, he peeks through the hole in the firmament, at the maddening beauty, at the stars beyond the stars.

Natalia Theodoridou is a media & cultural studies scholar, a dramaturge, and a writer of strange stories. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, The Kenyon Review Online, sub-Q, Interfictions, and elsewhere. Find out more at her website (www.natalia-theodoridou.com), or come say hi @natalia_theodor on Twitter.

En la Casa de Fantasmas, by Brian Holguin

I.

Everyone knows about La Bruja.

They say she lives somewhere down in the Avenues south of Eagle Rock. She is a tiny thing, short and round. Always dressed in black no matter the weather or time of year. Draped in mourning, they say, like La Llorona. Black wool dress, black coat, black shawl. A black veil that falls like a cobweb over her ancient face. Ask the abuelas in the park and they will tell you they remember her from when they were young, and that she was an old woman even then.

You can spot her from a mile away, carrying that odd little dollhouse of hers. You know the one: it looks homemade, simple and boxy, with a peaked roof and a handle at the top. It is painted in bright candy colors, as cheerful as she is somber: lemon yellow and valentine pink, mint green and robin’s-egg blue. There are those who say the house was made for La Bruja by her father, or perhaps even her grandfather, and that they each bore it for many long years before her. But there is no one alive today who can answer for sure.

Go talk to the vatos who hang out behind the pool hall, the dark-eyed boys with grease under their fingernails and tattoos on their knuckles, and ask them about La Bruja. They will tell you she loves nothing better than to sneak into children’s rooms at night and steal their hearts. She comes while you are sleeping and never makes a sound or leaves a mark. You won’t even know it happened. You’ll just wake up in the morning feeling strangely numb and hollow. You will walk around blank-eyed and shivering, with no notion of what ails you, until you drop dead at the stroke of noon. Later, when they cut you open at the hospital, they will see that your heart is missing and find a smooth, round stone in its place.

They say La Bruja carries the hearts around in that crazy little house of hers, ready to eat at her leisure, like ripe, juicy apples.

But it’s all a lie. Those boys are only trying to scare you.

Everyone knows the house is for the ghosts.

It’s late August in L.A. The last mean stretch of a summer that feels like it will never end. Everywhere are brown lawns and shimmering stretches of black asphalt. Posters and billboards show angry red thermometers reminding you not to waste water. No sprinklers to run through. No inflatable pools to laze in. For children, August is doubly cruel. Too hot to do anything fun, too close to the new school year to waste a single day in idleness.

In the heat of the afternoon, La Bruja beetles her way along York Boulevard. The children outside the corner store shout “Bruja! Bruja!” and drop their Popsicles and soda cans on the sidewalk. They sprint for their bikes and race down the alleyway, daring to look back only when they are blocks away. There is no point, after all, in taking chances or pretending to be brave. If she were to lift her veil, La Bruja could freeze you to the spot with a single glance. You’ll stand there, stone still, until a perfect stranger walks around you three times, counter-clockwise, and says “wake up, wake up, fly away home.” If you are careless enough to let your shadow cross hers, she can snatch it in her hand and claim your soul. She’ll slip into your dreams at night and make herself at home, rummaging through your memories, your fears, your guiltiest secrets. Once she’s there you can never make her leave, no matter how many candles you light at St. Dominic’s or how many Hail Marys you say. That’s a simple fact. Everyone says so.

At the bus stop on York, La Bruja sits waiting, dollhouse at her side. She tosses a handful of sunflower seeds onto the sidewalk in front of her and makes a rhythmic “chk-chk-chk” sound with her tongue. It is less than a minute before the crows come. They descend by the dozens, squawking and flapping. They peck madly at the seeds and then perch silently on the seat beside the old woman, and along the backrest of the bench, until the whole thing is camouflaged in night.

When the bus comes, La Bruja steps aboard. The driver never charges her and she never bothers to ring the bell to call for her stop. The other riders get up so that she may sit in the frontmost seat all by herself. As the bus heads west and turns right onto Eagle Rock Boulevard, the noisy dark cloud of birds follows close behind.

No one knows exactly how La Bruja manages to conduct her business or knows when to show up for her appointments. She doesn’t have a calling card or advertise her services on bus benches. She’s never owned a telephone. But she always knows when she is needed. When you get desperate enough, frightened enough, you will find a way to contact her. Some say it is the crows who carry her messages for her. Others say you must approach her in your dreams and ask her for her help. If she agrees to help you, you will find a simple message—unsigned, unstamped, no envelope—somewhere in your home. In a kitchen cabinet behind the cereal boxes, perhaps, or tucked under your pillow.

But everyone agrees on this: You must take care to follow her instructions precisely. If you do not, she’ll turn right around and go home, and you’ll find yourself in the same dark place you started.

  1. The house is to be completely empty. Take the pets if you have any.
  2. Place the money in a plain envelope, along with the house key, and leave it under the mat. You’ll know how much to pay—after all, how much is it worth to you to live safely and peacefully in your own home? If it’s not enough, she will turn around and go home and you will never hear from her again.
  3. Do not come home until after sunset on the third day. This is most important.

It takes three buses today to get her to the desired neighborhood, and another twenty minutes of slow, steady walking to reach the house itself. It is on a clean, shady street high up in the foothills, so high that the smog doesn’t reach and the sky is a bright, endless curtain of blue. The lawns are all green and neatly manicured, and the swimming pools are full and crystal clear. Everyone knows the rich can afford to be wasteful.

La Bruja doesn’t need to check the house numbers to know which is her destination. The crows have already marked it. She finds them perched on the mailbox, standing sentry on the crest of the roof and along the telephone wires. They strut up and down the sidewalk, across the front lawn, and gather squawking below the eaves. La Bruja looks under the mat and finds the envelope. Inside is a stack of crisp bills and the house key. She unlocks the door and crosses the threshold, but doesn’t bother to count the money.

It is getting late and she has work to do.

II.

If the time ever comes to buy a house, be sure to ask if it is haunted. A house with a ghost is a far worse bargain than one with termites or dry rot or bad plumbing, and much trickier to make whole again.

This particular house is grand and tacky, built in a style the architect imagined to be vaguely Spanish. Clay tiles on the roof, pinkish-beige stucco walls and lots of large, arched windows that look out on palm trees and sprawling bougainvillea. A vague chemical scent greets La Bruja as she steps inside, a blend of lilac air freshener and pine-scented disinfectant.

Chk-chk-chk,” she beckons as she moves through the entry and into the living room. The home is immaculately clean; you’d scarce believe anyone lived here at all. Everything looks expensive and uncomfortable. Lots of heavy glass and wrought iron. Lots of hard surfaces. No comfy armchairs to fall into, no plump ottoman to rest your feet on.

She sets her little dollhouse down on the glass coffee table and looks around.

Chk-chk-chk.”

The back of the house is all glass: floor-to-ceiling windows and French doors that open out onto a tiled courtyard and swimming pool. La Bruja moves slowly towards the glass wall, taking tiny, careful steps. Mustn’t scare anyone.

Chk-chk-chk.”

She can smell chlorine and chewing gum now, and the faintest hint of cheap, stale beer. Her eyes shift back and forth behind the veil, scanning the room carefully. It is a few minutes before she finds what she is looking for: a set of faint, wet footprints on the polished wood floors, glistening in the late-day sun. They are rather small and shimmer slightly at their edges. Right away she guesses that this ghost is fairly old, even if the child itself was young. Children are surely the saddest part of her job, but in many ways they are the easiest. They don’t seek lost loves or plot vengeance. They just get lost easily and need someone to guide them homeward.

La Bruja steps out into the courtyard. She settles into a boxy rattan deck chair and keeps perfectly still. And she watches. From time to time, the little shimmering footprints pace away from the pool, then return. They move from this corner to that one, into the house and then back out again. Like a mouse in a glass cage that doesn’t understand why it can’t escape. She sits without moving a finger or uttering a word. She waits unmoving until the sun drops below the mountains, the first moment of twilight. Then she lifts the veil from her eyes.

