Category Archives: Issue 29

Another Beginning, by Michael McGlade

Ógán is a magpie, but he wasn’t always a bird.


An Interrupted Beginning

Ógán is twenty-one. He is studying history at Queen’s University, Belfast. Succumbed to a powerful drug fugue in his dorm room, he is paralyzed, unmoving for a whole day except that within himself he’s travelling through Indonesia; a trip he and his fiancée Niamh have meticulously planned for years, and which they intend to take after graduation. When he eventually comes to, Ógán realizes the places he wants to travel to will never live up to his dreams. He rushes over to Malachy’s.


Guide To Pronunciation and Meaning

Ógán (pronounced OH gawn) means youth.

Niamh (pronounced NEE uv) means brightness, radiance.

Malachy (pronounced MA la kee) means messenger of God.


The Real Beginning

Ógán loses Niamh to his best friend Malachy. Ógán and Niamh had been high school sweethearts, and the three of them had been inseparable—the “Three Blind Mice.”

Ógán stumbled onto this scene: the affair in full swing, the pair of them at it like otters in his best friend’s bed (he’d seen a documentary about how otters held hands when they slept—but this right now was absolutely not cute). Ógán had been let inside by a still-stoned flatmate, the squawking pair growing louder as he raced down the long, cement hallway toward that familiar sound—knowing it was Niamh behind the locked bedroom door, his teeth zinging like when foil shorts out your fillings.

Some things can never be unseen.

beginning01Thinking back on it now, he often wonders if maybe he should have just gone home instead of shouldering the door open. He often thinks of how he stood there like a gormless gobshite, ogling the romping quislings.

He expected Niamh to blurt out it was a mistake, that this had never happened before. But it wasn’t. And it had.

Now to cause an immense uproar, chew the scenery like Al Pacino! But no words would come. Instead, he went for Malachy but that buck-naked eejit punched him hard. Weepily trudging back to his dorm, Ógán dumped Niamh’s stuff out the third-floor window. He never saw either of them again. Last he heard, they’d taken the trip to Indonesia.

That summer passed in a violet daze, to Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around And Fell in Love.” That spiteful song followed him everywhere: laptops, car radios, ringtones. On the solstice he broke into his old high school and entered the history classroom where he’d first met Niamh. There, he downed a pint of whiskey and a packet of his father’s blood-thinning medication.

The End.


Some Common Misperceptions

The nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice” is about three bishops burned at the stake by Queen Mary I of England. Bloody Mary liked burning people, and 280 other religious dissenters met the same fate during her five-year reign. Many nursery rhymes are based on horrible real-life events. “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” is about the plague. “London Bridge Is Falling Down” is about child sacrifice. “Jack and Jill” were two young lovers thrown to their deaths. Ógán has confirmed the validity of these statements in conversations with the dead.


The End Is a Beginning

Ógán is a magpie. He has black and white plumage and a sleek elegant tail. Up close, his black plumage has an iridescent violet sheen on the wings but it turns glossy green on the tail.

He coasted the thermals over Slieve Gullion Mountain, a half-mile high, as effortless as standing still. His new form had taken a bit of getting used to; the ruffle of his feathers, how he sensed minute beginning02changes in air current through his entire body. He swooped like black lightning, landing in the back garden of his family home on top of the small granite gravestone for Buster, his Jack Russell.

The back door of the house opened and a tiny wrinkled woman with glasses half the size of her face threw the heel of a batch loaf onto the paved walkway. Ógán flapped over, pecked some, then cawed at his mother.

“Every day you eat all my bread,” she said, “and never get no fatter. Just like Ógán used to.” Her shoulders hunched and she took the Padre Pio medal from beneath her blouse and kissed it.

A sharp whistle pierced the air. Since becoming a magpie, Ógán had heard that whistle several times; it was warning him about a trapped soul. A violent soul. He had to deal with it: this was part of his job.

He flew south, following the whistle thirty-five miles to a ghost estate outside Drogheda, spotting from a mile off the violet shimmer of the haunted house. The neighborhood was recovering well from the housing crash, and half of the houses that had lain vacant for nearly a decade were occupied. One of them, a detached two-story redbrick, was occupied by a man conducting a one-sided argument.

Ógán perched on the windowsill. The man (mid-twenties) jabbed his index finger towards the corner of the living room wall, then struck, punching yet another hole in the plasterboard that bore a dozen already, his knuckles the color of a Bloody Mary. A baby screamed upstairs.

Ógán found the newborn writhing in his cot, and from the smell the nappy hadn’t been changed all day. A woman shrieked. In the kitchen he found her listening intently to the extractor fan. She was begging for a voice to stop, pleading, but then climbed onto the counter and slammed her head into the stove’s aluminium hood, streaking the metal surface bloody red. There were other holes smashed into the walls, these with a sledgehammer. The couple had been working over the entire house, searching for something. Ógán knew a wronged soul often manifested like this, driving the inhabitants to self-harm or murder/suicide. He didn’t have much time to intervene. Ógán had seen how quickly people could kill each other just to stop the voices.

He circled the building, paying particular attention to the structure. Nothing untoward. Sometimes it was a body nearby in a shallow grave, but the yard was well-maintained, flowerbeds blooming with the first flush of summer, grass clipped. There was a scarcity of furniture within, almost Spartan décor. Perhaps this family had just moved in and, without signs of a recent grave, he could discount them as murderers. Something much older and malevolent was present.

And then he saw it.

Glistening within the crewcut lawn, pink and pulsing. He swooped down to beak the worm and swallowed it, whole and wriggling. It was delicious, reminding him of ham, mixed with a little dirt. The dirt was the best bit. Kept him regular.

From the lawn, he saw a row of bricks along the base of the house that appeared newer than the rest. A section of those bricks had also been removed and replaced, the mortar different. Concentrating, Ógán visualized the empty space beyond the bricks and his body dissolved, re-materializing on the other side. It always felt like plunging into a swimming pool, ears popping followed by a weird chlorine odor, but it was a neat trick.

Within the shallow cavity beneath the house there was a bundle wrapped in plastic, the scent of death masked with quicklime. Inside were two bodies: husband and wife. This close to the body, Ógán knew the tragic story:

She killed him and he deserved it. The bastard had a nasty gambling habit before the housing crash put him crazy; he attacked her, almost killed her. She stabbed him with a kitchen knife. Self-defense. Right now the bastard was already in The Dark Place, flayed by a demon that looked like his wife. The end.

But the woman remained to poison the building. There were gashes on her wrists, proof she had turned the knife on herself after the murder. Who had put the bodies here? That was the real reason she hadn’t departed this plane.

He summoned the woman’s trapped soul to its body. The woman, Aoife, hovered over her corpse, before Ógán guided her out of the building, upwards.

The young couple in the house had returned to normalcy. The woman rushed into the living room, her husband staring wide-eyed at the holes he’d punched in the walls. They hugged each other and kissed, relieved it was finally over.

Ógán guided the dead woman towards the light, moving from the dark to gray.

“You’ve been dead eight years, Aoife.”

“But I only killed him yesterday…”

Dead Time always moved faster.

“I’m not being punished for killing him?”

“Self-defense,” he replied. “But suicide is a 500-year sentence.”

She lurched to flee, but here he was all-powerful. Nobody escaped.

“I don’t make the rules, I just follow them. We all follow them.”

She struggled, trying to fight him off, pulling toward the house and her decaying body. Still, they continued onward into the grey. Directions were meaningless; only Ógán knew the way out.

beginning03“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said. “But we’ll get to The Grey Place soon. It’s not so bad, you’ll see.”

“Why do I care what some dumb bird says?”

“Did you know, magpies are the only non-mammals to recognize our own reflections.”

“Why are you a magpie, and not a raven or a crow?”

“Crows are criminals,” he replied. “It’s the punishment for being a low-level criminal, sentenced to be a crow.”

“But magpies are thieves.”


Where the Rumor Began

Rossini’s opera La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) has a servant girl sentenced to death for stealing silver even though the magpie did it. It’s a common misperception that magpies are thieves and that we steal shiny objects. In fact, shiny objects are extremely annoying. The glare hurts my eyes.


“What about my body?” Aoife asked.

“Somebody will find it, eventually.”

“You bastard, you’re just leaving me there to rot? No burial?”

“Your suicide sentence isn’t your worst problem,” he explained. “The haunting and torture of that family … that’s a millennium right there. A thousand years in The Grey Place.”

With Ógán concentrating, they dissolved and rematerialized in The Grey Place. Globules of prismatic light—souls—wandered chaotically, zigzagging and colliding like excited particles. Others adopted mournful poses and wandered, moaning. They didn’t have to, they were free to do whatever they wanted, but many elected to remain penitent and dour, even though it had no outcome on their sentence. The Grey Place wasn’t a punishment, it was more of a holding area; a place where souls contemplated their earthly behavior before being allowed into The Big House. They could form a jazz club for all The Boss cared. But they continued moaning, rattling chains, posing like that Scream painting.

“How did you transport us here?”

“I can transport anywhere in the universe, but it’s quite impossible to breathe on Mars, so I’m mostly on Earth.”

“Then you can get inside the foundations of my house, get my body out?”

As much as he wanted to make whoever had hidden two corpses beneath that house pay, it wasn’t his job.


A Visit To the Big House

A hard-faced, soft-bellied man in a toga was standing on a wooden crate on a street corner, orating to no one in particular. “Can one believe there exists presently a brand of condom entitled Trojan?” Homer said. “Alas, it should evidently be noted that the Trojan Horse, after infiltrating the outer defences, forthwith, in a clandestine attack, ejected hundreds of soldiers. Is this truly not an unfortunate implication for a prophylactic?”

Homer regarded his audience, which was much smaller than he usually got at the Greek theater for his evening performance. Two people were present: Dali twisted the waxy tip of his drooping mustache, and Picasso was dressed like a matador. Neither of them applauded.

Ógán swooped down and dropped a silver drachma in the pileus cap at Homer’s feet. Happily, Homer cleared his throat to continue; the others groaned.

beginning4Ógán flapped alone toward The Big House. The light was diffuse, like being inside mist; the buildings, cobblestone streets, and people emitted luminosity. Sitting on a nearby bench, a man wearing a black three-piece suit was sheltering beneath a black umbrella. Edgar Allan Poe adjusted his sunglasses and scratched in his notebook with a quill.

“You should really have chosen the form of a raven,” Poe said. “Magpies have too much white.”

Ógán landed on the bench. Poe dipped his quill in the ink bottle, but it was empty. He glanced pleadingly at the bird. Ógán concentrated, and a bottle of the blackest Indian Ink materialized.

“Has thou ever read Jonathan Livingston Seagull?”

“That seagull’s such a poser,” Ógán replied. Then: “Because I’m a bird I’m only supposed to read books about birds?”

“Which postures an interesting conundrum, my half-raven friend. Exactly how doth one, being a bird that is, and thusly lacking thumbs, read a book?”

“I can still peck the buttons on my Kindle,” he replied. “Quoth the magpie, nevermore!”

Ógán flapped off to find The Boss. Although finding him wasn’t exactly how it worked. The Big House took whatever form you desired, and while this usually involved soft white clouds and angels with harps, for Ógán it was the flat-share where Malachy lived, where he had found him with his fiancée Niamh.

The walls were translucent as jellyfish, and Ógán glided down the hallway to enter the bedroom, which looked exactly as it had that day; the bed sheets tousled, dirty jeans and socks piled in the corner. Malachy hadn’t even cleaned up before Niamh arrived—that’s how routine their tryst had been. Ógán landed on the desk, and a snap of his wing cascaded a laptop and geography textbooks onto the crusty floor.

