Category Archives: Issue 43

You, In Flux, by Alexis A. Hunter

Something happened to you after you had the baby.

You didn’t notice at first — you were too caught up in the panic of “is this a fever?” and “is he pooping enough?” and “why won’t he latch?” You were lost in eyes so dark you could hardly see the pupils, in a tiny wrinkled face simultaneously so still and expressive.

Jason saw it before you did:

In the depths of a particularly hard night, he found you in a puddle. You’ll never forget the look on his face when he said, “What is wrong with you?”

That’s the moment your heart made its first small twist away from him.

And you hated it and you couldn’t explain what was wrong, because you’d only just begun to see it yourself.

Weekdays, when Jason’s working, you rock the babe against your chest and beg him to sleep. Please, please sleep. But he’s all angry, red, wrinkled face. He won’t stop and the sound rings in your head and you can’t bear another moment and —

—And your arm freezes solid.

Through and through.

You nearly drop the baby, but catch him at the last second. His screams intensify and you watch — amazed and horrified and slightly detached — as the freezing spreads down to your free hand, rendering the entire limb a terrible, crystalline anchor.

The first night out after the baby’s birth is desperately needed — and yet you dread it. The baby will be fine fine fine your mother says, pushing you gently toward the door. Jason waits, eager and vaguely annoyed.

Your arm reverted last time. And again the time after that.

Still, you’re holding your breath when Jason closes the car door for you. Panic and anxiety and I can’t do this, no no no and you feel your toes begin to drip inside your pretty black boots. Jason doesn’t notice. He’s crowing about the free evening, about your dinner and movie plans, and you can hardly hear him (this is increasingly common and increasingly disturbing).

He starts the engine and he pulls off, and there’s a scream behind your lips but it can’t pry itself free from your clenched jaw.

By the time you reach the interstate, your feet have pooled, like warm, liquid insoles.

There’s a delicate balance to it, to avoiding freezing or melting. You try not to feel any one thing too violently.

Sometimes it’s a foot, and sometimes it’s an arm, and once it was your throat and you felt like you were suffocating — but you’re getting used to that feeling.

When Jason finds you rocking yourself back and forth on the floor while the baby screams in his crib, he makes you go to the doctor. They send you home with a barrage of concerned looks, stern warnings to learn to ask for help, and a prescription to keep you from coming back.

The pills drop you into a vacuum — silent, numb. They keep you from freezing, from melting. They make your body act like a normal body, while your mind drifts unmoored and uncaring. The baby smiles at you and you don’t smile back.

Later, you cry when you remember it — and your fingers begin to drip on your pillowcase.

You creep out of bed and toss the pills in the trash and dare to lift the sleeping child from his crib. Cradling him to you, you whisper I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.

Jason is furious. You try to tell him maybe a different treatment — but he won’t stop to listen. He refills your prescription and tries to shove the pills into your hand. Your fingers crumble; the drugs rattle and dance as they strike the floor.

The baby looks up. Watches.

Your leg is cold and solid. Tiny frost branches stretch up your thigh. You marvel at the design, tuning out Jason’s shouts. You don’t have the energy to make yourself heard, to distill feeling into words. Eventually, he gives up and leaves.

There’s a pain, somewhere low and dull. Something melting inside, crying for what you’re losing with him.

Then you look at the baby, still watching you.

And he smiles.

And you smile back — so much crushing joy.

It’s all messy and painful as you imagine a future without Jason. But the moment you accept the idea — accept that Jason may not be yours forever, accept your own messy responses, accept the tremendous struggle and the tremendous joy the baby beams at you — is the moment you sublime.

Solid matter disperses, subliming, spreading out indefinitely.

Your body dissipates into a gas and the baby laughs.

Unspeakable joy — it takes every bit of strength you have to condense into solid matter again. When you do, your child giggles, wraps his little fingers around your thumb, and makes the sound that’s supposed to mean “again, again.”

 

Alexis A. Hunter revels in the endless possibilities of speculative fiction.  Short stories are her true passion, despite a few curious forays into the world of novels.  Over forty of her short stories have been published, appearing recently in Cricket Magazine, Spark: A Creative Anthology, Read Short Fiction, and more.  To learn more about Alexis visit www.idreamagain.wordpress.com.

published June 2018, Shimmer #43 (800 words)

Other Mothers:

An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or, Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita, by Rebecca Campbell

Your Mama’s Adventures In Parenting by Mary Robinette Kowal

Dustbaby, by Alix E. Harrow

What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (while you picnic), by Katherine Kendig

You’ve heard your local skeleton forest is vastly underrated, worth a day trip, a nice place for wedding photos and relaxing hikes. You’re not much of a hiker, and not much for trends, but you’re trying to spend more time outdoors. Your forearms are no tanner than your thighs, which worries you.

There are old skeletons, brittle-looking, skulls bleached by the sun and moss halfway up their shins. There are new skeletons with dark stains on their bones, like sycamores just shedding their bark. Real trees, too: big spreading elms, shady maples. Paths crispy with fallen leaves that look, at first glance, like withered skin. Soft shadows and a few nice places to picnic.

You take a closer look at the skeletons: a missing tooth, many missing teeth; hairline fracture in the ribs, massive fracture in the skull; those eye sockets, my God, you could fit pool balls in those things (and now you want to); note the restless fidgeting fingers on that one; note the flaring hipbones here, indicating a female—maybe, what do you know, you’re not a skeleton expert—note the ultra-prominent jawline indicating, if not a male, at least an asshole. Ha ha. Every so often you see a hint of graffiti, a single carved initial completed before the carver got spooked. It is spooky, but not overwhelmingly. It feels peaceful, actually, all that stillness.

Except—

Except yes, you back up a little, that one, there—the fidgeter. You’re still not a skeleton expert but you’re pretty sure the dead don’t fidget; you’re pretty damn sure, because if they could move around on their own, there’s no way you’d be here nosing around and staring into their eye sockets.

You look more closely. Keep calm. Maybe it’s the wind? Maybe it’s a bug, crawling around, or—

“Hello,” says the skeleton.

Don’t faint. Don’t faint. Don’t—

The worst thing for Jamie is not wearing her hat. As a skeleton detective, the odds are stacked against her, but the hat always makes her feel more self-assured; the hat and the gloves and the trench coat, although she can’t tie the belt of the trench coat without it becoming obvious that her abdomen consists of nothing but a spine.

By all rights, she should be dead. “Most skeletons,” her doctor told her dryly when her condition reached its peak, “are very, very dead.” But not Jamie: they call it omniossosis, which as she understands it is Latin for let’s pretend science can explain this. Jamie is the twenty-ninth recorded case in history (the fortieth, if she counts references in literature) and the first to be afflicted after adolescence.

Before she was a skeleton, she was a lawyer. Only for six weeks—she had just passed the bar and moved to Chicago when she started losing weight, and she went on voluntary leave when she started losing skin. Now she’s a detective. It’s a job she can do mostly from home, mostly wrapped up (hat, gloves, trench coat); her doctor has a friend on the force who helped her get set up and sometimes passes tips her way. There’s a lot of research involved, which law school prepared her for. There’s a lot of down time, which she spends almost entirely on the internet, pretending to be other than she is and editing Wikipedia articles on anatomy. She thought about suicide at first, but thinking about the ways she couldn’t kill herself horrified her so much she has since decided to live. (She doesn’t question the logic; don’t do it for her.)

In the skeleton forest, she is pretending to be dead. It’s something she’s trying for her latest case. She didn’t realize she was fidgeting, although she sure was bored.

You don’t swoon so much as sit down abruptly. You don’t think that should count as a faint, but it’s a weekday anyway (you have flexible hours) so no one is around to see you.

No one except the skeleton crouching in front of you, that is. He—she?—leans back a little, dips his—her—head as if avoiding your eyes. Now that you look a little closer you see this one is only mostly a skeleton; are those arteries? Sinews?

“Sorry,” she says. She—definitely she—stands and backs away.

“Holy shit,” you say.

Silence. The skeleton raises a hand toward her head, drops it, crosses her arms.

“Who are you?” you ask. Not one of the articles you’ve read about skeleton forests mentioned live skeletons. The state park website you looked up directions on mentioned ticks and carry-out policies and lightning safety, but definitely not live skeletons. Perhaps there are fumes in this forest—degrading bodies. Perhaps you are hallucinating.

“Um,” says the skeleton. Her voice is thin, a little hollow. It sounds strange and inhuman at the moment, but if you heard it on the phone it probably wouldn’t faze you. The skeleton hesitates and then walks away. After a few steps she stops and looks back at you, arms still crossed, shoulders tipped forward. Hunched.

You are still sitting in the slightly damp grass. You think about standing, but your legs assure you they’re not even remotely up for that yet.

“I’m Jamie,” she says. She says it so simply that for a frozen, horrified moment, you feel as if every skeleton around you, big and small, is suddenly going to wake up and start stretching and introducing themselves and complaining about the damp. Silence, while you wait for the sound of scraping bones. Silence, while you wait for cold fingers to grab you from behind.

“Jared,” you say finally, when your heartbeats have proven to be the only sound for long enough. “I’m Jared,” you say again, as if it weren’t clear the first time, and then you say it one more time for safety, to prove you’re in sound mind for the moment, at least: “My name is Jared.”

“Well—” the skeleton says. “Okay. I’m going to get my hat.”