The world swims and shimmers before her. Everything seems strange and distorted, like a television viewed through a fish tank. At first it is difficult to understand what she’s looking at. Echoes… memories… past… present… all competing for attention. But soon her eyes adjust and she can see things clearly. She can see exactly what happened.

There are four of them, three boys and a girl, gathered around the pool. It’s the late afternoon of a summer day not much different from this one. The youngest is a blond boy, skinny and tan, who looks to be eleven or twelve. He wears blue swim trunks and a red-white-and-blue tank top emblazoned with “USA ’76.” The other two boys look to be fourteen or so. The taller one is slightly awkward, still unused to his growing limbs. The smaller one is wild and wiry, with long dark hair and lots of coiled energy.

The girl is also fourteen but looks considerably older than her peers, the way teen girls often do. She is wearing cut-off jeans and a macramé bikini top. She is pretty and she knows it, more’s the pity. She is well aware of the strange power she has recently acquired, even if she doesn’t fully understand it. It’s the power to make boys stumble over their words just by looking at them. To make them do stupid, risky things to impress her, like shoplifting cigarettes or breaking into empty homes. She knows for certain it is a power she didn’t have last summer, and she already suspects it will not last long.

The home doesn’t belong to any of them. The tall boy knows this house because it is on his paper route, knows that the owners will be out of town till Monday. It was easy enough to sneak down the side yard to the swimming pool at the back. The four of them splash and swim in the summer heat. They have a cannonball contest to see who can make the biggest, loudest splash. The girl declares the wild boy to be the winner and the tall boy demands a rematch. They listen to music on a tinny transistor radio and take shallow, unconvincing puffs on cigarettes, trying hard to look cool and dangerous.

As evening approaches, they luxuriate in the borrowed sense of freedom they’re all sharing, imagining this must be what it feels like to be grown up, having no rules to obey, no one to answer to.

Once darkness falls, the wild boy gets the idea of prying open a window and raiding the kitchen. In his absence, the tall boy stretches out on a chaise longue and recites a string of filthy jokes he learned from some comedy record. The girl rolls her eyes and takes a slow drag on her cigarette, pretending she is too mature for such things. The blond boy laughs loudly, even though he’s not exactly sure what all the words mean.

The wild boy returns with a bag of tortilla chips, a six pack of cold soda and another of warm beer. They all pretend that beer is their customary first choice, even the blond boy. He quits after less than one can. At first the beer makes them all relax, floating on a mellow buzz, but then it makes them rowdy. The girl has finished her first beer and is pestering the wild boy for some of his.

Suddenly everything slows and the smallest details come into sharp focus. La Bruja’s attention is drawn to the little radio sitting on the patio table. It is blaring some silly gringo rock song, some nonsense about the “Fox on the Run.” The girl, splashing manically in the shallow end, yells to turn it up. The tall boy drains the last of his second beer and fumbles to light a cigarette. The blond boy is on the diving board and shouts to the others, “Look at me!” He attempts to do a front flip off the board, but in the failing light he misjudges the distance. La Bruja hears a crack—loud as the day it happened—as the back of the boy’s head strikes the edge of the diving board. It is a clean blow, like being struck by a baseball bat.

Already the boy is sinking to the bottom, already blood spreads like a plume of ruby smoke, staining the clear blue water. In that instant, the teens all drop their shallow veneer of adulthood, reverting back to the children they are, scared and helpless. They don’t discuss a plan. They don’t say anything at all. They don’t even look at each other.

They just run.

They run all the way home. They say nothing and try desperately to think of nothing, choking back the terror and the tears until they are each safe in their beds where they will sob all night into their pillows and wake in the morning wishing it was all a horrible dream. Not one of them ever says anything about the boy. Each is sure the others will do the right thing, the brave thing, and tell their parents or phone the police.

A week later, at the blond boy’s funeral, they don’t even acknowledge one another. The body, they are told, floated in the pool for at least two days before the homeowners returned. By that time, the water was as red as the sun and the corpse was so bleached and bloated it was difficult to identify. Although they share classes and sports teams all through high school, the three of them never say another word to each other or willingly glance in the others’ direction.

Those three children will all be grown up by now, and parents themselves. Perhaps grandparents. But none of them will ever see a single day pass without thinking of their young friend. About the things they did, and the things they didn’t do. They’ll carry that memory around with them forever, dragging it like a ball and chain. It follows them to school, to work, to Christmas parties, on honeymoons and vacations. It’s with them at the grocery store, at the movie theater and at their children’s school plays. Each of them is every bit as haunted by the past as this house is. But there is no sure remedy for their curse. They will bear its burden until the day they die. Only then will they be in a position to ask forgiveness, even though they don’t honestly expect to receive any.

Looking closer, La Bruja can see that traces of blood still linger in this pool. You can’t miss it once you know to look for it. Let your eyes soften and look below the surface. Pints of blood. Buckets of it. Vast oceans of blood, churning and roiling in the moonlight. No matter how many times it has been drained and refilled, no matter how many gallons of chlorine have been poured in over the passing decades, it is still tainted, still infected.

Some blood, you must surely know, never washes away.

It’s well past dark by the time La Bruja begins her working. To start, she removes a number of items from the pockets of her coat and from the leather bolsa she wears around her neck. She takes three votive candles and places one each along three sides of the swimming pool. She lights the first candle and blesses it in the name of San Jeronimo, patron saint of abandoned children. The second she lights in the name of San Alejo, who looks after those who are imprisoned. The third is for San Cristobal, patron saint of travelers. Now she takes a larger candle and sets it at the far end of the pool, the end with the diving board. This last candle is for blessed Madre María, who watches mercifully over all of us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

La Bruja stands over the pool and begins to chant in an odd sing-song voice. She takes a small crystal vial and removes its silver cap. It contains holy water, again blessed in the name of the virgin Santa María. She sprinkles it over the surface of the water and counts slowly to nine. Then, she takes a golden sewing needle and pricks her own ring finger. Three perfect crimson drops fall into the pool. They mottle the surface for a moment, but are quickly diluted and subsumed, and the water appears clear as glass.

Blood for blood. No fairer trade.

The second part of the working requires no blood, but it does require patience. She takes eleven tea candles, one for each year of the boy’s short life, and spaces them in an arcing trail from the pool, through the French doors, and into living room. Once each is lit, she sets the dollhouse on the floor in front of the last candle, the one furthest from the swimming pool. She squats on the floor next to it and waits.

Chk-chk-chk,” she intones, tapping the wood floor with her finger nails.

Chk-chk-chk.”

After a few minutes the first tea light goes out, sending a little gray wisp of smoke trailing in the air.

Chk-chk-chk.”

The second candle goes out a few minutes later. Then the third. But the fourth candle lingers. Its flame flickers from time to time, but it does not extinguish. La Bruja is patient. She knows the boy must take each step in his own time, cross each threshold and close each invisible door behind him. This is his path to walk and he cannot be rushed.

It is more than an hour before the fourth candle finally goes out. But it is quickly followed by the fifth. And the sixth.

Chk-chk-chk.”

The little house is hinged at one gable end, and there is a bright pink padlock in the shape of a heart at the other. As the ninth candle goes out, La Bruja takes a key from around her neck and unlocks the padlock, but leaves it dangling in place.

Chk-chk-chk.”

Again the procession stalls. It is nearly another hour before the tenth candle dims and dies. Very carefully, very slowly, La Bruja removes the padlock and opens the front of the house just a crack.

Chk-chk-chk.”

The eleventh candle fades slowly… slowly… and then grows. It grows brighter and brighter until at last, with a blinding flash, it goes out. La Bruja quickly shuts the dollhouse and snaps the lock in place.

It is too late now to catch a bus back to the Avenues, so La Bruja will sleep here tonight. She will help herself to cold beer and whatever palatable thing she can find in the fridge to eat. In the morning she will rise early and burn a wand of sage leaves and smudge all the rooms in the house. She will throw wide the curtains, open up all the windows and leave the front door wide open.

She will place the key back under the mat, gather her things and head back down the hill.

III.

In La Casa de Fantasmas, there are many mansions.

