Category Archives: Issue 32

The Singing Soldier, by Natalia Theodoridou

First

When Lilia came into her parents’ bedroom one night, eyes sleepy and tin soldier firmly clasped in her little hands, complaining that his singing wouldn’t let her sleep, her Ma thought she’d had a nightmare. She pried the soldier from her daughter’s fingers, placed him on a high shelf in the closet, and locked the door. Then, she motioned towards Lilia’s sleeping father and let the girl slip under the covers between the two of them.

In the morning, Lilia seemed to have forgotten all about the toy soldier. Asked where she’d found him, she simply looked at her Ma with watery eyes. “I dreamt of someone sad,” she said.

“Who, my love?” her mother asked. “Who did you dream about?” But the girl wouldn’t say.

The next night, Ma woke to the muffled sound of the soldier’s singing. She got out of bed, and by moonlight unlocked the closet, cracking the door open just a tiny bit. The singing spilled out clear and warm and sorrowful, in a language she could not understand. The sound made something inside her chest tighten, but she wasn’t frightened. She opened the closet door wider and took the singing soldier in her hand. “What a curious, curious thing you are,” she whispered.

She drew the window curtains and held the soldier up to the light. The song poured out of his parted lips, but the rest of him was lifeless: his eyes empty, frozen wide; his body stiff and cold, right foot on a boulder, right hand closed around a tiny bayonet. She wrapped him in a blanket, put him back in the closet, and went to sleep, lulled by the heavy breathing of her husband. That night, her dreams were filled with images of a faraway but oddly familiar land. There was a smoking chimney—or was it a whole house on fire? A frozen lake. Men dancing—or were they marching? Were these knives or roses between their teeth? A foreign bride showered in flowers.

She told her husband about the singing soldier the next morning while he was getting ready for the fields, still heavy with sleep. He laughed it off and so she said: “I’ll show you.” She took the soldier out of the closet and unwrapped the blanket tenderly, as if presenting her husband with a rare gift. Pa looked at the silent soldier with narrowed eyes—and do they look a bit alike, Ma thought, with the dark moustache, the handsome curve of the shoulders? She placed the soldier in his open palm. He weighed the soldier, then ran his finger over the tiny weapon, the tiny beret, the tiny boots.

soldier01“You dreamt it,” Pa said, but there was fear in his eye, and so he locked the soldier in a wooden coffer, and took the coffer out to a clearing in the forest for good measure.

On the third night, the soldier’s solemn song traveled back to the house, poking holes into their dreams with his tiny bayonet. Pa got out of bed, put on his boots, and walked into the forest, moonlight guiding him through the narrow paths and tall trees. The crickets fell silent at the sound of the soldier’s somber voice. Pa found the coffer and put it carefully under his arm. He brought it back to the house and, resigned to the oddness of the world, put the singing soldier on the mantelpiece.

“It is a miracle,” Pa said. “It is good fortune.”

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Then

Lilia and Pa worked the land from dawn ’til dusk while Ma labored in the big house. She cleaned and cooked and scrubbed, and fussed in the yard with the chickens and the goats. She loved the big house. She loved every stair, every wall, every plank of the floor. And she loved the yard, the chickens, the goats, the warm, yellow days and the green, green grass.

soldier2Sometimes, while drying a porcelain plate or polishing one of her mother’s bronze pots, Ma would think back on the place she lived when she was little—the motherland, the fatherland—before she got married and moved to this new land she now loved. The tall skies, the flowering trees, all so far away from her now, receding in the trenches of her life. Often, these thoughts made her wonder where the tin soldier might be from, how he ended up in her daughter’s sleepy hands, singing his sad, unknowable songs every dusk. But then a neighbor would stop by with a request for aniseed or eggs, or with news of aggressions near the borders—borders, she’d think then, what a concept!—and her thoughts of lost lands would scatter, and she would forget.

With the day’s work done, with tired bones and aching backs, but somehow satisfied with all that, the whole family would gather around the fireplace and listen to the soldier’s melancholy tune. Ma would thumb her mother’s necklace and think about the orchard in the house she’d left behind, the father’s house. And the soldier would sing all night long, never tiring, never pausing. They still didn’t understand the language, but, in time, they started picking up clusters of syllables and filling them with meaning of their own. There was “mountain” and “promise” and “come back.” Soon, they made up stories about the soldier’s origin: a broken homeland, a forgotten lover, a friendship lost to war.

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In the End

When the conquerors came from their foreign land beyond the border, the family thought these men spoke the singing soldier’s tongue—and did they look a bit alike, with the hue of their skin, the handsome curls, the delicate length of their fingers? How strange, the ways of the world.

They didn’t know what the conquerors were saying, but eventually learned to understand them well enough. They picked up: “papers” and “ancestors” and “this land.” This land, what? Pa wondered. Surely, the conquerors meant this land was theirs, that it had always been theirs. But how could land belong to anyone?

They were allowed to stay in the house for a while, made to work the land on the conquerors’ behalf. Pa and Lilia ploughed the fields and planted the seed and then waited and waited, watching the rain fall from the shallow skies, mending their tools and rewelding their broken ploughs, and later they harvested the conquerors’ crops just as they used to their own before. But Pa would pause every now and then, dry his forehead with his sleeve or push his fingers against his closed eyes and say: “It’s not the same working under someone’s boot.” And then he wouldn’t speak for hours.

soldier3Ma suffered from the dreaming sickness she’d had as a child, but which had gone away after she’d gotten married. She would dream with her eyes wide open for days on end, the life in her eyes flickering, now bright, now dim. When she finally woke up, she would tell them about the places she’d been to in her dreams: a lake so small you could empty it out with a teaspoon; a ship stranded in the desert; pubescent girls scattering feathers out of moving trains; a milk so sweet it drove men mad.

Soon, the conquerors moved them out of the big house and into the small shed in the yard. Pa put the tin soldier on a shelf above the stove and again they gathered around every evening, huddled close after a long day’s work. Lilia would translate the fragments she understood. “Honey,” the soldier’s songs said, and “red, red poppies,” and “this land.”

The soldier never stopped filling their nights with singing. Not as Lilia grew thin and then thinner, not as Ma fell into her dreams for longer and longer, until the life in her eyes flickered one night and was extinguished the next. They buried her in the clearing where Pa had left the soldier’s coffer, all that time ago, in a previous life.

After Ma died, Pa and Lilia were finally driven from the land they used to love as if it were their own. Lilia took her father by the hand and squeezed it as he looked back onto the fields, the trees, the big house. “It’s land,” she said, and then waved her arm towards the forest and the hills that lay beyond it, and at the yellow sky above it all. “It’s only land.”

They took with them the coffer, filled with a handful of things: Ma’s necklace, their papers, the tin soldier, a steel knife, a smuggled pistol, an extra pair of boots. They lived in the woods for some time, on beds of soft green, under the paling light of the stars. And the soldier, the soldier sang them to sleep every night. His songs said: “Lakes,” and “pianos,” and “roses made of tin.”

When a group of conquering men descended on Pa early one morning, shouting and gesturing with the tips of their bayonets, Lilia hid in the forest. She thought the men came to take away the coffer that held her family’s last possessions, but they were not interested in that. She watched as the men strung her father up a tree until he stopped fighting and all the light went out, and all she could think was: What a curious, curious thing men are. After the men went away, Lilia came out of her hiding, hugged the coffer tight, and fell asleep under the soles of her father’s feet.

When she woke in the dark, all the stars gone out and her father’s feet in the sky, she struck the ground with her fists until she bled and cold soil stuck to her knuckles. Then, she built a fire. She used her family’s papers as kindling, wrapped Ma’s necklace around her left wrist, threw her old boots away and put on the new. Last, she fed the wooden coffer to the flames. When the embers shone bright and red, Lilia hid the soldier in her palm and held him close to her heart. Then, she melted the soldier on the knife’s blade over the blazing embers, fashioned him into a bullet using a crude clay mold, and loaded him into her pistol.

