Category Archives: Issue 42

If a bear… by Kathrin Köhler

You know in the same way that anyone who lives in an isolated village in a deep-shadowed wood knows anything: It’s been repeated so often you’ve choked on it since you were a child. One day a bear will show up at your doorstep.

No one tells you what to do when the bear arrives. They tease with pointless tales of how Aunt Sisi was so busy chopping wood she almost missed hers (she never chopped wood again), and how Alte Nina’s bear came for her in the church (the villagers pretend shock, but no one’s surprised; she was too beautiful for her own good).

The implications dangle there unsaid except in the side-glances of the women, a secret language you have not yet been entrusted with or figured out. When you are able to wheedle any extra words, it is from a grandmother who cackles in a way that suggests deep knowledge or lack of caring (probably both), but all she says is “You’ll know.” You tell her this isn’t advice. She shoos you away.

You spend most of your time wandering in the wood with the trees and violets (they say exactly what they mean), and you forget about bears and things left unsaid.

When it finally happens, you are surprised: The bear doesn’t arrive in late winter (mad with starvation, willing to eat just about anything). The bear lumbers by in early summer, a few days after the solstice. The damselflies and squirrels and hedgehogs are all busy whirring and rustling deep under the canopy. It is amid this tableau that the bear knocks on the doorframe (the frame because the door is wide open for the breeze). It looks at you sitting at the table, the mending piled beside you.

Despite the lack of specific direction, you’re somewhat prepared. You’ve made a bed of leaves and wool and feathers in the corner near the hearth. You’ve even hung some cut glass and dried flowers about the nest-bed; perhaps this is more a thing for Waschbären than regular bears, but you figure it’s a nice gesture all the same.

According to the tales, you should either caress the bear and lure it into slumber, hoping that it doesn’t become enraged by your affection; or you should cut off its head, wrap yourself in the still-warm fur and lick your new blood. You’ve never enjoyed luring or skinning, so you hope that your company and the nest-bed are an acceptable compromise.

Now that the bear is finally here, you take a deep breath, let yourself unfurl, and relish that you have nothing left to wait for—the bear is here. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. Probably soon.

The bear enters with more deliberateness and grace than you imagined such a massive creature could muster. It does not make itself small, just knows where its body is and is not. The bear hands you a bouquet of wood violets and says “hi.” You realize you weren’t expecting a female bear. Not that the bear’s voice is light or lilting. It is not. Her voice is a deep, powerful rumble that shakes the floor and your bones.

You rinse out a cup for the violets and arrange them. You move your mending aside and give the flowers the center of the table. “They’re my favorite. How did you know?”

“We get around,” she says.

This reminds you that she may be tired after her travels, so you show her the bed. The bear follows you to the corner and turns in circles until the leaves and fluff are settled. She lies down with a great sigh.

Her napping gives you time to think. Not that you arrive at any conclusions, but still. What you do have time to do is mend two shirts, put away the morning dishes, and reach a composure akin to inevitability, if not acceptance.

When the bear wakes, she stretches and walks into the kitchen to make coffee. “What do you do for fun around here?” she asks over her shoulder.

You try to remember what the rest of the villagers do for entertainment. Gossip and dance, you suppose. And complain. What you do is keep to yourself, wander in the wood, pick violets, and hunt mushrooms. You wonder If a bear… might like this, but a shyness creeps over you and you say nothing. With voices like that, bears probably prefer dancing and complaining.

“Not the others. They’re idiots.” The bear takes down two cups and pours the coffee. “I’m curious about you,” she says as she seats herself across the table.

She sips her coffee, eyes closing. Her rumbled “ahh” rattles the windowpanes. A resonance flutters in your own throat. She drains her coffee and pours another, offers you more, but you raise your hand “no.”

“I don’t want to make assumptions about you…” The bear looks around your cottage. There isn’t much in here except what’s needed, plus your own few touches: flowers, interesting rocks and pine cones, bones and geodes—things you found on your walks. “…but maybe you’d like to come with me.”

It’s been a day of surprises. “I thought when bears come, they stay.”

The bear blows on her coffee. The steam billows and stirs the fur on her face. In a wind, she must look like a god. “We can do what we want.”

It’s your turn to look around, though you know you’re going to say “yes.”

The bear knows, too, because she is smiling when your inventory of the cottage comes back around to the table and the two of you.

“And the violets?” you ask.

“They’re a great snack,” the bear says, and pops one in her mouth. “They were used in love potions. Wholly unnecessary. But they do make an excellent wine.”

You try one. The flavor surprises you: It tastes of sunlight and shadow and tenacity, reminding you that violets grow wherever they want. You’re not surprised when the bear tells you it’s her favorite flower as well.

Kathrin Köhler is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop and the University of Wisconsin – Madison. An immigrant interested in the interstitial and ideas interdisciplinary, they are most comfortable writing in places “between.” Favorite topics include the power of narrative, what it means to belong, and how people conceive of and interact with nature. Their work has appeared in Interfictions, Strange Horizons, the Book Smugglers, and other fine places. Author website at


Other beasts of the wood:

Even In This Skin, A.C. Wise

Cantor’s Dragon, by Craig DeLancey

The Seaweed and the Wormhole by Jenn Grunigen

The Imitation Sea, by Lora Gray

You find the dead Angel at five a.m. in the slurry of broken bottles and rotting fish on the Lake Erie shore. It almost looks human in the morning light, a ten-year-old, maybe eleven, boyish, face bloated, limp and blue and doughy.

You can smell the rot, sour-sweet like flowers left too long in vases and chemical-sharp like gasoline. It reminds you of that abandoned gas station you and Jack first fucked in, the one with the chains looped over the doors and the gaping, fractured windows. The one with a musty stock room and flattened cardboard boxes that greased your shirt with motor oil. You still have that shirt, unwashed and stained, in a shoebox under your bed.

You know that smell.

It takes you ten minutes to wrestle the Angel out of the cold sand. It’s heavier than you anticipated. Maybe it’s the soggy wings. Maybe it’s the waterlogged tubing buried beneath its skin. In any case, the weight resigns you to dragging, and you shuffle backward past galleries of picnic tables stacked and upended for the off-season, the Angel’s feet snaking through the late autumn scrub.

Its legs kick out at inconvenient angles as you wedge it into the trunk of your Dodge, but eventually the Angel fits, its face slumped against the wheel well, lips shucked away from pale and unnervingly even teeth. You almost expect it to speak. To sing.

Of course, it’s silent. It’s dead. But you still roll down the window and strain to hear it over the road noise and shush-shush of Lake Erie waves.

You never told Jack, but when you were a little boy, you thought Lake Erie was an ocean, a long blue-black tongue lapping its way into Canada. You were convinced there were sharks in that water. Whales. Jellyfish. Sunken pirate ships. Lost cities. Mermaids. Squid the size of buses. Sea monsters the length of football fields. Underwater kingdoms five fathoms deep.

In second grade you learned real oceans didn’t stink like melted rubber and rotting fish. Oceans weren’t peppered with warning signs about toxic algae and unsafe levels of bacteria. They didn’t have that conspicuous line of land squatting on the horizon if you squinted your eyes just so.

Lake Erie was just a lake.

That summer, when July settled its fat green heat over Cleveland, you watched the freshwater waves suck at your toes and imagined the lake devouring you. Jack was on vacation with his dad in Saint Martin. Your mom had abandoned you for the afternoon (this time for a lifeguard named Todd), and it wasn’t as if she could afford an Angel to watch over you. You were all alone. Nothing could stop Lake Erie from swallowing you if it really wanted to.

It would lick the meat from your legs, slurp your bones away, and you’d march home on the stumps of your thighs, a victim of an imitation sea. Later, you’d find the remains your dismembered shins, next to the ‘sea’ shells and ‘sea’ glass, picked clean by ‘sea’ gulls. You’d sell your toes to tourists and hawk tickets to the spot where the tragedy occurred. You’d use the money to fly to Saint Martin and spend the rest of the summer with Jack.

As smaller, richer kids tottered past you, carrying half-melted popsicles and buckets of pebbles, Angels floating dutifully behind them, you closed your eyes. Under the water, your legs grew cold. Weightless. Numb. When Mom finally reappeared and called for you, you cracked open one eye and carefully, carefully, you looked down.

Your legs were still there.

You shuffled, sunburned and silent, back to the car and wondered how you would tell Jack about it when he finally returned. You tried to pull comfort from the fact that the rocky sand left toothy dimples in your thighs. You rubbed at them the whole ride home as if you could press them into your bones as evidence.

You remember the day Jack told you about selling dead Angels. You were fifteen and huddled under his back porch, pot smoke in your hair and eyes, the afternoon light spilling golden through the tight, even slats. You remember how he plucked the joint from your fingers, his lips plump and flushed around it. His Angel hadn’t found you yet. You managed to ditch it for thirty minutes. It was a record.

“There are these scrap dealers that buy dead Angels for parts,” Jack said. “And these upcycle sites that make clocks out of their guts. Tables out of their faces. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. All that shit. You remember my cousin in Utah?” You nodded and nestled your head against Jack’s shoulder. He fed you a drag. “He collects them. He’s got this walk-in freezer with rows of them tacked behind glass like fucking butterflies. He wants to buy mine off my mom when it dies.”

Jack wrapped one arm around your shoulders then, the other around your waist, like he was clinging to a buoy, like he was afraid he’d drown in porch dust and flaking paint. His eyes darted toward the crooked opening beneath the steps. Every passing car could be his Angel’s wings. Every flying bird, his Angel’s shadow. His parents had put him on house arrest the last time he’d ditched it and then they had taken him to a doctor because they thought he was ‘exhibiting alarming behavior patterns.’ Jack had just wanted twenty minutes alone with you.

“I don’t want them making money off any of it,” Jack whispered.

“So what do you want to do with your Angel, then?” you asked.

Jack tightened his arms. “Burn it,” he said.

On the drive home, you think about how you want to tell Jack that there’s a market for that too now. There’s the Angel Memorial Crematorium on Sixth Street. And there are megachurches that will pay to burn them on their live streams. You’ve seen the popup ads, the preachers with oily hair and slick designer suits shouting about sacrilege while heaps of feathers and flesh stamped with “Heaven’s Helpers INC” smoke in the background. Cash for unwanted Angels! Save the children! Save your soul! Subscribe subscribe subscribe!