Jamie doesn’t solve murders or track down missing children. She usually works with husbands and wives wondering what their wives and husbands are up to. Sometimes she helps determine if a teen has a secret boyfriend or a drug addiction. Once she helped a man reclaim a stolen cello, and twice she has found birth mothers. She doesn’t make much money or much of a difference in the world, but she doesn’t feel the need to.

Her latest case is more interesting than usual: The target is a man named Paul Sheeri, either dead (murdered) or dead (suicide) or dead (accident) or, possibly, gone off somewhere secretly (Canada? Albany?). Her client is Paul’s friend Angela—not family, not a spouse, just a friend—who, over Skype, had appeared both worried and angry about being worried, not sure if Paul’s disappearance was a tragedy or another example of “his usual selfishness.”

“Are the two of you a couple?” Jamie had asked gently, careful to use the present tense.

Angela had narrowed her eyes, peering at her screen. Jamie Skyped with clients in near-total darkness; she made sure they could see a hint of her hat, a hint of the perfectly ordinary room behind her. She pretended it was a problem with the camera. “We were best friends,” Angela said harshly, as if Jamie had profaned their relationship. Jamie apologized. The room behind Angela was pristine, carelessly chic.

Paul’s family didn’t know where he was, Angela had told her. They didn’t like her. They thought she was overreacting.

Paul had always liked the Montrose Skeleton Forest, Angela had told her. It was the only place he ever went without her besides the grocery store and the laundromat.

After the call Jamie looked at the facts as she saw them. The facts were these: Paul was twenty-eight years old. He lived alone, worked from home, “depended” on Angela for “literally any social activity,” and had been out of contact for almost a month. (Twenty-four days.) Jamie had typed a “W” whenever she thought Angela sounded genuinely worried and a “P” when she sounded practiced; there were an equal number.

Quote: He’s usually totally reliable. He’s always where he’s supposed to be.

Quote: He doesn’t know anybody.

Jamie had typed in a heart and a question mark, whatever Angela might say about their being a couple.

“I’ll call you if I find anything,” Jamie had told Angela, “or on Thursday. Whichever comes first.”

You’ve never had a conversation with a skeleton before. You don’t really know where to look. The fedora helps.

In your backpack you have three Nature Valley bars and a bottle of Gatorade. You’re sitting at a picnic table near a sign that reminds visitors not to leave any trash behind. There is goose shit all over the grass and you noticed that Jamie avoided it just as assiduously as you did on the walk over.

“So you were pretending to be a skeleton when I walked up?” you ask. It’s a poorly phrased question.

“I was pretending to be one of those skeletons.”

There aren’t many questions that won’t come off as rude, but luckily, Jamie is a talker; the words whistle out of her nonstop. Growing up in Benton, law school, Chicago. The way it feels to look at her own bones. Detective work. Knowing that when she does die, there will be almost no difference. She tells you about her latest case, client confidentiality be damned.

“Would you like a granola bar?” you ask automatically as you grab one for yourself.

“No,” she says, and you are impressed at how little contempt is in her voice. You have never felt so awkward before, so uncouth, as if having flesh is a faux pas.

The sound of your crunching is deafening.

This is Jamie’s plan: She totes a plastic trash bag out to the edge of the skeleton forest, stuffs her coat and gloves in it and gently tucks her hat in after, and stows it in some brush. Then she picks a likely spot, stands in it, and…stays. The idea is that if Paul comes she will watch him, look for clues, maybe follow him home. She is vaguely aware that this is not the most efficient plan, but it doesn’t matter; being who she is, how she is, what she is, has to help with something.

It’s not uncomfortable. She doesn’t get muscle aches anymore; her feet don’t hurt. It is, however, extremely dull. Jamie likes to think she has a disciplined mind—she went to law school, after all, and if you can make it through that—but she’s naturally restless, and when she has to think about keeping still, it takes half her mind to do it.

It’s clear to Jamie that love is involved with this case somehow. It’s the way Angela talked about Paul—always trying to rein herself in. Jamie has a decent amount of experience with love, as much as any twenty-nine year old can hope to have. She’s had boyfriends, one-night stands, unrequited crushes and unwanted admirers; she’s never been (and never will be) married, but—she reasons—most of her law school friends aren’t married either, according to Facebook. She’s still current in the field, so to speak, for a little while longer. Angela and Paul certainly aren’t married.

When she thinks of Paul, her mind goes where it always goes now with men, any man, to a fantasy of meeting him and him falling in love with her. In this case he is blind and falls in love with her voice, but his love is doomed, because she won’t ever let him touch her. Not ever. At first it’s nice to have company but then it gets old, his constant desire for more, and she pictures herself having to break it off with him, his devastation, his desolation. She can’t help these imaginings; it’s not arrogance, especially not now, when she knows exactly where things stand with herself. It’s just morbid, really, like the way she sets up fake dating profiles when she’s bored; the way she sends a real picture of herself when men ask, and then passes it off as a tasteless joke. Morbid like how she brushed her leg intentionally against the leg of a tall skeleton as she walked in this morning, pretended the scrape of bone was electric, ran a finger down a forearm and clicked their teeth together. It’s amazing how different a kiss is, without softness.

This isn’t helping. She has to think about the case.

Paul’s disappearance, according to Angela, is oddly unexciting; he’s not even behind on work yet because his projects are long term. No blood, no guts, no trauma— Jamie is reminded, in fact, of herself. But it’s Angela Jamie keeps getting stuck on—it’s the fact that Angela contacted her, and not a girlfriend or a sibling or a parent.

All day people mill about Jamie, looking at the skeletons, taking pictures, their behavior halfway between zoo-goers and museum tourists. Their voices hush at random and then cycle back up to outdoor levels; they reach out to touch cold and sun-warmed bone with just the tip of one finger, the way children touch snakes after animal trainers insist they’re not slimy. They carry backpacks full of sandwiches and trail mix and bottled iced tea and take pictures quickly. The smallest skeletons get photographed the most—them, and the famous conjoined twins, a special attraction of the Montrose forest. A few pictures have Jamie in them, and it amuses her that they’ll never know the difference.

It’s not easy to get here: The closest parking lot is two miles away, where the regular forest hits the river. It takes a while, so most people make an afternoon of it, picnicking, speculating about who this or that skeleton might have been, reading all the informational signs around the perimeter. If Jamie listens for it she can hear the bitten-off shrieks when first-time visitors catch their first glimpse of a skull.

At sunset, when the forest closes to visitors, Jamie has seen no sign of Paul. She gives up. She goes home. She comes back the next day and fidgets.

You look at the pictures Jamie shows you: one of Paul and Angela, maybe mid-twenties, summer, relaxed, at a cookout; one of Paul in a cubicle, turning back toward the photographer half-smiling; one group picture Paul was clearly not happy to be a part of, his left arm visibly hovering an inch above the shoulder of the girl next to him rather than casually slung across it. Angela is at the other end of the group, wearing bright yellow leggings and red lipstick. She looks, quite frankly, more than a little drunk.

“No,” you admit. “They don’t look familiar. I mean, I don’t get out a lot, so that doesn’t mean anything. But I don’t recognize either one of them.”

“That’s okay,” Jamie tells you, but you still feel bad; you want to add something. Suddenly it occurs to you that maybe you can.

“Are these the only pictures she sent you?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Well—I’m sure you noticed—I mean probably you noticed—but these all seem like—you know, public pictures. Not personal.”

Jamie looks at her phone. “Wow,” she says. “You’re right.”

Jamie sometimes wonders if her body fell apart because it had nothing to hold on to. She was done with law school; her new job was uninspiring; her friends had scattered across America’s major cities and disappeared into high-rise offices. Her mind knows that she was a fairly accomplished young woman, knows that if people became skeletons because they were unfulfilled it would be a much more widespread phenomenon. But she can’t shake the feeling. It was only six months after Greg had gotten engaged to someone else, and she’d finally had to let that go; her colleagues were still intimidating strangers; her parents were retired and perpetually cruising. Jamie had felt unmoored in a way she never had before.

She’s drifting into self-pity again, which doesn’t happen as often as it used to; maybe it’s the sheer fact of talking to another human, face to face, outside in the sunshine. She doesn’t want to solve this case; she wants to eat a damn granola bar.

But she can’t, of course, she can’t, so she looks at Jared where he sits across from her, looking at her, not quite the way one looks at a normal person but not categorically unlike either. She is a little embarrassed she didn’t think about the nature of the photos; she was so used to thinking about who Paul and Angela were that she ignored where they were.

And that changes everything, doesn’t it? Now she can see that Angela and Paul only happen to be in the cookout picture together; they are not posing as friends, but as consecutive patrons of the grill. It looks like an older picture, but still—hadn’t Angela said they’d been friends for years? Jamie had been so excited about the skeleton forest, about putting herself to use as more than fingers on a keyboard, hiding under a hat.

“Will you do me a favor?” Jamie asks Jared.

He looks wary and eager all at once. She feels a surge of affection for this skinny stranger who doesn’t hate her, doesn’t fear her. At least doesn’t fear her enough to run away. (For a moment she pictures him leaning in— “Anything,” he whispers, and takes her hand—but—no. She shudders at the thought of being touched, of her rough bony fingers under his pulsing ones, at the way the shrunken tendons that hug her bones would feel. She is disgusted on his behalf. She pushes all thoughts aside, all thoughts, every thought.)