“You will kill the next man I see,” she told the bullet.

Before meeting the next man’s chest, the bullet sang. “This land,” it said. “This land, this land.”
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Theodoridou BWNatalia Theodoridou is a media & cultural studies scholar, a dramaturge, and a writer of strange stories. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, The Kenyon Review Online, sub-Q, Interfictions, and elsewhere. Find out more at her website (www.natalia-theodoridou.com), or come say hi @natalia_theodor on Twitter.

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glam-grandma, by Avi Naftali

The seagulls were strung like irritable white pearls across the Los Angeles sky. They floated through the alleyways, complaining and complaining. It was the hottest time of the year.

This weather always attracted grandma-who-kept-her-name. The alleyway behind my apartment would fill up with passionflower vines. They bristled thick in the heat and strangled each other for fence space. Their rotting fruit accumulated in the alleyway behind my apartment, and I’d keep running into grandma-who-kept-her-name stirring the squashed fruit with her cane, poking through the sweet red pulp. Reading fortunes again.

glam01“A war comes,” she said to me without looking up. “A king is hanged. A scarcity of barley. You look thin, you should eat more.” I ignored the last part. All of the grandmas thought I was too thin. I said, “Anything good?” I could see where dozens of passionflowers had been torn from their vines and thrown to the side, their stamens twisted out of shape. She said, “Nothing good in the flowers. Stock market tips. Unreliable.” Their heavy gold pollen was smeared across the front of her blouse. She waved her cane to shoo away some seagulls edging inquisitively towards her pile of pulp.

I said, “I can’t stay for long. I only came down this way because I’m meeting glam-grandma for brunch.”

She nodded and pulled herself up with her cane. “She still gatecrashes brunches.”

I shrugged a shoulder at her. There wasn’t much to say to that.

Abruptly she was in front of me, pulling me close by the collar of my shirt. Her breath was disgustingly close to my face. “They’ll kick her out forever. She’ll wander the streets of the city till she drops from the heat and her heels tumble off her feet—” She paused, pulled back, and spit to the side. She grinned. “But I’m only guessing. Let’s know for sure.”

She tore a passionfruit off a vine and smashed it against the tarmac. She pounded it with her cane and peered into the seedy mess. “She’ll travel. She’ll be successful. She’ll find love in strange places. She’ll write a screenplay but no one will read it. Even so, they’ll toast her name and toss back champagne like it’s New Year’s Eve for the last time.”

I laughed. “You should write for fortune cookies.”

She grabbed a passionfruit and threw it in my face. “I didn’t keep my name to put up with your flippancy.” She began to make her way slowly down the alleyway. She called without turning her head, “Just for that, I’ll see you in two months. No, four months. Longer, maybe. I’m not sure yet. It can be fun to sulk.” Her cane swung right, swung left, tapped echoes into the street. I believed, for just a moment, that she’d been blind all along.

But then a seagull flew too close and quick as a whip she smacked it sideways with her cane.

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glam02Still, as I sprinted for my life out of a Hollywood Hills gated community, I couldn’t help but feel a little doubt. Behind us, the baying of dogs was getting louder. “Shit,” screamed glam-grandma into my ear, “they’ve got Dobermans! Toss the salami!”

I threw my handful of catered meat into the air. The salami discs sailed over my shoulder, and the barking broke off for just a moment. That was all the time we needed for glam-grandma to pull open the doors of her white Volkswagen and shove the key into the ignition. I leaped into my seat, and before I could even close the door, she kicked her foot against the gas pedal. The engine burst into life, and we shot down the road.

To me, the escapes were half the fun. When we came to a red light, glam-grandma tossed a cigarette into the air and caught it in her mouth, like a peanut. She lit up. “So,” she said, adjusting the padding in her bra, “I hear there’s a brunch happening at the Beverly Hilton right now. Want to give that one a try?”

If Sophocles had written a tragedy called glam-grandma, it would be analyzed by high school students for homework. They would be asked by their teachers to identify glam-grandma’s tragic flaw, and the popular answer would be: she desired too desperately a place among the old ladies who brunch. After some consideration, I decided such a goal was noble and right for a grandma who lived in Hollywood. And, even as I listened to her mumbled curses at other drivers as we sped downhill, I couldn’t help but feel for her. We root for the underdog.

She parked the Volkswagen on a side street behind the Hilton and we walked through the parking lot, dodging shifty glances from the valets. “Bet you there’s a brunch on the left,” she said as we stepped into the pink marble lobby. “They tend to happen to the left of things, I’ve noticed.”

It was like something a terrible gambler would say, like Bet you it lands on eight, it always lands on eight, but for once in her life she was right. We wandered through a crowd of bridesmaids inspecting a vast empty ballroom, and smelled the coffee and fresh bagels before we saw the propped-open doors.

We linked arms and strolled casually in.

Of course it was obvious that we didn’t fit. Glam-grandma spent time on her makeup, but she could wash it off at night, and the ladies who brunched could tell. And there was also me: my hair was too short. I wasn’t the only grandson there, and this was the summer when the Hollywood fashion for teenage boys was these styled nests of hair, with bangs that swung into your eyes. So all the other boys had their hair done up in dutiful nests. If it had been up to glam-grandma, I am sure my hair would have looked just like that, highlights and all. But grandma-from-Leningrad had gotten to it first. She’d taken me to an old Russian man who cut hair in his building’s parking garage, and he’d cropped it short with an electric razor for five dollars. That was the problem with having nine adoptive grandmothers. Their agendas sometimes worked at cross-purposes.

Glam-grandma sat herself down at a half-empty table by the door, and I quickly got up and went to look at the croissants. It embarrassed me a little to hear the things she would say. Well I probably look familiar because of that film I did in the seventies. It was such a hit… I focused on the croissants. They gleamed like parquet, stiff with polish and gloss. Hollywood croissants. Glam-grandma’s spiel floated over the roomful of chatter. You wouldn’t believe the letters I got from fans. Some of them were really quite naughty…. I brought my hand close to the bagels. They were fresh from the ovens. I could feel their heat without touching them.

In the end I chose the medallion-sized quiches. Miniature food is hard to resist.

When I returned to the table, the conversation had progressed to the part where one of the ladies shifted her posture, her empty espresso cup dangling from one finger, and she stared at glam-grandma, waiting for her to stutter and run out of things to say. It would be another minute, I figured, and then we’d have to run. I looked for the platter of cold-cuts. There it was, at the other end of the room. I was already half out of my chair, preparing to load up on salami, when I noticed that the chatter was fading away. All the ladies in the room were turning their heads towards the door. Glam-grandma stopped talking and sat unmoving for a moment. Then she turned to look as well.

I watched the ladies’ mouths. They were shriveling up like sea anemones poked with a finger.

An elderly woman had entered the room. She was all in green. Emeralds and diamonds dug into her neck, into her wrists, descended in points from the lobes of her ears. Her dress stunned me. Even I could tell it was too much. Green circles of fabric were layered like the scales of an artichoke, their ends curling up and pointing to the chandeliers. Each scale shivered in delight from every movement the woman made.

The ladies who brunched did not say anything. They did not need to. Already the dress was disintegrating in front of their eyes. The leaves of the dress were jerking out of their seams in a rustling flurry, collecting into a suspended cloud. Her gems flared and flickered and died. Her shoulder pads wrinkled and shriveled away. She continued walking through the room as if nothing was happening, accompanied only by the rat-tat-tat of a thousand snappings of threads. She stepped out of the cloud of green and left it behind her, frozen perfectly in the air. You could see the affectionate furrows wrinkling her breasts. Her mascara was painted in savage lines that jutted from her eyelids. Her mouth was darkly red with paint. She went calmly, nudely to get herself a plate.

