Category Archives: Issue 39

Fixer, Worker, Singer, by Natalia Theodoridou

Fixer Turns On the Stars

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

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

The sky creaks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singer: His Voice in Fragments

Your metallic voice. The wind rushing through me.

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

I haven’t seen you in so long.

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

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

An old man tuning a pipe organ.

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

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

You are not forthcoming with answers to my questions.

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

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

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

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

Worker: Keep This Shop Like You Would Your Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We glance up.

Singer Sings of Holes in the Sky

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

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

I hold my palms in front of my eyes.

Why did you make me without fingerprints?

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

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

Why did you want me to know all these things?

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

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

Worker Prays to a Bullet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixer Looks for a Piece of the Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But it’s still day.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singer: His Voice Back Together Again

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

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

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

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

Look, the moon is coming out.

Fixer Sleeps Under the Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

En la Casa de Fantasmas, by Brian Holguin

I.

Everyone knows about La Bruja.

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone knows the house is for the ghosts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is getting late and she has work to do.

II.

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

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

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

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

Chk-chk-chk.”

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

Chk-chk-chk.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They just run.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blood for blood. No fairer trade.

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

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

Chk-chk-chk.”

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

Chk-chk-chk.”

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

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

Chk-chk-chk.”

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

Chk-chk-chk.”

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

Chk-chk-chk.”

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

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

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

III.

In La Casa de Fantasmas, there are many mansions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow.

Always tomorrow.

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey! Kid! Over here!”

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

“Are we all here, now? Let’s go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wake up, wake up, fly away home…

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

Other Strange Houses:

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

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

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

The Creeping Influences, by Sonya Taaffe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I kept the question back, even while my throat tightened in useless sympathy, watching the wind stir her rusted iron hair. Likely Dan had the right of it, sour as it sounded. If I wanted to touch her with gentleness, it was because she was a woman who knew the taste and the price of transgression. If I was trying to imagine the tint of her hair and the texture of her skin before the acids of Móin Alúine cured her to a folded pewter shell, it was because I was an adulterer, too.

Katharine Morgan’s husband had left her for the wars, but she never said which ones and I never asked again. If it was the Great War, she would have known by now if he was coming back; if it was the civil war in Spain, it felt like anyone’s guess whether he had signed on with O’Duffy’s Brigade or the Socialists or just gone to make trouble out of the local authorities’ reach. She called him a blackguard and a lying bastard, she said she had never known a man so deft with a woman’s body, she missed him like the Devil and she prayed God to keep him away and she invited me into her bed one afternoon near the heathery start of May, an offer of confidence that was not quite a threat curling as provocatively on the air as the clean-washed smell of her heavy, jet-pinned hair.

I’m sure you understand me, Mr. Mathews. Or is it Miss?

It’s Mathews, ma’am.

Then it’s Katharine, Mathews.

Eventually she came to call me Roddy, but she always greeted me as Mr. at the door, just in case a lifetime of careful habits proved unequal to the powers of village gossip. She had come to Croghan as a bride and stayed there for all she knew a widow and I would take my reputation with me when I left at the end of the summer; I was not so complacent as to think that hers was so self-contained. She was a handsome woman, thirty-three to my thirty-five, decorously pale everywhere but her high-colored cheeks and the flush that faded across her breasts after making love. She had more English in her voice than Irish, though she never spoke of any home before her marriage, and she must have lived on more than her spendthrift husband’s savings, if he had been gone as many years as she hinted. I was not the first lover she had entertained since sweet-talking Desmond Morgan disappeared—I never fooled myself that way, either. But I did wonder, sometimes, if the others had only been women or men.