“What kind of favor?” Jared asks.

You picture reconnaissance, or breaking in to someone’s apartment to steal a file. You want to do these things, and kick ass at them, and at the same time know that if either of these is the favor Jamie needs, the answer is no. You aren’t actually a detective or a spy. You can barely make it gracefully through your own front door; you would not make a good cat burglar.

“Will you be Paul? Just on the phone. Just for a minute. I just need an address.”

She sounds nervous. It makes you feel kind of cool, and you almost grin at her rakishly, but then she tilts her head up so that the hat doesn’t shadow her face and any desire to flirt dies instantly. Her skull is not quite—not only—a skull; but it’s wrong. It’s so wrong. You cough to hide a flash of disgust, and nod at her.

“Sure.”

(She’s used to this. She’s used to this. There’s no reason for this wave of self-pity; it’s crashed before, flooded her before, the water damage is still visible. Waves like this ought to flow right through her now.)

“His um, his credit card company—I have the number and the last four digits of his social. You just call and confirm that his new address is entered correctly. Okay?” She stares at the table. There are tiny twigs in all the gaps between the planks. She doesn’t look at Jared. There is nothing in her gaps.

“Okay. Why would it be entered incorrectly?”

She wants to scoff at that, doesn’t. “It wouldn’t. I just want to know if he’s moved.”

“Oh,” Jared says. “Right.”

He is clearly nervous making the call, but it comes off as distracted; either that or the employee he’s talking to doesn’t have the energy to flag suspicious behavior. Jamie writes down the address. She stands up.

“I’m going to go see him,” she says, as if this is something she normally does. She never sees anyone; when contact is needed she hires people through Craigslist.

“Good luck,” Jared says, standing also. “I should head out, too.”

Jamie realizes that if they leave at the same time they will have to walk the two miles to the parking lot together, but she’s had enough interaction for the day. She doesn’t want him to watch her walk. She doesn’t want to follow him. She doesn’t want to keep thinking about who she isn’t.

“Oh,” she says. “Actually, I’ve got to look something up first. It was nice meeting you.” She doesn’t hold out a hand to shake, obviously, but the gesture feels distinctly missing.

“You too,” Jared says, and sounds sincere. “I hope you figure it out.”

He walks away. Jamie sits down and plays with her phone, giving him a head start. He never gave his last name, but she looks it up based on his college t-shirt. He’s on Facebook and two online dating sites, although his profile looks dusty and half-hearted. She doesn’t friend him or anything. After fifteen minutes, she leaves.

The farther you get down the trail towards your car, the deeper your sense of vertigo – after a while your steps slow to a crawl, unsure of the ground they’re walking on. Was this morning real? Did all this happen? You start with the wild explanations: You were in a car crash this morning, and this is a coma dream; Jamie is a hologram; your life is The Truman Show. You have the vague impression that you can walk through solid objects now.

Eventually you reach your car, and climb in it, and turn the ignition. You make it about a quarter mile before you realize you’re literally not seeing the road in front of you. You might as well just pull over.

After ten minutes of trying to suppress the new twitching in your left eye, a car passes you—a little maroon Taurus—and all you see is a hat. You’re following its left turn before you’ve even realized you’re back on the road.

Jamie knocks on the door and feels, mentally, that she is about to throw up. She has put on her gloves and buckled her trench coat; her hat is pulled low. The door opens.

“Jamie Pierce,” she says, professional, holding out a business card she ordered on Vistaprint. “Private Detective.”

The hallway is windowless and fairly dark; it takes Jamie a moment to realize that a woman has answered the door. “What can I do for you?” the woman asks, polite, wary. The chain is still fastened.

Jamie takes a tiny, necessary step back away from the light of the apartment. “Paul,” she manages. “Is Paul here?”

The woman looks at her, or tries to; Jamie tips her head low and stares at the ground.

“Is there a problem?” the woman asks. “Who sent you?”

Jamie feels as if her bones are finally collapsing the way they always should have. She tips her head even lower, unnaturally low, petrified that she will be seen; oh, it was different in the skeleton forest—she was normal there, almost, she had numbers on her side; Jared was the oddity there, Jared was the freak. Jamie knows the woman will scream when she glimpses Jamie, will threaten to call the police; Jamie cannot bear the anticipation of the slamming door. Her back hits the wall of the hallway and she presses against it.

“Everything okay, sweetheart?” she hears from inside, a man’s voice.

The woman half-turns, hands over the card.

“I’ll take care of this. Just give me a minute.” The sound of a kiss, the sliding of the chain, and then Paul is in the hallway with her, shutting the door behind him.

“What do you want?” Paul asks.

“What are you doing here?” Jamie counters, shooting the words out like she’s been choking on them.

Paul ignores the question. “Listen, you have about ten seconds to explain yourself before I call the cops.” He takes out his cell phone to ground the threat.

“Angela,” Jamie whispers. She has to pull herself together; for Christ’s sake, she has to pull herself together. She stands up a little straighter, tilts her head up a fraction.

“I was hired to find you,” she says, more normally. She can do this. She’s found him; he’s clearly alive; she can leave at any time. If things get dicey. She wants answers but not that bad, not bad enough to have her mug shot in the newspaper.

Paul runs a hand through his hair. “By Angela. Jesus.” He looks like he wants to punch the wall, but doesn’t; he takes a deep breath instead.

“She thinks you’re missing or dead.” Jamie thinks she is starting to understand: Paul is missing only to Angela. He’s dead only to Angela. “I’m starting to get the sense,” Jamie says, trying to sound like Humphrey Bogart, “that you don’t want to be found.”

Paul shakes his head. “Not by her. Listen, I don’t know what she told you—but we’re not anything. We haven’t been friends in a long time.”

Jamie phrases it carefully. “She seems to worry about you.”

“She doesn’t fucking worry about anybody but herself. She’s… Jesus. She’s like a tick that won’t let go.”

Paul suddenly drops to a crouch, and Jamie is thankful she’s wearing galoshes. He buries his face in his hands, hums a sound of frustration. After a moment he stands again.

“I’m trying to make a clean break,” he tells Jamie. “I don’t care what you say to her. I don’t care what you tell her. But please, please don’t give her this address.” He flicks the business card at her and goes back inside. The chain and the deadbolt click a moment later.

You’re waiting in the parking lot, trying to look normal. You’re trying so hard to look normal that you almost miss her coming out; but then it’s back to tailing her, left, right, left, right. She pulls into a strip mall.

You’ve barely parked when she’s at your door, holding a closed umbrella like a weapon.

“Jared? What the hell? Why are you following me?”

Good question. You hadn’t really thought about it; you’d been running on instinct, on the preservation of your sanity by proving your insanity was real. And it is, isn’t it? You have to acknowledge, now, that Jamie is real, and your conversation with her was real, and she is really a detective working on a case. And with that you realize you actually care.

“I just… wanted to know how things turned out,” you say. “With Paul and Angela.”

She hesitates for a few seconds. The umbrella lowers slightly.

“Well,” she says. “I just talked to him.”

“And?”

“Well, his girlfriend opened the door, first of all.”

“Really? Did she—” You pause. You are sitting in your car with the window rolled down; Jamie is standing outside of it with a pointy umbrella. Your stomach rumbles.

“Hey,” you say. “Actually, do you mind if I grab some lunch and we talk about this somewhere else? Maybe at East Park?”

“…Sure,” Jamie says, as if she is agreeing to be shot. “Sure,” she says again, a little more enthusiastically.

“Okay. Let me just run in. Do you—want anything?”

Jamie rests the tip of the umbrella on the ground. She looks like the coolest supervillain you ever saw.

“I guess I’ll take a Vitamin Water,” she says.

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

“Okay,” you say. “I’ll be right back.”

They’re seated at another picnic table, this one covered in obscene permanent-marker conversations. “You’ll have to help me figure out what to say to Angela,” Jamie says.

“First tell me what happened!”

“I know. I’m just saying, keep that in mind.”

“Got it. Does Paul have a secret love child? Is that it?” Jared leans forward, two hands on his sandwich, eyes on her.

Jamie can’t smile. Smiling doesn’t happen in the bones.

But all the same.

Katherine Kendig lives in Champaign, Illinois, with her husband, her novel-in-progress, and an insatiable desire for brownies. Her work has received awards from Dartmouth College and the University of Illinois and has been featured in The Cincinnati Review and on PodCastle.

 

4700 words, published May 2018, Shimmer 43

Dead and That’s Okay

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

Ellie and Jim vs. Tony “The Nose” by Eden Robins

The Cult of Death, by K.L. Pereira

Gone to Earth, by Octavia Cade

He’d thought the green would keep him from dreaming of the memory of arid sterility, the red and waterless horizon.

It didn’t.

His body was racked with chill and he hunched in his bed, trying to breathe with the rhythm of tides, to slow his heart to growing things. Yet even the warm night air of the Coromandel summer, straight from the coast and rustling through rātā trees, couldn’t dispel the cold. The nightmares still came regularly, suffocating waves of homesick regret. Strange that they hadn’t passed now that he was home again and anchored to the world of the living, and even stranger that they came from an adventure marking him a hero. He’d even felt heroic at the beginning, but all the bravery of heroism had come from ignorance, the assumption of a strength not yet tested because the testing was unimaginable.