The mouths of the old ladies unshriveled themselves. If there was a test, she had passed. They turned back to their tables and a murmur of conversation once more filled the room. A custodian brought in fresh pots of coffee. The green cloud moved out the door leaf by leaf, very slowly. It had turned into money. Money blowing out the door.

glam03Something like this had happened at a brunch two months ago—a little boy pointing at a lady, her dress dissolving into frothing sprays of sea foam that dripped all over the carpet. Or, the brunch some weeks before that, when a lady had laughed too loudly—her dress flying off her body like a startled bird, leaping through the window and cavorting into the sky—she was left in nothing but her lipstick and crocodile heels. The ladies who brunched were, I learned, prone to sudden disintegration.

After the excitement of the dress, the ladies forgot we were at their table. They talked over our heads as if we weren’t there. Glam-grandma pretended it didn’t matter to her, but kept shooting hurt little looks over her shoulder. She took her time finishing her croissant, fussing with the butter, dipping the end into her coffee. Finally she could put it off no longer. She dabbed at her mouth with a napkin and rose to leave. I rose with her. As we passed the still-disintegrating cloud of green, she reached out, plucked a few bills and stuck them in her purse. She murmured, “Always nice to have a little help with the bills.”

We linked arms and strolled casually out.

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Glam-grandma liked to take me to the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesdays for the evening performances. I always got home late, and my mother didn’t like that. I said, “She’s a responsible adult and it’s educational and eleven-thirty isn’t really that late anyway.”

My mother said, “But don’t you think you should maybe be hanging out with friends your age?”

“Look,” I told her. “You and dad didn’t leave me any grandmas, so I’ve had to go and find some of my own. I’m just trying to be a good grandson, is that such a problem?”

So off I went to the Hollywood Bowl to listen to an orchestra butchering Mozart. “This might not be the best introduction to classical music,” said glam-grandma as she tossed popcorn into her mouth, “but goddamn it if I don’t find this entertaining.” I suppose that if you’ve listened to beautiful Mozart concertos all your life, hearing it done horribly can be diverting.

According to glam-grandma, the Hollywood Bowl was a terrible place to go if you cared about the music. Nearly one hundred years ago, it had been a natural amphitheater: a bowl-shaped valley with angelic acoustics. No one had needed amplification. People had sat on benches, or on the grass, and enjoyed outdoor performances in the sun. The atmosphere had been like a picnic.

The atmosphere was still like a picnic, and it was still outdoors. But the bowl had become the Bowl. The stage was ensconced in an iconic hemispherical shell made of increasingly large white arches—this was the Bowl that had gradually erased the bowl from memory, so now most people thought the shell was where the name had come from in the first place. The seating had expanded to nearly eighteen-thousand seats. It was the largest amphitheater in the country. Everything was amplified because you could barely hear the stage anymore. I knew this to be true because of the night when the power went out, just for a few seconds, but in those seconds I’d struggled to make out the orchestra scraping furiously away below. Big screens hung from the tips of the white shell and broadcast close-up shots of the performers. Only the closest seats could see them on the stage as anything but blurs.

Glam-grandma and I brought along our usual basket loaded with wine, sandwiches, blankets, and binoculars. We bought the one-dollar tickets along with most everyone else and climbed up to the X-Y-Z benches. We waited till the show started. Then, the moment the lights went down, we in the top rows snatched up our things and darted down to the more expensive M-N-O benches far below. The ushers could care less about enforcing seating, and everything from M and up was always pretty empty. After all, it’s hard to sell out eighteen-thousand seats every night.

Still, there were those who sat right up near the stage, dressed much finer than glam-grandma and I were, and certainly not wrapped in old blankets to keep off the evening chill. But the real luxuries were the boxes. They weren’t as close to the stage, but they were proper boxes instead of wood-and-concrete benches that stretched unbroken for hundreds of feet. The boxes had little doors, and you could reserve them for a whole season, and you could specify a need for tables, or a pack of cards, or catering. You could tell when it was a clan of well-off retirees in the boxes because they chatted enthusiastically, laughing and dropping olives onto their tongues, pointing to things on each other’s programs and waiting for their favorite part of a symphony that they knew half by heart.

Glam-grandma pulled her blanket tight around her shoulders and stared yearningly at a box we could just barely see, where four old ladies who brunched were toasting the fifth lady with baby bottles of Riesling while the timpani in the background pounded out a savage solo.

glam04“One day,” she shouted into my ear over the sudden trombones, “I’ll be sitting in that box with them. They’ll be toasting my birthday, but I’ll deceive them about my age. So they’ll be toasting to a lie. That’s how you’ll know that I’ve become one of them at last. What fun it will be! Now pay attention, that cellist is about to embarrass herself.”

But the cellist must have done something right because glam-grandma raised her eyebrows and made no comment, just took a bite out of her chocolate bar instead. I threw my head back and stared up at the sky and listened to the song of the cello. I could barely see any stars from all the surrounding lights. Not too far away, a helicopter vibrated its way through the night and I could hear its thrum growing over our cauldronful of music. I tried to make out the color of the helicopter, but whether it was helicopter-grandma or just an ordinary helicopter, I wasn’t able to tell.

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There were things glam-grandma loved besides brunch. She loved the street signs in Burbank where, instead of letters, they just had the Warner Brothers logo and a distinguishing number. “Imagine living on that street! Oh, I know it’s just a studio avenue pretending to be a street, but still, think about it. Anyone who sent you a letter would have to know how to draw.”

Or: “I love the idea of Universal CityWalk. Someone took the path leading from this parking lot to that theme park, and they said, hey! Let’s turn that walkway into a glamorous outdoor shopping mall!” And nowadays people came just for the CityWalk; it had drowned its origins so well. We went there sometimes during the day and listened to the huge advertising banners snapping in the wind. We strolled past shoppers and workers and the occasional living statues with hats laid at their feet. The shops were a frenzy of competitive advertising, trying to grab attention any way they could, and even the juice stand was having a go, with huge models of assorted fruit popping out of its roof, twice as large as the stand itself. Glam-grandma joked about it. “I pretend to myself it’s a tribute to Carmen Miranda.”

She loved the older movie theaters, especially the rude ones where the facade had fused with the theater, like Grauman’s Chinese or the Egyptian. She called them rude because, in her words, they were giant insults to China and Egypt. They were some of the first of the Great Grand Movie Palaces. They were precisely the color of their names. She’d chosen an apartment that was within walking distance from the theaters, so that on Friday nights she could take a little stroll and partake of their extravagance. Her apartment was just one block off Hollywood Boulevard, small and concrete and very cheap. No one wanted to live in the tourist traps.

glam05Above all, she loved her white Volkswagen. Yes, she’d switched her cigarettes to Benson & Hedges because that was what they smoked at brunch; she’d changed her taste in heels, she’d changed her taste in wine, she’d given up her taste for aubergine tints in her hair. But the Volkswagen stayed. Her partner in crime for twenty years, it remained her greatest friend from the pre-Hollywood era. I believe that for a time she loved it more than brunch.

“There is nothing,” she shouted over the wind pouring in from the windows as we sped down the 101 Freeway, “nothing like racing a truck on a three-lane freeway in a beat-up old Volkswagen.” As she said this, the truck began to fall back at last and glam-grandma whooped and let up on the gas. I’d been clutching at my seatbelt the whole time. I had nothing to say in response.

“But something that’s almost as good,” she said as she pushed down the gas pedal once more and I resumed my hold on my seatbelt, “is navigating a truck tunnel in this car.”

In front of us, two trucks drove placidly side by side, one in the lane to our right, one in the lane to our left. There were no cars in front of us, and glam-grandma shot down the middle lane, cigarette clamped firmly between her teeth. We were suddenly scarily in between the trucks. Their smoky bulk towered over our heads, and it was like a wind tunnel as we raced through. Old receipts whipped up past my ears and shot out the windows, and then we were abruptly past them, back on the open concrete of the freeway. I noticed that glam-grandma was minus the cigarette. It took me a moment to realize it had been snatched by the wind as well.