You could use the money, but you won’t sell the Angel you found in the lake. As you pull your Dodge into the long, uneven driveway of your apartment, you already know what you’re going to do with it.

You heft the Angel out of the trunk and into your arms. You aren’t going to scrap it. You drag the Angel through the back door. You aren’t going to sell it. You lay the Angel on the kitchen floor in the nook where a refrigerator once lived and you watch sunlight spill onto the ruined cherubic face.

You’re going to resurrect it.

Angels were still toys when Jack moved to town. You were only seven, but you remember the commercials, the jingle, the bright white boxes plastered with cartoon halos and broad, smiling faces. They had feather wings. Or fairy wings or bat wings or airplane wings that dusted glitter onto sidewalks and kitchen tables. They were customizable. Some of them had fiberoptic hair or bellies that doubled as nightlights. They sang lullabies and pop songs and came preprogramed with Angel Apps and links to the official Angel Accessories site.

Jack was the first kid you knew who had one.

He walked into your classroom like a whisper, spindly arms crossed behind his back as if he were trying to fold himself inside out. His Angel floated behind him like a balloon child on an invisible string, round face beaming, pale eyes fixed solely and forever on Jack.

After the teacher had introduced him to the class, she told Jack to leave his ‘doll’ in his cubby until the end of the day. Jack’s cheeks flushed as he grabbed his Angel by one fat ankle and tugged it to the back of the room, wrestling it into the narrow space between parkas and muddy yellow boots. The class giggled. One of the back-row boys threw an eraser at him when he took his seat.

Jack was ‘the kid with a doll’ after that. He sat alone at lunch and spent recess huddled against the side of the building, staring at faraway places nobody else could see. You wondered what he was looking at, if he came from a school where all the kids had Angels. If he had any friends there. If he was lonely like you.

When the art teacher sat you next to each other, you asked if Jack wanted to borrow your scissors. He looked at you like he wasn’t sure if it was a gift or a trick, so you smiled. He smiled back. Together, you ripped pages out of old magazines, the real paper kind, splashed with jewelry ads and bright toothpaste smiles. A closeup of a gecko’s eye. Two men on a sailboat, leaning together as if they were about to share a secret. You cut them into pieces, giggling as you pasted them back together, upside down and inside out, hilariously monstrous and perfect.

Two years later, when the Angels became ‘tools not toys,’ Jack’s parents were the first to buy a safety camera attachment. Retina recognition. Imprint technology. Jack’s Angel became his babysitter and tutor. It recorded his sleep patterns and monitored his cognitive development and growth percentiles, his caloric intake and expenditure. His play. But even when half the kids at school had Angels hovering over their shoulders and you didn’t have one of your own, you were still the only one who played with Jack. You were the only one who knew how many times Jack tried to drown his Angel in the bathtub or trick it into flying into traffic. You were the only one who went to the lake with him in fifth grade when he hacked his Angel’s GPS and ordered it to fly to the moon.

You sat beside him on the cold, November sand, his hand brushing against yours as you passed a bag of stale corn chips between you and watched his Angel ascend. You craned your neck, hand shielding your eyes, watching as it went higher and higher until it became a slowly circling dot, a speck, and then, gradually, nothing at all.

You held your breath, wondering if the Angel would break apart because of the altitude or just keep going up and up forever.

“Bet it can see Canada from there,” Jack said, his hand poised at the lip of the chip bag even though there was nothing left. His profile was still, his head tipped back, his eyes fixed on an empty, blue sky.

When the Angel descended ten minutes later, mission aborted but intact, ticking off facts about Apollo 11 and the 1969 moon landing, you were the only one who saw Jack cry.

You tell yourself you are doing this because your therapist says new hobbies are normal and healthy. Don’t you want to be healthy again? Don’t you want to be normal?

You don’t mention the dead Angel in your therapy sessions, though.

Instead, you dismantle the Angel’s arms in secret, peeling away synthetic skin and tugging out wires like worms onto the kitchen floor. Then it’s the chest, flayed into wide sections, white and gelatinous, heart a fist of tubes and pumps, lungs like purple sponges. The brain spills over the linoleum like soup. The eyes are delicate as uncooked eggs. The wings are so rotten that, when you finally pull them out to clean them, the stench drags your breakfast out of your gut in one startling heave. It takes you an hour to clean up the mess.

The Angel is a collage of circuitry and organic layers that you don’t really understand, so you begin reading tutorials. Angels 101: A Complete Guide. The Heavenly Phenomenon. Angels for Dummies. Gradually, you lose yourself in textbooks about bioengineering and computer programming. Robotics. Design. Anatomy. Alchemy. Religion. You begin surfing the deep web for secrets. You plot how you might trick dormant organic tissue into repair and regeneration mode without original purchase codes. You learn how to substitute plastic bags for air bladders, fan blades for propellers, a marble for one hopeless eye.

For months, the Angel consumes you.

Some nights, you fall asleep beside it, slumped against the kitchen cabinets, a dislocated hand nestled in your arms. Sometimes you don’t sleep at all and you are never quite sure if the memory of soft whispers is a dream or if you somehow miraculously teased the Angel to life in the middle of the night only to have it die again before sunrise.

You work on it through your morning coffee, cup in one hand, wrench in the other. You turn its half-formed head toward the kitchen door when you leave and you imagine what its voice will sound like.


“Have a nice day.”

“Stay. Just a little longer. Please. Please, stay.”

When you were fourteen, you became fascinated by Jack’s voice. It tripped over itself when he laughed. It broke toward something deeper and dangerously adult when he whispered and everything inside you curled. You couldn’t stop thinking about the veins emerging on the backs of his hands, winding like secret rivers toward his fingers. You wanted him to touch you. You dreamed about him touching you. And you couldn’t look directly at him when you wrestled anymore because he was breathless and flushed and on top of you and awkwardly, impossibly beautiful.

When Jack first kissed you, under a Lake Erie dock where his ditched Angel hadn’t found you yet, he told you he was going to leave his eyes open because he’d never kissed another boy before and he wanted to see if it was more or less real than kissing girls.

You kept your eyes closed.

You knew how real it was.

As he leaned in close, the world inside you capsized and you were certain your heart was going to beat out of your chest, tumble end over end past the orange safety net and empty vodka bottles at your feet and down into the hungry water. You imagined it breaking into a thousand digestible pieces. How would you ever be able to survive without it? When your chapped lips collided, the entirety of you shattered like a ship against a breaker wall. You became flotsam. Jetsam. Lagan. Derelict. The pieces of you scattered so deep you knew you’d never be able to recover them all.

You weren’t sure you wanted to.

It’s an April afternoon when you finally begin stitching your dead Angel together again. Torso propped between your legs, you tenderly tuck the restored parts back into its skin, the plastic gears and motors and layers of wet muscle. You reposition regenerated organs. You reunite wires. You secure delicate bolts. When the Angel is nearly whole, you deposit the voice box deep in its narrow throat, a waxy pearl swaddled in meat and electrical tethers. You key in the final, pirated code and murmur “please work, please work, please work” like a mantra.

There is a rattle and the Angel begins to hum fitfully against you. You stroke its hair, try to imagine the hacked nanites diving into the Angel’s veins and cavities, connecting organic tissue to inorganic armatures, weaving one world into another and bridging the gaps your hands could never hope to mend.

Jack died three days before his seventeenth birthday. You told yourself then that it wasn’t real. You didn’t see it happen. He hadn’t taken you with him when he went to the beach this time. He only took his Angel. And a can of lighter fluid. And book of matches and a bottle of pills and his dad’s handgun. You didn’t see him burn his Angel, torching it so it couldn’t save him. You didn’t see him take pill after pill after pill. You didn’t see him panic. You didn’t see him pull the trigger.

It couldn’t be real.

Reality wasn’t Jack laughing sadly against your shoulder one day and dead before breakfast the next. Reality wasn’t a closed casket because Jack had blown half his jaw away. Reality wasn’t a funeral with Jack’s uncle lamenting a dead Angel instead of a dead nephew.

Reality was a dirty lake pretending to be an ocean.

Reality was six months of Xanax and broken dishes and flunking out of math because you threw up the day the teacher called you Jack’s name by mistake. Reality was sneaking into an abandoned gas station to mourn, and crying and jerking off instead and hating yourself for it. Reality was a dock with vodka bottles and an orange safety net lodged so deep in the sand the waves couldn’t dig it out. Beached fish tangled in it instead. Every day you watched their slow dissolve into silence.

And as six months became a year, became three, and your loneliness never healed, you began to believe that your reality, too, must be silence.

It’s after midnight when the Angel begins to sing.

You’d fallen asleep with its body cradled in your arms, its forehead pressed against yours, the smell of ozone and plastic and regenerated flesh all around you. It’s the sudden intake of air that wakes you, the thin, reedy inhalation buzzing through a reconstructed throat. Your head is on the linoleum, your neck is cramped, but you don’t move. You are terrified that this isn’t real, that the sound will dissipate like smoke or sea foam if you jostle it. So you lie there, barely breathing, anticipation trembling through you. You watch as the Angel’s throat quivers. It swallows. It smiles.

It sings.

It’s a tuneless sound, broad and soft as whale song, static fizzing distantly behind it like an incoming tide. The Angel’s lips are slightly out of sync, forming O’s and A’s a beat too late, and there are no consonants, only round noises swelling through the moonlit kitchen like slow, summer air.

When you were kids, Jack brought you back a conch shell from Saint Martin. It came wrapped in bright paper, a sailboat and a sunrise repeating forever around the uneven shape. You sat together on his bed, shoulder to shoulder, and he showed you how to hold the shell against your ear, how if you listened carefully, you could hear the sea roaring toward you. You passed the shell back and forth, waves flowing between you, deep and steady and real as a pulse.

Now, when you finally gather the courage to move, you press your ear to the Angel’s lips. You close your eyes. You listen to it sing until the sun comes up, willing the sound of the ocean into you until all you hear is the rush of salt waves and the truth of deep sea water.

Lora Gray’s writing has appeared in various publications including The Dark, Flash Fiction Online, Liminal Stories and Strange Horizons. A graduate of Clarion West, Lora currently lives in Northeast Ohio with a handsome husband and a freakishly smart cat named Cecil. When they aren’t writing, Lora also works as an illustrator, dance instructor and occasionally moonlights as a voice over artist and musician. You can find them online at or on twitter @LoraJGray.

