Category Archives: Issue 22

The One They Took Before, by Kelly Sandoval

craigslist > seattle > all seattle > lost&found
Sat 23 Jul
FOUND: Rift in the Fabric of the Universe – (West Seattle)

Rift opened in my backyard. About six feet tall and one foot wide. Appears to open onto a world of endless twilight and impossible beauty. Makes a ringing noise like a thousand tiny bells. Call (206) 555-9780 to identify.

Kayla reads the listing twice, knowing the eager beating of her heart is ridiculous. One page back, someone claims they found a time machine. Someone else has apparently lost their kidneys.

The Internet isn’t real. That’s what she likes about it. And if the post is real, the best thing she can do is pretend she never saw it.

After all, she’s doing better. She sees a therapist, now. She’s had a couple of job interviews.

She calls the number.

“Hello?” It’s a man’s voice. Kayla can’t identify his accent.

“Oh. Hi.” Her words come out timid and thin, almost a whisper. She stands and starts pacing the length of her apartment, stepping over dirty clothes and cat toys. “I’m calling about your Craigslist ad.”

“Oh!” He sounds surprised, but not displeased. “I’m glad to hear from you. So, when did you lose it?”


“The rift. When did you lose it?”

Yesterday? A thousand years ago? Time was meaningless there. She’s pretty sure it all happened a very long time ago.

“It’s complicated,” she says.

“Well, can you describe it, then? Tell me what color it is? I just need to be sure it’s yours.”

It isn’t hers. “Have you had a lot of calls?”

“A few crazies,” he admits. “Someone claiming to be my evil twin. That sort of thing.”

The cats, Ablach and Thomas, twist around her ankles. She leans down to stroke Ablach and presses her face into his fur. He hasn’t spoken to her since they got out. Neither of them have. “Have you tried going through it?”

“No. It’s not mine.” He tries to sound firm, but she knows the longing in his voice. They opened a door for him. It’s only a matter of time. “Listen, if this thing isn’t yours—”

“Don’t go through it,” she says. “Even if they ask you to.”

She hangs up before he can reply.

The cats watch her, unblinking. Gold eyes and silver. She tries not to imagine their voices.

“What?” she asks them. “I warned him. What else can I do?”

Ablach turns his back on her, tail lashing. Thomas rolls onto his back and lets her stroke his stomach.

“I’m not going back.” She repeats the phrase, over and over. Words have power. They taught her that.

After a few hours pass, she tries the number again. No one answers.

The Stranger Lovelab
23 / Man / Cal Anderson
Faerie Queen, saw you in Cal Anderson Park by the tennis courts. You wore a dress of hummingbird feathers and a crown of tiny stars. I asked for a light. I should have asked for more. Coffee?

For two days, Kayla avoids the Internet and every local newspaper. If they’re hunting again, she doesn’t want to know. On the third day, she dares to go out for coffee. A newspaper waits at the only open table, and she flips to the classifieds before she can stop herself.

The ad draws her eye immediately. It’s highlighted. She wonders if it was there before she sat down. If it will still be there when she leaves.

tookbeforeCal Anderson is only a few blocks away. And she’s still weak enough to need to know. Kayla leaves her full cup on the table and heads outside, flinching as she enters the sunlight. Long weeks of gray skies and soft rain don’t bother her, but these brief days of garish blue leave her longing for twilight.

Shirtless men and girls in bikinis crowd the park, and Kayla tries not to see them. They remind her of someone she was, and she still longs to slip back into that skin. It’s best not to think of it. Nostalgia, for either life, is poison.

She keeps her head down, and makes her way to the stand of trees that lines the tennis courts. No hummingbird feathers wait for her there. No tiny stars litter the grass. A group of teens jostles past and one of them reaches up to pluck an apple from the branch above her head. The fruit in his hand is the deep red of exposed muscle. Looking up, she has to tell herself that apples, not hearts, hang heavy on the branches. They are huge and numerous, an out-of-season abundance. Also, it’s not an apple tree.

She runs home and sobs quietly until Ablach and Thomas climb into her lap and lick her tears with rough tongues. After that, her sobs aren’t quiet at all.

Seattle Times Online
Category: The Blotter
August 1, 2013

King County Sheriff’s Office seeks the public’s help in locating a Seattle area woman

Josey Aarons, 24, was last seen on July 30th at the Triple Door on 216 Union Street, where she was performing with her band, The Sudden Sorrows. According to her friends, Aarons was supposed to meet them at an afterparty but never arrived.

Witnesses report Aarons was seen outside the venue with a woman described as having skin the color of a summer moon and eyes as deep as madness. Aarons is 5 feet 9 inches tall, 150 lbs, with short blond hair and brown eyes. She was last seen wearing black jeans and a green trenchcoat. She was carrying a gray messenger bag.

Anyone with information on the whereabouts of either Ms. Aarons or her companion is asked to call the Sheriff’s Office at 206-555-9252.

Kayla sits, her guitar in her lap, and strokes the smooth wood like it’s one of the cats. When she first got back, she took a knife to the strings, sawing through them one by one. It didn’t hurt at the time. It hurts now, when she longs for the comfort of melody. But she knows better.

If she plays, they will hear her.

They will take her back.

She is trying so hard. She goes to yoga class. She watches TV.

She rocks in the dark of her apartment, the glow of the computer screen creating a sort of twilight.

Is she loved, this girl that they have taken? Do they kiss her, their lips honey-sweet and dizzying as brandy? Does she realize she is theirs? That they will pet and praise and keep her, drape her in diamonds and bask in her light, but never let her go?

Until they do.

Freedom is its own kind of prison.

In Kayla’s apartment, the computer glows, and it is nothing at all like twilight.

She tries to tell herself the girl will be okay. They will keep her for a few eternities, but they will also set her free again. She can rebuild.

Kayla is.

She picks up the phone and dials the number for the Sheriff’s Office. She tells them she knows about Josey.

“Wait a year and a day.” She says. “They won’t keep her forever.”

Except, of course, they will. They kept Kayla even longer than that.

That’s two, Kayla thinks. They’ll claim one more. They like patterns, cycles, rules.

She tells herself to ignore it. It isn’t her problem. She can’t save everyone. If she interferes, they’ll find her.

She tells herself she doesn’t want that. She says it out loud. There’s supposed to be power in that.

Seattle Times
August 3, 2013
Explanation sought after fatal hunting trip

The death of James Garcia, a Tacoma area accountant, has left police with more questions than answers. He was hunting in Silwen Falls with his brothers Marcus and Eric Garcia when the fatal accident occurred. While the details are still unclear, the brothers said James Garcia separated from his party early on the morning of the August 3- at a blind he was accustomed to using, and where he intended to remain for most of the day.

Sometime around noon, James Garcia left his shelter and removed all his clothing, including his orange safety vest, before approaching the blind his brothers were sharing. In the ensuing confusion, the brothers said they mistook him for, in the words of Marcus Garcia, “a stag of shadow and dream, its antlers cast from sunlight.” Eric Garcia admits to taking the fatal shot. Investigations are ongoing, police said.

Kayla remembers the bright cry of horns, horses with hot breath and red eyes, stags with human screams. Her keepers, clad in spider-silk and frost, the mad need in their joy. She tries to think of the dead man. She thinks, instead, of trays piled high with venison, air spice-laden and thick with laughter. Hunger twists in her stomach and she forgets to be ashamed.

She makes herself a sandwich, ham and cheddar on white bread, but only manages a few bites. Everything tastes like beige.

Thomas jumps into her arms, a furry mass of gold and shadow, and purrs deep and low. The sound usually calms her, reminds her to settle and stay. She should sit down, stroke him, find center.

“I don’t need them,” she whispers into his fur. She tries turning on the TV, but every show is a meaningless mix of colors and noises.

Ablach paces at the door, his cries high and bright as a hunting horn.

“Don’t trust him,” she tells herself. “Don’t trust any of their gifts.”

But he sings her heart, and she sets Thomas aside.

Outside, the stars are hidden behind a thin wash of cloud. Kayla follows Ablach down major roads and through slender alleys lined with overflowing Dumpsters. The route is circuitous and random but she recognizes where he leads her. Cal Anderson Park. She’s alone on a tree-lined sidewalk, looking for a shadow in a world of them.

Ablach cries above her. She looks up, finds him watching her from the branches, his eyes like silver coins. She reaches to stroke him and her fingers close around a heavy fruit made russet by the night. It doesn’t smell like an apple. It smells of blood and honey, of sex and song.