“I’m not picking those up again,” The Boss said.

His voice reverberated from everywhere. He had no face, no body. He was everything and nothing.

Ógán squawked and got to the floor, lifted everything back onto the desk. “You see everything,” he said. “So, when do they die?”

The Boss had promised Ógán that he’d be allowed to decide a punishment for Niamh and Malachy. He’d get to reap their souls and ferry them to The Dark Place. Let them suffer for a few millennia. That should be payback for how they’d destroyed everything he cared about.

“You’ve got work to do,” The Boss said. “Time to take another one back.”

The room dissolved like sugar in water and Ógán rematerialized on the tiled floor of a diner. His feathers spasmed and he staggered a couple of steps. He hated it when The Boss did that.

Two men were arguing in a corner booth. Ógán took flight and landed on the shoulder of the larger man, who had coiffed black hair and huge mutton chops. A half-eaten cheeseburger was oozing oil on his plate. Elvis jabbed his finger at Jim Morrison’s shirtless chest.

“You can’t keep being the same person throughout history,” Elvis said. “I mean, Michael Hutchence? Seriously? That’s what you wasted your reincarnation on?”

Jim brushed his mane of hair out of his face and took a swig of whiskey. “Being Plato with a guitar worked for you last time round, fatboy. But this isn’t the seventies anymore. They have cell phones, but they don’t use them to speak to each other on—they use them to write shit on the internet.”

Frizzy-haired Janis Joplin, in the next booth over, strummed her guitar. “Don’t just be one of the regular weird people this time,” she said.

Ógán guided Elvis to the jump point, a swirling portal that appeared in the diner’s entranceway. Elvis was squeezed into the sequined jumpsuit he had barely fit into before his Las Vegas blowout, rolls of fat bunching the seams. He turned to Ógán and said, “What’s an internet?”


The Residue of Life and Death

The piercing whistle led Ógán to an industrial garment laundering facility outside Belfast. He’d been to the city many times, watching Niamh and Malachy grow their family. Waiting.

The facility was empty because it was still a couple of hours until sunrise. Yet Ógán went around to the walled-off yard and found workers sheltering beneath a rusty piece of corrugated steel, smoking. Raindrops daggered down like shiny coins. He made his way inside, industrial presses squeezing out white bed sheets and towels for the hospitality industry. The windows toward the front had been sealed with cardboard, giving the appearance that the factory wasn’t in use. This was an unscheduled nightshift.

Eimear was reaching with her red raw hands into the mangle, a huge, gaping black crusher of a thing that gripped the sheets and pressed them between solid rollers, wringing moisture out. The whistle ceased, the rollers stopped, but the mangle still pulsed with violet light. Life was sticky and didn’t want to leave. Ógán had learned death always leaves a residue.

Eimear tugged at a knotted sheet caught on the inner mechanism. The mangle cranked forward, trapping the woman’s hand before it whirred into life, dragging her towards the crushing rollers. Ógán swooped down and pecked the off button but the mangle was not deterred. The woman screamed but her co-workers did not hear her above the growling machine.

Ógán drove his beak into the power cable. Electricity sparked like fireworks, a wallop to his kidney that threw him off his feet. The whole facility went dark as Ógán stumbled onto his feet, beak scorched and sore.

Workers rushed to Eimear’s assistance—she was alive and uninjured, but as the power came back on, so too did the mangle. It had maimed countless people over the past two years, because, Ógán saw, there was a trapped soul within its machinery.

Ógán materialized inside the mangle, where the trapped soul was wedded to the mechanism. He gripped the soul in his beak and ripped. The soul split apart, most of its essence escaping into the ether. “You’ve been dead two years,” Ógán told the remains of the man.

“But just yesterday, I fell into that mangle.”

“Take me to your body,” Ógán commanded.

The mauled soul swept a hundred yards east to the Lagan River. There, weighted with rocks, his body lay hidden in the silt.

Ógán knifed the water and torpedoed the corpse, raising it to the surface. Somebody would find it. Somebody would bring the facility manager to justice. It was not his job to intervene and, taking to the sky corkscrewing with joy, he knew he had done the right thing.

But then, his wings seized and his wishbone froze in his chest. Ógán plummeted like a dead thing.


The Beak of Things To Come

A child’s hands cup him gently and he’s being lifted off the pavement. The world snaps into focus and the woman staring at him is Niamh. Her son, Riley, found Ógán’s twisted body on the pavement next to the Lagan while they were walking to school. She takes him into her hands and he meets her eyes. His heart quickens. He wants to kiss her, but he has witnessed the way she looks at Malachy, at their son—it was love.

Now her green eyes widen in fear.

The boy is strangely silent, when moments ago he chattered about how they needed to save wild animals. He’d been humming a magpie rhyme about a single magpie being bad luck.


Fun Fact

Magpies are symbols of happiness in Chinese culture. Koreans believe they deliver good news. In the myths of Native Americans (Navajo, Blackfoot, Cheyenne), we’re their faithful allies.


A Particularly Difficult Death

Car tires screech. A horn blares.

Niamh sprints onto the road, her boy having taken the crossing without waiting for the traffic signal to change. He’s directly in the path of an oncoming car. She throws herself at Riley, shoving him aside so the car crushes into her. Ógán is still in her hand, both of them thrown forward, tumbling along the road. She’s staring at him, pleading with her eyes as her nose runs bloody. A wound at the back of her skull gapes. Niamh dies. Her soul separates from her body. Riley is running to her.

Ógán loves her too much to let her die. He summons his energy into her and before he blinks out of existence, Niamh sits up, uninjured.


An Interrupted Ending

There are no ends, just new beginnings. That’s how it works, according to The Boss.

He said something about giving everybody a choice but not everybody recognized an opportunity.

“In fact, most people believe there are strict rules forbidding them from intervening.” Funny the things people cling to. Misguided, obviously.

It was difficult for Ógán to grasp because he was still re-forming, but he knew the drill: once as a dead human, and now as a dead bird. He was laid out on a black leather couch, the walls lined with books. He tucked his wings behind his head, crossed his legs and stared at the white ceiling.

“Did you know I was going to do that?”

Freud removed his glasses and fogged the lens, cleaned them on his lapel, and said, “The question is would you have still done it had you known you would?”

“He makes a fair point,” The Boss said. “I guess it’s time you took him back, Ógán.”

Freud stood straight now, his body rigid. He muttered under his breath, hands held in a shooing off gesture, but by then Ógán was ushering him to the jump point.

“Why did I lose flight,” Ógán asked, “if I hadn’t done anything wrong?”

“Unresolved issues,” he replied. “We can get to the root of it with free association. I say a word and you say whatever comes into your mind.”

“You know I’m Irish, right? Those tricks don’t work on us.”

“But, your dreams, I can analyse your dreams. Do you dream of big black dogs?”

“Every magpie does.”

Freud pushed back, trying to escape. Just like they always did, terrified of making a mistake.

Ógán took him gently by the shoulder and shoved him through the portal.



Michael McGlade is an Irish writer with almost sixty short stories in journals such as Dark Moon Digest, Perihelion, Voluted Tales, SQ Mag, and the forthcoming Night Lights anthology by Geminid Publishing. He holds a master’s degree in English and Creative Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University, Ireland. Represented by Isobel Dixon of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency. Find out the latest news and views from him on

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The Block, by Kostas Ikonomopoulos


The tenement block stands at the edge of the city overlooking a ravine and the hills beyond. The block is perpetually shrouded in mist and when it rains its dark exterior acquires a darker hue. It is old and unmaintained and so are its residents.

For unclear reasons no one lives on the first three floors. On the fourth floor lives a retired folklorist with a passion for Javanese shadow play. Every Sunday evening he invites a few of his neighbors over and he performs the same stories again and again to the sounds of a Gamelan orchestra, a recording he made himself sometime before the last war. When he is done, he takes down the white sheet and then he places his figures in a brilliantly polished chest. The figures are ancient-looking things made of buffalo skin and wood; their color has disappeared.

Madam Meletova loves puppetry in all its forms and always attends the folklorist’s sessions. Many years ago she was the Justice Minister’s mistress. It was said that he used to sign execution orders while she was fellating him. The minister is dead now and advancing years have granted her respectability. She lives alone in spacious block01rooms just above the folklorist. She never invites anyone in but when she opens her door passersby can see many framed photographs on her walls and a gown or négligée flung over an armchair. Some nights she drinks cognac and sings forgotten arias. She has a beautiful voice and it carries through her open window and reaches the other tenants, who stop what they are doing and listen with melancholy etched on their features.

Majarek shows up at the folklorist’s most Sundays, always accompanied by Sebastiano, the taxidermist. Everyone knows that Majarek is a war hero with a long service in distant colonies now renamed. He has lost his left arm and he wears a prosthetic when he ventures out of the block. He never wears it indoors, treating it, in a way, like a hat. Sebastiano carries strange odors, fascinating and repulsive, reminiscent of lilies and the carcasses of horses. Majarek and Sebastiano seldom speak to one another, yet they are often seen together, smoking cigarettes or observing murmurations in the twilight. They live in adjoining rooms on one of the upper floors.

The others are not regulars and they attend the shadow play perhaps once every few months. Schlossmayer is the oldest and most reclusive of the irregulars. When he arrives at the folklorist’s, he sits next to Meletova and closes his eyes. Perhaps he is there only for the music. Then there is Irene, a woman of indeterminate age recently retired from her position as head nurse in the city’s hospital for the criminally insane. According to Irene, Schlossmayer was the head of his country’s secret police during a brutal dictatorship. Irene maintains that Schlossmayer is a true psychopath who has tortured and murdered many men and women. Nonetheless, she greets him with kindness and sits near him at the folklorist’s apartment. She has even been inside Schlossmayer’s rooms, which she claims are filled with old books in many languages. The books with titles she could read, she says, appeared to be monographs on subjects such as Asiatic falconry and Baroque furniture.

In the bowels of the block, its boiler room, its terrace and its staircases, men and women wearing drab, heavy clothing make random and unexpected appearances. There is no superintendent and no listing of residents so it is not possible to know whether these people actually live here or are merely visiting, though it can be said with certainty that no regular visitors ever come, no family members, or distant relatives, or friends from various social circles. The residents of the tenement block appear to have no families or friends on the outside. They live retiring, monastic lives, pursuing solitary passions.


At the bottom of the ravine is a dried riverbed. Sebastiano, the taxidermist, often walks there, as does Madam Meletova, whose first name, never told to anyone in the block, is Alexandra. On occasion, Sebastiano returns from a walk with a dead bird that he proceeds to embalm in his apartment. Alexandra walks in the early morning, dressed as though she were about to attend the opera or the theater. She often emerges like a lone survivor of some unreported catastrophe before Majarek’s eyes.

At this hour, the one-armed man sits on a stone bench near the front entrance reading his crumbled newspaper. The war hero greets the aged concubine and watches her as she walks away, swaying her block02hips now that she knows he is watching. Each time she disappears into the morning, Majarek experiences crushing, devastating sadness. He looks down at his fake arm and his polished shoes and then he looks out into the distance, at the highways and the office buildings, at the world of the living. A profound loss darkens his insides and he wills himself to stand up and go back to his apartment, a man who is all past.