“Oh, Jesus have mercy,” she would say, twisting under my mouth, “sweet as a boy,” and I knew then that she loved me for the simplest part of myself. She liked my broad shoulders under their brown coat, my hair always falling chestnut-slick into my eyes; she liked my wind-rawed cheeks and my mulish jaw, the work-hardened span of my hands with their popped knuckles and old roughened marks of sacks and crates and shovels and drystone walls. She never touched my breasts, brown-nippled beneath their linen bindings, or my hips, cradled wide to take my long-striding weight, or my cunt, clenching hot and slippery as a heart behind the travel-worn corduroy of my trousers. Never once reached after my pleasure, as I worked my hand to the wrist inside her and she screamed, gloriously tight around me. Afterward, she would pull me down to the bedsheets beside her, skin pink as the lip of a whelk, and fist her hands in my hair, taste her salt sweet in my mouth and straddle me, laughing, but never with me as naked as herself. She wanted the shape of a laboring man and the spark of a demon lover—the security, too, of knowing she would never fall pregnant by me, no matter how many times she called me up from the parlor to the white curtains of her bedroom and her deep-pillowed bed. She wanted road-tramping Roddy Mathews and I was that, I was never anyone else from the time I was old enough to know my own skin, but I was the pieces of myself that she never touched, just as much, and the hunger that went with them. At most, she would watch me as I sprawled in a chair, my belt unbuckled and my own fingers busy in the folds of myself, but I thought it disappointed her that she could never see me spend, groan or gasp as loudly as I might. It ruined the illusion, spoilt the spell—

I tried not to think unkindly of her. The lovers of mine who had known me entirely, I could count on the two fingers I gave the rest of God’s earth for wanting me to be one thing or the other, like the flick of a switch of an electric light. Katharine Morgan was expressive and affectionate and she did not stint herself in desire; she was a cleverer woman than she advertised with her wide, apple-green eyes and a sadder one than she liked to let me see; she never asked me a question beyond my employment and my health and the next time we should see one another, if a man of the world could find enough to say to a woman of her house, content in her quiet life. All the times she heard me say that I loved her, I was not lying. When I left, I did not think she would tell stories of me.

Sean MacMahon was waiting over the girl in the peat when we got there, hunkered down at the edge of the cutting with the wind stirring the edges of his sugar-fair hair under his cap. He looked so forlorn, I had to remind myself that he was nearer my age than coltish, touchy Dan Wall, whose round, dark-freckled face would have looked cherubic if he were not constantly scowling. “It’s the coroner they’re sending from Tullamore,” he said without preamble. “In case she wasn’t put in the bog by heathen priests after all. The museum won’t want her if it’s murder.” The sun shone out again in the milk-blue twists of sky and he looked unhappily at the black-stepped levels of earth, the woman dreaming under the damp sods we had packed her in at the end of the day.

He must have called the Garda station, whether we had agreed on it or not; Dan looked for a moment as though he was going to shout at Sean for it, then said only, sullenly, “And what are we supposed to do until then? Lose a day’s wages waiting for the man with the little black bag?”

“Dig around her, idiot,” Jimmy said with his blunt, impatient authority, before Sean could bridle or I could start an argument of my own, and so we did, leaving a little bier of peat beneath her and a shroud of it above, so that she lay like an effigy among us as we worked, turf-veiled eyes turned to the sky. I was sweating with my coat off, well-worn báinín sticking to my shoulders; Dan kept taking his cap off and scrubbing one hand through his hair, spikily dark as treacle. He was closest to me with his barrow, spreading the sods I cut, and I tensed a little: I had guessed the day we met that if anyone was going to give me trouble in Croghan, it would be this angry half-boy, angling his way into manhood with his shoulders swaggering and his hands fisted deep in his pockets, waiting for someone to clip him in the street so that he could throw them a punch in return. He was religious and ashamed of it, better-educated and defensive of it, and I thought he was lying about most of the women he claimed to have had. But he said nothing more dangerous than, “Hold up, Mathews, give me a chance! It’s a job, not a race, for Christ’s sake,” and because we did not have another barrowman, I slowed. It took looking up at the edge of the bank for me to realize how doggedly I had been working.

“When’s he coming, this coroner from Tullamore?”

It did not sound anything like as casual as I had meant it to, an idle question to while away the time spent slicing and spreading and stacking as the sun climbed and the wet ground warmed, white-starred with bog cotton and the aniline-flowered lures of butterwort. Behind me, Dan blew out an aggrieved breath and bent to lift his barrow.