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The white Volkswagen broke down on the Cahuenga pass, on our way to another brunch. Together we managed to push the car to the side of the canyon road and out of traffic’s way. Then we stuck out our thumbs and hoped. I asked, “Is it all right to leave it on the side of the road? I mean, it might get towed.”

After a long minute, she said, “I can’t miss brunch.”

Some moments later, a blue Corolla slowed to a stop, and I smiled until the window rolled down and I realized we were being rescued by a lady who brunched. She pushed her sunglasses into her hair and said, “Where to?”

“Oakwood Apartments,” said glam-grandma, already opening the passenger door and inviting herself in, “I’m trying to get there in time for brunch.”

“Oakwood!” The woman tipped her sunglasses back over her eyes as we drove. “Do you live there too? I’ve never seen you before!”

“Oh, no, I was invited. You know. Friend-of-a-friend sort of thing.”

“Sure, I know how it is. Well, I hope you like our place. It’s a bit small, but it’s home.”

Oakwood Apartments, as we discovered, had a security gate and contained mounds and mounds of little hills dotted with tasteful condominiums. As we drove through its winding roads, our lady who brunched told us she lived in Neil Patrick Harris’s former apartment. Before that, she’d been in Queen Latifah’s old rooms, but she’d had to move. Her neighbors had been Disney Channel extras, and they were just too young and rowdy for her sleeping schedule.

There was a tense moment when our lady forgot whether the brunch was held at the south clubhouse or the north clubhouse. “Which one?” she asked glam-grandma, who said “Hmmmm?” and pretended she’d gone temporarily deaf, but then our lady remembered anyway. She parked the car, and we leaped out and hurried towards the double glass doors of the clubhouse before she could ask us any more questions.

As we sat at yet another round table with yet another plate of gleaming croissants, I wondered why it was always Sunday brunch. Briefly I toyed with the idea that the ladies who churched had been transformed into the ladies who brunched through contact with the desert air. According to grandma-from-Leningrad, when the Soviet government had deleted religion, people had found all sorts of odds and ends to take its place. I watched the ladies watching each other as they poured themselves glasses of grapefruit juice. It didn’t seem very religious. The air conditioner was cranking cold air out of the vents, but some of the windows were open anyway to let in a fresh breeze. I could see the seagulls strutting by the pool.

As it turned out, there was a talent show planned for the younger generation. The custodians had set up a stage by the pool, and I was treated to the sight of a dozen long-haired girls and nest-haired boys playing piano and singing in wobbling voices. The talent show was a boon in the end, because it kept the ladies from noticing that glam-grandma and I did not belong. Instead they craned their necks to see whose grandkid was singing what, each waiting for her turn to smile at us and tell us about all the things they’d accomplished in their life so far. Then, when her grandkid was done and would wander up for a dutiful kiss, she would pull them into a hug and whisper things into their ear.

Glam-grandma whispered into my ear, “You’re more talented than any of them. Smarter, too. I know you’ll do what it takes to make me proud. Don’t you ever forget that.” It unnerved me how convincing she sounded. She leaned back, smiling like a judge, like one of the old ladies who brunched. For the first time it worried me that this was her ambition.

And then suddenly everyone was gone. The stage was empty, the tables were deserted. They’d all left for the other clubhouse, for post-performance celebrations, or maybe brunch number two. It had happened so quickly that glam-grandma hadn’t noticed which direction they went. So we stumbled out of the clubhouse into the afternoon heat and hiked up and down the hilly roads of the Oakwood Apartments. We searched the tarmac for a trail of bagel crumbs to lead us along, but it was just like the fairy tale; the seagulls must have eaten them all. A security guard approached us. His questions were polite but he did not smile, and I knew this was it. Glam-grandma got flustered and waved her hands around. It did no good. He led us kindly but firmly to the exit. It was the nicest eviction we’d ever had.

We found ourselves standing on the empty highway of Barham Road. Glam-grandma stayed there for a moment, staring at her heels, not saying anything. Then she patted me on my shoulder and on we walked, the opposite way we’d come, baking in the sun all the way to the Volkswagen waiting for us on Cahuenga.

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When I think back, I try to track the moment she became an old lady who brunched. At last she achieved her heart’s desire. But it’s hard to pin down the exact instant of transmutation. The best I could do was track a period of several weeks when I really should have seen it coming.

We drove in a lime-green Chevy, soaring down the 5. The Volkswagen had disappeared, sold to the junkyard to finance the new car. Maybe this was the first sign. Or perhaps it had been the moment she’d whispered to me in a voice so unlike her own that I was better than all the rest. Or, maybe, the moment she’d had to choose between the Volkswagen and the brunch. And she chose brunch.

She’d been unusually silent the whole car ride, her eyes fixed on the road. I’d been relaxing in the Chevy’s comfortable seats until I spotted two trucks ahead of us. I grabbed onto my seatbelt. Glam-grandma grinned and kicked her foot onto the gas pedal and we were accelerating once more, heading for the truck tunnel, the wind screaming in our ears.

glam06And then we were inside, and the trucks were roaring and I noticed the way glam-grandma’s dress was whipping away into silver clouds of tobacco smoke from the wind, the way the cotton wrap around her neck unrolled into crumbled old receipts and shot straight into the air. Her hair untangled itself from its plait and snapped free in a Medusa-like frenzy and we emerged from the truck tunnel. All that was left of her was her body and its make-up, the carefully painted strokes of red and black, the stamps of pink on her cheeks. The body turned to me and smiled and said, like someone commenting on a former childhood pleasure, “Well. That was pretty fun.”

And I knew it was the end. She would be evicted no more. This brunch, she would fool them. The act had become real. They would get her phone number. She’d get calls on Tuesday nights asking her to join them in their boxes at the Hollywood Bowl. I wouldn’t be invited. She’d be too busy to call me anymore, and she’d have a new grandson too. He’d live in Zac Efron’s former apartment. He’d have really nice white teeth and puffy lime-green sneakers to match her car. And though her body would still be there, driving and brunching, glam-grandma was gone forever, I knew.

I ask you, how could I not be happy for her? These things happen. People get what they want, and we have to sigh and move on.

 end-of-story-nov

avi

 Avi Naftali moonlights as a fiction writer, composer, and sort-of essayist. He grew up in Los Angeles and currently works a nine-to-five in New York.

 

 

Moar Glam Ladies:

The Star Maiden, Roshani Chokshi – At night  my Lola liked to stand beside me and look out the window. Her hands—snarled with veins and rose-scented—would grip my shoulders tightly, as if I were the only thing anchoring her to ground. “Do you see that empty space, anak?” she would say, pointing to a sky dusted with pinpricks of light. I could never quite see where she was pointing, but I would nod anyway. “That space is mine. That is my home.”

The Last Dinosaur, Lavie Tidhar – As Mina drove, a hush fell over the city, gradually, in tiers, and the white fluffy clouds in the sky above London parted gently to open up a riverful of blue. It was a beautiful day for a ride. She hummed to herself, an old song, and her fingers tapped rhythm on the steering wheel.

In the Rustle of Pages, Cassandra Khaw – “I’m sorry?” Li Jing says, voice firmer than one would expect. She fumbles for her hearing aid, finds it in a graveyard of yellowed books and colored fabrics. “What did you say?” / “We want you to live with us, Auntie. So we can take care of you. Make sure you have everything you ever want.”

The Wombly, by K.L. Morris

The Wombly arrives first on my father’s back. He brings it home, and it travels ’round the family faster than a whip crack. It passes from him to Liza Lee to Mom to me, except I don’t tap, so Mom doesn’t tap back. The circle hangs open around our necks, a family all Post-Wombly except for one, that’s me, I’m still Pre.

“I’m scared,” I say.

