Category Archives: Fiction

If a bear… by Kathrin Köhler

You know in the same way that anyone who lives in an isolated village in a deep-shadowed wood knows anything: It’s been repeated so often you’ve choked on it since you were a child. One day a bear will show up at your doorstep.

No one tells you what to do when the bear arrives. They tease with pointless tales of how Aunt Sisi was so busy chopping wood she almost missed hers (she never chopped wood again), and how Alte Nina’s bear came for her in the church (the villagers pretend shock, but no one’s surprised; she was too beautiful for her own good).

The implications dangle there unsaid except in the side-glances of the women, a secret language you have not yet been entrusted with or figured out. When you are able to wheedle any extra words, it is from a grandmother who cackles in a way that suggests deep knowledge or lack of caring (probably both), but all she says is “You’ll know.” You tell her this isn’t advice. She shoos you away.

You spend most of your time wandering in the wood with the trees and violets (they say exactly what they mean), and you forget about bears and things left unsaid.

When it finally happens, you are surprised: The bear doesn’t arrive in late winter (mad with starvation, willing to eat just about anything). The bear lumbers by in early summer, a few days after the solstice. The damselflies and squirrels and hedgehogs are all busy whirring and rustling deep under the canopy. It is amid this tableau that the bear knocks on the doorframe (the frame because the door is wide open for the breeze). It looks at you sitting at the table, the mending piled beside you.

Despite the lack of specific direction, you’re somewhat prepared. You’ve made a bed of leaves and wool and feathers in the corner near the hearth. You’ve even hung some cut glass and dried flowers about the nest-bed; perhaps this is more a thing for Waschbären than regular bears, but you figure it’s a nice gesture all the same.

According to the tales, you should either caress the bear and lure it into slumber, hoping that it doesn’t become enraged by your affection; or you should cut off its head, wrap yourself in the still-warm fur and lick your new blood. You’ve never enjoyed luring or skinning, so you hope that your company and the nest-bed are an acceptable compromise.

Now that the bear is finally here, you take a deep breath, let yourself unfurl, and relish that you have nothing left to wait for—the bear is here. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. Probably soon.

The bear enters with more deliberateness and grace than you imagined such a massive creature could muster. It does not make itself small, just knows where its body is and is not. The bear hands you a bouquet of wood violets and says “hi.” You realize you weren’t expecting a female bear. Not that the bear’s voice is light or lilting. It is not. Her voice is a deep, powerful rumble that shakes the floor and your bones.

You rinse out a cup for the violets and arrange them. You move your mending aside and give the flowers the center of the table. “They’re my favorite. How did you know?”

“We get around,” she says.

This reminds you that she may be tired after her travels, so you show her the bed. The bear follows you to the corner and turns in circles until the leaves and fluff are settled. She lies down with a great sigh.

Her napping gives you time to think. Not that you arrive at any conclusions, but still. What you do have time to do is mend two shirts, put away the morning dishes, and reach a composure akin to inevitability, if not acceptance.

When the bear wakes, she stretches and walks into the kitchen to make coffee. “What do you do for fun around here?” she asks over her shoulder.

You try to remember what the rest of the villagers do for entertainment. Gossip and dance, you suppose. And complain. What you do is keep to yourself, wander in the wood, pick violets, and hunt mushrooms. You wonder If a bear… might like this, but a shyness creeps over you and you say nothing. With voices like that, bears probably prefer dancing and complaining.

“Not the others. They’re idiots.” The bear takes down two cups and pours the coffee. “I’m curious about you,” she says as she seats herself across the table.

She sips her coffee, eyes closing. Her rumbled “ahh” rattles the windowpanes. A resonance flutters in your own throat. She drains her coffee and pours another, offers you more, but you raise your hand “no.”

“I don’t want to make assumptions about you…” The bear looks around your cottage. There isn’t much in here except what’s needed, plus your own few touches: flowers, interesting rocks and pine cones, bones and geodes—things you found on your walks. “…but maybe you’d like to come with me.”

It’s been a day of surprises. “I thought when bears come, they stay.”

The bear blows on her coffee. The steam billows and stirs the fur on her face. In a wind, she must look like a god. “We can do what we want.”

It’s your turn to look around, though you know you’re going to say “yes.”

The bear knows, too, because she is smiling when your inventory of the cottage comes back around to the table and the two of you.

“And the violets?” you ask.

“They’re a great snack,” the bear says, and pops one in her mouth. “They were used in love potions. Wholly unnecessary. But they do make an excellent wine.”

You try one. The flavor surprises you: It tastes of sunlight and shadow and tenacity, reminding you that violets grow wherever they want. You’re not surprised when the bear tells you it’s her favorite flower as well.

Kathrin Köhler is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop and the University of Wisconsin – Madison. An immigrant interested in the interstitial and ideas interdisciplinary, they are most comfortable writing in places “between.” Favorite topics include the power of narrative, what it means to belong, and how people conceive of and interact with nature. Their work has appeared in Interfictions, Strange Horizons, the Book Smugglers, and other fine places. Author website at theliteratecondition.wordpress.com.

 

Other beasts of the wood:

Even In This Skin, A.C. Wise

Cantor’s Dragon, by Craig DeLancey

The Seaweed and the Wormhole by Jenn Grunigen

The Imitation Sea, by Lora Gray

You find the dead Angel at five a.m. in the slurry of broken bottles and rotting fish on the Lake Erie shore. It almost looks human in the morning light, a ten-year-old, maybe eleven, boyish, face bloated, limp and blue and doughy.

You can smell the rot, sour-sweet like flowers left too long in vases and chemical-sharp like gasoline. It reminds you of that abandoned gas station you and Jack first fucked in, the one with the chains looped over the doors and the gaping, fractured windows. The one with a musty stock room and flattened cardboard boxes that greased your shirt with motor oil. You still have that shirt, unwashed and stained, in a shoebox under your bed.

You know that smell.

It takes you ten minutes to wrestle the Angel out of the cold sand. It’s heavier than you anticipated. Maybe it’s the soggy wings. Maybe it’s the waterlogged tubing buried beneath its skin. In any case, the weight resigns you to dragging, and you shuffle backward past galleries of picnic tables stacked and upended for the off-season, the Angel’s feet snaking through the late autumn scrub.

Its legs kick out at inconvenient angles as you wedge it into the trunk of your Dodge, but eventually the Angel fits, its face slumped against the wheel well, lips shucked away from pale and unnervingly even teeth. You almost expect it to speak. To sing.

Of course, it’s silent. It’s dead. But you still roll down the window and strain to hear it over the road noise and shush-shush of Lake Erie waves.

You never told Jack, but when you were a little boy, you thought Lake Erie was an ocean, a long blue-black tongue lapping its way into Canada. You were convinced there were sharks in that water. Whales. Jellyfish. Sunken pirate ships. Lost cities. Mermaids. Squid the size of buses. Sea monsters the length of football fields. Underwater kingdoms five fathoms deep.

In second grade you learned real oceans didn’t stink like melted rubber and rotting fish. Oceans weren’t peppered with warning signs about toxic algae and unsafe levels of bacteria. They didn’t have that conspicuous line of land squatting on the horizon if you squinted your eyes just so.

Lake Erie was just a lake.

That summer, when July settled its fat green heat over Cleveland, you watched the freshwater waves suck at your toes and imagined the lake devouring you. Jack was on vacation with his dad in Saint Martin. Your mom had abandoned you for the afternoon (this time for a lifeguard named Todd), and it wasn’t as if she could afford an Angel to watch over you. You were all alone. Nothing could stop Lake Erie from swallowing you if it really wanted to.

It would lick the meat from your legs, slurp your bones away, and you’d march home on the stumps of your thighs, a victim of an imitation sea. Later, you’d find the remains your dismembered shins, next to the ‘sea’ shells and ‘sea’ glass, picked clean by ‘sea’ gulls. You’d sell your toes to tourists and hawk tickets to the spot where the tragedy occurred. You’d use the money to fly to Saint Martin and spend the rest of the summer with Jack.

As smaller, richer kids tottered past you, carrying half-melted popsicles and buckets of pebbles, Angels floating dutifully behind them, you closed your eyes. Under the water, your legs grew cold. Weightless. Numb. When Mom finally reappeared and called for you, you cracked open one eye and carefully, carefully, you looked down.

Your legs were still there.

You shuffled, sunburned and silent, back to the car and wondered how you would tell Jack about it when he finally returned. You tried to pull comfort from the fact that the rocky sand left toothy dimples in your thighs. You rubbed at them the whole ride home as if you could press them into your bones as evidence.

You remember the day Jack told you about selling dead Angels. You were fifteen and huddled under his back porch, pot smoke in your hair and eyes, the afternoon light spilling golden through the tight, even slats. You remember how he plucked the joint from your fingers, his lips plump and flushed around it. His Angel hadn’t found you yet. You managed to ditch it for thirty minutes. It was a record.

“There are these scrap dealers that buy dead Angels for parts,” Jack said. “And these upcycle sites that make clocks out of their guts. Tables out of their faces. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. All that shit. You remember my cousin in Utah?” You nodded and nestled your head against Jack’s shoulder. He fed you a drag. “He collects them. He’s got this walk-in freezer with rows of them tacked behind glass like fucking butterflies. He wants to buy mine off my mom when it dies.”

Jack wrapped one arm around your shoulders then, the other around your waist, like he was clinging to a buoy, like he was afraid he’d drown in porch dust and flaking paint. His eyes darted toward the crooked opening beneath the steps. Every passing car could be his Angel’s wings. Every flying bird, his Angel’s shadow. His parents had put him on house arrest the last time he’d ditched it and then they had taken him to a doctor because they thought he was ‘exhibiting alarming behavior patterns.’ Jack had just wanted twenty minutes alone with you.

“I don’t want them making money off any of it,” Jack whispered.

“So what do you want to do with your Angel, then?” you asked.

Jack tightened his arms. “Burn it,” he said.

On the drive home, you think about how you want to tell Jack that there’s a market for that too now. There’s the Angel Memorial Crematorium on Sixth Street. And there are megachurches that will pay to burn them on their live streams. You’ve seen the popup ads, the preachers with oily hair and slick designer suits shouting about sacrilege while heaps of feathers and flesh stamped with “Heaven’s Helpers INC” smoke in the background. Cash for unwanted Angels! Save the children! Save your soul! Subscribe subscribe subscribe!