Mornings are difficult for the other residents as well. Irene, a chronic insomniac, stands on her balcony and smokes, gazing at the hills with bleary eyes. She thinks back to her countless night shifts at the asylum, the impossible stillness of those hours. Then she returns to her kitchen and boils water for her tea. She sips it while looking absentmindedly at the plastic table cover. The folklorist is hard at work in his study. He is laboring on an ambitious project, a compendium of death rituals. His frustration often overtakes him and he tears up the pages he has written since dawn. He wants this book to be his legacy, a definitive work, something that cannot be bettered or surpassed. Schlossmayer thinks about killing himself but he reasons that he is old and death cannot be far. Still, he keeps a pistol. Today, it lies in plain view between a Cyrillic Bible and a treatise in German about navigation in the Middle Ages. He often moves it around, compelled by an urge he has never been able to define.

At noontime, the block is dead silent. The tenants are absent, and it is unclear where they have all gone. Meletova’s door is closed but most others are left ajar. There is a basement beneath the basement and perhaps this is where all the residents go at noon. The lower basement is accessed through a metal trapdoor next to the janitor’s closet that is covered with an old rug. There are posters on the damp walls and any descent into the sub-basement is witnessed by faded cabaret dancers and music hall performers. Of course, the lower basement is not the only possibility; there are other places in the block that can claim the living. On the south side of the rooftop terrace is a cavernous pigeon loft. On the fifteenth floor, a sealed room may be accessed by those who know the combination for the ancient lock. But wherever the residents of the block go, they are returned by late afternoon. Their reemergence is followed by the renewal of the vile smells emanating from the taxidermist’s apartment workshop, and the renewal of the folklorist’s pacing and anguished mumbling.

When evening falls, the block is spectrally lit by primitive and defective lamps. It looks like a giant gripped by ankylosis. Its long shadow falls across tarmac and gravel, across the banks of the dried riverbed, and merges with the denser shadow descending from the hillside. Disturbing noises rise from night birds and crawlers. And then the block’s own emissions start escaping from windows, doors, cracks, and fissures, as though the block were a music box opened by a curious child.


Friday evening, a gathering takes place on the tenth floor, inside a vast apartment whose inner walls have been demolished. The invitation was issued by Irene, in the form of torturously calligraphed notices slipped under all the apartment doors. The tenants have been summoned to decide Schlossmayer’s fate, though it is unclear what gives them the authority to do so. Irene, resplendent in her white psychiatric nurse’s uniform, offers the assembled residents a lengthy monologue. She reiterates her suspicions regarding the old recluse’s murderous past. Then, dramatically, Irene takes out a folder from a leather satchel and drops it on the long table spanning the room. The residents, seated around the table in uncomfortable chairs, look at the folder and then at Schlossmayer, who sits by himself off in a corner, with accelerating embarrassment and discomfort. The hermit gives the nurse a look of reproach, as if to say, I thought we were beyond all this, that we were civil to each other. The proceedings have taken him by surprise, and yet he came to the gathering of his own accord. As he took the stand to defend himself, even though no proper authority compelled him to do so, he was, as always, cordially greeted by his neighbors.

Irene refers to the folder on the table as the ‘new and damning evidence,’ yet she presents it neither to those gathered, nor to the old man whose fate is being decided. Sebastiano thinks how odd it is that no one has been appointed judge on this matter. Even if a majority of the assembled decided, one way or the other, who was going to enforce the decision? Who was going to support it with authority? Majarek, who is very cultured for a military man and has an art historian’s sensibility, looks up at the ceiling; the cracks, mold, and discoloration form patterns and designs that remind him of the ceiling of the Senate Room in the Palazzo Ducale.

Irene asks Schlossmayer, in a rather friendly manner given the circumstances, to comment on the new evidence, although the only thing Irene has said of it so far is that the ‘new and damning evidence’ supports the previous evidence that was brought forth when the issue was first raised. No one remembers when the issue was first raised, much less the original evidence, and at that point, Alexandra Meletova stands, and for a moment, rocks back and forth. She has been drinking and it appears to the assembled that she might actually sing. Instead, after steadying herself, she approaches Irene and whispers something in her ear. The retired nurse turns pale. Alexandra returns to her seat.

Irene stands and awkwardly addresses the assembled once again. She claims it was all a joke she conceived, a play to enliven this evening, that she intended, at the end of the performance, to admit it was all an act and take her bows. She approaches Schlossmayer and lays her hand on his shoulder.

For a minute, nothing happens.

The folklorist is the first to go. Sebastiano follows, and then the others, one by one, file out of the room. The large apartment is now empty, save for Schlossmayer, who looks utterly exhausted and defeated. He stands up with effort and shambles out of the room and down the corridor towards the stairs. In his room, he takes up the pistol and sits at his desk. He looks at the pistol for a long time. Finally, he stands up, goes to the open window and starts shooting at the hillside, at the dark and unmovable heart of the thing that haunts and traps them all.


That very night the birds arrive. It is a peculiar and unseasonable migration. Sebastiano, of course, is aware of this phenomenon and of the pull the building exerts on this strange breed, which has yet to be classified. Large corvids with blood-streaked bellies fly in and land around the pigeon loft. They start shrieking and rattling with a focused intensity that terrifies the residents. Meletova cannot tolerate the cacophony and so she places a record on her primordial gramophone and opens her windows. The music ascends to the terrace like a bronze shield and the cries of the birds crash against it. Somewhere in the middle floors of the block a light comes on.

Kang, unseen for two years, is now frantically gathering herbs and minerals from his cabinets and mixing them inside a silver urn. He sets the mix alight and, holding the urn with both hands, takes the stairs to the rooftop. The smoke coming out of the container is block03choking him and he falters. Up above, the birds go into a frenzy, like a panicked camp anticipating a devastating assault. The residents’ nerves are frayed. The folklorist, knowledgeable and dedicated as he is, breaks down and falls on his floor. Wracked by insomnia and shamed over recent events, Irene’s veins unfurl like satiated serpents. Her clammy skin is taut and, like a bow bent without mercy, she reaches her snapping point and starts screaming back at the birds.

At this very instant, the old pharmacist finally arrives at the terrace and places the urn. The smoke rises, flashing blue and crimson, and moves towards the malevolent flock. A vengeful shrieking pierces hill and building and human flesh alike but it cannot stave off this defeat. The birds rise, a flurry of screaming and feathers. Suddenly, all motion stops. For a time, the birds are suspended, as if pinned to a painted sky. At the blink of an eye, they are hurled across the night, as though swept away by the hand of a random god.

Silence descends upon the block. Kang slowly reclaims his weapon and makes his way back to his rooms. There, he retires among the paraphernalia of his trade and falls asleep next to his fragrant vials. One by one, the others come to their senses and rejoice: somehow, they have been reprieved. And no one is more aware of this unwarranted, unexpected and undeserved miracle than Sebastiano. He remembers when, more than ten years ago, the birds came and stayed screaming for a week. At that time, the taxidermist had tried to hang himself but failed. Old Cazares went insane. Arletta flung herself from her balcony to the dried riverbed below. The lives of all the residents were damaged and disrupted. Kang was away that week. Perhaps the birds knew it and that is why they descended upon the block for so long and with such soul-piercing and persistent malice.

But this night is won. Alexandra’s song can now be heard, victorious and unrestrained, climbing defiantly towards the darkened regions of the sky. Irene sits at her kitchen table, drinks her tea and smokes, waiting for the morning.


The days reclaim their pace and unfold with languor. Majarek experiences a kind of peace that has eluded him for years. This morning, he has received an official-looking letter from the hot and distant land where he served his flag for many years. The letter acknowledges Majarek’s contributions. The new government is grateful for the assistance he rendered during the turbulent transition. An invitation to a ceremony is included and states, in no uncertain terms, that the Falcon’s Wings, the new country’s highest decoration, will be presented to him at the City Hall in one month’s time. Pride now softens Majarek’s gloomy and depressive tendencies. He can even follow Meletova’s moving figure with no more than basic pangs of pain. He starts making travel arrangements.

By noontime, all of the residents know. First, he tells Sebastiano. A random meeting with Schlossmayer by the boiler room gives him the opportunity to spread the news further. Then Irene hears the news. One by one, they all felicitate the military man and he accepts their smiles and their praise, unaware of the resentment in their hearts, a deep-seated rancor that arises from their diminished humanity, their isolation, their failures and inner exile.

The folklorist is the first to voice his objection, tactfully, of course, to Sebastiano and Irene. He clothes his seething jealousy in careful words. Wasn’t Majarek given a certificate of recognition by the opposition (now defeated and exiled) in that distant land? Hadn’t he accepted an instructor’s post at a neighboring republic when he was younger, a country often at odds with the one that now wants to decorate him? The folklorist is an expert at casting aspersions. He is motivated by selfishness and fear. Majarek’s ascension will overshadow the folklorist’s future accomplishments. He instinctively knows that this tenement block is large enough for only one man’s work to flirt with history.

Sebastiano is torn, because he considers himself Majarek’s friend. He knows that this honor will bring Majarek closer to his estranged family, taking him away from the block and the present miserable circumstances that bind them. The taxidermist wants the military officer to remain. He loves him. Of course, he would never admit it. He often reminisces to himself, about their evenings of companionship, about that shared estrangement, about that comfortable silence at dusk. He closes his eyes and sees Majarek smiling sadly, Majarek without the prosthetic arm, in all his glorious vulnerability. All his history, all his struggle, all his pride. All his loneliness carved in his lean face, all his past behind gray eyes that have gone grayer on long ocean voyages. The discipline, the self-denial, the dashed hopes, and more than anything, the nobility that lifts Majarek and separates him. Sebastiano agrees that perhaps the foreign government should be made aware of a possible conflict of interest that might take an embarrassing turn.

Alexandra likes the way Majarek looks at her; he makes her feel younger and desired. But in all the years they have known each other, he has never tried to beguile or seduce her. Her flesh has aged and withered and still Majarek waits. It is almost too cruel. Why does he taunt her? Bitterness overwhelms her. He denies her even as his gaze fills with yearning. How can she forgive him? If he were indifferent, if Alexandra merely suffered from unrequited love, bitterness would have no place. But this is too much for any woman to bear. And now Majarek looks happy and hopeful again. Where block04does that leave Alexandra? And so she agrees with the others that something must be done. She would deny him this new hope, this new beginning, the way he has denied Alexandra her own. Let them know he is no hero, no nation-builder! Let them know he plays all sides, he works for whomever pays, he swears no allegiance! He is like all other men, he disappoints and he compromises. But Alexandra is wrong. She does not know that Majarek is burdened by guilt. That Majarek supported the coup that ousted the previous government. That men from his own regiment dragged the Justice Minister outside the city, doused him with petrol, and set him aflame. That it was Majarek, himself, who stripped her parents’ estate of all valuables and set them on the path to exile. Majarek was young then and for the rest of his career he tried to make amends for the excesses of his youth and use wisdom and compassion in all his dealings. But he knows that to be with Alexandra—whose name he alone in the building knows—he would have to tell her the truth, and she would hate him.

The others have nothing against Majarek. But they fear change. And it feels wrong for anyone to leave the tenement block alive.


Schlossmayer sends the letter. He is an expert in such affairs. He has no quarrel with Majarek, but feels no empathy either. Where is Schlossmayer’s reward, where is what was promised to him? Unbeknownst to the others, Schlossmayer also sends another message, to Majarek’s estranged son, arousing the young man’s vanity and poisoning whatever remains of filial love and the awe he owes his father.

Two weeks pass. Sebastiano gives a lecture on taxidermy that only Irene and the folklorist attend. Kang makes a single appearance: he spends two hours at the terrace, next to the pigeon loft, looking for something. He is witnessed by two women, who might be new residents, and who happen to be visiting the terrace themselves. When they notice him they withdraw, as if they were caught doing something terribly improper.

Then, the two officials arrive. One is in uniform. The other is wearing a black suit. They inquire after Majarek. Majarek sees them upon returning from a walk along the riverbed with the taxidermist. Sebastiano has been trying to spend more time with his friend, now full of regret for going along with the plan to discredit him. Sebastiano is on the verge of confession. He hopes that nothing comes of their intervention, but he suspects that events have transpired that cannot be undone. When he sees the two men, his stomach turns. A pitiful sound escapes his lips.

Majarek recognizes both men and he smiles. Accelerating his pace, he leaves the taxidermist behind. He believes the men have come to congratulate him, these men who have shunned him for so long. He walks towards them with purpose, even more content for the fact that he is wearing his prosthetic arm and his clean suit jacket. The men straighten up as he approaches. Majarek outranks them.

Irene is about to exit the building when she sees the three men through the glass door. She stops. As she witnesses the silent drama, the thought occurs to her that what is transpiring is one of the stories told by the folklorist’s puppets, a tragedy played out in light and shadow. At first, all three men are stiff. Majarek becomes animated. The man in uniform hangs his head. Majarek turns to the man in the black suit. Irene believes that Majarek has just won some minor victory when the suit, with impossible speed, slaps Majarek across the face. The black suit takes out a letter and holds it up. Majarek takes it, reads it, and takes a small step back. Majarek sheds all nobility and bearing; the prosthetic hangs like a simian extremity. His knees buckle. The uniformed man quickly reaches out to him and steadies him. Majarek, invoking decades of pride and discipline, breaks free of the other’s grasp and straightens. Majarek again addresses the black suit. The man’s face registers surprise, disdain, doubt, fear, all in quick succession. Choked with shame, Irene wants to run out and tell the men it was all lies. Majarek is beyond reproach, Majarek with his one arm, and gray eyes, and tired smile, Majarek in his titanic solitude undreamt of by lesser men. Once, when phantom pains in his missing limb had become unendurable, he sought her out, but Irene had nothing with which to comfort him. He told her, then, how he lost his arm. Irene told no one else that story, but during awful nights, when regrets and insomnia threaten to unravel her, she remembers it, and tears of gratitude dampen her pillow until sleep claims her. Why have they done this to the best of them? Irene is certain she will run out. But she stays rooted in place until the uniform and the black suit leave and Majarek is left alone in the middle of the courtyard, forlorn and sacrificed and having lost something for which there is no prosthesis.


Majarek spends the night chain-smoking in his room. Painstakingly, he reconstructs what has happened and what needs to be done. He is a soldier and no stranger to pain, misfortune, and defeat, and he is block05not without allies. He has friends he expects will come to his aid. He was a great tactician once. Now, he plans his next move with great care, accounting for all contingencies. In his great mind he organizes his defenses. But he does not know that the great hollow horse is already within the city walls.

A young man comes to his door and knocks. The sun is still not up. The young man drove through the night, bursting with self-righteousness, and arrived to claim the confrontation that was for years denied him. No one saw him climb up the stairs and walk down the corridor leading to his father’s door. Sebastiano, unable to sleep, the glassy eyes of his dead animals looking at him accusingly, hears the knock. Like Irene, Sebastiano is drowning in remorse, and like Irene, he is not able to do a single thing to help his friend. Unlike Irene and Sebastiano, many others are sleeping peacefully at this hour. The folklorist is dreaming of Mount Merapi as seen from the top of Borobudur. Schlossmayer seems to have found meaning again through his last vile act. In molding and breaking the wills of men he finds both ecstasy and comfort. For a long time Schlossmayer has enjoyed Meletova’s protection; the woman is also a creature addicted to intrigue and subversion. She has acquired access to the residents’ secrets and unforgivable acts. She is the repository of their collective shame. Of course, she also knows Schlossmayer for who he is. But he shielded her after the old regime collapsed, after her lover was immolated, after her parents were driven out of their estate and their ancestral land, and she is indebted to him. She hopes Schlossmayer will die soon and release her from their terrible bond. Until then, she guards him, and those around him fall.

The door opens. Father and son face one another. Majarek looks incomprehensibly at the younger man. The light from the lamp makes Majarek’s shadow fall on the boy, heavy and absolute, the way it has been all their lives. The early hour, the stillness in the corridor, the window facing the darkened hill: the men stand suspended in time. The terrible meeting they both have craved is at hand.

The young man walks in. The door closes. Sebastiano hears their muffled voices in the adjoining room. The taxidermist stands still next to the wall, the tension stretching his body like a string. His lips are sealed, he guards his breath as though it were his soul. At first, the voices are indistinguishable. His friend’s voice is quiet, reasoning, pleading. The other voice starts low, but gets sharper, rises in anger, becomes shrill with indignation. Majarek, again: explaining, first with authority, then with sadness. The son: getting louder, mocking, erupting in cruel laughter. And then comes the inevitable, pillowy silence, heavy and stifling, draping the dawn in despair.

The son leaves, all threads cut, his father dead to him.


It is a strange and glorious morning: the mist has lifted for the first time in years. On the balconies and on the terrace, in the courtyard and along the riverbed, the disbelieving residents turn their faces towards the sun and then gaze upon the verdant hills, which are resplendent and shining, as though they have just been polished to perfection. No one remembers such a day. The folklorist has left his desk and his chapter on Neolithic mummification techniques and stands before a massive, glassless window on the first floor corridor. Kang stands beside him, his eyes like milky orbs, and looks upon the trees on the hillside, impossibly well-defined against the dark but satiated earth. Has Kang regained the perfect eyesight he enjoyed in youth? Even Schlossmayer, a man resistant to natural beauty and an implacable enemy of common sentiment, grins like an idiot on the terrace, a fresh breeze caressing his dried and spotted face. Irene and Sebastiano have forgotten the apocalyptic night they have just survived and walk hand in hand—without even realizing it—towards the hills. Meletova has left her door open and music from her phonograph rolls down the staircases and climbs the barren walls before spilling out to caress them all with longing and delight. It is a virtuosic viola da gamba performance and the bass has a resounding, otherworldly quality. The concubine appears to have shed decades. She wears a long red gown with intricate lacework, its exquisite craftsmanship complementing the three rows of pearls resting on her alabaster skin. From his vantage point on the first floor, the folklorist sees her emerging in the courtyard and for a moment, violent, lustful and brilliant thoughts flash in his mind, the thoughts of a young man who, aggressive and self-assured, is about to embark on an adventure. He turns to explain this to Kang, but the old pharmacist is not there. Kang has gone below, to the basement beneath the basement, the one accessed through the trapdoor next to the janitor’s closet and down the staircase overseen by cabaret dancers and music hall performers on faded posters. The pharmacist has gone deep and will not come out again, for like ancient Diagoras, Kang has discovered that a moment of perfect happiness is the ideal moment for death.

Now the long forgotten and the no longer seen come out and reacquaint themselves with life and light and friends. The Krebs sisters, still clutching Thermos flasks full of plum liquor in their gloved hands, descend the hill and meet up with the nurse and the taxidermist. Strilic, the impresario, a man thought to have died or to have vanished fifteen years ago, appears on his balcony, though the door leading to his apartment remains sealed with layers of undisturbed dust. On any other morning this would be cause for alarm or astonishment, but not this day. Mesmerized, entranced and enchanted, the residents absorb rays of sun and bliss, all their troubles forgotten.

Inside his apartment, Majarek looks for a length of rope.


Indignities accumulate in his final hours. He has misplaced important papers, including details of people who might have otherwise been able to help him; he is out of food and drink; and he discovers that he is no longer in possession of his pistol. Despairing, he searches for alternatives. He does not find the rope he is looking for, but in a flash of clarity, he realizes that it would be of no use to him anyway: he is neither criminal nor traitor. Die he must, but not this way.

Alone in the building, drifting along corridors and staircases that appear lit for the first time, he makes his way inside various rooms. Irene’s bathroom cabinets are filled with pharmaceuticals, but he has no way of knowing their effectiveness. In the early moments of his desolation, he contemplated stealing embalming fluid from Sebastiano’s laboratory, but soon discarded the notion. He had a horrid vision in which he lay on the floor, without motor skills, twitching and soiling himself. Now he finds himself in front of Kang’s door, but it is locked. Despondent, he returns to his quarters.

He has knives, of course, ceremonial daggers sharp enough. But it is a perilous proposition for a one-armed man. He could ascend to the terrace and jump to his death. But men have been known to survive falls, even from great heights. And, of course, dignity, always dignity, the memory of his essence that must be preserved. So he leaves his rooms yet again, fearing that whatever is attracting the residents and keeping them outside will vanish, and that they will return to find him, adding more embarrassment to an existence that has become synonymous with it; or worse, noontime will arrive, forcing everyone into temporary banishment. The building has already started to tremble, an invisible wave rising out of the bowels of the lower basement. Majarek fears he will run out of time.

At last, he comes to Schlossmayer’s door and finds it open. Entering, he is astonished to find book-lined shelves and cabinets but nothing else that reflects the man: no photographs on the walls, no uniforms in the closets, no memorabilia from different times. He had not believed Irene’s description of Schlossmayer’s rooms. Now, bewilderment washes over him. He has trouble reconciling the old foreigner’s malice with his erudite predilections. Not for a moment block06has he doubted that Schlossmayer is behind the slander that has ruined him. Yet, he marvels that such a man should come to possess things of great value and beauty. Standing between two rows of incunabula, Majarek forgets the purpose of this hour. A large desk is situated in front of the grand window. On it, a Coronelli globe tilts at an impossible angle, but somehow remains in place supported by two woodblocks. Momentarily, the one-armed man considers a friendship that never was; the man who has undone him could have been a great companion. The conversations they could have had, the obsessions they could have shared. He sits on the leather armchair behind the desk and allows himself a moment of peace. He notices a glint from the top of a cabinet against the back wall. He looks at it until his eyes tear up, so strong is the reflection. He stands and walks towards the source of this unbearable brilliance. Wedged between a Flemish notary’s account of a medieval murder and a Buddhist scripture in Pali, reflecting the improbable rays of this improbable sun, he finds Schlossmayer’s firearm and relief envelops him. He takes the pistol in his hand and finds pleasure in the familiar weight. He returns to the leather armchair, the weapon evoking memories of battles fought under a merciless sun, a life of service and loss, of barracks and offices that stank of stale smoke, of ancient trains and desiccated plantations, of corpse-filled fields at dawn, of artillery shelling, of his amputated arm. But nostalgia evaporates, and only this acute present pain remains, a pain that wears the face of his son.

So he stands up and leaves.

On the stairs leading to the rooftop he sees an old couple, sitting like students, holding hands. He has not seen either of them before. The woman’s face is daubed with white and her lips are clownish and red. As he passes by, they both smile toothless smiles, smiles full of intolerable understanding. As he walks past, up the stairs, Majarek senses them standing, receding into the building, the midday hour fast approaching.

Finally, he arrives and stands alone at the top of the tenement block.


They have all left. The hill, the ravine, the courtyard: all empty. The firmament has darkened. On the terrace, Majarek leans against the pigeon loft. He has always loved high places and he wishes to be buried in the sky.

No bitterness mars his final moments. The soldier knows his life is forfeit. Majarek feels light without his prosthetic; the unpinned sleeve is flapping in the wind. Beneath his feet, a deep silence reigns inside the block. He is utterly alone, but this mission is the simplest he has ever undertaken. Ever systematic, he test-fires the pistol at the distant city. The report reverberates all around the hill and the dried riverbed. There is only one question left: head or heart? He hesitates, not out of fear, but because he knows the ludicrous preoccupations of the living. For him, all that is random and all that is necessary, it all comes to an end. Does it matter if the casket is open or closed? His son will not be there. No one who matters to him will be there. And he discovers a certain freedom in this thought.

Time has always seemed slow in the tenement block, but Majarek’s ruminations have been lengthier than expected. Soon the residents will reappear and perhaps some will come to the terrace in order to gaze at the darkening hill from this very spot, a vantage point that justifies the entirety of the crumbling building that supports it. Majarek smiles at a memory: Olafsson, the folklorist, once told him a story about a man who promised to build a thousand towers in a single night and raised demons from the earth to help him do so. The demons worked through the night and were constructing the last tower when someone lit fires all around. Believing that dawn had come, the demons melted back into the earth and the man who had summoned them failed to keep his promise.

What nonsense! He takes one lingering look around. The sparse trees on the hillside appear to be undulating as if pressed from above. A bird rises out of the branches, followed by another and another until the swarm is formed. The familiar shrieking is heard as the corvids unexpectedly return for another assault.

Majarek puts the barrel in his mouth. When the metal touches the hard palate, he pulls the trigger.



Kostas Ikonomopoulos was born in Athens in 1976. He studied in Greece and the UK. Over the years, he has worked in education, development, trading & outsourcing, gaming and publishing, in Europe, South Africa, China and SE Asia. He recently published a non-fiction book about ruined and neglected sites of cultural significance in Singapore, where he has been living for the past five years.

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Shimmer-24-ThumbnailYou Can Do It Again, by Michael Ian Bell. I come up again at the bodega on 189th and Amsterdam. When the vertigo and nausea pass, the shimmering forms resolve into bodies and storefronts. Trash bags are piled enormous in the street and I stare transfixed, one hand on the doorframe, steadying myself. In my other hand is a cola, cold like ice. I put it against my forehead and it shocks me into the moment. Every time is the same but it never gets so I expect it.

Shimmer-21-ThumbnailStates of Emergency, by Erica L. Satifka.  In a no-tell motel just outside Billings, the psychotic cattle rancher known as Paranoid Jack freezes when he sees the baby-blue eyeball glowering at him from the mouthpiece of the Bakelite phone. “Hello? Hello?” Jack swallows down the bile rising in his stomach. Nowhere is safe. He sets the phone back in its receiver and walks out to the motel lobby.

The Fifth Gable, by Kay Chronister

The first woman to live in the four-gabled house fermented her unborn children in the wine cellar. When they came to term, she broke them open on the floorboards. Her heartiest son weighed half an ounce at birth. His face, curved to the shape of the Mason jar womb where he developed, stayed pink for an hour before he died in a puddle of formaldehyde and afterbirth.

The second woman to live in the four-gabled house pulled her children from the ground like stubborn roots. They came out of the soil smelling of pollen, with faces like tulips. They were healthy until she cut their stems, and then they withered. They returned reedy and gray-faced to the earth.

The third woman in the four-gabled house said she had no children.

The fourth woman in the four-gabled house built her children from the parts of old radios and tractors. Their cries sounded like the spinning of propellers. Some of them could blink and one could even smile, but breast milk fried their motors. In their mother’s arms, they dissolved into heaps of crackling wires.

The women had been married before, to ordinary men, but no one wanted to mention that in light of what happened to the children.

The women in the four-gabled house no longer got many visitors.

All through the month of September, the women in the four-gabled house watched as a sober, clean-faced young creature walked down their street, past their house, to the end of the cul-de-sac, then turned and walked back.

The stranger would not walk in a neighborhood as unfashionable as their neighborhood if she did not want something with the four-gabled house and the women who lived there, they were sure of it.

“We should call someone,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable of the four-gabled house. “Get a neighborhood watch together.”

“Nonsense. She’s probably selling magazine subscriptions,” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable of the four-gabled house. “Or collecting bits of metal for the war effort, or trying to interest us in a quilting bee so the orphans can have blankets. Or she’s from some society that has asked her to come by our house, but the problem is that she’s just too scared to do it.”

“Are we still frightening?” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable of the four-gabled house. “I thought we’d gotten past that a few decades ago.”

“She’s a young girl in a fashionable hat,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “What could frighten her more than four old mothers with nary a man between them?”

“Well,” sniffed the woman who made her bed in the first gable. “If she ever came down to my cellar, she’d know real fright.”

September became October, October passed into November, and a damp, uncertain snow shimmered on the walks when the stranger came at last to the four-gabled house.

Her knock was hesitant, as if she feared to hurt the door.

The woman who made her bed in the first gable of the four-gabled house came to the door. The scent of myrrh clung to all her clothes and the damp of cellar walls clung to all her eyelids. She was the least approachable, so she always dealt with strangers.

“Please, may I come in?” said the stranger, and the woman who made her bed in the first gable thought for a moment, then nodded once, solemnly, and stepped aside.

The young woman crossed the foyer into the sitting room, where the other three women were waiting. “I’ve brought a pie for you,” she said, pushing a towel-covered dish at the most approachable person in the sitting room, which happened to be the woman who made her bed in the third gable of the four-gabled house. “I hope you like rhubarb.”

“Certainly,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, and while she smiled warmly, her hands trembled when she took the dish. “Thank you, dear.” She said dear after a long, conspicuous pause, as if correcting herself.

“My name is Marigold Hest,” said the stranger. “I wonder—do you know my husband?”

“I doubt it,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable, at the same time that the woman who made her bed in the second gable said indignantly, “Should we?”

“Never mind that,” said Marigold. “In fact, I’m glad. It will make things simpler.” She sat for a moment, fidgeting with the brim of her hat, then huffed out a soft little breath and added, “I’ve heard that you have children here. I need one.”

“Do you think they fall out of the eaves?” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable. “What makes you believe we have a child for you? You’re a married woman—go get one off your husband.”

The young woman blushed as pink as rhubarb, but she persisted. “People talk about you. They say you used to be midwives, and now you’re witches. They say you’re descended from the women who they hung in Salem. They say you’re German and came to Amherst to seduce our men and spy on us. But I don’t care what you are. Somehow you get babies, lots of them. Please, let me have one.”

None of the women said anything for a long while. The woman who made her bed in the first gable of the four-gabled house raised her eyebrows. The woman who made her bed in the second gable stifled a laugh. The woman who made her bed in the third gable did nothing. At last, the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable said, “And what sort of child is it that you’re wanting?”

“Any sort,” said Marigold. “Really, any one would do. As long as I can get it soon.”

“We’re not an assembly-line,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable. “Did someone tell you that we had… procured a baby for them?”

“No,” said Marigold, in a whisper that sounded more like yes.

“We wouldn’t,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “Ordinarily. Not out of selfishness… dear… but because we can’t.”

The others looked at her, noticing the word ordinarily and wondering if a stranger in a fashionable hat really counted as an exception. They had made an exception, once before. The exception was why the woman who made her bed in the third gable did not have children.

“But if you can try,” said Marigold. “If there’s any chance that you could get one for me, that would be better than no chance at all.”

“Why?” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable. “You’re young yet. Do you need a child now?”

“I’m afraid to say,” said Marigold. “Must I say?”

“No,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, before anyone else could speak. “We will try. Let us try.”

The woman who made her bed in the fourth gable was the first to take up Marigold’s cause. She took apart the ice box for its metal, marooning a bottle of milk and a package of frozen vegetables so she would have the materials to begin constructing a child. Sighing in resignation, the other women prepared a meal with all of their perishable foods. This had happened before, with the lamps and the radiator and the toaster oven. Wartime made metal hard to come by. Scrap-metal children had been rationed almost out of existence.

“This could be my last,” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable. She had a spoonful of warm grape jelly in her mouth, a soldering iron warming in her hand. “For a while, anyway, this could be my last.”

The probable lastness of the child did not make him any more eager to survive.

When he was complete, a small frame of plated steel and plastic with a hungry gaping buzzsaw mouth, the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable called Marigold to the house and laid the child in her arms.

“Oh,” Marigold said. “Oh. What a miracle he is.” She kissed the shining smooth metal of his face, and held him in her arms. She said already he felt like hers. And then she went away.

For three days, the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable stayed there, weeping for the child she had abandoned to another woman, drinking cocoa made with curdled milk, listening to the radio: Little Orphan Annie had adventures twice daily; the president reported on the War only once, at five. On the third day Marigold brought the pile of wire and aluminum back to the four-gabled house, tucking him underneath her pea-coat to shield him from the wind. She wanted him buried properly; she wanted to go on pretending that he was a real child; she wanted to be told sorry.

The women who lived in the four-gabled house frowned and shook their heads. But they would not say sorry. They were glad to see that a young pretty stranger could not succeed where they always failed.

“A pity, that I could not make a better child,” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable. “But not, I suppose, a surprise.”

“A pity,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable.

“A pity,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable.

The woman who made her bed in the third gable would not say anything.

They let Marigold bury the child; she had already purchased a headstone for him.

“Bury him anywhere you like. Just, please,” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable, “not where water can reach him. He’ll fry if water reaches him.”

Marigold didn’t say what she thought, which was: he’s already dead, why should it matter what reaches him? She only nodded. She shifted his small body in her arms, and she handed the women a printed invitation to a wake that none of them would attend.

The woman who made her bed in the second gable felt a sort of pity for Marigold, now that the girl was grieving like the rest of them. That Marigold considered herself their superior, that she came to them in secret with her fashionable hat hiding her prim face, only made the girl more pathetic. She had not realized yet. She didn’t know. Some women simply aren’t meant for children.

The child that the woman who made her bed in the second gable made for Marigold would be a calla lily, with a decorative white face and a stem that wouldn’t wilt—at least not for a while. “Come twice a day and feed her,” she instructed Marigold, tipping a watering can over her own brood of children.

The wet soil darkened to a rich, nourished color. Marigold studied the ground attentively. “What is that you’re feeding them?”

“What does any mother feed her hungry infant?”

The girl’s eyes widened. She said, “I don’t believe I can do that, ma’am.”

“Don’t you ever call me ma’am,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable. “When your child pushes her way out of the ground, when she looks at you with her hungry mouth wide-open, then you’ll believe you can do it. The milk has to be yours, understood?”

“Yes ma’am,” said Marigold, cowed but unrepentant, watching as a row of robust, root-colored children uncurled their long tendril-arms and lifted their faces to the sun.

The woman who made her bed in the second gable had garden clippers that she kept in perfect condition. She polished them before and after use, kept them from rust, and removed them from their leather case for one reason only: to cut loose those children who had come to term. It was with great reluctance that she handed the clippers to Marigold, who cut her child out of the ground and then, minutes later, sent her back to it.

“It seems wrong to bury her where she grew,” Marigold whispered.

The clippers rested in the pocket of Marigold’s flannel skirt. With uncharacteristic gentleness, the woman who made her bed in the second gable took them and returned them to their leather case.

“We could try again,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable, but she said the words so Marigold would know she didn’t mean them. And Marigold, sniffling, obediently shook her head no.

“I think my husband suspected, after the first child,” she said. “Perhaps it’s a blessing that this one died so soon. It would be wrong to try again. Wouldn’t it?”

She wanted to be told: no, it’s not wrong. Let’s try. This time your child will not be fed on borrowed breast milk. This time you will not make a diagonal cut down your child’s stem, as if she is a flower you are preparing for a vase. This time you will be better.

“Years ago, I let them grow too long, and they hurt me,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable. How many years, the girl would not know. “They made my insides ache. But I wanted them to stay with me longer, that’s why I did it. You don’t yet know what it feels like, to lose them again and again.”

“It must be dreadful,” said Marigold.

Later, she baked an apple tart. She smudged all the lipstick from her mouth and let her fashionable hat sit crooked on her head, and she sought the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

The women who lived in the four-gabled house found each other in tabloids, then in Sunday papers, then finally in a medical journal that three times failed to pass a peer review. But before then, the woman who made her bed in the third gable had lived alone. And the house had only one gable, and she could bear no children.

To the woman who made her bed in the third gable, this was a tragedy.

To the rest of the world, it was a great relief.

The woman who made her bed in the third gable gasped in fright when Marigold came to her door. Visitors, when they came to the four-gabled house at all, never climbed the staircase to the rooms where the women made their beds. When the woman peeked around her bedroom door, she sighed softly in relief and stepped aside. Marigold removed her hat, then stepped over the threshold.

“Is that apple?” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

“Yes—a tart.” Marigold handed over the steaming dish as if she could not wait to be rid of it. The woman who made her bed in the third gable set the dish aside, and did not look in its direction again.

“I suppose you heard what happened to the last baby,” Marigold said, after a moment.

“I’m so sorry, dear,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, her voice quivering on the final word. “That must have been very hard for you.”

“Yes,” said Marigold. Then, steeling herself, she added, “I want to try again.”

“I’m afraid that’s how all her children come out… dear. They simply cannot survive without the earth to nourish them.”

“Not from her,” Marigold said. “From you. Please. It would mean the world to me.”

“How much is the world?” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, frowning. She studied Marigold. “I’m not sure you’re ready to bear and bring up the sort of child I would make, dear.”

“When will I be ready?”

“There is one other woman in this household you have not asked for a child.”

“I had not thought she would say yes to me,” said Marigold. “I rather thought she disapproved of the whole thing.”

“She said no to you when you were young and childless. She did not want you to be happy. Now you have lost two children, and you ask her only for the chance to lose another.”

“So I will lose her child too?”

The woman who made her bed in the third gable would not say.

In the cellar, the air smelled like rust and formaldehyde and old gardenia petals. The temperature was many degrees lower than it was in the rest of the four-gabled house, and Marigold wrapped her coat tightly around herself as she descended the stairs. She had no tart or cake for the woman who made her bed in the first gable, for she suspected that nothing baked or roasted would satisfy such a woman, and she was right. The woman who made her bed in the first gable liked pickled things, things crunchy with salt and long-preserved, and she hated how fresh dough collapsed on her tongue. When she saw Marigold, she always thought of that fresh-dough feeling.

“I know already what you are coming to ask me,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable.

Marigold stepped down off the last step, making it squeak. “What will you say?”

“I don’t know yet,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable. “You’re not much of a mother so far, with your hat on straight and only two children in the ground. You don’t deserve my child.”

“And how many children do you have in the ground?” said Marigold.

“Two thousand, four hundred, and eighty-one,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable. “Some were twins,” she added.

“None lived?” Marigold said.

“None,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable, with a touch of pride.

“Then I don’t think I want one of your children,” said Marigold.

“I don’t think you do,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable, “I shall give you one.”

The woman who made her bed in the first gable no longer made her bed there. She holed up in the cellar with a block of brie and a feather-stuffed duvet, and she emerged only to wash her wine glass or collect the lukewarm cup of Earl Grey that the woman who made her bed in the third gable left out for her each afternoon.

The women did not like to interfere in each other’s creative processes, so none of them peeked down into the cellar. The woman who made her bed in the cellar did not care to discuss the child she was fermenting, though if she had, she would have told them that he was fashioned from the heart of a white rabbit, four dollars at the pet shop around the corner, and twice embalmed in myrrh and soda ash.

He had to grow in his mother’s womb, so she washed out the pie pan that Marigold had brought and sealed it with a glass cover.

Inside his tin womb, the child soaked and swelled and slowly became animate.

Inside her duvet, the woman who made her bed in the cellar dreamt of all the children she had lost inside her wombs.

The child reached such a size that he no longer fit inside the pie pan, then such a size that he no longer fit in a three-gallon pickle jar. The woman who made her bed in the cellar was stubborn, she wanted to see Marigold mourn, so she dug a hole, four feet deep, in the cellar’s dirt floor. When she was finished, she padded the floor with rock salt and lowered the child into the hole. February was halfway over, the temperatures were still low, and the cold and the salt would preserve the child for a few days more—long enough to make the girl believe, long enough to make her miserable when he rotted.

The woman who made her bed in the cellar did not always produce beautiful children, but this one was exquisite, a wet blood-colored salamander-like creature whose arteries worked like legs and whose eyes could see even in the depths of the cellar. In the womb of the earth he grew to three feet in length before he cried for release.

The woman who made her bed in the cellar telephoned Marigold to announce the child’s birth, knowing at half-past five her husband would be home, knowing that Marigold herself would be away at one of a dozen equally useless ladies’ society meetings and thus unable to intercept the call.

“Your son is crying for you,” said the woman who made her bed in the cellar, when a man answered.

She laid the phone down, waiting to feel satisfied, instead feeling hungry.

Before they had been women who lived in the four-gabled house, they had been:

A maiden aunt.

A minister’s wife.

A washed-up stage actress.

A nurse.

They did not resemble themselves anymore.

When Marigold came to the cellar, the woman who made her bed there had already left. The feather-stuffed duvet and frozen block of brie were gone; fourteen cups with shallow pools of Earl Gray in their bottoms remained. Marigold looked at each of the teacups, listened for her child’s cries, and felt reluctant to walk any closer to the dark end of the cellar.

Upstairs, the women who made their beds in the four-gabled house were making dinner.

Damp, rich sounds came from the dark end of the cellar and echoed off the brick walls until Marigold could not hear the banging of pots and pans upstairs, nor the record spinning on the player, nor even the sounds of the women’s voices.

She was afraid, but she would not leave the cellar without a son. She took up the iron bar propped up against the wall—she did not think, “someone might have put this bar there”; she thought very little—and walked forward until her child leapt up from the grave where he was born, four feet tall, hungry, hissing wetly at his mother.

Marigold swung the iron bar and struck the child in his moist, blood-colored forehead, then struck him again. She flew at him in such a fury that she did not stop to wonder what or who he was until he was already dead.

“Bury him yourself,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable when she heard. “Didn’t I already dig a suitable grave?”

“Won’t you have some shepherd’s pie before you go back down there, dear?” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

Buttered baguette slices, tin cups of milk, heaping cuts of pie: a good meal by ration standards, a good meal even by pre-war standards, and they had ruined it for her. The women smiled proudly at their visitor.

“I suppose I might have a little,” Marigold said, polite in her fashionable hat, black blood drying on her hands.

When all five plates were empty, the other women retired to their gables. The woman who made her bed in the third gable washed each plate, carefully, methodically, while her guest waited at the table.

Then she said, “It hurt to lose that one, didn’t it, dear?”

“Yes,” Marigold whispered. “It was my fault, this time.”

“You’re ready now,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, “for the sort of child I could give you.”

“I don’t know if I can bear the pain of another child,” said Marigold.

“I know,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. She dried the final plate and wiped her hands clean on her apron, then made for the staircase. “Come along now, dear.”

“Where are we going?” said Marigold.

“The fifth gable,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable of the four-gabled house. “We’ll need privacy.”

Marigold’s husband waited at home for the arrival of their adopted son. Marigold could not leave empty-handed. Marigold was unaccustomed to wanting something that once lost could not be regained. She followed the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

The fifth gable was smaller than the others, drafty, the walls windowless. A vase of dying gardenias rested on a small end table in the corner. The gardenias had been wilting for longer than Marigold had been alive, which comforted the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

“Sit down,” the woman said, motioning to the armchair in the middle of the room. A thin layer of dust covered its seat and arms and high, narrow back. Marigold settled into the chair and held her crumpled hat in her lap like it was a small and ill-behaved dog.

“Do you expect you’ll have to be tied down for this bit?” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

“What are you going to do?” said Marigold.

“Oh, I do very little, dear,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “You said you wanted a child, any child, isn’t that right?”

“Ye-es,” said Marigold, in a lilting voice that sounded more like no.

The woman who made her bed in the third gable got to her knees and rested her clasped hands in Marigold’s lap, as if comforting, as if pleading. “Whatever else you do, dear, remember to blame yourself.”

She rose to her feet and turned and left, locking the door from the outside.

Inside the fifth gable of the four-gabled house, dampness became cold and dimness became darkness, and Marigold’s skin felt like wax beneath her fingers when she tried to rub her gooseflesh off.

The women who lived in the four-gabled house buried Marigold’s cellar child together, all but the woman who made her bed in the first gable, because she could not make herself look at the mangled body of the child she had made.

“We should sing a hymn,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable.

“Why?” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable.

“It’s conventional. She’d like that.”

The women contemplated the idea of being conventional for a while. Their eyes lost focus as they studied the raised mound of earth with the cellar child inside.

“He was such a fine boy,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “But I’m glad she hurt him, I must admit.”

The woman who made her bed in the third gable could only bear children in the womb of another woman’s suffering.

Marigold came from the fifth gable of the four-gabled house looking smaller, with hair like straw. The women had a luxurious breakfast prepared for her, butter on the toast and sugar for the coffee. Marigold stirred cream into her coffee with one hand and supported her squalling, red-faced child in the other.

“A hideous creature,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable, after Marigold and the child had gone. “No offense.”

“None taken,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “He wasn’t really mine. None of them have been.”

“If you made me one, he would be different,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable. “My hurt would be the furthest thing from hers, and the child who came from it would be strong and strange and proud.”

“Perhaps in a few years,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “You haven’t felt enough yet. I couldn’t be sure of the outcome if you hadn’t felt enough yet.”

And the woman who made her bed in the first gable knew this to be true, having seen many dozens of the small dead fish-like things that came from half-felt suffering. She could not rush suffering, so she returned to her cellar and shut her door and set to work on her next child. This time, she thought, perhaps she would love them enough. Perhaps they would hurt her so deeply that she could at last ascend to the fifth gable and bear a child that would live.


Kay Chronister ‘s fiction has appeared in
Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Clarkesworld.
She lives in Seattle with her miniature
dachshund, Victor Hugo.

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Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg


Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
~Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto I

Every city has an explanation. A strike of coal or silver that brought the miners running, or a hot spring that holds the frost at bay. A railroad or a shift in the current. Most people say this city started with the river. The water is everywhere you look, sluggish and brown most seasons, bearing the whiskey-smell of peat out from the forest, and carrying nothing downstream except mats of skeletal leaves. Seven bridges straddle the river between First and Barton Road as it winds through a downtown of antique stores, the crepe-streamered American Legion, the purple house advertising tarot and palm readings. One of the bridges goes nowhere, ending four feet above the ground behind a solitary Chinese restaurant, and no one has ever been able to tell me what it used to reach. On the east bank, sitting mostly by itself between the paved river walk and the ties of an abandoned stretch of railroad, you’ll find the county art museum, a sliver of white concrete and glass.

palin06Most people are wrong, as it happens. I’ve lived in this city all my life, and the real explanation has nothing to do with the river. In the early 1840s, a pair of hearty Dutchmen were surveying for the highway that would link the port and railroads of the urban south to the farmland and sawmills of the north woods. Here, nestled among the ridges and kettles that the glaciers’ icy fingertips carved out eons and eons ago, they planted the sign that marked the halfway point along that road. A resting place for weary travelers. A city born of exhaustion.

I am so fucking tired.

The thing is — and I’m finally starting to admit this to myself — I don’t believe there’s a puzzle here. There’s no way to turn these jagged pieces into a smooth picture of something that makes sense. First you’d have to crack off the extra material and file the edges down, like you’re shaping a mosaic from pottery shards; you have to break away more and more to even get the right shape. This story is like a vase made from other, broken vases. And maybe it will hold water when you’re finished, but probably it won’t.

The painting is still there, hanging at the top of the main staircase in the county art museum. The landing makes a shallow triangle between the main collection, the American Indian gallery, and the eternally empty corridor labeled “Special Exhibits” on the map. You can use up all the fingers on one hand counting the number of times I’ve gone to that museum in the last year, and I find myself pausing in that tight and windowless space every time, hoping to see something different. I’m always disappointed.

Both the printed and electronic maps call the painting White Moose, but the name on the museum placard is Katabolism. The word has something to do with digestion, with the extraction of energy from chemical compounds. The first time I saw that title, I thought the artist was a pretentious fuck. Now I’m not so sure.

In any case, the title on the map is an accurate description. The oil painting shows a white bull moose, lumbering through a landscape that looks not unlike the glacial moraine that gnaws perpetually at the city limits. He’s no local fauna, though, and he’s bigger than life-size on the canvas: seven or eight feet high at the shoulder, his antlers spread off the edges. The antlers are thin and asymmetrical, with six points on his right and seven on his left. His eyes are the same color as his coat, slightly filmed.

Every time I see him, I think how much better I would feel if he were an albino, a lovely red-eyed creature like the rabbits and sometimes deer that I find stumbling in my backyard in winter, when the snow-reflected sun is too bright for them—something natural, fragile, and not-at-all sinister. But the white of the moose is not an absence of pigment. His color is something creeping over him, coating the duller, natural life underneath. Every time I see him, the white has spread a little farther.

The placard gives only three initials and a year: Y. L. H. 2012.

If you’re one of the people who believes that Blair is dead, then near as I can tell, this is the painting that killed them.

I’m not certain, yet, if I’m one of those people. But then, I’m certain of very little where Blair is concerned.

palin02They were not my son, and they were not my daughter; but what they were remains unfathomable and changeling. I’m not talking about sex, those hundreds of quiet and not-so-quiet confusions that stalked my child for the seventeen years of their life in this city. I am talking about how hard it is to even think of Blair as my child — to claim Blair as mine, when they seemed so determined to be anything but.

(Speaking of Blair in the past tense has started to come naturally, and maybe that’s the most fucked-up thing about this whole mess.)

When I get home from my shift at the library, I stand in the laundry room at the back of our little bungalow, take their t-shirt from the hamper, and smell the cinnamon smell of their shampoo. I can’t remember their face, not really: only pale skin, dark eyes, red hair that was always too long and always faintly damp. White as daisy and red as sorrel, or however that fairytale goes. I don’t even have a photograph.

I stand in their bedroom beneath the pitched roof of the eastern gable and smell the stinking richness of their favorite myrrh candle, which is still cemented to the window ledge with its own gray wax. The desk beneath the window is littered with sheets of the cheap, yellowish paper that the secretary at the Catholic church on Kilbourne let me rescue from the recycling. I can’t see any words or lines of ink, perhaps because whatever was there has faded after so many months of sunrises. Or maybe there was nothing there to begin with.

Alone in Blair’s bedroom, I cover my mouth with both hands and say things that a mother should never say to her child. The words tear their way out of my throat like knives. I beg them to come home, you little bastard, come back and stop all this bullshit about the paintings, about Y. L. H. and the things we see in the forest. Please, come home. You’re killing me.

Finally, when I am too tired to beg, I tell them to go fuck themself.

But to begin at the beginning.

January, grey and dreary, and school was back in session after a tempestuous winter break. I found out from the newspaper that a membership card for the art museum cost twenty-five dollars, fifteen with student identification. I got a letter from Blair’s art teacher and that was good enough for the woman at the ticket counter. Unlike me, Blair never had a talent for words. They pulled Ds and Fs in one English class after another, losing books, failing to turn in essays. I thought art might give them whatever we try to get from stories.

Once upon a time there was a forest, ‘savage, rough, and stern…’

From that first afternoon, all they could talk about was the White Moose.

“I think he’s one of them,” they said.

We were walking home along the east bank of the river, where shards of brown ice ground against the shoreline. On either side of the path, the Rotary Club’s rosebushes slept under cones of yellowed Styrofoam. I was cold and only half-listening.

“One of what?” I asked.

“You know. One of them from the forest.”

And in the savage forest there lived a mother, and her child…

I glanced at them out of the corner of my eye. Their hood was pushed back despite the cold, and their hair glinted like copper. Hair like a lost penny, my mother always said. She was a woman to whom anything beautiful looked lost.

“In the painting, I saw ripples on the leaves at the bottom,” Blair said. “The light’s distorted, almost like they’re underwater. But it’s just him. He fills the whole kettle — the whole canvas. It’s just that he’s denser in the shape of the moose.”

No, I thought then, it’s impossible. In the January daylight, I wasn’t even disturbed.

“That’s only the style,” I said. “Don’t make something out of nothing.”

On our left, a brick staircase ran from the river walk up to the Fourth Street Bridge. I began to take the steps two at a time.

“It isn’t nothing,” Blair said stubbornly. “Whoever painted that picture must know about them.”

“No one else knows about them, Blair.”

Blair wasn’t following. I looked back over my shoulder and saw them staring, not at me on the stairs, but at the glimmer of black water threading through the ice.

“Who do you think the artist is?” they asked. “Y. L. H.?”

… a mother, and her child, and a witch.

“I don’t have a clue,” I said, and kept walking. I meant: I don’t want to know. Let’s not find out.

Or maybe it began before that.

Maybe it began the day Blair told me that they were not a boy, and the only thing I felt was relief. Does that sound terrible? Does admitting that make me an awful mother? I don’t know. But I know that I had never wanted a son. I didn’t grow up with brothers or cousins, only with the faces on the news, and the broad and smirking faces in the bars south of the depot, the hungry faces trailing tired women in convenience stores, the post office, the high school gymnasium. Savage, rough, and stern. When I imagined having a son, I imagined him growing up like that. I’d never wanted to deal with that kind of man, and I can’t help but feel, guiltily, like I was granted an unspoken wish.

palin01Blair’s father had that particularly male helplessness, sucking and draining, pressuring and pleading, and both the best and the worst you can say is that it doesn’t leave bruises. I can remember all those nights in supermarket parking lots or under movie theatre marquees, when he had followed me somewhere on the bus because he just had to be sure. “I’m such an idiot, Joan,” he would cry. “I always knew I’d do something stupid like this and make you leave me.” And because he was pitiful, because he needed saving, I had to tell him I’m not going anywhere, baby, and hold him while he sobbed.

In the end, he was the one to leave. He found the energy somewhere, and followed the freeway south. Maybe this all started the day he left, and I stayed. The day the forest pulled me stronger than he had pushed, in the way of every fairytale without a happy ending.

One evening in February, a week or two after that first visit to the museum, Blair was late coming home from school. Not late enough for me to really worry; merely a dress rehearsal for everything yet to come. I sat by the kitchen door, watching the sky darken and considering whether to call, when I heard the front door snap against the siding, and Blair swept in with a slushy gasp of twilight. They were looking at something on their phone as they stepped into the kitchen and flipped the light switch.

I closed the book whose pages I hadn’t turned in half an hour.

“Where have you been?”

They shrugged. The shoulders of their thrift-store jacket were fuzzy with dust. “Downtown,” they said.

“Anywhere specifically?”

It was a chance laugh, to break the tension that wasn’t quite thick enough to acknowledge. They looked at me without smiling.


Victor’s was a café on Rhodes Avenue, the very edge of downtown. I don’t know what the cavernous pile of red brick had been originally, with its alcoves and square turrets like the growths of some rhomboid crystal, but the interior space glowed with recent renovation, all waxy yellow wood and bare Edison bulbs. The coffee was mediocre, the pastries gluey and flavorless, but they housed a spectacular collection of shit: knock-off Tiffany chandeliers, assorted sporting equipment signed by virtual unknowns, and musical instruments missing strings or vital knobs. The café was a garage sale written by H. P. Lovecraft and illustrated by Virgil Finlay.

“What’s that on your phone?” I asked.

Their fingers tightened around the pale blue case, an almost undetectable moment of hesitance. But they passed me the phone without a word of complaint.

I don’t know what I was expecting to see. Dim and indistinct, with the hallmark shallowness of a cheap cellphone camera, the photo showed a woman sitting at a high table at Victor’s pastry counter. The first thing I noticed was her scarlet leather boots, the black heels hooked over the rung of her chair. The second was her hair, white as milk and hanging down to her thighs.

I felt a creeping chill up my spine, like the sensation you get when you swim into water that is suddenly deeper than you expected.

“It’s her,” Blair said. “Yelena Linden Hersh.”

I handed the phone back. “How do you know her name?”

“I asked, after I took the picture.”

“How did you know who she was?”

Instead of answering, Blair swiped their screen and passed me the phone again. It was still Victor’s — I recognized the pounded tin on the wall. Blair had tried to photograph a painting, but the phone camera wasn’t up to the task. The texture of the canvas stood out prominently. So did the globs and ridges of paint caked along the bottom. It looked like a painting of a bog, some vast surface of black water, and the thick knobs of paint bobbed along it like something alive.

“It’s brilliant, isn’t it? Look at that one towards the front.” Blair tapped a red-enameled fingernail against the screen, on a pale blur in the foreground. “It looks like a frog, doesn’t it? But there’s a woman just under the water. That white thing rising to the surface is her breast.”

The sick feeling had traveled to the pit of my stomach. “Blair,” I began, but I couldn’t finish. The painting was at once too strange and too dreadfully familiar.

Blair slid the phone into their jacket pocket without another word. They tucked a lock of flame-orange hair behind their ear and stepped into the living room. I heard the static click of the analog television turning on, and took a slow, shuddering breath.

What do you call the opposite of déjà vu? Not the sense of a recurrence, but its inverse: The feeling that this is a moment to which you will return. That was what I felt, envisioning that painting by Yelena Linden Hersh. That small breast in the water, beckoning like a ghost.

The things in the forest are still there: still filling the kettles like mist and twisting the light like water, still pulling at my heart like every hunger in hell. They haven’t gone away just because Blair did. It’s not that I thought they would leave — just that it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had. I don’t know the shape of this puzzle, remember. I can’t begin to imagine how all of it does or doesn’t fit together.

palin07But they are still here, as much as they have ever been. Vaporous and vast, they seem as much air as flesh, although sometimes I can make out a shape — a deer or elk, or else some long-snouted, carnivorous thing. Soft black eyes emerge from the places where they are densest, and nearly human mouths shape words I can almost understand. Sometimes I think they are drawn to me, although this might be abhorrent self-flattery.


Some mornings, just after sunrise, I walk down to the woods behind the bungalow. For an hour or two, I sit very still on the remains of a farmer’s fieldstone fence, holding out my empty hand. They come to me out of the water, out of the air, and they kiss my palm as though tasting for sweets.

Some of these mornings, I have seen Yelena Hersh in the forest, walking in her scarlet boots. Her black jacket is buckled to her chin and she walks briskly without looking down. I called to her, once, but she didn’t even look my way.

There is nothing strange about her being there, I try to tell myself. It’s a small city, and the trails through the forest are popular. I have seen a lot of people walking. But she’s the only one I’ve ever seen when they are around.