The juice is silver and she licks it from her fingers when she’s done. Ablach lets her carry him home.

Seattle Times
August 4, 2013

James Carlos Garcia, 43, was lost in a tragic accident on August 2. A man of courage, humor and intelligence, he was an active member of his community and a dedicated husband and father.

He leaves behind three children, Peter Garcia, Mary Winner and James Garcia Jr. He is also survived by his wife, Alice Garcia.

He loved hunting, Bruce Springsteen’s music and his family.

A celebration of his life will be held on August 10 at 7:30 PM at the North Tacoma Community Hall.

The funeral, Facebook tells her, is on the sixth. She sends flowers, the biggest bouquet the florist has. Money isn’t an issue; they sent her back decked in gold and strange jewels. She waited weeks for it to fade or turn to leaves but the gold, like the memories, refused to leave her. It means she doesn’t have to work, or leave her apartment, or forget.

An obvious trap, and she’s been trying to fight it. Of course, she hasn’t sent out a job application since she called about the rift. Hasn’t answered her phone, or emailed the people she tells herself are her friends.

tookbefore2She doesn’t intend to go. The one responsible is sure to be there; they love to watch. Even on the morning of the sixth, as she puts on a dress of black silk and gold lace, she imagines she will stay home. The dress was her favorite, before. Now she can only see it as an echo of something grander. She has worn a cloak of dragonfly skin over a gown woven from the scent of roses. They set her at the feet of the queen and when she played, they drank the notes from the air.

It will not happen again, Kayla tells herself, as she restrings her guitar. And maybe it won’t. But she isn’t sure anymore.

She lets the cats out before she leaves. Ablach disappears with a confident stride but Thomas presses himself against her legs, crying to be picked up and trying to follow her into the cab.

“If you would only ask me to stay,” she whispers, as she sets him back on the pavement, “I might.”

But he doesn’t ask.

The cab pulls up at the church well after the service is scheduled to begin. She considers going in, makes it all the way to the door before deciding against it. The family already has one voyeur to their pain. She can at least save them a second one.

She waits beside the door and tries to enjoy the feeling of the sun on her skin. She remembers longing for daylight, then screaming for daylight, then forgetting what daylight meant.

It’s a difficult thing to learn again.

“They are crying in there.” The words settle onto her skin like she’s walked into mist, a cat’s purr of a sound: low, self-satisfied, demanding. “Painting their faces with ash,” it says, “and tearing their clothes with sorrow.”

Its skin, Kayla sees, is more the color of an autumn moon than one from the summer, but its eyes are certainly deep as madness and the iridescent feathers of its hummingbird gown shame her simple dress. She lowers her eyes, curtsies. The gesture is automatic, and she hates herself for it.

“What did he do?” she asks. It’s fear, not excitement, that sets her heart racing. She’s glad to fear them again.

“Do?” Its purr warms with amusement. “He did nothing. He did not catch me bathing or cross my path to start a riddle game. He sat in his tent and did nothing at all. He bored me.”

Yes, that was a sort of crime. What use were humans if they refused to be fun? She stopped being fun, near the end. She sat and rocked and sobbed and would not give them their music.

They sent her home, after that. She thought they freed her. But here she is, standing before one, her guitar at her side.

“You have not played,” it says. “We listen, still. And you give us nothing. Are you still broken?”

“Not like I was,” she says. And realizes her mistake as it smiles.

“You were her favorite,” it says. “Our Lightning Bard.”

“You have a new one now,” she says. She tries to keep her breathing even, but the scent of it makes her dizzy. “Unless she’s already broken.”

“So unkind. We offer her wonders.” It glances up, stares at the sun.

Kayla wants to kiss its neck, drink eternity from its veins. She digs her nails into her palms. “Did you offer her a choice?”

“Of a sort. She followed me.”

“She didn’t know what she followed you to.” But Kayla does.

“Are you jealous?” it asks, voice silken with amusement. “You needn’t be. We can still take you.”

And yes, she is, isn’t she? She wants those first wondering months, before she could see the rot beneath the gilt. She wants the luxury of not yet knowing what it means to love them.

“No.” She forces the word out through clenched teeth.

“I have leave to barter,” it says. “We have no need for two musicians. And it would be novel to win the same soul twice.”

The church door opens and the mourners begin to stream out. Kayla catches sight of a man’s face, ugly with pain, and recognizes him as one of the dead man’s brothers. It doesn’t even glance his way. The man’s loss is no more than a daytime rerun of a once amusing show.

“No,” she whispers it this time, crossing her arms in a vain attempt at comfort. “It wouldn’t last.”

“You could be our pretty one again, our summer storm.” Its voice is thick and sweet. The world fades and reduces itself, the sun hiding, the mourners hushing their cries.

Kayla’s tears are hot on her face and she’s afraid to brush them away. She could say yes. She could tell herself she was being generous, playing the sacrifice. “Did you take her just for that? To offer in trade?”

Is it her fault, or does she only want to believe she means that much to them?

“I care little for your questions, Pet. Will you come?”

This is the part where she says yes and it drags her back to that land of endless twilight and impossible beauty. This is the part where she falls.

“No,” she says, the third time she’s rejected it. She stands straighter, meets its eyes. Her guitar case falls from limp fingers. If it makes a sound as it hits the steps, she doesn’t hear it.

“Very well,” it says, the purr gone from its voice. “But we will be listening. And you will tire of mortality and dust.”

She is already tired of mortality and dust. Tired, too, of being locked into the need of them.

“You can’t keep me,” she says.

It leans in and kisses the salt from her lips. Its breath smells like storm clouds, all electric promise. “Oh, pretty one. We already have.”

The world lurches, empties, and she’s alone on the church steps. The mourners are leaving, a long procession of cars already disappearing down the street.

She calls the cab back. Rides home in silence.

A year and a day. An eternity. One doesn’t exclude the other.

But they always send back what they take, shattered husks of what they once found beautiful.

Kayla will wait. Apply for jobs. Mark the calendar.

She’ll be ready, when the time comes. No one waited for her. No one understood. It can be different, this time. She can help.

And that can be a sort of winning.


Kelly Sandoval lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. Her family includes a patient fiance, a demanding cat, and an extremely grumpy tortoise. In 2013 she attended Clarion West and lived to tell the tale. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Esopus, Asimov’s, and Flash Fiction Online. You can find her online at

Kelly Sandoval
Kelly Sandoval
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Cantor’s Dragon, by Craig DeLancey

Georg Cantor waits while his wife Vally pulls at the heavy door to the Nervenklinik. The crisp air smells of leaves and wood smoke, but as they pass into the white-tiled halls disinfectant envelops them.

The nurse comes and introduces herself. Cantor says nothing. He has not spoken in a month. He rarely even focuses his eyes. The nurse leads them down long passages. Their shoes snap at the marble floor. After many turns, they stop at a white door that opens to his room: a narrow bed covered with taut white sheets, a comfortable chair facing a window that looks out onto a lawn edged by waving oaks, a round rug on the cherry floor.

Vally seats him in the chair. “You need rest, Georg,” she whispers.

Cantor looks out at the oaks. They hold tenaciously to their last few leaves.

To the nurse Vally says, “We lost our dear son Rudolf. That was hard. And my husband is a professor. A mathematician. He has achieved great things. But the strain is great. And then, that wretched Kronecker in Berlin. It’s all too much.”

The nurse nods, professionally sympathetic as she straightens the room. The name means nothing to her, but the point is clear: the cruelty of other men.

Vally leaves, followed by the nurse, whose soft shoes squeak as she backs out and pulls the door till its lock clicks. Cantor holds his breath and listens. The rustle of scales against plaster is faintly audible. He expected this. The dragon is here already, coiled in the walls of the clinic.

Cantor stands and presses his cheek to the cool plaster by the window. “I hear you, wyrm,” he says.

The dragon rustles in response, contracting.

“Wyrm,” Cantor whispers, to provoke, to invoke.

Cantor kissed his son’s forehead after the boy coughed blood one last time and stopped breathing. Vally gasped and held her breath. The doctor backed into a corner, ashamed. And Cantor heard, distinctly, an eager rustling in the walls.

dragonTwo days later, when Cantor finally collapsed into sleep, he had the nightmare that silenced him and led him to the brittle quiet of the Nervenklinik.

He sees a rising narrow stair. It stretches up and up. Beyond its peak a golden light glows, pale and weak with distance. Children sit and stand on the stair. Most of them weep as they peer at the impossible summit, wishing they could catch some sliver of its meager warmth. Others have collapsed with despair, their backs turned on the light.