An astronaut on the first manned mission to Mars! All the psychological tests he’d undergone had been for other things: socialization, conflict resolution in close quarters, the ability to cope with long-term and claustrophobic isolation. Alan had passed them all and felt himself stable enough, had never wavered either in ambition or explorer’s faith.

They’d never thought, none of them, that what brought him down would be a different sort of lack.

Earthsickness, they called it. He was the worst affected of the three, but neither Paola nor Sarya had escaped it. It was nothing any of the psychologists had predicted—but how could they? There was no possible substitute for experience, and no terrestrial creature had ever been so cut off from a living environment before.

Alan was offered support, but didn’t take it. “What I need is already here,” he said, returned to the environment all his ancestors had adapted for. “I’ve just got to convince myself that I’ve come back to it.”

The rātā, especially, had proved an anchor, its bright flowers—the red of new blood, not old iron—were in one delicate and extraordinary shape the symbol of a living planet. Beneath it, he felt his nature reasserted, felt again the relation to other living things that defined a terrestrial creature, tried to forget that small unconscious part of himself found uneasy and set to screaming in barren plains.

The summer nights were still a trial, although better than their winter counterparts, with the lingering warmth, the noise of the mosquitoes and moreporks a reminder that seeped into his dreams, woke him gasping from the memory of Mars, and grasping for connection. More and more often, he found himself barefoot, taking the dark path down to the rātā, wanting to feel the Earth beneath his feet, to hear the small sounds of night, the feel of the flowers on his palm.

“I wish I could see you,” he said, but artificial light made the rātā blooms look washed out, a nightmarish cast to color that made him think he was dreaming still, and liable to wake from a horror of solitude.

It was easier to fit himself against root systems, to fold up in fetal position at the foot and wait until morning. Bare skin pressed against bark was less of a contention than that altered color, and he laid his head against branches, imagined he was hearing the pulse of sap in time with his own heartbeat because with his eyes open he saw the stars and remembered, and with them shut he couldn’t see even the shadow of trees, and was in need of substitute.

Easier still, when he remembered that the dirt he crouched on was also living, in its way, and filled with organisms: bacteria, beetles, the small decomposers and recyclers of organic matter. Alan smeared himself with them, scrabbling, rolled his naked body until his nails were clogged with dirt and his body caked with it: a sedimentary creature, a biological scaffold for the microscopic. Earth to cure Earthsickness, he thought, and even the small scent of iron from torn fingertips didn’t take him back to red plains and loss, but reminded him of blood cells and life.

“For me it is swimming,” said Paola, “in the night, where I can see the phosphorescence of the plankton.” See how it coated her skin, see how it lit the warm Caribbean waters of her home as she wallowed there.

For Sarya, it was the steep stone cliffs behind her parents’ house. “When I lick them I taste lichen,” she said, shrugging. “I know it is a strange way to behave.” She offered no excuse. It was enough that the three of them could share in understanding. That they could use what helped without comment, if not entirely without judgement.

They were the only ones who had been to Mars, the only ones to share the experience of Earthsickness. “No one else can understand.”

The trip to the Red Planet had been long, six months of growing fretfulness, close-caged in metal. Anticipation made it bearable, that and the tethering of the daily routine, but the closer the ship came to Mars, the more his anticipation soured within him. Alan had thought it was nerves, the strained culmination of childhood hopes, for how could the moment of contact live up to the weight of dreams? Was it possible there’d be an iron streak of disappointment to color the experience? It was the peak of his life’s effort, that voyage, and he couldn’t conceive that anything after would ever hold the same fascination for him, or the same purpose. He’d wondered, silently, what would happen to him when Mars was behind him, what shape the lack would take, but he hadn’t wondered long. The tests the three of them had undergone were of a type to weed out the melancholy, the personalities prone to brooding and quiet undermining, and he’d assumed his qualms were normal ones, and shallow-rooted.

It was only when he stood upon the cold, dead planet—he was not the first to do so, but got his chance nonetheless—that he felt himself gorged on the horror of it. A quiet, still dread that lingered even amidst the exultation of the explorer. He could see the same repulsion in Sarya’s eyes, could see Paola hug herself for comfort as his padded arms wrapped around his own body. They felt the awe as he did, the vast expanse of dry and cold opening up before them, and the sheer towering emptiness of the place was something to shrink from, not to fill up.

Afterwards, on Earth, they talked to each other sometimes over video link. They were the only times when Alan didn’t try to hide his hands in front of other people, the ends of all his fingers raw and bloody. “Have you been biting them?” said Sarya, and Alan shook his head.

“I’ve been digging,” he said. Tools didn’t give the same satisfaction at night, at the base of the rātā. Tools were a layer between skin and soil that he couldn’t tolerate. The earth was the only thing could calm him, until the sun came up and the rātā flowers anchored him back to planet. He rolled in it, gouged up soil in chunks and scrubbed himself with it, with the damp living smell of it, the pieces of snail shell and bird shit and annelid, the knowledge of bacteria.

Supplicant, his hands were soft. He bled as he worked, but the earth was soft with summer and humus and his blood didn’t pool on its surface when his scrabbling broke skin. It soaked into soil—and into the roots of the rātā as well, he liked to think, a connection between them built of more than need and gratitude and common home. In the days that followed, Alan thought that the tree’s blossoms grew brighter, as if in response to his nightly sacrifice. The thought made him happy. Surely only one who belonged could have such an effect?

“I always feel like I belong, when I’m in the sea,” said Paola. “There’s salt running through the both of us. Through everything that swims in it.” Through everything that came from it, a reminder of evolution and heritage. “I take the sea in my mouth sometimes,” she said. “It doesn’t do to swallow too much, but there are times I can’t help myself.” The bad times, the ones of nightmare-waking and the remembered bite of Earthsickness.

“The bad times,” said Alan. “I know.” His bad times had begun to come with slicing instead of gouging, quick cuts across his fingers, across his palms, that let loose more blood than he could offer up by digging. He watched his blood disappear beneath the rātā, absorbing easily into earth. He rubbed the moist dirt into his cuts, revelling in the symbiosis between them; rolled in it and felt the rolling again as a relief. He could taste his kinship in the blood-soaked earth whenever it touched his tongue. Iron and earth, they were relatives.

It was on Mars that Alan had begun to feel homesick. Not the mild nostalgia he’d experienced in lesser travels, but a shuttered, wrenching longing that closed his throat and took his hands to shaking in misery and loss. Its depth was primeval, the severing of a second umbilicus.

It was a wretched trip, one where everything had been blasted but for yearning, with long hours spent in strained silence. None of them responded well to the queries transmitted from Earth. Those seemed to possess an unhealthy tinge, shrill and feverish, incapable of sensibility and excited, still, about what they’d seen. About where they’d been—as if Mars should have been a wonder to them yet, not a monster of sterility and no place for life. And he’d known, had always known it was that way, but until he’d stood on that hideous and barren surface he’d never really understood.

Mars was rejection all through. It didn’t want them, didn’t want any of them. I think it hates the living, he thought, but he didn’t say it aloud because that was insane, wasn’t it. A planet didn’t hate anything. It couldn’t help being hostile to warmth and life, it was sun-distance and thin atmosphere that kept it from an ecology of its own. Insane, but he thought of the polar regions of Earth, the dark crush of deep seas, and there was life there instead of emptiness.

A living planet, a dead one. Alan never thought the difference so disturbing it could unnerve him—not until he stood upon the dead, and stood reminded that he was not.

He came home to winter, and it felt like a thaw. He shivered through it alone in the family bach, away from anxious colleagues and prying reporters.

Still he did not feel as if he had truly returned. The Earth, ambivalent to his distress, rejected him in turn. He felt a stranger to it. The stars, which had once mesmerized him beyond all bearing, leered down upon him. Alan felt he had torn himself on them, had not returned whole. They gleamed in the frosted night, disembowelled him. He was snagged and separated: aware that as he had once cast it off, so now in some strange way his home planet had done the same to him. He imagined it rejected his touch, his traitorous touch that had yearned once for the perfection of sterility and, tainted, had brought that sterility back to a planet where sterility was anathema.

Night after night he woke, screaming at the red remembrance of void. Night after night he fled outdoors to try to reconnect with living earth. The dirt was hard and chill beneath his scrabbling fingers; he broke his nails in it. All winter it rejected him, but in spring the world seemed to shake itself, to cast off torpor and resentment. As spring mellowed into summer, and the pohutukawa and the rātā spilled color upon the coast with their bright red blossoms, Alan was comforted.

The days became easier to bear. He spent most of his days in the small hollow beneath the rātā, soaking in the dry scent of the bark, the sound of birds and insects, wrapped himself in biosphere to make up for the time when he’d gone without. It was warm and sunny there and he could feel the Martian chill seep from him—felt as if he could, perhaps, be forgiven his preference, the old dream of distance that had led him to forsake one planet, no matter how temporarily, for the cold embrace of another. But the relief was only temporary, and did not outlive the sun. Always he dreamed of the moment when, secure in the pride of his own disconnection, his padded foot had borne down upon a dead planet. It had crunched, a flat, mummified sensation that Alan could not forget, an imprint in a soil lacking the deep pulse of the Earth. Born to a living planet, how could he process such a land of lack? Even the lunar astronauts had been able to look up from absence and see the blue-green swell above them. Mars had no such comfort. By the nature of his birth Alan was wholly unsuited; and that nature, meeting vacuum, broke him down and abandoned him.