True, there are only four windows on the exterior of the little house and those are merely painted on. But inside there are countless doors and windows. There are cozy libraries, suffocating closets and tight, bricked-up tunnels. There are comfortable rooms with en suite bathrooms. There are endless dim corridors to wander down, lost in romantic torment, if that is your preference. The dollhouse is small, but the spirits take up so little space. Even La Bruja has lost count of how many ghosts presently dwell inside. But there is plenty of room for all of them.

You must know that ghosts become ghosts for many reasons. For some it is the trauma of a violent death. For others it is love for the ones they left behind. For a great many it is guilt: Guilt for letting down their family, for not making more of their lives, for all the wicked things they may have done but still can’t bring themselves to truly regret. Guilt is a great anchor that holds spirits earthbound.

Still, most spirits don’t move on because they simply aren’t ready. They haven’t said their piece or made their mark or danced one last dance. But all have one thing in common: They hate to be reminded they are ghosts.

At the front of the house is the large salon, where the walls are lined with bookshelves and heavy chandeliers hang from the wood-beamed ceiling. It is one of the oldest rooms. A wood fire burns in a stone fireplace, and there are leather sofas and armchairs nestled around well-worn Persian carpets. The more gregarious of the guests gather here, to swap stories or gossip, to play chess or try to cheat one another at cards.

Standing by the fireplace, puffing on a cigarillo, is the one they call the Fox, an over-the-hill gentleman with a watch fob in his waistcoat, Cuban heels on his shoes, and a ludicrous beard he keeps waxed and styled like a cartoon devil. He loves to dance the tango and the tarantella, and pesters all the ladies until one of them acquiesces.

The Irish Tinker scrapes out a Romani ballad on his fiddle while Sister Agnes plays a game of backgammon with the Quiet Man. The Doctor watches from a corner. He sits sipping brandy, his smooth bald head hovering over the pages of a Thomas Mann novel he’s never managed to finish. He mutters under his breath how one day they will all be sorry. One day, they will regret underestimating him.

Darla sits by the front door waiting for her gentleman caller. She is wearing her best dress, the one the color of summer apricots. She can’t help but worry. There are no clocks in the house, but surely he should have been here by now. If you asked her, Darla couldn’t tell you the gentleman’s name or how they met. But she knows he is a kind, handsome man and knows in her heart that they are truly made for each other.

Her mother never approved of gentleman callers. Darla doesn’t care to divulge her age, but her mother was quite fond of reminding her that if a woman hasn’t hooked a man by this stage of the game, she had best give up the ghost. Better an old maid than an old floozy. The minutes pass and Darla grows certain that something bad must have happened. An accident or an emergency. Or maybe he just decided he doesn’t want to see her. She tries to hold back the tears, but it isn’t long before her mascara runs in black rivulets down her cheeks.

She gets up and checks herself in the mirror. She looks a fright. You’re such a silly thing, Darla. Always letting your imagination get carried away, always making things a bigger deal than they really are. Take a deep breath. Stand up straight. Think good thoughts, and good things will happen to you. She dries her eyes, reapplies her mascara and touches up her lipstick. Darla wants her smile to be the first thing he notices.

She can hardly contain herself now. He’ll be here any minute…

The blond boy has been living in a tree fort. He knows his parents must be worried, but he’s not ready to go home yet. Besides, the fort has everything he needs: a sleeping bag and flashlight, a stack of old Marvel comics, and a transistor radio that only ever plays his favorite songs. He gets hungry sometimes, though never enough to make him want to leave. He likes the quiet and the cool breeze that smells of jasmine. He looks at the stars and listens to the radio. He naps for long stretches at a time. He’s not sure how long, but when he wakes up the sky is always dark.

He knows if he went home now, his parents would be furious. The boy has a cousin, Darren, who is three years older than him. Years ago, Darren ran away from home and was gone for the better part of a week. For the first couple of days, Darren’s folks were in a rage. His dad promised take his belt and thrash that boy to within an inch of his sorry life. But the days dragged on and phone calls were returned from friends saying they hadn’t seen him, flyers were posted around the neighborhood and the police kept asking more troubling and embarrassing questions. By the time Darren finally was found—sleeping in an old camper parked in a neighbor’s driveway two blocks away, living off Pop-Tarts and RC Cola—his parents were so relieved they forgot they had ever been angry. That’s the trick of it, the blond boy reasons. Stay away long just long enough for your folks to stop being mad and start being afraid.

His cousin is easily the coolest person he knows. Darren can do a handstand on his skateboard for nearly half a mile straight, swear to God, and is always smooth when it comes to talking to girls. When he is older, the blond boy wants to be just like him.

The radio plays a song by Paul McCartney & Wings. The one about Venus and Mars: red lights, green lights, strawberry wine… The boy finds himself drifting into sleep again. Funny, he can’t even remember why he left home in the first place. It’s not like things were ever that bad. Still, give them a little more time to worry before heading back. One more day should be enough.

Tonight he will dream strange dreams about an empty beach on a crystal blue sea, and a dark red sky rolling above. And a weird little house that could hold everyone in the world if it had to. Tomorrow he will go home. Just as soon as the sun comes up.

Tomorrow.

Always tomorrow.

IV.

Tonight is Halloween. The eve of All Souls’ Day. A night for revels and mischief. When the veil between this world and the next is thin as gossamer. Tonight is the night the ghosts come out and play.

All along the Avenues, pumpkins grin from porches, and paper ghosts and witches hang in windows. Little kids are already out tricking and treating, even though the sun hasn’t gone down yet.

Every year, La Bruja sets out a plate of pan de muerto—a sweet pastry flavored with cinnamon and anise seed—on the stoop of her little house at the end of her crooked little street. These goodies are free for the taking, but no one ever comes to her door. They won’t even walk past the front her house. Not even the adults, not on a dare. But that’s all right. By morning, every last morsel and crumb will be gone.

Behind her house, La Bruja has set up for a party. Streamers are hung and luminaria are lit. At one end of the little yard stands a lopsided table decorated with brilliant sprays of marigolds, colorfully painted miniature skulls and scores of candles. Two figures stand at the back of the table: a two-foot porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary, smiling beatifically in blue and white robes, and the carved wooden figure of Queen Mictecacihuatl, skeletal empress of the underworld.

Once the sun sets, La Bruja will remove the heart-shaped lock from the little dollhouse and open it wide. All those inside are invited to join the festivities.

It is an unruly scene: La Bruja sits on a wicker settee, smoking a fat cigar and drinking whiskey from a communion chalice. She claps along as the Tinker plays a wild Irish reel on his fiddle and Crazy Bobby, who was once this close to being a rock ’n’ roll star, strums along on a battered guitar. The Fox and Darla manage to dance a lively tarantella to the rhythm.

There is music, laughter and toasts to absent friends. Grudges and worries are put aside for the evening. The guests allow whatever burdens they carry to slip from their shoulders. Even the Doctor puts down his book and dances the foxtrot with Sister Agnes.

After a time, some of the ghosts desert the party and venture into the wider world. From sundown to sunrise, they are free do as they please. And they are not alone. Countless ghosts from centuries past walk the earth tonight. They come to stand watch over their children or grandchildren, to comfort a spouse they left behind, or to simply remind themselves that they too were briefly among the living. But the ghosts in the care of La Bruja are bound by a particular rule: They must return home to the little house before the sun comes up or be forever banished.

The Fox drifts to a favorite haunt near Olvera Street and sits at the end of the bar, boasting of the beautiful women he has danced with. Sister Agnes will wander back to a little nowhere town in Montana, sit on the steps of the house she grew up in and marvel at how much her street has changed, and how little. She will reminisce about a tall, blue-eyed man she once knew and how she almost gave up everything for him. Funny, she can’t even remember his name now.

Every year there are some who choose not to come back. They find their graves and lay themselves to rest. They walk into the sea at daybreak, glitter upon waves for a brief, golden moment, and then are gone. Or they simply drift away like smoke on the breeze. Most, however, will return home, to the comfort of old patterns, and resume their strange half-life. Many don’t even step outside the little house in the first place, not even for the party. And that’s all right. It’s just not their time. They simply aren’t ready to let go.