“Climb!” Cantor cries to them. But his voice is a choked moan. It moves no one.

That’s when the horrible thought comes to him: Rudolf is on that slope. With his weak lungs, his throat choked with blood, and without his father, Rudolf will give up. He is halted on the way, in the half darkness.

“Climb!” Cantor tries to howl. The effort does nothing but wake him.

The second night in the clinic, after the nurse leaves with the dinner plates under silver lids, clucking disapproval because Herr Doktor has merely tasted his food, the dragon folds the wall aside. Cantor is surprised. He did not know the dragon had this trick. He half expected the dragon did not exist.

It pulls at a corner, and the plaster bends neatly away. Someone will prove that kind of folding is possible, Cantor realizes. He sees in an instant how it works: sets of uncountably many points can be rearranged into new, smaller spaces.

But Cantor has other, more pressing thoughts. He beholds the dragon’s black head, its black shining scales, the smooth and sensitive circular membrane of each ear, vibrating behind a black eye. Cantor cannot discern the dragon’s tongue from the flames that churn in the cup of its jaw. Fire rattles in its throat, a sound like Rudolf’s failing lungs.

The dragon is waiting on his words. It too expects him to speak.

Cantor frowns, silent and furious. Outside, strong winds turn the last leaves of the oaks over, flashing white. Black clouds speed over the bending trees and weep rain on the windows. Thunder rumbles so close that the glass rattles in the sash. Finally, Cantor can hold back his anger no longer. He hisses, “Wyrm, did you kill my son?”

Cantor knows his son died of consumption. He knows that black spots ate the boy’s lungs. But he asks again, “Wyrm, was that you, coiled in the bottom of his breath, weighing down his every gasp?”

“I am infinite,” the dragon whispers, goaded to answer, “but not everywhere.”

They are silent together a long while. Wet gusts lash the glass. Then Cantor tells the dragon, “Kronecker says I am mad: that no such thing as infinity exists, and I am a fool to claim to have tamed it. And: I talk to a dragon. The dragon cannot exist. Hence, I talk to something that does not exist. Ergo, I am mad. But about the infinite, I don’t believe I am mad. The infinite exists. Endless infinities, each larger than another.”

The dragon shifts and scratches at a scale with a single stony toenail. “How do we know if something exists?”

“If a thing would spawn no contradiction, then that thing exists.”

The dragon stretches out its neck and lifts its wings as best it can in its parallel confines. The delicate black skin hisses over the coarse, unfinished wood slats that make the back of the wall.

“And what of the dragon?” it says. “Can there be a dragon? A beast that ate too, too much? That feasted on human hopes? Count my scales. They are as numerous as numbers. My dragon brain lies folded in my scaly tail. And my tail stretches forever.” The dragon blows twin streams of pale smoke from its nostrils: dragon laughter. The gray fumes smell of coal heavy with sulfur. “But I contradict nothing: no hope, no faith, no prayer. Thus the dragon exists.”

“Quod erat demonstratum,” Cantor whispers.

There were days when his son stopped coughing blood. One April morning they went out to the park. They sat in the grass, with Rudolf wrapped in a blanket. Crocuses thrust up through the cold, damp soil. Rudolf picked them, and Cantor did not stop him, did not ask that he wait till the blooms opened. Rudolf might not live till the blooms opened.

“You take three, father,” the boy said. He always whispered, not wanting to start a coughing fit, not wanting to punctuate his words with blood. “And I’ll take three. Six is all there are.”

“Others will grow,” Cantor told him.

“For how long?”

Cantor considered this. “For so long, that it might as well be forever.”

The boy nodded. “Time enough, then.”

Vally brings Cantor a letter from a priest in Italy. The Pater writes to ask if the infinities of Cantor contradict the finitudes that Saint Thomas Aquinas demanded of the pious. Cantor is excited. He sees in an instant how the church needs his wisdom.

“I shall abandon mathematics,” he says. “And dedicate myself to philosophy and God. Theology. The Church.”

Vally smiles with hope and relief. Georg is talking to her! Like his old self!

She clutches his hands. “Yes,” she says. “You have your inheritance. We shall be fine. Come home to us. Don’t worry about those men who spurned you. They’ll be forgotten. We miss you at home. You’re such a fine father and husband. The doctor will let you come home soon, I’m sure.”

Even the dragon has seen Cantor’s kindness. At dinner every night Cantor had asked each of his children in turn to tell the story of his or her day, before he looked to his wife and said, “Thank you for this meal.”

Every day the same. The precision of a mathematician in attending to these cares: axioms of love.

“You’ll leave before the winter,” the dragon says one gray afternoon. Cantor is surprised. He thought the dragon could speak only if spoken to.

“Before the winter,” Cantor says.

“And I will curse you.”

“What empowers you to curse, wyrm?”

“I curse everyone who wonders.”

“On such a foundation I too might have this power, and curse you in kind.”

The dragon smiles, the corners of its lizard mouth curling. “My curse comes first. Soon you’ll die…”

“Soon each mortal dies,” Cantor says impatiently. “That is no curse.”

“That is not the curse,” the dragon says. “Soon you’ll die. Then you must decide between heaven and hell. Hell is near and crowded. God is infinitely far away. If you are to ascend into heaven, you must take the Dragon’s Stair. This is my curse.” The dragon shifts his head to reveal, in the dark behind his vast bulk, a narrow stair of stone.

“The first step on the stair is carved with a name,” the dragon says.

“The second step is carved with a name.

“The third step too is so carved.

“Yes, on each step is cut a name.”

And Cantor can see the names on the risers of the first stone slabs. Falcon Ells. Edgar of Canterbury. Danniston. Ali Quartermain…

“God is at the top,” the dragon says. “You climb toward God. But if you find your name on a step, you must stop there, and wait. You must wait until Judgment Day, both feet on your stone plinth.

“And Judgment Day has never come.

“Judgment Day, like God, is infinitely far away.

“No saint has made it up the stair. The innocent wait, despairing, along the way.

“Heaven is empty.”

Rudolf was usually fearless. But when he last lay down in his bed, never to rise again, he said to Cantor, “I’m scared, Papa.”

Cantor fought his tears with all his strength. He did not want to weep in front of the boy and betray his failing hope. He managed to say, “Our bodies must die. But our minds, our minds can touch the infinite.”

Rudolf nodded his head very slightly, his mouth pressed closed in determination.

“And,” Cantor said, “you must have faith that you cannot fail to find your way to God.”

“But will I be alone?” Rudolf whispered.

“Only ever for a little while. I promise you, only for a very little while.”

Outside the clinic, the leaves on the oaks darken and curl as autumn ages. Cantor scrawls symbols on stolen scraps of paper, working in secret because he has promised to remain at leisure.

dragon2“Wyrm, what is it you do, when you are not haunting me?” Cantor asks.

The dragon folds down the wall. “I sing from rooftops, hidden from view. I paint murals on buried walls. I pen short stories that are printed in little magazines. All to infect dreams.”

“Braggart,” Cantor says. Then he switches direction: “Who decides my name?”

The dragon understands the question immediately. “You do.”

Cantor smiles. “Can I name myself while climbing the stair?”

The dragon thrashes its tail in anger. It growls, and blows smoke, before it answers. “You must start to say your name before stepping upon the way.”

“But I need not finish naming myself before starting on the way?”

The dragon is silent an hour. Cantor listens to the fire fluttering in its lungs. He patiently writes out his proof as he waits for his answer.

“No,” the dragon hisses, leaking flames that cast flickering shadows along the walls. “You need not finish naming yourself before starting on the way.”

“I choose heaven,” Cantor says.

“Do not be hasty. You can wait till death before you choose.”

“I choose heaven,” Cantor repeats. “And I will choose a name for myself, a name to be writ in the Book of Judgment and to which I will answer.

“And the first letter of my name will be the letter in the alphabet that comes after the first letter of the name of the first step of the Dragon’s Stair. If it be A, I will choose B. If it be B, I will choose C. And so on. If it be Z, I will choose A.

“And the second letter of my name will be the letter in the alphabet that follows the second letter on the second stair.

“And so I will make my name, letter by letter, step by step, as I ascend.

“And this name cannot be writ on any step.”

The dragon clamps its trembling eyelids down and squeezes its mouth shut hard, choking on its own fires. Bested.

The wall is straight and white when the dawn comes. Cantor puts both hands on the plaster by the window, and says in a clear voice, “Here is my curse, dragon. You must tell, to all who will hear, this story of how I beat you.”