“Your hands are worse,” said Sarya, lichen-mouthed, her tongue scraped raw against the Himalayan mountainsides. “Perhaps you should talk to someone.”

“It’s enough to talk to you.” Privately, he wondered if even that was too much.

The rātā, at least, never talked back. All its communication was done in drink and color, for it bloomed longer and brighter throughout the summer than any other on the coast. “Is it because of me?” said Alan. “Are you so alive because of me?” The earth beneath drank from Alan, and the rātā from the earth, so that was a connection between them, wasn’t it? Something to draw together, living things together on a living planet and it didn’t matter that they were so different, because the difference in living things paled against the difference between the living and Mars, and he could only block out the dead and sterile red of that hideous landscape by the reds of blood and bloom, each of them alive in their own ways, and related.

The rātā knew nothing of Earthsickness and questions, and as the season began to turn, the tree seeded. Alan collected some of the small, wind-blown seeds, plucked them from the earth with fingers that were of a scarcely different color. He set the seeds to germinate in soil-filled trays, kept them wet with water and blood.

“I need something to look after,” Alan explained to the rātā. Its flowers had faded, and he found it hard to open his palms for blood when there were no flowers to reflect the color. “I’ll not let your seeds die.” They were the same now, he and the rātā, and though he kept his nest at its root—the hollow shaped perfectly to him now, and the earth all tinged with red—he spent more time with the seedlings than the parent plant.

“It’s what living things do,” he said, trying not to think of a world where nothing living had done anything, ever. “They reproduce.”

Yet come as they were from a tree that had a passing familiarity with his veins, still only one seedling survived into winter. It grew at a prodigious, unnatural rate. Metrosideros robusta, the strong.

When it reached 50 centimeters, the seedling was old enough to transplant. Alan could have planted it in any number of places, but rātā could be epiphytic and he’d spent so much of himself in nurturing it that he couldn’t bear the parting that planting would bring. It was pure selfishness on his part. The chill of winter gave him unpleasant memories of empty plains and dry rock, and he was leery of losing the connection.

He wasn’t the only one so afraid, the only one looking for affirmation.

“It’s Paola. They found her floating in Havana harbor.” Sarya leaned forward, her face taking up the whole of the screen. “Alan, they said she drowned herself. They said when they found the body… they said she was smiling.” Her lungs full of sea water, of diatoms and phytoplankton, her fingers bitten away by little fish.

Earthsickness never truly went away. Mars was gone but the choice to go there remained, the deliberate abandonment of biosphere for a planet that held none, and that Alan was ever so foolish as to make that choice was more haunting than absence.

He kept the seedling entwined about him, the weight of it borne in a loose-draining basket hung about his neck, resting on his ribcage. Even without the summer flowers its presence, nestling into the hollow of his throat, gave him comfort. He imagined he could feel it pulse in time to his heartbeat, and every day his bleeding hands stroked the stem, added to the basket-soil. “You’ll be so beautiful when you grow,” he said, picturing the flowers: glorious and delicate and bright, anchor and symbol of a living planet he wished he’d never left.

The daughter plant grew faster than it should have. Every day a new tendril curled about him, every day it grew heavier to bear.

“You’re growing strong for me, aren’t you?” he said.

“It’s growing strong on you, you mean,” said Sarya. Alan caught glimpses of her tongue as she spoke, and it was less red than before, less vivid.

“You worry about your lichen and let me look after my own,” he said.

“I don’t want you drowning too—” but drowning was a water death, and if it had been a welcome one for Paola he’d never have risked it on his own account, for the rātā seedling would have drowned with him and that was something that, after Mars and Earthsickness, he would never be able to tolerate. On his blood and scaffold the rātā grew thick and glossy, insulating him from the bite of winter, the small cold a small reminder of a greater one.

The old rātā stood on the coast, and the path to it was rocky and uneven. With the weight of the young upon him, Alan couldn’t walk it easily but he liked to do so often, to take the epiphyte to the hollow beneath where he’d huddled in Earthsickness and had found/seen a way forward in flowers and flowing blood. The hollow was a place of communion for him, and the rātā a symbol of the bond between flesh and ecosystem. It took him longer to walk there every day—hands pink with new lines and slow seep, the ever-increasing weight of epiphyte—but with care and rest along the way he could manage.

It was sheer chance and compromised vision—the leaves about his head, the winding roots—that caused him to trip over a hanging tendril on the last steps. A quick fall, a sickening crack: His head opened on a half-buried rock at the edge of hollow, his thighbone, weakened from so long at little gravity, protruding from one of his legs and the color of rātā flowers spreading around.

In the bright, bristling flare of pain Alan forgot, for the first time, the horror that Mars had made for him. Shock, he thought, and stunned, but it set all his senses open, magnified them, and he felt himself alive there, and in the midst of life. The sound of the wind in the leaves, the vivid red of blood, the smell of warm iron and humus… The rock beneath his head was sharp, and cut his groping fingers in red-flowering stripes. He could even see it from the corner of one eye—lichen growing on the top, lacy circles of pale green that were almost white where the sunlight hit them. The bottom of the rock, where he’d knocked it from the ground, was crusted with living dirt, dark and rich. Beneath it, several insects crawled deeper into the disturbed earth.

He was certain that he’d never seen the world so clearly. His world, and he was aware, splintered open as he was, of nothing but his capacity for belonging. Pain, yes, a shrieking agony of it, but he was a creature of the Earth still, lying in that earth as a billion other life forms had lain there before him. The knowledge soothed him, made the pain of his shattered leg easier to bear. He bit down on epiphyte, bore down on it as he dragged himself so that his back was against trunk and kept his teeth in until the worst of the dizziness passed and he could breathe clearly again.

No one knew he was there. He’d seen them all off—the journalists, the psychologists, everyone from the space agency who thought they knew Earthsickness and couldn’t understand because they’d never left Earth, never gone beyond its orbit and outside its influence. Even Sarya had stopped calling; at least, he’d stopped taking her calls.

“Alan,” she said, over and over, messages left for him over voicemail. “Do you think Paola was the lucky one?”

There’d been talk of cremation, of sending her ashes up in a shuttle to spread across space. But it was talk that was over quickly, because her will had specified they be scattered at sea. “There’s nothing that can take me away now,” she’d written, burial wishes sealed and witnessed. “I don’t ever want to go back.”

He couldn’t crawl to the house, not with his leg.

It was a relief to know there was nothing he could do. Not drowning, not for him, but enough. He’d found his own way.

The rātā epiphyte was bound around him still. He unwound it as best he could to keep from crushing it, his back against the parent and the little rātā in his lap, the roots resting in the bloody puddle, and he couldn’t see the bone for foliage.

Blood loss, dehydration, shock. It was easy to imagine the rātā easing one of its tendrils into his wound, sucking at him, drawing his blood up into itself. Twigs lengthening on it. New leaves sprouting. More branches beginning to feed from him, forcing themselves into his body, the body of the host. It was easy to imagine the flowers bursting open from epiphyte, flowers the color of his blood and born from him, and he didn’t try to stop the imagining. He didn’t want to.

“Home,” he said, at last. “I’m home.”

fin

 

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

 

Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate, by Anya Johanna DeNiro

The silk threads of grief and time snap and spin away from the black looms, but all Freia wants to do is go back to Vienna. Dozens of women work the looms in the magnanery. Hands fly as the threads spin out of the boiling cocoons. Freia doesn’t work on the looms though. She’s not patient enough. Instead she sets the strands of damp, slightly sticky silk from the cocoons, hooking them to the spindle to unravel them, as the objects inside the cocoons die from the scorching water.

She dips her hands in. She can barely feel a thing. She hates the magnanery. The combination of Romanesque columns with the overhead fluorescent lighting creates the worst possible world she can imagine, and she knows many.

One of the other women she works with dumps a basket of cocoons into the troughs of boiling water. Freia judges the quality of silk inside. The most coveted threads are black, followed by citrine, carnelian, and gingerline. Invisible threads are not valuable at all; they are rough like a cat’s tongue and are always getting tangled. She sorts accordingly.

Freia has never been able to make any correspondence between the type of cocoon and the thread. No one has ever explained it to her, and truthfully she doesn’t care. She keeps her cravings for knowledge in check. This is how she survives.

The cocoons bob in the water and look like they’re about to jump out when she hooks them to the spindle. That’s when she can hear the voices inside most clearly, anguished whispers of help me help me and what is happening what is—

Freia usually wears her headphones while she works.

None of the other women working in the magnanery have talked to her in a long time. They keep their heads down. They have given up their old names. Their eyes are like pieces of charcoal excavated by an archeologist.

There is only the work. And Woden. But Woden is too monstrous to be contemplated just yet.

Instead, consider the tall tree in the center of the magnanery. From the central dome of the building, there’s a round opening where the tree keeps stretching on and on; and an opening in the floor where it stretches on and on.

But here, Woden uses the tree as a managed resource, a revenue stream.

From the trunk grow the branches with the golden leaves that the silkworms feast from. The leaves are supple and soft, almost like skin. And the worms are ravenous. Freia has never liked the worms, but maybe that’s because she knows what happens to them. Once full, the white worms start spitting silk, and they cocoon themselves, and after three days, the women pluck them hanging from the tree like figs and collect them for Freia.

The worms are silent. It’s only when they boil that they speak, and then what’s inside dissipates altogether.