You could use the money, but you won’t sell the Angel you found in the lake. As you pull your Dodge into the long, uneven driveway of your apartment, you already know what you’re going to do with it.

You heft the Angel out of the trunk and into your arms. You aren’t going to scrap it. You drag the Angel through the back door. You aren’t going to sell it. You lay the Angel on the kitchen floor in the nook where a refrigerator once lived and you watch sunlight spill onto the ruined cherubic face.

You’re going to resurrect it.

Angels were still toys when Jack moved to town. You were only seven, but you remember the commercials, the jingle, the bright white boxes plastered with cartoon halos and broad, smiling faces. They had feather wings. Or fairy wings or bat wings or airplane wings that dusted glitter onto sidewalks and kitchen tables. They were customizable. Some of them had fiberoptic hair or bellies that doubled as nightlights. They sang lullabies and pop songs and came preprogramed with Angel Apps and links to the official Angel Accessories site.

Jack was the first kid you knew who had one.

He walked into your classroom like a whisper, spindly arms crossed behind his back as if he were trying to fold himself inside out. His Angel floated behind him like a balloon child on an invisible string, round face beaming, pale eyes fixed solely and forever on Jack.

After the teacher had introduced him to the class, she told Jack to leave his ‘doll’ in his cubby until the end of the day. Jack’s cheeks flushed as he grabbed his Angel by one fat ankle and tugged it to the back of the room, wrestling it into the narrow space between parkas and muddy yellow boots. The class giggled. One of the back-row boys threw an eraser at him when he took his seat.

Jack was ‘the kid with a doll’ after that. He sat alone at lunch and spent recess huddled against the side of the building, staring at faraway places nobody else could see. You wondered what he was looking at, if he came from a school where all the kids had Angels. If he had any friends there. If he was lonely like you.

When the art teacher sat you next to each other, you asked if Jack wanted to borrow your scissors. He looked at you like he wasn’t sure if it was a gift or a trick, so you smiled. He smiled back. Together, you ripped pages out of old magazines, the real paper kind, splashed with jewelry ads and bright toothpaste smiles. A closeup of a gecko’s eye. Two men on a sailboat, leaning together as if they were about to share a secret. You cut them into pieces, giggling as you pasted them back together, upside down and inside out, hilariously monstrous and perfect.

Two years later, when the Angels became ‘tools not toys,’ Jack’s parents were the first to buy a safety camera attachment. Retina recognition. Imprint technology. Jack’s Angel became his babysitter and tutor. It recorded his sleep patterns and monitored his cognitive development and growth percentiles, his caloric intake and expenditure. His play. But even when half the kids at school had Angels hovering over their shoulders and you didn’t have one of your own, you were still the only one who played with Jack. You were the only one who knew how many times Jack tried to drown his Angel in the bathtub or trick it into flying into traffic. You were the only one who went to the lake with him in fifth grade when he hacked his Angel’s GPS and ordered it to fly to the moon.

You sat beside him on the cold, November sand, his hand brushing against yours as you passed a bag of stale corn chips between you and watched his Angel ascend. You craned your neck, hand shielding your eyes, watching as it went higher and higher until it became a slowly circling dot, a speck, and then, gradually, nothing at all.

You held your breath, wondering if the Angel would break apart because of the altitude or just keep going up and up forever.

“Bet it can see Canada from there,” Jack said, his hand poised at the lip of the chip bag even though there was nothing left. His profile was still, his head tipped back, his eyes fixed on an empty, blue sky.

When the Angel descended ten minutes later, mission aborted but intact, ticking off facts about Apollo 11 and the 1969 moon landing, you were the only one who saw Jack cry.

You tell yourself you are doing this because your therapist says new hobbies are normal and healthy. Don’t you want to be healthy again? Don’t you want to be normal?

You don’t mention the dead Angel in your therapy sessions, though.

Instead, you dismantle the Angel’s arms in secret, peeling away synthetic skin and tugging out wires like worms onto the kitchen floor. Then it’s the chest, flayed into wide sections, white and gelatinous, heart a fist of tubes and pumps, lungs like purple sponges. The brain spills over the linoleum like soup. The eyes are delicate as uncooked eggs. The wings are so rotten that, when you finally pull them out to clean them, the stench drags your breakfast out of your gut in one startling heave. It takes you an hour to clean up the mess.

The Angel is a collage of circuitry and organic layers that you don’t really understand, so you begin reading tutorials. Angels 101: A Complete Guide. The Heavenly Phenomenon. Angels for Dummies. Gradually, you lose yourself in textbooks about bioengineering and computer programming. Robotics. Design. Anatomy. Alchemy. Religion. You begin surfing the deep web for secrets. You plot how you might trick dormant organic tissue into repair and regeneration mode without original purchase codes. You learn how to substitute plastic bags for air bladders, fan blades for propellers, a marble for one hopeless eye.

For months, the Angel consumes you.

Some nights, you fall asleep beside it, slumped against the kitchen cabinets, a dislocated hand nestled in your arms. Sometimes you don’t sleep at all and you are never quite sure if the memory of soft whispers is a dream or if you somehow miraculously teased the Angel to life in the middle of the night only to have it die again before sunrise.

You work on it through your morning coffee, cup in one hand, wrench in the other. You turn its half-formed head toward the kitchen door when you leave and you imagine what its voice will sound like.

“Goodbye.”

“Have a nice day.”

“Stay. Just a little longer. Please. Please, stay.”

When you were fourteen, you became fascinated by Jack’s voice. It tripped over itself when he laughed. It broke toward something deeper and dangerously adult when he whispered and everything inside you curled. You couldn’t stop thinking about the veins emerging on the backs of his hands, winding like secret rivers toward his fingers. You wanted him to touch you. You dreamed about him touching you. And you couldn’t look directly at him when you wrestled anymore because he was breathless and flushed and on top of you and awkwardly, impossibly beautiful.

When Jack first kissed you, under a Lake Erie dock where his ditched Angel hadn’t found you yet, he told you he was going to leave his eyes open because he’d never kissed another boy before and he wanted to see if it was more or less real than kissing girls.

You kept your eyes closed.

You knew how real it was.

As he leaned in close, the world inside you capsized and you were certain your heart was going to beat out of your chest, tumble end over end past the orange safety net and empty vodka bottles at your feet and down into the hungry water. You imagined it breaking into a thousand digestible pieces. How would you ever be able to survive without it? When your chapped lips collided, the entirety of you shattered like a ship against a breaker wall. You became flotsam. Jetsam. Lagan. Derelict. The pieces of you scattered so deep you knew you’d never be able to recover them all.

You weren’t sure you wanted to.

It’s an April afternoon when you finally begin stitching your dead Angel together again. Torso propped between your legs, you tenderly tuck the restored parts back into its skin, the plastic gears and motors and layers of wet muscle. You reposition regenerated organs. You reunite wires. You secure delicate bolts. When the Angel is nearly whole, you deposit the voice box deep in its narrow throat, a waxy pearl swaddled in meat and electrical tethers. You key in the final, pirated code and murmur “please work, please work, please work” like a mantra.

There is a rattle and the Angel begins to hum fitfully against you. You stroke its hair, try to imagine the hacked nanites diving into the Angel’s veins and cavities, connecting organic tissue to inorganic armatures, weaving one world into another and bridging the gaps your hands could never hope to mend.

Jack died three days before his seventeenth birthday. You told yourself then that it wasn’t real. You didn’t see it happen. He hadn’t taken you with him when he went to the beach this time. He only took his Angel. And a can of lighter fluid. And book of matches and a bottle of pills and his dad’s handgun. You didn’t see him burn his Angel, torching it so it couldn’t save him. You didn’t see him take pill after pill after pill. You didn’t see him panic. You didn’t see him pull the trigger.

It couldn’t be real.

Reality wasn’t Jack laughing sadly against your shoulder one day and dead before breakfast the next. Reality wasn’t a closed casket because Jack had blown half his jaw away. Reality wasn’t a funeral with Jack’s uncle lamenting a dead Angel instead of a dead nephew.

Reality was a dirty lake pretending to be an ocean.

Reality was six months of Xanax and broken dishes and flunking out of math because you threw up the day the teacher called you Jack’s name by mistake. Reality was sneaking into an abandoned gas station to mourn, and crying and jerking off instead and hating yourself for it. Reality was a dock with vodka bottles and an orange safety net lodged so deep in the sand the waves couldn’t dig it out. Beached fish tangled in it instead. Every day you watched their slow dissolve into silence.

And as six months became a year, became three, and your loneliness never healed, you began to believe that your reality, too, must be silence.

It’s after midnight when the Angel begins to sing.

You’d fallen asleep with its body cradled in your arms, its forehead pressed against yours, the smell of ozone and plastic and regenerated flesh all around you. It’s the sudden intake of air that wakes you, the thin, reedy inhalation buzzing through a reconstructed throat. Your head is on the linoleum, your neck is cramped, but you don’t move. You are terrified that this isn’t real, that the sound will dissipate like smoke or sea foam if you jostle it. So you lie there, barely breathing, anticipation trembling through you. You watch as the Angel’s throat quivers. It swallows. It smiles.

It sings.

It’s a tuneless sound, broad and soft as whale song, static fizzing distantly behind it like an incoming tide. The Angel’s lips are slightly out of sync, forming O’s and A’s a beat too late, and there are no consonants, only round noises swelling through the moonlit kitchen like slow, summer air.

When you were kids, Jack brought you back a conch shell from Saint Martin. It came wrapped in bright paper, a sailboat and a sunrise repeating forever around the uneven shape. You sat together on his bed, shoulder to shoulder, and he showed you how to hold the shell against your ear, how if you listened carefully, you could hear the sea roaring toward you. You passed the shell back and forth, waves flowing between you, deep and steady and real as a pulse.

Now, when you finally gather the courage to move, you press your ear to the Angel’s lips. You close your eyes. You listen to it sing until the sun comes up, willing the sound of the ocean into you until all you hear is the rush of salt waves and the truth of deep sea water.