The blond boy doesn’t bother with the party. He’s never felt comfortable around grown-ups, especially those he’s never met. Besides, it’s been forever since he felt the ground beneath his feet and he wants badly to stretch his legs. He wanders out into the street and is delighted to find that it is Halloween, his favorite night of the year. He snatches a piece of sweet bread from the plate on the door stoop and wolfs it down in three quick bites. He hadn’t realized he was so hungry. He grabs two more pieces and heads out into the night.

He joins the throng of children going from door to door. It would be nice to have a costume, but he doesn’t mind. He is too absorbed in the wildness of the night, awed by the sounds and scents, the garish, lurid colors. He doesn’t have a bag or pillowcase, so he stuffs candy into his pockets or, more often, eats it on the way to the next house. He’s only gone to six or seven houses when he hears voices calling out to him:

“Hey! Kid! Over here!”

He sees them standing at the end of the block. A pack of boys, a half dozen or so, all about his age, give or take a year. Their hair is shorter than his and some of their clothes are so old-fashioned he mistakes them for costumes. They in turn have mistaken the blond boy as one of their own, just another departed soul playing hooky on All Hallows’ Eve. Back for one more run through the candle-lit streets, one more night of mischief and abandon. They don’t bother with introductions, yet right away they all feel like old friends.

“Are we all here, now? Let’s go!”

They move with single purpose, like a flock of crows, crossing the city side to side and back again in less time than it takes to think. They throw eggs at police cars and run hooting like the madmen. They set off firecrackers in the underpass below the freeway, so they echo like thunder. They find a carnival at the YMCA and go through the haunted house three times in a row without paying once. They eat cotton candy until their tongues are blue and their fingers stick together. At the face-painting booth they all have their faces made up to look like skeletons. They are a tribe now, a band of merry pirates. Drunk on the mad, wild joy of youth that doesn’t think even a minute ahead or waste one moment’s thought on the past.

In the park, they run like wolves and howl like devils. They do handstands and back-flips off the picnic tables. They race and they wrestle. They laugh till their sides ache and eat candy till they are sick. By now, their make-up streaks bizarrely down their faces from all the sweat, tumbling and roughhousing.

Late into the night, when the city has fallen silent, the boys gather in a circle on the grass. They pass a flashlight around, counter-clockwise, and swap spooky stories. They tell the one about the hitch-hiking axe murderer, and the one about the teenagers and the bloody hook. They tell that old story about the Weeping Woman, the ghost mother who steals lost children away, believing them to be her own.

A little before dawn, when they can’t hold their eyes open a moment longer, they stretch out in the grass and lie side by side, like a neat row of graves. No more playing now, or even talking. They just lie there too tired to move, but still too alive to sleep. This is the happiest the blond boy has ever been. The best night of his life. The world could end and he wouldn’t even notice.

There is no other thought in his head when the sun finally rises.

Ghosts become ghosts for many reasons. But surely it could never happen to you. You are too sensible and too clever. You know to go to bed each night fully content with how you spent the day. You do not leave important things unsaid or undone. You never wait for tomorrow—always tomorrow—to speak your piece, make your mark or dance as much as your heart desires. You know to live without fear or regret, unburdened, so that any day may be a good day to die.

It’s simple, really. But simple and easy are hardly the same thing.

Anyway, everyone knows there’s no such thing as ghosts. There is no crazy witch woman with a funny little dollhouse full of lost souls. How could there be? They’re just stories. They’re only trying to scare you.

Remember that, should the shadows ever come for you. When your life slips from your control and you wake one day feeling strangely numb and hollow, like a faint echo of yourself. Lost in limbo, treading the same old ground in ever tightening circles. When fear turns your heart to stone and freezes you to the spot. Remind yourself that it’s all pretend. It’s just your imagination getting carried away with things. You can always move on, as soon as you are ready.

Wake up, wake up, fly away home…

Brian Holguin has been a professional writer of comics and prose for more than two decades. Highlights include the award-winning urban fantasy series Aria, the ground-breaking independent comic book series Spawn, and the Dark Crystal graphic novel prequel, Creation Myths. He lives in Southern California.

Other Strange Houses:

Hic Sunt Leones, by L.M. Davenport
It’s true that the house walks. It’s also true that you can only find it if you don’t know about it. Once, a boy in my high-school art class drew a picture of it, but didn’t know what he’d drawn; the thing in the center of his sketchpad had ungainly, menacing chicken legs caught mid-stride and a crazed thatch roof that hung askew over brooding windows. I knew it was the house right away because his eyes had that sleepy, traumatized look that people get once they’ve seen the house. I was used to seeing this look, mostly on my mother’s face.

Spirit Tasting List for Ridley House, April 2016, by Alex Acks
Welcome, honored guest, to Ridley House; the acquisition of this charming 18th-century Palladian Revival villa has been something of a coup for our club and we are beyond pleased to present a wide array of tastes for your pleasure, if for a limited time. Take a moment to enjoy the grounds, particularly the stately elms with their attendant garlands of Spanish moss, and the mist rising from the ponds and nearby irrigation canals.

A July Story, by K.L. Owens
Iron red, linseed-cured, and caked in salt, in a place where the mercury never crept much above fifty Fahrenheit, the two-room house chose to keep its back to the sea. A wise choice, given the facing of the windows and the predilections of the wind. Still, in other Julys, Kitten had stood naked between ancient trees or buried his toes in sun-warm sand. In this new July, he donned the buckskin jacket from the peg by the door and used wool socks for gloves, swaddled his head in a gaily-patterned scarf given to him by a gray-haired marm in some other July on some other island. Shivering on a shore made of black cobblestones—waves did not break, but clattered and rumbled—Kitten watched a bazaar of common murres bob on the wind and wondered which side of what ocean the house had selected this time.

The Creeping Influences, by Sonya Taaffe

She came out of the peat like a sixpence in a barmbrack, her face shining like wet iron between the spade-edge and the turf, the bright rusty plait of her hair broken like a birth-cord around her neck. Jimmy Connolly swore, and Dan Wall crossed himself, and thin-faced Sean MacMahon gaped like someone had shoved him by the scruff of his neck to a keyhole, all consternation and wanting to see more. And me? Mid-cut, I stopped with my spade half-stuck in the green-tufted earth and stared until my back hurt, forgetting to step forward into the slice or straighten up to save myself the pain. The sky was a racing grey, the land brown as strong tea and talkative with water all around us. The bones of her arm and shoulder were clean as bronze hairpins where Jimmy’s spade had stripped off the fragile tissue, wadded it like old tin foil against her breastbone. Otherwise she might have been sleeping, tucked up in the pillowy bogland with the sedge snug at her chin.

“Oh,” Sean said then, recovering, “Roddy’s found his sweetheart,” and all of us laughed, jokers at the graveside. Her eyelids were their own silver pennies, closed.

After that it was talk of museums and universities, while we peeled the peat from her wounded shoulder and the crushed hollow of her throat. She was twisted in the black slices, squashed in on herself like a discarded paper bag; exposed to the scudding summer air, she gleamed like an elver in an eddy of mud. Even flattened strangely under the tarnished skin, her features were peaceful, long-eyed, her lips sealed in a dreaming curve. She would not stay that way for long if we left her to dry with the rest of the stacked sods—and God knew if packing her in peat again would save us much time. Bolder in defense of a dead girl than I had ever seen him on his own reluctant behalf, Sean was all for ringing the National Museum as soon as we got our day’s pay, no matter whether it was an archaeologist or a policeman they sent from Dublin, anyone who could disinter her from the bog without ruining the frail preservation of her body further. “And tell us where she came from, maybe, who—killed her,” and we heard a click of half-swallowed words before he went on with the sentence, as though it were impolite to mention it out loud.

“Sacrifice,” said Jimmy laconically; he had done a little reading, he explained, some years before when turf-cutters like ourselves turned up a skeleton in County Galway that was not a recently missing person, but an accidental drowning nearly five thousand years old. “To the heathen gods of ancient Ireland, for luck in the harvest and fine healthy children. She’d have been a beauty in her day, back before the Romans, that was. Anything less than the best and they’d have been cheating their gods. You can think a moment how kindly their gods would’ve taken that.”