Other Angels:

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

Anna Saves Them All, by Seth Dickinson

Serein, by Cat Hellisen


They Have a Name For That, by Sara Beitia

“I don’t get this,”she says to her father about the station promo playing on the muted TV.

Daddy blinks—at the screen, not her.

They’ve been waiting for the local weather report, or at least she has. There’s no telling what’s on his mind. He’s in his favorite chair, and she’s pushing her luck on the chintz loveseat no one’s supposed to sit on except to delicately perch, as per Mother. (It’s still firm and shiny like a showroom piece, which is Mother’s preference.)

She’s trying to make polite conversation with her father while they wait to be shooed, bossed, or otherwise put to work in service of The Wedding, caps audible. The early light through the window is honey-gold, like it always is in this rosy little room this time of year.

What don’t you get, my dear?” she supplies for him when Daddy glances up but doesn’t speak. It’s harder for her mouth to form the words than it should be.

She notices sweat slicking his brow line, and remembers how even at dawn this little room just roasts this time of year. She realizes sweat has beaded her forehead, too, under the fur of which there’s now a little more.

“See,” she says, gesturing at the smiling blonde on the screen, “they have the girl—I think she’s the weather gal?—holding up a smartphone and telling us how great their app is. You know what an app is, Dad?”

Not that she expects a back-and-forth. She feels guilty about visiting so rarely even though Mother and Cal have described Daddy’s decline.

“But then when they cut to the close-up of the phone app, the hand holding the phone is a man’s: Big thick fingers and hairy knuckles. So you only ever see her face and those gorilla mitts. Implication: those are her man hands. Why didn’t someone notice that when they edited the promo?”

Daddy makes a funny noise in his throat and widens his eyes in alarm. His eyebrows like two white stoats slink upward.

“Oh, Dad, don’t worry. It’s funny is all. Like if I had hands like yours. Or you had hands like mine.” She holds up her hands, rotating them front to back like a model. “Silly, see?”

This doesn’t help. She wishes she hadn’t tried to draw him out. He’s showing signs of agitation, and it’s not as if he was such scintillating company even when he still had all his marbles. She sighs. It’s understood that today has to be one of his good ones, given the occasion, but no one can say how that’s to be achieved, exactly, beyond hoping.

If he remains docile, though, the gradual loss of his mind has smoothed his already handsome brow, which will make for some terrific wedding photos. (Unfair when he’d be judged least for a failure on that.) Haircut’s on but nobody’s home. Assuming, too, he doesn’t forget the guests and the cameras, shed his suit on the lawn. Assuming Mother doesn’t forget her famous company manners. Assuming Cal doesn’t forget she’s happy and start crying. Assuming the prodigal sister remains presentable, which is very much in question; she can feel something welling up, ready to pop like a boil. This is not hyperbole.

She hopes to miss the quarrel over how to purge those who don’t live up to photogenic standard from the wedding album, and other tribulations so very relatable. She hopes to be on a plane by then. The argument will smell like hairspray and white wine and sulfur.

Mother insists everyone always said what an attractive quartet the family was, and there’s a stair wall lined with years of family portraits to bear this out. And now Cal and her groom will have children of their own, probably immediately, and they’ll be beautiful, of course, because Calliope won’t have it otherwise, and somehow that’ll settle it, because her life is a fairytale, so she can’t conceive otherwise. It’s not her fault.

And will these cherubs have the family’s standard gray eyes, or Calliope’s medium blue? What color are Charlie’s eyes? She’s only met him a handful of times, and his handsomeness exists whole-cloth to her, not in details she can recount. It’s more a knowledge, like the sky is blue: Cal’s fiancé is handsome.

Eyes on the TV and not Daddy, she finds herself still babbling about those TV anchor’s mismatched mitts. “Maybe she’s a prima donna,” she muses, “and they wanted to make her look foolish.”

“Stop confusing him,” commands a voice that even in annoyance is smooth-polished maple wood. This is Mother’s stealth entrance into the little sitting room.

“Only making conversation.” She isn’t sure why she tries when she’s so bad at it. Calliope is much better at handling their father, now that he needs handling. It’s not like Cal was always his favorite and there’s some residual, decontextualized preference; all their lives Daddy seemed to hold a roughly equal genial indifference to both his daughters. But Calliope’s getting ready, so it falls to the less-qualified daughter to watch him.

Mother rolls her eyes. “He’s having a bad enough day already. Thinks today’s his uncle’s funeral. And your sister’s already beside herself, of course.” It’s clear Mother means about the bees, though she’s the one who’s been in a tizzy. “Breakfast is ready.”

“I have to finish the words,” Daddy pipes up suddenly. “The speech to give.” Then he shouts, “The eulogy!” and rubs his hands back and forth along the thighs of his trousers.

“After we eat,” his wife says firmly, reaching out to hold his chin in her hand for a moment of sustained eye contact.

Mother leaves without waiting to see if the two of them follow; she assumes they will, and she’s correct. The not-getting-married-today daughter stands and offers her father an arm, but he waves her off irritably and practically leaps from the chair with no trouble. He pauses to shoot his cuffs, like he’s headed someplace where impressions matter. She remembers to turn the television off, knowing how Mother feels about such things.

There’s an extra charge of nervous electricity in the air, as there always is before a hundred people converge on a place. She can’t understand why Cal chose to have her wedding here—beautiful as their parents’ home is, with the view of the valley and the aspen grove and Mother’s garden—when she could’ve just booked a venue and let someone else worry about infestations and spots on the lawn and where to put the tables and chairs and the tulle-draped arch where the officiant will bind Charlie and Calliope foreverandever in the eyes of God, or at least for an agreed-upon time in the eyes of the state.

The visiting daughter hasn’t seen the nuclear family for some time before this wedding weekend, but somehow the four of them have fallen again into established rhythms and old patterns. Daddy and Mother are the monoliths again, and the sisters are co-conspirators and semi-rivals again, and these things had ceased to be true before this time-travel interlude and will evaporate again once she’s gone and Cal’s off on her honeymoon.

The course of her life has advanced apart from this airless pocket. Neither her parents nor her sister know she was married—fleetingly—and bereaved. If “bereaved” is the word for a sort of wistful serendipity. She never mentioned either when they happened, and now several years have passed and it seems like a scene excised from someone else’s script anyway.

She emailed Cal a couple pictures of Levi and her at the beginning of things, snapshots and vacation pics and arm-in-arm at other people’s celebrations. And she mentioned him occasionally during infrequent duty calls to the homestead. Mother referred to him as “your fellow” if she ever referred to him and never probed, so it was easy to let it drop once he phased himself out.

Unlike Daddy, she finds the short walk to the dining room taxing. The floors are slick and her balance is off and her feet hurt, having become quite narrow as her toes fuse and grow hard. She’s afraid to say anything at this eleventh hour, but her wedding shoes for sure don’t fit anymore. Not with these hooves she’s sporting. Calliope will defecate bricks if things keep up this way.

Daddy’s mind, then the termites, the gophers, the bees, and now this. The headline in Cal’s head will read “Awful Sister Is Last Straw,” though maybe that’s not fair to Cal. She was reasonable enough before the wedding warp-sped away with her equanimity. Maybe it’ll be “Universe Ruins Calliope’s Big Day” instead. The patch of coarse white fur that’s been creeping over her stomach itches, but she resists the urge to scratch.

A thick perfume finds her from the formal living room. The wedding flowers fill it because they can’t be put outside until the bees are gone. Her stomach rumbles as she toddles past to the breakfast table.

“Egg?” Mother hovers a shallow spoon over her plate with an expectant look. “Daddy,” she says, “pass her the toast.”

“Egg, yes, thank you.” She treats her mother as politely as waitstaff, which is all the woman ever wanted when the girls were growing up. Not help, just: respect. Hard-won when your kids know your weak spot.

Water under the bridge, she thinks, feeling out of context and free. She shed this place like a snake skin when she left for college and never really came back. It’s no longer a part of her but a remnant, like a neat scar.

Her fingers ache and stiffen, but she forces them clumsily around the fork and refuses to look.

Ignores the tiny

darn, there’s more

that pops into her head.

She stabs the yolk of the poached egg and watches it run over her toast. She glances up to see Mother watching Daddy eat. Mother has the sugar bowl in both hands, clamping the lid down with one and cradling the bottom in the other, and gives it one deliberate, emphatic shake. She doesn’t even know she’s doing it, so ingrained is the gesture. Does anyone else give their sugar bowl such a violent jostle before dishing out a spoonful? Does anyone else dread clumping crystals as Mother does?

“Today is going well,” Mother says, in the middle of an imaginary conversation with no one in particular. Shake. “Considering. I think it’s going to be a beautiful day. Have you heard from Charlie?” she asks Calliope, who’s just slipped wordlessly into her chair at the table.

“Don’t,” Cal says. She helps herself to a grapefruit half and takes the sugar bowl right out of Mother’s hands. “I’m this close to losing it,” she says, but she looks showroom-fresh as always, rested and subtly tanned. She snaps at her sister, “Are you going to shave your legs?”

“I hadn’t thought about it,” the hairy-legged sister fibs, startled by Cal’s prescience. Her nostrils flare, and several more interesting smells hit her at once.

Passing Cal a piece of toast Cal won’t eat, Mother says, “Once we get the bees sorted, everything will be perfect,” and receives a snort in response.

The daughter who’s already eaten her toast thinks about all the exterminations deemed necessary this week. She says, “This place is turning into a slaughterhouse.”

“Oh, come on.” Cal rolls her eyes.

“Please,” Mother says.

“Bees, bugs, rodents,” she ticks off a sluggish tongue. “Hey, remember the rabbits? When Cal and I were small?”

Mother acts like she doesn’t. The daughter who remembers can still see the ravaging their mother’s vegetables took that year, and their mother’s tearful rage at every ruined plant, and the un-cute reality that in no way resembled a Peter Rabbit storybook.

(“You like your tomatoes and raspberries and spring peas, or do you prefer those damn bunnies?” Daddy asked rhetorically as he tried to remember which shelf held the box of birdshot. The sisters had ultimately preferred the tomatoes; the rabbits were mangy, flea-bitten, angry little thieves. They felt the blood on their hands, even so.)

Thinking of rabbits makes her flanks itch, and she scratches and scratches until Cal snaps at her to stop. Her ears twitch at the talking and dishes clanking and feet on floorboards. Were they always so loud?

Calliope isn’t diverted from her sister’s appearance. “Have your eyes always been so brown?”

“What a question!” their mother answers for her.

But Cal has more. “Can’t you do something about your ears?”

She’s tried for several days to explain her growing trouble, but each time she’s accused of being dramatic. There’s no point in trying again. She blinks, abashed.

“I’ve always admired your ears, Anna,” Daddy says to the daughter with the unacceptable ears. He winks. “You’re far too pretty for a funeral.”

Anna is his wife’s younger sister, and aunt and niece do—or did—look alike, more than the mother and daughter, people have said.

“Nestor, that’s your daughter, not Anna.” Mother’s eyes shine as she explains, “Your other daughter, Calliope, is getting married today.”

“Oh.” It’s obvious he’s confused. He goes back to dismembering his grapefruit. Then he asks, “Then who are we burying?”

“We’re not burying anyone!” That’s the good pepper from Mother. “The aviarist should be here by now,” she says, calm once more, changing the subject.

Is Cal bringing in doves? But no; uncontrollable cloacae are not her sister’s wedding style. “Apiarist?” she asks. “You mean a beekeeper?”

“Obviously that’s what I meant.” Mother looks at her wristwatch, because she still wears a wristwatch, a delicate rose gold thing her own mother gave her for her eighteenth birthday. “Where is he?”

They’re cutting it close with the wedding ceremony set for four, but the bees are a last-minute problem discovered only yesterday.

On cue, there’s a knock at the kitchen door. They all jump except Daddy. Mother pushes back from the table to go answer it, detonating a cryptic sigh that could be relief or annoyance or gas.

They hear voices from the kitchen, and Mother comes back with the bee guy, who’s still wearing a backpack and a repurposed tool belt and a battered straw hat he hasn’t removed indoors as a gentleman does. His face is so tanned, the recently brown-eyed daughter thinks, it’s age-indeterminate. She wonders what further bag of tricks he might’ve left outside.

Cal offers him coffee, and Daddy kicks out a chair from the table. The bee guy declines both with a headshake and a smile.

Mother, however, cuts to the chase. “How long will it take to kill the bees? We have a lot of setting up to do yet, and they’re very aggressive.” Said with palpable disapproval.

“I don’t kill them!” the bee guy exclaims with equally palpable disapproval. “I lure them away. I’m the Pied Piper.” Maybe to soften his lecturing vibe, he winks at the daughter who’s trying not to scratch her fuzzed legs. She’s a wink magnet today.

Mother’s right about the bees being aggressive, though; they look like harmless little honeybees, but they’re territorial and suicidal and mean as wasps.

But who isn’t? she thinks.

“Let’s get to it,” Mother says. Gesturing at the remains of breakfast, she says to the daughter not getting married, “Be a darling and clear this?”

“But my hands.” She holds them up to illustrate how suddenly inadequate she’s become.

Irritated, Mother rolls her eyes.

The bee guy follows Mother out the back door to see the fiends threatening to muck up Calliope’s wedding. Daddy trails. Cal mumbles something about the caterer and heads toward the front door while she taps out urgent messages on her phone.

For the moment, the house is quiet. She’s alone.

She doesn’t mean to wind up in the formal living room with all those flowers, but she does. They’re beautiful. They’re irresistible, like a pastry or a drug or a kiss.

Before she knows it, several of the flowers are destroyed or disappeared—eaten halfway down the stem, even the roses. Cherry blossoms right off the branch. Hydrangea puffs emptied, their tiny dismembered bits littering the carpet.

Golly, she thinks.

How much money just went into her stomach, she thinks.

Would it matter, she thinks, if she ate just a few more of the columbines. A buttercup or two. Consider the name, buttercup: It’s delectable.

And then she thinks, no one saw me.

But the damage is done, there’ll be no hiding it. And they’ll know it was her. Daddy might have taken the fall, except he’s hovering around the Congress of the Bees.

She doesn’t want to be here when Cal discovers the damage to her wedding regalia, so she makes her sly, laborious way out the back.

It’s a thick, sun-kissed morning that feels vibrant green, contrasting with the (guilt-perfumed and watchful) fever-yellow rooms inside. She gulps a lungful of heat and new-mown grass. She knows the property with her eyes closed, so ingrained are its paths and corners and plots and hollows.

Maybe it’s the occasion, but she recalls viscerally Levi’s handsomeness. She figures in retrospect it’s why, succumbing to impulse, she married him. She never did get around to dragging him to the old homestead. They both traveled for work, excuse enough, and figured they’d get around to it “down the road.” She can’t remember where his folks live, or whether they knew of the marriage; he never introduced her to his people, either. She can’t remember if she contacted them after Levi’s desertion, or if maybe some bureaucratic mechanism did the job.

He had a decent career photographing far-flung locales for various travel glossies. Mountains and rivers and skies and reefs and suns risings and suns setting—nature fetishized, tamed. The descriptor of his work that comes to her mind is efficient. She’d flown to the island to meet up with him on what turned out to be his last shoot. There was a new-moon night and a stunning comet, then innuendo and superstition and Levi gone. She was left with exotic flora and an empty tent. And she was relieved, in a way. After a couple months they both wanted out, in a low-grade fashion, though not badly enough to do anything about it. His disappearance had made the back pages here and there, but there wasn’t much of a story in “man swims, drowns.” Not if you weren’t famous.

“Humans are background in my spreads,” he informed her when they met: decorative, inoffensive, anonymous set-dressing. His pet project—the pictures that meant something to him—was livelier. His career was a pet project, but Levi nevertheless had another nestled inside it. The first time she went home with him, he showed her a portfolio of faces: stark and unlovely grimaces and sneers and snarls, scowls and frowns.

These are very convincing, she said, tracing finger over one woman’s arched upper lip, the tip of one protruding tooth.

They should be, he said. He closed the book in her hands and slid it out of her grip. Gently, decisively, like he did everything. The whole interlude should’ve annoyed her silly, but it didn’t. He was so very handsome.

Instead she asked, “How do you make them angry?”

He wouldn’t tell. Trade secret, he said. “Maybe I’ll do you one day.” It had been a tease, but also a challenge.

She doubted it. She was sure there was nothing in her to be mined, though she decided to let him discover that for himself.

But they ran out of time. After the second day on location wrapped, he went night swimming on his own, bravura that was really just showing off. She’s sure she tried to talk him out of it. And afterwards, well. That comet—while beautiful—was just a comet. Everyone there wanted so much for it to mean something, to be linked, to signify hidden depths, because they couldn’t conceive of Levi being gone for no cosmic reason at all.

The crew called in the disappearance, wrangled the report and supplied what details there were. She didn’t have to do anything.

“You’ve been touched by otherworld,” the lead producer told her through fat, angry tears, spitting otherworld like it was a known enemy who’d bested her before. The lead producer had worked with Levi many times, and clearly loved him.

She didn’t know what to say to otherworld, so she mumbled, “Thank you,” feeling inane. Her ankles were constellated with sand-flea bites.

Sometimes she likes to think Levi and his pet producer had manufactured his death so they could run off together. A romantic picture, even with herself omitted.

She’s tried to be comforted by the egalitarian, indifferent ways life might be hard or unfair.

It’s a long walk down to the trees, backwards through the arch and the lane between white folding chairs. She finds Mother and the bee guy watching a sluggish mound through a column of smoke rising from an apparatus that looks like a cross between an accordion and a coffee urn, with an old wheelbarrow for its base. Mother looks up as she approaches, and she appears to have been stung under one eye, the swelling creating a jaunty twinkle that’s very misleading.

The daughter who’s feeling sorry for the bees watches the smoke, feeling as disoriented as the insects. A few of the more stalwart bees mill around, but the bee guy, with a fistful of long juniper sprigs and an aluminum pie plate, ignores them.

The swarm swirls in its own pattern without really dispersing. Their electric hum swells. When the wind changes, the bees reform on the lilac branch and hunker down. Mother takes an unsteady step back, and who could blame her.

“Don’t you just … kidnap the queen?” Mother says loudly to the bee guy, who ignores her and watches the smoke. “This isn’t working.”

“Par for the course!” Cal calls, marching toward them with a denuded stem held between her thumb and forefinger like it’s something rotten. She pins her sister with an opaque look.

The sister who ate the flower averts her gaze.

Mother, oblivious, says, “We’ve never had trouble with honey bees before,” and it’s also obvious that she wants the bee guy to feel he has some culpability in this.

“So I’ll have wedding bees,” Cal says with a bark of laughter. “Maybe they can replace the massacre inside.”

“What?” Mother snaps into focus.

Daddy’s drawn to the action now, too, armed with the old .22 he used on the garden-pilfering bunnies and a few seasons of corn-picking pheasants and the squirrels who dig at the daffodil and tulip bulbs every single fall.

He announces, “We sure do have a pest problem.” He’s very chipper about it, though.

“Are you going to shoot them?” Cal asks with a wry motion toward the smoky cloud of bees—which seems a dangerous gesture with Mother and the bee guy in there, too.

“Pert,” their father reprimands, not Cal but the daughter who hasn’t spoken.

Why not, the silent daughter thinks. Pert. It’s an epithet he’s always loved, and that love, unlike the love he felt for his family, has lasted as his brain becomes a soft cheese. She’s pert like the two-in-one shampoo/conditioner. Though that’s not what he means.

“Come closer,” he murmurs to her, and she allows him to scratch her ears before tottering backwards out of reach.

“Was it you?” Cal asks her sister, holding up a bent and stripped tea-rose stem like a visual aid. She’s calm, but in this moment Levi would’ve had a perfect subject. “Did you wreck my flowers?”

“Oh, darling, you didn’t,” Mother moans, glancing from the accused to the flower and back. Now two perfect subjects. “How could you be so mean?”

She finds her mouth has been slyly reconstructing. She wants to speak, but her tongue and teeth and palate refuse to form the words I didn’t mean to.

“This day has to be perfect,” Daddy says, recalling something correctly for once, though he’s matter-of-fact rather than angry. “You should run off now, little thing,” he then advises the daughter whose velvety ears he’s just scratched, examining the gun as if he’s just remembered it. “It’s a shame to kill something so pretty, but.” He doesn’t say the words that come after “but.”

“Is that even licensed?” Mother asks in a hushed voice, looked around as if someone with a citation book might be hiding in the azaleas, ready to spring. “Aren’t there seasons for these things?”

“I don’t need a license, dammit, this is my property.”

“Nes …” wheedles Mother.

“My property to defend!” he bellows, no doubt channeling some earlier memory. Or a movie he once saw.

“Dad, no!” shouts Calliope, looking ferocious and fed up—more wedding jitters, no doubt.

The daughter who’s rapidly changing doesn’t stay to hear the tribunal’s final decision on whether it’s necessary to shoot flower-eating vermin. She doesn’t stay to tell them season and license aren’t really the point, afraid they’ll disregard the information as biased and therefore suspect. She thinks Calliope’s on her side, but she’s taking no chances.

These scattered thoughts sprint with her into the trees as her limbs figure out how to move in accord again. She slows up and stops in the dark canopy once she realizes no one’s behind her. The pain of adrenaline dump is crippling, and she doesn’t know if that’s more human or deer.

Like her hearing and sense of smell, her eyesight is sharper now. Statue-still she watches from the airless green until Daddy wanders off, probably forgetting who he meant to shoot and why. Her emerging angles and the low branches and brambles plucked her clothes to tatters, strip by strip, bright bits of cloth that birds and squirrels will use to build their nests. She remembers that Mother once had Daddy poison the silly little robins who built their nest over the kitchen door.

Mother and Calliope haven’t followed Daddy, but have gone back instead to watching the bee guy’s smoke fail to lull the bees enough for him to convey them far from this all-important event. The bee guy doesn’t care at all about the bees right now, though; he only has eyes for the dotty fellow with the gun.

She doesn’t move for fear of giving herself away. She perks up her ears, listening for clues as to their intentions, but her family’s still talking about the bees. The bee guy, it seems to the daughter who’s hiding, looks ready to bolt, too, a sudden move that might not be smart.

She feels like a worn-in deer, no freshly minted doe. (Thought in Mother’s voice.) Here fleas, there mats, gashes from branches, and—could it be?—a tick. She wonders if she can give the tick to Calliope, then feels like a beast for thinking it. Calliope doesn’t deserve a deer tick. She deserves pretty flowers and decent weather and nicer bees.

Mother, fed up with his ineffectuality and aware that time’s dwindling away, demands of the bee guy, “Do have a professional certification?” and before he can answer, “You really don’t kill them?”

He looks horrified, it seems to the daughter who watches from the trees, and then his mouth stretches into a thin line. “No, no, ma’am. I’m not an exterminator.”

“Then we’re done here,” Mother snaps. She takes Cal’s arm, saying, “I have some pest poisons in the barn. Where did your father get to?”

“God knows,” Cal mutters. “We’d better find him. I wish I’d known before we planned all this.” She doesn’t say what she wishes she’d known.

Mother makes no reply, but even from the trees it’s obvious she’s close to tears again. She notices the bee guy still standing there. “Gather your equipment and leave. Send me your bill.”

Which doesn’t seem altogether on the up-and-up to the daughter who’s watching, or to the bee guy. He doesn’t move, like he’s thinking of how to explain something. She’d like to beckon him into the trees, tell him not to waste his words, but she’s afraid to move, with Daddy still tramping around with that .22.

She hopes suddenly that Cal never wishes Charlie would disappear and he doesn’t, or wishes he wouldn’t disappear and he does. If she could figure out how, she’d make it her wedding toast. She tried to express something like it during the first night of her visit, during unpracticed sister-bonding over drinks (like you see in fiction, but awkward in real life), the sweet spot of Calliope’s “I’m getting married!” euphoria and before the final-stretch wedding insanity. But she couldn’t make Cal understand. Partly because they were both sloshed, and partly because Cal didn’t know about Levi.

Her neck hurts, and words like growth and sore and protuberance scroll through her brain as it swells. Her fingers are hard and stiff and unrecognizable. She bends and scratches her flank against a tree to calm the itch from the tick bite.

Maybe catching the shake of the leaves, Cal’s gaze comes her way, and it’s hard to say if their eyes really lock, or if Cal’s just scanning her direction. Calliope’s face is raked by sunlight and so impossible to read.

“Do I have to do everything myself?” Daddy hollers from nearby, loud enough to send a wave of finches out of the dogwoods. He probably doesn’t realize the sentiment historically belongs not to him but to Mother.

The daughter whose heart is growing feral feels the organ’s beat pause, then surge.

Cal sprints over the grass to head off their father, who stalks forward brandishing that old cannon.

He fires a shot into the air, accidentally or on purpose, it’s impossible to tell. This is just what’s needed to unfreeze the bee guy, who runs into the trees without bothering with his equipment or his budding argument with Mother.

“Daddy!” Cal admonishes, one hand on the old man’s shoulder, the other pushing the barrel up. She calls over her shoulder, “For hell’s sake, Mom, why haven’t you gotten rid of this thing? Take it and put it somewhere out of the way! What if Charlie shows up in the middle of all this nonsense?”

Mother, brittle to cracking, accepts the gun and heads toward the pasture like the thing is a live snake.

So engrossed is the watching daughter, she misses her brain’s frantic signals warning her to attend to the crashing approach upon her hiding spot.

“It’s you!”

It’s the bee guy, surprised but pleased. “Don’t bolt. I never hurt a woman,” he says, panting in exertion and fear but still a friend of nature, “or a deer, either. We can go together, quiet, look out for each other?”

“I can’t, I’m the maid of honor,” she says, though she’s not sure that’s true anymore.

He just looks at her. Maybe she didn’t say the words, maybe they only flow so easily anymore in her mind. How long that will last, she can’t guess. He mutters, “These Craigslist jobs never work out—”

She can’t tell if this is an attempt at (gallows?) humor. Like Mother, she wonders if he really knows about bees.

A crash and a bang and shouts, still close.

Maybe she can leave after all. They move, as noiselessly as a bee wrangler and a woman-who’s-not-quite-yet-a-deer-but-getting-there-she-fears can move. Her mind still feels like hers, but she isn’t optimistic. She isn’t much worried, either, which might be an upside.

The bee guy doesn’t seem to mind her abnormality, or lack of stimulating conversation. Her mouth won’t really let her talk at all now, but the bee guy seems happy enough to provide her side along with his.

“I’m going through a change, too,” he says, as if they were already discussing it.

There’s an implied conversation, she thinks, so maybe it’s not so highhanded. Handed. Calliope’s shorthanded without her, though the aunts and cousins should be arriving soon, so maybe not. Maybe they can knead Daddy into something presentable, for Cal’s sake. Underhanded. Maybe they can just sedate him, and Cal can walk him down the aisle. She’s becoming unhanded.

“I believe reality holds endless vicissitudes—you’re surprised a humble apiarist uses this word?—vicissitudes we rarely notice, because we’re engrossed in our own.” He doesn’t explain what change has hold of him. Instead he says, “The bees are changing, too. You see how angry they are? They don’t have our human adaptability.” He winks at her for the second time since they met. “And now they’re out of balance.”

She wants to believe him, that what’s happening to her—well, these things happen. Everyone’s out of balance, you’re not special. It doesn’t matter. He has green eyes, the whites a bit jaundiced to make them almost amber, not unlike a deer’s. Whatever else, their needs dovetail perfectly in this moment.

(And Levi? Did their needs simply split like a branch or a road?)

The bee guy reaches into his pocket, and she stiffens with the new wariness that’s part of her remodeling. He holds a little fluty pipe the way a woman holds a cigarette.

He says, “I want to know what has the bees so unbalanced. I want to talk to them, before the lady finds her insecticides.” And though she’s made no reply, he demands, “You don’t think they’ll talk with me?” He shows her the maker’s mark on the instrument, a slender and florid etching, and she makes out the words: honeysuckle tone.

She wishes she could tell him she’s suspended all judgements and beliefs at this time.

He puts the pipe to his lips and blows. Despite his apparent effort, she hears nothing from the instrument. After some time, she becomes aware of the swarm nearby, a faint hum that surges to a crescendo as the bees get closer.

He stops blowing. “You see. I told them to follow us.” She looks a question at him, which he seems to understand. “To safety.”

Safety? What does he think that word means? She wants to correct him, tell him there is no safety, no us—just movement and temporary dovetailing. But the limits of their unspoken communication have been reached.

They’re almost at the break where the highway cuts the trees, just a few yards from the long drive that leads up to the house. A convoy of caterer’s vans is just now turning one by one up the road. She and the bee guy stop well back in unspoken accord, to avoid being seen. Maybe all that nice food, she thinks, will make up for the wrecked florals and the uninvited insects and Daddy’s premature sundowning and the MIA maid of honor whose hooves won’t fit into her dyed-to-match wedding shoes anyway.

She looks back up the rise, and above the trees there’s a trickle of smoke, sooty and not so festive, the last of the smoke from the bee guy’s accordion-coffeepot apparatus. She hopes he returns for his tools, maybe steals them back in the night. Mother will stow them somewhere hard to find so they don’t mar the weddingscape.

Maybe Levi didn’t mean to leave, didn’t want to leave. Maybe the comet was otherworld; maybe he went through his own unexpected transformation and left as the comet they all saw, no chance to explain or say goodbye.

“The coast is clear,” the bee guy murmurs like the lead in a mediocre detective film. “We can cross now, before more cars come.” He puts the pipe to his mouth and resumes his soundless siren song. The swarm’s hum swells again, or maybe she’s imagining it.

She tries and fails to worry about where they’re going and what’s next, how complete her change will be, how permanent. She wishes she’d eaten all of the flowers while she had the chance. They sprint across the wide lanes of pavement, and back into the trees on the other side. She easily beats the bee guy across. She assumes the bees are following, though she doesn’t know what their plans are, either.

All phenomena are explainable, she thinks, breaking trail for both herself and the bee guy through low branches and thick undergrowth. When we don’t know enough about something unusual to comprehend it, to name it, we decide it’s reality, not us, that won’t bend. And then maybe we shoot it, or maybe we run away. This moment is a vivid reminder, though, that explainable and explained sometimes run in close parallel without curving to intersect.

A shot report echoes at the backs of the deer-woman who runs away and the want-ad apiarist who runs with her. Was Mother’s confiscation across the pasture not far enough, or is this something else? There’s another report, then another, but the last is a distant and retreating boom.

Sara Beitia lives and writes in the Gem State, which is really the “Famous Potatoes” state like it says on the license plates. Her first novel was selected for YALSA’s 2011 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults list. Find her online at (you may have to brush asides some cobwebs).


Published March 2018, Shimmer #42, 6100 words

Other Woods Await You:

Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde

In the Pines, by K.M. Carmien

We Take the Long View, by Erica L. Satifka

The Triumphant Ward of the Railroad and the Sea, by Sara Saab

Almost everyone I entertain over a frosted fifth of vodka—bottle balanced precariously on a foldout tray, half my attention on keeping it upright—wants to know how I became a competitive eater. Also, how I found myself living on the Dbovotav Coastal Express.

It’s not that odd, I say. In my family we all love eating. I do my belly out like a pufferfish, slide my butt to the edge of the molded seat, and open my knees into a deep V. The rumble of the train is in my calves. My drinking companions love it. They are drunk. You’re a blast, Neave! We all know they’re wondering where my ten shots of vodka went and when I’m likely to keel over. A girl like me doesn’t look the part of a competitive eater.

When the vodka’s finished Srdan will arrive to pull me out of my seat, issuing goodnights on my behalf. Springs squeak behind us as the tray packs shut. At the door to my sleeper cabin, Srdan says goodnight to me. I always sleep alone. I bolt the door thrice. The Dbovotav hoots in the dark, a hollow and lusty sound. I can’t fall asleep without it, the Dbovotav’s hoot. I picture my train cycling its tracks crying for something—a lover? Its child? The truth?

You must long for the truth too, even if my drinking companions are more interested in unrequited fantasies of hiding from winter and sadness behind the drapery of my black hair. Here is a piece I own of the truth: I became a competitive eater because I was afraid of floating out to sea. Food is ballast. Saturate your guts, render them heavy as waterlogged rope, and remain planted firmly to the ground.

The sea. I was afraid because of what happened to my family. I couldn’t understand it, so I focused on my craft. Honed it. I can put away a gallon of bathtub brew in forty-eight seconds. I’ve eaten a stack of sausages so tall it speared itself on a lantern hook in the low ceiling of Huluu Public House near the port at Arnik. The sausages took me twenty-two minutes, after which I cut the grease coating my throat with a pitcher of lager.

Why would I stop when I am so good?

Srdan does not remember boarding the Dbovotav, but my first memory of him is indelible: A young man in a conductor’s uniform takes a seat opposite me in the entertainments carriage, and, without uttering a word, presses a cup to the neck of my vodka bottle.

Nobody has ever confirmed Srdan in his post, yet he wears his red uniform with meticulous pride. He roams the carriages, knocking on the backs of seats and on sleeper cabin doors. When passengers fail to produce tickets, Srdan regards them with the sorrow of a caged saint.

I, on the other hand, clambered up the retractable steps of Carriage No. 5 the same day the Railroad and Longshore Company launched the coastal route. Station workers held a glossy black ribbon taut across unblemished tracks; a minor official snipped it. The Orderly Ocean roared. Workers tucked flat caps into coveralls to stop them flying off; seagulls landed on the fresh line of track as though on the split carcass of a whale. And there I must have been, half-sized, silenced by the air of ceremony, my hand grasping the oily canvas leg of somebody’s coverall.

A strange truth: I may be a railway orphan with the hiss of carriage doors in my bones, but I do not know all the things that our Srdan knows. He knows exactly how hot the coal burns in the cab of the Dbovotav. He knows how many hares we pass between Bretev and Totyozk. He knows when I am fed up with my drinking companions, and I think he knows about the loneliness afterward.

Perhaps it is that some of us are born closer to the truth than others.

The Dbovotav Coastal Express is self-driving. Three perfectly steep hillocks slow it to a stop, at Bretev and Arnik and Totyozk. At the top of each hillock perches a station: Bretev Coastal Station, Arnik Station, and the Liberator Placha Revolutionary Train Depot. The journey between Totyozk and Bretev takes a month; between Bretev and Arnik six weeks. I’ve been through more cycles of Totyozk-Bretev-Arnik and Arnik-Bretev-Totyozk than I can count.

“Maybe I shouldn’t leave the Dbovotav unattended,” Srdan says. The train is—with clanging and fanfare—climbing the final rise to Bretev Coastal. “Many fare evaders recently.”

The coastal route is long and monotonous, cliff bluffs and waves on one side, hills on the other, the geography undernourished and bloodless. Nothing catches the glazed roving of your eye but the occasional hot white stalk of lightning striking the dun peaks of the Orderly Mountains.

I pass Srdan his blue plastic cup. I’ve only half filled it with vodka against the trembling of the Dbovotav as it strains toward the platform. “Don’t you want to watch me eat the hell out of a pile of pig trotters?”

He turns the cup a full rotation. “You want me to answer this question?”

I nod encouragement.

Srdan sets the cup down, puts pale hands, fingernails chewed to the quick, on either side of my head for emphasis. “I think I would not like to watch you eat a pile of pig trotters.”

I meet his stare glibly while I mull over the surprising hurt I feel. The whites of his eyes are proud and rounded, the eyelids bronzed. He’s not comely to begin with; the scald of dismissal makes his face plainer, his scattering of pockmarks harsher.

Then I think, warmed by vodka: This is the only person I’ve ever felt safe leaving my cabin door unlocked for, even if I have questions about his trove of truths. Even if he won’t watch me eat the hell out of a pile of pig trotters.

Cold air fills the entertainments carriage. We’ve arrived. The smell is of hops and the ubiquitous bloom Bretevers call Clasped Arse because of the suggestive curve of the petals.
“You don’t have to watch the competition, but come get some air. Bretev is nice in this season.”

“Nice?” mocks Srdan. “It’s freezing.” But he is already fetching his scarf from the broom closet.

The season is springtime; there are so many seabirds in the sky that their droppings are an unbroken coat on the terminal roof. Emerging from the closeness of the Dbovotav feels raw and impossible, like being born. We stroll briskly in the direction of The Jingling Anklet in the Quarter of Our Knaves.

Bretev hasn’t had an eating competition in six months. At the last one, I made it through four bowls of sauced beans and forty pounds of roast lamb, deboned and seasoned with a sumac rub. My opponent puked on his boots after ten minutes of shoveling beans into his mouth and swigging watered wine by turns—a strategy I would not have recommended, if he’d bothered to ask.

“I will be in the square,” Srdan announces, slowing.

“You won’t come to the competition? You can sit at my elbow.”

Srdan has taken his red conductor’s hat off; it is balled up in his fist like a heart.

“No, Neave,” Srdan insists. “The disappearances. I should be on guard,” he says, as if I should know what this means.

He starts uphill.

“Srdan!” I call. “The disappearances? On guard against what?”

He gives a meek wave behind. Masses of seabirds, huddled in the slight sun, take wing in his wake.

A pig trotter is an awkward hunk of meat. I gnaw round each one like it’s an apple—in record time—and spend ten luxurious minutes pinching at the scraps I missed the first go around.

I would usually ask for a stein of beer to sip slowly. The beer refreshes my palate and prevents my gorge rising. But discomfort pulses in my fingertips as they spin trotters on greasy axes. I don’t know what’s bothered me so much. I may call Srdan a friend, but I barely know him. His flights of eccentricity should be none of my business, just as mine aren’t his.

I polish the platter with my tongue. Spectators plant kisses on my full-up cheeks and hold my hair back from the oily tabletop. The crowd is deafening.

The prize money is mine, of course.

Srdan is still in the square come midnight. I waddle over to him. It’s too cold to be sprawled against the mosaicked side of the almost-dry fountain the way he is. Puddles of standing water in the basin reflect a cloudless sky. Every step sends a meteor shooting through my belly; the firmament of my guts is the opposite of cloudless: roiling, on fire. But this is the price of not floating away.

“I won.”

I cast leery shadows over Srdan. His breath steams softly. He clutches a bottle of vodka in his hand, three-quarters empty. When he hauls it up to me, purple fingers pop free of the glass one by one.


“The train is warm.” I bend down and hook him under the arms.

“You smell like meat.”

Then Srdan is on his feet and though it was a close thing, I have not dislodged the ninety-one pig trotters I ate. He tears away from me, drunk, heads along a sandy path. At the end of this path the Orderly Ocean claws at low tide, keening static noise.

“Let’s go back to the Dbovotav,” I shout down to him. A thin spread of frosted sand crackles beneath my feet. There are salt-air shrubs and tree stumps on either side, practically an invitation to dispose of the evening’s digestive burden. But we are painfully close to the sea.


“Can we resist forever?” he shouts up from the edge of the shore, slurring. “Don’t you want to jump in?”


He is unbuttoning his conductor’s slacks in the frigid breeze. “We were always meant to.”

“No. Srdan, no!” I turn away from him. Half-panicked, I climb up the path. Waddle through the square.

The Dbovotav is warm and welcoming. Gingerly, I set myself down on my back in my sleeper cabin.

In the morning I am woken by the departure whistle and cramps in my guts. I pass Srdan on the way to the lavatory. He’s sitting in the entertainments carriage fanning through a block of return tickets like it’s any day.

Here you might say, Neave, tell us about the other travelers on your Dbovotav. Tell us of your rotating constellation of drinking companions, of your adopted railway family. And, well.

I will tell you what I know is true. Though the coastal route is obscure, the Dbovotav has never lacked for passengers. The travelers who make the Totyozk-Bretev or Bretev-Arnik journey lumber aboard with luggage, trailing mud or snow. They show tickets to Srdan when he asks, fingers hastily tracing the pockets of their overcoats. They crash around in the galley; they complain loudly of the cold because they do not drink enough vodka with me at night.

Then there are the others, the ones I never drink with, the ones whose faces I can’t seem to learn.

A thing I’ve noticed: The Dbovotav has been busier of late. There are queues for the lavatory; groups milling about the drinking spout. And when Srdan moves through, shouting “Tickets! Your tickets, please!” he seems to recognize precisely the passengers I don’t, and though he never squanders a chance to mutter to me about fare evasion, with them he is unusually forgiving.

Some days the loneliness is intolerable. I imagine vividly days I cannot remember. Days before the Dbovotav. My family was from between Bretev and Arnik, where there is no town marker. They lived in tents and sold pairs of goats from their herd and were popular for their stained mohair satchels. I had four siblings. I was the youngest; my job was to feed the goats. That is why I was not at the seaside that day with my family. They went often to gather spiny kelp from the surf, for the rich orange dye of the berries.

Nobody can tell me what happened after that. The dreadful lie was that my mother and father and sisters had gone out to sea, on a voyage that would take a long, long time.

The journey to Arnik takes the Dbovotav into the Orderly Mountains’ wind-blasted foothills before plunging us into a glacial, sea-facing valley. Therefore I drink vodka medicinally, against the cold. I’ve had enough that my lips are vaguely numb and I’m dribbling into the coarse knit of my scarf when there’s a clatter and a hiss. Srdan, pulling aside the accordion door to the carriage.

“Come help me with something,” he says.

I’m too drunk to be suspicious. We weave from carriage to carriage, threading toward the back of the train, stepping over solitary drunks and trios playing Jack & Ace in the corridors. I run fingers across polished wall panels and icy windows.

“One more,” says Srdan, and leads the way to the connecting door. In the passage between this carriage and the next, he stops.

“You can’t go further, see?” he says.

“Try the handle—”

“Neave—see inside.”

In that tight, freezing passage, the tracks a blur through the slats below our feet, the Dbovotav chugging and shimmying, I cup hands to the window of the next carriage. It is filled up—full, floor to ceiling—with food.

Squashes still covered in soil; three entire skinned carcasses, lamb or goat; an avalanche of freckled golden apples, some smeared in carcass blood; snowy all-season mulberries crushed up against the window; dusty knots of celery root; heaped peaks of spice upended over everything.

Srdan works the clasp on the tiny vent in the window. Putrid air lets out and dissipates on the choppy wind of our motion.

I’m no match for Srdan’s strange intuitions, but I thought I knew the Dbovotav the way a sister knows a sister. My palms have memorized the texture of the upholstered panels in the lavatory. My feet anticipate every dip in the floorboards. This carriage? It was not here before. It’s a betrayal, a failing, a thing about my train that I can’t understand.

For an entire week of our journey to Arnik, Srdan and I work to clear the carriage of half-rotted food. The meat and everything that has touched the meat we tumble into ditches from the sides of the Dbovotav, or boil fastidiously down into syrup on the burner. Fruit and vegetables that aren’t covered in mold, blood, or spice we portion and wrap into neat papered bundles. Srdan hauls them cabin door to cabin door: “Tickets, please. And a parcel of groceries, our compliments.”

Afterward, the last carriage is strangely hollow, its echoes louder than the chug of the locomotive. It’s a wooden refrigerator car with hatches in the roof. The vertical ice tanks at either end are empty, but sticky puddles of food and liquid we found as we cleared might be the remnants of ice blocks. It makes you wonder: how long has this carriage stood here—perfectly cooled, resistant to decay—in the chill of the air off the Orderly Mountains? Days? Two weeks? Since Bretev, or before?

There’s a solid lock on my sleeper cabin door, but the cab of the Dbovotav is where I go to be perfectly alone. The coal feeder towers in the center of the cab, oiled and sooty. Hunks of coal shuffle along a scaled ramp from the tender to the firebox; great copper-sheen cogs click to a varying beat. The intervals are determined by temperature or pressure or some arcane secret held in the pistons. Like I said: The Dbovotav is self-driving.

Normally I’d be the first to declare solitude and loneliness distinct sensations of the body. But today my back aches with the exertion of emptying the food carriage, and my gut aches with a training meal of thirty parsnips stuffed with cured cow tongue, roasted ten by ten in the galley oven. It all conspires. The fence between solitude and loneliness is fogged over today, and full of holes.

I am thinking not of Srdan’s company but of something he said. We were dragging a decomposing goat carcass into a sack for disposal. I joked, my heart nowhere in it, “Maybe I should eat my way through all this food.”

Srdan paused to adjust his grip on the long, slick thigh of the carcass. A clean apple fell out of his pocket and bounced twice, shallowly, on the floor of the unexplained refrigerator car.

“Well. It is a mound of food and your talent is eating mounds of food. A funny thing,” he said.

I touch each sooty scale of the coal feeder. My thumb comes away stained like the ink-dipped fingertips of newly processed prisoners.

Loneliness is not the consistency of coal—it is not dry or porous or easy to palm. It is a fish, a thing of the ocean, slapping forever in the chest, eroding a space in the heart shaped like its own body. Srdan. My family, lost at sea. The truth may turn out to be a buoy at the farthest point from land. Friendship may turn out to be a fishing net threaded with falsehoods. And the Dbovotav—

There’s a thunk, a creak in the coal feeder’s cogs. I squint into the dark mouth of the firebox, just where the glow falters. Coal dust makes my throat itch, my eyes water. There’s something stuck in the scales of the ramp where it lets into the fire.

Another thunk, a torrent of thunks. Now the mouth of the firebox is clogged with objects. I reach my hand toward searing heat, pull the nearest thing from the blockage. It’s a huge clamshell, parted, the meat inside viscous and generous.

“I’m not even hungry,” I say, the fool words on my lips unbidden.

Coal plops from the ramp to the carpet. The feeder groans and slows.

“Srdan!” I shout, but I am, after all, exquisitely alone.

I grab a poker, jab at the mess until it clears, clamshells hurtling into the firebox in twos and threes. A keratinous smell overlays the years-deep smokiness of the cab.

I throw the last clamshell in and dust the soot from my hands.

Arnik. The entire austere valley is washed in the jingling of bells from the town’s five thousand belltowers. Each tolls to remember something: the first incursion of civilization into this hard land; the first successful harvest of millet; the birth of the first child of Arnik, the infant Salame Poshoi; the death of this same child, who lived eighteen months before succumbing to a wasting illness.

At 11:42 a bell tolls for the first passage of the Dbovotav through Arnik. Of all the bells, this is the bell that flushes me with pride.

Arnik is known for a warming brew, as well, called barrel milk. Juniper berries and a very thin alcohol, and a nose of anise that gets stronger the more you drink. I’m telling Srdan about the eight gallons I’ve agreed to down at a drinking competition later that afternoon as we pull into Arnik Station.

Many of the Dbovotav’s passengers disembark with us. The pebbled platform surface—a green-gray volcanic rock—grinds under our soles; a wave of big crunches for the hop down from the train; a choppy krsh-krsh-krsh as the passengers disperse. Nobody is here to receive the train, not a loved one, not a railroad worker, not a soul. The wind whistles a particularly maritime sadness.

“There are no bells, either,” says Srdan.

I lead us off the platform. “There are supposed to be bells.”

We wander the city with the wind, Srdan and I, the sea at our backs, feeling that we have tripped over the end of a reel and are traversing a precarious elsewhere. Arnik is everything and nothing I remember. There are golden loaves in bakery windows. There are seabirds roosting in the eaves. There are rubbery salt-spray fronds sprouting from cracks in the paving stones. But there are no people.

“The whole place is abandoned,” says Srdan.

“It is a town of ten thousand.”

Srdan hoods his eyes. “Take us to where you would have your competition.”

Arnik’s celebration hall is deserted too. Somewhere, a drop of condensation falls over and over, the sound fattened to a complex symphony by echoes.

The door to the celebration hall gives a startling rattle, once, twice, and pops open against the suction of the wind.

“Hi, Neave,” says Lusha, the competition promoter. “Come in, come in, Ylon,” he says behind him, and a broad woman enters, dragging by turns a table and a wheelbarrow piled with kegs.

They begin to set up the table in the center of the celebration hall.

“Lusha,” I say. “Where is everyone?”

“Oh, yes,” he says, hoisting a keg onto the table with a grunt. “I’m glad you’re safe.” This promoter is more untrustworthy than they usually come. I’ve known him since I was a child of eight. He gave me my start in this business—noticed, with his eye for opportunity, how I knelt beside the food trays to mop up a whole spit-roasted goat after my family’s wake. He led me by the hand to the Huluu Public House to see if I were still hungry enough to eat for an audience.

“We’ll be lucky to get a single soul tonight,” Lusha adds mournfully.

“People,” Srdan says, “are disappearing.” He’s examining the mosaicked arch of the doorway like some art connoisseur.

“Quite right. Either disappeared or hiding.” Lusha rubs his face over and over. I imagine each of his too-many rings catching and nipping at the folds of his skin. His face is an overlarge sock.

“Sometimes, Neave, we see them wade out. If they get that far, it’s over. We might pull them back, wrap them in blankets and lock them up for their own safety, but the next time they’re allowed out—a day or a year later—they’re gone.”

“Gone? Gone where?” I ask.

“Gone to the sea,” Srdan says. He breathes out ponderously and adjusts his conductor’s hat.

Ylon has taken her place at the table. She pours out a tall glass of barrel milk. “Ready to lose?” she asks me.

“If it weren’t for the Dbovotav, you’d be gone too, Neave,” mutters Srdan.

And now some nameless impulse resounds in my bones. It carries me through the door of the celebration hall. Against the wind. The cold sun slices across my vision; all the vodka has made me brave.

I pass through the eerie still of Arnik back to the station and my train.

Inert, the Dbovotav seems heavier somehow. That colossal weight of steel resting on rails.

The entertainments carriage is empty, the refreshments kiosk stocked, cream biscuits and bottles of liquor untouched. All the passengers who disembarked are still away—doing, thinking, seeing what in the wide brokenness of Arnik? I twist open a vodka bottle from the drinks cart, take a swig, make for the back of the train.

The refrigerator car is gone.

In its place is a stately room, a carriage only by virtue of being coupled to the back of the Dbovotav. I enter by a heavy oak door. Inside the walls are speckled marble. Four gargoyles—mermen dwarfed by their spears—perch at ceiling corners. The floor is a pastiche of overlapping rugs dyed shades of madder-root red and spiny-kelp orange.

Against one wall is a podium, and on it a huge book. Even from a distance I can see there’s water damage to the pages. I take another swig of vodka and go over to it. In gilded lettering: Longshore Workers’ Log, Triumphant Metropole of Arnik. A ribbon marks a page, a glossy black ribbon that reminds me of the one they cut to christen the Dbovotav. I flip to the bookmarked location.

Here, a photograph marred by the burn of chemicals. I squint at it. My young face and four little faces like mine. Young-me is seated and looking into the camera. My siblings are arranged behind me. They are posed perfectly. Four names are listed below the photograph: Lost at sea, presumed dead. And my name, a remainder: one orphan, Ward of the Railroad and Longshore Workers’ Union.

I turn a crackly page. Dust twirls away in the slanting light. Another photo: I’m maybe ten, leaning on a pile of huge copper cogs. An elderly rail worker in coveralls is bandaging my hand where I’ve sliced it on precision engineering. My blood has left dark smudges on pieces of the Dbovotav’s coal-feeding mechanism.

I turn the page again. Three photographs: the sea, captured from the sky. In the top photo, the surface glossy, then closer up, broken by swells, then much closer, busy with waves.

I am suddenly so hungry.

A tiny sliver of the truth: Before I became a competitive eater, I was rarely hungry. After I became a competitive eater, I was even less hungry. I’ve never done what I do because of hunger. I’ve never needed all the food I eat. I burn through it with my anger, my internal firebox incinerating everything I let near my core.

I startle at a noise in the carriage behind. The oak door swings inward—Srdan. The conductor’s hat is perfectly peaked above his long brow. “Another wacky car,” he says, voice steeped in some intoxicant.

I go over to a carriage window, count fifteen belltower spires against the skyline. “Wacky car. Mystery food. Dopey passengers. Disappearances,” I list. “Just tell me the truth.”

“This is the truth.” He nods around at the gargoyles, the podium. He moves across the carriage, half-trips on the edge of a rug, rights himself in front of the logbook. “Sometimes the truth is just”—he looks for a word for a long time—”strange.”

“I’m getting tired of things being strange. And I ate a square lunch earlier, but for some reason I’m ravenous.” I have another thought, or intuition, or question, roving for its answer. I push past Srdan, heading back through the train toward the cab.

He trails me. “You don’t need the truth from me, Neave,” he calls over my shoulder. His voice is more desperate than I’ve ever heard. “You need a friend, a friend who isn’t the Dbovotav.”

“The Dbovotav is the only friend I’ve ever had.”

“No, no. The Dbovotav is an ally. In a war.”

I round on him in the corridor. “And you? What are you? An ally? A friend? Neither?”

Srdan regards me sadly. “You will see that we are not so different.”

“Dbovotav!” I shout, turning away. My knuckles syncopate on the windows as we pass, the doors of each carriage hissing shut behind us. “What else can you show me?” I’m shouting down the corridors.

Then we’re at the door to the Dbovotav’s cab.

Srdan sighs. “The train is doing everything it can for you, you know, considering—”

I twist the handle. The door gives, too easily—

—and out rushes a tremendous wave of kelpy black water that soaks us to the waist. A tiny brown crab struggles on the toe of Srdan’s boot. I dip a finger into a puddle and taste it: coal-brackish saline. The salt and charcoal fills my mouth with saliva.

“Not good,” says Srdan.

I am full of cravings.

“Are we going now?” he asks me.


“I have wondered when we would go.”

We rush toward the cloud of seabirds squawking in the distance, and from there I follow my nose: saline and wet life and unholiness.

Arnik has a pebble beach. The Orderly Ocean is a blue slab all the way to the horizon. I don’t let it touch me, stay where the pebbles are salt-dusted and dry. Srdan has come to stand beside me. His overcoat stinks of being soaked and dried too many times.

“What’s happening to me?” My voice cracks. The hunger is unbearable. I look out over the still water, and it’s as good as a table spread with a feast.

“We’re caught in the middle of a stand-off,” says Srdan. “Between the Dbovotav and the sea. And I think the sea is winning.”

“My family was taken by the sea.”

“Yes, and many others,” says Srdan. “Consider your dopey passengers.” He takes off his coat. “But I think your family were the first.”

Srdan looks at me as if recalling a dream. “When I went into the water, I did not even struggle. You think you will fight to live, but you don’t.”

He takes off his boots. “Then I heard the hoot of the train. That’s when the truth became strange. I was like a fish in a net made of steam and cogs and steel.”

Srdan approaches the surf. He begins to wade out, his slacks dark and flapping in an instant. “Here we go again,” he bellows.

“Wait. Srdan!” My shout is tattered by the wind. “Who can I trust?”

He turns toward me, even tries to step back out of the water, but he seems to be caught in a rip current. “Trust me, Neave! You won’t even struggle. A train is no match for the sea. Even a train like yours.”

He holds onto his cap and wades and swims until the water is over his head. He does not float up. It is as if he is on a staircase down to the ocean floor.

I am knee-deep in freezing water before I remember to heed Lusha’s words. My thighs pucker with the cold. I swallow against hunger, swallow the taste of vodka in my spit. The smell of the sea is unbearable; I try to knuckle water, to lift it up by the crests of its waves. I imbue the water with textures it does not have, spongy flatness and doughiness and the supple give of a wheel of marzipan pulled in half. Scoops of it come up in my palms. The sea feels nothing like food, only frigid and dribbling and full of noise.

Nonetheless I eat. Strings of goat meat studded with farro grains dyed with saffron and boiled to softness. No—water. Pig trotters, still tangy from their brine. No—water. Beans, millet, celery root soup. Hard tack softened in chicken broth. Clotted cheese with acorn paste.

No. Water, water, water.

The sea’s got me by the hipbones, but I am a competitive eater, a hot talent in a lukewarm industry. Eating is what I do best. The people buried by these waves, my mother and father and sisters, they are the silver charms hidden in a loaf: treasures you must find, but gingerly with your tongue, without chomping.

I swallow the sea, palmfuls and palmfuls, my gullet distending, and feel the pain of my heart packing tighter in. Then—because ballast is only a useful defense on dry land—I submerge.

Underwater, a lungful of the truth. The sea is angry at those who got away, but especially me, a prize hurtling down a fingernail of coastline for decades, shielded by metal, just out of its reach.

I feel myself sinking. I twist to look below. There’s Srdan, floating facedown at the boundary of blue and dark, where water compacts and becomes like space. And there, right behind its conductor, the Dbovotav, a long, ominous bulk. The Dbovotav, in the sea.

There is a throb of pressure on my temples. My throat and nostrils burn with saltwater. One impossible stroke, two, and I’m beside the doors to Carriage No. 5.

I press the button to release the doors. The underwater Dbovotav opens to me and it’s not full of water—it’s full of smoke. I scramble in, coughing, water sluicing off me onto the carpet. A coal fire in the cab? But when I breathe this smoke my airways begin to clear, and my gray fingers flush back to brown.

I reach my hand through thick smoke, past the door, out into cold water. I lunge at Srdan’s floating wrist, digging nails into the embroidered cuff of his conductor’s uniform, and wrench him toward me. Srdan’s prominent eyes flit in his face, lock on me soulfully, and then he shakes his head, tugs his hand back. You may wonder: Is this a gesture meant to save me, or save himself? I wonder too.

Behind Srdan, in the dusky blue sea, a daisy chain of passengers and assorted luggage bob toward the open door of Carriage No 5. Srdan reaches his freed hand behind him, links it with the front of the daisy chain, and—

—the Dbovotav’s doors sweep shut.

I loll on the carpeted floorboards, hear the departure whistle, then that sensuous, wounded hoot. I see a sort of dawn through the windows. The smoke begins to clear.

I puke: water, truth, too much of it, more than a body should be able to hold. You and I, once again, we’re exquisitely alone.

Sara Saab was born in Beirut, Lebanon. She now lives in North London, where she has perfected her resting London face. Her current interests are croissants and emojis thereof, amassing poetry collections, and coming up with a plausible reason to live on a sleeper train. Sara’s a 2015 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. You can find her on Twitter as @fortnightlysara and at

Published March 2018, Issue #42, 5500 words

What Else Is On the Menu

The Seaweed & the Wormhole, by Jenn Grunigen
Three months ago, Peregrine had started sleepwalking. He said his night’s mind was always full of abandoned taxidermy shops, and tea brewed from obsidian dust and anise and silkworms. But his waking mind was full of these things, too, so they hadn’t worried Ebb. It was something else—other—that was making him anxious. After a month of the sleepwalking, he’d started to wonder what Peregrine wasn’t saying. He could tell when his lover was holding back; it was their nature to know each other. When he realized Peregrine was keeping something he couldn’t have, Ebb knew it had to be wrong. Invasive.

Skills to Keep the Devil in His Place, by Lia Swope Mitchell
The seat of evil in the human body, he said, is the liver. Taken directly from a young person—for a young person’s liver is fat with evil, untainted by years of experience or suffering—when offered freely, the flavor is perfect: deep yet delicate, light yet filling. It sates him utterly, for a while. He will seek nothing else.

Spirit Tasting List for Ridley House, April 2016, by Alex Acks
Before proceeding, we respectfully remind you to check the condition of your crystal spirit glass; it should be free of all cracks, chips, or blemishes to be able to properly capture and concentrate energies. Please take advantage of the sanitizer provided at the door, which will remove any lingering ectoplasm. Should your spirit glass develop an imperfection during the course of your meal, new ones will be available for purchase at a reasonable rate.

Shimmer 42

Issue #42 of Shimmer contains the answer
to life, the universe, and everything. Promise.

The Triumphant Ward of the Railroad and the Sea by Sara Saab
Almost everyone I entertain over a frosted fifth of vodka — bottle balanced precariously on a foldout tray, half my attention on keeping it upright — wants to know how I became a competitive eater. Also, how I found myself living on the Dbovotav Coastal Express. (5500 words)

They Have a Name For That by Sara Beitia
Mother insists everyone always said what an attractive quartet the family was, and there’s a stair wall lined with years of family portraits to bear this out. And now Cal and her groom will have children of their own, probably immediately, and they’ll be beautiful, of course, because Calliope won’t have it otherwise, and somehow that’ll settle it, because her life is a fairytale, so she can’t conceive otherwise. It’s not her fault. (6100 words)

The Imitation Sea by Lora Gray
You find the dead Angel at five a.m. in the slurry of broken bottles and rotting fish on the Lake Erie shore. It almost looks human in the morning light, a ten-year-old, maybe eleven, boyish, face bloated, limp and blue and doughy.  (3200 words)

If a bear… by Kathrin Köhler 
You know in the same way that anyone who lives in an isolated village in a deep-shadowed wood knows anything: it’s been repeated so often you’ve choked on it since you were a child. One day a bear will show up at your doorstep. (1000 words)

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