Lora Gray’s writing has appeared in various publications including The Dark, Flash Fiction Online, Liminal Stories and Strange Horizons. A graduate of Clarion West, Lora currently lives in Northeast Ohio with a handsome husband and a freakishly smart cat named Cecil. When they aren’t writing, Lora also works as an illustrator, dance instructor and occasionally moonlights as a voice over artist and musician. You can find them online at www.loragray.weebly.com or on twitter @LoraJGray.

Other Angels:

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

Anna Saves Them All, by Seth Dickinson

Serein, by Cat Hellisen

 

They Have a Name For That, by Sara Beitia

“I don’t get this,”she says to her father about the station promo playing on the muted TV.

Daddy blinks—at the screen, not her.

They’ve been waiting for the local weather report, or at least she has. There’s no telling what’s on his mind. He’s in his favorite chair, and she’s pushing her luck on the chintz loveseat no one’s supposed to sit on except to delicately perch, as per Mother. (It’s still firm and shiny like a showroom piece, which is Mother’s preference.)

She’s trying to make polite conversation with her father while they wait to be shooed, bossed, or otherwise put to work in service of The Wedding, caps audible. The early light through the window is honey-gold, like it always is in this rosy little room this time of year.

What don’t you get, my dear?” she supplies for him when Daddy glances up but doesn’t speak. It’s harder for her mouth to form the words than it should be.

She notices sweat slicking his brow line, and remembers how even at dawn this little room just roasts this time of year. She realizes sweat has beaded her forehead, too, under the fur of which there’s now a little more.

“See,” she says, gesturing at the smiling blonde on the screen, “they have the girl—I think she’s the weather gal?—holding up a smartphone and telling us how great their app is. You know what an app is, Dad?”

Not that she expects a back-and-forth. She feels guilty about visiting so rarely even though Mother and Cal have described Daddy’s decline.

“But then when they cut to the close-up of the phone app, the hand holding the phone is a man’s: Big thick fingers and hairy knuckles. So you only ever see her face and those gorilla mitts. Implication: those are her man hands. Why didn’t someone notice that when they edited the promo?”

Daddy makes a funny noise in his throat and widens his eyes in alarm. His eyebrows like two white stoats slink upward.

“Oh, Dad, don’t worry. It’s funny is all. Like if I had hands like yours. Or you had hands like mine.” She holds up her hands, rotating them front to back like a model. “Silly, see?”

This doesn’t help. She wishes she hadn’t tried to draw him out. He’s showing signs of agitation, and it’s not as if he was such scintillating company even when he still had all his marbles. She sighs. It’s understood that today has to be one of his good ones, given the occasion, but no one can say how that’s to be achieved, exactly, beyond hoping.

If he remains docile, though, the gradual loss of his mind has smoothed his already handsome brow, which will make for some terrific wedding photos. (Unfair when he’d be judged least for a failure on that.) Haircut’s on but nobody’s home. Assuming, too, he doesn’t forget the guests and the cameras, shed his suit on the lawn. Assuming Mother doesn’t forget her famous company manners. Assuming Cal doesn’t forget she’s happy and start crying. Assuming the prodigal sister remains presentable, which is very much in question; she can feel something welling up, ready to pop like a boil. This is not hyperbole.

She hopes to miss the quarrel over how to purge those who don’t live up to photogenic standard from the wedding album, and other tribulations so very relatable. She hopes to be on a plane by then. The argument will smell like hairspray and white wine and sulfur.

Mother insists everyone always said what an attractive quartet the family was, and there’s a stair wall lined with years of family portraits to bear this out. And now Cal and her groom will have children of their own, probably immediately, and they’ll be beautiful, of course, because Calliope won’t have it otherwise, and somehow that’ll settle it, because her life is a fairytale, so she can’t conceive otherwise. It’s not her fault.

And will these cherubs have the family’s standard gray eyes, or Calliope’s medium blue? What color are Charlie’s eyes? She’s only met him a handful of times, and his handsomeness exists whole-cloth to her, not in details she can recount. It’s more a knowledge, like the sky is blue: Cal’s fiancé is handsome.

Eyes on the TV and not Daddy, she finds herself still babbling about those TV anchor’s mismatched mitts. “Maybe she’s a prima donna,” she muses, “and they wanted to make her look foolish.”

“Stop confusing him,” commands a voice that even in annoyance is smooth-polished maple wood. This is Mother’s stealth entrance into the little sitting room.

“Only making conversation.” She isn’t sure why she tries when she’s so bad at it. Calliope is much better at handling their father, now that he needs handling. It’s not like Cal was always his favorite and there’s some residual, decontextualized preference; all their lives Daddy seemed to hold a roughly equal genial indifference to both his daughters. But Calliope’s getting ready, so it falls to the less-qualified daughter to watch him.

Mother rolls her eyes. “He’s having a bad enough day already. Thinks today’s his uncle’s funeral. And your sister’s already beside herself, of course.” It’s clear Mother means about the bees, though she’s the one who’s been in a tizzy. “Breakfast is ready.”

“I have to finish the words,” Daddy pipes up suddenly. “The speech to give.” Then he shouts, “The eulogy!” and rubs his hands back and forth along the thighs of his trousers.

“After we eat,” his wife says firmly, reaching out to hold his chin in her hand for a moment of sustained eye contact.

Mother leaves without waiting to see if the two of them follow; she assumes they will, and she’s correct. The not-getting-married-today daughter stands and offers her father an arm, but he waves her off irritably and practically leaps from the chair with no trouble. He pauses to shoot his cuffs, like he’s headed someplace where impressions matter. She remembers to turn the television off, knowing how Mother feels about such things.

There’s an extra charge of nervous electricity in the air, as there always is before a hundred people converge on a place. She can’t understand why Cal chose to have her wedding here—beautiful as their parents’ home is, with the view of the valley and the aspen grove and Mother’s garden—when she could’ve just booked a venue and let someone else worry about infestations and spots on the lawn and where to put the tables and chairs and the tulle-draped arch where the officiant will bind Charlie and Calliope foreverandever in the eyes of God, or at least for an agreed-upon time in the eyes of the state.

The visiting daughter hasn’t seen the nuclear family for some time before this wedding weekend, but somehow the four of them have fallen again into established rhythms and old patterns. Daddy and Mother are the monoliths again, and the sisters are co-conspirators and semi-rivals again, and these things had ceased to be true before this time-travel interlude and will evaporate again once she’s gone and Cal’s off on her honeymoon.

The course of her life has advanced apart from this airless pocket. Neither her parents nor her sister know she was married—fleetingly—and bereaved. If “bereaved” is the word for a sort of wistful serendipity. She never mentioned either when they happened, and now several years have passed and it seems like a scene excised from someone else’s script anyway.

She emailed Cal a couple pictures of Levi and her at the beginning of things, snapshots and vacation pics and arm-in-arm at other people’s celebrations. And she mentioned him occasionally during infrequent duty calls to the homestead. Mother referred to him as “your fellow” if she ever referred to him and never probed, so it was easy to let it drop once he phased himself out.

Unlike Daddy, she finds the short walk to the dining room taxing. The floors are slick and her balance is off and her feet hurt, having become quite narrow as her toes fuse and grow hard. She’s afraid to say anything at this eleventh hour, but her wedding shoes for sure don’t fit anymore. Not with these hooves she’s sporting. Calliope will defecate bricks if things keep up this way.

Daddy’s mind, then the termites, the gophers, the bees, and now this. The headline in Cal’s head will read “Awful Sister Is Last Straw,” though maybe that’s not fair to Cal. She was reasonable enough before the wedding warp-sped away with her equanimity. Maybe it’ll be “Universe Ruins Calliope’s Big Day” instead. The patch of coarse white fur that’s been creeping over her stomach itches, but she resists the urge to scratch.

A thick perfume finds her from the formal living room. The wedding flowers fill it because they can’t be put outside until the bees are gone. Her stomach rumbles as she toddles past to the breakfast table.

“Egg?” Mother hovers a shallow spoon over her plate with an expectant look. “Daddy,” she says, “pass her the toast.”

“Egg, yes, thank you.” She treats her mother as politely as waitstaff, which is all the woman ever wanted when the girls were growing up. Not help, just: respect. Hard-won when your kids know your weak spot.

Water under the bridge, she thinks, feeling out of context and free. She shed this place like a snake skin when she left for college and never really came back. It’s no longer a part of her but a remnant, like a neat scar.

Her fingers ache and stiffen, but she forces them clumsily around the fork and refuses to look.

Ignores the tiny

darn, there’s more

that pops into her head.

She stabs the yolk of the poached egg and watches it run over her toast. She glances up to see Mother watching Daddy eat. Mother has the sugar bowl in both hands, clamping the lid down with one and cradling the bottom in the other, and gives it one deliberate, emphatic shake. She doesn’t even know she’s doing it, so ingrained is the gesture. Does anyone else give their sugar bowl such a violent jostle before dishing out a spoonful? Does anyone else dread clumping crystals as Mother does?

“Today is going well,” Mother says, in the middle of an imaginary conversation with no one in particular. Shake. “Considering. I think it’s going to be a beautiful day. Have you heard from Charlie?” she asks Calliope, who’s just slipped wordlessly into her chair at the table.

“Don’t,” Cal says. She helps herself to a grapefruit half and takes the sugar bowl right out of Mother’s hands. “I’m this close to losing it,” she says, but she looks showroom-fresh as always, rested and subtly tanned. She snaps at her sister, “Are you going to shave your legs?”

“I hadn’t thought about it,” the hairy-legged sister fibs, startled by Cal’s prescience. Her nostrils flare, and several more interesting smells hit her at once.

Passing Cal a piece of toast Cal won’t eat, Mother says, “Once we get the bees sorted, everything will be perfect,” and receives a snort in response.

The daughter who’s already eaten her toast thinks about all the exterminations deemed necessary this week. She says, “This place is turning into a slaughterhouse.”

“Oh, come on.” Cal rolls her eyes.

“Please,” Mother says.

“Bees, bugs, rodents,” she ticks off a sluggish tongue. “Hey, remember the rabbits? When Cal and I were small?”