“Day after tomorrow,” Sean said, blinking a little. He was blue-eyed almost to silver; it made his direct glance disconcerting. “Rafferty said it would disturb work, policemen and coroners coming round in the middle of the day. Reporters, too, likely as not. And tomorrow it’s raining.”

I thought of her foxed-mirror face, swirled in a slick of mud; her cedar-chest hair dissolving like tobacco shreds. Mold splotching her breast, long-sheltered, like slime on a stone. Before Jimmy could speak, or Dan, or even Sean, catching up to his own thought as he heard it leave his mouth, I said, “We’ll need a tarpaulin over her, then. She won’t stand the rain.”

“Oh, what, are you studying with Connolly here now, too? Are we opening a turf-cutters’ university—final subject, murdered adulteresses from before the birth of Christ?”

“Oh, shut it, Dan Wall,” I started. “You wouldn’t know the birth of Christ from the hole in your—” and that was when Jimmy stepped in, before Dan swung to hit me. It would have been worse if he ran at me, caught me around the waist to bull me down; but his color faded and he trundled his barrow away without a word, its slats piled high with drying sods.

“We’ll find you a tarpaulin, Roddy,” Sean said into the silence. “Better yet, we’ll thatch her. Stack the sods over her, like a gróigín.” At my stare, he shrugged with the spade still in his hands, a pale, slight man in canvas trousers, lashes and brows nearly invisible in strong sun. “She’s your lass, Roddy. We’ll take care of her.”

When I dreamed of the peat girl, she was always dead, though she walked out of the bog at night to meet me. Her skirt was patterned in bilberry-blue, her shawl red as cranberries, and the garment next her skin looked most like a sheepskin with the fleece side in, but her face and her arms and her ankles above the leather lacings of her shoes were as opaque as old silver, her tied-back hair a springing mat of rust. Her nails were tawny parings, translucent as horn. Open between their metallic lids, her eyes were honey-amber, their pupils ochre lights.

Fast in my hayloft bed, I watched her blink, but not breathe; lay her palm against my chest, though no pulse ticked at her wrist. She was cold as groundwater, her smell of wet earth and fermenting wood. Her full height came barely to my breastbone. Each time she kissed me, I choked on the darkness that lay behind her tongue, a sunken, welling sourness—peat-smolder, leather-tang—that trickled like meltwater from the corners of my mouth the fiercer I kissed her back, striving for some living, human response, involuntary as a gasp. With her small, creased hands, she unpinned her woolen shawl, unlaced her skirt and pushed me down on the bright-checked, soft-scratching bedding, unwrapping the sheepskin from her shoulders so that her low breasts gleamed in the overcast light, heavy as hematite. And she touched me, with those fingers that had steeped for centuries in black veins of the bog, till my nipples stiffened like beads and my skin buzzed like tram-rails and my cunt swelled wet as a tarn, hungry for the dead cold of her. She stroked me and bent over me, searched my roughed-back hair with her mouth as if scenting me like a cat and tugged the tight linen from my breasts until she could trace the blanched red marks where the edges cut in; she slipped hard, tiny fingers inside me and I shouted with the freezing shock and jolt of pleasure, bucking as the soft ground swayed beneath us, a heather-plaited moss-tick.

And we’ll find the man she did it with, Dan had sneered, nineteen centuries from now when these silver-sheeting meadows were rush-spiked straits of turf, but they never would, not unless I laid myself down at her side like two lovers in a song and waited. Her ribs under my hands were light as a kestrel’s, her dull hammered-foil skin sail-taut across them. Even dreaming, I had the nightmare fear that she would open up around me like sodden paper, bog-soaked bones splitting free of her flesh like the rags her clothes had gone to ages before our clumsy spades brought her to light— Her cry was the only sound I heard her make, sharp as a curlew. Her weight dropped onto me and for a moment the heat of my own skin was enough to blunt her chill, hip and breast and shoulder and chin all interlocked like the twining of an ancient brooch; I could close my eyes and imagine her live in my arms, the unknowable woman she had been before the cord-choke and the drowning. Close to, the amber of her eyes was flawed with fern-seeds and tiny inclusions of dust or air. Her teeth were black as bog oak. She was smiling. I woke in a sweat of sex, my hair plastered to my forehead and my thighs slicked with their own wet; the dawn stars were shining in at the window. I never dreamed that she dressed and left me.