Vienna, though—Vienna persists for her, almost despite itself. That’s all she wants. The world with the Danube and its tortes named after composers, her adopted home. She longs for blood. But Woden has removed anything that could cut her since the last time she fled, twenty-five years ago. It’s gutting to realize that her entire life has been stripped of its sharp edges. Woden sees her as a stubborn girl who is desperate for his protection but doesn’t realize it, or is afraid to admit it. He keeps her falcon cloak, her two cats, her boar, and her jewelry in a safe in his office.

At last, though. At last.

Freia hauls one of the troughs to the holding tank in the nave of the magnanery. She edges around the tree. One of the other women walking in front of her drops a needle that she’d pinned into the folds of her dress hem. Freia stops briefly, frozen. No one watches her, as far as she can tell. The needle is barely visible. The woman doesn’t seem to notice it’s missing. Freia kneels on the path as if she has to adjust the fit of her shoe, and then slips the needle into her own pocket.

Freia doesn’t dare look at it until she’s at her work station. A bronze needle with a glass bead at the tip of the shank. She doesn’t hesitate. All it takes is a drop. She gets a lot more.

“Ow!” Freia says as the needle pricks her thumb. She holds her breath and waits for her skin to blossom.

Soon the blood gushes down like the Krimml Waterfalls. The blood keeps coming, pooling on the floor and rushing down the storm drain of the magnanery, keeping it from reaching and feeding the tree—even Freia would not want to see that—and through the pipework, where it bubbles over in a toilet in a luxury high-rise apartment in Vienna. The blood rises at midnight, making the apartment’s bathroom unusable and thus the apartment unlivable.

Freia is breathless as the blood spurts out of her. She used to be known for so many beautiful and awful things, but now there is just blood.

The looms stop. The other dozen or so other workers in the magnanery stare at Freia. Despite her need for escape, and her joy, Freia is still ashamed and she hates that she’s ashamed. She bites her lip, and finally she sucks at the red rivulet.

“I’m sorry, I’m really really awful at this,” she says to them, but they don’t respond. Woden—her supervisor and one of her exes, who founded the magnanery many centuries ago—comes in through the iron door by the loading dock. He’s wearing a bombardier jacket and has a sack over his shoulder. Something writhes in the sack, trying to escape.

They stare at each other. They both feel the pull. He knows that once she bleeds, there is nothing he can do until she goes.

He gives her a mocking wave.

He doesn’t even look at her as she is cast down, cast down into the Imperial City, the red city, and this is what she is most embarrassed by, that he doesn’t actually care much about her, that she’s an afterthought, but still keeps her locked in the magnanery anyway.

Of course she has been cast down many times before, left to fall like piss from an airplane, always into Wien. It’s been their adopted home for a thousand years. At the beginning, before the Habsburgs came, Woden willingly let her venture into the city. The magnanery hadn’t been built yet. There was just the shining tree in the field, which stretched forever, where the worms congregated, ate, cocooned, and then burst into moth-dom, and flew away. Woden wasn’t quite as cruel yet. She still had all of her shit—a nice house, her jewelry, cats, and falcons, and boar, and lots of hot dead men and women to fuck.

And come to think of it, as she wakes up in the spartanly furnished apartment overlooking the Danube (or at least a hazy shimmer of it), even when he did become cruel he still treated her, more or less, as an equal—and sometimes he even cast her down himself by surprise, and she enjoyed this. She enjoyed having her throat slit and waking underneath the shadow of the Dreifaltigkeitssäule, commemorating the temporary end to the plague, which Leopold I attributed to God. She hates that she once craved Woden’s fucked-up affection.

But a hundred years ago or so he started taking his monstrous völkisch bullshit seriously.

The apartment is spartan, but still luxurious. Or wanting to give the appearance of money but not flaunting it. More than anything, the apartment wants to exude security, a cross between a panic room and a boutique infosec consultancy. The bathroom—the master bathroom—is a disaster area with the blood splatter—her blood, she has to remind herself. She walks around the apartment. A bedroom, a guest bedroom, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a “common area” with a foosball table, and a study. On the nightstand of her bed is a magazine in English folded to an article with the title “15 Members of the Super-Rich Who Remained Grounded and Humble.” She snorts. Whoever lived here before was either a lich or a sociopath.

She touches her arms. Her body is fine. It’s not the body she would have picked if she had the choice, but it’s fine. She goes through the walk-in closet and puts on what’s there: gray cashmere cardigan, white button-down dress shirt, black pencil skirt, black ankle boots. Onyx earrings. Dark blue scarf. It all feels good to her.

She’s in 2018, in an Age of Blood like no other. No purges, sieges, plagues or occupations from the past compare with the Imperial City Undying as an investment opportunity, a city for princely oligarchs to park money from selling teenaged Moldovan girls and lost nuclear warheads from Kazakhstan, apartments bought with white rhino horns and cash. Vienna is both the center and the beachhead for awful things. She knows this. The apartment’s previous tenant moved out in a hurry the day before, and there is an eviction notice under the door. She knows that she’s a hair’s breadth away from being a tourist, or a squatter. The notice indicates that the property managers, a holding company in Frankfurt, is “renovating” the building, which means likely demolishment and the construction of something more expensive. She sighs.

But it’s perfectly fine. She’s here. A little blood never hurt anyone.

It’s time for her to go to work then. She figures she could ditch this body’s responsibilities, but she can’t think of any easier way to interact with a large group of people where she’s not a complete stranger. It’s so hard being an almost-expat. Outside it’s…March? This March freezing rain, der schneeregen. The words form on her lips awkwardly. Her high-rise is on a quiet side street in Simmering, two blocks away from the Zentralfriedhof, the central cemetery with three million souls buried inside of it. She goes out of her way to pick up the tram right in front of the cemetery gates. The cemetery reminds her of home, that she’s no longer written under the sigil of love but only the sigil of death.

Fuck you she can hear someone say from a distance, deep inside the grounds. Fuck you, fuck you soul-sorter. On second thought, she has no time for the dead. There’s a glint on the sidewalk in front of her and she bends down. Amongst the raindrops is her needle, the bronze needle with the glass tip. In the magnanery, the needle was the lockpick and she was the lock. Woden must have tossed it out and down like the trash. The whole of Wien, every district, would not be sure what to do with her appetites, were it aware of them. She puts the needle inside a little fold in her messenger bag. Now all she needs is a thimble, a pair of scissors, a bobbin, a lucet, her spindle, and a loom powered by the exsanguination of a thousand innocents, and she would be set, she could open a shop on Etsy and make hats or shrouds for her enemies.

She gets on the tram, der 71er. She has longed for the tram for a long time, the creaking comfort of it. She remembers when the 71 trams threaded between ruined blocks. There really isn’t anyone left from that story in this story. There’s just—

“I can’t…I can’t open my Blu-ray player for the training video,” her supervisor says. She is a young, striving American woman, with a flat accent from the prairie. Freia, with this body, is slightly younger than her. Neither of them wants to be seen as incompetent, but they express it in completely different ways. Freia is supposed to be (she checks the bilingual business card on her desk) a digital strategist at this outpost of an American ad agency in Central Europe, the latest among twenty outposts or so in a network, like the trading zones of the old colonial powers. It’s not clear what she’s supposed to sell or strategize. Her office building, which used to be an imperial artillery college, also overlooks the Danube, but much more closely to the riverbank than her apartment. She’s upriver. She can see boats, mostly courier speedboats, cut through the sleet. The Viennese say that the Danube only looks blue if you’re in love. This is no time of love.

“Fuck,” her supervisor says. “Fuck it. Argh. Sorry.” She really is. Her name is Agatha. She’s tall, and awkwardly bends over the desk. Her blonde ponytail keeps flopping into her eyes.

“Let me try something,” Freia says.

“This Blu-ray in there is the training video,” she says. “But it’s not loading properly.”

“Yes, got it,” Freia says. “Got it.”

She finds the needle from her messenger bag and manages not to bloodlet again with it.

As she inserts the needle into the tiny “eject” indentation, Agatha watches breathlessly and rather too close. Freia realizes that the office has the feel of a tryst that has just started, yet at the same time has gone on too long. Though the Viennese outpost been open less than four months, desperation is written on all employees’ faces. When she first came into the office in the early morning, Freia opened the bottom drawer of her desk and found a tangle of VR headsets from about two years ago—from sleek masks to the smartphone mounts made of heavy cardboard or plastic. She gasped and closed it quickly, as if the drawer contained cobras or bombs. Their main clients back in America are various packaged snack brands from the Midwest—which doesn’t appear to her like a “good fit” with Vienna and its magical tortes. But who is she to say. She actually knows nothing about advertising. She doesn’t feel like she’s really good at convincing others to do what she wants.

The Blu-ray finally chokes and whirls and the disc slides out with difficulty. Fuck you fuck you it seems to be saying to her—

“There! Aha!” Agatha says, clapping her hands. She grabs the disc and hands it back to her. “Uh, be sure to watch this. I guess…I guess you have to reinsert it?”

“I’ll…try restarting,” Freia says. She holds the needle between her fingers and sets her hair with it, to get it out of her eyes. She’s always restarting.