Mother acts like she doesn’t. The daughter who remembers can still see the ravaging their mother’s vegetables took that year, and their mother’s tearful rage at every ruined plant, and the un-cute reality that in no way resembled a Peter Rabbit storybook.

(“You like your tomatoes and raspberries and spring peas, or do you prefer those damn bunnies?” Daddy asked rhetorically as he tried to remember which shelf held the box of birdshot. The sisters had ultimately preferred the tomatoes; the rabbits were mangy, flea-bitten, angry little thieves. They felt the blood on their hands, even so.)

Thinking of rabbits makes her flanks itch, and she scratches and scratches until Cal snaps at her to stop. Her ears twitch at the talking and dishes clanking and feet on floorboards. Were they always so loud?

Calliope isn’t diverted from her sister’s appearance. “Have your eyes always been so brown?”

“What a question!” their mother answers for her.

But Cal has more. “Can’t you do something about your ears?”

She’s tried for several days to explain her growing trouble, but each time she’s accused of being dramatic. There’s no point in trying again. She blinks, abashed.

“I’ve always admired your ears, Anna,” Daddy says to the daughter with the unacceptable ears. He winks. “You’re far too pretty for a funeral.”

Anna is his wife’s younger sister, and aunt and niece do—or did—look alike, more than the mother and daughter, people have said.

“Nestor, that’s your daughter, not Anna.” Mother’s eyes shine as she explains, “Your other daughter, Calliope, is getting married today.”

“Oh.” It’s obvious he’s confused. He goes back to dismembering his grapefruit. Then he asks, “Then who are we burying?”

“We’re not burying anyone!” That’s the good pepper from Mother. “The aviarist should be here by now,” she says, calm once more, changing the subject.

Is Cal bringing in doves? But no; uncontrollable cloacae are not her sister’s wedding style. “Apiarist?” she asks. “You mean a beekeeper?”

“Obviously that’s what I meant.” Mother looks at her wristwatch, because she still wears a wristwatch, a delicate rose gold thing her own mother gave her for her eighteenth birthday. “Where is he?”

They’re cutting it close with the wedding ceremony set for four, but the bees are a last-minute problem discovered only yesterday.

On cue, there’s a knock at the kitchen door. They all jump except Daddy. Mother pushes back from the table to go answer it, detonating a cryptic sigh that could be relief or annoyance or gas.

They hear voices from the kitchen, and Mother comes back with the bee guy, who’s still wearing a backpack and a repurposed tool belt and a battered straw hat he hasn’t removed indoors as a gentleman does. His face is so tanned, the recently brown-eyed daughter thinks, it’s age-indeterminate. She wonders what further bag of tricks he might’ve left outside.

Cal offers him coffee, and Daddy kicks out a chair from the table. The bee guy declines both with a headshake and a smile.

Mother, however, cuts to the chase. “How long will it take to kill the bees? We have a lot of setting up to do yet, and they’re very aggressive.” Said with palpable disapproval.

“I don’t kill them!” the bee guy exclaims with equally palpable disapproval. “I lure them away. I’m the Pied Piper.” Maybe to soften his lecturing vibe, he winks at the daughter who’s trying not to scratch her fuzzed legs. She’s a wink magnet today.

Mother’s right about the bees being aggressive, though; they look like harmless little honeybees, but they’re territorial and suicidal and mean as wasps.

But who isn’t? she thinks.

“Let’s get to it,” Mother says. Gesturing at the remains of breakfast, she says to the daughter not getting married, “Be a darling and clear this?”

“But my hands.” She holds them up to illustrate how suddenly inadequate she’s become.

Irritated, Mother rolls her eyes.

The bee guy follows Mother out the back door to see the fiends threatening to muck up Calliope’s wedding. Daddy trails. Cal mumbles something about the caterer and heads toward the front door while she taps out urgent messages on her phone.

For the moment, the house is quiet. She’s alone.

She doesn’t mean to wind up in the formal living room with all those flowers, but she does. They’re beautiful. They’re irresistible, like a pastry or a drug or a kiss.

Before she knows it, several of the flowers are destroyed or disappeared—eaten halfway down the stem, even the roses. Cherry blossoms right off the branch. Hydrangea puffs emptied, their tiny dismembered bits littering the carpet.

Golly, she thinks.

How much money just went into her stomach, she thinks.

Would it matter, she thinks, if she ate just a few more of the columbines. A buttercup or two. Consider the name, buttercup: It’s delectable.

And then she thinks, no one saw me.

But the damage is done, there’ll be no hiding it. And they’ll know it was her. Daddy might have taken the fall, except he’s hovering around the Congress of the Bees.

She doesn’t want to be here when Cal discovers the damage to her wedding regalia, so she makes her sly, laborious way out the back.

It’s a thick, sun-kissed morning that feels vibrant green, contrasting with the (guilt-perfumed and watchful) fever-yellow rooms inside. She gulps a lungful of heat and new-mown grass. She knows the property with her eyes closed, so ingrained are its paths and corners and plots and hollows.

Maybe it’s the occasion, but she recalls viscerally Levi’s handsomeness. She figures in retrospect it’s why, succumbing to impulse, she married him. She never did get around to dragging him to the old homestead. They both traveled for work, excuse enough, and figured they’d get around to it “down the road.” She can’t remember where his folks live, or whether they knew of the marriage; he never introduced her to his people, either. She can’t remember if she contacted them after Levi’s desertion, or if maybe some bureaucratic mechanism did the job.

He had a decent career photographing far-flung locales for various travel glossies. Mountains and rivers and skies and reefs and suns risings and suns setting—nature fetishized, tamed. The descriptor of his work that comes to her mind is efficient. She’d flown to the island to meet up with him on what turned out to be his last shoot. There was a new-moon night and a stunning comet, then innuendo and superstition and Levi gone. She was left with exotic flora and an empty tent. And she was relieved, in a way. After a couple months they both wanted out, in a low-grade fashion, though not badly enough to do anything about it. His disappearance had made the back pages here and there, but there wasn’t much of a story in “man swims, drowns.” Not if you weren’t famous.

“Humans are background in my spreads,” he informed her when they met: decorative, inoffensive, anonymous set-dressing. His pet project—the pictures that meant something to him—was livelier. His career was a pet project, but Levi nevertheless had another nestled inside it. The first time she went home with him, he showed her a portfolio of faces: stark and unlovely grimaces and sneers and snarls, scowls and frowns.

These are very convincing, she said, tracing finger over one woman’s arched upper lip, the tip of one protruding tooth.

They should be, he said. He closed the book in her hands and slid it out of her grip. Gently, decisively, like he did everything. The whole interlude should’ve annoyed her silly, but it didn’t. He was so very handsome.

Instead she asked, “How do you make them angry?”

He wouldn’t tell. Trade secret, he said. “Maybe I’ll do you one day.” It had been a tease, but also a challenge.

She doubted it. She was sure there was nothing in her to be mined, though she decided to let him discover that for himself.

But they ran out of time. After the second day on location wrapped, he went night swimming on his own, bravura that was really just showing off. She’s sure she tried to talk him out of it. And afterwards, well. That comet—while beautiful—was just a comet. Everyone there wanted so much for it to mean something, to be linked, to signify hidden depths, because they couldn’t conceive of Levi being gone for no cosmic reason at all.

The crew called in the disappearance, wrangled the report and supplied what details there were. She didn’t have to do anything.

“You’ve been touched by otherworld,” the lead producer told her through fat, angry tears, spitting otherworld like it was a known enemy who’d bested her before. The lead producer had worked with Levi many times, and clearly loved him.

She didn’t know what to say to otherworld, so she mumbled, “Thank you,” feeling inane. Her ankles were constellated with sand-flea bites.

Sometimes she likes to think Levi and his pet producer had manufactured his death so they could run off together. A romantic picture, even with herself omitted.

She’s tried to be comforted by the egalitarian, indifferent ways life might be hard or unfair.

It’s a long walk down to the trees, backwards through the arch and the lane between white folding chairs. She finds Mother and the bee guy watching a sluggish mound through a column of smoke rising from an apparatus that looks like a cross between an accordion and a coffee urn, with an old wheelbarrow for its base. Mother looks up as she approaches, and she appears to have been stung under one eye, the swelling creating a jaunty twinkle that’s very misleading.

The daughter who’s feeling sorry for the bees watches the smoke, feeling as disoriented as the insects. A few of the more stalwart bees mill around, but the bee guy, with a fistful of long juniper sprigs and an aluminum pie plate, ignores them.

The swarm swirls in its own pattern without really dispersing. Their electric hum swells. When the wind changes, the bees reform on the lilac branch and hunker down. Mother takes an unsteady step back, and who could blame her.

“Don’t you just … kidnap the queen?” Mother says loudly to the bee guy, who ignores her and watches the smoke. “This isn’t working.”

“Par for the course!” Cal calls, marching toward them with a denuded stem held between her thumb and forefinger like it’s something rotten. She pins her sister with an opaque look.

The sister who ate the flower averts her gaze.

Mother, oblivious, says, “We’ve never had trouble with honey bees before,” and it’s also obvious that she wants the bee guy to feel he has some culpability in this.

“So I’ll have wedding bees,” Cal says with a bark of laughter. “Maybe they can replace the massacre inside.”

“What?” Mother snaps into focus.

Daddy’s drawn to the action now, too, armed with the old .22 he used on the garden-pilfering bunnies and a few seasons of corn-picking pheasants and the squirrels who dig at the daffodil and tulip bulbs every single fall.

He announces, “We sure do have a pest problem.” He’s very chipper about it, though.

“Are you going to shoot them?” Cal asks with a wry motion toward the smoky cloud of bees—which seems a dangerous gesture with Mother and the bee guy in there, too.

“Pert,” their father reprimands, not Cal but the daughter who hasn’t spoken.

Why not, the silent daughter thinks. Pert. It’s an epithet he’s always loved, and that love, unlike the love he felt for his family, has lasted as his brain becomes a soft cheese. She’s pert like the two-in-one shampoo/conditioner. Though that’s not what he means.

“Come closer,” he murmurs to her, and she allows him to scratch her ears before tottering backwards out of reach.

“Was it you?” Cal asks her sister, holding up a bent and stripped tea-rose stem like a visual aid. She’s calm, but in this moment Levi would’ve had a perfect subject. “Did you wreck my flowers?”