It did not rain the next day, after all; it misted in the morning and the streets shone like snail-tracks between the plaster-sided houses, the thatched edges of their roofs glimmering with refracting beads, but the heaviest clouds burned off before noon and we went out to the turf-cutting beneath a soft-watered sky as grey as a horse’s back. Rafferty had shifted us to another plot, fruitlessly trying to steer gossip away from the murder victim, the heathen sacrifice, the dead queen of Ireland coffined in the bog with her scarlet comet’s hair streaming away into the dark earth, the gold and bronze torcs and bracelets of her warrior’s hoard slowly pushed apart from one another by the forming peat, like planets by time… Even Katharine had asked if it was true, if a woman’s body had been found in Móin Alúine, and I told her everything but my dreams. Braced to temporize if she asked if the dead woman was beautiful—more beautiful than Katharine herself, resting in my arms as we looked out the parlor window onto the green steep of Croghan Hill, the stone-walled patchwork of the village tumbling away to the foot of the peat fields—I had no ready answer when she asked instead, Does she look unhappy?

I had not thought about it, any more than I had asked myself if an ash-tree looks hungry or a wash of limestone tired. She looks dead, I said truthfully. You can see the bones of her, dyed like bronze from the bogland. She doesn’t— and I hesitated, but Katharine’s expression showed neither fear nor disgust. She doesn’t look like a woman who died in pain, if that’s what you’re fearing. She’s a calm face. Closed eyes. Peaceful. You’ll see for yourself; they’ll have to let people see her before they take her away, and she leaned her head into the hollow of my collarbone and said no more, the dark coil of her hair fragrant with lemon and musk.

She was slighter than the peat girl for all her greater height, more slender at waist and bust. I looked at her sometimes and thought of a slim dark-haired man, dandily barbered, with a watch-chain in his waistcoat and a well-knotted necktie; I said nothing. Not everyone saw themselves with double vision: wanted to know they could be so seen. I kissed her temple and she pushed me away, rising in a China-silk rustle. Her voice trailed off on a sigh, wry as one of the reasons I loved her.

Peaceful when she’s dead. Every woman’s dream!

We walked into wetter ground, boots whistling and sucking with the sponge-mat and the damp; Dan kept pointing to pools and soft, shaking ground, calling to the rest of us.

“Put a sléan in here, Sean, we’ll dig up Patrick. Here’s where Oisín aged three hundred years when he touched the earth, only he touched Allen water and kept on falling, through land, through time—never mind, we’ll never find him. Keep on, boys.” I wondered if he had ever written poetry, and if he was ashamed of it, too. “Sure, we can’t leave the queen of all Ireland with no king, even if she was unfaithful to him. Here, Roddy, you know her best—where would she have left him? Here? Or here? Know her like Adam,” he added when I did not answer. “Where would you have bedded her, if you were a king of the pagan land?” He kicked at a grey blink of water, cataracted with the reflection of the sky. “Don’t cry, Sean, you can send the next one to the National Museum.”

But it was Desmond Morgan we found instead, floating on his back in a slurry of looseleaf water and moss as palely green as his widow’s eyes.

He was not beautiful. The bog had not had the centuries to work its alchemy on him, tightening him to the leather of himself: he was loose on his bones, and dingy, and soft and slack as meal when we hauled him up, swearing at the rank sluice of liquids that poured from his rusted tweeds, the flopping cavity of his body, his bonelessly dangling bare feet. His eyes were too soft for amber. His teeth were hard in the gape of his mouth, peat-flecked porcelain ringing the sky. His head rolled like a kicked-in football. All of his pockets had been sewn closed and stuffed full of stones.