He sounded like a professor even in his sweat-banded collarless shirt and mud-streaked dungarees; looked like one, tall and black-haired, his harsh-cut face planing itself down to bronze with the lengthening days. Sean and I were nodding when Dan Wall, who I would never have guessed read a book unless it was full of bets and long shots, snorted and spat deliberately onto the turf.

“Ballocks, Connolly. She was a whore. An adulteress, and her man caught her at it—he pinned her down in the bog to punish her, see?” We could see the leather twisted into the silver-black of her flesh when he pointed it out, tanned as foxily as her hair and tight as a garrote. He scratched a little at the peat over her breast, carving the butter-black sod away: it was not bone arching under his fingers, above her ribcage, but slim withies of some water-stiffened wood. “Tell me that’s an honor, dumping a pretty girl like a sack of shite out in the middle of this mire. He had to hate her. He couldn’t bring himself to break her face, but he made damn sure not another man’d see it after him. Cut another yard and we’ll find the man she did it with, I know that.”

Sean was bristling, but Jimmy only looked over mildly, once at Dan and once at the girl with the curve of one wrinkled breast just showing under the muddy tines. “Sure, you should be working for the Gardaí,” he said, and then Sean was arguing again about the National Museum, or anyone within a day’s drive of Croghan who might know about the ancient strangled pagan dead, and Jimmy was half-listening to him, having plainly already made up his mind to agree, and Dan was gazing angrily down at the tar-cast dead face beneath us, as if he were the man she had hurt.

I was ignoring all of them, even the girl under her bedspread of peat. I was thinking about sacrifice and murder, scholarly words for the torque of a man’s hand grinding into the nape of my neck, choking a knot of leather deeper and deeper into the hollow of my throat until I felt rings of cartilage break inward and small bones give way and my breath snap in on itself, blacking out the long, burnt-green line of bogland, the skylarks flicking across the dawn-eye of the sun—whether it was done in hatred or love, my hair waving in the cold, whisky-colored water as the willows staked me down. She looked so calm for the results of so much violence, abrupt and final as a bullet to the head or a billhook to the throat. Executions and reprisals, I thought, anyone who had lived through ’22 had seen those. And do you still think she died for something as lofty as God’s honor or her lover’s wounded pride?

I kept the question back, even while my throat tightened in useless sympathy, watching the wind stir her rusted iron hair. Likely Dan had the right of it, sour as it sounded. If I wanted to touch her with gentleness, it was because she was a woman who knew the taste and the price of transgression. If I was trying to imagine the tint of her hair and the texture of her skin before the acids of Móin Alúine cured her to a folded pewter shell, it was because I was an adulterer, too.

Katharine Morgan’s husband had left her for the wars, but she never said which ones and I never asked again. If it was the Great War, she would have known by now if he was coming back; if it was the civil war in Spain, it felt like anyone’s guess whether he had signed on with O’Duffy’s Brigade or the Socialists or just gone to make trouble out of the local authorities’ reach. She called him a blackguard and a lying bastard, she said she had never known a man so deft with a woman’s body, she missed him like the Devil and she prayed God to keep him away and she invited me into her bed one afternoon near the heathery start of May, an offer of confidence that was not quite a threat curling as provocatively on the air as the clean-washed smell of her heavy, jet-pinned hair.

I’m sure you understand me, Mr. Mathews. Or is it Miss?

It’s Mathews, ma’am.

Then it’s Katharine, Mathews.

Eventually she came to call me Roddy, but she always greeted me as Mr. at the door, just in case a lifetime of careful habits proved unequal to the powers of village gossip. She had come to Croghan as a bride and stayed there for all she knew a widow and I would take my reputation with me when I left at the end of the summer; I was not so complacent as to think that hers was so self-contained. She was a handsome woman, thirty-three to my thirty-five, decorously pale everywhere but her high-colored cheeks and the flush that faded across her breasts after making love. She had more English in her voice than Irish, though she never spoke of any home before her marriage, and she must have lived on more than her spendthrift husband’s savings, if he had been gone as many years as she hinted. I was not the first lover she had entertained since sweet-talking Desmond Morgan disappeared—I never fooled myself that way, either. But I did wonder, sometimes, if the others had only been women or men.

“Oh, Jesus have mercy,” she would say, twisting under my mouth, “sweet as a boy,” and I knew then that she loved me for the simplest part of myself. She liked my broad shoulders under their brown coat, my hair always falling chestnut-slick into my eyes; she liked my wind-rawed cheeks and my mulish jaw, the work-hardened span of my hands with their popped knuckles and old roughened marks of sacks and crates and shovels and drystone walls. She never touched my breasts, brown-nippled beneath their linen bindings, or my hips, cradled wide to take my long-striding weight, or my cunt, clenching hot and slippery as a heart behind the travel-worn corduroy of my trousers. Never once reached after my pleasure, as I worked my hand to the wrist inside her and she screamed, gloriously tight around me. Afterward, she would pull me down to the bedsheets beside her, skin pink as the lip of a whelk, and fist her hands in my hair, taste her salt sweet in my mouth and straddle me, laughing, but never with me as naked as herself. She wanted the shape of a laboring man and the spark of a demon lover—the security, too, of knowing she would never fall pregnant by me, no matter how many times she called me up from the parlor to the white curtains of her bedroom and her deep-pillowed bed. She wanted road-tramping Roddy Mathews and I was that, I was never anyone else from the time I was old enough to know my own skin, but I was the pieces of myself that she never touched, just as much, and the hunger that went with them. At most, she would watch me as I sprawled in a chair, my belt unbuckled and my own fingers busy in the folds of myself, but I thought it disappointed her that she could never see me spend, groan or gasp as loudly as I might. It ruined the illusion, spoilt the spell—

I tried not to think unkindly of her. The lovers of mine who had known me entirely, I could count on the two fingers I gave the rest of God’s earth for wanting me to be one thing or the other, like the flick of a switch of an electric light. Katharine Morgan was expressive and affectionate and she did not stint herself in desire; she was a cleverer woman than she advertised with her wide, apple-green eyes and a sadder one than she liked to let me see; she never asked me a question beyond my employment and my health and the next time we should see one another, if a man of the world could find enough to say to a woman of her house, content in her quiet life. All the times she heard me say that I loved her, I was not lying. When I left, I did not think she would tell stories of me.

Sean MacMahon was waiting over the girl in the peat when we got there, hunkered down at the edge of the cutting with the wind stirring the edges of his sugar-fair hair under his cap. He looked so forlorn, I had to remind myself that he was nearer my age than coltish, touchy Dan Wall, whose round, dark-freckled face would have looked cherubic if he were not constantly scowling. “It’s the coroner they’re sending from Tullamore,” he said without preamble. “In case she wasn’t put in the bog by heathen priests after all. The museum won’t want her if it’s murder.” The sun shone out again in the milk-blue twists of sky and he looked unhappily at the black-stepped levels of earth, the woman dreaming under the damp sods we had packed her in at the end of the day.

He must have called the Garda station, whether we had agreed on it or not; Dan looked for a moment as though he was going to shout at Sean for it, then said only, sullenly, “And what are we supposed to do until then? Lose a day’s wages waiting for the man with the little black bag?”

“Dig around her, idiot,” Jimmy said with his blunt, impatient authority, before Sean could bridle or I could start an argument of my own, and so we did, leaving a little bier of peat beneath her and a shroud of it above, so that she lay like an effigy among us as we worked, turf-veiled eyes turned to the sky. I was sweating with my coat off, well-worn báinín sticking to my shoulders; Dan kept taking his cap off and scrubbing one hand through his hair, spikily dark as treacle. He was closest to me with his barrow, spreading the sods I cut, and I tensed a little: I had guessed the day we met that if anyone was going to give me trouble in Croghan, it would be this angry half-boy, angling his way into manhood with his shoulders swaggering and his hands fisted deep in his pockets, waiting for someone to clip him in the street so that he could throw them a punch in return. He was religious and ashamed of it, better-educated and defensive of it, and I thought he was lying about most of the women he claimed to have had. But he said nothing more dangerous than, “Hold up, Mathews, give me a chance! It’s a job, not a race, for Christ’s sake,” and because we did not have another barrowman, I slowed. It took looking up at the edge of the bank for me to realize how doggedly I had been working.