“Of course,” Mom murmurs. As the seconds pass, the Wombly steals around her neck. It goes up her thighs, her pits, her back. Slowly, so slowly, it creeps. I watch it go, and while I watch, she weeps.

“We’ll wait,” she says. “Go out and find someone to Bear it.”

wombly01It is a soap Wombly. Some say these are one of the best. Little Liza Lee had it for so short a time, she will shave the pebbly suds from her sides and her back, and no one will ever know she Bore it. But Dad will have it forever. He’ll don plastic bags to shower and be careful of rainstorms and puddles and dense fog because they will melt him. He’ll make a collection of galoshes and rain coats and rubber gloves and live forever in fear of water.

We have to wait to see how Mom turns out. Wait and see until I come back with a Bearer.

All Womblies can be passed off to someone else, except they can never be passed back. People with the worst Womblies, like steel or wood or sand, creep down the street begging for relief. Some people, the worst people, knock against you in secret to pass the Wombly on. You don’t even know you have it until you arrive home and take off your coat and see your fingertips are turning to brass or wax or concrete. If the Wombly Watchers catch you street-passing, they’ll chain you to a post and build a Wombly fence around you, and keep you there ‘til you die. It won’t take long because almost all Womblies need twenty-four hours to complete.

First, I went to Jill’s house, but nobody answered when I rang the bell. There was a sign on the door—At Uncle Rod’s Funeral. Wool Wombly to the Grave. God Bless His Soul.

Since the Womblies came, people believe in God again. And some of them believe in Womblies. I have to pass tiny knots of both on the street corner, Womblies on one side of the street and people on the other. Repent! say the signs. Repent and Be Free.

And on the other side, Surrender to Wool. Surrender to Glass. Surrender and Be Free.

It’s weird they both want the same things. But some of them are standing while Womblies eat them up. The man with the glass sign is already frozen in place, his fingers crystalline where they grip his sign, the lower half of his face see-through like a broken mirror. On the other side of the street, the people who believe in God throw things at him. They want to chip bits of his Wombly off and kick them down the street.

I know a girl named Savannah. She has long red hair, and I hate her because she is beautiful. I go to her mother’s house and tap, tap on the door. When it opens, I say, “I need a Bearer.”

Savannah’s mom pulls the door open further. Savannah’s father is on the floor, almost all bronze, but still he says through clenched-together jaw, “Don’t come near.”

I see now Savannah’s mother is crying. She says, “He’s chosen to take it to the grave. He won’t let us near.”

Not Savannah. Not her mom. Not like my dad. I leave the house, and I hate Savannah even more. I seethe with hate for her.

I think about the moment the Wombly came to the house. About how, without a thought, Dad passed it to Liza Lee to Mom, but not to me. How they left me dangling out the end, like the tail of the whip. How they are all Post-Wombly now, and I am still Pre. Why didn’t Mom move? Why didn’t she sandwich me between them, too? Like Liza Lee?

I go to Monique’s house next. She answers the door with her jaw made of tin, and when I gasp, she sputters tears.

She tells me it was her brother’s first. She says, “He’s out to find a Bearer. Would you—Could you Bear it?”

I don’t answer her. I think of the soap waiting for me at home, how at least it won’t freeze me up the way the tin has frozen Monique. I back off the steps away from her, away from her tin and her request, and the desperate, desperate eyes that perch above her neck. I bump into Old Man Roger, his arms bound behind his back. Monique’s brother, James, hauls him into the house. He shoves past me without even a hello and kicks the door shut behind him.

I peek through the windows and watch James pin Old Man Roger to the floor. I hear him scream and scream. All Monique has to do is tap him, a tap would be enough. But she straddles his stomach, leans in close, and licks the side of his face. Old Man Roger’s scream cuts off real quick, like he knows he’s done.

James leans over and whispers something into his ear. I can’t hear, but I can guess. To the grave, James says. To the grave. I run from the house. I should call someone and tell them what Monique and her brother have done, but I can’t. Because I am thinking—maybe that’s what I should do.

I go to the town square. There will be people there. There may be one or two with a kind enough heart to come home with me and tap after I tap. I even imagine not tapping at all. I imagine finding a woman who’s middle-aged, with love in her eyes, who stays my hand. She taps my mother instead. The Wombly passes from Mom to her right over my head, and I am safe.

wombly02But when I get to the town square, there are twenty people already there. Some yell into megaphones. Some hold large, bedazzled placards with rhinestones that catch the sun. They say, “Bearer Needed! Wool Wombly.” “Begging for a Bearer. Mere Soil. Save my Son.” There are even two or three with signs that say, “Bearer for Hire. $3,000.”

The ones who hold these signs are the worst. Little bits of everything cling to the people like layer cakes with barely any flesh left. They wrinkle with soil and cement, soap and concrete. There’s rumors that they’re the Street Passers, that that’s how they can take on a Wombly and pass it off so fast. There’s rumors that entire networks of Bearers for Hire exist, passing the Womblies from one to the next until they get to a town or a place where they can kidnap someone and threaten their family, a Wombly-turned finger pressed close, so close, to their neck. I wonder how they are human at all.

I go home well past midnight and steal into the house, but they are not asleep. Mom sits at the kitchen table beside my father. She is worse than he is now, the soap curling into her hair so it looks dried and dead. Her ears are all soap now. I wonder if she liked Dad to kiss her ear lobes, the way people sometimes do in movies. He will never kiss them now. There are whole parts of her that he will never kiss.

I tiptoe past them toward the stairs. I hear Mom say, “No, I don’t want you to look for her. I want her to come back on her own. I want her to want this.”

Father reaches out to grasp her hand, but freezes just above it. Her fingers are lined with soap, as if the curves of her joints have dried out and flaked. He stretches past them, past the place where his hand might leave imprints, and takes her wrist. “And if she won’t?”

Mom shrugs. “I cannot force this on her.” She clears her throat, and I wonder if it’s inside her now, crawling up her esophagus, lining her stomach. “I will not.”

Father’s hand clenches on her wrist. “She will take it. We have all Borne it, as a family, as we should, and she will do her part.”

Mom raises her hand and lays it on Father’s, and despite the soap that limns his elbows, that creases his eyes, I still see him flinch.

I creep past them up the stairs, and behind my eyelids in my bed that night, I see Savannah’s father hardening on the floor.

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In the morning, I wake to Liza Lee sitting on my bed. Already, she has developed a nervous habit, scratching at the soap hidden in her armpit. Large pieces of it crumble onto the bed beside me. Horrified, I brush them away.

“Stop that.”

Liza shrugs. She is tiny for eight. “It is what it is,” she says. This is a saying she has learned from someone at school. “Are you afraid?”

“Of course. What does it feel like?”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she singsongs. Liza sticks a finger up her nose and pick, pick, picks. When she tugs it out, there is soap dust on her fingers. “It feels like fizzing wherever the Wombly sits.”

She rubs the soap dust onto my pillow. I flip it over and pull it away from her in disgust. “Dad says they will take me to a doctor to see what can be removed. Probably, there won’t even be any scars.”

No one will know, then, about the Wombly and Liza Lee.

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I hide in my room. I flick Liza’s soap flakes off the bed, being careful to only use my fingernail. One time, I slip and it grazes my cuticle. I feel a tingling—the fizzing Liza Lee said? I can’t tell. My whole body has frozen in place, my heart beats dully in my ears. No soap forms. I don’t feel the tingle anywhere else. I can’t get the Wombly from Liza Lee’s soap, then. It is as harmless as dead skin. I am surprised by the disappointment that swoops through me as the adrenaline fades. It would be easier to have gotten the Wombly by accident than to have to take it from my mom.

Downstairs, they are calling me. They don’t know I am home. Dad becomes desperate—his cries going sharp like birds. When I roll over, I hear them through my pillow, their voices echoing around in my bed. Mom can only whisper now, her throat husky with soap. “I want her to come on her own. I want her to want this.”