At that Sean was sick and not even Dan had the heart to mock him, gill-green as he looked himself. “Bloody hell,” he repeated, “bloody fucking hell, fucking Christ in hell,” like he could curse the man back into the earth that had so incompletely assimilated him. Jimmy watched silently, his bronze mouth a hard-braced line, Sean coughed and retched in the sedges, fumbling a handkerchief to wipe his nose with, Dan blasphemed on through an audible knot of nausea and I tried to ignore the feel of the water the dead man had left on my hands and keep the thought down, choke it: which of them would say it first? How long? Was Katharine Morgan’s sporting wastrel of a husband so gratefully forgotten that they could not piece together who he must have been, this lanky string of joints whose long, moss-infested flop of hair would have combed back jauntily from his rake’s profile, still cocked for a fight beneath the perished rubber of his face? With a gold ring on his left hand and a wallet in his draining jacket, the vegetable materials of his papers and his money—if she had left him his money, God knew he had taken enough of hers—long since pulped by the acids of the peat? I knew what I would find if I knelt and worked the ring off his finger and the watch off his wrist, the small initials I would read there incised in the gold. I had seen the photograph on her dressing table, hand-tinted so that I knew the color of his brilliantine hair before the bog stole into it. Other men had seen him alive.

“Christ, it’s Morgan.” Jimmy’s voice had a thick, disbelieving sound; his eyes were dark as doors. “So she did it after all.” He had spoken more easily of human sacrifice.

Sean hacked into his handkerchief and I could have kissed him, because it was louder than the noise of my breath. He said uncertainly, “He left her. With her savings, everyone knew that. Said he was off to look for work in London and good riddance to him.”

“And changed the money for stones before he went?” Dan’s voice was raw, his face flushed as if someone grappled him. “Lost his way in the bogs, instead of catching the bus to Tullamore and taking the bloody train? Is there anything you don’t believe, MacMahon? Desmond Morgan drowned himself and God save the King? Jesus, but you’re a fool—”

“And the coroner’s coming.” For the first time all summer, I heard Sean MacMahon laugh, a clear pealing snicker at himself or the circumstances, like something out of a detective magazine or a play on the stage. “Tomorrow. Oh, Jesus. Me and my museums. That’s all of us fucked, then,” and even somber Jimmy snorted at that, standing over a corpse.

“Aye, Rafferty’ll love two investigations for murder on his land.”

There was a beat of silence, just long enough for me to hear as clearly as if we were all thinking it, Maybe we should just roll the old bastard back under his pool, maybe we’ll tell Rafferty the ground was too wet for the turf-cutting, maybe in a year we won’t be lying when we say we don’t know what became of Desmond Morgan, who’ll say we ever did? Who knows what becomes of a body once the bog has hold of it, before I heard someone speaking and I knew it was me, because the rest of them looked like I was talking French.

“We’ll have to tell Mrs. Morgan.”

There was another silence, and I could not tell what any of them were thinking at all. Jimmy said carefully, finally, “A woman sends her man off with that much weight in his pockets, she’s not looking to see him again.”

“Sure, but she didn’t foresee us digging him up like a pack of bloody dogs.” Angry at myself, knowing there was no reason for it, “She has a right to know.”

“If she wants to turn herself in?” The anger had gone out of Dan as abruptly as it had blown into him; he only looked as young as he was, and sickened, and hollow with thinking, as we all must have been, how calm-eyed Katharine Morgan, so coolly composed, could have killed her husband. Poison, maybe, if she had left no mark on him. Or she had cracked his skull, stabbed him, shot him, even, and the bog had soaked the wound away, run itself through him in place of blood until there was nothing to see but the split and swelling of decay and who could say when that had happened? I saw no noose in the slack of his puffball throat, no crushed bones under his ochre-stained shirt. Perhaps she had only drugged him and left the bog to do the rest. I could not imagine her dragging a body out of the house, mile by patient mile, each hardworking breath loud in the bat-flickered night and no one in Croghan noticing. “Out of her hands now, isn’t it—”

Heavy as bog iron, Jimmy broke in, “He used to beat her, Danny-boy, did you know that?”

She had not told me. Those bruisy hands wilting at his sides, snapped bladderworts with the knuckles barely visible in the soft wet skin—dead as they were, I wanted to break them, twist the fingers like chicken bones until they cracked, maim him in the afterlife like the mutilations Jimmy had said our ancestors cursed their failed kings with, so that even if his ghost came staggering home down the wet roads of Allen, sleek-haired, shark-grinning, it would paw helplessly at every door with blunted sockets of bone that could never again put their pain on anyone.