“When’s he coming, this coroner from Tullamore?”

It did not sound anything like as casual as I had meant it to, an idle question to while away the time spent slicing and spreading and stacking as the sun climbed and the wet ground warmed, white-starred with bog cotton and the aniline-flowered lures of butterwort. Behind me, Dan blew out an aggrieved breath and bent to lift his barrow.

“Day after tomorrow,” Sean said, blinking a little. He was blue-eyed almost to silver; it made his direct glance disconcerting. “Rafferty said it would disturb work, policemen and coroners coming round in the middle of the day. Reporters, too, likely as not. And tomorrow it’s raining.”

I thought of her foxed-mirror face, swirled in a slick of mud; her cedar-chest hair dissolving like tobacco shreds. Mold splotching her breast, long-sheltered, like slime on a stone. Before Jimmy could speak, or Dan, or even Sean, catching up to his own thought as he heard it leave his mouth, I said, “We’ll need a tarpaulin over her, then. She won’t stand the rain.”

“Oh, what, are you studying with Connolly here now, too? Are we opening a turf-cutters’ university—final subject, murdered adulteresses from before the birth of Christ?”

“Oh, shut it, Dan Wall,” I started. “You wouldn’t know the birth of Christ from the hole in your—” and that was when Jimmy stepped in, before Dan swung to hit me. It would have been worse if he ran at me, caught me around the waist to bull me down; but his color faded and he trundled his barrow away without a word, its slats piled high with drying sods.

“We’ll find you a tarpaulin, Roddy,” Sean said into the silence. “Better yet, we’ll thatch her. Stack the sods over her, like a gróigín.” At my stare, he shrugged with the spade still in his hands, a pale, slight man in canvas trousers, lashes and brows nearly invisible in strong sun. “She’s your lass, Roddy. We’ll take care of her.”

When I dreamed of the peat girl, she was always dead, though she walked out of the bog at night to meet me. Her skirt was patterned in bilberry-blue, her shawl red as cranberries, and the garment next her skin looked most like a sheepskin with the fleece side in, but her face and her arms and her ankles above the leather lacings of her shoes were as opaque as old silver, her tied-back hair a springing mat of rust. Her nails were tawny parings, translucent as horn. Open between their metallic lids, her eyes were honey-amber, their pupils ochre lights.

Fast in my hayloft bed, I watched her blink, but not breathe; lay her palm against my chest, though no pulse ticked at her wrist. She was cold as groundwater, her smell of wet earth and fermenting wood. Her full height came barely to my breastbone. Each time she kissed me, I choked on the darkness that lay behind her tongue, a sunken, welling sourness—peat-smolder, leather-tang—that trickled like meltwater from the corners of my mouth the fiercer I kissed her back, striving for some living, human response, involuntary as a gasp. With her small, creased hands, she unpinned her woolen shawl, unlaced her skirt and pushed me down on the bright-checked, soft-scratching bedding, unwrapping the sheepskin from her shoulders so that her low breasts gleamed in the overcast light, heavy as hematite. And she touched me, with those fingers that had steeped for centuries in black veins of the bog, till my nipples stiffened like beads and my skin buzzed like tram-rails and my cunt swelled wet as a tarn, hungry for the dead cold of her. She stroked me and bent over me, searched my roughed-back hair with her mouth as if scenting me like a cat and tugged the tight linen from my breasts until she could trace the blanched red marks where the edges cut in; she slipped hard, tiny fingers inside me and I shouted with the freezing shock and jolt of pleasure, bucking as the soft ground swayed beneath us, a heather-plaited moss-tick.

And we’ll find the man she did it with, Dan had sneered, nineteen centuries from now when these silver-sheeting meadows were rush-spiked straits of turf, but they never would, not unless I laid myself down at her side like two lovers in a song and waited. Her ribs under my hands were light as a kestrel’s, her dull hammered-foil skin sail-taut across them. Even dreaming, I had the nightmare fear that she would open up around me like sodden paper, bog-soaked bones splitting free of her flesh like the rags her clothes had gone to ages before our clumsy spades brought her to light— Her cry was the only sound I heard her make, sharp as a curlew. Her weight dropped onto me and for a moment the heat of my own skin was enough to blunt her chill, hip and breast and shoulder and chin all interlocked like the twining of an ancient brooch; I could close my eyes and imagine her live in my arms, the unknowable woman she had been before the cord-choke and the drowning. Close to, the amber of her eyes was flawed with fern-seeds and tiny inclusions of dust or air. Her teeth were black as bog oak. She was smiling. I woke in a sweat of sex, my hair plastered to my forehead and my thighs slicked with their own wet; the dawn stars were shining in at the window. I never dreamed that she dressed and left me.

It did not rain the next day, after all; it misted in the morning and the streets shone like snail-tracks between the plaster-sided houses, the thatched edges of their roofs glimmering with refracting beads, but the heaviest clouds burned off before noon and we went out to the turf-cutting beneath a soft-watered sky as grey as a horse’s back. Rafferty had shifted us to another plot, fruitlessly trying to steer gossip away from the murder victim, the heathen sacrifice, the dead queen of Ireland coffined in the bog with her scarlet comet’s hair streaming away into the dark earth, the gold and bronze torcs and bracelets of her warrior’s hoard slowly pushed apart from one another by the forming peat, like planets by time… Even Katharine had asked if it was true, if a woman’s body had been found in Móin Alúine, and I told her everything but my dreams. Braced to temporize if she asked if the dead woman was beautiful—more beautiful than Katharine herself, resting in my arms as we looked out the parlor window onto the green steep of Croghan Hill, the stone-walled patchwork of the village tumbling away to the foot of the peat fields—I had no ready answer when she asked instead, Does she look unhappy?

I had not thought about it, any more than I had asked myself if an ash-tree looks hungry or a wash of limestone tired. She looks dead, I said truthfully. You can see the bones of her, dyed like bronze from the bogland. She doesn’t— and I hesitated, but Katharine’s expression showed neither fear nor disgust. She doesn’t look like a woman who died in pain, if that’s what you’re fearing. She’s a calm face. Closed eyes. Peaceful. You’ll see for yourself; they’ll have to let people see her before they take her away, and she leaned her head into the hollow of my collarbone and said no more, the dark coil of her hair fragrant with lemon and musk.

She was slighter than the peat girl for all her greater height, more slender at waist and bust. I looked at her sometimes and thought of a slim dark-haired man, dandily barbered, with a watch-chain in his waistcoat and a well-knotted necktie; I said nothing. Not everyone saw themselves with double vision: wanted to know they could be so seen. I kissed her temple and she pushed me away, rising in a China-silk rustle. Her voice trailed off on a sigh, wry as one of the reasons I loved her.

Peaceful when she’s dead. Every woman’s dream!

We walked into wetter ground, boots whistling and sucking with the sponge-mat and the damp; Dan kept pointing to pools and soft, shaking ground, calling to the rest of us.

“Put a sléan in here, Sean, we’ll dig up Patrick. Here’s where Oisín aged three hundred years when he touched the earth, only he touched Allen water and kept on falling, through land, through time—never mind, we’ll never find him. Keep on, boys.” I wondered if he had ever written poetry, and if he was ashamed of it, too. “Sure, we can’t leave the queen of all Ireland with no king, even if she was unfaithful to him. Here, Roddy, you know her best—where would she have left him? Here? Or here? Know her like Adam,” he added when I did not answer. “Where would you have bedded her, if you were a king of the pagan land?” He kicked at a grey blink of water, cataracted with the reflection of the sky. “Don’t cry, Sean, you can send the next one to the National Museum.”

But it was Desmond Morgan we found instead, floating on his back in a slurry of looseleaf water and moss as palely green as his widow’s eyes.