Before the dragon can answer, Vally pushes open the door. The nurse has brought a key that allows her to open the window. She slides the glass upward. Fresh air stirs in the room. The leaves have all fallen now from the oaks. The trees wait for the sleep of winter.

Vally packs Cantor’s few things. Her hand on his arm, they walk out into the hall and on into sunlight.

“Soon you’ll be dead,” the dragon hisses. No one hears. “Soon you’ll be alone in heaven.” But this is only spite. The dragon well knows that as Cantor rises on the way, he will gather to himself all the children of judgment and show them the way to infinity.


Craig DeLancey is the author of Gods of Earth. He has published stories in Analog, Cosmos, Shimmer, The Mississippi Review Online, Nature Physics, and other places. His short story “Julie is Three” won the Anlab reader’s choice award. He teaches philosophy at Oswego State. Stop by his web site at

Craig DeLancey
Craig DeLancey


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Caretaker, by Carlie St. George

The stars are all dead. You wish it didn’t haunt you, but it does, it does.

The dead come out to watch over you at night.

A ghost took care of you when you were young. She made you peanut butter sandwiches without speaking, shuffled silently from room to room in her threadbare bathrobe and bare feet. She didn’t have eyes, your mother. Or she did, but they didn’t work because she always stared right through you, even as she cupped your face with her cold, dead hands.

You tried to bring her back to life. Someone told you—wish on a star—so you wished, wished hard as you could. You didn’t know you were wishing on ghosts.

Some days, your wish came true. She looked at you those days, read you books, put on new clothes.

But the next day she’d go back to stumbling through the house.

There is a girl lying at your feet. She is the kind of dead that cannot make sandwiches, cannot blink, cannot stumble. You pick up her body and carry it to the trunk.

You drive for miles and miles. The silence is too heavy, too much. You turn on the radio to drown it out—only it’s all Kurt Cobain, Donny Hathaway, Mindy McCready, Nick Drake. You switch to Catcher in the Rye, the only audiobook you own.

The narrator sounds like your mother.

“What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day.”

Your mother would have been good at that, if she hadn’t been dead most days. She’d said it sounded like the best job, maybe the only worthwhile job. There was something other about your mother, something reaching for magic in a dull, dirty world. You wish you could have caught children with her in the rye, but that’s not the job she left you.

You get to the spot, near the river. You get the body. You get the shovel. You feel the weight of the stars as you dig and dig and dig.

Don’t fall, you think, don’t fall. Don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall.

But stars will do what they want. People, too, when they are hopeless. You can’t reason with the hopeless, can’t make them love you enough to stay.

caretakerYou wonder who the dead girl is. You wonder where she comes from, where any of them come from, the ones who just . . . appear beside you when the sun goes down. You lower the girl in the unmarked grave, careful of her left wrist, sliced wide open, and deep, so deep, like she was digging for something. A way out, maybe—she found it. You wonder how much blood she left behind.

It doesn’t matter. A bathtub might be painted in blood, a razor in the sink, an apology upon the glass—but if there’s no body, then no one’s dead, not for sure, not for forever. There is always room to hope, for those who are left behind. This is what you can do for them. This is what you can do for the world.

It’s important work, you know. It’s a gift others can’t bring themselves to give—but you don’t understand how the dead find you, how they know to seek you out. You don’t understand why the bodies keep coming to you and you alone.

Another girl appears at your side before you finish burying the last one. There are rope burns around her broken neck.

It’s going to be a busy night.

You found it before you found her, submerged and naked in the bathtub:

I wish you didn’t have to find me. I wish there was someone to take my body away, hide it somewhere lonely, somewhere secret, and you could just keep on going, pretend I was somewhere golden, catching everyone in the rye.

I’m sorry, she wrote. I’m sorry.

But is she sorry she left, or for what she left to you?

The sun is just beginning to rise as you finish burying the bodies. Six in all. Very nearly a record.

You wish you had another job. You wish you could help in some other way, become a detective, maybe, find clues, fight crime. Provide closure instead of preserving open wounds. You even wish the police would catch you, but the bodies, they wouldn’t stop. They’d just follow you to your cell, their cold flesh piling between your bed and the bars. If only you knew what ghost your mother had wished on, to make a prophecy of her regret.

You’d wish her back, if you knew what ghost. You’d wish she’d stayed for you.

When you sleep, you dream about stars falling. They drop down and down by the dozen, and you have to pick them up, bury them somewhere lonely, somewhere secret, and then nobody will start crying; nobody will be afraid. Everyone will just stand together, holding hands, whispering that the stars could always come back, that they’re just traveling somewhere else now, some other, better, magical place.


Carlie St. George is a Clarion West graduate whose work has appeared in Lightspeed, Shock Totem, and Strange Horizons. When she’s not busy incorporating her odd obsession with peanut butter sandwiches into even her most macabre and melancholy stories, she blogs extra-snarky movie reviews at

Carlie St. George
Carlie St. George


Interview with Carlie | Buy Shimmer #22 | Subscribe to Shimmer

A Whisper in the Weld by Alix E. Harrow

A Whisper in the Weld by Alix E. HarrowIsa died in a sudden suffocation of boiling blood and iron cinder in her mouth; she returned to herself wearing a blue cotton dress stained with fresh tobacco. She was younger and leaner, as she’d been when she first met Leslie Bell. Her skin shone dark and warm without the black dust of the mill ground into it.

After death, ghosts are sculpted like cold clay into the shapes they wore when they were most alive. Some people are taken awfully by surprise. Women whose whole lives were about their husbands and homes are, without warning, precisely as they were when they met a stranger’s eyes on a crowded streetcar. Men who had the kinds of careers that involved velvet-lined train cars and cigar smoke are suddenly nine years old, running their spectral fingers through the tall grasses and thinking of nothing at all.

Isa wasn’t surprised by the blue cotton dress. She had always known what she was about.

She came back to herself, with a feeling like hot wire being drawn through the die, in the rusty gravel on the west side of the Sparrows Point steel mill. She was disoriented for a moment, used to seeing the mill like a distant map below her from the top of Betty the blast furnace: the glowing arcs of welders and the arterial railways pumping coal and ore and sand and coke through the mill, and the distant rows of clapboard homes where her daughters waited for The Adventures of Superman to come on the radio at 5:15.

The foreman was coming up the road towards the mill with his white arms resting across the shoulders of two young, dark girls. Isa’s children. Oh, she hated the weight of that arm on her daughters’ perfect shoulders. Vesta—tall, brave Vesta, who fried eggs every morning for her little sister before school—walked like a person who had lost the trick of it. Effie’s oversize lunch pail banged against the side of her leg with every step. Their faces were like stones, or the faces of children who have lost their mother and father, and seen the red-hot maw of the world open up beneath their feet.

Isa already knew, but her daughters’ faces told her she was truly dead and could never hold her children again. The rage and pain and wishing-away of it swallowed her whole and she lost track of herself for a while.

Ghosts don’t linger, much. A few days of strolling through the world, which is much too loud and bright, then the dirt calls them down to trickle amongst the low, burrowing things to lose the boundaries of themselves in the rich smell of rot. Some stay, in the name of love or vengeance, but most people are pragmatists at heart, and lay themselves down to rest.

Isa lingered. Leslie used to call her mule-headed. Some parts of herself frayed and tattered when she died—the taste of grits with molasses on them, the way her daughter’s tight-braided hair felt beneath her palm—but not the mule-headedness.

That first night she stayed so close to her daughters they felt a constant, humid chill down their necks. She walked beside them as they returned to their home, identical to a hundred other homes in Sparrows Point: a single, dirty box with a bare bulb dangling in the center, a leaky parlor stove in the corner. She touched the tears on Effie’s face with moth-wing fingers. She followed Vesta to the back stoop where, unwatched by her younger sister, she beat her fists on the stones and tore her tight braids lose. When her children finally closed their eyes in the center of the rope bed they shared, she lay down and slipped her arms around them. Effie shivered and burrowed further beneath the blankets.

Isa told herself she would only stay through that first terrible night. But dawn found her in the kitchen running frictionless fingers across the parlor stove, wanting badly to fall into the morning rhythm of coal and cooking. She pulled at the stove door, but she was a breeze blowing against a rusted-iron mountain, and it remained closed.

She pulled harder. The faint edges of her fingers frayed and spooled, half-slipping into the door, and she felt every humped weld and fractured seam in the parlor stove before it creaked obediently open.

She ripped away from it, reeling, and her other hand landed in the bowl of eggs on the counter. Beneath her weightless palms, the eggs rotted in their shells.