“Oh, darling, you didn’t,” Mother moans, glancing from the accused to the flower and back. Now two perfect subjects. “How could you be so mean?”

She finds her mouth has been slyly reconstructing. She wants to speak, but her tongue and teeth and palate refuse to form the words I didn’t mean to.

“This day has to be perfect,” Daddy says, recalling something correctly for once, though he’s matter-of-fact rather than angry. “You should run off now, little thing,” he then advises the daughter whose velvety ears he’s just scratched, examining the gun as if he’s just remembered it. “It’s a shame to kill something so pretty, but.” He doesn’t say the words that come after “but.”

“Is that even licensed?” Mother asks in a hushed voice, looked around as if someone with a citation book might be hiding in the azaleas, ready to spring. “Aren’t there seasons for these things?”

“I don’t need a license, dammit, this is my property.”

“Nes …” wheedles Mother.

“My property to defend!” he bellows, no doubt channeling some earlier memory. Or a movie he once saw.

“Dad, no!” shouts Calliope, looking ferocious and fed up—more wedding jitters, no doubt.

The daughter who’s rapidly changing doesn’t stay to hear the tribunal’s final decision on whether it’s necessary to shoot flower-eating vermin. She doesn’t stay to tell them season and license aren’t really the point, afraid they’ll disregard the information as biased and therefore suspect. She thinks Calliope’s on her side, but she’s taking no chances.

These scattered thoughts sprint with her into the trees as her limbs figure out how to move in accord again. She slows up and stops in the dark canopy once she realizes no one’s behind her. The pain of adrenaline dump is crippling, and she doesn’t know if that’s more human or deer.

Like her hearing and sense of smell, her eyesight is sharper now. Statue-still she watches from the airless green until Daddy wanders off, probably forgetting who he meant to shoot and why. Her emerging angles and the low branches and brambles plucked her clothes to tatters, strip by strip, bright bits of cloth that birds and squirrels will use to build their nests. She remembers that Mother once had Daddy poison the silly little robins who built their nest over the kitchen door.

Mother and Calliope haven’t followed Daddy, but have gone back instead to watching the bee guy’s smoke fail to lull the bees enough for him to convey them far from this all-important event. The bee guy doesn’t care at all about the bees right now, though; he only has eyes for the dotty fellow with the gun.

She doesn’t move for fear of giving herself away. She perks up her ears, listening for clues as to their intentions, but her family’s still talking about the bees. The bee guy, it seems to the daughter who’s hiding, looks ready to bolt, too, a sudden move that might not be smart.

She feels like a worn-in deer, no freshly minted doe. (Thought in Mother’s voice.) Here fleas, there mats, gashes from branches, and—could it be?—a tick. She wonders if she can give the tick to Calliope, then feels like a beast for thinking it. Calliope doesn’t deserve a deer tick. She deserves pretty flowers and decent weather and nicer bees.

Mother, fed up with his ineffectuality and aware that time’s dwindling away, demands of the bee guy, “Do have a professional certification?” and before he can answer, “You really don’t kill them?”

He looks horrified, it seems to the daughter who watches from the trees, and then his mouth stretches into a thin line. “No, no, ma’am. I’m not an exterminator.”

“Then we’re done here,” Mother snaps. She takes Cal’s arm, saying, “I have some pest poisons in the barn. Where did your father get to?”

“God knows,” Cal mutters. “We’d better find him. I wish I’d known before we planned all this.” She doesn’t say what she wishes she’d known.

Mother makes no reply, but even from the trees it’s obvious she’s close to tears again. She notices the bee guy still standing there. “Gather your equipment and leave. Send me your bill.”

Which doesn’t seem altogether on the up-and-up to the daughter who’s watching, or to the bee guy. He doesn’t move, like he’s thinking of how to explain something. She’d like to beckon him into the trees, tell him not to waste his words, but she’s afraid to move, with Daddy still tramping around with that .22.

She hopes suddenly that Cal never wishes Charlie would disappear and he doesn’t, or wishes he wouldn’t disappear and he does. If she could figure out how, she’d make it her wedding toast. She tried to express something like it during the first night of her visit, during unpracticed sister-bonding over drinks (like you see in fiction, but awkward in real life), the sweet spot of Calliope’s “I’m getting married!” euphoria and before the final-stretch wedding insanity. But she couldn’t make Cal understand. Partly because they were both sloshed, and partly because Cal didn’t know about Levi.

Her neck hurts, and words like growth and sore and protuberance scroll through her brain as it swells. Her fingers are hard and stiff and unrecognizable. She bends and scratches her flank against a tree to calm the itch from the tick bite.

Maybe catching the shake of the leaves, Cal’s gaze comes her way, and it’s hard to say if their eyes really lock, or if Cal’s just scanning her direction. Calliope’s face is raked by sunlight and so impossible to read.

“Do I have to do everything myself?” Daddy hollers from nearby, loud enough to send a wave of finches out of the dogwoods. He probably doesn’t realize the sentiment historically belongs not to him but to Mother.

The daughter whose heart is growing feral feels the organ’s beat pause, then surge.

Cal sprints over the grass to head off their father, who stalks forward brandishing that old cannon.

He fires a shot into the air, accidentally or on purpose, it’s impossible to tell. This is just what’s needed to unfreeze the bee guy, who runs into the trees without bothering with his equipment or his budding argument with Mother.

“Daddy!” Cal admonishes, one hand on the old man’s shoulder, the other pushing the barrel up. She calls over her shoulder, “For hell’s sake, Mom, why haven’t you gotten rid of this thing? Take it and put it somewhere out of the way! What if Charlie shows up in the middle of all this nonsense?”

Mother, brittle to cracking, accepts the gun and heads toward the pasture like the thing is a live snake.

So engrossed is the watching daughter, she misses her brain’s frantic signals warning her to attend to the crashing approach upon her hiding spot.

“It’s you!”

It’s the bee guy, surprised but pleased. “Don’t bolt. I never hurt a woman,” he says, panting in exertion and fear but still a friend of nature, “or a deer, either. We can go together, quiet, look out for each other?”

“I can’t, I’m the maid of honor,” she says, though she’s not sure that’s true anymore.

He just looks at her. Maybe she didn’t say the words, maybe they only flow so easily anymore in her mind. How long that will last, she can’t guess. He mutters, “These Craigslist jobs never work out—”

She can’t tell if this is an attempt at (gallows?) humor. Like Mother, she wonders if he really knows about bees.

A crash and a bang and shouts, still close.

Maybe she can leave after all. They move, as noiselessly as a bee wrangler and a woman-who’s-not-quite-yet-a-deer-but-getting-there-she-fears can move. Her mind still feels like hers, but she isn’t optimistic. She isn’t much worried, either, which might be an upside.

The bee guy doesn’t seem to mind her abnormality, or lack of stimulating conversation. Her mouth won’t really let her talk at all now, but the bee guy seems happy enough to provide her side along with his.

“I’m going through a change, too,” he says, as if they were already discussing it.

There’s an implied conversation, she thinks, so maybe it’s not so highhanded. Handed. Calliope’s shorthanded without her, though the aunts and cousins should be arriving soon, so maybe not. Maybe they can knead Daddy into something presentable, for Cal’s sake. Underhanded. Maybe they can just sedate him, and Cal can walk him down the aisle. She’s becoming unhanded.

“I believe reality holds endless vicissitudes—you’re surprised a humble apiarist uses this word?—vicissitudes we rarely notice, because we’re engrossed in our own.” He doesn’t explain what change has hold of him. Instead he says, “The bees are changing, too. You see how angry they are? They don’t have our human adaptability.” He winks at her for the second time since they met. “And now they’re out of balance.”

She wants to believe him, that what’s happening to her—well, these things happen. Everyone’s out of balance, you’re not special. It doesn’t matter. He has green eyes, the whites a bit jaundiced to make them almost amber, not unlike a deer’s. Whatever else, their needs dovetail perfectly in this moment.

(And Levi? Did their needs simply split like a branch or a road?)

The bee guy reaches into his pocket, and she stiffens with the new wariness that’s part of her remodeling. He holds a little fluty pipe the way a woman holds a cigarette.

He says, “I want to know what has the bees so unbalanced. I want to talk to them, before the lady finds her insecticides.” And though she’s made no reply, he demands, “You don’t think they’ll talk with me?” He shows her the maker’s mark on the instrument, a slender and florid etching, and she makes out the words: honeysuckle tone.

She wishes she could tell him she’s suspended all judgements and beliefs at this time.

He puts the pipe to his lips and blows. Despite his apparent effort, she hears nothing from the instrument. After some time, she becomes aware of the swarm nearby, a faint hum that surges to a crescendo as the bees get closer.

He stops blowing. “You see. I told them to follow us.” She looks a question at him, which he seems to understand. “To safety.”

Safety? What does he think that word means? She wants to correct him, tell him there is no safety, no us—just movement and temporary dovetailing. But the limits of their unspoken communication have been reached.

They’re almost at the break where the highway cuts the trees, just a few yards from the long drive that leads up to the house. A convoy of caterer’s vans is just now turning one by one up the road. She and the bee guy stop well back in unspoken accord, to avoid being seen. Maybe all that nice food, she thinks, will make up for the wrecked florals and the uninvited insects and Daddy’s premature sundowning and the MIA maid of honor whose hooves won’t fit into her dyed-to-match wedding shoes anyway.

She looks back up the rise, and above the trees there’s a trickle of smoke, sooty and not so festive, the last of the smoke from the bee guy’s accordion-coffeepot apparatus. She hopes he returns for his tools, maybe steals them back in the night. Mother will stow them somewhere hard to find so they don’t mar the weddingscape.

Maybe Levi didn’t mean to leave, didn’t want to leave. Maybe the comet was otherworld; maybe he went through his own unexpected transformation and left as the comet they all saw, no chance to explain or say goodbye.

“The coast is clear,” the bee guy murmurs like the lead in a mediocre detective film. “We can cross now, before more cars come.” He puts the pipe to his mouth and resumes his soundless siren song. The swarm’s hum swells again, or maybe she’s imagining it.