Then Liza Lee’s voice, singsong-y and free: “She’s upstairs.”

I hear a shuffling on the stairs, ascending, ascending, ascending. I know it is her, even though it sounds nothing like her, nothing like the light skipping-step of my mother. The doorknob to my room makes a single guck, like a hand has knocked it, a hand that can’t use its fingers anymore. There’s a long pause before I hear it again—the soft tings of the knob being touched. Then the ease of it sliding open, pulling its trigger to the left.

I am hiding under my covers now, furious at my body for its terror. I whisper over and over: It’s just Mommy. Just Mom and me. The words slur together until I can’t tell the difference between “Mommy” and “Mom and me.”

wombly03And then the door creaks open so I see a crack of light. It widens to show the shape of my mother, her body blurred by soap. The hand that opened the door is still raised, she cannot put it down. She’s freezing right there, freezing slowly in place.

“Please,” she says, her words garbled, nearly lost, and I can tell her teeth are soap now, that the dumb press of her tongue is melting them. “I can’t take it anymore. It hurts.”

Even if I could hear the pleading at the bedroom door and connect it with my mommy, even if I could cure myself of terror and move to her, tap her cheek, her hand, her heart, even if. I could not save her. The Wombly has claimed her now. There is nothing left to save. In moments, she’ll be dead, freed from the Wombly or not.

She wheezes, “Please,” and her voice is vanishing.

“Please,” and it’s the whisper of a door that’s closing.

“Plea—” she says, and her esophagus has frozen shut.

Her arms stretch towards me, her fingers twitch once, twice, and stop. I think she is soap. I think, she is gone now. But then I see—she is still staring at me. The soap has not covered her irises, not yet, though it’s creeping close. I will be the last thing she sees, the daughter who sits, Wombly-Free, and watches while she’s eaten right in front of me.

 march-endof

karalynmorris

K.L. Morris earned her M.F.A. from Lesley University in 2013. Her work has appeared in The Flexible Persona and Body Parts Magazine: A Journal of Horror and Erotica. She spends most of her time writing, walking her dog, and ignoring her husband in order to write. When no one’s around, she writes inside of a tent with a large glass of wine. When people are around, she writes inside of a tent with a large glass of wine and the door zipped shut. She’s neither as broody nor as introspective as she presents herself. Connect with her on Twitter @KareMoreIs. She blogs at www.thewritinggeek.com.

These Are Also Spooktacular:

In the Pines, K.M. Carmien – “You stink like the city,” the woods-thing says. The pines close around them, a green wall, filtering the light to dim and gray, cutting off the world. It looks like a girl, this one. Waxy pale skin, lank dark curls, shabby blue coat. Most of them don’t. They look like trees, or thickets, or wolves, or cats, or patterns of shadow. But this particular one, which always claims the right to deal with her, wears the skin of a girl who was murdered by a drifter four years ago.

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

The Earth and Everything Under, K.M Ferebee – Peter had been in the ground for six months when the birds began pushing up out of the earth. Small ones, at first, with brown feathers: sparrows, spitting out topsoil, their black eyes alert. They shook and stretched their wings in the sunlight. Soon they were pecking the juniper berries and perching on rooftops, just like other birds. They were small, fat, and soft; Elyse wanted to hold them. But they were not tame and they would not come to her.

Painted Grassy Mire, by Nicasio Andres Reed

mire01

Louisiana, 1915

Heat like a hand at her throat then a breeze kicked up from Lake Borgne to swat Winnie sweetly across the face. One of those breezes every hour. A muddy, warm thing that got her through the day. What would life be without a breeze off the lake? Nothing. Nothing, just everyone gone to moss and decay.

Late light on the cordgrass lifted up the red at its edges, sharpened it to spindle fingers plucking the brackish air. Winnie rode her oar low and turned along the fat curve of an island. Eight plump, silver drum shone on the flat bottom of her cypress-board pirogue. Enough of a catch that she could go off on her own business now, in that last hour before the mosquitoes and tappanoes claimed the marsh for their own night kingdom.

Winnie was Saint Malo’s bunso, the smallest, so morning and afternoon she changed the Spanish moss under the sleeping dorm, collected the eggs, and fed the chickens. They were wiry, hardy hens. Fifth-generation swamp creatures born with mud on their feet. Last night there were twelve of them, in the morning only eleven. Not strange to lose a hen to a gator in the night, but it was the third gone in a week. Most gators, they ate once a month, then lived on air. Sat out in the sun and swallowed air whole through their gaping mouths. This must then be a weird lizard, beyond the work and sleep and lost rounds of three-card monte that made up the total of Winnie’s life. She glided across the water in hope of the beast.

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Some things that Winnie knew about alligators:mire03

They were lazy creatures. An active hunt was against their nature, and if a skinny young girl slipped into the water, all unknowing that an alligator lurked a spare few feet below, the gator would leave her be rather than swim the distance between to swallow her up. But if a foolhardy older man, perhaps named Francisco, were to splash up a ruckus within reach of the gator’s snout, he would for certain live the rest of his life left-handed and lucky for it.

Gators were truly unsentimental. On a young girl’s first journey through the marsh, a big bull of a gator would demonstrate this by rising up a broad, algae-crusted snout and snapping the body of a youngster of its own species into two neat bites. Welcome to Saint Malo, it would seem to say. You will live and die here.

A gator was a solitary monster. A young girl in the marshes will find no alligator cities, no gator nations or schools, no broad alligator avenues, no matter how long she may look.

They were strict heathens. God formed them not to kneel, and so they worshipped nothing but the sun. Mid-morning to noon, punctual as priests to mass, they gathered in the half-dry dirt and needlegrass and prostrated themselves before that searing orb while Christian species huddled in the shade.

They cared not for the flesh of the dead, or else despite being irreligious they held Catholic rites in some awe or respect. Winnie’s mother had been safe in her mudflat grave now for more’n a month.

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mire04The bulrushes were in flower, round heads flaking into feathered cotton. Floating pollen landed on the water, in the mud, on the bow of Winnie’s pirogue, but nowhere onto the knotty hide of a gator. She turned her boat to home, the white canvas of Saint Malo’s two-sailed paraw visible as it slunk ahead of her beyond the mud bar that kept the lake from the marsh. It was then, among the high roots of the low mangrove, that Winnie saw dragging alligator prints in the mud. A mound of leaves, branches, and earth as high as her head resolved itself into a nest, with prints all about. Large prints, adult beasts, at least a dozen of them going to and from the mound.

Dark was coming on. The marsh made its warnings, and Winnie had to heed them. She headed for home, but she watched the nest for as far as her head would turn.

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Winnie couldn’t sleep that night. Her bed was double-large and empty. The men in the next room rustled and shifted. The frog and mosquito choir outside droned on, encompassing. Moonlight spilled through the window netting to dusk across her skin.

Winnie dreamed, these days, of her mother. She dreamt a hot, wet cathedral stretching darkly into the distance, and a vision of the marsh barred by moon-white teeth. Being carried; gently, gently. The muddy perfume smell of her mother and her tough, scaled legs. Her mother’s voice so low that it rattled in Winnie’s skin.

In the Saint Malo night, Winnie heard the thousand, thousand mosquitoes and felt the blood hot in her body. She got up and went to the door on cat feet. The moon was nearly full, white as a fish belly. Winnie’s nose to the netting, she could feel the night outside, the hum and the hiss of it. Out in the water: a rush of movement. She thought of the chickens. Quiet as she could manage, she lit and shined a lantern.

Across from the door was Hilario’s enormous house. On stilts, like all the buildings here. Its full twenty piles cast a jumble of spiderleg shadows skittering over the water. Winnie roved the light. And then she saw, as if in a dream after all, an eye as wide around of a grown man’s hatband. Bright as the devil, shining in the dark. Her hand shook; she lost sight of the eye, then couldn’t find it again. But she would swear, despite the size, she’d swear it was the gator.