She did not touch anything else that morning, but huddled on a kitchen chair remembering the sweet slipping-away of her hands into the iron, feeling both fragile and dangerous.

Vesta rose and fixed breakfast, casting suspicious glances at the open stove and the faintly graying eggs. When her sister set a tin plate of grits in front of her, Effie burst into sudden, loud sobs.

“Effie. Effie, listen honey.” Vesta sounded so much like her mother that Isa’s hands shook. “Persephone.” The occult power of her full name stopped her.

Vesta sat and pulled her sister’s gangling legs into her lap, and spoke to her in a tone that no fifteen-year-old should have to use and no nine-year-old should have to hear. “Listen: Momma and Daddy are both dead, and it’s just us two girls left. But we can’t sit around and bawl about it, can we?” Effie’s expression said she didn’t see why not.

“No, we can’t,” Vesta continued. “Remember what Momma did when they came to tell us about Daddy? She made biscuits and swept the floor and combed our hair.” And then she’d gone to the common privy and vomited until she had nothing left in her but bile and despair. Some of the neighbor women fluttered as though they might say something, but she bared her teeth at them like a feral creature and they’d all remembered things they had to rush home and tend.

“That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to pack our lunches and go to school and come home and make beans and a hambone for dinner.” And, because they were each trying so fiercely for the other, that’s what they did.

A Whisper in the Weld by Alix E. HarrowIsa stayed in the house. She couldn’t wash their dishes or fold their nightgowns, flung across the bed with the abandon of children who haven’t yet realized there’s no one left to pick up after them. But she could murmur to Effie’s cat—a slinking, ugly animal that only a nine-year-old could think was pretty, alternately named Lord Snowflake or Dustbucket depending on the quantity of coal grit in his fur. He wound himself around Isa’s ankles, purring with the conviction of a former stray. He didn’t seem to mind that she was dead. Cats have never seen the allure of the dualistic philosophies that plague humans, and some of our most cherished divisions—between right and wrong, life and death, rodents which are acceptable to kill and songbirds which are apparently not—seem rather arbitrary to them. She stroked him, and pulled her thoughts away from the dark, Southern earth that called her.

In the early afternoon, Isa went to the edge of the bay and waited for Leslie’s ghost to come home to her across the ocean. She wondered if war had changed him, and if he’d died with one of her letters in his breast pocket.

Yellow-gray steam boiled out of the mill and hung over the Liberty ships bobbing in the bay like deadly toys. She saw the ships the way a surgeon might see a person, looking through their steel skins to the skeletons of beams and welds running through their bodies. Isa wondered if the men who went to war saw the labor of their wives and sisters in the steel around them. She wondered if their labor was winning the war and saving their soldiers, the way the posters said, or if it was all just coal tossed into the ravenous belly of war.

Leslie did not come.

She went to the bay every afternoon for days or maybe weeks; time is a humped and lurching thing for ghosts. Effie’s cat followed her, genially acknowledging the other ghosts they passed. Isa recognized some of them easily, but many of them were unfamiliar to her as their past selves. Few people were at their best in Sparrows Point; most of them had traded away the smell of summer rain on the fields for the heat and stink and incredible noise of the mill town, on the promise of a regular paycheck. Most of them dreamed of going home.

Isa dreamed too, during the long nights when she lay weightless beside her daughters. But ghosts only dream of the past.

She dreamed of her first day in the mill, hired because the foreman liked the way her shoulders pushed against the seams of her dress and the unfashionable shortness of her hair. “Just about like hiring a man, isn’t it Sissy?”

He clapped her on the back and led her to a group of other new women, and spoke to them all about the war and the state of the nation and the sacrifices everyone had to make. He handed out aprons and warned them that long hair, fingernails, and jewelry were safety hazards. Isa touched her locket, a tarnished heart containing three ebony curls of hair, and tucked the chain beneath her collar.

At first, they put her in the black places below the ground, shoveling coal. She became a sweating, muscled beast in the center of a labyrinth, trying to shovel her way out of the dark. Her dreams of that time were scattered and clogged with coal dust.

Moving up to the top gang was rising out of the underworld into spring. “This here is Betty, the biggest blast furnace in the East.” The woman training her was short and gap-toothed, with dark rings around her eyes where her goggles sat. Later, Isa would find out that her name was Mary and she was from Lewisburg and her twin brother was a mess man on the USS West Virginia and they would be friends.

“Listen, this is the truth: Betty Grable might keep our boys happy when they’re over there with nothing but a couple of pin-ups, but our Betty is the one that saves their goddamn lives.” Isa could tell it was a worn joke, but Mary was proud of it.

She worked years on the top gang, climbing up and down Betty’s vast, many-tentacled body twice a day. They kept the vents clean and the charger rolling and they skimmed the flammable dust off every surface. They couldn’t speak to each other, with their faces buried in the rubber and metal of gas masks and the roar of the furnace deafening them, but they learned to read the language of each other’s bodies. When the wind blew the smog out over the bay and cleared the sky, when she and her team worked in a perfect dance of sinew and iron on top of the world, Isa was happy.

Often, Isa dreamed of Mary’s accident: Mary leaning over the hatch of the northernmost stove, hauling it open—a sheet of blue-white flame, Mary’s screams just audible over the mill’s grinding thunder. Mary came back to work with her left arm a black and pink mass of lumped scar. One-handed, she was only good as a tin-flopper or a record-keeper.

Isa met Mary for lunch on her first day back and neither of them said a word about it. The foreman strolled by and thumped Mary on the back and told her she was a real trooper, and left a Moon Pie on the bench “in case she was homesick.”

Mary unwrapped the pie from its filmy plastic. Then she crushed it, methodically, beneath her boot. She said, calmly, “Goddamn them all to hell, Isa. They want you to think we’re serving God and country—and an old white man who sure as hell isn’t any uncle of ours. But we’re just serving Mr. Eugene Grace and his ten thousand foremen, always patting us on the goddamn back and calling us his girls. And you want to know the part that eats me up at night? Soon as my brother comes home they’ll boot me and my bum arm right out and I’ll never see a fair wage or the top of Betty again.”

Isa didn’t say anything. “Ah, you already know it. I know you do. This place swallows us whole and spits out bones.”

The rest of her dreams were of Leslie, and the girls when they were young.

Leslie did not come.

If Leslie could have come to her, he would have. It wasn’t something Isa believed about her husband, the way wives believe their husbands never look at other women or won’t drink up their paychecks, but something she knew about him and her and the shape of the thing between them. It was like knowing which way was north, or how much buttermilk to add to the biscuit dough.

She worried that death in battle was different, and Leslie’s ghost had been ripped asunder. But steel was war, too, and her death was surely no less violent and fiery and brave than his. Or maybe he’d gotten lost in the unfamiliar shapes of a foreign landscape.

But Leslie never got lost. If he could have come to her, he would have, and no oceans or continents could ever have stopped him. And so, no matter what those typewritten letters had said, shining up from the page like tiny, blackened bones, Isa knew her husband wasn’t dead.

The rush of elation and deepest sorrow almost unmade her—and oh, how sweetly the earth whispered to her, tempted her—but she snatched the fraying edges of herself and ran. She had always been long-legged, but now her steps ate up the ground in the weightless bounds of a doe. She passed children playing unattended on their stoops and laundry hung out to dry, absorbing the hot stink of coal smoke. Then she was outside the school, a sagging clapboard rectangle at the edge of the white neighborhood. Children poured down the steps.

Vesta held Effie’s hand in hers and did not look left or right. Isa fell in beside them, reaching reflexively to straighten their stiff collars and tuck away stray hairs before she stopped herself.

“Vesta and Persephone Bell?” The voice was clipped and northern. A white woman in a brown khaki dress stood in front of the girls. Everything from her square handbag to her narrow eyes said she had the authority of state behind her. Vesta regarded her with a flat, unimpressed stare which, if she hadn’t been fifteen years old, would have sliced right through the woman.

She only readjusted her round glasses. “Your parents were Leslie and Isa Bell, residents of Turner Station on Sparrows Point?” The past tense jarred Isa, but Vesta nodded.

“I’m Mrs. Patterson. I’m here to speak with you about your future now that your parents are at rest. Would you both please step back inside—”

Effie interrupted in a dangerous, chirpy tone that Isa knew very well. “Oh, Momma and Daddy aren’t resting anywhere, Miss Patty. Both their bodies got burned right up.” The woman blinked. “Well, we don’t know about Daddy—they said he was missing after a air raid. But Momma died cleaning the dust out from under the blast furnace. Couple hundred pounds of red-hot dust came down on her—poof. We didn’t get her body neither.”