I thought of Katharine in the half-light of her bedroom, saying, There wasn’t an inch of me he wouldn’t touch, and I had misconstrued her, jealousy-flicked as I knelt to prove there was nowhere I would not go for her pleasure. She had not misdirected me.

I said again, hoarsely, “She’s a right to know.” Not caring what they knew or guessed or had known already, which way I was giving myself away as I dragged my gaze away from Desmond Morgan to stare at all their faces, tight as rope around a woman’s neck: “Even if it’s just so she can finish drowning the fucker herself.”

That night I dreamed of the peat girl walking through Croghan, one foot in front of the other as carefully as though she walked a tightrope on the beaten road. She carried her heavy-braided head with the pride of a coronet and her hands closed at her sides, the color of a well-thumbed shilling beneath the blood-bright hem of her shawl. She held an iron knife in one, a glinting break of white quartz in the other; I could see them as clearly as if she had opened her palms to me. In the bright grey day, the amber in her eyes shone like a cat’s in the dark.

Far away down the paths into Móin Alúine, I saw a man walking, so small against the cloud-pearled horizon that I could have blotted him out with a blinked eye. He moved like a sleepwalker or a puppet on sticks, unwavering as machinery. He was hatless, his stiff hair wind-snatched; the swing of his pockets clacked with each step like a creel of stones. He stepped from the hummocky, heather-edged ground and was gone.

I saw Katharine Morgan, a dry-eyed weeping girl, with the sloe stains of bruises around her cheekbones and her hair hanging half-plaited as she knelt beside a man’s body, the oil-light glimmering on the dark pool that haloed him, smooth as a mirror of spilled ink. I saw his bursting face and his stone-blue tongue, his torn shirt and his slashed, empty hands. Reflected by the lantern, Katharine’s own face eddied in her husband’s blood, a marsh-fire fetch from the other side of death’s glass. Her hands left bog-black smears on the knees of her nightdress, her bare shoulders set as taut and fragile as wings.

The peat girl stopped beneath my window; when she looked up at me, her neck made the quizzical tilt of her body wrung by the weight of compacting time. At her feet lay Desmond Morgan, dead without decay, his head flung back on his broken neck and the knife-cuts on his arms gaping bloodlessly as bread slices, his heart’s blood stiffening on his shirt like tar. He had been blue-eyed before his sight clouded like Roman glass; his butter-gold hair was darker than his picture and flecked with chaff, grass-seed, flower-heads of meadowsweet. I called down to her, I heard my own voice echoing from the street, but I could not remember the words as they left me, only the taste of her, myrtle-sharp, moss-dank, spade-cold. She laid down the knife, its clean blade pointing east; she put the white stone in the dead man’s hand that could not grip it. Already the earth beneath them was hollowing with water the color of beech leaves, the sticky-tipped red hairs of sundew curling around his bare ankle. Quick and gently, she smoothed a hand over his flower-stuck hair; she laid his shirt open, the skin beneath as white and bruised as violets, and with her sharp thumbnails, red as roe deer, she cut the nipples from his chest.

We reburied Desmond Morgan with Katharine watching, the wind roiling out strands of her hair like a signature on the streaky speedwell sky. It was unceremoniously done, and unchristianly, but I had begun to think it would not have mattered if we laid him out with candles at head and foot and said Mass for his soul every Sunday of her widowhood: he was damned as far as the bog was concerned and I was not going to gainsay it. None of us said much, not even Dan, who had surely not expected to find himself at arm’s length from a murderess and the lover she rested her shoulder against, her white-sleeved arms folded within a shawl of green and black squares I had not seen before. Sean reached to take off his cap before he thought better of it, straightened it more firmly instead. I thought of a mouth filled with black soil, the quaking illusion of ground slumping and settling under the scant weight of the dead until it had folded itself over the body more conclusively than any headstone. Finally, Jimmy pushed the last soft wedge of turf down, tamped it with the back of his spade, and looked faintly embarrassed, as though he had been thinking loud enough to overhear. He cleared his throat; Sean’s head came up anxiously, hound-scenting for interloping authorities—Michael Rafferty, Gardaí, the coroner from Tullamore, looming large as a judge of legend by now. A wren shrilled and checked in the moss somewhere, the little bird-king.