Every time she dies in Vienna, she goes back to the magnanery, and she’s given more cocoons to boil. And every time the magnanery looks different. The décor never matches the time period. Several hundred years ago, right after the big siege by the Ottomans, the magnanery was a sterile laboratory and she wore clean suits, the kind used for making microchips. When she died during the February Uprising in ‘34, rounded up after a street battle and shot in the head by a Heimwehr teenager, the silk-makers all wore medieval dresses of coarse wool. Woden has never stayed in one place or time. After one of her escapades in the worst year of the Great War, he chained her by the neck and left her in a corner in the magnanery for five years to wash the raw silk with soap and water. He gave no pretense of rehabilitation. That was when she figured out the trick with her own blood, loosening an edge of her quartz washbasin and sharpening it for a year in secret.

This time, she doesn’t want to die here, she refuses to—she will refuse to die here. She watches the training video, which has glitched horribly, and makes this vow to herself. Because she doesn’t want to make thread again, to stand at the spindle in close proximity to her ex again. Each of those cocoons in the boiling water has a soul inside of it, and there are millions of them, and they die in the cocoons. They evaporate. That’s Freia’s job, to make sure that the dead die again. The others see it as embarrassing punishment to be sent down as a mortal, but she lives for nothing else. She wants the prick of the thumb, the gush. And she knows it will come. Because she always bleeds eventually.

But she also knows, when she is alive in Vienna, Woden hunts her. Or he hires creatures to hunt her. He always hunts her down and brings her back.

After the workday, Agatha asks her if she wants to go to karaoke with a few other people from the office. This makes her happy. She agrees. The sleet has stopped. There’s four or five others going, who she hasn’t really talked to, because they seem to have their shit together. It’s supposed to be a short walk to the karaoke place, near die Uni, but Agatha can’t quite seem to find it as they cut through Josefstadt, but it’s great, she insists, and Freia believes her. How did endearing Agatha become a supervisor? Soon enough the other coworkers concoct excuses to leave so there are only the two of them left.

“Ooh, spiced wine,” Agatha says, coming into one of the small, open squares—this one off Piaristengasse—that are everywhere in the central districts of Wien. “Uh, I mean, glühwein. I’m trying to get better with my German. Do you want to get some?” The air smells like cloves.

Freia smiles. “Sure,” she says. Glowing wine. A little late in the season for it, but on the other hand it really is fucking cold for March. The wine-seller is just off the steps of the Piarist church, and the two sit on the steps holding their hot paper cups.

“I…just love this city,” Agatha says. “There’s so much history. Layers and layers of it.”

“Yeah,” Freia says, taking a gulp, letting the star anise and cinnamon and citrus drain into her.

“Shit. I probably sound like a stupid American to you,” she says to Freia, her head down. “Jesus, Agatha. ‘Layers of history.’ Of course there is.”

“No, no, it’s…sweet,” Freia says, turning to look at Agatha.

“Okay, that’s not the answer I was expecting,” Agatha says. “But…I kind of like it?”

Freia laughs. “Good, good. Where are you from then?”

“Um, a small town in Wisconsin you’ve never heard of. I moved away as soon as I could. Where I grew up was—” She shudders. “Awful. Just awful for—well.” She pauses, holding back words. “Never mind. And you?”

“Me?” Freia stares straight ahead, at the two bare trees on the platz, and she swears she can see the writhing of hundreds of hungry worms on the twigs. “I’ve been kind of everywhere? But Vienna has been…home for a long time.”

“I wish this place could be home,” Agatha says, swigging the last of her wine. “But I don’t really have a home. The company back in the States sent me here to their worst-performing office to figure out what to do with me. Probably figuring out a way to ‘let me go.’”

“Fuck them,” Freia says, and she wishes more than anything she had a cigarette.

“I don’t know if I have that luxury,” Agatha says.

They sit in silence for a couple minutes, except that Freia can hear voices echo off the cobblestones.

He’s looking for you he’s looking he’s looking—

“This might be a strange thing to say,” Agatha says slowly, “and maybe it’s the wine talking. But even though I’m your boss, when I first saw you come in the office I got—really really scared of you.”

You should be, she thinks. This is a natural and healthy response.

Instead she says: “Are you still scared of me?”

“A little?” Agatha says in a quiet voice.

Freia leans over and bumps shoulders with her. “Well, just this once, I’ll promise not to bite.”

Agatha blushes.

Sometimes, when she’s strong—or at least feels the ghost of the strength she used to possess—she thinks: Start anew and triumphant and leave the magnanery, leave Vienna, leave everything, become mortal, even though you’ll die, you’ll be free. She supposes that it would be possible to forsake her self. But she can’t bear to think of herself as one of the hungry insensate worms on the golden tree of death and becoming an anonymous commodity for Woden before having her boiled remains sloughed off as wastewater. And she could never do what all the other goddesses, all of them, have done—renounce their names and pledge themselves to Woden in exchange for the dull freedom of not giving a fuck anymore. Not the good kind of not giving a fuck. It would be easier for Freia to give up, like all the others, and let Woden be the last of their kind. But she refuses. She is stubborn, like a human being.

As Agatha sings karaoke Bob Seger, Freia sits in the black booth, leans back and closes her eyes, imagining an America she has never known. Agatha, it has to be said, is in her element with karaoke, with a raspy baritone that’s somewhere between Stevie Nicks and Ringo Starr, and a fierceness in her green eyes that surprises her. She watches Freia the entire time she’s up there. Freia has a song coming up but she isn’t sure whether she wants to sing it, what this particular voice of hers will sound like inside of a microphone. The bar is nearly deserted. All the décor is black. On the other side of the bar two men and one woman all wear long black sleeveless t-shirts and study calculus. They have heathen tattoos on their arms: stags and Woden’s names. The names are in a made-up runic script the younger man downloaded from the Internet, but she can still read it.

“You’re up,” Agatha says, sitting down next to her and squeezing her shoulder. She has found that she was just clapping seconds ago. She feels a bit off. The table of neopagans—of whatever sort—now stare at her, with an intensity that concerns her.

As she starts to sing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (what else? It’s either that or Billy Joel) she doesn’t know whether they know who she is, whether they would worship her or try to murder her, or murder someone else as a sacrifice, probably an immigrant, because they’d think it would please her, even though nothing could be further from the truth. Or Agatha. They eye Agatha too.

Veneration? Just as bad. She doesn’t want to be tied down by supplications. They each have knives in their belts, consecrated for sure. And heavy bronze pendants, masks of Woden’s face peering out behind a tangle of woods. Agatha stares at her in the dark-dim with milky eyes as she warbles, awful and sad.

Agatha has no idea how much danger she’s in, just by living and breathing. If they were to leave together out of the club and a bus slammed into them, Agatha would die, and come into life again as a worm on an undying tree and Freia would find herself again in the magnanery, and after few hours, when the cocoon had been spun, Freia would quite possibly hold her former boss’s soul inside boiling water to get at the threads inside. Her voice is hoarse at the chorus, and when she’s done there are a few stammered claps.

“That was great,” her boss says, as if she’s giving her a performance review. She continues to clap. She is more confident, or tipsy, or both. “Well done.” She takes another swig of Stiegl. “Well fucking done.”

“Thanks,” Freia says. She eyes the three at the table again. “We should leave.”

“Really?” Agatha says, unaware of the bad aura from the neopagans. “Where do you want to—”

“My place,” Freia says, getting Agatha’s coat. “Definitely my place.”

When she’s licking the base of Agatha’s girlcock in her apartment in Simmering, blanketed in a moonlit nest of quilts on her bed, Freia realizes she has no idea how to make her cum.

“How can I make you cum?” she says, leaning her cheek against Agatha’s thigh and looking up at her.

“Oh my god,” Agatha says, finding it hard to breathe. “Oh my god. Uh…do you have a vibrator?”

“Kind of,” Freia says.

“Okay, well—if you put it the tip of it right on my, uh, perineum—the taint—and…press down there.”

“Like this?”

“Yes. How the fuck are how are you doing that?”

“Shhh,” Freia says. “A magician never reveals her secrets.”

After Agatha orgasms twice, Freia makes her hand stop vibrating and curls up behind Agatha, putting her chin up against her neck and breathing deeply. The body is a lonely hunter, but occasionally it finds its quarry.

A tight knot loosens in Freia’s shoulder blades.

They fall asleep.

“Are you safe here?” Freia whispers to Agatha an hour before dawn.

“Mhm what?” Agatha says, eyes closed, still slick, shifting deeper into Freia’s arms.

“Are you safe in this city as…you know…”

Now it is Agatha’s turn to shush her. “That doesn’t matter now,” she says, as if in a dream. “I’m safe now.”

And Freia, this once, allows herself to believe this and dozes off as the Imperishable City thrums around her.

She wakes up to sunlight stabbing her eyes and looks up. Agatha is splayed on the high ceiling, still naked, her mouth stuffed with a neoprene ball. She’s paralyzed and can’t speak or move, but her eyes are wide. She can see everything.

“I thought I’d let you sleep in a bit,” Woden says, sitting in a high-backed chair at the foot of the bed.

Freia leaps out bed and jumps onto the ceiling to try to bring Agatha down, but Woden snaps his fingers and Freia thuds back onto the bed.

“Come on,” he says. “This is embarrassing, Freia. Get some clothes on.”

Woden, lord of the gods, the allfather, the shining eye, the war-merry one, the racist piece of shit, wears a black suit. His shoulder-length hair is tied back and he wears heavy ruby rings on three of his fingers. He looks at Freia with pity.

“Put on some clothes in my house,” he commands, turning away his chin ever so slightly.