Isa felt a sudden depth of sympathy for the state worker, whose mouth had fallen slightly open. In a certain mood, Effie could provoke preachers to cuss and sweet-natured dogs to bite. The woman gathered herself, and ushered Vesta and Effie back up the steps into the school. Isa drifted after them, a worried shadow in blue cotton.

The trio arranged themselves around a teacher’s boxy metal desk. The state worker explained to the girls that it had taken a while for their situation to become clear to the office, because their mother’s death wasn’t reported in a timely fashion. But they were legally orphans and couldn’t continue living on their own in company housing. They would come with her into the city to live as wards of the state. As a younger girl, Effie would be sent to St. Mary’s—

“Ma’am, it seems to me that some of your facts are wrong.” Vesta’s tone was mature, cool. “I turned eighteen in March, and I’m Effie’s next of kin, so we don’t need to go anywhere.” Vesta was tall and broad-shouldered like her mother, and a few hungry years in her childhood had taken the roundness out of her face and limbs. She passed easily for eighteen.

The woman squinted at her, and ruffled through her folders. “I’m quite sure we have your correct age down in our records, Miss Bell. And since when do eighteen-year-olds go to school?”

“Well, I never had a birth certificate because Momma had me at home on the kitchen floor. So I don’t know that you do have my correct age down in your records, unless you were in Pulaski County Kentucky in 1926.” Isa rested her insubstantial hand on Vesta’s shoulder. Vesta sat even straighter. “And I got held back in school. I didn’t learn real well.” Clever Vesta. It was never hard to convince white folk that you were stupid.

“Well.” Mrs. Patterson’s ruffling continued, increasingly random. “Well, that doesn’t mean you get to keep living in worker housing, does it? That’s for workers, isn’t it Miss Bell?”

“Yes, ma’am. I work at the mill four nights a week, sorting scrap.” The lies tripped off her tongue with military precision. “Now, I thank you kindly for your time this evening, Mrs. Patterson, but I’ve got to get home and start supper.” Vesta pulled Effie with her out the door and left Mrs. Patterson and her folders in the empty classroom.

It was hard, that night, for Isa to keep herself from spooling away. Leslie would come home soon and take care of their girls, and she was so very tired. But the grim line of Vesta’s jaw as she stalked out of the school and the stubborn way she held Effie’s hand kept Isa rooted, waiting. She made restless circles through the house, trailing her fingers across familiar objects, almost dissolving into the delicious warp and weft of Leslie’s favorite shirt folded on the dresser.

Vesta got out of bed when the whistle blew for the end of third shift. Effie curled into the warm place she left. Vesta pulled on her mother’s coveralls still stiff with grime and buttoned the collar below her chin. They were big on her, but not very. She tied a faded yellow kerchief around her head, scribbled a note on an old envelope, and left. Vesta paused to pet the cat curled on the stoop, but his eyes followed Isa’s spectral shadow hovering behind her. Vesta frowned over her shoulder, but saw nothing.

A sound had begun in Isa’s head like a claxon or a scream. She no longer had a pulse, but it beat in her temples as she followed Vesta along the rutted road to the mill. She joined the stream of workers pouring towards the punch clocks and pushed with them against the third shifters still trickling out. Isa was nothing but a chill along their backs and a flash of despair.

Vesta found the foreman’s office and slid inside.

“You’re Isa Bell’s oldest, aren’t you?” He was unsurprised. “What can I do for you?” His eyes sketched the strong outline of Vesta’s shoulders with something like greed. Isa stepped between him and her daughter. Neither of them noticed.

“Mr. Everton, I’d like to take my Momma’s place in the mill. If it’s open.”

“Well now, it might be. But not for anybody scared of hard work, or girls who can’t tough it out. We make steel, here, and steel is war.” There was something unshakable in his voice that reminded Isa of the preacher back home, except the foreman’s gods were profit and progress and the roar of the ceaseless mill.

“No little girls here, Mr. Everton. I’ll work.” He told her to show up for second shift and talk to a woman with a crippled arm on the main floor. Vesta left, while Isa’s ghost ripped through the foreman’s office like a furious, feeble tornado. A few papers fluttered gently off his desk. In a last flash of futile hate, she ran her hands over his stash of canned sardines and chocolate bars. They rotted in their wrappings.

This place swallows us whole and spits out bones.

Rage no longer possessed Isa, but perched heavily on her shoulder like a red-eyed crow. Plenty of young girls went to work when their fathers were at war and their mothers were dead or sick or busy drinking and trying to remember why they’d ever come to this terrible yellow-gray town on the bay. Plenty of girls did it, but not Vesta. Not Vesta, who had read her mother’s copy of Metamorphoses in fourth grade and whispered the stories to her sister beneath their quilts. Not Vesta, who cried when her father took the smaller portion of beans and gave her the last of the milk. Every woman in the mill was somebody’s child, but Vesta was Isa’s child.

Isa would be damned if any child of hers would work in that mill. When Leslie came home, he’d find his two daughters whole and healthy and still in school, unscarred by the spatter of welders or the slower poisons of gas and steam. That was the reason for all of it.

Why else had Leslie and Isa gone to war with the world, trading away muscle and blood and the late-summer smell of tobacco curing in the barn—if not for their daughters? Hate and fear sent some people to the front lines and blast furnaces, but love sent far more.

The dirt had been waiting for Isa for a long while now, and it was growing impatient. It sang her songs about moss and loam and the sweetness of falling apart.

But Isa was listening for a different song, a song that groaned and grated in a thousand iron voices about never-ending shifts and coal trains that never stopped coming. She knew it very well, had heard it waking and sleeping since she left her home in Kentucky. It was the steel mill’s song, and Isa leaned into it. She pretended it was the good earth she sank into instead of a city of machines. She let herself fray and slip away, remembering the way her hand sank into the parlor stove. The blue cotton dress tattered and her long legs grew thin and faint and then she was nothing at all.

When she opened her eyes, she was the steel mill at Sparrows Point.

Her blood vessels were railways pumping coke and scrap. Her skull was made of brick offices and punch clocks, her lungs were heaving combustion stoves, her bones were ore. Her heart was Betty, beating and burning at the center of the machine, and across her skin, in every organ, ten thousand men and women toiled. Every skittering spark from every welder permeated her. Mary leaned against her on lunch break, struggling one-handed to unsnap her apron. The foreman clomped amongst the women in his heavy boots.

All ghosts operate under the same set of laws: They have a short time to exist, a voice that can’t be heard, and an uncompromising terminus. Much the same as the living. But laws last precisely as long as people follow them, and not a second longer. Every now and then, out of desperation or desire or pure mule-headedness, somebody stops following them. So Isa Bell didn’t go down into the clay and minerals beneath her feet. She became a steel mill.

Amid the grinding and roaring vastness of her body, there wasn’t much left of Isa-the-woman or Isa-the-mother. But there was just enough that she worried for the ten thousand people inside her, working in the soot and steam for their families. They would never leave, because Isa-the-mill was a city that never truly slept, a city that required an army of men and women every hour of every day, an unceasing thing.

A Whisper in the Weld by Alix E. HarrowSo, Isa-the-mill ceased. She had died once before, and was familiar with the seizing of organs and limbs required. All the hundreds and hundreds of motions of the mill stopped. Trains drifted to a halt in the middle of their lines with their engines gone cold and black. Molten slag ceased to flow from the casting holes and orange-hot metal turned dull and ashen in its vats. Crane loads of scrap hung suspended in the air as though they’d forgotten where they were headed.

People boiled out of her like ants from a nest. At first they shouted and swore, mostly at each other, but then a fearful bafflement settled over them. Cautiously they tried to rekindle fires and flipped switches on and off, but Isa stayed still and dark. It didn’t take very long before the company became aware that it was paying a smallish city of people to stand and stare. Everyone was crushed through the punch clock and sent home with instructions to listen for the whistle. While the foremen called their bosses and the bosses called in experts, Isa became the ghost-town of a mill.

She was tired the way only a ghost who has stayed too long is tired, and forgetting herself in the smell of coal and iron. But Isa remained a woman who got on with things, and knew if she simply drifted away the mill would reopen in a week with an apology to the Defense Department for missing their projected quota. Isa wanted it to never open again, even if it put her neighbors out of work, even if their families suffered long, hungry nights. Even if Sparrows Point fell into rot and decay without its mill.