He was not beautiful. The bog had not had the centuries to work its alchemy on him, tightening him to the leather of himself: he was loose on his bones, and dingy, and soft and slack as meal when we hauled him up, swearing at the rank sluice of liquids that poured from his rusted tweeds, the flopping cavity of his body, his bonelessly dangling bare feet. His eyes were too soft for amber. His teeth were hard in the gape of his mouth, peat-flecked porcelain ringing the sky. His head rolled like a kicked-in football. All of his pockets had been sewn closed and stuffed full of stones.

At that Sean was sick and not even Dan had the heart to mock him, gill-green as he looked himself. “Bloody hell,” he repeated, “bloody fucking hell, fucking Christ in hell,” like he could curse the man back into the earth that had so incompletely assimilated him. Jimmy watched silently, his bronze mouth a hard-braced line, Sean coughed and retched in the sedges, fumbling a handkerchief to wipe his nose with, Dan blasphemed on through an audible knot of nausea and I tried to ignore the feel of the water the dead man had left on my hands and keep the thought down, choke it: which of them would say it first? How long? Was Katharine Morgan’s sporting wastrel of a husband so gratefully forgotten that they could not piece together who he must have been, this lanky string of joints whose long, moss-infested flop of hair would have combed back jauntily from his rake’s profile, still cocked for a fight beneath the perished rubber of his face? With a gold ring on his left hand and a wallet in his draining jacket, the vegetable materials of his papers and his money—if she had left him his money, God knew he had taken enough of hers—long since pulped by the acids of the peat? I knew what I would find if I knelt and worked the ring off his finger and the watch off his wrist, the small initials I would read there incised in the gold. I had seen the photograph on her dressing table, hand-tinted so that I knew the color of his brilliantine hair before the bog stole into it. Other men had seen him alive.

“Christ, it’s Morgan.” Jimmy’s voice had a thick, disbelieving sound; his eyes were dark as doors. “So she did it after all.” He had spoken more easily of human sacrifice.

Sean hacked into his handkerchief and I could have kissed him, because it was louder than the noise of my breath. He said uncertainly, “He left her. With her savings, everyone knew that. Said he was off to look for work in London and good riddance to him.”

“And changed the money for stones before he went?” Dan’s voice was raw, his face flushed as if someone grappled him. “Lost his way in the bogs, instead of catching the bus to Tullamore and taking the bloody train? Is there anything you don’t believe, MacMahon? Desmond Morgan drowned himself and God save the King? Jesus, but you’re a fool—”

“And the coroner’s coming.” For the first time all summer, I heard Sean MacMahon laugh, a clear pealing snicker at himself or the circumstances, like something out of a detective magazine or a play on the stage. “Tomorrow. Oh, Jesus. Me and my museums. That’s all of us fucked, then,” and even somber Jimmy snorted at that, standing over a corpse.

“Aye, Rafferty’ll love two investigations for murder on his land.”

There was a beat of silence, just long enough for me to hear as clearly as if we were all thinking it, Maybe we should just roll the old bastard back under his pool, maybe we’ll tell Rafferty the ground was too wet for the turf-cutting, maybe in a year we won’t be lying when we say we don’t know what became of Desmond Morgan, who’ll say we ever did? Who knows what becomes of a body once the bog has hold of it, before I heard someone speaking and I knew it was me, because the rest of them looked like I was talking French.

“We’ll have to tell Mrs. Morgan.”

There was another silence, and I could not tell what any of them were thinking at all. Jimmy said carefully, finally, “A woman sends her man off with that much weight in his pockets, she’s not looking to see him again.”

“Sure, but she didn’t foresee us digging him up like a pack of bloody dogs.” Angry at myself, knowing there was no reason for it, “She has a right to know.”

“If she wants to turn herself in?” The anger had gone out of Dan as abruptly as it had blown into him; he only looked as young as he was, and sickened, and hollow with thinking, as we all must have been, how calm-eyed Katharine Morgan, so coolly composed, could have killed her husband. Poison, maybe, if she had left no mark on him. Or she had cracked his skull, stabbed him, shot him, even, and the bog had soaked the wound away, run itself through him in place of blood until there was nothing to see but the split and swelling of decay and who could say when that had happened? I saw no noose in the slack of his puffball throat, no crushed bones under his ochre-stained shirt. Perhaps she had only drugged him and left the bog to do the rest. I could not imagine her dragging a body out of the house, mile by patient mile, each hardworking breath loud in the bat-flickered night and no one in Croghan noticing. “Out of her hands now, isn’t it—”

Heavy as bog iron, Jimmy broke in, “He used to beat her, Danny-boy, did you know that?”

She had not told me. Those bruisy hands wilting at his sides, snapped bladderworts with the knuckles barely visible in the soft wet skin—dead as they were, I wanted to break them, twist the fingers like chicken bones until they cracked, maim him in the afterlife like the mutilations Jimmy had said our ancestors cursed their failed kings with, so that even if his ghost came staggering home down the wet roads of Allen, sleek-haired, shark-grinning, it would paw helplessly at every door with blunted sockets of bone that could never again put their pain on anyone.

I thought of Katharine in the half-light of her bedroom, saying, There wasn’t an inch of me he wouldn’t touch, and I had misconstrued her, jealousy-flicked as I knelt to prove there was nowhere I would not go for her pleasure. She had not misdirected me.

I said again, hoarsely, “She’s a right to know.” Not caring what they knew or guessed or had known already, which way I was giving myself away as I dragged my gaze away from Desmond Morgan to stare at all their faces, tight as rope around a woman’s neck: “Even if it’s just so she can finish drowning the fucker herself.”

That night I dreamed of the peat girl walking through Croghan, one foot in front of the other as carefully as though she walked a tightrope on the beaten road. She carried her heavy-braided head with the pride of a coronet and her hands closed at her sides, the color of a well-thumbed shilling beneath the blood-bright hem of her shawl. She held an iron knife in one, a glinting break of white quartz in the other; I could see them as clearly as if she had opened her palms to me. In the bright grey day, the amber in her eyes shone like a cat’s in the dark.

Far away down the paths into Móin Alúine, I saw a man walking, so small against the cloud-pearled horizon that I could have blotted him out with a blinked eye. He moved like a sleepwalker or a puppet on sticks, unwavering as machinery. He was hatless, his stiff hair wind-snatched; the swing of his pockets clacked with each step like a creel of stones. He stepped from the hummocky, heather-edged ground and was gone.

I saw Katharine Morgan, a dry-eyed weeping girl, with the sloe stains of bruises around her cheekbones and her hair hanging half-plaited as she knelt beside a man’s body, the oil-light glimmering on the dark pool that haloed him, smooth as a mirror of spilled ink. I saw his bursting face and his stone-blue tongue, his torn shirt and his slashed, empty hands. Reflected by the lantern, Katharine’s own face eddied in her husband’s blood, a marsh-fire fetch from the other side of death’s glass. Her hands left bog-black smears on the knees of her nightdress, her bare shoulders set as taut and fragile as wings.

The peat girl stopped beneath my window; when she looked up at me, her neck made the quizzical tilt of her body wrung by the weight of compacting time. At her feet lay Desmond Morgan, dead without decay, his head flung back on his broken neck and the knife-cuts on his arms gaping bloodlessly as bread slices, his heart’s blood stiffening on his shirt like tar. He had been blue-eyed before his sight clouded like Roman glass; his butter-gold hair was darker than his picture and flecked with chaff, grass-seed, flower-heads of meadowsweet. I called down to her, I heard my own voice echoing from the street, but I could not remember the words as they left me, only the taste of her, myrtle-sharp, moss-dank, spade-cold. She laid down the knife, its clean blade pointing east; she put the white stone in the dead man’s hand that could not grip it. Already the earth beneath them was hollowing with water the color of beech leaves, the sticky-tipped red hairs of sundew curling around his bare ankle. Quick and gently, she smoothed a hand over his flower-stuck hair; she laid his shirt open, the skin beneath as white and bruised as violets, and with her sharp thumbnails, red as roe deer, she cut the nipples from his chest.