Freia looks up at Agatha, and she goes to the dresser drawer where she finds several changes of clothes, mostly variations of the same pencil skirt and light sweater.

She doesn’t want him to see her this vulnerable, so she puts on one of these outfits and sits back on the bed, trying to take deep breaths.

“That’s better,” he says. “I can’t say the same thing for your boyfriend up here.”

“She’s not—” Freia begins, but she knows that Woden is only trying to goad her, not that he doesn’t believe that Agatha is mentally sick and unworthy of attention, much less love and care. She closes her eyes and mostly feels shame that she had assured Agatha of her safety, that she could be safe with her. Something that he had said earlier stuck with her.

“Wait, what do you mean your house?” she says.

He smiles. “I own the high-rise.” He snorts. “How do you think you ended up here?”

“So…what, you’re a landlord now?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that. I help expedite capital to move from the periphery of Europe into safe and lucrative opportunities in Austria. You always come a bit short, Freia, with your imagination.”

“That sounds like an elaborate way to say: ‘money launderer for white nationalists.’”

He grimaces. She doesn’t want him to get inside her head.

“It’s just extending a little of my hard-won expertise,” he says. “I’m just trying to give a safe landing towards my people mired in a sea of filth. The filth of cucks, cultural Marxists—”

“Your people,” she snorts.

“How many people do you have?” he says, smiling. “Him?” He points up at the ceiling. “Don’t make me laugh. My people are attuned to what I need. Like keeping an eye on you.”

She thinks of the trio at the karaoke bar, and in a sense, he is right—he does have people everywhere. She hates it. Neo-Nazi wolves in the Nationalrat, in the Catholic priesthood with their secret blots, in the Bundespolizei. Fathers, mothers, upstanding citizens with their Facebook groups set to private.

“Speaking of him,” he says.

Her, you fuck,” she says. “Her.”

“Stop indulging his delusions, sister. Or I’ll cut off his cock and stuff it into his mouth.”

Freia shuts her eyes hard and opens them again, looking up at Agatha. She is sick with herself, but those emotions will not save Agatha.

“All I want to know is why?” he says. “When you came down to Wien, why did you waste your time with this creature?”

She chooses her words very carefully. “I like women.”

“No, you like pussy. Not this…thing.”

“Don’t tell me what I want and don’t want.”

He snickers. “Even your degeneracy is degenerate.”

“I am the Consort of Blood. I am the Animal Bride, the Lady of the Slain—”

“Well, you were,” he says. “Past tense. Never forget that. But—I am feeling generous for some reason. Maybe it will be a way to teach you a lesson. I’ll give you a month’s leave in the city before you go back to work—gently monitored of course. You won’t even notice.”

“And Agatha,” she says angrily, not wanting to put it in the form of a question, to make it seem like she is pleading with him.

“Why should you care? Why should you care how I murder him?”

At that Freia looks at Agatha and she doesn’t hesitate, even though she knows the words are almost impossible to say. “I exchange my life for hers, then. After I return, I will never leave the magnanery again, and I vow never to return to Vienna again, until the end of time. In exchange, you will leave Agatha alone. She will be returned safely. And everyone you know will leave her be.”

“Freia—” he begins to say.

“You’re right that I’m not what I used to be. You’ve seen to that. But I am still the Consort of Blood, and you cannot deny me a blood oath.”

He begins laughing. “You would give up Vienna? You will work in the magnanery forever? No escaping it?”

“Yes. And yes. And no.”

His laughter dies once he sees she is serious. He stares at her. She hears Agatha’s raspy breathing above her.

“And if you decide to kill her,” Freia says, “I will fight and kick and scream when you try to drag me away from here. I will make your life miserable. You know I can do that.”

She figures that, more than anything, he enjoys the easy life now afforded to him, a life of vanity and empty slogans and sales pitches in twenty-fifth floor showroom apartments. She figures that he will not want to be inconvenienced by her. It’s a steep fall from who she used to be, but she will take what she will get.

“No, Freia,” he says. “Of course I’m not going to give into your demands. And you have nothing to perform a blood oath with. Stop embarrassing yourself. You’ll be able to harvest this bitchboy’s soul soon enough when you’re back at work.”

Freia doesn’t want to make sudden movements because Woden is a snake-wolf, a snare-wolf, a patient wolf, so almost casually, she reaches into her hair and pulls the needle out. Her long black hair falls to her shoulders, and without saying anything to Woden she stabs the most tender patch of skin on her neck with the needle, pushes it in as far as it can go, and pulls it out. The first drop falls horizontally, as if from a great height, and smacks against Woden’s cheek. The seconds slow. He moves his hand to wipe the blood from his cheek, on instinct, but then a second drop of blood lands on his face, and a third, and then there’s blood smeared all over the right side of his face, and it’s seeping into his mouth, like his mouth is the drain. He tries to stagger to his feet, but the blood overflows his throat, and he falls backwards.

“Choke on it, you fucking piece of garbage,” she shouts. “Are you ready to bind yourself to the oath?”

She knows this can’t last forever. Already she’s beginning to feel faint as she starts to bleed out, and Woden will find a way to survive. Soon she will be dead here, but she will get her oath.

Even now he resists, backing away from her. She moves towards him, kneeling in front of him and pulling his hands towards her.

“Coward,” she says, slashing a sigil onto his right palm with the needle. “Coward.” The left palm. He falls on his back and the blood masks his face. The wind rushes in.

Agatha wakes inside the main chapel of the Central Cemetery, in the chancel, at dawn. The clouds have broken open and the chapel takes in the sunlight like it’s breathing it in. She stands up from the cold floor, wobbling. Above her, the dome is lined by a blue firmament, with gold stars and gold blasts of light coming down from the central circle, and she knows this is the Last Judgement. She is alive somehow. She’s in the outfit she wore to work the day before. She remembers too much, watching from the ceiling. She couldn’t make out the language between Freia and the man, but it sounded like wolves arguing. Most of all she remembers not being able to move, and blood everywhere.

Her phone buzzes. There’s a message from Freia, on the company Slack to her:

“Really sorry about everything. You deserved none of that.

You deserve great things.

I’ve decided to take another position, something in a field that’s a better fit to my natural skill set and which is a little closer to home.

I really like you and I deeply regret not taking you out on a proper date.

I wish we could keep in touch—not assuming of course that you’d WANT to—but unfortunately any type of reception is really spotty where I’m moving (it’s really remote, you don’t even want to know). Wishing you every blessing I have at my disposal.

-F.”

Agatha starts crying. The cries echo in the chapel walls, and she hears voices inside the echoes, lucky, lucky, lucky girl, voices from the cemetery trying to catch the undercurrent of her pain, and Freia cries out too as she spins and spins the silk. Agatha hugs herself and wipes her tears on her jacket sleeve. The jacket smells like Freia, like fresh snow and sharp bronze and fucking, like burnt fur and hot glühwein and dried blood, like things she knows and things she will never know, like everything, and everything else.

fin

Anya Johanna DeNiro lives and writes in Minnesota. Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, One Story, Strange Horizons, Persistent Visions and elsewhere, and she’s been a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Award. She currently writes YA novels about the adventures of trans women. She can be found online on Twitter, usually, at @adeniro.

Published May 2018, Shimmer #43, 5900 words

Other Goddesses:

An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or, Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita, by Rebecca Campbell

The Creeping Influences, by Sonya Taaffe

Painted Grassy Mire, by Nicasio Andres Reed

Shimmer 43

 

This issue of Shimmer is a little in need of remembering that awful things may be overcome, one way or another. Winter passes once more into spring, the light eclipses the shadow, the ring melts into goo, and the horrors ease backward, away from all we love.

Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate, by Anya Johanna DeNiro
The silk threads of grief and time snap and spin away from the black looms, but all Freia wants to do is go back to Vienna. Dozens of women work the looms in the magnanery. Hands fly as the threads spin out of the boiling cocoons. Freia doesn’t work on the looms though. She’s not patient enough. Instead she sets the strands of damp, slightly sticky silk from the cocoons, hooking them to the spindle to unravel them, as the objects inside the cocoons die from the scorching water. (5900 words)

Gone to Earth, by Octavia Cade 
His body was racked with chill and he hunched in his bed, trying to breathe with the rhythm of tides, to slow his heart to growing things. Yet even the warm night air of the Coromandel summer, straight from the coast and rustling through rātā trees, couldn’t dispel the cold. The nightmares still came regularly, suffocating waves of homesick regret. Strange that they hadn’t passed now that he was home again and anchored to the world of the living, and even stranger that they came from an adventure marking him a hero. He’d even felt heroic at the beginning, but all the bravery of heroism had come from ignorance, the assumption of a strength not yet tested because the testing was unimaginable. (3800 words)

What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (while you picnic),
by Katherine Kendig 

There are old skeletons, brittle-looking, skulls bleached by the sun and moss halfway up their shins. There are new skeletons with dark stains on their bones, like sycamores just shedding their bark. Real trees, too: big spreading elms, shady maples. Paths crispy with fallen leaves that look, at first glance, like withered skin. Soft shadows and a few nice places to picnic. (4700 words)

You, In Flux, by Alexis A. Hunter
Something happened to you after you had the baby. (800 words)

Buy the whole issue!

All the stories, editorials, interviews; no waiting. Only $2.99.

Shimmer Issue 43 Electronic
Shimmer Issue 43 Electronic
Price: $2.99
Format :