And so she tore herself apart, bolt by bolt. She began delicately: Support beams cracked, welds fractured, mortar grew weak and powdery, as though the mill were failing a dozen safety inspections all at once. Then she gained momentum. Vats and stoves burst and poured out their lavas of molten tin and aluminum and pig iron. Fires caught in perfect synchrony across her body and she blew out her coal-dust breath to make them higher, hotter. Isa made of herself a grand pyre, for Mary and every man and woman swallowed whole since the first flame caught in the first engine.

At the very last, while the heat turned her body to slag and ash, she burst her own heart. Betty the blast furnace poured herself out in a cloud of blue sparks and poisonous gas. Isa hoped Vesta and Effie saw the orange glow as they sat together on the stoop, and knew their mother loved them.

Isa wasn’t anything, after that. She slept in her own ashes and hardly heard the boot-steps over her or the muttering of engineers and contractors that came to rebuild her only to find that the project was too expensive and none of their survey stakes stayed where they left them. Eventually they left her alone to rust. No one visited her except aimless children who picked through her for treasures (goggles with cracked lenses, a thousand scraps of metal warped in fantastical shapes, a burnt-black heart that might have been a locket), and sometimes an ugly cat who liked to lie on her sun-warmed iron. Mostly she rested, as weeds grew up through her bones and mice made homes in her skin.

And then one day, the faint reverberation of a footstep she knew as well as she knew her own heart rumbled through her skeleton.

With a groan of wind over an abandoned field, she woke up. Leslie limped through the knee-high ragweed, her husband home from war and looking for his wife without knowing he was looking. He wasn’t the way she remembered—war had sapped the humor from his face and mapped unkind lines around his mouth—but he was whole.

All the thistles and dandelions growing up through Isa bloomed at once, out of season, in a riotous bouquet. They turned their mauve and gold faces towards Leslie, beckoning.

He smiled the shadow of his crescent-moon grin. “You always were stubborn, Isa.”

Smoke and grief roughened his voice. He told Isa about their girls and how tall and smart they both were, and the job he had directing ships on the bay. He told her about the war, and how men died without a bullet ever coming close to them and then came home and walked around just like live people. He told her about the telegram printed on cheap paper he read in a French hospital bed that told him his wife was dead. And how he had still expected to see her, somehow, when he came home.

Then he sat down in the flowers and put his face in his hands and wept. Isa sipped the delicate salt of his tears through her dandelion petals. She thought some of it was for the loss of her, but mostly it was for himself, facing the endless labor of going on. She watched the tiny muscles moving across the backs of his large hands. She’d always loved his hands.

She began to unwind herself from the taproots and tangled wires that pierced her. It was hard work. It was baling hay all day after a long night up with the baby and no hope of sleep the next night. It was a double shift on an empty belly. But she’d never shied away from work. With the very last of her strength she pulled herself into a single shape.

She became again that moment when she was most alive, in the sweet green of a tobacco field in August. She’d straightened up from slicing the stalks and shaded her eyes and seen Leslie for the very first time, drawn by the early-evening sun like some ancient idol made of muscle and sweat and white teeth flashing. It wasn’t falling in love so much as falling into place, perfectly, and seeing the whole future in the shape of his shoulders and knowing it was full of hurt but knowing too that it was worth it.

For a stolen second so small that time might not notice its pockets were lighter, Leslie saw her as she had been in that field seventeen years ago. Young and broad-shouldered and taller than him, wearing a blue cotton dress stained with sweat.

Isa kissed him once, or perhaps a salty breeze blew across his cheek, and she was gone.


Alix E. Harrow recently resettled in her old Kentucky home, where she teaches African and African American history, reviews speculative fiction on her blog and at Strange Horizons, and tinkers with fiction. She and her partner spend their time rescuing their gloriously dilapidated home from imminent collapse, and accumulating books and animals.

Alix E. Harrow
Alix E. Harrow
 Interview with Alix | Buy Shimmer #22 | Subscribe to Shimmer

Shimmer #22: Alix E. Harrow

Rosie the Riveter (Norman Rockwell)
Rosie the Riveter (Norman Rockwell)
Tell us how “A Whisper in the Weld” came to be.

I wish I could say the story-stork deposited this idea at my doorstep in a blinding flash of inspiration, but really it came out of my discovery of the digital LIFE Magazine photo archives and a mounting resentment towards Rosie the Riveter.

Don’t get me wrong — Rosie is part of our Big National Story, symbolic of everything from wartime grit to feminism to industrial might. And what a triumphal story it is. Rosie exchanged her apron for a pair of coveralls, saved the American economy, gave working women a public face, and never once smudged her perfect makeup.

But see, that’s not true. Rosie is a liar. Middle class white women didn’t happily whip off their aprons and work in factories — the real Rosies were overwhelmingly already working women from lower class backgrounds. They were the rural white poor, the recent immigrant, the African American women. And they weren’t seen as the first step in a new era of gender equality; they were temporary substitutes for men, supposed to happily return home once the war was over.

And perhaps most of all, their work wasn’t the kind of work that left you looking like a damn celebrity at the end of the day, with a cute little red kerchief around your hair. 1930s and 40s factory labor (especially in sectors like steel production) was brutal. The Progressive Era gains in terms of unionization and safety largely went out the window under the pressure of wartime production.

So then you’re left with a very different image: Poor, nonwhite women working because they desperately need the money, in dangerous conditions, with no real hope of advancement or permanence. Not so much a sign of progress as a sign of industrial capitalism’s increasingly long arm.

Anyway. Then I saw these pictures. And the story-stork made a visit.

 Can you tell us about your current writing project?

My working title for this current piece “Holy Baby Jesus Teaching is Time-Consuming,” because I’m teaching three African history courses for the first time this year. So non-curriculum types of writing have slowed to a trickle.

I do have a story coming out at the end of this year in Strange Horizons, though! “The Animal Women,” about race and the late sixties and eastern Kentucky and a little girl with a Polaroid camera.

The story I’m actually working on right now is a much odder bird — like the kind of bird that got stuck on an isolated island and had weird island-evolution things happen to it and is probably flightless now. It’s called “The Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage.” It has 28 footnotes and a completely fake bibliography (why???), and it’s about…American imperialism? And the process of culturally colonizing landscapes, rendering them legible, domestic, and profitable? Based on a long and too-cozy relationship with Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes and James Scott’s Seeing Like a State in grad school?

Or at least, it’s attempting to be about those things but, you know, it’s probably flightless.

You wrote a review of Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite that originally appeared on The Other Side of the Rain, and can be found currently at SF Mistressworks. How much does the idea that “Women are not aliens” figure into your own work?

Gee wilikers (wait, no one says that) you read my review! The Other Side of the Rain is my oft-neglected book review blog, for interested parties.

So, Nicola Griffith’s thesis in Ammonite — that a planet full of women would function suspiciously like a planet full of humans — is one of the most succinct and crucial lessons my early science fiction reading ever taught me. I’m not saying it’s the only or first book that ever did that, but it was the book my Mom handed me when I was fifteen that stuck.

Not at all coincidentally, the rest of the books my Mom handed me as a kid (Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Lois McMaster Bujold, Robin McKinley) were precisely the kind of transformative, powerful fiction that will make a teenage girl not only believe that women aren’t aliens, but come to know it on some fierce, molecular level. And begin to see the vast constructions of power and privilege we all operate within, and the ways people make their lives beneath and between them, half-hidden and half-rebelling.

What I’m trying to say is that the women-aren’t-aliens-and-neither-is-anyone-else idea is too big, too formative, not to be in my writing. Also my Mom has great taste in books.

We want to know more! Tell us two true things about yourself and one lie.

I can probably beat you in ping-pong. I have never shown any other signs of hand-eye coordination.

The first three stories I’ve ever written all featured mysteriously speech-impaired protagonists (Isa’s impediment is…being dead?). It’s almost like I was compensating for my crippling fear of dialogue, or something.

I am an alien.

What’s in your CD player / iTunes / Spotify / 8-Track?

Well each story thus far has spawned a playlist, born out of procrastination mixed with genuine research, and “A Whisper in the Weld” has been by far the most awesome.

It sort of became a two-hour history of black pop from the 1940s-60s, falling heavily on the phenomenal-female-vocalist end of things. So I can whole-heartedly recommend: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Billie Holiday, Big Mama Thornton, Etta James, Dinah Washington, Sister Wynona Carr, and Nina Queen-of-My-Heart-and-the-Universe Simone. I mean, just look at her.