We reburied Desmond Morgan with Katharine watching, the wind roiling out strands of her hair like a signature on the streaky speedwell sky. It was unceremoniously done, and unchristianly, but I had begun to think it would not have mattered if we laid him out with candles at head and foot and said Mass for his soul every Sunday of her widowhood: he was damned as far as the bog was concerned and I was not going to gainsay it. None of us said much, not even Dan, who had surely not expected to find himself at arm’s length from a murderess and the lover she rested her shoulder against, her white-sleeved arms folded within a shawl of green and black squares I had not seen before. Sean reached to take off his cap before he thought better of it, straightened it more firmly instead. I thought of a mouth filled with black soil, the quaking illusion of ground slumping and settling under the scant weight of the dead until it had folded itself over the body more conclusively than any headstone. Finally, Jimmy pushed the last soft wedge of turf down, tamped it with the back of his spade, and looked faintly embarrassed, as though he had been thinking loud enough to overhear. He cleared his throat; Sean’s head came up anxiously, hound-scenting for interloping authorities—Michael Rafferty, Gardaí, the coroner from Tullamore, looming large as a judge of legend by now. A wren shrilled and checked in the moss somewhere, the little bird-king.

As accurately as if he pronounced a benediction, Jimmy Connolly said, “Rest in peace, you spawn-hearted bastard, if that means you never trouble another soul more. May God not remember where he put you and the Devil never forget.” And then we piled a green footing of well-spread sods over the damp seam in the earth and Sean MacMahon started talking about the coroner again and Dan Wall stood longest of all over the grave and I could not read a thing about him. Behind them, Katharine lingered, and I went to catch up with her, not knowing if she wanted me to.

Her stride would have been nearly as long as mine, if not for her skirts. We were nearly off Rafferty’s ground before she said, “You promised to show me your queen of the bog. Before the police and the doctors came for her.”

“Aye. I will. There’s still time. Didn’t you hear Sean, fretting he wouldn’t be there to see her unveiling? She’s this way.” And I should have said nothing more, nothing that was not the weather or the time or the scholarly speculations of Jimmy Connolly, but her face was sky-silhouetted beneath mine and she looked younger with her arms crossed in their knot of plaid, her hair wind-loosened on her shoulders, and it was not her fault that I had seen her weep in dreams: “You didn’t tell me.”

“What should I tell you, Roddy Mathews?” She did not glance upward at me, as coolly as her voice lifted; she did not even slacken her pace. “Where I was born? The names of my parents? How I came to my marriage and what happened after I was wed? What did you ask me when first you came to my door that I should have told you anything?” A beat of silence, the ankle-brush of tussocks of sedge and bell-pink heath. How slender her shoulders had felt within my arms, how she had tongued my fingertips and the sun had fired red lights in her undone hair the first time we met by day. “What did you tell me of yourself?”

I bit back, No more than you didn’t want to know; I said finally, “Not enough, it seems.”

Her mouth flicked up at one corner. Her eyes were a ruddier green when the sun scattered out of its clouds, paler when they slid over it again. “There was a woman,” she said at last, very quietly. “What she was like, it doesn’t matter. It mattered that he found us. He didn’t… God’s truth, I believe he didn’t understand at first what he was seeing. When he understood, he broke my ribs.” Her voice was as clear as a clerk in a court of law. “No one would tell me if she died.”

“Was it after that you killed him?”

She looked at me then, with the plumy heads of bog cotton caught in the folds of her skirt and her eyes the color of moss. I could see her hands tarnished silver if I tried, a halter of leather about her crushed throat, her dark hair bleached to bog-rust and her face folded to the peat as if to a long-aching rest, but Dan had been wrong about who ended up in the pools of Móin Alúine, and maybe Jimmy had, too, for all his care and erudition, and I had been wrong about the reasons Katharine Morgan would not touch me. I could still feel a dead woman’s fingers inside me, unafraid as time. If I had opened myself as fearlessly to the living woman beside me, would it have changed anything? Nothing but the summer, I thought: and that might have been enough.

“Is this her, your peat woman?”

Katharine’s hand went out to my arm, stopped me mid-stride. Sean had been as good as his word, laying a mosaic of damp sods from half-hidden ribcage to hairline so that the familiar peat covered her everywhere, molded itself again to her metallic skin like water filling to its own level; when I knelt to unbury her, I felt uneasily as though I was pulling a coffin-lid from a face, not showing off an archaeological find. Her eyes were still closed, her lips curved by their last thought or the workings of the bog. The red of her hair was startling as a wound, penny-bright at the wreck of her throat. Even the gleam of her bones was graceful. I could not answer; I heard Roddy’s sweetheart, your lass, and I knew she had ceased to be anyone’s with the break of her neck.

“She came out of the peat. She’s no more mine…” I said it finally: “She’s no more mine than you are, Katharine Morgan.”

Her smile was an odd, sad crease in her wind-flushed face, very like the silvery expression wried at our feet. Like she was saying a vow back to me, “No more than you’re mine, Roddy Mathews,” and I had never expected anything else, but for a moment I could think only of her mouth opening to mine, the salt heat and slick of her body, the way her fingers gripped briefly and hotly in my hair. The tannin-cold tongue of the girl from Móin Alúine, dead years before Christ and closer to me than the Church had ever been. She had loved me, or I would never have dreamed of her. She had loved Desmond Morgan, too, and shown him to me as a love-gift, to ease my other lover’s mind, before taking him in again for the last time. It was not my place after all to lie beside her all the long, hungry centuries. It never had been.

“Aye,” I said, and it hurt less than I thought it would. Her hand was still on my sleeve; I put my own over it, just as if we were walking out together, and took a breath as deep as if I was going to ask her for an hour of her time after church. “You’d have made a fine queen of the land in Connolly’s ancient days, do you know that?” And before she could make any answer or I could lose my nerve, I added, “A fine king of the land, too, and not the dying kind.”

Her hand was warm under mine, not eel-cold silver, and she was not pulling away. Around us the bog stretched away to the sky, rust-green and tawny and engulfing as time, the thin moment we stood on that at any moment could give way: a kiss, a knife, a new road at the end of the season. The mirror that showed me myself, not just the two misapprehensions I was meant to choose from. The coroner from Tullamore. Rafferty himself would be here soon, and like as not the Gardaí and a trail of sightseers with him. But Katharine was still studying the calm dead face beneath us, and the peat girl still lay half in the wet earth that was hers more than any museum cabinet could be, and I cared less if Rafferty found me idling than if I walked away, this time, before I was ready to be gone. The murderer and the sacrifice, nobody’s victims. We waited for history to find us.

Sonya Taaffe’s short fiction and poetry can be found mostly recently in the collection Ghost Signs (Aqueduct Press) and in the anthologies Heiresses of Russ 2016: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction, The Museum of All Things Awesome and That Go Boom, and An Alphabet of Embers: An Anthology of Unclassifiables. She edits poetry for Strange Horizons, lives in Somerville with her husband and two cats, and once named a Kuiper belt object.

Other Influences

Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg – The thing is — and I’m finally starting to admit this to myself — I don’t believe there’s a puzzle here. There’s no way to turn these jagged pieces into a smooth picture of something that makes sense. First you’d have to crack off the extra material and file the edges down, like you’re shaping a mosaic from pottery shards; you have to break away more and more to even get the right shape. This story is like a vase made from other, broken vases. And maybe it will hold water when you’re finished, but probably it won’t.

Red Mask, by Jessica May Lin – Before she jumped, Feng Guniang used to tell me about her suicide, during our cigarette breaks when we danced at the Green Dream, her white-lacquered nails trailing against the web of her fishnet tights. We smoked in the shadowy corners behind the opium dens on Jiameng Street, where the lights from the neon advertising boards couldn’t touch us. The new opium dens are all styled like the old red mansions of the Ming Dynasty, complete with heavy doors twice as tall as we were.

Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde – On her second day studying in the Monteverde, Arminae Ganit stared at damp sky framed by beech leaves and fiddleheads and wished she could photosynthesize. She touched fingertips to the thick loam at her feet. Moist air slicked her cheeks and dampened her t-shirt so her pack’s straps rubbed at the skin beneath. The forest’s shifting clouds dappled Arminae’s hands dark and light. She imagined her fingers exuding roots; her hair, fruit and leaves.