In March, the art museum hosted a show of local women artists. It was mostly watercolors of cats and pencil sketches of tractors: also a quilt, a ceramic beehive, a few mercury-glass sculptures that I couldn’t figure out. The latest offspring of Yelena Linden Hersh’s brush hung just outside the gift shop, between a pastel sketch of sleeping kittens and a rack of dusty scarves.

It was called Anabolism. Which is the opposite and compliment to katabolism; it’s a kind of reassembling, the re-linking of molecules after the body grinds them up for energy. Anabolism is how the body lengthens bones and grows muscles. How it makes more of itself, I guess, out of everything it takes in.

The painting showed Blair emerging from a pond in one of the larger kettles. The water came up only to their knees, but there was a weirdness about the ripples that made me think Blair was floating rather than standing on the ground underneath. There’s no telling how deep that water is out there in the moraine; geologists say it can be as little as two or as many as two hundred feet.

In the painting, Blair was naked. Each skinny muscle tensed in the cold, layering blue shadow on pale skin. The slight tuck of the waist looked like a teenage girl’s. The flat thighs, even larger than life on the canvas, seemed small enough for you to cup your hands around—to snap with a flick of your wrist. I don’t remember the face.

“What if people recognize you, Blair? What if kids from school go to the museum?” Arms folded across my stomach, I sat on the sea chest in the corner of their bedroom. Despite the asthmatic chug of the heater, everything felt cool and damp to the touch. The candle on the window ledge burned greasily, leaving a myrrh-scented streak on the ceiling.

“Blair?” I repeated softly.

They looked up from the spread of paper on their desk.

“What do you think people will say?”

“Fuck people,” Blair said. The thing that lurked in their eyes was tense and coiled, too ravenous to be fear.

Here is the damned thing, or one of the many damned things in this whole hellish business: I can’t prove that Yelena Hersh had anything to do with Blair’s disappearance. I can’t even prove that Blair began meeting her. Those fucking paintings might have been proof once. They aren’t any more. They still exist, but they aren’t Blair any more. And maybe I’m mad for thinking that they ever were.

People in this city, they have all the answers they feel like looking for. Blair was a sad kid, a confused kid: it’s all there, wrapped up in whatever was or wasn’t behind the zipper of those weathered black jeans. “Kids like him disappear all the time, Joan,” the secretary at the station said to me. “They just do. Don’t go dragging a woman’s name through the mud over it.”

So where do they go, the kids like Blair? Do they evaporate into thin air? Wash down the river, get carried out to the lake, like all the other flotsam and jetsam from exhausted cities like this? Sometimes I imagine Blair has gone to find their father; other times, while walking over one of the bridges downtown, I think I see their face in the river, floating between mats of leaves. Sometimes the fantasies comfort me, and sometimes they don’t.

Maybe the kids like Blair start spending their evenings with strange women twice their age — women who wear scarlet boots and black wool, who dream of ghosts and monsters, whose hair is white as milk. Maybe they spend too much time wandering in the forest, snooping in the ruins of barns and sugar houses that the maples are slowly reclaiming: maybe they get lost in the woods. Or maybe they get eaten by witches.

Maybe you’re getting frustrated with me now, with my increasingly evident disregard for the facts. What really happened? you may well ask. What’s the true course of events? But the only truth I know for certain is that I am fucking exhausted. You cannot begin to understand how tired I am. And I don’t think that having the answers will let me sleep any more soundly.

Palingenesis. In its simplest translation, it means rebirth. Sometime in the nineteenth century, it got picked up to describe the now-discarded hypothesis that ontongeny recapitulates phylogeny — the development of the fetus proceeds along the same lines as the evolution of the species. Or, in another version, that children become educated by passing through the earlier stages of human society. From barbarity to civilization. Another discredited, Victorian idea.

palin05In the painting, Blair could almost be sleeping. Their eyes are closed, the lids wet and purple. Their limbs are folded up, almost fetal, the dry pink of knees and elbows picked out with the medical detail of anatomy plates. The setting sun is at their back, and the blowing leaves have started to mound up around their feet. You can feel the wind gusting from that direction: a bitter, northern wind.

Why is this the image burned into the back of my eyelids? Why do I remember this, and not their face? I’m afraid that’s a question to which I already know the answer.

(Another riddle: If Katabolism is the painting that killed Blair, what does that make Palingenesis?)

I don’t know if there are other things in that painting, or if the bending of the light along the forest floor is just an accident of style. I must admit that I haven’t brought myself to look too closely. The one unforgivable piece of strangeness — the part that would tell you the name of the artist, even if you didn’t see the stark initials in the corner — is the sapling that sprouts from Blair’s genitals. It is slender, leafless, and almost the same color as their skin: a sickly, peeling white with scabs of pink. Where the bark pulls away, the pulp that shows beneath is black as rot.

In the second week of April, at Yelena Hersh’s request, the directors hung Palingenesis at the top of the main staircase in the county art museum. They put the White Moose back before the end of the week, after unspecified complaints.

By then, of course, it was too late. By then, Blair was gone.

In our last conversation, the day before they failed to show up for school, Blair told me a secret about Yelena Hersh.

“She has a son,” Blair said. It was Sunday evening, and we were loading groceries into the trunk of the Nissan: cans of beans, boxes of macaroni, and a half-gallon of skim. Everything teetered on the edge of the mundane, precariously normal, until Yelena intruded like a ghost.

“A son?” I repeated, and Blair tipped their head in a nod.

“When she was younger than me, she got pregnant. She gave him up for adoption.”

I frowned, at a loss for the proper response. Blair slammed the trunk, disturbing a layer of late, powdery snow.

“She says the news terrifies her now. It’s all men with guns, men with knives. Men who run over women with trucks and strangle children by playgrounds.” Blair watched me wheel the cart to the side of the car, sliding their hands into the pockets of their jeans. “She’s afraid she’ll see him on the news one day. Or she’s already seen him, just didn’t recognize him as hers.”

The next day, Blair was gone. And I wonder, now, if the news is something that terrifies every mother with sons. Or if we were just the strange ones, Yelena Hersh and I — the Pasiphaes of our century, afraid that we would give birth to monsters.

To early-twentieth-century sexologists, anabolic and katabolic were gendered terms. The female was anabolic, conservative and preserving. She consolidated the evolutionary adaptations of her species, passing them to her offspring. The katabolic male, creative and destructive, was responsible for the mutations, for everything novel or monstrous — two sides of the same coin.

All of that is bullshit, of course. If Blair has taught me nothing else, it’s this — the creative and the destructive chase each other perpetually, like blood and bathwater swirling around a drain. But preservation, that’s the most ridiculous fantasy of all.

palin04Sometimes, I imagine that Blair’s father saw those paintings. That he recognized his child and came to find them, that he offered Blair a better life than I could give them here. This is improbable. As if Blair’s father could be in this city without me knowing. As if he had any interest in art. It’s easier to believe that they left with their father, though, than what the school counselors try to tell me about suicide and statistics and ‘kids like him.’

It is easier, also, than imagining that the forest had something to do with it.

There is a new tree, now, where the dead farmer’s fence runs to a halt some fifteen yards from my property line. A skim of peaty water pools over the fallen leaves, and the tree grows from it, white as milk. I’ve gone so far as to step into the water, reaching for the bark, which looks so warm and soft. But the mud beneath my boot gave way, and my foot sank far enough that I knew the water was something more than snowmelt.

Maybe if I hadn’t stepped back onto solid ground, I would have something closer to an answer.

Or maybe Blair ran away. Maybe you ran, sweetheart, all on your own, without your father, without ghosts or monsters or Yelena Linden Hersh. You were never good with words, and you wouldn’t have left a note. You left me paintings instead, and maybe all the explanation I’m searching for is there. If only I could bring myself to look.

“I know why you don’t like her,” Blair said to me once. It was a morning in late March, before they left for school. We stood on the back deck in our jackets, and with cold, bare hands, they held the birdfeeder steady while I poured in the mix of seed.

“You want to be special, don’t you?” Blair said. “That’s why you won’t believe that she can see them, too. You want them all to yourself.”

On a sudden impulse, I pressed a kiss to their forehead. Some of the seed missed the feeder, pouring out into the slush, but they didn’t turn away.

“Yes,” I whispered, mouthing the words against their skin. Maybe they heard me, and maybe they didn’t. “I always have.”

Katabolism should not be confused with katabasis, which means a journey into the underworld. Katabasis is Dante and Aeneas, Orpheus and Psyche. It’s revelation and love and disaster. Anabasis would be the return, if a return from the underworld is possible—a suggestion for which I haven’t seen much evidence. The words can also mean, respectively, a retreat down to the water, and the journey back inland or uphill.

Some of the reviews in the papers and the online magazines misprinted the titles of Yelena Hersh’s paintings. Anabolism and Katabasis, digestion and descent. The pieces from two different puzzles pushed inelegantly together, and that makes as good a metaphor for me and Blair and Yelena Linden Hersh as any other I could come up with.

The word palingenesia appears once in the New Testament. It describes the new creation, in which the order of the old will be utterly overturned. I’m not holding my breath. But I guess every city has an explanation, even the divine ones. And I guess creation requires destruction—revelation, uncovering, apocalypsis — before everything else.

If you were here, sweetheart, I’d tell you to run.

This city is not for you. You are not tired yet.

Today, by the white tree in the brown water, Yelena Hersh is sitting on the remains of the fieldstone fence. Her scarlet boots are speckled with mud, and a vast white creature like a moose leans down to nuzzle her shoulder. She does not seem to see him. She sees me on the trail and raises one hand, a trembling salute, and her white hair falls around her face like a curtain.

The things in the forest — I don’t think that they are older than us. Not exactly. I’ve begun to think they are us, or us as we will be. That is why the painting called Anabolism has started to look like something else: not Blair anymore, but a white canine thing, a carnivorous thing rearing on its hind legs. Another stage in our evolution. Perhaps the things in the forest are nothing better or worse than our children.

That’s all the Minotaur was, in the end.

I worry, sometimes, that I will wander into the woods one morning and they will no longer be there. It will only be the trees and water and dead leaves, and the unrelenting anabasis and katabasis of a landscape birthed by ice. I think the reason they frighten me is not because they are so strange, but because they are fragile. I am afraid that they will disappear.

Or that one day I will look, and look, and will have forgotten how to see.




Megan Arkenberg lives in Northern California, where she is pursing a Ph.D. in English literature. Her work has appeared in  Asimov’s, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, and dozens of other places. She was recently the nonfiction editor for Nightmare‘s Queers Destroy Horror! special issue; she also procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance. Megan tweets @meganarkenberg and blogs sporadically at


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Shimmer #29

Palingenesis, by Sandro Castelli

Places hold their own magic. The woods. A city. The river that winds between them as lazy as a Sunday morning. These four stories explore magical places and those who dare wander into them.

In this issue, we introduce you to three new-to-Shimmer authors, and welcome Megan Arkenberg back, with a story of stunning beauty.


Palingenesis,” by Megan Arkenberg Every city has an explanation. A strike of coal or silver that brought the miners running, or a hot spring that holds the frost at bay. A railroad or a shift in the current. Most people say this city started with the river.

The Fifth Gable,” by Kay Chronister
The first woman to live in the four-gabled house fermented her unborn children in the wine cellar. When they came to term, she broke them open on the floorboards. Her heartiest son weighed half an ounce at birth. 

The Block,” by Kostas Ikonomopoulos The tenement block stands at the edge of the city overlooking a ravine and the hills beyond. The block is perpetually shrouded in mist and when it rains its dark exterior acquires a darker hue. It is old and unmaintained and so are its residents.

Another Beginning,” by Michael McGlade  Ógán is a magpie, but he wasn’t always a bird…

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