Other favorite things: Shovels & Rope, Brown Bird, Josh Ritter, The Felice Brothers, Old Crow, Gregory Alan Isakov, Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown (dudes, it’s a socialist folk-opera retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice), and this guy right here.

And maybe some 90s pop playlists whatever man don’t judge me.


 Read “A Whisper in the Weld” | Buy Shimmer #22 | Subscribe!

Issue 22

A Whisper in the Weld – artwork by Sandro Castelli

The future will be stranger than we can imagine, but so too was the past. Shimmer’s 22nd issue has four stories rooted in the here, the then, and the may-have-been, but the roots are never quite still, for they cross over and back and through. Whispers in welds, advertisements that don’t quite promise what you think they do; something moving within the very walls that enclose you; a scattering of falling, winter stars.

We’ll release a new story every other Tuesday; or you can buy the full issue now.


A Whisper in the Weld by Alix E. Harrow
Isa died in a sudden suffocation of boiling blood and iron cinder in her mouth; she returned to herself wearing a blue cotton dress stained with fresh tobacco. She was younger and leaner, as she’d been when she first met Leslie Bell. Her skin shone dark and warm without the black dust of the mill ground into it.

Caretaker by Carlie St. George
A ghost took care of you when you were young. She made you peanut butter sandwiches without speaking, shuffled silently from room to room in her threadbare bathrobe and bare feet. She didn’t have eyes, your mother. Or she did, but they didn’t work because she always stared right through you, even as she cupped your face with her cold, dead hands.

Cantor’s Dragon by Craig DeLancey
He beholds the dragon’s black head, its black shining scales, the smooth and sensitive circular membrane of each ear, vibrating behind a black eye. Cantor cannot discern the dragon’s tongue from the flames that churn in the cup of its jaw. Fire rattles in its throat, a sound like Rudolf’s failing lungs.

The One They Took Before by Kelly Sandoval
Kayla reads the listing twice, knowing the eager beating of her heart is ridiculous. One page back, someone claims they found a time machine. Someone else has apparently lost their kidneys. The Internet isn’t real. That’s what she likes about it. And if the post is real, the best thing she can do is pretend she never saw it.

Editorial, by E. Catherine Tobler
2014 has been rough, yeah? Let’s go out on a high note.


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Shimmer #22: Carlie St. George

Carlie St. George
Carlie St. George
Tell us how “Caretaker” came to be.

I had the first few lines rattling around my head for a while. Science teaches us that many of the stars we see are already dead, and Mufasa teaches us that stars are the ghosts of deceased kings who watch over us. What I took from these two lessons is this: the dead come out at night to watch you while you sleep. Which I decided was pretty damn creepy.

I wrote “Caretaker” when I was desperate to finish something, anything. I was having some trouble sleeping at the time (not because of the dead, probably), and my focus was taking a serious hit as a result. I wasn’t even seriously considering trying to sell this story — or else I probably wouldn’t have written it in the second person — I just needed to finish SOMETHING to prove that I could. Let me tell you: nobody has ever celebrated as hard as I did for managing to write a mere 800 words. Lots of backslapping and happy dancing occurred that day.

Melancholy girls, powerful girls — we see these girls in many of your stories. Please tell us more about them.

I debated about concealing this, but that felt uncomfortably like lying, so. Truth is, in my head, the narrator of this story is male, always was. When I gave “Caretaker” to a few people to read, I was initially surprised when someone referred to the protagonist as “she.” (Two other readers referred to the protagonist as “he,” although I can’t remember now if the gender of the reader matched the gender they read into the character. I smell opportunities for statistics here.) I really shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was, and I had to think, “Right, I never actually specify gender in this story. Is that gonna be a thing? Is that something I need to fix?” But . . . it just didn’t seem important for this particular piece. Writing well-rounded, interesting female characters IS important to me and pretty much always has been, but for me, this story has always been about the legacy parents leave to their children (intentionally or accidentally), and I realized it just didn’t bother me if people read this narrator as a daughter or a son.

That all being said, melancholic and powerful girls DO pop up a lot in my writing. There are probably multiple reasons that depression has become something of a theme in my work, but one of them, I think, has something to do with my interest in writing about women who don’t yet fully recognize or understand their own power. Sometimes, I feel like people try to separate the “strong women” in their positions of power from the “weak women” who have been victimized by others. The truth, though, is that even strong, capable, amazing women are sometimes caught in terrible situations where they feel helpless to change their own circumstances. I find myself writing about girls who are trying to find their own power, to break free of these circumstances. They don’t always succeed. But it’s a journey I’m continually interested in.

 Tell us about My Geek Blasphemy! How does your work on the blog have an impact on your fiction writing?

I love movies. I love serious movies, I love funny movies, and I especially love movies that are funny because they failed so badly at being serious. I never had much luck selling movie reviews, partially because I didn’t have any professional experience to put on a resume and partially because I’m the kind of person who picks watching The Crow 4: Wicked Prayer over Frozen. So about four years ago, I decided to just create my own blog. I write about other stuff now, too, but it started primarily with a desire to write too many snarky and profane words about silly action movies and bad horror flicks.

Honestly, I’m not sure how my work on the blog impacts my fiction writing. It takes TIME from my fiction writing, that’s certainly true. (I love writing my reviews, but they do tend to be ridiculously long. A lot of my writing is, even, apparently, my responses to interview questions.) I do spend a lot of time writing about tropes, analyzing what works for me and what doesn’t, and that does come into play in my own fiction. For example, I was praising the parent-kid relationships in Teen Wolf, and thinking to myself, “Wow, your parents often kind of suck in your stories. You should work on that.” And lo and behold, I had a healthy parent-kid relationship in my next (currently unpublished) story.

We too love amusing millinery, but WHAT IS IT about silly hats? Describe to us your very favorite silly hat. Out in Pop Culture Land, who do you think makes/wears the very best silly hats?

If I may borrow the words of Catherynne M. Valente: “Hats have power. Hats can change you into someone else.” Silly hats are the best hats, I think, because they arm you with the power of the ridiculous. A bit of absurdity is good for the soul, and who can laugh at you if you’re already laughing at yourself?

My favorite silly hat in my own collection is probably my giant yellow Loki hat I bought on Etsy, although I am fond of my aviator cap that I own for no practical reason at all. As far as Pop Culture Land goes . . . man. I don’t think I can pick. Link’s got a pretty sweet hat. Magneto’s helmet (if we’re counting helmets) is damn silly. I don’t see how you can possibly take anyone who’s wearing that thing seriously. But no, you know what? There’s this movie called Plunkett & Macleane that my friend Cory turned me onto, and Alan Cumming is wearing THE MOST AMAZING silly purple hat that I’ve ever seen. It’s just so vibrant. If that hat doesn’t win top prize, it’s certainly making it on the podium.

Wow, you’ve written a lot of movie reviews! What, in your opinion, is the single most outrageous/hyperbolic film you’ve ever reviewed, and why should we watch it?

Oh God, what a question. That’s so impossibly mean. I don’t even . . . okay. Okay, while I refuse to try to pick the One Outrageous Film to Rule Them All — I just, I can’t — I’ll give an example of one that I watched this year: Death Race 2000. It’s definitely making it on a top ten list of Most Insane Films Ever.

I should warn you all: your enjoyment of this movie will be highly dependent upon both your love of the ridiculous and your ability to mock the rampant 70’s sexism throughout the film instead of feeling enraged and/or defeated by it. Understandably, not everyone is willing or able to do that. But I have to say, I laughed pretty much the whole way through this movie. If you’re interested, here are a few of the the more WTF things you will encounter (kind of spoiler-y, sorry):

  • Sylvester Stallone as one of the least intimidating cinematic villains ever
  • A quite literal hand grenade
  • Stage fighting of a quality you have not seen since TOS: Kirk vs Gorn
  • Mr. President Frankenstein
  • Nazis who drive race cars
  • Racing gear that can only be described as Superhero Scuba Diver Chic
  • The deadly insult: baked potato

It’s really quite something special. I’m not sure who WOULDN’T want to watch it, honestly.


Read “Caretaker” | Buy Issue #22 | Subscribe to Shimmer

Author Page: Alix E. Harrow

Alix E. Harrow
Alix E. Harrow

ALIX E. HARROW recently resettled in her old Kentucky home, where she teaches African and African American history, reviews speculative fiction on her blog and at Strange Horizons, and tinkers with fiction. She and her partner spend their time rescuing their gloriously dilapidated home from imminent collapse, and accumulating books and animals.

Alix’s Shimmer Stories: