Category Archives: Issue 40

Raise-the-Dead Cobbler, by Andrea Corbin

The air was muggy, a heatwave burning through the spring, on the night that we met to conjure two people out of almost nothing at all. None of us could’ve done it without the others, and none of us would’ve dared, except Mason said please and I said maybe and Jun said we could, and so we did. You need a few materials first, then follow a sort of recipe. Call it Raise-the-Dead Cobbler.

INGREDIENTS

  • Three tired so-called witches, of flesh, of time, of dreams.
  • Bone fragments, stolen reverently.
  • A lock of hair, kept for years and years.
  • An old book, passed down from mother to son to daughter to niece, and so on.
  • A dark night, with a new moon, and as many clouds as feels right.
  • A secluded room, in a lakeside cabin far from the city’s bustle and traffic’s roar, where owls hoot plaintively and a cool wind rustles the leaves. (A cramped attic in an apartment on the edge of the city, with shouty neighbors, will work in a pinch.)
  • Flint, not matches.
  • A stone bowl, low and wide.
  • Dry kindling.
  • Floor space, as much as you expect you’ll need. You know who you’re looking for. You can measure, move furniture, sweep, mark out the space. Lay out a pillow, in anticipation. The floor is hard, after all.

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. “Is your roommate home?” Mason asks, braiding his hair back, lightning fast. It gets warm in the attic. Mason wears none of his usual jewelry, only a locket on a thin chain, which dangles outside of his shirt. You say no, of course not. Your roommate is out of town for the next six days. That’s why this is the perfect new moon, even though Jun has a deadline at work tomorrow and shouldn’t be pulling an all-nighter.
  2. In a flurry of motion, Jun arrives, drops her bag on the floor and her iced coffee on the table, then says, “I can’t do anything in this skirt” as she kicks her heels off. She shimmies out of the skirt and changes into red leggings, pulled from her bag. “Do you really have it?” she asks, pulling pins out of her hair and letting it fall loose. You steal a long drink of her coffee.
  3. On the way up to the attic, you worry. Mason worries. What will they think of you? Will they be happy to wake up? Will they be scared? What if they hate you? How long will it last? Jun said it would last, but what if they decide to leave you? After all you did? Would that be okay? When they wake up in the dark room surrounded by three witches, if they scream, will you be able to comfort them, or make it worse? Will it work? Will they come back wrong? Different? Can you really do this? Should you? God, what if everything does work, and they want to stay, and be with you? What then? Can they get a job? Should they? How will you support them if they can’t? Shit, is this a terrible idea? Is it selfish? What if coming back gives them health problems? What if they had health problems before that you didn’t know about, and coming back is nothing but suffering? Will they hate you? Will they love you? Will you love them?
  4. Jun strikes the flint and lights the fire.
  5. Chant words after Jun, with Jun, words that can’t be spelled or written down, and yet she reads them from a book in her lap. Her book is filled with drawings and paintings, and you can never find the same one twice. Once you saw a page and read the drawing; there was a burst of light, and a small creature appeared, like an oviraptor, feathered and colorful but the size of a hummingbird. That was the day Jun said it looked like you were a witch of time. You’re still learning what that means. The oviraptor is named Magda and lives on your porch for most of the year. You take her for walks. You should take her for more walks. No one would notice.
  6. The shards of bone rattle. The lock of hair dances in no wind. You close your eyes.
  7. Nothing changes, except the room feels smaller. You haven’t opened your eyes. Your eyes are closed, and the attic room has shrunk, and if you reach out you don’t know what you might touch.
  8. Open your eyes.
  9. To your left is Jun, then Mason. They open their eyes too, breathing timidly. You’ve been holding hands for a while, grip tight, tight on Jun’s stiff prosthetic. Next to Mason, in the space laid out on his side of the attic, is—
  10. There is someone to your right.

Once I explain what happened, he decides to go by Joseph. Why? Well, it is his name. No, but why? Because this isn’t his life, now is it? It’s something different. He’s something different.

Because of his movies, I’ve always thought of him in a particular way, kinetic and silent. He rubs the back of his head, an overwhelmed look of concern furrowing his brow. But I can’t read his face. The problem is he puts on that face so easily, so often on film, that I don’t know if it’s just a face or how he really feels. Sweat drips down my back, makes my shirt cling. He sits very still.

“Why is this happening?” he asks, voice so much deeper than I always imagine.

“I—” don’t have a good answer.

“What are you?” Joseph asks, and again I stutter and don’t answer. In my head I hear all the times Jun told me you’re a witch, you jag, but I can’t say it.

We all go downstairs because the attic room is boiling; Joseph trails after me, and I trail after Jun. Behind Joseph is Mason and his mom. Angela, I think.

“Well, that’s that.” Jun picks up her discarded skirt.

“You’re leaving?” I ask.

“Do you need me to stay?”

“Yes!” Mason sounds desperate. He’s not quite looking at his mom ever. Eyes skidding around the edges.

Jun takes a long swig of her watered-down iced coffee. “‘Kay.”

“So this is the year 2016?” Joseph asks. That was part of what I told him upstairs. It was real, it was his far, far future, and it was okay. He took it in stride. Now he looks around the kitchen, which is a mess. I should’ve cleaned up. Why didn’t I clean up? It’s fine. Why would he care? But I care. I care that the first thing he sees are my dirty dishes and moldy fruit, the mail covering the counter, and the oh my god, the bra hanging over the back of the chair.

I slide in front of it.

Angela pulls out a chair and sits down, pressing her hands flat on the table.

Mason hovers. “It’s okay. It’s me. I’m your—I’m your kid. You have a kid and that’s me.”

“You said that,” Angela says slowly. “I don’t get what’s happening.”

Mason looks helplessly at Jun, who exhales through her nose before speaking. “You know photocopies? We found a moment and made a photocopy of you, then brought that you to our present. Call it magic, call it time travel, call it a great big lie and a weird dream you’re having. I don’t care. It’s happening. Mason is your kid. Congratulations.”

Angela is quiet a long time, staring at Mason. It’s got to be a lot to take in, skipping twenty-odd years of society and tech and life and then bam, your grown-up kid, Mason, not much younger than Angela is probably, Mason with his long black braid, big worried eyes lined with black, tattoos crawling over his bony shoulders and under his shirt. Mid-nineties life versus grown-up Mason now must be battling it out in Angela’s brain, but during the silence I realize we pulled Angela from before she got pregnant. Maybe before she met Mason’s dad. And Angela’s working out what all that means.

“Okay,” she says, shaky. “Well, don’t tell me how I died, and I think we’ll be okay.”

Pretty soon, Jun drives Mason and Angela away, leaving Mason’s car on my street where I promise to make sure it isn’t towed.

I make coffee. Start tidying, washing dishes. Joseph wanders my rooms, looking at the shared mess my roommate and I live in, coming back to check my progress. Hands clasped behind his back, leaning forward to inspect a poster or a bookshelf. Always with that stone face.

A plate slips from my hands, hits the counter, crashes onto the floor. “Shit!”

Joseph pops his head into the room, eyebrows raised in question.

“It’s fine. Plastic.” I pick up the plate and spin it in my hands. “I don’t have to do this right now. I should’ve done it earlier. I could leave it. It’s not important. Are you hungry? I don’t think, it’s not—” When words start crashing and failing before they reach my mouth, I turn back to the dishes.

“Isabel. Are we related?”

“No.”

Joseph paws through some of my mail. Pages through an Anthropologie catalog. He looks at me, barely moving his eyebrows. “The other one brought his mother.”

When I squirt soap onto the sponge a little too forcefully without a word, he goes back to the catalog. Even with the astringent lemon suds, Joseph’s close enough that I can practically smell the years on him, this weird ozone scent of a hundred years. It’s soaked into his clothes, permeating his skin, this invisible sense of time.

Fuck the dishes. That ozone smell is making me dizzy. There are clean mugs. That’s enough. I sort out my coffee, then gesture weakly at the milk and sugar for Joseph to figure out.

The living room is more like a nest and less a rat’s nest, and comes pre-loaded with snacks I forgot to put away, so by the time Joseph joins me I’m gnawing on a hard gingersnap. He sits on the other end of the couch.

“We’re not related,” I say.

Joseph gives me a look, one eyebrow barely raised, eyes glancing down and back up, and I laugh, this nervous snuffle into my cookie—and he laughs too. It’s kind of stunning. This side of him almost no one gets to see. Except me, I’m seeing it.

“Then why?” Joseph asks.

“It’s hard to explain. We can undo it.”

He digs into the box for a cookie, dips it in his coffee. “Why?”

“If you don’t want to be here. It was maybe stupid of me. Selfish. Or hubris. I don’t know. I’m a little, you know, it was a rough spell.” My chest is tight, and I’m starving but can’t imagine doing any more than reach for another cookie, and there are little sparks of a spell migraine flecking in my vision, so I can’t really, I can’t think of what to say to explain myself.

“We’ll see how it goes, I guess. So far you have good coffee and bad cookies, and other than that I don’t know.”

“You hungry?” I ask again, though I’m not completely sure I get the words out.

At some point I take a long blink and when I open my eyes, Joseph’s setting my coffee down on the table next to the cookies. He says my name once, I think, quietly, “Isabel,” hand on my shoulder.

“What is this?”

I wake up on the couch and not on my bed, as happens way more often than it should. I’m an adult. Why can’t I make it to my bed?

“What is this?”

My eyes won’t open until I rub them hard with my fingers, and my mouth tastes like trash and my phone is being thrust in my face while my shoulder is shaken. I had a plan for this. I should’ve planned for the spell migraine to take me out, but I didn’t, and now my plan to introduce Joseph to the modern world is ruined because he’s already poking around while I was dead to the world.

“It’s my phone,” I say, and as the words come out I can’t bear the taste in my mouth. After I brush my teeth and wash my face, I join him back on the couch. Joseph presses the button on my phone, screen going bright and dark. Like this is all perfectly normal. Magda, my oviraptor, is sitting on his head.

“This is a phone?”

“Gimme,” I say, and unlock it. Magda chirps. Without looking, Joseph puts a hand up for her to jump on, and I wait for the inevitable question—

“How’s it work?”

Not the inevitable question. I shrug. My coffee is stone cold but it’s right there and caffeinated, so I gulp it and make a face of pure regret.

I was going to show him how the phone works, but there are messages from Mason and Jun, not to mention family and one of my few non-witch friends and some guy I’ve been meaning to ghost.

  • Mason: I can’t believe this is happening
  • Jun: Congrats. Mother’s day is in two weeks

While reheating my coffee I ignore the rest of my messages. Joseph sets Magda on the table, where she nests in a pile of mail.

“About a hundred years to catch up on.” I yawn.

With Joseph around, time tumbles past so quickly I almost forget the sensation of it, until a moment catches against my skin, lingers like an echo.

In the park, Joseph listens to me explain things poorly, strides over a bench because it’s in his path, steals my phone out of my hands. He unlocks it, swipes the screen. Walks backwards in front of me.

“This,” Joseph says, pointing my phone at me, his eyes on the screen, “takes pictures?”

“And videos. Movies.”

He turns it around and around in his hand. “This?”

“People shoot whole feature films on it.”

He laughs like a kid at Christmas, pure delight spread across his features.

Another day my ancient laptop is spread out in pieces on the coffee table, and Joseph prods at the soldered base. I tell him a probably inaccurate version of how it works, then tell him to look it up on the internet if he’s interested. “But don’t take apart anything else, please.”

He pieces the laptop back together and turns it on. “How do I look up the internet?”

When I tell him how easy it is to watch movies, Joseph gets a wild look in his eyes. “On the computer?” he says, and “Well, it’s a disappointing screen to watch on, but—” and he finds a list from the AFI, then says with determined joy in his eyes that he’s going to work his way through the whole thing. While he studies the list, I catch up on more texts.

  • Mason: I don’t know what to do! She’s like our age.
  • Jun: What did you expect?
  • Mason: IDK!!! I just wanted to meet her
  • Mason: She’s nice though
  • Mason: Funny too she’s funny like my aunt
  • Jun: aunt like your mom’s sister
  • Mason: …yes
  • Jun: what a SURPRISE Mason
  • Jun: Well just be a person and stop expecting a mom and let me know if anything weird happens
  • Mason: Weird??
  • Mason: Is sleeping alot weird
  • Me: Jun if there are side effects you didn’t tell us about I’m going to send you back to the twelfth century.

“Isabel,” Joseph says, his voice low. My phone lights up.

  • Jun: You don’t know enough to do that
  • Me: Not yet.

“Isabel,” more insistent. I put my phone aside. “You said I’m a second me. I didn’t think about it before, that I’m still… I’m a part of history.”

He scratches his jaw. Stares at the screen. Pushes the laptop to me, points.

One of his movies is on the list.

“Would you watch it if you were me?” he asks.

“I wouldn’t want to know too much about that other life, you know?”

“You do know about it.”

His eyes fix on mine, which seals it in my heart: I can’t tell him, either the good parts or bad, because this him will never have them. All those things aren’t Joseph, they’re him. And that’s the point. But, God, I want to assure him and I can’t. I can’t tell him you’re a genius and deserved better or I brought you here because a hundred years later you’re still impossible or I’m awful and chose you because I’ve always had a crush on you.

So I just nod.

After that, Joseph always refers to the life we split him away from in the third person. Someone else.

My roommate comes back. I tell her Joseph is a friend from out of town. She doesn’t recognize him. Out of context, I guess, or more likely not everyone would recognize him like me. Not without the suit and the soundtrack, the house falling down around him.

I tell Jun I’m too busy helping Joseph adjust to meet. She texts back, Don’t you think J&A mean it’s esp important to meet and get yr ass over here tomorrow.

I don’t reply.

I don’t go.

“The future is disappointing,” Joseph says after I tell him about space. We’re both in pajamas on the couch, the night’s movie long since over. We’ve settled in, he and I, uncertainly into whatever this new life of his is. When I got home last week he had scrapes on his palms and a bottle of wine on the table. Something about street performing, which made me want to quit my job to go watch, but I have to make money somehow and tech writing pays better than anything else I’m capable of.

“We went to the moon!” I protest.

“Not recently.” He looks tired. He says the couch is fine, but I don’t think he’s been sleeping much. “You can bring me out of the past, but no one’s living on the moon?”

“Our spells aren’t exactly public knowledge.”

“Then what do you do? I haven’t seen you do any magic. What good is it?”

I gear up for a furious defense because we have rules, the three of us, but my phone trills, lighting up with Jun’s photo. “Shit,” I say, because Jun hates calling. It can’t be good.

Jun says, “We have to meet, right now. Leave him at home.”

“What is it?”

“Mason and Angela. My place. And be ready for…” Jun exhales loudly. “Mason says we’re just talking, but stuff a protein bar and some coffee in your face on the way over. Might be work to do tonight. Another new moon.”

“Shit,” I say, hanging up. “I have to go.”

“That other person,” Joseph says. “It’s not going well, is it?”

The look in his eyes is so tired that my heart plummets, and I don’t think twice about my rules or anything else before I kiss his forehead and tell him to try and sleep. “Mason is… they’ve been having issues. It’s probably nothing. Try and sleep. It’s gonna be okay. I’ll be back by morning.”

Lying and not knowing are indistinguishable sometimes, even to the person talking.

Mason is a mess.

“I keep having these dreams,” he says, like he doesn’t always have these dreams that hound him. His hair is in a high bun, no make-up, ashy tired skin, hunched over in an old sweatshirt I don’t think I’ve seen him leave the house in before, though it’s summer and we’re out on Jun’s porch. “When I wake up, my mom, she’s always gone. But then I wake up again. I’ve never had that happen before. I’ve never woken up and still been dreaming. What does that mean?”

“Did you really get me out of my house for dreams?”

“Have you been listening for the last month? Let him talk,” Jun says. Leaning against the railing, she doesn’t look at me, only Mason. It’s a scolding without the scolding; we all know that I haven’t seen either of them for a month.

And Mason talks. Tells me how they’ve been fighting, Mason and his mom. How Angela left for days. How she came back and apologized but never—she never quite looks at Mason fully. Won’t see him. Oh, she’s talked to him and been kind enough and civil and in some ways it seemed like Angela was trying to live, trying to be in the world, but ultimately she won’t talk, she just won’t talk to Mason. Mason yells and cries, Mason makes dinner and tries to connect, Mason asks questions, Mason tries not to expect her to be a mother, but still, he wants a person there.

There’s a reason we discuss every act of magic. There’s a reason we meet every week. There’s a reason we have rules.

“Isabel?” Jun lobs my name into the silence.

“Oh, Mason.”

“I wanted her to be happy,” Mason says.

“Where is she now?” I ask.

“Inside.”

“You asked her?”

Mason looks at his fingers. Jun shakes her head.

“You gotta ask her. If she wants to stop—”

Mason jumps up, chair legs scraping across the wood porch. “I know.” He goes inside, door clattering shut after him.

“Can he do it?” I ask.

Instead of answering, Jun adjusts the straps on her prosthetic hand. It’s a good way to shut me up, since I always watch and say nothing and try not to think about how she got it, try not to think about that spell. The way we looked at the image in the book, how the sun seemed to go red. How we talked for weeks, but kept coming back, hungry for it—if we prepped, if we studied, we could do so much more. Why shouldn’t we try to summon familiars?

Somewhere is a lion-headed dog with a small portion of Jun’s flesh, a small portion of her power. They’re still connected. I don’t ask Jun if she can feel it.

I try not to think about it. The things we’ve done. Maybe I should. This is the worst yet, or the best. Too early to tell. Even if I strain, I can’t hear anything from inside, and time ticks by. I can feel it, every second. I can always feel it.

The seconds feel heavier tonight.

“Maybe it would’ve been better if we never met each other,” Jun says. “We’re a potent combination. This won’t be the last wild idea one of us has, the last time we manage to break something.”

“What’s broken?” Like I don’t know. I listen harder for any sounds inside.

“After this, maybe we should go our separate ways.”

“You could never let go of Mason,” I say.

“No,” she agrees, “not now.”

“We can’t do this again. We have to stop each other sometimes.”

Jun stops fiddling, folds her arms. “Mason wanted this so bad,” she says. Her voice strains, directed more toward her bare feet than to me, none of the matter-of-fact confidence she usually wears. All that’s worn away tonight.

Mason deserved this spell to go right. I didn’t need it at all. I desecrated a grave for it, for my own damn childish fixation.

“You’ll make him stay here tonight? He shouldn’t be alone,” I say.

“Yeah.”

A siren carries through the air, invisible. Cars roll by, and somewhere nearby, a party blares music, muted by walls and distance. There’s no such thing as silence, except inside the house.

“If Joseph stays, if he’s happy…do you think Mason will hate us for it?”

Jun looks up. “Is he happy?”

The door opens.

Inside the house is dark, and Mason has been crying. So has Angela. According to Jun, this part doesn’t have the same requirements. She and I push furniture out of the way in the living room, roll up the area rug, wipe away old chalk streaks, and get to work.

There’s the slightest hint of dawn in the sky when I get back to my apartment. At the sound of the door, Joseph blinks awake, looking at me from the couch, and he sits up. The clouding dots of the spell migraine have already come and gone, and now it’s settled in as a tight nausea in my stomach, all of it less than last time, but I stop with keys in my hand, looking at Joseph and not really looking at him. What has he done with his days? Why can’t he sleep? Is he happy? I’m not sure what matters and what doesn’t. Intention is garbage, hope is garbage, love is garbage. All of us are. It doesn’t matter when it leaves someone you love clutching a lock of hair and sobbing in the dark, until you cast sleep over them like a blanket, and hope that maybe when it wears off they might be okay. Or be able to find their way to okay.

If I keep my hand on the wall, I can keep my balance. Small steps to keep moving, small breaths to contain my nausea.

We uncreated her, and it was terrible. It felt like murder. Angela asked us to, and all we had to do was light the fire, speak, and she was gone, but it was—there was a lock of hair, threatening to disperse in the wind of our breath, where she had been. Mason dove for it, gathering the black hair up into his fist, clenching it until sleep fell on him, and Jun tucked the hair back in his locket.

It wasn’t just hitting undo. We split her off and made her new, and then we ended her. A month’s worth of a new life, and now oblivion. The old her, Mason’s mom, all that story unfolds like always, but this month, it’s going to shadow Mason forever. We’ll all remember Angela, but Mason most of all.

Once Mason was asleep, Jun told me she cast an extra spell at the end to move the body. She didn’t want Mason to see it. By midnight, Angela was gone and Mason was asleep, but Jun and I stayed up a while, spinning complicated spells, because a body is no easy thing to deal with, even when it’s only a shell, even for a witch. It has to go somewhere. It has to be dispersed.

I sat shaking in Jun’s kitchen for an hour, her and I taking medicinal sips of whiskey until we could speak again, and all I could say was, “I can’t do that again.”

I had to take a cab home.

Pressing my forehead to the wall and squeezing tears from my eyes, that doesn’t help anything, but that’s where I’ve ended up, halfway to my room, shivering.

Joseph slings my arm over his shoulders and grabs my waist.

“Please be happy,” I mumble.

“It’s gonna be okay,” he says, and we shuffle toward my bed. I realize, fuzzy as I feel, that even this close to him, I can’t catch the smell of years anymore. He smells like smoke and dryer sheets and some faint aftershave. Quietly, he helps me into bed, and before I’m fully in, I drag him in after me.

“Go t’sleep,” I say, curling into his chest. His fingers find their way to my temple and brush gently.

Here’s another recipe. It takes longer than the other. I don’t know what to call it. I’m not sure about the last step yet.

INGREDIENTS

  • One witch of time.
  • One man who shouldn’t exist.

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. After you undo what you did, after you uncreate who you created, call in sick to work again. Your roommate asks if Joseph is staying much longer. Say, “Well, he’s helping me now that I’m sick, so I don’t know.” You look bad enough that she accepts this, but not for long, you’re sure. Maybe, you think, Joseph can get a job, and you can find your own place. You feel a little better in the mornings, if you wake up in his arms, and you think he sleeps better too. It’s just sleeping. You don’t talk about it.
  2. Mason stays at Jun’s house. You help him move his stuff. Joseph helps too, setting up a system of rolling carts that nearly works, except for the laws of physics and the existence of porch steps. Mason swears he’s never doing magic again, but at least he’s sleeping without help, and the bags under all your eyes are fading.
  3. The three of you, Mason and Jun and you, meet a lot. More often than before. You only talk.
  4. Joseph disappears some evenings, goes out and comes home with dessert, a bottle of wine, leftover food.
  5. “Where were you?” you ask, eating baklava. It’s not that you’re mad, or want him to stay home, or begrudge him the fact of his own life. You’re curious. He says, “I’ve made some friends. A theater troupe.” You say, “Oh, good! I’m sorry I—” though you don’t know quite what you’re apologizing for. That you haven’t taken him out on the town? While he’s been learning about a changed world, and while you were knocked down by a spell again? You didn’t know if he was ready. You figure apologies are in order somehow, in case he thinks you’re assuming he owes you an explanation.
  6. “Look,” Joseph says, sitting next to you on the couch, pressed arm to arm, starting a video on your laptop. A straight shot of him in the park down the street, performing a routine not quite like any of his you’ve seen, with a tall broad man who makes Joseph look smaller than he is. Someone else is holding the camera, and you see it shake a little when they must be laughing, but the only sound is music. While you watch, an audience ebbs and flows and grows; some of them hold cell phones up to grab a snippet of him, or come forward to drop money in a hat on the ground.
  7. He counts his earnings from street performing, and then counts his earnings from the theater, and then comes home with a cell phone, a camera, a flexible tripod, and a new hat, which he reshapes with water until it’s stiff and familiar. Then he leaves it on the table unworn.
  8. You start to do magic. Little spells. You still have a line drawn, but it’s not as solid anymore. “If we’re a little more flexible,” you tell Jun, “maybe we won’t be so tempted.” But really you think, who’s stopping us? Mason watches you wrap a time bubble around the oven, because all of you are starving, and Jun’s casserole is taking too long. Mason watches you very carefully.
  9. You find a new apartment, one that has a dishwasher and no roommate, and you buy some furniture new for the first time instead of finding it on the curb and hoping it isn’t infested. Sure, you don’t have frames for the posters, but you have a coat rack and you vacuum once a week.
  10. While Joseph makes small movies to post online, and Jun and Mason start being a proper them, you work and read and practice with time, and wonder what you could do with the right fourth witch. Wonder if that look that Joseph gives you sometimes means he wants to kiss you, or if that’s you being hopeful. Watch one of his movies—not Joseph’s, the other him. One where he’s still young and beautiful and vibrant but a little older than Joseph, then you watch another, and another, until you feel glutted on that face, absolutely full to the brim and not sated. When you see Joseph the next morning, it does nothing for the sensation, hits a completely different spot, so you kiss him, unbrushed coffee teeth and all.
  11. After that, while you’re avoiding each other, spend a lot of time with Jun trying to read her book. She says you’re doing really well, considering you’re not a blood relation.
  12. Fight with Joseph. Little fights. Everyday fights. Then a big one, when Joseph’s asking what you think of his next idea and it spins out into something about debt and freedom and desire; you say, he doesn’t owe you this; he asks, do you think that’s why he’s still here? He leaves and doesn’t come back that night, and you figure, that’s it. At least you had this much. At least you didn’t have to undo him.
  13. Alone with Magda, make a token. Use grains of salt, the last drops of the wine you had shared during the argument, a scrap of paper that you very carefully draw on. Seal it all up in a locket, then fuse the clasp together.
  14. If he comes back, give it to him. Tell him that it’ll keep him safe when he’s away. Tell him you’re sorry. Tell him you hated every second he was gone. Tell him you made some of them last twice as long, and then sped up others, because you couldn’t decide whether you deserved more pain or not. Tell him Magda missed him and built a nest in a hat he left behind. Tell him you think he’s a jerk for staying away so long. Tell him he better come back again and again. Tell him that you love him.

Mason says he had a dream that I could tell the future. Coming from him, that makes me choke on my wine, but then he says it wasn’t that kind of dream. “Maybe start with that,” I say.

“You could tell the future because you found a spell that let you turn time backward. You could do it, you know. It wasn’t that kind of dream, but if anyone could do it, you could.”

“Would you want to know?” I ask.

Mason shakes his head. “No way.”

“Me either.” Lies. Everyone does. I desperately want to, and don’t, because it’s been a month that Joseph’s been gone and I’m carrying around this token. I’ve resisted looking at his feeds—if there were new clips, I’d watch, but how could I bear his face?—and I haven’t called him. But I’ve still got this token in my bag.

“I’m glad you had us over,” Jun says at the end of the night. We’d planned tonight before the fight. One year since the big spell, as some sort of commemoration. Not exactly a celebration, but Mason wanted it. We barely talked about Joseph or Angela, but it was good to be together, all of us thinking about them and thinking about what we did. We talked about other spells we might want to try some day, about Magda’s penchant for stealing food from unattended plates, and about a boy that Jun met who she was certain was a witch and did we want to meet him.

Before they leave, Mason asks if I want to try a charm he’s been working on. There’s one for dreamless sleep, and one for positive creativity, and one that he’s not sure what to call, but it helped him after… After. It was the first charm he made after.

I take dreamless sleep, because I keep dreaming in black and white, and wake up unsure of what I’ve done and haven’t done; did we bring them? Did we end her? Did he leave? I’d like to sleep and wake up sure of myself.

“Isabel,” Mason says, “How are you doing? Really?”

His face is so concerned it’s almost funny, after all we put each other through, and how uncertain I was that he’d ever sleep or eat or do magic again last year. This last year, none of us would have gotten through it without the others, and none of us would’ve had to without the others; most of the time I don’t regret any of it, not my part. Not even his leaving. And if Mason’s okay, I don’t regret that either.

Besides, we’re terribly powerful witches. If I really want to, I can make anything happen.

Andrea Corbin lives in Boston. Her work has appeared in Crossed Genres Magazine, Sub-Q, The Sockdolager, and Recompose. Her interactive fiction, design work, and the occasional blog post can be found on her website. She talks a lot of nonsense on Twitter as @rosencrantz. She’s working on her magic powers, mostly so she doesn’t have to wait for a delayed train ever again.

The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science, by Octavia Cade

Lise Meitner
Co-Discoverer of Nuclear Fission

A spear breaks its blade upon ribs and punctures hearts. It shines with ice-coated needles in the salt air, over breakfast.

“I’ve had a letter,” says Lise to her nephew. He’d come to visit for the holidays so she wouldn’t be alone in the cold country of her exile. “I’ve had a letter and I don’t know what to make of it.”

She thinks she might be worried.

They walk across a frozen river, across the flood plain and into snowy woods—at least Lise walks, while her nephew glides on skis beside her, under crisp, frosted trees that smell of sap and pine and holiday gifts. Her fingers tingle in the cold, and their tips shine oddly in sunlight.

The letter is from Otto Hahn. She slits it open with nails grown sharper than knives.

Lise used to work with him, but is now at the point where she thinks we were better friends, once.

Hahn has been working uranium: pelting it with neutrons to split the center, but he doesn’t yet understand what it means.

Lise sits with her nephew on a damp and chilly tree trunk sifting snow out of her way, making frantic calculations on odd bits of paper. Together they nut out the process of fission, publish a paper roadmap with directions writ in fear and ice and sunlight, a cold capacity for power.

It is widely read.

Lise is visiting Copenhagen when Denmark is invaded. Niels Bohr arrives on an early train: he woke early to hear the news, and together they plan to throw a line across the North Sea, to hurl and hope for the best.

She sends a telegram from Stockholm to friends of Bohr in Britain. It’s obscure to some but it’s clear that this is not the first spear sent, that there’s a black cloud of them hurtling over Europe, and their heads are all familiar.

Her fingernails are spears now as well, hard and pointed. Lise rips them out at the roots, one by one, but they always grow back by the morning, and the floor around her bed is littered with cast-offs.

In Berlin her work is being used to try and make a bomb.

This keeps Lise awake at night. There’s a wrenching in her chest, like all her breaths are frozen solid in her ribcage, making pale clear statues of her questions.

Hahn is working in Germany—not on the bomb, they’re of one mind on that, but he’s working still. Hahn, who once helped her escape the Nazis.

She wonders what would have happened if he’d made a different choice: turned away, sent her somewhere other than north.

(There were some she worked with who would have done it, when the memory of the times they spent together faded into ashes, fit only for fuelling that which would melt any ice and burn the trees to black shadows… She wonders if some fondness would remain for her, enough for those former familiars to spare her the camps and run her through themselves.)

Her nights are cold and sleepless; she’s speared upon the empty hours, and can’t close her fists without blood loss.

Lise knows about war. It’s camps and commandants and compromises, the long slow defeat of the self.

It’s escape and humiliation and death. It’s exile in a colder country, it’s someplace without a home, always remembering the time when she had one—a home built of atoms and equations and friends when all of them were free from shame and her hands were clean enough under natural light.

Now even cleanliness is gone, and no matter how she scours herself in snow and ice, the thin sheen of guilt still stains her palms. The nails are now too strong to pull out; she covers them up with polish to hide the shame, but the gray steel bleeds through anyway.

“I will have nothing to do with a bomb,” she says, even though she is wanted in the waste land, and war is not being wanted, not anywhere.

Lise is in a small hotel in Leksand, central Sweden. She finds the woods a respite from her work, from pain and prejudice and the sure, shuddering horror of what is to come.

When it happens, when Hiroshima is covered in clouds and silence and tiny spearheads all singed round the edges, a journalist calls for her reaction.

This is how she first hears of it.

(The hotel mirror is like ice, and when she looks in it all her ribs are broken.)

She puts the phone down, gently—with still-stained palms and hands that have never forgotten what the haft felt like before she passed it on—and leaves the hotel, leaves to walk alone for five hours in the snowless country before she can face another person; before she can face herself.

Her fingernails are spears, and too heavy for her hands.

Robert Oppenheimer
Scientific Head of the Manhattan Project

A waste land is a draw card and a trapdoor.

It has rock paintings and petroglyphs and pueblos—beam holes and old ladders that bring the scientists in and make them tourists, make them gawp and gape like schoolboys.

Robert shows them around—he came to New Mexico before all of them, chose the site specially. He feels at home there, feels that it fits him; he walks the cliff dwellings bloody-legged and limping, leaves his pattern in the rocks, feels those rocks imprint in him. The markings grow stronger, deeper, the more time he spends on the mesa. There are glyphs on the back of his neck, paintings in the hollows behind his knees, and dust sifts from the holes that appear in his chest, in the bony protrusions of hips.

He feels the land in his flesh, and builds a castle of his own for questions.

The land around is made of tuff, of lava lumps and welded rock, of ignimbrite and mesas, a base of black basalt, all eroded into canyons and steep slopes and tracks worn into hill sides.

(When he lays his hands against the rock, he can’t tell which is flesh and which is stone.)

The ground can be treacherous and stony-slippery, and one false step can mean separation from friends, security breaches and revocations, falling from a great height and breaking his knees on the ground.

(Like comes to like, in the end.)

The gypsum sands are cool to the touch, and the dunes run like clouds beneath him. Robert feels the crystal granules erode into his shoes; they slough from his feet when he’s busy with calculations and construction and consequences. There’s squeaking in his socks… the grinding of a thousand tiny spearheads blunted down by bone and friction.

It’s as if the cloud has broken down beneath him, then been built up again from fragments into a cutting edge with a blade as fine as fire.

The desert seeds are made of knowledge. They are bitter. Hard-won, and unhappy.

Robert wouldn’t dig them up—not for anything, not even when they leach the earth and make it difficult for other things to grow (he’s lost friendships, and trust, and some likings will never come again: They cannot tolerate the ground he’s sown with salt and slaughter and dead suns).

He’d still never dig them up, those seeds that are sad and glorious and grind sand into glass. They’re part of him, and he can no more unearth them than he could trowel up his heart.

Los Alamos is a high country, one surrounded by mountains, and the air, for those not used to it, is thinner and sharper than blood.

Robert is used to blood.

He sees it on the mountains, the Sangre de Cristo, where it shines in the east every evening—scarlet and blue-black and purple. The rocks are thick with it, and burning.

It’s on his leg, and his hands, and when it seeps past the bandages and into the soil he can’t tell where he leaves off and the land begins.

In the worst of it, the white dunes, the hard alkali of soil, there are plants that survive the sands. Stems lengthen above the shifting surface, keep their leaves in sunlight; are quick and bright and blooming.

Robert is no gardener, not really, but there’s iron all through him like the sympathy of sap, and what he builds in the waste land is beyond piñon and desert gypsum flowers.

Charlotte Serber
Head of the Technical Library of the Manhattan Project

A sword is forged with paper and silence.

It doesn’t look sharp, but a single page can slice into soft bodies as well as any steel—and more, it can tell other people how to slice into them as well.

One must be careful with paper. It can be stamped down, pressed into a mold and sharpened round the edges, but even holding by the handle it’s still not safe. Someone can always take it away for themselves unless it’s shut up tight in an armory, with shelves and safes and stillness.

Charlotte handles it gingerly. Part of her care is paper cuts and poison edges, but she’s most concerned with precision and reproduction. These documents are the basis of their efforts, marking signposts and dead ends, and they can’t be relied upon if the metal type forging through her fingertips impresses on paper and distorts the message.

Books come from Berkeley and Oak Ridge and Chicago, packed in black suitcases and sent with a special courier to keep them unopened and out of the hands of children with their too-soft flesh that’s too easily cut.

Charlotte has communication embedded in her flesh, her fingertips crowned like typebars with little metal letters, but these keys aren’t always sufficient and she has to use others. The metals catch as they move together.

When unwrapped, the swords go to shelves where they’re crammed between blades made of journal paper, of yellowed leaves, of reports and endless snarky queries for detective stories… or to a vaulted reading room with locks, or to a safe so old and hardened that its three tumblers have succumbed to inertia and Charlotte has to kick at the crucial point of opening or it will shut up tighter than suitcases.

The blacksmiths are members of the Women’s Army Corps, or are married to the scientists. They wear blue jeans, or Lane Bryant’s latest (black rayon with little white buttons on the pockets and a matching stripe down the front), bras of armored cones with a sweater stretched over top like chain mail, or olive uniforms with gold insignia on the lapels (Pallas Athene, for strategy and skill and making just war).

Their hammer strikes are the keys and levers and springs of type, the clank and carriage of return strokes—every day there are reports, and every day the armory copies and collates, distributes new arms.

(Not everyone can hack it. There’s one, a journeywoman by trade, who sees a tottering tower of chemical documents to be classified by heft and height and weight and runs away to drive a truck. Charlotte sees her later, in a corner of the mess, with a file and a determined expression, sanding down.)

Some papers are left out overnight, left to rust and damage and the red oxidation of exposure, by chemists and physical forgers gone home for the night. There are fines for this, and extra duties looking for the lapses of other—their discards left as prey for theft and sabotage. (“I don’t deserve a fine,” says one bitter culprit. “That report’s all rubbish anyway. If only it were stolen…”)

There’s no process for disposal, no ceremonial burning. It’s a discretionary thing, and discretion is weather-based. It’s unpleasant to stand in the waste land amongst the labs and the green army huts and burn in the blistering cold, the blasting heat. (They’re more conscious of security on cool evenings when there’s not a lot of wind and the incinerators are warm-hearted.)

When she holds her hands out to the fire, the letters on her fingertips heat and glow. She feels them all the way down to her bones then, the molten marrow. Others might try and take the type away but Charlotte is not one for looking askance at print, so she picks each letter out, carefully, with red nail polish; skimps on her nails so that there’s enough for alphabets.

Charlotte is sent to Santa Fe with Robert’s secretary, Priscilla. They go to misdirect the locals: “Make them think we’re designing electric rockets.”

They take their husbands, make a night of it, find bars and hotels that are perfect for subterfuge—with drinks and drunks and dancing, and many levelled roofs ripe with shadows.

Type sinks in and out of her fingers, adjusting to audience. She’s manipulated it before—the letters float almost like her kneecaps do when she’s relaxed and can push them around with her thumbs. She’s only got ten fingers, after all, and there are more letters than that.

She’s used up the last of the nail polish on them. This is not a time for subtlety.

“Take my sword,” says Charlotte. “It’s electric.” But the man she’s dancing with talks of nothing but horses, compliments her moves like she’s a mare on the trot—he has no interest in false information, even when she dips her fingers in sauce and stains his collar with symbols. No-one has any interest—not even the rancher her husband traps by the lapels as he flat-out lies to his face.

The information they give is blunt and unwieldy; it must be smuggled back to Los Alamos, and melted down amidst the stacks.

Charlotte’s days are spent with letters—even more than when she was a child with fat fingers, learning the alphabet.

A receipt from the library at Berkeley shows that more than twenty percent of books that come to the waste land are not in the English language. More come from Strategic Services, who seize copyrights from warring Europe, reproduce their journals, smuggle out the flat blades from field agents in Scandinavia or North Africa or France.

Her days are spent with letters, and for many years Charlotte will sharpen her swords with her fingers first, with spelling before speech. “That’s P, H, Y, S,” she says, enunciating, and tapping each fingertip in turn. “That’s Physikalische Zeitschrift.”

Niels Bohr
Danish Physicist, Scientist at the Manhattan Project

A question is a wave and a lonely particle.

It is complementary, existing in parallel with an answer. More, Niels has der Kopenhagener Geist, the spirit of inquiry, and all its questions are the chorus What will come from this?

He sees two answers to be taken from a box with uranium ribbon. The first is war and all destruction (brief suns that storm the beaches and boil the water sterile); the other an unbroken age of peace (a single sun reflected in a calm pool, and all its images put quietly away). Both have their birth in the bomb.

In 1939 he walks like a man carrying something too heavy for him, too heavy to be answered. He sees the coming war, and he sees the German bomb. It weighs him down, makes him mumble-footed, and he places each foot carefully, as if stepping into a future full of green-fused sand and spears.

Later, in the waste land, the storm is bearing down and he feels himself the only one who notices, the only one who sees a time when everyone is cloud-handed; when what they’re building will birth a different world where all politics are resolved with suns.

What will you do? says the Geist. What will you do?

Niels had helped Lise Meitner escape from Germany, never thinking he was to be her mirror. A German woman, sympathetic, slips him news that the Gestapo are coming for him. He will soon be arrested and put to the question.

But there is a fishing boat, and then a trawler. There is resistance and taxis and a twin-engine bomber that leaves him light-headed and dreaming a different life. There are liners and trains and false names: Baker, as if he is bringing bread instead of the hope of ending ovens.

His presence calms the younger scientists and they come to him with questions: Are we doing the right thing? they ask.

Look at what I left behind, he says. Look at what is coming.

It keeps him from looking at himself, at the Geist. He sees his edges fraying, his flesh becoming translucent.

Niels misses his family. He misses his home—the sober streets of Copenhagen, the water and the wide horizon. He misses the connections, and how solid they made him feel.

In the waste land, he wanders the mountains, scrambles through canyons and piñon trees and the red dirt, and talks. Always he talks, though it’s low and muttered and half to himself. People have to huddle close to hear, and he likes it; likes the feel of crowds and company, being close enough to feel their breath.

(It helps him forget that his wife isn’t with him.)

But at night he lies in a cold bed, his conscience square before him like a block and he doesn’t know how he should place his head on it. No one is there to tell him.

Comfort is for children. Niels left it behind long ago. He does not want it back. Comfort comes with warmth, and that is something that’s foreign to his bones now. All a Geist feels is chill.

He does not believe that everything will be all right, that everything can be made up for. Even necessities have a cost—and one that can’t be paid with rosy cheeks and unlined skin and the blind unstinting certainty that everyone is good.

As a child he thought science was for children. It was exciting, the world spread out before him to explore, to be dissected and delighted in and imagined by him. There was no question he couldn’t ask, and then he learned what questions could do, and the innocence was over.

“I tried to be a comfort,” said Robert. “I was not.”

It is hard to comfort a spirit.

The right words would heal the waste land, mend his friend’s spear-splintered thigh, stop him from slopping in blood—and if Niels knew the question he would turn away and never, ever ask it.

The waste land represents a hope and danger both, he says, and he cannot fathom one without the other.

A Geist is meant to linger, and so he does.

He thinks of Lise, who lives as far from the desert as she can; who will not compromise herself and finds her faith in that. He thinks of Edward, who would turn the waste land into charcoal if he could, and grind it down to dust when he was done. He cannot make himself into either, but sometimes…

Sometimes there’s a shadow on his leg.

Dorothy McKibbin
Manhattan Project Office Manager, Santa Fe

A platter is wafers and consolation and service.

“What am I to do here?” she asks. She had agreed to take the job before she knew what it was—had met Robert briefly, and that was enough for her, enough for them both. Trust sprang up unstinting.

She thought he felt the land as she did—that his limp and her widow grief could come to the waste land and be useful, be comforted by the creation of something new, something that bore the mark of canyons and bare rock and a sun so bright it could kill them if they let it, bleach the last life from their bones.

Her job, as it turns out, is to never question, to never repeat a name but to bring people together regardless as if they were strangers sitting down to a meal.

“If you want me to get them all broken in and breaking bread, you’ll have to give me a free hand with the baking,” she says. A platter doesn’t fill itself, and if she is to tie the coming pilgrims to Robert then she needs to work his flesh with her own. All those dust trails he leaves behind him… the powdery flesh, the little bloody trails.

Land has a dark taste, and a bitter one, but it binds together. Dorothy’s tongue grows, is covered over by little armored plates, armadillo-like. They’re sensitive to flavor, and far more silkily flexible than meat.

Dorothy sits at a desk behind the door at 109 East Palace Avenue: There’s a heavy wood lintel set into stone, thick calcimined walls to keep out the sun and hollyhocks in the courtyard.

She’s the stop before the Hill, the guardian of the waste land and the gate-keeper of Los Alamos. She welcomes them with plates of crispbreads, of little thin crackers the color of tuff and skin cells, of petroglyphs and atom shadows. “It’s been a long trip for you, I’m sure,” she says. “Get that down you, you’ll feel better for it.”

Her newly armored tongue can sense their saliva, can taste it on the air. They’re greedy for the bread and when their mouths water, Dorothy’s waters with them, because hunger is contagious and armor can only do so much.

All the scientists come through her, and the WACs and the women, and nearly all of them think Santa Fe is their destination, want directions and dance halls and a shoulder to lean on. They’re all very tired, and nearly all very young, and she thinks some of them need a mother very badly.

“Ask me if you need anything,” she says. “I’m here to keep track of you.”

(She tastes them in the wind, every one, long before they get to her office.)

In the high country of the waste land, Dorothy has a name: She is called the Oracle, the one who knows and tells and shares, in an environment where sharing has become a strictly limited thing. Consult the Oracle, they say on the Hill, and her disembodied voice through the crackling lines is a consolation.

She can find for the children camps and kittens; find a doctor who will perform abortions; find sewing kits and pack horses and hotel reservations that serve something other than commissary food. A good cook herself, often up to her armpits in dough, mud and blood under her fingernails because spears may be sent up from the earth but a platter contains the fruits therein, in whatever shape Dorothy can find them.

The women of the waste land find her counselor and confidante, and take her advice in all things, use her house for their weddings and try to make a home as she has done. It’s her tongue they find most helpful.

“You’ve got to learn to make do,” says Dorothy. Secrecy and silence together have forced her tongue into other roles.

Dorothy is invited, with two couples, to take an evening meal at Albuquerque, on Sandia Peak—the giant red rock that shines at night with colors like the bloody mountains.

She takes bread to break with them—the last supper before the test—her picnic basket a paten; takes blankets and a mackintosh, for the sky is black with clouds and cunning.

At 5:30 a.m., a light from the sands flashes towards them, a spear from the waste land stabbed out and shining. The leaves are transubstantiated and the trees turned to brief gold about her—lovely and gleaming in the sterile sunlight.

“I’d never have thought that light had a taste,” she says. That taste is lemony, with undertones of burning. When she stands in the early morning with her armadillo tongue stuck out straight as if wavelengths carry snow instead of the shadow of ashes, all the little plates are slickening.

For all the time Dorothy spends ferrying food up to the Hill (pumpernickel bread and picnic baskets, Christmas geese and warm rolls with butter) her favorite meals are with Robert, and they are nearly always the same: oven-baked potatoes, near-lethal martinis, shoots of green asparagus and Robert on the patio broiling beef, fork in hand and standing back from spits.

“Why didn’t you make a fight of it?” she says, of the trial. “Why didn’t you ask me for help?”

She would have kept talking ’til they threw her out, she says, and the plates hit the table with a thump, as if carrying heads other than their own.

Betrayal, it seems, also tastes of lemon and ashes. No wonder she couldn’t tell it apart… Dorothy wants to take her steak knife and scrape the little armadillo plates from her tongue, leave it red raw and screaming, because what use is armor if it can’t protect someone she loves?

Dorothy has travelled all over the waste land. She has been to the Valles Caldera, the springed and smoking domes in the mountains, knows what it’s like to seethe below the surface.

It’s in this land that she finds affinity—for Robert and for silence both. She bubbles while he bleeds; it’s a hard thing to be silent, when you don’t want to be. She doesn’t always manage it, would spit lava if she could, superheated (and does). And her words burn going out, as much as they burned the recipient, but the armor-plating is spreading through Dorothy’s mouth, her cheeks and esophagus and gums, and she knows the words that burn because they taste like light in the waste land, like seared sand and her little cracker breads together.

Edward Teller
Hungarian Physicist, Manhatten Project Scientist and
Subsequent Father of the Hydrogen Bomb

What is a dandelion? says Dorothy, of Edward. It’s something coarse and in need of kicking up, before presence turns to supplantation. A weed. A curse.

(“If it is a question of wisdom and judgement…. one would be wiser not to grant clearance,” says Edward, on Robert and security, and will forever wonder if people will think it was jealousy speaking.)

A dandelion’s not like an orchid, not delicately designed, sweet-smelling and subtle, with petals like a pork pie hat.

(“I’m sorry,” he says, and Robert is left gray and grave in a room grown untrusting, and too dark for him.)

They’ve a sour taste, dandelions. Edward coughs one up in the middle of the night, bright and gleaming with saliva, with stomach acid, and marvels at how familiar it feels on his tongue.

No one has ever told Edward don’t mess where you work, don’t drink a diuretic tea of dandelions even if the pretty color makes you think it’s a good idea, it isn’t, so he comes back to Los Alamos, after the trial and finds, all unexpected, the cafeteria a Coventry.

The other scientists shun him, turn their backs. They refuse to shake his hand. Rabi is the first, and particularly cutting. He gives Edward nightmares of a great black bird, of a raven that struts over him while he sleeps, snappish and sneering, a dreadful beaked bird’s smile of cold iron ready to pick out his eyes.

He wakes on cold early mornings and his mouth is clogged with petals, stuffed with them, and he’s asphyxiating on bitterness, his heart beating out of his chest with choking breath and the shadow of wings.

Edward is always noticed. When he and his wife Mici first climbed the crawling knife-road to the mesa, they shipped with them a baby grand called Monster. Edward plays sonatas late into the night and though his infant son sleeps through them, the neighbors do not.

He is heard in the theoretical lab as well, where he’s famous for fluttering, electron-like, from one unfinished atom project to another. He considers himself a bricklayer, an architect and dreamer; has no patience with brick-making physics. The plodding brute force of it strikes him as shambling and cold.

But no matter how loud, he never stands out as much as he does after the trial. Saints have flowers come up under them when they walk, but he knows of no saint who leaves dandelions in their footsteps.

Dandelions are too bitter for sainthood.

A dandelion is not an orchid, but they are small and hardy and Edward feels a kinship. Not such a bad thing, to be a dandelion.

And they are bright, bright like little suns, like playing Liszt and Bach and Mozart—and the lights in happy memories of Budapest, before the ravens came to pluck them out with ruined petals and love me nots.

Edward gathers the flowers he’s brought up out of himself and makes bouquets of them. He sets them on his piano and plays and thinks of new worlds, and old ones.

“Fuck you,” he says.

“A danger to all that’s important,” says the raven, perched out of reach of damp sheets as Edward dreams in a red sweat, covers his eyes in dreams. “It would have been a better world without him.”

It is hard to be seen as noxious. Edward vacillates between remorse (he confesses himself to Fermi when the latter is on his death bed, and gentle in his condemnation) and raving defiance, the bitter grief of a man who has left all behind, his home an ocean away, and is now without friends. (“Daddy’s got black beetles in his brain,” says his daughter.)

Beetles and birds and words that can’t be taken back, the half-sweet scent of flowers. The only way to drown them out is with another bird, and bigger—he’ll fly with the hawks for the rest of his days, make second-best friends amongst them.

(Perhaps they’ll like small yellow flowers too.)

(Even tolerance he would accept.)

The hydrogen bomb is to be his redemption. But when it’s built, there’s no new waste land, no desert community tied to him with chains of unbreakable orchids, fragile and delicate and stronger than atoms.

(He wonders what he’s done wrong in his success.)

So he takes his bomb, the new monster of his mirror dreams and breaks open his thigh with it, cracks bone, rips flesh: tries to make himself a Fisher King reborn, capture character with black blood. It’s the new dolorous stroke.

But the wound heals without much fuss at all, though dandelions burst from the scars and his once-torn flesh smells of them forever.

Kitty Oppenheimer
Botanist and Wife of Robert Oppenheimer

A grail is green fertility and the blood of others.

December, 1944: Kitty gives birth to a daughter. She’s not the only one—by this time over one hundred people work at the hospital, and Los Alamos is baby-mad. Army disgust sparks a popular poem: “The general’s in a stew, he trusted you and you…” but the average age there is twenty five, so what does he expect? A scientist is not a sterile thing.

Toni is born despite disapproval, born in midwinter, a Christmas child, and Kitty sits with her window looking outwards to the snow, drinks in the baby scent. It’s almost too much, too powdered sugar-sweet, and soon she’ll be sick of it.

“Do you want to adopt her?” Robert will say to another couple, as if the grail had nothing to do with him. As if the bits and chunks that fall into the infant blanket—the fused sand and seared flesh and ignimbrite—have nothing to do with him, and are something to be kept separate instead of evidence of the rocky bloodline that runs through them both.

Kitty wants to slap him.

Science is too busy for visiting hours, so husbands stand on packing boxes outside the hospital windows and peer into maternity, peer through the glass like they’re staring at a country made foreign to them, at a new and strange creation, cupped with blood and blankets (and Lord, how it squalls).

Compare to the glass after Trinity, the emerald blasted glass that lurked hot and bubbling in the crater; the blinding light of boom and blast dropping trinkets in the sand.

(“Look at it! Look what we made!”)

A spear to be thrown into the future, a weapon for her daughter’s days, the blade hard and sharp as nails.

Kitty sees both glasses, sees well enough to measure the drams of her husband’s interest, and how ill-matched it is. She wishes she could care for one so much more than the other, as he does, but one of them speaks so much more of winter to her that love is impossible.

Kitty’s parties are famous, with bottles and cocktails and the five-foot punch bowl—a giant jar for chemical reagents, stolen from the lab and weighted down with ice cubes.

There’s no reason not to drink. Kitty knows she is difficult to like. She is called a bitch, but an elegant bitch—with a bathtub and a kiva stove and oak floors, so that’s something, marooned on that bloody rock as she is with dust and dreary dirt, the hideous stoves that never light, the constant bitching about housework. She’s a botanist, for God’s sake, or was, so what is she doing now organizing contracts for the home help in a place where the grass is drowned in mud and sun?

It’s no wonder she drinks. The alcohol is an armor to her, plating over her tongue and numbing her lips, and when she drinks enough even the armor is stunned, and she can taste nothing around her, see nothing around her, and even the baby-scent is drowned in it.

Flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone: that’s marriage—bound by straining sinews, by faith and fidelity and resentment. Tiresome sometimes, but familiar.

Kitty leaves the waste land with her husband. Leaves it for the gray land, the courts and charges and tape that would be red if it hadn’t been bleached into pale lines and quicksand. One look at their faces and she knows it’s rigged: She may be sick of scientists, but few in the waste land wear such surety in their colorless eyes, wear certainty like a pin-striped suit. (They’re less cunning at home, if red-eyed and bloodshot from vodka and insomnia.)

“Kitty was such a support,” he says afterwards, after the gray men cut him to pieces and she held him up regardless.

His shirts smell of dandelions and heartbreak, as if he’d been rolled in them before betrayal.

A cauldron can restore the dead to life, or so they say—but sometimes… Sometimes it’s a saucepan—something utilitarian, and used to make soup.

Kitty is with her husband in the Virgin Islands, where he is recovering from hearings about his loyalty. (She sympathizes, but underneath, where she’d never admit it, his mistresses are raising their glasses to her. Well, let them. She’s outlasted them all, sex and state and science.)

A turtle is caught, a leather-beaked monster that sees better in water than out of it and tastes best of all in soup—but Robert pleads for clemency; pleads with a slow turtle-vision of his own to lift it from the pot and into life. It’s as if he sees himself in everything now, contaminating: all the information of his life’s work welling up under his fingertips and dropping into the simmering broth, an alphabet soup of suns and slaughter.

“All the little creatures,” he says. “I saw them in New Mexico after the test. Please,” he says, “I can’t bear it.”

Try drink, thinks Kitty, and you’ll be able to swallow anything then, darling.

Toni is in her crib, asleep, when her father waits miles away, at White Sands, and yet the sun that sears his eyelids imprints onto hers.

She spends the rest of her life looking for it, looking and not finding, the image and the resurrection of her parents.

(“Look at it! Look what we made!” they said.)

She follows the sun to the Caribbean but it’s not bright enough, no, not nearly, to blind her as well as her father was blinded, and she’s left seeing all too well the land that she was born in and the blood that she shares with it.

(“Look Mom,” she says, looking back, “Look Dad, look what I can do.” She’s talking to dead people, their bodies crumbled to dust and leaving her behind, with her flesh that bubbles with type and tuff and the memory of treachery, with questions under her fingernails and the remembered taste of a consolation that’s never quite enough.)

She hangs herself with rope that smells of dry dust of old dirt and waste lands—for a grail might be life and love and blood, but that blood comes from spear wounds and salt and knowledge that is never, ever lost.

Octavia Cade has a PhD in science communication and loves writing about oceans and science history. She once backpacked around Europe with so much telescope in her pack there was hardly any room for clothes. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Apex, and a poetry collection on the periodic table, Chemical Letters, has recently been nominated for an Elgin. Her latest novella –not about science at all!–is the highly disturbing Convergence of Fairy Tales, because when she’s not messing about with seagrass or dead scientists she’s having fun with all the horror she can get her hands on.

[Editor’s Note: Octavia submitted to us twenty-eight times before we bought this story. Never give up, never surrender. Keep going.]

Boneset, by Lucia Iglesias

The blind Bonesetter’s townhouse enacts the architecture of a skull. Windows imitate eye sockets the Bonesetter has known. The front door comments on the vigor of the jaw, swinging up and down on mandibular hinges. When the hinges thirst for oil, the door munches up the lucklorn gutter-mice who skitter over the threshold, chewing them into flesh-jelly and spitting them across the foyer until the Bonesetter serves the hinges their oil from a crystal eyedropper. The home’s ample upper-story suggests the sage proportions of a prodigy’s frontal lobes. At the back of the house, in the occipital chambers, the Bonesetter puts his patients back together. Here, the ceiling slopes low and the walls have a curious slant, leaning inwards as if to scrutinize the Bonesetter’s living art.

Phials, jars, flasks, flagons, and bottles—celadon-glazed or blown from floss-glass—peer down from the Bonesetter’s shelves, winking in the light of the firefly lamps. The lamps, two dozen orbs of quartz, hang from fishing line strung along the ceiling beams. Each orb imprisons a family of fireflies. Convicted of incandescence, they serve a life sentence, their rueful glow seeping through the quartz. Encircling the room like a ribcage, twelve rows of shelves hold the Bonesetter’s secrets: powdered amber laced with damselfly or drakling, sprigs of feverfew dried under a child’s pillow, strips of skin inscribed with sonnets, cats’ whiskers, three dozen flavors of bottled laughter, pennyroyal pressed between pages of a harlot’s autobiography, reflections caught from mirrors or windows or the backs of spoons, rainbows skimmed off oilslicks, the language of rain trapped in a bottle of pebbles, rosehips pickled in spite, teardrop cordial, candied cobweb, two dozen sets of milk-teeth, glitter ground from the wings of butterflies and luna moths, bioluminescence smoldering in saltwater from an underground sea, a tantrum preserved in formaldehyde, unborns sleeping in amniotic fluid (unmice, unmoles, unmunks, an unfox), strings of abandoned punctuation, letters jettisoned from sinking languages like cacophonous ballast, faceless pocket watches, the chiming of rogue bells, antimony lozenges, vixen-milk, electricity combed from the fur of a catamount, essence of jubilee, essence of melancholy, and a fever dream distilled into pure alcohol.

These rare and irascible ingredients make the Bonesetter a master of anesthesia, antiseptics, and antipsychotics. On the night-market, the Bonesetter could earn a lifetime and a half of luxury from the sale of a single phial of jubilee or an ever-sleeping unmunk. Fathers would sell their daughters’ hair and mothers would sell the roses from their sons’ cheeks for vixen-milk or bottled laughter.

While these dozing riches lie upon his shelves, the Bonesetter hoards his true treasure in a cabinet above the sink. As he rinses sweat and a spritz of blood off his socket-clamp and wrenches, he fancies he hears his leather-bound prize rustling behind the cabinet door. Like the echoes that once chased his bounding son through the corridors, the book’s pages betray secrets not their own. After kneading his hands dry on his apron, the Bonesetter spiders his fingers over the cabinet door until he finds the latch. His head turns, trying to follow the hands it cannot guide. His eye sockets are scooped and empty as oyster shells.

The cabinet’s leather-bound book weighs the same as a promise kept or a winter evening unraveled by the fireside: It is the sum of fulfillment and fortune, and when the Bonesetter runs his fingers over the embossed spine, he knows that if Death dropped by to settle the accounts tonight, he would find the Bonesetter quite willing to cash in his life and scratch his debt to the soul-banker. The Bonesetter will leave life having given more than he took. And if his son overdraws the account, as rumor whispers he will—well, that is a story still to be written. For now, there is only the blind Bonesetter and his book, which he lays on the operating table and opens with a sigh. He foots around for a stool and, finding one, draws it up to the table’s rim. Sitting straight-spined as only a virtuoso chiropractor can, he stares at the chamber’s single octagonal window as his fingers read.

Splashed in the blue sluice of twilight, the Bonesetter appears discreetly luminous. Lustrous as a black pearl, his skin is slicked with dusk’s light. Reading the raised text with his index finger, he nods along to the familiar rhythm of his own words. He remembers penning this chapter—in the hollow hours between midnight and a new morning—how he wrote through two whole bottles of bone-meal ink and had to ask his son to pelt down to the cellar for a spare femur to grind into a third bottle. Oleander ran away before the end of the next chapter, and the Bonesetter had to spivvy up a pulley system to replace his young bone-runner. The boy had taken such carnivorous interest in skeletal anatomy that his father had felt certain Oleander Bonesettersson would become his apprentice after dusting up his paleontology and troglobiology exams at school. After the boy left, taking only a coil of rope and his father’s entire supply of jaw-wire, the Bonesetter’s wife opined that their son had been spending indulgent helpings of time with the mad aunts in the attic, and that the spinsters were to blame for infecting him with the feverish whim. The Bonesetter had always classified the aunts amongst the vermin he shared his home with only because he had yet to devise a humane way to evict mice, spiders, and mother’s sisters. Still, he contended, nearly every house in the City had an aunt or two in the attic, and they hadn’t launched fleets of runaways. However, by the time he embarked upon writing his epilogue, a runaway-epidemic struck the City and devastated the youth population. Though his wife never stooped to “I told you so,” she did introduce a bill amongst her fellow senators to ban the atticking of aunts. Somewhere under the opal-studded dome of the Senatorium, her bill was growing a coat of dust. The prospect of seeing the dickered biddies loose on the streets was too frightful for the senators to compass. And some whispered that she had only introduced the bill to lure attention away from the rumors that pinned her son as Patient Zero, the poison in the well.

Dark as the lacquered shell of a mussel, the Bonesetter’s fingers rub word-nubs, tracing letters built from bone-meal, letters as spare as their author, shorn of flourish and arabesque, sleek and bald as a god. His handwriting is as familiar as his own methodical anatomy, each popped P and high-shouldered H as intimate as the regal vertebrae rippling down his diagrammatic spine. Amongst the granite facts chiseled into his skull, the Bonesetter knows he is more father to this book than to Oleander, for he never learned to read the boy’s mood from the angle of his elbows or the slant of his jaw, whereas his book speaks to him in the acute language of powdered bone. Though the boy is flesh of his flesh, the Bonesetter never learned the unique knobble of Oleander’s knee joints, never played the xylophone of his spine, never measured his unfurling wingspan. As Oleander grew into his bones, his father was welded to this stool, breeding this book. The Bonesetter rarely molders in remorse. He has no time for the soft and fleshful. Bones are his business. Yet every night, he falls asleep over this book, waiting for his boy to come home.

Under the Bonesetter’s fingers, the words warm, coming alive on the steel operating table. When the Bonesetter scoops a child from Death’s doorstep and carries her back to her parents, they often call him a Vivimancer. Many believe he is a warlock who can spell any doll or daughter to life. However, the Bonesetter knows it only takes a posset of fetal-vole and violet-oil to stimulate balking nerves. He knows the words under his fingers have no more life than a clench-fisted fetus in its formaldehyde bath. It is his own life he feels quickening under the skin of these words, a whole lifetime of study injected between leather covers. He skims from chapter to chapter, savoring the cream of each case study. He relishes the purity of his signature taxonomy, untainted by an erroneous genus or a fretful crossbreed. Pain is the purest sensation, and he has strained the case studies to clarify kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Not a twinge has escaped his sifting. The Bonesetter can pin the speciation of any ache, be it a mocksome noddler bobbing under the lumbar, or a gwee tweakler kindling only on twenty-ninths of odder months. His case studies—case stories really—are a Wunderkammer of spasms, a cabinet of curiosities, a circus shriek-show, a freakgasm, a back alley, a bucket of screams, a torture garden, a family tree, a brood of masochists, a torturer’s dictionary, a surgeon’s thesaurus, a child’s encyclopedia, a captain’s log, forensic evidence, a fancier’s guide, a three-hundred-page equation, a collection of recipes, a dream atlas, the ingredients for a nightmare, a sacred text, a fifth dimension, an old wives’ tale, a new metric, a riddle written on a Möbius strip, an un-nameable shade of red, a prophecy, an iridescent menagerie.

Yet of all his weeping treasures, of all the wailing, groaning, giggling agonies nestled between the snug leather covers, his most exotic specimen, the crowning jewel of his algesiology can be visited in Chapter the Last: In Which I Meet Pain’s Brother. A researcher’s treatise can never be anything other than a flagrant autobiography, a spiffing-up of the diary and laboratory notes, a plummet into rambling marginalia and restless hypotheses. However, few researchers become protagonists in their own case stories. The Bonesetter had never been one to guinea-pig himself, but that changed after he was visited by the most effervescent caller ever to fondle the bell cord beneath the sign of crossed bones.

On that fate-encrusted night (fortune-varnishing visits always happen in the owl-hours, by an eldritch rule), the Bonesetter’s wife was out, carousing with her constituents at the neighborhood malt-bar. Oleander ought to have been deep into the second or third layer of sleep, which meant he was probably gossiping with the aunts in the attic over porcelain thimble cups of triple-distilled dew. When the doorbell squalled, the Bonesetter was prying into the structural secrets of a fledgling’s wing-bones with his octoscope. On this night, he still wore both his eyes, bright as geodes, only casually myopic from a lifetime of study. A bit stiff from spending the day swan-necked over his octoscope, he creaked to the door. No business hours were posted under the sign of crossed bones because bonesetting was his life’s work, and obsessions don’t come packaged in eight-hour increments. Absorbed as he was in the intricate dialogue between skeletal articulation and biological function, the Bonesetter did not find it peculiar that someone else in the City was fraught with an osteological quandary at this owlish hour. When he wrenched the lever to open the mandibular door, it would have seemed to anyone on the stoop that the door’s jaws had opened upon a gaping foyer, for the Bonesetter was quite camouflaged in the unlit atrium, blending into the suave umbra thrown by the streetlamp. However, his visitor spied the noble glint on his lofty cheekbones and spoke through the jaws of the door.

“You’re the Bonesetter? What an emerald pleasure to meet you at last. I read your article on sentient spinal growths with relish. Absolutely lip-smacking the way you chronicle the sub-phases of fetal pain. And you gave a tantalizing hint about a new book in the tumbler, didn’t you? Your Taxonomia Algesia. May I borrow an hour of your evening, Master Bonesetter? I have a proposition I think you’ll find savory.” The man spoke as if his teeth were slick with butter. His sibilants glistened with a sheen of caviar.

With his back to the streetlamp, the man was a silhouette snipped out by the keenest of scissors. His head was cocked at a wily angle, leaving his features in blackout (the kind of blackout that in the theater is followed by a scream cropped short). However, even in two-dimensional cut-out, the insolence of his anatomy was broadcast by the lamplight. The Bonesetter automatically catalogued his brash bone structure, noting the skeletal audacity not with shock or revulsion, but with a collector’s buttoned-up interest. The caller’s polydactyly failed to raise an eyebrow, for the Bonesetter could have filled a smuggler’s false-bottomed trunk with all the gratuitous fingers and toes he’d met over the course of his career. The stranger’s supplemental pair of arms raked up a bit more interest than the superfluous fingers. Sprouting from his iliac crest, the arms breached from his coat pockets and dangled to his knees. Yet what really won the stranger his guest-right in the Bonesetter’s home were his genu recurvatum, his back-bending knees, or more precisely, the tango-dancer’s grace with which he glided upon those perplexed joints as the Bonesetter stepped aside and watched the visitor swan over the threshold.

Most of the Bonesetter’s visitors are somewhere between sweat-drenched endurance and octave-shattering agony. Therefore, by latched habit the Bonesetter led his guest to the examination room, where he drew up a second stool at the steel examination table. In the formaldehyde light reflecting off the specimen jars, the Bonesetter inspected the man he couldn’t help thinking of as his patient. Formaldehyde-yellow is a tint that flatters few, yet the stranger wore it well. Whereas most men and peaches are coated in a thin glisten of hair, the stranger was slicked in a filmy sheen of feathers. The thickened light caught in his quills, rinsing them in amber. A translucent third lid flicked over his eye, as if to polish away the jaundiced light, leaving his cornea amnesia-white. If he suffered from the freeloading fingers, the unwarranted arms, the concave knees, the gossamer feathers, or the lizard-lids, the pain was imprisoned so deep within that the Bonesetter couldn’t sense its locus. What symptom had brought the stranger at this owl-hour? He waited for his patient to unlock the matter himself.

“You do speak, don’t you?” said the man with a twist of the lips that was several degrees short of a smile. “This will be mammothly tedious if we have to precede in miner’s hand-language.”

The Bonesetter, who often goes days without opening his mouth for anything except yawns and nettle-butter sandwiches, realized that his visitor expected some species of greeting.

“What disturbs the peace in your bone-house, sir?” he tried. “Whether it’s a rogue disc or a dickered rib, I guarantee you won’t leave my operating room until I’ve spiffed your skeleton back into the wonderwork it once was.”

A smile split the stranger’s face like an unhealed wound. “My dear bone-buckler, I’m quite at home in my skeleton. It’s book-business, not bone-business, that brings me. I know a publishing house that would glut your ledgers with more gold than you could shake out of a dwarf, if your manuscript arrived wrapped in my endorsement.”

As the Bonesetter calculated the surface area of an average tunnel-dwarf in cubits-squared, and derived an approximate maximum gold-load based on the tensile strength of dwarf ligaments, his guest closed his auxiliary eyelids and watched the chiropractor through their iridescent film. After settling upon a sum that would amount to a lavishly embellished diploma with unimpeachable letters of reference for Oleander, along with six dozen phials of the rarest pathological specimens to round out his research collection, the Bonesetter blinked the numerals from his eyes. He studied the visitor varnished in formaldehyde-light.

“And whose bones do I have the pleasure of greeting, sir? You seem to know me, but have not, I think, labeled your specimen.”

“Only because there isn’t enough ink in the City to pen the length of my name. I have worn so many monikers, epithets, sobriquets, aliases, and noms-de-plume that I would have to hire the entire Librarians’ Guild and empty the City Archives of their scribes just to write a taxonomy of myself. Then you could thumb through the card catalogue and find a nickname that doesn’t give you lock-jaw. Some of my older pseudonyms have grown aggressive in their dotage. I wouldn’t trust anyone’s tongue around them except my own. Of course I also have a passel of harmless-enough names. I’ll fan them out for you like a gypsinger’s cards and let you choose. Like the gypsinger’s painted menagerie of hermits and fools, each name has its own will and wiles. Thief-of-Thieves, he’s quite the sneakster, and hard to parry, that Lie-Smith. Sif’s Husband is no slick-groomed foppet; there’s teeth on him, the Otter-Killer. Hel’s Father knows too much about the sunk and dead, but Neck-Risker is always smirking at Death. You’ll know Scar-Lip by the way he wrings his words, and the Lad always has a laugh tucked up his sleeve. Pain’s Brother knows a redder way and he will always win when it comes to grips, though Plague’s Nurse prefers loss, watching it slow and blue as it strangles men.”

Upon finishing this catalogue, Pain’s Brother straightened his legs to the clicking point, his recurve knees retorting like rifles. He crossed his ankles under the Bonesetter’s stool and leaned back with all four elbows propped on the examination table.

That a single being should be strung together from so many names did not strike the Bonesetter as anything other than ordinary, for he sees every organism as a calcium palace of spire-spines, gabled skulls, latticed ribcages, and hinged knuckles. No woman is simply Sabriye or Adelaïde or Bryony, no man merely Mordekai or Fenimöre or Wolfgang. Each creature is an illuminated encyclopedia of anatomy, from clavicle to sternum, coccyx to calcaneus, lunate to lumbar, ethmoid to ulna, tibia to trapezium. The Bonesetter was less interested in a catalogue of gregarious epithets and more interested in the flexion of those knees and the reshuffling of ribs that accommodated those arrogant additional arms. Still, as the names spilled across the examination table, he recognized a few from the rumors that gusted down back alleys on Rubbishday. The Thief-of-Thieves was known to steal bad luck and poverty, leaving nothing but riches, though Sif’s Husband might tuck a seventh son into his satchel before leaving by the back door, and the Lad had as much arsenic as ingots in his pockets.

Pain’s Brother stretched himself still further, as if intent on smearing himself over the entire examination room. His feet emerged on the far side of the Bonesetter’s stool, and he laid his head back against the steel table. The faint plumage that papered his skin vibrated like hummingbird wings, flicking fidgety reflections against the luminous glass jars that lined the walls like mortality’s mosaic. His third lid remained sealed, but beneath that iridescent film, both indigo irises were fixed on the Bonesetter.

Though the man had spread himself like a bacterial culture on a microscope plate, the Bonesetter muzzled the impulse to unbutton his examination instruments and conduct a full osteological analysis of the unique specimen. In fact, he was mildly nauseated by the man’s appalling posture, and in his unease he ratcheted his own spine up another notch. At this interlude in the transaction, the Bonesetter’s wife would have poured herself a measured nipper of triple-distilled mallow-malt, but her husband poured himself a measured breath. He crocheted his exquisite penumbral fingers in his lap and exhaled.

“Your offer is as attractive as a well-aligned spine, and if it’s as sound as a logician’s brain-case, I would be a jingling fool to decline. However, I fear you must wear the motley and bells tonight, for there is no book. You have wasted your incandescent company on an old bonesetter whose hands are more suited to realignments of the cervical vertebrae than to wordcraft.”

The stranger’s smile puckered his face like a scar, a crease so deep you could fall in if you looked too close.

“I’ve worn the motley and bells enough times to know that the fool always leaves with full pockets. There is no book yet. But surely you have a squalling manuscript tucked in a cradle somewhere just waiting to be swaddled up in red leather and adopted by an affluent publisher and her husband?”

The Bonesetter’s fingers knotted themselves together so tightly they seemed intent on strangling one another. “The manuscript was stillborn—malformed—not viable.”

Cracking all twenty-four knuckles in a lazy fusillade, Pain’s Brother said: “A transfusion. A transplant. High voltage resuscitation. We’ll save it somehow. What are the symptoms?”

“It stopped growing at Chapter Eight. Total cessation of mitosis. Stunted. A runt.”

“Diagnosis?”

“I can’t carry the manuscript to term. My taxonomy of pain was organized based on a hierarchical principle of magnitude. Extrapolating from a lifetime’s collection of case studies, I started my speciation with the most domestic pains: the frolicking twinge of a papercut, the bloated ache of a bruise. Then I ventured into more idiosyncratic kingdoms of pain: the auroral menstrual cramp, the starburst contusion of the ulnar nerve. However, my case studies yielded no material for the final chapter. Where was my apex species, the mind-predator, the carnivore who devours rationality, the beast that turns a man into raw meat beating away at its bone-cage?”

Pain’s Brother butterflied his two dozen fingers, splaying them like specimens against the steel examination table. He tipped his head back, spilling onion-colored hair across the table. The more space he blotted up, the more the room seemed to cling to him, and the Bonesetter felt as if he were being squeezed out of his own office like the last tumor of dried-up glue squeezed from the tube.

“Spoon out your eyes,” said Pain’s Brother to the ceiling.

“Pardon?”

“Spoon out your eyes. Then you’ll meet a pain you could never snare in a case study. Your last chapter must be written in first person. You’ll only know the mind-carnivore if you feel it gnawing at your own sanity.”

A smile gouged across the guest’s face as he met his host’s gaze. In the gore of that smile, the Bonesetter saw his guest was right. He couldn’t name the predator pain until he knew it more intimately than he knew his wife.

For the first time since growing into his full, exacting height, the Bonesetter drew his knees up to his chin and balanced on the stool like a perverse egg. He laced his arms around his shins and sealed his eyes against the rancid gleam of the light. Inhaling a steadying dose of starch from his trouser-pleats, he spoke into his kneecaps.

“Will a grapefruit spoon do?”

The stranger’s laugh rebounded from the walls like high-speed whiplash, leaving the glass jars whining. The Bonesetter’s teeth ached.

“When the manuscript is spackled, spiffed, and spit-polished, post it to Delphinia and Daughters. They’ll have the presses ratcheted and ready.”

The Bonesetter heard the stranger’s stool scuff his tiled floor. Then a sound like sinews unclasping their skeleton, tendons unfastening from flesh, bones unsleeved from skin—he flashed his eyes open, but caught only the smirking swing of the back door as it flapped on its hinges. A few slivered feathers listed in the door’s updraft. It was as if the stranger had unmade himself, distilled into a fever dream.

The Bonesetter allowed himself a dozen diaphragmatic breaths, watering his lungs with the clammy midnight spilling through the door. Then he unkinked his knees, ironed out his spine, and strode to the kitchen. Light from the streetlamps curdled on the marble counters and in the bowl of the porcelain sink, streaking the kitchen in shades of broth and clarified butter. The lamplight foamed on the mother-of-pearl inlay in the knob of the silverware drawer. The Bonesetter raked the drawer open, and as he shoveled through the silver, the yolkish light dribbled in. Not a single grapefruit spoon remained.

“Oh Doctor-Daddykins, oh Bonesetter-Baba, oh Postured-Papa—whatever could you be pawing for under midnight’s skirts? You look guilty as a boy-o caught with his thumb in the kumquat pudding. Did you hope to pluck out a succulent night-truffle? Do you like the burnt-caramel flavor of nighttime? Or are you looking for these?”

Oleander had perched himself owl-wise on the marble counter opposite the silverware drawer. He was hocked back on his heels in a mess of shadows so thick you could slather them on rye. Leaning out into the frothing light, he brandished a bouquet of silver grapefruit spoons at his father. He had his da’s cheekbones—sharp enough to perform surgery—but his complexion was watered down by mother-blood. In the lamplight, his father was a painting in oils, rich with lapis and ultramarine, whereas Oleander was sketched in chalk.

“Only rag-taggle vagabonds and prize-wives ought to listen at keyholes, Oleander,” his father scolded. “If you ever kip that trick again, your mother will hear about it, and you know what that means: A senate interrogation and an ear-ache. Now be brave, my little fibula, and give me a grapefruit spoon. You can lick the rest like silver-lollies if you fancy a midnight snack. I need only the one.”

Oleander slumped back against the wall, drenching himself in shadow. “And I need the skeleton of a juvenile shrew. Only the one. What a soup we find ourselves swimming in, Dumpling-Da.”

“So it’s your pestilent intention to make me buy my own grapefruit spoon back from you for the price of a mint specimen? You do realize that a fully articulated juvenile shrew skeleton with copper wire ligaments is not an urchin’s plaything? It will win you no back-alley battles against aluminum soldiers.”

In the ferment of shadows, Oleander mined his ear-canals for wax with the handle of a spoon. “There’s nothing left for me to win in the back-alleys, Doctor-Dadums. The ragamuffins and streetlings won’t play with me anymore. They say I cheat worse than a Doggoblin.”

In the skimmed light, the Bonesetter was several shades nobler than the dignified night that idled at the window. “And is my son a maggot-tongued cheat?”

“No. I’m a scientist.”

As if fingering an extravagantly fractured femur, the Bonesetter at last found the fulcrum upon which his son’s grievance seemed to rotate. His patient would flinch. And then they would bring the bones back into agreement.

“The gutter-mice wanted to live again,” continued Oleander, his voice thinning to a whisper. “I could feel it under their fur. They were dead, but I quickened them back to life in my bare hands. It’s not my fault that the urchins couldn’t bring their aluminum soldiers to life. My undead mice were better warriors.” His lips perked with a chalk smile. “They were romping first-rate, to tell it true.”

“So you will give me back my own grapefruit spoons if I sacrifice one of the princes of my collection—the very spine of my scholarship—to feed your necromantic addiction?”

Oleander knuckled the spoons together, clicking up a racket with the improvised castanets. Above the sterling syncopation he chanted: “It’s science, Osteo-Daddio. As scientifical as your bone-fiddling and spine-spiffing. You diddle inside live bodies to make them livelier, while I diddle with dead bodies to liven them up.”

In the silver cacophony, the Bonesetter discovered a subspecies of pain not yet catalogued in his manuscript. Although he had abandoned those pages to the dust-boggarts under his bureau months ago, his fingers itched to speciate and log this new finding. A tunneling throb, he would call it. And even as its silver claws gouged deeper into the sanctum of his inner ear, he gloried in the resuscitation of his manuscript. For the price of two eyes. Why, it was a champion bargain. Practically burglary. Who knew dreams could be paid for from the pockets of the eye sockets?

So much time has sifted through the Bonesetter since the lamplight buttered that fermented midnight. Even now he feels time flaking away in flossy nubbins, weakening his ankles and aching under his arthritic knees. He is but a scaffold of brittle bones, soft sift in an hourglass, a bower of bone, calcified home to a parasitic mind which remains supple and strapping, even as the bone-house goes stale and crumbles away.

Under his fingertips, the words rise defiantly, brazen bone-meal calligraphy that calluses his reading fingers. The words are his own, more familiar than his wife’s voice, but he prefers to feel them rather than hear their tarnished echo toll through memory’s auditorium. He can’t stop worrying their edges, scuffing the crossbeam of a T until his finger goes numb. They are the scabs of wounds he can’t give up. He won’t give them the peace to heal. He chafes them through billowy blue afternoons, as the examination room sombers and dusk flutters down on moth wings. Spine aligned with the earth’s poles, he is a statue carved from rarest hematite. He has the secret sheen of an unfathomable well. Dusk-light pools in his eye sockets, empty as eggshells.

The word-scabs rasp under his fingers, and he feels his way back to that night where he lost his eyes and his son to a hunger he once called science. Though Oleander didn’t disappear until he had grown into his father’s height and daunting posture, he amputated himself from the family on the night the Bonesetter spooned out his own eyes. In those strange days, the boy haunted the house, a specter never pinned by sharp lights. Only the aunts in their cobweb-quilted attic ever saw him sit still. His skin was smoke-blue with bone char and bruises. As skeletal treasures vanished one by one from the Bonesetter’s pathological collection, new squallings and squeaks were added to the uncanny symphony singing behind Oleander’s bedroom door. A few of his uncreatures, including the gutter-mice and the shrew, must have marched after the Necromancer when he left his father’s house, but most were later discovered in the silent bedroom, starved carcasses snuggled into drawers and looped over door handles, waiting for their erstwhile master to wake them once again.

In the house modeled upon the human skull, the Bonesetter has begun another collection. He bottles the rumors that waft through the vents, filing them by theme: mercenary necromancy, corpses kidnapped from crypts, a break-in at the City Archives, a mammoth skeleton gone missing from the paleontology museum, militant gutter-mice, an epidemic of runaway children.

Dusk’s last light filigrees the page with silver wire. The Bonesetter cannot see twilight, but he can smell it. He knows he ought to put his masterpiece to bed between its leather covers. Yet still he worries his word-scabs, wondering which wound is more predatory, the gnash of the grapefruit spoon as it chewed through his optic nerve, or the fanged memory of Oleander’s last smile as he tossed the spoon to his father, the gleam of his teeth shearing the darkness in two. Angry teeth were the last the Bonesetter ever saw of the boy. After paying the pain-price, he buried himself in bandages and bookwork and when he emerged, the boy was gone. The Thief-of-Thieves lied about the price of publishing. The book cost more than a pair of eyes. It cost him his son.

Tonight, like every night, he will wait all through the owl-hour, hoping to hear the doorbell bawl. He will pay the Thief anything to steal back his son.

For Gerard Manley Hopkins,
master word-setter, who found the poetry in bones.

Lucia Iglesias has taught English in Germany, packed produce at the farmers’ market, cared for other humans’ cats, and modeled for art students. She travels widely and often. Though she grew up in California, she suspects she is a changeling and is still searching for her real home. Her first publication appears in this issue of Shimmer and she is still beaming.

 

Return to Shimmer #40

Shimmer #40

Forty issues! Forty issues of Shimmer! Forty! Shimmers! As with many of our stories, these four encompass love, loss, destruction, and the hope of renewal.  They explore new territories for their characters–the idea of new lives, of lives lost, of lives shed and begun again. Recipes for resurrection.

Boneset. by Lucia Iglesias
The blind Bonesetter’s townhouse enacts the architecture of a skull. Windows imitate eye sockets the Bonesetter has known. The front door comments on the vigor of the jaw, swinging up and down on mandibular hinges. When the hinges thirst for oil, the door munches up the lucklorn gutter-mice who skitter over the threshold, chewing them into flesh-jelly and spitting them across the foyer until the Bonesetter serves the hinges their oil from a crystal eyedropper.  (5300 words)

The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science, by Octavia Cade
A spear breaks its blade upon ribs and punctures hearts. It shines with ice-coated needles in the salt air, over breakfast. “I’ve had a letter,” says Lise to her nephew. He’d come to visit for the holidays so she wouldn’t be alone in the cold country of her exile. “I’ve had a letter and I don’t know what to make of it.” She thinks she might be worried. (6200 words)

Raise-the-Dead Cobbler, by Andrea Corbin
The air was muggy, a heatwave burning through the spring, on the night that we met to conjure two people out of almost nothing at all. None of us could’ve done it without the others, and none of us would’ve dared, except Mason said please and I said maybe and Jun said we could, and so we did. You need a few materials first, then follow a sort of recipe. Call it Raise-the-Dead Cobbler. (6100 words)

The Weight of Sentience, by Naru Dames Sundar
The bullet fire drew a boundary between Masak and me and the rest of our brethren, laser tracers demarcating the distinction between safety and capture. While we curled up small and invisible underneath the leaking truck, those who were not so lucky were rounded up. Pushed into a small circle, their alloy limbs gleamed under the neon brightness of the cameras. The soldier wielding the wipe-wand moved from one kneeling body to the next, drowning my ears with its static hiss, the sound of memories dying. (5800 words)

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