As accurately as if he pronounced a benediction, Jimmy Connolly said, “Rest in peace, you spawn-hearted bastard, if that means you never trouble another soul more. May God not remember where he put you and the Devil never forget.” And then we piled a green footing of well-spread sods over the damp seam in the earth and Sean MacMahon started talking about the coroner again and Dan Wall stood longest of all over the grave and I could not read a thing about him. Behind them, Katharine lingered, and I went to catch up with her, not knowing if she wanted me to.

Her stride would have been nearly as long as mine, if not for her skirts. We were nearly off Rafferty’s ground before she said, “You promised to show me your queen of the bog. Before the police and the doctors came for her.”

“Aye. I will. There’s still time. Didn’t you hear Sean, fretting he wouldn’t be there to see her unveiling? She’s this way.” And I should have said nothing more, nothing that was not the weather or the time or the scholarly speculations of Jimmy Connolly, but her face was sky-silhouetted beneath mine and she looked younger with her arms crossed in their knot of plaid, her hair wind-loosened on her shoulders, and it was not her fault that I had seen her weep in dreams: “You didn’t tell me.”

“What should I tell you, Roddy Mathews?” She did not glance upward at me, as coolly as her voice lifted; she did not even slacken her pace. “Where I was born? The names of my parents? How I came to my marriage and what happened after I was wed? What did you ask me when first you came to my door that I should have told you anything?” A beat of silence, the ankle-brush of tussocks of sedge and bell-pink heath. How slender her shoulders had felt within my arms, how she had tongued my fingertips and the sun had fired red lights in her undone hair the first time we met by day. “What did you tell me of yourself?”

I bit back, No more than you didn’t want to know; I said finally, “Not enough, it seems.”

Her mouth flicked up at one corner. Her eyes were a ruddier green when the sun scattered out of its clouds, paler when they slid over it again. “There was a woman,” she said at last, very quietly. “What she was like, it doesn’t matter. It mattered that he found us. He didn’t… God’s truth, I believe he didn’t understand at first what he was seeing. When he understood, he broke my ribs.” Her voice was as clear as a clerk in a court of law. “No one would tell me if she died.”

“Was it after that you killed him?”

She looked at me then, with the plumy heads of bog cotton caught in the folds of her skirt and her eyes the color of moss. I could see her hands tarnished silver if I tried, a halter of leather about her crushed throat, her dark hair bleached to bog-rust and her face folded to the peat as if to a long-aching rest, but Dan had been wrong about who ended up in the pools of Móin Alúine, and maybe Jimmy had, too, for all his care and erudition, and I had been wrong about the reasons Katharine Morgan would not touch me. I could still feel a dead woman’s fingers inside me, unafraid as time. If I had opened myself as fearlessly to the living woman beside me, would it have changed anything? Nothing but the summer, I thought: and that might have been enough.

“Is this her, your peat woman?”

Katharine’s hand went out to my arm, stopped me mid-stride. Sean had been as good as his word, laying a mosaic of damp sods from half-hidden ribcage to hairline so that the familiar peat covered her everywhere, molded itself again to her metallic skin like water filling to its own level; when I knelt to unbury her, I felt uneasily as though I was pulling a coffin-lid from a face, not showing off an archaeological find. Her eyes were still closed, her lips curved by their last thought or the workings of the bog. The red of her hair was startling as a wound, penny-bright at the wreck of her throat. Even the gleam of her bones was graceful. I could not answer; I heard Roddy’s sweetheart, your lass, and I knew she had ceased to be anyone’s with the break of her neck.

“She came out of the peat. She’s no more mine…” I said it finally: “She’s no more mine than you are, Katharine Morgan.”