She tries and fails to worry about where they’re going and what’s next, how complete her change will be, how permanent. She wishes she’d eaten all of the flowers while she had the chance. They sprint across the wide lanes of pavement, and back into the trees on the other side. She easily beats the bee guy across. She assumes the bees are following, though she doesn’t know what their plans are, either.

All phenomena are explainable, she thinks, breaking trail for both herself and the bee guy through low branches and thick undergrowth. When we don’t know enough about something unusual to comprehend it, to name it, we decide it’s reality, not us, that won’t bend. And then maybe we shoot it, or maybe we run away. This moment is a vivid reminder, though, that explainable and explained sometimes run in close parallel without curving to intersect.

A shot report echoes at the backs of the deer-woman who runs away and the want-ad apiarist who runs with her. Was Mother’s confiscation across the pasture not far enough, or is this something else? There’s another report, then another, but the last is a distant and retreating boom.

Sara Beitia lives and writes in the Gem State, which is really the “Famous Potatoes” state like it says on the license plates. Her first novel was selected for YALSA’s 2011 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults list. Find her online at www.sarabeitia.com (you may have to brush asides some cobwebs).

 

Published March 2018, Shimmer #42, 6100 words

Other Woods Await You:

Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde

In the Pines, by K.M. Carmien

We Take the Long View, by Erica L. Satifka

The Triumphant Ward of the Railroad and the Sea, by Sara Saab

Almost everyone I entertain over a frosted fifth of vodka—bottle balanced precariously on a foldout tray, half my attention on keeping it upright—wants to know how I became a competitive eater. Also, how I found myself living on the Dbovotav Coastal Express.

It’s not that odd, I say. In my family we all love eating. I do my belly out like a pufferfish, slide my butt to the edge of the molded seat, and open my knees into a deep V. The rumble of the train is in my calves. My drinking companions love it. They are drunk. You’re a blast, Neave! We all know they’re wondering where my ten shots of vodka went and when I’m likely to keel over. A girl like me doesn’t look the part of a competitive eater.

When the vodka’s finished Srdan will arrive to pull me out of my seat, issuing goodnights on my behalf. Springs squeak behind us as the tray packs shut. At the door to my sleeper cabin, Srdan says goodnight to me. I always sleep alone. I bolt the door thrice. The Dbovotav hoots in the dark, a hollow and lusty sound. I can’t fall asleep without it, the Dbovotav’s hoot. I picture my train cycling its tracks crying for something—a lover? Its child? The truth?

You must long for the truth too, even if my drinking companions are more interested in unrequited fantasies of hiding from winter and sadness behind the drapery of my black hair. Here is a piece I own of the truth: I became a competitive eater because I was afraid of floating out to sea. Food is ballast. Saturate your guts, render them heavy as waterlogged rope, and remain planted firmly to the ground.

The sea. I was afraid because of what happened to my family. I couldn’t understand it, so I focused on my craft. Honed it. I can put away a gallon of bathtub brew in forty-eight seconds. I’ve eaten a stack of sausages so tall it speared itself on a lantern hook in the low ceiling of Huluu Public House near the port at Arnik. The sausages took me twenty-two minutes, after which I cut the grease coating my throat with a pitcher of lager.

Why would I stop when I am so good?

Srdan does not remember boarding the Dbovotav, but my first memory of him is indelible: A young man in a conductor’s uniform takes a seat opposite me in the entertainments carriage, and, without uttering a word, presses a cup to the neck of my vodka bottle.

Nobody has ever confirmed Srdan in his post, yet he wears his red uniform with meticulous pride. He roams the carriages, knocking on the backs of seats and on sleeper cabin doors. When passengers fail to produce tickets, Srdan regards them with the sorrow of a caged saint.

I, on the other hand, clambered up the retractable steps of Carriage No. 5 the same day the Railroad and Longshore Company launched the coastal route. Station workers held a glossy black ribbon taut across unblemished tracks; a minor official snipped it. The Orderly Ocean roared. Workers tucked flat caps into coveralls to stop them flying off; seagulls landed on the fresh line of track as though on the split carcass of a whale. And there I must have been, half-sized, silenced by the air of ceremony, my hand grasping the oily canvas leg of somebody’s coverall.

A strange truth: I may be a railway orphan with the hiss of carriage doors in my bones, but I do not know all the things that our Srdan knows. He knows exactly how hot the coal burns in the cab of the Dbovotav. He knows how many hares we pass between Bretev and Totyozk. He knows when I am fed up with my drinking companions, and I think he knows about the loneliness afterward.

Perhaps it is that some of us are born closer to the truth than others.

The Dbovotav Coastal Express is self-driving. Three perfectly steep hillocks slow it to a stop, at Bretev and Arnik and Totyozk. At the top of each hillock perches a station: Bretev Coastal Station, Arnik Station, and the Liberator Placha Revolutionary Train Depot. The journey between Totyozk and Bretev takes a month; between Bretev and Arnik six weeks. I’ve been through more cycles of Totyozk-Bretev-Arnik and Arnik-Bretev-Totyozk than I can count.

“Maybe I shouldn’t leave the Dbovotav unattended,” Srdan says. The train is—with clanging and fanfare—climbing the final rise to Bretev Coastal. “Many fare evaders recently.”

The coastal route is long and monotonous, cliff bluffs and waves on one side, hills on the other, the geography undernourished and bloodless. Nothing catches the glazed roving of your eye but the occasional hot white stalk of lightning striking the dun peaks of the Orderly Mountains.

I pass Srdan his blue plastic cup. I’ve only half filled it with vodka against the trembling of the Dbovotav as it strains toward the platform. “Don’t you want to watch me eat the hell out of a pile of pig trotters?”

He turns the cup a full rotation. “You want me to answer this question?”

I nod encouragement.

Srdan sets the cup down, puts pale hands, fingernails chewed to the quick, on either side of my head for emphasis. “I think I would not like to watch you eat a pile of pig trotters.”

I meet his stare glibly while I mull over the surprising hurt I feel. The whites of his eyes are proud and rounded, the eyelids bronzed. He’s not comely to begin with; the scald of dismissal makes his face plainer, his scattering of pockmarks harsher.

Then I think, warmed by vodka: This is the only person I’ve ever felt safe leaving my cabin door unlocked for, even if I have questions about his trove of truths. Even if he won’t watch me eat the hell out of a pile of pig trotters.

Cold air fills the entertainments carriage. We’ve arrived. The smell is of hops and the ubiquitous bloom Bretevers call Clasped Arse because of the suggestive curve of the petals.
“You don’t have to watch the competition, but come get some air. Bretev is nice in this season.”

“Nice?” mocks Srdan. “It’s freezing.” But he is already fetching his scarf from the broom closet.

The season is springtime; there are so many seabirds in the sky that their droppings are an unbroken coat on the terminal roof. Emerging from the closeness of the Dbovotav feels raw and impossible, like being born. We stroll briskly in the direction of The Jingling Anklet in the Quarter of Our Knaves.

Bretev hasn’t had an eating competition in six months. At the last one, I made it through four bowls of sauced beans and forty pounds of roast lamb, deboned and seasoned with a sumac rub. My opponent puked on his boots after ten minutes of shoveling beans into his mouth and swigging watered wine by turns—a strategy I would not have recommended, if he’d bothered to ask.

“I will be in the square,” Srdan announces, slowing.

“You won’t come to the competition? You can sit at my elbow.”

Srdan has taken his red conductor’s hat off; it is balled up in his fist like a heart.

“No, Neave,” Srdan insists. “The disappearances. I should be on guard,” he says, as if I should know what this means.

He starts uphill.

“Srdan!” I call. “The disappearances? On guard against what?”

He gives a meek wave behind. Masses of seabirds, huddled in the slight sun, take wing in his wake.

A pig trotter is an awkward hunk of meat. I gnaw round each one like it’s an apple—in record time—and spend ten luxurious minutes pinching at the scraps I missed the first go around.

I would usually ask for a stein of beer to sip slowly. The beer refreshes my palate and prevents my gorge rising. But discomfort pulses in my fingertips as they spin trotters on greasy axes. I don’t know what’s bothered me so much. I may call Srdan a friend, but I barely know him. His flights of eccentricity should be none of my business, just as mine aren’t his.

I polish the platter with my tongue. Spectators plant kisses on my full-up cheeks and hold my hair back from the oily tabletop. The crowd is deafening.

The prize money is mine, of course.

Srdan is still in the square come midnight. I waddle over to him. It’s too cold to be sprawled against the mosaicked side of the almost-dry fountain the way he is. Puddles of standing water in the basin reflect a cloudless sky. Every step sends a meteor shooting through my belly; the firmament of my guts is the opposite of cloudless: roiling, on fire. But this is the price of not floating away.

“I won.”

I cast leery shadows over Srdan. His breath steams softly. He clutches a bottle of vodka in his hand, three-quarters empty. When he hauls it up to me, purple fingers pop free of the glass one by one.

“Congratulations.”

“The train is warm.” I bend down and hook him under the arms.

“You smell like meat.”

Then Srdan is on his feet and though it was a close thing, I have not dislodged the ninety-one pig trotters I ate. He tears away from me, drunk, heads along a sandy path. At the end of this path the Orderly Ocean claws at low tide, keening static noise.

“Let’s go back to the Dbovotav,” I shout down to him. A thin spread of frosted sand crackles beneath my feet. There are salt-air shrubs and tree stumps on either side, practically an invitation to dispose of the evening’s digestive burden. But we are painfully close to the sea.

“Srdan!”

“Can we resist forever?” he shouts up from the edge of the shore, slurring. “Don’t you want to jump in?”

“No!”

He is unbuttoning his conductor’s slacks in the frigid breeze. “We were always meant to.”

“No. Srdan, no!” I turn away from him. Half-panicked, I climb up the path. Waddle through the square.

The Dbovotav is warm and welcoming. Gingerly, I set myself down on my back in my sleeper cabin.

In the morning I am woken by the departure whistle and cramps in my guts. I pass Srdan on the way to the lavatory. He’s sitting in the entertainments carriage fanning through a block of return tickets like it’s any day.

Here you might say, Neave, tell us about the other travelers on your Dbovotav. Tell us of your rotating constellation of drinking companions, of your adopted railway family. And, well.