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Winnie’s father, Tomás, was patching up a net across his knees. Loops and hitches, knots and diamonds. The net was hooked to the porch rail, and Winnie sat with her back to the house, her legs under the shadow of the net, her fingers seeking out gaps.

“Francisco asked after you again,” she said. Her father winced at the name.

mire02“Mm,” he said, and tugged at the net. She let him drag it his way.

“At the card table,” she said.

“You shouldn’t be there.”

“I’m old enough,” she said.

“No. Susmaryosep!” He shook his small head. “Only men there.”

“Of course there are men, I’m the only woman here.” Winnie found a gap in the net and marked it with a yellow ribbon.

“You are a girl. You are a young girl.”

“I’m a Manilaman,” she said, and he jerked with laughter. His face stretched wider to expel it. The noise cut into Winnie. “That’s what they said when we went into the city.”

“Where was your mamá from?”

Winnie shrugged. “Up Proctorville way?”

“Hm,” he said. It was the most he’d said about her mother since she’d died. “And ako, where was I from?” She shrugged again. “Batangas. So where you going to be a Manila Man?”

Some silence, and the breeze buzzing through the reedgrass. Then she asked, “What’s it like in Batangas?” And she knew she said the name all wrong.

“Hot.”

“Like here?”

“No. Hot, with a different sun. Flat as a foot, but for the mountain watching. A river, no marsh. Big mango trees and coconut. The rice. The priests. Very many priests.”

He ran out of language to explain, or memory to spare, and left her craving. She passed her eyes over the flat expanse of the marsh and the raised outlines of Saint Malo houses. She’d never seen a mountain or known the shape of a mango. A curl of her mestiza-brown hair fell into her eyes. She blew it up and away.

“Papa, you been to Proctorville? Where mama grew up?”

“No.” His fingers and knife threaded through the net without hurry. “She came to the marsh. Swam to Saint Malo, met me. Never went back.”

“Swam to Saint Malo?”

“Sailed,” he corrected, although it was the rare sailboat that could make the journey.

She wanted to tell him about her dreams, the dreams she’d had in her mother’s arms and out, but she didn’t have words that he’d understand. He didn’t care for her dreams the way her mother had. Alligator scales solid as Spanish tiles. Teeth as thick as the piles that held up Saint Malo, sharp as salt, lowering over her heavy as grief. She bit her tongue and searched out the gaps.

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Winnie’s mamá had been a strong swimmer, that much was certain. The two of them in the pirogue, she’d slipped over the side and into the lake. From the still air into the still water, her hair uncoiling, her eyes wide with pleasure as she dipped low so only her face was above the surface. She’d wanted Winnie to come in after her, to abandon the boat, to slip overboard and sink with her. Winnie never did.

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Another hen gone. To the mud bar again, to the gator nest. Winnie floated past on the lake side, where the pile of muck and grass intermingled with thick mangrove roots to form a thick wall. In the warm of the day there was a greater warmth emanating from the nest. A cloying heaviness that drew Winnie in like a memory. The smell was mud and rot, and familiar.

Winnie poled her pirogue over the bar and into the marsh, around the other side of the nest. Here it poured itself out into the water. Here there were lizards waiting for her. Three gators with wide mouths agape. Young, striped black and gold. They surrounded the nest entrance, sitting with that gator-stillness that no other creature could match.

She took ahold of the fattest crappie from between her feet and tossed it among the alligators, an offering. Its silver tail flapped twice, then lay quiet. It was a long time Winnie sat there, the water between them, while the beasts didn’t shift and the fish died. Beyond the brim of her hat, sunlight hardened into afternoon.

mire05Finally, the smallest of them made a move. Delicate as fingertips, its jaws scooped up the crappie. Shuffling and dragging, it ascended the nest and disappeared. From the water, Winnie couldn’t see all the way to the top, but there was movement there. A bump that she’d thought was a rotted log bobbed up and down. Then the small gator again, only as long as Winnie was tall, slid its way back out of the nest and into its old spot. It clawed at the dirt before settling. It turned one algae-dark eye on Winnie and, slow as the moon slipping behind a cloud, the creature winked at her.

The downhill tilt took her. Winnie slipped one leg, then another from her pirogue. Her feet found mud under the water and she sank to her ankles. Shallow, still. Her fingers trailed the surface. Raising as few ripples as she could, she advanced on the nest.

The lizards moved with sudden speed. They formed a barrier of their bodies, barring her from the entrance. Winnie stood in the marsh, mud advancing up her legs, and wondered what offering would be sufficient.

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Card games were held in Hilario’s front room, lit by lamplight that swayed to the steady rhythm of the men’s hisses and hollers. Winnie hooted and wailed with them, going from end to end of the long, low table to the other and making faces at the cards, elbowing between elbows to see the action. This is where they called her bunso, the littlest lizard darting among them. Or buntot, for the way her long braid wagged behind her head.

Her father didn’t come to the table often, one of the reasons Winnie did, but he was there that night, lit up, winning hand after hand. Smiling at everyone, even at her. He paid Francisco back the five dollars he’d been asking after for weeks, and threw in a nickel on top.

“Get you an ice cream cone,” he said. “Down at the hokey-pokey store!” The closest being a day’s journey away. Francisco laughed, though he’d wanted to win the money off him. He slapped Tomás on the back and dealt him into another round.

Outside the window netting was the living night, but it didn’t encroach here, it could not touch them. Winnie and the Manila Men were yellow in the lamplight, from their sun-brown faces to the whites of their eyes. The flowing rum was a virile red. Hilario’s boy Augusto let Winnie sip from his glass. She felt vibrational as a mosquito. She could have walked onto the marsh right then; she could have found her mother and danced into the bottom of the lake.

Money is money, but at the turn of the night it was time to bet on things that couldn’t be bought. Francisco wanted Winnie’s father to put up his pirogue, the one that was named Valentine after her brother who’d died a baby. Tomás said no, no, but he’s got just the thing. He stepped into Hilario’s back room that served as Saint Malo’s safe deposit, and came back carrying a shallow chest. Everyone got up and crowded around to see him open it. Winnie wended among their jutting hips to the front.

She’d never seen this chest, didn’t know her father had it, or anything at all in Hilario’s bank. It was a very fine chest, fitted with brass, the leather top gone a bit moldy from the weather, as everything did. Tomás made a leisurely show of unbuckling the straps, then running his hands across the top. He met Winnie’s eyes with a funny little twinkle. Then he flipped the lid.

Like Spanish tiles, or cracked mud. Black like a rotted log, and smelling old and sweet, it was an alligator skin. Tomás lifted it from the chest and held it high above his head, but still couldn’t unfold the full length of it. Augusto took hold of the other end and between them they stretched it near across the room. Fifteen, maybe seventeen feet. Wide as Winnie was tall. It was the grandest, blackest, most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. The men were afire with wanting it.

Winnie went to her father.

“No,” she said. “Don’t bet it away.” And she knew he would, as nearly every man there was getting dealt in. Tomás laughed and squeezed her about the neck.

“It was your mother’s,” he said. “No need for it anymore.” And he did lose the skin, lost it to Marcelo, who took it to drape like a hammock across his sleeping dorm.

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In the crowd of pirogues heading out of Saint Malo the next morning, Marcelo crowed.

“Oh, that lizard, my lizard,” said Marcelo. “She’s fat like the belly of galleon! Creaks in the night like one too.”

Winnie couldn’t speak. Her father rowed along in his Valentine with a smile. The bulrushes were heavy with summer bulbs and leaned arches over their path through the marsh. All breeze dropped out of the air, and even their movement against the water barely brought a wind to their faces.

“Storm coming,” said Augusto.

“When the storm comes,” said Marcelo, “I’ll crawl up inside my great big lizard! Come out with the sun, bone dry!” A thoughtless rage opened inside Winnie at his words.

Just like that, all the way onto the lake. There, the group scattered itself and cast their nets. Pulled in, cast again. This, more than any stilt house, card game, or line of drying fish, this was Saint Malo: the casting and the pulling. The whiz of the net through the air and the pish of it slicing the water. The flit of fiber through Winnie’s hands when she pulled it back and sifted it for prey. The dotted line of men and Winnie spread over the western edge of the lake, marsh air and marsh sounds hard at their backs. For this, her father and the rest had fled the Spanish whip, for this they’d lost Batangas, Manila, the Visayas, and a dozen other homes. For this heavy air and these low pirogues. For Winnie, perhaps, though they hadn’t known it. For that she could be born to the marsh with her muddy eyes.

Winnie cast and pulled and daydreamed tough alligator hide like a gnarled crowd of overlapping hands. White alligator night-eyes and deep alligator voices. The nest and the monster she’d fed. The downhill pull of that uphill slope.

By late afternoon the air hollowed out and the birds fled north. A pair of egrets cut a silent path right above Winnie’s head. The spread of boats cinched towards the mud bar and the marsh. Tomás drew up alongside her. His boat sagged with the catch. She wouldn’t look him in the eye.

“A hard wind tonight,” he said. “You sleep in the men’s dorm.”

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mire04The rattling walls, the jumping floor, the hot rip of the wind and rain at the shutters and the wet smell of the thatch roof. Winnie lay curled on a pallet in the middle of the room, the men unsleeping around her in their bunks. In the corner: the gator skin. It shuddered and swayed, its thick tail lashing. When the wind began there were prayers and singing, but now just the storm around them and Marcelo’s gasps as the gator swung from its hanging place above him.

Winnie spared a thought for the chickens, transported to Hilario’s living room and likely head-tucked and shivering. She spared a thought for her mother in her grave, drowning. The dorm went side to side. She closed her eyes and tried to sink. Heavy bones and thick skin, mud crusted over her eyes and salt sharp on her teeth.

A howl outside, a howl that didn’t end, but pitched up and up like the bow of a sinking ship. The noise of somethings flying through the air and smacking the walls of Saint Malo. The walls of the dorm, hit and hit again by the objects of her imagination. Turtles, crappie, trout, drum, uprooted mangroves, and unmoored rafts. The roof whined. The men muttered, but there was nowhere safer to flee.

There had been storms on the marsh before. Winnie had laid awake through them and poled through their debris on gray mornings. She’d tucked her head into her mother’s side and slept through the wind. She’d lost rounds of three-card Monte with the weather menacing among the stilts of their houses, pressing at their bellies and slipping through their boards. She was a marsh creature, born with mud on her feet and salt in her hair.

All this, and still when the back wall fell in and men and bunks and the gator skin tumbled onto Winnie’s pallet, she screamed. Limbs and the tail, bodies and the snout, a slick mess of swamp-stuff suffocating her. And the wind now free among them drove rain into their hides.

Drier arms reached into the jumble and pulled apart the wrecked bunks. They extracted Marcelo, Francisco, Bambol, and Florenzo.

“Winnie!” Tomás shouted. The others were at the door, making to fight their way to Hilario’s intact house. “Where’s my Winnie?”

They pulled apart the fallen wall, dragged away the wrecked netting, the ruined sheets and moss mattress stuffing. They accounted for every man. They flipped the gator skin onto its wide, white belly. Tomás called for his daughter. Winnie blinked her double-lidded eyes and took him gently between her jaws.

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The night path was lit for her. Everything alive, everything alight. Movement all around, sensed through the skin of her snout. The smell of home and of earth. The storm’s violence was muted and slowed underwater. Impacts rolled through the liquid and against her, inconsequential. Behind her, the dorm house collapsed entirely. Men sloshed into the water and mud. They were tempting, but her mouth was full of her father. He did not fit entirely, but his arms were pinned, and his head was tucked against her tongue. She could feel him struggling and screaming, but it was nothing to the power of her wide and sure mouth.

A power was upon her like an embrace. A quiet, uncomplicated power something like anger but more like an inevitable victory. She had slid downhill every moment of her life, and now was in the sure trench, the awaited valley, the lush prize. She was done with mourning.

Her body was her body and her body was her tail: a muscle stronger and more able than she had ever felt before. Movement smooth and quick despite her bulk. Skin like a crust, so thick that the world could not touch her. With one set of eyelids closed, the wind was nothing to her. Winnie tucked her legs close in to her belly and jackknifed through the marsh.

Reedgrass and fimbry were battered flat and sputtering. The mangroves stood stolid while they were stripped of their leaves. The bulrush bulbs that had so dominated the skyline flew here and there. Between Winnie’s teeth, the water seeped. She kept her head up, aware that Tomás must breathe frequently.

There were other gators in the water around her, heading in the same direction. A crowd, an alligator boulevard through the marsh, a procession to their only destination.

The mud bar had disappeared beneath the flood, but the nest still rose, a tower of detritus. The marshward approach was cut by a pitched glacier of mud. Winnie drew herself out of the water and up the slope. She found herself more awkward on land. She felt the weight of the offering in her mouth. She was flanked and preceded by other, smaller alligators. Young beasts half her size who rushed around her and over her. She clambered among them on her slick belly.

Up, up into the nest where waited a mouth more vast than even her own. A mouth that gaped like the doors of a cathedral and into which her sisters and brothers rush in a black stream of leathery bodies. Outside: the wind and the rain, the storm taking the marsh to pieces, Saint Malo in splinters behind them. Inside: a humid, cavernous hall with a fleshy scent that Winnie could taste through her skin.

She knew this place, this scent and this heat, this moist and crowded abattoir. Deep within was a pounding drumbeat that she recognized as intimately as the taste of her own breath. Her mother, her skin: This was their place. This was her place. She clambered deep inside, opened her mouth, and gave up her father’s struggling body to the family of her mother.

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Nicasio Andres Reed is a Filipino-American writer and poet whose work has appeared in Comma Press, Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Liminality, Inkscrawl and Beyond: the Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Comics Anthology. A member of the Queer Asian SF/F/H Illuminati, Nicasio currently resides in Madison, WI. Find him on Twitter @NicasioSilang.

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Shimmer #32

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by Sandro Castelli

In astronomy, we’re often taught to use “averted vision,” that is to look to the side of the object we want to see, because our eyes operate in a way that allow us to see it most clearly when we’re not actually looking at the object at all. These four stories use a kind of averted vision themselves,  showing us characters who are not entirely what we see them as being, but in the end could be nothing else at all.

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Painted Grassy Mire, by Nicasio Andres Reed
Heat like a hand at her throat, then a breeze kicked up from Lake Borgne to swat Winnie sweetly across the face. One of those breezes every hour. A muddy, warm thing that got her through the day. What would life be without a breeze off the lake? Nothing. Nothing, just everyone gone to moss and decay.

The Wombly, by K.L. Morris
The Wombly arrives first on my father’s back. He brings it home, and it travels ‘round the family faster than a whip crack. It passes from him to Liza Lee to Mom to me, except I don’t tap, so Mom doesn’t tap back. The circle hangs open around our necks, a family all Post-Wombly except for one, that’s me, I’m still Pre.

glam-grandma, by Avi Naftali
The seagulls were strung like irritable white pearls across the Los Angeles sky. They floated through the alleyways, complaining and complaining. It was the hottest time of the year.

The Singing Soldier, by Natalia Theodoridou 
When Lilia came into her parents’ bedroom one night, eyes sleepy and tin soldier firmly clasped in her little hands, complaining that his singing wouldn’t let her sleep, her Ma thought she’d had a nightmare. She pried the soldier from her daughter’s fingers, placed him on a high shelf in the closet and locked the door. Then, she motioned towards Lilia’s sleeping father and let the girl slip under the covers between the two of them.

 

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