Her smile was an odd, sad crease in her wind-flushed face, very like the silvery expression wried at our feet. Like she was saying a vow back to me, “No more than you’re mine, Roddy Mathews,” and I had never expected anything else, but for a moment I could think only of her mouth opening to mine, the salt heat and slick of her body, the way her fingers gripped briefly and hotly in my hair. The tannin-cold tongue of the girl from Móin Alúine, dead years before Christ and closer to me than the Church had ever been. She had loved me, or I would never have dreamed of her. She had loved Desmond Morgan, too, and shown him to me as a love-gift, to ease my other lover’s mind, before taking him in again for the last time. It was not my place after all to lie beside her all the long, hungry centuries. It never had been.

“Aye,” I said, and it hurt less than I thought it would. Her hand was still on my sleeve; I put my own over it, just as if we were walking out together, and took a breath as deep as if I was going to ask her for an hour of her time after church. “You’d have made a fine queen of the land in Connolly’s ancient days, do you know that?” And before she could make any answer or I could lose my nerve, I added, “A fine king of the land, too, and not the dying kind.”

Her hand was warm under mine, not eel-cold silver, and she was not pulling away. Around us the bog stretched away to the sky, rust-green and tawny and engulfing as time, the thin moment we stood on that at any moment could give way: a kiss, a knife, a new road at the end of the season. The mirror that showed me myself, not just the two misapprehensions I was meant to choose from. The coroner from Tullamore. Rafferty himself would be here soon, and like as not the Gardaí and a trail of sightseers with him. But Katharine was still studying the calm dead face beneath us, and the peat girl still lay half in the wet earth that was hers more than any museum cabinet could be, and I cared less if Rafferty found me idling than if I walked away, this time, before I was ready to be gone. The murderer and the sacrifice, nobody’s victims. We waited for history to find us.

Sonya Taaffe’s short fiction and poetry can be found mostly recently in the collection Ghost Signs (Aqueduct Press) and in the anthologies Heiresses of Russ 2016: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction, The Museum of All Things Awesome and That Go Boom, and An Alphabet of Embers: An Anthology of Unclassifiables. She edits poetry for Strange Horizons, lives in Somerville with her husband and two cats, and once named a Kuiper belt object.

Other Influences

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

Red Mask, by Jessica May Lin – Before she jumped, Feng Guniang used to tell me about her suicide, during our cigarette breaks when we danced at the Green Dream, her white-lacquered nails trailing against the web of her fishnet tights. We smoked in the shadowy corners behind the opium dens on Jiameng Street, where the lights from the neon advertising boards couldn’t touch us. The new opium dens are all styled like the old red mansions of the Ming Dynasty, complete with heavy doors twice as tall as we were.

Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde – On her second day studying in the Monteverde, Arminae Ganit stared at damp sky framed by beech leaves and fiddleheads and wished she could photosynthesize. She touched fingertips to the thick loam at her feet. Moist air slicked her cheeks and dampened her t-shirt so her pack’s straps rubbed at the skin beneath. The forest’s shifting clouds dappled Arminae’s hands dark and light. She imagined her fingers exuding roots; her hair, fruit and leaves.

Shimmer #39

The Creeping Influences, Sandro Castelli

Ghosts. We all have them, some more apparent than others. The ghosts of people who are no longer with us, the ghosts of dreams we used to have, the ghosts that linger in places we once lived. This issue of Shimmer contains a bundle of ghosts. They are beautiful and frightening and tragic and everything you imagine a Shimmer ghost would be.

The Creeping Influences, by Sonya Taaffe 
She came out of the peat like a sixpence in a barmbrack, her face shining like wet iron between the spade-edge and the turf, the bright rusty plait of her hair broken like a birth-cord around her neck.

En la Casa de Fantasmas, by Brian Holguin
Everyone knows about La Bruja. They say she lives somewhere down in the Avenues south of Eagle Rock. She is a tiny thing, short and round. Always dressed in black no matter the weather or time of year. Draped in mourning, they say, like La Llorona. 

Fixer, Worker, Singer, by Natalia Theodoridou
The sky creaks as Fixer makes his way across the steel ramp that is suspended under the firmament. It’s time to turn on the stars. He pauses a few steps from where the switches and pulleys are located and looks down. He allows himself only one look down each day, just before sunset.

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

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