I will tell you what I know is true. Though the coastal route is obscure, the Dbovotav has never lacked for passengers. The travelers who make the Totyozk-Bretev or Bretev-Arnik journey lumber aboard with luggage, trailing mud or snow. They show tickets to Srdan when he asks, fingers hastily tracing the pockets of their overcoats. They crash around in the galley; they complain loudly of the cold because they do not drink enough vodka with me at night.

Then there are the others, the ones I never drink with, the ones whose faces I can’t seem to learn.

A thing I’ve noticed: The Dbovotav has been busier of late. There are queues for the lavatory; groups milling about the drinking spout. And when Srdan moves through, shouting “Tickets! Your tickets, please!” he seems to recognize precisely the passengers I don’t, and though he never squanders a chance to mutter to me about fare evasion, with them he is unusually forgiving.

Some days the loneliness is intolerable. I imagine vividly days I cannot remember. Days before the Dbovotav. My family was from between Bretev and Arnik, where there is no town marker. They lived in tents and sold pairs of goats from their herd and were popular for their stained mohair satchels. I had four siblings. I was the youngest; my job was to feed the goats. That is why I was not at the seaside that day with my family. They went often to gather spiny kelp from the surf, for the rich orange dye of the berries.

Nobody can tell me what happened after that. The dreadful lie was that my mother and father and sisters had gone out to sea, on a voyage that would take a long, long time.

The journey to Arnik takes the Dbovotav into the Orderly Mountains’ wind-blasted foothills before plunging us into a glacial, sea-facing valley. Therefore I drink vodka medicinally, against the cold. I’ve had enough that my lips are vaguely numb and I’m dribbling into the coarse knit of my scarf when there’s a clatter and a hiss. Srdan, pulling aside the accordion door to the carriage.

“Come help me with something,” he says.

I’m too drunk to be suspicious. We weave from carriage to carriage, threading toward the back of the train, stepping over solitary drunks and trios playing Jack & Ace in the corridors. I run fingers across polished wall panels and icy windows.

“One more,” says Srdan, and leads the way to the connecting door. In the passage between this carriage and the next, he stops.

“You can’t go further, see?” he says.

“Try the handle—”

“Neave—see inside.”

In that tight, freezing passage, the tracks a blur through the slats below our feet, the Dbovotav chugging and shimmying, I cup hands to the window of the next carriage. It is filled up—full, floor to ceiling—with food.

Squashes still covered in soil; three entire skinned carcasses, lamb or goat; an avalanche of freckled golden apples, some smeared in carcass blood; snowy all-season mulberries crushed up against the window; dusty knots of celery root; heaped peaks of spice upended over everything.

Srdan works the clasp on the tiny vent in the window. Putrid air lets out and dissipates on the choppy wind of our motion.

I’m no match for Srdan’s strange intuitions, but I thought I knew the Dbovotav the way a sister knows a sister. My palms have memorized the texture of the upholstered panels in the lavatory. My feet anticipate every dip in the floorboards. This carriage? It was not here before. It’s a betrayal, a failing, a thing about my train that I can’t understand.

For an entire week of our journey to Arnik, Srdan and I work to clear the carriage of half-rotted food. The meat and everything that has touched the meat we tumble into ditches from the sides of the Dbovotav, or boil fastidiously down into syrup on the burner. Fruit and vegetables that aren’t covered in mold, blood, or spice we portion and wrap into neat papered bundles. Srdan hauls them cabin door to cabin door: “Tickets, please. And a parcel of groceries, our compliments.”

Afterward, the last carriage is strangely hollow, its echoes louder than the chug of the locomotive. It’s a wooden refrigerator car with hatches in the roof. The vertical ice tanks at either end are empty, but sticky puddles of food and liquid we found as we cleared might be the remnants of ice blocks. It makes you wonder: how long has this carriage stood here—perfectly cooled, resistant to decay—in the chill of the air off the Orderly Mountains? Days? Two weeks? Since Bretev, or before?

There’s a solid lock on my sleeper cabin door, but the cab of the Dbovotav is where I go to be perfectly alone. The coal feeder towers in the center of the cab, oiled and sooty. Hunks of coal shuffle along a scaled ramp from the tender to the firebox; great copper-sheen cogs click to a varying beat. The intervals are determined by temperature or pressure or some arcane secret held in the pistons. Like I said: The Dbovotav is self-driving.

Normally I’d be the first to declare solitude and loneliness distinct sensations of the body. But today my back aches with the exertion of emptying the food carriage, and my gut aches with a training meal of thirty parsnips stuffed with cured cow tongue, roasted ten by ten in the galley oven. It all conspires. The fence between solitude and loneliness is fogged over today, and full of holes.

I am thinking not of Srdan’s company but of something he said. We were dragging a decomposing goat carcass into a sack for disposal. I joked, my heart nowhere in it, “Maybe I should eat my way through all this food.”

Srdan paused to adjust his grip on the long, slick thigh of the carcass. A clean apple fell out of his pocket and bounced twice, shallowly, on the floor of the unexplained refrigerator car.

“Well. It is a mound of food and your talent is eating mounds of food. A funny thing,” he said.

I touch each sooty scale of the coal feeder. My thumb comes away stained like the ink-dipped fingertips of newly processed prisoners.

Loneliness is not the consistency of coal—it is not dry or porous or easy to palm. It is a fish, a thing of the ocean, slapping forever in the chest, eroding a space in the heart shaped like its own body. Srdan. My family, lost at sea. The truth may turn out to be a buoy at the farthest point from land. Friendship may turn out to be a fishing net threaded with falsehoods. And the Dbovotav—

There’s a thunk, a creak in the coal feeder’s cogs. I squint into the dark mouth of the firebox, just where the glow falters. Coal dust makes my throat itch, my eyes water. There’s something stuck in the scales of the ramp where it lets into the fire.

Another thunk, a torrent of thunks. Now the mouth of the firebox is clogged with objects. I reach my hand toward searing heat, pull the nearest thing from the blockage. It’s a huge clamshell, parted, the meat inside viscous and generous.

“I’m not even hungry,” I say, the fool words on my lips unbidden.

Coal plops from the ramp to the carpet. The feeder groans and slows.

“Srdan!” I shout, but I am, after all, exquisitely alone.

I grab a poker, jab at the mess until it clears, clamshells hurtling into the firebox in twos and threes. A keratinous smell overlays the years-deep smokiness of the cab.

I throw the last clamshell in and dust the soot from my hands.

Arnik. The entire austere valley is washed in the jingling of bells from the town’s five thousand belltowers. Each tolls to remember something: the first incursion of civilization into this hard land; the first successful harvest of millet; the birth of the first child of Arnik, the infant Salame Poshoi; the death of this same child, who lived eighteen months before succumbing to a wasting illness.

At 11:42 a bell tolls for the first passage of the Dbovotav through Arnik. Of all the bells, this is the bell that flushes me with pride.

Arnik is known for a warming brew, as well, called barrel milk. Juniper berries and a very thin alcohol, and a nose of anise that gets stronger the more you drink. I’m telling Srdan about the eight gallons I’ve agreed to down at a drinking competition later that afternoon as we pull into Arnik Station.

Many of the Dbovotav’s passengers disembark with us. The pebbled platform surface—a green-gray volcanic rock—grinds under our soles; a wave of big crunches for the hop down from the train; a choppy krsh-krsh-krsh as the passengers disperse. Nobody is here to receive the train, not a loved one, not a railroad worker, not a soul. The wind whistles a particularly maritime sadness.

“There are no bells, either,” says Srdan.

I lead us off the platform. “There are supposed to be bells.”

We wander the city with the wind, Srdan and I, the sea at our backs, feeling that we have tripped over the end of a reel and are traversing a precarious elsewhere. Arnik is everything and nothing I remember. There are golden loaves in bakery windows. There are seabirds roosting in the eaves. There are rubbery salt-spray fronds sprouting from cracks in the paving stones. But there are no people.

“The whole place is abandoned,” says Srdan.

“It is a town of ten thousand.”

Srdan hoods his eyes. “Take us to where you would have your competition.”

Arnik’s celebration hall is deserted too. Somewhere, a drop of condensation falls over and over, the sound fattened to a complex symphony by echoes.

The door to the celebration hall gives a startling rattle, once, twice, and pops open against the suction of the wind.

“Hi, Neave,” says Lusha, the competition promoter. “Come in, come in, Ylon,” he says behind him, and a broad woman enters, dragging by turns a table and a wheelbarrow piled with kegs.

They begin to set up the table in the center of the celebration hall.

“Lusha,” I say. “Where is everyone?”

“Oh, yes,” he says, hoisting a keg onto the table with a grunt. “I’m glad you’re safe.” This promoter is more untrustworthy than they usually come. I’ve known him since I was a child of eight. He gave me my start in this business—noticed, with his eye for opportunity, how I knelt beside the food trays to mop up a whole spit-roasted goat after my family’s wake. He led me by the hand to the Huluu Public House to see if I were still hungry enough to eat for an audience.

“We’ll be lucky to get a single soul tonight,” Lusha adds mournfully.

“People,” Srdan says, “are disappearing.” He’s examining the mosaicked arch of the doorway like some art connoisseur.

“Quite right. Either disappeared or hiding.” Lusha rubs his face over and over. I imagine each of his too-many rings catching and nipping at the folds of his skin. His face is an overlarge sock.

“Sometimes, Neave, we see them wade out. If they get that far, it’s over. We might pull them back, wrap them in blankets and lock them up for their own safety, but the next time they’re allowed out—a day or a year later—they’re gone.”

“Gone? Gone where?” I ask.

“Gone to the sea,” Srdan says. He breathes out ponderously and adjusts his conductor’s hat.

Ylon has taken her place at the table. She pours out a tall glass of barrel milk. “Ready to lose?” she asks me.

“If it weren’t for the Dbovotav, you’d be gone too, Neave,” mutters Srdan.

And now some nameless impulse resounds in my bones. It carries me through the door of the celebration hall. Against the wind. The cold sun slices across my vision; all the vodka has made me brave.

I pass through the eerie still of Arnik back to the station and my train.

Inert, the Dbovotav seems heavier somehow. That colossal weight of steel resting on rails.

The entertainments carriage is empty, the refreshments kiosk stocked, cream biscuits and bottles of liquor untouched. All the passengers who disembarked are still away—doing, thinking, seeing what in the wide brokenness of Arnik? I twist open a vodka bottle from the drinks cart, take a swig, make for the back of the train.

The refrigerator car is gone.

In its place is a stately room, a carriage only by virtue of being coupled to the back of the Dbovotav. I enter by a heavy oak door. Inside the walls are speckled marble. Four gargoyles—mermen dwarfed by their spears—perch at ceiling corners. The floor is a pastiche of overlapping rugs dyed shades of madder-root red and spiny-kelp orange.

Against one wall is a podium, and on it a huge book. Even from a distance I can see there’s water damage to the pages. I take another swig of vodka and go over to it. In gilded lettering: Longshore Workers’ Log, Triumphant Metropole of Arnik. A ribbon marks a page, a glossy black ribbon that reminds me of the one they cut to christen the Dbovotav. I flip to the bookmarked location.

Here, a photograph marred by the burn of chemicals. I squint at it. My young face and four little faces like mine. Young-me is seated and looking into the camera. My siblings are arranged behind me. They are posed perfectly. Four names are listed below the photograph: Lost at sea, presumed dead. And my name, a remainder: one orphan, Ward of the Railroad and Longshore Workers’ Union.

I turn a crackly page. Dust twirls away in the slanting light. Another photo: I’m maybe ten, leaning on a pile of huge copper cogs. An elderly rail worker in coveralls is bandaging my hand where I’ve sliced it on precision engineering. My blood has left dark smudges on pieces of the Dbovotav’s coal-feeding mechanism.

I turn the page again. Three photographs: the sea, captured from the sky. In the top photo, the surface glossy, then closer up, broken by swells, then much closer, busy with waves.

I am suddenly so hungry.

A tiny sliver of the truth: Before I became a competitive eater, I was rarely hungry. After I became a competitive eater, I was even less hungry. I’ve never done what I do because of hunger. I’ve never needed all the food I eat. I burn through it with my anger, my internal firebox incinerating everything I let near my core.

I startle at a noise in the carriage behind. The oak door swings inward—Srdan. The conductor’s hat is perfectly peaked above his long brow. “Another wacky car,” he says, voice steeped in some intoxicant.

I go over to a carriage window, count fifteen belltower spires against the skyline. “Wacky car. Mystery food. Dopey passengers. Disappearances,” I list. “Just tell me the truth.”

“This is the truth.” He nods around at the gargoyles, the podium. He moves across the carriage, half-trips on the edge of a rug, rights himself in front of the logbook. “Sometimes the truth is just”—he looks for a word for a long time—”strange.”

“I’m getting tired of things being strange. And I ate a square lunch earlier, but for some reason I’m ravenous.” I have another thought, or intuition, or question, roving for its answer. I push past Srdan, heading back through the train toward the cab.

He trails me. “You don’t need the truth from me, Neave,” he calls over my shoulder. His voice is more desperate than I’ve ever heard. “You need a friend, a friend who isn’t the Dbovotav.”

“The Dbovotav is the only friend I’ve ever had.”

“No, no. The Dbovotav is an ally. In a war.”

I round on him in the corridor. “And you? What are you? An ally? A friend? Neither?”

Srdan regards me sadly. “You will see that we are not so different.”

“Dbovotav!” I shout, turning away. My knuckles syncopate on the windows as we pass, the doors of each carriage hissing shut behind us. “What else can you show me?” I’m shouting down the corridors.

Then we’re at the door to the Dbovotav’s cab.

Srdan sighs. “The train is doing everything it can for you, you know, considering—”

I twist the handle. The door gives, too easily—

—and out rushes a tremendous wave of kelpy black water that soaks us to the waist. A tiny brown crab struggles on the toe of Srdan’s boot. I dip a finger into a puddle and taste it: coal-brackish saline. The salt and charcoal fills my mouth with saliva.

“Not good,” says Srdan.

I am full of cravings.

“Are we going now?” he asks me.

“Yes.”

“I have wondered when we would go.”

We rush toward the cloud of seabirds squawking in the distance, and from there I follow my nose: saline and wet life and unholiness.

Arnik has a pebble beach. The Orderly Ocean is a blue slab all the way to the horizon. I don’t let it touch me, stay where the pebbles are salt-dusted and dry. Srdan has come to stand beside me. His overcoat stinks of being soaked and dried too many times.

“What’s happening to me?” My voice cracks. The hunger is unbearable. I look out over the still water, and it’s as good as a table spread with a feast.

“We’re caught in the middle of a stand-off,” says Srdan. “Between the Dbovotav and the sea. And I think the sea is winning.”

“My family was taken by the sea.”

“Yes, and many others,” says Srdan. “Consider your dopey passengers.” He takes off his coat. “But I think your family were the first.”

Srdan looks at me as if recalling a dream. “When I went into the water, I did not even struggle. You think you will fight to live, but you don’t.”

He takes off his boots. “Then I heard the hoot of the train. That’s when the truth became strange. I was like a fish in a net made of steam and cogs and steel.”

Srdan approaches the surf. He begins to wade out, his slacks dark and flapping in an instant. “Here we go again,” he bellows.

“Wait. Srdan!” My shout is tattered by the wind. “Who can I trust?”

He turns toward me, even tries to step back out of the water, but he seems to be caught in a rip current. “Trust me, Neave! You won’t even struggle. A train is no match for the sea. Even a train like yours.”

He holds onto his cap and wades and swims until the water is over his head. He does not float up. It is as if he is on a staircase down to the ocean floor.

I am knee-deep in freezing water before I remember to heed Lusha’s words. My thighs pucker with the cold. I swallow against hunger, swallow the taste of vodka in my spit. The smell of the sea is unbearable; I try to knuckle water, to lift it up by the crests of its waves. I imbue the water with textures it does not have, spongy flatness and doughiness and the supple give of a wheel of marzipan pulled in half. Scoops of it come up in my palms. The sea feels nothing like food, only frigid and dribbling and full of noise.

Nonetheless I eat. Strings of goat meat studded with farro grains dyed with saffron and boiled to softness. No—water. Pig trotters, still tangy from their brine. No—water. Beans, millet, celery root soup. Hard tack softened in chicken broth. Clotted cheese with acorn paste.

No. Water, water, water.

The sea’s got me by the hipbones, but I am a competitive eater, a hot talent in a lukewarm industry. Eating is what I do best. The people buried by these waves, my mother and father and sisters, they are the silver charms hidden in a loaf: treasures you must find, but gingerly with your tongue, without chomping.

I swallow the sea, palmfuls and palmfuls, my gullet distending, and feel the pain of my heart packing tighter in. Then—because ballast is only a useful defense on dry land—I submerge.

Underwater, a lungful of the truth. The sea is angry at those who got away, but especially me, a prize hurtling down a fingernail of coastline for decades, shielded by metal, just out of its reach.

I feel myself sinking. I twist to look below. There’s Srdan, floating facedown at the boundary of blue and dark, where water compacts and becomes like space. And there, right behind its conductor, the Dbovotav, a long, ominous bulk. The Dbovotav, in the sea.

There is a throb of pressure on my temples. My throat and nostrils burn with saltwater. One impossible stroke, two, and I’m beside the doors to Carriage No. 5.

I press the button to release the doors. The underwater Dbovotav opens to me and it’s not full of water—it’s full of smoke. I scramble in, coughing, water sluicing off me onto the carpet. A coal fire in the cab? But when I breathe this smoke my airways begin to clear, and my gray fingers flush back to brown.

I reach my hand through thick smoke, past the door, out into cold water. I lunge at Srdan’s floating wrist, digging nails into the embroidered cuff of his conductor’s uniform, and wrench him toward me. Srdan’s prominent eyes flit in his face, lock on me soulfully, and then he shakes his head, tugs his hand back. You may wonder: Is this a gesture meant to save me, or save himself? I wonder too.

Behind Srdan, in the dusky blue sea, a daisy chain of passengers and assorted luggage bob toward the open door of Carriage No 5. Srdan reaches his freed hand behind him, links it with the front of the daisy chain, and—

—the Dbovotav’s doors sweep shut.

I loll on the carpeted floorboards, hear the departure whistle, then that sensuous, wounded hoot. I see a sort of dawn through the windows. The smoke begins to clear.

I puke: water, truth, too much of it, more than a body should be able to hold. You and I, once again, we’re exquisitely alone.

Sara Saab was born in Beirut, Lebanon. She now lives in North London, where she has perfected her resting London face. Her current interests are croissants and emojis thereof, amassing poetry collections, and coming up with a plausible reason to live on a sleeper train. Sara’s a 2015 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. You can find her on Twitter as @fortnightlysara and at fortnightlysara.com.

Published March 2018, Issue #42, 5500 words

What Else Is On the Menu

The Seaweed & the Wormhole, by Jenn Grunigen
Three months ago, Peregrine had started sleepwalking. He said his night’s mind was always full of abandoned taxidermy shops, and tea brewed from obsidian dust and anise and silkworms. But his waking mind was full of these things, too, so they hadn’t worried Ebb. It was something else—other—that was making him anxious. After a month of the sleepwalking, he’d started to wonder what Peregrine wasn’t saying. He could tell when his lover was holding back; it was their nature to know each other. When he realized Peregrine was keeping something he couldn’t have, Ebb knew it had to be wrong. Invasive.

Skills to Keep the Devil in His Place, by Lia Swope Mitchell
The seat of evil in the human body, he said, is the liver. Taken directly from a young person—for a young person’s liver is fat with evil, untainted by years of experience or suffering—when offered freely, the flavor is perfect: deep yet delicate, light yet filling. It sates him utterly, for a while. He will seek nothing else.

Spirit Tasting List for Ridley House, April 2016, by Alex Acks
Before proceeding, we respectfully remind you to check the condition of your crystal spirit glass; it should be free of all cracks, chips, or blemishes to be able to properly capture and concentrate energies. Please take advantage of the sanitizer provided at the door, which will remove any lingering ectoplasm. Should your spirit glass develop an imperfection during the course of your meal, new ones will be available for purchase at a reasonable rate.

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.]